Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Letting go

I had met this guy the week after Hurricane Katrina. We were on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, surveying the wreckage of historic homes. I didn’t know him well, but now he’d come to visit my home in rural Mississippi, for a party, and we’d driven to the grocery store for some last minute items.

We’d taken his car, and on the way back he drove very, very slowly, which was frustrating because I was in a hurry. My house was already full of people and many more would be arriving later in the day, and he was driving exactly as he’d driven through the debris of Beach Boulevard – about 10 mph, though we were now on a wide-open country road.

Finally, I said, “Do you mind if I drive?” He said OK, so I took the wheel. I don’t remember pulling over to make the switch. Why would I? What mattered was that I was in control. At the next turn – the next-to-last before the drive to my house, I suddenly began to feel disoriented. The world looked unfamiliar. It felt like I’d made a wrong turn, though I’d made the trip thousands of times. I wondered if I was having a seizure or suffering some kind of flashback, or – what? I didn’t know.

The road seemed to unfurl forever, and as I became increasingly unsure of myself, I saw something even more perplexing: We were coming into a town, at a place that should have been open countryside. At that point I became more suspicious than concerned. It occurred to me that I might be dreaming.

As I drove through the unfamiliar town -- which was fairly busy, with lots of people in the streets, coming in and out of gas stations, hardware stores, a small factory of some kind, the Wal-Mart -- I looked for any sign of its name. There were signs everywhere but none that sounded like the name of the town. I mentioned to the Katrina guy that I’d never seen the town before, and didn’t understand how we’d gotten there. It looked like someplace in, maybe, east Texas. He didn’t seem at all concerned. I told him to keep an eye out for a sign that might tell us where we were. Then I glanced at the backseat and saw my friend Paul, who lives in New York City, and who I hadn’t realized was with us. Though it made sense that he’d be coming to the party, the fact that I hadn’t known he was in the car made me more inclined to think I was dreaming, which of course I was.

It’s an odd feeling, to recognize that what seems real isn’t. Naturally, you resist, at first. The first time I remember realizing I was dreaming I was 15 years old, driving with my friends in my mother’s Impala. It was a beautiful summer evening and one of my friends suggested I put the top down, so I did. As we drove, with the wind tousling our hair, it dawned on me that my mother’s car was not a convertible. The only explanation was that I was dreaming. I mentioned this to my friends in the car, who were skeptical and, ultimately, annoyed. “Are you saying I’m not really here?” one of them asked. That was exactly what I was saying, I said. “That’s bullshit,” he said.

Now, as I drove the unfamiliar streets of the seeming east Texas town, I mentioned the convertible dream to Paul and the Katrina guy. I said I know it sounds weird but I think I may be dreaming now. The Katrina guy just shrugged, and continued eyeing the signs, but Paul gave me this distressed look, then vanished. He didn’t want to be a character in someone else’s dream, I guess. Oh, well, I thought. See you back in the waking world!

About that time I noticed an outdoor market up ahead, so I pulled in. I told the Katrina guy I was going to see if I could find a newspaper or something – read the headlines, find a date, just to verify whether this was real. He waited in the car. I approached a stand selling “antique” items – mostly junk, really, which included old newspapers. Here was a stroke of dream-mind brilliance, I thought. There was no way to prove or disprove that this was a dream, based on the newspapers. My mind was trying to trick itself, in plain view. I thought of asking the guy who ran the stand for the date, but it seemed kind of weird to, and anyway he was waiting on customers. So I went back to the car and we drove on. The Katrina guy didn’t even ask if I’d discovered anything. He was, I suppose, the perfect dream-mate.

Down a narrow side street we came upon a river – a very wide river, like the Mississippi. There were many oddly narrow pedestrian promenades angling off from the river, which was flooded. Every river in my dreams is flooded, for some reason, so this was familiar territory. OK, I said, now I know I’m dreaming. I’m sure of it. The street we were on descended into the floodwaters up ahead, remained submerged for a short distance, then returned to dry land. I decided to test my theory and drive into the water. The Katrina guy was alarmed, and put his hand out in front of me, as if to stop me, but I said, Don’t worry, if I’m dreaming we’ll be just fine, and if not, I’ll stop before the water gets too deep. I drove into deep water and kept going. I passed another car, also driving on the river. The Katrina guy got excited when I told him we could do whatever we wanted now -- we didn’t have to worry, because it was a dream. We could fly over buildings if we wanted to – something I’d done numerous times before. I was curious, though, what the dream was going to be about, and was repeatedly thwarted in my efforts to find out. I’ve always assumed that dreams are mechanisms for the brain to explore hypotheticals without repercussion, to help us sort through potential scenarios in our waking lives. For my purposes, however, this resulted in all sorts of dream obstacles. The Katrina guy seemed to be having a good time, even if it was a dream, but he soon vanished, too. I didn’t really notice until I found myself alone, on foot, in an abandoned factory, trying to find my way out.

At this point the dream seemed intent on capturing me, though I knew I was dreaming. Each door I passed through deposited me into an anteroom with another door. It sounds like a potential nightmare, but because I knew I was dreaming I felt a measure of control. Every door opened when I turned the knob. After several passages I realized I was in the middle of a sequence, and I began to count. I was up to seven doors when the last one opened into the sunshine. Once outside, I saw an interesting scene across the street: Some guys working on a water main, talking with a pretty, flirtatious woman. I decided to snap a picture with my cell phone, in part because I still had some minor doubts about whether I was dreaming, and I’d noticed in the past that using my cell phone – including its camera -- was a maddeningly frustrating dream endeavor. Sure enough, though the picture-taking seemed to go OK at first, the screen on my cell phone was unfamiliar and the camera kept snapping pictures before I was ready. Sloppy dream-direction, I thought.

Thus chastened, my dream-mind attempted to exert more control. I walked purposefully back to the truck and got in, drove a short distance, and arrived at my house, which, predictably, was full of guests. Even though I knew I was dreaming, I expected this to be awkward. Not many people like being told they aren’t real, and anything can happen in a dream. A series of frustrating misfires followed. An old girlfriend, waiting for me in bed, asked for a cup of coffee, and when I went into the kitchen I found I couldn’t make any because another woman was using the coffee maker to make some kind of herbal tea, etc. Predictable dream complications. As I waited for the woman to finish, someone asked me to help move some chairs, and a few new guests arrived, and before I knew it, a long time had passed.

Considering that I was at least marginally in control of the setting, and of the unfolding plot, it struck me as odd that I was running into so many problems. If I was dreaming and knew it, why couldn’t I just dispense with the complications? Probably because the complications were the point. I believe dreams can be both psychic and psychiatric exercise, so I am always aware that my control is tenuous. For that matter, even controlling my waking thoughts is sometimes tenuous. Introduce a night-bird that my sleeping ears interprets as the voice of Satan in a dream, which continues to call out after I awake, and all bets are off. In a very profound way, we are all subject to our own dreams.

As I tried to deal with a swelling crowd of imaginary guests, I fiddled with my cell phone, determined that if I could freely move between the waking and the dream world I should be able to find a way to create a record of it – to bridge the gap. This, alas, is how my sleeping mind often occupies itself. It tries to take notes, and even photographs, of an imagined world. It’s hopeless, but I often spend what seems like hours, even days, during a dream, trying to create a waking record of what happened – a note scrawled in a pad on the nightstand, or spray-painted on the wall of a building that I know to be real, to which I might actually return when I’m awake. It never works, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

In this case, I eventually gave up taking photographs and decided to mentally record what was happening, so that I’d remember the dream once I awakened. I spent the rest of the dream studiously trying to log everything that happened, escaping now and then to a rare quiet place to go over it in my head, to reconstruct everything that had happened from the moment when the Katrina guy was driving to the moment at hand, so I’d be able to review the dream when I was awake, for clues. This is what passes for rest, in my world. This post is the inevitable result. Even in my dreams, I cannot let go.

Dreams are so rich and have such an authentic feeling that scientists have long assumed they must have a crucial psychological purpose, as an article I later read in the New York Times observed. “To Freud, dreaming provided a playground for the unconscious mind; to Jung, it was a stage where the psyche’s archetypes acted out primal themes. Newer theories hold that dreams help the brain to consolidate emotional memories or to work though current problems, like divorce and work frustrations.” OK, the judges will accept that.

The article cited a paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience by a psychiatrist and sleep researcher named Dr. J. Allan Hobson, who argued that the main function of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM (when most dreaming occurs) is to warm the brain’s circuits for the sights and sounds and emotions of waking. “It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Hobson said. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: Dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Psychics often claim that dreams are a delivery mechanism for messages from other worlds, and who’s to say they aren’t? I’ve gotten messages from dead loved ones in my dreams, some of which turned out to be true, and which I hadn’t known about before. Psychiatrists have also speculated that dreams are how the brain sorts out its own issues, on its own time. Hobson’s position is that dreaming is a parallel state of consciousness that is continually running but suppressed during waking. If that’s the case, I suppose it’s possible that dreaming is all of those things.

Another neurologist-physiologist cited in the article, Dr. Rodolfo Llinás, countered that dreaming is not a parallel state but is consciousness itself, in the absence of input from the senses. Once people are awake, he argued, their brain essentially revises its dream images to match what it sees, hears and feels -- the dreams are “corrected” by the senses.

In evolutionary terms, according to the Times, REM appears to be a recent development; it is detectable in humans and other warm-blooded mammals and birds. “Studies” suggest that REM makes its appearance very early in life -- in the third trimester for humans, well before a developing child has experience or imagery to fill out a dream. “None of this is to say that dreams are devoid of meaning,” the Times noted. “Anyone who can remember a vivid dream knows that at times the strange nighttime scenes reflect real hopes and anxieties: The young teacher who finds himself naked at the lectern; the new mother in front of an empty crib, frantic in her imagined loss.”

According to the article, “research suggests that only about 20 percent of dreams contain people or places that the dreamer has encountered. Most images appear to be unique to a single dream.” That is most assuredly not the case with me – my dreams have frequent, recurring sets and guest stars, sometimes over the course of years, whom I have never met in my waking life. The scientists claim to know that most dream characters are one-time walk-ons “because some people have the ability to watch their own dreams as observers, without waking up,” the Times reported, at which point I began to feel a now-wakeful sense of disorientation. As an intra-dream observer, I should not be hosting those recurring characters. All of which tells me that if you want answers about dreaming, you’re just as likely to find them in a popular dream-interpretation book. Still, the subject is interesting, particularly when reading about it on the heels of a vivid dream.

The Times continued: “This state of consciousness, called lucid dreaming, is itself something a mystery — and a staple of New Age and ancient mystics. But it is a real phenomenon, one in which Dr. Hobson finds strong support for his argument for dreams as a physiological warm-up before waking.” In dozens of studies, according to the article, researchers have brought people into sleep laboratories and trained them to dream lucidly. “They do this with a variety of techniques, including auto-suggestion as head meets pillow (‘I will be aware when I dream; I will observe’) and teaching telltale signs of dreaming (the light switches don’t work; levitation is possible; it is often impossible to scream).”

Those same sleep researchers contend that lucid dreaming occurs during a mixed state of consciousness, -- “a heavy dose of REM with a sprinkling of waking awareness,” according to the article. Sleepwalking and night terrors, Hobson said, represent mixtures of muscle activation and non-REM sleep. Attacks of narcolepsy reflect an infringement of REM on normal daytime alertness. And what to make of someone, like me, who sleepwalks, has occasional night terrors, and is often aware that he is dreaming? The article didn’t say. Hobson’s point is that those two consciousnesses are separate systems that can operate simultaneously, which begs the question: If a person can be awake enough to recognize he’s dreaming, is the converse true? Could he be awake yet not recognize he’s drifting off into a dream world? Sort of?

Sure enough, the article noted that people who struggle with schizophrenia suffer delusions of unknown origin, but Hobson suggested such flights of imagination may be related to an abnormal activation of a dreaming consciousness. “‘Let the dreamer awake, and you will see psychosis,’ as Jung said,” the Times noted.

“For everyone else, the idea of dreams as a kind of sound check for the brain may bring some comfort, as well,” the article reported. “That ominous dream of people gathered on the lawn for some strange party? Probably meaningless. No reason to scream, even if it were possible.” To which I say: Try telling that to someone who has lost control of their dream, for whom the succession of doors in the anterooms ceases to open.

In my own dream, I eventually left the party that I had virtually thrown but had never quite controlled (even in the dream sense), and decided to go for a run, which is always fun in my dreams because each step spans 10 feet or more and I have boundless energy. As I ran through a darkened city (another familiar landscape in my dreams), I eventually came upon another man, a walker who began to run, too, as I passed. I was singing aloud – this was my dream, so why shouldn’t I? – an original REM song that I was inventing as I went along. I know: REM. Rapid Eye Movement, logically filed beside the band REM in the recesses of my brain. I was enjoying the song because it was at once REM’s and mine. I’d never heard it before. Then, as I ran with the new, unidentified runner beside me, he began to sing along. Eventually I ran out of words – I couldn’t “remember” what I in fact was inventing – but he continued on, singing multiple stanzas. I have no idea who he was – I would have preferred Michael Stipe, but it was his song now, transferred from a hodgepodge of REM sound bites stored in my brain, through my own consciousness, through my dream, to him, an imaginary character who knew more about what was in my brain than I did.

Whatever; finally, I was happy to let go. I let him sing the song, though in a sense it was actually me who was doing the singing, through an imagined character. By then, I guess, the dream had accomplished what it set out to do. My brain had the sensation that it was letting go. When I awoke, I felt at rest, and only wished I’d found a way to write the lyrics down.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The intruder

It took a minute to sink in. An intruder had come in my house... while I was in the shower. In the shower. If you’ve seen Psycho, the thought of a stranger coming into your house while you’re showering -- naked, alone and unaware -- is enough to send a shiver down your spine. But when it actually happened, I was more bewildered than scared, probably because I never saw the person, and didn’t even know they’d been there until I came downstairs. That's my silhouette in the picture, by the way. Scary, but me.

This was years ago, but notably, it was the second intrusion within a few days. And it wasn’t to be the last time. In the first incident, someone had fiddled with the old lock on the double doors at the back of my house until they managed to get the doors open. I was away at the time, and for whatever reason they hadn’t crossed the threshold, and so, had not set off the alarm. Nothing was taken. I was baffled that someone would take what had to have been a considerable amount of time to pick the lock, then open the doors, just to stand there, looking in.

I hadn’t gotten around to installing a more secure lock by the time they returned. The truth is, I tend to be slow to react to alarming situations. I’m definitely not the person you’d want to count on to save you if, say, your car plunged into a flooded river. That’s not just a hypothetical – it happened once. I was driving with my friend Spencer late one night when a woman sped past us, lost control of her car and plunged into the floodwaters of the Pearl River. Only after I observed Spencer running through the headlights toward her bobbing car was I prompted to act. We ended up getting the woman out of the car, though she was drunk and clung to the steering wheel as the water poured in. She was wearing several large diamond rings and a full-length fur coat (this was in the seventies), and didn’t want to get out of the car. Who knows how long I’d have stayed in the truck had I not seen Spencer running through the headlights. The point is, there are times when it’s wise to take a moment to collect your thoughts, and there are times when it’s better to let those fast-twitch muscles lead the way.

Until the intruder arrived, I’d never had to respond to a crisis at my house, which stands in rural Mississippi, on a one-lane gravel road. It’s not visible from the larger, paved road that skirts it, and the one-lane road itself is a rutted tunnel through overhanging trees. To approach requires a level of blind commitment, and usually, when someone decides to see what’s down the curious little lane, they chicken out. I’ll hear car tires crunching gravel and glance out the window to see a vehicle tentatively mounting the low hill before the house. Then the vehicle stops, and after a moment’s hesitation, slowly backs out of the picture. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses routinely possess the temerity to press on, at which point I back away from the window. I’m not into talking religion with strangers.

The house, known as Holly Grove, is very old, built in 1832. It has a long hallway through the center with double doors at each end with old-fashioned skeleton key locks, which are comparatively easy to pick, though until the intruder found a way in I hadn’t much worried about that. Owing to the relative isolation, a person could break down the door with an axe if they wanted to and no one else would likely hear it. That horrifying thought – an axe-wielding intruder -- was, for me, suitable reason to not worry. I do have an alarm system, for when I’m away, and at the time had two territorial dogs who had never allowed a stranger to approach the house unmolested, or at least unannounced. The question, on that particularly morning, was how someone had managed to make it all the way in.

When I saw the open doors I stopped midway down the stairs. I felt the blood pumping through my veins, my face got hot and I hurried back upstairs to retrieve my shotgun; I popped in two shells and proceeded to stalk my own lair. I was pretty sure I would shoot whoever it was, but I found no one. Whoever it was must have known my dogs because they hadn’t barked, and now simply stood on the porch, eagerly wagging their tails, peering in. Hey! Someone was here a minute ago! Now you’re here, and all the doors are open! Dog food is on the way! Whatever was bothering me was most assuredly not bothering them.

I wondered: Was someone playing a joke on me? My default setting is to try to come up with a more normal explanation for whatever weird thing is happening. When I later told friends what had happened, some of them had the opposite reaction – they immediately sought out a paranormal explanation. Ghosts at Holly Grove! People often ask me if I’ve seen ghosts in my house, but it’s not something I think about much. I don’t know if ghosts exist, because the workings of the universe are often inscrutable. Energy changes forms without ever going away. Anything is possible. But aside from one curious incident, during which I heard the keys being banged on the old piano in my living room in the middle of the night (a piano that, I admit, has a long and troubled history), I’ve never put much stock in the idea of apparitions. If ghosts exist, and one haunted Holly Grove, would he or she not be indebted to me for having prevented the destruction of their haunt, by dismantling and reconstructing the house, as I had done in 1990 to prevent it from falling in at its original site? And if ghosts exist, would they really use their powers to do something as pedestrian as opening doors? I figured a ghost who aimed so low would probably not be worth worrying about.

Thieves were likewise ruled out because the intruder had passed on the opportunity to steal, which left mischievous friends, none of whom seemed likely to maintain an elaborate ruse over the course of several days. Which left: Crazed former lovers; escapees from mental institutions or jails (a Hollywood studio had once scouted the house as a location for a movie about precisely that, so the idea obviously held potential); and a proverbial watcher in the woods, though it would seem to be in the nature of such a watcher to remain in the woods. It never occurred to me to call the sheriff’s office. In assessing the possibilities, I simply moved from striving, ineffectively, for normalcy, to striving for acceptable semi-normalcy, whatever that might be. I refused to accept that my house could be a scary place.

I’ve always looked askance at people who get nervous when they stay at Holly Grove alone. Most people aren’t accustomed to relative isolation, to silence that’s occasionally punctuated by unidentifiable sounds, and to very dark nights; as a result, friends often overreact to what, for me, are routine occurrences. One night, for example, a friend fled in his car after hearing what he described as “something dragging a chain through the woods.” Such a sound would not cause alarm if you had observed a neighbor’s formerly tethered dog or horse dragging their rope or chain behind them through the woods -- a familiar, normal event in my world. When it came to the intrusions, I was looking for something such as that.

It soon occurred to me that the intrusions had coincided with the onset of a mildly disturbing episode involving a woman who, for the purposes of this story, I’ll call Estelle, who had taken to standing beside my road, day and night. This was notable after three or four days; it would become a source of fascination when it dragged on for five years, give or take a few months. I am not exaggerating. The woman, this Estelle, a down-the-road neighbor, was out there, around the clock, for five years. I have no way of knowing if she was the one who entered my house on those two occasions, and, in fact, a series of more recent intrusions implicated a deranged deer hunter. But the initial interloper’s arrival had coincided with Estelle’s appearance by the side of the road, and, if nothing else, this is a story of coincidences. At the very least, she would have been in a position to know.

For reasons that are still open for debate, Estelle began standing on the side of the road in the late 1990s, as if waiting for a ride. Many mornings I would encounter her standing by my gate when I left for work. She was always immaculately dressed and usually carried either a pen and notepad or a Bible. I’d roll down my window and say good morning, to which she’d invariably respond, “I’m waiting for my ride.” Mm hmm. When I returned in the evening she would still be standing there. Sometimes she acknowledged my return, sometimes not.

I don’t know when Estelle ate or slept, but she was always perfectly coiffed, even when she was standing by the road at 1:30 A.M. under an umbrella in sleeting rain. At one point her sister phoned me – I think Estelle had been out there for a couple of years by then -- to say she was concerned about her. My first thought was: It’s about time! She said Estelle had told her that Jesus instructed her to stand by the side of the road, to which the woman observed, “Now, you know Jesus didn’t do that.” Jesus: Admittedly eccentric, but not known to be a practical joker. Telling Estelle to stand by the side of the road until further notice would seem an uncharacteristically cruel and pointless prank, and if nothing else, would indicate a highly unlikely level of divine micromanagement. Later, Estelle’s sister said she’d told her she was writing a book, and she did carry that notepad. I have to say that if that were the case, I’d relish a chance to read it.

Like most communities in rural Mississippi, our little scattering of houses has a neighborhood watch program, and when our neighborhood watch captain, an elderly man who drove a vintage Mercedes with out-of-county license plates, who looked like a tired blues musician, died, I suggested that perhaps we should press Estelle into service, since she was already out there, 24-7. The idea was not well received. No one wanted to encourage her. I don’t know if Estelle came up with the same idea on her own, but it soon became apparent that she had appointed herself captain. She began watching everyone’s houses more diligently than before, always with her notepad in hand. As I drove away each morning she would write down my tag number. When I returned that evening she would clock me in.

This went on for a while, with Estelle monitoring everyone’s activities and logging it in her notebook, until she carried the concept of watching too far and people began to see her standing in the darkness outside their windows, peering in. Around that time the family decided to try to get her into some sort of treatment program, which backfired. Estelle managed to convince a social worker that her family beat her and drove her from the house. No one who knew the family put any credence in the story, but it served Estelle’s purposes. She was released, and returned to the road after an intermission of perhaps half a day.

I eventually discovered telltale evidence that someone had been sitting on my porch while I was gone – a chair that had been moved, or, when spring pollen coated the floor, footprints. Then I found the hallway doors open, twice, including that time in the shower. I responded by posting a note on the screened door of the back porch that said, “Estelle. I know it’s you. I have you on video. Go home.” Now and then I enjoyed a respite as Estelle explored other sections of the road. Then, after about five years, she went back inside her house, for reasons that were as inexplicable as those that had led her to take up her post outside. Word was that she was now frightened of the outside world. We did not see her for many, many years – seven, I think. She was still ensconced inside when the deer hunter, who I’ll call Nick, began his own wanderings through our domain.

Nick was well known to us, and had even been a guest in my house on numerous occasions, back when he was relatively normal. But around the time his wife left him he turned delusional. Even his fellow deer hunters, with whom he shared a lease of part of my property and the farm across the road, began to avoid him. He told elaborate, crazy stories about the supposed efforts of others to frame him for various crimes, and eventually went to jail – we think – for impersonating an FBI agent at the FBI headquarters in Jackson. I say “we think” because it was never clear where Nick was taken, only that he’d been held somewhere for a while. Clear enough, though, was this little life lesson: If you’re going to impersonate an FBI agent, you shouldn’t do it at the FBI headquarters. I’m sure that when he announced he was an FBI agent and said he wanted to see the files on a guy who happened to be him, the receptionist’s response was, “Please take a seat. Someone will be with you shortly.” And after a quick phone call, someone was.

We heard that Nick had subsequently spent some time in the state mental hospital, and that he had enjoyed his stay. When he was released, he returned to the deer camp across the road, though he was no longer a paying member and was decidedly unwelcome. The other hunters repeatedly ran him off but he always came back. He ended up sleeping on the ground there, beside his truck, or occasionally in his truck, for the better part of a year. At night I could see his little campfires in the distance, and I hoped he wouldn’t wander over to my house.

One night, during Nick’s long sabbatical, a friend who was staying at my house while I was away reported hearing the dogs barking, and, upon investigating, heard the sound of footsteps in the gravel. My first thought was Nick, because Estelle was by then trapped inside her house, but I didn’t mention it for fear of frightening my houseguest, who reported finding, the next day, a crumpled pack of Basic menthol cigarettes in the vicinity of where he had heard the footsteps in the gravel. As far as I knew, neither Nick nor Estelle smoked, so I wrote it off as someone who had perhaps run out of gas and approached the house only to be driven away by the dogs. Always the safe explanation. Once you get used to the idea of not one but two crazy people wandering around outside your house, you can explain anything away.

Nick began to worry me a bit, though, after I heard that the other deer hunters were studiously avoiding him because they found him strange and a bit intimidating. One of them said Nick had asked, rather belligerently, “Do you think I’m crazy?” to which the guy replied, “Well, kind of, compared to how you used to be.”

Then I saw Nick in his truck, sitting beside me at a traffic light in town, gazing at a large Bouie knife in his hands as he waited for the light to change. In my memory the knife glints in the sun as he turns it over and over in his hands. There is also a crazed glint in his eye. He didn’t see me, but I later saw him again, sitting in his truck, backed into the woods, watching cars go by.

When Daniel, the guy who lives in a cabin on my place, reported hearing a man shouting in the vicinity of Nick’s camp, which lasted for hours, and occasional gunfire, and death metal music blaring from the speakers of Nick’s truck, I began to get more worried. Discussions with neighbors ensued. Estelle was one thing; she wasn’t armed, or angry. Nick was a different story. Soon more reports began to circulate of extended, crazed shouting, notably, “GOD DAMMIT, QUIT!” and, counting: “One thousand EIGHT! One thousand NINE!” The episodes appeared to be building toward crescendo, so I spoke with a friend who owns the land where Nick was trespassing, who had avoided intervening because he felt sorry for him because he was alone, broke, jobless and homeless. I told him that I also felt sorry for Nick, but that it was not as easy to ignore his craziness when he was right across the road (which was not the case for my friend, who lives a few miles away). I also offered this scenario: Say you read a news account of a guy who went crazy and, like, opened fire on cars on the interstate, or on people in a crowded mall, and there were quotes from neighbors who said, Well, yes, we wondered about the guy, because we heard him shouting alone for days, and saw him gazing at his knife, and backed up in the woods watching traffic… Well, what would you think of those neighbors? You’d think, My God, people, why didn’t you do something?

I’m not saying Nick is the kind of person who would inflict harm on anyone. I’m saying I don’t know, but the signs were not good, either way. Finally, after a neighbor’s wife expressed her misgivings to the landowner, he decided he had to do something, so he called the sheriff and asked them to escort Nick off the property. They arrived one morning in bulletproof vests and, using the PA system on their patrol car, commanded him to step into the open. When he did, they told him he had to leave. His response was, “Well, now, I’m homeless,” to which one of the deputies reportedly replied, “Actually, you already were.”

After this, Nick began sneaking onto the property and camping at different locations, until the locks were changed on all the gates, at which point another neighbor claimed to have caught him emerging from the woods behind his house, which prompted him to call the deputies, who, he said, told him that they had received numerous similar complaints.


The problem with this part of the story is that the neighbor’s son claimed it wasn’t Nick who emerged from the woods, but an elderly black woman with her family, who had gotten lost and had wandered down the creek to their house. Nick is white, and, of course, travels alone. There is no way he could be mistaken for an elderly black woman and her family. There is also no way that two such conflicting stories from members of the same household could be believed. Clearly, the story was morphing, which is what often happens when people are confronted by inexplicable things.

About this time, I discovered that someone had moved a few things around in my garage. Nothing was stolen. Things had merely been moved around. Seeing this, I thought of a story a friend of mine, a psychiatric nurse, once told me about a deluded woman who worked in a bookstore and reported that each night someone broke into the store and moved one book to a different location. Only one book. This woman would spend hours each morning roaming the store, trying to determine which book had been moved. As an aside, the woman also reported that she always observed at least one dwarf in every restaurant she entered, which she presumed was an indication that the federal government was monitoring her movements, because who else could afford to employ so many dwarves? The point being, once you start thinking a crazy person is moving tools around your garage, there is always the possibility that, well… who is really off-kilter here?

I got home a few days later to find that a book – yes, a book – had been moved from the spot where I had left it on my back porch. Now I was absolutely sure of… what?

When you live alone, items can remain unmoved for long periods of time, which had been the case with the book. I had been on the porch that morning and had seen it, gathering dust, and made a mental note to take it inside, but got preoccupied and forgot. Later that day I went to get the book and it was in an entirely different spot. Now, finally, I was truly alarmed, so much so that I went to my friend Paul, who lives nearby, and presented the possibilities: I was losing my mind; my house was haunted; or I had an intruder. Paul smiled and said, “I know the answer! Estelle is back outside!” He had seen her on a recent night, returned to the side of the road. I was relieved. I reposted a sign on my screened door instructing her to go home. I also installed a latch on the door. Given all of this, I thought I should explain the situation to Daniel, who lives in the cabin, stressing the fact that Estelle was, as far as was known, harmless. Creepy, but harmless. He then asked about Nick. I told him Nick was now an elderly black woman with a family.

You often encounter unusual characters in big cities, but it’s mostly in passing. In rural areas, and particularly the character-rich rural areas that are so common in Mississippi, they truly stand out. I’ve always believed that one of the reasons Mississippi has produced so much great literature is that its human dramas stand out in bold relief. And because of the state’s notoriously conflicted history, there are a lot of them. Characters aren’t relegated to background noise. They sometimes appear on your porch, more than once. They also create their own microclimates. Faced with the prospects of both Estelle and Nick roaming freely through our domains, we – my neighbors and I – not only were unable to ignore them, but began, essentially, to conjure them. During a particularly intense lightning storm one night, Paul saw the flashing outside his windows and thought it was Nick roaming around with a flashlight. When his electric gate malfunctioned and he found it open when it should have been closed, and vice versa, he suspected Nick. When I couldn’t find my car keys, I wondered if Estelle had entered my house and hidden them from me. When Paul’s wife Libby was walking in the woods and caught a glimpse of what turned out to be one of the deer hunters, who did not reply when she called out, she ran back to the house, imagining Nick on her trail.

Lately, the mysterious non-encounters appear to have abated. Everything has remained largely in place. After her brief encore, Estelle has returned to the inside. Nick, though everyone remains poised to see him, has not actually been sighted for weeks. But that doesn’t stop us from wondering. When the moon emerges from behind the clouds, and a branch breaks in the woods, I always wonder if one of them is approaching my house. “I hear you, Estelle! I mean Nick!” I might call out.

I also wonder if the two of them ever cross paths as they explore what is, for them, very familiar terrain. For us, their particular terra will forever be incognita, and thank God for that. Sometimes you just don’t know. And in the end, you may not even want to.