At night, only at night, Hilde and Jerry, newcomer hippies to Jerome, hear the voice of an old lady croaking up from Gulch Road, “What are you doing in this house; get out of this house; where is Frankie; you forgot the dog food.” She lives in a shack a few houses away. Its inside walls are so close she can touch them with her arms barely stretched. They have never seen her, but they know she is there because every week they bring a bag of groceries and leave it at the bottom of the steps of her shack. The next morning, the bag is always gone. The strangeness of the neighborhood they now lived in sometimes made them shiver. The sun seldom reaches over the tops of the buff-colored canyon walls that shutter them, a world without shadows.
From time to time, a tap tap tapping is heard from the vicinity of the outhouse. Tap. Tap. Tap. It is the sound of the old lady tapping the cardboard latch to shut herself in.
Her family from over by Prescott knows she is still there. From time to time they pile out of a disheveled Chevy and call and call her, venturing no farther than the bottom of the steps. She is silent and doesn’t come out. Eventually they go away.
When Father John comes with a delegation of neighbors to beg her to come back to church, she never appears but chases them away with loud curses from her witches mouth.
Still, no one ever sees her.
One day, there is a small grass fire just outside her house. Scott, her next door neighbor calls the firemen. He grabs a fine Oaxacan blanket he hopes he does not have to use and his fire extinguisher. He sits on a wall close by as the antique fire engine charges towards the shack, a red dragon churning up stones and twigs from under its tires.
He watches as the door of the shack opens and the old lady comes out. She is small like a child, and he does not see her face. A torn dress hangs from stooped shoulders, a frail, crumpled wraith. Slowly and with no apparent rush, she advances towards the little grass fire with a glass of water in her hands. She throws the water in it, watching the flames sputter just slightly before she turns and slowly walks back inside the shack. She waters the fire twice more before the firemen arrive and put out the fire with their long hoses. The firemen call to the old lady, but she does not come out.
Scott never sees her again. But at night for quite some years, he hears the tap tap tapping at the outhouse along with the distant yipping of coyotes.
In the mid-seventies, artists Nancy and Lee Louden bought the old shack from the daughter of the old lady who now lives in Prescott. They find a rusty twenty-two rifle on the wall and newspaper clippings that reveal that the son and daughter had a child together and that, when the child was born, the son killed it with the rifle and fled. They find another clipping that says the son escaped from prison.
The gun holds their ghosts—the confusions of the son, the tears of the daughter that made the very canyons weep with her tears, and the anguish of a mother who watched her son become a murderer.
(Soon to be published in Diane Rapaport’s book, Home Sweet Jerome, Rescuing a Town from its Ghosts, forthcoming Spring 2014 from Johnson Books (Big Earth Publishing).