Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie… —Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
“Here’s a new thing,” my mother told me the other day. “Whenever I’m driving in the car with music on I start crying. Everywhere I go, I’m like half blind with tears.”
My mother is a liberal, a fiction writer, and an English professor, but despite the clichés regarding all those callings she’s anything but a hysteric, and there’s a reason for her tears. Six months ago she bought a house in Kinderhook, N.Y., directly next door to my Aunt Lib and Uncle Matt. Matt is in the last stages of bone marrow cancer. His bones are literally disintegrating, depositing calcium into the bloodstream and leaving him completely disoriented. His heart skips beats, his liver no longer processes the medications he’s on, and because of hospice and/or FDA regulations the only intravenous painkiller that really helps anymore, Dilaudid, can’t be administered at home. My mother is on sabbatical and goes over at least once a day to watch Matt and do what she can to help. For lack of a better expression, it’s a deathwatch, and the strain cannot be imagined.
I made a joke out of her tearful outbursts. “Those are just feelings, ignore them. Cars are about the only places where we have enough time alone to remember we have feelings.”
Nearly tearful again just talking about it, my mother wiped her eyes and grinned, “Yeah, feelings. Five minutes alone with some music and there they are. Damned music.”
Lib and Matt’s oldest son was named Matt, also. Back when both of them worked on my father’s dairy farm, we used to call them Big Matt and Little Matt. Big Matt was a true westerner, a sturdy, round-shouldered Dutchman with red hair and snakeskin cowboy boots, and his barbecues were legendary. Matt had worked at any number of places in his life—at one point or another he’d worked the oil fields of Texas and flown cropdusters in California before coming East to be a milker with my father. At one of those places he’d learned to grill meat the way it’s supposed to be done, and everyone would stuff their bellies and drink beer. I used to see the buckets of iced “FX Matt’s” and think, because of the name, that they had been made up especially for Big and Little Matt. At some point or another as well, probably spraying those foul pesticides out West, he’d come down with the seed of bone cancer.
We kids had a tradition at the end of the summer barbecues: We’d wait until the sun went down and play Green Ghost in the gloaming cornfield. The game was a combination of Tag and Hide and Seek. One person would be the “Green Ghost” and run off and hide while the rest counted to 100. When someone spotted the Green Ghost, they’d holler “Green Ghost! Green Ghost!” as an alert, and everyone would book for home while the Ghost tried to tag anyone they could to make that person a ghost also. The tricky part was that if the Green Ghost tagged you, you didn’t have to tell others you were also a ghost, and you could saunter toward home and then tag everyone you saw at the last moment, just as they thought they were safe. It was a great game and, when played in a 20-acre cornfield, spooky as all hell—especially so, though, when Little Matt was the Green Ghost. Little Matt would go way back into the tall stalks, patient and quiet as he waited to leap out screaming at the first luckless kid who stumbled near him. I even remember one game when Little Matt went so far into the cornfield that none of us could find him. It got to be time to go home, and we called out, telling him the game was over, but he never came in. I was one of the last to go into the house and remember being frozen in the porch light between the house and the field, struck with wonder that he’d stayed out there so long, that he really never came in, that he’d stuck to being the Green Ghost for so long. Honestly, sometimes, it was just as scary being the Ghost, alone out in the corn or nearby woods, as it was to be a seeker.
Little Matt died in his early 20s after a drunken car crash. When he was around seven years old he was out in the yard playing with his little sister, Katy. Having forgotten to watch her for a moment, he turned and saw her in the road, where she was hit by a car and died. Little Matt never forgave himself for not being more watchful or saving Katy. The night of his own accident would have been Katy’s birthday, and that night he drank a beer for every year she would have been alive—roughly 19. After the crash, he never came out of the coma; he died in the Albany ICU a few days later. My mother and I weren’t there for the end, as I had a surgery scheduled in New York City (a routine situation back in those days) and she had had to take me down there while Matt’s health was still uncertain. I believe she got the news of his death while I was still knocked out from anesthesia in a Columbia Presbyterian hospital room. For a day or so after the surgery I had forgotten all about the accident and Matt, but then everything came back in a flash and I asked my mother how he was doing. Her face crumbled at the question she had known was going to come at any minute. Stunned, all I thought of was Matt, forever frozen as Little Matt alone in the gigantic cornfield, waiting while all the rest of us went home under the lights of the porch. Green Ghost! Green Ghost! Come home!
Something recently seems to be pulling me back to the old haunts. Aside from my mother’s moving back to Kinderhook, my brother also has moved, into my father’s house, while my father stays at an apartment provided by the private high school where he is head of grounds and maintenance. Old wounds seem to be reopening along the way: Despite promising numerous times to come by and visit my mother at her new digs, my father hasn’t quite been able to make himself go over to see her. They’ve been divorced for more than 25 years. Meanwhile my brother has begun to bring up the old farm, which was sold in the early ‘80s, murmuring that the old man should have tried harder to hold onto at least a portion of the acreage. I just shake my head at that, refusing to go there. It’s easy to drive past the fields, woods, apple orchards, pond, and oak-canopied road down to where the barns were, with the blue Catskill Mountains overlooking the bucolic whole of it. What’s not so easy is to recall the fat man from the bank coming out to the farmhouse in the evening to see about the unpaid mortgage, standing awkwardly in the yard while my father went out to explain when he could get the bank some money, and even one time giving the awkward bank officer a check. It’s also easy to forget about the time my father told me in an unexplainable voice, “My empire-building days are over.” At this point, I figure it’s just enough for everyone to worry about retirement or how their children are faring or how to get through a car ride without sobbing. More than enough, in fact.
My mother says Big Matt seems at peace with the world. One blessing is that he just learned that his son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Karen, are expecting. The pregnancy has some worries, though. After numerous genetic tests, doctors have determined that the child will be born with some form or another of cystic fibrosis. This despite their reports at every stage about how unlikely the odds were that both parents’ DNA tendencies would come together to trigger the disease, et cetera et cetera. Finally fed up as the docs rolled out yet another statistic, Karen said, “Enough of the fucking numbers. They aren’t doing us any good.” Enough of the fucking numbers is right, and we all simply are hoping for the best. Whatever happens with the child, a boy by the way, Jim and Karen are prepared, the doctors are prepared, the family is prepared.
A small note about Kinderhook and its environs: The town is famously haunted. Washington Irving spent significant time in the area, and both the Van Tassel family and the quaking schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, in Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are known to have been modeled after actual residents. In reality, the Van Tassels and their fair daughter Katrina were actually the Dutch Van Alen family, while Crane was a Yankee teacher named Jesse Merwin. Another local spectral legend is that the phantom of the scoundrel Aaron Burr can sometimes be seen in a nearby orchard. Burr was close with the prominent Van Ness family and he undoubtedly spent time with them at their manor, which was later owned and lived in by President Martin Van Buren, who himself is buried in the Kinderhook town cemetery.
In a strange coincidence, two weeks ago my wife told me there’d been a grisly killing down in Kinderhook, a combination murder-suicide just outside of town. The dead couple’s two teenage daughters reportedly witnessed the shootings, and a grown son heard the shots from a nearby barn. I searched the papers to get details, fearful of finding any familiar names. Only one name I recognized came up, though, and it was typical of both the town’s strange legends and the weird homeward vacuum I’d been feeling. The killings happened on Merwin Road, named after poor old Jesse Merwin. Out there in the woods, the thud of hooves across autumn damp turf, a headless rider in a green Hessian uniform, pounding and pounding across his grim policies. Out there also, two teenage girls with the echoes of gunfire pounding in their heads. Green Ghost! Green Ghost! Everyone run!
The last time I saw the old family farmhouse was a gray, dead autumn day. I don’t know what made me stop the car but there I was. No one had lived in the falling-down place for several years, so I knew there was little chance anyone would get pissed about any kind of trespassing. I walked around the corner where the chicken coop and bins of firewood had once been and snuck in through the unlocked door to the mudroom. The place was empty of nearly everything, just a cold, bedraggled wreck of a house under a slate sky. Honestly, the place had always been falling apart. When we were growing up, rats, squirrels, and bats could be heard scrambling around inside the hollow walls; twice we had severe chimney fires; and at night the ceiling plaster fell down in grainy chunks onto my brother’s bed. For a long time, that seemed to be an accurate metaphor for my family: my parents’ getting divorced, the farm being lost inch by inch, me in and out of the hospital all the time with my confused and frightened brother being shuffled off in the night to stay with Lib and Matt while I was driven to New York for emergency surgeries, all the time the walls literally falling apart and covering my brother’s sleeping face with white flecks of plaster. But as I visited the empty farmhouse, another metaphor seemed to emerge. As I trolled the upstairs bedrooms looking for a memento, I went into the old sun-yellow nursery and found two items on the floor of the closet: a entirely blank domino and a superhero playing card I’d gotten in my Easter basket many years before, one of the Avengers. Crouched and staring, I thought about what I was holding, then left everything where I’d found it.
The next time I went back to the farmhouse it was gone. Someone had bought the property and, smartly, decided to knock the place down. When I asked my father what had happened, he laughed. “Yeah, they dug a big hole where your mother’s garden used to be and buried the whole thing right there.” Let it be noted now for the record: Also buried in the family garden were a playing card and a blank domino, plus a cat’s-eye marble I’d once jammed into a knothole in the front porch and was never able to pry out. Games of chance, all of them, but enough of the fucking numbers. They aren’t doing any of us any good. My family is patient. We are prepared. We are residents of Sleepy Hollow, with not a few of us schoolteachers. When the rider pounds the fields until the earth opens to swallow whomever it can or phantoms claw at the walls until the plaster covers our faces and we become ghosts ourselves, we do what Ichabod Crane did: We whistle a path through the tears and the darkness, hoping to get across the bridge any way we can and damn the music. Green Ghost, Green Ghost, leave us alone! Don’t you know we’re already home?