By Stephanie Cavanaugh
As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there;
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.
—The Little Man,
by Hughes Mearns (1875-1965)
BABY MET such an apparition several times as a child, in the upstairs hallway and (ugh) bathroom of our hundred-year-old Capitol Hill rowhouse.
She was infinitely more terrified by the dentist.
The apparition disappeared to who-knows-where for years, and then Baby’s husband, and Personal Prince, Pete had an encounter.
Baby and Pete were visiting, comfortably ensconced under the beamed ceiling of the Garden Suite,* our ode to the South of France (where neither of us has been), when he woke one morning in the full of dark and saw someone on the back porch steps with a cigarette.
While this might have been me, it was not. I was still tucked up tight, snuffled in down.
He was as sanguine as she about the appearance. It was reported, as one might report a mouse strolling across the dining room whilst eating one’s Cheerios. No more than a curious disturbance.
He: Were you on the porch this morning?
Me: Nope, I just got up.
He: I think I saw a ghost.
Me: Oh? What was he doing?
He: Just standing there, smoking.
Me: What did you do?
He: I went back to bed.
And off Pete went to walk the dog.
If this had been me, I would have screamed. I do not scream at the mice: They’re such cheerful creatures, if a bit skittish. I have never seen our ghost, but who might he be?
This house is fairly old, 1914 or so, though we haven’t researched it. We were told it was the model home for this row of houses, built for white-collar workers with government jobs. Not the fancy sort of worker, the members of Congress and other poobahs, though the fancy sort now dominate the community. How those original owners would howl at the price of real estate.
The house has certain details, embellishments, that are missing from others on the block. Most prominently, the fine set of glass-paned chestnut doors that divide the hallway from the living room and that frame the room, like a shadowbox.
We were the third owners, so the ghost must be from the first batch, since we bought it from the second, a single guy who was still very much alive at the time, I believe. I sometimes wonder about those original occupants, though I’m ashamed to say not enough to drag myself downtown to the library where the records are kept.
It lends itself well to being haunted, this house. Chestnut woodwork frames the windows, the doors. The floors are old pine. There’s a remarkable lack of light. As one Realtor said when we were considering buying the place: “It looks like a funeral parlor.” We used another agent.
We don’t like to mess with it much: There are so few houses left with as much original . . . character, you might say. What changes we’ve made are fairly seamless, so the ghost still feels at home.
Not too long ago there were many houses like this on Capitol Hill, some decaying more elegantly than others. I’m thinking of Jack, who would be 110 by now, I suppose, if he’s still alive. A Poe-ish character with limply ruffled and yellowed cravats and stringy black hair, surely dyed. He was an actor, he frequently proclaimed, basso profundo, though we never saw him perform. There were large parties for artsy types in his crumbling, cobwebby home, and always a vase of dead red roses on the piano, which he would play as we all drunkenly sang. We were too afraid to eat.
If Jack’s was always at the ready for Halloween, it doesn’t take much to ghoul this place up for the holiday. I dust the gargoyle in the front hallway. Maybe stick a candelabrum on the newel post. Turn on the spotlight in the back garden, the one that makes it seem underwater, the light hypnotically shifting and puddling around the desiccated heads of hydrangea.
Another light goes out front, greenish dots that flicker across the ivy, sparkling down onto the sidewalk, where little monsters strolling by giggle and stomp on them.
Trick or treat! May your ghosts be as mild-mannered as ours.
*The Garden Suite is what some might call the English Basement. I have it on the authority of an actual Brit, my buddy Maggie, that basement apartments there are called Garden Suites, so that is what we call our downstairs guest quarters. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?