Mr. Fulton’s invitation to join him on the front porch came none too soon. Owing to the stuffiness of the room and the lateness of the hour, I was feeling drowsy, and was happy to put aside my books in favor of some fresh air, not to mention my host’s easy-going company.
He was already seated when I arrived. An old oil lamp, passed down from his grandmother he once said, rested on a small table between us, its steady glow softly illuminating his face. The humid night air was still, and the silence that engulfed us was disturbed only by the faint sound of a dog barking in the distance.
Mr. Fulton acknowledged my arrival with a smile, but said nothing, leaving it to me to choose the direction of our conversation, as he often did. I decided to take this opportunity to ask him about a bit of local history I’d recently stumbled upon. While taking a shortcut through Jefferson Park on my way to campus, I’d noticed a bronze plaque at the base of one of the large oak trees that dotted the park.
According to the inscription on the plaque, it was from this tree that a lovely young woman, born and raised here, had hanged herself because she’d been spurned by the man she loved. Rather than live with a broken heart, she’d taken her life. No names were given, only the date, some fifty-five years ago.
I asked Mr. Fulton if he knew why this incident had been memorialized with a plaque. Was there something about this particular suicide that made it stand out?
“Well,” he said, “As for why the plaque was put there, the unvarnished truth is that the people who ran this town wanted to make that oak tree into a tourist attraction. Thought it might bring in a little money, though it’s beyond me why anyone would make a special trip to see it. As for what happened, it’s true a young woman hanged herself there, and I can’t quarrel with the idea she was lovely, but the rest of it I’d say is a matter of opinion. What I mean is, some of the people around here said she did it because she was spurned. Others would tell you she was too bull-headed to act sensible.” He paused, then added, “All water under the bridge now.”
Here Mr. Fulton stopped and shrugged, as though there was nothing more to say. I couldn’t resist pursuing the matter a bit further, so I asked if he could tell me anything about the people involved. Had he known either of them? He was silent for several long moments before replying, “Sounds like you want the whole story, so I’ll give it to you. Did I know them? Yes, I did, both of them. Grew up together in this very neighborhood, as a matter of fact. Her name was Eleanor. Eleanor Jackson. The fellow’s name, the one
who supposedly spurned her, was Gary Sutton. The three of us were friends from early on, good friends I’d say. Might have been friends for life, if things hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way.”
“What happened was Eleanor and Gary started going out together while we were in high school, our last year, actually. They were going to school dances and the like, and before long they’re going steady, walking around holding hands, looking like two people in love.”
“For all that, I had my doubts. You see, we’d all talked about what we wanted to do once we were finished with school. Eleanor wanted to be a homemaker, simple as that. Getting married, raising a family, that was her dream. No reason to wait, either. What’s more, she wanted to do it right here where she’d grown up, so she could be close to her family and her friends. Nothing unusual about this, of course. Most everyone we went to school with had the same idea.”
“But I knew Gary didn’t want to get married right out of high school and start having kids. That was the last thing he wanted. His dream was to get a college degree, and to get it before he did anything else. As far as staying here goes, he wasn’t attached to this town. He needed a scholarship, and if the college here gave him one, that would be fine, but if they didn’t, he was ready to go somewhere else.”
“Knowing this, I wasn’t surprised when they broke up shortly after graduation. I figured Eleanor must have said its time, and Gary said its way too soon. Why they hadn’t seen this coming, I can’t say. Probably too caught up in their feelings to take a hard look at what was waiting down the road.”
“If anything surprised me, it was how Eleanor took it. She could’ve found someone else in a heartbeat, pretty as she was. But no, she was set on Gary. Started hounding him, trying to make him see things her way, but after a while Gary quit talking to her. That’s when she started stalking him. Wherever he went, sooner or later she’d show up and stand nearby, staring at him. Said it drove him crazy.”
“I talked to her about it, and told her she was making Gary’s life hard, but I couldn’t budge her. She said it was their destiny, and destiny couldn’t be changed.”
“She kept at it all that summer, and showed no sign of letting up. So, one day Gary left town, just like that. He’d already told me he was planning to go, but wouldn’t say when he was leaving, or where he was going. Said he’d call me later. The college here had offered him a scholarship, and he hated to give it up, but he had no choice.”
“Once he left, I figured Eleanor would come to her senses and find someone else, but she didn’t even try. Just pined away for about a year, then one night she hanged herself from that tree in the park. When they found her, there was a piece of paper pinned to her shirt, saying she couldn’t live without him.”
“I’d hoped Gary would come on back, but he said it was best if he stayed away for a while longer. Besides, he’d found work with a big company out on the West Coast that offered to pay for his college if he’d study engineering and promise to stay with them a few years. Too good to pass up, he said.”
“Turned out to be near fifty years before he moved back. His folks had passed and left the family home to him. So, after he retired, he decided to live out his years in the house where he’d grown up. I’d done the same thing myself when I retired from railroading. So here we were, neighbors again.”
“We saw each other a fair amount for several years, and had some good times before his health failed. When things reached the point where he couldn’t get along on his own, I had him moved here so I could look after him. Put him in the room you’re in now. That’s where he stayed till he passed.”
At this point Mr. Fulton paused long enough that I assumed he was finished, that he’d now given me, “The full story,” as he put it. Before I could thank him, he spoke again. “There’s a bit more,” he said, “But it might be something you’d prefer not to hear this late at night. Might keep you from sleeping, or cause you to have dreams you’d rather not have.”
I don’t know what I had expected him to say at this point, but it certainly wasn’t this. Intrigued, I assured him I would be fine, and urged him to continue. He nodded, then resumed, speaking in his usual matter of fact manner.
“It was a summer night, the night Gary passed, much like tonight. I was in a rocker next to his bed, close enough that I could put a hand on him when he got restless or started moaning. I’d lit an oil lamp, the same one we’ve got right here, thinking its soft light would be pleasing to him. The window nearest the bed was open, but there was no breeze to be had.”
“I’d used some pillows to prop Gary up a little, which he preferred over lying flat. He hadn’t done any talking that day and still wasn’t, so I did some reading to him from one of his books, hoping he might find it comforting. After a while he seemed to doze off, so I put the book down, and just sat there and rocked, letting my mind wander back to the old days.”
“After a while, I was getting sleepy myself and probably would have dozed off, if the oil lamp hadn’t started flickering so much it caught my attention. Right then a powerful feeling come over me that someone was in the room with us, so I looked over at the doorway. It was there that I saw the figure of a young woman, glowing real soft, sort of golden, like she had absorbed the light from that oil lamp. I knew who she was in an instant, and I don’t mind telling you the sight of her made my hair stand on end.”
“She wasn’t more than six, seven feet away, looking just as pretty as she did when I last saw her. Not moving, just standing there, staring at Gary. She stood like that for a few seconds and then she spoke. Only a few words, but they took my breath away.”
“‘I’m here, Gary, waiting for you.’ That’s all she said, and she said it like it was no more than a simple fact. Stood there for a little bit longer, like she wanted to make sure Gary got the message, then she faded away.”
“By this time, Gary was wide awake and sitting straight up, with a look of terror on his face like I’d never seen on any man. I pushed him back into the pillows, gentle as I could, telling him that he’d been having a bad dream, and there wasn’t anything to worry about. Shook up as I was, I wanted his last moments to be peaceful, so I said what I had to, and kept saying it.”
“He finally calmed down and closed his eyes. Pretty soon his breathing started slowing down, like he was dozing off again, but it kept getting slower and slower. Wasn’t long before he went all still. He’d passed.”
Mr. Fulton paused for a few moments, then said, “Couldn’t blame you if you think I fell asleep and dreamed all this. Most people would agree with you, I expect. They’d say it’s impossible for someone who’s been long dead to appear out of nowhere and talk to you.”
“Course there are others who don’t think it’s impossible at all. According to them, there’s another world right along side ours, a spirit world where part of us lives on after we’re gone. They say when the time is right, these spirits can make contact with us however they want.”
“People argue about these things, but I stay out of it. I was there and I know what happened that night. Wish it hadn’t happened, actually. You figure you’ve seen the last of someone, and are glad of it, only to find out you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of this person, maybe for all eternity.”
Without waiting for my response, Mr. Fulton rose from his chair, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m afraid all this talking’s wore me out, so I’m heading in now. I’ll leave the lamp in case you want to stay awhile longer.”
I remained on the porch for a few minutes, trying to understand what had just transpired. Surely Mr. Fulton hadn’t expected me to believe his little tale about being visited by Eleanor’s ghost. He’d been having some fun with me, that’s all. First luring me in with what could pass as a plausible background, then setting the hook with his warning about what could happen if I heard the rest of it.
The warning was a nice touch, I thought, the mark of a master. And letting me know Eleanor’s ghost had appeared in the very room where I was sleeping? Another nice touch. This was a side of Mr. Fulton I’d never seen before. Granted I hadn’t known him long, but I’d seen nothing to suggest he’d find it amusing to pull my leg, and to go to such lengths to do it. I wondered if he’d ask me tomorrow how I slept, and if he did, whether he’d be smiling.
I had to admit, of course, that he might have been serious, that he truly believed he’d been awake, and that he and his dying friend actually had been visited by a woman who’d been dead for over half a century. He certainly wouldn’t be the first person to confuse a dream with reality. It had even happened to me. I remember once feeling sure I was out of bed and on my way to class, when in fact I was still sound asleep, and only dreaming.
I’d recently read in a psychology text that the dividing line between sleep and waking isn’t a sharp one. There’s a zone of consciousness where you can have a strong sensation of being awake, even when you aren’t. The writer said it goes both ways, depending on where you are in the zone.
After making my way back to my room, I put the matter aside and finished my reading assignment, then turned in. Sleep was delayed for a few minutes as I tried to imagine how Mr. Fulton might act toward me the next day, but eventually I drifted off in a gentle swirl of peaceful thoughts and images, as I usually did. Later, it could have been minutes, it could have been hours, out of nowhere came a woman’s voice, a young woman’s voice, firm and clear. “Don’t believe the lies,” she said. “I was murdered.”
I was wide awake in a flash, heart pounding. So vivid were the words that without thinking I sat up and peered into the darkness, expecting to see someone standing at the foot of my bed. Only after being satisfied that I was alone in the room did I understand it had been merely a dream. Feeling sheepish that I had been so easily affected by Mr. Fulton’s tale, I lay back and closed my eyes again.
I lay there for several minutes thinking about what I’d heard, or thought I’d heard. I couldn’t help but wonder where the dream would have gone if I hadn’t awakened so quickly. Would she have said more? As I began to drift off, I found myself hoping the dream would resume, hoping she’d return and tell me who did it.
For several years I used Mr. Fulton’s Ghost story, without naming the author, as a teaching tool in my introductory creative writing class. As I’d hoped, the story could be counted on to provoke lively discussion as students debated its shortcomings.
The criticisms leveled at the story were many and varied, but one stood out in its consistency, namely, the writer’s failure to reveal “who killed her.” In substance, students who took this view argued that the writer had dropped a last-minute bombshell, so to speak, and then left the reader hanging (no pun intended). As they saw it, the reader was entitled to closure.
Other students, usually in the minority, typically countered with a question of their own: “Who said she was murdered?” Readers who want to know who killed her, they would argue, were persuaded that the “voice” the narrator may or may not have heard was in fact the voice of a ghost. Why, they asked? Perhaps leaving the reader “hanging” was consistent with the uncertainty surrounding the supernatural.
So it would go, generally thoughtful and searching, and ordinarily with minimal input from me. Occasionally, I would ask the class if their appraisal would be different if they believed they were reading a memoir, rather than a work of fiction. Would they expect the author to provide closure if they believed the story were “true,” and if not, why not? Likewise, I occasionally asked – if none of the students did -- if they could imagine a scenario in which the narrator “solved” the mystery, and did so without stretching credulity beyond the breaking point? Students seemed to enjoy attempting to answer this latter question, though proposed ideas were usually met with groans.
Having now discontinued using the story – it was becoming stale -- I feel comfortable admitting that I am the narrator, that Mr. Fulton told me his story while I was a roomer in his home, and that every word I wrote is true. Essentially true, at least. Lacking contemporaneous notes, I had to take a bit of license, but I’m confident I reproduced the gist of all that was said.
I’m less comfortable admitting, though honesty compels it, that I did in fact take a stab at solving the mystery. After stewing about what I heard (or thought I heard) until the end of the term, I visited the county courthouse and asked to see the records of the inquest I assumed had been held following Eleanor’s death. The clerk took my request in stride, led me to a dank room in the courthouse basement where old inquest records were kept and told me to “have at it.”
The records were there, along with the coroner’s report, which included photographs of Eleanor before and after the rope had been removed from around her neck. There was also a typed transcript of the inquest hearing.
It was the coroner’s opinion, expressed in his report and during the hearing, that death was due to strangulation, and that all the circumstances pointed to the conclusion that Eleanor had committed suicide.
Only once did the inquest judge raise a question. I copied this portion of the transcript, and am providing it here verbatim:
Judge: Looking at these photographs, it appears there are abrasions on her neck, or maybe those are bruises, I can’t be sure, but whatever they are, they seem to extend a considerable distance beyond the rope itself. Do you see what I’m looking at?
Coroner: I do, your honor. Yes, those are abrasions and bruises both, and you’re quite right, they do extend a ways beyond the rope, above and below.
Judge: Can you explain this for me? Could those marks have been caused by something other than the rope?
Coroner: I think it’s likely the young woman caused those marks herself. You see, when she stepped off that park bench, she didn’t fall nearly far enough to cause a fracture of the neck vertebrae. In that case, she would have lost consciousness immediately.
Judge: She didn’t lose consciousness immediately?
Coroner: No, I doubt it. By only dropping about twenty inches, that was the height of the bench, she ended up strangling herself. When that happens, it’s common for people to start clawing at the rope. It’s an involuntary response, and it can lead to more abrasions on the neck than caused by the rope itself.
Judge: Thank you. I don’t think I have any further questions.
This was the closest the coroner came to addressing the possibility that Eleanor had been strangled before being hanged from the tree. Had the coroner reported finding fragments of her skin beneath her fingernails, I could have believed she made the marks on her neck by clawing at the rope. But he didn’t, and the judged didn’t ask. I realized then that if I’m ever to learn who killed her – if anyone did – I’ll have to learn it another way.
Finally, and I mention this in the spirit of complete honesty, I must make yet another admission. I make this admission feeling as sheepish as I did after peering into the darkness that night to see if someone was in the room with me, someone who had just spoken to me. Even after all these years, and despite my deep skepticism of the supernatural, from time to time while drifting off to sleep, I find myself hoping this longago dream will pick up where it left off, hoping she will return, hoping she will tell me more
David Summers was born and raised in a small Midwestern town, fields of corn and soybeans for miles in every direction. “Mr. Fulton’s Ghost Story” was informed by his experiences in this setting. He now lives in the Pacific Northwest, and he enjoys writing short fiction.