I’m already a beer and a half deep by the time she shows up. Initially she says she doesn’t want a wimpy beer but I tell her nothing’s wimpy if it gets the job done. She settles on something that tastes like plum and her face lights up in a way it wouldn’t have if she’d stuck to her guns. I tell her good beer tastes better than patriarchy and she laughs.

She looks over at the ancient cigarette machine in the corner. “Wait, do they sell cigarettes here?”

“Pretty sure that still works,” I tell her.

She pauses for a second, and it’s redundant to tell me but she says “I kiiiinda wanna get cigarettes.”

“I kinda want you to get cigarettes too.”

“You think smoking’s sexy?”

“I generally think doing what you want is sexy.”

A minute later she lights up and crosses her legs and I catch myself just a little too late looking down at her hem as it slides an inch down her thigh. “How do you think you did on that test?”

I shrug. “Guess we’ll never know.”

“Wait, she’s gonna post the grades, right?”

“Probably.” I shrug again. “I don’t check them.”

“You DON’T?” And she leans forward and uncrosses her legs and the hem slides a little more. Her eyes are wide and animated and she’s grinning to her ears. “WHAT? That’s crazy! You don’t check them?”

“Too late to do anything about ‘em once they’re up, right?”

“So, wait,” she puffs her cigarette, “you don’t check your grades at all?

“Well I should correct myself,” and I finish my beer and I was feeling it before but now it’s really coming, scotch ale highs, “I check up on assignments but not, like…final grades.”

“Oh, okay. That’s…less weird.” She leans back and puffs again. “Still weird, but…more normal than I was thinking.”

“Final grades are final grades.” I get up to get another beer. She’s only a third of the way through hers. I should slow down but I won’t. “Once they’re up, it’s…” and I finish by spreading my hands and twiddling my fingers.

“Out of your hands?”

I snap and point to her and give a thumbs up and make my way back to the bar. The guy tending is surly and irritable and seems to dislike me more every time I come. I like the guarantee that he won’t try to talk to me. She’s still only a third of the way through her beer when I head back, and my glass matches hers by the time I reach the table. I should slow down but I won’t.

“You like playing darts?” I ask her.

“”How do you play?”

“You stab a piece of cork until everyone’s too drunk to keep score.” I get up and she follows and I pry the darts from the board.

“I don’t think I’ll be getting drunk,” she tells me.

“I’ll carry the weight for both of us.”


She wins and we sit back down and while we were playing she worked her way through her first and second rounds. She’s drinking water now and she’s giggly and she’s leaning on me in a way that doesn’t quite betray the platonic tone she said this would have. Or maybe I just want it to. We start talking about a paper she brought up in class today, about perceptions on issues related to family planning. The paper had a lot of Likert scales and she asks about something I said in class.

“Why do you hate Likert scales?”

“I don’t.” I’m still drinking, but even I know I’m not going to finish this third beer. Thank fuck I can walk home from here. She’s in even better shape, set up in a loft above a shop a few doors down. “I just hate seven point scales. Five point tells you all you need to know.”

“You don’t think there’s value in the extra variability?” She’s leaning in and her breath is wispy smoke and wild August wind and something sweet, like flowers but not flowers. Nectar?

“‘Moderately agree.’ ‘Slightly agree.’ I mean come on. You either agree or disagree. Everything else is just fluffing.”

She laughs. “Are you sure clinical isn’t pronounced cynical?”

I shrug. “I guess more nuance is a good thing in some situations, but ‘like, love, dislike, hate, don’t care,’ I mean that tells me all I wanna know, y’know? The rest…” I wave my hand and take a bigger drink than I should. But then every drink is more than you should.

“It’s that clear cut?”

“For me. Or I guess I want it to be. What about you?”

“I kinda fucking love seven point scales.”

“I’m going to keep drinking.”

“They tell you so much!” And she sweeps her arms and almost clips our glasses, and then pulls them back to her sides in a jerking motion and laughs. This close to the door the southern summer has untamed her hair, despite the AC’s efforts. “So much SO SIMPLY!”

“But I mean like what does slightly tell you that moderately doesn’t?”

“Not much. Everything. More for us than for normal people though, right?” And she laughs and accidentally kicks me and says “oh shit sorry” and reflexively grabs my leg where she kicked me.

“I don’t even think other psych students would find this as funny as we do.”

“Cuz we’re nerds!” And she laughs again and grabs my arm and she leans into me again. She regains her composure and sits up. “Wooo. I need more water. And probably weed but definitely water.”

“I should probably help you with that.” She tells me she can get it when I stand up but I tell her honestly that I need water too. “With the weed too but y’know that’ll be for later.”

The closing bartender is a lot friendlier than the guy before. I like that flow. Hit the ground all business, close out with a friend. Good system. I get our water and consider paying for our beers but sometimes it annoys people when I pay for them. I thank the guy and compliment his Transformers shirt and I mean it, the Insecticons don’t get enough love.

She’s scratching out a Likert scale on the back of a coaster. Seven points.

“So what does this tell me?” I ask while she shotguns half her glass. Pretty sure she blazed a little before making her way over. Or someone outside the door did.

“Okay, so, like, you’re trying to figure out how somebody feels about something.”

“I sure am.”

“Okay so, they’re neutral here.” She points to the center.

“I’m following so far.”

“Yeah, so, even without them telling you, you probably already know you ain’t vibin’ to ‘em.” We put up screens in the south but our g’s drop hard when we drink. “They ain’t laughin’ at your jokes, they ain’t makin’ eye contact. They ain’t feelin’ you.”

“That’s the general condition, yeah.”

She grins and licks her teeth and keeps talking. “So that sucks but at least they ain’t icy around you.” She points to the next point to the left. “Before it was just two people not giving a shit. Now it’s someone letting you know you ain’t really welcome, but they’re not being, like…mean about it.”

“That’s helpful.” I work on my water. “So you know to stop trying without getting shamed too hard.”

“Hypothetically, but…”

“Dudes ain’t great at hints.”

“Nope! So then we just say,” one more to the left, “fuck off, dude.”

“No more ambiguity.”

“Right. Now we don’t care cuz fuck you.”

“What about that one?” I point to the last dot.

“That’s when we stab you.”

“Seems measurable to me.” I point to the right side. “Now what’s going on here?”

“We’re such nerds!” She grins and licks her teeth again. Her lipstick is so light I don’t think I’d notice if it was on her teeth anyway, especially in the low light. “Who the fuck gets this interested in this?”

“If we weren’t nerds we wouldn’t be in school this deep in our twenties.” I point again. “So what’s happening with these assholes?”

“So this is where polite people are usually hovering, right?” First dot to the right.

“Okay. You’re not ignoring someone, maybe you even do something helpful for them.”

“Right! At a minimum you’re making an effort to make the interaction comfortable for everyone.”


“Alright so here,” next dot, “here you’re buddies. Friends, acquaintances, whatever. Maybe you’re out on a date.”

“Maybe we are.”

Another grin, another sweep of her tongue. “Yeah, so here is where someone’s company isn’t just pleasant, it’s desired. Doesn’t matter in what way. Romantic, platonic…”

“Oof, fuck, not platonic.”

“…it’s just desired.”

“Okey doke.”

“So here…” and she pauses.

“What happens there?”

“What’s the word where you and another person are inseparable?”


“Bonded! You’re bonded with somebody here.” She taps the last point. “Doesn’t matter what kind of bond. Friendly, family, romantic. You’re just…just bonded. You’re interdependently living.”

“That was a whole story arc.”

“You think you could tell it with just five points?”

“Well I can try.” I finish my water and I’ve got dry mouth but I flip over a coaster and sketch my scale. The points aren’t really even but neither am I.

“Alright, neutral.” I point to the center. We scoot our chairs so we’re side by side and I hold out the coaster so she can see but she leans over anyway. A hair of hers is caught in the current of the open door, and it flicks against my temple before clinging to my beard.

“Right here,” I move over a point to the left. “Is casual disregard. Maybe you’d just be inconvenienced by interacting with the other person or maybe you just don’t like them, but it doesn’t matter because either way you’re avoiding the interaction.”

“Awfully wide degree on interpretation for why though.”

“But it’s all the same outcome. You’re just avoiding them, regardless of why. And here,” last point to the left, “you’re in opposition to someone. You’re either antagonizing or being antagonized by someone else. Doesn’t matter why or really in what way. You and another entity are in the process of opposing the well-being of each other.”

“You’re a broad strokes kinda guy.”

“Strokes is the operative word. Alright now these motherfuckers,” First point to the right. “Your company is being sought, or you’re seeking another person’s company. Doesn’t matter why, to what degree, you’re just actively interacting with other people.”

“Very ABA.”

“Well…yeah, I guess. And here,” last point, “here you’re seeking sustained interaction. Kinda like you were saying, doesn’t matter what kind. But it’s sustained and, like…fuckin’ nurturin’ too, I guess.”

“God, you must be shit at qualitative data.”

“Actually I’m pretty fuckin’ good at it.” I crack my back and she shifts when I do, and when we both settle she’s completely resting against my arm. “People seem to open up to me pretty easy. I’m not sure why.”

“You definitely have a therapy presence.” She sits up then, fishes a smoke from her pack. She looks at me, cocks an eyebrow, offers me one. We light up and she settles against me again. “Actually that’s something our cohort said about you when you took that class with us.”

“I have a therapy presence?”

“Yeah. Therapeutic. Yeah. You’re soothing.”

“Soothing. Like steel wool.”

“Nooooo.” She blows out a thin stream of smoke and looks up at me. “You’re very calming. Your whole demeanor. It’s relaxed.”

“How relaxed you feelin’ right now?”

She snuggles a little deeper. “I’m pretty cozy.”

“You seem cozy.” I look up and blow smoke straight into the air and then look down at her. Her eyeliner comes to a little point. What do people call that? A wing? While I’m looking she looks up and catches me staring. She smiles a comfortable smile and closes her eyes and hugs my arm. I kind of wish I worked out but she doesn’t seem to mind. The cool skin of her knee is slowly warming under my lazy hand.

“So that’s it?” She says then, and her voice is low and tired now. “That’s how people interact?” And she raps her finger heavy on my scale.

“Well,” and I take a moment to consider. “I guess I can see some value in fleshing it out a little.

“Like how?”

“Well…” I grab the pen we’ve been using and add two points to the right end.

“Wait, that’s not where those go. Not like, both of ‘em on one end.”

“It’s where they go now. So what do we call ’em?”

I feel her shrug. “Extra Happy and Super Happy?”

Above one I write “Kissy Time.” Above the other I write “Sexy Time.” She lurches from the snuggle and laughs. She seems animated again.

“Well you’re optimistic.”

“Wouldn’t be in graduate school if I wasn’t.”

“But that’s…no, wait, you can only have like a very select subsection of your population along those last two points.”

“Hey man, my people hail from Alabama.”

“Well don’t get your hopes up.”

“Look I’m not predictin’ anything, I’m just readin’ off the scale.” I slap the coaster down. “That’s just science.”

“What are your operational definitions for Kissy Time and Sexy Time?”

“We should probably conference on those.”

“Oh we should?”

“I mean that’s what peer review is, right?”

“1,000% not what that is.”

“Right, totally what that is. I’m just being methodologically rigorous.”

“Rigorous is the word.” She sits up and stretches, yawns. Glasses clink and the dishwasher behind the bar hums. The music lowers and disappears. The moment has come to a close. The trick is to be comfortable with instances of finality.

“Time to go I guess,” I say, looking over my shoulder, and she fishes out her card and I try to wave her off, but she grabs my wrist and closes my hand over the plastic. “If I don’t get a receipt, I’ll…” and she pauses, then shrugs. “I dunno, be a little annoyed I guess.”

“Noted.” And I go to pay and the bartender tells me they’re actually open for another hour, no rush. The music picks up again – I guess the playlist just paused – and I close us out and ask for more water and she’s throwing a little shawl over her shoulders when I get back.

“We got time to get a little hydrated if you want.”

“Excellent idea. 10/10.” And we drink our water and make eye contact and she laughs again.


She laughs a little more. “Kissy time.” Another laugh.

“How far along have we gotten into Friendly Time?”

She smiles, a little, while she thinks. “We’re into it a ways.”

“Which direction?” I nod at the coasters. “More than friendly, less than friendly?”

“Rigorous is right.”

“Long as I’m not tiresome.”

Then we’re walking down to the foot of the iron stairs that lead up to her place, and I just mean to just say goodnight and instead I say “more than friendly?” again and she grabs my shirt pocket and kisses the side of my mouth, then my bottom lip. I kiss back, and I feel wet roughness and then the slick of makeup. One hand holding onto me, the other resting against me. My hands, one behind her ear, one at her hip. Her hip braced against mine. The sweep of her tongue.

And we break and she laughs and asks me “How friendly was that?” and I tell her we’ll need a nine point scale, and she laughs and then she’s quiet and then we’re kissing again.

And then it is goodnight. Her door closes. I slide along a scale as I make my way home.

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Cigar Smoke

“I never thought you’d be one of those kinds of people.”

“Child molesters?”

“What? No! Dude, what?”

I finish my pre-game beer and shrug. “That’s just a weird thing to say about seeing protein powder on somebody’s counter.”

“I just…I just never thought of you as a gym bro.”

“Why would you now?” I laugh. “Who the fuck thinks this much about protein powder?”

“Sorry man, I didn’t mean to make you feel defensive.”

“No no, let’s not play the deflection game. It’s fine, bro.”

“Dude, I’m not deflecting, I was just saying…”

“Ah ah ah ah ah! You were dude, but I don’t really give a shit. Let’s go drink.”

“Dude! I didn’t mean anything by it, I…”

“Nope, pause. I didn’t ask for a round two. We drinkin’ or not? Yes or no, man. My BAC’s too low for this kinda patience.”

He shrugs. “Alright, whatever. Let’s go.”

“Finally.” I toss our bottles into the little eggcrate I use for recycling and we head for the door. I briefly consider shutting it behind him when he steps out but whatever. I make sure it’s locked and we walk down to the square.


He’s a little aggravated that I wanted to walk instead of drive and I’m a little aggravated that a half mile was such a chore for him, but the AC mellows us both out pretty fast when we step into the bar. My buddy gets carded but weirdly I don’t.

I get a cigar and a scotch ale to match it, and a woman two seats down looks over at me and laughs. At me or with me, I can’t tell, but it’s sexy as hell either way.

I call out to her. “Not very impressed?”

“Actually a little bit.” She shakes her hair back over her shoulder. “That was very natural-looking, you lightin’ up.”

“Chemicals and I are old friends.” I toss my match in the ashtray and nurse the stogie. She laughs again.


“I know. I sound like an old man.” I thump my friend on the arm and motion for the dartboard. He hops off his stool. “I’m looking forward to when I’m wrinkled enough to justify my crabbiness.”

“You don’t seem crabby.”

“Well you just met me. Come play a round. I promise I can get downright bitchy.”

“I’m waiting for friends.”

“Well shit, they can play too.”

“Alright.” And enough of a smile to say that I might not be making much headway, but the effort isn’t unappreciated. “We might crash y’all’s game.”

I draw a long pull off my smoke. “Do or don’t, it was good to meet ya.” And it is. We don’t need endgames to enjoy moments as they pass.

She and I do the one-look-over-the-shoulder thing, and I go play darts.


She doesn’t play darts with us but even over the pretentious three-string from the guy in the corner I can hear her friends encouraging her. We wrap up our game and I lose by one. I’m high off the nicotine or maybe just the second scotch ale. We sit for a second until he notices the flashing lights of pinball machines in back. We make out way to the bar to break change for quarters.

“Who won?” one of her friends asks.

I hike my thumb to my friend while the bartender drops about five bucks of quarters in his hand. “He did. Both in the game and in life.”
“Oh shit. Is he really steamrolling you that bad?”

“I mean,” I shrug, “I can always just kill him later. That’d make us square, right?”

The woman I talked to earlier laughs, though her friend talking to me seems a little put off. I can live with that.

“Come play some pinball with us.”

“We might,” another friend says, but they won’t. One of them is wrinkling her nose at my smoke. The bar’s name is literally “The Humidor.” I wonder if they know what that means.

We go play pinball.


The Terminator keeps telling me I fail every time I miss a particular bonus trick shot. We both do pretty well, and we’ve only burned through about a couple bucks before the barkeeper sticks his head in to tell us they’re closing up. The women are gone and we close out, my buddy exchanging his leftover change for cash while I let my smoke go out in an ashtray. I stick the stub between my teeth as we head back out. For a night in July is surprisingly cool out. Still, my skin feels sticky and as we make our way out of the square, I can smell the smoke in shirt.

The street is quiet and dark at 1:00 AM, and we hear laughter, light like chimes, from a house a block away. The women from the bar, laughing over something only they can hear. One of them is fishing for keys in her purse.

My buddy notices too. “You wanna say something?”

“Fuck no.” I keep walking. “This late? What am I gonna say? ‘I promise I’m not an armed rapist’?”

I look over and the women pour into the old house. The door shuts, and the porchlight goes out.

I light my stogie back up. I don’t know why I let it go out. Sometimes things just seem like they should happen.

In the night there is the sound of cicadas and katydids, of tree frogs and shuffling footsteps. There is the smell of some distant flower, or perfume caught in the warm, lazy wind. It quickly washes away, vanishing in a swirl of cigar smoke and steamy air. We walk one, one streetlight to another, inexorably home.

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Pinball Lights

pinball lights

In seven hours I’m flying to Portland, but tonight I’m drunk in a Nashville suburb. Exurb? Who can the fuck can tell anymore. We sprawl like spilled ink nowadays, each of us fleeing our neighbors while begging for community.

I sip thick beer I let get lukewarm, and the smoke of the stogie I bought at the bar obscures the pulsating bulbs within the pinball machine. Higher, higher, the points go higher but the Terminator’s voice still tells me “You failed” just because I missed the bonus trick shot between rounds. I can live with it.

The taste of tobacco and foam is a balm for weeks of heartburn, weeks of grinding video data and lit review. Above the drone of lazy indie rock and the soothing aggression of clacking pinball paddles I hear thunder. Sharp, like a whip, and a brief white pulse in the otherwise dark back room tells me a storm is brewing. Been brewing since I paid tuition, really.

Earlier the bartender told me he liked my beard and more than anything the compliment just makes me want to shave. Not every compliment is complimentary.

Getting beer drunk and nicotine high. Getting to where I might stumble but I could stumble forever. Stumble to my computer and still not write my proposal. Writing and drinking are a lot alike.

My phone buzzes, buzzes again. Filled with advice that only hinders, it buzzes again to remind me of messages I didn’t check minutes ago. They’ll keep till morning, when I’m on the plane and can’t do anything about them.

Active writing, passive play. Red ink on black toner. Two more quarters and a emptied can.

The cigar sits wet in my mouth, acrid smoke drying it as I inhale. The tip a deep, subdued red beneath a nugget of ash. I focus my irritation on the burning glow, and it does help. I smell weed from somewhere. I want to be drunk but I’m not in the mood to be high. Portland tomorrow.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, what I could have done today.

The pinball lights flash in sequence, pulse together, and their glow melts behind recurrent sheets of cigar smoke. Together, together, they grow together.

I’m out of quarters, but I keep playing, playing. I know my rhythm, limited as it is. Focus stays the course. When I know I must be done, I will be.

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Halloween Story

So here’s my Halloween story.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but there is no denying the otherworldly feeling that comes when it’s late on Halloween night, and the trick or treaters have all gone home, and there is a dark and quiet moment before you make your way to some party when the world rustles gently in the cool breeze.

That was my Halloween a couple years ago. I love giving candy out to trick or treaters; it seems like my duty, actually, now that I’m a grown up. If we don’t cater to kids, then what point is there to us, right?

I always make sure to keep my cats inside, so that the parade of strangers doesn’t freak them out and make them run away or anything. They’re indoor cats anyway, but occasionally I’ll let them out and give them some supervised play time before I scoop them up and pull them back in. They’re good animals, and know the rules, but if I leave them outside too long their wild blood gets stirred, and they’re likely to roam. So on Halloween, with so much energy coming from every direction, it’s best to keep them in.

Kids came and went, and my cats watched fervently at the window as each little costumed figure passed. They’re vocal, and frequently meowed at me to let them be a part of what was going on. But I knew better, so I let them be.

It was chilly, and I could hear the fallen leaves blowing about in the yard as the candy bowl emptied and I sipped away at a small glass of whiskey I kept tucked out of sight behind my chair. The porch was washed in red and purple decorative lights, and the steady orange glow from a half dozen jack olanterns lit the little concrete walkway that led to my porch. By nine o’clock the streets were empty, save for the occasional car with costumed adults going to their own Halloween celebrations. I finished my whiskey, finished what little candy remained, and turned off the lights, then shut off the speakers that filled my yard with screams and the sound of roaring saws. The night was then quiet, and yellowed from sodium street lights. All I could hear were the fallen leaves, stirred by the wind.

I opened the door to go in but wasn’t fast enough to keep the cats in. They’re big, strong boys, and nimble, and the jumped and shoved their way out almost without effort. Whatever; they would spend the next five minutes sniffing everything in sight. As long as I got to them quickly they wouldn’t wander off.

I grabbed a cigar (I’d quit smoking, but enjoyed the occasional stogie when the mood took me), poured a finger of whiskey, and went back out, watching from the porch as the cats bounded through the leaves, pouncing on one another and generally enjoying how awesome it is to be a cat. I sipped bourbon and puffed smoke, and in the dim light it was tough to notice at first.

The cats weren’t pouncing on each other. They were prone to play fighting – they grew up together, and always wrestled – but as I watched I realized they were jumping around each other. Not randomly; they were both focused on some point between them. They would rear back, and leap forward, rolling as though they held something in their curled paws, then spring back to their feet and jump again. It was playful, and they were laser focused on it. I figured maybe they had found some insect to pounce on. This deep in the south bugs are an issue well past October.

I let them jump and roll and kick up leaves, and when I finished my bourbon I put my cigar down and whistled. They know that whistle – “come here!” – and know that usually treats follow when they answer it. They stopped playing, looked to me, to each other, and then down at something between them. I whistled again, then called out loud for them. Finally, after a pause, they made their way to the door, and I ushered them inside.

I heard the leaves blowing again before I stepped in after them, and at that I paused. The whole time I’d sat outside, I realized, the wind hadn’t been blowing; even now the air was completely still. The remaining leaves in the trees hung unmoving, everything was quiet outside of the yard.

But in the yard…in the yard, I could see the leaves stirring. Not just stirring, really; I could see them shifting, as though jostled by something jumping around in them. Then there was the sound of scampering, and I could see leaves kicked up in the dark. My cats were back at the window, watching something in the dark. After a moment the leaves were still, but next door I could hear the neighbors’ dog begin to bark. I walked down to the driveway, and saw her through the backdoor, focused on something outside and barking excitedly. In the light that poured through doors windows, the freshly raked yard seemed completely empty.

I blew out the jack olanterns, and went inside.

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Ghost Story, October 9, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

Y’all, grad school is…an experience, to be sure. Some classes are ridiculously easy…like, to the point I’m suspicious of it…and others are crushingly, crushingly difficult (to the point that the term “identity moratorium” is taking on an unexpectedly personal meaning).

There have been…a lot of late nights. Memorizing, conceptualizing, possibly overdosing on caffeine but being too preoccupied to notice the physiological symptoms. I live on campus, and between the hours of midnight and two a.m. you’re likely to find me downstairs in my building’s common room, hunched over a laptop and occasionally typing notes in Google Docs.

Anyhow, a couple weeks back, just as the fall air was beginning to blow cold here in Tennessee, I was downstairs at around one in the morning, wrapped up in a hoodie and flannel pajamas. I was absorbed in the differential diagnoses for schizophreniform disorder, and I as I busily made flash cards I nearly jumped out of my chair as someone pounded on the window about a foot to my right.

The blinds were closed, slanted downward, so whoever was outside likely couldn’t see me. But I could see their form well enough. I saw them hover for a minute, then walk over to the other window, pause, and walk back over to the window by me. I expected someone to call out asking that I let them in – which, hell with that, I ain’t looking to get robbed – and then they walked off. A moment later I heard the double doors rattle, as though someone was trying to shake them open. Then the figure passed my window again, paused, and walked off.

Again the doors rattled.

I got spooked, gathered my things, and made my way upstairs. Before leaving I turned my head as the doors stopped rattling. I couldn’t see anyone who might have been outside.

The next day as I made my way to and from class, I passed the front desk on the way to my room. I heard a resident talking about the portrait of the elderly lady in the lobby – our building’s namesake – and how when she dozed off on the sofa she had been surprised by how the painting seemed to be staring at her.

“Yeah,” the desk clerk said, “people say they get unnerved by that painting.

“So funny,” the woman said. “I mean what’s a painting really gonna do, right?”

“I dunno,” I heard the clerk say before I made my way up the stairs, “People say the doors shake sometimes…”

Maybe I was being inhospitable. But if so, I think I’m comfortable with that.

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Ghost Story, October 6, 2018

So . . . here’s my ghost story.

When I was little my dad would sometimes take me to work with him on teacher planning days. It was fun to see his classroom, and all the individual activity stations he’d set up for his students. While he was busy with lesson plans and department meetings I’d rummage through the old paperbacks he kept in the corner, for when his students had earned free time, or wander the halls with the promise I wouldn’t leave the building.

So I was maybe seven years old when this happened. I was walking down the hall a few doors down from my dad’s classroom, and I turned the corner to the library. It was an older campus, full of big wooden doors and heavy transoms, and the library double doors seemed grandiose compared to the plain steel doors I was used to.

The lights were off but sunlight poured through the windows, illuminating the entire space. I walked in, hoping maybe to find something interesting (preferably something about Greek or Roman mythology; one of my favorite movies back then was the original Clash of the Titans), but the books in the high school library were significantly denser the ones in my elementary school. After wandering around for a bit I walked up to the desk to ask the librarian if she had any “books about monsters.”

She had short brown hair highlighted with bits of gray, and gave a pleased grin that stretched wide and deep red when I asked her my question. I think the frames of her glasses were a similar shade of red, but I could just be misremembering.

“You know,” she said enthusiastically, walking out from behind the counter, “we sure do!” She walked quickly but easily, and I double-timed it to keep up. She took me to a stack near the center of the room, and pulled out a wide, heavy reference book and handed it to me. “That’s got every monster in the world in it! Not to heavy for ya, is it?”

I told her no and thanked her and sat down at a table. I was absorbed in the pictures and descriptions and folkloric history, and I didn’t keep track of time. I started to feel hungry, and remembering the sandwich my pop had in the staff fridge, I closed the book and looked up to tell the librarian I was heading out. I was a very important seven-year-old, you see. But she was gone, probably taking her lunch.

So I made my way back to my dad’s classroom and pestered him for grub, and as we walked down to the break room he asked me where I’d been. He hadn’t truly been worried (he knew I wasn’t one to wander where I shouldn’t go), but he joked that he was gonna call me on the intercom if I’d been gone any longer.

I told him where I’d been, who I met, and about the book I’d read. “Huh!” he said as he popped coins into the soda machine. “I didn’t think the librarians were coming in till tomorrow!” And then we ate and he let me talk about cartoons for a half hour.

Afterward while my pops got back to work, I walked back down to the library, wanting to read more of “the monster book,” but this time the doors didn’t open. The blinds were drawn across the windows now, and it was noticeably darker inside, but enough light came through the cracks that I could make out my book on its table. I looked over at the front desk, and behind it I could see several portraits. They hung in two neat rows, and some had little black ribbons tied around a corner.

In the top row, at the far end, I could barely make out a smiling face, with what seemed like red-rimmed glasses, and short hair that may have had streaks of gray. But I couldn’t quite make it out. It was dark, after all. But even in the dark I could make out a little black ribbon, tied tight around the corner of the frame.

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October 5, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

I used to work at a children’s museum near my hometown. The building was old, and there was a big, creepy basement below, complete with a heavy steel door that rumbled when you pulled it open. Every October, the museum hosted a professional-grade haunted house down there, and it was known around town for being one of the better Halloween attractions in the area.

While I was paid for the work I did for the museum, the hours put in at the haunted house were solely on volunteer time (permissible since the haunt was technically a separate entity from the museum, even though it’s profits helped fund museum operations). I didn’t mind, despite the dust and the noise and the crazy long hours. It was an immersive, month-long Halloween experience, and I revelled in it with childish glee.

Besides, had I not volunteered I would have had to rouse myself out of bed at 3 AM each evening it operated, to make sure the building was secure after everyone left for home. So every evening I stayed behind until the last haunter left. Invariably, one of them would turn to me and ask: “You ever see any ghosts in here?” And my answer was always an honest no.

But people will never accept the idea of an old building that isn’t haunted, and between groups the performers made up stories to convince themselves and each other that their haunted attraction was literally haunted. People claimed to hear voices coming through the walls when everything else was silent. Of course they heard people talking; groups left through the floor upstairs, and we shared walls with several business, including a popular martini bar. They were hearing drunks, not ghosts.

One night, the night before Halloween in fact, I went out with the other performers to grab a bite at Waffle House. I was halfway through my grub when I realized I hadn’t set the alarm before locking up, and when I was done I mentioned to the haunt manager I had to head back.

“Oh, shit!” he laughed. “Sean’s goin’ back to that place alone, y’all!” And everyone made fake-solemn goodbyes, since clearly they would never see me alive again.

I rolled up to the front doors a little after 3:30 in the morning, opening the door without leaving it unlocked, and made my way to the far panel that would set the necessary series of alarms. I could hear the usual smattering of voices overhead, trickling in through the vents from the martini bar. Some nights there would be opera music accompanying the drifting conversation; the proprietor lived in an apartment over his business.

I stopped halfway across the floor. The bar…would have closed at 2. And when I’d driven by, the lights were out, upstairs and down. The street was empty; the only occupied parking space was my own.

And the conversation seemed…closer than the kind that typically trickled through the vents. It almost sounded like there were two or three people in our upstairs mezzanine, talking amongst themselves.

“Do you think he hears us?” a distinctly female voice said then.

I was standing in the center of a wide, open space. There was nothing above me, nothing behind me. But from just behind and a little above I heard a man’s voice answer:

“I think he does.”

I didn’t set the alarm that night.

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October 4, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

Somehow I’d managed to avoid tornadoes until I moved to Nashville. I didn’t realize they sounded like revving diesel engines until I woke up one night thinking some asshole was was trying to flex outside my apartment. It wasn’t till I took a look out the window that I could see the neighbor’s plastic porch chairs tumbling across the parking lot.

Some December, a few days before Christmas, the weather had been unseasonably hot and humid all day. Sure, it gets hot and stays hot here in the south, and humidity is just a fact of life down here, but this was springtime weather conditions in the depth of winter. Air pressure had been threatening to bottom out all day, and a constant, steady breeze stirred quietly enough to let everyone know things were going to get loud sooner rather than later.

The weather forecast told us that things likely wouldn’t get too heavy until a little after six, and after spending my day at the kitchen table wrapping gifts I (stupidly, I know) put on my Asics and left for a run.

Something I find really unique about the Nashville area is the surprising number of random graves you find as you go about your business. I’m not talkin’ fresh graves, mind you, dug by some brazen mafioso; hundreds of old graves, dug by settlers, dot the surrounding countryside. You see them all over, but half the time you don’t even realize it; often I would be caught by surprise upon finding out that what I assumed was a nondescript rock was actually an engraved and weathered tombstone. It’s not very unusual in the more rural areas to see a neighborhood stop sign casually erected beside an antebellum grave marker.

So as I ran I noticed the wind picking up, substantially. It was well past sunset, but the sky was almost a glowing purple color. I could feel the air pressure dropping as time ticked by, and I knew I needed to head back as quickly as I could manage. I crossed the street, to a side less dense with overhanging tree branches, and made my way back up the mountain road that led to my apartment.

I was coming up on a pile of rocks, a marker I would usually rely on when coming home from work to let me know the turn to my driveway was coming up. Beside them there was a woman with a gray shawl wrapped around her. Strangely the shawl didn’t seem affected by the wind. She seemed to be looking past me down the road, and I could hear what sounded like the rumble of an engine. By that time, I knew that twisters sounded like revving engines.

I looked over my shoulder, my blood running cold as I did, but luckily it really was an engine I heard. She’d just been waiting to cross the road. The truck passed me by, and while my heart slowed back down to normal I noticed that the lady ahead of me was gone. Probably crossed already.

I slowed as I passed the rocks. Growing nearer, I could see that something was carved into it. Erosion had eaten too much away to make any sense of it, but I could definitely make out numbers. “1846-1868”

For whatever reason I felt compelled to look over my shoulder, and when I did I saw the lady with the shawl again, for just a moment. Then my attention was pulled away by another engine sound – another pickup – and when I looked back, she was gone to…wherever she was heading.

The tornado came about half an hour later, whipping sideways rain across the hillside and rocking cars on their suspension. When things began to quiet down I risked a look through the window, and for an instant I thought I saw a figure in a gray shawl, standing oddly still in the violent storm. But I must have been seeing things, because when I blinked she was gone.

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October 3, 2018

So here’s my scary story.

I used to live in the town of Goodlettsville, a bedroom community just north of Nashville. It was a pretty typical stretch of suburbia but I was impressed with the local park, which had been carved out of an abandoned plantation and army camp, and the ruins of an exploratory fort. Both still exist after extensive reconstruction, and in addition to public use the space operates as something of a continuous museum, complete with tours and educational events. I fell into the habit of going on runs on the extensive creekside trail that encircled the area.

My favorite time to run was in the evenings come fall and winter, when it would get dark and cold and most people had gone home. A few groundspeople and a patrolman stayed until closing (10:00 PM) but the park sprawled, and sections of the trail branched off into unlit brush. Go deep enough past most of the lights, and you would smell deer musk, and hear distant coyote cries.

One night in late October I didn’t reach the park until a little after nine, so when I ran I did so at a faster clip than usual to make sure I could get back to my car before they locked the gates. A mist from the burbling creek added a chill to the already frosty, and through the trees I could make out bright and garish Halloween decorations. I could hear bats chirping around the special rookeries set up for them by the local Lions Club. It was a great night for a run, and I felt energized.

I had intended to keep it short, and turn back at the halfway point before I reached the unlit stretch the dipped into the woods. But I’d had a long day and wanted to wind down, so I kept running, onto the section of the trail without electric lights.

Sometimes I ran with music, other times I didn’t. It was windy that night though, and I enjoyed the sound of it through the trees. And while I ran I could hear the branches creaking as they swayed and knocked against one another. A storm was coming but it was not yet here.

As I ran I could hear the branches crashing even harder against each other, and after a beat I thought I heard something heavy hit the ground. Assuming a bough had broken, I ignored it, but then there came another heavy thud. And then a few beats later, another heavy sound of impact. And grunting, like a buck would grunt, except…heavier, somehow.

And for whatever reason, I got scared. I generally like the nighttime, and while I’d rather not be in the dark it usually doesn’t bother me. But I started increasing my speed, and my heartrate started going up. I turned down a fork I knew would take me back to the main section of the park, and I ran at top speed. I had no reason to think it but for whatever reason I knew that something. Was. Following. Me.

I let myself slow down once I got within sight of my car, and further away I could see a parked cruiser, near the entrance gate. I was panting when I got to my car, and I let myself calm down before I hopped in for home. I turned to the trees, chuckling softly at how silly I’d been.

The half-leafless trees were perfectly silhouetted by the glowing, cloudy night. I could them swaying against one another, and could hear the scraping of gnarled branches. And I blinked, because where there had been darkness in a distant section of the trees, there was now open space, as though something massive had moved on.

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October 2, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

Growing up in the country, my granddad and his twin brother Roy saw their fair share of wildlife. They grew up with two other brothers and two sisters, with a widowed mother who was kind and gentle in her tone of voice despite the grueling labor that came with Depression-era subsistence farming. There were plenty of long hot days when the family would built heavy, sturdy fences to keep the few animals they owned safe from the creatures that roamed the pinewoods around their homestead.

One night when my grandad was fourteen, there was a great big scream from outside, and as he told it, he and Roy were they first ones outside, both of them in their underwear, my granddad holding his daddy’s gun and Roy fumbling with a box of bullets, They got a few rounds loaded as they ran around, trying to figure out what was going on. Their mama hollered at them to be careful while she threw on a housecoat. The littler kids stayed inside.

Eventually Granddad and Uncle Roy found a section of the heavy wooden gate that had been completely knocked down, and inside was a wounded goat, jerking around but clearly dying from a nasty bite to the neck. Granddad shot the poor thing and noticed one of its horns had broken off.

The goat was buried out of fear of rabies, and it was a significant loss for such a little farm. The gate was fixed and the two boys took turns for a couple weeks staying up late with the rifle, watching the animals. One night, while prowling around the treeline, Uncle Roy called out to Granddad, and when he met up with him he showed him the carcass of a wild pig, a broken goat horn stuck in its belly. Boars were mean, but Granddad had never thought one would could ever get that mean. They buried the pig, too, just in case.

Granddaddy was quick to dismiss this next part as “horse piss” but Uncle Roy often claimed he would still hear those animals around the property, usually late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. He would hear a screaming goat and a screaming pig, but the animals would be as calm as could be when he would check on them, like they didn’t hear a thing. He said sometimes he could even see dust getting kicked up like there was a scuffle going on, even though there weren’t any animals moving nearby. Granddad didn’t believe a word of it, and would always respond with a disdainful “Aw, come on” whenever Uncle Roy would share his story with the kids.

When Uncle Roy passed he left the house to Granddad. All his kids lived several states away and had no use for it, and Roy’s wife Ruth could comfortably live off her own pension as well as the widow’s benefits from Roy’s. Plus, she was moving into an apartment in a retirement community, and wanted nothing to do with the hassle of selling the property. So it fell to Granddad.

Granddad was always an active man, but by his mid-eighties the two-and-a-half hour drive to the old homestead was a little much, and he asked me to head out one weekend to make sure the house was cleared out and ready for sale. Roy had lived where the old family home had been, but by the early fifties he’d torn down the old house his father had put together and replaced it with a one-story brick home. Most of the farmland had been sold off as lots, so only a half acre remained in the family name. What had once been countryside was now a quaint but populated neighborhood.

So one Saturday afternoon I drove out. Movers had already cleared everything, and whatever Ruth didn’t want she’d either given away or stuck out by the road. I couldn’t see anything that had been left behind, and there was nothing major that was wrong with the place. I took some pictures in case a realtor wanted to see them or something, then spent about ten minutes taking apart a bookshelf I thought I could use in my apartment. This was November, just after Thanksgiving, and by the time I had the pieces in my trunk the sun had gone down. I locked the place up and made my way back to my car. It was silent and cold and dark, and I immediately froze when a scream filled the air. And then another, and then something guttural and angry answering it.

I don’t really know what I heard or where I heard it, because while the area was now a neighborhood it was still plenty country, and there were plenty of wild animals just outside the light of the lone streetlamp. But I thought I could hear shuffling stomps, like maybe the kind made by hooves. And when I jumped into my car and backed out into the street, I thought maybe I saw some dust kicked up from the yard.

But it was dark, and like I said, I don’t really know what I heard.

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