Excerpt: Ghost Story

As a boy, I was scared by both my deep, hidden desire to be a girl and the spooky Main Line mansion I grew up in. Thirty years and a sex-change operation later, I came back — only to discover I’m still being haunted

At this moment, from the piano downstairs came the sudden, crashing notes of the Pathétique Sonata. One hand trailing on the creaking banister, I walked down the steps toward the first floor and its black living room.

I reached the bottom of the stairs, and the piano music stopped mid-chord. The house rang with silence.

A thin voice said, Who are you?

I didn’t reply. I wasn’t sure what the answer was.

OUR NEW HOME was called the Coffin House, named after its builder, Lemuel Coffin. The house’s previous owners had been a family named the Hunts. The oldest of the Hunt children, Al, eventually became a well-known reporter for the Wall Street Journal. In 2006, I asked him if he’d ever seen any ghosts in the Coffin House. He gave me a look, like this was a silly question. “I never thought about ghosts,” he said. “That was completely off my radar.”

On the other hand, his younger brother, Saint George, told me he’d seen all sorts of specters over the years. One time, he said, something came to him while he was asleep and urged him to jump off the roof. He’d gotten one of his legs out the window before his father came in and asked him what he was doing. He didn’t have an answer.

Would he spend a single night now in the house, I asked? Now that he was all grown up?

Not for a million dollars, Saint George replied, a little embarrassed.

As for me, it would be another 30 years before I changed my name from James to Jennifer, before I lay down on a gurney, closed my eyes, and woke up a woman. At age 13, though, I believed that in order to survive, I had to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden. And so I haunted that boy’s body of mine just as the spirits haunted our house, as a hopeful, wraithlike presence otherwise invisible to the naked eye  — like helium, or J.D. Salinger, or the G-spot.

I’D STUMBLED OVER the answer to the question the ghost had posed — Who are you? But then I thought of a perfectly valid response.

“It’s me,” I said, and stepped forward into the black living room.

My father was sitting on the piano bench, smoking a cigarette.

“I didn’t know anybody was home,” he said, embarrassed.

“Neither did I,” I said. I still wasn’t sure if he was real. My father never played piano anymore.

He took a long drag on his cigarette, blew the smoke out into the room.

“Sorry about the noise,” he said.

“It’s fine,” I said. “You ought to play more often.”

He got up and went over to the couch. I could tell from his manner that he was embarrassed I’d heard him playing. Dad sat down with a copy of the Evening Bulletin. “I guess I should finish my homework,” I said.

But I didn’t leave. Instead I sat down at the Cable-Nelson.

“So Dad. You feel okay?”

“You bet.”