by Adrian Shirk
Vera wanted to take us on a Sunday drive. I’d awoken in Eliot’s empty bed. He was already up, pouring milk into the pancake mix as Vera came through the back door. I put on clothes. In the kitchen she was beaming. “You spent the night!” She kissed my head and turned to wash her hands in the sink. Her hair was messed up in the back. She looked at herself in the small mirror that hung by the window, flattening her bangs with two hands. “I look like Grandma.” Eliot flipped the first pancake onto a clean plate. “Welcome to the Perfect Pancake Palace.” I ate a forkful and kissed him. Vera squeezed his shoulders but he shrugged her off. “Let’s go soon,” she said. “I told Chuck we’d be there by lunch time.”
We drove along I-84, scaling the Columbia River. It was President’s Day weekend, bright blue and freezing. I could see my eyes and Vera’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. Hers were like summer lakes, and mine, lake mud. Vera was a cougar, a new kind of Jewish martyr, single-mother, who in mid-life, had never quite turned nineteen. She’d been up all night washing her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend’s dishes, folding his socks. Eliot stared out the window from the passenger seat while she complained about it. “But he’s such a good lover,” she said. Eliot and I were juniors in high school. I watched the pair from the backseat; mother and son had never looked so similar. They had matching moon-shaped cheekbones and heart-shaped lips.
She hit his thigh. “Have I told you about the freak at work?” Annoyed, Eliot said, “Yes, you have, ten times already,” and then they looked at each other and started laughing. She pulled him close with one arm, kissing his head. He let her. Eliot reached in the backseat to squeeze my knee.
Vera was friends’ with the caretaker of Multnomah Falls, a state park of paved trails that wound right under where the water had turned the cavern walls into stalactites. At the edge of the park was a cluster of rotting Victorian houses where her friend lived. She’d been talking about visiting him for weeks.
We passed through a small town called Corbett. She said, “I used to drive out here in high school. My gym teacher lived here. He was thirty-seven. He’d tell his wife he was hiring me for house cleaning.” Eliot turned to me and raised his eyebrows. Vera swung her head forward, laughing again, unzipping her sheepskin jacket and tossing it behind her. I imagined seventeen-year-old Vera doing it with her gym teacher in the showers at school. I watched the Columbia sweep by. Finally, we arrived at a clapboard house with a Western façade. It looked old and poorly renovated. A man was propped in the doorway, one calloused hand raised in greeting. “You’re late,” he said, sheepish. “You’re always late, Vera.”
His walls were lined entirely with dark wood paneling and his carpet was a thick, soupy green. He introduced himself as Charles, though Vera had told me to call him Chuck. The windows on the front door were orange, like the glass found in churches from the 1970s. When they shut, the room was filled with a cathedral-like glow. He was older than I’d expected, a soft-spoken, fifty-something ex-logger. I wondered how Vera had come to know someone like this, or if he knew about the gym teacher.
Chuck let light in through only a single picture window facing out back. Eliot offered to draw the blinds, their plastic slats clacking. Underneath the windowsill, Chuck kept jars of shiny rocks he’d put through a tumbler. The jars left soft imprints on the carpet. He poured one of the jars out on his dining room table and said I could choose a rock to take home. “Which ever one speaks to you,” he said.
I chose one that was milky, like quartz, and looked like it had marijuana petrified inside of it.
We sat at his dining room table. He poured whiskey and Coke in cups that looked like they were made out of the same orange church glass on the front door. His Australian sheep dog pawed at my lap. Dust plumed from her back when I pet her. The caretaker wanted to smoke a bowl so he pulled the curtains shut because the neighbors made him nervous. He turned his ceiling fan on low. The blades were made of the same wood paneling on his walls. I started to feel sick. Eliot whispered in my ear. “Is this too weird?”
Chuck took a bong hit and his eyes softened. He seemed weak. I peered into his kitchen from my spot at the table. It was carpeted the same way as the living room, a bare light bulb hung from the shallow ceiling. We were sat in silence, next to an old spiral staircase. There was only darkness at the top. We began telling jokes. Eliot kissed the back of my neck. We moved closer together, surveying the relics spread around the room: antique lumber saws, dusty medicine bottles, sardine tins from the 1920s. Chuck had salvaged them all while digging for rocks in the park. Soon, he was talking about a woman, and a shadow crossed Vera’s face.
“Sandy stopped coming to visit. She didn’t say why—just stopped showing up.”
“Oh, Chuck,” Vera said, taking a bong hit.
“Did I do something? I mean, she never mentioned it if I did.”
“No, she’s a freak. I’ve met her and she’s totally a freak, and she probably just has her own stuff to figure out. It’s not you.”
“Maybe.” He slipped his hand in his back pocket. “I found a rock for you. Look. It looks like an owl. Here. See? Those little yellow flecks look like eyes.”
“Oh yeah. Thanks, Chuck.”
“You can have another rock if you want. I have a million.”
“Oh. I can’t. My purse is full,” she said. “You know.”
“Right,” he said.
I looked back and forth between them in the silence that followed. Eliot was sifting through the rocks at the other end of the table.
“Your dog’s staring at me,” Vera said.
“Look! She won’t stop!”
Chuck took a bong hit and looked. “Oh! Yeah. She’s been doing that a lot since the ghosts moved in. She sits and stares at that wall clock sometimes, too. Just sits and stares and stares like there’s no tomorrow.”
“What ghosts?” Vera said.
“Ha! Maybe that’s why Sandy stopped coming around.”
“What ghosts, Chuck? You’re stoned. Are there really ghosts?”
“Yep.” He took another bong hit. “Are you sure you don’t want another rock? I just took some out of the tumbler--.”
“Forgodsake, what ghosts?”
“This house was a saloon in the late nineteenth century. Haven’t I told you that?”
“The upstairs was a brothel.”
“So. Why is your dog staring at me?”
“Well. Well, OK, I was sitting in the bath one night. And this fog came floating through the window—I’m serious, now—floated on through the room, out the door, and right through that spot in the wall where that clock is.” He looked at all of us now, pointing. Vera squeezed my hand. “Only, before the clock—I had a picture hanging there. Of the old saloon owner. I’d found it in my basement, and got it framed. But the picture, well, it kept falling and cracking. And. After the ghost—well, the ghost-thing, went through it, I replaced it with the clock. But then Dakota started staring at that spot. Everyday.” Chuck patted the dog, scratched his own beard. “And then she started staring at. Everything.”
“Weird.” Vera took a bong hit, and held it in a little longer this time. As she exhaled the stream of smoke, she choked, “I really like this rock. Thank you.”
“I’m surprised I haven’t told you this story before,” Chuck continued. “Yep. This house is full of ghosts.” He locked his hairy knuckles over the hump of his gut, and I felt sad for him. He was a big man, but he slouched and spoke softly. He smiled, self-satisfied, though he’d lost everyone’s attention. Vera made a final movement in her chair and began to bring her purse to her shoulder. Eliot was looking at his cell phone, but Chuck went on anyway: “That light bulb in the kitchen swings around sometimes. The front door opens and closes. Oh, and goddamn—I didn’t tell you what happened to Sandy did I?”
“No, but—” Vera said.
“She was upstairs feeling around for a light switch, and she claimed someone kicked her into a corner. Now, I know—“
“Sandy’s a freak, Chuck.”
“I know, I know, but there was a bruise the shape of a footprint on her waist. She said it felt like a bare foot. I went upstairs to look, and of course there was nothing.”
“ Maybe that’s why she hasn’t come back!”
“I know. I said that earlier.” Chuck turned to me now. “You know, I saw the saloon owner’s wife in my bedroom once. I knew it was his wife because she was in that photograph that used to hang on my wall. She was standing there in this red dress, looking in my mirror. She was barefoot, too. I never told Sandy I saw her.”
Vera flicked something from inside her nostril. “Why?
“I don’t know why. I don’t.”
She took one last bong hit, and then set the rest in front of her son.
“Well, we’ve got to go, Chuck. We’ve got to drive back to town,” she said.
“You do? You sure? I can make a steak for dinner tonight. You sure you have to go?” He turned to me for an answer, but I had nothing to say. I shrugged and smiled a thin smile. “We do have to go,” I said.
There was a clatter overhead. Something rattled in the dark at the mouth of the spiral staircase. The wrought iron rails vibrated, and Chuck rose from his seat, swinging the chair in front of himself. His body swelled like an animal under attack, his face sobered. He crept up to the bottom of the staircase, his eyes burning up and into the darkness.
“It’s the ghosts.” He says this like a child.
For a moment we are quiet, following his gaze. But when the stillness returns, Eliot is sitting next to me sucking the remaining bud from the bong. He picks up an old fashioned View-Master sitting next to his whiskey and Coke. He slips in a negative of two lumberjacks straddling a giant sequoia. His mother is sitting across from me, watching Chuck, batting her eyelids whimsically. “Weird.” She doesn’t look worried, and that worries me.
We stand up to leave. Chuck’s lip is quivering, his palms facing upwards in plea. As the door shuts behind me, I think I hear him yelling, “Hello?” up the staircase. Vera and Eliot move towards the car, but I fall behind and press my ear to his door. A woman’s voice from far away, responds strong and sweet: “Hello, Chuck.” Or perhaps there’s no voice at all. I’m shivering from having sat for so long. In the orange evening light, Vera is holding Eliot close, whispering to him. He is laughing, telling her it’s OK, don’t worry, it’s fine. I am comforted when Vera says something familiar, “I need a Xanax,” and motions for me to join them.
The three of us turn and face the falls, a few hundred feet behind Chuck’s house. February has frozen it over. Vera links arms. “How’s my girl?” Eliot pulls me into his jacket, zipping it around both of us. We can hear the water rushing and pulsing from underneath the melting dome of winter, but we can’t see where it’s falling from.