Saturday, January 21, 2012

Letting the Ghosts Run Free

I don't sleep very well.  I used to sleep like a log.  Once, a few years after college, my roommate had to break down our apartment door when he came home from his waiter job after I mistakenly locked it in such a way that he couldn't let himself in.  After standing under my window and yelling at me to wake up and pounding on the front door, he finally just kicked the door hit, breaking the flip latch I had set when I got home from my job.  When he stormed into my bedroom, I was happily snoring away, oblivious to the problem I had caused.  
I don't sleep like that any more.  Part of it is age.  If I get a good six hours of sleep, and by "good" I mean I only wake up once before falling back to sleep, I count myself lucky.  Recently, though, it has been worse.  And it's because I keep getting this feeling that there is someone else in the apartment with me.  
It started after I reorganized my apartment.  Over the course of two weekends, during which I threw out about eight trash bags and four or five boxes of junk, as well as my old sofa, replacing it with something cushy I bought from Ikea, my place has been transformed.  I used to have pathways carved through the stacks of stuff allowing me to get to the places I needed to get: my bed, my bathroom, the kitchen, the TV.  Now I can walk in any direction I like without any worry about bumping into anything or knocking something over.  It's really something else.
I thought that this was the root of my recent insomnia.  The place didn't feel like my place any more.  It certainly wasn't the place I had been used to living in for almost twenty years.  It was like visiting some family member and being put up in the guest room.  One thing I noticed, in my bedroom's current configuration I can look through the bedroom door into the living room, something I couldn't do previously.  I kept snapping awake in the middle of the night.  My eyes would dart to the open doorway, expecting to see...  Someone, standing there watching me.  One night, the certainty that someone else was there was so great that I turned on a nightlight in living room and left it on all night.  First time I'd done that in decades.  
Then I remembered something my great-aunt once told me and I began to wonder...  Could it be, in my apartment's newly organized state, the ghosts were being allowed to run free in my place...?
My great-aunt Isolene was my grandfather's last living sibling when I moved in with him a few years after returning to California.  She lived in Pasadena, like my grandfather, in a retirement apartment on Villa, between Los Robles and Lake.  I would drive her around and help her run errands while I was living with Pops, which is what we called my Mom's Dad.  
"This is a retirement community," Isolene would tell me in her Belizean accent, every time I brought her home from cashing her social security check and buying her groceries.  "I only pay ninety-two dollars a month for living here, because I am old.  You could not live here, because you are too young yet."  Part of the routine of living there was that you had to flip a little panel on your front door every morning when you woke up to show the caretakers of the place that you were alive.  If the panel wasn't flipped, someone would come with keys to open your door to see if you were all right.  
My Aunt Isolene's apartment was a cluttered place.  It wasn't dusty or dirty.  She kept it clean.  But there were boxes and bags of things sitting on every chair and couch.  It was a maze of stuff.  You would have to walk around one stack of boxes, then dodge a chair with paper grocery bags stuffed to their top edge, just to get to her bedroom and her bathroom beyond it.  More than once I bumped into one of these towers of junk and was forced to catch it to keep it from spilling its contents to the floor.  
One time I wasn't so lucky.  It was after putting her cans of Chicken & Rice soup away, on the uppermost shelf.  This was at her insistence, even though she was about four foot eleven when she stood on her tip-toes.  I never figured out how she got her cans of soup down when I wasn't there to help her.  I was turning around to put the paper bags away when I ran right into one of her kitchen chairs that had two or three paper bags on it.  Everything toppled to the ground and spilled all over.  
"Oh, oh...  Help me, hon!"  Isolene lowered herself painfully to her knees to scoop the stuff up.  I quickly joined her.  "No, no, no..."  She reached out to take some papers from me that I was shoving back into the nearest bag.  "Here, here...  It goes in this one, hon."  
It was then, for the first time, I got a good look at what had been in the bags I had knocked over.  Photographs.  Really old photographs.  The newest ones looked like they were taken in the fifties or sixties.  Some looked like they may have been taken by some of the earliest cameras ever made.  
And I recognized no one in any of the pictures.  Furthermore, I couldn't see any connection the people in the photos could have with my family.  The one that caught me eye showed a black couple; the man was wearing an army uniform that looked it it was from World War Two and the woman was wearing a white dress, with a pillbox hat that had that a white rose on its brim.  The photo behind it was of a Chinese family.  The young men were wearing heavy coats, buttoned to their necks.  The woman was wearing a dowager princes style gown while seated on a heavily brocaded sofa.  The photo felt like it would crumble to dust at any moment and had to have been forty years old at the time.
"Isolene...?"  I watched my aunt closely as she organized the photos, putting them back into the smaller paper bags they had been in.  "Who are these people?"  
"I don't know," she answers.  "These belonged to people that used to live here."  
"What happened to them?"  
"They died."  She shrugged, like it was a common occurrence.  "When no one came to get them or their things, I take it.  Some of it.  Like this..."  She lifted a photo album, worn along its edges with a broken clasp, to show me before sticking it back into the bag.  
I looked around at all the bags of things there, filling her place.  It was a bit creepy.  It was sad, too.  
"Isolene...?"  My aunt started to struggle to her feet.  I stood, helped her up and righted the chair as I spoke to her.  "I've got some free time today...  How about I help you...  Put this stuff away or something...?  Give yourself more room..."  
"Oh, no!"  Isolene dropped the last bag on top of the others.  She pushed it down to make it stay, then pushed the chair back into the kitchen table, which was also piled high with bags and boxes, to lock the bags in place.  "If you did that, then they might come to get me!"
"The people who these belong to, hon."  
"But...  You said they were dead."  
"I know..."  She reached out and patted me on the air, as if I had just given evidence of being young and foolish.  "But they may come back.  They may come back for their things.  That's why I keep it like this, hon.  So if they do come, they they get lost amongst it all and they won't bother me."  
I looked over her head at the stuff in her place.  "It really IS a maze," I remember thinking.  If she was so afraid of these ghosts coming after her, I wondered, then why collect it in the first place?  
I never did ask my aunt that question.  A few years later Pops died from a lung condition that might have stemmed from his working for years for a large air conditioning manufacturer.  I remember people telling him he might have a case for suing them, but he refused to consider it.  "They gave me a job when I needed one," he'd reply gruffly.  "I was grateful for it then, and I won't 'done' them now."  
Isolene, a diabetic, stopped taking care of herself as well as she used to.  She moved in with Pop's widow, even though she hated the woman, once he was gone.  Her and all that stuff.  She lost a leg from gangrene and died shortly after.  
I thought about what Isolene had told me for the first time in years recently.  It was while I was laying in bed, listening to the traffic passing on Del Mar in the middle of the night.  While I was trying to figure out if the creaking sound I'd just heard was from the next apartment, or from my living room.  I figured if it was Isolene come back, looking for her lost stuff, then I should be OK.  After all, I was the one who put the Chicken & Rice soup on her topmost shelf for her, right?  
"Chicken & Rice...  That's nice."  Hearing her say that in my memory, as she had all the times I pulled the cans from the shopping bags, I turned over and finally dozed off. 
Next time I go to the store, maybe I should buy a can of that soup and put it on the top shelf.  Just in case.


Anonymous Marq Del Monte said...

Cool story. I'm almost disappointed that you failed to mention that your friend and former co-worker, had suggested before the girlfriend came into the picture, that getting rid of all the clutter in the apartment might help you be happy. :)

January 21, 2012 at 6:37 PM  

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