If you are student of history, as I am, you study ghosts, the people that came before you, that grew up in the house you live in, planted the crab apple and apricot trees you eat from, plundered the mountain where you now walk your dog, and try to figure out what they created or destroyed has to do with the present and future.
If part of you is a romantic, how could you not sense the ghosts that still amble about the streets of Jerome, Arizona, souls that did not want to depart for some other job, another ugly mining town; who died too early, got too old, parked their memories inside their homes so their emotions could tug them back, to hard times, better times, family times. These are the ghosts that can’t bury Jerome in their hearts and so take to haunting the people who live there.
And if you have studied some Buddhism or Taoism, as I have, you understand that the spirits of animate and inanimate life are everywhere around and that to shutter yourself off from them is to shut down part of your humanity, separating yourself from the essential nature of the universe.
THE GHOST OF THE GUN (1970s)
At night, only at night, Hilde and Jerry, newcomer hippies to Jerome, hear the voice of an old lady croaking up from Gulch Road, “What are you doing in this house; get out of this house; where is Frankie; you forgot the dog food.” She lives in a shack a few houses away. Its inside walls are so close she can touch them with her arms barely stretched. They have never seen her, but they know she is there because every week they bring a bag of groceries and leave it at the bottom of the steps of her shack. The next morning, the bag is always gone. The strangeness of the neighborhood they now lived in sometimes made them shiver.
From time to time, a tap tap tapping is heard from the vicinity of the outhouse. Tap. Tap. Tap. It is the sound of the old lady tapping the cardboard latch to shut herself in.
Her family from over by Prescott knows she is still there. From time to time they pile out of a disheveled Chevy and call and call her, venturing no farther than the bottom of the steps. She is silent and doesn’t come out. Eventually they go away.
When Father John comes with a delegation of neighbors to beg her to come back to church, she never appears but chases them away with loud curses from her witch’s mouth.
Still, no one ever sees her.
One day, there is a small grass fire just outside her house. Scott, her next door neighbor calls the firemen. He grabs a fine Oaxacan blanket he hopes he does not have to use and his fire extinguisher. He sits on a wall close by, as the antique fire engine charges towards the shack, a red dragon churning up stones and twigs from under its tires.
He watches as the door of the shack opens and the old lady comes out. She is small like a child, and he does not see her face. A torn dress hangs from stooped shoulders. A frail, crumpled wraith. Slowly and with no apparent rush, she advances toward the little grass fire with a glass of water in her hands. She throws the water in it, watching the flames sputter just slightly before she turns and slowly walks back inside the shack. She waters the fire twice more before the firemen arrive and put out the fire with their long hoses. The firemen call to the old lady, but she does not come out.
Scott never sees her again. But at night for quite some years, he hears the tap tap tapping at the outhouse, and the distant yipping of coyotes.
In the mid-seventies, artists Nancy and Lee Louden bought the old shack from the old lady’s daughter, who now lives in Prescott. They find a rusty twenty-two rifle on the wall and newspaper clippings that reveal that the woman’s son and daughter had a child together and that, when the child was born, the son killed it with the rifle and fled. They find another clipping that says the son escaped from prison.
The gun holds their ghosts—the confusions of the son, the tears of the daughter that made the canyons weep with her tears, and the anguish of a mother who watched her son become a murderer.