Most of the time, if you mention "haunted house" to someone, they think of victorian houses or castles in England. But I tell you, the most haunted house I ever heard of was smack in the middle of suburbia. It was in a housing development on the north side of Richmond, California.
Richmond has become a rough town. There's a lot of gang activity up there; murder and drugs and carjacking just seem to go along with that, in spite of all gang members of every gang claiming to be innocent of any wrongdoing. Maybe evil spirits walk the streets and stab people to death, or make drugs appear from another dimension. That would explain a lot, wouldn't it?
Sometimes the problem is that those rough people don't believe in spirits, evil or good. Movies about evil spirits are the closest they come to religion; if the movie gets too creepy, they can always throw popcorn at the screen and laugh it off, and as soon as they leave the theater, the real world with the smell of exhaust fumes and women with too much perfume reminds them that the evil spirits in the movie were all just make-believe. Good spirits? Very few people want to hear about those, because good spirits might want them to do good things. And about their own spirit, the part of us that animates us and loves and thinks? Mention that to someone and watch their eyes glaze over.
Not only do they not want to talk about their own spirit (or how they might have to figure out if they'd become a good one or a bad one), but also they don't want to have anything to do with thinking about what spirits can and can't do.
Dorothy and Bill Hall were our next door neighbors in Modesto, and good friends, too. Bill got the chance to become an assistant manager at a Save-Mart in Richmond about a year ago; they sold their house and moved there, to a house that was in one of the older developments, about fifteen years old or so. New enough to not require major renovation, old enough to have a lot of the original stucco crack and the cabinets need refinishing. But there was a problem with the garage. Somehow, Bill told my husband last June, the air conditioning was venting into the garage. The uninsulated garage. And while the thermostat in their living room was set to 72 degrees, the garage was sucking up all the cold and was only about 60 degrees, with the floor so cold you couldn't even go out there barefoot.
Bill and Dorothy called us before anyone else because my husband works for a furnace and air conditioning service, and because we, being friends, knew they couldn't afford to be cooling down the Bay Area with their air conditioner, and knew that Dorothy couldn't do without her air conditioner because of her horrific allergies to anything that produced pollen. Bill couldn't even bring her flowers on their anniversaries unless he wanted to see her eyes swell shut. And since we were friends, we drove up there the next weekend, with our daughter Annie slouched grumpily in the back seat of the double cab.
Bill was out in their front yard with Bradley the Bulldozer, who was four. He saw our truck and waved both arms. Annie said in a voice that sounded like she was teetering between tears and a manifesto, "I am NOT babysitting that little brat while you guys drink beer and tell jokes."
"I promise you won't be asked to do that," I reassured her.
Bill gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek. "Dorrie's inside. Roses are blooming now, so she can't come out." He hugged my husband too, and Bradley flung himself against Annie's legs. "Annnnnnieeeee!" he bellowed, "Missed you! Missed you! Pick me up!"
"Hey, Bratley. I'm not going to pick you up, you little roach. You're too big." Annie mussed his hair.
Bradley grabbed her hand and held it against his face, shutting his eyes. Annie's face softened. "Come see my trucks?" the little boy asked, tugging.
"Yeah, let's go see trucks." They preceded us to the house, Bradley bouncing, holding Annie's hand with both of his. She was trying not to look pleased.
Dorrie had bottles of Sam Adams open and ready to hand to us. Icy bits were still clinging to the bottles. "I've got chips and salsa, olives, cheese, buffalo wings, macaroni and potato salad -- dive in!"
My husband gave her a big hug. "Don't get me started on all this until I have a look at the AC. We could get parts if we need them today."
"Come on," Bill said, leading the way to the garage. "You're not going to believe this."
As he opened the garage door, a wave of cold air washed over us. "Holy shit," said my husband, immediately scanning the walls of the garage for vents.
"Frank, I can't figure out where the hell this is coming from. There aren't any holes in the walls."
Fifteen minutes later Dorrie joined us. "Find anything?"
"Nothing! But it's got to be some ducting vented into the wall near the floor to make that so cold, I just can't see anything. You got a candle, Dorrie?"
She brought him an unscented table taper and a pack of matches. Frank lit the wick, and then blew it out. While it still smoked, he laid the candle on the floor. The smoke rose straight up.
He lit it again four times, and after blowing it out, set it near each of the three walls, and then last, the front of the garage by the metal door. The smoke curled lazily up from the wick. "That's totally screwed up," he said. "That cold air should be shooting under the door like a fan was running."
Annie and Bradley came out into the garage. "Coooold!" said Bradley, hugging Annie's legs.
"Damn it, there's that cat again," muttered Dorrie. "Hear it? I wish the neighbors would keep that cat inside. I know it's going to crawl all over our lawn furniture out back and give me the hives."
"Dammit," Bradley repeated. "Hear the baby?"
"Don't say 'dammit,' Brad. And that's a cat, not a baby."
"Baby," he said, frowning.
"I don't hear anything," I said.
"Me neither," Annie agreed. She jumped and looked over her shoulder. "What was that?"
A baby-food jar of nails had fallen off the stack of toolboxes on a work table by the side of the door to the house. It rolled slowly across the worktable until stopped by a red plastic case of ratchet heads.
I looked at Frank and he was staring at me, not moving. I looked at Annie, and she said, "I am totally out of here," and dragged Bradley by the hand out of the garage.
"You don't think ... " Dorrie said, putting her hand to her throat.
"What?" asked Bill, completely at a loss as to what we were thinking.
"Let's go inside and have another beer," my husband said. There's a reason I fell in love with him -- he always knows the best course of action.
"Where's your inhaler, Dor?" I asked her. When she indicated the bathroom, I said, "Go get it, just in case."
"So where do you think the AC leak is, Frank?" said the oblivious Bill.
"There's not a leak, Bill. If there was a leak, the air in there would be moving. It's not moving."
Annie came out to the kitchen. "Can I give Bradley some chips?" At Bill's nod, she put some potato chips, some raisins, and a couple black olives on a paper plate. "Chips, Brad? Okay, come on, but you have to eat them on the patio." She opened the sliding door off the kitchen, put the plate on the cement floor outside, and shut Bradley out. "He says there's a baby, a boy like him, and a girl out there."
Dorrie stopped in the doorway to the kitchen, turned her back, and fired her inhaler. "We bought a haunted house?" she said weakly. "Oh, my God." She sank into a chair by the table.
"Bradley says the boy comes into his bedroom and watches him when he plays in there." Annie put her hand to her mouth -- probably snagged her lip on her braces. "The baby just cries 'Ma-maa, Ma-maa!"
My arms looked like corrugated cardboard from goosebumps.
"You guys are nuts," Bill observed. He drained his Samuel Adams.
"Who owned this house before you did?" Frank asked, calm as always.
"Some guy from Frisco, got tired of renting houses and wanted to sell some off."
"Bet he couldn't keep a renter in here," said Dorrie, looking pale.
"And before the landlord -- do you know anything about that?"
"No," Bill offered.
"Well, I can damn sure find out," Dorrie growled, getting her cell phone from the top of the breadbox. "I still have our realtor on speed-dial. Hi, Roxanne! This is Dorothy Hall here -- oh, that's sweet that you remember me! Listen, I have a question for you. What's the story on this house we bought? I know that the guy who sold it to us had it for rental property, but what about before him? No, girl, don't give me that. We've got some kind of air conditioning leak going on in the garage, we've just had an expert come in and look at it, and the next step is a lawyer, because the house was supposed to have been inspected before we signed papers. Great. The AC guy is waiting here, so get back to me real soon -- he gets paid by the hour. Bye."
The owners prior to the landlord guy were a couple with three kids. He got fed up with married life and left, the realtor told Dorrie when she called her back. He had custody of the kids on alternate weekends, and when he came to drop off the kids on a Sunday night, he saw a hash pipe on the kitchen counter. He told his ex he was going to petition the court for custody of the children and have the house tested for meth contamination.
That night, she loaded the kids in the car, rigged something with an exhaust pipe and hoses, left a note that said she would not give up her children, and gassed herself and them in the garage.
Roxanne the Realtor was apologetic. She really hadn't known. Her concern had extended all the way to "Buyer is happy with price."
"We bought a haunted house," Dorrie groaned, covering Bradley's ears with her hands.
A dish on the counter filled with olives and wedges of cheese lifted itself and dropped with a clank beside Annie's elbow. "Whatchoo doon, Annie?" Bradley asked, standing on tiptoe to see the counter.
"I didn't touch that!" cried Annie, her voice shrill.
We fired up Dorrie's computer and did a Google search on the name of the deceased woman. We found a link to her obituary in the newspaper, but all that we found out was that she and her kids had been buried without so much as a funeral.
"No church affiliation," I commented.
"What?" said Bill, as usual.
"They didn't have a church background. So they died, not knowing what to expect. Hell, the kids died not knowing they were dying!" I pinched the bridge of my nose with my fingers; Frank put an arm across my shoulders. I wanted to leave and go home.
"Which means what?" asked Bill.
"It means they probably don't understand that they're dead, Bill. That's why there's such a thing as Sunday School, to tell people what happens when they die, and what they should look for."
"I thought Sunday School was just to tell you what you could or couldn't do," he said, finishing his beer.
"I'll bet you were a giant asshole as a Sunday School student."
"If you were only a little bit older, I'd bet you were one of my teachers," Bill smiled.
"Understand -- and by the way, Bill, I'm ignoring your comment -- that a soul, or spirit, separated from its body, has lost its ability to perceive the universe, at least the way living people do. Like someone suddenly struck blind, it has no way of determining where it is or where it should go."
"Oh, come on, we die and then become angels," he said. "Angels know everything."
"Angels don't know everything, and people can't become angels."
"Because we're people, not angels! We're different from them, didn't you ever listen to anything at church?"
"I didn't go to church until after I met Bill," Dorrie said. "Why are those dead people like they're blinded?"
"We're a funny creation. We're matter like the dirt and the trees and the birds, but we're also spirit, like the angels. Only they're pure spirit. They know about the world and God and everything through their spirit. But we don't. Since we're united to matter, what we know about the universe comes through our material senses. Those dead folks don't know what they're supposed to do, because they never heard it with their ears when they were alive. And now they've got no eyes to see that their bodies, their lives aren't here."
"Well, why don't the angels come and tell them where to go?" Bill said, irritated at the serious turn of the day.
"If something you didn't recognize appeared to you and told you to get your lazy ass back to Sunday morning service and lesson, would you listen to it?" I demanded. "Really. Or would you go see a psychiatrist instead?"
"Ass," said Bradley. He poked Annie rudely on her thigh. "You lazy ass."
Annie grabbed his hand and held it until he started to cry. "Then don't do that," she told him, releasing him so that he fell down on the floor.
"Can we keep Annie here?" Dorothy said, trying to find an upbeat note.
"No," Frank and Annie and I said at the same time. "Annie's already making shit -- ahhh, stuff happen by being in the house. Any time there's an adolescent girl in residence, paranormal crap escalates."
"And just how the f-- well, uh, the stink do you know all this?" Bill demanded.
"I read a lot of books, Bill. And I listen to what the pastor has to say on Sundays."
Dorrie had a couple tears overflow her eyes, and put her hands up to hide them. "What do I do now, try to hire an exorcist?"
I put my hand on her shoulder. "No, girl, you just pray for them. An exorcist is for driving out demonic spirits. Those babies wouldn't know an exorcist from a lawn mower. They're going to have to figure out that they're dead, and that there's something they have to move on toward."
"So what can I do? Read the Bible to them? Read my book of Prayers for Everyday People to them?"
"Wouldn't hurt," I told her. "Maybe it would help."
How often would I have to do that?" Dorrie worried. "And for how long?"
Dorrie reads her Bible aloud for a half an hour every morning in the cold garage. In the late afternoon, she reads a selection of prayers that include a credo and an Act of Faith. We believe what we pray, she read somewhere.
Bradley says the little boy likes to listen to her read, and so we have hope.
In the mean time, my husband and Bill have installed a duct from the garage to the main tract of the air conditioner, and a fan. That chilly air will have a purpose for as long as those poor souls stay.
The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.