It was nearing Halloween and a few of the guys wanted to go to Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery. I had gotten my driver’s license over the summer and had been designated driver to all unruly, testosterone-driven adventures: throwing bowling balls at cars, stealing lawn ornaments and street signs, blowing up mailboxes with quarter sticks of dynamite. Among these friends, I puffed out my chest and sneered. Among these friends, the last thing I wanted to appear was Asian and gay. At home, however, I listened to show tunes and watched romantic comedies and wrote secret love stories in a wire notebook.
Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery was located in Midlothian, Illinois, a southwest suburb of Chicago, part of the Rubio Forest. In the early 1820’s, English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants began to settle in the area. The settlement was known only as the Grove then, but in 1833, because the population of the Grove was primarily single, young farm hands, “Bachelor” was added and adopted.
This, of course, was not of interest to my friends.
Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery was one of the most haunted places in Illinois, cited in numerous paranormal texts. The Ghost Research Society frequented the area. Articles about Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery circulated once every few years in local and national newspapers. The stories and legends of this place always drifted to teenagers’ ears: the mysterious blue orb that floated around the cemetery, the unexplained and vanishing Victorian house in the woods, the two-headed man, the pictures and numerous accounts of faintly defined figures hovering near tombstones, the satanic curses placed on the cemetery and those who entered.
My parents believed in ghosts, spirits, lingering presences. Before he divorced my mother, my father said my white hairs—which began to grow in when I was six—were gifts from my ancestors who followed and protected me. I used to imagine ornate Thai warriors hiding in the bushes as I made my way to school. My mother delighted in ghosts and ghost stories. She watched horror movies with a child-like glee, laughing and clapping at the most gruesome and frightening parts.
“We’re going to a haunted cemetery,” I said. My father had moved out six months before, and my mother had begun to take interest again in what I did at night.
She took her glasses off and placed them on the sewing table in front of her. This was her spot, the place she spent most of her days, sewing and staring out the window into our neighborhood. “Real ghost?”
“I wanting to come.”
I shook my head and laughed. “No way.”
“Want to see ghost.”
“I’ll take a picture.” I told her I’d be back around midnight and not to wait up.
I picked up my friends, who had drunk a few beers already, and headed out on Ridgeland Avenue past the Cal Sag River and Westgate Golf Courses, through the dark Forest Preserves.
The cemetery was well hidden. You had to know it existed and where to pull off and park without attracting the police. There were no streetlights. When I turned off the car, we were suddenly shrouded in black, suddenly silent.
Each of us stepped out and stood at the entrance to the woods. It was brisk, and I didn’t have a jacket. I rubbed my hands over my bare arms. There were signs that said Closed and No Trespassing. A rusted chain blocked any vehicle from driving deep into the woods on the two wheel ruts that led to more darkness
Mike said, “Come on.”
Kevin, dropout and mechanic, said, “You first.”
Dan, eight-ball hustler with a mohawk, said, “You go.”
“Cool,” I said, but didn’t move.
Dave, a football player and wrestler, said, “Fine” and ducked under the chain. We followed one by one.
We huddled close to one another, inching our way forward, our feet shuffling in the gravel and fallen leaves. Every ounce of bravado leaped right out of us, as if a strange spell had been cast as soon as we left the car. These were boys who got into fights, who played tough contact sports, who blew things up. These were boys walking a dark path surrounded by towering oaks and hemlocks, clustered together like baby chicks edging their way to the nearest pond.
A snapping branch to the right.
“What was that?” A whisper of panic.
“I don’t know.” A shaky voice.
Every noise, every rustle made us stop. Every wavering shadow made us feel as if we weren’t alone, as if we were being watched. I turned back and saw nothing. Without realizing it, I was holding hands with Dave, who gripped my hand tighter and tighter. Dave held hands with Kevin, Kevin with Mike, Mike with Dan.
“Do you see something?” someone said.
“Are we at the right place?”
“I don’t know.”
We knew it was the right place. We were being led.
After ten minutes, the path widened, and the sky opened up above us. A chain-link fence, bent with dead vines lacing through the rungs, sealed off the cemetery. The left side of the gate had collapsed and there was a large V-sized opening. We stood there, hand-in-hand, scanning from one end of the cemetery to the other. The rounded edges of tombstones jutted out of the ground. Outside the gate, we were in the dark, but the inside of the cemetery seemed to glow. Around us were healthy trees, many losing their leaves to the fall. The ones that dotted the cemetery were either dead or dying; some had fallen over. One tree on the south end looked like a skeletal hand pointing toward the sky.
“Are you ready?”
Dan ducked through the opening in the gate, his Mohawk scraping the lock. Mike followed. Then Kevin. Then me. Then Dave.
Once inside, we split up. We didn’t say anything, but spoke with our eyes or a wave of a hand. Vandals had spray-painted tombstones. Some graves were dug up and filled with beer cans and cigarette butts. Many of the cemetery’s monuments had been toppled over, moss and weeds choking out the gray in the granite. I looked at the names and dates, but found it difficult without a flashlight. One headstone listed the name: Mary Elizabeth 1867-1884. A smaller headstone under Mary Elizabeth’s simply read: Infant Daughter. Dave and I tried to pick up a fallen monument and set it straight, but couldn’t. Mike went from plot to plot, brushing off leaves. Dan started shoving his pockets with litter.
After about fifteen minutes, we gathered in the center of the cemetery.
“I don’t want to leave,” Dan said.
“Me neither” said Kevin.
“What the fuck is wrong with people?” Mike said.
Dave put his hands in his pockets. “This is sad.”
We were getting deep. Maybe a little melodramatic, but it felt right. Kevin looked like he was about to cry. He wiped hard at his eyes.
“We should bring flowers next time,” Dan said.
“And a few garbage bags,” said Kevin.
“Cool,” I said.
We continued to talk about the things we needed to do the next time we were here. Dave pointed out the stream that ran along side the cemetery and how it was filled with beer cans. We wanted to do good here, to set things straight. In the midst of our conversation, we heard the crackling of leaves from the entrance of the cemetery. We turned around, and there stood a red fox. It stopped just inside the gate and stared at us.
I had seen a red fox once, or at least the blur of one. I had been golfing with my father, and we were searching for my wayward ball in some tall grass when he scared the fox out of its hiding place. The fox’s sudden movement startled my father, who backed into me. I tried to hold him off but couldn’t. I lost my balance and fell onto the ground. My father followed. We watched the fox run across the fairway, its white tipped tail standing high like a flag until it disappeared in some trees. Then we laughed, long and hard, before continuing our search.
The fox in Bachelor’s Grove simply stared. It was too dark to be sure of anything, but the fox seemed to regard us with curiosity. We were motionless. This was a moment, we knew, and we wanted it to last as long as possible. I wanted it to last even longer.
Finally, the fox turned and trotted away through the gate.
I ran after it. I went through the opening and looked in the direction the fox had gone but saw nothing and heard nothing. The guys were right behind me. I was in the dark.
“Let’s get out of here,” someone said, tugging on my arm.
“Cool,” I said.
I dropped everyone off, and when I arrived home, I found my mother still awake, sitting where I had left her a few hours before.
“See ghosts?” she said.
“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t know.”
I told her the details of the night—the long frightening walk, the sad cemetery, the fox. I told her I wasn’t sure we saw any ghost, but we felt strange, felt unlike ourselves.
I didn’t tell my mother what had gone through my head when I saw the fox. I didn’t tell her I thought of my father and that time at the golf course, that he was on my mind then and was now. I kept that part to myself.
It was a few minutes after one. My mother kissed my forehead and said it was time for her to go to bed. Before she headed upstairs, she told me one thing about ghosts. We never know when they are really there. We never know when they’re truly gone. My mother climbed the steps and turned into her room. The light under her door stayed on for another hour.