When my family bought our thirty year-old house from an eighty year-old woman, we expected a few things to need fixing up. The creaking in the stairs didn’t bother my mom nearly as much as the pink paint that covered every exterior surface. When my closet door started popping open in the middle of the night, my stepdad blamed it on the old wood that would shrink in the cold and jar itself loose from the frame. The random movement of my sister’s toys in the playroom could plausibly be blamed on rats. But nobody could come up with an excuse for the hammering that would occasionally start up in the basement tool shed. We’d all be watching a movie in the family room: my sister obliviously playing with her newest prize from Toys ‘R Us (a reward for slowly progressing towards using the toilet instead of diapers), my mom curled up in the Papason, my stepdad laying lethargically on the sofa. I’d catch my mom’s eyes.
“Do you hear that?” she’d ask, and I’d nod quickly. We’d both look towards my stepdad, who usually gave a half-hearted glance at the downward-leading stairs and then turned his attention back to the movie. He was too stoned and the rest of us were too scared to make our way downstairs, so we’d all ignore it and turn our attention back to the TV.
One Saturday, my stepdad was showing an open house and my sister was at a birthday party. It was just my mom and I, and this time it was sawing sounds that drew our minds from our grilled cheese sandwiches. My mom looked nervously to the right and folded her napkin in her lap. “I think I know what it is,” she whispered, as if my stepdad was right next to her and may overhear. “The lady who sold us this house. Her husband had just died and she said she felt bad about leaving the place she’d lived with him for so long but she couldn’t take care of the house on her own. I think it’s her husband.”
I’d seen a few late-night paranormal shows and this thought wasn’t comforting. One show in particular had described a woman whose scorned lover died and haunted her. According to her, his ghost had opened her kitchen cabinets one day and starting throwing plates at her head. I eyed my soup bowl nervously, suddenly longing to put away all the dishes and stick child-safety locks on the cabinets.
“I think he just feels comfortable here,” my mom continued. “So it’s nothing to be afraid of.”
A week later my mom took me along to visit one of her friends, who conveniently lived in the neighborhood where the previous owner of our home had moved. Telling my mom I’d be outside playing, I meandered over to the old woman’s front door. I stood in front of the small condo for a moment, contemplating what I would say, when the door swung open suddenly.
“Well hello, honey,” the woman smiled down at me. I noticed her gray hair and immediately knew she was who I was looking for. To me, all old women looked the same. They all had gray hair. Women could be divided as old or not by whether or not their hair was gray. I knew my grandmother wasn’t old because her hair was peroxide-blonde. That, and the fact that she played tennis.
“I live in your house,” I blurted self-consciously.
She tilted her head contemplatively and smiled, “Oh yes, you’re the girl who moved into my house. How are your parents?”
“Good. My mom is good, she’s visiting her friend. My stepdad is at work,” I always felt compelled to correct people who lumped them together like that. “You left things at my house.”
“I left things?” she questioned.
“Yes. You left a flag in the basement, some pots outside and . . . your tools.” I hesitated on the last item.
“Oh well you can have all those. I certainly don’t have room for them here anyway.”
I looked up and for the first time really noticed her face. Her pool-colored eyes were reassuring beneath her pale, folded skin. “Sometimes, somebody plays with the tools.”
She looked surprised, then a thoughtful smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Do you play with the tools?” she asked in a voice I knew was only reserved for children.
“No, no,” I struggled to convey my message. “Not me, and not Papa,” I used the word my stepdad had bestowed upon himself. “Somebody else. Everybody’s upstairs, but we hear the tools. And sometimes the stairs creak when nobody’s on them.”
She nodded and appeared to mull over what I was saying before matter-of-factly stating, “Well, that’s probably just my husband.”
“Your husband?” Her response wasn’t the reassurance I’d been seeking.
“Yes. He really loved those tools.”
My mind flashed back to the late-night show and flying plates. “Is your husband . . . angry?”
“Oh of course not. He’s very nice. I wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t friendly. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to scare you.”
I thought about this and looked about her porch. Ultimately, the small potted plant won me over. I decided that somebody who was plotting to run me out of my home in cahoots with her dead husband wouldn’t have a plant, or a windchime hanging from the roof. “Okay, he can play with the tools. We don’t use them anyway.”
“Well, good. I’m sure he’ll be glad to know you don’t mind.”
“Yeah. I better get back. I’m supposed to be at the swings.”
“Okay, have fun.”
I nodded and took off in the direction of the swingset, no longer concerned about the ghost husband and his tools.