This is not a ghost story – not exactly. It is a story about the living and what the dead leave behind. It is, I suppose, also a story of childhood and the end of childhood – because childhood ends in that moment when, regardless of our age, we are faced with the sudden, bitter, and inescapable reality of personal loss.
In the world of paranormal investigation, it is far too easy to depersonalize ghosts and hauntings. The spirits we seek in the field are generally reduced to phenomenon – blips on our meters, voices that whisper between the static of recordings. But if we accept that a ghost is a human being surviving in some form beyond the boundary of physical death, then we also must accept that a ghost at some point had a life. The ghost was someone’s spouse or sibling or parent or child, and maybe all of these things to several different people. In short, a ghost was a person – and if the ghost continues to exist after death, then that ghost’s essential personhood also continues to exist after death. So, meet one of my ghosts. It doesn’t matter when I saw him. The real story is how he touched my life.
The story starts in second grade. That was when I met his son, Eddie.
We did not begin life as friends.
I was in Mrs. Hatton’s class. He was in Miss Patsy’s – which seemed like it might as well have been another world, being located not only down the hall but at the other end of a whole flight of stairs. The only time students in the two classes intermingled was recess – an activity which I dreaded. I was never one of the cool kids in school. Quite the opposite. And throughout grade school, I suffered the unfortunate combination of being one of the smallest kids in my class as well as one of the smartest. Small meant I didn’t defend myself very well, and smart meant there was often a need to.
I didn’t usually get the names of the kids who terrorized me on the schoolyard. But in one incident, I did – or at least, I thought I did. I knew his first name was Eddie, and while he was chasing me around throwing stones and other small objects at my head, I heard one of the other kids call out his last name.
Last names were magic. Last names meant I could actually tell the teacher which of the many little monsters rampaging on the schoolyard was responsible for my skinned knee that particular week.
Bloody and sniffling, I went up to the recess monitor to tattle on my tormentor. She asked his name, and triumphantly, I said, “Eddie Bitch.”
Yeah, that happened. I didn’t know any better. That was what I’d heard. After sitting in the principle’s office for a while, I eventually learned that his name was, in fact, Eddie Birch – and that other word was something I probably shouldn’t repeat again in polite company.
Did I mention in addition to small and smart, I was also ridiculously sheltered? That made me ever so popular in school.
I recount this now because, years later when the real meat of this story happened, I really didn’t know why I’d been chosen. Eddie and I were not close. Once we’d survived the cruel vicissitudes of the earliest grades, we were no longer active enemies. But aside from attending the same church, I didn’t know Eddie all that well.
So it came as something of a surprise when his father started encouraging us to hang out together. In retrospect, I understand what was happening – Eddie was, in his own way, just as isolated as me. And his family life was nearly as unconventional as my own – I was the child of a single mother in the early seventies, being raised by my maternal grandmother, her older sister, and their younger brother. Eddie’s parents were divorced and he was being raised by his single father. I can’t begin to describe just how unusual that was in those days. When parents got divorced – if they got divorced – the kids almost always went to the mother. That was just how things worked. But there was Eddie, with a last name easily twisted into a word that would land you in the principle’s office for an afternoon, not merely from a broken home, but being raised by his dad.
And did I mention his dad was a biker?
The most shocking thing, really, looking back on it all, is that my grandmother actually agreed to us hanging out in the first place. I suspect my Great-Aunt Rita, always the advocate in getting me out of the house so I could socialize with other kids, had some influence in the matter. And I know for a fact that the shared religious background was the cincher. But, as unlikely as the pairing proved for all the things normally forbidden in my world, I was allowed on several occasions to spend time over at Eddie’s house playing Transformers and G.I. Joe or feeding carrots to the horse named Kat stabled near the back of his dad’s property.
Back in those days, my family always bought season passes to a local amusement park – Geauga Lake. It was a grand old park in Aurora, Ohio filled with roller coasters and water slides and enough spinning rides to make you dizzy for days. I loved it. Eddie came along a few times and we would run around till night descended on the park, chasing each other down the Midway, challenging one another to Kung Fu games in the arcade, and generally having a blast. Those were amazing, sun-drenched days full of stuffed-bear prizes and cotton candy endings.
It was almost always my family taking us to the park. Eddie’s dad seemed to work all the time – I think it was some kind of factory work, but I can’t really say. I only know that the hours were long and Mr. Birch always looked ragged around the edges when I visited Eddie’s house, no matter how much seeing his son put a smile on his face. But one late summer weekend, Mr. Birch approached my family and asked if he could take me and Eddie to the park – not just for one evening but for a whole two days. Mr. Birch had friends near the park and they were willing to give us all a place to sleep for the night (neither my family nor Eddie’s dad were in a position to pay for a hotel, not even for a single night).
Astoundingly, my grandmother said yes. As the woman rarely let me out of her sight for more than a couple of hours, I suspect Aunt Rita had some influence on the decision. Knowing my grandmother, Rita probably had to cut a deal with the Devil to accomplish this. But at the time, I didn’t care what family politics were necessary to get me there – I was going to stay at the park until close. With my family, we’d often stayed until the sun went down, but rarely did we stay for very long once it got dark. I was enchanted by the idea of riding the rollercoasters well into the night, or going all the way up in the space needle to see a sky sparkling with stars.
The day came, and off we went. And it was a time like no other. As much as the season passes gave me access to the park throughout the summer, there were a lot of things that remained off-limits to me. I was being raised by people who relied on retirement funds and social security. They made sure we had enough money to make it to the park, but we packed our own lunches. We brought a cooler for our own drinks. If I played in the arcade at all, I only got a dollar’s worth of quarters – which was a great incentive to excel at the games and make them last. We never played the Midway games. We only bought – at most – one treat.
Eddie’s dad, for those two days in the park, indulged us in everything. Did we want to see him climb the pirate netting and win that massive pink unicorn? Of course we did. And he tried, and tried, handing over dollar after dollar and finally making it to the buzzer. Did we want salt water taffy and cotton candy and funnel cake? Did we want to pay the extra money to go on the special set of water slides? How about eating at that restaurant with the Wild West theme?
Whatever we wanted, he paid for it. I think we must have spent the better part of one afternoon just blasting away at Space Invaders and shooting up Centipedes in the arcade. We pumped quarters into game after game of skee-ball, collecting tickets for kitschy little prizes.
I was after these little colored glass bottles. I thought they would be neat to keep things in – tears, colored sand, little shells. One of them was caramel brown and shaped like an eagle’s claw grasping a sphere. Another was blue and shaped like a fish. None of them were more than two inches tall.
I still have both of those glass bottles. Through childhood and college and more moves than I can recall, I have cherished them to this day.
The time came that our weekend of summer magic came to an end. Mr. Birch loaded up his old station wagon with the pillows and blankets from the sleep over, my tiny suitcase with my swim suit and change of clothes, and with all the big, stupid, badly made stuffed animals that we’d won over the course of our adventures. And we started the drive home.
The park was only about thirty minutes away from Hinckley, where we all lived. But when you’re still a child, that thirty minutes might as well be an eternity.
While we were driving home, Mr. Birch started talking about things. Strange, unsettling things. Eddie and I both fell quiet because this wasn’t the kind of conversation adults usually had. Eddie’s eyes were wide and he looked pale where he sat half buried by the massive stuffed animal in the back seat.
His dad was talking about what Eddie should do in case he ever died.
Mr. Birch tried to present it casually enough. He pointed out that he rode a motorcycle, and that he wasn’t always as careful as he should be. He hated the helmet laws. He took risks.
I’m not sure if Eddie ended up crying at any point during this conversation. I’m not sure I would have noticed if he had – I was never good at noticing things like that — peoples’ emotional states. My own internal wiring combined with my upbringing rendered me something equivalent to emotionally colorblind. Yet another reason why I was ill-equipped to forge and maintain friendships, yet another reason why being in that car in that moment was so improbable for my life.
If Eddie wept, he did it silently. I do know that he begged his father to stop. Strident, he told his father that he wasn’t going to die. That he didn’t need to talk about such things. That he didn’t want to think about burying his old man.
Mr. Birch glanced up at his son in the rearview mirror. He had brown eyes. They both had brown eyes, and if I’d known enough to recognize it, I’d have realized that Mr. Birch’s eyes were not merely weary – they were sad. Profoundly, achingly sad.
He met his son’s eyes in that mirror and said, “Just one thing. One more thing and then I’m done. If you ever have to bury me, bury me with my beanie and my jeans jacket and the keys to my bike. If you can manage it, bury me with the bike.”
And then it got to be too much for Eddie and his dad shut up. The car fell silent, and suddenly all the poorly stitched faces of the stuffed animals we’d won didn’t look silly. They looked sinister.
At a stoplight, some time later, Mr. Birch turned to me and said very quietly, “Promise me you’ll look out for my son.”
I wasn’t any older than Eddie. In fact, Eddie had been kept back a grade, so technically, I was the little one. I nodded – my little fingers clenched around one of the glass bottles I’d bought with my skee-ball tickets. The eagle-claw one. What the hell else could I do?
And then Mr. Birch stopped talking like he was going to die, and we drove home, and that was the end of it.
School started back up. The awkward conversation in the car became a distant memory in the face of new classes and new teachers and all the stress and excitement that came with a new year at school.
I think it was September when Mr. Birch died.
Our hometown – Hinckley, Ohio – is this sprawling, rural township filled with rolling hills and stony ledges and gorgeous trees. The gem of the town is a park – Hinckley Reservation – and one of the main roads going into the park is Route. 303. I loved traveling this road with my mother when she was still around, because she would indulge me at this one series of hills. I called them the rollercoaster hills. The road curves suddenly and then you’re zipping along on these three rapid, rolling swells of pavement. I’m sure they’re not actually as high as the first hill of a rollercoaster, but if you take them at forty or fifty miles an hour, they give you that same delicious fluttery feeling just under your ribs.
That’s a delightful feeling when you’re too young to realize just how hazardous that stretch of road really is. It’s only a two-lane road, and there are trees lining both sides. There are guardrails, but also a sharp drop-off on at least one side.
It happened at night. Mr. Birch was out on his motorcycle. I don’t know if he was wearing a helmet. He was probably just wearing his little knit beanie that he always rolled down over his head of curly hair. It doesn’t really matter – a helmet wouldn’t have saved him. He drove the bike right into a tree. He hit so hard, the front of the bike nearly tore him in half.
Mr. Birch – like everyone who lived in Hinckley – had driven that stretch of road before. Light or dark, he knew its hills, its sudden curves. It was a clear night. No rain. No other unexpected conditions on the road. Mr. Birch took the curve as fast as he could – and didn’t turn.
There was a lot of conjecture about his death. Hinckley was – and to an extent, still is – a very small town. One thing every small town loves is its gossip. Trouble with finances, troubles at work – I heard all of the rumors about Mr. Birch, but I didn’t care. What I cared about was my friend who, from all reports, had stood at the top of his driveway for hours waiting for his father to come back home. Waiting and waiting, when on some level, he had to have known. Mr. Birch had as good as told us – both of us – what was in store on that ride back from the park.
When he saw his mother’s car approaching to deliver the bad news, I’m told Eddie just screamed at the sky. Screamed and screamed in hurt and rage, until he fell to his knees on the winding, gravel drive.
The funeral home was rife with disapproving whispers when friends and family discovered Mr. Birch in the casket wearing not a suit but an old jeans jacket with a beanie pulled down over his head. That they were giving him a Christian burial after all the rumors wasn’t scandal enough to occupy their wagging tongues. No, now they had to hiss and whisper about his clothes – inappropriate, disrespectful, obscene. But Eddie stood by his father’s request. Mr. Birch had made it clear this was exactly what he wanted.
I still remember the awkward way the morticians had bent the man’s big, calloused fingers around the keys to his bike. I will probably never forget.
I have used real names here. If, perchance you see this, Eddie, and you disapprove, I apologize. The years have swept a gulf between us, and I’ve had no luck finding you to reach out. But it was surprisingly easy to find your dad: James L. Birch 1939-1985: