A Ghost of My Devising
I grew up in a big old Colonial farmhouse, fourteen rooms, even one room big enough to be a formal ballroom, which we called, logically enough, the big room. The house had window seats, a high second floor and an even higher attic, one with a cedar room built into the center of it, cedar drawers and cedar cabinets and cedar lockers built right in. We used to leave our toys strewn across the empty space, as the entrance was right outside our bedroom door, so this was our fortress, our sailing ship, our clubhouse, and our Vietcong jungle.
I’m certain my wife would have loved this house, and she would view the cedar room as a bonus beyond compare. But as a nerdy little boy with an overactive imagination, that attic was a source of sheer terror for me, and I eventually came to dread playing up there.
August days are often golden, rich and warm with light.
Soft focus, blurred edges, a boy playing with a whiffle ball and bat in the street, scrap of a thing, rangy, bespectacled, intense. Six years old, going on seven, with four months until my birthday.
The moment was just before dusk, that special time, when the clear soft blues of day fade through silver into the cool deep blues of night. The street lights had not yet come on, so the magic signal had not been given. Hungry, but unwilling to waste even a few minutes of ‘free-range’ time, I tracked the arc of my ball against the stone garage wall, weedy and dark.
Ball flipped high instead of low, I fumbled my catch and my eyes tracked upward, lighting in a window of the house’s attic.
Unknown to me at the time, the windowsill was a repository for a basketball in need of air, and someone had put a fishing hat on it, lures and all.
But what I saw burned itself into every cell of my being, and flavored the rest of the time I lived in that particular house. A cheap canvas hat, perched casually on top of a battered Wilson that had a slow leak. To the eyes of a soon to be seven year old male imagination generation machine housed in the frame of bespectacled youth that was no less than an escaped convict hiding out, on the lam, who was even then watching every move I made. My optic nerve took in the pebbled leather and glinting hat, and registered it as a human face watching in fear.
Suddenly, my world turned upside down.
Hiding in the cedar room, we had an escaped convict. In an instant I had carved that notion in my mind – scored it deep, where the grooves would have a long time fading, I became convinced, on the flimsiest of evidence, that the room above my head as I slept was sanctuary to a depraved, maybe even crazy escaped run-a-way, maybe even an escaped slave. I saw him. Look, he was right there.
My older brother Steve called me a doofus, but since he did that anyway, it disproved nothing.
I ran inside and told my mother in no uncertain terms that a deranged lunatic escapee was hiding in the attic, standing on my toys and stuff, but what if the cops come and there’s a fight like on TV? Do we have to get killed or can we help the good guys?
My mother looked at me as if I had two heads.
But mom, you got to call the cops, which prompted a dutiful and diligent search, mom in the lead, hammer in one hand, flashlight in the other, the eventual discovery of the ball and hat and the patronizing explanation of where the mistake came from.
Nobody was fooling me.
He was here, hiding, giving his hat to a basketball just to cover his tracks, like I saw on Colombo. He was a slippery eel, that’s why he could escape in the first place. A master criminal escapist like him could fool anybody, even moms. My family was not stupid, just honest, they had no idea how clever criminals could be. But In my barely post pubescent mind I had it all figured out.
There was a small bit of space over the cedar room, which sat in the exact middle of an attic space empty but for the scattered and various toys strewn across the floor. That place I could not get to, being a kid, and nobody else was looking up over into a crawlspace. So that must be where he was hiding.
For the rest of the day I tried dozens of times to get them to listen to me, but by the third trip upstairs my mom eventually reached her limit, and told me to stop making such a fuss of course there was no convict living in our attic, hiding from the spy network out searching for him. Honestly, where do you come up with that stuff? Comes from reading encyclopedias for fun if you ask me, even though nobody had.
Utterly convinced I knew better than anyone, I soon began interpreting every creak, groan or temperature change expansion sound as the ninja like movements of my invisible, almost ghostly opponent.
And what if he was a ghost? That would explain why nobody else was able to see him, I figured, that explains why he could hide in a tiny crawlspace, and why I never heard him going to the bathroom.
Because I could never catch him, and I was always sure he was just waiting for the chance to jump me because I knew he was there, even if nobody else did, I did not enjoy being alone in the attic after that summer. Always looking over my shoulder, expecting the worst, I hoped he was not one of those ghosts with the body parts hanging out, that would be gross, and why did an old dead convict ghost want to live in my attic anyway?
I spent less and less time in the ‘playroom’ and more and more time playing outside, riding my bike, and challenging every tree for ten blocks in any direction. I spent less time sitting around, because I did not want to give the ghost of the old escaped spy a chance at silencing me, and I thought about other things, and grew out of simple childhood fear, into a whole mess of man-sized fears, while the world turned and no secret agencies with initials for a name came by in their black suits and asked about any escaped chain gang dead guy, so one day I decided I was just wrong, and fooled by an illusion of life empty headed and air filled as a politician. There was no dead convict escaped from spies, just the spun gloss of a love for story laid over a patchwork mind.
But when my family moved away from that house, I took five minutes and I buried a box in the yard. It once contained soap flakes but now it was a coffin for a deflated, orange pebbled leather ball, with a fishing lure hooked deep in its flesh. It was a private goodbye to a guy that never lived, from a kid that lived mostly in his head.
But in the bottom of the box, underground where the fence meets the tree, in the middle of what remained of the ball, was a baby tooth of mine.
I figured it would not hurt to give him a chance to find me after I moved, so our cat and mouse game could go on.