The winter I turned twelve, a massive blizzard hit New York City. The snow began on Sunday evening and continued through the next morning, when my sister Alex and I sat beside the radio and prayed for the divine announcement: All New York City public schools are closed. When it finally came, we yelped and ventured out to hunt for fresh snow. This was our winter challenge, to find snow that hadn’t been stepped in, damaged, or destroyed. We were trailblazers, explorers, charting new territory, mapping new ground, searching for a perfect patch, smooth and glittering in the alley outside our house in Queens. Snow changed the city like magic, stifling the noise and smothering the dirt. Kids sledded down Skillman Avenue, snowmen sprung up on fire escapes, buses stalled and groaned like dying mammoths. The newspaper deliverymen had already made their rounds, ruining a fair amount of our alley’s purity, but I found an untouched patch in front of the Kaminskys’ stoop. “Over here!” I shouted to Alex, and we plopped into the snow, made angels, tramped around, wrecking all of it, relishing the satisfaction of being the first to walk in that spot.

We were so absorbed in our labors that we didn’t even notice when a girl came out of the Kaminskys’ house, stood on the stoop, and stared at us.

Margo Rabb

Margo Rabb is the author of the novel Cures for Heartbreak, which was published in 2007, and Kissing in America, which will be published by HarperCollins in May 2015. Her essays and short stories have been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, Zoetrope: All Story, Seventeen, Best New American Voices, New Stories from the South, New England Review, Glimmer Train Stories, and One Story, and have been broadcast on NPR. She received the grand prize in the Zoetrope short story contest, first prize in The Atlantic fiction contest, first prize in the American Fiction contest, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award. She grew up in Queens, New York, and now lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two children. You can visit her online at www.margorabb.com.

Patrick Ryan on “Ghost Story”

How I used to wish, back when I was in school, that we’d gone on a field trip to a place as exotic as a haunted house. Even a place that purported to be a haunted house. (The fieldtrips I took to Pizza Hut and to a sugar cane field just didn’t count as exotic for me.) In Margo Rabb’s “Ghost Story,” Maxine and her edgy new friend Perry—along with the rest of their class—take a fieldtrip to a place called The Wales House, and it’s rumored to be haunted by a woman who died there long ago.

It’s Perry’s idea that the two of them stay behind, hide in a closet until everyone else is gone, and spend the night in the Wales House. They stock up on junk food and curl up in an antique bed together, half-hoping they encounter the ghost of the dead woman and fully hoping they don’t get caught. Either outcome will most likely produce a few bumps in the night, right?

At the heart of this story, Margo Rabb does an amazing thing. She projects forward into Maxine’s future. Like a spirit in the night, she takes our hand and leads us through events that, for Maxine on the night in question, have yet to happen. Then she brings us back again and shows us how a friendship can shed light—or cast shadows—on the walls of our lives.

And then things go bump in the night.

“Ghost Story” is just that: a story about ghosts. But the ghosts aren’t necessarily spirits, and they aren’t necessarily residents of the Wales House. This wonderful story by Margo Rabb will stick with you, and it may even haunt the way you think about the walls of your own life. Happy Halloween!

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Were you ever lucky enough to go on a fieldtrip to an allegedly haunted house? As I say in my introduction to your story, the fieldtrips that stick out in my memory are ones to Pizza Hut and to a sugar cane field. Tasty, but not exactly exotic.
MR: The haunted house in the story is based on two writers’ houses that I’ve visited: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where his wife actually carved “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes” into a window with a rose-cut diamond ring, and Walt Whitman’s house in Huntington, Long Island, where my friend served as caretaker for a few years. Both felt haunted to me; Whitman’s particularly inspired the story because it seemed like it would be easy to sneak in and spend the night there under my friend’s watch (no offense to him!)
PR: Perry is the friend I always wanted, growing up: edgier than me, mouthier than me, and willing to lead me by the hand into potential trouble far more interesting than what my life was then showing me. Would you say she’s a bad influence? And was there a Perry in your life—or were you the Perry?
MR: Perry is based on a friend I had when I was that age. I have a strong memory of the palpable fear and confusion I felt when I found out that her parents were dead, and I thought of her often after my own parents died, though we’d lost touch by then. I think she’s a good influence—what could be better than a friend who encourages you to spend the night in a haunted house?
PR: Three-quarters of the way into the story, you do something unusual: you pull us forward into Maxine’s future and show us events that will affect her for the rest of her life. Which came first—the idea of writing about two girls spending the night in a haunted house, or the idea of projecting forward into your narrator’s future?
MR: I always knew that it would jump forward in time, since I wanted the narrator to make the connection between Perry’s loss and the loss of her own parents. I always love when short stories jump around in time—I’m a gigantic Alice Munro fan, and I’m in awe of how her stories make those leaps.
PR: I have to ask this, since you’ve written a story called “Ghost Story.” Do you believe in ghosts? And if so, do you think there’s any chance our departed loved ones are watching out for us, or is that just wishful thinking?
MR: After my parents died, I felt certain that I believed in an afterlife, or some sort of inexplicable state of dead souls, and I often felt their presence. But now, after so many years have passed (my mother died almost twenty-five years ago, and my father nearly twenty), I’m not sure. The ghost story within this story, about Perry’s mother returning in a dream and telling the girls to relocate their camping spot—is a true story that a friend of my mom’s often told us. It still sends chills down my spine.
PR: What are you working on now?
MR: I have a new young adult novel coming out in May called Kissing in America—it’s about two best friends from Queens who take a road trip to L.A., on a bus, to be on a game show called “The Smartest Girl in America.” It’s also about love, grief, feminism, and poetry. I’m at work on another novel now, and new essays and short stories.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MR: A quote from Antonya Nelson, “You have to have a leather ass,” is one of my favorites (maybe even a cement ass is necessary to endure all the rejection). I also keep a quote from the poet Louise Bogan above my desk: “No woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart.” Both remind me that it’s okay to try to be tough as nails and extremely sensitive at the same time.