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Mr. Joe: Tales from a Haunted Life

Author: Joseph Barnett and Jane Congdon



Glen Ferris, West Virginia, 1961

I lingered beside my grandfather’s coffin, fascinated by the power of death to take away all signs of personality. Grandpop had been alive when the ambulance came for him; the neighbors said he had waved from the back of the vehicle. Now his hands were folded flat, his eyes closed forever. His face looked empty and old to me, and I cried for the grandfather I had known. It was March, still chilly. I was twelve.

Grandpop had been my special friend. In a world of women talking about dishes, he had played checkers with me. He had come to the house when I was little and had taken me for walks, just the two of us. I was the only grandson.

Grandpop had a gold pocket watch that hung from a chain, and he knew I loved that watch. He would take it out of its special pocket and show it to me, always cupping his other hand underneath it so it wouldn’t drop. He had been the same with me: gentle; protective. All of that was over.

Grandpop was the first dead person I had ever seen, and I was shocked at how death had changed him. The body in the casket was, and was not, my grandfather. I recognized him, of course, and there was his suit and there were his wire-rimmed glasses; but the invisible parts of Grandpop--the parts I loved the most--were missing. Those were the traits that had connected us. Until that moment, I hadn’t understood. No one had prepared me. I knew Grandpop was dead, but I didn’t know he’d be gone. Did my good-bye have any meaning? He had left his body, and now I had to leave it and walk on.

He looks terrible,” I whispered to Mom. “Not like himself. I thought dead people were supposed to look like they’re asleep.”

Don’t ever say that to your grandmother. She’s heartbroken. You can’t let her know how you feel.” It was hard for me to lie, but when I saw the sorrow in my grandmother’s eyes, I did it.

A few days after the funeral, I was in front of the bathroom mirror combing my hair. Our bathroom was on the second floor, first right at the top of the stairs. It was small, L-shaped, and lit by a lone bulb in a glass shade. I was standing at the sink, concentrating on my reflection, and then I looked away for a second.

I want to say I had no warning, but that isn’t true. No mysterious lights appeared and the room temperature didn’t drop, but there’s a feeling that precedes seeing a ghost. It’s quick; you can hardly separate it from the event; and that feeling is dread. I felt a flash of dread my gut when I turned back to the mirror, and then I thought I might have a heart attack. I was looking at two faces in the glass: mine and Grandpop’s.

He looked alive; only the facts told me I was seeing a ghost. Grandpop wasn’t pale the way I’d imagined a ghost would be. His face was in full color and as clear as mine. It floated above my shoulder as though he was standing behind me. He wore no particular expression—no smile, no scowl—but the emptiness I had seen at the funeral home was gone. His eyes were open now and looking straight into mine. He looked real enough to blink.

I was paralyzed. For the first time, I thought my next breath wasn’t guaranteed. Seconds passed as my heart raced with fear. I could swear it filled the silence with its pounding. Can you watch a ghost think? That’s the way I felt staring at my grandfather’s face, helpless to look away. I could imagine him breathing. What was next? My mind sped through the possibilities. Could he turn his head? Would he smile at me? What if he started talking? That would scare me the most. If he moved or made a sound, I knew I would lose it.

Was Grandpop really behind me? I was afraid to turn and look, but what if I had? Would he look solid, or would I see a column of vapor I could put my hand through? I could have seen his head floating in the air, for all I knew. Maybe he wasn’t trying to scare me. But I was twelve. Nothing—nothing—could tame the terror I felt at being alone with Grandpop’s ghost.

I had to get away before my worst fears came true. I made myself move, hoping he wouldn’t follow me. Shutting my eyes, I ducked awkwardly for the bathroom door, praying that Grandpop’s image was anchored to the mirror. Even in the hall, even crashing down the stairs, I could feel him behind me. There was no relief until I reached the safety of other rooms and people with beating hearts.

I didn’t tell anyone I had seen Grandpop’s ghost—they would have thought I’d imagined it --but afterward I was afraid to go upstairs. I especially hated climbing those steps when I was alone. When I reached the top and passed the bathroom door, I focused my eyes straight ahead toward my room at the end of the hall, but I couldn’t avoid the bathroom forever. I had to get ready for bed and school.

Every time I looked in the bathroom mirror, I saw Grandpop’s face. It never failed to startle me, even after I expected it. I lived in fear. I learned to crouch at the mirror until only my forehead and hair were in the reflection, and then I’d look up to comb my hair. When I brushed my teeth and washed my face, I peeked at myself. I hated to use the toilet; that was the one time I was forced to turn my back on the mirror. My skin would prickle and my heart would pound, even when nothing happened. But then something else did happen.

He always got me alone. I wanted to be ready, but I couldn’t keep it up. One day he surprised me downstairs. We had a table by our front door with an oval mirror above it, and that day I looked in the mirror and saw him walking down the stairs behind me. He wore the same neutral expression I had seen before as his eyes found mine in the glass. He had his hand on the banister. It was terrible: the steps and the banister were real, but he wasn’t.

It was the first time I had seen his full ghostly body and the first time I had seen him move. He was in full color, dressed in a shirt, a tie, and the vest and pants from his brown suit. The chain to his gold watch hung from a vest pocket. The image was so sharp that I could see the crease in his pants. When he got to the landing, he paused with his hand on the post, still watching me. That was it; I opened the door and ran. I ran until I was on another street. That vision of my sweet Grandpop coming down the stairs all dressed up was the scariest thing I’d ever seen.

Grandpop haunted me for months. What did he want? Why did he pick me? I didn’t understand any of it. He didn’t try to hurt me, but what is hurt, anyway? He scared me. Just the anticipation of seeing him again wore me down. I had cherished my time alone with Grandpop when he was alive, but not now. Now I only wanted him to leave me alone.

Grandpop was my first ghost, but he wouldn’t be my last, and it would have been much too soon to tell me that ghosts would become a metaphor for my whole life.

DMU Timestamp: March 08, 2013 19:51

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