One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted
The phone call was from a lawyer who practiced in James’ hometown—a man whose name was Walter Eldridge had left him a property in his will. James remembered the lawyer because he had helped to sell his father’s house, but Walter Eldridge?
While the lawyer, whose name was Charlie Riley, talked about the property, James tried to remember. There was an old couple named Eldridge who lived across the street. For a number of years, James’ father had rented the Eldridge’s garage to shelter a series of Desotos and Chrysler Imperials he bought and sold frequently—all of them huge and adorned with gaudy tail-fins, barely fitting inside the tiny garage.
Mr. Eldridge (James had never heard him called by his first name) owned a fishing pond outside of town. James had fished there several times—once he had spent the night in the cabin. And this was what Eldridge had left to him?
“This isn’t a joke, is it? I hardly knew Walter Eldrige.
“Ten acres, a pond, a woodlot, and assorted buildings is no joke. Your father’s will was a joke. Leaving me the cobblestone he claimed he tripped over because I wouldn’t help him sue the town was a joke. Walter Eldridge’s will is the real thing.”
“You’re starting to sound like Job,” Charlie said. “It’s a long story, but Walter has been feuding with his family for years. His wife died the same year your father passed away, and that was the last voice of reason. My advice to you is to get up here and take care of the paperwork, and then we’ll see if we can sell it before more trouble starts.”
“You mean the rightful heirs?”
“You’re the rightful beneficiary. He liked you. He remembered you. Apparently the ability to close a gate goes a long way with Walter. Went a long way. He mentioned it in the will.”
James remembered going fishing in the pond. It was a summer after he had gone away to school. There were gates, too. The first one had a big padlock, and then there were others. Had there been livestock? He had a fly rod and he waded around the pond with his right leg in the water so he could clear his backcast. He caught bluegill and rock bass on tiny popping bugs. That one time, Mr. Eldridge had given him the keys to the cabin. He remembered a dream—something about a giant catfish. And he woke up the next morning with his right knee swollen up like a melon. You can’t mount a bad knee above your mantelpiece.
Because he was between classes, James told Charlie he had nothing better to do and would drive up the next day. There was a new Holiday Inn just outside the bypass, otherwise, Charlie said, the town hadn’t changed at all. James’ parents’ house looked just the same—it still had the two stained-glass windows the purchaser wouldn’t agree to let James take out and preserve. The only difference James noted as he drove past was a Confederate flag in an upstairs window and multiple mailboxes by the door. The house had been made into rental apartments. Once it had been almost grand, but now it had only a postage stamp’s worth of yard. James wondered if his mother’s tulips still came up.
After meeting with Charlie (who James was beginning to think of importantly as his solicitor)—after that rushed meeting and signing more papers than he had when he closed on his house in Nashville, he decided he might as well see his property. He got lost and had to go back to town and get a map from the secretary. The countryside was rolling with occasional hilltop vistas, more like Virginia than Missouri. Then he found the driveway and the locked gate and was reminded of the little fishing clubs his father belonged to before he gave up chewed-up thumbs and bass slime for golf. James and his father had fished together frequently. There were always gates and padlocks, cattle guards, twisted wire, weeds brushing the bottom of the car, lurching along the ruts.
The keys Charlie gave him were a mix of new copies and old bent originals, carefully marked with masking tape. The gate key was a new copy and James thought it was not going to work, but he was in no hurry, and the padlock finally took pity on him. There had been cattle in this field, but not recently. The pies were old and firm. James closed the gate carefully with some difficulty, pulling it over the grown-up weeds, but not closing the lock. The odds that padlock would work twice in a row were not good. James made a mental note to talk to Charlie about a new padlock.
The next gate was open and the road curved around a dense woodlot. James didn’t remember it, but he was keen to get to the lake (he called nothing a pond in those days). In his fishing days, he would get so excited his hands would shake as he assembled his tackle. All this over catching a few little fish. James didn’t even like to eat fish. Once he had made a fire and grilled a bass on a pond bank immediately after catching it. It had tasted like mud with fish bones.
A second counter curve of road, more trees and then the grassy shoulder of the earth berm that formed the deep end of the pond. There was a grown-over parking area partially shaded by several thorny locust trees. After James had climbed up to the pond, he could see the cabin on the far side. Was it a pond or a lake? It had probably been created originally to provide water for cattle—there was a rusty trough near the place where he had parked his car. But even in the time when he had visited it in his student days, it was used mostly for fishing and swimming. And the cabin was no shack—it was a small house or cottage, and it was a long walk away. The key marked “cabin” on the keychain did not seem to be a recent duplicate. It was likely to work.
Was it the tableau of the blue water guarded by cattails that reminded him? His knee buckled and almost dropped him—sometimes the knee simply would hold up—sometimes it grinded and sometimes it froze. James stood and waited. He was a veteran persuader of bad knees. That was when he noticed the muskrat hole, quite overgrown, but in the line of his next step. Better a fussy knee than a broken leg.
Taking a wide detour around the muskrat’s engineering, He made for the cabin, the knee dependable again. He used to keep a travel fly rod in his trunk, but that was another car, he remembered. Still, that blue water was attractive, and not over-fished. No signs of vandalism on the cabin. The windows were intact but there was a particularly robust wasp nest depending from the roof at the corner of the porch. Make a note for Charlie. Wasp stings don’t encourage buyers.
The porch was solid underfoot—not yet undermined by muskrats and woodchucks. The key could easily be persuaded to turn the old loose lock mechanism. First a waft of wood ashes, an entirely pleasant association with cabins and fireplaces.
Then a crash and a terrible racket from the back of the cabin jolting James from his reverie. But, pounding heart or not, he was the landlord, and that grizzly bear was his to scold if he so chose. He cast about for a weapon. The hat rack beside the door would have to do. It was so ridiculous, he felt calmer. He stalked through the front room, past the handsome stone fireplace. Some of the stones had fossils—Permian, Devonian? Then the kitchen. A little musty smelling, but empty. A door to a porch or a mudroom presented the last possible refuge for the intruder. James listened carefully. Apart from his heart, he could hear nothing. He set down the hat rack and put his hand on the doorknob. Turned it. Pulled gently. Nothing. Idiot. The door swings outward. Hat rack back in hand he pushed the door, and it swung slowly open. Here was a laundry room, perhaps once a porch, now enclosed with cheerful windows all around. The door to the outside stood open. Then James noticed a shelf behind the washer and dryer had come down on one side, dumping its contents of laundry detergent and various cleaning aids. Outside there was no path—just a half cord of firewood under a shed roof. The hillside was covered in weeds, Queen Ann’s lace, torchweed, wild mustard, and it was all rocking in a freshening breeze. Clouds had humped up. James could not see it but he knew the pond would be steely and rough now, no longer blue. He saw no person, no bear, no reason why there would have been a lighted candle in a sconce opposite the washer and dryer. As he watched, the wind blew it out. Was he hallucinating? He touched the wax at its base. It was hot.
Back inside, he took the time to notice the furniture—a round oak table. A few sturdy chairs. An old Morris chair with upholstered cushions that felt like horsehair when he sat in it. It groaned, but it might have been a groan of welcome. James sat and rested his arms on the wide flat arms of the Morris chair. There were several bookshelves. After dusting he could check them out more carefully, but he saw Hemingway stories. Then Henry James. The Golden Bowl. The Turn of the Screw. Then Kraft-Ebbing: Psychopathia Sexualis. A very old book. From the library of Dr. Alfred Jones, 1936. James’ grandfather had been a country doctor in a neighboring town. He couldn’t imagine how one of his books could find its way to this place. James had last seen it in the front hall bookcase of the house with the two stained glass windows. When his mother realized James the schoolboy was reading them, she packed them up and stored them in the attic.
Another crash. And loud. But this was thunder, neither Miss Jessel nor Peter Quint. A summer shower had come visiting. James stood on the front porch and watched the lines of wind and rain drawing nests on the pond and then erasing them. Another lightning flash and closely following peal of thunder sent him back into the house. He automatically raked the light switch by the door. Lights came on. A rather fancy ceiling light with three bulbs made him think momentarily of a jester. The ceiling was low. There by the kitchen door—a steep staircase. He did not recall visiting the upper storey on his previous visit. He had slept on a divan that had unfortunately been visited by cats. Perhaps that strange dream was the result of the odor of feline urine.
In the kitchen James found the usual suspects, secondhand yard sale pots and pans, dishes and the like. He rinsed a glass with water that came out clear if reluctantly. A well? It tasted all right. There was no bathroom on the ground floor. What was upstairs, anyway?
The stairs were steep and narrow. James fancied he had boarded a pirate ship. At the top of the stairs, three doors, the one directly in front was the bathroom. he used it. The toilet was functional. He turned back to the hallway. The other doors led to a front bedroom and a back bedroom.
James opened the door to the front bedroom. There was an empty room, carpeted, but with no furniture. The ceiling was shaped by the pitch of the roof. As he stood there, the overhead light came on, startling him, then after a brief moment, it went off. The wall switch had no effect on it. Make a note to have Charlie call an electrician. One room to go, then. Should he knock? Perhaps it would have mattered. The storm was moving away, its thunder pleasantly faint in the distance. James opened the door.
Perhaps a dozen lit candles were arranged on a dresser and chest of drawers. They seemed to draw up the gloom of the room rather than to light it. There was a small bed covered in sheets but no apparent bedspread. Underfoot, the same carpet as the front room but it was covered with throw rugs, oval and rectangular. And a rocking chair rocking lightly, but empty. Its occupant was not in the room as far as James could see. The closet door stood open showing its bare and spare insides—a few bent metal hangers.
Still holding on the doorknob, he took a step further into the gloom. There was something on the bed. It was some kind of arrangement. The skull of some kind of small animal, perhaps a dog, something with prominent incisors. A stack of dried weeds. A water glass with what appeared to be tadpoles swimming briskly in it. When something moved in the weeds, he had had enough. He did not break his neck descending the stairs because he was able to grab hold of the banister. He did not lock the door behind him. It had been a salamander or the flaring of a gill. Some animal or part of an animal out of place. Terribly out of place. When he got to the car, his pants were soaked to the knees from the wet undergrowth. His shoes were muddy. He had not had much to eat that morning, but that he left on the weedy gravel.
As he bounced back to the locked gate and the gravel road which would lead him to the two-lane blacktop and on to the little town and to his lawyer’s quaint little office, glass-fronted, facing the courthouse on the town square, he began reasoning with himself.
Someone in the family, then, cheated out of this inheritance, had decided to play a little trick. Well, a medium sized trick—but in the category of mischief. Someone who had taken a book full of bizarre case histories from the white house with two stained glass windows he used to live in. If he were not tired from driving 400 miles, he probably could have appreciated the humor of it at the time. But those candles could start a fire. And trespassing is trespassing. His hypothesis was reasonable. The alternative was a bloody spook of some sort who was warming up to suck the life out of him by causing his heart to explode. That would make a good story. But finding the prankster would be a good one, too. One he could tell with a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand, cold beads of moisture, swirling ice cubes. Even without a story, he could use that drink. Maybe Charlie would still be in his office.
The storm had been through town, too. There were standing puddles in the courthouse lawn. The office door was locked but Charlie saw him standing there and let him in. In that moment, it occurred to James that Charlie did not look like a lawyer. Perhaps there was a suit jacket or a blazer hanging in his closet, but James had never seen it. Charlie’s hair was thinning and his manner was furtive, rather than small-town-hearty. He gave James a hard look, spun on his heel and headed toward the back of the office.
“Nobody home but me. You look like you could use a drink.”
He poured out something brown. No ice. That’s what comes of small town life, James thought.
“The other guy look worse than you?”
“I wish I knew,” James said and he drank the brown stuff. Wild turkey or wild boar or feral cat. He swallowed too much and coughed. So much for manly appearances.
James told Charlie there were lighted candles in the cabin and that he had gotten caught in the rain, and threw in a muskrat hole because it was more plausible than haunted tadpoles.
“You’re smiling,” James pointed out as Charlie poured him a few more fingers.
“Your father and Walter didn’t get on too well toward the end,” Charlie said. He was beginning to look hearty after all. The lawyer gene is not recessive.
“It started with the garage. You want to hear this?”
James didn’t, but he nodded affirmatively.
Charlie sighed. “Walter’s daughter used to come over and clean and cook. Your father would drop in and chat.”
James nodded again. His father would trip a stranger just to strike up a conversation. And he was a dirty old man.
“Walter didn’t like it. There were words. Some shoving. Hey, it’s a small town. Besides, Walter told me.”
“Then why did he leave that property to me?”
“I think his daughter took up for your father. Maybe it was something else. Walter didn’t like the guy she was hanging out with—now he was real trouble. But you don’t need to hear that story.
Charlie got up and fiddled with some books on the shelves behind his desk.
With his back turned he said something James almost had to ask him to repeat, but then it came to him. “What do you want to do?”
“I’d like to go back there with a witness. Maybe a deputy.”
“Well, that’s the advice I ought to give you.”
He turned around. “But I really ought to see that place before we send some innocent real estate agent to her candle-lit doom. Want to go now? You couldn’t get any muddier.”
I could, James thought. But he had a change of clothes back at the motel. Charlie pulled something that looked like a tan safari jacket out of his closet. He dressed like a news anchor.
“Am I paying for this?” James couldn’t help himself.
“This one’s on the house. Just seeing you at the door made my day.”
On the way back to his old fishing hole James asked Charlie about the Eldridge children.
“There’s Sally. She was closest to her father—and the one your father found so charming. She was living with a guy who got busted for a meth lab. She went west.”
“It’s a small town.”
“Earl’s been dead almost ten years. Bridge abutment. Then there’s Duane.”
“He’s the youngest. Farms. No tweaker. But he might grow a little marijuana.”
“Where does he farm?”
“Around here. Want to open that gate?” He grinned. “Did you stop to lock it?”
“It was raining.” James hopped out and held open the gate so Charlie could drive his bright red Silverado past him a little farther than necessary. James mounted up after taking some extra time fiddling with the gate chain to reassert the importance of his task.
“My father used to let me ride on the fender when I opened gates.”
“It’s a wonder he didn’t run you over.”
“Yet here I am.”
Charlie pulled into the parking area and turned around, making a show of the spinning steering wheel which he had fitted with a professional-looking spinner knob.
“Now the ghosts know we’re here,” James said and immediately felt foolish.
Charlie grunted something James decided not to ask him to repeat. The two men labored up to the cabin in silence.
“Those wasps must go,” James said, pointing.
“Why don’t you make a list and I’ll see to it.” Charlie was walking the perimeter of the cabin, looking, James realized, for footprints.
“The noise came from this back room,” James said when they got to the lean-to and firewood. Charlie tried the back door and it proved to be locked.
“We don’t have a key for this door. Add that to the list.”
“I don’t have a list.”
“Then remember it.”
There were no footprints but the tall weeds were beaten down. The cabin had been built on a hillside and it got steep after a few yards.
“You could climb up there and look down on the roof,” Charlie said, thoughtfully.
“You could also climb up there, slip, and break your neck.”
“That’s true.” Charlie examined a bent weed and was rewarded by a nest of cockleburs clinging to the arm of his jacket.
“We have keys to the front door,” James reminded him.
“So we do.” He sighed, and led the way through the still-wet weeds back to the front door, still peeling burrs from the sleeve of his safari jacket. James could hear a red-winged blackbird from the pond. They built their nests in the cattails and would harass anyone who got too close. It was late afternoon, but the sky had cleared. The world smelled like wet dirt and drying weeds. The porch smelled like mildew.
Without hesitating, Charlie thrust the key into the lock and opened the door.
“Look at this,” he said. And when James had followed him in the door, he saw an empty room. Had his words been clipped? James walked briskly through the room, through the kitchen, opened the door to the back mudroom / laundry room. Nothing. There was no candle in the sconce. Back to the fireplace.
“Hey Charlie.” James was aware of the sound of his voice in the empty room. There was a slight echo. Beyond that, his voice, if it showed anything, betrayed slight irritation. It would not do to take the hat rack up those steep stairs. There were knives in the kitchen, but James wasn’t comfortable with knives. Why did he need a weapon, anyway? He climbed the steps then with nothing but a strangling grip on the banister.
Bathroom: door open. Empty. Front bedroom: He opened the door. Nothing. The same lack of furnishings. The overhead light still didn’t work. Back bedroom: He opened the door.
It was dark. No lit candles. There was a heavy curtain hanging over the window. James switched on the ceiling light. No one in the room. No candles on the dresser or the chest of drawers. No wax on the dresser. The chest was clean. The closet door was open. The bed was covered with an old chenille spread—a faded white or gray. Once it had been some color or other. No tadpoles in a jar, no creeping disgusting witch messages. The room was clean. The room was empty.
“Dammit, Charlie!” James pulled the curtain away from the window too forcefully and the curtain rod came down. The pond had grown quite calm—it was probably a good time for fishing. The room, now lit, seemed innocuous, if a little lonely. Nothing under the bed.
James heard the Silverado starting up. This time his feet stayed on the stairs.
Out the front door. From the porch he could see a red truck pulling out of the parking area and driving away—it didn’t seem in any haste.
His cell phone? It was in his car. Why would he need a phone if he was riding in a big red truck with his solicitor? A blackbird trilled from the cattails.
In the living room again. He looked around himself. What was he missing? Behind the Morris chair there was a door. No handle, but a lock. This house had a basement. He moved the chair, and there on the floor were the keys, the keys he had handed over to Charlie. There were a half dozen keys but only two were marked: gate and cabin.
“Hey Charlie. Are you down there?” Loud enough, he thought. The first unmarked key did not work. The second was accepted but would not turn. The third turned the entire lock. He left the key in the lock and gathered up that most useless of all self-defense weapons from the fireplace, a poker. The key was stuck. As he pulled to get it out, the door came open.
No light, of course. And these stairs were even steeper than the ones to the second story. He had seen a flashlight in the kitchen, on a shelf over the stove.
Flashlight in one hand, poker in the other, he descended the basements stairs which had no railing or banister anyway. At the bottom he cast the light around, revealing a furnace and water heater. The floor was firm concrete and a ground-level window let in a little weed-screened light.
James moved past the furnace and there found a hanging bulb with a pull string. This was the cleanest basement he had seen in a long time. And dry. Why do we say dry as a bone? Finally, in the far corner, a workbench, and strewn across it, fishing tackle, including a rather study spinning rod and reel. James picked out a few items, thought about turning off the light, decided against it, then climbed the steep stairs. He managed to get the keys out of the lock and closed the door. He pushed the chair back in place and made one more complete tour of the cabin. It was a nice little house when it wasn’t haunted.
The cattails had made about half of the pond difficult to approach. If you hooked a fish in the open water, you’d have to steer it through those dense water weeds. James had lost many a fish in cattails. You can also soak them in kerosene and they make a neat torch. (If you’re fourteen.) James found an open spot where perhaps a neighbor boy had sat with cane pole and worms, if young people did such things anymore. He had brought a small tackle box and several shallow-diving lures, the kind that vibrate like the last spin cycle of a washing machine. If Charlie was going to abandon him and drive back to town—if the entire Blair Witch Project was going to decamp and move to greener silos, he was going to catch a few fish. And he did. Several small bass and one large enough to leap clear of the surface and spit that piece of plastic with its attendant swarm of hooks directly at his eye. James stepped back, causing him to miss. He should have laughed, but he began to frown. He reeled in the slack line, removed the lure, and fumbled through the batch of lures he had brought from the basement. There was one large spoon, the hooks so sharp, they drew a drop of blood while he was attaching it. James made a few more desultory casts, mainly to the middle of the pond, where even a poor fisherman knows there are few fish. Perhaps, he thought, ghosts are like fish, essentially shy of the living. Now they must be in hiding. James cast the spoon a last time toward the middle of the pond and let it sink. He laid down the rod. There was a time when he would have smoked a cigarette. This time he walked along the bank until a scolding red winged blackbird brought him up short.
Abandoning the pond, he spent the next hour wandering around the estate, his estate, following paths and faint tracks, peering in windows of outbuildings, trying keys in locks. He was looking for another fish big enough to spit hardware at him, but he found nothing. He scared a blacksnake and the blacksnake scared him even while he was making his escape. Maybe Charlie remembered something critical and had to rush back to town. Any minute and he would be explaining that he rarely threw on his cloak of invisibility, and he would be offering more plausible excuses than James at this moment could imagine.
He had fish slime on his hands and his thumb was abraded from the Velcro-like teeth of the fish’s mouths. The cabin’s screen door creaked as he let himself in. The Morris chair creaked in kind. James watched the light change as clouds passed overhead.
“No.” He stood up so quickly the back cushion of the chair fell onto its seat. His knee buckled, but he grabbed the chair arm and waited it out. Then James walked out the door, swatting absently at several wasps circling near the porch. On the pond bank, his rod and reel lay abandoned, next to the small rusty tackle box he had brought up from the basement.
He picked up the rod and reeled in the slack line. The spoon had snagged on something on the pond’s bottom. James hauled back cautiously. The snag was firm. Perhaps an old tree trunk. James hauled again. It began to give. Slowly he heaved and reeled, heaved and reeled. The red winged blackbird chirred from the other side. A small bullfrog plunked its banjo. His feet sank into watery mud. With the last heave, something rose into view. James let it sink back, his breathing shallow and rapid. Then he heaved another time. The safari jacket came clearly into view. It rolled and an arm rose up out of the water as it turned. As if in greeting.