At every bungalow colony, in every kid’s life, in one summer or another, came the discovery of a “haunted house.” It might have been a dilapidated old farmhouse, or a deserted small hotel. It may have been a row of neglected and decaying bungalows, or just a shanty shack off the side of a dirt road. No matter where, what or when, it was universal in the mystery and romance we attached to the place.
You are ten years old. It’s a sunny day, not quite warm enough for swimming, but too nice a morning to waste on arts and crafts or for sitting in the shade near the camp-house. You’re waiting with your two best friends, arguing the relative merits of Mantle to Mays, or the Beatles and Beach Boys. The grass still holds a hint of the morning’s dew, and you sit up on your haunches so not to get wet. Your counselor is stalling, praying he could wish away the two and half-hours till lunchtime. You want to play softball, but the seniors have the field. You consider sneaking out of camp and returning to your bungalow and a fresh supply of Superman’s, Batman’s and Archie’s, but your mom has warned that if you run away from camp just once more you’ll be grounded from both bingo and movie night. Still, you’re weighing the merits of trying. You overslept that morning, rushing out to camp with only a glass of OJ, and you know there is a bag in the kitchen with a bear claw and a huge custard donut, fresh from Katz’s. Your best friend has a pocket full of dimes, and if they’d just let you alone you’d discover peace and happiness and supervision beneath the lights and jangle of the colony pinball machine.
Your counselor stands before you, fresh from a conference with the camp director. It has been decreed that your group is hooking up with the one immediately junior, and embarking on a hike. You moan and swear and look for an out. Maybe you can feign a stomach disorder, or kidney failure, or plead a sudden case of malaria. You’ve literally been down this road before. An hour or more in the relative cool of morning, walking beneath a canopy of trees, the road dappled with bits of sunlight, birds chirping, frogs croaking, your knees buckling. That was the easy part–the going out. The return took place as the sun reached for its apogee, your legs tired, your feet sweaty and swollen in your Keds, your mouth parched, your resolve clear and undeterred–no more friggin’ hikes!
But like so much else, at ten years old your summer days are not freely yours, and you must march to the beat of a different drummer, this particular tune called by the camp director. So you set off on an excursion down a long, twisting, dusty dirt road. Your best buddy is at your side. You pick small rocks and pebbles from the roadbed and toss them at trees as you move on. Your group meanders along, straggling out in a long, convoluted line of ugly stripped polo shirts, cut off shorts and Keds and PF Flyers.
About two miles from the bungalow colony your counselor spots a clearing off the road. He confers with the other counselors. They guess it was once a road, maybe a driveway, into a long since abandoned property. They decide to investigate. You wait ten minutes, sitting on a moss-covered boulder in the shade, grateful to be out of the blazing sun. You pull a stack of baseball cards from your rear pocket and begin playing “colors” with three other kids. There is a stillness to the morning, an ominous quiet, and you begin hoping against hope the counselors will decide its time to turn around and head back to the colony. No such luck.
The groups begin their advance on the property. You move past thickets and the remains of trees felled by countless Catskill storms. Ahead you can see the outlines of a graying and decaying structure. It appears to be a barn. To the left of the barn, partially obscured by decades of overgrowth, is a small wreck of a house. Giant spider webs, infinitely intricate, stretch out in window frames long barren of glass. Bugs amass in throng, ablanket of life moving and pulsing on rotted wood and peeling shingles. Your counselor is “point man,” moving fearlessly on. A single remaining hinge holds on the screen door, and one decent gust of wind will send it spiraling off to the woods. You step back to consider the scene and decide it’s what Dorothy’s Kansas farm might have looked like if it had been hit by the big one.
Now half your group has moved inside, and you follow reluctantly, your breath shallow in your chest, suddenly very aware that your heart is slightly racing because you can feel it just beneath your throat. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. What little light there is seems cut in random patterns along the peeling oilcloth floor and faded wallpaper. You are in the kitchen. A calendar remains fastened to the far wall by a single rustednail. The yellowed page reads “October–1936.” The first few days have been marked off with large, still vivid “X’s”. The last day so marked is the 7th.
You hear a small commotion ahead, and find yourself pushed towards the stairs where, beneath a broken, crumbling stair your counselor has discovered the putrid corpse of a small animal, maybe a woodchuck or a large chipmunk. It’s difficult to tell because the maggots have been at it and there’s not enough left for some kind of half-assed autopsy. The kitchen appears to have remained habitable, needing maybe just a good six or seven months cleaning and repair. There is a rusting pot-bellied stove, and a large soapstone sink, with a washboard attached. There is a rusted water pump beside, and the tattered remains of what you guess was once a high-chair. The table and chairs, if they’d had a set, are gone. The room is otherwise barren, save for a small cadre of field mice who scurry in fear at your approach.
The day has grown hot, but inside the deserted farmhouse it is decidedly cool, almost cold. Your best friend juts ahead, set to challenge the questionable staircase, but your counselor grabs him by his forearm and yanks him back in rank: too risky. No counselor wants to blow his summer’s tips by turning up with a maimed camper.
Around back of the kitchen is a vacant room. It might once have been a bedroom, or a storeroom, or a parlor. Now it is nothing, just a gaggle of splintered floorboards and a blown out rear wall allowing easy access to a sweeping vista of a rolling field sloping gently down to a small pond. You look out for a moment, and imagine yourself a young farm-kid; each morning blessed with this view of the world–the woods, the fields, the weeping willow tree bending over the pond in the morning sun. You’d awaken to the sound of birds and the gentle movement of the leaves in the wind. Preferable by light years to the world from your home bedroom–of the boulevard’s traffic and the din of the city.
Then, by counselor decree, sufficient time has been expanded with the morning’s dalliance. Your group assembles outside and sets off for home. Along the way your counselor weaves a tale of the farm–how it had once been inhabited by an ogre of a man, whose wife and three sons had vanished without a trace, and how the man had been seen leaving town, his clothing stained with blood, his favorite axe never recovered, the whereabouts of his family a mystery even to this day. Half the group is buying this hooey, while the other half is discussing their impending lunch order.
You? You are off in a world of your own, wondering who had lived and worked the deserted farm, and what had truly become of them. The wall calendar stopped in 1936–so many years ago, so long before you were even born. On the following weekend you coerce your dad to drive down the treacherous road, replete with tiny shale stones protruding from the roadbed like small razors in search of a tire. You show him the farmhouse, and the barn, and ask what he thinks has become of the family who’d once known this place as home. He doesn’t know, is reluctant even to hazard a guess. But then he begins to tell you about those years, of when he was a kid and there was something called the depression, and how some people lost their jobs, their businesses, and their homes, and their families, and sometimes their lives. You don’t understand it much, but he seems in earnest, so you listen intently and try gleaning what is in the capacity of your ten-year-old mind.
In coming weeks many of your buddies will remember the farmhouse, usually when they are alone in their beds, the room dark and the night crawling about them. Their minds will evoke memories of the counselor’s yarn, and they’ll quiver in fear and curl up beneath their covers. But you will remember it differently, speculating forever on an unknown family’s loss of a very special place so many years ago.
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