One morning when I was eight years old I climbed the carpeted stairs that led from the living room to the second floor, walked along the sunny hall past my room, my parents’ room, and the guest room, all with doors half-open, and stopped at the shut door of my father’s study. As I raised my hand, I saw the shadow of my arm on the wood. To knock was a punishable act. It was forbidden to disturb my father when he was at work in the morning, except for two reasons: an emergency, which I understood, or an urgent problem, which I did not. I had recently asked my father what an urgent problem was, and he said that it meant a serious matter that didn’t require a doctor or a policeman. He paused thoughtfully. “Or the Lone Ranger.” I had been thinking hard about “urgent” and “problem” and had decided that the two together stretched wide enough to justify my knock. I was willing to be punished, so long as I could ask my question. I looked away from the shadow of my arm and knocked twice.
“Come in,” my father said, and I opened the door.
He was sitting with his back to me at his large desk, bent forward and writing. I knew that he always wrote first in a notebook, with a yellow No. 2 pencil, before turning to his typewriter. The pencil had to have six sides. The blinds were closed, though it was a sunny morning. At the edges of the thin curtains I could see that the two windows were partway open. To his right stood the big black typewriter, which with its rapid clack and banging bell reminded me of the trains at the railroad station in Bridgeport, where we went to pick up the grandmothers. A sweet smell of pipe tobacco mingled with a faint scent of cut grass.
My father looked over his shoulder. “What’s up, Ben?” He pushed back in his chair and stood up to stretch his back. My father was a large man, with big hands and glinty eyeglasses. His head was higher than the wood at the top of the windows. He looked at me hard: not with anger but with alertness. He gestured to the deep armchair at the side of the desk, where he always sat when he graded papers and smoked his pipe. The stem and bowl of his pipe curved like the clef signs on my mother’s piano music.
I sat down in the saggy chair with my back to a wall of books. I was facing another wall of books, where black-and-white photographs of my mother and me, in dark frames, stood here and there at the front of the shelves. My father liked to develop his own negatives, which sometimes hung in strips in front of the kitchen window. He turned his desk chair sideways to face me. On one bookshelf a pipe rack held four old pipes, their ash-blackened bowls leaning in different directions. My father sat down. He crossed his legs and placed a finger against his cheek.
“Are ghosts real?” I said. I spoke without hesitation. It was the only way.
I saw the look of attention in my father’s face, sharp as a touch.
“Let me ask you something,” he said. My father settled lower into his chair and began to arrange himself for a talk. He raised his left leg so that the ankle lay across his right knee, grasped the ankle with his right hand, and placed his other elbow on the armrest. As he spoke, he moved his free hand in the air, fluttering his fingers. “Are people real?”
I thought about it. “Yes.”
“Very good. And how do you know they’re real?”
I thought again. “I know they’re real because I can see them.”
“Excellent. Anything else?”
“I can touch them.”
“You can touch them. Very interesting. People are real because you can see them and you can touch them. Now answer me this. Have you ever seen a ghost?”
“Have you ever touched a ghost?”
“Then you already know the answer to your question. Was there anything else you’d like to talk about?”
“No.” I started to get up, but he held out a hand, with the palm facing me.
“Are your friends talking about the Harrington house again?”
“Yes. Charley says there’s a ghost.” I thought about what Charley had said. “He says it’s the ghost of the dead woman.”
“If Charley said there was a dragon in his basement, would you believe him?”
I thought about a dragon, breathing fire in Charley’s basement. “Because dragons don’t exist.”
“Exactly. Because dragons don’t exist.” He stood up. “Spend your time thinking about people, Ben. People exist. Even if they don’t always know it.”
I could see my father’s attention leaving his face; he was returning to his work. I crushed down my desire to ask him what he’d meant by “even if they don’t always know it,” thanked him for answering my question, and left the room. With relief, with exhilaration, I hurried along the hall, rushed down the steps, and ran out into the yard, where I welcomed the summer day and looked up at the wide-open sky, as blue and bright as the oceans on the map of the world that hung in my room, and I did not think about ghosts again for the next nine years.