The green carpet was smudged black in places, and the tables and chairs were covered with a layer of dust. The sun glared in through an open, dirtying window in the front, and the breeze, for some reason, contradictorily fresh in the suburban sky, reeked of lilacs or something like that, and it picked up the odor of rotting wood from the door frame.
The place was never as I remembered. The two occupants had died, both grandparents, and for some odd reason I couldn't think of anything else but the supposed plainness of the suburban, silent generation couple: the ordinariness of Grandpa Ben slamming the door as he returned from work, then looking to see if there were any messages scrawled on the note pad next to the phone. The plainness of Grandma Ruth's bickering as she dropped the plate of tuna fish with the pickle on the edge onto the table, and of Ben's ignorance and detachment as he picked up the plate and sauntered into the living room, where the brand new color TV roared to some commercial. And of Ruth's materialism: the bedroom separate from Ben's on the middle of the second floor, where the Persian rug and the red heart-shaped wastebasket sat, and the drawer chest, stained and painted, with the yellowing paint chipping off of them, where all of Ruth's jewelry were stashed; all of the beads and pearls and rubies and diamonds that Ruth kept for social functions that she never went out to.
Perhaps they bought the house because it was solid and countryesque and because it was once so far away from the city, on Monticello Boulevard, the suburban infrastructure, the grime of the cracked pavements and the causeways and busways that went straight into the eastern neighborhoods of Cleveland. What was unfortunate was how the infrastructure now stretched -- it no longer stopped short of them on one side, but instead, went all the way over to the other side, all the way into the next county.
And what was really true was this: the house was no longer solid. The lamp, the floor lamp that Ruth had so seriously forbidden anyone to tip against the wall or disturb, was now pushed off against one edge of the floor and unplugged. So was Ben's TV, which was covered with an inch-thick layer of dust. The smudged carpet was wet and mildewing in one place, with a leak directly overhead from a pipe in the center of the ceiling. All of the pictures on Ruth's shelves were all pushed off onto the dresser, which now lay empty with the drawers open.
The other truth was this: the house is haunted. There was simply too much left behind in the dank, empty spaces where these people lived for it not to be.
The familiar stench of stove gas and fresh cookies and the omnipresent tea lurked behind every cupboard, and there was still the peculiar evidence that once in a while a bang erupted above a rafter or around the next corner just beyond where the eye could see.
Yes, Ruth and Ben still lived in the countryesque suburban house
on Monticello. Behind the dusty chairs by the doorway to the attic, they
still lived, behind the stripped mattresses of the bed in Ben's room they
still lived, behind the front door, in the empty hall closet, they still lived,
in the tool-cluttered basement, behind the next reminder that the
convenience generation of long ago but not-so-long-ago could die off so
easily just like all of the others had.
© 1991 John Hammink, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This essay also appears in December Poems (Self-Published)
Ruth and Ben were my grandparents: Ruth died in 1982, and Ben followed in 1991. As a couple, it would be just too easy to call theirs a "marriage of convenience". From what I could tell growing up near them, they neither liked each other nor truly despised each other, very nearly achieving what John Steinbeck may have called a "nothing."
This story came about after liquidating the house after Grandpa Ben's passing. Ben hadn't lived there for some time before, so the house was in a terrible state, quite the contrary to how it would have been kept when Grandmother was alive. My mother and I found a ouija board and tried to ask them questions: thus the notion of "ghosts" as a transposition of a snapshot of their past lives over an imperfect and dilapidated present.