The wind blew chill as I pulled up to the Corners Bed and Breakfast on Klein Street. I fumbled my keys in my cold numb hands and watched my breath plume forth in long wisps of white. I stood and stretched my legs. Twenty-one hours of driving across the Southern United States. Visiting a horror story of a series of America’s growing moribund roadside restrooms. More and more attended in the night by residents of former British Indian colonies, the bathrooms of Exxon and Chevron represent a true challenge to anyone with a sense of smell, a sense of decency and a sense of sanitary habits. But that is another story for another day.
Vicksburg was one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country just prior to the Civil War. An impressive shipping center on the southern Mississippi, in May of 1863, it was the last river redoubt owned by the Confederates and thusly came under siege from the end of May until July 4th 1863 when the township and the Confederate forces threw in the towel and surrendered. It wasn’t until 1925 that Vicksburg’s government would even recognize the 4th of July, so badly had this capitulation imprecated generations of Mississippians. The shame burns for some still today. This multi-storied Colonial Williamsburg featured windows so old they were still pouring and refracting the scene outside; and a thin solemn stairwell, painted thickly white and glowing despite the darkness of the setting sun. The air was redolent of Fall and that added a zing to my step. I made my way staring at the dark shutters above also painted decoratively and no doubt accurately reflecting the architectural style of a city older than memory. The door was locked and I hit the bell and tapped on the side windows staring inside of the antebellum bed and breakfast that had survived the Siege of Vicksburg, which with finality put the Mississippi River in the hands of the Union Navy.
On the intercom came a reply, “I’ll be right there.” I felt like such a jerk for also tapping on the window. I watched her saunter down the hallway, a sweet middle aged woman whom I recognized as Macy, the wifely portion of the Northern couple that came down from colder climes and bought it and restored it traded in more frantic jobs for ones where they had house guests and treated them to sumptuous communal breakfasts every morning. It is a Holy ritual where strangers from across the country and sit together and break home baked sweet corn breads, and share in endless meals like eggs over easy, slabs of freshly pan sautéed sausages and pies and pancakes and fruit. She gave me a hug when I admitted I made a mistake and I had instead in my haste plugged in the wrong bed and breakfast to my iPad’s Google Maps. I had a reservation across the street at a competitor, the Cedar Grove Bed and Breakfast that housed guests inside the main mansion and also in a gorgeous, immaculately kept white two story carriage house with long Jeffersonian portico columns and another claustrophobic stairwell that reprised the bone thin and small stature of another generation. Also I had previously stayed in the large Georgian brick apartment at the top of the hill. I quite loved it and the people who worked there.
I am surrounded by ancient wood and brick, lyard white and grey but meticulously cared for and especially beautiful. Roman portico columns, Ionian frieze work, and ornate foot boards streaked in the varnish of centuries of floor care products and uncountable feet. The walls and the sidewalks are covered in the leaves and detritus shed of gnarled oaks and Dutch elm. They inhale when you breathe out, and they exhale the breathe of history, the smell of cold dry winter air in the South, laundry done in large soapy tubs, and kitchen ovens filling the late afternoon with the acrid and familiar smells and sounds of cooking; pots and pans clanging, chicken fat laying over hot coals spitting and roiling, and a fecund whiff of passing horses and carriage. I make my way across the unpaved graveled driveway that serves as a parking lot, climbed into my Jeep, and drove across the street and checked into the Cedar Grove Inn, a bed and breakfast I have stayed at many times.
I am drawn to these places, historic and spavined and a living testimony to people who lived in difficult times and still made beautiful things, stubbornly refusing to be anything grander than what they began as, refined Georgian and Victorian people living the high life in stately mansions. And on a winter’s night, an old city like Vicksburg can seem to come out of an old H.P Lovecraft story or the pages of a musty old volume by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The towns now intersect with the digital world in old Geo Cities era websites and unencrypted courtesy Wi-Fi networks cobbled together in spools of incomprehensible wires hung improvisationally.
It is a week before Christmas. The wreaths are up. The string lights lay gently entwined in holly bushes, and sweet sparkling lights hang from centuries old balconies frozen in time, at a time when Christmas wasn’t a politicized holiday, just a great holiday that you could enjoy without reservation and guilt. A time when everyone tried to give something to someone.
I came in and got a round of warm greetings; they recognized me and checked me in. I had a reservation in that top apartment and asked to be changed to the Carriage House. I took the room 16 on the upper floor, a room I have already stayed in many times. The Carriage House was indeed a place where horses and their handlers administered their duties. “Does anyone see any ghosts up there?” I ask. “Guests often say they hear horses and buggies outside,” the lady at the counter answers me.
Saturday night I went to the bar holding two free glasses of wine coupons which I immediately disposed on two glasses of liberty Hill Cabernet that is always a wonderful surprise made even more wonderful by its price. Joe waited on me. He is at least 65, maybe older; he is a dark ebony statue, appointing a grey mustache and grey Einstein hair. We chat about the weather and the amount of business, and he talks me into a bowl of gumbo. On the way up I ask for a bag of ice. We are old friends. He knows to pour me a scotch and water. He rings me up.
Balancing two cocktails and my keys, I go upstairs. I sit outside and smoke a hand rolled torpedo and a glass of red wine. It is exquisite. I am exhausted and must go to sleep. I turn on Storage Wars and at about 8:30 AM, I turn out the lights and go sleep.
Sometime in the night I was laying on my right side. The bed cover was turned back. Under my left elbow that cover and sheet were tucked firmly. I don’t sleep all over a king sized bed. I pick a side and stick to it.
Something pulled the cover from under my left arm and I could feel the cover pull tight over my foot as it started to pull the cover back over my left shoulder and tuck it into my neck.
I could sense a face very close to my face.
I was fully awake, but I could not open my eyes. I don’t think I wanted to open my eyes because I was afraid I would see the women lurking over me.
I could not speak.
I was trying to say “Don’t do this…don’t do this…don’t do this…”
I pushed myself up and reached for the lamp and turned it on. I looked over my left shoulder at the clock.
It was 2:12 AM.
I finally regained my speech. As I protested loudly, an electric shock went through my body. Every hair on me was standing up.
I knew with absolute certainty that something was in the room with me.
I managed to stand and walk into the fore room. Nothing seemed amiss. The door was locked. I turned on a light there. Then I turned on the bathroom light and I went into the bedroom .
On the bedspread it looked as if someone had taken a handful of desiccated colorless oak leaves and crumbled them over the bed. There were no leaves on my shoes or socks or bags. There were no crumbled oak leaves on the floor or anywhere else. Just on the bed. Like nothing else this told me I was not just dreaming this, Something weird happened. I had been visited.
Unrest is the essential archetype of old Vicksburg. A residual Old South still clings to the remnants of polite society and resists the change wrought upon it by a hostile domestic force at the business end of naval cannons. The landscape around Vicksburg is adumbrated by trenches and fortifications, cannons, and gravestones; all appropriate stone eulogies to the brave boys who tried in vain to hold this last vestige of Mississippi River power. So it is not unusual to see the residuum of people left behind in a house as a sort of tape recording when the events recorded are fraught and framed in warfare and sacrifice.
I was thinking about what I should do. Call the front desk, have whoever is on duty put me in an unhaunted room? Naw. Call the Police? Definitely not. Turn on the TV? Absolutely.
The very first show is Ghost Hunters. Two Roto-Rooter slash Ghost Hunters in green night vision saying “Did you see that Bra?”
Then I turned it to CutCo’s The Knife Show. “This here is the Tactical Hunter. And on the side is engraved the Twin Towers….” I turned all the lights out and turned this down. I remembered Joe made me a cocktail and I found it on the bathroom sink and downed it. Now all the ice had melted and the elixir sat at room temperature, but Lord I finally slept.
My biggest fear then was not a return visitation. It was the fear that lack of sleep would prevent me from driving home and seeing my family.
The next morning I was the first for breakfast and could not find it in me to tell the staff my story. I was flummoxed, still digesting it.
I later learned that the Carriage House had been turned into a Union hospital and Elizabeth Klein, the owner’s wife, tended to the wounded. Perhaps she might have been covering me up. Perhaps this old ad guy looked to her like a soldier recovering from grievous wounds.
I don’t know for sure except that if that what it was, it was something born not in conflict. It was the antidote to conflict. I was an act of compassion. A woman covering me up. The memory of a habit repeated thousands of times; and performed once more, early Sunday morning.
My friend Rodney says ghosts might like me.
I am not sure I am ready for that.
I drove home hoping Elizabeth doesn’t follow me. And I played my iPad’s driving music list loud as I could make it.