Reprinted from December 2020.
As a volunteer at the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, I get asked a lot if the place is haunted. Officially, no, it’s not. But when I spend a couple of hours in the tiny townhouse, I sometimes think a little guy named Jacky is hanging out with me up in Edgar’s Aunt Maria’s bedroom. He loves “Ginny,” that, is Virginia Clemm who lived in this house with her mother Maria Clemm, her grandmother, her brother, and Edgar Allan Poe, the man who would become a world famous poet, critic and author, and her husband.
Jacky and his friend and fellow ghost Tyrone spend their days waiting for the ones they love on Amity Street.
By Mary K. Tilghman
A sprig of spiky green stuff hung with a red ribbon on the battered front door. I couldn’t imagine how or why it got there. Wintry gusts were doing all they could to yank it from the little white plastic hook but it was steadfast.
I’d wandered away from Amity Street for a while, going with Tyrone to see what his Grandma ReRe was up to at the B&O Roundhouse. She spends most of her time in that train museum.
Right now, she’s been working on a project. Mostly, she’s been overseeing it. The people who work there are putting up a new exhibit on the men and women who worked on the railroad. She’s hoping to see her husband—Tyrone’s granddaddy—in one of those big pictures they’re putting up between the mighty locomotives. He built trains, you see, back in the factory. It’s where he died, too, in a terrible accident that Grandma ReRe can’t recall without getting all teary-eyed.
With no sense of time anymore, my friend and I spent days and nights there, hanging out as Tyrone likes to say.
So when I got back home to the Poe House where I mostly abide, I saw the change right away. It’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that I never saw anything like that there.
I went inside to the parlor and found a tree, not as tall as me, was sitting on the table where Lenore usually has Mr. Poe’s books. It even had little sparkly lights on it, red and green and white. On the top was a raven, like the one Eddy wrote about in that poem everybody likes.
It made me laugh to see that big black bird teetering on that flimsy little branch.
“Hey, ghost.” Lenore, who manages the historic house for visitors who come from down the street and around the world, sailed in from the back room. Her arms were full of boxes.
I bowed, as my mama taught me to do, back when we lived next door.
She put down her boxes on that table and dipped a little curtsey. We’re good friends now, Lenore and I. I do admit I misbehaved a little when I first moved into the Poe House, but Lenore and I came to an agreement. Now, when visitors are here, I mostly mind my manners and speak most politely to the other other people who can see me, little children. Then when Lenore’s all alone, I keep her company.
The wind howled as it rounded the corner of the little brick house and made the windows shiver.
“It’s really winter now, isn’t it?” Though she asked me a question she knew better than to expect an answer. I can hear her but so far no adult has heard me since my Mama waited by my death bed. Though only children can see and hear me, Lenore can see me and for this, I was glad. I liked having a live friend. Tyrone and I don’t usually hang around with people who are still living.
I wanted to ask her what she was doing with that tree but all I could do was point to it and screw up my face like I was confused or something.
She hung a glittery gold ball on one of the branches and then looked at me. “Don’t you like my Christmas tree?”
I nodded quickly. Sure it was pretty enough, but what ever is Christmas tree?
Then a look of recognition lit up her face. She tossed her long black hair off her shoulders and picked up another ornament.
“I guess you didn’t celebrate Christmas like we do now, did you, Jacky? The trees and the parties came after you lived here.”
Trees? Parties? The twenty-fifth of December wasn’t much different from any other day of the year that I could recall.
Christmas was a holy day of obligation when I lived with my Ma and Pa and sister Annabel. Pa didn’t even go to church since he had to be to work. But Ma would walk with Annabel and me down to the big cathedral for Mass. There was a choir singing like a pack of angels and the strange smell of incense mingled with the wool and woodsmoke aromas people brought inside the church with them.
I never knew what was going on in front of me. Too many people crowded into the pews for me to see once the priest and the altar boys marched up the center aisle. I’d sit back, rest my head on my mother’s shoulder and listen to the songs and the prayers and smell the smells. I liked the bells too. I couldn’t tell why they rang but I liked hearing their tinkly sound. Then we went home and had supper when Pa arrived. Just like any day.
I decided I liked the Christmas tree. An unusual sight but as Lenore added more and more shiny things to the dark green branches it got prettier and prettier.
I smiled, wishing I could tell Lenore just how much I did admire it. “So, you do like it, then? I’m glad. We’re having a party here tomorrow—before the Christmas rush—so I’m decorating a little early.”
Party? This house ain’t big enough for no party. It’s crowded on Sundays when ten people fill up the kitchen and a dozen or so climb those rickety stairs to stand in Eddy’s and Aunt Maria’s and Ginny’s bedrooms. Tiny little rooms, exactly like the ones I lived in, with hardly enough space for extra people.
She laughed when she looked up from the tree to the quizzical look on my face. “Just the volunteers are coming. Deb and Mark are bringing Andrew if he’s feeling well enough, and a few of the others will be here, along with a couple of the board members. You and Tyrone should come. It’s tomorrow at five o’clock, as soon as we close the museum for the day.”
Before I could answer, or at least nod—of course, I was coming—she rushed back into the kitchen. She returned with more boxes in her hands, these wrapped up in colorful paper and tied with silver bows.
She giggled and piled them around the little tree. “I couldn’t resist presents for everybody.”
My eyes must have grown wide as they did on my tenth birthday when my Ma gave me a present, the cap I still wear. I was the very first person to put it on, not my Pa or my Uncle Allan, like the ones it replaced. She wrapped it, too, enfolding it in her best handkerchief and tying it up with Annabel’s blue hair ribbon.
Lenore circled the table and crouched down so our eyes were level. She reached out like my Ma used to do, as if she was going to brush the hair out of my eyes. Of course, she realized she couldn’t and pulled her hand away. I liked it anyway, remembering how good it felt to have all of Ma’s attention on me, even if it was only for a few minutes.
Lenore sighed and adjusted one of the sparkly balls so it hung straighter. “I wish I had one for you but I don’t know how to give a ghost a present.”
I smiled and put my palm to my chest. It meant a lot that she wanted to give me a present.
Ginny’s house was in good hands. This wasn’t the first time I’d thought it but today I realized how much I cared about Lenore and appreciated all she did to make the house look good and bring in visitors who got to know about my friend and her family. They came for Eddy, of course, but the volunteers were good about telling everybody about my sweet girl Ginny, her hard-working mother, and their devoted granny. They were good people who helped Eddy become the writer everyone loves. I’m glad to see people learning about them as they walk through these rooms.
In a way, the work she did was her gift to me. As long as I abided here, she made this a happy place. I might be here a long time, seeing as how I don’t know when Ginny is coming back for me. I hope Lenore keeps coming while I wait.
After a minute or two, Lenore jumped up and made preparations to leave for the day. It was already nighttime outside so I rushed out to wait by her car while she got her coat and scarf, locked up and jogged to the curb. The neighborhood was a safe one but I always felt better making sure I saw her off.
“Good night, Jacky,” she said and drove away.
I waved until she turned the corner. Then I took a seat on the scuffed wooden steps, trying to make up my mind as to what I was going to do next. I didn’t feel like going back to the roundhouse and I wasn’t in a sleeping mood.
It occurred to me maybe I should give Lenore a present. But what could I give her? I owned nothing. I had no money to buy anything. I couldn’t even move a solid object. I couldn’t give her a kiss or talk to her.
I was still mulling it over when Tyrone ambled up the street. “Hey, Jacky-boy. What’s happening?”
My friend, who passed in the 1960s, had taught me all kinds of new expressions from his time. The first time he asked that, I didn’t know how to answer. Lots of things were happening but I didn’t know how to begin to tell him everything.
“Thinking about Christmas, to tell you the truth.”
He threw himself down next to me and sprawled over all three steps. “Christmas, huh? That time, already?”
“Lenore says it is.” I pointed to the greenery on the door. “She hung up those leaves and put shiny stuff all over a tree in the parlor. I never seen anything like it.”
Tyrone sneered and shrugged his shoulders. “That the best she could do? My mom had a big old wreath with pinecones and red balls all over it.”
“You should see the tree.” I got up off the steps and cocked my head.
“Yeah? All right.” We went inside and he took a long look at the tree, his hands on his hips. Finally, he shook his head.
“Don’t like that either?”
“No way, man. Mama had a silver tree covered with red and green balls. Oh, and candy canes. She had this big old light that shone on the tree with a wheel that changed the colors from red to blue to green to yellow. You should’ve seen it. On Christmas morning, we’d come downstairs and there’s be a present or two for us underneath it. That was cool.”
“I think this one is nice.”
“You think everything Lenore does is nice. Come on, man. Let’s go see the Christmas decorations. You obviously ain’t been paying attention.”
“You mean there are more?”
He laughed at me, loud and rude. But as we strolled from the house down to the Inner Harbor, I realized I deserved it.
There were trees tall as the Poe House in the lobby of those big office buildings. And wreaths just like Tyrone described. I didn’t see no wheels that turned anything different colors but the lights on the trees and strung on the buildings and railings and even the spars of the Constellation were all different colors. Some sparkled. Some flashed on and off.
An ice skating rink by the water was trimmed in a garland of green stuff like the branch hanging on Poe House and festooned with plenty of little red bows.
It was grand.
“Just wait.” Tyrone led me up Charles Street, a place I rarely ventured, to the park where the Washington Monument was.
Before we got to the top of the hill, I saw where we were headed. The tall round stone pillar with George Washington on top had long strings of lights—in all kinds of colors—strung from top to bottom. In a way, it was the biggest Christmas tree of all.
“Heavens.” I whispered, afraid this was all a dream and I didn’t want to wake myself up.
“Now that’s some Christmas decorations.” Tyrone poked my shoulder and then crossed his arms, so satisfied that he had surprised me.
I couldn’t do nothing but nod and stare. It was quite a sight.
“They do this every year. You ain’t never seen it before?”
I shook my head. But then I never went many places until I met Tyrone. He knew Baltimore so much better than I did. He’d lived longer and in a time when people left their neighborhoods to see the rest of the city. My world when I was alive and after I passed was bounded by the Hollins Market, our little duplex and the church. Getting to the cathedral on Christmas was a big adventure for Mama, my sister Annabel and me. I preferred staying where I knew my way around, where my memories were.
Tyrone took me other places, including the cathedral where a little empty barn waited by the sidewalk. I remembered seeing a different nativity scene with the Holy Family so I figured that’s what this would hold on Christmas Eve. Then we strolled back to our own neighborhood on the west side of town. By then, the sidewalks were empty and fewer cars rolled down the streets.
We were silent as we headed back. I kept my eye out for more decorations. It seemed like nearly every living room window framed a Christmas tree with winking lights. What a wonderful thing to have. I was liking this holiday more and more.
When we got to the corner where we turned toward the Poe House, I announced, “I want to give Lenore a present.”
“A present? From a ghost?” Tyrone hooted like I’d made the biggest joke ever.
“There must be something I can do. Lenore had been really nice to me, to both of us. She never was a-scared of us the way the other people were.”
“True enough.” He nodded and threw himself down on the steps. “I can’t think of nothing though. It’s not like you can go buy something—or even make something.” Tyrone thought for a minute. “I could go get something from a store, but I can’t pay for it.”
Although Tyrone was invisible to everybody, he did have one admirable ability. He could move objects, lift them, throw them, spin them around. It was most amusing to watch. But maybe not for this purpose. “No, I don’t think that would be right.”
“Yeah. I’d have been arrested for shoplifting back in the day if I did that. Nah.”
A big truck rumbled by. I heard the bass of the stereo before I heard the engine. As it approached, music blared out even with the windows closed.
It was a Christmas song, one I remembered from those days in church.
I hummed along best I could but didn’t remember the words.
Tyrone cocked an eyebrow and frowned at me. “What you singing, boy?”
“I don’t know the name of it but it’s a Christmas song I used to hear in church.”
His gaze followed the truck as it headed downtown. “I know it. It’s ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ You know that song?”
Hearing the words stirred my memory. I nodded and began to sing.
My singing voice was high and tinny, maybe a little rusty too, but I did my best to sing in tune. It made me all warm to sing, remembering how my Ma and Pa, Annabel and me would sing songs after supper on Sunday nights. We ate early, when it was still daylight, then we’d huddle around the hearth and sing old songs Pa learned from his father. Pa used to say I had a right nice voice. Ma told me I sounded like an angel. I wasn’t near as good as Annabel, though. She sang so high and never missed a note. I never heard a prettier sound than my sister’s singing.
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
“Cool, man. That was real nice.”
“Thanks, Tyrone. Do you know that one?”
He nodded. “I remember my Grandma ReRe playing a record album by a cat named Nat King Cole. Man, he could sing. All kinds of songs. My grandmother’s favorite took the roof off our house. She’d turn up the volume real high and he’d sing so good.” Tyrone turned his face to the sky and closed his eyes, like he was remembering.
Then to my surprise, he sang. O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining…
He sang until he reached the end of the verse. Then he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t remember the rest.”
I nodded and returned the compliment he had paid me. “That was nice. Real nice. Did you sing with your Mama and Grandma ReRe like we did?”
He shook his head with a chuckle. “No, man. We played the radio or the stereo. Grandma had a deep voice, full of soul. But I only heard her at church. She was too busy at home to be singing.”
We sat there for a while, talking about other songs for the holiday. Tyrone knew funny ones, even one about kissing Santa Claus. But then he had to explain Santa Claus to me. I’d never heard of him either.
We were still on those steps when the sun came up, after people started hurrying down the street, until Lenore parked her car by the curb.
“Good morning.” She smiled as she dug through her bag for the door keys. Sensing she was having trouble, Tyrone reached in and picked out the keys she couldn’t find.
It surprised her when he dropped them into her hand. “Tyrone’s here too?”
“Thanks, Tyrone.” She jingled the ring of keys and rushed inside.
“When’s the party?”
I’d told Tyrone earlier he was invited but we hadn’t talked about it much since then.
“After the last visitors leave. Five o’clock. You planning on coming?”
“I don’t have much else on my schedule today.”
Tyrone thought he was funny when he said things like that. I usually didn’t get what he was talking about but when I saw that satisfied smile on his face, I knew to laugh.
He jumped off the step. “I don’t want to hang around here all day. Let’s go fishing.”
Seemed a sensible way to spend a sunny winter’s day so off we ran.
While we lounged on the railing of the Hanover Street Bridge, Tyrone told me all about his Christmases. I was surprised at all the ways people celebrated the day. And it turned out, the month. Christmas really began at Thanksgiving with visits to the shops and decorating. Grandma ReRe and his mama baked cookies, a treat I had only rarely, and they even made pie out of sweet potatoes. How I longed for a taste of such a thing.
By late in the afternoon, when the sky was turning all pink and glowing, we were laughing as Tyrone recounted all the gifts he had received. It made him happy to remember. His was a happy family until Quentin went off to that war on the other side of the world. Tyrone was still waiting for his brother to come back for him, as he’d promised the day he left. Him and me, we were both waiting for the people we loved. Tyrone for Quentin, me for Ginny.
The first stars were twinkling in the east when we raced back down Amity Street.
Ginny’s house was ablaze with lights and we could hear the sounds of talking and laughter before we even went in. Every room was crowded with people.
I went looking for Lenore and found her up in the back bedroom Eddy used to share with Ginny’s brother. She wore a pretty red dress with her hair all done up. She even had some of those Christmas balls hanging from her ears, just like the ones she’d hung on the tree.
With her were my friends Mark and Deborah. She rested her hands on the shoulders of a little boy about my age. He had to be Andrew, the boy with cancer Deborah helped take care of.
I caught her attention as me and Tyrone entered the tiny room.
“Merry Christmas, Jacky.” Lenore’s eyes twinkled like Mama’s used to do. I bowed most formally before breaking into a big smile. I extended my hand so she’d know Tyrone was there.
“Merry Christmas, Tyrone,” she added with a nod of her head.
“I have a present for you.” When Tyrone jabbed me I corrected myself. “We have a present for you.”
“Are you Jacky?” The boy came close and studied me, rather rudely I thought.
I bowed. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. May I introduce my friend, Tyrone? Tyrone, this is Andrew.”
My mama taught me some manners and there were times, like this, when I felt compelled to show them off.
“How’d you know my name?” Andrew turned to Lenore and Deborah. “How’d he know my name?”
“Deborah told me all about you,” I responded.
That lit up his pale, thin face. “And Miss Deb told me all about you and your friend. I’m happy to meet you.” He turned and studied Tyrone in the same way. Not used to such inspection, my friend stepped back. “You must be Tyrone.”
Tyrone crossed him arms and puffed up his chest like he was somebody important. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
I saw the surprise in his expression though he was trying to hide it. Nobody ever saw Tyrone except for his granny and she’s dead too.
Then, because I was a little anxious, I cleared my throat. “Would you tell them I have a present?”
“They can’t hear you like I can?”
I shook my head.
“They can’t see us either,” Tyrone added. “In fact, you’re the first person in a long time that can see or hear me.”
“Miss Deb, these boys say they brought a present.”
The three people I admired more than anybody, excepting Tyrone of course, turned toward us even though only Lenore could see me.
I stood straight and tall, quickly grabbing my cap off my head and crumpling it in my hands.
And I sang. I started the first words of O Come All Ye Faithful, and Tyrone joined in with his deep baritone. What a mix of sounds as we filled the air with our singing. A third voice joined us, Andrew’s. His voice cracked a bit, so I guess he had to be a little older than me after all. It was a joyous sound and it made me feel so happy. Just like the evenings when I joined in the old tunes with Ma and Pa and Annabel.
And we kept on singing. That funny song about kissing Santa Claus made Andrew laugh too hard to continue until we started Jingle Bells, which turned out to be a song about a horse and sleigh, something I remembered.
Then Tyrone sang the song—did you know they called them Christmas carols?—he’d learned from a cat named Nat King Cole.
O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…
By the second time around I joined in the refrain. I couldn’t keep from smiling. Tyrone looked most serious as we finished the tune. Before thinking about it, I gave him a quick hug. I’d have liked to have a big brother like him.
Silence settled on the room for a moment before Andrew clapped his hands together. Lenore and Mark and Deborah joined in. I knew they couldn’t hear me or Tyrone.
Lenore stooped down so we were eye to eye. “That was beautiful.”
“It was? But you couldn’t even hear me.”
“I could see you, the look on your face. It does my heart good to know you wanted to give me a Christmas gift.” She glanced in Tyrone’s direction. “You and Tyrone. Thank you.”
Deborah put her arm across Andrew’s shoulder. “I never knew you could sing like that.”
He shrugged. “I sing with the radio sometimes.”
She kissed his cheek. “You did well.”
“I wish you heard Tyrone and Jacky,” Andrew said.
“You gave them a voice today,” Lenore said. I had to nod. These grown-ups only knew what we sang because Andrew could hear us and sang with us.
“Thanks, boys.” Mark, who could neither see us nor hear us—and didn’t really believe in us—smiled in our direction. Maybe Andrew had convinced him, finally, we existed.
I have to say it felt good to give what I could, even with the limitations I have to work around. I already knew the excitement of receiving a gift. Of holding it in my hands and seeing the love of the giver, in my case my Ma, written all over her face.
Now, having given my first gift on my first modern Christmas, I saw how it was a little token of all the love stored up in my heart. Even if my family was gone, and Ginny and Eddy, too, I still had a family that loved me, here on Amity Street.
(c) Mary K. Tilghman