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One night, my wife had had enough. “Let’s get a dog.”
“A dog will just mess up the house,” I said. “Besides, we have Walter.”
“It’s not the same,” she sighed. She turned on the television. It was late, and nothing was on. Walter jammed the signal after ten—a subtle reminder that we should go to bed so we could get our rest. We ignored it.
The lights flickered, then cut out.
“Guess it’s bedtime.”
We didn’t usually ignore him. That would mean being irresponsible, and we were responsible homeowners—with a little help. Walter kept things running like a tight ship. I loved it. The bathroom was always clean. We were always ready to have company over.
We hadn’t known he lived here when we bought the house.
Nothing during the walk-through or inspection could have led us to believe that there was a spirit in the walls. Sure, the floorboards creaked. The boiler made strange noises. The radiators made that knocking sound. Every now and then things rattled. But these were expected occurrences in an almost-century-old Victorian built in a forgotten corner of the city by a rail yard.
Then again, Victorians have that nook-and-cranny motif that leads to a plethora of spiderwebs and the haunted-house look when all the lights are off and the moon is out. So I guess a ghost isn’t a stretch.
I called it Walter, after the old man who died in the house. I had no proof that it was actually Walter’s ghost, but it made sense. In life, Walter kept the house in great condition, and the neighbors said he was a shut-in. I’m not sure there’s a lot of other qualifications needed in these matters.
Walter made his presence known after our housewarming party. We were up late, finishing the half-empty drinks, generally too wound up to sleep even though everyone else had gone home to bed. I had the music playing, and we danced and laughed and sang along loudly. We were homeowners now, no neighbors upstairs or downstairs to worry about.
Someone was banging on the door.
I turned down the stereo. My wife looked pointedly at me.
I flipped the deadbolt and swung the door open, half expecting to see a police officer or an angry, tired neighbor. There was no one.
“Just some kids,” I said. I shut the door, turned the stereo back up.
In the middle of the next song, the banging started again.
“It’s almost two in the morning,” my wife said. “Who’s out there?”
I turned down the stereo and checked the door again. No one was there.
I turned on the porch light and stepped out into the night. A dog was barking somewhere down the block. I could hear the false thunder of a train engine backing up into a waiting line of cars on the tracks. I heard the rumble of traffic behind the house. But the block, our front yard, and every bush in sight were still.
“Who was out there?” my wife asked when I got back inside, locking the door thoroughly behind me.
“I couldn’t find anyone.”
“Let’s go to bed. I’m too tired to play this game.”
Upstairs, we tucked ourselves in.
“Shoot,” my wife said. “We left a light on.”
I sat up in bed and looked out the bedroom door to the staircase. A warm yellow light, cut with the fuzzy shadows of the balusters, glowed on the wall.
“I’ll get it,” I said. But before I could throw the covers off, the light winked out.
Little by little, Walter revealed himself. Nothing in the house got lost. If I forgot where I put my keys, they were usually in the bowl by the door, even if I was absolutely sure I had left them in my pants pocket in the laundry pile. The day before they were due, library books showed up next to the door to the garage. Our mortgage bill always made it to the top of the stack of mail, checkbook placed close by. Junk mail ended up in a ready-to-toss pile.
“Thanks for doing the dishes,” my wife said one night after dinner.
“What do you mean?”
“The dishes. You’ve been doing them a lot lately.”
I put down my newspaper and frowned.
“I thought you were doing the dishes.”
She laughed. “I haven’t done the dishes in a month. Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Neither have I.”
It was great. Dust never seemed to accumulate anywhere. If we had to wake up early, Walter turned the heat up in our room until it was too hot to stay in bed. If we were slow to do our laundry, it would end up outside our bedroom door, so we’d trip over it in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom. Once, when I was eating a candy bar and dropped the wrapper on the floor, a chill shook my spine.
Would you want to get rid of a ghost like that? I didn’t. Sure, my wife was right about the way Walter’s presence made the house feel less like our own, but at least it was always clean, always organized—even if it wasn’t always comfortable.
“It gives me the creeps,” my wife said. “How can you be so calm with that thing around, moving our stuff? It’s probably watching us. It’s like having a roommate who’s never around but there’s signs of him everywhere.”
“Walter is a very respectful ghost.”
“I still can’t believe you named him!”
We were reading in bed, and I put my book down.
“Look,” I said. “The only thing he’s done is to be helpful. How can you hate him when he makes our lives better?”
“A dog would be so much better.”
“A dog sheds and needs to eat and gets its muddy paws everywhere.”
“A dog is soft and friendly and will fetch things and isn’t creepy,” she said with finality. She rolled over, put her book on the bedside table, and reached up to turn out the bedside lamp. Walter beat her to it, and both lights winked out.
She groaned. “Take the night off, Walter.”
But Walter only became more zealous about keeping things neat and tidy.
“I’m going to look at dogs at the shelter,” my wife announced one day. “Want to join me?”
I could only say yes. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was going to get a dog, no matter what I argued.
At the shelter she was bright and lively. Watching her move from one cage to the next, it reminded me of one of our early dates, window-shopping along a pedestrian mall. On that date, I had kept up; at the shelter, I moved at moping speed behind her, pretending to be unimpressed. It was easy. An Italian greyhound trembled in the first cage. A one-eyed boxer wet itself in the next one.
I caught up to her and peered into the cage she’d stopped at. It was a black half-Rottweiler, half-Lab named Curly. One look at those brown eyes in that square head, and I knew it. We had a ghost, and we were going to have a dog, too. But with Walter on my side, maybe the house wouldn’t be perpetually covered in hair and paw prints.
Walter did not care for Curly, and Curly returned his feelings. The dog whined and cried through the first night.
“Just getting used to the place,” my wife said. “He’s scared.”
But it was the same thing for the rest of the week.
“What’s his problem?” I asked. “Curly, what’s your problem?”
“He’s spooked by the ghost.”
“That’s not it,” I said.
She sat down on the ground next to his bed and put her arms around his neck. “See, everyone else thinks it’s weird we have a ghost in the house.”
Walter wasn’t happy about this arrangement with Curly, either. I was sure he’d step up his game, keep things tidier than ever before. I even pitched in: I swept, I did the laundry more often, I took out the recycling.
It didn’t matter. I noticed a thin film of dust forming on the baseboards, a silverfish in the basement. The corner of the bathroom behind the toilet looked grimy. I forgot to return a library book, and for the first time since we moved in, accrued a late fee.
“I just had to pay four dollars to the library,” I said out loud to the walls and ceiling. “What gives?”
Walter responded by working double time. We didn’t even have to do anything; everything was getting done. We’d wake up after a night of taking turns comforting Curly and our outfits would be set out for us. There would be fresh coffee the pot, an egg frying in the pan. It seemed as if all was well again.
Then, once Curly got over his fear, he started to fight Walter. We’d wake up, and he’d be barking furiously at the dark. Once, when the light was turned on, I found the broom leaning against the wall, the floor half swept. In the evening, when Walter tried to jam the television signal, Curly let him know how unhappy he was.
“That’s it, Curly,” my wife said. “You protect us from the ghost. You let it know who’s the new sheriff in town.”
“You’re not helping,” I said, but who listened to me anymore.
Between the ghost mothering us and the dog defending us, my routine was ruined. I was a prisoner in my own home.
One evening I decided I was going to make it stop. I stood up and walked over to Curly. Those big brown eyes in that square head looked up at me. He was growing on me.
“Curly, don’t bark at Walter.”
The lights flickered. Our second warning to go to bed. Curly growled and barked at the ceiling.
“Walter, stop driving Curly nuts.”
The lights flickered again. A growl tore its way out of Curly’s chest.
Was I willing to keep track of my own things, to pay my bills on time, to sweep, clean, and do the laundry?
“Can’t you see?” I spoke to the empty upper reaches of the room. “When he knows you’re there, he keeps us up.
From our bedroom, my wife called Curly upstairs. He scampered off, leaving me alone in the room with Walter.
“Walter,” I said. “I hate doing this. But if the dog goes, the wife does, too. And you don’t want me to be alone, do you? I don’t know much about you, but it sounds like you might have been alone. But I’m not like you, Walter. Sure, I want the place spick-and-span, but I got married so I could share it, you know? Man, Walter, we had a great run, didn’t we? I really appreciate all the things you’ve done for us. And I’m sorry about yelling at you because of the library book. But I think it’s time for a change. I don’t know where else you have to go, but if you’d just maybe make yourself a little less present around here, I think it’d be for the better.”
I took a deep breath.
The lights slowly dimmed, then popped back to full strength. The only sound I could make out as I strained my ears was the false thunder of the train cars backing into each other. The house was still. I turned off the lights, went upstairs, and climbed into bed.
We overslept. We overslept the next day, too, so I went out and bought an alarm clock.
The next few weeks were glorious. We trashed the place. Pans thick with burnt bacon grease covered the kitchen counters. The trash was overflowing. Curly’s hair, along with a few healthy dust bunnies, gathered in corners and under the furniture. And we both got through all of our clean clothes, staring in wonder at our empty dressers. We sat in the living room and let out a huge sigh. The house was all ours now.
I was a little sad, but I believed Walter was happier. I think he moved to the attic. The upper windows always looked crystal clean, especially at night when the moon was out. If no one was looking, and I was outside, I’d wave from time to time.