There is a ghost
At dusk someone passes me on the street wearing my grandmother’s perfume. I turn but there is nobody there. The scent lingers, hangs in the drowning light. It reminds me of so many things. Images race through my mind like film through a reel. Salmon colored cabinets in the kitchen and linoleum made to look like brick. Her piano at the end of the hall. Her original Elvis 45s. Her books, walls of books, which, when I was a child, she would read to me on a bed the size of a continent. The cold, blood red floor in her bedroom. Enormous leaning trees in the parlor corner at Christmas, cluttered with bubbling, blinking ornaments. The smell of coffee. Her white shirts and tennis shoes. So many things.
The fireworks of memory.
Published in Impossible River (2015)
Every day he is sitting there on the corner of Milk and Congress, with one hand holding a cloudy Styrofoam cup and the other supporting a slab of cardboard on which he’s written his plea. Please help me. I am sober. God bless. He sits on an overturned pail, always looking straight ahead, into the foot traffic of eager men and women; people with plans, with incomes, with homes and heat. I have given him money before. A few coins. Dropped them into his cup. Each time he responded, quite genuinely, God bless you. It always made me feel okay about myself.
He was there yesterday. I was walking in his direction and he seemed to be looking straight at me — through me even. I remembered the $5 bill in my wallet. Quickly, I decided he would probably make better use of it than I. I’d probably just put it toward a book, and I was already reading one. Or maybe I’d use it to buy something to drink. But I wasn’t thirsty. Not thirsty like him, I was sure. I pulled the wallet from my back pocket and removed the bill, and then I rolled it into the shape of a cigarette so that it fit snugly in the palm of my hand. I approached him, casually, and dropped the bill into his cup. He looked at it, the bill, by then expanding to reveal the number ‘5' in all corners, and he turned his head to look at me.
I had begun to walk away when I noticed the expression of gratitude on his face. It gave me pause. His eyes shined with gratitude, as if in a kind of ecstasy. I studied his face for a moment because I wanted to remember it. Thank you, he spoke, his mouth grinning wide. God bless you! My heart thumped quickly, heavy, in my chest. I have changed this man’s day, I thought. By the look on his face it seemed possible I had changed his life.
I saw him again a short time later when I left the office to catch the train. He was still seated on the overturned pail. Still looking straight ahead. Unflinching. Spare some change? he asked, blindly, as I passed, the world’s weight pushing at him again.
On the way up the very steep mountain
On the way up the very steep mountain all we could talk about was going down. “When I get back, I’m going to build my own house,” said Arthur. “I’m tired of paying for things I don’t own.” My chest was beginning to hurt. My left side, particularly, was throbbing inside of my red plaid flannel shirt. “I’m gonna collect birds,” added Miles. “Birds are fine,” I encouraged him, alarmed by the throbbing. “I’ve always liked them,” he said. “Especially the blue ones.” My chest was really uncomfortable. Okay, my heart felt on fire. “I’m gonna freak out and tell Marsha I love her!” alerted Stephen. “I’ve never done that before. She won’t know how to react. She might kill me!” “I hope that she does,” replied Arthur, panting in the hard heat. My body was terrible now. “I can’t wait to build that house!” Arthur screeched. “And collect my birds! Blue ones!” added Miles. “Birds… are… great,” I encouraged, the pain in my chest now raising hell all over. I was seeing stars. “Birds are beautiful,” affirmed Stephen.
We were near the top now. I could see the pointy shapes, the soft terrain turning into rock. The trees were evaporating into clouds. “A giant house!” Arthur beamed. “A giant bird!” added Miles. “Marsha is gonna kick my ass!” said Stephen. My body felt like a catastrophe now. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and sank to the ground. But we were so close.
Boston, early afternoon, midsummer. Araby and I walk down the front steps of his apartment and then onto the street where we are quickly ambushed by the voice of a large man selling toothbrushes out of the inside of his frayed, striped overcoat. He appears from behind the house. I look back there, wondering what he may have been up to, where he could have come from. There is no yard back there, only several untrimmed hedges exploding upwards and outwards from their roots, seemingly in perpetual intercourse with one another. It's clear there isn’t room for someone his size back there. There is no room. Where the hell did he come from?
“Come on, man, move along,” Araby commands him, lazily, as if put off by the man's existence.
“Toophbrushaz,” the man replies, his teeth broken. “Many colaz, any colaz you like."
“Not interested,” replies Araby, “we have toothbrushes and they work fine.”
“No, no, no, - no toophbrushaz like thez. Not like thez.”
We’re approaching the car now, slowly. The air is heavy with heat. The salesman continues to follow us, lumbering slowly behind, still trying to sell his toophbrushaz. I wonder if it's the car this guy might be after. Maybe he's waiting for me to identify it before he presents a weapon, takes the keys off me and drives off. We'd be lost, then. We’d have to take Araby’s car, and Araby’s car isn’t here. It’s in the shop. Alignment.
“Boyz, Boyz — toophbrushaz!” the man pleads, noticeably louder now.
“No — no toothbrushes!” Araby responds vigorously without turning to face him. “And I don’t want to see you around here again. I’ll call the fucking police. Nobody wants to buy any filthy toothbrush from you.” We’re now standing beside a white Mercury Topaz. It isn’t mine.
I’m studying the man for a heavy pocket. I don’t see one. And, really, he’s been flashing the inside of his jacket — the blue, pink, yellow toothbrushes poking from the inside pockets — the length of the walk. If he had a gun or knife we’d surely have seen it by now. And his pants are tight, too tight for a gun. He may just be trying to sell toothbrushes.
“Seriously, leave us alone,” demands Araby, waving the guy off. “Nobody wants your dirty fucking toothbrushes.”
The salesman smiles at Araby and closes his jacket. His hands by his side, he begins to distance himself from us, finally, limping along the sidewalk in the opposite direction. As soon as we are a safe distance apart, we step to the car — my car — and we get in. The upholstery is scalding. The steering wheel singes my fingers. The sun bleeds in from above, lighting the dashboard and our faces, everything golden. We choose T Rex, Electric Warrior, rolling away.
After a short walk in the city / Wet afternoon
A woman steps into my elevator just before the doors slide shut. She's holding a cup of coffee. Excess of the dark liquid collects into a shapeless form on the white plastic lid, expanding and contracting like an organism under magnification. The woman holds the cup away from her as if offering it to me while she thrusts her free hand into the large purse hanging from her right shoulder, searching. The elevator rattles and rocks ever slightly as it climbs. The coffee on the lid of the cup runs to the edge and forms a dark ring there until the next movement brings it back into the center and to shapelessness again. Then we're stopped. The doors open. The woman steps out. The doors close. I am alone.
Suddenly I don't want to move. How nice it would be, I think, if the elevator could remain stopped here for a while. If against its programming it would remain still, moving neither up nor down. Movement and time suspended. How nice that would be!
Or, rather, to go backwards. To rewind. Let the elevator descend. Let the woman step out into the lobby and then back into the rain again. Let her return the coffee. Let it be unmade. Return it to its simple beginnings — beans growing in a field somewhere far south of here. Let it become again what it was, before all impositions. Let us be what we were. How remarkable, to be what we were! Back to the beginning!
The doors of the elevator open stubbornly. I step out into a hallway that is without light save for the light of what is no longer there.