I step outside into the gray sunrise. The trees are now bare but the first snows have yet to arrive. The wind has a bite, but the earth retains a little of summer's warmth. A half-zipped jacket is enough.
As I walk along a sidewalk partly covered in brown leaves, I think about how this neighborhood has changed. A few houses are still in good repair, the owners having decided to "tough it out in the old neighborhood". These are the exceptions, and usually owned by those not afraid to show civic pride.
Most houses are run-down but livable. Anyone could live in one of these. I know of one resident (as he confided in me) who is a wealthy artist enjoying the solitude of this largely abandoned area. Then every few years, you'll hear about some twisted individual keeping teenage slaves in his basement (or conversely, a tribe of former slaves having turned the tables on their captor.).
Then there are the ruins; abandoned houses with roofs gutted and overgrown with weeds. These are now homes for the local wildlife; squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and skunks. A neighbor recently said she saw a bobcat stalking around and that would not surprise me greatly.
Some yards are empty, the house that once was there long collapsed. "Abandoned plots", the joke goes, as most are littered with makeshift graves.
The entire neighborhood has the look of one large cemetery. Supposedly it began with the Panic of 2008, when rising burial costs and devalued life insurance policies led some people to bury loved ones in their back yard; a clandestine operation at first, that quickly became commonplace, and tolerated by the authorities.
You can often tell one's wealth by the quality and placement of tombstones. There are a few very nice mausoleums placed in conspicuous places like a nearby park. These are tended to almost daily and treated with respect by the locals.
Here lies Gerard Bock
Rest in Peace
I remember Gerry Bock as a man who liked fast cars and hard liquor. I suppose that says it all. Another commemorates a woman we only knew as "Mrs. Trass". She lived with about a dozen cats and over a million dollars, leaving very detailed instructions regarding her mausoleum; two large marble statues of cats guard her grave.
Then there are the "family graves"; a deep pit covered with a tarpaulin. Every few years the tarp is pushed back and another family member dumped inside.
Here lies the Polk Family
The "tombstone" is a wooden board kept in a clear plastic case. The names are written in permanent marker; with room for another eight or nine names.
I vaguely remember Darrel's murder. Supposedly a gang selling crack cocaine and heroin was involved, and his father swore revenge. Justin Polk supposedly killed close to a dozen members of the local gang before being killed himself. But nearly twenty years later, tobacco and homegrown weed are still the only illegal substances you'll find around here (and in abundance).
Yet in some ways living here is better than the gated suburbs where most Americans live nowadays. Most summer nights you'll find people on their front porches chatting. Most have given up on television with its twenty-five minutes of advertising per hour. The Internet is a fond memory, killed by greedy providers and government over-regulation. So we usually bring out a pitcher of iced tea and chat.
Ghosts are a common topic; you cannot be surrounded by the dead and not have the spirit world be on everyone's mind. There are still a few skeptics who try to explain it away as their eyes playing tricks on them. Everyone else knows better. Optical illusions do not giggle.
Yes they giggle, they moan, they do all the things ghosts are supposed to do. Some are oblivious to their surroundings and others are know exactly where they are. Some seem simply to want to stick around on this plane a bit longer while others seem to have a purpose.
Most of the ones I've seen have been strangers to me. Many are the old Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians who first lived in this neighborhood. Sometimes you'll still smell the smoke from the steel mills they worked, or hear the grinding wheels of the streetcars whose tracks were on all of the main streets. They seem to have a special interest in watching over the places where they lived and died.
A smile and a nod of the head, acknowledging their presence is sufficient. Usually they'll smile back and then fade. A few old classmates who bemoan my outliving them are a bit more difficult. They are the ones who like to appear out of nowhere and go "Boo!" Bullies in life, bullies in death, I guess.
And then there is Shanna. I've seen her numerous times. To be completely honest, she might be my main reason for these frequent sunrise walks.
Shanna was an overly romantic sixteen-year-old who fell in love with her high school class president. After being seduced, abandoned, and then bullied by him, she committed suicide by hanging herself in her basement (not shooting herself in the school cafeteria, as the myth goes).
Her family moved shortly after her death, it was too close to the school for their comfort. Her presence keeps squatters from moving in there; a night of loud noises only they can hear and blood dripping from the walls is usually sufficient to drive them out.
But her favorite victims are high school-aged guys. She usually appears to them while they are walking to school. Unless she feels a rare pang of sympathy, she will lure them into the basement to the spot of her suicide.
"Take off your clothes," she will say, the victims' lust making them blind to tell-tale signs of her being a ghost.
Then the victim will become dizzy and disoriented, staggering to get outside. He will usually find himself outside, naked, surrounded by both his classmates and students from the nearby elementary school.
A chant of "Shanna got ya! Shanna got ya!" is the usual response from the grade school kids.
I might have seen her a handful of times while she was alive, but I was already in college by then. Perhaps because I am older, I don't think she wants to humiliate me. Instead she seems to desire conversation. Yet as I approach, she usually fades into the ether.
I still have mixed feelings about talking to her. Maybe I wonder why she should want to talk to me, when so many lost friends and family members do not.
Maybe a part of me is still afraid of the spirit world, wanting to flee this urban graveyard to some place where the sun shines during the winter.
But I have dreamt of her. In dreams we have been both friends and lovers. Sometimes we'll be in high school together, and I'll be the "nice guy" who convinces her not to date the class president. Other times we'll both be adults and living elsewhere, far from the crypts and tombstones.
Yes, she wants to talk to me. To tell me something I am not sure I want to hear. So every day, I take this walk, passing her house, passing her grave, dreading every step.
I will admit that news of her death affected me more than it probably should have. She became this poetic ideal, fueling my creativity. A story I wrote fictionalizing her death appeared in my college's literary magazine, winning the "Best Short Story of the Year" award. I don't know how, but she knows that I used her tragedy to advance my academic career.
What confuses me the most, though, is how I know more about her than I should. I can see her last few difficult years she spent among the living as though I went through them myself. Reading her diary years later only confirmed what I already thought about her. She had been the battered princess waiting to be heroically swept away.
As I near her house, I can feel the lump forming in my throat. She's there, sitting on her porch steps, smiling. As I approach, she seems to sense my anxiety.
"Not today," she says, giggling. Then she is gone.