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My Neigborhood’s ­Haunted Houses

You can move belongings in and out, but ghosts linger forever 

For John Lederer

 
      I live in a neighborhood of haunted houses.
      A couple are pretty scary: long uninhabited, running to run down, overrun by kudzu. Two or three more want to be mansions. Most are just ordinary houses, insofar as any house in this do-it-yourself village is ordinary.
      Among our neighbors, ghouls, vampires and chainsaw murderers are poorly represented. We have recluses, and we have pirates. Over the years there’s usually been a houseful of rowdy boys or young men. Two of them streaked through this year’s annual hen-and-chick party, but they wore underwear (and masks).
      Paths may be windy and dark, but most any house with its lights on will get trick-or-treaters on Halloween. 
      Lately, we have few trick-or-treaters. The ballerinas, witches and spacemen, as well as the streakers and other boys who didn’t bother donning scary costumes, have grown up.
      Mostly, we’re just ordinary people, with the living spanning the political spectrum and the dead beyond politics.
      The dead? They seldom give up residence in our neighborhood. They continue among us as ghosts, haunting the houses where once they lived.
      Where the rowdy boy-men live, grandparents Betty and Ed Becke haven’t quite left. A couple houses up, Ed’s mother Mrs. Beale hangs on amid the life of her granddaughter and husband. Another cousin moved with wife and toddler into grandparents’ E.B. and Jean Smith’s hauntings.
       The Stewarts know Anne’s mother is still around.
       You don’t have to be kin to see our ghosts. Even I, unrelated, still see shades of Natalie, Myrtle and ­Henrietta. However the owner who followed Henrietta, who may have been a spook in real life, seems to have moved on.
        Our latest ghost I don’t think ever will. In life, John Lederer couldn’t get enough of our village — nor enough done to finish his work here. In death, he seems to be carrying on.
        I still see my next-door neighbor’s red Saab out of the corner of my eye. Still see his shadow passing through the house he couldn’t bear to finish. Still hear his footfalls. Still wonder what project he’s up to next.
•   •   •
 
        John’s next-to-last project was a tiny house in his side yard. I bring it up first because the last project, the beginning of what would have been the end, remained undone due to his near-fanatical precision.
        Death intervened, overcoming John by stealth, stealing his breath away as he sat in his favorite chair, looking out his favorite window, down through the trees onto his beloved Chesapeake Bay.
       What is John doing dead — when there was so much more in life to do?
 
•   •   •
 
      The tiny house? The architect-builder and his occasional crew assembled it from construction remainders. It was maybe 16 by 10, with a pitched roof, collapsible to be folded flat, strapped together and carried on a trailer. 
       Where John would carry it he said he didn’t know. That didn’t matter; it was the art of building it that did. The last time I saw the tiny house, they’d given it a door, as well as a doorway.
       It was a playhouse, made from leftovers the way a piemaker makes a short cookie out of the trimmings of piecrust. It meant John was finished with the real house remodeling projects that had occupied him for the 31 years since I moved in between his two small — but not tiny— houses. Would have been finished … had not wife Sheila — “the art director” — decreed the completion of the understory.
 
The Work of Three Decades
       Three decades ago the house, really a cottage, that occupied John was called Solace, so proclaimed by a now long-lost wood-burned sign on its shingle front.
       Back then, John’s house projects were mostly recreational. Skylights or refinished floors gave him a hobby and made the house more appealing for visits by wife Sheila Brady, daughter Michaela, and ancient black Lab, ­Riever.
      Their visits were sentimental journeys. Their cottage on our other side, then and for many years after rented, was the home to which they brought newborn Michaela. It was the house they’d bought and made fresh and livable, the house where their dreams sprouted.
       By the time we became their surrounded neighbor, the family had made their home in Arlington. Careers evolving, Michaela growing, they became who — and what — they are.
       Husband, doting father and architect, he found his stride with Volunteers of America. 
      He called himself a troubleshooter because his job was “weird problems” — that were always different. His work took him across America, to troubled urban areas — Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit — and rural areas: upstate New York, southern Louisiana and Puerto Rico.
       In the stories of friends, family and neighbors, John is another kind of traveler: a sailor — as well as paddler, reader and thinker. In him one friend found Tennyson’s Ulysses: 
 
I cannot rest from travel: 
I will drink 
Life to the lees … 
For always roaming with a hungry heart 
 
      On either side of me, John was the neighbor we couldn’t set our clocks by, showing up now and again to sail an old catamaran in ripping wind. Or to attempt a visionary remodeling twist that might disintegrate, or become storm-soaked, before completion.
      Fifteen or so years ago, John’s role in our village changed. Evicting his renters, he set more or less steadily to renovating two houses — at once. His first step was two copper roofs, the downpayment on his artistry to come. Then, importing his carpenter brother from Prescott, Arizona, he started on an even bigger construction challenge just up the hill.
       This was building a third house from scratch, meaning another well and a total of three septic systems with the best bio-digestive technology the Flush Tax had created — and permits, permits, permits.
       Slowly and idiosyncratically and with some neighborhood consternation, John more or less finished — and rented — two of the houses, little gems that might happily have been cabins in a Scandinavian woods. 
        But the third house, the house of his family’s earliest days, he couldn’t seem to finish. I called him our Penelope after Ulysses’ wife, who wove all day, then ripped out her work at night so that a dreaded project might not be finished. 
      That’s the house John now haunts, on a schedule on which I can never set my clock.
 
•   •   •
 
        On that question humanity — if not science — is deeply ambivalent. We’ve made Halloween into an all-age costume party, celebrating it all the more fervently. We don’t know what’s in the darkness. But we know the darkness is there. 
      I think my neighbor is, too.
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