Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Old Haunts

By Laura Furman

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Years ago, when I was living in Upstate New York, I knew two poets who rented a gothic cottage in a nearby town. The faded white house with black shutters and high-peaked gables was misplaced in a neighborhood of Plain Jane saltboxes. It looked like the witch's house in a children's book about snow, and should have been alone on its hill overlooking the river.

The two poets were in the little town for the year: He had a grant; she was a waitress at a restaurant 20 miles away. In between shifts her desk grew cluttered with rubber stamps and bottles of colored ink. Sometimes she came up with a glorious lyric, sometimes a decorated postcard. His work was heavier, the very lines of his poems shaking the house as he did when he walked from room to room. Both tall, they seemed a little large for the cottage.

They came for dinner to my house 12 miles out in the country, or I went to theirs. When he drank he liked to argue, and I saw him less as the winter wore on. She came to my house, or I visited her at the restaurant.

It snowed a lot that winter. When she returned from waitressing between 2 and 3am, she drank herbal tea to calm herself from cigarettes and wine. Often she thought she heard someone at their bedroom window and went outside to check. No one was ever there.

She found a stack of drawings in the back of her closet, the kind of fashion sketch that summarizes the line and intention of an outfit. On the wall of their bedroom was a framed newspaper clipping about a fashion show, with a name underlined in ball-point pen. The house was owned by the nephew of a dress designer who'd retired there with her husband; he'd died, then so had she. The poets quarreled. He wanted to put the drawings in the basement and take the clipping off the wall. She said they had no right.

She caught a cold and didn't work for a few weeks. One night he was bringing her tea when they both heard someone outside the bedroom window. It was the cat, he said, and opened the front door but the cat didn't come bounding in.

The next morning she bundled herself up, and left a trail of footprints behind her in the new-fallen snow. Outside their window she saw footprints as if someone had stood there, but there was no trail leading to or away from the window. When she didn't get better, she went to the doctor a few blocks away. In between coughs she told him where she was living.

illustration by Penny Van Horn

The doctor had heard all about the woman and her house from the old doctor who'd been in practice in the town forever. She was a drinker and got the blues the way some people did. The old doctor told her that if she was thinking of suicide, to do it outside and save a god-awful mess for other people. It was advice he often gave to get people to shape up. She shot herself outside her bedroom, and was found by the neighbors in no time at all.

When their lease was up, my friends moved back to the city, and eventually the house was bought by people who painted it cream with black trim and added windowboxes to all the windows, red geraniums, lobelia, and white petunias in summer. I don't know if the ghost showed herself to them.

I'd like to know what the woman outside the bedroom window wanted. Sometimes ghosts don't know they're dead, I'm told, and so they stay in place. Or maybe they're like the rest of us, living haunters of real estate, traveling in our dreams to familiar bedsides and windows. There are no ghosts where I live now. Sometimes in the woods I turn, sure that someone is there, but it's the shifting light or the movement of a deer, and it feels final, a feeling you never get when you're haunted.

Laura Furman is a novelist and short story writer who lives in Austin. She teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

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