Based in Chicago, Bruce Owens Grimm’s haunted queer essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Entropy, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Older Queer Voices, Ghost City Review, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an imprint of Hachette, in 2021. He has taught his Haunted Memoir: What Ghosts Reveal About Life workshop at StoryStudio Chicago and at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, which named him a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Fellow.
“Inventory of a Haunted House, No. 3”
I wait for someone to tell me I’m not allowed here. To tell me to go back to my own, less well-off neighborhood. But no one does. The logs blister against the flames in the fire pit. Crack and pop as they are consumed. I’m on the back patio in the crisp fall air with a classmate from the Catholic elementary school we attend. We are in the fourth grade. We have the same first name. We sit on thick square wooden stools. His mother and his older brother are with us. All of us are roasting marshmallows, which burst, ooze sugar, as we crush them between graham crackers.
Trees encircle the back of the house. They are not dense, not forbidding like the woods that run along the back of my street. Where I live nature fights against the asphalt and aluminum siding for space. Here, in this backyard with another family, there are jokes, laughs, easy conversation about the day without any sudden turns to anger, disappointment.
I yawn. I have difficulty sleeping at home, even at this age, and the cool night, the effortless sorcery of his family relaxes me, allows me to feel sleepy because I am comfortable here, safe.
We sit on the bottom half of the bunk bed flipping through his collection of Star Wars trading cards, his mother pops her head in to see if we need any blankets or anything else. “Don’t forget what we talked about, Bruce,” she points at her son. “You’re the top bunk.”
I’m nine years old, younger than my classmate who is already ten, but I’m taller and wider than him, husky as most adults called it then, so I assume the concern is that I’m too heavy for the top bunk, even one that looks expensive like this one. That this might be in reference to two boys sleeping on one mattress together doesn’t occur to me.
She closes the door behind her as she leaves. I hear another door close down the hall. Voices from the TV downstairs lift over the banister of the stairs. The ease from outside is still present inside.
Bruce flips through the cards. He’s told me he’s looking for Princess Leia because she is my favorite character. Whenever we play Star Wars on the playground at school, I want to pretend to be her because she’s the strongest, the funniest, the most capable. I don’t consider the difference in our genders and that boys are supposed to want to pretend to be men. It’s not until after snickers from the other boys that I remember the gender role expectations. But I stick with my choice. I can’t imagine being anyone else.
“Here she is,” Bruce hands me the card. It’s one with Leia from Return of the Jedi where she is in the Ewok community. Her long hair fully down for the first time in the original trilogy, the only trilogy we knew of then.
He gets up and flips the switch by the door to turn off the overhead light. A flood light that hangs from a wooden telephone pole by the driveway let enough light leak into the room to keep me feeling safe. At home, I have to fall asleep with my TV on. I cannot relax enough to fall asleep in the dark. I lay down, the card in my hand.
Bruce lays down next to me, tucks his arms into his chest so that we each have our own sides of the bed. We don’t say anything. I fall asleep.
I wake up.
Bruce is still asleep.
The seam between the dark floor and the flood light, somehow brighter, encroaches closer to the bed. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep. Minutes? Hours? There’s a crisp tap. Like long fingernails knocking against the glass one by one.
I rise up. Knock. “Bruce,” I whisper. “Bruce, Bruce.”
He doesn’t wake up, doesn’t even stir.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I push myself to the end of the bed. I cross the line on the floor where the darkness and light meet.
Pebbles are hitting the window.
Below in the driveway is a boy with dark hair like mine. Like Bruce’s. The boy squats down to pick up another pebble from the driveway. When he stands up, the light hits his face in such a way that his eyes are lost in shadow. He seems to be similar in age to me and Bruce. He hooks his arm back to throw another pebble when he seems to notice me at the window.
I’m not afraid until he motions for me to come down to the driveway. I’m tempted. I want to know who he is and why he chose this house. Does he know Bruce? Perhaps from down there he thinks I’m my classmate.
He bats his fingers faster for me to come down.
Perhaps he wants me to invite him in.
I glance back at Bruce asleep on the bottom bunk.
Knock. His motions become quicker, angrier.
I run back to the bed. Burrow under a blanket next to Bruce, hoping, as I do at home, that being covered will keep me safe. The knocks stop. Attending a Catholic school means my brain is steeped in the supernatural. I’m convinced the boy in the driveway is a vampire.
What is a vampire? The classic definition: a supernatural creature that must drink the blood of others to survive. Most people think of Dracula or other popular culture versions of vampires. They’re all thin. They’re all longing for the love of their lives. I’m not interested in the romance of vampires. Folkloric vampires were not thin as we see in movies, they were according to Paul Barber in his book, Vampires, Burial & Death, bloated. Folkloric vampires were fat. They barely spoke, if at all. They were not charming. They were not what we expect from Old Hollywood or more recent literary and movie renditions. However, the need, the desire for blood remains. Many folkloric vampires didn’t hunt randomly when they crawled out of their graves in the middle of the night. They went home to their families for blood, for the chance to turn them into vampires too.
I’m on the edge of my parents’ bed, folding maroon cloth napkins my mother needs for a catering job her employer has booked. The triangular folded ones stacked neatly in the box they came in. My mother is not here. She’s at Tom’s house, a cook where she works, a friend. I should be reading Flowers for Algernon for my junior high English class. Instead I’m watching Roseanne as I fold, the unfolded cloth in a pile on the bed next to me. Roseanne and Dan are fighting, yelling and making jokes at the same time. By the time the episode is over they will make up, express their love for each other in some way. If only that happened in real life. Yet, I laugh.
Down the hall, down the stairs to the next level of the house, I hear the hiss and crack of my father opening another beer. He grunts loudly to himself. I hear him bang up the stairs. He appears in the doorway with his beer bloated belly. I look his way for a second, careful not to lock eyes with him. I turn my head away, towards the wall, to avoid triggering an incident.
Pink and grey dribbles that look like candle wax run down the length of the wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom. My aunt had once told me that her blood was pink rather than red.
I’ve been given a task. I knew my mother would be angry if I wasn’t done before she got home. The studio audience laughs at the show.
He moves so that he blocks the TV. He rocks back and forth, his arms folded across his bloated belly shelf. His face bloated too. He clears his throat.
“Get out,” he says. “My room.”
“No one thinks of this as your room,” I say.
He slaps me. The crack of his skin against mine echoes off the walls. My head turns from the force of it. My cheek feels swollen already.
I throw myself toward the door and into the hallway. No matter how drunk he is, he moves with the speed and force of the undead when he wants to strike. He pushes me. I fall to the carpet in the hallway. He grabs at the waist of my sweatpants. Pulls me along the carpet towards him. It burns my arms and elbows.
I kick at his hand and arm with my left foot trying to get free from his grip.
No matter how hard I kick, his hand is solid trap. He grabs at the waist sweatpants. Begins to pull them off.
I kick quicker, harder. I kick his face. He’s dazed for a moment. It’s an accident, but now I see a weakness, I see the full strength of my thick legs. I kick him in the middle of his face. Again. Again.
Blood oozes out of his nose. I kick again and he lets go.
I run down the stairs and run to the house next door. It’s a short distance but feels long. Fear tingles up to the back of my skull. He could grab me at any second.
I make it to the door. I ring the doorbell. Bang on the door. I shout, “help me.”
The TV glows blue in the crack of the curtain in the bay window. Someone is awake. I keep ringing the doorbell. Finally, the light in the foyer pops on. A shadow moves down the stairs. Our neighbor, Bobby, opens the door. He’s the adult son of the elderly couple that lives here. He seems as elderly as his parents with bushy silver eyebrows and gray hair.
He looks down at me through the screen door. I gasp out that my father hit me, may be coming after me.
He opens the door. “Quick, get in here.”
I follow him up the stairs to the living room. Gertie, his mother, sits on the couch. She motions for me to come sit next to her. “Bobby, get me a towel.”
She wipes my face and asks me what happened. I tell her. She tells Bobby to call the police. I start to cry.
I stay on the couch with her and we focus on the television. I daydream about living in a relaxing, easy environment as this house. I cannot tell how much time passes before the red and blue lights flash through the window. Bobby goes down to the door. I hear murmurs in the foyer.
Bobby calls for me.
Gertie nods at me. I go.
A police officer stands there with my grandfather. My father stands behind them, his face points at the ground, his shoulders are hunched. “I hear you let your emotions get the best of you,” the police officer says to me as he steps over to me.
I don’t know how to respond as I grip the railing of the stairs.
“Let’s go home,” my grandfather says. “Stop bothering these nice people.”
The police officer puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Listen to your grandad, young man.”
My father says nothing. He lifts his eyes towards me. He smirks. Whatever he told my grandfather, his father, and the police, they believe him. They won’t believe me.
Vampire as Ghost
The line between a vampire and a ghost. For most of my life I thought of them as two different entities. A ghost hovers, can walk through walls, and you only see them out of the corner of your eye. They can be in your house, your room, your bathroom. Anywhere. They can show up whenever, wherever they want.
Vampires have also returned from the dead. However, it’s their actual body not their spirit that has climbed out of their grave. Unlike a ghost, they cannot enter whenever, wherever they want. They must find a way in or be let in. Invitations don’t matter for folkloric vampires. There is a story Paul Barber cites in his book a place in Serbia where vampires are called ghosts. They stalk around in the dark and make their relatives feel haunted. Later, in the book, he relates the story of vampires in South Russia that can be invisible, saying, “…there is no difference, functionally, between the concept of invisibility and that of absence…”. Absence hurts. Ghosts are absence. Like a ghost, you may feel absence standing behind you. It will make you feel guilty. It will make you sad. There is no way to have a last conversation, even if it’s one sided when people are absent, gone. It’s scary when I feel the presence of someone, which my brain has labeled as my father, behind me. Since I can’t see him, I’ll never know for sure it’s him. I’m at the same time afraid it might be him. I don’t want to speak out, ask him to identify himself, in fear that there might be an answer.
This is not a typical response. Many people would be happy to see and hear from a dead relative. The families in those folklore stories who saw vampires could see their dead relatives. It must have been upsetting. Perhaps also a comfort. Even though they had changed, bloated, lusting for blood, the family member could at least see a person they had wanted to see again.
The trees have long needles hanging off of them instead of regular branches and leaves. Some of them have fallen and now layer the dirt walking path. I’m careful because despite having flip flops, I worry that the needles will stab me. Tree roots have broken out of their graves and wait to grab my ankle, to make me fall, I imagine. The path feels dangerous. I keep my focus towards the ground. But I can see my father’s calves, his feet, enough to know that I’m not lost. He walks at a pace that he is only a few steps ahead, leading the way to the pool. I’m young, small, no more than four or five years old. My grandparents have taken us with them to visit friends who live in a RV complex. If there are other people around, I cannot see or sense them. It’s only my father and me.
Dirt transforms to concrete. A mixture of sour chemical chlorine mixes with the sweet, almost maple, scent of the green leaved, gray branched trees around the pool complex. I jog down the covered pathway, past the closed concession stand as my father signs in on the checklist posted on the wooden wall of building that forms the tunnel.
We have the pool to ourselves. I don’t even consider the lack of people around us then, at that age. Later, I will understand that we visited during the off-season. Later, I will be told that we could only take this trip because my grandparents, my father’s parents paid for it because my father was often out of work and my mother’s waitressing job money went to some groceries or fast food meals during vacation. But I don’t think about who is paying for what as I jog to the edge of the pool that looks like a vast but contained clear ocean.
My father holds my hand as we walk down the stairs into the shallow end. The glossy water reflecting the grey clouds moving across the blue sky above. He lets go and submerges underneath the water to the deeper end. I doggy paddle because I don’t want my feet to make contact with the rough, spikey plaster on the bed of the pool. The skin on my feet crack and peel, have not become thick and rough like my father’s.
He emerges. His hair slicked back. His wet chest hair forms almost the shape of a bird’s tail against his skin. I’m a buoy that has attracted the attention of my father. He pushes his way through the thick water towards me. I don’t remember being afraid of him. He gets closer, and I reach my arms out. He picks me up out of the water, holds me close to him. I shiver from the cold water and the cooler, early spring southern air. He spins us around back towards the deep end.
“Throw me. Throw me.” I shout as my teeth clatter.
“Get ready to launch,” he says.
I’m both afraid to let go of my grasp on his shoulders, and excited to soar through the air. He throws me. I splash into the water of the shallow end. A little water goes up my nose. My feet push into the bottom of the pool. The puckered plaster pokes into my soft skin. Blood leaks out as I swim up to the surface. My head makes it above water, my hair matted down to the top of my forehead. My father pushes through the water towards me. He smiles. I doggy paddle towards him.
“Again. Again,” I say.