“Have you ever seen a ghost?”
I had slipped out to the back porch and posed the question to my Grandpa as he sipped a Manhattan. Dinner was over, and my mom and Grandma were lounging in the living room with their evening wine.
He paused, his glass suspended at his lips for a long moment, then lowered his drink and faced me.
“You lookin’ for a story?” He raised an eyebrow and studied me.
I learned early on about Grandpa’s storytelling. Whether his yarns drew from fact or fiction was never clear, but it didn’t matter to me. I could sit and listen to his deep, expressive voice for hours as he narrated one anecdote after another.
“Well,” he started, pointing to the gentle swells of dark blue water that lapped at the edge of the yard, “the river out there is haunted.”
He dipped his head in acknowledgment. “I’ve seen the ghost with my own eyes. Happened a long time ago, when I was thirteen years old.”
“Where?” I sat up in anticipation of an intriguing tale.
“Beyond Bodkin Point. At the old Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse.”
“But there’s no lighthouse out there,” I protested.
“Used to be,” he continued, undeterred by my doubt. “Stood there in the river for more than a hundred years. Lightkeepers lived there, too. Then the beacon was automated. Didn’t need anyone stayin’ there, so the building sat empty ‘til they hauled it away.”
He winked at me as he took a long swallow of his bourbon and vermouth.
“Y’know, there’s nothin’ more intriguing for thirteen-year-old boys than an abandoned lighthouse. One night, me ‘n Dusty Bornheim loaded our Boy Scouts backpacks with flashlights and rope and motored out there in my dad’s wooden dinghy. We left from the dock right down there.” Grandpa pointed to the narrow boardwalk that jutted into the water. “Dusty’s older brother Skip bet his new Mickey Mantle baseball glove that we wouldn’t do it,” he chuckled. “But Dusty’d do anything on a dare. He was fearless.”
“So what happened?” I pressed.
“It was a cloudless night with a full moon. The river was calm as we steered toward the beacon. It stood about two-and-a-half miles out. Didn’t take us long to get there. Twenty minutes, maybe. Skip told us to spray-paint our initials to prove we’d gone inside.”
Grandpa set down his glass and stared out at the water. “We weren’t expectin’ to encounter anyone, I’ll tell ya that.”
I leaned in. “Who was it?”
“We pulled our boat alongside the lighthouse. The building sat on top of iron piles—’bout eight of ‘em I guess—with enormous boulders heaped up around them. The river was as black as ink, but the beacon on top of the house lit up the crests of the swells. In the dark, they looked like rows of sparkling white ribbons. As the light rotated, shadows underneath the house receded to reveal previously cloaked crannies and then advanced to hide them again. Dusty ‘n me sat there for a few minutes, scrutinizing the space from the edge of the darkness. Near one of the piles, we spotted a ladder that reached up to the house. It was several feet in front of us, so we climbed out of the dinghy and scrambled over the rocks to get to it.”
“Okay, but who’d you find?” I demanded impatiently.
“Those shadows would disappear and reappear as the light circled ‘round. We heard the water lapping against the rocks, and the faint hum of the beacon, but nothin’ else. It was dead quiet. Me ‘n Dusty got close to the ladder right when the light came back again, and that’s when we spied him. A boy ‘bout our age sittin’ on the rocks and lookin’ out at the river.
“Dusty nudged me in the ribs. ‘Jimmy,’ he said, ‘you see that boy? Where’d he come from?’ I whispered that I sure as hell didn’t know. He wasn’t anyone we knew, and he seemed different, too… old fashioned. Wore blue overalls, a seaman’s cap, and a long-sleeved shirt, the kind that buttoned down the front. I’ll admit seein’ him sittin’ there shook me up a bit, but he looked harmless. ‘Whatta we do?’ I asked. So Dusty, bein’ the adventurer and all, suggested we go talk to him.”
“No way!” I couldn’t believe his friend wanted to do that. But then, I’m not the daring type. “So what’d the boy say?”
“Told us he must’ve washed up onto the rocks. The storm was so fierce that it swept him overboard and sank the tugboat he was on. Mentioned that somebody came in a motorboat and picked up the other crewmen, but didn’t notice him and left him out there.”
“Storm?” I blurted out. “Wasn’t it a clear night?”
“It was,” Grandpa continued. “No storm had passed through. And Dusty ‘n me hadn’t heard any news about a tugboat sinking, either. So Dusty asked that boy how long he’d been there. He responded that he wasn’t sure, but it felt like ages.”
“He was a ghost,” I speculated. “Had to be. So what’d you and Dusty do then?”
Grandpa paused as he savored another swallow of his cocktail. I gazed down at the riverbank at the edge of my grandparents’ property on Bodkin Neck, a tiny peninsula that protruded into the Patapsco River. All my life I’d swam and boated in the river and adjoining Bodkin Creek. I trembled with excitement at the thought of spirits inhabiting those waterways. More than anything, I wanted to meet a ghost.
“Dusty asked him to tell us his story,” Grandpa replied.
“And did he?” I interrupted, unable to stop myself.
“Yep. Said his name was Billy, and he was fifteen years old. Explained that he was a seaman on the Point Breeze, a tug that did harbor work in Baltimore. Had barely started working for the company. The boat was towin’ a barge to Gibson Island. They was steamin’ down the Patapsco late at night when the wind picked up and the sky got mighty dark.
“Then, as they neared the mouth of the river and headed toward the Chesapeake, all hell broke loose. It was near midnight, he figured, and the winds were a howlin’ and churnin’ the water somethin’ fierce. He described the waves as bein’ over twelve feet high and tossin’ the boat from side to side like it was a kid’s toy. Confessed he was holdin’ onto the railing for dear life and prayin’ to Lord Jesus.”
Grandpa stopped to take a breath. I was speechless. He gulped the last bit of his drink and continued.
“The tug was overcome by the water she took on and started to sink. The whistle was blarin’ a distress signal. Men was yellin’ and jumpin’ overboard. Billy was gettin’ ready to jump when a tall wave broke over the deck and swept him into the river. He saw the motorboat and tried to swim toward it, but the waves hurled him against the hull of the Point Breeze. He smacked his head and lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was lyin’ on those rocks underneath the lighthouse.”
“Did you tell him he was dead?” I inquired eagerly.
“Dead!” Grandpa snorted. “Dusty ‘n me thought he was some guy yankin’ our chains. We was sure Skip sent one of his buddies out there to frighten us so we’d hightail home and he’d win the bet. But Dusty didn’t scare easily. He informed Billy we had important business inside the lighthouse, but we’d take him to the shore with us when we was done.”
“Did you spray-paint your initials?”
“Sure did. I even hauled my Polaroid camera out there to snap a picture and prove it. We left Billy sittin’ on the rocks and climbed up the ladder. Somehow we managed to crawl onto the deck that surrounded the house. Strange building it was. Made of iron pieces riveted together. Boards covered the windows. But the door was unlocked, so we slipped inside. Fished the flashlights and aerosol cans out of our packs and painted our initials in the main room. Didn’t find much in there, so we snooped around a bit.
“We counted eight rooms on the first floor. After lookin’ in all of ‘em, we decided to go upstairs. I worried that the rickety steps would collapse under us. But Dusty bounded up the staircase as though it was new. I followed him. And I’ll never forget what happened when he got to the second floor.”
He inhaled, and my heartbeat quickened as I waited for him to resume. “What Grandpa? Tell me.” I implored.
“Dusty let out a shriek and I froze on those steps. Didn’t want to go any further. I had my picture of our initials and as far as I was concerned, we was done at that lighthouse. Then I heard him talkin’ to someone. He said, ‘What’re you doin’ up here?’ At first I thought it was Skip, an’ he was spoofin’ us. So I continued on up.”
“Was it Skip?”
“Nope.” Grandpa reached for his empty glass and held it toward me. “I sure could use a refill. Ask your Grandma to make me another, will ya?”
With a sigh, I trudged inside. When I returned with a fresh Manhattan, Grandpa’s eyes were closed. I set the drink on a table and shook his arm.
“Jeez, Grandpa. Wake up. I need you to finish the story. Who was on the second floor?”
He opened one eye and peered at me. “I’m gettin’ a bit tired. You really want me to tell ya more?”
“C’mon Grandpa. You know I do. Quit teasing me.”
With a laugh, he sipped his fresh drink and continued. “Don’t know how he got up there in the dark. But it was Billy. He was standin’ there by the boarded-up window. Dusty was shinin’ a flashlight on his face an’ you could see a big ol’ purple bruise on his forehead, probably from when he hit his head on the tug.
“Then Billy started talkin’. ‘This place wasn’t so bad when Mr. Tom lived here. It was homey and clean, with nice furniture. He kept the lanterns lit, and the rooms was bright and cheery. But now it’s closed up and depressin’. No one comes here ‘cept once in a while, like you fellas.’
“Dusty ‘n me went back downstairs to explore the building a little more. Billy walked around with us, chattin’ about Mr. Tom. I took a Polaroid of Dusty ‘n Billy in the main room. Dusty lit both their faces with a flashlight. Was an eerie-lookin’ sight. Then we all descended down the ladder to the water. As me ‘n Dusty made our way to the dinghy, Dusty hollered at Billy to come. But the boy shook his head. ‘No, I can’t,’ he answered. ‘I dunno why, but I’m supposed to be here.’ Dusty shrugged and muttered, ‘I hate leavin’ him, but we gotta go.’ So us two jumped in the boat without him and left.”
“You think Billy was a ghost and not some kid pranking you?”
Grandpa turned toward me and nodded. “When we climbed in the boat, Billy was standin’ in the shadows. We could barely catch sight of him, but he was there, still gabbin’ about Mr. Tom and the lighthouse. When the beacon came around and lit up those rocks, though, Billy was gone. Disappeared. Just like that.
“The next day, we asked Skip if he’d sent Billy to scare us. He swore he didn’t. I showed him the Polaroid. Dusty’s grinnin’ big, but it was hard to make out Billy. His face turned out shadowy, and ya couldn’t tell for sure he was there. Spooked Skip when he saw it, which surprised me.
“I still have that picture,” Grandpa said as he finished his drink. “It’s around here somewhere with the Mickey Mantle baseball glove.”