The house struck me as unusual for Tucson, especially one on a shitty street like Park Avenue. It had to be at least two stories high, towering over the surrounding houses and casting a shadow that stretched all the way across the road. Along either side grew rows of sharp, leafless trees, their branches gnarled and mean. I climbed the stairs onto the porch and knocked on the great wooden door. From where I stood, I could see into the neighbor’s fenced yard, their tangled clothesline, and pit bull, who was rolling around in something long dead. I could see over the roofs of other houses lining the road to the University of Arizona, a little under a mile away. I looked out from this porch, thinking it was a little like standing on the turret of a castle.
He was late. I waited twenty minutes, then thirty. I was almost ready to forget the whole thing when Tom rolled up in his dusty white Honda, sipping on a 32-ounce chalice of Diet Pepsi. I had only spoken to him over the phone, but seeing Tom for the first time, I guessed he was probably in his early forties. His stomach was round, distinct even under the loose T-shirt he wore, his hair a color I’d heard older women refer to kindly as “salt and pepper.” He offered me an unsatisfying handshake, opened the front door with a skeleton key, and immediately sank into one of three overstuffed armchairs dominating the living room. I perched myself on the chair opposite his as Tom laid down the House Rules. To this day, I have never met another person who speaks so indistinctly. I zoned in and out of focus, watching his mouth move and words come out of it. Still, I managed to catch the gist of what he was saying. No drugs, no house parties, and most of all, no—
“Drama,” Tom muttered, drumming his fingers against the arm of his chair, “I get enough of that shit down at the bar.”
I told him I knew what he meant. He nodded and took another gulp of his gigantic soda. Tom, I learned, worked as bartender at a local gay dive. He rented the house from our landlords, who lived above us on the upper level, only accessible via a flight of stairs outside.
“And if they ask,” Tom said, pointing at the ceiling, “you don’t live here.”
The house had four bedrooms. I chose the one behind the kitchen, in the recesses of what was once probably a broom cupboard. I liked that the door to my room was obscured by a tiny, L-shaped hallway. A person could easily pass it by, I thought, never realizing it was there. It was private, hidden. A room you had to believe in to find. I handed Tom a wad of cash and agreed to move in the next week.
For years, my friends and I made a game of watching each other waste away in this desert town, finding ourselves on drugs, or pregnant with babies we didn’t want, or otherwise stuck at dead-end jobs in coffee shops and call centers because work was hard to find and we took what we could get. We joked about how shitty it all was, how shitty we all were. About how much we wanted from life and how little we would actually get.
But maybe I shouldn’t include myself in this collective we; I was one of the lucky ones. Had always been. Made it through college on academic scholarship. Was applying to graduate programs. I had a good reason to leave, but we all knew that didn’t mean I actually would. My friends and I, we used to laugh at the futility of trying to escape it over warm beers in one of our sparse, under-watered backyards. People leave, we said, but they always come back.
On moving day, Tom introduced me to Jake, a kid visiting from Phoenix. Jake was twenty, right around my own age. Little guy. Stocky. Arms hanging from his broad shoulders like barbells. The guest room wasn’t set up yet, so Jake and Tom shared a bed. I thought this arrangement was curious, but not really my business. I began methodically stacking boxes and shuffling furniture around my hidden room. Tom went to work for the night and Jake, too young to hang out at the bar, sat in the living room, enveloped by one of the massive chairs, listening to music out loud on his cell phone.
Each time I walked by to gather more boxes from the car, he would ask me questions—how old was I, where did I work, what was my sign. On the sixth or seventh trip he asked, “So, you got a boyfriend or anything?” I think he thought he was being conversational. My silence as I weighed the implications of answering either way must have troubled him, because he hastened to add, “Just so you know, me and Tom aren’t, like, involved or anything.”
I nodded, but didn’t look at him. I was busy wrestling with a stuffed javelina head I intended to bring into my room. I’d seen it at a local thrift shop and couldn’t resist taking it home. The head reminded me of the javelinas roaming the desert of my youth. How they traveled in packs through the warm spring months, eating the seed neighbors left out for birds and attacking dogs left outside on chains. I liked the idea of sharing space with an animal that had once made me too afraid to go walking alone at night. Of mounting fear on the wall and calling it mine.
The javelina was heavy, and awkward. I had to hold it carefully from the wooden base it was mounted to, otherwise the rough, prickly hair would turn my arms red and itchy. Care had to be taken, too, not to look directly at the creature’s face. Something about its expression, those glistening, black eyes, that evil mouth, molded into a snarl, made it difficult for me to separate the spirit of the animal from the inanimate object I now held against my chest. To reconcile what my eyes were seeing with what my brain knew to be true. Even when the pig was safely hung on the wall, I was afraid to touch it, as though the animal might come alive and bite me. I knew this feeling was irrational, but I couldn’t quite shake it.
“Sometimes he tries to like, spoon with me,” Jake said, “which is weird cause I’m not gay or anything.” He forced a laugh. Lost in my javelina thoughts, I had forgotten he was speaking to me.
The house was haunted. Tom waited until after I had gotten settled to tell me, the rent paid and the javelina head firmly mounted to my bedroom wall. The house was haunted, Tom said, by a ghostly woman. He could hear her whispering unintelligible things through the walls. She watched him from the windows in the living room, and at night he could see the shadow of her feet waiting at the front door.
“Just so, you know, you’re aware,” he muttered.
I had never lived in a real haunted house. I didn’t know what any of the rules were. Could her presence cause physical harm? And how would a person protect herself from the advances of a ghostly woman? Was it pointless to try? Just in case, I took to locking my bedroom door at night and sleeping with a baseball bat. I carried a small hand mirror in my back pocket and used it to peek around the L-shaped hallway before turning into it. But after several days of the ghostly woman failing to appear I grew dubious. Tom said maybe I didn’t have “the sight.” He said if I were patient, the ghostly woman would reveal herself to me. That if I really wanted to see her, I should sit in the living room with him and wait.
That night, we sat staring out from those cushy chairs until my vision began to blur and the shadows flickered across our motionless bodies. Everything in the dark appears to move.
“There!” Tom would occasionally whisper, pointing at some obscure shape on the ceiling or a beam of light from a passing car. “Did you see that?”
I tried. I really did. I wanted so badly to believe him. To see her with my own eyes. Some nights I would wedge myself between two of the overstuffed chairs and wait for her in the dark. During one of these stakeouts, I noticed a hole in the living room floor. The hole was about the size of my open palm, and over it I could feel cool air rising from the crawl space under the house. According to Tom, it was made by the previous tenants, a group of loud college boys who played beer pong and inhaled Whip It! canisters for kicks. I knew this to be true because if I laid flat on the floor and shone a flashlight into the hole, I could make out several ping pong balls, a smattering of cigarette butts, and too many bottle caps and empties to count. They lay, glistening like pearls in the beam of my light, just beyond my reach.
In those days, my phone would ring and ring. I’d hold it to my ear, listening to the recorded voices of former friends asking where I was, telling me I couldn’t hide forever. Some cursed me for leaving. Some wondered if I were dead. Sometimes I thought about answering them, but these messages just reaffirmed what I already knew. I couldn’t go back.
Meanwhile, Jake was becoming a fixture as permanent in our living room as Tom’s enormous chairs. Between listening to Today’s Top 40 on blast and staring at the ceiling, Jake complained that Tom wouldn’t take him home. That he was stuck here, in this house. He heard noises at night, after I went to bed. He was afraid to go to sleep until Tom came home from the bar, usually around three or four in the morning. Some nights, if I was up late working on applications for graduate school, he’d come into my room and sit on my bed and ask about the boyfriend I said I had. Jake liked to tell long, impossible stories about meeting celebrities and performing feats of heroism. Oprah Winfrey and rescuing kittens from trees. I never listened very carefully. I just remember that the later it got, the more implausible they seemed to become. He spoke quickly, pacing the narrow space between my bed and the wall, the javelina head jutting over him like a gargoyle. Even after kicking him out for the night, I could still hear him restlessly creaking around the living room.
It’s hard to explain, but the house did have a certain energy at night. I found it difficult to sleep unless I went for a walk along Park Avenue, thinking angry circles around my desire to leave this place. I would fantasize about walking past the Tucson city limits and to the rail yards. I’d climb into an open boxcar and ride it through California, or New Mexico, or Utah. Anywhere. But after a few hours of this, my legs would grow tired and achy and I knew it was time to turn around. On these walks, no matter how far I went, I could always look back and see the house. A castle looming, sharp against black sky. Sometimes I would distract myself by looking for things on the way home. Pennies and marbles and empty Whip It! canisters: anything shiny and round. I took these objects to the hole in the living room floor and rolled them in, one by one. I liked the noise they made rolling against the wood, the satisfying clink as they landed in the pile under the house. I suspected the ghostly woman might also be lurking down there. I wanted to ask her what she was hiding from, and how she learned to do it so well.
I would stare down into the hole and try to imagine what it would feel like to roll along the hardwood like a coin, to slide down into its dark hollow and land in the pile of objects round and shiny, and stay there. No one could reach me, even by phone. I’d be safe in the dark underbelly of my house.
It began to look as if Jake were never going back to Phoenix. Tom spent less and less time at home, leaving Jake alone for most of the night and then part of the day while he slept. Jake fell uncharacteristically silent. He stopped listening to his music. He would sit quietly in his favorite chair, staring up at the ceiling, not really looking at it.
“Just thinking,” Jake would answer, though I never actually asked.
One evening after a monsoon, I went for another of my nightly walks. I had to take care not to step in any of the deep puddles flooding the sidewalks and streets, water refused by the chapped desert earth that would stand until the morning’s heat soaked them back into the sky.
On this walk, I stumbled upon a wild javelina, separated from its herd. The creature and I both stopped, staring at one another, unsure where to go from here. There were no street lamps, but the moon was almost full, drenching the street in a soft light. I could see the animal clearly, its eyes sparkling in the reflection of moonlit puddles.
I felt vulnerable, exposed. I had nothing to strike it with if it chose to attack. But I was curious, too. I’d never seen a javelina on its own before, let alone this far into town. In stark contrast to the head mounted in my room, this javelina’s mouth was closed, its nose wet and twitching in fear. All at once, it turned and ran down into a dry river bed, and I was alone.
That early morning, still dark, I awoke to a light knocking at my bedroom door. A voice whispering my name. Eyes closed, I could hear the knob twisting, slowly—first one way, then the other. Open the door, the ghostly woman whispered. She was here. I wanted to open my eyes, but couldn’t. I was paralyzed, my mind awake but my body still deep in sleep. The knocking grew louder. Let me in, she urged. Her voice was raspy, inhuman. I thought of the wolf in so many children’s stories, and was suddenly afraid. Maybe I had it backward. Maybe all this time it was not I who was searching for the ghostly woman, but she who had been looking for me. Now she knew where I was hiding. The ghostly woman shrieked and pounded against the door. I wanted to cry out for someone to save me. To run away into the darkness, as I’d seen the javelina do the night before. But I couldn’t open my mouth. I couldn’t move. All I could do was lie in bed and wait.
The noise gradually quieted, the ghostly woman retreating to her place under the house. I don’t know how long I lay awake after that, only that I was awoken again by a knock, this time sharp and authoritative.
“Tucson Police!” a woman’s voice called. I snapped to attention, my heart beating in my throat. I tried to swallow, but it wouldn’t go down.
“Please unlock this door!” she shouted. I tried to pull myself out of bed, but the sheets were tangled around my legs and I tripped onto the floor. I kicked them off and rushed to my dresser, looking for all the appropriate pieces of an outfit and throwing them on. I opened the door, and the police woman came in, one hand on her gun. She eyed the javelina head on the wall before turning to me. I sat on the edge of my bed, unable to speak, as the woman knelt to meet my gaze. She apologized for the intrusion. She hadn’t realized there was anyone else in the house, she said; my room was so well hidden.
Jake had a psychotic episode during the night. He paced the living room for hours wielding a kitchen knife, believing the house was under siege. He heard gunshots, a lady screaming. He thought our landlords upstairs had been murdered. She asked me if I’d heard anything strange. I told her about the knocking, unsure now if it had been a dream. I didn’t say anything about the ghostly woman. I followed her out into the living room where another officer and two police psychologists hovered around Jake. He was curled into himself, cradling his head and rocking. His shirt lay torn and abandoned on the floor.
“I told you, I forgot my medicine in Phoenix,” he wailed through his hands. Tom stood back uneasily, watching the scene with his arms folded from the open front door. Our landlady came downstairs, apparently unharmed, asking Tom why the hell were there were cops in her goddamn yard. He waved her away, said everything was fine, fine.
“I didn’t know he was sick,” Tom muttered after she stormed back upstairs. “Did he ever say anything to you?”
Jake had said lots of things to me. I just hadn’t been listening. I looked at him, naked from the waist up and crying in our living room. I looked to the place in the floor where the hole was, wondering if the ghostly woman were watching. I shook my head.
“I think he just wants to go home,” I said.
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.