There were three of us guys, Len, Dave, and me, and we all taught at the community college in town, and once a month on a Saturday evening, during summer break, we played Hearts. You know the card game. Wives accompanied sometimes, excepting that Len didn’t have a wife anymore, because she ran off with Mark’s wife, Mark being the guy who was once our fourth. (He went into landscaping and moved to Vermont.) Dave’s wife, Aileen, was very friendly with mine, whose name is Debby. Aileen and Debby often sat in the kitchen and drank cheap red or sat out on the deck, playing tapes on a boom box that still somehow performed the task. We men cloistered ourselves up in the attic for an hour and a half, around the card table, box fan in the gabled window, shooting the moon. We’d been playing for eleven years.
We knew one another well, I’d like to think, as well as you can know people with whom you grew from idealistic young college professors to weary middle-aged parents. There was a certain kind of banter that was routine among us, some of it good-natured complaining about college students, some of it about naming conventions for asteroids, worst presidents of the United States of America, and everyone who played on a certain Coltrane session in 1965.
I can remember a long conversation at one game, during which Dave successfully controlled the lead for all but one trick, in which we discussed at length the physical complaint known as Burning Mouth Syndrome. It bears mentioning not one of us had personal experience with Burning Mouth Syndrome, which is rare, but neither did we refuse to believe in Burning Mouth Syndrome—as though Burning Mouth Syndrome required belief in order to make irrefutable its symptomatic course.
Knowing each other well was why the other guys were surprised on this night last July when there was a fourth chair at the card table. No one could play who hadn’t been through a rigorous vetting process, a process so rigorous, in fact, that we had entirely given up adding new players, perhaps because of the situation with Len’s wife.
“Who’s the extra chair?”
Dave said, “Travis’s putting his leg up again.”
Len said, “But we agreed.”
Dave said, “We definitely agreed.”
The plantar fasciitis wouldn’t remit, probably because of the marathoning, but it seemed that putting my leg up, in a friendly card-game competition, left me open to charges of examining other people’s hands. Even though we didn’t really give a shit about the winner, didn’t keep score beyond a given Saturday, there were kinds of fair play that were the sign that civilization was taking place.
The chair sat there for a while.
The chips in the oversized ceramic bowl were the classic chips, because we had lengthily discussed the varieties of chip effectiveness, rejecting avocado oil and sour cream and onion as needless innovations. The salsa was medium spicy, and later on we intended to grill something conservative. Salmon, I think.
“He’ll be here in a little bit.”
I pointed at the chair.
There was no good way to describe him, there was no reliable bit of cultural commentary that would suggest what was to happen. It either would or it wouldn’t. Because I really liked these guys at the Hearts game, I had a hunch that we could easily share this next particular strange turn, and these guys, my good and true friends, would accept it without, for example, mounting a whisper campaign.
In the interim, I must admit, Len again commanded an entire run of diamonds, top to bottom, excepting the two I had played in the first trick, and that sinking feeling set in, as if the tax authorities had just sent me a request for information. It was clear that Dave and I were about to be far behind. You know, there’s some kind of mise en abyme that comes with Hearts, even more so when Len shoots the moon, because he does it with performative zeal, with a kind of running commentary about his mastery of this and all games. Highly ironized, of course, but funny and charming, especially because Len fails when trying to command the run of game on many an occasion. Anyway: “All you cisgendered heteronormative STEM guys, with your unexamined privilege, and your guarantees of appointments on all the standing committees, can’t even beat one associate professor from American Studies!”
Len and Dave were uproarious over this comment, and hitting the chips hard, and the beer, and how could we stop Len, and would history just become one long run of Len spieling while amassing the suit known as diamonds?
And then the guy walked in, the guy for whom I put out the chair. It is safer to say, though I am suspicious of the terminology, that he substantiated, because there was no real physical sense of him walking through the doorway, shuffling through, really, because the door was not open, nor imperceptibly ajar. The floorboards were old as befitted the crumbling New England housing stock of our address, and there were dust bunnies gamboling, and these were unbestirred by his substantiating presence; his physical presence was nonphysical; and there was an insufflation by the assembled, and there he was beside the card table, over by that rusting metal bookshelf with the trade paperbacks on it, one hand hovering above the topmost. He just kind of was there.
I could see the other guys arrest, and Len even reached by habit for his inhaler, ever at his side in his latter days of asthmatic symptoms. Dave said, Holy shit, under his breath, even though I know—because at one point our kids were in day care together—that he had internalized that contemporary day-care advice that suggests: never overreact. He’d picked Shirley up at pre-K, that one time, when she had sliced off a majority of one index finger, without a word.
Shimmering would be a good word for it, the guy I was preliminarily calling Knuckles, because of the evident swelling of his fingers, sign of some postmortem arthritic inflammation. Knuckles did not substantiate in any complete way. On this day, for example, he didn’t seem to have a below-the-knee self at all, not fibula nor tibia, just a shimmering into nothingness where his trousers, which looked to be abundantly befouled gray chinos, just ceased to be. In certain spots, you could see through him. Right where his knee was, or would have been, I mean, I could see a run of Asimov paperbacks behind. He was wearing a houndstooth tweed blazer in tan, wide lapels, over some kind of light blue permanent-press dress shirt, which I presumed was short sleeved because you could see his wrists, or a suggestion of wrist, and he had on a skinny tie that didn’t go low enough on his paunchy middle, like he was pretending to be the slim man he once was. There was a folded handkerchief in his breast pocket. It bore a little crest of some sort. Let me also note in the spirit of completeness that he had on graduated sunglasses, and his hair, even in his apparitional immateriality, glistened with some pomade from the 1950s. The effect, overall, was of a compulsive gambler, fresh from some really bad bet at trackside, walking into your attic unannounced, when you had an elaborate security system.
While the guys were taking it all in, Knuckles ambled around the crowded side of the card table where Len and Dave were kind of crammed in, mumbled an apology that was both audible and not, and sat down in his chair, if, in fact, he could be said to sit, if it were not rather closer to hovering. He heaved a sigh of weariness as he did so, as if even in his semimaterial state he was bone-tired. And then he fell silent and, for the most part, motionless. Shimmering.
Dave said, “Uh, hello there, I’m Dave. Dave French.”
It was an inspired approach, trying to engage the apparition in conversation, and soon Len followed suit, if you’ll excuse the pun.
“Len Spalding, Travis’s friend from the committee on promotions, and mandolin player, and . . . father of two.”
Len, who had responded to the absconding of wife, and the mitigation of custody of his children by getting more affable, actually stuck out a hand. To the ghost in the attic.
The tubercular purring of the former lungs of Knuckles, and an uncomfortable tapping of a crusty penny loafer, nowhere visible, suggested that Knuckles had heard, but nothing more was said. In fact, he rarely said anything. This, apparently, was who he was, just not very talkative. So he looked up, in this fluid, sort of liquid way he had, and gazed at Len’s hand, smiled inscrutably, almost generously, and then crossed his arms. The effect was of keen disconsolation.
What was so frightening about it? In that silence, in that dusk? All those preconceptions you might have, or torn sheets, withering cries, or whatever, those were oversimplifications. A malevolent guest, an incubus coming in the night to make mischief in your affairs? I had experienced no such thing, there was no torn-down face, no sinews exposed, in a bathroom glass. There was just a heartbroken and silent guy, who didn’t belong in our house, wouldn’t say why he had come, and wouldn’t go away. And his comings and goings were impossible to predict, which meant he would brush by you at all hours, mumbling, in a whisper, Excuse me, heading for the family room. And that was scary enough.
“Guys,” I said, “this is our house guest.”
A vacuum of responses from my friends.
“And he’s been living with you how long?” Dave said finally.
How long had he been living with us? And why hadn’t I mentioned him to the guys, like four days ago when I ran into Dave at the farmer’s market?
There was a sociologist I was acquainted with at school who’d written a manuscript about the sociology of hauntings, a book that was derisively treated by his colleagues, but which postdated his tenure, such that no one could do anything much about it. This fellow had asked me if I would read the manuscript upon completion, presuming, I guess, that my specialty (scientific ethics) made me a person who would react to the book with a useful set of tools, and, yes, I did let scientific method be my guide. I thought On the Paranormal was a doughy mass of delusion, a great sinkhole into which the empty calories of popularly understood superstition could be poured, without ever admitting to a critique of its nonsense, so that people in their delusion would not see the more potent kinds of ghosts ever massing around them, the meth addicts, the persons without homes, those with profound mental illness, evangelicals, and so on.
I read On the Paranormal while smoking the occasional blunt late at night, and I read it at first the way I would read supermarket tabs, and later with a kind of self-righteous condescension. The more Ed Pearlstein, of the sociology department, tied the hauntings to persistent kinds of social usage, to normative convention, across cultures, the more I thought the guy was a rube, perhaps with dissociative identity disorder. And when people said that Pearlstein had engaged in financial improprieties when he had been head of sociology, I believed them. I was sure he had done it, and worse.
My skepticism, as I told Len about it later on, was a kind of heartwarming certainty that I had come to reckon with in turn. Because it wasn’t long after I read the Pearlstein manuscript that I was in the basement of our place, which, I reminded Len, was one of those unfinished New England basements with a mud floor that glistened, and which also featured actual stone foundation, all of it shifting and vaporizing down to the level sands, according to the avenging of time, like clints of limestone in the Celtic wild, myself in the basement looking for a particular kite that I was going to attempt to fly with my son, when I heard the words Excuse me, sir, muttered with a distinctly Forest Hills locution, and I felt someone brush past, only to feel it two or three more times, like a repeatable experiment, and those words, Excuse me, excuse me, pardon me, as though he already knew me, whoever he was, in my cave of a basement.
“Who’s there?” said I, with the kind of clipped brevity that one employs in poorly written films of the Halloween season. This was precisely the wrong question, as you can see, I said to Len, because Knuckles was not a who, because he was both who and not who and there and not there all at the same time, a participant and a nonparticipant, whose insubstantial self-exerted a powerful effect on those who saw him, the answer to the question who was he was simply: he was. He came to rest by a spot in the mottled and foul basement where, if one were going to torture, one would have tortured, and he leaned up against the wall, and I wondered if I was seeing, or not seeing, or dreaming, or failing to dream, or hallucinating. Was it, in fact, the light? Some action of quanta, particles, and waves?
“And . . . what do you want?”
To which there was a hiss, somewhere between a laugh and pejorative sniffle, or more like an emphysemiac cough, and then the little bits of light that emanated through and around him, some last bit of a bright sunshine that eddied in through a basement crevice, faded, and he was gone.
All at once, I should say, my interpretation of the Pearlstein manuscript seemed inadequate. Or, maybe, I wanted my interpretation to be the right interpretation, but the thing that I had seen in the basement caused me to go back to my psychiatrist, whom I stopped seeing three years prior, and thus I came to a more nuanced reading.
That night, about the time that my son, who was into his contemptuous middle teen years, asked to put his dishes in the sink, so that he could go aloft, to the second floor, to pollute his brain with video games that I didn’t understand at all, I broached the subject with Debby. I was scrubbing some pots, containing the legacy of some fiery chili, and I said, “Honey, I’ve seen something in the basement.” Her thought was mouse, or rat, or raccoon, all of which, at various points, we had seen near, or maybe something really exotic, a fisher or a coyote.
“Can we trap it?” Debby said, having pushed back from the kitchen table.
I said: “I don’t know if it can be trapped.”
“Is it an animal?”
“It has the traces of an animal.”
“Will it knock over stuff? Will it knock over the skis?”
“A moose,” she said. “There’s a moose in the basement. How did a moose get the bulkhead open?”
“It was a man.”
“What? There’s someone downstairs in the basement and you didn’t tell me, and for how long? Is it a homeless guy?”
“I think he might be dead.”
“There’s a corpse in the basement?”
“Not that kind of dead.”
A long marriage, by the way, is a thing of routines. You think you can scam all the possible outcomes. You think you know exactly how the other party is going to respond, and that frees you up from having to improvise. You’re a piston rising and falling predictably in a modern factory interior, and you’re loving that. You have predictable responsibilities, and your downtime is immense. But at the first sign of unpredictable revelation, everyone is out of sorts and wants to resist. So it was for Debby.
“I’m going to have a look,” she said, but in a way that suggested she wished I’d take care of it.
And then: “What do you take along for this kind of encounter? Should I have a flashlight?”
I didn’t know. Because there just had been the one time, and it might have been about school, teaching, the exhaustion of it, the depleting of anything like a normal ability to act upon the world, a depleting of surprise, until all that was left was syllabi, and grading, and 14-week increments. Was it the academic entanglements that made it necessary to see the ghost?
“Let’s have a look together. We’ll leave him upstairs.”
I gestured to the probable resting spot above me, on the second floor, where Calvin was playing video games in his room, or swiping right on some indexer of love interests.
“Probably best. Until we know more.”
Debby got the flashlight that was wall-mounted in the pantry, the length and heft of a bludgeon, and we headed down the creaky stairs to the distant past of New England, rocky, colonial, or agrarian, whose loam and early bricklaying habits were still evident in our basement. And Debby cast the lamplight, with its flickering D-battery lumens, down the stairs, in a huff of disconcerted terror. Down we went. It occurred to me to wonder, if it was a haunting, if that was the right word, what exactly was the purpose thereof? Ontological crisis?
“In the back, by the canoe.”
She found the wall switch, turned on the dim-watted fluorescents, and then trained the flashlight on the corner where I’d seen him.
“There,” I said.
“And what did you see exactly?”
“An older guy, like a guy or a portion of a guy, a shimmering of a guy, whom you might see at the assisted-living place, or at bingo night at the church. A down-at-his-heels sort of guy, shifty, unreliable.”
“Just standing there?”
The beam caught here an old painting that was no longer hung in the living portion of the house, an idealized landscape, now destined to mold, and then a metal shelf that had some old terra cotta planters, and a couple of painted ones with annoyingly floral exteriors. It shone where the paint was detaching from the rock, and where the wiring was festooned on the wall, some cable from where the cable installer had just slung it around, as a sign of good cheer. It shone at the juncture of the ceiling, and down where stone met packed earth. What it did not show was Knuckles, or any sign of him.
And now my wife came in close to me, near upon my face, the flashlight pendular at the end of her arm, “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Excerpted from Rick Moody’s novella, “One Eyed Jack” featured in Conjuctions: 72, Nocturnals (Spring/May 2019). Copyright © 2019 Rick Moody.