The place: Miss B’s 4th grade classroom, Idlewild Elementary, Tacoma, WA.
The year: none of your business.
Not since the day Molly Johnson’s training bra had been visible beneath a sheer top had there been such a buzz in class. As the morning began, the first thing any of us saw were the words ‘Field Trip’ written on the chalkboard. Now, regardless if you were a straight A student or a straight D delinquent, field trips were like golden tickets to the Wonka factory. Even if our worst fears were realized and the trips turned out to be educational, it never mattered. It still meant piling into a bus and eating our lunches someplace other than Idlewild. It was like furlough from a work camp, a chance to see how the outside world worked between the hours of 8 and 3 everyday, a free sick day without having to secretly put the thermometer next to a lightbulb.
“Okay,” Miss B said, as the bell finished. “As you’re all aware, yes, we are having a field trip and I will get to that after I take attendance and read the announcements.” She smiled as we reacted to this the way we did at news for an upcoming test. She knew the excitement was killing us, but postponed relieving us of that with the usual morning rituals. Between finding out no one was absent and that the day’s lunch, for those who bought, would be macaroni and cheese with buttered roll, milk and fruit cup, it seemed unlikely any of us would survive the anxiety long enough to find out the field trip destination. But, after what felt like forever and a half, she finally said, “The field trip will be on Thursday, so I’ll need you all to bring back permission slips no later than Wednesday. We’ll be leaving here at 9 o’clock,”
Sue Munsen’s hand shot up, then inched down again when Miss B clarified 9 AM.
“We are going to see the new astronomy exhibit downtown. From there, we will go on to have lunch at the Hilton House restaurant.” –This brought about an orgy-like enthusiasm from everyone except myself and Tim, the only ones new to the area.
“Who would like to explain the story of the Hilton House to those who aren’t familiar with it?” Miss B asked the class and the hand of every knowledgeable soul stretched for the ceiling. “Clint, why don’t you go ahead.”
Wendell crossed his arms and pouted as Clint explained to Tim and me, “It’s haunted by a guy that used to own it. He moves peoples’ plates an’ taps ‘em on the shoulder an’ sometimes people even see him.”
“Is he headless?” I asked, but the answer left me disappointed.
“Has he killed anyone?” Tim asked excitedly, his eyes huge and in danger of falling out onto his desk.
Miss B shook her head. “It’s said he’s a friendly ghost, so no need to worry. The owners have been kind enough to make lunch for all of us and give us a detailed history of the house and its legends.”
A hand went up. “Yes, Molly?”
“Before school, some of the boys were making fun of my bra, again.”
As Miss B lectured us about respecting one another, I leaned over and asked Tim, “Do you really think we’ll see a ghost?”
Tim shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Well, if you had a choice, would you actually wanna?”
He had to think it over. “I think so. What about you?”
“I guess. But what if he’s all bloody or screamin’? ‘Cause I might have nightmares.”
“Me, too. Like if you can see his guts an’ stuff.”
“But, if he’s nice, then no biggy, right?” I asked, digging for any reassurance that I had nothing to be scared of.
“Yeah, then who cares?”
“Yeah an’ if he spills ketchup on someone. That’d be cool.”
“Or if he shoves someone down the stairs.”
“Yeah,…well, maybe not, ‘cause if they get hurt, then we’ll have to come home early.”
Tim nodded, but fter a few seconds of silently weighing the pros and cons, added, “Well, if it was Sue Munsen…”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “that’d be funny.”
The Hilton House was a two-story Victorian trimmed with burgundies and pool table greens. The dining area was separated upstairs along with the kitchen, while the bottom floor acted as waiting room and bar. Upon entering, we were immediately wrangled upstairs by our hostess, Mrs. Brinkerhoff, and told to sit at any of the five tables already set up for us. In groups of five or less, we sat and ate our hastily prepared ham sandwiches on white bread and handfuls of Ruffles, while we were fed a monologue on Hilton House.
Mrs. Brinkerhoff wore a floor length, blue skirt, the edges of which were slightly discolored from their sweeping of the floors, and a heavy knit sweater adorned with a reindeer made up entirely of right angles. As she spoke, her gaze passed over us in a repetitive way, much like a typewriter that’s slow on the return.
“Hilton House was built as an inn in 1874 for the crews and passengers of the ships that docked nearby. Over the years, it changed proprietorship many times and has been everything from an inn, to a tavern, to a…” (she cleared her throat) “gambling house and other less reputable ventures. Then, in 1939, the house was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Considine.”
Tim and I laughed at the name Rufus, but Clint shh’d us. “Shut up, you guys. That’s the ghost.” Immediately, the fear of repercussions that might result from taunting the dead settled us back into silence. Worried that the ghost might have overheard us, Tim covered his own ass by suddenly mentioning that he had an uncle named Rufus, whom he loved very, very much.
Mrs. Brinkerhoff continued. “The Considines transformed the dilapidated inn into the dining establishment it is to this day. For years, the Considines were host to many of the northwest’s elite residents and noteworthy visitors. The mayor, at the time, Mr. Ronald Galben, said of the Hilton House, ‘It is my home away from home, even though I live only 3 blocks away.’ It was said that whenever possible, author Ernest Hemingway would make an effort to dine here, delighting the Considines and their guests with his tales of travel and war for hours on end.” Wendell raised his hand. “Yes, you in the hooded sweatshirt?”
“Did that guy have to eat the same lunches my mom makes, too?”
Ignoring the question, Mrs. Brinkerhoff continued. “For years, the restaurant prospered, until one day tragedy hit.” We immediately sat up in our seats. “In 1947, while carrying a case of canned peaches down from the attic, Mr. Considine slipped on the stairs and tumbled to his death. Well, naturally, his poor wife was devastated. She decided she could never run the business alone, so Mrs. Considine sold the house and moved east to live with her sister. Not long afterwards, people reported hearing footsteps in the attic and on the stairs, items would mysteriously disappear, then reappear in the most unusual of places. Some claim to have even seen Mr. Considine milling about the restaurant as though he were closing for the night.”
Alan asked, “Have you ever saw the ghost, Mrs. Brak-der…”
“Brinkerhoff. And, no, I’ve not seen it. However, about five years ago, my husband was just beginning to close for the evening when he noticed a patron still sitting at one of the tables, that table there, actually.” –she pointed to our table! Cool! “He told the man that he would have to ask him to leave as the kitchen had already closed. The man looked up, but said nothing. The clock began to chime and my husband turned to check the time. When he turned back around, the man was gone. Later, I showed him an old photograph I’d found in the attic and he recognized Mr. Considine as the man he’d seen in the chair.”
Just as we began to brag about what we would have done had he been in Mr. Brinkerhoff’s place, the sound of footsteps began echoing from the walls. Everyone went quiet. Somewhere between morbid excitement and basic cable-influenced fear, a chill raced up our backs like a squirrel up a tree. What if we had just heard a ghost? What if we actually got to see him? Would he be merciless to those of us who’d laughed at his first name? I came close to suddenly remembering that, oh yeah, I too had an uncle named Rufus, one I was ready to proclaim as my favorite uncle if the situation called for it. The footsteps, accompanied by the sound of glass, approached the kitchen door and I could see that even Miss B was somewhat concerned. It was hard to distinguish whether I was relieved or disappointed when Arturo the busboy entered the room with a tray of water glasses.
“Thank you all for coming and I hope to see all of you, again, very soon,” Mrs. Brinkerhoff said, as she led us back down to the entryway.
“Can’t we get to see the attic or the stairs?” Clint asked.
She answered, “I’m afraid not,” as she closed the front door.
No explanation, no apology, not even a half-assed excuse to explain away our feelings of being let down.
We had wanted to see a ghost, dammit. Well, if they couldn’t show us one, then we’d have to find one on our own. Luckily for us, Wendell told us all that he knew how to catch a ghost. When asked for specifics, he answered only that it was too complicated to get into right then, but to just trust him that it could be done.
NEXT Part 2 – Physical Contact