Few things reawaken childhood certainties as absolutely as moving into a new house and discovering traces of its old inhabitants. These might be anything, found anywhere: long unnoticed toys lingering in closet corners, faded pieces of paper in a kitchen drawer, an unrepaired sash cord resting limply along a window sill. Even the peculiar sound of a worn floorboard pressed by your own foot for the first time is, in its own little way, a record of old comings-and-goings. Such things accumulate throughout your first days of occupation, piling up without considerable notice being paid to them. At most, failing to grow accustomed to your bed in its new surroundings, you might remember them in a faintly discomforting way while you lie awake in the long hours before dawn.
In the front parlor of the house I now rent, a whitewashed spinet rests against the wall beside the pocket doors leading to the dining room. It’s quite old and ugly. Pink rosettes have been stenciled along the case over the hammer rail. The bench consists of three rough planks that have been nailed to four legs and decorated with the same flaking white paint. The keyboard cover rests loosely over the keys, the hinges long since broken and removed. Underneath, the ivory is the yellow of old bridal veils.
My landlord, though given to displays of oppressively artificial enthusiasm, seemed genuinely excited to pull up the cover and try one of the untuned keys. He told me proudly how he’d bought the whole thing at auction for seven dollars, wheeled it down the street, and carried it up the front stairs with a team of energetic college students. For decades it had stood in a girl’s orphanage. I thought of resounding floors and dance instructors and excited chatter.
From any angle you look at it, there are hints of shadow over the whole instrument. Even in full daylight, it has an odd darkness to it. This is perhaps a property of old varnish.
Once, while watching a person slowly die, I was struck by the worry that the soul might detach itself from the body in pieces, some of which would occasionally become stuck to something for a while as they drifted upward – a bone or a lung or something – causing them to wave in the air like bits of string caught in the grille of an electric fan, until at last they are loose enough to be blown up into the higher reaches of the room, growing invisible against the whitewash of the walls and ceiling.
That is the great worry about ghosts. In childhood, at least, you imagine there is something more to them than this: you have expectations of them, they will present themselves to you personally, you will have to look at them, they will frighten you out of sheer perversity or malevolence. Not so as an adult. As you drift from house to house, you begin to notice the drab realities that make their own existences so thoroughly mundane. One pats every night at the knob of the same door, speaking the same words in a voice somewhere below a whisper. One walks up and down the same steps, looking out the same window, whether it is open or not. One moves the same pieces of furniture very slight distances across the same worn floorboards. One strikes the same key on the same parlor spinet. One is no more than a mood. One is only a flickering light that sometimes reflects in a surface of polished wood. All of them struggle with the dreary problem of growing hopelessly abstract. Nobody else needs so desperately to be reminded of their bodies. These little rituals of theirs are tired gestures at solidity in the face of gradual dematerialization, stopgap measures to prevent themselves from growing as intangible as the shadows under picture frames.
The spinet has an inevitable advantage over most of us. Something as large and uncanny as itself will always seem to be more present than anything else in a room that contains it – more present even than my landlord and certainly more present than myself, given that I am already someone who tends to hover in corners and doorways and stand as close against the peeling wallpaper as it is possible to do. It is certainly more present, too, than whatever it is that stands forlornly on the staircase landing at about four in the morning, gazing out the window, detected only by my cat and my insomniac intuition.
Even so, it is alive in this way principally because I take an interest in it. Somehow I feel an understanding for it, however inarticulate. And that is enough to satisfy some needs. It is always a pleasure to be regarded, to be delineated against the wallpaper by a sympathetic attention. For a little while, it is as if there is a weight again, a stability in this world; the ghost no longer envies those confident skeletons who hold hourglasses in their hands, or hammers with which they pound the brass bells of timepieces.