Story: House Life
By: Michael C. Keith
Haunted for ever by the eternal .
–– William Wordsworth
The house at 31 Hoover Street came into existence in the midst of the Great Depression. A Craftsman bungalow, it was constructed by L.V. Myerson Builders and sold for $3,200 to Jason and Constance Sampson just a week after its completion.
It was the Sampsons’ first house––the young couple having lived in two apartments since their marriage in 1931. They had worked hard to raise the down payment and continued to labor to make their mortgage payments. After two years, they decided they needed a break and by then had saved enough to take a short trip. After careful consideration, they settled on a small island off the coast of Maine.
“It has an area near the water to set up tents, but there’s no electricity,” said Constance, reading from a Maine camping directory.
“Who needs electricity? We have candles and a kerosene lamp. It’ll be perfect,” responded Jason, looking at the brochure over his wife’s shoulder.
“Bare bones . . . but romantic. Look, it says the island has a site where ancient people buried their sacrifices. That’s unusual, huh?”
“What did they sacrifice?”
“Doesn’t say. Probably animals. Hope it wasn’t people.”
“Well, it sounds like a very interesting place. That the phone number?” asked Jason, pointing at the page. “I’ll call it tomorrow and see if we can reserve a site for next week.”
“Oh, how exciting!” squealed Constance, turning her head to kiss her husband. “But make sure our tent won’t be near the old graveyard, okay?”
“Yeah, we don’t want to disturb the boogeymen,” snickered Jason.
“I’m more concerned about them disturbing us.”
An hour after Jason got to work, he tried to reach the Maine campground twice but without success. He didn’t try again until he was about to leave his office for the day, and this he time succeeded in reaching someone. A gruff voice responded after several rings, without identifying itself.
“Hello . . . is this Gott Island Camps?” asked Jason.
“Yeah, it is. What you need?”
“My wife and I would like to reserve a tent site for three days next week. Is that possible?”
“Why not? Come ahead. Don’t need no reservation. Ain’t no one here next week so far.”
“Well, thank you. We’ll be there mid-afternoon on Wednesday, if that’s okay?”
“To whom am I speaking?” asked Jason, but his question was answered by a dial tone.
Not a talker, thought Jason, recalling what he’d heard from his father about the typical Mainer’s economy of language.
“Your Uncle Phil is from Downeast Maine. Folks up there spend words like they do their money, so don’t expect him to say much when he visits.”
Jason’s father had made the observation when his uncle was about to visit for the first and only time. His insight had proven more than accurate, since his uncle had only said two words to him during his five-day stay––hi and bye. This was the only in-person encounter Jason had had with a person from New England’s northernmost state until he went to work for the Gillette Razor Company in Boston. There he had met two other Mainers and found them equally lacking in the warm art of conversation.
At the break of dawn on Wednesday, June 19th, Jason hauled the camping gear up from the basement, and the Sampsons piled themselves into their three-year-old Dodge Sedan. They headed up Route 1 through northeastern Massachusetts and the toe of New Hampshire on their way to Bass Harbor, Maine, where they would catch the ferry to Gott Island, 4 miles off the coast. And that was the last place anyone ever saw them.
* * *
On August 5, 1939, Mort and Sue Rangle purchased the abandoned Sampson house following a lengthy period in which the court ultimately declared the previous owners deceased. Jason Sampson’s distraught mother quickly sold the house to the Rangles, hoping to excise it from her memory. As soon as they could, the new occupants put their personal stamp on the bungalow by painting both its exterior and most of its interior.
“Now I feel it’s really ours,” declared Sue, who was 6 months pregnant.
“I feel that way, too,” said Mort, admiring their home’s new appearance. “It just didn’t look right before. There was something about it that made it look . . .”
“Gloomy,” added Sue, finishing her husband’s sentence.
“Yeah, like it was mourning the poor Sampsons.”
“Let’s not ever talk about them . . . okay, honey?”
“Sure. Maybe they’re fine somewhere else far off anyway. They were never found. Probably went to Tahiti.”
“Honey, I said . . .”
“I’m sorry. No more talk about . . . what were their names?”
In November of the year that the Rangles took possession of the house, Sue gave birth to a healthy boy. Within three years of the arrival of their first child, they had two more. The Rangles’ residence became the site of countless birthday celebrations and summer barbeques. It was the center of ceaseless happy activity. Only one thing detracted from the general pleasantness of their lives, and that was an inexplicable draft that streamed up from the basement. They speculated that it was the likely cause of the sniffles that plagued their family . . . it seemed a Rangle was always battling a cold. Mort did everything he could to keep the chilly current from entering the first floor, but his efforts met with repeated failure.
“Maybe I should just board up the door. We can get to the cellar through the bulkhead,” suggested Mort.
His proposal was met with opposition from his wife, who needed better access to her washing machine.
“I can’t carry the laundry outside, especially in the winter. It would be a terrible inconvenience. Besides, I’d probably break my neck on the ice.”
“Well, maybe I can put some kind of barrier up to keep the wind from blowing through the door.”
Mort hung an old army blanket at the top of the basement stairs, intending to reduce the problem, but the icy air continued to find its way into the house. Adding to their growing dismay was the fact that the currents remained frigid, even during the warmest days of summer.
Despite the mystery and the irritation it caused, the Rangles remained at 31 Hoover Street for 11 years. They were then forced to move because Mort’s employer relocated to another city.
“I’ll miss this place,” said Sue, walking with her family to their car.
“It was a good house, except for that damn cold air from the basement. I’ll never figure out what caused that.”
“Maybe it was good that we never knew,” added Sue, and Mort nodded in agreement as he stared back at the house before climbing into the car.
Lydia and Allen Tuttle never noticed any unwelcome breezes seeping through the door leading from the basement. In fact, Lydia thought it was the warmest and driest part of the house. It was a perfect place to build a playroom for their two children, she noted, and her husband went to work on it shortly after they closed on their purchase of the bungalow.
Like the previous owners, the Tuttles redecorated their new house by thoroughly changing its colors from top to bottom. In addition, they replaced the windows and added a backyard patio. Allen’s carpentry hobby inspired the construction of a larger garage as well. Lydia had urged him to remodel the basement to accommodate his favorite pastime, but Allen had argued that it was just too warm for him to work down there.
Over the years, the Tuttles experienced the usual mix of life’s trials and tribulations, but on the whole things went very well for the family. The children excelled both academically and in sports, and Allen advanced in his job. Meanwhile, Lydia found satisfaction in the preparation of a dessert cookbook that was published by a small local press.
If either of the Tuttles were pressed to cite an event that had caused them anxiety, it was what they found upon their return from Disneyland with their children in 1958. To their surprise and alarm, they discovered that all of their furniture had been moved about. At first they thought that someone had pulled a bizarre joke on them, but they couldn’t figure out who would have done such a thing.
Allen checked the house for signs of a break-in, but nothing suggested that it had been breached.
“We better call the police,” he suggested.
“Let’s see if the neighbors saw anything before we call them,” Lydia countered.
When their neighbors indicated that they had not seen anything out of the ordinary, the Tuttles called the authorities. After they, too, searched the house for any evidence of illegal entry and found that none had occurred, the Tuttles were at a loss as to explain what had happened. Eventually, they reasoned that they had accidentally left a door open, allowing some teenagers to pull a prank on them. Still, they were not fully convinced that was the case, and it always weighed on their minds.
During the course of the Tuttles’ two decades in the house, the odd incident proved to be good grist for the cocktail chat mill. Indeed, it inspired many theories, ranging from underground magnetic fields to supernatural forces.
“Could be the house is just plain haunted,” declared Marjorie Barrett, who lived two houses down from the Tuttles. “It’s a real possibility. Don’t discount it. There have been thousands of reports of houses containing the spirits of the departed. My aunt said her house was possessed, because her dishes would rattle in their cabinets at night. One time she went down to the kitchen and found the table set for four people. She only lived with her husband and daughter, so she figured the spirit that lived in the house had set a place for itself.”
“Yeah, it wanted them to invite it to supper,” quipped Allen.
But Lydia found the idea that a ghost might be occupying her house hard to forget, and after her adult children left to pursue their own lives, she decided it was time to leave as well. On moving day the men loading the Tuttles’ belongings on the truck reported that they had put the same chair in their van three times but that it kept turning up in the very room from which they had removed it.
The Hoover Street house remained empty for a year due to a depressed real estate market in the early 1970s. The Tuttles had been forced to lower their price for the house three times before it finally sold to Angie and Joe Forelli, who had two grown children. Their son, Hank, was a junior at the state university and their daughter, Elena, was a freshman at the same institution.
Unlike the Tuttles, the Forellis had sold their large house for top dollar and downsized to Hoover Street near some longtime friends. The bungalow offered them just enough room to accommodate themselves and their visiting children, who spent most of their time away at school. Moving to the smaller dwelling was part of their plan to spend more time traveling without the burden of a larger property to maintain.
However, given the relative smallness of the bungalow, the Forellis found that when everyone was home, they were often under one another’s feet. This was never more apparent than on one particular day of the year––June 19th. It took Angie a few years to realize that on that specific date the family clashed more than at any other time. At first she assumed that it had to do with the fact that the Forelli children had recently returned home from college for their summer break and that everyone was in closer proximity than they had been in their former house.
Joe Forelli was a staunch political conservative, and both of his children differed from his views on several topics. Foremost among them was the ongoing war in Vietnam, which both Hank and Elena held to be unjust and immoral. On several successive June 19ths, the debates had become so heated that Angie feared physical violence might erupt within her family.
When she finally realized that a pattern underlay the conflicts, she tried to figure out why but could not come to a reasonable conclusion. Instead, she devised a plan that got her husband and children out of the house on that particular date, and it worked. For the next several years, when the Forelli children happened to be home on that fateful date, Angie made arrangements to put everyone elsewhere at a safe distance from Hoover Street.
In 1989, however, Angie had forgotten her June 19th strategy and paid a high price for it. The trouble began when Hank criticized Reagan’s presidency. To his father, the former leader of the country was a hero, and he would not abide any damning remarks about him. His son’s comment had been particularly vitriolic on that occasion, and it resulted in the fiercest argument the two men ever had. When Elena added her two cents, the elder Forelli leapt to his feet, waving his fist. His sudden movement caused his wife, who had been standing next to his chair, to tumble over the coffee table and strike her head . . . knocking her unconscious.
After weeks in the hospital and months at home recuperating from a severe skull fracture, Angie convinced her husband to sell the house and buy a condominium in a retirement village in Florida. A year to the day following the accident, Angie died of a brain hemorrhage that doctors believed was associated with her tragic fall.
“It’s a perfect yard for the dogs, and it’s fenced in already,” observed Mildred during the Dormans’ inspection of 31 Hoover Street. It was the deal clincher as far as they were concerned. They had no children, but no two people could have been better exemplars for parenthood. Their two miniature poodles were like offspring and were treated with the utmost kindness and love.
“They’re so happy,” observed Doug Dorman, releasing the dogs to romp in the yard.
“I’m so happy, too,” gushed Mildred. “I love our new house, but we might think about replacing that cellar door. It looks like something was trying to rip it off its hinges.”
“Probably the previous owner’s kids,” observed Doug.
Mildred suddenly let out a gasp. “I could swear I put that chair against the window. Did you move it, honey? I liked it where I put it.”
“Nope, I didn’t touch it.”
“Hmm, well that’s odd, isn’t it?”
“Listen . . . I’ve never heard Plum and Apple bark so much.”
“They’re just beside themselves with happiness about their new home.”
In the days that followed, the Dormans grew perplexed about their beloved pets’ constant yelping. At first they thought it was caused by the move and their unfamiliar surroundings, but then they began to suspect something was ailing the dogs. A trip to the veterinarian’s resulted in the dogs being declared perfectly healthy, and the Dormans were urged to build them their own shelter.
“Having their own little house will make them feel more secure. It will give them more of a sense of place.”
“They love to sleep with us, but they keep barking when we go to bed now. I hate to leave them outside, though,” said Mildred.
“I understand how you feel, but they might do better in their own environment . . . that is, until they acclimate to your new environment,” replied the vet.
“But it’s starting to get chilly nights,” said Doug.
“A nice, tight dog house will protect them from the elements. By winter, they may have calmed down enough to reintroduce them to your bedroom.”
“Okay, it’s worth a try, I suppose,” said Mildred, sounding resigned at the prospect of leaving her surrogate children outside overnight.
The Dormans found an elaborate and costly dwelling for their pets and placed it beneath the canopy of an expansive elm tree that stood in the middle of their backyard. At first they thought the experiment might work, because the poodles were less vocal as they sniffed around the brightly painted and scalloped structure. However, shortly after retiring for the night, the Dormans were awakened by their dog’s all too familiar yapping.
“They hate it out there,” moaned Mildred.
“Maybe if we ignore them, they’ll settle down. I’ll shut the window and close the drapes to muffle the sound,” said Doug, climbing from their bed.
“Oh, I feel so bad for them. They miss us, honey.”
“Well, they bark when they’re inside, so let’s see what happens. They’ll be okay.”
Shutting out their sounds proved sufficient enough for the Dormans to get to sleep. However, the next morning they realized their problem had not gone away as unhappy neighbors confronted them.
“Morning, folks. I’m afraid there’s an issue that needs to be addressed right away. Your dogs’ barking kept us awake last night,” said Dave Freeman from the house next door.
“Oh, I’m very sorry. We just got them a pet habitat, and they’re not used to it, I guess.”
“I understand, but it was very irritating. Maybe you can keep them inside at night. They do a lot of barking during the day, too, but it’s not as bad as during the night when we’re trying to sleep,” replied Freeman, who scowled at Doug and abruptly walked away.
“Really sorry . . .”
When Doug informed his wife of the encounter, she was quick to suggest that they put the doghouse in their basement.
“I suppose we could try that, but what if they have to go to the bathroom?”
“We could put a sandbox down there. They might use it,” offered Mildred.
By the end of the day, they had relocated the doghouse to a cozy corner of the basement and Doug had constructed a 6 by 6 foot enclosure and filled it with soil. Before turning in for the night, the Dormans lovingly carried Plum and Apple to their new sleeping quarters. At first dogs were quiet, but as soon as they were left alone, they scampered to the top of the basement stairs and resumed their baying.
Try as they did, Doug and Mildred could not get to sleep, and finally they relented and allowed the poodles to return to their bedroom. While this reduced the volume of their barking, it did not eliminate it. The Dormans tried earplugs, but they could not entirely block out the ceaseless yelping.
Weeks passed and finally the Dormans decided to take extreme action to silence their dogs. While the idea of having their vocal chords severed greatly upset them, they found no other alternative, other than getting rid of them . . . and that was not an option.
“You promise it won’t hurt them?” asked Mildred with tears in her eyes.
“No, they’ll be under for the debarking surgery, so they won’t feel a thing,” assured the veterinarian for the umpteenth time.
When the dogs returned home from the animal hospital, the Dormans were thankful for the restored quiet in their lives. While Plum and Apple could no longer bark, they appeared to be oblivious to that fact and kept flapping their muzzles as if nothing had changed. Their mimicking reminded the Dormans of what they had done to their cherished companions, and it became hard for them to look at them when they pantomimed barking.
When Plum and Apple fell chronically ill three years later, the Dormans decided to put them down rather than allow them to suffer. It was a difficult decision, and they made it with a mix of remorse and relief. As time passed, they felt a huge void in their lives without the love of their pets. This prompted them to buy two new puppies. But just as soon as they brought them home, the dogs began to bark and didn’t stop until the Dormans, in a state of near frenzy, returned them to their breeder.
For the next 10 years, they lived a quiet, if not lonely, life at 31 Hoover Street, and then Doug died of a heart attack while he was climbing the stairs from the basement. Feeling more isolated and alone than ever, his widow moved into a nearby assisted living center.
The Dormans house sold quickly to a couple that had not viewed it in person. Kathy and Otto Hillerman, who lived across the street, had spoken to the realtor and were told that the purchasers were about their age and would take possession of the bungalow in a month. The Hillermans were anxious to meet their new neighbors and waited anxiously for them to arrive.
On the day the new owners of 31 Hoover Street were due to appear, the Hillermans kept watch from their large bay window. When the moving truck pulled up, both whooped excitedly.
“I hope we like them,” said Kathy.
“Yeah, it would be great to make new friends. This neighborhood has become so filled up with seniors,” replied Otto.
Not long after the moving truck appeared, a car pulled up behind it.
“Holy crap! That’s a classic 1930s Dodge!” blurted Otto. “It’s in mint condition, too. That must be them.”
“They look nice. Check out their vintage clothes . . . so cool. I think we’re going to like the couple.”
After allowing their new neighbors a day to settle in, the Hillermans eagerly went to greet the latest residents of Hoover Street.
“Welcome to the community,” said Kathy, handing the strangers a freshly baked lemon bunt cake.
“My name is Otto, and this is my wife, Kath
y. I love your antique car.”
“And your outfits,” added Kathy.
“Thank you. We’re the Sampsons. I’m Constance, and this is my husband, Jason. Please come in.”
“Oh, my, look at all the art deco furniture, honey,” said Kathy, surveying the livingroom.
“Wow, you guys are really into the ‘30s thing,” observed Otto.
“So is this your first time to the area?” inquired Kathy, ogling the décor.
“No,” answered Jason, smiling at his wife.
“Where you all from?”
“Here,” responded Constance, returning her husband’s smile.
“Oh, you lived in another part of town?”
“No, right here,” answered Jason and Constance in unison.
“Huh?” uttered Otto, perplexed.
“We’ve always been here,” responded the Sampsons, ushering the Hillermans to the door.
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. w