A Ghost Story

Cincinnati NoondayGeorgine Getty1378 Comments

Georgine Getty

Noonday

April 6, 2019

When people ask me why I left the Homeless Coalition, the answer I give depends on who they are and why they want to know. I left it to work at a shelter for homeless families so normally I just say something about wanting to see success stories. Or I say I was getting too old for an advocacy agency, that it belongs to the young. I say that I needed new challenges. These are true, in their way, but another truth is that I couldn’t take the sadness anymore. There were not many victories at the Homeless Coalition, as its radical intent is that people should be as they are and not as we wish they would be. We cleared space for madness, addiction, begging. My job was not to fix these things, but to fix the world instead, forging a bubble of tolerance that was, if not freely given, at least legally protective.

The people of the Homeless Coalition mostly did not get better. They found and lost housing. They fought and lost against disease. They curled in the tiny spaces under bridges and on the margins. And I fought beside them, trying and failing and finding comfort in the battle. But by the end, I was just tired. My scrapbook was filled with staff bowling parties, but increasingly these were getting edged out by people who had died on the streets. Each person, barely known, was relegated to a single page, with a crappy, photocopied memorial from their funeral. I felt the pressure to bury them all, free of charge, but with dignity. I felt the pressure to remember them all, well aware that nobody else would. They crowded me, pushing out the space for other things, the life-things that people love.  I did not run, but I did walk away deliberately.

XXX

I was 5 years removed from the Homeless Coalition when my 18th wedding anniversary came around. The plan started ironically because my husband and I do not believe in ghosts. James suggested we spend the long Memorial Day weekend surrounding our anniversary at Waverly Hills.

“Haunted tuberculosis sanatorium,” he sing-songed.  “I already bought us tickets.” He pulled up their website which shouted in gray-font caps lock: THE MOST HAUNTED PLACE ON EARTH!

In the two weeks before we left, I became gamely obsessed by the idea. Though I failed to crack a book on the subject (the books, as they were, self-published on cheap paper with typos and blurry photos), I did spend hours sifting through You Tube videos. Waverly Hills Sanatorium bookmarks began to line the top of my screen. Clicking from link to link, I wormed deeper into the story of tuberculosis, hitting bedrock in fossilized animal remains. I detoured into famous celebrities who died from it.  I developed the certainty that it will double back to kill us all because it is already amassing its defenses against antibiotics in Africa. And I learned about Waverly Hills.

In the early 1900’s, tuberculosis crept through the marshy banks of the Ohio River and landed in the young lungs of Jefferson County. Contagious TB patients could not be allowed into existing hospitals, so the civil servants of Louisville purchased a parcel of land known as Waverly Hills from the Hays family. The location was perfect: a vast expanse of velvety green hills conveniently adjacent to, but remote from, the more densely populated Louisville.  

In 1912 Waverly Hills could accept 40 minor cases and 40 advanced cases in a makeshift series of tents and wooden buildings, but it grew to meet the emergent demand. In 1914, a children’s wing was added that could hold up to 50 children. In 1926, a permanent building opened on the grounds of Waverly Hills, capable of housing 400 patients.  It operated at full speed until streptomycin was discovered in 1943 and cut TB off at the root. No longer able to sustain itself with fresh victims, Waverly Hills closed as a sanatorium in June 1961. It operated for 20 more years as a nursing home until it was shut down by the state for gross negligence. Developers of varying stripes dallied with visions of minimum-security prisons and world’s-tallest statues of Jesus, but nothing really came together and the building sat unoccupied until 2001 when Tina and Charlie Mattingly purchased it and began to cash in on the creep-factor by hosting haunted tours and inviting in TV ghost hunters armed with night-vision cameras and incredulous whispers. The Mattinglys, in addition to conducting the $15 tours, now hold the ambition of someday operating a (HAUNTED) B&B.

Our tour was set for dusk. We had been sternly warned that latecomers would be turned away, so we arrived in the crunchy gravel parking lot 20 minutes early and sat in the car, facing Waverly Hills for the first time.

The early summer light was creeping ever later into the night and played tricks on my eyes in greens and purples, but the building was undeniable. It wove along the top of the hill like a book with its spine cracked permanently open.

The Waverly was five stories tall, with a central column that had two wings stretching out from it. Though enormous in height and breadth, the building was narrow. It was designed so that each patient could maximize their access to fresh air via balconies. The cement balconies jutted in symmetrical rows down the flat expanse of the building. We soon learned that inside, the balconies led to small bedrooms with a mirror image of the same bedrooms and balconies on the other side of the building, separated by a narrow hallway. The balconies on the other side were the same size and configuration, but with a better view of the hillside that sloped away from the building. Capping the ends of each wing were additional columns that contained stairways and a rounded room on each level. Paint flaked, shrubbery grew spindly and rebar was exposed and rusted. Graffiti tags dotted the ground level of the building.

Despite its size, the Waverly held a fragility. It looked as though it might collapse dishonestly and with stealth, crushing not like an earthquake, but like a snake.  My eyes twitched from staring and I pressed my palms into them, thinking with a Victorian formality: “It is the gloaming hour.”

“That building is creepy as fuck.” James said. I laughed.

We waited in the car, the windows open to the breeze that was picking up with the promise of a storm. Within a few minutes, other cars began to arrive, and people clambered out, primarily in pairs, but some with older children. The couples were all white, middle-aged and paunchy in Capri pants or shorts.

“Christ. Is that us?” I looked at my own Capri pants and sensibly arched sandals.

“No. We’re much cooler than that.”

“Mmmhmm,” I said, unconvinced.

XXX

After presenting our tickets to the nonchalant man with the goatee at the door, we were allowed into a large room that reminded me of any all-purpose room in any church basement. There were utilitarian folding tables and chairs, set upon the green and white tile floor, and an unloved, but functional bathroom with a roll of damp paper towels on the back of the toilet. It also contained a large-screen TV in the corner that played the Waverly episode of Ghost Hunters on an endless loop and was decorated in off-season, cheesy Halloween décor. It had a table that sold Waverly merchandise and packaged snacks.  Photographs, crookedly framed, lined the walls.

They were the same photos I had seen on the website – group shots of doctors and nurses at the Waverly in the 1930’s wearing their formal whites. These uniforms, with their capes and tri-pointed hats, laid bare the assumption we all hold that, while modern medicine knows what it is doing, medicine of the past was an experimental and silly stab in the dark. Other pictures were of patients in their day-to-day clothes, gathered into casual clusters in the dining or recreation areas. Though the patients smile, their bodies are thin and frail. The prize photo of the collection, enlarged to the point of graininess, was of a dozen children playing on a swing set. The children are all very young, shirtless, and wearing baggy white shorts. A nurse squats next to the youngest child, her face indecipherable. A little girl with her ribs poking out, sits suspended at the top of a slide, with another child behind her on the ladder, waiting her turn. They appear to be on a rooftop patio. The caption reads “Little Patients Taking Sun Bath.”  

A man welcomed us and explained that we would be divided into to two concurrent tour groups that would converge back in the parking lot. Shuffling occurred where couples clutched hands and parents laid protective grasps on the shoulders of their children, lest they be separated. Eventually we were successfully divided into groups of roughly 20 people each. Out of the sea of visitors and volunteers, our tour guides stepped forth with authority.

“Hello! My name is Sandy and you’re going to be with me tonight.” Sandy was a pleasant-looking woman in her 50’s. She had long brown hair that was parted in the middle with some gray visible at the roots, and a short, stout body covered in an oversized Waverly t-shirt. Sandy spoke in the clipped southern drawl unique to native Kentuckians and had the type of brown eyes that were quick to fill with emotional tears. I glanced over at the other group. Their guide was a tall man with a potbelly and a ponytail who was telling an ice-breaking joke. I whispered to James, “I think we got the good one.”

“What a lot of people don’t know about the Waverly is that it was also a working farm. They didn’t know much about TB back in the day, but they noticed that people got better with fresh air and healthy food. Also, it was so contagious that people didn’t really want to bring food here, so they started growing their own produce and raising meat. My grandfather was the Waverly butcher and my grandmother worked in the laundry. They wouldn’t let the staff leave because of the risk of contagion, so they had a little house right here on the Waverly grounds. My daddy grew up here and was really sad when it got shut down and he had to leave his home. He would always tell us stories about growing up at Waverly, and I’m really sad that I didn’t get a chance to grow up here too. But you can understand why I love the place.” Her eyes misted for the first time of the evening.

“So. . . they were. . . slaves?” James whispered to me.

“We definitely got the good guide.” I clutched his arm and shook it in muted excitement.

We followed out of the room, awkwardly trying to both look at everything and stay out of the way of other people in the group who were trying to do the same. The hallway was dark and covered with spray-painted ghouls. “Never mind all that,” Sandy said, “we do a haunted house here around Halloween to benefit Crusade for Children and they painted up the walls to make it more spooky for that. That’s what all those skeletons and stuff were about in the registration room too.” She dismissed this. We were here for the real ghosts, not the make-believe jump-scares of Halloween.

“Photography is allowed. In fact, you’re gonna want to keep those phones and cameras out. Sometimes you can’t see the ghosts with just your eyes, but you can see them later in pictures and videos. Guests have emailed me stuff after they got home that just gives me the chills.” We dutifully pulled out our  phones and started snapping.

XXX

The first room was small and contained two long refrigerated drawers, stacked on top of one another. An autopsy table dominated the center of the room, leaving very little space for our group to crowd around.

“This is obviously the morgue,” Sandy said. “The table is original. It got sold off, but the owners found it again at an antique store and brought it back. It belongs here.” She touched it sentimentally. “However, you’ll notice how tiny this room is – it can only hold two bodies at a time and at the peak of the Waverly, they were losing hundreds of people a week. That’s why they had to build the Death Tunnel, which we will see later.”

The table was enameled with white porcelain, chipped so that bits of black showed through, with high ridges and a drain. It was the drain that bothered me. The thought of fluids being swept away with a gurgle. Pictures were taken, and our group was led to the stairway.

On the second floor, we stepped into a long narrow hallway that went straight for a while, then jutted sharply to the right. On either side of the hallway, tiny rooms broke away, evenly spaced. The tidy symmetry was broken by bright spots of graffiti that covered the walls.

“This building closed in the 80’s and became kind of a party hang-out for kids,” Sandy explained when she saw me looking at the word “cock” painted on the wall in 2-foot high letters. I felt more than imagined the party kids taking items out of backpacks – flashlights, candles, Ouija boards, cans of beer, cassette players, blankets – things surreptitiously borrowed or stolen from their homes. I heard the lies told to parents – I’ll say I’m at your house, you say you’re at mine. I could see the truths and the dares. And Sandy. Telling her stories even then. Tough guys laughing until the darkness became complete and they didn’t laugh again until the Monday morning brightness of home room.

Sandy resumed her tour.

“So you can see that each patient had a room. But they didn’t spend much time in their rooms because the doctors thought at the time that the best thing for them was fresh air.” She led us through the first room and out an archway to an open porch. “Their beds were wheeled out here, all in a row, for 12 hours each day.” She pointed to an outlet in the wall. “They were out here in all weather. In fact, electric blankets were invented right here at the Waverly to keep the patients warm in the winter. And they had their own headphones to plug into the radio which came through the wall. They only had three stations, but they could pick what they wanted to listen to without bothering their neighbors. I’ll let you look around.”

Our group spread out. James and I went across the hallway to the identical rooms and porches on the other side. The wind had picked up and was blowing through the open archways. We chose a room with no one else in it and the depth of the place began to settle around me. I pictured laying in a narrow bed, my body weakened and weighted by a blanket heavy with heating coils. I stooped, placing my head at cot level, and looked up and over the stone half-wall of the balcony. From this vantage point, I could see the darkening sky through the trees that lined the hill. I have always loved the view of the negative space of sky through tree branches. “At least she had that,” I thought, though I didn’t know who she was.

“What are you doing?” James asked.

“Nothing,” I said, straightening up. My joviality was fraying. I couldn’t make a joke of the trees or the sky.

“Most of the TB patients actually loved it here,” Sandy said from the hallway, gathering us back around her. “That’s why they stayed. None of the nursing home patients stayed. This was a bad place for them.” She produced a ball from one of the rooms. “That brings me to Timmy, my favorite spirit here. He lives on this floor. He was one of the little boys, about 5 or 6 when he passed. I’ve seen him a dozen or so times. Sometimes if you roll a ball down the hallway, he will roll it back.” She rolled the ball and our group grew silent, watching it bounce down the torn tiles until it hit the abrupt turn in the hallway and stopped. We waited, staring. The hallway was growing dimmer, and the trees cast long shadows on the peeling paint of the walls.

“Not much activity from Timmy tonight,” Sandy said with practiced timing.  “When the overnight groups come in, sometimes they spend the whole night just rolling the ball back and forth to him. Timmy loves it here. It was his only home. Now he just wants to play.” Her eyes glistened.

“People pay money to have a ball blow down a hallway to them all night?” James said.

“Oh, hush,” I said. “I sort of saw it move.”

“Maybe because we’re in a wind tunnel?” I shrugged.

Our group ascended to the 3rd floor. Sandy walked us down the hallway to the opposite end of the building and led us into a corner room, larger than the bedrooms, and lit on two sides by the last glow of sunset that was fighting against the storm clouds.

“This was the operating room. They operated on lots of people in here. The most common operation was called a Thoracoplasty which was the surgical removal of ribs. They would remove 7 or 8 ribs, but it was too risky to remove them all at once, so they kept going back in and would get 2 or 3 at a time.”

“Like Cher. No wonder they were so skinny,” I whispered.

“What?” James asked. I shook my head.

“They chose this room because of all of the natural light. Unfortunately, they also thought fresh air was good for everything, and they operated with the windows open. So floating in on the breeze was all kinds of germs. Most of the people who had their ribs removed didn’t live long.”

“No shit,” James said.

“Shhhhhhh,” I said. James is never as quiet as he thinks he is and the room was close, crowded with our group. I had seen a photo on one of the websites and I knew where the operating table had been. I pictured the doctor from the photo, his smile broad, his white coat hanging below his knees. The patient on the table had been sedated, her face covered by a terrifying mask with tubes attached to a tank. He was about to cut her open, slice through skin and fat, muscle, then finally bone, cracking through her ribs. Baring exposed the fragile, struggling lungs, and removing their only protection. When she died – infected, in agony – her skeleton would have been born testimony to his butchery. I regretted my Cher comment. That was just an urban legend anyway, one that endured because it was so ridiculous. Except, it wasn’t unthinkable. Not here, anyway. Not in this room.

Sandy led us out of the operating room and up the staircase. We followed behind, but she stopped on the landing, turning to us as we lined the stairs, faces turned up to her.   

“Now the 4th floor isn’t so nice. In fact, some of you might want to skip it all together and meet us on the 5th .” Sandy’s large eyes scanned our group, looking for weakness. Everyone seemed sturdy enough, so we continued our climb. Sandy paused before the hallway door that had “Keep Out” hastily spray-painted on it in drippy black.

“I really do hate this floor,” she said. “Not all of the spirits here are sweet like little Timmy.”

She pushed open the door. This floor appeared identical to the one below it.  She led the group halfway down the hallway where we were herded into a cluster around the elevator shaft.

“Here is where we have the most awful ghost at the Waverly.” Sandy paused, gathering her arms around her as if suddenly chilled. “This is the floor with the Man in White and his dog. He is the only spirit on this floor. We don’t even let the overnight tours onto this floor – it isn’t safe. I wasn’t here the day this happened, but one of the other guides was giving a tour and they got to here. There were these college guys and they didn’t even believe or anything and then this one guy, he breaks away from the group and goes behind the elevator shaft here.” My back was against the column that housed the elevator, so I shifted over a couple of feet so the group could stare at the wall behind me.

“I think he meant it maybe as a joke to jump out and scare his friends. Well, he comes running back, white as a sheet and screaming just all hysterical-like. He pushed past everyone, half falls down the stairs and just keeps running. His buddies caught up with him outside the building before he got to the road and he was just pale and screaming. Said he saw this guy – dressed all in white – who jumped out of the elevator at him. Said this fellow was just the embodiment of evil. Says he didn’t know how he knew but he just knew, you know, in his gut, that he had faced pure evil. He would never set foot back in the building again. The other tour guide, well, he said he ain’t never seen nothing like it before.”

“Have you ever seen the Man in White?” a woman asked while the person she was with held up his phone to film first one way, then the other, down the hallway.

“No. I never seen him. But the other guide, he said he saw him down the hallway once, just standing there. They call him the Man in White because he’s just head-to-toe in white. And his dog is white too.”

Little prickles started on my neck and my chest felt thick and gritty.

“The Man in White, he’s the only bad ghost here. Little Timmy, well, this was his home. Other spirits we’ll meet are just sad. But the Man in White, he’s angry.”

“Was he a patient here?” someone asked.

“Nah. None of the patients here are mad like that. The Man in White, he was a hobo guy. He squatted here after the nursing home got shut down. I’ll let you take some pictures now. Sometimes he shows up in the pictures but honestly, he’s one I hope never to meet.”

In the reverential hush that followed, I heard it. A rustle. The exhale of stagnant breath.

It was coming from the elevator shaft behind me.

I felt – irrational and urgent, like the tantrum of a child – that I did not want my back to that elevator shaft any longer. I reached for James’ hand. He looked up, surprised, and I gave him a weak smile. Then I heard it again. My breath came in little shallow sips. “Stupid” I said in my head. “You’re being stupid.” But the noise was there, and it was getting louder, directly behind my left hip. About the height of a dog’s head.

It was a warning. A growl. I slowly turned around.

It was a shopping bag. Someone had bought a t-shirt in the lobby. My heart started thudding and I realized it had stopped for a second. I laughed, loud and humorless, and got a sharp look from Sandy for breaking the solemnity of the moment.

“What?” James asked.

“Her bag. . . I. . .stupid.” My fingertips tingled the way they do after I’ve had a burst of adrenaline and a dark mood started to grow in me as if I was a pair of wool socks, sucking up the dank water of a puddle.

XXX

Hobo guy. Yeah. Homeless people would have slept here. I did the math. 1980’s up to early 2000’s. Veteran probably. Vietnam. He would have wanted seclusion. Shelters don’t allow dogs. He could have had a cooking fire in here and no one would have bothered him.

There was a guy who lived in a tiny hollow under the I-74 Bridge. He was a veteran too – Iraq. He also had a dog, a medium-sized gray mutt whose hair was missing in patches. He used the dog to keep warm. Someone told me that’s where the phrase three-dog night comes from. This guy was legendary, even to other homeless people, who would sometime leave food and cigarettes at the foot of the bridge for him, even though they rarely saw him. One August, the Ohio Department of Transportation needed to do repairs on his small encampment and he was rousted out. The dog went to the pound. This guy had Tuberculosis – Laryngital TB. That meant it lived in his vocal chords, vocal chords he rarely used, but that you could catch almost immediately if he ever did speak to you. The social worker and two of the cops who removed this guy contracted it. They had to be quarantined for a few weeks and then take medicine for 6 months. The social worker quit pretty soon after, and one of the cops who had been nice wasn’t nice anymore, not to homeless people. At the time, I thought it was sort of poetic. He was like a curse being forced out of a bottle. There is always a price to pay for bothering things that don’t want to be disturbed.   

I hadn’t thought about him in years.

XXX

I headed to the stairway door without instruction, impatiently waiting for Sandy to stop talking about whatever she was talking about so we could move on. Eventually, she finished and then led us up to the fifth and final floor. Half of the fifth floor was enclosed, the rest expanding into an open-air patio. I recognized it from the picture of the kids from the lobby, but the playground equipment had been removed.

“This is where they kept the nursery,” Sandy said, her voice thick.  “All those babies and little kids, it just breaks my heart. This is also where they kept the people who went insane from TB of the brain. And the doctor and nurses station. I’ll let you look around.”

James and I stepped onto the patio, looking out over the expanse of the hill where the sun had finally disappeared. The wind was blowing hard now, and my hair kept getting into my mouth.

“They kept the crazy people right next to the kids? That seems like a good idea.” I was grouchy.  None of this made sense.

“I should have worn my other shoes. You think this is over soon?” James asked.

“At least there are gargoyles,” I said, pointing to the statues that lined the four corners of the patio, “those must have been so comforting to little Timmy playing on his rusty-ass swing set next to the insane asylum.”

“I like gargoyles. Those are cool ones too, all mean-looking.”

“I like gargoyles too. That’s not the point.”

Sandy called us back to the doorway of the indoor portion of the roof.

“Now, I have to warn you before we go in here that you might not want to go in if you are pregnant. We have had two expecting mamas have some complications upon entering room 502.” Our group once again appraised one another and, sensing no immediate danger, followed Sandy.

Inside was a large room, with several smaller rooms branching from it.  One room had 502 carved neatly into the wood above the doorframe.

“This was the nurses’ room, where they changed into their uniforms. This one nurse hung herself right outside of this room, right here.” Sandy pointed to the rusted string of electrical cords above her head. “When they did her autopsy, they discovered that she was pregnant. The story goes that one of the doctors was the father. Keep in mind this would have been a long time ago. In the 1920’s, being unwed and pregnant would have been just about the worst thing you could be. The problem was that this doctor was married,” Sandy let her disgust show, “and he refused to leave his wife for this nurse. Then a few years later, another nurse jumped off the roof and plunged to her death. Only, me and a lot of people who know the Waverly think maybe she didn’t jump. I think she either got pushed or got scared by the first nurse and fell because she was pregnant too and the first nurse got jealous. Lots of people have seen a spirit dressed in a nurse’s uniform wandering around the 5th floor. If you’re pregnant and she looks at you, you’ll lose the baby. I don’t think she’s bad or anything, just so full of grief for the baby that she lost that she’ll try to, you know, take other women’s babies so they can be spirits with her. Sometimes women will just start crying here. This is definitely our saddest story.” Phones came out and people began taking photos and video.

“So this doctor could remove ribs but not perform a simple abortion?” I whispered.

“Sweetie, is it possible that this place is full of bullshit?” James asked.

“Well, yeah. But I can’t believe even a little if the stories are stupid.”

“Let’s just get through the meat chute and then we can go get dinner.”

“Death tunnel.” I corrected.

XXX

Sandy led us down the five flights back to ground level.

“This is the dining room,” she said, gesturing into a spacious room that I also recognized from the photos. “One thing is, they ate really well here. They were all about fresh fruits and veggies and fresh meat. They would bring the patients down here to eat and socialize six times a day – small, healthy meals. Now, this part was real messed up when the owners bought the place, you couldn’t even walk some places on the floor without falling through and it was real musty from the mold. But when they first were walking through here, they all smelled fresh-baked bread and saw a spirit dressed in a white apron that they’re pretty sure was the cook here. It wasn’t just the patients that loved it here and wanted to stay – the staff did too. I’ve seen the cook a few times. I think he just wants to keep on cooking for people and making them well.” Sandy was running out of steam, but still managed to sniffle discretely.

We maneuvered through a series of hallways, completely dark except for a few bare lightbulbs similar to the ones used on construction sites. “Now we are on to the final part of our tour and the part the Waverly is most famous for: The Death Tunnel. The tunnel is over 500 feet long, and a little steep, so if you have any walking or claustrophobia issues, you might want to skip this part and we will meet up with you in the parking lot.”

We came to the mouth of the tunnel, a wide pathway with an arched roof. On the left, shallow stairs were carved into the concrete. On the right, a smooth path, wide enough for a gurney, sloped down into the darkness.

“At the height of the Waverly, they were losing as many as 200 patients a week. Over 60,000 people died here. Well, first of all, TB was super-contagious, so they had to get rid of the bodies fast. Also, it was really bad for the other patient’s morale to see all of those dead bodies going by in bags, so they built this tunnel so they could wheel out the bodies and no one would see them. They’d leave them down at the bottom, and then the undertaker would pick them up and take them straight to the crematorium.”

We filed in behind Sandy who produced a large flashlight to lead the way. “You might want to put your phones on flashlight mode for this,” she said, “and watch your step.”

James and I were in the middle of the pack. I grabbed for his hand again. The tunnel was dark and the stairs were crumbling in places. I hunched a bit, though I didn’t need to if I kept a few steps away from the curving wall. I trained the light of my phone on the ground ahead of me and focused on James’ feet, trailing by our joined hands and stepping where he stepped, breathing carefully to keep my mounting anxiety at bay. Our group was very quiet, the tunnel filled only with the sound of our feet.

“Oh!” James said, coming to an abrupt stop which caused me to collide into his back.

“Watch out,” he said, creating a circle of space with his body and shining the light from his phone onto the floor.

Bundled at the base of one of the stairs was a nest of pinky mice. James stood on one side of it and I squatted on the other, ushering the people behind us around it.

While we waited for the group to clear, I looked at the nest. Their tiny hands grasped the air and their mouths opened and closed. Their mother was not with them, frightened away by our group.

“I hope she comes back,” I said.

“She will,” James said.

When the last person passed, James and I resumed our walk down the Death Tunnel. I was no longer frightened. I did not hold James’ hand. Memories of other things, weak and helpless, flashed in snatches of faces and names. I felt the adrenaline surge in me again and form hard around a single question.

XXX

Louis was hit by a bus. Louis was a drunk. His best friend was George. Louis had unbearably sad eyes. Even when his words were not lucid, his eyes were – focused, irreparably, inside himself. George said that Louis walked right in front of that bus. The bus driver who hit him was young, inconsolable, though it really was not her fault. He was knocked 10 feet out of his shoes, shoes that had been laced.

Don’s liver failed him. His skin was yellow when he died.

Cancer got Earlene. She writhed in the bed, unable to speak, her mouth bald and gaping.

Mark used to drink his coffee each morning in the alley behind our building. He talked slow and smooth, like a cowboy. Mark fell and hit his head on the curb or someone hit him with something. He lapsed into a coma on the floor of a shelter. His daughter unplugged him the next day.

There was the one girl whose name I don’t remember who they found dismembered in a garbage can – the one from First Step Home who was sober until she wasn’t. Her pimp chopped her up. They identified her by her baby’s name which was tattooed on her arm.

Paul died in a room of his own at Tender Mercies. Richard died at Jimmy Heath House. Diseases got them. Messy, ugly diseases.

Jimmy died too, before they named the building after him. I keep his birthday in my phone because I can’t delete it.

All of them. There are all of them.

I am angry too. Angry enough to ask my question. Angry enough to never forgive the answer.

XXX

When we got to the bottom, the Death Tunnel opened out into the parking lot. Sandy stood at the mouth, beneath the wrought-iron scroll that spelled out Waverly Hills Sanatorium, shaking hands like a bride in a receiving line. A few people lingered to ask questions.

“Let’s go,” James said.

“Hold on.” I waited my turn. Sandy was still polite, but growing more detached.

I shook her hand when she offered it and, clasping it, said, “How did the Man in White die?”

“What?”

“How did he die?”

“Kids, probably,” she shrugged and shook loose my hand.

“They killed him?”

“Yes.”

“Did they get caught? Go to jail?”

“Oh. You know how it is. Boys will be boys.”

“Let’s go,” James said again, taking my hand, leading me away.

“Did you hear that?” I asked.

“Yeah, but she’s full of shit. She clearly just made that up on the spot.”

“But why that? Of anything, why that?”

“I don’t know.”

We got in the car and left. The streetlights were bright after all of the darkness to which my eyes had grown accustomed and the rain finally fell. We stopped at a gas station. While James was inside, I looked at the people around me. It was a busy Saturday night and the parking lot was crowded. I watched them through the windshield, rushing to avoid getting wet.

And all I could think, “was it you?”

You could have been a teen in the  80’s, one of the party kids. Was it you? Did the dog try to protect him? Did you startle him or did you go there to do it, to clean up the place? Was it a dare? Did he catch you?  Do you think about it still or did you convince yourself it didn’t really happen? Just some stupid high school shit.

Was it you?

The Man in White is not on any of the websites. The cook is there, and Timmy, and the nurse in room 502. No one else tells the story of the Man in White, the only ghost Sandy didn’t cry over.

Was it just a story or was it a memory?

When it comes to ghosts, there is no difference at all.

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