Ghost Story


The house isn’t haunted and that bothers you. Every building is supposed to attract ghosts: memories, dirty spots on the walls, certain places where the wood stain has been leached from the floor, but this one is all just brick and stucco. The closest it gets is a handful of spiderwebs. 

You come back to the city to drink in some of its ghosts and you get stuck in an apartment without them. Figures. The building is quiet, too; what building in New York is quiet? One without any ghosts. You swear it feels like everyone living there is new to Manhattan, too, these mid-thirties transplants who missed the memo to arrive for college with time to rethink their dreams or at least in their twenties to revel in obnoxiousness. Quiet too-old transplants. That’s what you get in a house with no ghosts. 

You think it through over and over again and it never really makes sense; everything’s always for rent, you skip a housewarming party every other week. It’s like no one lived here for the first forty years of the building’s existence and they only started arriving once you returned. Your apartment is seriously empty; you’ve checked every nook you could find for a piece of dusty cat hair or maybe a note explaining why your predecessors left their apartment and cleaned every trace. Your landlord only communicates via text and you don’t even have his contact saved because you can’t remember his name from the listing. You try to remember if you ever met him but an agent gave you the tour and everything else has been digital or mail-in, just paperwork, really. You haven’t even needed anything fixed; what apartment in New York is fully functioning? One with no ghosts. 

It’s not like the entire neighborhood carries that weird old-and-new unhaunted feeling, either: there are kids on the sidewalks and everything. Fewer mom and pop shops than you’d like, but that’s Manhattan. You try to remember if any of your long list of transplant new neighbors have kids, they’re the right age for it, but it’s hard to even think of their names. You notice at the mailboxes that not one apartment lists two last names. What apartment building has no sets of roommates? What married couple in Manhattan has the same last name, not even hyphenated? You miss ghosts.

Sometimes you think you see a water stain on the ceiling, or you walk into the bathroom and think the paint is cracked, but it always turns out just shadows on white and gray. You take an Uber to the animal rescue one day and take a dog out for a trial walk, but you get caught up considering how you never see your neighbors leaving the building with a leash in hand and you decide if a dog can’t have friends it at least deserves some ghosts. When you get home you check the old listing for your apartment and there it is, “pet-friendly,” far above the fine print. What pet-friendly building in Manhattan has no animals? What mid-thirties transplant in Manhattan doesn’t fawn over dogs? You think about cats; what cat-owning neighbor never mentions their cats? You think about it some more and, yes, maybe the policy isn’t universal, but what building in New York has one pet-friendly apartment? What pet-free building in New York doesn’t have a few rule-breakers? There are many types of ghosts. You’re starting to categorize the signs you aren’t seeing. 

You get sick of the Ubers and the dogless building and the transplants and the perfectly uniform mailroom and the apartments for rent. You get tired of not knowing your neighbors or the neighborhood kids. You’re hanging like thick New York summer air in your apartment and you aren’t sure where your body ends and the humidity begins. You give up the ghost a little. You take the train to Brooklyn. 

The yellow lines are still late and still dirty and still terrible in the summer, air-conditioning quality rapidly oscillating between cars. The subway is just as haunted as you left it: you take in graffiti, dirt, flyers tucked under advertisements. You take the stairs out and they’re grimy and it’s stifling but it all feels more alive, more undead. Sunset Park is ghost to its core, ancient grocery stores with block letter awnings and old co-op houses with names engraved on lintels and big square buildings and brownstones and row houses with wooden siding. It’s the park and the pool and the train yard and, once you walk a few blocks, the cemetery. 

You can feel the ghosts, hear the way the trees whisper, see the way things pile on the plots. You’re inundated with ghosts, chock full of ghosts. You pass statues with their Revolutionary War plaques and find the ghosts of elementary school field trips and teenage meandering. You read names and see ghosts. You see gravestones cracked and shining, each a different sort of ghost. You haven’t visited since high school. You wonder when you stopped seeing ghosts. It makes you want to sing or shout or let your voice get choked in your throat. 

The train is humming when you step on and you find yourself matching the pitch, the resonance like ghosts in your ears. You leave the grime and the graffiti and the delays and the broken air-conditioning and you walk to your building, your new building with its transplants who have never left the borough. The foyer doesn’t even echo; no ghosts to bounce sound around. 

You spend a few more weeks among the transplants before you start opening apartment-search websites and hunting through Brooklyn. You pay your landlord through your bank app again and hope it’s the last time. You take the train and you take the bus. You make a plan to visit every zoo in the city, from the boardwalk to the Bronx river. One of the big square buildings has a listing open up, and you figure luck doesn’t come often in New York. Your pet-friendly Manhattan apartment will make some transplant very happy. 

The new place is painted in maybe seven separate shades of eggshell and the bathroom walls are spiderwebbed with cracks and the ceiling drips when it rains and you love it, thoroughly. You wake up an hour earlier to take the train to work. You start to familiarize yourself with your favorite mausoleums. You walk to the shelter one day and there’s this ornery tabby, eleven years old, who sniffs your hand. You think and you go home and then to the store and you buy litter and bowls and food and treats and toys and catnip and you print out the paperwork. You come back the next day with the carrier you bought and you bring home someone new to help haunt your house.


A. O'Heir is a student-poet and native New Yorker who spends two hours on the subway each day. Her work deals with questions of environment.