The Girl with the Gravestone Sidewalk: A Poetics of the Dead

by Joshua Adair

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 80]

The House with the Gravestone Sidewalk

“Forces are manifested in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge.” — Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

The women in my family gifted me a poetics of the dead – on film, in memory, through experience – as a way of aestheticizing all that frequently proves too ugly to bear. Just as I began to write this essay, I asked my mother about a historic house in a town near her, and she casually responded, “oh the one that Sarah Gibson haunts?” as though that were the most run-of-the-mill route to clarifying that we were speaking of the same place. But that’s how it goes in my family. Exposed far too soon to the deadly, cruel potential of the world and the prospects of afterlife secluded in some house – neither heaven nor hell – as they frequently outlined them, mine was a childhood populated by the dead and dying where time flattened out, where the past overlays the present. These women edified me with a poetics of elegy for the dead; they [page 81] grasped that some experiences prove immersive, overpowering, and inexplicable. They trained me to see askance so that possibility remains alive and generative, even if the source of such inspiration struck me as unlikely or mistaken. If I sound cryptic – pardon the pun – I mean to say that they raised the dead while they reared their children and taught us that houses were haunted; families were cursed; and, above all, competing narratives and conflicting dialogues beget creative thinking. For me, questioning the existence of ghosts is an absurdity: of course they don’t exist, except when they’re all around you.

I’ve lived with them always – sometimes as characters populating narratives that figure prominently in my genealogy, others as presences in houses I’ve inhabited – and I offer here my poetics of those dead, untaxed by the somewhat false reassurance of tangible proof or hard logic. Not to say that those aren’t wonderful goals and comforting concepts, but poetries and sensibilities rarely draw their force from such dry, remote stuff. What I set forth here has flourished in emotion, ambience, and trauma – influences equally if not more powerful than the so-called “hard facts” – and while it may frequently beggar belief, it represents a strong vein of my personal epistemology as a queer academic. To be clear, I believe these horrors, this haunted genealogy, figure prominently in my subjectivity – even as I disown the possibility of literal hauntings – and I traverse this ground in hopes of sussing out how our consciousnesses may be, at least partially, constituted and enriched by the spectral.

As luck would have it, the girl with the gravestone sidewalk grew up to be my mother. No one knew where those stones came from; they already formed the sidewalk from the back door to the outhouse when my grandparents took up tenancy in 1946. By the time Mom arrived in that newly electrified house in 1948 – running water and a bathroom wouldn’t be added for another fifteen years – my grandmother had already largely forgotten that every trip to heed nature’s call required traipsing over someone’s grave(stone). In spite of its electricity, the house and its remote location conjured shades of the nineteenth century, and while those stones of the same era may not have troubled her once she took their presence for granted, she still feared the house and refused to stay there alone. She had immersed herself in The Uninvited in 1944 and thus was wise to the pitfalls of following a path similar to Ruth Hussey’s character, who dredges up the murdered former mistress of the house, nearly losing her sanity in the process. No, Gram preferred to summon only the dead she knew; strangers suddenly manifesting were an entirely different affair. Thus, she nearly succumbed to madness one winter night when, by pure chance, a snowstorm hit before her family could make it home and she [page 82] had to endure several days of frozen solitude in that house. For her, silence conjured possibility, and some stones were best left unturned.

Despite its periphery menace, Mom and my aunt spent many sunlit childhood afternoons playing on those slabs – rubbed nearly, though not absolutely – free of their original inscriptions. Their state is reminiscent of the poetics I wish to capture; they were present, and their surface carried visible, if elusive, meaning. In later years, they attempted rubbings to ascertain the names of the deceased, fearing they might be buried nearby – perhaps under the house or in a nearby field – but to no avail. At no point did anyone attempt to relocate or reconsecrate the stones, their tangible reminder of death simply another working element on my grandfather’s farm. The possibility of the significance of those gravestones, however, imprinted itself on my mother, though, as she imagined graveyards desecrated to make way for corn and soybean crops, or worse, a hog lot. My grandmother put a point on those fears when, one day, she casually announced to her daughters that theirs was a replacement house built after the original burned to the ground with all its occupants inside some years before. Hearing these stories in childhood and adolescence, the quotidian terror of such oddities – charred families, repurposed tombstones – incited terror and fascination, impressing upon me that our stories about family history differed sharply from other people’s.

From an early age – say five or six or so – my mother insisted that the dormered attics surrounding the large second-story bedroom she and her sister shared were infested with the ghost of a young child who perished in that fire. Her sister concurred, though neither can now say if they arrived at this assessment independently. They assert that this spirit either bounced a ball rhythmically against their bedroom wall or fist-pounded it, perhaps in some ghastly reenactment of that all-consuming fire. As a young adolescent, I visited that house, then abandoned with its windows broken out, and they insisted the child persisted there still, observing and captive. In the midst of my incredulity, I still managed to feel terror-stricken, as though I were suffocating. Unfazed, they reminisced about their lives unfolding in that house, comfortable in their understanding of it as both a site of malevolence and enchanting, unremarkable nostalgia. For them, haunting and the terror of trauma were as commonplace as Gram’s blackberry pies they had once devoured in that dining room. They even pried off pieces of trim molding to keep as mementoes, hoping to preserve that childhood, terror and all. I’ve always regretted failing to photograph those stones.

Because of them, I’ve always known the world as haunted. Their understanding of the past and its presence, even intrusion, never eludes me; as a result, I perpetually conceive my movements in this world as [page 83] surveilled. As a theoretical perspective, I believe that the ghosts in which I do not believe stand witness. When I observe the unseen hand fondling Barbara Hershey’s breast in The Entity (1982), I grasp the poetics at play as the horror of the unknown interacts with our physicality. As an adult, I have come to understand that particular sensibility as a byproduct of, or perhaps a contributing factor to, my queerness, which has frequently rendered me at worst a target for verbal and physical violence and at best the subject of much attention. Sensing the force of the staring gaze of another – usually tinged with disgust or at least disapproval – figures as a commonplace occurrence in my life. I draw unwanted attention because of my difference, and so I have come to conceptualize my lacking masculinity as a magnet for observation as analogous to the condition of believing a disembodied entity stands watch, however unwelcome, over one’s life. The comparison strikes me as particularly poignant, because in those times that I have chosen to explain this sensation to others who experience the world differently, they look at me with an aghast incredulity similar to hearing someone pronounce a sincere belief in the material existence of ghosts. Both have the effect of suggesting one may be overwrought or unnecessarily sensitive, out of touch with reality.

The House with the Haunted Closet

[page 84] If that sounds unhinged, I can only respond that this supernatural sensibility was fostered in me long before training in critical thought encouraged me to disown it. It was never a sensationalized sensibility; it was nurtured in a fairly blasé fashion. I first became aware that my mother believed us to be accompanied when we moved into a rented farmhouse in the 1980s. Unbeknownst to us – my brother, sister, and me – from the first night we spent in the house, Mom insisted something else inhabited the space. And though it will likely do little to alter your perception of her as someone unstable, flaky even, I know her to be a down-to-earth, no-nonsense person with little investment in emotion or folderol – even though her belief in ghosts may seem to utterly contradict my assessment. On our first night in the new house – a white Folk Victorian built around 1900 – as she worked away downstairs unpacking boxes in a style I always imagine resembling Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror (1979) both in form and in anticipation of the horror to come, my father returned my grandparents to their home a few miles away. Our new house was located down a quiet rural road, surrounded by livestock lots and fields, dark and silent. While hanging pictures in the living room, she heard frantic footsteps upstairs running the hallway and instantly assumed my hyperactive older brother had gotten out of bed to cause trouble, as he frequently did. Furious, she tore up the staircase to apprehend him before he woke me or my sister. She discovered instead three catatonic children.

In the following two years in that house, the footsteps continued running the upstairs hall and then descending the staircase. I don’t know if I remember that, though I vividly recall one scorching August night that all five of us piled onto my parents’ bed – theirs was the only room with air conditioning – to watch The Poseidon Adventure (1972). I have never gotten the image of the distraught little girl losing her grasp on her “Frozen Charlotte” doll and turning in horror to see someone crush its porcelain head as they fled in terror – a memory which has merged with those footsteps and become an exceedingly poignant and perhaps entirely apparitional recollection rooted in that space. Despite my skepticism, the memory of that haunting abides with me.

In a sun-starved house encircled by trees, Mom started her days by opening the drapes in each room in hopes that her houseplants would capture enough light to survive. If she left the house, upon returning she would discover them drawn, which she attests to this day. I cannot account for this. My sister’s room, which featured a half-door that intermittently refused to open or would not stay closed leading into a crawlspace, figures prominently in our oral history, as my aunt and cousin claim to have felt an invasive coldness and then seen a luminescence emerge from it one night when they bunked there. They would never stay in the room again and genuinely feared that space. Strangely enough, [page 85] Mom never moved my sister out of there, and for her part, my sister never complained. That experience, or my imagining of it anyway, would take on new terror when, several years later, I discovered a Tales from the Darkside (1984) episode called “Inside the Closet,” which features a similar door with identical proclivities, the space behind which harbors a ghastly monster that ultimately murders the young woman staying in the room, but not before terrorizing her for multiple nights, its hand always lunging from under the bed to grab her ankle just a split-second too late. The image of that grasping hand, coupled with my childhood terror of the horrifying possibilities of my sister’s bedroom, has never left me. In fact, at forty years old, I never get in or out of bed in the middle of the night without imagining that hand jutting from under the bedskirt as my feet leave the floor. My mother echoes a similar, chronic thought pattern and credits the same episode – which we were far too young to watch – with the creation of that particular fear. I believe with absolute certainty that no such creature exists, yet a static part of my psychic landscape asserts, almost nightly, that something persists there, watching and waiting, and the precarity of the near miss affects my spatial sensibilities and awareness of danger – no matter the context.

For instance, that dread follows me even when I am completing some mundane task like shopping at Wal-Mart – and not for the obvious, more comedic reasons – and as I navigate other public spaces as a queer man. Part of this stems from sustained long-term bullying as a child through my early adult years, and sporadically thereafter, because of my difference from stereotypical males. I easily recall similarly “phantom” moments in junior high and high school when my schoolmates would lick their fingers and stick them on my neck from behind and then make some juvenile remarks about the faggot “liking it” because they figured I wanted them to kiss me. I never identified the culprit because I was too fearful to turn around, frozen with a terror akin to what I experience watching that girl’s endangerment or hearing my mother’s stories. Other times I would be assaulted at a urinal, mid-stream, or someone would steal the contents of my locker, which I would discover later, never knowing who had been there. As a college student, this treatment – always anonymous, apparitional – intensified to a point that I would shower around 4 am – playing a kind of ghost myself – after all the partyers had finally passed out and I could be sure no one would accost me. I frequently urinated in a milk jug I hid in my closet to dump later because I was too afraid to take the risk of using the bathroom when someone might target me. I became a ghost in my own life, traumatized by my own difference and the way it attracted others to me. [page 86]

The fact that the concept of presences and of omnipresent surveillance shapes and underpins much of my mother’s family’s understanding of their consciousness offered me an archive and a framework for conceiving my own difference and the ways that spectrality proved analogous to my own lived experience. Despite their certainty that they were surveilled, at least periodically throughout their lives, by some unseen, inexplicable force, they never appeared to suggest as much out of paranoia or fantasy. They did, however, each in their own way, endure profound trauma. My great aunt Dorothy, for example, lost her son under questionable circumstances in 1957. The official verdict insisted that Jack had been having an affair with a young married mother named Lynn, the wife of a dentist. The police surmised that during a lunchtime sexual escapade turned bad, my first cousin (once removed) murdered his lover and then shot himself, though investigators never established his motive. My family always maintained that Lynn’s brother, a college student who lived in their house, had arrived home for lunch to find them in bed together and murdered them. Either way, Dorothy lost her only child, and a few days after his burial, her mother, with whom she lived, reported to the entire family that she had heard Jack climb the staircase to their second-story apartment the night before, hang his hat on the hall tree, and plod down the hallway to his bedroom. I heard this story countless times during my childhood, but it was never sensationalized or even delivered to underscore some point about the existence of ghosts or to fulfill some maudlin desire for loved ones’ deaths to be rendered impermanent, at least not in a manner pronounced enough to become apparent to me. Rather, it was proffered as a garden-variety observation; a recollected memory highlighting that we exist among other modes of existence, other knowledges. When, at seventeen, my sister inadvertently ended up at the site of the murders as a babysitter, my mother expressed mild surprise similar to that of encountering an old friend after years of separation, as though somehow it made perfect sense in her mind that of all the houses and all the children in need of minding, of course my sister would end up doing so in the house where our cousin and his lover died violently. Her main interest in what I considered an unsavorily serendipitous coincidence centered upon whether my sister had sensed a presence in the house of anyone other than unruly children she’d been hired to “keep alive” as their mother had put it, which unsettles me even now.

Her placid detached engagement had been practiced for generations, it seems, and perhaps this may account for the seemingly disinterested aplomb with which my female relatives – because this is a specifically female-focused modus vivendi in my family, except for me – navigated the notion that trauma and loss transpire amidst presence and surveillance. My great-grandmother Vieva – the one who heard Jack ascend the [page 87] staircase – had grown up under the shadow of her mother’s likely, though unproven, murder. Jennie Freed had come to the United States, probably in the 1880s, as a Swedish immigrant, and the only daughter among five brothers. They immigrated as a group, and she quickly married my great-grandfather James Pierce Drew, a man of some social stature and personal wealth. They were married for a little over a decade when she died under mysterious circumstances. During the course of their marriage she produced two daughters, Vieva and Marjorie, and a son, Clifford, to whom they always referred to as “the hunchback.” Occasionally my mother would drag out her cabinet photos of him, and I was always taken aback by his ghoulish looks, with dark circles under his eyes and pale complexion. For me, he greatly resembled the child drowned in the attic of the mansion in the 1980 horror film The Changeling – a film to which my mother introduced me – whose phantom-possessed Victorian wheelchair chases Trish Van Devere’s character down the grand staircase with such ferocity that her otherworldly screams prevented me from sleeping for nights afterward (I was 10) and left me unwilling to go upstairs to my bedroom for weeks. I was terrorized by the notion that something stood observing me from over the banister as I ascended the staircase, uncannily motivated by a presence that never materialized.

Jennie Freed Drew Shortly Before Her Death, and Her Tombstone

Clifford and Vieva Laurel Drew

Though this particular instantiation of spectral possibility may strike you as childish nonsense, it manifests in my mind today as being akin to my [page 88] understanding of my own inability to evince masculinity and to measure up to the phantom of compulsory heterosexuality which haunted the first two decades of my life, at least, and still makes cameos today. I sensed the presence of the absences in my demeanor and expressions – as well as the excess in those areas which many think should not be if you’re a boy – and though I did not believe in them, either, they tortured me. I remain acutely aware of my inability to perform as masculine, just as the child who is murdered in the bathtub evinces weakness and frailty when his father demands a sturdy, robust boy to ensure his fortune would be secure. We can suffer because of the nonmaterial, its lack of physicality failing to render it immaterial. It exists even as we know that it does not; authenticity as a locatable object at some point holds no truck with the haunted. Our world forces us to live under the surveillance of specters like Masculinity and Heterosexuality, even if they dominate altars at which we do not pray, because their ideologies pervade our very consciousness and forbid the possibility that we banish them as impossible, even fraudulent.

I feared for my safety in the days after seeing the horror that unfolds in The Changeling, horror I have often wondered if Jennie Freed Drew experienced during the final months of her life. No official cause of death was ever established, but my grandmother would occasionally weave stories about James Pierce Drew sitting vigil over his wife’s grave in rural northwestern Illinois in the Presbyterian cemetery for months after her death, allegedly to block any attempts by her brothers – angry and suspicious about her death at such a young age – to exhume her body and prove she had [page 89]

been poisoned. She even took us to the cemetery when I was 6 or 7 and posed us around her headstone for a family photo. Shortly after Jennie’s death, Clifford succumbed to his ailments and left Vieva and Marjorie to contend with the world alone as their father separated them and placed them in the care of other people. All her life she wore her mother’s gold filled hinged bangle, engraved with a baroque ‘D’ for “Drew,” as a kind of talisman of her presence, telling stories of how it sported the teeth marks of she and her siblings because Jennie had allowed her teething babies to chew on it to keep them quiet during church services. This connection has proven durable – a further reminder of the specter of a woman none of us knew – as my sister now owns the bracelet and repeats the story, inculcating her own children into our genealogical terror.

After living in sorrow and loss throughout her childhood, Vieva unwittingly married into the same. The resonances of John Elmer Porter, her father-in-law, and his daughter, Ethel Porter Brownlee, both of whom died in 1925, reverberate in my family mythology to this day. The Porters were local gentry in that part of the world, having played a significant role in the founding of Warren County, Illinois, and they enjoyed special connections to the founding of Monmouth College and various other enterprises. They boasted their connections to the American Revolution – which they had purchased when John Elmer married Cora Belle Sterrett – and generally lorded their prominence over just about everyone. As the most visible and privileged family in the county, they were accustomed to drawing the public gaze. They bequeathed us their sensitivity to sensing oneself being seen, which plays a central role in our family’s existence, particularly when the Porters’ fortunes altered to point that they were no longer subjects of admiration and envy and simply the focus of derision and scorn. [page 90]

John Elmer and Cora Belle produced a brood of spoiled children without a knack for anything but spending their father’s money and engineering spectacle. Carousing was the order of the day for the male children, and the females were encouraged to undertake the machinations of augmenting their wealth and fortune by marrying well. Ethel, their ethereal daughter of exceptional height, took well to this work and made her parents proud. Her miasma still clung to our household well into my teenage years, as Mom had inherited Ethel’s wedding dress – which, sadly, she eventually sold in a financial pinch – wedding crystal, and numerous photos of the grand event. The photos dazzle me: dozens of guests gathered around a number of white tents, everyone in finery, her wedding to Howell Brownlee a week-long event that included camping in tents, Chautauquas, games, and other events. To hear my grandmother tell it, they emulated English aristocratic models and shut down the entire county so that everyone might revel. I always felt a special kinship with Ethel; I admire that she appeared perennially elegant, if not quite beautiful. Her demeanor screamed kid skin gloves and daintily high-heeled boots with pearl buttons and a Gibson Girl up-do. Nevertheless, in spite of all those wonderful photos and their appearance of grace and ease, her life was already nearing implosion.

Cora Belle Sterrett Porter and John Elmer Porter

[page 91]

Ethel Mae Porter Brownlee

Shortly after their wedding fête, the Porters lost everything under mysterious circumstances. To this day no one knows who snagged the thread of that unraveling, but the locals gossiped that one or another of Ethel’s brothers gambled the entire family holdings away in a demonic card game. While that smacks of the grandiose nonsense people usually concoct to mask much more banal circumstances, it’s all I have to offer in the way of explanation for their reckoning. Almost overnight, all they had evaporated. John Elmer and Cora Belle were forced out of their imposing house – a lookalike for the one Karen Black takes for the summer in Burnt Offerings (1976) – which was eventually demolished to make space for additional fields. The children, all adults, at least chronologically speaking, scattered into rented houses and tenant farms in neighboring counties. The name Porter became infamous as the focus of colossal schadenfreude. They became their own ghosts, palely navigating the life that remained [page 92] and mourning, above all, the loss of their fine possessions. The swiftness of their decline allowed no time for acclimation to their new circumstances, and from what I can deduce, most of them squandered their remaining lives bemoaning this beautiful antique chest or that stunning Oriental carpet that vanished in their fall. Those stories obsessed my female relatives, too, and to this day I can spin tales about the phantom objects that populate Porter mythology, including a mahogany bedroom suite carelessly pitched into a ditch when they bought something nicer. They mourned for that lost universe in perpetuity, and have done so for generations, lamenting what they had been and no longer were.

Ethel's Wedding Revelers

John Elmer, broken, in a cruelly ironic twist, was forced to take the position of groundskeeper at Monmouth College, the institution his family helped establish. He was the focus of endless scurrilous chatter, and his humiliation proved so punishing that in 1925 he eventually killed himself by sawing a tree limb from the wrong side, never to enjoy that the Great Depression was about to level those who levelled him. For decades after, his family would occasionally hear snippets about the old man’s ghost appearing in that tree, sawing furiously. Ethel, for her part, ceased to entice Howell Brownlee. Her allure, it seems, stemmed from the [page 93] promise of endless wealth, and as a pauper, he felt a woman requiring substantially less dress fabric might better suit him. Shortly after John Elmer’s burial, Howell divorced Ethel, leaving her destitute except for the fine flotsam bequeathed her during that unforgettable wedding week. He remarried shortly thereafter, and she opted to die, also in ’25, rather than adjust to a world where poverty and abandonment overtook a person. Though I suspect suicide, no one ever suggested as much, casting her as dead “of a broken heart.”

Life has taught me, though, that while we may very well be haunted by the loss of love and the horror that befalls people, even sometimes deserving – or least not undeserving – people, these horrors rarely kill us. Broken hearts, trauma, loss: these are the conjurers of the spirits who collapse chronology and remind us that the construct of time does little to relieve the terror we inherit as well as create and endure in our own lifetimes to deed to others. Apart from witnessing nearly a dozen of my elderly relatives suffer the horror of terminal illnesses and then die before I was ten years old, I also lost friends to drunk driving accidents and suicides during my teenage and early adult years. I always watched those mourning events unfold with curiosity because they were so unlike my own experiences of such losses in their rawness and wildness. My mother attended the deathbeds of at least half a dozen of our relatives when I was a child and that, coupled with her blithe acceptance of the reappearance of the dead, leant an air of professionalism and businesslike acceptance to the affair of dying. Ours are not a people given to Sicilian outbursts of grief.

Well, except for me. When my partner shot himself, I unwillingly bucked that trend. Given that this was the early 2000s and queer partners had no say-so when it came to their unofficial spouses, I had no control over his funeral or burial according to the law once his mother intervened. A private affair, she only acquiesced and invited me when she realized she didn’t have enough pallbearers; as chief mourner, I bore his weight, literally and figuratively. I made a spectacle of myself the entire time, to my horror, spattering tears on everything and everyone. My grief was unimaginable even to me as I experienced it, and in that period I completely grasped how the narration of these events, which this essay attests, becomes an unavoidable feature of one’s existence from that point forward. I wondered if Ethel felt similarly when she lost Howell. What struck me most intensely, though, was a memory of a story my grandmother shared nearly twenty years earlier when she was becoming accustomed to living alone after the death of my grandfather in 1984. She hadn’t slept a night without him in over forty years, since that snowstorm at the farm. She stopped sleeping altogether for quite a long period of [page 94] time when she started to have dreams that he was knocking at their front door, and when she opened it he stood there as a young man in his GI uniform. At once panicking and overjoyed, the horror of awakening to discover it was merely her mind’s misfiring, or perhaps wish fulfillment, became unbearable.

In those rare moments when she would drift off, she would startle, half awake, certain that he lay in bed beside her. Fear paralyzed her, rendering her incapable of even reaching out a hand to ascertain the truth. She knew he was there; the fact that he wasn’t became immaterial. We – a family bent upon curating our ghosts – dismissed her story as a commonplace occurrence catalyzed by grief and exhaustion. And yet, this experience of haunting exerted tremendous influence over her life and habits. Her home – even her bed, her favorite place – no longer a sanctuary or refuge, she carried on in this fashion from when he died until two years later she had a massive stroke and never returned home again. One night shortly after my partner died, I started having the identical experience of believing him to be in bed beside me – it was even coupled with the same paralyzing fear. Even though I never believed it possible – and I still don’t – the sensation stunned me and made a profound effect on my experience of the world. To this day I recoil at the horror of discovering myself next to someone I loved dearly, unable to move or even breathe, overcome with the slimmest hope and terror that it was real. Not long after, and ever since, I suffer the nightmares that he’s not actually dead and has returned only to awake and immediately force myself to remember reality. I say reality, but that feels inaccurate, imprecise. After all, for hours some nights that becomes my life again. It’s not so easy to dissociate oneself from or to dismiss as irrelevant. It proves impossible and commonplace at once; our minds engage a strain of poetics simultaneously wondrous and destructive. This summoning – this labor of grief – places us slightly ajar from those who surround us, forcing us to live akimbo in a place that exists for the mourner alone – both imaginary and indistinguishably real – in a dimension where physicality takes a back seat to the power of our psychological states and our perceptions of the world, not unlike the circumstances presented in The Others (2001) – sometimes the dead and the living interact with at least one party not knowing who’s who. I never understood this till I was wracked with terror so crippling I simply could not move a muscle to verify the truth, if there is such a thing. I felt like my paternal great-grandmother, Mona, a funeral dresser, who insisted that every corpse she had ever clothed stood quietly at the foot of her bed as she slept, waiting to ferry her on to the next mode of existence, or non-existence, as the case may be. [page 95]

As a person who has always felt different, separated, set apart, the intensity of grief and mourning queered me further. I told no one of my terror at experiencing that my mind could send signals indicating he was actually in bed next to me without providing me the tools to disarm such perceptions. The situation intensified when, three months to the day after his death, I awoke one Saturday morning after a particularly difficult week to find a sparrow hopping around in my house. I have no idea how it entered; I never found any possible ingress. He was not hurt or sick; he was, however, terrified by me. And, oddly, the feeling was reciprocal. In that moment I had uncanny thoughts and vague memories of being told at some point that sparrows are harbingers of death or some other such superstition. Most of all, though, I thought that housebreaking bird might be a sign from Aaron that he was okay and wanted me to be, too. I entertained the thought just as I immediately dismissed it. I’m an atheist and I see death as a zero sum game, but this presence disrupted my thinking, and to this day I consider that event strange and inexplicable. It gives me no comfort, but it also no longer disturbs me to realize that there are happenings which cannot be explained or understood. Such events, for me anyway, forge a strange beauty – utterly ethereal – that fortifies a sense of wonder for the world and this life even as I ingest and transmit so much cynicism.

I felt haunted then, as I do now. I cannot, nor do I wish to, offer a satisfactory explanation for drapes that appear to have volition or birds that nonchalantly appear, just as I cannot offer compelling justifications for lives decimated by murder and tragedy. What interests me most in all this is the complex, and often contradictory, thinking and feeling invested in these experiences and our compulsion to narrate them as explanations for who and how we are when, if anything, their revelation only serves to render us as illogical, incoherent, illegible. Each of us in my family who insists upon giving voice to these experiences of the world and their impact renders ourselves queer (or queerer) by highlighting our unwillingness to abandon the illogical, the abject, the foolish because we rationally know these things cannot happen and that the dead do not physically rejoin us, even in avian form. To me, it’s a feminine way of understanding the world, which is perhaps why we work so diligently as a culture to decry its possibility and generative potential in terms of dimensional thinking and critical insight that comes when we engage that which has been disowned. In my work as an academic, I find myself grappling with these ghosts, and others, frequently, and I’m often surprised what they teach me despite conceiving them as fictions, theoretical lenses. While it’s never been my mission to disprove any of these stories, I find myself in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance [page 96] where they’re concerned, as they are at once perfectly sensible and utterly absurd as the inspirations for a queer sensibility guided by a sense of being surveilled; of living at many margins because of my wonky perspective; for seeing the past as present and inescapable, indistinct. Unlike my grandmothers, I’ve never become accustomed to the memorials that I trod in a way that has helped me cease to notice them, nor have I grown insensitive to the ghosts at the foot of my metaphorical bed. In the end, we’re all traipsing over graves and dressing up the dead, no matter how deep the hole we’ve dug or how distancing the disbelief we’ve designed to keep them at bay.

Apropos Blurriness: Me and my siblings posed around a gravestone, a childhood commonplace.

MLA citation (print):

Adair, Joshua. "The Girl with the Gravestone Sidewalk: A Poetics of the Dead." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, pp. 80-96.