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.


  1. No practical joker, Jesus. But his Father? Isaac is still at the shrink. God's still howling.

  2. I shared this post with another writer friend, Tod Goldberg, who wrote a fascinating essay about living in Palm Springs that is similar to this. Two totally different places with a familiar theme: Stranger Danger

    1. Or, more accurately, not-so-stranger danger.