Issue 13

Ghosts Out of Lonesome Spaces

 · Nonfiction

Note: While the following narratives are true and accurate accounts of my experiences as part of a skeptical inquiry paranormal investigative team, some of the names and locations have been changed to safeguard the identities of private clients.


  1. Pay the Scalawags

It’s 5:15 a.m. in downtown San Diego, the opposite of the gloaming. A murky veil of mauve inches its way down the masts on the Star of India, signaling that we should pick up the pace, start trawling the open tripods from the barque’s belly, and bring our muggy overnighter to its end.

Whether it was an eventful investigation, we won’t know until much later, but we followed protocol: we dutifully documented the chestnuts of light when they paisleyed across display cases in the ‘tween decks, and we radioed in whenever the residual footfalls of those crewmen — the ones we presumed to be cynical of their own deaths on the open waters — gloomed in and out of the creaking timbers.

Last year, dozens of voices chittered, as if through mouse-holes, out of the thinnest spectra in our audio. One of them, inside a forward cabin, huffed at us from an empty galley chair so close that I should have felt it, like a marlin in a net, twist the air around my skin. “Go home,” it susserated, and then, moments later, a clattering smack. I replayed it for the others, to explain it away or to let it rattle us some more. “Go home,” and, again, smack! as if a starling had struck a windowpane. We surmised it might have come from the crazed captain they once rescued, who, determined to reunite with his drowned crew, cutlassed his own throat. They tied his wrists to the spindles of the berth but, in the end, he still tore the stitches from his neck like knots from the rigging.

It seems to be a rule: when your survivor’s guilt outlives you, your own shapeless and onerous ghost must at last be born.

Tragedy isn’t the only motive, though. Some haunt the air while stuck in the existential loops of their routine. The ship’s curators, for example, believe the spirits of the old sea-dogs still jealously guard these decks, habitually aggressive to any woman who might come aboard wearing the pants of a suffragette. “Ladies, they might harmlessly flick your hair and growl,” one of them warned us, “but pay the scalawags no mind.” I wondered at first if such ghostly microaggressions would also target gay men like myself — then I recalled that the sea had also been many a sailor’s beard. Handsome cabin boys were sometimes sexual refugees, deleted from ship manifests by jilted quartermasters. And folktales about the captain’s bastards in every port are known to have supplanted the lore of male brothels and shipboard buggery. Sailing lads made love in the crow’s nest swaggering overhead; some were even betrothed to each other at sea.

When we’ve schlepped the last of the equipment down the gangplank and into the trunks of our cars, we assemble onto the boardwalk and debrief:

“I sang shanties, you know.”

“Yeah. Yeah, we heard.”

“Nothin’ happened. You?”

“Nah, me neither.”

“I did have a few experiences. I…”

“Hey, I called it a ‘boat’ and pissed somethin’ off. I heard a voice say, ‘It’s called a ship, y’moron!’”

“Sweet. Got it on audio?”

“Fingers crossed.”

Someone’s Marlboro is flicked into the ash can, and fist-bumps are exchanged. We give our thanks for the first mate’s hospitality, and to the ghosts as well, in case they’re listening — in case they think we’re morons.

When we hug goodbye, morning has fully dropped, and we’re vinegary with exhaustion, hefting into one another like empty pea coats on hangers. Our cars file into the calm traffic and, at the cross-street, gently flotsam into different directions.

As I shim the car against the curb, Max rounds his pink face through the lace curtains of our front window.

My cane and I cross the threshold, peg-legged and salty. “So, tell me” he whispers, our parrots still asleep in the room adjacent, “did you come home with any souvenirs?” He’s well aware of those dubious stories — how ghosts attach themselves to softhearted strangers.

A knot of panic constricts in the small of my back.  What if he’s right, I think. What if the scalded galley cook or the anchor-crushed Chinese man to whom I’d called, “Nǐ hǎo” — what if they’d heard my voice above the crackling notes of the pistol shrimp and followed it like a compass to my home? The young rigger who fell from the spar, slippery as sea snot, and shattered both his legs before he perished — what if the stumbling procession of my walking stick and footfalls broke his heart, coaxed him to my aid? In fact, for all I knew, an entire ship’s manifest could be swarming our apartment, fluxing its air, right now, like grunions in tide pools, hiding inside of the shoals of our pottery, our lungs, our bones.

I don’t give Max the answer he deserves. Instead, I slide duffles of nonsense from my shoulder and disembark into his arms, clutching the loose drapery of his tee-shirt. I give to him this trinket of my ghost, and swab upon his lips one flickering, elegiac kiss that comes to rest in the corals of him.


  1. Little Match Girl

It’s already 1:25 a.m. in the family room of an El Cajon duplex, where I kneel at the base of an unlit fireplace to readjust the mic’s shock mount. Temperatures have reached dew point, so the floors here have dampened, and cabinets now crick with the house’s settling joists. The duplex is maybe 1980s, but it’s built, like any house, on land we can’t really date, and old land has an old soul.

In a pepper tree on the property line, the shape of what might be a treehouse makes me feel watched. We’ve brainstormed before about the solid-state appearance of shadow forms, their sturdy, watchful shapes remaining still in the dark, trying their hardest not to come apart under scrutiny. I’ve cautioned and been cautioned about this very thing — how we all sometimes anthropomorphize the dark, fashioning our ghosts out of lonesome spaces.

When I was seven years old, I vanished into the planks of a treehouse. Good at hide-n-seek, I dropped myself into a corner, like a marionette, while a windy sycamore breathed and gasped around me. I waited almost an hour, watching through a knothole in the floor as others passed beneath. I’d hoped, with the power of my mind, to make one of them gaze upward and find me. When I gave up, I roughed my knuckles down the nailed planks of the sycamore again. I’d gone undiscovered, but somehow I’d lost the game. I lied, told everyone I fell asleep up there. An older boy brayed at me, “It’s big kids only now. Go on home, go on,” and threw a clod in my direction. My green heels cut the hypotenuse of each backyard until I locked my bedroom door, where, sudden as gooseflesh, my mother’s voice penetrated its hollow plane. “Hello?” she called, “Karl, are you home?” And wherever I let my ear rest upon the door, that’s where her finger tapped from the other side.

I give the mic a solid tap in its shock mount and check my laptop for a spike on the waveform. “We’re good to go.” I pull my nylon jacket closer, then move to the patio, standing upwind from Len while his cigarette kindles and embers.

Len’s just a few years younger than I. He’s a big man, round as a medicine ball, and I envy right now how easily he stays warm. We’re both married caregivers: Len returns each night to a wife with an autoimmune disease, and on his cell phone he shows me pictures of her, head-scarved and ruddy from the treatments; I show him pictures on my laptop, of Max, and of the parrots, but he already knows we’re both reading from the same script. We’ve exchanged long-suffering glances whenever the youngest members of our group sniffle about insomnia and test anxiety, and I recognize in him what I know also to be true about myself: that we’ve grown accustomed to hiding our fears of loved ones dying, and that the careless ghosts who now colonize our bodies no longer worry about things like nicotine or exercise. The Vicodin I’ve been pill-splitting for six months, around the clock, for my cluster headaches, has made my bowels into glaciers that move in spans of geologic time. My teammates sympathize when I grip my head and careen, but they’re not sure what cluster headaches are, and, though they dare not say it aloud, some of them have begun to wonder if I’m a drug addict.

In the family room, other family men among us nervously wait for things to happen. They toughen up, bury their hands into their jacket pockets, and hunch their shoulders against their own spasms of chill. My skin won’t shiver anymore, a side effect of a med, and I let the wave of cold spread through me like jam.

In an instant, the room is blitzed with a resounding crack. I say, “Hello?” as if a stranger has just transgressed the door.

“What was that?!” someone says.

“It sounds like something creaking.”

“Was it in this room, or was it the wall upstairs?”

“No, it was in this room. The cabinet, right there.”

For the next few minutes, their teeth chatter around rational explanations, about the change of barometric pressure, and the finishing nails of the entertainment hutch, the warmth inside the cabinet aching against its cold exterior. Then we call it a night and break down the setup. We drive back home, thankful for our warm, rumpled beds. We’re pretty confident the investigation was for naught.

But there, in the empty spaces of my recorded audio, the voice of a girl, playful and lonesome and resolute, clear to me as snow: “Come find me!” she calls from out of the cabinet. “I’m hiding. Find me!” Bam! Hello? What was that?…Something creaking.

And I discover that she has been dipping in and out of the rooms with us the entire night, singing songs around us as if we’re campfires, and doing minuets to our uncertain footfalls in the dark. She was sitting patiently on the hearthstone, light as a bellows. “To light the fire,” she whispers, “need matches.” Then, minutes later, our boots shuffle and snap on laminate, and, in one final lament, she utters, “Farewell. Remember me.”

By the time my audio clips are ripped and posted for the team’s review, we’ve nicknamed my ghost The Little Match Girl.

At our next meeting, Len is tethered to his earbuds under a lifted garage door, his face washed in the light of waveforms. “Sorry, guys,” he says, “Maybe I’m deaf,” and taps his cigarette ash into a cup.

My cluster headache perforates into a crown of ten-penny shank nails, from inside, to outside. I know she’s buried in the scribbled peaks of all the hiss, so I go on staring into the back of Len’s skull. I push harder into his mind, where her tiny voice might sulphur and flicker and wax across his thoughts: I’m hiding. Find me. Find me.


  1. Quiet Fellow. Unmarried.

By 8:30 p.m., the marine layer begins to ashen the coast, and I creep the car forward to read the numerals ghosting the curbstone. The team has been called by a man whose brother was murdered in this corner bungalow.

“My wife and I aren’t together right now, so I moved into my brother’s house,” he says. “I mostly hang out here, in the garage.” Clothing racks overstuffed with overalls, shirts and jackets, and blankets draped on hangers, insulate the walls and, even though the garage door is wide open, the acoustics of our conversation hang heavily on the air like winter overcoats.

“Something’s chasing me,” he explains, “like, footsteps in the hallway. I get them panic attacks. Oh, gosh — terrible dreams, y’know?”

He is an ordinary, middle-aged man, pudgy in his tank top and shorts, and when he tearfully mentions his brother, it takes but a single hand on his shoulder to crumple him into sobs. During the walkthrough of the house, cluttered by its own ordinariness, he stops to twiddle the switch over the bathroom vanity, where he’s observed the lights go off by themselves, then he stations himself by the living room, where things have “leapt” from the bookshelves. Our last stop: a renovated room with an elliptical trainer, bold as a monument, dry-docked in the corner. He confirms, this is where it happened.

The local papers described his brother as a middle-aged bachelor and made much of his apricot poodle, all of which is code for “vulnerable gay man living on his own.” The bachelor consigned gold and jewelry for online auctions, kept caches of gems and rare coins in his safe, and had an open heart for vagrant youth, hustlers perhaps, who crashed on his couch.

I respect it; I get it. My parents were also kind to down-on-their-luck strangers, who were sheltered in our basement rec room — some as much as two weeks — and used the downstairs shower stall and toilet. One of them every morning slept like a brick through the blare of a clock radio alarm, and it took the joint efforts of my father and my brother to hoist him out of sleep paralysis. One of them fled to us after a fracas with his hard-nosed dad, then fled home again in tears when my father called his draft-dodging plans to join an Alameda hippie commune, “crazy stupid.” Occasionally, they even knocked on the kitchen door and sat down to breakfast with us, Ivory-Soaped and still wet-headed, and too skittish to ask for coffee instead of orange pekoe tea.

Our client gestures to where the fire safe had once been kept. “So, yeah, this—” he says, dropping his hand to his side, “this is, uh, where they did it.” But it’s clear he’d rather be enshrouded by racks of clothing in his garage, watching baseball, and we don’t press him to recount what we’ve already researched in the archives: on a Friday night, one of those vagrant youths would return with friends, and what began as a robbery would devolve into barbaric acts of torture. His skull broken and jawbone crushed, the brother wouldn’t remain conscious long enough to decrypt the safe’s addled tumblers. Neighbors would recall his frantic poodle, starved and puling aimlessly in their backyards, before it returned through the broken yellow side door into the silence of the house. By Sunday night, one neighbor, realizing the door had been kerning off its hinges since Friday, would at last enter the bungalow: at the mouth of the hallway, he found the dog coiled into its own corpse, dead from the smoke, and the brother — a charnel horror of contusions, ruptured organs, charred flesh, busted long bones — heaped in the scorched doorway to the now renovated room.

“They set the fire afterward — after my brother died. That’s what the coroner told me, but I — I think he was just being kind.” When he darts out of the room, I hide a digital recorder behind the wheel of the cross-trainer and follow on his heels. I was starting to understand just how diminished our client was: how much he needed his brother to haunt these rooms; how the garage with its great inventory of things was really his grotto of prayer.

After he and my brother were discharged together from the army, Dennis lived in my parents’ basement for a time. He would hustle last-minute to odd-job interviews in a thrift-store suit and tie, trying to earn a deposit on an apartment for himself and his older sibling, Georgie. I wouldn’t get to meet Georgie until weeks later, but Dennis was chivalrous, sometimes to a fault: before sitting down to every meal, he drew back the kitchen chair for my embarrassed mother, and offered to lead us in prayer, which we awkwardly agreed to even though we didn’t do that sort of thing. Once, he even bought me a model ’57 Chevy for us to build together, brotherly and thoughtful but square about what hobbies a bashful gay kid like me would be into. When the brothers finally moved into a residency motel nearby, my father and I popped in to check up on them, and for the first time I understood that Georgie was clinically “a little slow.” Dennis tracked our reactions while his brother bustled bottles of BonTon white soda out of the fridge for us and carameled about how, after their parents died, Dennis stepped up to look after his older brother. “I’m proud of Denny. He’s workin’ so hard for us,” he said. “He didn’t leave me behind, so I’m gonna do my part, too.”

Dennis appeared at my mother’s funeral seventeen years later, still clean-cut and polite as ever. He’d met a woman; they’d married. Georgie, poor guy, had passed away. “I’ll never forget your mom and dad’s kindness,” said Dennis, the arms of his grey gaberdine suit curling out to me, “— not for as long as I’m alive.”

While my team and I run our surveillance cables to the rooms where the vigils will be held, the client’s daughter has caught wind of our investigation. She’s found a sitter for the kids and drives over. She pulls me aside on the driveway, hugging her own ribcage and neglecting to look at me when she talks. “My dad’s not seeing ghosts,” she confides. “It’s just, he won’t — hasn’t really dealt with his brother. This’s been a bad time for him, for all of us, and my mom can’t handle him. I think he’s even drunk right now.”

I turn back to the garage, where her father shuffles stacks of everyday plates across a ping-pong table, and takes drafts from an acrylic root beer mug in his left hand.

A neighbor sandals onto the driveway in a polo shirt and sweatpants. He seems to know why we’re here. “What a shock that was,” he says. “Quiet fellow. Unmarried.”

I begin doubting whether we’re doing anything charitable by coming here.

We finish the investigation earlier than usual, by which time the brother is even drunker, and sadder, and he can’t let his feet rest long enough in any one place. We leave him as we met him: agitated under the bare bulbs of the open garage, lost amid dispossessed clothing, heaps of dishes, and the drone of a cable shopping network on a cathode-ray tube.

“If you find anything,” he says, “please, don’t tell me. I’ll take it as a kindness.”

Four weeks later our review of the audio reveals nothing like a presence. Rather, great sums of absence: the null of the house broken up by our own bootless questions, and our client’s copious chatter leaking in from the garage, and white noise — hours and hours and hours of it, all of it sibilant as the peel of a safety match.


  1. Incantata

“Shall we?” Brian asks.

We set our digital audio devices to record, then ante them at our feet. “March 3rd, 2013, 5:08 p.m., Dearborn Memorial Park, Escondido. The four of us are here, we hope, to contact our friend. Give us any sign or spoken word. We’d really appreciate it.”

After our introductions, we’re ready to query the darkness yet again, but despite the dozens of shake-and-bake interviews like this that we’ve done in strangers’ homes, we’re not sure what to say now for one of our own, or even which questions to ask that we don’t already have the answers to. We know the greater share of Len’s ashes are scattered in Big Bear Lake, but whatever measure of Len we may call ours, it lies here in this cemetery, cuttlefished by the roots of a sweet gum tree. Tim breaks the awkwardness and revisits the minutes from this year’s meetings, then Debra reintroduces herself. “Hi, Len. You and I never formally met,” she says, “but I feel I know your presence.” Brian reminisces about how he and Tim cleared their schedule one Saturday to help Len build the swing set for his daughter’s birthday. How the day assembled itself into blister-making tools and prickles of sunburn, then dismantled itself on Len’s back lawn, into bottles of chilled beer, plates of sticky barbecue. I tell them about my heart-to-heart with Len in Tierrasanta during our routine EVP vigil, when we threshed the floor’s dark obstacles, and were frank with each other about our spouses’ debilitated lives, and the sundries of our own medical conditions, my tedium with sit-ups and leg lifts, though my legs had not improved one whit. I’d made promises to my father — ones I didn’t know if I could keep after he died. Len had pledged to his daughter that he’d quit smoking in the New Year; somehow, he’d hit his target weight by autumn, to brave the bariatric surgery by spring. “So, here’s the thing: the window’s short; people can get too old for the procedure,” he had said to me while flinting his lighter across the dial of his watch. “And, well, they say there can be complications, too. But —  I still gotta risk it.”

My story’s a buzzkill. Shit. I feel stupid now.

Earlier this afternoon, with the first break in the weather, we scrimmaged into my SUV and headed north on Highway 67, where hills became small mountains green from the weekend’s storms, bristling with splits of boulder. Brian rode shotgun with his home brew Igloo’d between his cordovan boots, and we all cracked so many guffaws and vulgarities about politics, work, or the vicissitudes of health, that my mandibles had already begun to ache before we arrived.

At Dearborn, everything sogged, but the rain had ceased long enough for the paddocked horses to gripe again. As we unpacked the car, Tim scouted Len’s grave marker, chemical green and plain as an index card. Afterward, he spun four brand-new solar lights from out of a shopping bag, then skewered them into the dirt. Debra, who had kept the store-bought gerberas upright all the way here, scraped at the price tag unsuccessfully until it filigreed into gunk under her fingernail, then she defrocked the cellophane altogether and twisted the pot into the grass. We followed suit with our handmade memorial card, zip-sealed against the weather but drizzly in its plastic, and far too difficult to read. Besides, from a casual distance, onlookers would think we had discarded refrigerated leftovers onto the grave.

“Here we go,” said Brian, worried about whether his pilsner had properly carbonated. “Everyone keep your fingers crossed!” But, when the first of the brown bottles was uncapped, it let out a pok! then sizzled, and its head, hoppish and liminal with grapefruit, plumed into my plastic cup.

Tim drew a dampened poem from his breast pocket and flicked open its folds. Into his tenor voice, he summoned the brogue of his ancestors:

“Well we all meet here, just for the day
“wondering where our friend had gone.
“We all are hoping you’re doing okay.
“We can’t believe a year’s gone.”

We joined him in the chorus, but our timbre dropped in, then gusted out, until our own voices seemed to blow back at us from out of the gazebo.

When the time was right, Brian cued his laptop for the tribute, Len’s face flickering in and out with Polaroids of him as a child, and stills of him holding a child, and shots of him after drinking shots. He is handsome and furry-faced in some, haggard in others.

On our last visit to Len in the hospital, we had been commanded beforehand by the male nurse not to wake him, nor trouble him too long. “Your friend’s condition is very, very serious,” he had said. “I can’t stress that enough.” So we flanked the railing along his bed and remained silent at first, studying Len’s chest as it rounded then sunk into slow, broad exhales. When we spoke at last, we murmured to one another about any subject, any but our sick friend or the disaster of his ruptured intestines, which I imagined as a viper tangling just below the tent of his white cotton blanket. It had been enough, I thought, that we were assembled in the same room as it, holding vigil — that we were even thinking of it as an “it” — as though our murmurs to one another, virulent as sorcery, might have driven its baleful, raveling coils back into its basket.

Those predicted pummels of rain never broke. Instead, the afternoon turned annoying with drizzle. After serving up a separate glass of the pilsner for Len, Brian reverently poured it where a cavity had already been trepanned out of the mud, then he stationed the empty bottle upright, next to the gerberas. Afterward, we urged him to the refuge of the gazebo and huddled.

“Shall we?” he asked, and we synchronized our recorders by date, time, place, and made our bashful introductions, talking directly at the planks of the gazebo floor.

Len and Brian came to Dearborn Memorial one night, just like this, to capture spirit voices on their digital recorders. “I love that story,” I say. “Tell us again.” It’s the one about the horse that suddenly snorted at him through the black of night — how it made him erupt into a shitless shout, which broke Len, and everyone else, into paunches of laughter. However, before the last words of the anecdote spill from him, the air shakes off its drizzle, and from across the cemetery we’re scolded by a neighing Quarter Horse. Our chortling stops, and we wrap things up, say our good-night to Len, state the time, and shut off our recording equipment, then we gather it from gazebo floor, now a mandala made of puddles and slick bootprints.

When we emerge from under the cover of the gazebo, the darkness has gathered fully into night, and suddenly we understand, with shivering clarity, that the four of us have been listening to one another’s voices so closely, and for so many hours, that we no longer care about our damp crotches, nor our runny noses, nor our blood sugar, laid low by the beer and so much maudlin laughter. The crows have fallen silent; we didn’t notice. When did the ratcheting din of frogs take over? When did the air become redolent with jasmine? At what moment did the coyotes first begin flurrying their yawps?

Debra gasps. “Guys! Guys, look!” she says. “Look out there.”

Everywhere, it wafts over the damp walkways and rinses everything in the blue residue of its light. Lopsided by our kit, we stand just inside its horizon, all of us anchored, like stars, to its gravity, and feeling watched: the somber dots of the solar diodes have stirred awake by the hundreds, a widening nebula tucking under the grave markers, and Len’s shines bluest, its four corners candled in our direction with the cool, smoky particulates of just the ghost we were hoping for.



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