The following is from Steven Millhauser’s Disruptions. Millhauser is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novel Martin Dressler, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and We Others: New and Selected Stories, winner of The Story Prize in 2011 and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His work has been translated into eighteen languages. His story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was the basis of the 2006 film The Illusionist. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.
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.”
My father moved a forefinger slowly along his chin, a gesture I liked to imitate.
“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.
In the summer after high school, the four of us—Charley, Tom, Lindberg, and I—spent all our spare time together. We’d been friends since grade school, and we knew in our bones that this summer was different from the others. It was the last of the old summers. It was the last summer of all, since instead of passing on to the next grade in the same town we were headed off to new lives: three of us to colleges in different states, Lindberg on a cross-country journey to discover, as he put it, what it was all about, though the “it” was never clear. Charley and Tom had part-time summer jobs, Lindberg worked at his father’s hardware store and had a part-time girlfriend, and I, aside from mowing the lawn every couple of weeks and slapping a little paint on the shingles of the garage, did nothing but loaf and read and dream the time away and practice my backhand serve on the Ping-Pong table in the basement. I told myself that I was preparing my mind for college, but what I was really doing was savoring the last summer of my life. I was also, I suppose, warding off the future, clinging to the very end of childhood, even though I was seventeen and eager to embrace the new life that awaited me in the world outside my Connecticut town.
The four of us did what we’d always done in summer: leaned back on our elbows on towels at the beach as low waves broke against the shore, went bowling at the alley out by the shopping center, banged ketchup from bottles onto plates of fries at Betty’s Diner, where we were sometimes joined by girls we knew from school, strolled in town like lords of the universe while wondering how to pass the time, threw ourselves into day-long games of Monopoly and Risk on sunny back porches while mothers in shorts served us lemonade and batches of homemade cookies, took drives on the throughway in the direction of New York or New Haven and swung off at lesser-known exits, which took us into half-familiar towns that felt as if we’d grown up in them but had somehow forgotten the layout of the streets. We liked riding around at night. Sometimes we stayed up till dawn.
It was during this lazy and restless summer that we paid a visit to the old Harrington house, one evening when the sky had faded from blue to grayish blue, and the streetlights had come on. People still called it “the haunted house,” though even Charley, now six foot two and skilled in calculus and drawing with charcoal, rarely gave it a thought. The house was the last one on a dead-end street lined with sycamores and old elms. Shady two-story houses were set back from the road. These were the comfortable homes of solid middle-class families, not the mansions of the fancy lawyers and corporate big shots who lived up on Ludberry Hill or the smaller houses of carpenters and machinists out by the car dealerships. Dr. Harrington, a cardiologist, had moved to town at about the same time as my parents. His wife had died suddenly. Some said she hanged herself; there was talk of murder. Harrington was never charged, though people gossiped. He moved out of state but for some reason refused to sell the house; he rented it, but the couple had scarcely moved in when one of them had a terrible accident of some kind. The next client backed out at the last moment. The agent herself was said to be reluctant to visit the property.
Rumor had it that the house was haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Harrington, a beautiful woman with long blond hair. It was said you could hear sounds at night. Though the house stood empty, Harrington, who had money, held on to it. The town required him to keep the lawns mowed and the porches repaired; once every two months a cleaning crew entered and left. No one had lived in the house for thirty years. It sat away from the road, at the top of a slightly sloping lawn where tall oaks bordered a red slate walk. The nearest house was separated from it by a broad yard with a high wooden fence, over which rose thick spruces.
We parked at the end of the road, where a small woods began, and sat looking at the house. “I used to dream about this place,” Charley said.
Someone said, “Do they know what really happened to her?” Someone else said, “She hanged herself.”
“Do they know where?”
We began talking about ghosts, but Tom grew impatient. “Let it alone. What are we, five?”
“You and Ben,” Charley said. “Always so rational.”
“You make rational sound like a disease,” Tom said.
Charley said, “So you wouldn’t mind spending a night there alone?”
That was how it happened: a lazy summer evening, streetlights brightening under a darkening sky, an idle challenge swiftly accepted. The plan was for Tom to enter the house at dusk the next day and stay until dawn. We would park Lindberg’s old Chevy at the dirt lot on the other side of the woods and watch from the trees to make sure Tom remained all night.
“You don’t have to do this,” I told him when we were alone. “Charley’s just being Charley. What if somebody sees you? What if they call the cops? What if—”
“No one will see me,” Tom said sharply, sweeping at the air like someone batting away an insect.
The next evening we parked at the dirt lot and crept through the trees. Charley, Lindberg, and I took up positions and watched Tom walk up the darkening lawn to the side of the house. He tried one of the windows that faced the woods, but nothing happened. When he pushed at the second window, we saw it begin to rise. Moments later he thrust himself onto the sill and slithered inside. We watched the window slowly go down.
You can read the rest of “A Haunted House Story” in Disruptions, available now from Knopf.
Excerpted from “A Haunted House Story” from Disruptions © 2023 by Steven Millhauser. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.