My photo
I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - Part 16

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

“Give it back,” your mother says loudly.

There are only two people in the room: she and you. But she’s not addressing you, nor is she talking to herself. She does this whenever some object is missing that was definitely there earlier. Everyone’s looked everywhere. So she thinks it must be your great-grandfather who took it. He’s dead and he thinks it’s fun to inconvenience the living.

The thing is, sometimes it works. She says, “Give it back,” and then whatever you’re searching for turns up in some place where you definitely looked before. It’s just weird, but you don’t want to give it much thought. As you often tell your friends, your mom is a total freak.

And, if you’re my daughter, you roll your eyes.

But you’re not my daughter. You should thank God for that, because when this story takes place she is twelve years old, which you may remember as a time of secret torment and unwanted hair.

The missing-object incidents can happen anyplace, but at the moment we (my husband and daughter and I) are in the “big house” on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. Next door is the “little house,” where my parents built a small cottage in 1987 to spend their summers. The big house is for their children and children’s children to enjoy, whenever it’s not rented.

The "big house" in 1934

in 2011

Grandpa bought the big house in 1934, a couple of years after it was built by his brother-in-law. (The two of them also built a 9-hole golf course across the road: why not?) He adored the place. It was in the master bedroom where, felled by a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he died at the age of 75.

Kids love the big house because it’s full of bizarre stuff like antique harpoons and ship models, and a box mounted on the wall of the kitchen that has little flags marked with room numbers that pop up whenever someone buzzes a servant. The buzzers don’t work anymore but the servants’ quarters above the kitchen are perfect for kids, the rooms are so tiny; and there’s a door and then a step down and then a second door that used to separate domestics from their employers, or now, rambunctious rascals from their parents. There are many, many doors; some are closets and some are hiding places that you open with old cast-iron turnkeys, if you can find the right one for the lock. If you pull on a ring in the second-floor ceiling, a panel opens and a ladder unfolds, but no one dares explore the attic. It is vast. At the top of the ladder, you see nothing but broken glass, rolls of rotted carpets, and bird dander. At the other end is whatever you can’t see, and you can bet it’s covered in dust, feathers and ooky cobwebs, so you don’t want to investigate. Plus you aren’t allowed up here.

The days are spent on the beach or biking into town, but at nightfall, around 9, when everyone’s exhausted from sun and supper, and the DVD du jour has ended, the house takes on a kind of creepy aspect. Old brass floor lamps with fraying cords are all that light the rooms, casting the corners and eaves into darkness. If the wind off the water is up, a classic eerie moan rattles the old windows, maddening to hear (we used to call it “Blithering Heights”).

On this night my 12-year-old daughter and I are lolling on the couch, trying to summon the energy to go to our beds. She likes sleeping in the servants’ wing as far away as possible from me, but sometimes I have to escort her up the backstairs because the wind moan spooks her.

Tonight the wind is quiet, though. When we switch the TV off, the house is silent. Then we hear a creak. Or more precisely, creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeak. We look in the direction of the sound. The door is opening slowly. My daughter tenses up, huddling against me, and mews with terror.

“Hi, Grandpa,” I say calmly to the empty doorway. “Wow, it’s been a while.” The door opens a little further.

“Mom, shut up!” I guess it compounds her fear to see me blithely entering lunacy. So your mom’s a freak – whose mother isn’t? – but when she starts talking to the dead, it’s a whole other matter.

“It’s nothing to be afraid of. He’s completely harmless.”

The light across the room blinks rapidly, then stops. My daughter whimpers inarticulately as she waits for the dude with the mask and the knife to crash through the window.

I sharpen my tone. “Okay, that’s enough. We know you’re here. You can go.”

The light blinks again, as if to acknowledge, and then the opposite door creaks open just a hair, as if to let something out.

“It’s over,” I tell my daughter. “He was just kind of giving us the high sign.”

She spends the night in my room.

There were a couple of more incidents that summer of ‘98, once when my husband was present. He frowned on my ascribing the blinking-creaking thing to Grandpa; he didn’t want our daughter to believe in ghosts since it clearly frightened her. I thought it best to show her it was no big deal, that she could tell the spirit to go away and it would. She’d get used to it. But she never did. Thankfully, she never got a visit from her great-grandfather again.

The odd part was, I had almost forgotten about the old guy. There had been no manifestations for a very long time, since before I got married. I figured he’d completed his mission with me and gone home to glory. Why did he come back now?

I posed this question to an astrologer friend later that year. “How old was your daughter when this happened?” she inquired straightaway.


“Puberty,” she nodded with satisfaction. “There is often increased paranormal activity around children that age. That’s why the writer of ‘The Exorcist’ made the little girl twelve – he obviously did his research.”

That was helpful, but I took her explanation a different way, and smiled to myself. The moment she said “puberty,” I realized: it must have been one of his little winks, to remind me of the time we worked together, back in 1977, on a show subtitled “Songs of Puberty.”

Actually, I would have preferred not to be reminded. It was a venture that didn’t turn out too well.

(To be continued)

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Ballad of Patty Pease

As a footnote to the previous post, my dad's claim that his father never praised his music was not strictly true. One song, which Dad improvised at the age of 15, not only earned the old man's plaudits but also Grandpa would ask Dad to play it (and replay it) frequently for guests.

Dad was 15 in 1934 when his father purchased the summer cottage in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard that has remained in our family up until last September. Edgartown is a tiny village on a boat-filled harbor where once the whaling industry held sway. In 1934, because there were very few streets Edgartown had only one streetwalker, and everyone knew her name. Dad's tribute to the misfortunate Patty Pease is below.

(You may find it very hard to listen to, as it was a home recording on a hopelessly scratched platter of some kind. Also, none of Dad's adolescent friends who sing the song can carry a tune. They are pretending to be drunk, and my father is playing the piano. But you can enjoy the lyrics all the same.)

The Ballad of Patty Pease by John Kernochan

You hump with ease
With Patty Pease
She aims to please,
Does Patty Pease

A long, long time ago,
As everyone should know
Her soul was white as snow –
Oh Patty Pease

Then one soft summer night
The stars were shining bright
A frigate hove in sight –
Oh Patty Pease

A handsome sailor boy,
The Vineyard’s pride and joy,
Came off the ship. Ahoy!
For Patty Pease!

And up the street he came
A-looking for a dame
To play his little game –
Oh Patty Pease

To Patty’s Pa he said,
“Has Patty gone to bed?
I’m looking for a thrill.”
“No-o! She’s ‘way aloft
Up in the hay loft.
Go find her if you will.”
And up there in the hay
The sailor had his way,
A real red letter day
For Patty Pease

Her father didn’t “keer”
Enough to interfere
With Patty’s black career –
Oh Patty Pease

Still, he had an awful fright
When fourteen men walked in one night.
But Patty took it,
She’s all right!

Now if you want a treat
Go down South Water Street,
Then you’ll be sure to meet
With Patty Pease

You hump with ease
With Patty Pease
She aims to please,
Does Patty Pease!


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 15

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here .)

Grandpa in WWI uniform
Dad in WWII duds

My Dad and I shared a love of music and smut.

It was August 1977 when I returned home from a tour promoting my raunchy novel “Dry Hustle.” I immediately launched into composing material for the NY Public Theater workshop of “Sleeparound Town: Songs of Puberty.” At the same time my father came back early and alone from a sabbatical in Paris while my mother and sister stayed on.

So for a month we lived in close quarters: I in a detached studio, and he in the house where I’d grown up. I could hear him practicing his flute, and he could hear me raging away on the piano. I could tell he enjoyed rattling around his house in solitude because he stopped wearing anything but underwear. (There was a heat wave.) He also applied himself to a favorite hobby, writing dirty limericks. Here is my favorite, composed much later after he retired from teaching law:

Directions for sex may be found

In any old phone book around.

You connect with a dame

Who is ready and game

And then you press ENTER and POUND!

Sometimes we would get together for dinner when I would cook for us (he dressed for the occasion). I used the opportunity to pump him for information about Grandpa, though it involved delicate footwork. By now I knew that my mother had told Dad that his father’s ghost was making regular visits to me, but he considered her to be mildly bonkers and me to be habitually overwrought. I did catch him checking me covertly now and then to see if any more screws had worked themselves loose.

I kept my questions to personal history and avoided the paranormal. Dad and I were enjoying our time together, and any mention of ghosts would have ruined everything.

The Holy Ghost would have been enough to set him off on an atheistic rant. I wondered privately if his big problem with God was “Our Father.” Merely the word “father” triggered such aversion that he couldn’t get beyond it. Since he perceived his own father as distant, negligent, frivolous and lazy, why sign up for an even bigger dose of bad parenting from God the Father?

One night at dinner, I remarked about the coincidence that both he and his father had given up seriously composing music after returning from wars in Europe. Neither of them had seen combat but worked in liaison and operations. What happened over there, to make them turn them away from a vocation they loved?

“I can’t speak for my dad,” he said. “I just remember after coming back I felt very depressed and lost and I had no confidence in myself. That’s when I went into psychoanalysis.” (It had been thirty years since the war ended and my father was still going to an analyst five times a week.) “I didn’t think I could succeed at composing. I’m sure I got that from my father. He never offered one word of praise for my music.” He told me about a time when he was a teenager, when he wrote a minuet for string quartet. A friend of his father’s, a cellist, liked it so much that he arranged for some professional musicians to play it as a surprise at his dad’s birthday party. The guests applauded enthusiastically and then demanded the quartet to play it a second time. Afterwards they clustered around my father, congratulating him and calling him ‘another Mozart’ – and through it all his dad said nothing.

“But then he never had much to say about my music and never asked to hear it.”

“Do you think he might’ve been threatened by you? He wasn’t writing music anymore, and you were showing him up.”

“I don’t really care. Actually he never showed much interest in anything I did.”

Dad set his jaw grimly. I could tell the subject was closed, he’d had enough.

Then I felt the most extraordinary pressure build up around me, as if I was being crowded out by an intentional force. The words were pushed up my throat, making me open my mouth to say something so invasive and presumptuous that I knew it might drive a permanent wedge between us. I blurted:

“He wants me to tell you that he’s sorry.”

I was miserable, seeing Dad’s expression change. Not only was he angry at me, but also I’d confirmed his fear: his daughter was certifiably delusional.

“It’s a bit late for that,” he snapped.

As he got up and left the table, I wanted to beg him, “Please don’t blame me! Grandpa made me say it!” But that would hardly have helped my case.

We avoided each other for a few days.

And then one day he suddenly crossed the lawn and tapped on my door. He had something in his hand to show me. It was a music manuscript. He’d just completed a song, with piano, vocal and lyrics. It was the first song he’d written since he’d come back from the war: a despondent and anxious young man, for whom music was out of the question.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 14

Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I presented myself to the New York Public Theater for my meeting with Joe Papp. I was to perform my five-song cycle “Songs of Puberty” in its entirety. I could sing and accompany myself on piano for the first four songs, but because the fifth involved two keyboards and a four-member chorus I home-recorded everything but the lead vocal and brought the tape along on my portable audio-cassette player.

Thus I sat with the tape recorder on my lap and sang 25 minutes of music non-stop. Joe listened with an air of puckish amusement, which could be read any number of ways. I’d seen that expression before in auditions for club owners, prospective managers, music publishers: it meant I was cute, but bizarre (one music reviewer called me “weird and willowy.”) It also meant: without a future. I drew more encouragement from Joe’s wife Gail Merrifield who grinned openly during the first four songs.

It was the finale, “Creature From the Last Offramp,” that terrified me. This was the phantasmagoria channeled to me in a semi-dream state by my deceased grandfather’s spirit – a wild melange of church and horror movie music with a torrent of lyrics (to believe me, click here). And I’d never played it for anyone before.

When I finished, I was sheathed in flop sweat.

Joe and Gail looked stunned. They glanced at each other wordlessly.

Joe inquired if I could write more material in “that vein.” I stammered yes, self-programmed to hide self-doubt. He then asked me to come up with enough new stuff to convince him there was a whole show, and to present the result in a workshop performance. Since I’d directed a documentary film, he assumed I could direct the workshop.

I left the meeting in a stupor. This was my first contact with non-profit theater. I was not a theatergoer. Apparently this was a world where bizarre was celebrated, and nobody expected to make any money from your art. As Dot sings in “Sunday in the Park With George”: “All it has to be is good.”

Of course! I realized. I totally belonged in the theater. By now I was on my fourth career (after filmmaker, recording artist, and novelist) and still looking for a home. Theater used everything I could do: write words, compose music, and direct. So that’s why Grandpa had me write those songs: to create a wonderful show that would achieve a greater success than he had in his lifetime. It was worth all the craziness I’d endured to receive the material. What a great guy.

I didn’t want his help now. No more purloining music from the spirit plane. I could see my way clear to what the show would be. The five characters who narrated the five songs were already distinct. The title of the show would be “Sleeparound Town” (the name of the first song). Five different children would go to sleep and meet in a place called Sleeparound Town, and go through the changes of puberty together.

Here is the demo I made of the title song:

Sleeparound Town by profrabbit

...In my dream I sing and windows open wide

Pillowcases breathe up and down

Warming to my song the blankets curl away
From the shores of Sleeparound Town…

A month ago, as I was gathering material to write this story, I unearthed my grandfather’s sheet music, which was among my father’s effects after he died in 2007. I was astounded to find that Grandpa wrote a song called “City of Sleep.” The lyrics were from a Kipling verse, describing the “town” where we go when we dream:

…Know ye the way to the Merciful Town

That is hard by the Sea of Dreams

Where the poor may lay their wrongs away,

And the sick may forget to weep?

But we – pity us! Oh, pity us! –

We wakeful – ah, pity us! –

We must go back with Policeman Day –

Back from the City of Sleep!

(To be continued.)