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Strangers in my bed

In a past life I traveled for business through the Southeast USA, from Florida to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and initially found myself unintelligible to the local populace. They simply could not decipher my standard Queens salutation of, “Hi, howyadoon?, or “S’up?”” Forgetaboudit, I thought, I have to learn Southspeak or I’ll never get along here. So slowly, over the years, I learned to adapt, to intersperse my rhetoric with the odd “y’all” (and the plural “all y’all) and “fittin’ to”. I was able to find the local convenience stores by asking for directions to the Piggly Wiggly or the Semleven, and even conveyed the idea that I needed my vehicle’s “earl” changed. It eventually became second nature for me to find several grits on my breakfast plate and to understand that “dirty rice” wasn’t actually soiled. I began to understand and enjoy my Southern neighbors.

I never quite assimilated, however, and there were times that, in spite of my best efforts, it was obvious that I was not “from around here”. I never encountered any real animosity, mostly just curious, head-tilted stares, like I was not quite normal or may have just gotten on the wrong Greyhound bus and was just another lost tourist or “ferner”.

The people of the Southern states are, for the most part, as polite and gentile as their image conveys. In any case they are no more standoffish than the Vermont farmer who answers questions with a pained “Ayuh” and admonishes that, no matter where you are headed, you simply cannot get there from there and need to backtrack to McHenry’s pasture and turn right.

So I got along alright in the South and I learned to enjoy the sights, sounds and cuisine along the rural roads I traveled and in the towns and villages that make up an important part of our American culture and history. Even the cities, those antebellum hotspots so romantically depicted in tour guides and history books, were pleasantly different from the Northern congestion in which I was raised and had become so used to navigating. Not to put too romantic a spin on it, but I found it refreshing to see lawyers in seersucker suits mixing in local eateries with farmers in Oshkosh overalls, discussing local events over plates of biscuits and gravy or fried chicken and okra. Everyone seemed to know everyone else by first name or family history, and for the most part they spoke a language that I learned to understand and use. After awhile I even began to blend.

The only trauma I ever suffered in the South occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, around 1995. I wasn’t injured, except for my pride and psyche, but the experience remains one that I will forever associate with Dixie.

On a trip to offer testimony in a deposition involving one of my insurance claim investigations, I stayed at a pre-Civil war era hotel in downtown Birmingham, near the courthouse where I was scheduled to appear the next morning. The room I took was classic and comfortable. Twelve foot ceilings with elaborate crown molding, French windows overlooking a courtyard, antique-looking settee and coffee table, yet with the modern conveniences in bathroom and television, and a very large, king-sized, four poster bed with more pillows than I was used to.

After a late dinner with defense counsel, I went to my room, showered and read until about 11 or 12 midnight. As I switched off the room lights and lay back into my huge bed, it wasn’t too long before I began to doze. As I usually sleep on my left side at the edge of the mattress, I was comfortably drifting away until I felt the unmistakable movement of the mattress as someone climbed into bed beside me. You know the feeling; no creaking or shuffling, just the distinctive, subtle shifting of the fabric another body causes as it reclines next to you.

I don’t recall how long it took me to leap from the bed in my all-together and turn to fend off what I was certain was about to leap at me. All I can recall to this day is the high-pitched, girly screech that came out of my throat, more like a Michael Jackson-“Thriller” squeal than a manly karate kata of defense. I also don’t recall breathing. Somehow I managed to retreat, in the pitch black, to the bathroom where I turned on the light. Of course, the bed was empty. The far side of the mattress appeared undisturbed and as I neared the bed, I noted no one was under it either. Yes, I checked!

When I recovered my normal breathing pattern and pulse rate I realized the episode was likely the result of fatigue from travel and perhaps too vivid an imagination. It must have taken me at least two hours to fall asleep (with the Weather Channel glowing on the TV) but in the morning I was still not sure I had been mistaken. I checked under the bed a second time, and also in the wardrobe dresser, to assure myself there was no ghostly remnant of a long-dead roomer from the Civil War, perhaps a post-war carpetbagger who met his untimely demise at the hands of locals tired of being taken advantage of by slippery con men from New York (like me). 

As I checked out of the hotel, I had every intention of asking the desk clerk if anyone had ever reported strange happenings in the hotel, especially in my room. But I found myself too embarrassed to ask since it would have required an explanation of my own reactions that night. Better to just chalk up the experience as a result of imagination and too many Stephen King novels.

That was the only time during my travels in the South that I was glad to leave a particular town or city. I have convinced myself since that I must not be the only person to have experienced some ghostly phenomenon and kept it to himself. But it remains the one thought I always have whenever I stay at a hotel or motel, even with my wife, and I am always conscious of the location of the nearest light switch in the room. Just in case.

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