Old houses creak, as everybody knows, but until you’ve lived in one, you don’t believe it. It was only after the closing in 2005 that my wife, a committed rationalist, told me that she had cased the place out beforehand to determine what spirits it might hold and what their intentions were. She’s never been the same since our honeymoon visit to the Tower of London. The Yeoman Warders pointed out a patch of wall several centuries older than the rest. On our way out, she touched that portion and told me that she’d felt a charge. She kept looking at her hand and rubbing it. You wouldn’t have known then which of us was the Catholic.
By American standards, our house is old: its lot dates to 1866. I went to the county seat one late-summer Friday to look up the deed and identified the original owner, George Miller; a common enough name. It appeared again in the city logs at the historical society. Miller seems to have been a laborer and was apparently ambitious, holding title to several other properties. “He was doing well for himself,” the town historian said. I imagine him fighting for the Union, getting wounded at, say, Cedar Creek, and coming back to make his fortune in Beacon—then known, on our side of town, as Matteawan. The rest was part of Fishkill Landing. It was a good place for soldiers. This portion of the Hudson Valley has a proud Revolutionary War history. Incorporated in 1913, Beacon took its name from Mount Beacon, the summit on which Continental Army regulars lit signaling fires for boats on the Hudson.
No, the house isn’t haunted, but it traffics in unease. Storms make everything lean and groan and even thump, especially in the attic. Leave windows open, as we do when the weather is kind in the fall or spring, and it sounds as though the ghosts have come to conference, the floorboards aching with what sound like human treads. Many nights, I’m jarred awake by seeming footsteps descending from the attic or coming up the main stairs.
On windy nights, an air current translates from our bedroom window to the bedroom door, which, when closed, jostles such that it must be someone standing in the hallway, trying the knob. When these sounds wake me, I’m convinced that this is it—that I will look down at the space between the door and its threshold to see the strange feet whose arrival I’ve awaited since childhood: the intruder.
Maybe it’s all an excuse to shirk sleep. After opening the door to an empty hallway, I’ve often made my way downstairs and thumbed our bookshelves. “The House was quiet and the world was calm,” as Wallace Stevens put it. “The reader became the book.” Well, not any more. That singleness of mind is gone, and trying to reckon what happened to it is as fruitless as tabulating most other losses. Some nights, I can still reel in a catch: from Antony Beevor, I learn that the Japanese practiced cannibalism on American troops in World War II and that American authorities kept it quiet to avoid traumatizing victims’ families. This occupies a good hour, but more often I’m scattered and pull down random books for opening lines, none more stark than, “We have some planes” (The 9/11 Commission Report). Others lead elsewhere. “By the time they had lived seven years in the little house on Greentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut, they both detested it” (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit); “One day there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be” (The Invention of Solitude); “My name is Ruth” (Housekeeping). It’s hard to top Grant’s Memoirs: “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.”
Back upstairs, it’s only when my eyes feel heavy again that the wind and the door collaborate in another disturbance. I look for the feet, but the space is empty. Who can say that old George Miller hasn’t come to call? My fear is that someday, the feet may belong to someone more material, with specific demands. At least that’s the half-mad thought that comes as I ease into the sleeplessness of middle age.