It was scary how much effort my friends put into trying to make me believe in ghosts. Afterwards they told me it was my fault. On a rainy, February day in New Orleans -- not really cold so much as Unpleasant, the kind of day where you can imagine what it's like to be a forgotten sock on a damp, cement basement floor, growing and being eaten by mold -- we were talking about faith. Just M, B, G, and I.
G was explaining that she was having trouble finding a church because all of them were so Different. They weren't at all like the calm, contemplative congregations she was raised in farther north. B, ever the anthropologist, said Everything was Different down here. It was a hodge podge of faiths and practices that got together for a party and woke up the next morning having no idea how to get home, so they did the responsible adult thing, had a shotgun wedding and raised the kids as best they knew how.
Anyway, I said something about how disappointed I was that I hadn't met a single vampire or ghost since moving to New Orleans. That was all the inspiration they needed, apparently.
Working in the office, I didn't get to go out much, but one of my duties was to go and visit homeowners and interview them. B was working on this particular sight where one Mr. Breaux lived and one day, the first day after B went to the sight she and I were at a coffee shop with M (B was a teetotaler).
"I don't know, something about that house, man..." she said, stirring honey into her tea.
"What about it? Did you find a closet full of pornographic magazines and assault rifles?" M asked.
"No!" B snapped.
"That would be funny if it hadn't happened once," M said.
"Really?" I asked.
"The point, M, is that people died in the house," B said.
M shrugged. "So, it's New Orleans. Lots of people die in their houses where their mothers and fathers and ancestors died before them. It's tradition. They're big on tradition here."
"The guys whole family drowned in the house during the flood," B said.
"And he wants to live there?"
"To be close," B said.
Strange Things got passed around the work site, then the warehouses, and finally, as these Things go, got to us in the office. B found the tools rearranged in the morning when she got to the site and no sign of a break-in. Every time the framers tried to put up a wall where there wasn't one before, the nails would bend and it took hours of frustrating work to get everything level. B was working late one night and her foot went through the rotten wood and she swore that as she struggled she felt a hand pull her out. People found mysterious trinkets.
"The weirdest thing," B said one night when we were all out at Tipitina's and she was taking a break from dancing manically. "Every morning there's food there. I mean, like, a bag of beignets and coffee. Sometimes even a crockpot full of gumbo. I always thought it was Mr. Breaux coming by before work, but I asked him about it today and he said he had no idea what I was talking about. I think he's pulling my leg, but..."
She let that hang there, then shrugged and darted off back into the fray. Rebirth was playing that night and so there was a full crowd and Stasi-like dudes standing by the door checking IDs. I didn't feel like dancing. I never feel like dancing, actually. People shoved into me while I stood by the second floor railing, contemplating the crowd below while the brass band blared. Vibrations up and down the skin. It felt like a rough caress, if sandpaper could be soft.
This was two days before I had to go visit Mr. Breaux. On a Monday, mid-morning, we agreed to go and meet him, G and I. We worked as partners, typically. She would take pictures while I would talk to our clients, writing down their tragedies, hopes, and disappointments and trying to make a three-paragraph story out of it. I'd argued with my boss over the length of the biographies, but, as always, I lost and so they were always three paragraphs. I had to break down every single person's life that way: what they did before Katrina, what happened to them during the Tragedy, and what happened to them afterward. I wondered if someone dissected my life, where they would make the incisions.
The house wasn't far from where IB lived. Just around the corner, in fact, somewhere in Treme near a large, institutional-looking building that I was never sure if it was a school or a penitentiary. B was waiting for us in the front, right on the street. It had been raining and it was that uncomfortable, wet-cold so unusual for a Midwesterner.
As we were driving, G wouldn't look at me. This was unusual since she was generally chipper no matter what the atrocious circumstances. But that day she and I drove silently to and from the office and toward our destination for our semi-exploitative endeavors. Finally, when we were only a few blocks away, she said, "I had a few nightmares last night..."
"More than one," I asked.
"Yeah. More than one. The first one I dreamed that I was drowning. I've heard that's one of the most common nightmares, after having all your teeth fall out. It makes sense that that would be one of the most common fears. So I woke up from that and I brushed my teeth. When I went back to bed I had this dream that I was in a house filled with everyone I knew and they were all saying 'I'm sorry' over and over again, but nobody would tell me why they were so sorry. Finally, I got up from my chair and they all looked away. Someone knocked at the door and I went to answer it and there was my grandpa and grandma, they're dead, and you, waiting at the door. You asked me to go with you..."
She drew the Parallel between me and the Dead right as we pulled up to the house and got out without another word. She took her time getting her camera.
Mr. Breaux was much younger than I expected, maybe in his mid-thirties, and he looked haunted. He didn't actually look at me when we shook hands, but right past my shoulder. B nudged me unnecessarily to be polite. It took him several seconds of try-and-fail to find the correct key to let us into his house.
It was a two-story behemoth, the kind that most people associate with New Orleans. You could easily imagine gentry living there from the outside. After we walked through, though, it was all rotten wood and cobwebs, dust and pieces of a house.
"This is the entryway. Sorry I don't have a mat. There used to be a mat here," Mr. Breaux said. He nodded to himself and led us through the broken house. "This is the kitchen. Mom cooks a lot of good food here. Follow me... here is the living room. This is where my sister spends most of her time working on homework. Wave sister..."
He waved at some figure who wasn't there. I carefully did not look at G or B, but took careful notes and asked polite questions about his mother, sister, the history of the house, how FEMA had screwed him, where he was during the Deluge, and so on. When he started to lead us upstairs, G quietly excused herself and said that she was going to try to get better pictures of the downstairs.
As soon as we reached the top landing, Mr. Breaux stopped and stared up at the patchwork ceiling. "This... this is where I survived..." he said. I didn't say anything, but just waited for him to go on, pen poised, like I always did.
"I have to go..." Mr. Breaux said and then quickly went down the stairs. B looked at me and motioned for me to stay put, pursuing him.
So I stayed in the creepy old, gutted upstairs. Strange to think that I once didn't know what "gutted" meant. I asked the carpenters and they said that it's when a house has been stripped to the siding and framing. It's a skeleton, essentially -- gutted. B had warned me that there were a lot of dangerous spots in the upstairs, so I didn't wander, exactly. I just got bored and started to test the wood around me, inching one direction and then the next. It was a giant floor and I could see every room, all the bedrooms and single bathroom, or at least the bare shapes of them.
"I know you," said someone. I looked around and saw no one, but I could've sworn I had heard a voice.
"Hello?" I asked, but didn't move. I know how horror movies work.
"I know you," the voice said again.
That was enough for me. I walked slowly down the stairs and found B and Mr. Breaux talking quietly in the corner. G tapped me on the shoulder and I jumped forward. B laughed. I managed to finish the interview and then insisted that G and I leave as soon as we could.
That was it. Nothing more than that. I know you, the voice said. It wasn't until a month before I left, when we were all together at another bar that M admitted that he was hiding between the floorboards and talking to me. When I confronted B about it, she admitted that Mr. Breaux had played along. He was from New Orleans, but it wasn't his family's house and no one had died in it that anyone knew of.
I asked why they let the joke go after that. B admitted that it just wasn't funny after that point. I didn't seem scared enough.