The Ghost of Mr. Renner
by Darby Mitchell
Mr. and Mrs. Renner — for I always used their formal names, not their first names — came to help us after I hemorrhaged following the birth of George’s and my second child. I was weak, George was working during the day and attending law school three nights a week where he was in his last term, and we were very pressed for money. We needed the help of his parents, and they gave it, driving up from North Carolina to Michigan. We moved out of our sunny, blue bedroom, which was conveniently near the bathroom, and bought — with money we didn’t have — a bed for the big, cold, back bedroom in order to make room for the Renners.
Because they lived so far from us, I had never before got to know them. What I specifically mean to say, what is important to this story, is that I didn’t know the rhythm of Mr. Renner’s step. And I didn’t know it when they came to be with us, because Mr. Renner had cancer of a hip. In order to walk, he put the weight of one side of his body on a crutch, and even with the help of that crutch he only walked slowly and painfully, which prevented me from hearing the rhythm of his step — which is important to this story.
I liked him. I came to like him very much. There we were, two invalids, while Mrs. Renner saw to our meals, and did the necessary day-to-day cleaning, and I had the easy jobs of taking care of the new baby and our three-year-old.
What this meant was that while Mrs. Renner, passed by us, unnoticed, with cleaning utensils, commenting, “Humph!,” Mr. Renner and I got to sit around telling each other stories, And we did. Mr. Renner told me how he had left home in New Zealand when his father took for his own the orchard his son had made; how the young Harold Renner had enlisted for World War I and had been sent to the Ardennes region of France. And there, how one night when he was leading a patrol through the trenches, he came upon a German soldier in a bunker — how he had looked into the eyes of that startled German, and how the soldier had looked back into his — the German soldier recognizing his death in Harold’s pistol, and Harold recognizing that the entire enemy had come down into the being of one living, German soldier.
Neither said a word. And then, how Harold had continued to block, with his body, his platoon’s potential view of the German soldier, how Harold had turned abruptly back, said, “Nothing here, mates!” and led his patrol back through the trench. But the point of the story, the doubt it had caused him ever since, that that German soldier had been perhaps Hitler — who had been there in those trenches at that time — and if so, what guilt he, Mr. Renner, might carry on his shoulders for the entirety of World War II.
Then we got on to Mr. Renner’s cancer, and that that his doctor had told him to swig from a bottle of whiskey rather than dope himself up with pain pills: “—does the same thing, Harold” said the doctor, “but without the nasty side effects or the bother of my writing you a prescription. — Those pills don’t work anyway.” So that was why Mr. Renner kept the pint bottle of whiskey in the upstairs bathroom, that was just next to their bedroom.
I knew my father-in-law was an agnostic, a doubting Thomas who would only be convinced that Christ was the savior if he could shove his hand into the wound of the figure standing in front of him, feel the wound close like a womb around his own flesh. But for a reason I didn’t understand then, I wanted to probe the wound of Mr. Renner, who was dying.
“What’s going to happen when you die?” I asked cautiously.
“Not much,” he said. “I imagine that the world will go on without me.”
“No, what happens to you, yourself?”
“Oh, do you mean will I survive?”
“Yes. Will you survive?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“But Mr. Renner, what if you do survive?”
“Okay, what if you wake up dead, and you realize you’ve woken up, and you’re dead.”
This was exasperating. “Okay,” I said. “But what if you do? There you are, quite out of your body, and there’s the body, dead. What do you do then?”
“I expect I’ll look around to find somebody to ask what to do then.”
“Okay. Let’s make a bet. I bet you that you survive death.”
“I bet that you do.”
“What are we betting?”
“A bottle of whiskey.”
He laughed. “Sure, why not?”
So we did that. We bet a bottle of whiskey that he would survive death. The proof would be when he showed up after his death. But of course the details couldn’t quite be worked out. Well and good if he was to show up with a bottle of whiskey because he had lost the bet, but was it going to be a real bottle of whiskey in this dimension, or a bottle of whiskey in some other dimension?
And if he didn’t show up — if he didn’t survive death — how was I to give him a bottle of whiskey? But because I was sure Mr. Renner was just being hard-headed about this matter, I didn’t bother with that end of it, and besides that, I think my father-in-law really wanted to survive, so he wasn’t concerned with that end of it either. The bet was made. We shook hands on it.
In due time, when I was able to take up all my housewifely duties, the Renners left and returned to their home in North Carolina, and my husband and I moved back into the sunny blue bedroom by the bathroom.
About a year later, late one night, Mrs. Renner called unexpectedly: Mr. Renner had been taken to the hospital. He was thought to be dying. Mrs. Renner wanted their children to come down. By leaving almost immediately, they could, by driving in tandem, reach their father before he died. So they gathered at our house, and were just about ready to leave when Mrs. Renner called again: the doctor had changed his mind. Mr. Renner had rallied, and would not die that night. The children could wait for morning before leaving.
It was just then — and I say this because I think there was something operating between Mr. Renner and me even at that time, before his death — I, who had no voice in their plans, said, “No, he is dying — go right now!” And there must have been conviction in my voice, because, although they looked at me strangely, they left.
Alone, I paced the floor a bit, gradually realizing that I was alone in my house with only my two small children for protection — that Mr. Renner was about to die, and that — O my God! We had made a bet! I called a friend, told her she must come over and stay with me because — but she knew the story already. She came. She and I slept that night and the two nights following in the blue bedroom, the same bedroom where the Renners had slept — not to tempt fate, but again, because that room was convenient to the bathroom. We slept together because I wasn’t about to sleep alone when — sure thing — the ghost of Mr. Renner was about to show up.
But in those three days nothing happened. I was almost disappointed. Nothing happened at all. No ghost appeared.
On the third day, my husband returned, exhausted. The next day he would have to go back to work, and the next night, go back to classes. He ate and went almost immediately up to bed — into the blue bedroom where Mr. and Mrs. Renner had slept.
For the first time in three days I relaxed. It seemed apparent to me that that Mr. Renner had not survived death. But whether he had or not, at least my husband was home, and he would take care of the ghost if it came. I was downstairs, making a quilt. My head was bent to the whirring of the sewing machine. Across the room from me, the TV was on — for company. My two young daughters were asleep in their beds above me. My husband was apparently asleep in our bed above me.
That’s when I heard the steps — what I thought were my husband’s steps. He must have gotten out of bed and gone into the bathroom. Clearly — too clearly, I realized later — I heard the squeak of the medicine chest in the bathroom. The medicine chest opened. The medicine chest closed. Squeeeeak, squeeeeeak. Then steps returned into the bedroom — my husband’s steps.
I continued sewing, keeping one eye on the TV, and, ever the mother, listening for my daughters above me,.
A short time later, I heard the steps a second time. The steps went from the bare-floor bedroom where my husband was, into the bathroom. The medicine chest opened. The medicine chest closed. Squeeeeak, squeeeeak. Then the steps again, back into the bedroom.
Silence, a second time. What was my husband looking for that he thought was in the cabinet? Well, he’d find it. Everything was in the medicine cabinet that should be in there.
When I heard the steps for the third time, and the medicine chest opening and the medicine chest closing — squeeeeak, squeeeeak — I stopped the sewing machine, rose from my quilt, crossed the room, turned off the TV and walked toward the stairs that led up to the bedrooms.
Now there’s something I left out — one of those details that a person doesn’t know whether it’s important or not — something that had happened when the Renners were staying in our house — something that happened at the top of the stairs. I had been lying in my daughters’ little pink front bed room with my three-year-old, trying to lull her into an afternoon nap. The Renners were also asleep — in the blue bedroom. The house was entirely quiet — as if holding its breath.
Then came a tremendous crash — as if a beam had fallen in the attic, just above the top of the stairs. I jerked awake, slid carefully away from my sleeping three-year-old, and went to see what had fallen. The hall was filled with dust motes. Something overhead in the attic had, indeed, fallen — yet no one, seemingly, had heard it fall but me. The Renners were sleeping peacefully. My daughters were sleeping peacefully. What had happened? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps I had merely dreamt I heard the crash of something heavy falling in the attic. But if what I heard was merely in a dream, why was the air above the floor at the top of the stairs filled with golden dust motes? At that time, I wasn’t about to investigate further. There might, after all, be a beam in the attic that had fallen, but if there was, I didn’t want to know about it. Yet now I wonder.
Now Mr. Renner was dead, had been buried. He had been dead three days. I was walking toward the stairs, which were just around the corner of the living room wall. Just at the bottom of the stairs was a light that really should have been fixed, because it flickered. But it always did that — something wrong with the electricity.
The stairs, since the Renners had left, had been carpeted, which was good, because I felt I had to get up those stairs and I had to get up them fast and without making any noise. I had to put my foot up on the bottom stair, then listen. T hen put my other foot on the stair next to the bottom stair, then listen — and so on.
I couldn’t do it. I wanted to look up the stairs. I couldn’t do that, either. I felt every hair was standing straight up on my body. I was looking down at the bottom stair and I couldn’t move. I thought — very briefly — of turning, running, of opening the front door, which was behind me, and running out into the street.
But my children were up those stairs — asleep.
Electrified hairs or not, I forced one foot rise to the level of the first tread. I set it down. Nothing happened. Now I had to do the next foot. I did that one. I was tiptoeing. I was making no noise at all.
Slowly, painfully slowly, I made my way silently up those steps all the way to the top.
And that’s when I bumped right into him. He jumped.
I jumped. He pulled back, away from me. And then a huge metal door — a door at the top of the stairs just where the dust motes had been a year before after the crash that nobody heard but me — a door that wasn’t there — a heavy, thick metal door — shut. Click.
I stood at the top of my stairs, trembling. But it was done. Whatever it had been, was done. I went to look in on my daughters — still sleeping. I turned back toward the blue bedroom where my husband was, went inside, turned on the light beside the bed. My husband lay in almost a stupor, heavily asleep, tossed and turned in the sheet — the sheet that was still tucked in at the bottom of the bed. Unless he had dragged the bed with him, my husband could not have made his way, minutes before, three times, into the bathroom.
Without turning out the light, I got into bed beside him. I elbowed him.
He groaned. “Wha — ?”
“There’s a burglar,” I told him.
“Ugh,” he said, and turned away, making yet another twist in his winding sheet.
And so, eventually that night, I fell asleep.
What was it? My imagination? The ghost of Mr. Renner? If it was, indeed, the ghost of Mr. Renner, was he in a stupor? Was he as if sleep-walking? Did I think I heard my husband’s step because that same step was actually also characteristic of Mr. Renner? Was Mr. Renner acting in the body of his son? Why, on the third day after Mr. Renner’s death, had he made three trips to the bathroom, opened and closed the medicine chest three times? And the biggest question of all, if Mr. Renner survived death, was his step so like my husband’s step because Mr. Renner was healed in death?
It was Mrs. Renner who put a close to the story when I called her to tell her my of my experience with her dead husband: “Oh, yes,” she said, “That was probably Harold — when he couldn’t sleep, he’d get up, take a nip of whiskey — he kept the bottle in the bathroom — in the medicine chest. The doctor told him to do it.” Then there was a long pause while she thought about the whole story. “Humph!” she said.
So, one way or another, I think I won the bet. My only complaint was that the bottle of whiskey with which my father-in-law paid off the bet wasn’t in this dimension. I bet he didn’t think of that. But I suppose he wasn’t in this dimension, either, so the transaction probably seemed all right to him.
Copyright © 2005 by Darby Mitchell