Late Arrivals on the Westbound Train

It’s after 1 A.M., and the ghosts are awake.

I’m walking westbound down Cavendish Street, from the residential neighborhood toward our few little blocks of downtown. It’s blasted cold and the wind is howling like the demons that used to plague this place, but I’m out here because the dog needs to go to the bathroom and it takes her a good half-a-mile walk to get her bowels loose. God only knows why she won’t go in our nice fenced-in yard, but I guess when you’re a twelve-year-old retired ranch dog you’re bound to have picked up a few eccentricities. Whatever her reasons, a walk is the only thing that will do, and loving a senior animal means you do these things because at this point you’re just not going to change them.

The dog trots down the pavement on her too-short little legs, her back end bouncing with every step. With her plush double-coat she laughs at winter, while I cinch up the mouth of my hood and wrap my scarf tighter around my face. If it were only the cold, it wouldn’t be so bad — she and I have braved colder nights than this together — but the hood and the scarf cut off my peripheral vision, and that’s not a welcome thing on nights like this.

As I said, the ghosts are awake. Living people don’t belong outside on nights like this, and everyone but me and the dog seems to know it.

A visitor to our little town could be forgiven for being skeptical. We aren’t nestled in some dark forest, or a lonely mountain valley, or some foggy cove on the coast of Maine. We’re right out in the open, just a shallow dip in the Montana plains where they run up against the Absarokas and the Gallatin Range. Ours is a town of artists and writers, poets and musicians and, most especially, fly fishermen. The biggest business in a twenty-mile radius is an Internet-based printing company. Look at our clean, orderly streets, our quaint little shops and galleries, and you’d think us perfectly domesticated.

But the ghosts know better. They remember when this was a Wild-West railroad town, where the trains carried men and goods westbound from Minnesota and Wisconsin to the boomtowns of Portland and Seattle. In those days it was a way-station, not a destination, and rough men with money and time on their hands were eager to spend both of them when the trains stopped here for servicing. It was a place where the bars outnumbered the churches four-to-one and the whorehouses were built like temples because, after all, the only things such men worshipped were their appetites. How many of those hard-bitten men ended up shot, or stabbed, or face-down in the gutters choking on their own vomit?

I doubt anyone knows. I’m afraid to look into it, in case I might actually find an answer.

This is a town that remembers its demons. On nights like tonight, they come back to visit.

I cross Davis Street, near the county courthouse, and look warily up at the old Victorian on the corner. The house is in bad shape, and it always gives me a bad feeling when I pass it. I’ve never seen anyone inside, though sometimes, at night, I think I can see a faint green light through the curtains on the front window. I tell myself it’s an illusion, just a glint on the storm windows from a distant streetlight. I still keep looking, every night, just to be sure.

Tonight the front door is ajar, the hall beyond a black, empty mouth. At the instant I pass by, the door swings open wide. It should be creaking, or groaning, or something, but the motion is completely silent. I hurry past, casting repeated glances over my shoulder — not because I can see the thing that came out of the house, but because I want it to think that maybe I can, so it will think twice about following me.

The dog trots on, her happy, bouncing gait unaltered. I know everybody talks about dogs being able to sense the supernatural, but mine seems oblivious to the thing that watched us from the house. Then again, maybe it’s just that when you get to be her age, you find that ghosts don’t impress you anymore.

I reach the corner of Bell Street, now in downtown proper. It’s time to start heading back toward home. I decide there’s no way in hell I’m going back down Cavendish again, not with whatever was in that house awake and watching. I cut north one block to Parker Street, the main drag that runs along the north side of town next to the train tracks. It’s the most brightly-lit street in town, and the wide easements on either side give plenty of visibility in all directions. I have this impression, though I could be wrong, that ghosts don’t like wide-open spaces. If I’m going to be followed, damn it, I’m going to make them at least a little nervous about doing it.

Even here, on the busiest route through town, everything is shut down at this hour. A single car rolls by, the sound of the wheels on concrete unnerving me, and somehow that one interruption makes the lonely emptiness of the hour feel even worse. The sign at the old real estate office swings slowly on its rusty iron chains — Creak. Creak. Creak. In the railyard, something creaks and groans, though no train is passing through.

I’m coming up on Franklin Street now, and the old Maynard Hotel is on my right. Once a lovely and well-furnished establishment, it eventually became a low-rent boarding house and then, after the owner was murdered, a vermin-infested wreck. Broken windows sit gaping at ground level, revealing basement rooms cluttered with decades of old junk. Discarded furniture is piled up on the front porch and in the alley behind the building, surrounded by piles of shit left, I hope, only by stray dogs. Amazingly, people still live there: the sex offenders, the desperate, and the destitute, shattered souls that huddle under bedbug-infested blankets to get some respite from the broken furnace and the bitter Montana winters. The heir, they say, lives out in California somewhere, and has never seen the disaster his mother’s place has become. As long as the rent keeps coming in, he doesn’t seem to care. The city could condemn the place, of course, and probably should — but then they’d have to provide decent housing for the people there, or risk turning a bunch of desperate homeless people loose on their quiet, domesticated little town. Far more convenient to keep all the lost souls in one place.

On the far side of Parker Street I hear a loud clanging. I look across at a fenced-in yard next to an old warehouse that looks like an abandoned barn. It’s hard to tell what the place is, or who it belongs to — there are the faded remnants of at least three signs painted on the side of the building, one atop another, so it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins. Whatever it was, it doesn’t look like anyone’s been there in fifty years. The chain link fence is filled in with brown plastic slats that block the view of whatever lies beyond them.

As I watch, the gates of the fence slam outward, as if struck from within by something huge and angry. The chains holding the gates shut creak and groan under the strain. For a moment the gates ease back, and then they are slammed outward once more.

It must be the wind, I tell myself — but the wind doesn’t feel that strong.

Tugging on the dog’s leash, I pull her back into the darkness of the residential streets. In a few minutes I find myself at the gate of my own small, comfortable house. I usher the dog inside, double and triple-check the door to make sure it is secure and locked, and turn out the porch light, leaving the night to the ghosts.

I slide into bed, wrap my arms around my sleeping lover, and pray to join her quickly. In the morning, I will look out at the sunlight streaming over the Absarokas, and all of this will feel like a bad dream, a morbid fugue-state brought on by an overactive imagination. I will blame the things I sensed and experienced on the wind, and the darkness, and the loneliness of the late hours.

I will tell myself I do not believe in ghosts.

Posted by chriswlester