Living

A Skeptic’s Ghost Story

 

I’d like to say I don’t believe in ghosts, the spirits that haunt the human world after the body has ceased to contain them. Ghosts have stories; they haunt a place, like a house, or a battlefield, or a lonely stretch of highway glistening in midnight rain. When I was a kid, I watched cartoons about Casper, the friendly ghost, and I wasn’t afraid of spirits at all. Then when I was around seven, we moved into a house that seemed to be haunted. One of the previous owners of the house was a woman, who was also a wife and mother. She fell ill and died in the house, and her husband and children moved away. Both my youngest sister and I saw the ghostly outline of a woman paused in the doorway that led from the house to the laundry area in the garage. I was always scared to sleep alone in my bedroom in that house, so my mother let me sleep with my sisters.

When I was a teenager, we moved into a house with a different kind of ghost. This ghost laid down on our freshly made beds and left an indentation the shape of a head on the pillows. It also left dirty shoe prints running up a wall and stepping onto the ceiling in my parents’ bedroom. One day when I was home alone and watching T.V., the phone rang in the den. I picked it up, but no one was on the line. A few minutes later, a persistent beeping came from the one of the bedrooms in the house. When I went to see what the problem was, I discovered a phone off the hook. I hightailed it outside and waited in the yard until the rest of my family came home.

The last house I lived in that had its own ghost was in the small town of Lebanon, Indiana. This was around 1995. It was a unique house, designed and built by its previous owners, a lawyer and his wife. The lawyer died first and left a tarnished reputation. He was supposed to be a mean, old curmudgeon who shot stray cats that wandered into his yard, and then he buried them in the garden. A neighbor told me his wife had been a happy widow. She acquired a boyfriend, though she never married again, and when she died, her adult children put the house up for sale.

The strange thing that happened in that house involves dimes. They showed up in places they shouldn’t have. The house had a marvelous old bathtub that was just right for long, soaking, bubble baths. One time I started hot water running and left the room while the tub filled. When I came back to check it, there was a dime shining under water in the tub, which sent me screaming down the hall.

That house had an old linoleum floor in the kitchen that required waxing. When I wanted to clean it, it was a three-step process. First, I swept the floor clean of loose debris. Then, on my hands and knees, I scrub-brushed it with hot ammonia water. Finally, when that dried, I used a damp sponge mop to spread Johnson and Johnson Wax as I backed out of the room. When I went back twenty minutes later to check to see if the wax had dried, there was a silver dime in the middle of the freshly waxed floor. No human could have dropped the dime because I was home alone. It felt like someone was watching me. I ran out the front door in a panic and paced around the yard until I calmed down.

Dimes showed up in other place in that house: on the clean sheets of a freshly made bed when the covers were turned down at night. Three dimes in the lint-trap of the dryer; who knows how they got there? A dime on every windowsill when I washed the windows one spring. Sometimes, in the years since, when I tell the story of the money ghost, a dime will surprise me again in some unfathomable place, like the middle of a favorite book when I pull it off the shelf and open it. I don’t know what message the dimes are sending, only that they’re legal tender.

Over the years, I’ve also visited locations that felt haunted, like the town of Vincennes, Indiana. The town sits beside the Wabash River, where the banks have been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, first by different cultures of indigenous people, then the French, the British, and finally, the Americans. There are ancient burial mounds along the river’s banks and old cemeteries in town, and the streets of Vincennes seem to vibrate with the energy of lost souls drifting around.

Another haunted place I’ve stayed is the Menger Hotel in San Antonio. Established in 1859, the hotel is said to be home to between thirty-two and forty-five ghosts, including that of Teddy Roosevelt and other members of the Rough Riders. Staying by myself at the Menger, I could hardly sleep the first night. Every time I closed my eyes, a creak or draft of cold air would make me sit up in bed. Luckily, the second night, I was so exhausted, I slept through any haunting going on, and for the rest of my stay, I slept undisturbed.

Ghost stories haunt my memories, even though there are probably perfectly logical explanations for all the experiences I recall. Those shoe prints running up the wall? Wicked vandalism by a jokester home intruder. Those creaks when I closed my eyes? The settling of a building built over one hundred years before. It’s the dimes, however, that continue to get to me. What kind of ghost gives you money? If a ghost in the future plans to give me cash, I’d prefer Benjamins, please.

3 replies »

  1. I lived with my son in Ouro Preto, Brazil, in the state of Minas Gerais. It was common to see ghosts, especially slaves. But none of this was scary; they seemed mute witnesses to a time of colonial barbarism.

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