When I was a kid at JFK Middle (now benignly renamed Clearwater Fundamental Middle School), I rode the bus to and from school most days. Oh, sure, some days I would luck out and my grandmother or grandfather would come get me, but by and large I lugged my purple backpack and super-cool purple barrel-shaped purse (Hey, I was 11 and it was 1983. Give me a break!) to the big yellow bus.
The school bus situation being what it was in Pinellas at the time, we left the school and wound our way through Clearwater. What was a 10 minute ride to school in my mom and dad's spiffy green Volkswagen Rabbit took, as I recall, roughly four days. Along the way we went through Harbor Oaks, where I desperately pretended not to care that several of my schoolmates disembarked and went inside homes that were larger than most Italian-American halls. I loved driving through the stately oaks, the houses built with an eye toward pleasant living as opposed to the sardine theory of real estate espoused in less affluent communuties, and, really, the houses themselves.
I didn't live there, of course. Now, I was never ashamed of not living in a big house with a sprawling yard, and to this day I look at those houses and think "Sweet lord, that's a lot of upkeep" rather than "I want that," but the disparity between that neighborhood and mine (where most of my bus-mates lived, by the way) was laid out in sharp relief as we transitioned from one to the next.
Separating our neighborhoods was the Clearwater Municipal Cemetery. In truth, the cemetery excited me more than the daily tour of Harbor Oaks, even though we never did anything more than drive by it. I just like cemeteries (Truth: when I visited New Orleans for the first time, the best part for me was a dead heat between the beignets at Cafe du Monde and the cemetery tours. If they served that coffee and those little sugared bits of heaven in the cemetery, I would still be there).
What made the drive by all the more exciting was the skull. Across the street from the cemetery was a two-story building with a second-floor porch. A cement wall formed the porch wall, and on the corner cement pillar sat a bleached white skull.
While, in all likelihood, it was a plaster or plastic toy, you can't put that sort of thing out across from a cemetery and not have a whole busload of pre-teens not spouting theories. It was, we all knew (with the certainty kids know everything), from the cemetery. The questions we could never answer were, in no order of importance, was it from a corpse marked with a grave or did the owner of the home bury a body there after he killed someone (except, of course, the skull, which we assumed was his trophy)? Did the body come looking for the skull at night? Was the skull stolen? Was it a family member? Did a murderer live there?
This is what happens when a young child with an active imagination has to sit on a bus for extended periods. I always believed it was a murder victim and could not, for the life of me, understand why the owner of the house hadn't been arrested for killing the skull's owner.
For years, the skull fascinated me. Earlier this month, filled with the Halloween spirit, I went looking again. No such luck: the skull is gone, of course. Instead, I toured the cemetery across the street which, to my surprise, is chock full of names we all know. The Coachman family has a big ol' tomb here, and the Ulmers are here, too (please note that I am not making the obvious joke about the rate of speed on their namesake road and the dead). The cemetery dates to the 1800s, and I would have stayed much longer if my tiny dog hadn't gotten spooked.
I had a good time traipsing among the green headstones, at least until, for no reason, Calypso (safely in keeping with the "no dog" rule and waiting in an air conditioned car) started barking her tiny snout off when I crouched in front of one particular headstone.
Maybe it was the time of year or a superstition ingrained in our family based on generations of love of scary stories, but a shiver ran up my spine. My flesh goosepimpled. I felt a thousand eyes on me. I got out of there. Fast. I felt like a fool, but I left. It was starting to feel a little too much like a B-movie to me.
As I drove away, I made a note of the grey house that used to have the skull perched on its second floor: 921 Lakeview Road. I drove home, chiding myself for acting like a silly sixth grade girl. I flipped open my laptop and checked the Property Appraiser's site for information about the home.
It doesn't exist, according to public records.
I'm sure that's just a clerical error. I mean, that house is there, so there must be some record of it. There's no other explanation, unless I've been seeing a ghost house for the past 33 years.
Which is crazy.