The Ghost and Miss Chicken

Are the spooks in the house or bats in the belfry?

A couple of weeks ago, my father, who by all accounts is a reasonable man despite an unusual enthusiasm for pinto beans and windbreaker jackets, was mowing the lawn. It was sunset in the outskirts of the quiet Arlington sub-suburb of Mansfield. My father, a land developer, was dutifully clipping the grass on an expanse of partially wooded acreage he'd recently purchased.

As he passed a grove of trees, his eyes darted toward the brush, where my father swears he saw a woman standing in a white, flowing dress. He looked down, and when he looked back up again, she was gone. My father believes a lot of crazy things—that the Cowboys one day are going to make the playoffs again, for example—but he's not a fan of the supernatural. After all, he's an accountant by trade. Unless ghosts are made of 1040-EZs, he's unlikely to believe in them. Regardless, whatever he saw prompted him to pack up shop straightaway, jump in his red Tahoe and go barreling back to his comfortable, newly remodeled home in the middle of town, where my mother was standing in the kitchen, talking on the phone to me.

"Becky!" he exclaimed as he burst through the back door, his distinctive East Texas twang making my mother's name sound more like "Beyk-eh." "When are those ghostbusters coming?"

In fact, my mother and I had been talking about that same subject—not the 1984 film starring Bill Murray and a 100-foot Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but two women named Lisa and Paula, paranormal investigators in Tarrant County who travel the country looking for evidence of the otherworld. It had recently occurred to the somewhat upstanding, mostly not stark raving mad (except for the undying Cowboys fandom thing) Grimes family that we might be on the receiving end of a haunting. My dad's vision in the woods that day made our situation that much more urgent. After much consideration, I'd had to ask myself: Who you gonna call?

The vision in the woods was the latest in a string of bizarre occurrences at an old two-story house on the country acreage, built by hand in 1976 by a doctor named Paul Pratho. My parents had moved into the place temporarily while their own home was being remodeled.

It's not the most comfortable of accommodations, even if the full basement and two-tiered loft bedrooms upstairs make it much cooler than your average house in the 'burbs. The place smells vaguely of pee—human, not animal—and wet socks, with nearly every room painted a different sickly color of blue or pink or brown. The previous owners had moved in to be closer to their ailing parents but had abandoned the place and sold it to my father. Dr. Pratho, the original builder, built the place out of concrete blocks and couldn't be bothered with things like normal wiring and central air, not even in 1976. Huge window units sit in every room, humming and grunting in their attempts to cool the house.

The first problem was with the dish towels. They kept popping up in the kitchen sink when it was full of water, creating a laundry hassle for my mother. Thinking my dad was trying to wind her up, she confronted him, but he swore he never put dish towels in the sink. Next, my mother came home late one night to find every window blind in the kitchen raised high, though she was sure she had closed them all in the afternoon before she left. Late another night, there was a loud banging upstairs that sent my father sprinting to the bottom floor with pillow in hand.

"I think that place is haunted," my mother told me over dinner one evening, actually hours before she'd later arrive at the house to find the blinds raised at midnight. Now, my mother is covered in a thick layer of bullshit repellent. I know because I spent a good deal of time between the ages of 12 and 18 trying to throw copious amounts of it at her, and I have no recollection of it ever working. And all of this seemed to start about the time that the industrious Dr. Pratho, who'd moved out of the place more than 10 years ago, had died. So I took her seriously and tracked down Lisa Olive and Paula Schermerhorn.

Lisa and Paula arrived at the house around 7:30 last Saturday evening with carloads of electronic equipment in tow. As far as we were concerned, ghostbusting was a spectator sport, so my mom, my dad, my aunt and I were on hand to watch the action. Lisa, the technical guru with waist-length gray hair cascading over her tie-dyed wolf-print T-shirt, set up night-vision cameras and voice recorders around the 4,200-square-foot house. Paula, the "sensitive," toured the place, summoning Lisa and me when she found a collection of unused Styrofoam human organ transplant coolers down in the basement. Dr. Pratho had been an emergency medicine doctor. What use did he have for organ coolers? Maybe a little recreational continuing education?

Paula then gave me a pair of L-shaped dowsing rods that would help me communicate with the spirits. I headed for the formal living room, a long rectangular space on the end of the house that seemed particularly creepy, even beyond the pallor cast on it by the intestinal-lining-pink color of the walls.

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