By Ariel Lewiton
Some years ago I lived in the only true house I've inhabited since childhood, a tumbledown two-story overlooking a long grassy yard. It resembled a child's drawing of a house, a Platonic house: triangle perched atop square. Discounting the raccoons that scuffled around in the attic, I lived there alone. The house's only interesting features were the ornately carved wooden dowels that held up the railing of the staircase to the second floor, and the mourning door cut into the wall at the foot of those stairs. In the early days of the house, this was how they’d brought out the dead, since the broad shoulders of a coffin would not fit through the front door. Viewed from outside, the door looked like a mistake. Cut into the long windowless side of the house a few feet above the foundation, it was an exit to nowhere, a straight drop down into the overgrown bushes.
For reasons that had nothing to do with the house but were exacerbated by it, I was deeply unhappy there, more unhappy than I have been at any time before or since. I would’ve liked to come and go by way of the mourning door—it seemed appropriate to my condition of long and indulgent sorrow—but the door was sealed off. I had to use the front entrance like the rest of the living. Sometimes I tugged at the mourning door to see if it would give way. It didn't, though other things did: the bathroom ceiling, which came crashing down waterlogged and rotten after a violent green storm; the floorboards that warped and buckled and spat up nails; the sinkhole out back that swallowed the grass, tennis balls, bottle caps, smooth white stones of mysterious origin I sometimes found piled inside like an inverted cairn.
I tried to leave the house but couldn’t get out of my lease, so I lived there as lightly as possible. I kept my paintings and photographs and most of my kitchen supplies wrapped in tissue paper in boxes in the basement. I pushed my furniture haphazardly up against the walls and loaned my houseplants out to friends.
I spent as much time as I could away. There was no limit to the number of nights I could pass drinking $3 glasses of whiskey with this or that friend at the corner dive bar. I was not a complete wastrel though; one evening I went to the theater to see a touring pianist perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The pianist was young, not much older than me. He wore a bow tie and cuff-links, and played with his eyes closed. I closed my eyes too, from my seat in the dark theater. I thought about the sinkhole in my yard and what it might be swallowing, and I thought about the phone calls I owed various relatives, and then, for no particular reason, I thought about a waterfall I’d seen once while hiking as a teenager. There was nothing special about the waterfall, but I had stood beneath it for a long time, trying to implant the image of it in my memory. I’d wanted to remember that waterfall forever, and so I had, though I was no longer sure why it felt important to remember. Maybe what mattered wasn’t the fact of the waterfall but the feeling of keeping a promise to myself across time.
As the pianist progressed through the thirty-two movements, I realized he’d been playing for ages—hours, possibly—without sheet music or error, without even opening his eyes to monitor the movement of his fingers across the keys. This struck me as a spectacular feat. After the performance I found him autographing CDs in the theater lobby. I loitered nearby until the crowds dispersed, then approached the signing table to ask him how he’d managed it. He told me he relied on the memory palace technique derived from the ancient Greeks: he’d invented a house in his mind, populated it meticulously with furniture and objets d’art, then traveled through it until he’d committed every detail of every room to memory. Each time he passed the smoked-glass mirror he’d hung in the guest bedroom he’d recall the descending scale of the sixth variation; a lacquer vase on the coffee table in the living room called to mind the appoggiaturas of the thirteenth. And so on. He said it was crucial to remember not only what was in each of the rooms but where each room sat in relation to every other, to traverse the space in the exact same way every time. Every pass he made through the house was like re-tracing a line on a map, until the line became as pronounced as a track he could slide along almost unconsciously, more muscle memory than thought.
After the pianist told me this story, I found myself thinking of Brian, a boy I’d known a decade earlier on Martha’s Vineyard, where I’d spent a summer working the cash register at a local grocery store. Brian was my manager. He was from a fishing family up-island, and he disdained seasonal visitors, but he tolerated me. I might’ve been touristing through his world, but not the way most tourists came to the Vineyard in summer, to lie on the beach in designer sunglasses and buy monogrammed polo shirts in pink and green. I clocked in on time, kept my register in order, and memorized all the produce codes (lemon: 4053; garlic: 4608; black fig: 4266; heirloom tomato: 3423). These were qualities Brian valued.
One afternoon at the end of our shift, Brian took me on a drive to Menemsha. As we drove up-island through the foggy hills—in island parlance “up” did not mean north, as I'd expected, but west, closer to longitudinal zero, a holdover from seafaring days—Brian lit us a joint, rolled down the windows, and explained to me his theory on ghosts. He felt that ghosts were less a physical entity than a sort of residue of repeated movement across time. Imagine a woman who lives in the same house her whole life, Brian said. She’s born there, she grows up there, she never gets married. When her parents start getting old she sticks around to take care of them, and by the time they’re gone, she’s an old woman herself. Meanwhile she’s been walking up and down this same flight of stairs every day, thousands of times, always putting her foot down in the same spot, always holding the railing in the same way. Then she dies, the house gets sold, new people move in. They scrape off the ugly old flowered wallpaper and lay new kitchen tiles, maybe they redo the bathroom, knock out a wall, put in a skylight. It starts to look like a totally different house. But every once in awhile when the new owners are on the stairs, they get this pins and needles feeling under their skin like someone else is there. What they're feeling is the old lady. It’s not like she’s a literal ghost floating over their heads all spooky and see-through, it’s more like when she was alive her habits wore a kind of invisible groove into the air, and when the new owners walk through it, they feel her there.
Brian could blow smoke rings in almost perfect concentric circles and he demonstrated this for me as he steered the car through the hills with his free hand. A luau girl bobbled on the dashboard. I tried to purse my mouth into the right shape but my own smoke rings were wavery and weak. We came out along the water. Brian parked his car and we walked up a long dock cluttered with damp nets and coils of rope. I liked the way Brian walked, loose in the hips and unhurried. Charter fishing boats bobbed in the slips. Gulls squawked in the air and when the breeze picked up, a brass bell clanged somewhere on shore.
We sat on the edge of the dock and swung our feet out over the water. I asked Brian if there were any ghosts in his house and he said not in the house he lived in now, but he could always tell right away walking into a place, he’d felt them before. For instance, there had been a definite kind of spirit energy lurking around the kitchen stove in his grandmother’s house when he was a kid, and now that his grandmother had passed on, he assumed she was there too, haunting the front porch. I wondered if the ghosts ever bumped into each other and he said he didn’t think so: each ghost occupied its own particular version of the house, the different eras piled up on each other like sheets of transparency paper or layers of an onion (But what kind of onion, I interrupted, White 4663, yellow 4093, shallot 4662, Vidalia 4159? and at this Brian pinched my elbow, the only time he ever touched me, and said, Quit showing off).
On the drive back into town I said, But if all the past ages and ghosts never go away and keep piling up and up, won’t we run out of room for ourselves at some point? It seemed like a foolish question even as I asked it; the pot we’d smoked earlier was settling like sticky dust over my processing abilities. Brian shook his head. You have to think about it more like memories, he said. Or like feelings.
I said, Hmm.
Listen, Brian said, the only thing we know about the universe is that it’s expanding.
He dropped me off at my apartment and after that I only ever saw him at the supermarket, fielding complaints at the customer service desk or sauntering up and down the waxed aisles in his green polo shirt to make sure the shelf stockers were lining up the soup cans face out. My last shift was on his day off, so I never said goodbye to him before leaving the island, but a decade later as I walked home from the theater where I’d seen the young pianist play the Goldberg Variations, I felt a sudden urge to find him again and tell him I understood his haunted house theory after all.
A house that has been experienced is not an inert box, Gaston Bachelard wrote. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space. But the year I lived in that falling-down house with its mourning door and sinkhole and attic raccoons, I didn’t want to experience it, I only wanted to be rid of it. Now I understand that I kept it as vacant as possible so it could not become any kind of memory palace. And I stayed away from it as much as possible so that I would not become its ghost. I did not want to remember it once I’d moved out, nor did I want it to remember me.
Ariel Lewiton’s essays, stories, and criticism have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Vice, Guernica, Tin House online, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She is a contributing writer for Amtrak’s The National, a contributing editor at Guernica, and runs literary marketing for Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and lives in Brooklyn, NY.