The next few hours melted one into another as Mary and I explored immaculate hallways filled with antiques and family curios, rocked in the shade of magnolia trees, and sipped illicit cocktails in our bedroom, toasting the Ford guide. At dinner (I wore my blazer), white-aproned waitresses scooped corn pudding and sliced orange-lemon cake made from recipes unchanged for four generations—it was easy to imagine Annie Bell Goddard, the long-dead Beaumont Inn founder, still in the kitchen, giving each bowl of frosting the index-finger test.
After dinner, we played bingo in the front parlor, and before saying good night we drank a Beaumont Cocktail, the inn's bedtime tradition, from a tray placed in the stair hall. The Beaumont Cocktail is a glass of ice water. This was the promised land.
Overnight, the forecast changed. Wispy clouds moseyed across a limitless sky—perfect ragtop weather—and we left reluctantly, bound for the Old Stone Inn in Simpsonville and a Ford-recommended lunch. I had miscalculated miles and minutes, however, and soon we were flying down a two-lane road. We skidded in, at closing. Mary was not smiling. The waitresses thought we were nuts ("We'll eat anything," I said), but they reopened the buffet and we feasted on eggplant casserole, still the house specialty all these years later.
In redeeming myself with the Mustang, I had missed a lot of scenery. We were in horse country now, the rough Appalachian dells long gone, smoothed out into pastureland with stacked-stone walls. And again we were alone, driving an endless S curve. We arrived in Bardstown with farmers' tans and felt right at home. At the Old Talbott Tavern—which looked just as Ford's watercolor promised—we checked into separate rooms, treating ourselves. The Tavern has been around since stagecoach days, and despite generic interior renovations following a 1998 fire, it has retained a slightly spooky charm. We took a stroll and made plans to attend the big-deal local musical about native son Stephen Foster, performed in a nearby state park. We had high hopes of Waiting for Guffman.
At supper, over tasty spare ribs and fried green tomatoes, everything changed. We listened, bug-eyed, as our waiter and the manager told us believe-it-or-not tales about the haunted Old Talbott Tavern, about ghostly apparitions and fleeing guests. My room, apparently, was a sort of spectral playground.
Mary and I whispered throughout the off-off-off-off-Broadway musical, as earnest actors with manic smiles warbled "Su-wan-nee" beneath the stars. We barely noticed when part of the set collapsed: we were too busy figuring out a plan (find a Best Western; sleep in the car) in case chains started clanking.
Bardstown was deserted and moonlit as we pulled up to the hotel after 11. The manager had waited outside to give us some news: we were the only guests, and no staff members ever spent the night. My mind reeled. I heard Scooby-Doo music.
Alone in the shadowy lobby, we simultaneously convulsed when the front desk telephone began ringing mysteriously.
I answered it. Dial tone. "They know we're here," Mary said.
The next hour found me, a latter-day Don Knotts, abandoning my room and moving in with Mary. We watched TV until 1 a.m., muting the sound with each unexplained creak and saying last-words things like how glad we were to be friends.
I don't remember falling asleep, but at one point I was standing out in the hall and felt something brush my hand.
I turned to see a slender woman in a wedding dress, brown hair cascading to her shoulders. A ghost. I began choking on my screams. "Mary! Mary!" I called, trying to wake her. But my yelling woke me up, and I lay hyperventilating in the darkness, Mary breathing softly beside me, her back turned.