Deep Thought: Ghost Stories
My grandmother joined us under the big hickory tree and sat herself down on a cane-bottomed chair with a sigh. She grabbed a handful of green beans to snap.
My mom tried to intercept the beans but was too late. 'Let us do that,' she offered (futilely). 'You're tired.' My mom, a perfectionist, felt that her mother-in-law left too many strings in her green beans. But my grandmother wasn't having any of that and continued to snap beans. In an attempt to help out, I grabbed another handful and resolved to string faster.
Snapping beans was the only thing any of us was up to doing with any speed on this August afternoon. It must have been 105° (yes, Fahrenheit) in the sun and it wasn't much cooler in the shade. The men were on the other side of the house, chilling on the porch. Earlier, when it wasn't quite so hot, a mere 90° or so, my uncle Bill had been involved in a ballistics demonstration with the Civil War-era rifle he'd brought to show us.
The rifle was a muzzle-loader and Bill, ever-meticulous, had spent most of an hour methodically loading it with the help of a ramrod. As he did, he and my grandfather had discussed the possibility of using 'that-air groundhog down in the holler over yonder' for target practice.
I was alarmed. I took the existence of this groundhog on blind faith, literally: both of these men could spot a bird perched atop a 100-foot tree, while I had difficulty seeing sheet music at two feet through thick glasses. My faith in their visual acuity was, indeed, the evidence of things not seen – but I hoped they wouldn't put a premature end to the lifespan of an innocent quadruped just to test an antique.
After much discussion of the firearm's features and what they knew from their own grandfathers about 'the war' – meaning the one that had taken place where we were sitting and standing (and which my grandfather's grandfather had fought in, which was why he named his son 'Robert Lee', I guess), and not, for instance, the one Bill had been in, which took place in faraway Korea and involved Bill and his brother Ike being snipers, which I gathered they hadn't enjoyed at all, Bill finally pronounced the weapon ready to shoot.
Whereupon he took careful aim and fired. Across the empty road. Down into the grassy holler. Close over the head of the grazing groundhog – a deliberate miss. The report echoed sharply against the quiet between the two mountain ridges. The woodchuck looked up in annoyance and ambled off, grumbling to itself. My uncle winked at my relieved expression.
So now my grandmother, my mother, and I sat stringing beans as my grandmother talked. Talking to my grandmother was difficult as she was extremely hard-of-hearing. It was best just to listen. Besides, at ten I had nothing to say to her that was remotely as interesting as what she might come up with. My grandmother had lived her life in these hills and her stories did not disappoint.
'This weather,' my grandmother announced, 'reminds me of the day Uncle Charlie died.'
This was the sort of talk my mother was afraid of. She darted a concerned look in my direction as she surreptitiously retrieved an insufficiently processed bean from the metal bowl and pulled an errant string from its seam.
'This has been a good year for beans,' she ventured in an attempt to distract my grandmother from verbal morbidity. My grandmother ignored her.
'Of course, that wasn't the last time anybody saw him,' Grandmother continued. 'Mary Effie said one morning, she and Frank woke up and looked out the winder to the porch and there he and Aint Becky sat in the rockin' chairs, just a-rockin' away. . . like to scared her to death. They finally got up the nerve to go out there and they was gone, just the rockers still a-movin'. . .'
I could feel my mother's discomfort with this kind of talk. For one thing, she was not psychically sensitive and didn't believe in 'that sort of thing'. For another, she was well aware of the tendencies of her husband's mountain family to see what they called 'boogers' and she didn't like it one bit. She also knew that her kids had inherited those tendencies and wanted to nip them in the bud. In this, she was completely unsuccessful, as it happened, but she seemed to think that discouraging paranormal discussions was the way to go.
She made another futile attempt to change the subject by asking for news about an absent family member. This was brushed aside: my grandmother was on a roll.
'Sometimes you see them,' asserted my grandmother. 'Like Daddy. Did I tell you what happened to Keith? Right upstairs it was.' And she pointed over her shoulder to the upstairs window of the farmhouse. To where I and my sisters were currently sleeping at night, not well, due to the heat.
I was all ears, but I knew better than to say anything. This was worrying my mother quite enough already. Besides, I knew that nothing on earth was going to stop my grandmother from spilling the narrative beans. Fortunately, the green beans stayed in the bowl, except for the occasional bad one that my mother fished out.
'It was about a week after the funeral,' my grandmother began. I remembered that occasion vividly – not the funeral, which we'd been unable to attend, but the 'viewing', which had taken place in the very farmhouse which I could now see over my grandmother's shoulder. The one we were all staying at.
I'd been picked up from my after-school piano lesson by a carload of family. My dad had driven hard up the back roads of Tennessee, out of Memphis, through small towns and the sleepy metropolis of Nashville, only to arrive after dark at the farm. To my astonishment, the place had been full of relatives in their Sunday best, standing around a casket on a trestle. . .in the middle of the parlour. There my great-grandfather lay in state beneath the huge formal portrait of him that had always dominated the room. Above, a vigorous young fellow with moustache bristling: below, the still remainder of a frail man in his eighties. Beside the coffin my grandmother, keening.
One of my uncles had found my great-grandfather sitting on his tractor, ready to head for his fields. Sitting upright, staring ahead. There had been a cerebral event as he mounted the machine. He finished the motion and departed, leaving his body there for relatives to find.
I was seven at the time, and this impressed me. We didn't stay at the farm that trip but slept at a local motel. Now my grandmother was saying that my youngest uncle, who was 15 then, saw his grandfather again shortly after his passing.
'Keith woke up and there was Daddy,' Grandmother said. 'Just like he knew him in life. Staring right at him.'
'He was dreaming,' ventured my mother. My grandmother shook her head.
'Daddy grabbed him by the hand,' she insisted. 'Left marks from his fingernails in his palm. He showed me!'
I was dying to know what Keith did then. Keith was cool. He wouldn't have disbelieved his senses. He would have been frightened – who wouldn't be? – but he wouldn't have forgotten who he was talking to.
'Keith said, "Granddaddy, why are you here? Don't you remember? You died." That seemed to make him think. And then he disappeared!'
This made perfect sense to me. Life in those mountains had a rhythm to them. The rhythm was sometimes so hypnotic, I could easily imagine that a person could get caught up in it. So much so that even death would seem like a minor interruption to the flow of days and years.
My grandmother hefted the bowl of beans. 'Looks like we've got us a mess,' she announced with satisfaction. 'I'm a-goin' to put 'em in the pressure cooker. Y'all just sit here and wait for a breeze.' And she headed back in the direction of the house.
My mom jumped up behind her. 'Wait, let me help!' she called. She had heard the ominous words 'pressure cooker'. The kitchen ceiling was pockmarked with dents caused by flying whistle-bobs, which were meant to signal, 'Come and turn down the fire,' but which my grandmother could not hear. My mother hurried behind her mother-in-law in hopes of preventing another steam-related disaster.
As I gathered up the bean fragments to put in a bucket for my grandfather to feed the pigs with, I glanced at the house.
Yes, you're haunted, I thought. But it's all family, so I guess that's all right.
The rain that night was a relief. And no ghosts came. Maybe they didn't like the heat, either.