Ghost On 15th Street

©1999 by Spider Johnson
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I looked up over the shoulder of my guitar student through the barred glass studio window at the music store to see my friend Chuck drive up in his VW bug, storm out of the car and shoot BOTH fingers at me, gesticulating boisterously, scorn and wrath his very expression, then get back into his car and speed away. I smiled slightly (so as not to alarm my oblivious student), but inwardly I howled, because I knew then that my prank had succeeded.

Two months prior to that evening I had the beginnings of a plan to "get even" with my smart-ass college roommate for all the high-handed, condescending indignities he continuously heaped upon me. Not that I sat helplessly and took it all in--I countered his mean streak with sufficient invectives and threats, but I wearied of his constant haranguing and longed for a opportunity to, in one fell swoop, balance the books with him.

We lived a half-block off the university campus in an old, large two-story house which had been converted into several apartments. We had the largest portion with the kitchen, living & dining rooms and my bedroom downstairs and his bedroom upstairs with a central enclosed connecting staircase which twisted and turned with several landings, a narrow and dark space. It was this creepy part of this house that gave me my first inspiration for revenge.

Somehow I had acquired one of those six-foot tall inflatable whiskey bottles, a popular college student apartment decoration during those days, and since the "new" had worn off of it, I was contemplating tossing it. Then the second inspiration hit me: the creepy stairwell needs a ghost. I went to work.

The plan was simplicity itself, a derivation of all those Little Rascals and Three Stooges television episodes I had witnessed as a kid, plus a smattering of Rube Goldberg thrown in to engineer the scheme properly. All I needed was a few items that were already available in the house. So I collected a sheet from Chuck's bedroom, some pots and pans from the kitchen, a short stick from the back yard, and some string from my VW bus.

Chuck was, even in college, the paragon of predictability. His routines were something he prided himself in and the model for a successful career later as a businessman. But for that particular day, his habits got the best of him. I knew when he would be coming home from work (I would be teaching guitar that particular day) and I knew he would come in the kitchen door, put his wad of keys on the counter, walk briskly through the dining and living rooms, open the stairwell door and boldly stride upstairs to change out of his salesman's clothes. So I planned accordingly.

I placed the inflatable bottle on the top of the highest stairway landing, slightly overlapping the step so that the stick would keep it from falling over. I placed the sheet over the bottle, then balanced a stack of pots & pans on the flat "cap" top of the bottle. Finally, I tied the string to the middle of the stick, then threaded it through various balusters and at last tied it to the door knob of the stairwell door. The obvious idea was that when the door opened, all hell would break loose. I climbed out a narrow stairwell window into the kitchen and went off to work. I forgot about it, engrossed in my work, until he showed up as I mentioned earlier. Later, after he calmed down, he told me how my prank had played out.

He came in as predicted, opened the stairwell door and strode in. I hadn't counted on the serendipitous element of the delay between the door opening and the actual falling of the Ghost Bottle. Chuck had made the first landing before he realized anything was out of the ordinary, which was the raucous clattering of pans hitting the stairs, startling him into looking up, whereupon the hardboard-bottomed, sheet-adorned bottle, now tilting downwards, decided to slide-hop down the steps instead of tumbling, bounced towards him with the sheet flailing loosely as it all cascaded down in the gloom of that creepy stairwell. It fell upon him, sheet, bottle pans and all, tangling him up at the bottom of the littered stairs.

Chuck colorfully described his utter terror with all this chaos, a shock so penetrating and protracted that he thought it might never end. I think he even had a new admiration for me, even though it only slightly improved his insufferable nature afterwards. Anyway, until that moment of his narrative, I had forgotten that he had a congenital heart defect and I wondered if I might have caused permanent damage. But he looked o.k. at the time, although many years later he did have open heart surgery. I hope he doesn't connect the two.