Who are you?
A short ghost story
We loved with a love
more than love.
—Edgar Allan Poe
A reader’s note
Spend a few years volunteering in the rooms where Edgar Allan Poe lived as a young writer and your imagination just may work overtime.
I know mine does. I wonder where he wrote in this house, what his Aunt Maria said about his writing, what the conversations with Virginia were like. I consider what the neighborhood looked like, imagine the view out of the front bedroom window.
When construction began on the apartment buildings that now fill the lot across the street, I wondered what changes that would bring. And I imagined a young ghost, I named him Jacky, a lost soul still yearning to see his beloved Ginny one more time before he moves on.
She promised she would come. And he stays on in faith. Even as the years go on.
Here’s a short story that relates how the 1830s lad meets up with a 1960s teenager from the same neighborhood.
Who are you?
“Who are you?” Since I passed, hardly anyone ever looked at me but this stranger, a tall lanky boy with shiny dark skin, was staring straight at me. He had a way of squinting at me that compelled me to ask.
Then when he didn’t answer right away, I decided he must not really be looking at me. Still he kept on squinting and then tilted his head and crossed his arms. It felt like those times when maybe I was rude, when I spoke out of turn or, worse, talked back. My Mama used to say I should be more polite.
I struggled to think of what else I could say, quick before he looked away without answering.
I mean, it’s been a long time since anyone paid me any mind. That isn’t just the typical complaint of a twelve-year-old boy—well, maybe it is. Who understands boys our age? We’re not children anymore. But even as we’re putting away our toys and starting our first jobs, our mothers are scolding us to tuck in our shirttails and be careful of our new stockings.
I was sure this boy heard my words. I fidgeted a little, hoping he would answer.
Then he scowled. “Who am I? Who are you, in those ratty old threads?”
I stepped back, shocked by the way this colored boy talked to me. His voice was full of disdain as his dark eyes traveled from my worn boots to the stained cap I wore. My mama had always chided me for getting my cap dirty, so I guessed that’s what he was talking about.
He squinted at me again. “Who wears clothes like that?”
Now I never worried about my clothes much. I looked down at what I was wearing. I looked all right. After all, Mama did the best she could, cutting down Pa’s shirts when he couldn’t wear them anymore, repairing my breeches and darning my stockings just about every night. I had a way of tearing them while I worked for Mr. Butler down at the Market.
Before I could get more self-conscious, I turned my gaze on the boy. Tall as a string bean, skinny like one too, he had a big puff of black hair, piercing eyes and a broad face. He wore tight pants that flared out over his shoes, a thick, wide belt and striped shirt that clung to him, clothes that looked like what the neighbors wore around here. It was a style far different from my own.
I hoped that once we got past the clothes question, we might become friendly.
I was curious. I’d never really spoken to a boy like him. I knew times were different now but, in my day, I didn’t talk to boys with dark skin. None lived around my house anyway. At the market, that was different. But we were all working. And most of them were slaves. I hardly had a chance to talk to anybody when I was running and chasing for Mr. Butler and Mr. Wolf. So this was a first—and the first boy near my age I’d met since I passed in 1835.
I bowed graciously enough to make my Mama proud. “My name is Jacky Harrison.”
I wondered if maybe the boy was mocking me with his extra-fancy bow, complete with a flourish of his very large hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Tyrone Watkins.”
We eyed each other for another awkward moment or two.
I finally had to ask. “Did you just pass?”
He frowned and re-crossed his arms. “What you mean ‘pass’?”
“You’re dead, ain’t ya?”
I saw a troubled look cloud his face and then he got all hot and bothered. “No, I’m not dead.” He shouted at me. “I live right down the street in 207 with my Mama and Grandma ReRe.” Then he came up close to me and squinted so hard I was starting to wonder if maybe he needed spectacles. “You telling me you a ghost?”
I nodded. I didn’t like to put it that way, the word “ghost” meant something fearsome to me. But it was true enough. I died a long time ago but instead of going Home like I should have, I stayed here.
My story was a complicated one I hadn’t told anyone since the day Ginny went away. Someday I might want to tell this Tyrone about her but not now.
“Yes, that’s what I said.” Here I was, holding my first conversation with a fellow in a very long time and it wasn’t going very well. Maybe he was a little touched. I couldn’t tell exactly but it sure seemed he didn’t understand me.
Or maybe it was me. I wasn’t accustomed to talking to people—dead or alive—anymore. How long had it been since someone saw me, or heard me? I hadn’t had any effect on the world for more than a century. All I did these days was wait. Like I said, for Ginny.
He ruminated for a moment, reminding me of those mules that used to haul the wagons at the market. They had a way of staring you down, just looking for awhile before they turned away. Maybe he didn’t believe me. Maybe he didn’t trust me. It didn’t make no never-mind to me. I’ve been here too long to worry about what people think.
I shoved my hands in my pockets and took a seat on the curb, stretching my feet out into Amity Street, knowing it might take a while for things to sink in. Tyrone was newly passed, of that I was sure. He didn’t understand the way things are after death. Nobody does, really. Not while they’re stuck here between Earth and Home.
All I knew was I was meant to wait here. Why was Tyrone here? I didn’t have the heart to ask. At least not yet. He didn’t seem to see that his life with his Mama and Grandma ReRe down in 207 was over.
The more I abide here, the more everything change. About the only things that remain the same are the memories and the feelings that we carry in our hearts even after we pass on. Nothing else matters the way our families do. Just as Tyrone was thinking of his mother and grandmother, I could never forget Mama, Pa and my little sister Annabel. And Ginny, of course.
Coming to an understanding that I didn’t belong to the world anymore was hard. So I had a little sympathy for Tyrone. He had to learn, same way I did.
But right now, he was just plain bull-headed. “A ghost. You mean to tell me I’m talking to someone who’s dead?” He put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “Naw. Can’t be true. Except for those ratty clothes, you look the same as me.”
I got all the time in the world, since I don’t know when Ginny is coming back to see me, so I have developed the virtue of patience. I didn’t used to have none, according to my Mama. I was always in a hurry, never willing to wait for anything. Not dinner. Not my birthday. Not the chance to grow up.
But right at this moment, I was feeling a mite testy with all Tyrone’s questioning. I sighed, just the way I did when Mama had chores for me to do. “Suit yourself. I got other things to do.”
I wandered off, fading as I rounded Lexington Street. I had been planning to ask Tyrone to head to the bridge for a little fishing. But since he was going to be stubborn, I went all by myself. I hadn’t needed anybody in the last 135 years, I didn’t need no stubborn colored boy now.
To be honest though, it was kind of nice to have someone to talk to.
I figured Tyrone had to be a few years older than me, but not too many. Probably poor, too, like the other people who resided in the housing project that had been here since the 1930s.
But this was the 1960s, a far different time than mine. I could tell that by the boy’s hair and the way he talked to me. I did wonder, too, why he should die at such a young age. Couldn’t be the diphtheria that took me or the small pox that made my little sister Annabel so sick before she died. Maybe it was one of those automobiles. They used to be slow as a horse and wagon but nowadays they sped on those streets in a way that would have stolen my breath away if I had any to steal.
I’d see Tyrone again. He had stayed on Amity Street instead of going Home for a reason. Maybe he didn’t know it yet, but he’d figure it out soon enough.
We all stay here for something. For me, it’s Ginny. She was the girl who lived next door to me for too short a time. A few months after we came, she moved into the house next door with her Mama Maria Clemm and Grandmother Poe, her brother Henry and her cousin Edgar Allan Poe. We used to call him just plain “Eddy.” That was before he became famous and now is called by a moniker longer than my arm. To me he’s still Eddy.
I fell in love with Ginny the moment I clapped my eyes on her. We played together sometimes, when I wasn’t working at the market or she wasn’t helping her Ma. At night or early in the morning I could hear her singing in her attic room only a thin wall away from mine. She had the prettiest voice. I would stay real still and practically held my breath, for fear she’d realize I was close by and stop. But that lasted only for a few years until old Mrs. Poe died and Eddy got a job in Richmond.
That’s when he sent for Miss Maria and Ginny to come live with him. When she said goodbye she kissed my cheek, like she was now a grown-up. She did look like one, that’s for sure, in her blue traveling suit with the matching bonnet and grown-up gloves.
Before she stepped into the carriage she promised to come back for me. I never forgot and I’m sure Ginny hasn’t either.
Early the next morning, Tyrone strolled down the street like he owned it, whistling a tune that I’d heard on the radio. That was one of the new modern contraptions that I liked. I wasn’t a fan of cars—too fast and stinkier than horses. To tell you the truth, I missed the horses. The streets used to be full of them. Now I only see them once in a while, hauling the Arabbers’s wagons full of fruits and vegetables. Oh, I know sometimes they bit and made a mess of the streets. But some of them were true friends, better than any ol’ dog.
I’d stopped to watch television a few times but I didn’t like that much either. Most of it was silly or just for selling stuff I didn’t need. But radio was fine. Lots of good music, not pretty songs like Ginny’s, but still the kind that made a heart happy.
“But you did, but you did and I thank you,” Tyrone sang out like the two guys on the radio. Not as good as Sam and Dave but he had a clear, strong voice.
He stopped when he saw me, lounging on the vacant lot where I had abided since my house was torn down a few years ago.
“Hey, you. What’d you say your name was?”
He dropped on the ground beside me and gave me that squinty-eyed look again. “I been looking for you since yesterday.”
“You have?” Nobody ever looked for me anymore, not since the funeral anyway.
“Turns out I owe you an apology.”
“You do? What for?”
“I should’ve believed you yesterday or whenever it was. I keep losing track of time.”
“That’s to be expected. I know it doesn’t feel like I been here for 135 years.”
He was getting ready to say something else until my statement made him stop. “Huh? What you mean by that?”
Remembering my vow to be patient with this fellow, I explained as calmly as I could. “I was twelve when I passed on. I had the diphtheria. I been here ever since.”
“No kidding?” He considered that for a moment. “The thing is, I realize now you might be right. I don’t understand it but I know something weird is going on. When I went home, I couldn’t turn the doorknob of my very own door. I tried again and again and couldn’t get ahold of it. I tried to push against the door but it didn’t move a speck. I still ended up in the living room anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s how it is for me, too. I can’t move anything but things like walls and doors don’t keep me out anymore. I wish I could talk to people, but they can’t hear or see me.”
“I know what you mean. Mama and Grandma ReRe were in the living room and I expected them to look up when I came in.”
“But they didn’t.”
“Naw. It was as if I wasn’t even there. I sat between my Mama and Grandma ReRe. They had that ‘Julia’ show on the TV. Mama always likes seeing that Afro-American lady with her own show but I’m not sure she was actually watching it. My house was crowded with people. There were church ladies running around in the kitchen. They were frying chicken but I couldn’t smell a thing. And the Reverend Fuller was sitting with my Auntie Anita. They both had their eyes closed, like they were praying. Anyway, Mama never once turned to look at me. I tried to talk to her but she didn’t hear me neither. She had a tissue in her hand and was shredding it to bits, crying her eyes out. I put my arms around her but it didn’t do no good.”
I remember my own mother after I passed. It was hard thinking about how I made her feel. Now it seemed like what I recalled most was her handkerchief, the Irish linen one edged in lace and her initials stitched in pale blue on one corner. She lost it once after she came home from church and she spent hours looking for it. I found it wedged under a cushion and she laughed as she hugged me.
She was holding it when I went to see her after I passed. It was crumpled and wet but she still kept touching it to her red-rimmed eyes.
For a minute, I thought Tyrone was going to cry. “She’s sad I’m dead, huh?” He stabbed at his eyes with his big hand and swallowed. “How’d that happen? That’s what I want to know. How come I’m dead?”
“I don’t know, Tyrone.” I wish I knew why either of us were dead but I didn’t. Never had been able to answer that question.
“So now I’m a ghost, huh?”
“So is this Heaven?”
I wanted to laugh. This most assuredly was not Heaven or, as I like to call it, Home. That’s where I want to go someday but not until I’m ready, not until Ginny comes to see me here on Amity Street.
But how about Tyrone? What did he need to work out with his family before he went Home?
“No. This is where you lived. You could have gone Home when you passed but for some reason, you turned aside. You weren’t ready to leave. Like me.”
He leaned in and searched my face with that squinty look again. “But you’re saying there is a Heaven, right?”
“And this ain’t it?”
I shook my head.
“So why didn’t you go—what’d you call it?—Home?”
I didn’t get to answer Tyrone before he hit me with another barrage of questions.
“What you staying here for? Why would anybody stay around here on these dirty old streets? I got to tell you, for a little white boy, you’re pretty brave to be hanging out around here.”
That got my back up. I’d abided here a long time. I knew my way around, even as the neighborhood grew and changed and changed again. “My family lived in the house that used to be next to the little house on the corner.”
I pointed to Ginny’s place.
He shook his head, skeptically. “The Poe House? You didn’t live there. That’s that writer fellow’s house.”
I explained how my house used to look, the other half of the duplex that shared a wall with Ginny’s house, before they tore it down, long after my Mama and Pa moved away. “When I lived there, the two houses looked like mirror images of each other.”
“So why did you stay?”
I didn’t know how to answer. I really didn’t want to explain about Ginny. Older boys at the market used to make fun of me for being such a sap about her. I’ve always loved Ginny and I guess it showed. I’m not really good at keeping my feelings to myself. But now, I wanted to keep this buried deep in my heart.
“I have to wait for my friend.” Would that be enough to satisfy Tyrone?
He looked down his nose at me, like he was skeptical. “Is he dead too?”
What a question. It’s been almost 135 years since I saw Ginny. I guess she had to be, though. I didn’t rightly know. All I knew is she said she was coming back. That’s what kept me here waiting.
I nodded, not wanting to say too much.
“OK then.” He looked at his big hands, picked at a fingernail. He was quiet for a while, long enough for the sun to slip behind the row houses and the street lights to come on.
I listened to the crickets chirp in the grass all around us. There always seemed to be more of them in the fall.
“OK then.” He said it again, but the meaning was different. “I’ve been thinking,” he said and looked up at me.
“What did you figure out?” He was older than me and yet at that moment I felt like I was the older boy, the one he was coming to for advice instead of the other way around. It made me feel needed and isn’t that what we all want?
“Well, I promised my brother I’d be here when he got back from ‘Nam.”
“It’s a country on the other side of the world. Vietnam. My brother’s in the Army. He was drafted and sent there. He only went in August.”
Then he got quiet and I swear he brushed a tear away, quick so I wouldn’t see it. But of course I did.
“I promised I’d be here when he came back. He said he’d take me for a ride in his car the minute he came home. I do love to ride in his car. Sometimes we go all the way out to the Loch Raven Dam. It’s pretty out there.” He looked down the street and smiled. Then he pointed at a shiny black car parked down a ways from the Poe House. “That’s it right there. I been keeping it shiny and nice so it’s ready when he comes. He ain’t supposed to be home for a while though. I said I’d look out for it while he was gone and be here when he came home.”
“That explains why you’re still here.”
“You’re waiting for him. What’s his name?”
“Quentin. You’re waiting for Quentin. You won’t be ready to go Home until you see Quentin home from Vietnam.”
“Damn. That could be two years.”
“Here it don’t seem like two minutes. I’ve been waiting here a long while but it don’t seem like any time at all.”
A thought suddenly made Tyrone shudder. “You don’t mean I gotta wait until Quentin is, you don’t think he’ll be…”
I shook my head. “Naw. I seen people head Home after they’d found what they was waiting for. All you need to do is wait for Quentin to show up at your front door. Then, I think, you’ll be ready to go Home.”
”But your friend?”
I shrugged. “I just have to be patient and wait.” I’d know when it was time to go Home. But not yet. One thing though, I sure was glad to have someone to talk to. It felt good. I’d abided on this street for a long time and I couldn’t remember when the last time I had someone to talk to.
Mostly I waved at deceased folks as they passed on. If they stayed on Earth, I didn’t know about it. Nobody had stuck around Amity Street since the paint shop man passed back in the late 1800s. We talked some but he didn’t really have any interest in a little boy.
I was hoping Tyrone would stick around and be my friend while he waited for his brother. Two years wasn’t long to wait before Quentin came back from his war.
Then maybe I’d be lonely again, but until then having a friend would help pass the time.
“And you can’t do nothing but hang out?”
I shook my head. “Not really. I can’t pick anything up or talk to anybody. I can’t feel the wind or taste anything or smell anything anymore either. Around here that ain’t so bad. I do miss the warm summer sun on my face.”
“But I thought if you were a ghost, people could hear you howling or you could move stuff—something so people knew you were haunting a house.”
I had to shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know anything about that. That’s the part that makes it hard to stay, not being able to change anything. I just have to wait. I do make people shiver—so sometimes I can tell people sense I’m near them. And, lately, I’ve come to realize I can make people move if I stand near them. But that’s all I can do. I keep trying to figure out if I can help the people around me, but nothing works. Not yet anyway.”
“Hah!” Tyrone laughed. “Show me how you get people to move.”
I nodded at the lady with a stroller waiting at the bus stop on the corner. “Watch.”
I jumped up and went to stand beside her. Tyrone stretched out his long legs and leaned back on his arms to watch. As I inched closer and closer until I was practically between her and her baby, she moved a little bit away from the curb. Then she leaned down to tuck in the little boy’s blanket.
The baby, chubby with black eyes and a mess of dark curls, laughed and stretched out his hands.
“Look at you smile,” the mother cooed. “What a happy baby!”
I could’ve sworn that baby was smiling at me, not his mother.
I moved away a little and he turned his head and reached out towards me.
“Michael! What do you see?” Oh my, she noticed it, too.
So I waved at the little kid and he kicked off his blankets. I was so thrilled—and shocked—I could’ve stayed there all day making that baby smile. But then the bus chugged up to the curb, all smoky and loud, and the mother picked up the stroller and hauled it up the steps. I watched the bus trundle off, still amazed at what had just happened.
Then I ran back to Tyrone, who didn’t seem as excited as me. “So you see that’s what I can do.”
He shrugged, unimpressed. “Not much of a trick.”
“No,” I had to admit. “But I keep thinking it might come in handy sometime. This time, though, I could swear her little boy saw me.”
“No, you don’t get it. Nobody ever sees me. I mean, you do, but nobody living ever sees me. This is bully.” I was ready to dance a jig at this development but for Tyrone’s puzzled expression.
“Yeah, man. I can dig it.” That’s what he said and even though I didn’t know how he was going to dig anything, I was disappointed he didn’t see how important this was to me.
Instead, he got up, brushed off his pants—though I don’t know why, they weren’t dirty—and backed toward his Mama’s house. “I need to see my Mama. Maybe I can’t do anything to make her feel better, but I gotta at least be there. You know?”
Yes, I did. I stayed close to Mama and Pa after I passed from the diphtheria. They didn’t know I was there but it helped me understand what happened.
I nodded and waved as he jogged away. Maybe I was alone again—but now I had a feeling I had made a friend.
Sometimes feelings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I didn’t see Tyrone again for a couple of days and I wondered what he was doing. Maybe Quentin returned from that place when he heard about his brother’s passing. Then Tyron was free to go Home. If that’s what happened, I was glad for my new friend.
Bur for me, Amity Street never felt lonelier, not once I’d had someone to “hang out” with. Funny expression that. It was one of Tyrone’s. Far as I could see, we weren’t hanging at all. Having someone to talk to had been fun.
Finally, I decided to shake off all this feeling sorry for myself. Mama would have chided me for such self-pity, reminding me how good I had it. We were poor but she and Pa always managed to keep us fed and clothed with a roof over our heads.
I headed off to the Hanover Street Bridge. The sun’s warm was autumn rays attracted lots of folks with their fishing poles. I listened to the men lying to each other about their catches and the women sounding like Mama as they explained how they were going to cook the fish they caught. There were plenty of fish to catch under that old bridge. Everybody got so excited when their rods bent and some poor fish pulled on the line. I leaned over the railing and watched as that little croaker or sunfish flapped and strained to get off the hook. He was gonna be supper that night, bad for him but good for the person holding the rod.
I watched as the sun made its giant arc across the sky until it fell behind the big skyscrapers and turned the heavens all kinds of pinks and reds and yellows. Over the years, I’d seen lots of changes in that skyline. The city used to hug the Basin, ready when the sailing ships came into port. Now it reached for the sky, its buildings constructed of gleaming glass and red Baltimore brick. It seemed faster than it did in my day. Busier and bigger.
The sky was turning violet and the lampposts on the bridge were sending pools of yellow light onto the pavement at my feet. One by one, the fishermen had gone home to cook their catch or bemoan their lousy luck. I stayed behind and sat on the railing, looking out over the Patapsco River, listening to the sounds of cars and the lap of the waves on the bridge supports beneath me. One by one, the skyscrapers blinked on, lights blazing from offices that should be empty by now.
I needed to go back to Amity Street. And yet, I hesitated. For the first time in my existence, I wasn’t sure what I should do. Loneliness is hard, especially after discovering how wonderful it can be to have a friend.
Tyrone wasn’t the same as Ginny. She and I used to spend long summer afternoons together, wandering down to the market or playing in the green grass or sitting on the front steps talking about things. As I thought about her, I wondered for the first time if she was going to come back. I regretted thinking “if,” and not “when” as soon as it popped into my head. I needed to have faith and hope that she would come. I needed to believe her final words to me, that she would be back to see me.
Tyrone? He was something else altogether. I was glad if he’d gone Home. Waiting can be hard. But already I missed him.
I sat there in the growing urban darkness where the sky grows black but the streets are still full of light. And though Mama wouldn’t approve, I was feeling sorry for myself.
I fixed my gaze on what I thought was the prettiest building in town. Once the gold-topped Baltimore Trust building rose above the rest of the city. I remember watching it it grow floor by floor in the 1920s. Now it was dwarfed in a forest of tall towers.
“Hey, man. I thought I might find you here.” Tyrone strolled down the sidewalk, his hands in his blue jeans pockets, a sad sort of look on his face. Damn, I was glad to see him.
“Tyrone, I thought maybe you’d gone Home.”
He leaned against the railing I was sitting on. “Naw. I’m still here.” He was quiet for a moment, gazing at the skyline, same as me.
Then he sighed. “They buried me today. Mama and Grandma ReRe and all my friends from school were there. It was weird. All those people crying for me. I didn’t know how many people knew me, man. Quentin’s girl came, too. Keisha.” He nodded. “She seemed sadder than anybody else. Like Mama and Grandma, she sat there on that little chair by the grave and cried her eyes out.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, man,” I said softly.
“Now I guess they’ve said goodbye and they’ll forget all about me.”
“No, no. It ain’t like that. Your Mama and Grandma ReRe will always remember you. So will Quentin. He’ll come back, even after he gets the news that you died. He’ll want to see where you used to be. He’ll want to recall the days you were here. And once he does, you’ll be ready to go Home.”
“Is that how it happens?”
I nodded. “I believe so. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
“Well, little man. Lets you and me wait together.” He put his long skinny arm around my shoulder and I felt as if my heart fluttered in my chest. I was glad I wouldn’t be alone anymore.
“Let’s head back to Amity Street.”
Copyright: 2019 Mary K. Tilghman