I hesitate to describe my encounter with Judith, not because I fear you won’t believe me; I can’t control that, think what you will. No, I fear telling this because I can’t find the right words.
I would love to find literary, painterly terms, but the experience is too confusing. Even sloppy, everyday conversational descriptions, grammar and passive voice be damned, are difficult. How do I tell you I think a dead woman stepped inside me?
My friends Mary and Dan bought a house about 20 years ago. They couldn’t afford much at the time and Bennett, the owner, offered to carry the mortgage. He was a dirty, rough man, the stereotypical biker from hell. Before long, some legal shenanigans came to light and they realized he had somehow defrauded them of their down payment and equity. It was all too convoluted for me to understand, but essentially, they had to start from scratch and give another down payment to a bank.
The neighbors weren’t surprised. They told Mary and Dan that Bennett could never be trusted, and in fact, most people suspected that he had killed his wife, Judith.
“It was in that front bedroom on the right,” Mary explained. “The neighbors said Judith was found shot to death. The police knew he abused her all the time. They had been here on one call after another.”
“Bennett had an alibi and the police even tested his hands for gunshot residue. He was clean. Then two days later, he married Nancy, a woman he was having an affair with. They never tested Nancy. The cops ended up ruling it a suicide.”
Mary and Dan began to remodel the house, bit by bit. Their garden became a dazzler and the new kitchen was beginning to take shape.
One day Mary related a bizarre story about a dresser moving in the front bedroom. It simply was found in a different spot from where they put it. I didn’t know what to say. I trusted Mary completely, but, well, this couldn’t happen. She wouldn’t lie to me, but dressers don’t move on their own. Maybe job stress was getting to her.
After a time, they read Bennett’s death notice in the paper and said “Good riddance!”
Then their grown daughter moved in for awhile and set up an apartment in the basement. The next story involved her boyfriend awakening in the middle of the night to see a wispy figure of a woman in a white nightgown walking through the room. I didn’t know the boyfriend at all, but I knew their daughter since she was a child. She was adamant about the story.
I said all the polite things and expressed amazement, but I simply didn’t believe it. I decided this is what comes of moviemakers relying on tired plots. Were ghosts required to wear gauzy white nightgowns? Maybe it was a regulation uniform. No jammies allowed? Maybe one too many Jello shots before bed had something to do with it.
Mary procured some Holy Water from church and sprinkled the house, holding a cross and saying a prayer. She told me Judith was at rest now and everything would be fine.
Years passed. Once in awhile one of our friends would bring up Mary and Dan’s resident ghost, but it was largely forgotten. When anyone mentioned Judith, Mary always said, “She’s at peace now. It’s alright.”
Dan worked on the kitchen for months and finally completed it. It ran the whole length of the left side of the house, and looked terrific. They placed a little table for four by the front window. This served as a nook for casual dining and looked out over the front yard. Mary, Dan and I sat there one evening chowing down on nachos.
After eating, we talked about work, relatives, all the usual gossip, and then I excused myself to go upstairs to the bathroom. I came out of the bathroom and walked the six feet to the top of the stairs and stopped.
Do you remember the dizzying climax in the Beatles A Day in the Life? The tempo changes rapidly and you feel as if you just popped out of a wormhole in space. Maybe I could describe it that way. Or maybe I can’t accurately describe it at all.
I wasn’t afraid; it wasn’t creepy. I was calm. No goosebumps. I didn’t see anything unusual; no apparition or ghost. But I wasn’t in my head alone. Someone else was there, too, and I could feel her feelings and she could see through my eyes.
I stood immobile at the top of the stairs. “Look at the walls. The color is different now. It’s been painted,” she thought as she slowly looked around the staircase.
We stood there for I guess two minutes, Judith and I, just looking around, taking in the new décor of the familiar house. She felt pensive, and had a very slight smile on her lips.
Then it was over and I walked down stairs. The staircase ended by the front door and I saw the headlights of a car pull into the driveway.
Slowly, I walked back to the table and sat down with Mary and Dan. I reprimanded myself in my head, “This house doesn’t have a ghost in it.” I don’t even know how much I said out loud, but I started to tell them. We hadn’t brought up Judith in perhaps a year.
Immediately, the doorbell rang and Mary went to answer it. Muffled conversation came from the entry area, another woman’s voice with Mary’s. After a few minutes, Mary led a plump young woman into the kitchen. “This is Linda McClusky, Judith’s daughter,” she announced.
Linda laughed nervously. “Hi, nice to meet you. Sorry to just interrupt like this. I guess I should have written and told you who I was and all, but I…I just wanted …to see the house. I live in Maryland and I don’t get back to Pittsburgh often.”
“No problem,” Mary patted her hand. “That’s fine.”
“We heard that Bennett died, my brother and me. We were just thinking it’s time we got Mom a headstone for her grave, while I’m in town.” She started to get weepy. “I don’t mean to bother you. It’s nice of you to let me in. I was sitting out in the car trying to decide if I should ring your bell.”
They spoke for a few minutes more. Linda was impressed with the remodeling, and Mary assured her that she and Dan loved the house. Finally, Mary said pointedly, “I know your Mom is at peace.” Everyone mumbled awkward goodbyes and Linda left.
Throughout her visit I barely spoke beyond the perfunctory greetings. What would I say, “Gee, what a coincidence, your dead mother’s ghost just possessed me!” Feeling passive and detached, I melted unobtrusively into the corner. I don’t think I was supposed to say more to Linda. Something told me that silence was appropriate.
Was Judith desperate to see her daughter and needed to borrow my body? I can’t say what it all meant and why it happened. Some folks might offer explanations about hypnagogic states; I’ve read about that. Tired minds play tricks. If you want to believe that I’m not lying, but can’t accept Judith’s involvement, this is the most rational explanation. Still, how will I ever account for the incredible coincidence of timing?