Letter from a Haunted House: Part 1


First Person

I rented my apartment, a large studio on the top floor of a three-story house listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, sight unseen, through Craigslist. When my mom asked me, months later, for its address, I had to do a Google search. Among the results was a mention of my place being haunted. I didn’t click on the link. I did mention it to my husband, Clancy, in passing.

On the day I moved in, without giving it any thought, we started to refer to one storage space—there are three, two low-ceilinged ones on either side of the pitch-roofed room and one closet—as “the bad area.” We had barely walked in, we (at least I) had forgotten the ghost, and here we were—“the bad area.”

In fairness to the rational-minded, the bad area was just that. It had a white door on hinges that came to my chest. The floorboards were unfinished. Brown insulation fiber had come loose in the ceilings and was all over the floor. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. An industrial, kevlar-and-aluminum fire-escape ladder was in one corner. The previous tenant lived here three years. I don’t think he swept in there one time. I don’t think anyone did. (The other storage area was half open, clean, with finished floors.)

Clancy said, “That is where I’ll put you when you are bad.”

This is a little difficult for me to understand, now, but we were getting settled, and without cleaning out the space, we put our suitcases in there, which makes no sense at all.

That night, we went down to the second-floor bathroom. We got into an odd habit, while traveling in India, of going in to clean up at night together. I mean to say that while I washed my face he stood peeing, and when he went to the sink and washed his hands, I said, “Aw, gimme a break.” I turned out the light and closed the door. “Big shot.”

He came out nervous. He said, “Amie, you don’t turn out the light and close the door on someone. Especially in a place that’s haunted.”

“God,” I said as we went up the creaking staircase, “don’t remind me! I have to live here. I had forgotten. God, please never say that again.”

“I didn’t even tell you the real reminder.”

“What?! Don’t say that.” We came into my room. “Did you see something? What did you see?”

The next morning, he told me that when he went into the storage closet to get a T-shirt from his suitcase, the light went out, and the door closed behind him.

Back in the room, we took our suitcases out of the storage area. Then I moved the escape ladder, too. We decided to clean and paint it. I asked several times, because my friend is a little less rational and a little more able to feel (and even see) ghosts than I am, if the ghost was good. He wouldn’t answer. He said, “She is not bad. She is young. I would guess around twenty-three.”

This will seem improbable, but wanting to give the ghost a friendly feel, we named her Sadie.

We got a mop and broom from the hardware store. I’d had the thought of painting the room a light jade, but all the samples, once they got so pale, became more blue than green, so we picked a pale, pale yellow, too.

“How can we let her decide?” I asked.

“Put both in there and see which one moves.”

An elderly man wearing a protective mask and a red Ace Hardware vest said, “Can I help you?”

“We’re trying to decide on colors,” Clancy said.

“Oof,” he said. “I’ll stay out of it.”

I said, “My husband is insane.”

At the checkout, I was rational. I got some M&Ms for Sadie. We got her a Diet Pepsi. They had an impulse-buy bowl of thirty-five-cent caramels and I added it to our stuff, saying, “You know why,” in a tight voice.

Clancy smoothed it over. “I allow her one caramel at midnight.”

“You’re very kind,” the checkout man said. He turned to me: “You want me to call the police?”

Clancy was putting the paint chips into the bag carelessly.

“Don’t!” I stopped myself, because my tone, I realized, would make no sense to the checkout guy. I had said it—don’t fold the paint chips!—like a person with aggressive OCD.

Back at the place, Clancy explained I was going to clean and paint and asked the ghost to choose her color—we’d jaw the one that moved. I didn’t watch him lay the chips down. An hour later one was a hair out of line with the other.

“I lined them up perfectly,” Clancy said. “That was the point.”

He left that night. It was my first night alone. I played Bob Dylan to keep myself company and had the feeling she liked that. I gave her the M&Ms and things; I mean, I put them in her room. The paper question was resolved. I played her Abbey Road.

The next day, I went to the library and checked out a book called Haunted Iowa City. It had a chapter on my building. Stories didn’t coincide, but in short: many people have seen ghosts here, and many people have died unhappily here. One murder, treated by residents after the fact as a joke, and a number of suicides. One was a young girl who stayed up all night with a friend, listening to the Beatles, and then hanged herself.