Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Night Shift

When I was a kid, I had a book called Ghosts Go Haunting by Scorche Nic Leodhas. It was a collection of Scottish ghost tales, and it scared me to death. A very sixties kids book, complete with creepy woodcuts that were just this side of unsettling, along with the kind of stories that were the great-grandads of the tales my father told on summer nights in our backyard. One story in particular, "The Wild Ride in the Tilt Cart," would set me on edge every time. It was a vanishing hitchhiker tale in reverse, about a kid who's picked up at a train station one rainy night by a ghostly driver. I can still see the illo of the cart's shaggy owner in my mind's eye, his black eyes on paper gone slightly tan, the heavy beard below that hid all expression and (I was sure) dammed up a whisper you'd never want to hear.

Both my parents worked. Once school cut me lose, I spent most afternoons at home alone from the fourth or fifth grade on. And when rainy afternoons came my way, I'd walk home and snatch up a horror comic book... or maybe Ghosts Go Haunting. I'd read one story. Then I'd read another. Then I'd tell myself: You'd better not read the next one, Norm. But even though I knew it would be a mistake to turn the page and start the tale, I'd inevitably do the job. My eye would follow that typeface road and nudge me across the threshold, and before long I'd slap covers closed on the book, and I'd turn on all the lights in the house, and I'd turn on the TV or the radio, too. I'd shove Ghosts Go Haunting deep into a drawer, and I wouldn't breathe easy until my parents came home.

And, you know, some nights that still happens. I'm a night supervisor at a college library. Summertime, it gets quiet around here. Sometimes, a book comes across the desk at just the wrong moment. Tonight it was one called The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. I grabbed it. Checked it out. Closed the library, turned off the lights on all three floors, and finished up my shift.

It's quiet now. Really quiet. I've been reading for the last hour and a half. William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." Ray Russell's "Sardonicus." "Secret Observations on the Goat Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates. I'm wondering if I should top off the night with just one more before I head home.

I think I just heard something up on the third floor.

I did mention that this place is haunted, didn't I?