The Ghost of Mr. Able, Part 1

Earlier this month I wrote a post about what it’s like to write from a “strong sense of place”—how, in an old town, history trails behind every building. Somehow, out of that blog, came a request—and a promise—for a ghost story. Through this post, I attempt to fulfill that promise. Although I call it a ghost story, I don’t really believe in ghosts. Or do I? After you read this story, you tell me what you think.

When you live in an old house, like I do, there are certain things you just accept. For starters, when you sign the contract: the deed may say the house is being conveyed from just one individual to another—but that’s not at all true. The truth is, when you go into a contract to buy an old house, you are agreeing to stand in a long line of previous residents.

You agree to walk the floors they walked, peer through the same windows, weed and water the garden they planted. Before we bought our old house, it already had a long succession of owners: from the woman who built it in 1895 to Mr. Able who lived in it until shortly before we moved in.

But I need to start at my beginning. When we first moved to this small town, there were no old houses for sale. Don’t ask me why we had kind of an obsession with buying an old house, but we did. Something with character, personality. When I lamented the lack of “antique” real estate to a friend, she suggested we do what she did: approach people who owned houses we liked and ask them if they had any interest in selling.

Initially unsure about this personalized, rather aggressive method of finding a house, I checked with a realtor friend who said it was pretty commonplace. Even my dad—an old-house owner himself—said that he had lost track of how many people had approached him with offers over the years.

So, I convinced myself (and MEH—My Engineer Husband—who was even less enthusiastic than I) that it was a great idea. And I honed in on the one house I had secretly coveted ever since moving to town.

It seemed like fate, when the very first time we drove by after making the decision, that an older man—I’ll call him Mr. Able—was there in the driveway, unloading groceries from the trunk of his car. We pulled over, got out of our car, and started chatting—eventually working around to the topic of how much we admired his house. Within seconds he asked if we wanted a tour. We were ecstatic!

Mr. Able told me to lead the way, to feel free to explore, while he followed a respectable distance behind. I felt self-conscious going room-to-room, trespassing on Mr. Able’s personal space—but he didn’t seem concerned at all, instead seemed to welcome the company. Although the house had “good bones,” it was hard to see how the years of neglect covered up a century of beauty. To say it needed work would be the understatement of the century. With each new room we entered, my heart fell. Old yellowed wallpaper stained by years of cigarette smoke—it reeked!—was the least of the problems. The kitchen was vintage 1960 schlock and the vinyl floor probably hadn’t been washed for five years. That’s okay, I thought, he smoked and hated housework. Not that unusual.

I was much more concerned that there was a small section of the house Mr. Able patently refused to show us. A closed door led from the kitchen to what Mr. Able described only as “his office.” The tour stopped abruptly at that door, and after several coughing spells, Mr. Able lowered himself to a kitchen chair and waved his arm toward two others.

“Sit down, please. Wish I had a cookie or something to offer you, but I don’t.”

We sat. For fifteen minutes, Mr. Able told us about his life—interspersed with frequent coughing fits, followed by several seconds of Mr. Able barely catching his breath—how his wife left him, how he bribed the local police department to keep his son out of trouble, that all he had left was his work as an international expert in nuclear power generators, and how his latest project required him to crack the whip with the “lazy foreigners.” After that, the conversation spiraled downward to embarrassing sexual innuendos and stories of dens of inequity around the world.

In short Mr. Able was a seedy character, and I sat silently listening, wondering where it was all leading and whether it was all worth it. He was possibly the most unappealing person I had met in my life. I could tell MEH (My Engineer Husband) felt the same way, his arms crossed, looking toward the door. Yet we laughed obsequiously at his jokes, asking questions, repulsed yet fascinated, and of course with the house always in the back of our minds.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Mr. Able’s mood changed abruptly. He stubbed out his latest cigarette and leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the grubby kitchen table.

“So you want to buy my house?”

We were taken aback, it was the first time the topic had been openly stated.

MEH and I exchanged glances.

“I’ve always admired the house…” I said.

“Me too,” Mr. Able said, wheezing. “Especially that staircase, that’s what sold me on the house. Oh, and this old coal stove.” Mr. Able slapped the side of the huge black coal stove that stood in the middle of the kitchen. (It was summer, don’t worry, so the stove was cold…I said it was a ghost story, not a story about the Devil.)

We nodded. The staircase was pretty spectacular. We weren’t so sure about the coal stove; it took up half the kitchen.

A minute later, lighting up another cigarette, Mr. Able looked at us with narrowed eyes. “It’s too bad you aren’t that interested. I’d ’a told you to make me an offer.”

We wondered what to say. We hadn’t considered this possibility.

“Make me an offer.” Mr. Able stared at us across the table and repeated his statement, almost as a challenge.

Without thinking, I blurted out a number close to one that my friend had paid for her house several streets over.

Mr. Able snorted. “Nah. I can’t move anywhere for that. Tell you what. I’m going in the hospital next week. I might not make it…”

We both started to protest, but he waved his hands at us to shush.

He continued. “I might not make it. If you read my obituary, call my attorney. Then if my daughter doesn’t want the house—believe me she won’t—it’s yours. First right of refusal.”

We weren’t sure what to say—deer in the headlights comes to mind—but I felt a pang of unease as he matter-of-factly discussed his demise. Shortly after that, we thanked him and left. The next day I baked some chocolate chip cookies and took some over to Mr. Able to thank him for the tour of his house. When I dropped them by, alone, he thanked me profusely and invited me in. I declined.

Two weeks later, sitting on the couch reading the paper, MEH in the kitchen: I saw it. Mr. Able’s obituary. I paused briefly before running into the kitchen to let MEH know. I could hear Mr. Able’s words:

“I might not make it. If you read my obituary, call my attorney….”

The old free-standing coal stove was gone

The next few weeks were a flurry of activity as we set the wheels in motion. Believe it or not, that one tour of the house with Mr. Able was all we ever got. It turned out Mr. Able was in a bit of a financial fix, and the bank owned the house. If we hadn’t accepted the terms in the will, the next step was a public auction. Part of the terms were that we accepted the house “as is.” And so it was, fool hardy as it seems, the house was ours, every messy inch of it. Although the bank removed all personal possessions, all fixtures were to stay with the house. The daughter wanted nothing.

But everything didn’t stay. The day we moved in, we realized that the large free-standing coal stove had been removed from the kitchen. Gone. It was a moment of surprise, remembering Mr. Able’s fondness for the stove. We joked momentarily that he took it with him.

“That thing must’ve weighed a ton,” MEH said under his breath. “How the hell…”

Then, seeing my face, he stopped.

The parrot hung in the window
like a greeting card

We continued to explore the house, and we finally got to see what was behind the door Mr. Able excluded from our original tour. It led to a short dark hallway with two more doors: one led to the small old crumbling garage. The other to a cold, dank, vinyl-floored office, papers scattered across the floor, an old black telephone still connected to a wall socket, and a red, yellow, and blue stuffed cloth parrot hanging in the window like a greeting card.

As I stood there all I wanted to think about was how much work it would be to clean it all up, but that’s not what I was thinking. A door leading from the office to the back yard stood ajar, a slight breeze blowing in, shifting the papers on the floor. Was that cigarette smoke I smelled? Then I imagined—or did I?—Mr. Able standing behind me.  A shiver ran down my spine as I nervously glanced over my shoulder and moved a step closer to MEH.

Comments

  1. Deborah says:

    This is a great read – couldn’t stop once I’d started! Is it true, or are you toying with us?!

  2. Cynthia Robertson says:

    Fascinating, Julia! Mr. Able is creepy. Love the staircase. I can hardly wait for Monday!

  3. BIKE LADY says:

    What a great story! Can’t wait for part 2.

  4. Julia, this had me riveted. Wow! What a story. You pulled me in right away. Pfft, even the picture of the staircase welcomed me into The Ghost of Mr. Able’s world. Like Deborah, I want to know: is this for real?!? Is it truly the way you got your house?

    Not only do I not believe in ghosts, I don’t like reading ghost-y types of stories either, but let me tell you something…I would so, totally read THIS story in novel form! Well done!!

    Barb

  5. OMG! I love this! You’ve certainly been hiding this one up your sleeve. :~) What a fantastic tale. And so well told. My favorite line was: “I said it was a ghost story, not a story about the Devil.”

    I’m not into ghosts either and Mr. Able sure does sound like a seedy character. So ironic that when you visited him it was kind of so very awful – esp. the part at the end where the conversation degenerated – and yet persevering through the various stages (including the decision to do that kind of prospecting for a house) gave you this great story.

    And, of course, a creative deal on an old house. The deal itself sounds fantastical so I’m hoping for more details next time. Did it come with any hidden traps?

    I loved the picture of the parrot! And I was so sad when Part 1 was over. Can’t wait for the next installment. Ms. Wordsxo, you have my curiosity blazing.

  6. Liz says:

    I am SO incredibly captivated by this!! I can’t wait for more! Thank you, thank you so very much for writing this! This sounds more like a movie script than real life!

  7. Lovely story! I like the image of the parrot in the window; it’s very chilling. I wonder what happened to that old coal stove.

    Looking forward to Monday!

  8. Deborah, Thanks for enjoying. Am I toying with you? I can only say this…. although this is creative nonfiction, it is definitely nonfiction…

    Cynthia, Yes, Mr. Able was/is very creepy.

    Bike Lady, Thanks! Hope you enjoy Part 2, too!

    Barb, This really truly is the way we got our house. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story and your encouragement to write more. (and I really don’t believe in ghosts!)

    Milli, Glad you enjoyed it. I rather enjoyed writing that line, too–gotta have fun, huh? It was a crazy way to buy a house, I admit, but it got us a house and me lots of material to write about! And the parrot? Legendary in our house now… wonder what happened to that thing :-)

    Liz, So glad you’re captivated! And if it sounds like a movie script, then I can only say: my life is Hollywood :-)

    Jen, Glad you’re enjoying the story and the parrot in the window. That thing definitely creeped us out when we found it… more about that later!

  9. This is riveting! I can’t wait for part 2. I can’t believe, Julia, that this man just invited you in and asked if you wanted to buy his house. What kind of crazy luck IS that? I personally am open to the concept of ghosts. Too many things have happened to me and family members for me to totally poo-poo the idea. (In fact this ‘openness’ to things unexplained is a future post on my blog – a bit of an exploration of how or IF writers tend to be more open to supernatural, paranormal things due to our imaginations?) Can’t wait to read more.

  10. Melissa, Glad you liked it! Pretty crazy how we bought this house, no question! I still don’t think I believe in ghosts, but I do consider myself to be very sensitive to all kinds of things going on in my enviornment and with other people. I frequently can intuit or empathetically know what someone is feeling, and this is not always something I wish I could do! Hope Part 2 does not disappoint!

  11. Hi Julia – followed you here from SheWrites, love the story, and am looking forward to part 2.

    I do believe in ghosts (if not most ghost stories) as I lived in a house that had one, although s/he never did anything very interesting. There was a particular door s/he wanted kept open, and no matter how it was secured, how many times the locks were changed, in the morning the door was always open. (My dad laid down baby powder around the door, too, to make sure it wasn’t me doing it in my sleep. No footprints.)

    Come visit me, if/when you have a minute. Writing in Flow

  12. Beverly, So glad you found me via SheWrites! And I’m very happy you love the story; thank you for leaving a comment. That is a super crazy story about the ghost in your house growing up; it’s even a little similar to what happened here, so tune in tomorrow to read more! Thanks again for the visit and the comment!

  13. Scrollwork says:

    My word, quite a read! I feel sorry for Mr. Able. I wonder what happened to the coal stove? Will Part II tell us?

    You’ve posted nearly every day since you started this blog. I’m amazed at how prolific you are, not to mention masterful at your craft. Wow. I’m a fan.

  14. Scrollwork, So glad you read and enjoyed the story (and left a comment, thanks so much!). Yes, although Mr. Able was not very nice, I too felt sorry for him, one of the reasons I took the cookies to him! Hopefully all will be cleared up in part 2; if not then feel free to ask questions in the comments. Thank you also for you kind comments about my blogging, and I’m very glad I can count you among my fans! Cheers, Julia

  15. CMSmith says:

    What an incredible story! This is something I have always wanted to do, but sadly, MEH is not very handy or interested in fixing things up.

    Don’t worry if there turn out to be ghosts, I can tell by this story that you must live a charmed life.

  16. Christine, Thanks so much, glad you liked it! I hope you have a chance to read Part 2 (posted today….). Not so sure about us living a charmed life, but I sure am capable of making it sound that way, aren’t I? :)

  17. CMSmith says:

    Not yet, but you know I’m going to have to.