My childhood bedroom was on the second story of the house which now belongs to my mother. The room was against the outer wall so that the slope of the roof was that of the ceiling of my bedroom. In winter it was always the coldest room in the house. I used to sleep while dressed in flannel pants, a sweater, a hat, and wool socks. At night I listened to the ancient hydronic heating system worm its way through the space of the farm house as the pipes rattled and clanked in the walls with the coming temperature. It would sound without warning, a mad drum strike from a crawl space, followed by a sudden return to quiet.
I remember the house always seemed alive when no one else was awake. The wind would make the house and the large oak trees outside moan, as did the snow that piled high on the roof and against the walls and doors. During the infrequent blizzards that hit Cape Cod, the snow could drift as high as six feet against the fence posts of the horse pastures. After that storm it took my mother and father two full days to dig their way out, even with the aid of a small tractor and me and my younger brother Cooper. We ached in the cold and we were never quiet about it. Our constant complaints were like the electric fence wires on the pastures that hummed out their chill when the wind blew at night, one great instrument surrounding our acres that sang of winter in an electrified drone.
For a brief short-sighted period in my early teen years I used to mark important dates on the unfinished wood of my bedroom closet with permanent marker. I would make notes of the precise date and time of things that mattered to me then, like when Kim, my ninth-grade girlfriend of two months, broke up with me. I thought I was leaving myself a cryptic paper trail of song lyrics and dates like a lost explorer leaving behind reports in tin cans under cairns. A few years later, probably when I was seventeen, I felt embarrassed by my younger self’s disposition toward so dramatically archiving needless things, so I scribbled over the notes with more marker to make them illegible. Now my closet wasn’t a trove of hyperbolic song lyrics, but instead reminiscent of a redacted CIA document with thick black lines across what used to be text. When I was twenty-one years old we had to sell the house I’d grown up in, and I needed to sand away the ink from the wood. I ripped the skin of my fingers open from friction with the sandpaper, and after an afternoon’s work I’d created new light patches on the unfinished pine boards where the words and redactions of my former self used to be.
With the dissolution of my closet memoir I lost a connection to that young man who scrawled his heart on the walls and later attempted to cover up his expression of memory. This version of myself isn’t recorded in photographs or video. In my early teens none of my friends owned cameras. All that I have are selections of scenes I can barely recall in their original context. These are days that play like Super-8 film in my mind at night sometimes, and in the haze of a few mundane drinks I take on the persona of when I had misaligned teeth and curly frizzy hair. I can see it as clearly as a dream, rushing through afternoons spent with Kim played back at the wrong speed. All at once I am re-living when I bought my first pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers, and I asked Kim to sign them in permanent marker. Then it is some time later, and I can feel the spit thick in my mouth on a hot afternoon when Kim kissed me after an afternoon spent at the beach in the springtime. Like unmarked film spools, I can’t be sure of any date or time, something my former self tried to prevent. But it’s the mundane moments he forgot to record, the trips to the beach or sleepovers at friends’ houses when our minds were light with consequence. Without any physical record, I can’t be entirely sure these scenes really existed in the midsummer’s haze I remember them. I re-checked my stories with old friends from my youth, which for many was the first time I’d spoken to them in half a decade. I found that only some of them even have hints of the same memories. Those that did remember might respond knowingly when prompted, but it’s easy to suggest such a romanticized memory, even in my own head. For all I know, these might be the remains of another man’s childhood who I myself dreamed up. If my former self is indeed someone else, who’s to say he isn’t my creation? My myth? He drifts from my mind ghost in my hometown with misaligned teeth and frizzy hair. He once held on to the ink in the pine boards of my mother’s old house, before I tore him off with sandpaper, along with the skin on the top of my left index and middle fingers.
When I was twenty-two years old, a week or so after Christmas, my mother told me my childhood home was haunted. She told me suddenly while we were sitting in the living room my father used to call, “the man room” because of its dark wood grain walls and floor, and the central fireplace. He associated it with, I suppose, some older myth of a great patriarch’s study. I always found it a little ironic then, that the heirlooms and rustic accoutrements were all purchased at various antique markets around the North East. None of it had been made old by us, and the spirit of the place was a construct, rather than the accumulation a family growing older.
It’d been a year by that point since my father had moved out of the house. My parents had just gotten divorced that December. She told me about the ghost as if was a family relation who I’d simply never been introduced to formally, but who’d always been present at every reunion. I’d been living in that house since I was eleven years old, and for as long as I can remember , I’d always been the last one awake at night, staying up well past four in the morning. I felt strange, knowing that perhaps I’d not been alone. She assured me that the spirit was confined to the room that used to be their bedroom. The room to the right at the top of the stairs.
The thing didn’t have any name. As far as I could tell from what she told me, it wasn’t a visible thing or any sort of apparition. Nor was it what those who are into the supernatural call a poltergeist. Instead, it seemed to have other effects. It always woke both of my parents up at precisely 1:30 AM with a sudden jolt. It would create an unsettling feeling in the air. My mother described it as being like water running across her body. Both my mother and father felt this until they made their way across the threshold of the doorway and out into the hall where the feeling was lifted. My mother claimed that one night when my father was away and she was by herself, that she threatened the spirit. She’d bolted up in bed at 1:30 in the morning and yelled at whatever was there to leave my younger brother and me alone. When she told me this story, she laughed a quiet sort of laugh made careless by a few drinks. It was the sort of laugh I’d imagined her in college laughing with her friends, back when she had first met my father. She said the ghost had been quiet since my father no longer slept in the house.
My mother’s story didn’t convince me of any real ghosts in my house. I’m a skeptic about the supernatural, I’ll admit. Ghosts and the return of our loved ones in some spectral form seems far too convenient for my understanding of how things work. But I will also admit, that my feelings on the matter are based on as much empirical evidence as those who run around with EKGs and laser thermometers looking for proof of some sort of spooky “life after death.”
However, the symptoms of those encounters my mother described did remind me of something I had experienced before. As I got older, my late nights when no one else was awake began to feel more and more like trips though a past landscape, where the wind of some other time ran cool over my body. The creaking of the house, the security of childhood slipping from me, and my attempts to retain what was lost in memory, were written down or recited orally as a myth of who I used to be. This was the ghost that was not confined to one room or even one time. I remember drifting off into the haze of summers with Kim, as I attempted to recapture the feeling of my hand pressed against the wall of my closet scribbling down dates and verses. This dream stayed with me like sweat on my body when I woke with a jolt from a deep sleep. Perhaps 1:30 in the morning is the hour of memory for my parents. I wonder if we all have our own hour when we walk like ghosts through our past to frighten our present selves.
I am convinced of these spirits that reside in the garage and the woodshed where we kept the snow blower that saved us from the high drifts of snow in the winter. I remember when I was eighteen, one of the augers on the snow blower had broken, and in spite of this I still fought against the engine to clear a path out for my car. I remember how my heavy winter clothes made me sweat, and I noticed the feeling of it running slowly over my skin before it dissolved when I finally pulled off my wool socks like a lifted curse.
There are spirits in the streets where Kim and I walked aimlessly between beaches and cafes on days I would record and then later sand away. They are days that elude photographs, and even when the picture is taken nothing appears on the film. The apparition can only be captured in the memory of those who choose to maintain it, like the nameless spirit that maintains the old farmhouse. That ghost that haunts my mother’s bedroom is quiet now, waiting patiently for us to leave. It knows that our family is on its way out. Now it only voices its presence in the walls under the guise of the hydronic system, sounding the drumbeat of the future and the past behind the horsehair drywall and plaster.