Danny and I began to notice little disturbances in our new house soon after we moved in. I never expected a mid-century ranch to have ghosts, but the lives of the previous owners possessed every room.
The kitchen, for example, was torn between two aesthetics. The walls were carefully painted a warm lavender and the trim was immaculate – I pictured a woman with her hair tied up in a bandana, crouching down to apply miles and miles of painter's tape to the base boards, window sills, and cabinets, while her husband followed behind her with a paint brush. Then there was the slap-dash black paint, drippy and uneven, coated thickly on the cabinets, and the gingham wallpaper that covered one wall, a wrinkled and peeling mess.
I found myself reconstructing their lives in my mind as Danny and I worked our way through the house, making long honey-do lists together.
The kitchen, I told him, felt like a crime scene quickly disguised. Where once husband and wife worked happily side by side, painting those lavender walls (maybe thinking about the room in the context of a growing family, a place to cook and to feed the kids before rushing them out the door to catch the school bus), now black paint and gingham made a half-hearted attempt to paper over old conversations, meals, and memories.
Danny promised we would tear it down and paint the room with our own memories, and for days we stripped wallpaper and primed and painted until it was transformed, a cheerful yellow.
The bedroom had its own personality, small and dark. The walls were deep brown like chocolate, and matching striped wallpaper covered the lower half of the room, stopping unceremoniously with a jagged line at hip level. No doubt a chair rail was meant to go around the perimeter and cap off the wallpaper, but the project was abandoned. I pictured the man standing alone in the trim aisle of a hardware store inspecting different widths and styles of wood and wondering, why bother? This was a post-divorce room if ever I saw one.
Danny and I spent an afternoon peeling away the wallpaper. I filled a spray bottle with warm water and crouched on my heels to soak the walls while he crawled along behind me with a putty knife and a trash bag. Behind the wallpaper, the chocolate paint gave way to a green and tan camouflage sponge pattern – a labor of love for a little boy, I decided.
While we peeled back the paper, I mused aloud to Danny, wondering at the life of the boy, his apparent affinity for camouflage, maybe also army men and plastic guns with orange tips. All of it covered up so quickly, almost carelessly - the texture of the sponge pattern bleeding through the chocolate paint.
“You think he died?” I asked. “Is that what tore them apart?”
Danny just looked at me, then kept working the putty knife under the paper. He didn’t like to speculate on ghosts, but I thought the house felt emptier after we repainted that room.
I put off the laundry for longer than I’d like to admit, between unpacking and painting and everything else, and it was a few weeks until the overflowing hamper situation got truly desperate. So one afternoon I went down to the basement and set about the task of hooking up the washer and dryer. As I teetered on a stepladder, struggling to join the dryer vent with its aluminum hose, I put one hand on the duct above the furnace to steady myself and my fingers brushed against something - a balled up tube sock thickly coated in dust. Except it didn't unravel when I picked it up. It maintained its shape.
I let out a yelp and dropped it, and it hit the concrete with a crunch.
Danny appeared in the doorway, alarmed. "What's wrong?"
I curled my lip in disgust and pointed at the floor. Was I really about to say this? "I found a cum rag."
He pressed his lips so tightly together they quivered, and then he was cackling and crying with laughter.
"It's not funny!" I protested. Then a terrible thought crossed my mind and I turned reluctantly to inspect the ductwork. An army of balled up, crusty socks ran the length of the room. “Oh god, Danny, stop laughing and go get some gloves! There's more!"
"Really?" He was near hysteria, tears rolling down his cheeks. "And how exactly does this discovery fit into your ghost story?”
I sighed heavily as I was forced to reconsider the story I’d constructed for the previous owners. Was there a villain I had not previously anticipated? I now imagined the boy mechanically eating a bowl of cereal at a tensely silent table in the kitchen above, his mother sitting stoically beside him and sighing periodically while her husband stood in the basement with one bare foot and a sock in his hand.
Forty-three socks, two wash cloths, and a magazine whose pages seemed to have lost a battle with a glue stick - this was the final tally. We laughed, we cried, Danny threatened to burn the mother down, and finally the remains were gathered in a garbage bag like ghosts in a vacuum, all the little disturbances collected and disposed.
That night, we picked at our dinner. Danny was more repulsed than anything, but I was obsessed with ferreting out the sequence of events. How did all those socks fit into the story told by the rest of the house? Did his subterranean masturbation drive her to leave? Or was the utility room his refuge from an already broken home? Did she wonder about his penchant for changing the furnace filter while barefoot? What was his annual sock expenditure? These were the questions that haunted me.
Later, Danny went to finish hooking up the dryer hose and came back upstairs with a flat, square package wrapped in brown paper. "Found one more thing."
“Probably just a bundle of dirty magazines,” he said, his eyes begging me for permission to just throw it away and forget all of it. How many more hiding places could there be in the ceiling of an unfinished basement? Hundreds, probably.
He reluctantly ripped open the paper, dust flying in the air, and handed me what was inside – a framed photograph of a bride and groom, both of their eyes welling with joy. There was a note scrawled on the back – Can’t believe it’s already been 10 years. This picture feels like yesterday. I love you, beautiful.
"He hid presents for his wife in the same place as his cum socks," Danny said, throwing his arms up. "That’s it, I'm going to bed."
He walked away and I sat down, staring at the groom’s eyes. We met him only briefly at closing, when he dropped the keys into Danny’s hand. His lips formed an amiable smile as he did it but his posture was hunched and his eyes were weary, glossed over with a sad kind of relief that I now imagined was filled with the pain of camouflage sponge paint and lavender walls and years of hidden socks.
I stared at that picture for a long time, scanning their faces, looking for clues. Who struck the first blow? Which one of them knocked over the first domino in the chain of events that lead to secretive basement ejaculations and hastily painted over walls? What turned his trajectory from I love you, beautiful to Playboy by the furnace?
The light slowly faded out of the room as I pondered and when it was dark and I could no longer see their eyes I got up and crossed our newly cheerful kitchen. I dropped the frame into the trash alongside the balled up socks. Maybe these walls would reveal it all in time, and maybe I was just making up ghost stories.
Kaylin Tristano’s weird fiction has appeared in Stinkwaves Magazine and online at Red Fez. She consumes coffee intravenously and can be found writing in coffee shops around northeast Ohio.