Selden Long Island is today part of the endless sprawl that leads out of New York City and today reaches almost to Montauk. The village today does not have any geographic boundaries. No rolling fields, no break in the clutter of development until the next hamlet since the sprawl that has advanced at an alarming rate since the 1930s continues to turn up smaller patches of trees or empty spaces into clusters of houses or shopping areas that replicate the same shops as all other spots in the Geography of Nowhere.
My mother grew up in the area in the 1950s when there were still fields and groves of trees. For the decades before, developers enticed city dwellers to escape to garden communities, and my grandmother took the bait and bought a modest house in Centereach, the neighboring town to Selden and once part of that settlement when the area was called Westfield. We lived in the same house my mother spent her childhood. A small, unremarkable house surrounded by large trees and a huge backyard from the perspective of a small child since it was actually a postage stamp of a property next to exact replicas of the house each one inhabited by families who had migrated from Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, or Manhattan after The War. Growing up there, we kids were still allowed to ramble about on our bikes, play in the woods behind the development and generally take advantage of every footpath shortcut to take us from our house to the candy store or whatever was our interest without fear of any danger.
After all, the largest animal to stalk the woods would be the neighbor’s cat. The one street we would avoid during twilight was a dead end where we were told back in my mother’s time a boy had died having been run over by a truck as he played in a cardboard box by the side of the road. After that, the street was changed to a dead end to prevent traffic from Jericho Turnpike from using the street as a cut-through as people made a mad dash from Queens to Orient Point for the weekend. There still was enough room to ride a bike, but we would go the long way, the way covered by streetlights were the sun setting, and we were getting home for dinner. We kids were convinced his ghost wandered the street, but none of us had ever seen the slightest thing apart from the very real elderly couple who had lost their only child long ago going about their daily activities.
Much of the area’s history is that of rural America. Fields and gardens, trees and forests, and while inland, one is always aware of the ocean on both sides. In certain evenings, especially in autumn, one could catch something of the salt smell of ocean fog. The population of Long Island and of Selden was not what it is today by any stretch, and most of the recorded history seems uneventful as people went about their lives growing potatoes and melons, tending ducks, and sending this produce to New York City. While there were already ruins here and there, farmhouses waiting to be demolished for progress, old hospitals now vacant, and of course at least a few fast food establishments from the 1950s that had shuttered by the 1970s, the area seemed unable to support any tales of haunted groves, headless horsemen, or spirits of any sort unlike so many environs of the Hudson Valley and New England. True, the fishing villages up and down the coast could boast of haunted lighthouses, witch trials, and lost ships now returned to port as specters, the interior of the island was safe from hauntings, or so it seemed.
My mother’s best friend was Paula.
In their childhood, they rode horses and were very close. After high school, as was common back then, Paula married. Her husband was a carpenter by trade named Chuck, and they had two children who were the same age as my siblings, Kyle and Jessica. It seemed that Kyle and Jessica lived a long way over, but looking at the map today it was but a ten-minute drive. In those days the act of getting all the kids in the car, waiting at several traffic lights, and perhaps stopping off at the store for cold cuts perhaps lengthened the time in my imagination. When visiting, we all played together, which tended to encompass us all running around the house screaming until an adult would tire of this noise and spank the closest child as a warning to others to “stop fooling around.”
Chuck and Paula’s house has started out as the same crackerbox as the rest of us lived in. Sometime before (years are eons to children), a storm had torn up the area and pushed over the screen of the Sunrise Drive-In Theater. In those days drive-in theaters were still common and the drive in rebuilt rather than closing down. Another feature was that the screen was made of wood, the materials of which Chuck harvested in order to build the addition. In those days Long Island was blue collar. It was still the age where one income, typically the father, supported a family and there was not such a thing as a “stay-at-home-mom” since it was still unusual for married women with children to work. Chuck, like most dads in our suburbia, smoked, drank, deep sea fished, and grew up in harder times in the city sharing single rooms with multiple siblings all fighting for space. He was proud of the house, his yard although he did not keep the yard with the same obsessive care and detail to the lawn as many dads we kids knew. Chuck was still a no-nonsense man who spoke his mind, and Paula seemed just like other moms, smoking and gossiping with a klatch of other moms as the kids played and fought and cried and laughed outside. For a time, the trips to visit Kyle and Jessica followed the same routine. However, at some point, there was a break in this rhythm. When we asked to go visit, our mother would make some excuse.
When next we visited Kyle and Jessica, Paula was not home and it was just Chuck. Our friends were upset about something and they said their mother had gone visiting, and it was strange in those days to have the mother out of the house and just the father there. My mother was really friends with Paula, but she knew there was something wrong and that her friend had become in the past months (perhaps years – parents did not confide in children the way they do now) erratic and troubled about matters in her life. We did not notice it other than our friends Kyle and Jessica were not as interested in playing as we were accustomed. “We can’t go upstairs anymore,” Kyle said. “Dad doesn’t let us.”
With Paula out of the house, there was something not right. A relative of Chuck, a young woman who we knew came from far away, but who I will have to call Nancy since I cannot recall her name, came to stay with the family to help out with the children since Chuck needed to focus on work. We went over, and our playmates were clearly upset. A good part of the house had become off limits to them, and Nancy had for a time live up on the “new section” of the house but then quit her room to sleep on the couch. The house was apparently getting away from Chuck, and he was in contact with Paula but she apparently was undergoing some life changes, none of which we kids were told about but it seemed that she was living in a hotel, refused to come home, and was in communication only at odd times. We overheard the adults talk about her needing help. We did not know for what.
We were visiting for dinner, there were other adults over (I can’t remember who they were) and at the table Chuck apparently had some to drink, perhaps having started before he came home. This old no-nonsense dad was now rambling on in ways that were frightening. He, too, was a changed person. The one thing we were clear about in his rambling was his hatred of “That fu_king smile!”
“There is something bad in the closet,” Jessica told us.
Whatever was in the house was causing more chaos. More nights over at Kyle and Jessica’s house there were so many more adults. After dinner, Nancy and Chuck took up the newcomers upstairs where they remained for some time. We asked what they were doing. “They’re looking at the thing up there.”
The adults came down, clearly shaken. It was frightening to see adults scared. Frightening to see a dad like all those other dads but who was angry and frightened and fighting with a mom who was like all other moms, until that day she changed. Would our own mother just one day change? What was up there in the closet?
The fu_king smile. That’s what’s up there. A fu_king smile in the closet.
What does it look like?
Evil. An evil smirk. I wish I could punch that fu_king smile off of whatever it was attached to.
Turned up at the ends. Fu_king turned up evil smile just grinning away in the corner!
What does it look like?
Toothy. Malicious. In the dark corner of the closet, so dark but you can see the fu_king smile there.
But, what does it look like?
We asked Kyle and Jessica. Yes, it was a smile, but they had not seen it. They were not allowed up in the new part of the house anymore.
The adults had seen it. They talked to each other, but we only overheard. We wondered what this looked like. I remembered a cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland. The Cheshire cat slowly vanished until all that was left was a smirk that then faded to a crescent of the moon and then vanished. I imagined that this looked like that, but minus the cat.
The subject for a long time was forbidden in our house, lest we think of it too much. And cause it to exist. My mother no longer spoke to her old friend. Time changed people, and not for the best; it turned out. She moved out of the house with the kids and left Chuck there. Nancy moved back to Texas. Chuck got a call that “the fucking smile had followed her there” and he had to go out to Texas. We did not hear any more from Chuck or Paula and never saw our friends Kyle and Jessica again.
After many years, as teens, we finally broke the taboo on the subject. Long Island had changed and become a more dangerous place. There was the fear of devil worshipers and child molesters running daycare centers, and abductions all over the place. We were no longer allowed to walk through the wooded areas alone. We were told there were monsters out there in the darkness.
But, what did it look like? Our mother claimed not to have seen it but said it was evil whatever it was. She believed that perhaps the tree outside was the cause of this haunting since the tree at that house was used for hanging witches, or at least that is what she was told when she was young. Living in the same neighborhood for so many decades she had heard a lot of rumors of hauntings. She heard that Lake Ronkonkoma was bottomless and that the Native Americans believed it was sacred, they went to the water’s edge to do dream-quests. Perhaps one of those dreams, a nightmare, had escaped. She wondered if her friend had gotten into witchcraft. On the phone, at some point between incoherent chatter, she claimed to be a witch. Maybe she was. Then there was the movie screen. Perhaps the wood had absorbed all those horrible films, and what was left was just the dripping cloying smirk of every aspiration of every viewer who had ever gone to the Sunrise Drive-in. We were left with an unfinished sketch of this monster and little theory as to why this haunting occurred.
Typically ghost stories have some sense to them. A horrible crime at a certain place, a spirit tied to some location, the passing of so many lives leaving some imprints – a lady in gray who is hard at work, a child wandering the side of the road where he perished, a woodland cursed by some battle. But, in the explanations, there is little more to understand than something manifested and then was gone. Suburbia can be new and yet perhaps cursed by old demons.
Editor’s Note: While the writer attests that this is a true account, names have been changed or altered and any resemblance to anyone living, dead, or undead is purely a coincidence.