February 2004

The unhaunted house

By David Feela

Cortez isn’t one of those places that attracts ghosts. We hardly ever endure the classic dark and stormy night, and the only rattling of chains occurs when the mountain passes are restricted by excessive snow or a threat of avalanche. Conjecture is another territory entirely, a neighborhood much closer to my home, where possibility hangs out with mystery and earns itself a reputation as gossip. Living in an isolated town far from the glittering dramas of urban society, we entertain ourselves with stories, and this one may have spawned a life of its own.

On the corner of Sligo and Empire stands a house that, after 13 years, still manifests the pale apparitions of the manufacturer’s stickers left clinging to the window glass. I have gone past it so often that I have convinced myself the property must have changed hands at least a half dozen times. But the bones of the house are clearly visible through the windows: wooden ribs wrapped around wide expanses of what should have been rooms. Beams gaping, doorways framed, sunlight pouring through the empty space like stardust igniting a comet’s tail.

It’s the house that never was a home, stretching up out of the ground like the specter of our own lost potential. Explanations abound for why such a house was almost built, but never finished. Someone swears that guilt sparked its construction and revenge ended it. Another blames failed finances. Everything from the zeal of religious faith to the crushing finality of a sudden death all surround this house and furnish it in myth.

I like myths. Every town should construct a couple two-story myths on a few empty lots so they may be passed along to the next generation. Infants teethe on them, teenagers require them to counterbalance the boredom they feel, and adults just want to be reassured something’s going on that hasn’t been reported in the police blotter.

But for me, the unhaunted, unfinished house on the corner of Sligo and Empire has been a disappointment when it comes to spirits. Aside from the crew that raised the shell, nobody has spent any part of a life inside it. Though a minister was called, there was no exorcism performed, no ghost-busters hired, and the only slamming doors in the middle of the night probably originate at the neighbors’. For a time I imagined the police would uncover a mass grave in the basement, but it turns out there was no basement. No people disappeared. No blood stains on a carpet that never got installed. Nothing, really, that a guy looking for a good tale could use.

I hate having to tell the truth about it, but really, where’s the harm? People will spin their own tales in the retelling anyway. These fabrications will create new layers, and the very best myths are designed to appear as a loving embroidery of the truth, right?

So here are the facts. May they never get in the way of a good story. Roughly 13 years ago, in the vague hope of creating a new home, a recently divorced woman decided to sell her rural property and build a new house within the city limits. I don’t know if the number 13 is important, but it sounds like the kind of detail a good ghost story ought to have. The woman purchased two empty lots at the corner of Empire and Sligo, and contracted to have a rather large house built. The builders must have done a fair job, because it’s still standing, even after all it hasn’t been through.

After the house got framed, the woman changed her mind. Maybe she got scared, saw that skeleton of wood rising up and became haunted by outrageous bills that materialized in her mailbox, the sound of hammers and nails that punctuated her dreams, even the phantom of another long-term commitment. Whatever she saw, a fear of God got involved, for she gave the property with its unfinished house to her church, which promptly sold it to the present owner. The new owner roofed the overexposed frame, sided it, and installed windows and doors. Then he put it on the market, which is where it has remained.

The house contains 4,800 square feet, no plumbing or electricity, a $150,000 price tag, and probably has an unnecessary lock on its front door. After all, the place has been open for speculation for as long as I can remember.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma- Cortez High School.