A ghost is a hole in the mind

Edward Hopper, "Sun in an Empty Room"

Sometimes you only know a ghost by what you don’t see.

“You remember that house on Lincoln Avenue?”

This was pretty soon after I moved back to Asheville from New Orleans. I had come back here as a matter of necessity, not of choice. The city felt small and cramped to me after so many years away. Moving back here was like trying to wear a coat I’d grown out of: sleeves too high on the wrist, shoulders too tight. It made me feel awkward and ridiculous.

But on that afternoon I was having coffee with my brother. We’d become estranged over the preceding years, and I found in him a surprising familiarity. It amazed me how many of my own strange quirks were reflected in him. Hanging out with him was like spending time with a less wrecked version of myself, and it was both comforting and encouraging.

“Sure,” I said. The house he was referring to was the one we’d lived in during most of my teenage years; it was where I was living when I went to Asheville High and found my heart attached to Karen but somehow ended up dating Barbara. When I played trumpet all the time and wrote a lot of really bad comedy stories. (There was a time I thought I was destined to be a funny writer.) Most of my memories from that time centered on my time outside of the house, in my high school life. I guess that’s true for most teenagers.

“Do you remember that it was haunted?”

I smiled. “No,” I said. “Not at all.”


“You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”

He was incredulous. “You don’t remember how Mom never slept up there? She always slept on the couch. And the dogs refused to go up there. If you tried to lead Seneca up the stairs she would drag you back down. How can you not remember that?”

It was late afternoon at this point. We were sitting in a booth and the sun was coming through a plate glass window, hard and bright. I was on my second cup of coffee and my blood was jangling. It was maybe the least conducive atmosphere for a discussion of ghosts I have ever found myself in. Which made what he had just told me seem all the more ridiculous. Especially when you considered one crucial fact:

“Jess, there was no second floor in that house.”

He just stared at me for a second. He went on to describe the second floor. One large room, with decorative molding running near the floor and small blue flowers painted there. Hardwood floors, windows which filled the room with light. It gave every appearance of being a cheery place. But something in there rejected human presence.

I thought about the layout of the house: retraced steps, remembered sitting in my room talking on the phone with the window open and cool air coming through. I remembered the unfinished basement, which actually did seem sinister to me, and a logical place for a haunting if there was to be one. But I could not remember an upper room at all. I could not remember a door which would open onto a stairwell. I did not believe it.

I needed proof, so we got into the car and drove by the old place. I slowed down as we passed it and looked. It was painted yellow, and the front porch had been screened in since we’d lived there. And there was a window near the top, covered by curtains, though the sun had not yet set. A second floor. I let the car idle and stared.

Nothing came back. Nothing at all. It seemed impossible to me. And yet there was that window, incontrovertible, and behind it a hole in my memory as absolute as if nothing had ever been there at all.

We toyed briefly with the idea of knocking on the door and telling the story to whoever lived there now, hoping they would let me see it, but for some reason we decided against it. We drove away.

My brother and I have become estranged again, since that time. It amazes me that we can be so alike in some ways — sharing personality traits and perspectives that I’ve not found in anyone else in the world — and yet have differences so vast that they sometimes seem uncrossable.

We make narratives of our lives. We cast the people around us in roles, and learn to see them that way, even if it means distorting who they really are. We remember events or forget them in a way that will make our chosen narrative true. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can kill us if we’re not careful.

My brother’s role has shifted several times over the years, and may do so again.

I don’t know why I felt the need to forget the upstairs room. Why, even now, the image I have of it is the one described to me, and nothing I can draw from memory.

It doesn’t matter. Because there are no ghosts in my story.

Only empty spaces.


11 thoughts on “A ghost is a hole in the mind

  1. Livia Llewellyn

    I just want you to know that I got up in the middle of the night, and couldn’t sleep, so I got onto my computer, and then read this – which so totally and completely spooked the shit out of me that I ended up going back to sleep only with all the lights on and the TV blaring. Thanks!

      1. Livia

        Yes, it was tuned into an empty room – until that little girl climbed out of it and melted my face. Thanks, you bastard!

  2. Neal Stanifer

    Nate, this is very touching. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it: your ability to find horror in humanity and humanity in horror never ceases to stun me. And I doubt I will ever stop envying the economy of your style.

    1. Neal, what a great thing to say. I wish we could sit down and talk about shit like this over beers and shots like we did back in the day. We need to hang out again, okay? Let’s make it happen.

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