“I need you to find something in that house for me,” my employer said as we were driving along the countryside in Massachusetts. We had just passed a large farm land with green rolling hills, mirror-like ponds, and cows and horses scattering in between, and entered into a narrow winding road framed and sealed by tall elm trees on both sides.
“What do you need?” As the road became bumpy and darker, I had an ominous sensation and asked alarmingly.
“Any piece of information, anything about him. Go to the study and the bedroom, go through the drawers and the cabinets, you’ll find something, papers, old letters, or diaries. Do it quick. Before they get here.”
I studied her from the rear window, she was wearing a satin-like loose robe with strings of beads hanging over her stout neck. The dark circles of her eyeliner somehow made her enormous eyes look smaller, her long black hair loosely flying over her heavy bosoms. She always told her customers that her mother was from South India, but seeing her face exposed in the bright early summer sunlight made me wonder if her skin’s truly olive.
“Don’t look so surprised. You know how it works,” she scolded.
I was not very interested in the nature of her work. From the incessant stream of customers I guess she’s good at what she did: reading things—palms, tarot cards, crystal balls, animal bones, or tea leaves. Her office was on the first floor of a redbrick building on a main road in Boston. On the right side was an all-you-can-eat vegan café; and the left, a counseling clinic. I always bet with my coworker on who’s going inside which door. I never won.
It all began when I received a call from a Mrs. Ronnie LaRossa who needed to consult my employer regarding some issues with a property left by her late grandfather. I told her that she had called wrong number and we were not a legal agency, but she lowered her voice and said, no, she made no mistake. Her grandfather passed away leaving no will, so she wanted Madame Katherine (my employer) to communicate with him to find out what he had intended for his assets and property. And because she believed that he had intended to leave everything to his beloved older son, her father, who had taken care of him, instead of to his worthless younger son, her uncle, who had been away in California. I was not sure how to interject a word or two into her monologue until Katherine moved closer, snatching the phone away and echoing Mrs. LaRossa in a comforting and cooing voice.
After exiting the embrace of the thick elms, I saw a large run-down house looming on the right side at the end of the path. Surrounded by tall wild grass and the dried skeleton of huge heads of hydrangea, the house seemed to be of a mixed style, with majestic Ionian columns, a grey silver mansard roof, and broken dormer windows.
I stopped the car and was hurried out by Katherine. “Quick. Quick! Don’t let anyone see you. Meet me back here at 10,” she said, as she climbed into the front seat with difficulty and then sped away quickly. I was left alone, standing in the sun-drenched overgrown garden.
Sneaking onto the front porch, I saw a brass door nob carved with a robin in the exact middle of the door. I tried to turn it but it emitted a loud ringing sound that made me jump. My chest was pounding and sweat started to trail from my forehead. You might wonder why I never protested to Katherine. Indeed, I was a young immigrant work-student and hired by Katherine illegally as her assistant, but truth be told, I found the adventure thrilling. I circled to the back of the house and saw a sunroom half collapsed, so I squeezed inside and easily pushed open a door connecting to the dinning room.
My first impression of the dining room was its incredibly high-ceiling and its blueness. The nautical-themed china, the Persian carpet, the faded silver threaded chinoiserie wallpaper, and even the plump velvet cushions were in different tones of blue, which I guess would’ve been vibrant if not covered in thick dust.
I crossed the room to a soaring staircase and tried to stealthily tiptoe to the second floor, but the aged wood cracked and the floor shook under my every move and step. Finally I entered a red colored room that seemed to be a library. For hours I rummaged through the drawers in the imposing mahogany desk and flipped through many of the old books (some with daunting titles like Two Sources of Morality and Religion and some like Divine Comedy and Decameron seemed to have never been opened before) but found absolutely nothing. Surely his family had been here many times since his passing to look for a will without any luck. At around nine thirty, I prepared to give up and leave.
Before I was about to leave through the front door, I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye. Let me tell you that I do not believe in ghosts, I find living humans far more terrifying, but at that moment my heart skipped a beat. I slowly turned and found it was my own ghostly reflection in a cloudy round mirror dotted with patina. Relieved, I saw in front of the mirror several stems of dirty silk poppies collected in a small vase. The vase was truly mesmerizing, for I found its flowing shape resembled the slender body of a woman, vivacious but reflective. I reached out to touch the vase, a coarse but warm texture, and found under the vase what I thought a black tray was actually a notebook.
I carefully moved the vase and took the notebook. A small round clean dent left on the dusty black cover by the vase. I opened its black cover and saw a small "V" on the first page. Inside, the yellow brittle pages were scribbled with pictures and fragmentary passages. I saw a sketch of a cricket, vivid green, detailed to the veins of its transparent wings and its strange teeth. Next to it read, “everything flying in the sky and everything moving in the field…” I also saw a lone lighthouse and next to it, “Grand is seen...” I did not know at that time it was Walt Whitman’s poem, but the notes filled with words like “grief, coral reef, fallen leaf” or “dragonfly, libré, libellula,” or “fuoco, gioco” and from the many short stanzas and crossovers and corrections and editing throughout the notebook I gathered the late Mr. LaRossa, or someone in the family, was an aspiring poet of some sort.
I then heard some noise from outside and saw two cars appear at the end of the road. In a panic, I grabbed the notebook, half stuffed it in the back of my shorts, and covered it with my loose T-shirt, then I ran through the dining room and crawled out of the house through the half crumbled sunroom. When Katherine saw me she immediately yelled,
“Did you find the bathroom, Bobby?”
“Oh yea, I did, I did. No, I didn’t.”
Katherine rolled her eyes, introducing me to a middle-aged woman with black-rimmed glasses and short red hair and to the slightly younger-looking skinny man behind her: Ronnie LaRossa and the son of her cousin from California.
“What did you find?” Katherine whispered to me as everyone entered the house.
“Nothing really, only a notebook with…poems and sketches…like insects and the sea.”
“Ugh…” she muttered.
At the dining table the four of us held hands and formed a circle. Katherine’s chin was buried in her chest, hair all over her face, mumbling something in a crying voice. She suddenly began convulsing and raised her eyes to the ceiling, “the spirit is with me!”
Ronnie cleared her throat and said, “Grandpapa, please tell us what you want us to do with the house. Do you want to leave it to papa, Ed, your oldest son?”
She went on to tell the “ghost” how Ed, himself eighty years old, looked after Mr. LaRossa after his stroke at one-hundred and three. And how he accidently fell from the stairs here and was in wheelchair thereafter, not remembering anyone anymore. As she went on, Katherine suddenly emitted a scary noise, twitching uncontrollably.
“Is that a yes or no? Because, no offense Aunt Ronnie, my parents thought it’d only be fair if great-grandpa should leave things equally to his two sons.” The young man spoke, staring at the ceiling, seemingly in search of the ghost or just out of embarrassment.
After several seconds, Katherine made another terrible gruntle, this time her eyes rolling back into her skull.
“What does that mean?” The young man and Ronnie asked together, clearly displeased. Ronnie then turned to the young man, “come on, you guys were not even here when he died. My father worked to death for him.”
“I’m only saying legally we should own half of his things.”
“Not so quick. My husband bought these for him in Hong Kong. I’m taking them.” Ronnie broke off the circle and stood up, taking the blue china from the cabinet. Katherine started to rock back and forth moaning formidably.
From their yelling and some later research, I found out that Mr. LaRossa had quite a life. His ancestors came from north Italy and were sea merchants but refused to smuggle Turkish opium to China in the early 1800s and so gradually ran out of business. By Mr. LaRossa’s time, he had invested in land and owned two office buildings in Boston; he was a devoted Catholic and an educator working in the local municipal office. What the Spanish Flu and the Depression did not destroy, the fire did—his buildings turned into ashes on one night in 1937, but he helped others in the disaster and went on with his job stoically. His wife, Veronica (a shadowy figure, nowhere was her origin mentioned) passed away around that time, after their oldest son joined the US Navy against Mussolini. The son would have been abroad in Asia for the most of his life, and would not retire until the ‘70s. The younger son, Paul, went to California to work for some construction company and never came home again. For Mr. LaRossa, it seemed that the idea of work and community was the most important, more than wife, children, or comfort. He lived alone and was looked after by his old maid, and then his oldest son, and passed away peacefully at his own house.
If you are interested in what happened next: the house was too damaged and deemed worthless by the two families, but the land, not too far from Boston, was valuable, so after taking away things they wanted they started an estate sale and let an architecture firm move the whole house away. I went to the sale and tried to return the notebook but no one was interested. Several years later I came across a newly discovered diary by a certain famous Transcendentalist poet from Massachusetts; it had an entry in 1928: on one spring evening at a salon a young Mrs. LaRossa approached him and shyly asked if he would not look at some short pieces she wrote. He agreed and looked through a small black notebook at the fireplace and edited a couple of them for her. He found her poems fresh and promising. Keep writing, he told her, you will achieve something. Her face flushed like sunset against sea. He didn’t doubt she would continue writing and he would hear from her again. Not a literary person myself, I auctioned the black notebook away for $20,000 by some fan of the renowned poet.