Friday, October 14, 2011

Ghost story

In upstate New York, there are frequently days in the fall when the overcast is so complete and pervasive, that without the benefit of a watch or some other point of reference, it's truly impossible to tell what time it is. Thursday was one of those days.
Mrs. Hall packed her car, prepared a large travel mug of steaming joe and left a bowl of cat chow out for the cats. Mr. Hall was already hard at work, but Mrs. H. had to drive down to Binghamton to register for the Grand Chapter proceedings for her fraternal organization, an engagement slated to occupy the better part of her weekend.
Registration had begun at one o'clock, and ticking that off killed a solid half an hour. Since there was nothing more to do after that until the cocktail reception at six (a function she was dreading anyway, without Mr. Hall on her arm) she found herself in the unique position of finally being in her old stomping grounds again, free of obligation and alone with the company of her own memories. It was a luxury long denied.
Forty or fifty years of progress had wiped away most of the landmarks she could recall; a glance at her electronic map revealed a red gash indicating a highway that subdivided what used to be a smaller working class neighborhood. She frowned, puzzled by what looked like a foreign landscape, but luckily, the GPS wasn't hobbled by old memories. It blithely directed her under and around the stanchions supporting the thruway and eventually down a more or less familiar avenue. Even though the concrete wall that now dominated the end of the street had effectively cut it off from all but the most determined locals, it had also inadvertently rescued it from the harsher effects of the creeping urban blight lurking just on the other side. She drove down the street slowly, not because she was afraid she would miss anything, but because her eyes kept playing tricks on her; one minute the road was grey and bleak, another it was something entirely different. Stopping in front of number 94, she rolled down the window and pulled out her camera.
She suddenly felt conspicuous; a gentleman next door with a walker squinted at her. Mrs. Hall pulled the car up a little closer to the curb. "I'm just visiting an old neighborhood," she explained. "My grandfather used to live here. His name was John Pranitis."
"I've lived here 41 years," he said. "I remember him; I used to work on his car. He was a wonderful man. You see, these folks haven't kept the house up very well." She shrugged. All that really mattered to her was that it was still there. She thanked him for his kind words and drove on.

She plugged in another address in the GPS. It plotted a trail so unlike the one she had envisioned, she turned it off and headed west unaided. A few minutes later, she slid up along the curbside of another familiar venue and idled the engine. Clearly the years, as well as the subsequent owners, had been kinder to this old place. What is it about childhood memories that always make you remember things as being larger than they actually are, she thought. She drove along a route so entrenched in her memory she scarcely had to think about it, and despite the fact that as a child she could have sworn the old school was at least two miles away, the odometer proved just how fickle our memories can be. She drove to a parking lot and walked the rest of the way to the top of the hill, only to find that the the old merry-go-round in the park was boarded up for the season. A train whistle blew in the distance. It was time to go. It was so strange to see things so familiar look so different; was it that they had changed so much or had she just not remembered right in the first place? She shrugged and got back in the car. All that mattered to her was that they were still there.

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