The other night I was driving around my old neighborhood, looking at the Halloween lights.
I ended up tooling past the house I grew up in on S. Colfax, pulled over for a second and remembered the last time I was there, sitting in a car with a girl. I decided to not get all midlife melancholy under the full howling moon and instead admired the glowing orange lights and two dozen napkin ghosts dangling from a tree in the front yard of my old stomping ground.
I did not linger. I wanted to get home. I pulled away from the curb but as soon as I did I felt a strong presence fill the car, pulling me back to the house. I threw the car into reverse, sped back down the block and landed back at the curb in front of the big old three-story abode, beaming all the while because I knew immediately who it was.
I said her name out loud.
In his stunning new monograph “Tolerance,” the great South Minneapolis artist Chris Mars writes of his painting Recollection of the Disallowed: “It has been said that at this time of year, the veil between life and death is thinnest, thus allowing the spirit world a brief encounter with the living.”
Some encounters, it turns out, are briefer than others. Some are ongoing.
When I was about the age of my 13-year-old son, I woke up from a sound sleep at midnight. I got out of bed to get a drink of water. As I made my way down the stairs, I felt the hot breath of a woman on my neck who whispered long but indecipherably in my ear. It was as real as any real-world kiss, as real as the feel of the fingers on my keyboard are at this moment.
Terrified, I ran into my sisters’ room and told them what happened. When I did the same thing the next night around the family dinner table, my father got up from his chair, went upstairs to his office and came down with a yellowed front page from a 1929 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune. Above a grainy photo of our charred homestead, a banner headline screamed: “Three Die in Colfax Fire.”
The graphic news story stated that a couple of houseguests jumped out of windows to save themselves, but that two men died in a front room, and that Nina, a 20-year-old maid from out state Minnesota, died in her bed, face down in her sleep.
We didn’t talk long the other night, Nina and I. She demanded I tell her story once and for all in the neighborhood newspaper, and with old-world manners gently suggested that I remind people that she and others like her are still around, still available for consultation if we’re ever so moved.
Mainly she wanted to stress that everything’s going to be alright, to not worry so much, to be kind, and to pay attention to the lessons of the dead because they are smarter than the living. She also wanted me to tell you that she’s good, that she’s hanging out with every cool dead person you can name, and that the nation that invented jazz, the blues, rock and roll, and Barack Obama can figure out how to get along with each other a little better than we have been lately.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.