“Ghosts don't haunt us. That's not how it works. They're present among us because we won't let go of them." ― Sue Grafton
Sunday into Monday
The haunting of Rhode Entman began on the evening of the Sunday on which he had gathered together some friends and neighbors for the purpose of showing off his newly constructed backyard fireplace and patio. This having been the focal point of the day, it is noteworthy to recall that he had spent months salvaging bricks from various sites of demolishment around town, all the while visualizing the finished product in a spaced-off corner of the yard, and while his wife Henny had shaken her head and verbally undermined his progress. He had smiled to himself, as he had done many times in such circumstances, and he had quietly guarded the comparison of her to a stinging nettle. ‘The sting goes away in a little while,’ he had thought, ‘but the plant’s still there.’
Indeed, it was only after her departure, on the allegation of a sabbatical of overdue familial visitations, that he finally put spade to the sod and laid down the foundation that supported the housing of utensils and accessories and the arresting chimney structure. The grill alone elicited compliments, which is what he had striven for all along, owing to its generous area and being cleverly tiered, so as to accommodate several choices of culinary preferences at once.
As he stood there that Sunday afternoon, flipping chops and burgers and turning over sausages and kabobs, his next-door neighbor Gretchen approached him and got his attention, “Won’t Henny be joining us, Rhode? I haven’t seen her in a while… weeks, in fact.”
He closed the hood, laid down the tools, and wiped his hands on his apron, all with a slight dash of showmanship. “Hi, Gretchen. As a matter of fact, Henny’s gone. She’s been wanting to visit her family for a while. They’re scattered all over Appalachia, you know. Yes, she’s been gone for almost a month now. I just got a postcard from her last week, in fact… she’s busy, busy, busy… having the time of her life. I suppose it’ll do her some good. Hah! She’s probably at a cookout herself as we speak. You know… when those people get together… ” He shook his head and chuckled.
Gretchen frowned. “Well, it isn’t like her… not to have mentioned that. You know?”
“Oh, yeah… well, she got a call one night. I think her mother was ailing… and, you know Henny… packed and gone the next morning.”
In the other corner of the yard, in the breezy shade of a Royal Empress, two long folding tables with benches had been set up… and by the trunk, a tub full of ice tendered a keg of beer. “Say, Gretchen,” Entman said unassertively, “would you be a dear and fetch me a cup of beer—it should be nice and cold by now.”
Gretchen obliged quietly and when she returned with his beer, she was also holding a cup of wine—everyone had been asked to bring anything and everything to share and add to the gusto. And her husband Marlon was with her. Entman went through his little ritual again.
“Hi, Marlon, good to see you, so glad you could make it.”
Marlon stuck his hand out, “Hey, Rhode… yeah, I finally got a Sunday off. What a concept, huh? So… Gretchen tells me Henny’s got family in Appalachia? Where abouts exactly?”
Entman shook hands, took the beer, took a swallow, and scratched his head, “Oh, gee,” he said, “Virginia, for starters… Blue Ridge? Blue Point? Or Blue Grass? It’s one of those… or all of those, heh-heh. The thing is, it’s right up there in the corner where Virginia butts up to West Virginia and Kentucky, and she’s got kinfolk in all three places and probably every place in between. I’ve only met her parents when they came up here to visit a few years ago. They’re a strange people. You know? She couldn’t wait to get away when she was out of school. Why, if any of her family were here now, we’d probably already have some sort of unpleasantness going on… they get into fistfights… just for the fun of it.”
The two men shared a chuckle.
“Could I see the postcard?” asked Gretchen.
Entman took another swallow of beer and scratched his head again, “Oh, uh, well, it was just one of those Post Office ones, you know… no picture on it. I’m afraid it already went into the recycling. Sorry.”
The afternoon proceeded with much enjoyment, jocularity, and a shameful amount of gluttony. Entman found himself having to repeat the explanations for Henny’s absence, but eventually, everyone was caught up. The important thing, as far as he was concerned, was that he received numerous compliments about his backyard hearth. He was asked multiple questions about the conception, the plan, and the method of its construction. To all this he elaborated pridefully, and the evening was concluded on the climax of a toast in which he joked that quite possibly, the occasion might not have been so jovial if Henny had been there.
From the men there was raucous laughter, and from the women pursed grins and oscillating heads, but applause on all sides nevertheless. After some assistive clean-up, everyone went home. Entman pitched and plunged into his house, having inebriated himself into a near slobbering state, and he collapsed on the living room sofa without the usual hygienic preparations or even the removal of his shoes.
A couple of hours after his oblivious surrender to the night, Entman opened his eyes and lay still for a moment. He was thinking he had been awakened by the sounds of activity in the kitchen, but then he shook that off. ‘The noise is in my head,' he thought. What had actually stirred him was nature’s call. ‘Gotta make my bladder gladder.’
He was brisk in the bathroom, taking only the extra time to splash water on his face, which felt gauzed with cobwebs, and trying not to look in the mirror, for he knew he looked slovenly. He returned to the couch—‘Why mess up the bed now?’—and, this time, he threw off his shoes.
As he began to doze off, he was thinking how he could really get used to this, meaning Henny’s absence. His thoughts meandered through the matter of his early retirement, some far-fetched investments from years ago that had finally started paying off, the house and car being paid for, the retirement plan from his years of employment that he had not yet redeemed, and his Social Security kicking in soon enough. All he had to do was live modestly and he had it made.
He was drifting off into a blissful supinity, when suddenly, he felt someone’s hand wrapping around one of his ankles, and he jerked forward in utter startlement.
He sat up so fast that he found himself short of breath. As he looked around in the dimness, he broke out in a profusion of sweat, for it had seemed very real. ‘What the hell … ?’
The clock on the wall had glow-in-the-dark hands and markings, and it was showing a little after three. He shook his head and rubbed his face, and his hands came off all wet. He wiped them on his pants. He was really shaken up… the transition from one state to another had been too sudden. ‘No point trying to sleep now.’ He sauntered into the kitchen and got the coffee maker started, and then he went upstairs to take a shower.
There was a smug feeling of gratification in conducting one’s morning regimens with the door wide open. Sheer force of habit compelled him to reach for his shaving things, and then, he looked in the mirror and grinned. ‘Henny’s not here… I don’t need to shave. Let’s see how this fuzz grows out.’ After he put on some clean pants, he thought about how he had always worn a buttoned shirt, every day from start to bedtime. He slipped into a T-shirt and left it at that.
Having poured himself a mug of coffee, he opened the kitchen door and stepped into the backyard, as he so often did. There was no dew this morning, so he sat on the steps and looked at the swarthy bulk of his chimney. Soon, he was on his second cup, sitting on the steps, still admiring his work, when the birds began to stir and the first hints of daylight began to show.
That Monday Morning Feeling
He had slipped into a reverie of the good bachelor life when he suddenly felt two hands gently caressing his neck from behind… and he leapt up, dropping the cup on the concrete walk that led around the house. He spun around instantly, but there was no one there. They would have had to have been on their knees in order to do what he thought had been done, and there really wasn’t room enough on that step for that to have happened. Besides… ‘besides nothing…’ His hands were shaking, and his T-shirt was drenched with sweat. ‘What the hell is going on? It can’t be what I’m thinking.’
After he picked up the pieces of the mug and used the hose to wash the coffee off the concrete, he folded up the tables and benches and put them away in the garage. Henny had found those at a yard sale a couple of years ago. They’d never been used until yesterday.
Next, he cleaned out the fireplace. Because he’d had enough bricks left over, Entman had built two chest-like enclosures on the opposite corners of the patio, where he could store the utensils and accessories and which, when the lids were down, could be used as benches. When he was finished with the clean-up, he sat on one of these and reflected, thinking about the extraordinary situation at hand... wondering.
He wasn’t hungry, still sated from last night. He decided to go in and fat-cat in front of the TV for a while, until he could think of something else to do. There was still some beer in the keg, but it was too early for that. However, it was no longer cold, so he went to the freezer in the garage, got a couple of bags of ice and a tarp, threw the ice in the tub, and draped the tarp over it. ‘Two or three hours, and I’ll be ready, and so will you.’
He did not wait three hours. It was not quite eleven when he helped himself to a leftover drumstick and ate it cold, and he rationalized himself into his first beer of the day. ‘Why not, why not, why not … ? There’s nobody here to nag or criticize. I gotta make the most of this freedom while I can.’
Entman hadn’t had much sleep, and what he’d had had been paltry, so now as he sat, beer in hand, watching tedious programming on the TV, his eyes narrowed and his mind began to shut down. He had just enough cognizance to reach over and set the glass down on the end table, realizing at some level that he was nodding out.
His upper body sagged and slumped down, he spread his feet out, and his eyes were almost fully shut, when someone—or something—walked across his line of vision. He widened his eyes and turned his head in the direction that the figure had gone… to his left, towards the base of the stairs, but there was no one there. He sat there frozen, knowing he’d been half asleep but not doubting in the least that he had seen something. His secondary reaction was to grab the glass on the end table and gulp down the remaining beer.
And then, he heard the toilet upstairs flush. The house became dismally quiet, his breathing and heartbeat contained, the TV so shut out of his mind that he could hear the flow of water as the tank refilled… and he heard it when it stopped… and a tingling sensation crept over his whole body.
It had now become apparent to Entman, obvious rather, that there was some sort of presence invading his home. But what it was he dared not ponder.
He thought about Henrietta instead. After all their years together, he had come to regard her as a nagging and carping attachment in his life. His only elusion of her needling had been at his job. He had thought of her sudden retreat as a shower of relief. But now?
Was he really missing her? Was he actually wishing she were back? And then he smiled inwardly. After all, they had loved each other once… enough to marry. He had grown fondly accustomed to her finger wagging and her disparaging insinuations and innuendos.
Her going had been a bestowal of freedom. But now?
He heard floorboards creaking upstairs… he knew exactly where those boards were… and he heard a door close… the ‘thing’ was in his bedroom.
Noon came and went. By midafternoon, Entman was drunk again. He had set up a folding chair under the Royal Empress and had stationed himself in the shade, continuing to drink, staring at the house, listening to vague activity going on inside… pots and pans clanging in the kitchen… doors slamming shut… knocking on the walls…
From time to time, he looked up at the windows of the second floor, where the bedroom was… there was faint music being hummed up there. It had, after all, been a good idea to put in a toilet in the garage some years back… something else Henny had derided him about.
Hunger drove him into the kitchen. He grabbed a cold pork chop and hurriedly ate some potato salad right out of the storage bowl. And then he hurried back to the backyard and stayed under the tree, until the dusk compelled him to go inside. He was afraid, of course, but he convinced himself at last that whatever the ‘thing’ was, it did not seem intent on hurting him, or perhaps was not able to.
Entman was exhausted, and his thinking was erratic. He’d finished off the keg, but he had a few bottles of his preferred brand in the refrigerator and part of a case in the garage. Additionally, there were two or three bottles of liquor somewhere in the house. For a moment, he wondered why it seemed important to take stock of this now, but he didn’t dwell on it. He was tired and wasted, and he reeled into the living room and collapsed on the couch, managing only to turn himself face up.
The house was darkening. He had no idea what time it was, and he didn’t really care. He closed his eyes, as his mind and body started surrendering to fatigue and sedation. And then, he heard a whispered voice as of someone standing right behind the couch, looming over him. At first, it was a normal voice, but he couldn’t discern it as being male or female or determine in that instant what had been said. And then, it became hurried and even more muddled, and it continued to hurry, like a recording being played in fast-forward without the effect of the high pitch… just inane prattling.
He kept his eyes closed. But he could hear it… the voice or sound or whatever it was. He was perhaps trying to convince himself subconsciously that he was tired and drunk and he would soon pass out, and this anomaly could go on jabbering all night for all he cared. But then, he had a sensation as of hair sweeping back and forth across his face, as if that someone—or whatever—had long hair and was leaning directly over him, only inches away.
He squinted his eyes purposefully to keep them tightly shut. They filled with tears, and he started to tremble. “Wha- what do you want from me?” he said weakly. “What do you want?” he repeated a little more assertively. And then, he whimpered and sobbed, as he heard and felt someone’s breath on his face.
After a while, the sensations seemed to stop, and he opened his eyes at last. Everything seemed normal… the house was dark and quiet. But his adrenaline was aroused, he was soaked in sweat, and he was shaking as if he was in shock.
Monday into Tuesday
He didn’t know what to do. He sat up and stared into space, feeling as if he was trapped in a shroud of darkness. He was afraid to look in any direction, because he couldn’t be sure of what he might see. Where was the ‘thing’ now? It might be right behind him.
He considered taking a shower… he needed to clear his head… but he was in a state of indecisiveness. He was afraid that ‘thing’ might do something while he was in that very vulnerable position of wetness and nakedness. He stood up weakly, walked to the wall, and flipped on the light. Somehow, he felt safer in the light.
In the case behind the couch, he found a bottle of Jack Daniels with the seal still intact. What was it Henny had said once… that he got belligerent when he drank too much? ‘What the hell does that mean … belligerent?’ As far as he could remember, alcohol gave him courage. Maybe beer made him silly… but this stuff, the hard stuff, this gave him the mettle to stand up and face anything. He twisted the cap and broke the seal, and he took a long wrenching slug.
His throat burned and his eyes watered and he struggled for a moment to recover his breath. He sank back down on the couch and took another slug of three swallows… and he looked around the room, feeling somewhat defiant. He felt a touch of anger now. ‘This is my house, damn it!’
Now he was becoming numb… no feelings… his mind a blank… no memory, no foresight, no discernment, no concern… he took another long slug, put the cap on the bottle, and he allowed himself to slump down so that he could lean his head on the back of the couch. As his consciousness surrendered to lassitude and intoxication, he could hear different household sounds… some sort of activity going on in the kitchen, the water tap turning on and off, footsteps going by, on the stairs, in the hall, the toilet flushing again, doors shutting upstairs, the vague but chiding humming… it just kept going.
At some point, his body shut down, and he became oblivious. For a brief indeterminate moment, he slept. In what seemed like an ordinary but vignette-like morning, he poured himself a cup of coffee and looked out the backdoor. He was surprised to see Henny out there in the backyard. What was she doing? What was she wielding? A jackhammer!? He watched wide-eyed and openmouthed as she positioned it on top of the patio and proceeded to chisel into it. He was about to yell at her to stop, but then he found himself abruptly waking up on the couch, and the sound of the jackhammer was someone knocking at the door.
The doorbell rang, and then there was more knocking. “Awright, awright, I’m coming!” he yelled. It took some effort to get on his feet, and he swooned and almost fell on his way to the door. When he managed to get it open, he saw Gretchen standing there.
Upon seeing him, her eyes widened, “Oh, my God, Rhode! What in the world has happened to you?”
He looked down at himself and saw his T-shirt wrinkled, stretched out, and covered with sweat stains and the grease marks and barbeque sauce where he’d wiped his hands after his hurried ingestions. His pants also were wrinkled and covered with stains. He knew his face was coated with stubble, his hair was all mussed up, and his eyes were probably blood-shot.
He looked up at Gretchen and grinned, “Oh, heh-heh, I’ve been doing a little drinking, and just kind of… letting myself go… you know… since Henny ain’t here.”
“Well, shame on you!” she said, half pointedly. And she gingerly edged her way in, so as not to touch him. Inside, she looked around and wrinkled her nose, noting an oppressive stagnancy about the place. The cushions on the couch had not been batted or turned for a while, the couch cover was all crumpled up, and there were nebulous stains on it. That dispiriting odor seemed to emanate strongly there.
Not wanting to linger in that squalor, she hastily walked into the kitchen and saw a sink full of dishes and unclean pots and pans sitting on a stove that was itself covered with grime and unidentifiable drippings along its front and sides. Gretchen knew that if Henny saw her house in this condition, she would be horrified.
“Rhode?” she said slowly, “When is Henny coming back?”
Entman had grudgingly followed her through the living room and was now standing in the doorway, aghast at what he saw in the kitchen. He knew he hadn’t made this mess. He stood there and stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed again.
“Rhode?” She turned to look at him. “Are you alright?”
He looked at her and then back at the sink. “Uh… Henny? I don’t know. She’s supposed to be calling any day now. I suppose she’ll tell me then.”
“Oh,” said Gretchen, “which reminds me… that’s actually why I’m here. I wanted to ask you if there was a number where I could call her. I do miss talking to her.”
“A number? Uh, no… well, you see, all them folk down there have party lines. We’ve never liked talking to them on the phone because, well, other people can listen in. When she gets a chance, she’ll go to some store, and she’ll call from a public phone.”
“And you don’t know when she’s going to call?”
“No… well, she won’t know either until she’s going to do it. Y’see, she’s either gotta borrow a car or get a ride. It’s kind of inconvenient, I suppose.”
Gretchen wrinkled her brow. “Rhode, did you and Henny have a fight or something?”
He lifted his eyes to hers, “Uh… why would you say that? Of course not.” His eyes went back to the mess in the kitchen. “Uh, look, Gretchen, I didn’t realize how bad this had gotten. I think I better clean this up now. Tell you what… when she calls, I’ll tell her to give you ring.”
“Oh, sure. She can call me collect. After all, I was going to call her.” She looked at Entman with what might have been a touch of sympathy. “You might want to clean yourself up too, Rhode. You really look terrible.”
And then she left. And Entman crossed the kitchen over to the back door and looked at his magnificent grill, looming like some sort of monument. He let the satisfaction of its workmanship soak in before he turned to the task at hand.
Entman was not good at cleaning, and he especially hated kitchen work. Henny had always kept the kitchen speckless and fresh, and it was this flashback that drove him on. Two and a half hours later, it was done, and he stood there and looked for any spots he might have missed. He then vacuumed the couch cushions and placed them outside for some airing, and he removed the couch cover to the basement and set it on the washing machine. He would get back to it.
He felt somewhat accomplished. He hadn’t had a drink yet, he hadn’t experienced any abnormal disturbances, and he was now of a mind to clean himself up… as Gretchen had suggested.
He walked upstairs and shaved, and then he took a long hot shower. In only his boxers, he took his soiled clothes and threw them in the washing machine along with the couch cover.
He went upstairs again and put on a clean pair of blue chinos, a white button down shirt, and his plain laced shoes. When he walked downstairs, he found a fresh pot of coffee on the counter, and the kitchen radio was playing the public station. He hadn’t activated either of those things. The presence in the house was still active, but somehow, it didn’t bother him anymore.
He poured himself a cup, stepped outside and sat on the steps, as he was fond of doing. And he gazed at the fireplace unblinkingly until his eyes burned and watered and tears rolled down his cheeks.
It was mid-afternoon on Tuesday when Rhode Entman got in his car and went downtown and turned himself in at the police station. During his confession, he stated that after so many years, his wife had become a nagging presence in his life and he had simply meant to rid himself of it.
“But that presence is still there,” he said. “Maybe I should have buried her somewhere else. You’ll find her body under the patio and grill in the backyard.”
The detective tapped his pen on the desk. He’d listened to the whole story … about the presence in Entman’s house. Surprisingly, he’d heard stories like this one before. After some thought, he took in a deep breath, let out a long sigh, and said, “Well, Mr. Entman, there’s just one question remaining, isn’t there? Will your wife be haunting the house from now on? Or will she be haunting you where you’re going?”
Shortly after Entman began his prison sentence, he died mysteriously of asphyxiation. In due time, the city escheated the house and property. Because of the property’s history, the city has not been able to sell it, in spite of the fact that both the house and lawn appear to be maintained in immaculate order by unknown entities.
r. nuñez, 7/2018