My essay “The House on Bentley Avenue” recently appeared in the Enemies edition (Issue #18) of Slice Magazine.
Here’s an excerpt from the essay:
As a kid, I used to beg my mother to tell me about the day her father died. Mom was a dynamic storyteller, and a smart one. She knew how to make that story about something other than grief.
The day her father died, she would say, a dead crow fell at his older brothers’ feet. This was in the mid-sixties. The two brothers, my great-uncles, were visiting relatives in Italy, unaware that my grandfather was sick back home in New Jersey. Mom was a heavy woman with large, long-fingered hands that soared as she described my great-uncles, themselves big men, ham-fisted with broad chests and thick guts. I can still picture them deep in conversation, strolling a narrow, cobbled side street, when a huge black crow crashes down. It lies there, a breeze fluttering its glossy feathers, as the great-uncles stare. “It’s Dante,” one says. “He’s gone.” The other nods, covers his mouth.
“How did they know?” I always asked. I knew the answer, but I loved hearing her say it, her certainty prickling my skin, making me long to tell stories with such conviction.
She would smile and lift up her hands—big like her uncles’, big like the rest of her; she was such a big woman most of my life—lift those hands and hold them high for emphasis.
“They were haunted,” she’d say. “We all were.”
My mother grew up in a haunted house on Bentley Avenue, a tree-lined street in Jersey City filled with shabby yet grand historic mansions. My grandparents bought it from a Catholic school in the forties. Years later, in the mid-sixties, shortly after my twin sister and I were born and Poppy, my grandfather, died, my grandmother sold it back to a church, Greek Orthodox this time, maybe hoping to exorcise whatever demons resided there.
Mom’s family believed in such things. Poppy once witnessed an exorcism while studying medicine in Rome. A terrible sight, my mother always said, the possessed girl writhing and hissing on the altar as a priest performed the ancient Rite of Exorcism in Latin. Poppy stayed until the priest finally anointed the girl, who slumped against the altar, unconscious and, apparently, cured. “She was about your age,” Mom would tell me, no matter how old I was. She knew I loved being implicated in some small way.
Her stories brought Bentley Avenue alive for me. The house was divided into two apartments: a lower one where Poppy ran his medical practice and an upper one where the family lived. There was a baby Jesus statue on a pedestal in the downstairs vestibule, solid wood doors that boomed when shut, a vast, dank basement that everyone avoided, and a dusty walkup attic where my teenage uncles ran secret poker games.
The four kids—Uncle Phil, eldest and gleeful prankster; Mom, second in line and overachiever; Uncle Dan, mechanical genius; and Aunt Liz, forever the baby by miles—rarely discussed the hauntings until they were adults, though I’m not sure exactly when they first compared notes. Mom died in 2013 before I could confirm the details, and no one else remembers.
Still, I like implicating myself in that moment too, when they finally talked about the ghosts. I imagine myself at five or six, hiding with my sister and little brother on our grandmother’s staircase as we eavesdrop on the adults in the dining room below, their whispers cascading to exclamations, Mom’s voice the loudest. My hand gets clammy in my sister’s as we hear the adults discover they’ve all had the same recurring dreams about the house: one about the baby Jesus statue hovering, eyes aglow, in the upstairs fireplace, licked by flames yet unscorched; and one about a family who lived in the attic and died there, screaming, in a fire. I huddle against the banister as they remember the huge attic fire in the fifties, originally blamed on an automatic door closer Uncle Dan had rigged to shut my grandmother out of poker games. I shiver through their realization that the dreams had started long before that fire.
Other stories became family lore. I never doubted they were true. During the early tellings, when my sister and I were kindergarteners and my brother was a baby, Mom was still thin, her dark hair always swept back from her heart-shaped face. My energetic, fearless mommy, who filled the room with her expansive gestures and promised to chase off any ghost. She would sit cross-legged on the rug, gather us close, and start, her voice husky and low, her long fingers flickering about.
One summer day, a neighbor came to Bentley Avenue complaining that my uncles were in the attic shooting BB guns at his windows.
“The boys are fishing,” my grandmother protested, holding little Liz on her hip.
“Then she did it,” the neighbor said, pointing at my nine-year-old mother, who stood nearby clutching the Nancy Drew mystery she’d been reading all afternoon. I always imagined myself in her place, stomping my foot in protest. Mommy never would have shot a BB gun. She was bookish, artistic—a daydreamer, like me. Back then, I searched out our similarities. I cherished them.
“Nobody’s been up there all day,” my grandmother said, and then she led the neighbor upstairs to prove it. She was right, the attic was empty, but on the one windowsill too high for any child to reach was a BB gun, and it was still warm.
Of course I’m leaving out details, backstory about how the neighbor had reason to suspect my uncles, who often took potshots at neighborhood cats, about how Mom and her siblings made a game of jumping off the garage roof, how Uncle Phil paced the sills of the huge, open attic windows to see if he could do it without falling. How they were all daredevils of sorts as kids, egging each other on to riskier and riskier behavior. Yet none of them grew up to be risk takers, except with things like drinking, and smoking, and eating.
Mom was the eater. When I was young and she was still my heroic, ghostbusting mommy, she hid her obsession, stashing treats in closets and under beds. Eventually, she openly binged, ignoring my teenage pleas—really more self-righteous demands—for her to stop. Her skyrocketing weight mortified me. It made people stare and treat her like she was less-than: less smart, less beautiful, less funny, less talented.
Mom claimed she wasn’t risking anything by bingeing. Her heart was strong, her vital signs good. Even after she became so morbidly obese that she had to use a walker and inject herself with insulin, she insisted she was fine, pooh-poohing whenever someone warned her to lose weight, to acknowledge that this thing, this demon inside that made her eat and eat, was destroying her.
Click here to purchase the Slice Enemies issue and read the full essay. Enjoy!
Place here an image gallery shortcode (Add Media → Create Gallery) or video-page URL starting with http://