Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Ghost of the Davenport House

Rock Island, July 1977

11th grade was so crowded with new friends and boyfriends - - the preacher's son who liked nude horseplay, the rabbi's son who didn't know he was gay, the boy I slept with at music camp, plus others I haven't posted on -- that you may think I dropped Darry, my best friend in junior high.

But he was there every day, by my side through all of the events at Rocky High, steadfast in his loyalty and affection. He accepted my interest in boys without question, though he often tried to push me toward girls as well.

One night in the summer of 1977, shortly after I returned from Switzerland, Darry took me to a stand-up comedy show at Augustana College.  Afterwards we drove onto Arsenal Island, to the Davenport House, where Colonel Davenport, the first European settler in the Quad Cities, was murdered on July 4, 1845.

"What are we doing here?" I asked. "The Davenport House is closed at night."
“I work here, remember?” Darry said. He had a part-time job as a docent.

It was a two-story clapboard facing north to-ward the dark-flowing Mississippi, with green-shuttered windows and chimneys on each end. From the front porch I could see the lights of downtown Davenport, with the Centennial Bridge spanning the river.

When we climbed onto the porch, Darry pulled out a flashlight.
“I’ve been here before,” I protested. “Lots of times."
“Have you ever seen the room where Colonel Davenport died?”
“No – that’s always closed to the public.”
“Closed to the public, maybe. Not to us.”

Darry led me through the parlor, now a museum, past the gift shop and the dining room to the kitchen, which had mostly modern furnishing, including a new refrigerator and stove. An old servants’ stairway led up to the second floor, to a narrow hallway.  The banister staircase on the other end led down to the parlor.

Darry  pointed his flashlight beam down the hall. “They found him in his wife’s sitting room, there by the banister, and carried him to his bedroom, here, where he died.” He opened the door on the east end. It was sparsely furnished, with an old four-poster bed, a wash basin with an old-fashioned pitcher, a dresser, and two round red-upholstered chairs. One window looked north, onto the dark yard with the Mississippi beyond, 

Darry walked over to the dresser, creaked open a bottom drawer, and retrieved a pile of magazines. He climbed onto the bed -- not the one Col. Davenport died on, I hoped -- and sat propped up against the pillows. I climbed up next to him. The bedspread smelled of must and lavender room deodorizer. He began leafing through one of the magazines  –Playboy, I realized, shocked.
“Hey, that’s porn!”

“On the contrary, it’s the noble quest after the Eternal Feminine,” Darry said. “But I can’t keep them at home. Mom and Dad go through everything.”

He held open a page featuring a naked girl, smiling open-mouthed, with shiny hair and pale pendulous breasts. It was disgusting. But Darry obviously found it stunning, so wonderful that he sequestered them at the Davenport House and risked being fired just for the joy of gazing at a few centerfolds once in a while.

I had a place at home where I invited boys to have sex...and watch.  Was this Darry's place?

“I don’t like pictures of naked ladies,” I said softly. “Could we go home now?”

“There’s nobody here but us, so you can stop the Herr Holy-Pants attitude. Tell me you don't like this one!" Darry held up the issue. A girl who looked something like Gloria, the daughter on All in the Family, holding a telephone between her breasts.

“It’s gross!” I jumped off the bed, felt my way for the door, and pulled it open. The hallway was completely dark, except for thin pale lines of door frames bathed in moonlight. I wanted to run away, but if I left Darry, how could I get home again? The island would be nearly deserted at night.

Maybe if I tried, if I looked very closely, I would see what Darry saw. Maybe I would know what the fuss was all about. Maybe I would finally bow to the tripods.

Darry slid off the bed and walked toward me.  "If you don't like blondes.." he began.  Then he trailed off.

The door at the end of the hall, by the banister staircase, was invisible except for a thin line of pale light. But the line was getting bigger. The door was slowly swinging open!

Later I could recall the inside of the wife’s sitting room: a small table with a lace tablecloth and a tea service, a low bookcase, two overstuffed chairs from the Victorian era, a window framed with lace curtains. But at that moment I saw only a shadow at the half-opened door: the outline of a man! No facial features or clothing, just a head and torso, and an arm  propped lazily against the lintel, as if someone was investigating the noise.

We clattered down the servants’ stairway, through the kitchen door, and into Darry’s car. We zoomed down Rodman Boulevard, slowing only when we reached the Government Bridge.  

The ghost – if it was a ghost -- was too thin to be Colonel Davenport. Maybe it was one of the murderers, returning to check on his handiwork. Or Colonel Davenport’s son,  George L’Oste. Or a draft creaking the door open. Or a prank.

Darry swore that he wasn’t playing a prank. In fact, he was too scared to go back to the Davenport House.  The next day he called to quit his job.

I've always wondered why the ghost appeared at the exact moment Darry started looking at Playboys.  Maybe it was a gay ghost who resented the intrusion of heterosexism.

See also: The Naked Ghost of Hylton Castle.; Boys with Baseball Bats in my Attic Sanctuary

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