This happened I believe in the Fall of 2010 in Louisville at the residency. There was at the time a restaurant called, I believe, the Third Street Cafe, and my guess is it was close to a mile south of the Spalding campus. At least once a residency I would abscond to this place because I needed the quiet — it might be Monday and I’d be stressed or just needing a good airing out that an autumn walk would provide. On this day I was in a torment because of a dream I’d had the previous night about turning 65, a marker I was approaching with my next birthday. I think I have this right. (It’s all in a notebook somewhere but I never can find the old ones.) I remember it was fall because I was really striding down the broad sidewalk, which is very urban and slightly blighted on the Spalding end but gradually becomes old Louisville, stately protestant churches, shaded avenues, graceful Victorian houses that had once been residences and now were mostly boarding houses and B&Bs. I remember the leaves on the ground, particularly the striking yellow leaves of ginkgos among the bigger oak, maple and chestnut leaves all brown and red. Turning 65 was easy to deal with at home, but on the road, alone a lot, the ghosts would whisper and the old Catholic guilt would intrude, and James Wright’s haunted line would finally hit me like my epitaph: “I have wasted my life.”
You’ve been there. It was in this mood, or trying to kick it, that I long-strided my way down the long, flat, shady street, and once I got into the neighborhood, among the boarding houses, I saw, far ahead of me, an old woman coming down the front stairs from one of these old houses, what appeared to be her apartment house. She from a distance looked like a bag lady, a scarf on her head and what appeared to be a blanket around her shoulders. There was an autumn chill in the wind, though it was high noon under bright sun. She began making her way probably toward the grocery store — anyway she was coming my direction, and she meandered as she came, used the whole wide sidewalk as though, in the most generous likelihood, she weren’t really concentrating. I gave her a wide berth as I approached, tried to take her in in a glance without meeting her eyes, then tried to stride past her fast. I was ten minutes into the lunch hour, had to get where I was going. But as I passed I accidentally did get eye-contact with the woman. I estimate she was 75 or 80, with long silver hair peeping out from her scarf. I estimated then from looking at her, and now from remembering, that she might have been just a little crazy. I quick averted my eyes and breezed by her. But as I passed, she spoke these exact words. “Well, you really are a young man, aren’t you?” She spoke it clearly.
Though I couldn’t believe what she said, I did hear it very well. I stopped and turned to look at her and saw that she had already stopped, turned completely around, and was looking at me with great intent to communicate. “Young?” I said. “Not really!” I tried to gently laugh it off. “Oh but you are,” she said. “Yes, you are a young man, aren’t you.” This was not a question. Having said what God sent her to say, she turned again and headed north in her wobbly meandering way. I watched her go. She had a cane, and occasionally she pulled the blanket tighter around her like a shawl. Never looked back.
I am not much of a believer I am sorry to say, but I do notice when I’m being visited or sent a message, and I can’t find another interpretation for this “coincidence.” There are ghosts on the streets of Louisville, generations having passed their days there on those sidewalks and in those old houses with their swinging-open cupboard doors and creaking floors, their broad stairs to the upper regions, and their dappled shadows in the basements. It isn’t like Savannah except when it comes to ghosts, and is nothing like Cincinnati down by the warehouses on the river and its ghosts of the drowned or St. Louis which hears voices or Cairo and Memphis, except all of them are still channeling the shades of the old people who built them and who lived and gossiped there. Louisville is nothing like those other places — they each have their own special ghosts and their own angels who easily see into passersby on their particular streets, good bright-eyed old dead people with all of the old wisdom still on their minds and who care to stop you when you’re walking by on some blind trivial mission fueled by some relatively small worry and deliver a message that is haunting because she’s a stranger having come out of nowhere and her words are tailored precisely to you and they are good words.