Even when it’s sunny in Brooklyn, there’s a leaden feeling to the light, particularly in the historic district, where we live. The houses are uniformly three stories high, carved in the way, nowadays, only tombstones are. In the daytime, when no one’s around, the brownstones are literally silent as tombs. The light whether pewter gray or sun-brightened is capped at fifty feet. The effect is grim, relentless in a non-threatening way.
I used to smile at neighbors, but I must have misheard somewhere Brooklyn’s a neighborhoody place. Quick to set me to rights the tight, sour smiles my eagerness coaxed back said a thousand things: “Don’t ever come asking for a cup of sugar, and if I get your mail in my box, I’ll hand it to the postman not you.”
A little nasty but as unthreatening as the placid sky above, held in place by those stately edifices of another century. Even when a hurricane mated with an arctic storm, decimating the whole coast, high on that historic hill, the sky was kept in check; we didn’t so much as lose power, although internet service was wonky for days.
I’ve lived in places like Israel where tanks become as unremarkable as trucks or the Caribbean where crushing poverty is separated from insane luxury by a mountainside. I know the value of a neighborhood where there’s neither sectarian violence nor inequities so vast some subsist in baking-hot shacks alongside diamond-bedecked tourists, bathing happily in the same sunbeams.
I thought I could belong in Brooklyn. When I realized I was wrong, it wouldn’t have cut too deep if it hadn’t been for our ghost. I would have accepted my mistake and thought about where else I might make roots. I’ve never had roots. Perhaps that’s why it’s so challenging for me to settle down, never having practiced. As soon as a place displeases, it’s easy enough to uproot my temporary nest, go merrily on my way, hopeful the next place will be somewhere I can call home.
Perhaps it’s this quality in my nature, one that is able to objectify and analyze a neighborhood without feeling invested in it, that foolishly made our ghost lacking in terror for me. My husband, Matt, who grew up solid and square in a small Connecticut village, nourished by the Yankee practicality that makes a religion of productivity, escaped the terror in his own way: he simply never believed, despite multitudes of proof, in Charles.
Our ghost struck me as a gentleman from the first. Every night at 2 a.m. on the dot, he’d clear his throat, push back the office chair, beginning his nightly promenade, his footfalls heavy and ponderous.
“Old houses creak,” Matt explained it away but couldn’t account for the glottal susurrations. Still, not being a light sleeper, he never awoke immediately as I did.
In fact, trained by nightly visitations, I began to spring awake unaided. Our ghost never deviated from his pattern. What fear I’d felt dissipated with familiarity. Eventually, I crept towards the office, situated between our bedroom and the kitchen, eager to catch a glimpse of our home’s other inhabitant.
I never spied that pearly ectoplasm said to be the stuff of ghosts, but despite a visual omission, I began to formulate a sense of my ghost’s character. His opening sigh to me sounded like masculine resignation. The old desk and chair had been there when we moved in, tucked against a window that let in very little light, admitted no view, and so made an excellent place to work.
Our landlords had lived in the apartment above for decades. Had they been friendlier, I might have asked about the ghost, but their sensible demeanor and the lack of humor characterizing all our interactions made any enquiry impossible.
So of course I went to the library, my constant friend, providing a welcome introduction everywhere I’ve lived, and did some research. If I’d known what I would find, I think I might have let the matter lie. Strangely, the century-old murder-suicide committed in my home bothered me less than learning our staircase, which led to the living room on the second floor, possessed niches called “coffin-corners” to more easily maneuver coffins in and out. I also learned New York was a caveat-emptor state; the law didn’t recognize superstitions. Our landlords had no legal obligation to disclose if a crime had taken place, especially when the incident occurred so far in the past.
Back home the beauty of original shutters, pocket doors and parquet floors gradually overrode my shuddering distaste over what I’d learned. I wondered if our landlords even knew, or if I should share the details with them.
What did persist in disturbing me was knowing our ghost’s sordid secrets. I’d preferred thinking of him as a kindly old writer who couldn’t bear to leave behind a beloved desk. Perhaps it was my own longing for roots that made me assume anyone who eternally haunted a place must have been happy there, when of course it’s generally the opposite that’s true.
I also read how to “smudge” bad energy from a home, but was his energy bad just because his last long ago deed had been? What if he didn’t want to leave? Who was I, a temporary tenant, to spoil his vigil?
The night before we inevitably moved I awoke at 2 a.m. as usual. Nothing in particular had awoken me besides the habit. I went into the office and sat there for a long time, thinking.
“Charles,” I said. “You’re forgiven. Move on. Okay?”
Silence greeted my words. My husband grunted in his sleep.
Then a voice sighed, “Slut.”
Or was it the wind? Still, the hair stood up on my arms. I sat frozen in place. The room became terribly cold.
In my calculations, it never occurred to me that in not knowing a place, I might not know people either. We left the next day, a new streak of gray in my hair.
Isabella David is a former actress. She’s currently a stay-at-home mother and budding free-lance journalist and writer. To distance herself from her former occupation, she wrote under her nickname “Izzy” for years. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter and blogs about books, writing, poetry, feminism, and sustainable fashion at www.brooklynbooksandbabies.com.