Some things that happen in life are simply too– too– well, too something to be used in fiction. They’re too stereotypical, too fantastical, too easy, or too impossible to use for representing anything that will look – or feel – like reality on the page. Art imitates life every day, just as it should. But my art is only allowed to imitate my life when it won’t make me look like a hack. Maybe some writers who are bolder or more limber than I am can work their weirder moments into stories, but I hold my stranger-than-fiction close. I hoard it because it keeps me alert. It keeps me wondering.
Since I’ll never make fiction of the little-big weirdness that happened at Oteen in May of 2006, I will tell you a true story instead, every word exactly as it happened to me. In the end, perhaps you’ll agree – or not – that rendering this little episode in a novel would be a mistake. It’s only a good story (or a shuddery one) because it really happened.
In the spring of 2006, I had just set my household in order after an extended out-of-state move. We’d finally hit a stride as a family and by early May, the new house felt like home. I knew where I was going and what I was doing. Winter was gone, summer was coming. And the old Oteen hospital was weighing on my mind.
When we’d first come to Asheville, we’d rented an apartment. We didn’t know which end of town would put our house money to the best use, so rolling the unfamiliar roads became a hobby of mine, criss-crossing the entire town, trying to get my home compass fluttering.
There had been a house for sale on the side of a mountain in the Riceville area. Ultimately though, the driveway up to that chalet-inspired deal-of-the-century daunted me. Three times I drove out there and three times I lacked the courage to point my car up a thirty degree slope with switchbacks. (Eleven years later, I find this very funny. After a while, you get used to the driveways around here.)
On the way to the house-I-never-saw, at the flat stretch after the first rise on Riceville Road, is the yellow stucco husk of the old Oteen hospital, a fixture on that spot since the late 1800s. Originally, it was a standard wooden construction of the period, a tuberculosis sanitarium in a time when doctors believed that Asheville’s air was restorative. Eventually it was rebuilt as a military hospital and became part of the Veteran’s Administration before falling into disuse after the construction of a more modern complex of facilities across the street. The beautiful Georgian Revival building was abandoned in the mid-1980s, and so was demoted to “the old Oteen hospital”.
The fate of the structure was debated over twenty years while the asbestos in the old walls crumbled to poison flour on the floor. The windows broke (or more likely were broken) and the wiring licked through the cave-ins, as the years wore through the ceilings. Damp plaster moldered, green to black, and a wave of rust chewed red holes into the abandoned fixtures.
The woods behind Oteen crept under and closer. With no chainsaw or lawnmower to discourage them, the tentative strokes of vines and branches eventually exploded into a slithering frenzy over the façade.
Truly, the disintegration of Oteen was documentable. You could measure it and photograph it and shake your head over it. But the dread of the place, the full effect of standing there in the cold sigh of crazy as it poured over the gaping windowsills is something that you just had to experience. Not one person I have ever led up there has proved immune to it.
As for me, I’m an unbeliever – with margins. Since my wisdom teeth grew in, I have never been able to sustain any conviction of the paranormal for longer than it took my heart to stop pounding in my ears after a bump in the night. But I have, at times, courted that bump in the night. I’ve sought it out in the weird hope that I could tarry for a while in those margins, maybe even live there part-time in the wondrous, shivery doubt of what if. The fear that there’s something out there, something more, is also the hope of it. More, after all, is more, no matter what they say about less.
I wanted pictures of Oteen before some civic-minded someone finally got around to it and undid the projection of a hundred years of sickness, suffering, and war-dreams. The building had transcended eyesore – all of that trauma corralled within its walls, groomed into a monument by abandonment and two decades of neglect. There had been plenty of time for Oteen to ferment an aura that was potent enough to raise chills on even someone like me, someone a little numb to these things.
A shave and a haircut would surely civilize the place. A committee would dispatch a bureaucratic tailor to Riceville Road to recut the building’s straightjacket into a respectable blazer with a museum badge on it. But I wanted to preserve, as best my camera could, the way Oteen seemed to me. So on a brilliant spring day, I gathered up my purse and my Kodak and headed out.
I also brought with me my three year old daughter. And she brought Lovey.
Lovey has been with us since Rianne was two months old. You can see him here in this early photo, but what I realized in locating this picture is that if you look carefully, he’s somewhere in almost every photo of her until she was old enough to go to school. Lovey was draped across her eyes to shield her from her first dentist as he leaned in with gloved hands and a babytooth-ogling mirror. Lovey still comes with us on vacation. And there is some discussion of who will take custody of Lovey when Rianne goes off to college.
Lovey is family, but he has never been – with only one notable departure – anything but a stuffed toy.
I parked us in the middle of the service road that ran alongside the old hospital. I had no fear of interrupting any actual service to the building. Service was a long-dead concept at Oteen, probably last administered on-site by the fencing company that had blocked off the entrances. A KEEP OUT sign had been hung on the chainlink, a warning to every single nobody who would listen. I suppose it had been a service of sorts to advise caution, but hooligans had long since cut a slit through the barricade.
I circled the North end of the building and back around, weighing up the sooty planes and angles for a shot that would stand in on photo paper for the hum of unease that broadcast from the place. I had to rein myself in, paced to small, slow steps so that my littlest could keep up. She was attached to my right leg by a handful of cargo pants gripped in one dimpled fist. Lovey lolled in his usual pose, pinned into the crook of her other arm, so that she had him close to her heart while maintaining easy access to her thumb. This shining morning, as always, she was my silent child, a sweet cipher in a chattering world – head full of thoughts, mouth full of thumb.
I found my first shot and uncapped the lens. The screens of the porch fluttered in artful shreds around the rotted frames. I was restless before I’d even started, disappointed in advance of the shutter click. I already knew that the errand was an inevitable failure. I had wanted to snare the vampire mood of Oteen, but it would be invisible in its photo reflection. I knew it even before I pressed the button: the photos would fall short. There would be no catching the spell of this place for memory. And I was right, but I was also wrong.
In the end, it wasn’t me who bottled the lightning. It sure as hell wasn’t the camera. And I don’t know what or whom to credit (or blame) for my three-year-old’s short string of rare complete sentences. She popped her thumb out of her mouth and tugged down on my pantsleg, and then said the first – and only – disassociative thing she’s ever uttered.
“Lovey says there are ghosts here. Can I wait in the car?”
My instinct bucked and stampeded from its hidey hole somewhere up under my ribs, and it scared up a herd of stinging chills over my arms and shoulders. There was a riot in my head.
Calm on the outside, earthquake on the inside, I escorted my child’s request to its carseat. I was humoring her, maybe, or parenting with kindness. Yes, that was more the thing. The experts say you should respect a child’s fears, you should resist belittling her concerns— except that she didn’t look scared. She didn’t even look worried. She looked matter-of-factly fine: thumb back in place, head down, watching her own chubby legs pistoning away. She was completely unfazed by stumping back to the car in pleasant resignation to the instructions of a fabric and rattle-headed comfort toy.
What did she know that I didn’t? But there’s no such thing. There aren’t any ghosts, and there’s no psychic warning so urgent that it sparks messages for us in the stuffing behind sweet little stitched eyes. Surely Lovey doesn’t have an opinion… Surely not.
Then I tried to go back and take the pictures anyway. I snapped a few hurried shots, but I never made it all the way to the dark side, into the gloom behind the hospital where the healthy trees on the outside of the fence dangled dying branches over the Oteen side. I couldn’t do it. Out of sight felt perilously like inviting myself out of my mind.
So I went home.
Perhaps there are ghosts at Oteen. Perhaps the restoration or demolition of the place will someday sweep them out. But when I’m not dabbling in the open space around my good sense, I doubt that there are any spirits there. But the one thing I can never work down to a comfortable answer, the one thing that keeps this little exchange forever at hand in my memory, is how Rianne even knew the word or concept of “ghost” at that tender age.
I was extremely careful of what my children saw and heard for entertainment. We didn’t do even fluffy versions of the macabre. We hadn’t made any friends in Asheville yet, so there hadn’t been any playdates. She didn’t yet go to school. It was well many years after the Oteen incident before I introduced either of the girls to anything remotely spooky. They’d never even seen an episode of Scooby Doo.
This wasn’t because I was an unbeliever merely rubbishing what I usually think of as nonsense. It wasn’t even for the nobler reason of bubble-wrapping their fragile little psyches against heebie-jeebies. No. It was all selfishness that kept the bedtime stories sunnier and the Halloween costumes friendly. I simply had no desire to be awakened in the middle of the night to chase the monsters out of the closets. And for the most part – even on that night – it worked for Rianne, if not quite as well for me.
As for Lovey, our erstwhile ally in the margins, he has never imparted any further wisdom since May of 2006. He’s also never asked for anything to eat, or suggested an activity for the family’s downtime, or requested a song on the stereo in the car. And that’s a good thing. Lovey is sitting on Rianne’s bed even now, benignly mute, as he damned well should be.
(Sadly, the few not-terribly-good photos I took of Oteen that day were lost in a computer crash years ago. The fantastic photos here are used, with permission. Thanks to Stephanie Rogers of Trances and Portents.)