I noticed a goose on the sharp angled porch roof as we drove past and that’s what made me finally stop. We’d driven past this beautiful wreck of a house literally hundreds of times, but I guess we were always in a hurry or never had the right goose to lure us over.
The goose was gone – if it was ever really there – by the time I turned at the next light, found a place to park and dodged endless mines of goose poop with my daughters in tow across an expansive, pitted field. Ogling abandoned houses is a family affair. My older daughter is pretty used to it by now and takes her own phone out for pictures. My younger one is pretty sure all abandoned houses are haunted, but she always wants to stop.
This is an unusual property because it’s right in the middle of a suburban shopping center laid out to look like an old fashioned main street if Old Navy and Barnes and Noble had been around back then. Maybe that’s why this haunted-looking mansion didn’t give me the creeps. Maybe I put on a brave face for my kids or maybe I’m finally immune. I’ve been admiring decrepit houses since I was a kid myself.
Did that first house have a name? Did we call it anything? Not that I can remember.
At the end of my childhood street, there was a metal gate that our Hulk-green Chevy Vega once smacked against the night my dad forgot to set the parking brake. The Vega rolled down the gentle slope of our street while we slept and when my dad woke up the next morning and saw that it wasn’t parked out front, he scratched his head and wondered who would possibly steal such an ugly car. Maybe the Vega too felt an irresistible pull to the abandoned house beyond the gate, down the gravel drive along a narrow peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t know who owned the land – 300 acres of prime, waterfront real estate – but in the mid 80s no one seemed to and so it became our secret neighborhood playground.
There were three old structures left on the land in varying states of decomposition: a small, one-story house with weathered clapboard siding but all windows intact; a large shed or small barn with a partially collapsed roof and a massive rusted tractor parked outside; and a collapsed pavilion down the hill by the water’s edge. I feel saddest about the pavilion because we never got to see it whole. My friend Beth and I used to climb up the slanted roof on Sunday afternoons and eat sandwiches her mother packed for us. Fact: sandwiches eaten in the wild always taste better. In the later days of our pavilion roof picnics, Beth and I ate while plotting how we could convince one of our parents to drive us to the movies so we could spend a beautiful spring afternoon away from sunshine and fresh air. By then the shed and house had burned to the ground, revealing a mossy set of stairs like broken teeth leading to a black belly of a room.
Those stairs had their own magnetic pull like the gate to a Vega. Beth and I used to dare each other to go down a certain amount of stairs. We’d start small, like I dare you to go down 2 steps. This was mostly a piece of cake because although some of the stairs were caked with slippery moss and wet leaves, there was still plenty of time to scramble back up if a ghost or worse suddenly appeared at the bottom. By the time we got to daring 7 or 9 steps, the amount of time it took to screw up enough nerve to go down that far took away precious time at the movies.
I only made it all the way down once and then only lingered for a few seconds in front of the cold, black doorway. I could sort of make out a table or shelf against one wall but could not tell how far the room went back or what else was inside. What if I’d brought along a flashlight and had the nerve to shine it? Would I have found the secret lair of devil worshipers whispered about at the back of the bus or only pockets of soot-soaked dampness? This is surprisingly not one of life’s regrets anymore. That may be because I once walked the main level of the house with my parents while it was still whole. We got to see what it was like before it became a ghost.
What stands out most about that time inside the house was the surprise of my parents doing something illegal. They were not the type to trespass, though there were no ‘keep out’ signs and we walked right through an open door. We found ourselves in a kitchen with dusty melamine dishes and cups scattered across a table, a chair knocked on its side. We took a quick tour through the other rooms, but the sight of those dishes spooked us. I think there was a cradle in one room, but realize this sounds made up. We had no idea about the basement until some neighborhood kids burned the house to the ground for fun within the year. That was an exciting but devastating day for all of us. We gained a mysterious basement but lost a slice of childhood.
After my parents and I visited that night, we wondered about the people who lived there and what happened to them. We decided something or someone had taken them by surprise while they were eating dinner. Never mind that the timing was all wrong for melamine dishware, but I suggested Indians and we went from there. We decided a man and woman had been eating dinner with their two young children. The father had a dark beard and wire rimmed glasses. The woman wore a flowered cotton dress and her pale hair in a bun. Their children were both fair and small, a boy and girl. They heard the too-close war cry of Indians and the father bolted up quickly, his chair clattering to the floor. The mother and father grabbed their little darlings and with no time to plan and nowhere else to go really, they both looked at each other and the father whispered the only hiding place he could think: to the basement.