Sometime, a few hours later that morning, the boy (that would be me) sat in a tub of fresh bathwater all alone while everyone else in the household was preparing for the various things that they would be doing that day like- choirs around the farm or work at a job or school. We often took baths together in those days, my father and me or my male cousins, not the boys and girls after a certain age of course, but we did share bathwater. If I remember correctly I was the first in the tub that morning because it was my birthday; I was officially eight years old.
The bathroom had one of those old fashioned, boat shaped, cast iron bathtubs with four stubby feet hat supported it several inches off the floor. It was surrounded by a plastic shower curtain, with some kind of late nineteen fifties or early sixties floral pattern, that hung from a small, circular metal tube above the tub that was suspended from the ceiling by four slender metal rods. And that curtain was drawn just then: not so much to provide me privacy but privacy for the various members of the household who were coming in and out, using the old-school porcelain bathroom sink to brush their teeth or do their make-up... or to sit on the toilet. A single, incandescent light bulb, screwed into a plain ceramic fixture with no shade, above the medicine cabinet over the sink, provided them all a yellowish sort of illumination with which to perform their various activities- while faithfully casting their silhouettes against that semi-opaque plastic curtain. I remember sitting in the bathtub and thinking that their faceless silhouettes sort of reminded me of shadow puppets.
“Tru!!!” I heard my aunt yell who was outside, behind the house, in the cattle pen and corral. “Come out here! For the love of...” she said, stopping before completing her sentence and just standing and staring.
One of the milk cows was dead; its belly ripped open and its bowels blown out. There were huge puncture wounds in the bovine’s throat like from a bear or a werewolf in the movies, or in those documentaries about the unexplained mutilations of cattle and sheep. Of course, neither bear nor werewolf was known to inhabit the woods and brush land of Southeast Texas in those days- or ever; nor were there any regular wolves. And the wounds were too large for a coyote and certainly for a fox. Perhaps, a very large, wild dog had done it. No domestic dog would attack and kill a cow like that, unless it had gone rabid.
Unaware of the drama happening out back of the house, I splish splashed around and loafed some in my tub of fresh bathwater. I generally played around a little in the bathtub as a kid, but mostly stuck to the business of washing myself. Patty had already been in and out. She was sort of trendy I guess- the oldest, sixteen and liked to wear her dirty blond hair up in double ponytails and dress in tall patent leather boots and psychedelic onesie skirts with the hemline as far above her knees as my aunt and uncle would allow. I had not been aware of Deedee coming through yet so I figured it was her shadow I was seeing on the other side of the vinyl shower curtain when I emerged from the water. I had slid down to the bottom of the tub for about a minute before it got too soapy, and held my breath for as long as I could and blew a few bubbles before reemerging. I saw the dark feminine form standing just a foot or two away, outside the large pink roses and oversized green leaves on the semi opaque shower curtain.
“Deedee?” I said. She was the younger of my two cousins and less concerned about fashion. She was happy in overalls or blue jeans and a cotton blouse. It always seemed to me that her name should have been “Patty” and Patty’s name should’ve been Deedee because “Deedee” seemed more girlie girl to me or fashion conscious anyway.
Silence... I did not get an answer, no response at all from the dark shape of a female just beyond the curtain.
“What are you doing?” I asked just a split second before I heard my cousin, Deedee’s voice coming through the bathroom window.
“Oh no!” she said. “Not Buttercup!” That was the name she had unofficially given to the cow that my aunt had just found ripped to shreds.
“Go on back in the house,” my aunt said. “You don’t need to be seeing this.”
I stared has hard as I could at the shower curtain in an attempt to actually look through it and see if I could make out any detail in the face of the shadow thing standing there only inches away from me by then. I could not. After several seconds of more silence and no movement, I raised my hand from out of the water and took the edge of the floral patterned curtain and slowly, apprehensively peeled it back so I could look out.
Her slip was really old looking, like something my grandmother would’ve worn and there was a rusty sort of starfish pattern in the center, just above her stomach. Her hair was brownish and ash and long and thick and stringy. Her eyes were almost one solid color, milky, but I could see where the iris should’ve been and the pupil- they were just slightly darker but still- glazed over.
“Ahhh!!! I said and pulled the vinyl curtain back to discover I was not alone.
That boy that I had seen previously, from my window, in the wee hours of the morning, sat at the other end of the tub from me. He was ghastly garishly pale. It was like his skin was really thin and almost transparent and I could see his veins- especially on his neck and face and head. His lips were forced open by teeth that were rotted and broken and pointed- protruding from his mouth. There were bubbles rising in the water around him, almost as if he was farting in the tub... and it stunk.
I screamed, and in one single motion, it seems now, jumped up from the tub of water and flew through the shower curtain, ripping it and the metal tube from the ceiling and then fleeing the bathroom- naked.
My uncle Tru would butcher Buttercup because he could not stand the idea of losing a milk cow as well as all that beef. He would wait until after Patty had gone to school that morning to do the deed and never tell his youngest daughter that her favorite heifer and been ground into burger or sliced into veal because she would most likely break into tears and leave the dinner table every time beef was on the menu.
I got a black eye- basically- because I slipped and fell and smashed my forehead against the edge of the toilet seat when I jumped out of the tub. I was actually lucky that the only injuries I suffered were one shiner and a cut above my eyebrow- the way I’d fallen and struck my head I could’ve gotten a concussion or a broken nose. My mother and father had floated the idea that I not go to school that day, but it was my birthday and I wanted the free lunch and birthday cupcake with icing I knew I would receive in the school cafeteria. And I also anticipated a lot of attention because of my injuries... not all which would turn out... positive.
My father had a job interview in town that morning so he carried me into school, as he usually did anyway. He was grousing a bit because my Uncle Tru had insisted that he either replace the shower curtain rods and tube or pay to have it replaced. I sensed that my father wanted to blame me, because after all I had caused the damage, but on the other hand he really didn’t want to blame me because after all, well... I was injured.
“I know that you didn’t mean to...” he said. “I am sure glad that you didn’t get really hurt bad. The last thing we need is hospital bills. I just don’t like your uncle’s attitude. He’s always got such a chip on his shoulder when it comes to you... and me. And I don’t like the way your mother always takes his side...”
That’s when I saw them... the Woman in the White slip and the boy whom I had found in the bathtub next to me, standing beside to the road on the gravel and dirt shoulder near the mailboxes where the postman left the mail for my aunt and uncle and a couple of other families that lived close by.
“Don’t let them in.” I said as my father slowed down the late ’50s model Fairlane and turned the steering wheel toward my side of the road.
“Let who in?” my father said sliding the Ford up close enough to the mailboxes that I could reach out the passenger side window, drop the door on the box and whisk out any mail that might have been delivered.
The Woman in White and the boy stood perfectly still, next to the boxes, less than a foot away from me and stared- woodenly- directly at me- but not exactly directly. Even though it was obvious that they were looking right at me and I knew they could see me, it was sort of like they couldn’t or weren’t actually... seeing me.
“Them.” I said.
“Them who?”he asked.
“You don’t... see them?” I asked.
“Son, are you sure you’re okay to go to school?” he said.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.”
“So then what are you waiting on? Check the mail. Let’s get going!”
I didn’t really want to, but I raised my hand and as I extended it out the car window and toward the box, the Woman in White, tilted her head, ever so slightly.
“Ahhh!!! Ahhh!!!” I screamed.
“What is wrong?!” my father said.
“I pinched my arm on the door... or... or something bit me or something!” I said and turned to face him. When I turned back, the Woman in White and the boy were gone.
“So what ever happened to Juke Johnson’s wife?” I asked.
“Why would you ask me that?” my father said.
“I don’t know.” I said, scooping a couple of letters and the phone bill from the mailbox. “I just wondered. Did he have a son?”
Mr. Morgan was approximately middle aged, if I guess correctly. I don’t remember him so well. I remember that he wore glasses and had male pattern baldness, although I don’t think that the dark hair he had left had any gray in it. And it wasn’t typical in those days, as it is now, for men to use hair color to hide their gray.
“Are you sure that’s why you have a black eye and a cut above your eyebrow?” he asked.
It was Miss Kolander, the librarian, who sent me to the principal’s office because of the damage to my face from jumping out of the bathtub and slipping and pulling down the shower curtain earlier that morning. She was kind of a hippy I think, in retrospect. She dressed sort of like my cousin Patty, but mostly in long dresses that looked like they were made from flour sacks or something and her hair was really long and sort of messy- but not. Mr. Morgan was actually the vice principal but Dr. Stanley was busy with another student at the time. And Mr. Morgan was the one who usually handled the “heart to heart” counseling type stuff. A lot of the time if a student, male not female, found themselves in Dr. Stanley’s office it was to get their butt’s busted with the big old wooden paddle that everybody called “the Whistler” on account of it had holes in and made a whistling noise when he swung it.... Fweeeetttt... bam!
“Yes...” I said and looked away.
“Alright, if that is your story, why did you jump out of the bathtub?”
I sort of knew that the Vice Principle thought that I was the victim of child abuse on account of another kid that everybody knew had gotten smacked around by his dad which caused the school to send out people from the state or something like that; and that kid had been taken away from his folks for a while... or... something like that. Child Protective Services was pretty different back then but it did exist.
I really didn’t want to say it. I really didn’t want any trouble. But I really felt cornered and kind of trapped and was beginning to think that no matter what I said it wasn’t going to satisfy Mr. Morgan.
“Because there was a ghost.”
“In the bathtub with me.”
“You mean like, something in a white bedsheet with eyeholes?”
I’m not certain if the Vice Principal was suggesting that perhaps my father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan or if perhaps a Klansman had crawled into the tub with me, or if he just really assumed that’s what a kid my age would think a ghost looked like... something with a white bed-sheet over it... with eye-holes.
“A boy,” I said, “About like me, only dead.”