This edition of the Arkansas Times will hit the streets on Halloween, just as young ghosts and ghouls emerge from their houses in search of candy, and naughty nurses and passable Heisenbergs from “Breaking Bad” hit the bars. So then, children, a ghost story:
The Observer grew up in Little Rock, but at 12, dear old Ma and Pa — God rest Pa’s soul — moved our family to deepest, darkest Saline County. They bought 20 acres there, which included a ramshackle old crackerbox of a house that probably should have been burned as practice for the volunteer fire department years before — two stories, no porches, nary a window upstairs, a ladder for a staircase, and closets that smelled so strong of cat piss that you couldn’t hang clothes in them. The house had good bones, however — rough-sawn pine from the forests of 1930 — and over the next five years, The Observer’s parents and their supply of child labor proceeded to turn it into a perfect white farmhouse on a hill: red-roofed, ringed with porches and a board fence, chimney of old brick, and a big back deck overlooking the broad, foggy pasture below.
Lovely as it became, there was always something odd about that house. The Observer, who knows all too well the 10,000 ways your brain can fool your eyes and ears, would be prone to think all ghost stories hogwash if we hadn’t lived there, where the feeling that you were never really alone cooked out of the walls like dark heat.
At least once a month in that house, you’d hear glass breaking downstairs long after midnight: the flat, undramatic shatter of one of the old sash windows and then the pitter of shards on the floor. Investigation with every light on never found a thing. After awhile, we learned to ignore it, as we all learned to ignore the corner-of-the-eye shadows, the lights that insisted on staying lit, the furtive whispering that could sometimes be heard in upstairs closets in wintertime. One night, The Observer, the girl who would become Spouse, and our best friend Sy Hoahwah — Comanche, and acquainted with ghosts — stood in the dark yard of that house and watched a bright wad of light the size of a basketball range up and down the high, steep hill at the back of the property, the hill an unwalkable angle for anyone with earthly feet, the light casting into the trees there until it finally crested the ridge and winked out. Once, at 19, The Observer came in from work to the empty house and headed to the shower, dropping our sweaty jeans outside the bathroom door. Midway through that shower, the locked doorknob began to jiggle, someone trying to get in, our brother, maybe, and we yelled for him to hit the john upstairs. When the jiggling knob didn’t stop, we got out, wrapped a towel around and flung open the door. There was no one there, no sign, unless you count the handful of change from The Observer’s pants pocket, which was all lined up in an arrow-straight line on the tiles before the door. Much calling and a jittery barefoot sweep of the house with a baseball bat in hand found it very empty except for Yours Truly.
The thing that finally drove us away from our boyhood home for good, however, was the first trip back with Junior, then a little over a week old, born in Lafayette, La., while The Observer was in grad school there. Pa was gone by then, and Ma gave us their old bedroom at the top of the stairs, big enough for Junior’s bassinet. Spouse, alone upstairs with the baby, needed to use the restroom after changing Junior’s diaper. The bassinet still packed and overly-protective mother she, Spouse put Junior in the middle of the big bed on his back, surrounded by pillows in case our swaddled lump of baby somehow gained the superhuman ability to roll off the bed at one week old, then sprinted 10 feet away to take the world’s fastest pee, door open to listen in case of trouble.
When she came back in the room less than two minutes later, one of the bed pillows had been placed squarely over Junior’s face. She told her co-parent all this, white as bond paper and shaking so hard she couldn’t even hold a canned Coke, some hours later at a hotel in Benton, where we’d quickly evacuated without explanation or apology. We never spent another night in that house, and Ma sold the place some years later.
Passing strange, we think now. Wondrous. Terrifying. A dream? A delusion? One of those philosophy-denying things in heaven and earth that Hamlet pondered with dear Horatio? We don’t know, and might not want to. But we can’t help but consider those days in late October.