Monday, October 03, 2005


In Which I Step Into October...

Oh, were you looking for the Giveaway of Crap? Start here.

Meanwhile, I have some stories to tell, and this is one of them:

For reasons I can't adequately explain, I've always looked forward to October. Better writers than I have extolled the many odd and wonderful virtues of October--the crisp breezes that bring smells of wood smoke and apples gone to vinegar; the sound of dried leaves, dried cornstalks, rustling in the forests and fields; the fundamental and overwhelming feeling of change in the air, of mystery, and always a mystery that seems to beckon to you specifically.

It is a month of transition, and maybe that's why I look forward to it, along with others who revel in the variety of change, who hate the sameness of one day to the next. Because October is the antithesis of the status quo, every moment of it is about change. Color giving way to pallor. Frost in the night, shirt-sleeve sunny heat in the day. Blinding bright mornings melting to sullen, drizzly afternoons. It is the buffer between times of the year that are truly warm and truly cold, and so contains elements of both in unpredictable measure, but belongs to neither one.

In every meaningful way, October is the divider between the season of the living and the season of the dead.

The last October that I truly felt the weight of that statement was in 1994. At the time, I was in rural Ohio, driving on a road I'd never traveled, to a town I'd never heard of, to see people I didn't know.

I was on my way to a wedding, but not my own. My bride of six months was with me, and it was her friends we were going to see. Indeed, it was her best friend and college roommate--let's call her D--who was getting married. Her Lovely Self was in the wedding, although no one--not even I--dared to call her the matron of honor ("best woman" was my favorite of all the alternative terms bandied about. It suited me fine. Let the groom have his bride. I was still going home with the best woman). Most of the people at this wedding were college friends of hers, and had not made it to our own wedding (perhaps because many were ex-boyfriends of one kind or another), so this would be a first meeting for a lot of us.

As such, and throwing in the fact that my in-laws would also be in attendance (D was like a daughter to them) I had spent most of the cross-country drive being admonished to stay on my best behavior. Her Lovely Self had been married to me just long enough to realize that my endearing qualities--such as they were--were an acquired taste, to be revealed a bit at a time, not sprung all at once on the unsuspecting. And my in-laws had already had more than a taste of how I could be. I had a sense of humor that didn't agree with them. Also, I had an unfortunate tendency to ask people lots of questions, questions that sometimes turned probing or explored areas they didn't deem fit for polite conversation. It was the nature of my work to do this, and the people I conversed with never seemed to mind, but my in-laws did. "Why does he have to be so nosy?" they would ask Her Lovely Self. "Does he have to know everything? Who does he think he is?"

So I had resolved to be the very model of decorum and good taste--to be completely fake, in other words. The honeymoon was far from over, the accept-me-as-I-am-or-kiss my-ass arguments still in the future. Like so many newly married people, I was willing to be flexible to the point of utter spinelessness.

I forget the name of the town, but it was a small one, a good ways south of Highway 50, which we'd left at Hillsboro, but still some distance north of the Kentucky border. It could have been any place in rural America these days. It had a boarded-over Main Street you knew was thriving and pretty once, but now the only businesses that prospered were the convenience stores at either end of town and the surfeit of beauty salons whose names all seemed to be based on some play off the word "mane." The place had all the air of a town on the skids, yet with still enough residents driving around to make you wonder, more than once, where do all these people work?

We were expected for a rehearsal at the local Catholic church, which was, of course, on Church Street. It was a homely affair of stained brick and peeling brown clapboards. Looking at it from the street, you got the impression that it was a small place, with its single front door (which was locked) and its narrow, weathered steeple. But this was just the oldest part of the church.

Walk along the side--as Her Lovely Self and I did now, looking for an unlocked door--and you realized that the church front was the head of a segmented complex of additions. A large hall was tacked onto the back. A small school adjoined on one side (long ago closed, the space converted to storage, we later found out). On the other side was an annexed rectory and another squat addition that had once served as church offices. Each building appeared to have been built at a different time in history and none of the parts made a very elegant whole, especially now, as dilapidated and so badly in need of paint as it all seemed.

"Why are they getting married here?" I asked, more curious than incredulous.

"I know," HLS said, her nose wrinkling. "It's a bit decrepit. I guess I they won't be doing pictures out front. But it's a family thing. D's mother and grandmother were both married here, so I guess she wanted to come back and do the same thing."

I nodded. "So where are we supposed to meet them?"

She shook her head, looking around. "I have no idea. D was supposed to meet us out front." She looked at her watch. "We're not that early. We--wait!" She shushed me and tilted her head, listening. Somewhere inside that warren of buildings, we both heard what sounded like faint piano music. "Well, someone's here," she said and we continued around the side of the old church, looking for a way in.

We found one eventually, a propped-open door on a concrete step in the back of what had once been the school. We were about as far away from the front of the church as we could possibly be, but there seemed to be no closer entrance. We walked into the building.

It was cool and dark and instantly quiet. We couldn't hear the piano music anymore. I stopped just inside and waited for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. Ahead of us was a corridor bounded by rows of small, battered lockers and wide old wooden doors. As we walked past the abandoned classrooms, the floorboards groaned, echoing loudly in the quiet. Her Lovely Self grabbed my hand.

"Okay, this is creepy," she said, her voice low.

As she said this, I stepped on a particularly creaky floorboard, and it groaned in a long, sighing, remarkably flatulent way.

"Whoa, excuse me!" I said, patting my stomach theatrically. "Shouldn't have had that second hamburger!"

"Stop it," Her Lovely Self said, already her standard reaction to any of my attempts at humor.

"Just trying to lighten the mood," I said. "I think it's great in here. Reminds me of all these old abandoned houses and depots and barns out on the edge of town where I lived in Kansas. My friend Shawn and I spent hours exploring those places. They were amazing. Of course, it's a wonder we didn't fall down a hole and break our necks."

I would have happily lingered, poking around in the old classrooms, but Her Lovely Self hurried me along through the old school until we came a much more brightly lit and windowed hallway. From here we could see the rectory through the window to our right and judged that the bulk of the church was more or less in front of us. We could also hear piano music again, coming from straight ahead, so that was the way we went, right through a set of double doors that led us into a wide room whose walls were studded with coathooks.

Here in the rear entrance of the church, locked doorways stood on either side of us. Directly ahead was a corridor with several doorways. One led to a kitchen, another to a room filled with small desks and toys, and which was obviously a nursery or Sunday school classroom. Nearby was an open doorway that led to a short stairwell that took you up to the choir loft. At the end of the hall were two other closed doors and, finally, a set of double doors leading to the chapel.

Her Lovely Self looked in the room with the small desks and saw a bundle of papers and a purse sitting on a table. "That's D's purse!" she said. "She must be here. I'm going to go look in the church. You stay here in case she comes back."

I gave the first of what would be many pained looks. "And I'll know who she is, because...?" We had, of course, never met.

HLS rolled her eyes. "You could ask her. Just be nice, all right?"

Before I could ask where she got this impression that I was un-nice to people, Her Lovely Self was gone through the double doors and I was alone in the corridor.

And so I do what I always do when confined to a specific space to wait for something or someone: I started pacing. It drives onlookers nuts, but it keeps me occupied. I walked in and out of the empty classroom and kitchen. I paced along the rear entrance, running my fingers absently down the rows of coathooks. I stepped over to the foot of the choir-loft stairs. I walked the length of the hall over to the two closed doors at the end--

And I stopped walking.

I was instantly aware that there was something very...odd...about the door to my right.

Which in itself is an odd thing to say, because really it was an utterly ordinary door. It had no marks or numbers on it. It was just an old wooden door, painted a slightly scuffed white. It had a small black doorknob set into an old-fashioned, square, cast-iron lock, but otherwise had no distinguishing features.

And yet, I had the strangest feeling about it.

I put my hand on the door and stood in the quiet, ear cocked, straining to listen. As the seconds ticked by, I felt very strongly that someone was standing just on the other side of the door.

You know how it is when you're a kid playing hide-and-seek and you're in a room looking for another kid and you know someone's hiding there, even though you can't see them? That's how I felt.

It occurred to me for a moment that this might be the bathroom, and wouldn't I make a good impression on whoever was in there--probably the bride-to-be--if she flung the door open just then and found me in front of it, ear bent to the wood like a pervert? Oh yes, that would be a fine how-do-you-do. So I quickly rapped on the door. "Hello?" I asked softly.

No answer.

I tried the doorknob now and it turned easily. The door creaked open.

On the other side, I saw not a bathroom but a long narrow, empty room. It seemed a little too small to be useful for anything like a classroom, but it was a little too big to be, say, a walk-in closet or extra cloakroom. Judging from two broken chairs and a bent music stand just inside the door, the room was now serving as a haphazard storage space.

Like the door, the walls of the room were painted a scuffed white. One small, dirty window at the other end gave off a feeble, hazy light. In that light, I could see another door, a smaller one, with a metal pull-ring set into the wood. Where does that lead? Under the balcony stairwell? To the rectory? I wondered.

And without really knowing what I was doing or why, I left the corridor where Her Lovely Self had told me to wait, and I walked toward that other door.

I was halfway across the room when I stepped right into the cold spot.

There have been perhaps four other times in my life when I felt what came next, when I have accidentally stepped into a space occupied by something--or someone--unseen. But no previous experience ever prepares you for the moment when it hits you afresh. It is always sudden, always surprising.

Imagine every unusual sensation--short of outright pain--that your body is capable of generating. Goosebumps, cold sweats, teeth-chattering chills. Your bladder feels suddenly too small. Your lungs are suddenly too big, no possible way you can fill them with enough air. Senses become both acute and dull at the same time. The taste of pennies fills your mouth, but sound is as muffled as if you were underwater. Everything seems to move slowly, but you can feel the rapid insistent burning of pins and needles--not in your feet or your fingers, but in your ears, behind your eyes.

But imagine too, a moment of supreme exhiliration, like coming out of a stifling house and into a stiff breeze. Imagine a moment of pure excitement, the sense that all the adventures you dreamed about as a child are a moment away from actually occurring. You can't believe this is happening, but it is. And the realization chills and warms you at the same time.

That was the moment I was in now, somewhere in rural America in a forlorn town in the center of an old church in a forgotten room that I now knew to be haunted.

In that moment, it was like stepping into the purest essence of October itself.

Then the moment was gone and blind panic hit...


Well this is something new. Damn it man, more!
You should dedicate the month of October to Ghost Stories, if you want to, of course.
Didn't you once tell me you hated it when Bloggers wrote Cliffhangers? ;)

BRAVO, MM. I look forward to the next installment. favorite month is October as well. :)
Do not even think about going out of town before finishing this story
Yes! Yes! Yes! I knew as soon as I got to the part about the door this was a ghost story. Been waiting for one of these!

Your opening is the best description that I could never put into words of what October feels like. Thanks.
It's with awe and burning jealousy that I read your description of October. How dare you crawl inside my head and articulate so elegantly what I never can?! Ahh, MM. It was superb.

A little town in Kansas? Between the small midwest town and the reference to the Chicago J-School, I feel like I've been walking in your footsteps...
Nice October story there, MM. Looking forward to the next installment!
Tell me you don't run screaming from the room, bust into the chapel, and make your first impression on all of HLS's college friends babbling about the ghost in the long, skinny white room. Oh no, you did, didn't you? Oh, wait; there's still the mater of the door with the pull ring. Maybe you ran in there and locked yourself in and had to yell and yell for help? I don't know, but I just don't have a good feeling about where this is going (from HLS's p.o.v.). As adorable as you are, I'm guessing this ends with you mortifying her in one way or another.
Oh, lord, that is perfect. That is Octobery as all get out. More, yes, more!

That inspires me to blog about my husband's old rental house in Australia. One of the hauntedest-ever houses in the worrrrrld! Thanks, M.M.!
creepy old Catholic church --- of course it's haunted

and btw, who uses the word "keen" anymore??
Great story :) I've never had a supernatural experience, I don't think. But then again, I don't know if I've been the type to go in when I feel something's weird...usually I think I've been the type to avoid such a place. I always thought it was some kind of intuition, protecting me from a more normal kind of danger, but...maybe it wasn't!
Once again you astound me with the ability to take the words right out of my mouth. Oh who am I kidding - your description of October is everything I want to say but could never put into words. Beautiful.

Come on with the rest of the story!! I LOVE ghots stories, and have a few of my own. Perhaps we should all, us bloggers, make October the month of ghosties and goblins in our postings?
Bloggers: Making October a month of ghost postings?

Anyone up for it?

I like it! What a keen idea!

Lapin Caustique
This is so far the best cliffhanger yet. I like the idea of some sort of contest to see who can write the best "haunting" tale, true or not. But I guess you have already given away all you wonderful crap, so I have no idea what the prize would be. I'd love to read them those, ghost stories rule!!!
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