Haunted Home

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When I replaced the plaster in the master bedroom, I came upon widely separated one-by-four studs that do not reach the rafters, rafters that do not connect to wall plates, floating wall plates butted up against the ends of joists, as if perhaps halfway through the house’s construction the masonry cost more than the Colonel had expected or maybe he suffered one of his reversals and asked the boys with a nudge and a wink to go easy on the materials.

All these things give the house resonance, as though by possessing it I have come to share in its hapless ancestry. As I make my own minor alterations, I experience a nagging anxiety that the house will defeat me just as it seems to have defeated all my predecessors, that it is coaxing me ever closer to the edge of its own shifting precipice.

Alabama’s feet are clay, and some years before we arrived here, the front yard collapsed in a rainstorm, burying the little road that feeds the driveways below. So my immediate predecessor had to shave off the steepest angle of the ledge, jam road-grade material into its slope to hold it fast, and lay a curtain drain that now piddles rainwater all the way down to the channel. But the body of the island keeps trying to reject this monument to Gazzam’s transplanted aspirations, and new fissures are beginning to open up here and there that I must fill with sand.

The Gazzam House, in its apparent solidity, seems to evoke a continuity that eludes all of us who live here and reproaches us for our fecklessness. But like the newest structures rising along the shore, it’s an imposition on this primeval island that’s sustained only by the continual sinking of pipes and posts and footings. Viewed from a bird’s-eye vantage, Warren Lea Gazzam’s Alabama remains an artifice despite the stand of hundred-year-old firs and cedars that surround it on three sides; it is a detriment to the wilderness despite its native anatomy of fir and cedar and stone; it is an intrusion despite its flea-market claims to antiquity.

 

But its grip on the sensibilities of its owners seems everlasting. Time after time I will glance out one of its windows to see a car pausing in the driveway, its occupants gazing up with a yearning and regret that are unmistakably nostalgic. Sometimes I wave to them or call out to invite them in, but usually they decline and hurry off as if pained to see the house occupied by anyone but their own lingering ghosts.

One July morning in 1988 I got a call from the president of the local historical society, who said that a Gazzam descendant was visiting the island and would like to see the house. So I rushed around to clear the place of my family’s detritus and stepped out into the driveway to greet none other than Ruth Gazzam Haight herself, still thriving, thank you very much, at ninety-four years of age.

Had I been looking for a surrogate grandmother in the Great Northwest, Ruth Haight would have fitted the bill. Silver-haired and sprightly, she wore a blue floral dress and the requisite pearls and stood in the front yard with her niece Barbara and her sons, Warren and Gil, shielding her eyes from the sun and asking, Where had the orchard disappeared to? When had all these huge evergreens around the house sprung up? What had become of the rest of the deck?

And then before anyone could answer her, she caught sight of me, took my hand in both of hers, and declared how delighted she was that a family was living in her girlhood home again, that it was, as she presumed, a happy house.

She was surprised to see how close the water now appeared from the yard, for in the old days the orchard had blocked the view of the shore. Did I know, she wondered, that the house had been built from stones gathered along the beach? I had wondered about that, I told her, because it would explain why for a hundred yards north and south of the house there are still no large rocks left along the shore and why the thousands of otherwise smooth stones that protrude from the first-story walls like baked rolls from a muffin tin bear the floury traces of barnacles and periwinkles.

And did she know, I asked her, that she had acquired a leading role in my daughter’s imagination? Casey and her friends sometimes pretended to be the Gazzam girls as they explored the house and beach.

“But how could they ever have known about us?” she wondered.

So I led her around to the side of the house, where Casey had found Ruth’s and her siblings’ names scratched into the foundation’s cement. Ruth said she remembered the day they wrote their names; it had been a warm summer day, the foundation had just been poured, and she and her family were living in a little beach house down the road. Peering along the wall, she identified a mysterious W as the initial of Warren, Jr., her dead brother. She told me she had been, like Casey, nine years old when she moved into the house.