On New Years Day, 2014, my husband wanted to watch “The Conjuring”, a thriller with some fairly high-profile actors in a story about some pretty god-awful demons inhabiting the home of an otherwise normal family.
I don’t like scary movies.
The ironic thing is that I love the stories. I am intrigued by all the stuff we see on Sci-Fi and all the unsolved mysteries of the Universe. I guess that maybe what I don’t like is the music in movies that lets us know something unexpected and terrifying is about to happen. Except that with the music leading into it, it’s no longer unexpected. I usually hide behind a newspaper, or dishtowel, or whatever else might be handy. Or I choose that moment to go change the laundry from the washer to the dryer, or wash that sole dish that might happen to be in the sink. I absolutely do not want to see what the director wants to show me.
But I do want to hear the story. Nice, and calmly told. An interview, perhaps, or maybe a documentary. But the ‘Jaws’ thudding, heart-pounding, nail-biting expectation of something suddenly jumping out toward the camera when someone goes down into the basement, with no regard for how many times you’ve screamed at them through the television set not to, and then it does jump out and the person who wouldn’t listen gets eaten?
Maybe it’s because of Max. We knew him. There was no theme music or choreographed fear-inducement tactic where he was concerned. He was just Max, a part of the household, a fixture. And he was calm. Mostly.
I was informed about Max toward the end of my senior year in High School. It was 1986. The plan was to move in with my father’s family in a neighboring state. On graduation night, he came to collect my belongings and me. During the trip, he explained about Max’s presence in his home, explained also that I shouldn’t be afraid, and told me that Max was simply a part of things. Along the way, he gave a few lighthearted examples of Max’s playfulness. No one was ever sure it was his real name, but Max was a presence in their home that no one could identify. Every noise, every anything, that could not be readily explained was always attributed to Max.
The name came from his wife, who had a relative named Max that had died. The story goes that for an untold amount of time after the funeral Max’s favorite rocking chair would creak back and forth with seemingly no one in it. Someone once saw footprint impressions in the carpet leading away from the rocker toward the window, disappearing into the wall that housed it. That Max was off his rocker didn’t occur to anyone at the time.
Step-mother eventually inherited the rocker, which is how it, and Max, came to be in my dad’s home.
That there existed a presence was never a doubt to anyone who ever visited. The uncertainty was only whether the things that were happening could be attributed to Max, who had maybe traveled with his rocking chair, or to some colonial soldier who had died in or near the old colonial home, or whether he or she, used to be someone else entirely. But Max was an easy name to apply, and the whole rocking chair story was pretty good. So Max it was.
I had never before experienced a real-life ghost (you know what I mean), and I found my father’s story fascinating. I was sure he was making it up, but it was well-told, and I liked that he had a wonderful sense of story-telling. It made me think that my own story-telling had roots someplace. And it was a world I wanted to explore.
My first night at my dad’s house was spent in conversation. At some point I was warned that Max was usually at his worst whenever someone new came in, especially if they stayed for longer than a day or two. If visitors stayed too long, it was as though Max became bored with his games and eventually stopped. Either that or he just came to accept the new people. But you always knew he was there, Dad had said, in the way that he played his music just faintly enough that it could be heard without quite being able to determine just what it was that was being played.
For my first weekend at Dad’s, everything was fine. But then again, they were both home with me all weekend. It was Monday morning when he and Step-mother had gone to work that I started experiencing firsthand what they had been trying to warn me about in the days prior. I was in the kitchen cleaning up some breakfast dishes when I heard what sounded like a bowling ball drop on the attic floor and roll roll roll in that heavy way bowling balls will do if dropped and allowed to continue, their path unobstructed. It was slow, and each turn of the ball’s circumference could be heard by me, one floor below. I was almost able to trace a visible path across the ceiling by the sound alone. My eyes indeed travelled that path, wondering if I would see scratches on the hardwood floor had I been brave enough to go investigate.
When the ball had rolled across the floor to the top of the stairwell, and then bounced down the steps with a thud thud thud that only a bowling ball could possibly make, and then hit the bottom of the stairwell, the door to the attic would bounce open with the force of it. So there I stood, in the kitchen, looking at an open door that led to the steps that led to the attic, and there was no bowling ball.
I know I heard it.
Throughout the day I heard this ball, over and over, drop, slowly roll roll roll roll roll, bounce down the steps with thud, thud, thud, thud, and then crash at the bottom. I repeatedly watched the door bounce open with the force of the landing. During the course of the day, however, the ball became lighter. Once, for a few repetitive times, it sounded like a basketball with the ‘ting’ it made as it was dropped to the floor, bounced a few rapid times, a quick rollrollroll, and a lighter smacking sound as it hit some of the steps on its way down to the bottom. The door just fluttered by this time, and was no longer jumping open as it had with the bowling ball. A basketball rolling across the floor and lazily bouncing down steps has very little force behind it.
Still later, the sound more resembled that of a golf ball. Drop, hard thud, quick roll, bounce, smack, and then it would roll around in the bottom of the stairwell, unable to either open the door or escape the enclosure. And by the end of the day, it sounded more like a tennis ball. Lighter and lighter until I could hear it no more.
And then Step-mother came home and all activity stopped. I told her what had happened and she said we should make sure and tell Dad because it had been a while since either of them had heard from Max. Upon hearing my story, Dad opened the door to the attic and started climbing the stairs. About halfway up, he turned and came back down. Every hair on his body was standing straight up. He said he could feel whatever it was, but that he never actually saw anything. He refrained from going farther up the stairs, not quite in fear, he said, but because he felt so awful during the ascent that he just thought it best not to continue.
For days after that, I heard the routine bouncy-ball effects of whatever it was that Max was doing, always while I was alone, and never while my dad or Step-mother were at home. Sometimes I could hear someone step up onto the back porch, but no one was ever there. At other times I could hear faint music, but like Dad had said, I couldn’t tell where it was coming from or even what kind of music it was. Sometimes I talked to Max. One day I asked him if he wanted to hear me play my guitar. His music stopped. I played for a while. When I got tired of it, we both rested and went about our day, each of us getting used to the other’s presence.
Max liked to turn pictures around. They were the little picture frames Step-mother had placed on the top of the television set, on bookshelves, and on various other flat surfaces throughout the house. While watching television one day, while at home alone, I had left the living room and gone into the kitchen for something to drink. When I came back, all the little frames on top of the television were turned around backward. My first thought was Max. My second, more rational idea, was that the vibrations of the old set must have slowly jiggled the pictures around without my noticing the slow evolution.
I tested it. I re-faced the frames, saw to it that each one was facing front, stepped into the kitchen, counted to ten, and came back into the living room. All the frames were turned around backward. I couldn’t hear Max giggle at my discovery, but I could sort of feel it.
After I had lived there for three full months, I found a job and then an apartment. It wasn’t really an apartment, it was a room in an elderly lady’s house who had decided to rent out her spare bedroom because she needed the money. Six months later, after a series of small setbacks, I had moved back in with Dad. By then, he and Step-mother had redecorated and turned the attic into a bedroom. That’s where I would stay. Just me, my stuff, and Max.
I was a little nervous at first, and my first few days back at Dad’s were filled with balls bouncing and picture frames swiveling around backward. One night, while I was waiting for Dad to get back from the store with whatever it was we’d sent him for, I saw my dad’s silhouette through the living room shades that told me he was home and walking around the house toward the door. He didn’t come in right away so I figured he was lingering on the porch for a minute, enjoying the peaceful, brisk, outside air. A few minutes later I saw the headlights of his truck turning into the drive that told me he was home. Little inconsistencies like this are what always got to me.
I don’t recall ever being afraid of Max, except for that first day with the bouncing balls. I was home alone, after all, and wasn’t really sure what to expect. Others had told stories of how Max had treated them while they were there, but their stories weren’t like mine. I never felt Max sit down on the bed beside me, I never saw his eyes in the mirror, nor did I ever hear him speak, like they said they had. I did, however, complain rather loudly to him in the middle of the night when he thought it hilarious to pull the covers off of me while I slept, waking me up in the process, in what I will always think of as his attic.
Some years after I had moved out, my dad’s house caught fire. No one ever knew what caused it. Little was salvageable. My dad and Step-mother stayed in a motel for a couple of months but eventually had to move into a small camper trailer parked on their property while their new house was being built. They said they never heard from Max again, either while they stayed in the camper or after they moved into the new house. During its construction, though, the crew who had been hired to dig the footer found an old bone. They didn’t know at the time if it was human or whether or not its discovery had set Max free. Nor do they know if the destruction of the rocking chair had set Max free. For all anyone knows, Max just left of his own accord.
Or maybe he got attached to something, some object that found its way to Goodwill, or found its way into someone else’s home. Maybe you went shopping for an antique, or picked up something in a discount store.
Maybe Max moved in with you.