The Ghosts of Galveston

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A parapsychologist travels to Galveston Island to investigate the paranormal activities surrounding the deaths of orphan children who dies during the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. They seem somehow trapped on the island, but our storyteller discovers they are not alone.

Submitted: January 28, 2008

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Submitted: January 28, 2008

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The Ghosts of Galveston
 
I felt as though I was leaving one world and entering another climbing the high bridge over the Bay. Behind me lay my mainland world of teaching and research, and ahead lay a world of sand and surf for some, of lower middle class work for others, and for still others something between a refuge and a prison. Galveston Island has always been a little world by itself. Although it is separated from the mainland of Texas by only a couple of minutes by car, the distance in spirit is much greater. Galveston is on one hand a typical tourist spot complete with beaches, t-shirt shops and hundreds of restaurants; and on the other hand it is a haunted realm of what once was. In the mid 19th Century, Galveston was the hub of all trade west of New Orleans and short of California. The Galveston business district was nicknamed the Wall Street of the West, and the city throbbed with life. All that was before.
Anyone who lives anywhere in Texas or Louisiana knows about the September 8th Hurricane.  It’s still called the September 8th Hurricane, even though that particular September 8th occurred back in 1900. That blow is still the worst single natural disaster that has ever befallen this country, even bigger than Katrina. That September 8 storm roared ashore at night drowning Galveston Island under nearly fifteen feet of roaring, black seawater.Somewhere around eight thousand were lost in that churning hill of water: men and women, young and old, saints and scalawags alike. The good and the evil died together in those churning waters. The shades of merchants, warehousemen, stevedores and sailors; barkeeps, charlatans, pirates and whores; they all still linger in Galveston, either because they will not, or cannot leave. I was here to meet some of them.
Old Galveston had also boasted a hospital and an orphanage, St. Mary’s, operated by the Sisters of Charity. The orphanage housed about ninety children, reared by ten sisters. None of the good Sisters, and only three of the children, survived that night. I had heard of some peculiar phenomena in the immediate vicinity of the orphanage site, and I wanted to try to reach out to any entities I might contact. I am a parapsychologist, both a researcher and a para-therapist, and I thought I might be able to help any lingering entities as well as add an interesting section to my book. The Ghosts of Galveston is due out in the spring and I have high hopes for it.
An acquaintance from the University of Houston put me onto a friend who conducts “ghost tours” in Galveston. I met him outside the finest hotel in old downtown. He had been a few minutes early for our four o’clock meeting, but had described himself well enough that I felt confident I had spotted him leaning against the front of the hotel, as I rolled down my car window. William “Willie” Small is not small at all, easily over six feet, and seems to push six-six with his erect carriage. Just over 40, I guessed, as he came over to my car. He was wearing jeans and a knit shirt, but he is one of those men who look better dressed in them than I do in a sport coat and tie.
“Mr. Small?” I inquired. 
 “Willy,” he countered. “There’s parking available in the lot at the end of the block.  I’ll meet you down there.” And he walked away toward the lot without another word.
When I pulled in and parked, he approached again. “Glad to have you here. Why don’t we begin with a drink over at the pier?” I hopped out of the car to shake his hand, after which he immediately turned toward the old waterfront. So much for idle chatter; no polite inquiries about my short trip down from Houston and nothing about our mutual acquaintance, Jenn, at the University who had suggested I contact him to be my guide. I hoped he was going to become a little more forthcoming, and the suggestion of a drink this early was not a harbinger of future problems.  
Will went immediately into his tour guide mode and pointing out features of several of the old buildings as we walked the short block down toward the pier. He glanced in my direction only occasionally as his eyes examined the buildings past which we walked. All the major buildings on this block were original to the mid nineteenth century, sporting elaborate entrances and ornate cornices above rows of brick-framed windows. Many were restored to near mint condition, giving the area the feel of a living museum.
Ahead of us, on the other side of a wide street were the wharves.
 “I hear those wharves were pretty busy in the old days,” I commented, not wanting to seem completely ignorant. 
“Yeh, cotton and wheat and timber going out and everything else coming in. Galveston was the busiest seaport in this part of the country in the mid 1800’s. Handled two-thirds of all the cotton the country produced back then.” Then he went silent again.
I tried to make some kind of personal connection, “Jenn told me if anyone could help, it would be you,” I remarked.
“Jenn is a great girl,” was he said. What he didn’t say was screaming “Story!” at me. 
“Where did you meet her?” I probed.
“We worked together at a restaurant a few years back.”
“Before she went back to school?”  Only a nod in response.
“You said you were doing grad work in psychology?” Willy finally asked, shifting the subject. That’s all I was going to get about Jenn, for now.
“Yes, it is a nice excuse for studying my real interest.”
“The Spirit World,” Willy supplied, with a small smile. I’m not sure if it was genuine or just indulgent.
We stepped into a large seafood restaurant on the new wharf.  Just inside there was a large refrigerated seafood case where whole fresh-caught fish lay on a thick bed of crushed ice. Some were stuck into the ice, and appeared to be swimming, trapped inside the case. Their glazed eyes peered out at us with condemned indifference.
Willy ignored the young hostess who was hurrying over, and looked above her to greet the barman, “Hey Joe!” 
“Willy! How’s it goin’?” Joe eyed me briefly, pegging me for an outsider, and decided to ignore my presence. “Goin’ out on the deck?” he asked Willy.
“Open?”
 “Yea, Fine.” And then in mock consolation to the young hostess who stood by, menus in hand: “Don’t you pay no attention to Willy, Honey. We try not to encourage his patronage, anyway.” 
Joe gave Willy a look, inviting him to respond, but Willy only shook his head slightly small smile. We proceeded past the case of the condemned and out onto the deck.
It was shaped like an inverted “T,” with the top of the letter against the back of the restaurant, and the vertical stroke projecting out like a pier toward the wide shipping channel. A large boat basin to our right was occupied by a 19th century wooden merchantman.
“The Elissa,” said Willy nodding toward the ship and he gestured me toward a seat looking out onto the water.
Our waitress arrived, giving Willy a flirtatious hug, “Hi, Dahlin.’” She was apparently another member of this private community; only in her late twenties, medium length dark hair, held by a ribbon.  
Willy’s arm went around her; affectionate, but not possessive. “Max, meet Charlie. He came down ghost huntin’;” then his voice dropped to say gently, “Jenn sent him.”
Max’s smile faded for a split second, but she covered by shifting her focus to me, professional smile recovering to high beam.
“Well good luck to you, Charlie.” she enthused. Theatrically planting one hand on her hip, and flipping the other wrist to point at Willy, she confided, “Be-leeve me, if they’re deahd, Willy knows ‘em.” Laughing at her own joke, she punched Willy in the shoulder. Willy grudgingly expended to Max his third smile since we’d met.
“What are you having?” Willy asked me, returning to the business at hand.
“Margarita?” Max suggested. “We make ‘em good.”
“Sounds fine –but on the rocks.  Hate drinking ‘em frozen out of those fish bowls.”
Willie nodded that he’d have the same and Max headed for the bar.
Out on the channel, a large platform tender cruised by, big cabin forward like a tug, with a long, wide afterdeck for cargo.  They haul parts and supplies out to the platforms on the Gulf. On the other side of the narrow channel, workmen welded atop what looked like the frame of a multi-story building. Willy noticed my glance.
“Oil platforms. They build ‘em here and then tow ‘em out into the Gulf.
He hesitated for a moment as though unsure of where to go next for conversation; then, “So, are you one of those who believe spirits are kept here by some experience and they can’t let go of?” He suddenly seemed at ease on this familiar ground.
 “Yes, sort of.” I was happy he apparently knew some the basics, but wanted to listen to him for now.
Willy was nodding, “Well drowning in the hurricane could have done it, then.” He paused, and then asked pointedly, “You really think they’re here because they’re stuck?”
“The most accepted hypothesis now is that those who make an incomplete transition do so because of some traumatic experience they have had, or because of a fear of rejection in the next world.” It came out sounding like a lecture, even to me.
“Fear of rejection,” Willy repeated. He seemed to think on that for a moment. Was because of some fear like that?
Some devil made me go back to asking about Jenn.
“So, everyone seems to know Jenn.”
Willy nodded, “Yeh, we all know her. She was sort of ...a part of the group.”
“The group?”
“Bunch a’ us Islanders.” He looked away and I again I felt him withdrawing. He sipped his drink and contemplated the plastic swizzle stick.
So far as I was concerned, Jenn was only a casual acquaintance, but Willy’s reluctance to talk about her was piquing my interest, and as a writer, to me, the phrase, “none of your business,” means nothing. We’re all interested in everyone else’s business. Across the channel, sparks made by the welders fell several stories in small, short-lived cascades of fire to the water below. 
Willy resumed, “Jenn left us.... went up to U of H to finish her degree. Don’t see much of her anymore.”
“So...how did you get into ghost-shrinking?” he asked, suddenly. Was there a touché, there? A sort of, “I can press you, too.”
“Never heard it put quite so eloquently,” I offered. “Maybe too many old Twilight Zone reruns.
“What’s your excuse?”
Willy was expecting the question. “Mostly the result of ‘market forces’ I guess. Heard about all the spook tours everywhere else and I was always reading about Old Galveston and the storm, an’ all, anyway, so it sort of came naturally. Just bought an old frock coat and top hat and I was in business.”
Then he added, “The get-up didn’t seem quite appropriate for tonight.”
“If you had, I would only have felt under-dressed, myself.”
This brought a small chuckle from Willy.
“You ever actually seen one? An entity, or whatever?” he continued.
And I had been expecting that one sometime during the evening as well.
“No, not seen. I’ve felt presences many times and seen some poltergeist activity. No actual apparitions, not yet.
“How about you?”
Willy was looking at me with a hint of disappointment, as though he had been hoping I would confirm something for him. He answered flatly, “About the same. But, sometimes, ya’ know, you can jus’ feel them there. You just know. Like if you wiped your eyes, and looked again, there they’d be.”
“Yea, I know.” Sometimes I think maybe para-psych is part religion. You can’t really see, usually, but you’ve got to believe if you’re going to do any good.
“Susan has seen quite a few over the years. She started guiding about five years before I did. Says she’s seen a lot of the girls over near the old bordello, still waitin’ for their next client.”
“I never seem to feel much downtown. Maybe I’m not sensitive enough, or something.
“But when I’m out by the old orphanage, that’s different. I dunno, it’s just like, goin’ to church in the old days, or something. You feel ‘em there, like when you believed in angels, or whatever.” Willy suddenly eyed me, wondering if maybe he’d somehow offended the religious sensibilities I don’t have. 
“I’ve had the feeling,” I replied. I believe in God and all, but church is something else.
“It’s getting dark,” Willy added as an afterthought, “’Bout time to go.”
He waved to Max, who brought the check over, and we both reached for it.
“My treat,” I said, and gave her my card. Willy simply accepted my gesture with only a small nod.
After we settled up, we hiked back over to the parking lot. I figured Willie was expecting me to drive, but he stopped beside a battered red Ford F-100 pickup. Dating from the mid fifties, I judged. The faded tint of its paint spoke eloquently of its having crossed that line separating the merely old from the truly classic. It fit Willy very well. The cab was clean, even the floors. The seats had been recovered in a hard black fabric. It occurred to me Willy was very neat in his informality. He was no “loser” in the usual sense; that was for sure. 
“So what do you do when you’re not guiding ghost hunts?”
Willie blinked and squinted slightly as he drove, and I wondered if my reference to “ghost hunts” did not suit his view of his profession. Then he spoke with no hint of annoyance.
“Bartend sometimes, when things are slow during the winter; was a waiter for awhile. That’s where we all met one another… the group.” He was back to Jenn.
“All worked various places on the wharf at one time -- just Joe and Max now. Jenn left and I just sort of got tired of it. I was always reading ‘bout old Galveston an’ the Hurricane so I opened up the tours.”
Willy slowed in mid street, oblivious to any traffic, which fortunately was light. “That was the first drugstore in Texas,” he said, giving me a glance. “That dark old neon Coca Cola sign atop the building was one of the first. Tried to get Coca Cola to give us some money to fix it up and get it goin’, but they weren’t interested.”
We emerged from downtown turning left onto the boulevard. A couple of blocks later we passed the Catholic Cathedral located between mansions. I’d never been there and asked Joe about it.
“What’s the old Cathedral like?”
“Don’t really know,” he replied. “Never been in.”
“Not part of the tour?”
 A slight hesitation, “It’s on some tours, surviving the storm and all.”
 “You ever been somewhere where you know you’re not wanted?”
Willy asked with irony.
“In a church?” 
“Believe me, you can tell,” he continued. “I was an altar boy, even. But then they don’t know ya’.Remember that passage from the Bible where they guy is cured from his blindness, so he goes to the priests to show them he was cured and they start arguing an’ all about Jesus? They tell him, ‘You were steeped in sin from your birth,” --just because he was born blind. It’s like that.” He looked over at me pointedly, as though I might be one of those who would judge him for whatever his sin, which-really-wasn’t-a-sin, in his mind.
 “So where’s home?” I asked, desperately trying to get off this tack.
“Nelson, out near Abilene.” Willy was calmer, now.
“Get home much?”
“Naw, occasionally I get invited ...for a reunion or something,” a hint of bitterness in his voice.
He had to be invited home?
“When dad died, went home to help Mom for a couple of weeks, getting the store ready to sell.”
“What kind?”
“Ford store, dealership.”
A Ford dealership? Now if there is anything in modern Texas worth more than an oil well, it’s a Ford dealership. They sell so many pickups in Texas, they never even have to sell a car. He had even called it a “store” the way dealers usually do. The family sold a Ford Dealership near Abilene and Willie has to bartend and conduct ghost tours in Galveston? What kind of a sin keeps you away from home like that? 
My mind wandered back to the restaurant to Max and, to Joe; were they all sinners? Was this their bond as the “bunch of islanders” that Jenn left behind when she went back to Houston? What kept the rest of them here?
We reached the end east of Seawall Boulevard, and made a sharp turn heading west along Seawall. We passed the turn of the century Galvez Hotel overlooking Seawall from behind a phalanx of palm trees. The Galvez anchored the east end of the Boulevard. I’m a sucker for beautiful old buildings.
“Spirits around here, I bet,” I observed.
“A few... couple of suicides off the jetties... Nothin’ special, really.”
We rode west along Seawall passing innumerable restaurants, t-shirt shops and souvenir stores. Then we passed the other great anchor of the Boulevard, the San Luis, which styles itself a “resort”. The Hotel rises high off the Boulevard atop the remnants of an abandoned concrete coastal artillery bunker. It’s especially popular with reporters visiting town to cover hurricanes because of its solid structure and lofty position above the storm surges.
Willy began to slow down and look off to the right as we passed 69th, as approaching something special. We pulled to a stop along the curb a few blocks farther on and Willy pointed.
“It was over there,” he said, and then he looked at me, realizing I didn’t understand.
“The orphanage,” he amplified, and then fell silent for a few moments before going on, “The dunes were right here, under us. The boy’s dorm was over there,” he said pointing slightly behind us. We were overlooking the sunken parking of a national discount chain store which is located immediately off the boulevard, on the lower land behind the Seawall. “The girls had the new dorm, over there. The boy’s dorm was to the right.”
  “They stayed in there all evening, Just watching the waves it eat away the dunes by the light of the porch lamps, waves rising, rolling closer, and the dunes just sort of dissolvin’. At the end, mounds of water, were rollin’ right across the island.”
“No one had a chance, then?”
“Some made it. ... but most had nowhere to go. They knew a storm was comin’... but no one expected anything that big.”
“What about the orphans?”
“The sisters tied ropes ‘round themselves, each of ‘em, to about nine kids, and just tried to stay afloat. No way.”
I already knew the story, but Willy was on a roll I didn’t want to stop. “They all died?” 
“All the nuns and all but three of the kids, boys. Found ‘em in a tree the next day.”
“The others?”
“All drowned. Most they buried wherever they found ‘em.” Willy’s eyes took on an almost horror-stricken look and he stared at the brightly lighted store without seeing it, looking back in time. 
 “Been telling that story too long... Start to see things ... you know? ” He flashed an embarrassed grin, and then pulled away from the curb and into the parking lot that was once an orphanage full of children. We got out of the truck.
“In there,” he said, nodding toward the store. I followed him into the brightly lit discounter.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” said an older employee near the door. I nodded but Willy notice the man. We walked directly to the back of the store near the toys; near the dolls and stuffed animals. Willie took a deep breath exhaling slowly. He seemed to relax and smiled at the toys as though they were his own.
I opened myself to receive some feeling of a presence and a feeling of melancholy overtook me. I felt the presence of spirits.
“Around here,” Willy said, looking down one aisle. He spoke in a hushed tone, as though speaking too loud might startle the dolls or something.
Then he pulled up short, and pointed quickly down the aisle. A doll lay on the floor, its outer wrapping torn by someone, or something, wanting to touch the bright red and white checkered smock it wore. The corner of the doll’s clothing was pulled out somewhat through the torn front of the wrapping. Willie looked at me knowingly, and continued in a confidential tone, “They management won’t admit it, but anyone who works here will tell you they have to pick up every morning before they open.” Willy was looking around excitedly, as if to find further evidence of what “they” wouldn’t admit.
He picked up again, “Sometimes I just come over and get a basket like I’m shopping, just to walk up and down through here, you know?It’s almost like I’m, well .. I don’t know. Like I’m home?” He pointed out a small baseball glove lying on the floor, and gave me that significant look again.
“This is my Church. We all gotta’ belong somewhere. For me, it’s here. 
“You feel ‘em?” He looked at me, the professional parapsychologist, as thought I was supposed to sense it all very clearly.
“I was again aware the feeling of melancholy. It was stronger than in the store. The sense that all was settled now, however sadly. Only whatever it was, whoever.. after their horrific ordeal they were settled in, and back to childish pursuits. I looked at Willie, and he smiled a little at me. “I think maybe...” I started.
 “Yeh,” said Willie, “me, too.” And he went on, “You can know just about everything about something that’s happened, about what people have said, or done, or whatever ... but until you feel it, you never really know.”
We just sat there, feeling it. Understanding the way words could neither tell, nor pictures show. 
 The guide in him came back now, “Some of the kids are buried out back. No marked graves, of course, but the old timers can tell you.” He gestured for me to follow.
We left the store and drove around behind it. “Over in there,” Willie said pointing out into the darkness of some vacant land behind the store. “That’s where they are. Nothin’ to see, really.”It was still the guide speaking; no deep secrets to offer.
We stood just looking out into the darkness for any hint of the faint glow of an entity, but nothing visualized. That’s the way it is most times. The empathetic, musty sadness still lingered in me. It almost smelled of the dust of time, as though aged like wine from immediate bitter anguish to a mellow sadness accepted. 
After twenty minutes, or so, we got back into the truck and headed downtown. 
 “So have you experienced your ghosts?” Willy asked with a conspiratorial smile. Without doubt, he was satisfied with the evening’s experience.
I thought of the book I had planned, my theme of shadowy apparitions, and troubled spirits. There would have to be some changes.
“Yes, I guess I have.
I decided to probe Willy’s empathy with the entities of the children. “What’s your sense of why they linger? Is it just because here is where they died, or because of the terrible deaths they endured?”
“I’ve wondered about that myself,” he replied. “In the end, I think it’s fear. In the end it all comes down to being afraid to go anywhere else. If it was just their death experiences, every site of a car crash, every hospital, especially every battlefield would be so crowded with entities no one living could stand being there.
“They’re afraid. I’ve sensed that sometimes. If they stay here, they remain in a familiar place, even if it is sad. They don’t have to face the outside world, or eternity, or whatever. I think their experience has made them afraid of ‘living,” or existing, or whatever. They are terrified of anything beyond this island.”
We drove back to the parking lot beside the hotel amid the remnants of Old Galveston and I paid Willie for the tour and climbed out of the truck. Neither of us said much. I mumbled something of a thank you, and he said thanks for the check. 
Then he said, “Oh, when you get back to the world, when you see Jenn, will you tell her Maxine sends her best.”
Maxine? She hadn’t said anything like that. My face told Willie I was confused. Willie smiled slightly, in that way he has.
 “I thought maybe you and Jenn...” 
The smile widened slightly. “No, she and Maxine ... they were... together. Long time ago.”
Willie continued, tentatively, “You’ll come back and see us...the gang, again...sometime?” He spoke hopefully, as though praying I understood something.
It was turn to smile, for him: “Sure. But I’m going to have to rework that book, now. With you and your invisible ghosts.” 
“Maybe Susan can introduce you to some of our more notorious feminine entities.”
“Visibility would be important in that case,” I laughed.
Willie was nodding as I closed my car door.
Within minutes, I was on the causeway again, leading up and over the bridge to, “the World.” I thought about Willie and Maxine and Jenn and Joe. Out of nowhere, I was thinking about the passage Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus meets the sprits of the dead. Their greatest need is for news of the living world, some connection to what still “is.”
Yes, I’ll be back, and Willie will still be there with all the other ghosts of Galveston.


© Copyright 2017 Frank Kehoe. All rights reserved.

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