A Ghost Story

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single ghost in possession of a haunted house must be in want of a scare.

Block Island is the black sheep of the northeast Atlantic.

I grew up going there two weeks every summer with family and cousins. Leaving it after the two weeks gave my heart a freefall. I would cry alone in a ferry bathroom stall, but the emotion made me realize the island was my true home.

What made it home: the house we rented and the terrain.

During summers, the island coated me. It belonged on my skin and I kept it there. We stayed for those two weeks down a long dirt road that the island’s official map made dotted. I walked barefoot down that road, its soft dirt covering the nameless vegetation along where tires spat and my feet, sometimes my legs. We would climb down the Mohegan Bluffs and its dark clay dried between my toes, and I pretended all this island dirt got into my bloodstream, making me its child.

On days of all-sun I rolled down the warm dunes at State Beach and the black flecks of hot sand covered me with metallic heat. I swam underwater in the ocean’s shallow pockets looking for lobster and fished with my father on the Viking, collecting blues from the deep and eating them later from the grill with tomato slices and onion.
Because of these summers, I like to believe I’m a part of the island’s closed cycle of history.

The house we rent and love is ours. We don’t pay the bills or the mortgage and we’ll never have to replace the roof but we’ve been renting this old house for so long that we feel it knows us, and we sure know it. When I close the door each time we leave until another year, I always say “Bye Becks,” with a giant lump in my throat and heart, though I keep it together as an adult on the ferry, until I get home and do the laundry.

The biggest part of the house’s mystique has to do with its haunted stories.

There are several self-published books written by an islander who tells them well. In all honesty, there was a strong creep factor about this old house. If you happened to be alone, you’d wait outside, reading a book, waiting until somebody else got back. Most of the book’s stories, however, happened at night, as did ours.
Once, my cousin and I were up late talking and laughing in our back bedroom together. Our bedroom was down a long hallway with a wood floor held together by old square nail heads. We were probably around 13, 14. Everyone else had gone to bed and the house was quiet, lights were out.

We were on a hot streak with the laughter – don’t ask me what was so funny, I have no idea. But it turned quickly un-funny when we heard bare feet marching down the hallway.

Heel, heel, heel, heel, heel, heel.

It was fast. We knew it was my mother, but I was surprised she was so angry.

We jumped into bed and held the covers up to our noses.

The feet stopped in front of our door.

The door never opened.

PS After this happened, my cousin and I waited for the door to open. When nothing happened, we looked at each other, then turned out the light and went to bed. The next day, we asked the adults in the house if they had walked down the hall and stopped in front of our door. They didn’t know what we were talking about.
Another true story, current day: Various members of my family wake up in the middle of the night and hear footsteps walking in the attic. This past visit, something crashed in the attic in the middle of the night. When we looked to see what had fallen, nothing was out of place.

Southeast Lighthouse-Block Island RI

Jilda, the Dancing Nude

Our backyard was big enough.

It offered thick grass, a vegetable garden with chicken wire and a stack of firewood against the clubhouse. In the corner of the backyard sat a picnic table that sank into the soil on one end, a dog pen for John Doe and a tree stump with mint.

As we grew, the backyard went through several moltings. We called it the beach as teenagers and strategically placed Reynolds Wrap in front of our faces, especially if we were going out that night. On Sundays in summer we inhaled my father’s barbecue sauce on charred chicken legs while wedged in between each other and sitting sideways on the picnic table. As kids, we loved the clubhouse.

The clubhouse was a one-room house that the family before us took the time to build. No sink or plumbing, but a shelf area and a wooden floor on which we fought more than played. The clubhouse smelled of wood and dirt and suggestions. It changed along with us and became a rabbit hutch, a private nook for thoughts, a one-night sleepover experiment, a place to hide beer, but as children, we would sit on its front steps and decide what to do next.

Sometimes, great performances came from our thinking on the steps. “Let’s put on a play.” Chairs were dragged out but creative differences were the norm.

One particular day on the steps, when day camp was over, we couldn’t believe how hot it was. I wanted to swim under water with my eyes open and we had no pool. Our neighborhood friends had no pool either and we weren’t allowed to play on their rusty swings that went really high.

The hose? Nobody wanted the hose.

We slumped on the steps and pushed our sneakers in the dirt, making tic-tac-toe that nobody wanted either.

Then someone spotted Jilda over the fence. We peeked around the clubhouse.

Jilda was the lady who lived in back of us. She was putting out her sheets with clothespins. Ralph was her husband. All of a sudden, we realized their names were funny.

Somehow, someone suggested the word “nude.” We put those two words together – Jilda and nude – and it was a miracle!

We needed to laugh because we had no pool and it was so hot out and we were told to “entertain ourselves outdoors.” It was too early to play steal the bacon because we played that after dinner on Lincoln. So we started talking about Jilda being nude, and the words soon found music, and the music soon found new words!

And then we were off the steps and holding hands and dancing in a circle on the sunny grass, singing a song that made us laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. Even John Doe got into it.

“Jilda the dancing nude! With Ralph! They’re playing our sonnnggg!”

We sang and sang! We skipped in our circle and it was so fun and funny!

“HEY!”

“Jilda the dancing NUDE! With RALPH! They’re playing our SONNNGGGG!”

Laughlaughlaughlaugh!

“HEY! HEY THERE!”

We trickled to a stop and looked over the fence, up at Ralph.

Ralph was leaning out the second story window, his jowls were long and flappy and his face was red.

“STOP THAT!”

We sang again.

“Jilda the dancing nude! WITH RALPH! They’re playing our SONNNNGGGG!!!”

At some point during our ovations my mother received a phone call.

We were told to come inside the house and sit down at the kitchen table. My mother sent the neighborhood children across the street.

There is no memory of the exact words my mother said, only the vibrations of her emotion that leave on me the meaning of kindness and manners. When she was finished, she looked around for something to give Jilda and Ralph. We found a new game called Boggle but couldn’t find wrapping paper so our mother said to use tin foil.

My sister and I walked up to Prospect and our mother stood behind us as we knocked on the front door.

Jilda barely opened the front door. I thought she would be happy to see us with a game! We held out the tin-foiled game and said sorry.

She took the game and closed the door.

Clothespin on white sheet

Up Next, on June 19: A Ghost Story