Monday, December 19, 2011

A December Ghost Story

Written by  the ghost long rumored to live in the Columbus, Ohio home of writer, James Thurber. This is his first essay, written to recommend our Ms. Schulman as a Writer-in-Retreat at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. I take all the credit - she got in!


              In this creative afterlife, I am simply an apparition, a figment, you might say, of one’s imagination, who lives in James Thurber’s old family home in Columbus, Ohio and who has been rumored to exist for years. I am a ghost of a Thurber cartoon. There we are, in black and white, my meddlesome wife lying across our chaise lounge, legs crossed, our dog Dibbles sitting next to her. I read the newspaper, glasses on, with my head swiveled towards her. She holds our candlestick telephone.
“Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?” she asks.
I guess there’s some logic here but after 12 years of this cockeyed nonsense, she was sent on an excursion boat down the Olentangy River, never to be heard from again.
So that leaves Dibbles and me. We roam the house at night, with time off for holidays and the occasional visit to my mother-in-law in Florida.
The house has hosted a fair number of writers in residence who roosted up in the attic of the Thurber House, including the aforementioned Ms. Schulman. I shouldn’t have to tell you that there’s nothing worse than these pretentious faux sophisticates from New York who call themselves writers. Please. These scribes would lie around smoking cigarettes and expect to be waited on with apple martinis and mini hamburgers. They left dirty socks on the floor and greasy dishes in the sink. People of pronouns took up residence for summers until funding ended the program. I know this because I turn on the office computers and read files when the staff leaves at night.
The last writer in residence from New York took one look at the deserted location of our home and fled. You would think we lived on the set of The Munsters on Mockingbird Lane. The house is deathly quiet in the evening, and the sound of the hallway clock ticking often startles me. We live in the business district with workers running to their cars at the stroke of five, leaving the writer alone in the attic.
When Dibbles and I would take a particular dislike to a scribbler, we raced up and down the stairs, slammed doors, cranked up the air conditioning until windows frosted over, rattled doorknobs, and turned lights and electrical appliances off and on. Typical garden-variety ghost treatment. That was enough to scare them.
I’ve learned over the years that the literati from New York move the most nimbly and bolt for the New York State Thruway faster than I can shout, “Boo!” We liked Arlene the best. At first, she was a little spooked by us but she hung in there. She turned on every light—they all do—and attempted to scare us away by playing Broadway show tunes on a vintage stereo at ear splitting decibels. I could see through this. But since I am the world’s biggest show tune aficionado, particularly songs from Funny Girl, I left her alone. I was too busy singing along with the music.
Her music calmed my spirits down. Dibbles and I stood together on the stairs leading to the attic and acted out every role. I loved playing Sadie, the married lady. That summer was the best I’d had in decades. Arlene left the music on all day long, even when she was out of the house, and we were in heaven.
Arlene was well occupied that summer, with the Thurber folks running her almost six feet under. She taught a writing class at Ohio State University, taught writing to kids at the Thurber Summer Camp, and her favorite, I could tell, was acting as a writing coach to reporters of the Columbus Dispatch. She always had a dining companion for Columbus’s version of chili dogs, called coneys; I don’t know how anyone can eat these; they’re hell on the stomach.
          She didn’t use the kitchen much, and from what I gather this is for the best, so we were thankfully free from the smells of ancient fried fish and timid bacon that linger on until eternity. Arlene was the only writer I can recall who cleaned and washed as if this were her home. Not one other author stomped down to the basement to wash the bedding and clothes like she did. She may have even laundered the curtains throughout the Thurber House. Arlene left us chocolate kisses and plates of Buckeye donuts at the top of the stairs and said hello both coming and going, with a little wave. No one was ever that friendly. It’s just supernatural.
I’m exhausted from answering this question so yes, I’ve seen Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit on Broadway, and we pop in a DVD of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir every Christmas. I would like to clear my name, though. James Thurber wrote the short story “The Night the Ghost Got In.” This was not me. He experienced this nocturnal visit 47 years after the Ohio Lunatic Asylum burned. This is just crazy. Folks have reported seeing the ghost of a man who committed suicide in the house. But Herb’s long gone. He found a good therapist who studied under Jung, and moved to California.
Let me get back to Arlene. I should warn you that she has a pretty good sense of humor and very often she and handbag vibrate with laughter. The specter of her levity still haunts me.
She’s a damned good writer. Norman Mailer, may he rest in peace, would have liked her. I can feel it in my bones. They were both passionate about the sport of boxing, although she wrote about it 20 years after he did. She channels him in the pugilistic sense and in her own style. I have a signed copy of her book, The Prizefighters, stolen from her room, in a trunk in the basement and it will be treasured forever.
Arlene gets into the guts of people when she’s writing. Like Norman, she doesn’t pull any punches, Her style is constantly evolving, like any great writer, and it isn’t just about moving from stretch pants to designer clothing. It’s about shape and subject, form and function. I like alliteration, alas.
I’ve given the dear a little help but please don’t let on that I’ve told you so. I would see her, head in hand, suffering from a pinch of writer’s block. When she left the house, I would turn on her laptop and add in a few works and phrases. I don’t think she noticed. It’s my everlasting gift to her.
          Simply put, Arlene just lifted my spirits. I don’t get out much. And it’s kind of lonely here without her. I think she would do your house some good.

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