Battling the pandemic blues, I woke up on the morning after Halloween with an itch to hit the road. Because I liked the name of the place and because it was within an hour’s radius of Portland, I decided to set off for Amity, Oregon. My expectations were not high as I fought the weekend traffic on my way out of town and had to suffer the sight of one after another election signs posted in yards and above stores all along the route. The national election was coming up in two days and, truthfully, it was one of the factors in my foul mood. I willed the country’s dilemma away from my conscious mind and drove on.
Pacific Highway shoots all the way from Portland’s City Center to the nether parts of the state. At about Newberg, home to a renowned bible college and little else, I left the city behind and started to come into more scenic country. Fir trees towered under their burdens of Fall pine cones and Old Man’s Beard. Every now and then a deciduous tree spread out aflame with impossible hues of crimson and gold and rust. The leaves had already begun to fall and I felt a little bit lucky to see the trees in their full splendor before it all turned to gray mush under the Oregon rain.
My plan was to visit the Yamhill County Museum and the Pioneer Cemetery and then meander over to the nearby town of Rickreall to go to the flea market being held at the county fairgrounds. Beyond that, I would let my nose lead me. Perhaps I would check out the library and a few antique stores in Amity or maybe venture into a local diner for some lunch and, hopefully, a bit of banter with the locals.
Passing vineyards and small farm spreads along my route, I soon came to a sign that read Entering Amity. Population 1,770. I had done my homework and knew that Amity was the 133rd largest city in Oregon. I also remembered how odd it seemed that the median age here was 37. What did all these young folks do for a living? They couldn’t all work in the local sawmills. At any rate, with seemingly little to crow about, Amity led me on into its compact city center. In an apparent effort toward downhome charm, most of the storefronts were painted in old fashioned script and decorated with curlicued corbels. Ye olde this and that shoppe was the message that came to me.
I had learned in my preparatory googling of the town that the name Amity came from the name of a school that was built by two rival communities after the amicable settlement of a dispute back in 1880. I would have liked to know what the dispute was about but, if it was not lost to history, neither did Google address it.
I parked in the civic lot, turned off the late great James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, who had accompanied me on my drive, and mash-potatoed my bad self onto Main Street. The Visitors Center was closed but the signage in the window let me know what I had come to learn: The library was closed. The museum was closed. The flea market had been cancelled. These things thanks to COVID which I should have foreseen. However, the virus couldn’t keep me out of the cemetery so I found 6th Avenue and walked along to its end where I encountered a sign reading Amity Pioneer Cemetery, Established 1854.
I wandered among the markers for a while, looking for the oldest graves and the most ornate headstones, until it became tedious. I was just about to hot-foot it back to Main Street when woman approached me. She was built squatly with a receding hairline and way too much orange lipstick. She wore yellow leggings and a massive camo sweatshirt around her barrel body.
“Who are you looking for?” she asked, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun.
“Oh, I was just looking around,” I answered. I didn’t know if she was trying to be helpful or was just nosy.
A pleased look spread across her face, “You’re looking for the ghost, aren’t you?”
“Ghost? What ghost?” My interest was piqued.
“Why, the ghost of Sherilyn McGruder, of course. She’s the little girl who comes here to look for her family.” The woman looked around her as if to get her bearings; “She’s over there. Under that big hemlock tree.” She pointed and sighed; “All alone.”
“The cemetery is haunted?” We began to walk toward what looked like a giant Christmas tree up on a small hill.
“When this cemetery was built in the 1850’s, it took the place of the one outside of town on old Beef Bend Road. All of Sherilyn’s relatives are buried over there in the old cemetery. For some reason, she’s here. All by herself.” The woman looked even more pleased with herself.
“So Sherilyn looks for them here.” I was amused; “Have you ever seen her?”
“Of course I have. She’s a pretty little thing, eight years old when she died, and just as sad as you can be. I saw her just last night.”
I remembered that last night was Halloween. I didn’t know if that made the story more or less likely.
“She lived at the orphans’ home after her parents died in a fire. Sherilyn herself, she got the flu and eventually died of it. Such a sad story.”
“Yes, it is.” I didn’t want the woman to think I disbelieved her but I was beginning to wonder if perhaps she was a little daft.
“You don’t have to believe me.” She may have been crazy but she wasn’t stupid; “Ask anyone in town.”
The wind kicked up and I hugged myself. It was time to move along, I thought. “Well, thank you for sharing your story,” I told her; “I’ve got to get going now.” I reached out my hand to shake hers and then remembered the COVID rules were in effect. I held my hand up in a wave instead; “Have a good rest of your day then.”
“Oh I will,” she said; “I most certainly will.”
I started back toward my car. When I got to the big iron gates, I turned to look at the woman a last time. She was clearing leaves from Sherilyn McGruder’s gravestone with the heel of her shoe.
“Weird.” But pretty cool, I thought, as I drove away back toward town. My next stop was the local diner, Minnie’s, where I snagged a booth in front of the window.
“Just one?” the young server asked. She had longish brown bangs and a lip ring. I was so used to answering that question. No, there are ten more of us coming, I thought, with vague resentment. Of course I’m just one. Why did I feel I had to explain that? This girl couldn’t care less. To her, I was just some old lady from the city. I perused the menu and settled on a tuna melt. A young couple entered the restaurant and took the booth behind me. They both greeted the server warmly by name and asked about the daily specials.
Then a group of sawmill workers came in in their plaid shirts and spiked boots. Without asking, they pulled two tables together to accommodate their large party of six. They too traded pleasantries with the waitress and settled down to look at their menus.
Finally, in walked an elderly man with a beard and a cane. He sat down at the counter and was poured a cup of coffee without a word of asking. I nodded at the man amiably when he looked my way and he nodded back. I wondered if these people were all wondering who I was and what I was doing in their midst.
“So I hear you’re looking for the ghost,” boomed one of the millworkers as he unrolled the silverware from his napkin.
I was mortified, “No, I just heard, er, someone told me…”
“It’s okay,” the young woman said; “Mia, why don’t you tell this lady what you saw the other day?
The lip-pierced waitress came out from behind the counter and sat down at my table, “I was coming to work past the cemetery on Thursday and I saw her walking there. Big as life, she was. And as solid as a real person. I knew it was her because, well, who would let their little girl walk alone in the cemetery? And besides that, she was wearing an old-fashioned dress and lace-up shoes.”
I wondered if they were just having fun at my expense or if these people were for real. Obviously, the woman I encountered at the cemetery had spread the word about me. I didn’t know whether to be humiliated or intrigued.
The old man at the counter turned back to his coffee and, as if on cue, the rest of the diners returned to the business of ordering their meals and sipping their water. Mia brought out my tuna melt and set it down in front of me without a word. Strange. They were aware they had somehow offended me or caught me off guard and were trying to put things right. I had never felt so uncomfortable in a social setting. I had to force myself to sit there and eat my food in self-conscious silence. No, I thought. I’m not going to blow this opportunity, “So are there any other strange goings-on in Amity or is your haunted cemetery the only one?”
Mia reappeared from the back with six huge glasses of iced tea for the sawmill guys. “Well, you’re probably not going to believe this but we had us a UFO sighting in September. Darned thing was hovering over the train trestle east of town. And then it just speeded up and dashed away. Not before a lot of people saw it though. That was in the paper and everything.”
I finished my sandwich and left them all arguing about the UFO. Interestingly, they weren’t as accepting of intergalactic visitors as they were of a little girl ghost haunting the cemetery.
Crunching leaves underfoot on my way back to my car, I caught a glimpse of the woman with the bright yellow leggings and the big sweatshirt walking up the street toward the café. She waved. I waved back. Strange town, I thought. I rather liked it.
Linda Caradine is a Portland Oregon based writer whose work has appeared in several literary journals and whose first book, a memoir, is scheduled for publication in April 2024.