It’s midnight, I’ve been walking. I’m staring up at my bedroom window, one dim light shining through. The same window I looked out on as child. I’ve been to many places, many streets, lived in many towns, stared up at many windows. I didn’t expect to be this age, staring up at that window again. But sometimes life has surprises for you.
Al Stewart turned me on to time travel in the seventies, that middle of the road, soft rock classic, Time Passages.
It works that way if you let it. You stand in the same place, you let the present fade away. You adjust your vision and there it is, the past. It’s what I do as a photographer, trying to find the angle where the present isn’t visible. It’s what I do when I write, forget the present, look for the timeless. It’s hard work. It requires all your senses.
I’ve been walking one block over. The street is littered with houses a century or so old, like my own. Some of the trees have been there as long as the houses. I didn’t see a car, or a person the whole walk. Most houses had the lights off. A couple had small ones lit behind pulled shades. Mercifully I only saw the blue glare of one tv.
You walk down the street and you line up the trees to obscure the street lights. You squint your eyes to get the street light’s ambient glow to the level of gas lamps. The present starts to slip away.
The right boots, a heel hard enough to click gives you the sound you’re after. It’s Indian summer in the midwest. Humidity is high. Old wooden houses carry a smell. Wood. Baked wood. No, that’s not right, simmered wood. The humidity inundates everything, the sun turns up the heat and you can almost hear the front door sizzle. It’s what these houses were built for, to withstand that. It’s why they’re still there when newer ones fall warped to pieces.
You catch the scent as you walk by. A cat scurries up onto a porch, watching you. You come to the corner. There was an orchard off to the left about 160 years ago. There was a great celebration there one afternoon. They dug long pits and roasted hogs. They drank. They played games. Abraham Lincoln spoke there that day. They didn’t like him much here. The sidewalk I walk down he likely walked down on his way back to the train, wondering why people this far south in Illinois didn’t like him much. Lincoln loved to be loved. That he wasn’t in his own state had to trouble him. It was a portend of things to come.
Across the street stands the doctor’s house. He went off to Lincoln’s War. There’s a family living there now, which makes me happy. Growing up here, all these old houses were inhabited by old people. That made them more frightening.
I approach my corner, there’s an old house there. Mrs. Morris’ house. I barely remember Mr. Morris at all. She lived on a few years after he died. One of the first people I knew who died. She was one of the next. I never remember her wearing anything but a black dress. A lot of people have lived there since, but it’s still Mrs. Morris’ house. My neighbor and I snuck in there one afternoon. Had the wits scared out of us by her mad, mad cat. That was our official reason for being in there. Nobody could catch it, we were trying to rescue it.
Nobody ever caught that cat. It grew increasingly feral and haunted the neighborhood for years longer than the cat should have been alive. Black cat for the lady in the black dress.
I turn the corner and I’m met by a rush of memory. More time passages. Pick any memory and follow it back. Once I ran away from home. I walk over the spot on the sidewalk I got to before my mother caught me. I see her marching towards me, fly swatter in hand. I know I’m doomed.
This whole town is like that for me. At night, nearly deserted, it’s like a movie set of my life. Very familiar, but changed. Cleaned up. The rough edges smoothed over by time. But you can’t smooth over the scent of the wood, of the earth, of the flowers and trees. Just as you can’t change the morning bird songs, which waft in the window as you try for sleep.
The scent rushes up to greet me before I’m halfway down the block. Night blooming jasmine in the front yard.
Scents can be a guide to time travel, a trigger. The jasmine is an ancient scent, so it lends itself well to this sort of thing. The pitch of the roof is another trigger. It’s one spot that changes little over time, and in silhouette at night, it’s possible to see it as it was. It’s how I see cities … at night, looking up above street level. That’s what seldom changes.
Memory is the ultimate trigger. It helps if you grow up in a place, if all your formative events happened here. But you don’t need that.
Literature. A book has a direct route to the mind, bypassing the senses. As such it captures the full attention. The author’s thoughts reach our own without filters. They become our thoughts as we read. They remain, just as my mother marching toward me remains. The mistake we make is thinking all our memories are big memories. But we remember countless things. Mosquito bites, a dead bird on the lawn, the acrid smell of cat piss in the grass, the neighbor lady ringing the school bell for her kids to come in for the night. All these small thoughts get jumbled up with the literature we imbibe.
When our senses trigger a memory, it might just as easily be Dickens’ as our own. When you’re time traveling like this, you don’t have time to track down every memory’s source. Because they stop being memories. They become experiences.
When you leave the present you find you’re not alone. As I stand in the front lawn my Granny Bert walks past, on her way to the front door. My mother looks out the window. The neighbors whose house has been gone for twenty years wave.
Occasionally one of these memories touch one of your senses. Scent, sound, vision and you realize they’re no longer a memory, but there. A ghost.
It’s not like the movies. They don’t appear and reappear with increasing frequency till the whole neighborhood is swept up in a vortex. They walk past like a flickering image on a screen and you realize for that brief instant you’re not alone. The hairs on the back of your arms stand up and before they’re back down, the ghost is gone.
So I look up at the little boy looking out his window. I wave so he’s not afraid and remember the ghost I saw from the other side of the glass, standing in the dim light of night, raising one hand in gesture. And I realize, not for the first time, that one doesn’t need be dead to be a ghost.