THE UBER GHOST- A TRUE STORY
Updated: Sep 29, 2022
The Uber Ghost- A True Story
The Pick Up:
I've been driving for Uber for three months. It’s been a positive experience; thoroughly enjoying all of the interesting people riding along with me. Some of the places that I've driven to have been appealing and intriguing. The pleasure comes from driving in Central New York during autumn, when there is a bright and awesome splash of color from all around the countryside. It stimulates the old eyes with bright palettes of red, gold and yellow popping up around every bend in the road, bringing smiles and complete contentment to my days.
It's Sunday, October 15th. A beautiful fall day in full swing and I had just completed my seventh hour on the road, with 14 trips behind me. I was feeling on top of the world, which is rare for me these days, as arthritis is usually hard at work stabbing my lower back and knees with hot unbearable pain. Old Art decided to take leave from his torture of me. I was glad he was absent- at least for the time being.
It was 6:20pm. I parked up on Onondaga Hill, waiting for my next Uber call. The sun was setting in the west, sending long shadows out across the city; like elongated fingers reaching across the treetops for something unseen. The temperature on my dashboard plunged from 70 to 62 within just five minutes. I pulled on my Syracuse University sweatshirt and just sat there waiting for the shadows to turn into the chill of evening dusk. I was watching it get dark when the app chimed in, signaling an Uber call. The ride to the pickup location was "10 minutes" and the rider's name was "Benjamin".
The location was near Tipperary Hill, an old Irish section of Syracuse. I pulled up to an old, well maintained, brick colonial just west of St. Michael's Cemetery, and there, on the front steps, showered in dim light from a lantern type fixture, stood an elderly man. He was wearing what looked like a long black wool coat and baggy dark pants. The first notable sign that gave away his old age was his sunken cheeks and the wispy white hair at his temples. The old man swiftly approached my car, which surprised me a little; I was envious. I wish I could move that quick. With my bad knees, that would be impossible.
I rolled down the passenger side window.
A pleasant Irish voice rang out, "Are you Thomas?"
"Yes, your name?"
He opened the back passenger door and dropped into the seat. I was busy with the app mounted on my dashboard. "Benjamin, it looks like you're going to McGraw, NY. Is that correct?"
"Yes, sir. 2314 Wellington Road."
"Got it. It's a fifty-minute trip. Hope you enjoy the ride."
I don't see a lot of my passengers. They often sit in the back seat and depending where they position themselves, I can only get a glimpse at part of their faces in my rearview mirror- if I'm lucky. Peeking into the mirror, I was chilled by what I saw. The man behind me looked almost.....dead. His cheeks were sunken hallows and pasty white. The whites of his eyes floated in sockets that resembled two dark caverns. His dress was also very peculiar. Under his wool coat, I could see a white shirt with a vest. His upturned shirt collar appeared stiff, a tie wound around the base of it, making him look like he stepped out from the 1800s. I was trying so hard at that point to lighten my mood some, as I was unsure if I was feeling nervous or frightened or both. Old Benjamin hadn't yet answered my hopes that he would enjoy the ride, so I tried to small talk myself out of my unease. "You take Uber a lot?"
He paused and then coldly said, "You're my first Uber ride. I hope I enjoy it."
I swallowed hard. Putting my eyes back on the road, I pulled away from the curb. As I drove to the next turn in the road, I realized that his voice no longer sounded pleasant. It would be a long fifty minutes.
A foreboding darkness had fallen onto the land all around us. A soft glow of the dashboard lights barely lit up the car's interior. The rearview mirror would only reveal the whites of my passenger's eyes, hanging there in the shadows, watching me.
The tires hummed on the surface of the highway, enhancing the edginess brought on by the sudden lack of conversation between me and Benjamin. My gut churned as we drove further from the city and into the night. I had a powerful urge to politely ask that Benjamin get out of my car and call for another ride but something kept my foot on the gas. We passed a road sign that read "Cortland/McGraw 29".
I heard movement from the backseat, then breath on the back of my neck. It was an icy exhale. A dead breath. Seconds later, he spoke into my ear. "Do you know what dead is like Thomas?"
I was afraid to answer. I filled my lungs with air, grateful that I could still perform that task. I gripped the wheel, hoping to God that he was even there to listen and to hear my silent prayer. To avoid the question, I had to turn my attention to other subjects. My lip started to quiver. My mouth was dry.
"I- I really, really need to pull over and... check my oil. Engine's been running hot. Can’t break down out here."
Benjamin whispered in my ear, "You can pull over... but you won't be able to get out."
Okay, I thought. Pull over quickly, stop, grab the phone, get out and hobble for your life! I didn't hesitate. I put my plan into action. The car slid as I hit some gravel on the side of the road, but the brakes quickly grabbed, sending me hard but snuggly up against the seat belt strap. I put the car into park and pulled the keys from the ignition. In the next instant, I unclipped the seat belt, swiped the phone off the magnet mount and pulled the door handle to open it. The problem is; it didn't open. I hit the door unlock button. Click, click. Still, the door remained locked. I pushed with my shoulder. No luck.
The old dead man giggled. "Thomas, I informed you that you wouldn't be able to get out. Just sit here and listen to me."
I turned sideways in my seat, with my back to the door. I turned and faced Benjamin. I was shaking and scared that I would soon join the man from wherever he came. "Why are you doing this? Who are you!?"
"I'm about to tell you. First, I'll ask you again. Do you know what it's like to be dead?"
I stared at the face that appeared to become paler and more translucent. My whole body was locked up in petrified fear; even my jaw was slow in moving to get the words out. "How would I know? I've never been dead."
The ghost leaned forward and put its boney fingers up onto the top of my seat. He glared at me. "You haven't got long, Thomas. You'll know soon enough. Let me explain."
A mournful sadness quickly took hold of his face. He dropped his head, his chin close to chest. "Dead for a hundred and twenty-five years and I’ve only talked to three people."
Benjamin looked at me with the saddest eyes I think I have ever seen. "You are the third, probably the last."
I eased up a bit with genuine curiosity. "Why am I the last?" "Because my energy is fading. Soon I will be just a shadow and then I'll be gone. Gone to where I don't know. But I'll be gone. Thomas, do you know what gone is like?"
I shook my head. Suddenly, I felt very sad for Benjamin. The ghost continued. "The shadow world is void of light or hope. What happens after the shadow existence is still a mystery to me, but being gone causes me much anguish, misery and fear. I can't dead like this."
I was confused. "There are worse things than being dead?"
Benjamin scratched his skull with his skeletal fingers and smiled. " Yes! Dead is now my life. I wish I could remain dead for eternity, but it doesn't work that way, unfortunately. Being gone is worse than dead."
I shifted a little more comfortably in my seat. Happy that I had returned to a more relaxed state. "What can I do for you, Benjamin?"
The ghost nodded his head. "Instead of sitting here in the dark on this country road, you could drive and get me to my destination. As we drive, I can explain. I’ll tell you what you can do for me."
This ride brought to me the most amazing moments of my life. Benjamin explained the nature of being a ghost and how I could help him.
"For over a century, I existed with the memories of when I was alive. I arrived in America from Ireland in 1852 and settled with my dear family here in Syracuse on Tipperary Hill. I worked as a tailor for my whole life until my death in 1893. A bullet to my stomach ended my life. It was a robbery. The thief took my gold pocket watch. Time went on for him. Time ended for me. He escaped being arrested for the crime. I come back to the neighborhood at least three times a week. I have searched everywhere for that gold watch, but I can't find it. Haunting the family of James Stirling, the man who ended my life, was useless."
"What happened to James?"
"He died in a motor car accident." Benjamin chuckled a bit. "Before he hit the tree, he recognized someone walking on the side of the road."
"Who was that?"
Benjamin smiled, but he was quick to dispel any misunderstanding. "I had no intention of ending his life. I would never take credit for his demise. I only wanted to talk to him and to ask him, 'why'? He deprived my family of me. All over a watch?"
"You never had that talk with him?"
"No, not while he was alive."
"You talked to him in death?"
"Yes." Benjamin sighed sadly. "He shot me and took my watch and sold it to put food on his table- for his wife and three children."
I was stunned. "That's a sad story.... but you said you haunted his family. Why?"
"I haunted them, hoping I could communicate to them and to explain that I forgave James for what he did, not thinking they would ever believe that he killed me." Benjamin sighed again. "I failed. I couldn't get through to them. They never fully understood James or me."
The turn off to McGraw was approaching. I had ten minutes left with Benjamin. "Only a few more miles to go. What can I do for you?"
"You know, it’s pretty silly for a ghost to take an Uber ride. I can travel much faster as a ghost, but I need you, Thomas. You listen and you believe in the spirit world. If you doubted me, you wouldn’t have possessed the ability to see this apparition of me. You can help with two things. Number one: Keep my memory alive. Keep my spirit alive by writing about me and who I was in life; helping me to avoid the world of shadows. I and my whole family existed for a reason and a purpose. I want to live on in life, even if only in a book. That book and the story it tells will live on for many generations. You can do this. You're a writer. Please, don't let me down. Number two: Contact the family of James and tell them what I told you. It's important that they know the truth about their ancestor. James deserves recognition for his good deeds in life, as well as his unfortunate mistakes. My stolen watch ended up saving a poor family, and James was only desperate to protect the ones he loved. Will you help me, Thomas?"
I drove Benjamin down a narrow country dirt road. Next to it was an old abandoned, boarded up farm house. I was driving slowly and was almost past the house when Benjamin spoke up. "Stop. This is it."
Benjamin explained that this was his family's property after his death. The Murphy family had lived on the property for seventy-eight years before leaving it in 1971. It’s where Benjamin felt the most comfortable. He would take great joy in watching his grandchildren and great grandchildren grow into adults and at night he would wander beneath the stars. When I dropped him off, the stars were shining brightly. He smiled and waved.
"Good night, Thomas."
It Was A Dream:
Driving back to Syracuse, I convinced myself that this experience could only be a dream. Then, I woke up. I stared at the ceiling, thinking about how detailed and vivid my visions had been and how it had stirred up such powerful emotions.
On October 21st, while taking a break from Uber, I stopped at a yard sale on Avery Ave in the Tipperary Hill area. Several items were displayed on a table. There were many of the usual: books, lamps, a toaster, cameras and jewelry. What caught my eye was an item that sat in a jewelry case behind glass. It was labeled:
"RARE 1886 TWO-TONE CHECKERBOARD AURORA SOLID 14K GOLD HUNTING CASE POCKET WATCH," The price was certainly beyond my reach: "$1,000."
I looked more closely at the intricate swirling design on its cover. It was certainly a work of beautiful craftsmanship. The owner sat nearby and noticed my interest in the watch. "Beautiful, isn't it? A neighbor of mine owned it years ago and when he died, his son gave it to me as a way of saying thanks for mowing his yard when his dad was sick. I'm selling it to help to cover some medical expenses. My wife died of cancer six months ago."
I was mesmerized, thought of James Stirling and his family, and asked the owner if I could hold it.
When I turned this beautiful timepiece over, I was shocked. On the bottom, etched into the case, was a scroll of beautiful black lettering spelling out a name: "Benjamin".
Coincidence? Maybe. But after doing some local research, I found that there was a man who lived in the Tipperary Hill section of the city in the late 1800s and he was a tailor by the name of Benjamin Murphy.
I think I may have to keep my promise that I made to the man in my dream.
The two-story wood frame house was owned by my friend Janet Fellows. It was now my temporary home until I could find something affordable for my cat, Pixie, and I. It’s hard to find friends like Janet. Friends since childhood. She was there for me when I desperately needed a place to stay. The early morning sun streamed in through the blinds, leaving soft patterns of light on the Livingroom wall. “Thomas, I read your Facebook post about that Uber ghost dream of yours. I wish you could have afforded that watch. That’s amazing!” Janet plopped down on the couch next to me. She sipped her coffee from her “Keep Calm” cup and smacked her lips. “Wonderful stuff!”
I was staring at my laptop computer screen. “Yes, it is amazing. I’m reading about Benjamin Murphy right now. He’s on ancestry.com.”
“It says here ‘that someone shot him dead and robbed him of his possessions’, but they never caught the killer’”.
Janet raised an eyebrow. “Come on, Thomas. You’re a writer. You made up that dream; cut me some slack.”
I shook my head at her. “No, honest. So help me God. I dreamt of Benjamin Murphy, just as I wrote in that post.”
Janet sipped her coffee while looking down into the cup. “This needs some brandy.”
The leaves were swirling down after a hard rain. Their colors were carpeting the roads and lawns as I drove along in my car. I passed the house on Avery Ave. where the yard sale took place nine days ago and had to pull over. Thoughts of that watch and that dream scratched at my brain like a frenzied animal. I couldn’t stop the itch. I exited the car and walked up the stone steps to the front porch. A Jack-o’-lantern grinned at me from its perch on a round table top; waiting to flash its evil smirk on the trick or treaters one night from now. I knocked once, and the door opened up, startling me. The elderly man, who was well into his late eighties, the one I recognized from the yard sale, stood before me. His frown greeted me.
“Can I help you?”
His voice wasn’t friendly at all. “Hello, sir. I was at your yard sale last week. We spoke. I was looking at the gold pocket watch.”
The frown turned up into a smile. He nodded. “Yes, I remember you. Sorry, folks who come to my door these days are trying to sell me something I don’t need or it’s some politician. Don’t need them either or what they’re trying to sell.”
I smiled. “I understand.”
A chilly wind blew across the porch, sending a few leaves scattering up against my pant leg. “I was wondering if you sold the watch.”
What the hell was I doing here, asking about an unaffordable gold watch? I should have more control over my impulsive behaviors. The man shook his head. “Sorry, young man. Sold it for cash to a man from Tully. It was quite unusual. Who walks around with over one thousand dollars in bills on them these days? He lingered a bit before buying it, but after the purchase, he left. Not even a goodbye. He was a quiet old chap. Said very little.”
I pulled the collar of my jacket up to protect my neck from the chilly breeze that was increasing in intensity. I wasn’t sure how long I should stand here talking to this man on his porch or how much I should reveal to him about Benjamin, besides my arthritic knees were aching from the colder weather, making it more difficult to stand in one place, but I needed more information about the watch. Satisfaction wouldn’t come unless I gave it more of an effort.
“Sir, I confess. I’m a writer and that watch you sold has quite a story behind it and if you’d allow me, I’d like to ask you some more questions about the history behind it and how it came into your possession.”
Putting my hands into my jacket pockets, I pulled the coat tighter around me and shivered; hoping he would take the hint and invite me into his home. The frown was back. “Look, I understand and appreciate your interest in my watch, but I don’t invite strangers into my home. Thanks for stopping bye.”
The door began to close. “Wait!” I held up my hand. “Can I call you on the phone? I don’t need to come into your home. This is important to me.”
He paused, peering at me through the small opening in the door space. He observed me as if I were now a bill collector or a serial killer. “Your name?”
“Thomas, Thomas Riddell. You can call me Tom.”
“My name’s Carl.” His head disappeared from view. When it returned, he handed me a yellow sticky note and a pen. “Write your number down. If I’m not busy, I might call you in a couple of days.”
The morning of Halloween was brisk, with a few flakes falling from a cloudy gray sky. I stuck my phone to the magnet mount on my dash and thumbed up the Uber app, waiting for a ride request. Rush hour had ended, so it was going to be slow for at least the next several hours. I sat there waiting, my mind preoccupied with other matters, which included my chat with Carl last night and, of course, Benjamin, the man of my dreams. Carl seemed elusive, maybe a little too suspicious of me. Or could it be dementia? Whatever the case, who could blame him for his reaction to me showing up at his door? After all, I was the crazy one, trying to connect an old gold watch with a silly dream I had. Suddenly the Uber app chimed. I had a ride request, but I disabled it and swiped it from the screen. An idea popped into my head. I opened up Google Earth and typed in “2314 Wellington Road, McGraw, New York.” I moved it to street view and looked around the property. “Oh, my God! It looks a lot like what I saw in my dream!” I put the car in drive, leaving behind a little tire rubber in Janet’s driveway. Time to find a ghost!
Big fat snowflakes fell, cascading over my windshield, giving my wipers a wintry workout. A dusting of white blanketed the farm fields as farmers hurried along on their tractors; trying to finish their chores after the fall harvest. The GPS showed I was only two minutes away from my destination as my heart pounded faster and my fingers tightly gripped the wheel. My body was preparing itself for flight or fight. Or fright! Dreaming of a ghost was a lot easier on the nerves than meeting one in person. Whoosh-Whoosh. The wipers moved in a hypnotic beat, nearly putting me in a trance, as I was now within sight of 2314 Wellington Road. I tried unsuccessfully to swallow away the lump in my throat as I saw the old farmhouse; looking exactly as it did in my dream. My foot came off the gas and I tapped the brakes, slowing the car down to within a few feet of the overgrown, weedy driveway. I stopped and cautiously moved my head around to look at the property. No dead man wandering around, but the temperature on my dashboard suddenly dropped from 34 to 23 degrees during the first thirty seconds of my arrival. I heard it mentioned on one of the TV ghost hunting shows; temperature drops were a sure sign of a spirit close by, so what was I supposed to do now? With such a dramatic change in temperature, my windows were quickly fogging up.
As I adjusted the defrosters, a loud tap tap came from the passenger front window. I froze. I was now in full-blown panic attack mode. There would be no flight for me. I could feel my testicles shrivel up. The tapping on my window was now becoming more urgent. Whoever or whatever, it stayed put, and right now, I couldn’t speak to save my life. Cocooned in the frosty cabin of my car, I stared at the icy passenger window, wondering what I would see on the other side once the defrosters melted away that thin veil of frost. I wondered if I should roll down the window and face it. My finger found the roll down button and as I pressed it, the window lowered and a man’s voice rang out.
“What are you doing here?”
It wasn’t a pleasant greeting. A grizzled man puffing clouds of warm breath from his mouth stood there in the window, wearing a fur lined denim coat with a gray scarf wrapped around his neck. I stared back, unsure of what I would tell him, but I was exceedingly happy he wasn’t a ghost. His head was through the window now, displaying an agitated scowl.
“Look, mister. I have little time here. Why are you parked here?”
“Do you know who used to live here?”
“Sure, I do. Who are you? Are you another one of those ghost hunters?”
I realized I was now making ghostly connections to my dream. This was real. “I’m not a ghost hunter-”
“Well, you can’t be here. It’s private property and I’m the caretaker of this place. We’ve had enough kooks around here, so please leave.”
He leaned back out of the window, still scowling at me. He tucked his scarf in more snuggly around his neck and walked away. “Wait! I need to talk to you,” I urged.
He stopped, his shoulders slumped, and he turned around to face me, clearly getting more annoyed. “What is the matter with you? It’s cold out here.”
“Can’t we meet in town? I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. I really need to talk to you.”
He sighed, nodded and pointed. “Down the road is a diner. Charlie’s Diner. I’ll meet you there in about fifteen minutes.”
I raised the window back up and cranked up the heat. The dashboard showed that it was now 20 degrees outside of my car; a fourteen degree drop since I had pulled up to the Murphy property. Something was happening here. I was on the precipice of uncovering a truth. Is it possible to bring back the spirit of a man who hasn’t lived for over a century?
The diner was clearly one that had probably been in operation since at least the 1930s or 1940s. The lingering aroma of bacon and eggs welcomed me as I stepped inside. Seated at a far-end booth, the man was sipping out of a coffee mug. He raised a hand to get my attention. I slid over on the red vinyl bench seat across from him and nodded and smiled. “Guess I should introduce myself. I’m Tom. Tom Riddell.”
I reached across the table to offer my hand, but he didn’t raise his to shake mine; he remained silent as he took another drink of coffee, his blue eyes staring at me, sizing me up. I wanted to leave at that point. I realized he wasn’t interested in who I was, but something stopped me. He sat the cup back down and cleared his throat.
“I don’t mean to be impolite, but I’ve heard it all before. Stories about the property being haunted. People looking and listening around the house. The town is tired of it and I am too. I’ve got a job to do and a farm to run. I don’t want to hear stories about ghosts and other stuff. If there’s something else you have to say, start talking.”
While scratching the back of my head, a waitress appeared. “Can I get you something, honey?”
“Um, yeah,” I hesitated. “How about a hot chocolate with whip cream?”
“Sure. Larry, you ready for a free refill?”
Finally, a name to go with the face. “No, don’t think I’ll be sticking around for another cup. Thanks anyway, Francis.”
Francis turned to me and smiled. “I’ll be right back with your hot chocolate.”
I nodded as she sped away. Looking back at Larry, I said, “I hope you understand that I’m not here to cause you or anyone else trouble or to trespass on your property. I’m not a ghost hunter. I’m a writer looking for information about a family. I would-”
“Stop. Writing for who? Are you a reporter?”
I was still irritating him. “No, I’m writing for myself. I freelance my stories, if others are interested.”
Larry’s eyes narrowed and his forehead creased even deeper, showing a greater distrust in me than when I walked in. “Who’s the man you’re writing about? The one who you believe lived on the property.”
“His name is Benjamin Murphy. He was a tailor back in the late 1800s. He was robbed and murdered over a gold pocket watch, and I want to write his story. In fact, I need to write his story. Do you know anything about him or his family?”
Larry leaned across the table, his voice was barely above a whisper, but singed with anger. “What I know is he and his family wouldn’t want you meddling around in ancient affairs. After you drink your chocolate, leave town.”
Larry quickly drank the last of his coffee and stormed away from the table. At that precise moment, something strange happened. The overhead lights in the diner blinked on and off and the jukebox began playing ragtime piano tunes. I could hear Francis giggling at the oddity as I watched Larry exit the diner and enter his truck through the window. As the jukebox played The Entertainer, a lively and cheery piano rift from 1902, I watched in amusement as Larry banged his fists on the steering wheel of his truck. Apparently, his battery was dead. Francis sauntered over with hot chocolate in hand, staring out the window with me.
“Here’s your hot chocolate, dear.”
She placed the steaming cup down in front of me and shook her head. “That Larry is going to have himself a coronary if he isn’t careful.”
I nodded and took a sip out of the cup. “You know him well?”
“I know him enough. He gets himself worked up over so many insignificant things. There are rumors about ghosts on the property he watches.”
She seemed amused at the idea. I acted as though I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Ghosts? Where?”
“At the old Murphy homestead.” Francis sat down, still looking out the window at him; where he was still having a fit. “A few ghost hunting groups have showed up in town lately, claiming they’ve gotten strong readings on the property.”
I was interested. “Readings?”
“Yeah, they claimed they had several quick temperature drops of over fifteen degrees in less than ten seconds. And this little story caught everyone’s attention. A Teenager in town had just gotten his license and drove past the Murphy house back in August and claimed a man ran up to his car and punched his driver side window, smashing it to smithereens, but the kid said the man ‘disappeared into thin air’. The kid caught hell from his parents when he got home. They had just bought the car for him on his birthday and they didn’t believe the poor kid’s story. Friends of mine say he’s still pretty shook up over what happened.”
I couldn’t help but think, was it Benjamin who smashed the window? “The kid ever say what the man looked like?”
Francis gestured towards a customer who came through the diner door. She turned back to me. “No. Kid won’t talk to anyone about it. Hey, enjoy your hot chocolate.”
Francis walked away to greet the customer. I sat there more curious than ever, swirling the hot contents of my cup around, wondering what to do next. Larry had exited his truck and was angrily trudging back into the diner. He burst through the door and headed my way. His face was cherry red, probably from the cold, and his temper was simmering. His voice was insistent.
“Hey, I need to use your phone. Mine went dead.” I bristled with irritation at his demand, but I was puzzled.
“Your truck battery and your phone battery went dead at the same time?”
Larry didn’t seem the least bit curious, and snapped at me with a sarcastic tone. “It’s Halloween, you idiot. What do you expect?”
I reluctantly handed him my phone. “Here. Mine has a full charge.”
He turned and walked a few steps away to gain some privacy while making his call. I overheard a few words. “Jumper cables” and “Crazy things”. A minute later, he turned back to me and handed me the phone. “Thanks.”
He walked away again, but I couldn’t let him leave without speaking up. “Larry, you mentioned ‘crazy things’ on your phone call. Is it the cell phone and truck battery going dead at the same time that makes it crazy? What’s happening here? Can’t you just talk to me?”
He ignored me and took a few steps towards the door and hesitated before turning around. He glared at me, as if he was trying to decide how he should react to me, and then he sat down across from me. Gravity was pulling at the features of his face, making him look more careworn than when I first met him. He nodded grimly.
“Okay, I’ve got a little time before my brother arrives. I’ll talk to you. I’ll tell you what I know. There’s a kind of unknown energy at the Murphy homestead. It seems electrical in nature, and I’ll be damned if I can’t find out what’s causing it. But it sometimes follows me around, like the crazy things that just happened here. The lights, the jukebox and my truck and cell phone. It makes no sense.” He paused, rubbing a rough and weathered hand over his forehead.
“I’m sounding like those goofy ghost hunting freaks.”
Here was my opening. “Maybe they’re not so goofy. You wouldn’t talk about him earlier, but what do you know about Benjamin Murphy or his family? Maybe a connection between them and these mysterious energy drains?”
Larry sighed and hung his head, appearing defeated. He chuckled. He looked exhausted when he raised his head. “Many stories about Benjamin on local internet sites than there is corn in my field. During these times, you don’t know what to believe. We live in an upside-down world and everyone has their own truth. There’s a hundred ‘truths’ out there; and they’re all different. So, I’m supposed to choose one of them? I deal in logic, not fairytales and ghost stories.”
I leaned forward to help in making a point. “Let’s go with logic- it can’t explain what happened here today and I’m only asking what you know about the Murphy family? From your knowledge and experiences working on their property.”
Larry leaned back and stared at me for several long seconds, as if trying to gauge me again. “This thing that you’re writing about Benjamin Murphy is it going into a book?”
He let out a long breath; a sign that the wall might come down between us. “Okay, going to be honest with you. I have worked hard in my life and I still do. I’ve got a reputation in this town of sometimes being a hardass, but that’s just me and I will not change. Some of us old timers care deeply about this place and have worked the fields for decades to bring some economic stability to our families and to McGraw. When outsiders like you and these ghost nuts come rolling in here, you threaten our community with ridiculous stories that turn us into a laughingstock for others to prey upon. We all know Roswell, New Mexico and those alien UFO stories. Perfect example. I want to help you. Mostly I want these strange occurrences to stop and if there’s even a slim chance in Hell that these things are paranormal and connected to a ghostly Benjamin Murphy, and telling you what I know somehow gets my life back to normal, I’m in. But I’m not sure I want my name mentioned in your book. Can you give me that guarantee?”
“We might work around that, sure. What can you tell me? What do you know about Benjamin Murphy?”
“You’re not recording our conversation, are you?’
“No, I can assure you I am not recording you.”
“Okay.” Larry leaned forward and kept his voice low. “The Murphy family kept a diary regarding Benjamin and his life right after he died. In that diary, there was mention that Benjamin also kept a diary before his death, but no one ever found his diary. Do you know why I’m practically whispering this to you?”
I whispered, “Why?”
“Because I have Benjamin Murphy’s diary.”
Just as Larry began to tell his story, his brother came and jump started the old truck. I followed Larry back to the Murphy property and pulled into the driveway. Kids were now walking along the roadway dressed in their spooky best. I saw the Mummy, Dracula and one teenager walking along with blood all over the front of him and a butcher knife protruding out of his belly. They all eyed us and chuckled and the one with the knife stuck in him mocked and hollered, “I’m Ben Murphy!”
They continued walking down the road with a few snickering and glancing back over their shoulders. I got out of my car and walked up to Larry, who was glaring at the trick or treaters. “Damn kids, no respect for this town and certainly no respect for the dead, either. And stupid too. Ben didn’t die from a knife.”
The man before me now seemed like a battered old guy who just wanted to get something off his chest but was afraid who to talk to. After all, he didn’t want internet fame because he was old school and he seemed to warm up to me probably because I was closer to his age and maybe he had the idea that I might understand better than some of the younger kids, like the ones who were now passing us on the road. He led me up some rotted old front porch steps and into the home that my dream ghost said he frequented.
A strong musty odor greeted me as I walked into what must have been the living room. Stepping over two overly filled garbage bags, I followed Larry into a small dining room. Larry flicked on a cobweb covered light fixture above our heads, providing a semblance of comfort and contentment; sentiments that were lost and abandoned several decades ago. I looked at the forlorn and tired man who stood next to me and I couldn’t fathom for the life of me what this self-proclaimed caretaker of this property was doing here. The peeling gray paint and these dirty and cluttered rooms looked anything but cared for. I didn’t want to offend him by asking the obvious questions and I didn’t want to lose the chance of maybe seeing and reading the diaries. I didn’t want to divert from the trust that was developing between Larry and I.
Larry seemed to read my thoughts; after a long sigh and a nod, he explained. “Yeah, I admit, I haven’t done such a great job of tidying this old house up, and few would understand, and some would even think that my noodle had slipped out of my damn skull, but there’s something going on in this place that stops me even if I pick up a broom.”
For someone who seemed to shun the ghost hunter stories, I sensed Larry was about to tell me a tale that would rival the best of them. Strangely, I felt that there were other ears in this house who would also listen to what Larry might be ready to say.
“Larry, what stops you from cleaning?”
He looked to the floor, smiled, chuckled, and shook his head. “This may sound ridiculous to you but every time I make an honest attempt at doing my job around here, I get these urges to go in that room back there,” He motions with a nod of his head to a room behind him, off from the kitchen. “And to keep reading those gosh darn diaries. I’m telling you, it drives me crazy. Don’t know what gets into my head!”
I was entertaining a thought at that moment, and I was almost certain that Benjamin was the one sneaking into his brain. I remembered the conversation I had with Ben from my dream. He simply wanted his story told and his efforts with me to comply with his wishes and to pay attention to him were extreme. After Larry spoke of these urges he was having, I was sure of it. Benjamin had taken residence in Larry’s consciousness, just as he had done with me. Only Larry didn’t need to be dreaming. He was clearly wide awake. I asked Larry to continue with his story.
He said, “Do you know what’s hell bent insane? I hate reading! I’ve maybe read three or four books in my entire life, and that was way back in high school. It’s something I just don’t do, mostly because a farmer’s life just doesn’t allow for it. But those books back there? They literally pulled me into them. I’m literally shackled to them and I don’t just want to read them. For some ungodly or unholy reason, I need to read them.”
Larry’s newfound trust in me and his uninhibited honesty in telling his story sent prickles of shivers down my spine. To quell the building anxiety that was slithering around inside of me, I took an old McDonalds bag and swiped at and cleared most of the cobwebs that hung ominously above our heads around the light. I suppose it would have been helpful to Larry, at that moment, to assure him he wasn’t alone in experiencing the bizarre and I could have told him about the details of my dream and what truthfully brought me to McGraw on this Halloween, but I also didn’t want him to dismiss me as some kind of nut, which he obviously had done with the ghost hunting groups, so I kept that tale to myself, for the time being.
“When did you start reading them and has anyone else read them?”
“I came here to the Murphy place almost six months ago and found the books buried in that back room under another pile of old books. Those volumes of books are so old and battered from being in this place for so long that I wondered how the best way was to dispose of them and I decided to burn them all in a bonfire in the back yard. I tossed them all into a cardboard box and it was then that I noticed the words ‘Murphy Diaries’ stenciled on the covers. I found Benjamin’s diary in an old safe that I broke into. The Murphy’s talked of not being able to find Ben’s diary in their written entries, but someone in the family must have known of its existence and kept it a secret because someone locked it away in the safe, not wanting Ben’s writings to see the light of day. I’m the only one living that I know of that knows about and have read the diaries. You and I are now the only ones that even know they exist.”
I was getting so excited that it was hard to contain myself. That ghost in my dream was real, and I was on the verge of actually meeting Benjamin; not in a whispery voice presented in a misty, ghostly dreamy image, but in tangible form- words on a page, his story, just as he wanted it.
“Can I see it? Can I read it?” The words squeaked, exiting my mouth. I hoped Larry didn’t pick up on my nervous excitement.
“Sure,” he said, seeming to be relieved.
He moved past me into the back room. He re-emerged with a leather-bound black book in his hands. It was the size of a family bible. He handed it to me. “I’m glad you’re going to read it, Thomas. It’ll take some of the burden off my shoulders.”
“Why a burden?” I asked. Larry seemed to shrink within himself at my question.
“Well, I don’t subscribe to believing in ghosts, but I have to admit, with all the talk around these parts about him, it has kind of spooked me a little. You’ll understand once you get to reading about him. Some things he talks about, gives me the creeps.”
The black leather covered diary felt cool in my hands. Maybe a bit too cool was how I was internalizing it. The name “Benjamin Murphy” stood out in gold stenciled printing. The letters looked like they had just been printed on the cover. Nothing had faded in the one hundred and twenty-plus years since Ben had last made an entry. I wanted to open the cover and read a few lines from it, but Larry still stood before me and I wanted to ask him another question that was eating at me before I decided how I was going to pursue reading about Ben’s life.
“Larry, at the diner you mentioned about the ‘strange occurrences’, like the electrical problems with the jukebox and your truck. That kind of thing happening here too?”
Larry rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, as if he was deciding how much he wanted to divulge. “Yep. Every now and then.”
The look in his eyes and a nervous tick of his cheek confirmed to me he’d rather not talk about it. He kept looking down at the diary in my hands. “You can take that home with you. I have to get back to the farm. My daughter’s coming over later with the grandkids. Got some cleaning to do and a few bags of candy to break open for them tonight.”
Larry turned and strolled towards the front door. I reluctantly followed. The floorboards creaked under foot, as my mind wandered back to what Benjamin said to me in my dream. “Being gone is worse than dead.” Even though I held Benjamin’s diary; and the seeds of the story I would write in my hands- leaving the house where the ghosts weren’t given a chance to speak to me unsettled me. Listening to dead people talk to me wasn’t high on my list of what I wanted to do on Halloween. Or at least it wasn’t before Benjamin visited me in my sleep.
Larry was muttering something in front of me, but I couldn’t hear the words. I was preoccupied with looking around the old house and wondering: Who locked Benjamin’s words away in a safe and why? And what would I learn about Benjamin from his diary that I didn’t already know? I was also struggling with whether I should tell Larry my story or keep it to myself. During those moments when I walked through the remnants and the musty abandoned dwelling of the Murphy family, I decided Larry didn’t need to know. He seemed more emotionally on edge than when I first met him. He guarded himself in a way, that maybe kept him from falling over the edge and I certainly didn’t want to be the one to push him, or hasten his exit from this life, where he no longer would be able to enjoy his family and his grandkids.
I gingerly stepped down the broken front steps and walked to the driveway. Larry stood there smiling and facing me with his hand out. “It was nice to meet you, Thomas, even if I was cautious of you in the beginning.”
I shook the farmer’s firm hand and returned the smile. “Nice to meet you too, Larry.” I held the diary up. “When should I return this to you?”
Larry shook his head. “No need for it. As I said, his words took me away from my chores around here. I’m obligated to fix this place up. That there diary is a distraction, and it’s too much of a bother for me. Just glad to be rid of it. It’s yours to enjoy now.” He winked and smiled. “Well, gotta get ready for the grandkids.”
He turned and hurried to his truck. I was parked behind him. Feelings of relief washed over me when my old car started up and I was extra relieved when I heard Larry’s truck rumble to life. I gave Larry a toot on the horn and headed home.
The sun was peeking through white puffy clouds as I drove along into the early afternoon. It was turning into a better day and the outlook for a warmer Halloween evening was on the horizon. Much better for the kids who would be out wandering from doorway to doorway in their finest, scariest, and cutesy costumes. Looking at my dashboard, I noticed that the temperature had risen to forty-seven degrees; at least a twenty degree climb since leaving McGraw. Should that meteorological fact alarm me? Should anything that happened today suggest that I had inadvertently stepped into a world that was anything but normal? My measure of that would be, who would actually believe the story I would tell them? That I dreamed of a man that I had never heard of and the tangible proof that the man had existed sits next to me within a black leather-bound diary with his name stenciled on the front cover? To reassure me of its permanence, I placed my palm onto the cover of the book as I watched the road ahead. I was shocked at how cold the book felt under my hand. It seemed to radiate a chill into my hand, the same way a frozen dinner felt when first removing one from a freezer. I lifted my hand and shook my head. I said to myself, “No one in their right mind would believe my story. ‘A coincidence’ they’ll say or ‘You’re just making it up. That’s what you do. You’re a writer.’. But how would they explain away a leather-bound book that feels like ice to the touch, after sitting in a warm car for twenty minutes?”
I had an urge to pull over and to examine the strange oddity of the diary further, maybe to read a few of the pages, but I drove on. I thought of Larry and now wondered if his gifting of the diary to me wasn’t, in fact, a friendly gesture at all; maybe it was just the opposite. Maybe he knew that it somehow changed him for the worst and he just wanted to be rid of it and maybe he really didn’t like me at all, maybe he wanted me to be consumed by the “creepy” things that he said Benjamin wrote. Larry’s words resonated with me now, while on the road back home:
“I get these urges to go in that room back there and to keep reading those gosh darn diaries. I’m telling you, it drives me crazy. I don’t know what gets into my head!”.
Obviously, I’m now having those same urges. An abrupt thought quickly jumped out at me. Maybe I should just toss the damn thing out the window and be done with it. It would be simple. It would be easy. But I couldn’t do that. The coldness and the curiosity of that book had me hooked, and I knew I would seek more from its contents. On top of all that, I owed it to Ben. I had made a promise, and I knew I had to keep it. It was no longer a choice. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and stared ahead, but occasionally I glimpsed in the rearview mirror, half expecting to see two eyes dancing around back there behind me. This was already a Halloween that I would never forget.
Janet was sitting on the couch, crocheting a blanket for her grandson and watching Dr. Phil when I walked in. Her eyes were alternating between her crocheting needles and the wise bald man on TV. Dr. Phil was in the middle of lecturing a mother and daughter about their opposing views on the use of birth control. “Hello Mr. Uber, how was your day?”
I considered giving her a courteous abridged version of the day by saying, “living the dream”, which would have been eerily accurate, but I went with, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Janet’s eyes dropped to her needles, which were busily clicking away and pulling yarn. It didn’t appear that her world would change after I told her my bizarre story. Not that she wouldn’t be interested. She was always interested, but life never seemed to rattle her cage much. She just seemed to be a person who took everything in stride. “So, tell me, maybe Dr. Phil and I can sort through it all.”
She looked up and smiled. I sat my carryall bag on the floor next to the couch. Inside was the diary and settled down next to Janet. I sighed. “Didn’t Uber today. Drove down to McGraw.”
I looked at her to see how she would react. I was hesitant because I really wanted her to believe me. Hell, I needed her to believe the story I was about to tell her and the truth be told; it was hard for me to wrap my brain around the absurdity of it all. She put her needles and yarn down and her eyes found mine. Her mouth dropped open slightly. “It’s still about that dream, isn’t it?”
She was accepting the reality of the dream; this wasn’t a writer’s fantasy story. I told her everything that happened, from the talks I had with Larry and Frances, but I omitted the last part about obtaining the strange diary. I wanted to surprise her with what I had in my bag. If anything would seal the truth of the story, it would be that icy cold book, but that moment would have to wait. I wanted to hear what she thought so far.
She gestured with her hand to the TV. “You should be sitting up there with Dr. Phil. What a story, but what about that kid who had his car window smashed out? Maybe you could talk to him and did you get to read any of the diaries?”
I shifted on the couch and leaned back. I needed the comfort of the cushions at that moment. “No, I didn’t ask anymore about the kid. Frances was busy and Larry? Well, he seemed in a hurry to leave and to get to his grandkids, or he could have been spooked by being in that house with me. He seemed hurried, or maybe he was about to slip completely off his cracker. I don’t know. But I didn’t want to be the one to prompt that scene, so I was happy to be on my way.”
“The diaries? Did you read them yet?”
I reached for my carryall bag and brought it onto my lap. I could feel the coolness through the cloth of the bag and through my jeans. Apprehension was gripping my gut. There could have just as easily have been a rattlesnake in that bag and I didn’t know if I was about to get bit. I reached in and pulled out the black book with the gold lettering on the front and held it up for Janet to see. She said what I first thought when I saw it. “It looks new.”
“I thought the same thing when Larry brought it to me, but that’s not what perks my curiosity.” I held it out to Janet. “Hold it and tell me what you think.”
Janet took the diary in her hand, something she had done for years with books. She was a retired county librarian. Nothing could have prepared her for the shock and surprise that registered on her face and the trembling of fear that shook her voice. Something had finally sufficiently rattled her cage.
“What the fuck is this!!?” She dropped the book on the floor. Her face went pale.
I attempted to explain all the theories that these ridiculous ghost hunting shows offered about dropping temperatures and such, but that frankly did little to curb our concerns and our need for a more reality-based explanation. Honestly, there were no scientific explanations as to why leather and paper would take on the properties of an ice cube and something else occurred to me. Why hadn’t Larry talked about the icy feel of the book? Did it finally chill and freeze up after I came into possession of it? Was it maybe possessed by the spirit of Benjamin and presented to him as a vehicle for him to ride in? Did it offer him the means to once again be with his favorite Uber driver? Anyway, Janet wanted the book out of her house, so I complied and put it in one of those paper freezer bags you put ice cream in at the grocery store and tucked it into a small compartment in the back of my vehicle. Not sure why I even cared about trying to preserve the chill of that diary, but I assume I was trying to preserve Benjamin’s spirit and maybe it was a last-ditch effort to stop him from slipping away into the shadow world and ultimately preventing him from being gone.
As I slammed the hatch shut, I exclaimed out loud, “You’re a cool guy, Benjamin. I’m going to do my best to keep you that way!” On November 2, I would free the diary from storage and begin to read it, away from Janet, down at the county library.
I settled into a comfy couch in the reading room with my carryall bag and looked around at my surroundings. A young boy and his mother stood nearby looking at a shelf of children’s books, but the boy seemed agitated and didn’t seem interested. He kept asking his mom to give him his electronic tablet. He pleaded, “Mom, please, let me play my game. Please?”
His mother chided, “No. You need to read books. That’s why we’re here.”
She took a book off the shelf and thumbed through the pages. The only other person in the room sat on a couch in the corner near the door. I assumed he was a college student. Glasses with short cropped brown hair and a book bag at his feet. He chuckled lightly, amused at the mini drama that was playing out between the mother and her child. What would win out the tablet or a book? The normalcy of the people and my surroundings soothed me, but any comfort that I was enjoying would be nullified by the object in my carryall bag. I was interested in reading the diary but wondered if I would get frost bite by handling the pages.
The college student dropped his head back down to read from a paperback he was holding, and the mother and child left, headed for the checkout. The mother had a book clutched firmly in her hand; adamant that the boy would soon become a reader, or at least that was the hope of his insistent parent. I reached in and brought out the diary. Cool in my hand, it didn’t seem as cold as it did when I handed it to Janet two days ago. Was Benjamin losing his cool? Or, maybe a better way to put it; was Benjamin losing more of his energy?
I held the binding of the book in my left hand and thumb riffled through the pages, observing the beautiful cursive writing within. It appeared to have been written with one of the first massproduced fountain pens, which were popular in the 1880s. The letters looped and slanted perfectly on the page, reminding me of an art form that had all but disappeared in our modern culture. Letter writing and the keeping of diaries had all now been relegated to electronic devices, and I now wondered, would books and diaries, like the one I held in my hand, be gone in one or two hundred years from now? Gone. There’s that word again. The memory of Benjamin resurfaced. “Being gone is worse than dead.”
Okay, it was time to read. The page turned nicely and crisply, and I detected no chill from a single page. This book felt new, and nowhere near one hundred and thirty years old, but it was that old, of that I had no doubt.
Benjamin Murphy- Wednesday, July 18, 1856
Today, I write with great sadness from my shattered and tortured heart. Cora, Earl and their sweet baby Effie are gone. Yesterday, they were on their way to enjoy a picnic in Shaeff’s Woods, near Philadelphia, when their train collided with another. 59 people were killed in what the paper is calling “The Great Train Wreck”. I learned of the death of my brother and his family by telegraph yesterday afternoon. My brother and I had our disagreements and a few fisticuffs, but I never wanted this sort of ending for him and his dear young family. The grim reaper came without a trace of remorse and pruned several more branches from our family tree.
I shall never understand the depth of our sorrow, when all we desired from our flight from Ireland, just 4 years ago, was a new and fresh start here in the new and promising land of America. It pains me to see such great ingenuity lost to human error and stupidity. Two trains collided on a single track! Flames stole the life from Cora, Earl and Effie and now I burn with grief and a tremendous and widening regret that we should have stayed in Ireland. America is growing too fast for its britches. But since I’m now a prospering tailor here in Syracuse, I guess I’ll be working to alter those same britches, or the growing ignorance of a budding nation. When I see stupidity and recklessness, it deeply angers me. A case in point, those miscreant engineers and conductors in Philadelphia who weren’t paying attention and if I had my way, well, not sure I want to divulge what I would do to them here in this journal.
I’ve got some stitching to do.
Tomorrow’s another day. Life, agonizingly goes on…
Benjamin Murphy- Friday, July 20, 1856
The Syracuse Standard reported that the conductor of the other train, the one that hit my brother’s train, killed himself with arsenic after confessing to causing the mishap. This is good. He made things easier for me, if ever I had the chance to meet him. I’m thinking, from my writings on Wednesday, I have to wonder if I willed Mr.Vanstavoren to swallow down that arsenic. I guess I’ll never know. But it’s amusing to think I may have had something to do with his demise.
The shop was slow today, but that’s the way it is during a hot summer. Fewer clothes on, less work. Had a few button holes to stitch up and fix and later in the day, Mr. Latten stopped in with some wool coats that needed some work. Said he wanted to get a start on winter. We talked some. I told him about Earl and his family and he offered condolences. Asked me when the burial would be. That’s a hard question, since many people were burned beyond recognition. Earl, Cora and Effie were members of that dead group of corpses. I told him, “Burned to ashes. They went back to the earth and their spirits are where they need to be.” He patted me on the back and said, “Ben, they’ll always be with you. You’re a good man.” Mr. Latten is a good man who has a son, probably close to my age, who works at Onondaga Lake boiling brine and pushes salt. I met him once. A big fella who stands close to 6’ tall. A barrel of a chest. He pushes wheel barrels full of salt. I push a needle and thread. People look at me oddly at times, probably wondering why I’m not more of a man, in their eyes, but each of us is built differently. Mr. Latten flips me a silver dollar and tells me, “Have a better day, Ben. My family will pray for you and yours.” Better days are ahead, I guess.
Time to close shop and head down to Hanover Square. People milling about down there and there’s a man shouting something. Going to see what all the commotion is about.
Just some old bloke reading passages from a bible, sounding off about the world ending and the evils of slavery. When I get down to where all the hollerin is, Jimmy Benson yells out to me: “Hey Ben, stick a needle in him and sew up his lips!” He laughs. Jimmy should know, the man has his right to speak, but speakin can get you in terrible trouble these days. You start moving those lips in front of some people, ye might get your ass beat nearly to death with a cane, just as that Senator Sumner did in May. Congressman Brooks is now a hero in the south. Violence. More of it to come as people lose their minds over slavery. Me? I can see both sides. People get irate when they lose their property or when the property decides to up and run away- just as a horse might. I lost a few horses and was not happy about it, but ye can’t blame the horse. Or maybe ye can. I don’t know. All I know is prayers and this fella’s prechin ain’t gonna stop the beatings and the blood of armies from flowing. God has other plans. I know it. I can feel it.
So, I thought, this is who Benjamin Murphy is, or at least the younger version. Understandably revengeful over the death of his family and a careless mistake, he’s also someone who tries to understand both sides of an explosive issue like slavery; even though equating a horse as property as being the same as a human being is ignorant and cruel but, that was the mindset of many back in those times. Young Ben seems to be prophetic as well, something that he obviously brought along into his elder years. I remember him telling me in the dream regarding dying and what it feels like to be dead, “You haven’t got long, Thomas. You’ll know soon enough.” This man in 1856 also knew that a civil war was coming, but couldn’t the same prediction have been made by thousands of others in the country? “I know it. I can feel it.” Somehow, it seemed to be more than a prediction with Benjamin.
I tilted my head up from the diary and took in my surroundings. The college kid was still seated next to the door and two middle-aged women were walking along together near a tower of books along the far wall. Just as I was about to head back into Benjamin’s diary, my phone vibrated inside my jacket pocket. I got up and hurried out into the lobby, away from the quiet area. “Hello.”
There was silence and then, “Hello, Thomas? This is Carl on Avery Avenue.”
With all the excitement of the diary, I almost forgot about Carl. I didn’t really expect that he would call, but here he was. I was excited and went directly to a lobby chair and sat down. “Hello, Carl. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Listen, I don’t know what you want to know about the watch, but as you know, it was very special to me, coming from my neighbor, and it seems to me that you know more about it than I do. How can I help you?”
“Well, the engraving on the back has the name of Benjamin Murphy. Do you know of him or who he was?”
“Uh, no. Just a name to me. Paid it little mind. The man from Tully, who bought the watch from me, asked me the same question. Strange, the chap said very little, but he mentioned the name on the watch. It was as if he lit up inside when he turned the watch over and saw the engraving. I should ask you, do you know this Benjamin Murphy?”
This was now turning into an even bigger puzzle. Who was this man from Tully? “Ben Murphy lived in the middle to late 1800s. He was a tailor here in Syracuse. He was murdered in 1893. Quite possibly, he lost his life over that watch. You said you don’t have the name of the guy who bought the watch from you?”
“No. Old guy. Probably in his middle to late eighties. I heard him tell someone standing next to him he was from Tully, New York. He inquired about the watch. Turned it over in his hand a few times, asked about the name, and then he just pulled out a big wad of cash and peeled off twenty fifty-dollar bills. He left quickly after the sale. Almost like he couldn’t get out of here fast enough.”
I was fairly certain, from the way Carl told it, that the Tully man knew more about the watch than either Carl or I did. I kept that to myself. “Thank you, Carl. You’ve been very helpful. I don’t want to take any more of your time.”
“Okay, Thomas, but you told me you were a writer. Are you going to write about my watch?”
His watch. “Any publication is quite a ways off yet and if I write about either you or the watch, I will let you know beforehand. You have my word.”
“Yes, please let me know. Good day to you, Thomas.”
He ended the call. I sat there, perplexed. An elderly man walks into a yard sale with over $1,000 in cash in his pocket, is excited to see an engraved name on the back of a gold pocket watch and then hands over twenty fifty-dollar bills before quickly leaving the property. There has to be a lot more to this story and I’ve just now committed myself to dig even further into the saga of Benjamin Murphy. I’ve got a lot more reading to do, but I’ll do it in my locked room at Janet’s. If there’s a malevolent spirit hitch hiking along in the book, I hope it won’t show itself. At least I hope it leaves Janet alone.
When I got home, I notice that Janet’s car was gone. She must have gone shopping or is visiting her sister. I sling the carryall bag over my shoulder and trudge up the stairs to my room. Pixie greets me at the top of the stairs as I reach down to scratch the top of her head. Her incessant meowing tells me she’s hungry, so I break out a can of tuna and she goes wild. Purrs replace the cries for food, as she buries her head into her dish. I close and lock my door and drop into the recliner next to my bed. Reaching into the bag, my fingers touch the cover of the diary and I feel the coolness as before, but it’s still nowhere near as cold as when I first handed the book to Janet. I wonder what it all means. Being alone in the house, I feel compelled to ask, “Benjamin, are you here? If you are, I need to hear from you.”
As soon as the words leave my mouth, I regret having said them. Why in the hell would I invite a dead person to talk to me? Hearing from Benjamin in this place and time would probably stop my heart, and in doing so, I could finally answer Benjamin’s question of what it’s like to be dead. All I heard was the purring of the cat and the tick, tick of my wall mounted bicycle clock. And then the clock stopped ticking. Pixie continued eating her tuna, chomping at the last bits of her meal as I slowly raised myself up out of the chair, my eyes firmly fixated on the clock. I listened intently for the tick, tick, but my ears heard nothing. I walked to the wall and took the clock off from the hook and stared at the face. 12:42. I checked my watch: 12:44. At 12:46, the hands were still at 12:42. I shook it. Still no tick tock. I turned it over to the backside and noticed the single double A snugged tight into its compartment. It came to me then. The realization that in life, nothing lasts forever, not even the ever-ready bunny. I had a dead battery, and it died at precisely the moment that I had asked Benjamin to talk to me. Playing it off as a coincidence is akin to ignoring a terminal diagnosis. Car batteries, cell phone batteries, so why not the low voltage double A? I think that whatever was enabling Benjamin to communicate with me was growing much weaker, so I had little time left to do whatever I had to do to save Benjamin from being absorbed into the shadow world and thus, to eventually be gone forever.
“Benjamin, if you’re here and if you stopped the clock, I don’t want you to do anything else. If using your energy is going to wear you down to being gone or hurled into the shadow world, that’s the last thing I want. But if you have enough in you to communicate with me in other ways, feel free, otherwise I’m going to continue reading your diary and I promise, I will get your story published, if that’s what you want. I’m here if you need me.”
Pixie jumped up on my lap and placed her paw lightly on my chest over my heart. It’s always been her way to thank me for her meal or to show affection. She purred while looking into my eyes. “You’re certainly daddy’s girl, aren’t you?”
I scratched behind her ears and smiled. She settled down onto my chest and her little happy engine continued to run, but when I reached for the diary and pulled it from my bag, she immediately growled, hissed and her tail puffed up. She leapt off from me in a hurry and continued to growl loudly with ears back and eyes wide, looking at me as never before. I looked to the ceiling and exclaimed, “Okay, Benjamin, if you’re doing this, stop scaring my cat. I have boundaries.”
Pixie retreated to a corner of my room and sat there still growling, but much more subdued than when she was on my lap. She kept her eyes intently on me and still seemed to fear the book I still held in my hands. Something unseen still pinned her ears back and her tongue kept darting out and licking at her mouth. It rattled her, for sure.
Benjamin Murphy- Tuesday, July 24, 1856
I sit here and ponder over my place in this community. Despite summer being a slow time for me, people seem to like me here in the square. Syracuse has its opportunities as most of the northern states do, but for the life of me, I’m giving much time thinking about the slave trade in the south and I’ve concluded; why get rid of that great institution? Despite all the hollerin about slavery, we’re all getting much richer off cotton and since I’m one of the benefactors pushing needle and thread and trying to survive in this new great country, I’m not about to push for something that would make living much harder for me and for my future family. A negro has to know that his talents at picking cotton are bought for the greater good and his value, at close to $2,000 a head, should be something he should be proud of. So, I guess my mind is made up, but here in the north, I’m in the minority. A war is brewing over this and it’s going to get bloody and ugly. I know because I dream of it. I also know this, that prairie lawyer from Illinois, the one they call “honest Abe”, will have a hand in it. It won’t end well for him. Much blood. Leave well enough alone.
Frank Matthews, a neighbor here on the square, a blacksmith who works mostly in shoeing the mules and horses on the canal, was talking to me as he banged away at hot iron yesterday: “You’d do best to vote for John Fremont, the explorer. This new political party, the Republican Party, is where America needs to go.” I said, “He opposes slavery, right?” He said, “Well, of course, yes.” Frank looked at me as I watched him pull the still red-hot shoe away from the anvil. “Aren’t you?” I try to keep politics and my views away from customers as much as possible but Frank is becoming more than just a customer, he’s becoming a friend and even though he’s ten years older than me and much more assertive in his opinions and life pursuits, I felt somewhat obligated to at least give him a taste of where I stood about politics and slavery. “I make a living off from cotton. It’s a contentious subject and so is politics, Frank. I think Buchanan will prevail. The cotton business is too big to lose, despite the country’s views on slavery.” Frank threw the shoe into a bucket of water. I could tell he was mulling over what I had just said. He took a few steps closer to me and stopped. He smiled. “Well Ben, not going to bend your ear like I just did that horseshoe.” He reached out and shook my hand. “Have to head over to the canal in a little while. Nice for you to stop over.” I don’t think Frank liked my position, but he needs me like I need him.
Benjamin Murphy- Saturday, August 2, 1856
Tipperary Hill is the grandest place to live in all the America’s. The people here helped to dig the great canal, and we should all be proud of that accomplishment. They laughed and called it Clinton’s ditch, but Governor Clinton would be proud of what it’s done for commerce and how it has elevated the lives of the Irish and the great city of Syracuse. I could not have the business I have today if it weren’t for the canal.
Had a bit of a row with a farmer from Onondaga Castle this morning. Sam Worden came into my business demanding that I patch some work clothes that he needed and that I should “proceed quick” to his request. As I have heard it, the Wordens have gained many acres of land in Onondaga Castle. So, this scoundrel comes barging into my business making haste and demands, when his purse should afford him new work clothes, with no need for mending. He thinks, because I’m young, that he can push me around, but I won’t be pushed by the likes of him. I told him, “Get ye ass out of my business and find someone else to repair your britches.” The man looked shocked, as if he had never been talked to like that in his whole life. He hit a nerve in Benjamin Murphy and I won’t stand for it. I could tell he wanted to spit some words out of his mouth at me but he was with his lady and I think she compelled him to stifle. They left without words.
Losing my brother has made me bitter about some things, but developing a following in this town is causing me to dig in, just as the Irish did when we dug out that three-hundred-mile-long canal. I am working hard at nurturing a no-nonsense reputation in this city.
I put the diary down and shook my head. Here I was reading words from a man, a ghost, who had actually connected with Samuel Worden, a main character in a history book that I wrote a few years back. Samuel Worden was the founder of my hometown of Nedrow, New York. He was a farmer who first plowed the lands of Onondaga Castle back in 1850. Onondaga Castle had its name changed to Nedrow after the turn of the century. My hometown was Samuel’s last name spelled backwards. It shocked me to hear of Ben’s interaction with Samuel, since the Wordens seemed to be a fairly respectable family back in those early days of Onondaga County.
Benjamin’s take on slavery was also a little surprising but more disappointing as I can’t imagine anyone not siding with an oppressed people, but those were the times they lived in when many tolerated slavery because it helped business. Since slavery had been around for over two hundred years at that point, so many, including George Washington, accepted it and simply lived with it as a way of life. I was beginning to see a Benjamin Murphy who had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and I wondered where this would lead him. He certainly didn’t seem too pure of character, but he did present himself as a shrewd businessman who demanded respect.
Pixie had gone under the bed, where she appeared to be content, but she continued to stare up at me, her eyes darting back and forth from me to the diary.
It was Janet. She had returned to the house and called me from downstairs. She sounded upset. I left my room and hurried down to see what the problem was. “Janet, what’s going on?”
She gestured with her hand to the kitchen. “The power is out. What happened? ”
I walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge to confirm the outage. “Don’t know, Janet. I was upstairs in my room. There was no storm.”
I glanced up at the clock and I froze there. I felt a chill run through my body. The clock read “12:42”. It was an electric clock, which meant that my battery-powered clock and this electric clock had stopped at the exact same time. How does that happen, and how do I tell Janet? I don’t. I spooked her enough with Benjamin’s diary that if she knew the story of the clocks, she might think twice about keeping me as a roommate. So, I now knew that Benjamin was not a fading presence. He still had power and lots of it and he was still trying to send me a message; although I wasn’t exactly sure what he was trying to tell me by cutting our electricity. I quickly composed myself and looked at Janet. “Must be a breaker. I’ll go check the box in the basement.”
“I’ve got ice cream in the grocery bag on the porch. Hope it comes back on soon.”
Just as I took a few steps toward the cellar door, I heard the refrigerator come back on and I looked at the second hand on the clock. It was moving. I sighed in relief. “Thank God.”
Janet exclaimed. “I just spent over one hundred dollars on meat and ice cream.”
“I’m glad for that,” I said and smiled. “It would have to be declared a national emergency if our ice cream melted.”
Janet was already on her way to the porch, with me in tow, to help her bring the bags in. “Some damn fool probably hit a light pole or something.” Or it was just a very determined and frightened ghost trying to keep my attention on him, I thought.
I spent the next week Ubering and reading many more pages in Benjamin’s diary and I have to admit, I’m having a hard time digesting Benjamin’s true character. He seems to be a very troubled man bent on revenge, but he also seems to be just as relentless on carving out a life of success in Syracuse. I have to keep reminding myself that back during those times; it was a genuine struggle to survive and you couldn’t be weak. Many, according to Benjamin, saw him as weak and not much of a man, not like the rough and tumble guys who worked the salt beds on Onondaga Lake, shoveling brine all day long.
I was tempted several times to read ahead in Ben’s diary to see where his story would end, but in order to do justice to any book I would write, I need to follow his entries in chronological order. It’s the only way to get a good feel of what was happening to him, to follow him as if I were with him day to day throughout those times in the middle to late 1800s.
There were no more ghostly dreams, power outages or power drains during the week, but the diary still had that same low chilled feel to it whenever I would pick it up. I took that as a sign that Benjamin was still hanging on to his death, patiently hoping I would continue with my promise to him to write his story. How that could save him from being gone, I had no idea.
What haunted me day to day was the thought that I might not have long to live. After all, Benjamin seemed to possess the ability to know the future. He predicted the civil war and also the death of Abraham Lincoln and told me, “You haven’t got long, Thomas.” How could I even come to terms with that? It was an ambiguous statement, especially coming from an entity that was still consciously present for one hundred thirty years after his demise, but how could I possibly decipher the date of my death from those words? It could be within the next rotation of the clock or the next flip of a calendar page. I laid in my bed at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about all I had failed to do and what I accomplished in my life. I also wondered and worried how a book about Benjamin Murphy would be received. What would it do to my career as a writer and would it change my mind and other minds about the age-old question of, is there life after death? And of course, going beyond that; what does it mean to be gone? Even Benjamin couldn’t answer that one.
It was the middle of November, and the nights were becoming shivery and cold. They predicted a snowstorm a few days before Thanksgiving, and I had to plan my schedules to drive accordingly. It was Friday, November 17, 2017, and I was on my way to Rochester, New York with a passenger in the back. There was a light snowfall overnight and the early afternoon sun was out, melting patches of it along the grassy median on the thruway. My rider, Chiko, sat in silence, busy scrolling social media. I had picked him up on the Syracuse University campus. He was on his way to meet his brother for the weekend. I enjoy friendly conversation but a nice long quiet drive is nice too.
My mind was wandering through Benjamin’s life and because I was driving along a stretch of road that parallels the same route as the Erie Canal, the advancements that we’ve made since Benjamin’s time amazed me. The packet boats were pulled by mule teams at around four miles per hour back then. Now I was zipping along at seventy-two miles per hour. Yet, with all the advancements in technology, in medicine and all the rest, humans are still primal in their interactions with others, evidence of that is the disrespect we push out to the world around us. It’s appalling. Why would Benjamin want to hang onto any single thread of this existence, but then again, why do I love life so much? I believe it all comes down to experiencing it all, despite the ugly and the hatred that humans spill forth endlessly. It was sad that Benjamin was still seeking something close to a hundred and thirty years after his death and I believe if you were to boil it all down, he never found real love, happiness or maybe even forgiveness because if he had, he might be okay with being gone.
As I drove along, we were passing an old historic Erie Canal Lock. This grabbed the attention of Chiko, who finally spoke. “Very interesting. I see the lock that served the Erie Canal. For a period of time, I studied the history of New York. It is truly amazing how far we’ve come from those days.”
I looked into the rearview and nodded. “Yes, I was just thinking about how fast we’re going as opposed to how fast they went on the canal back then. If you were traveling to see your brother back then, it would take you twenty-one hours to get to Rochester.”
“Yes, I think about my past and future lives and wonder how much faster we can possibly go.”
Now I was intrigued. “Chiko, you believe in past lives?”
“I’m from India and my whole family are Buddhists. What you speak of is a belief in reincarnation. It’s a bit more complicated than the traditional belief in reincarnation, as maybe you understand it. I can explain if you’d like?”
“Sure, it’s a long ride. Would love to hear what you have to say.”
“Our teachings tell us that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it. They take on another form, another shape. To fully understand, you can’t do it through intellect, you must do it through meditation because our core understanding is the person who dies here and is reborn elsewhere is neither the same person, nor another. It’s sort of a sum of energies that continues in life, a continuation, if you will. Do you understand?”
“Well, as you explain it, it’s deeply complicated and not as black and white as I imagined it. I think I understand most of what you’re saying.”
“To fully understand, you must meditate on it. I would encourage you to study Buddhism. It’s fascinating, as most religions are.”
I’m not a proponent of any one religion, but I found Chiko’s mention of energies as being interesting and exciting. I was thinking about Benjamin the whole time. His atoms and molecules certainly seem to be charged up and bouncing around- even after one hundred and thirty years.
(To be continued...)