“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Waking Up a Competely Different Person: From “Dr. McAdams' Method"

            “I left Dr. McAdams’ office last night in a state of shock. He’d been doing that thing he does so well, where he takes what you’ve just said to him and teases it apart, making you see the way you see the world as if it were through the lens of your own clinging desperation to find only what you already know is there, suggesting that while you’re always relieved to have your worst fears validated because it frees you to keep stumbling along the path of least resistance, your self-fulfilling assumptions simultaneously keep you locked into all the habits that you might be better off breaking, the habits that make you the most unhappy.
            “To the good doctor, though, you can tell it’s all a matter of word play. The meanings he underlines in his repetitions have no weight, no visceral impact. To him, they’re so many dry formulations he would have you rummage through, as if they had no emotional salience, no human value.  He’d been repeating and highlighting and reframing as questions, as he normally does, for nearly the full hour when I suddenly began to feel like a being without substance, an infinite regress of borders to a blank surface. I would have felt nauseated, but I had no stomach, no organs at all—or rather, the organs in my body were no longer identified with me, because there was no me, only that endlessly receding surface.
            “At the end of the session, we enacted a proper parting, the good doctor and I, but it wasn’t me speaking so much as the script performing itself, and I left the office to walk to my car, but it was as if I were watching a movie of what I should have been experiencing, camera mounted on my shoulders, feet moving one after the other of their own volition. I was two-thirds of the way home when the panic hit, and that was what finally brought me back to myself. I was afraid of disintegrating and being lost to some void forever—but being afraid meant that there was something to be afraid for, the same something that was just then occupied with being afraid. I shinnied down the rope of my fear back into my body.
            “This morning I woke up fantasizing about what it would be like waking up a completely different person, not in some total sense that leaves you with no memory of who you’ve been, but with the conviction that from now on you’re going to do whatever works best for you, that you’re going to live in whatever way best suits your desires and need for fulfillment. That feeling of disintegration had been so terrifying—because what the hell am I, what is anyone, if not a collection of beliefs, assumptions, habits of seeing and feeling and acting? If a Dr. McAdams can come along and start fiddling around in your mind with abandon, then what’s keeping us in place? What’s keeping us, well, us?
            “The light of day dissolved the terror. The implication of that terror, however, was stark. All my life, I’ve been trying to honor one or another memory of myself, as if who I was in the past were some distant but still extant consciousness, someone I love who can love me back, someone with hopes and dreams and aspirations for his future, my future, me. Too often I’ve honored my earlier self by continuing along a path that has led to suffering—because I didn’t want all that I’d already suffered to be for nothing.
            “Waking up a completely different person would mean turning your back on your past self. Oh, but it seems like such a betrayal. Those aren’t just bad habits and faulty assumptions you’re abusing with such delicacy, Dr. McAdams; I’ve invested them with so much… feeling: pain, anticipation, fear, hope, loyalty. So much energy. So much of me. You can’t leave your habits of mind behind without leaving behind a piece of yourself. But another way to phrase that same idea is that to escape your troubles you must first become a new person, one who wouldn’t have those particular troubles.
            “My devotion to my past selves has been perpetuating my misery—I want to wake up a completely different person. I want to cut my losses on all those investments of energy, walk away from what I loved if what I loved caused only misery. I want to wake up one day, tomorrow, as someone who takes stock of his desires and passions, who looks around at all his resources and assets, dispassionately weighs all the opportunities that have been staring him in the face right up until that morning, and who pursues those desires and passions without looking back—past selves and past lives be damned.
            “Can I wake up that person tomorrow?”
            Christie closes Todd’s notebook and returns it to the drawer beside their bed without making a sound, and without even the subtlest registering of the emotions threatening to engulf her—the shame of invading his privacy, the anxious grasping after his meanings. Might she be one of the loves of his past self, whom pursuing has caused such misery? Scrawled in violent strokes across the bottom of the page: “Slay the dragons of your past selves.” And then, more pacifically: “or be thankful to whoever slays them for you, no matter how much you may hate her for inflicting the pain.” Her?
            She slides the drawer closed, stands, and smooths away the traces of her sitting from the comforter. At least, she makes the effort to think, Todd and I are both disturbed. The problem with Dr. McAdams’ method is that it works. Christie has been paranoid for the past two weeks, experiencing the changes in herself, imagining clandestine meetings between “the good doctor” and her husband where they laugh heartily at how effective the training regime they’ve devised for her has proved to be.
            But Todd feels it too, this disturbing sense of lost agency. Only for him it doesn’t manifest as suspicion, neither of her nor of Dr. McAdams. For him, it manifests as guilt. Of course that’s exactly how Todd would experience it, Todd with his fathomless loyalty, his fierce devotion, Todd whom she imagines sometimes as a member of an embattled prehistoric tribe, perfectly adapted to serve in a tight-knit unit of warriors, self-sacrificing, dependable, aware at every moment that the death of a comrade would be the death of himself.
            Now he seems to have determined that this loyalty is the source of his troubles, that his leave-no-man-behind mentality is preventing him from leaving behind men—or women—who need leaving. Leaving the bedroom, Christie tries to reassure herself that this loyalty is so close to the core of her husband’s identity that he couldn’t change it with any amount of determined “word play.” But she’s never really even thought of the trait as loyalty until now. All the childhood friends he keeps in touch with, all the trouble he’s followed them into in the past, the ex he insists on maintaining a friendship with—a source of endless disputes between them—Christie has always just thought Todd was sentimental.
            The notebook was supposed to be something he wrote random ideas down in, stuff for work, to-do lists. She had no idea he could even write like that. He’s a professional, not a philosophical, writer, for Christ’s sake. Now she wonders what else he’s written and not shared with her. Who is this guy? Maybe his loyalty really is at the core of his being, inescapable, but who knows what he’s capable of with that fucking brain of his? If he wakes up tomorrow a completely different person, where does that leave me?

Also read: Someone's Trying to Tell You Something

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sweet Tooth is a Strange Loop: An Aid to Some of the Dimmer Reviewers of Ian McEwan's New Novel

(I've done my best to avoid spoilers.)
            Anytime a character in Ian McEwan’s new novel Sweet Tooth enthuses about a work of literature, another character can be counted on to come along and pronounce that same work dreadful. So there’s a delightful irony in the declaration at the end of a silly review in The Irish Independent, which begins by begrudging McEwan his “reputation as the pulse-taker of the social and political Zeitgeist,” that the book’s ending “might be enough to send McEwan acolytes scurrying back through the novel to see how he did it, but it made me want to throw the book out the window.” Citing McEwan’s renown among the reading public before gleefully launching into critiques that are as difficult to credit as they are withering seems to be the pattern. The notice in The Economist, for instance, begins,
At 64, with a Hollywood film, a Man Booker prize and a gong from the queen, Ian McEwan has become a grand old man of British letters. Publication of his latest novel, “Sweet Tooth”, was announced on the evening news. A reading at the Edinburgh book festival was introduced by none other than the first minister, Alex Salmond.
But, warns the unnamed reviewer, “For all the attendant publicity, ‘Sweet Tooth’ is not Mr. McEwan’s finest book.” My own personal take on the novel—after seeking out all the most negative reviews I could find (most of them are positive)—is that the only readers who won’t appreciate it, aside from the reviewers who can’t stand how much the reading public celebrates McEwan’s offerings, are the ones whose prior convictions about what literature is and what it should do blind them to even the possibility that a novel can successfully operate on as many levels as McEwan folds into his narrative. For these readers, the mere fact of an author’s moving from one level to the next somehow invalidates whatever gratification they got from the most straightforward delivery of the story.
              At the most basic level, Sweet Tooth is the first-person account of how Serena Frome is hired by MI5 and assigned to pose as a representative for an arts foundation offering the writer Thomas Haley a pension that will allow him to quit his teaching job so he can work on a novel. The book’s title refers to the name of a Cold War propaganda initiative to support authors whose themes Serena’s agency superiors expect will bolster the cause of the Non-Communist Left. Though Sweet Tooth is fictional, there actually were programs like it that supported authors like George Orwell. Serena is an oldest-sibling type, with an appreciation for the warm security of established traditions and longstanding institutions, along with an attraction for and eagerness to please authority figures. These are exactly the traits that lead to her getting involved in the project of approaching Tom under false pretenses, an arrangement which becomes a serious dilemma for her as the two begin a relationship and she falls deeper and deeper in love with him. Looking back on the affair at the peak of the tension, she admits,
For all the mess I was in, I didn’t know how I could have done things differently. If I hadn’t joined MI5, I wouldn’t have met Tom. If I’d told him who I worked for at our very first meeting—and why would I tell a stranger that?—he would’ve shown me the door. At every point along the way, as I grew fonder of him, then loved him, it became harder, riskier to tell him the truth even as it became more important to do so. (266)
This plot has many of the markings of genre fiction, the secret-burdened romance, the spy thriller. But even on this basic level there’s a crucial element separating the novel from its pulpier cousins; the stakes are actually quite low. The nation isn’t under threat. No one’s life is in danger. The risks are only to jobs and relationships.
            James Lasdun, in an otherwise favorable review for The Guardian, laments these low stakes, suggesting that the novel’s early references to big political issues of the 1970s lead readers to the thwarted expectation of more momentous themes. He writes,
I couldn't help feeling like Echo in the myth when Narcissus catches sight of himself in the pool. “What about the IRA?” I heard myself bleating inwardly as the book began fixating on its own reflection. What about the PLO? The cold war? Civilisation and barbarity? You promised!
But McEwan really doesn’t make any such promise in the book’s opening. Lasdun simply makes the mistake of anticipating Sweet Tooth will be more like McEwan’s earlier novel Saturday. In fact, the very first lines of the book reveal what the main focus of the story will be:
My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing. (1)
That “I didn’t return safely” sets the tone—overly dramatic, mock-heroic, but with a smidgen of self-awareness that suggests she’s having some fun at her own expense. Indeed, all the book’s promotional material referring to her as a spy notwithstanding, Serena is more of a secretary or a clerk than a secret agent. Her only field mission is to offer funds to a struggling writer, not exactly worthy of Ian Fleming.
            When Lasdun finally begins to pick up on the lighthearted irony and the over all impish tone of the novel, his disappointment has him admitting that all the playfulness is enjoyable but longing nonetheless for it to serve some greater end. Such longing betrays a remarkable degree of obliviousness to the fact that the final revelation of the plot actually does serve an end, a quite obvious one. Lasdun misses it, apparently because the point is moral as opposed to political. A large portion of the novel’s charm stems from the realization, which I’m confident most readers will come to early on, that Sweet Tooth, for all the big talk about global crises and intrigue, is an intimately personal story about a moral dilemma and its outcomes—at least at the most basic level. The novel’s scope expands beyond this little drama by taking on themes that present various riddles and paradoxes. But whereas countless novels in the postmodern tradition have us taking for granted that literary riddles won’t have answers and plot paradoxes won’t have points, McEwan is going for an effect that’s much more profound.
            The most serious criticism I came across was at the end of the Economist review. The unnamed critic doesn’t appreciate the surprise revelation that comes near the end of the book, insisting that afterward, “it is hard to feel much of anything for these heroes, who are all notions and no depth.” What’s interesting is that the author presents this not as an observation but as a logical conclusion. I’m aware of how idiosyncratic responses to fictional characters are, and I accept that my own writing here won’t settle the issue, but I suspect most readers will find the assertion that Sweet Tooth’s characters are “all notion” absurd. I even have a feeling that the critic him or herself sympathized with Serena right up until the final chapter—as the critic from The Irish Independent must have. Why else would they be so frustrated as to want to throw the book out of the window? Several instances of Serena jumping into life from the page suggest themselves for citation, but here’s one I found particularly endearing. It comes as she’s returning to her parents’ house for Christmas after a long absence and is greeted by her father, an Anglican Bishop, at the door: 
“Serena!” He said my name with a kindly, falling tone, with just a hint of mock surprise, and put his arms about me. I dropped my bag at my feet and let myself be enfolded, and as I pressed my face into his shirt and caught the familiar scent of Imperial Leather soap, and of church—of lavender wax—I started to cry. I don’t know why, it just came from nowhere and I turned to water. I don’t cry easily and I was as surprised as he was. But there was nothing I could do about it. This was the copious hopeless sort of crying you might hear from a tired child. I think it was his voice, the way he said my name, that set me off. (217)
This scene reminds me of when I heard my dad had suffered a heart attack several years ago: even though at the time I was so pissed off at the man I’d been telling myself I’d be better off never seeing him again, I barely managed two steps after hanging up the phone before my knees buckled and I broke down sobbing—so deep are these bonds we carry on into adulthood even when we barely see our parents, so shocking when their strength is made suddenly apparent. (Fortunately, my dad recovered after a quintuple bypass.)
Douglas Hofstadter
            But, if the critic for the Economist concluded that McEwan’s characters must logically be mere notions despite having encountered them as real people until the end of the novel, what led to that clearly mistaken deduction? I would be willing to wager that McEwan shares with me a fondness for the writing of the computational neuroscientist Douglas Hofstadter, in particular Gödel, Escher, Bach and I am a Strange Loop, both of which set about arriving at an intuitive understanding of the mystery of how consciousness arises from the electrochemical mechanisms of our brains, offering as analogies several varieties of paradoxical, self-referencing feedback loops, like cameras pointing at the TV screens they feed into. What McEwan has engineered—there’s no better for word for it—with his novel is a multilevel, self-referential structure that transforms and transcends its own processes and premises as it folds back on itself.
            One of the strange loops Hofstadter explores, M.C. Escher’s 1960 lithograph Ascending and Descending, can give us some helpful guidance in understanding what McEwan has done. If you look at the square staircase in Escher’s lithograph a section at a time, you see that each step continues either ascending or descending, depending on the point of view you take. And, according to Hofstadter in Strange Loop,
A person is a point of view—not only a physical point of view (looking out of certain eyes in a certain physical space in the universe), but more importantly a psyche’s point of view: a set of hair-trigger associations rooted in a huge bank of memories. (234)
Importantly, many of those associations are made salient with emotions, so that certain thoughts affect us in powerful ways we might not be able to anticipate, as when Serena cries at the sound of her father’s voice, or when I collapsed at the news of my father’s heart attack. These emotionally tagged thoughts form a strange loop when they turn back on the object, now a subject, doing the thinking. The neuron forms the brain that produces the mind that imagines the neuron, in much the same way as each stair in the picture takes a figure both up and down the staircase. What happened for the negative reviewers of Sweet Tooth is that they completed a circuit of the stairs and realized they couldn’t possibly have been going up (or down), even though at each step along the way they were probably convinced.
            McEwan, interviewed by Daniel Zalewski for the New Yorker in 2009, said, “When I’m writing I don’t really think about themes,” admitting that instead he follows Nabokov’s dictum to “Fondle details.”
Writing is a bottom-up process, to borrow a term from the cognitive world. One thing that’s missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act.
The immediate source of pleasure then for McEwan, and he probably assumes for his readers as well, comes at the level of the observations and experiences he renders through prose. Sweet Tooth is full of great lines like, “Late October brought the annual rite of putting back the clocks, tightening the lid of darkness over our afternoons, lowering the nation’s mood further” (179). But McEwan would know quite well that writing is also a top-down process; at some point themes and larger conceptual patterns come into play. In his novel Saturday, the protagonist, a neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne, is listening to Angela Hewitt’s performance of Bach’s strangely loopy “Goldberg” Variations. He writes,
Well over an hour has passed, and Hewitt is already at the final Variation, the Quodlibet—uproarious and jokey, raunchy even, with its echoes of peasant songs of food and sex. The last exultant chords fade away, a few seconds’ silence, then the Aria returns, identical on the page, but changed by all the variations that have come before. (261-2)
Just as an identical Aria or the direction of ascent or descent in an image of stairs can be transformed  by a shift in perspective, details about a character, though they may be identical on the page, can have radically different meanings, serve radically different purposes depending on your point of view.
            Though in the novel Serena is genuinely enthusiastic about Tom’s fiction, the two express their disagreements about what constitutes good literature at several points. “I thought his lot were too dry,” Serena writes, “he thought mine were wet” (183). She likes sentimental endings and sympathetic characters; he admires technical élan. Even when they agree that a particular work is good, it’s for different reasons: “He thought it was beautifully formed,” she says of a book they both love, “I thought it was wise and sad” (183). Responding to one of Tom’s stories that features a talking ape who turns out never to have been real, Serena says,
I instinctively distrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet. There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust. (183)
A couple of the reviewers suggested that the last chapter of Sweet Tooth revealed that Serena had been made to inhabit precisely the kind of story that she’d been saying all along she hated. But a moment’s careful reflection would have made them realize this isn’t true at all. What’s brilliant about McEwan’s narrative engineering is that it would satisfy the tastes of both Tom and Serena. Despite the surprise revelation at the end—the trick—not one of the terms of Serena’s contract is broken. The plot works as a trick, but it also works as an intimate story about real people in a real relationship. To get a taste of how this can work, consider the following passage:
Tom promised to read me a Kingsley Amis poem, “A Bookshop Idyll,” about men’s and women’s divergent tastes. It went a bit soppy at the end, he said, but it was funny and true. I said I’d probably hate it, except for the end. (175)
The self-referentiality of the idea makes of it a strange loop, so it can be thought of at several levels, each of which is consistent and solid, but none of which captures the whole meaning.
            Sweet Tooth is a fun novel to read, engrossing and thought-provoking, combining the pleasures of genre fiction with some of the mind-expanding thought experiments of some of the best science writing. The plot centers on a troubling but compelling moral dilemma, and, astonishingly, the surprise revelation at the end actually represents a solution to this dilemma. I do have to admit, however, that I agree with the Economist that it’s not McEwan’s best novel. The conceptual plot devices bear several similarities with those in his earlier novel Atonement, and that novel is much more serious, its stakes much higher. Sweet Tooth is nowhere near as haunting as Atonement. But it doesn’t need to be.


Also read: Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game.

And: Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Someone's Trying to Tell You Something: The Opening to the Story I'm Working on

            The driver of every third vehicle you pass in Woodcliffe will wave. The residents don’t exactly appear friendly so much as they always look to be in a pleasant mood. Away from the roads, along which runs nary a sidewalk, you may on occasion hear the fractured echo of playing children’s voices, but the new-growth forest elbowing its way into the leftovers of the three-decade-old development produces for each house an uncanny simulacrum of a lonely cabin in the woods. The tires of all the overpriced, oversized trucks on the meticulously paved dark roads send out nothing more than a muted whoosh, barely distinguishable from a high wind passing through the crowded tree tops. Once in your driveway or garage, it’s easy to forget you have any neighbors at all. And all this just a twenty-minute drive from the city proper.
Being so disconnected must make them crazy, Ada thinks as she’s passing the second truck with an unwaving but pleasant driver since turning into Woodcliffe. Or they were crazy before and the hushed isolation simply allows them space to preserve their craziness, like so many exoticisms in a museum. To anyone visiting Fort Wayne from a real city, these exurban short-distance commuters, well-to-do by local standards, are offputtingly self-impressed, obnoxiously oblivious, and bewilderingly silly. A community of kingly dunces. But more than anything else, what they are is stagnant. They may as well be living in the dark ages—the way they think anyway.
Just after making the first of the two turns before reaching her father’s home—or what was formerly her father’s home—Ada sees a red hybrid approaching in the opposite lane. It’s not until this car has outdistanced her mirrors on the road behind her that she realizes she answered the driver’s smile and wave with the look she’s picked up from her years in the city, the one that says, “My time is too important to spend greeting strangers—the only reason you’re even seeing me now is that they haven’t invented an invisibility cloak yet.” 
The annoyance comes to her in what seems to be a regular cycle of emotions. Next will come the panic, which attaches itself to thoughts about her lame job, her pathetic love life, and the precarious situation with her age. After that will be amusement tinged with impatience, which will gradually shade back into annoyance. All conveniently removed from any encounter with the reality of her father’s death. Will that come later, she wonders, perhaps with a vengeance?
Each of these emotions pulls along a tethered line of thought. For the annoyance, it’s the effort to parse a phrase she’s been picking at the meaning of for the past couple weeks: “Someone’s trying to tell you something.” Ever since picking up the rental car from the Fort Wayne International Airport—or more specifically since reaching down to move the seat up and feeling slightly nauseated by the artificial reek of newness (waxy, citrus, musk) oozing out of the meticulously scrubbed interior, she’s been compulsively repeating the expression and being disappointed in herself for its ever having entered her mind.
Outside the car, the preternaturally oppressive heat hangs in a dusty gold haze over the trees, choking the blue sky in a sticky imitation of big city smog. The someone, Ada thinks, must be God. Or fate. Or some other guiding spirit. Trying to tell me what? What I’m supposed to do, how I’m supposed to live, what I’m supposed to pay attention to? The saying had surged through her mind with bizarre urgency the moment Ada pressed the button to end the call informing her that her father had passed. (Just some official using a quaint formalism that. Passed from this world to the next, that expression was easy enough to parse—if a bit presumptuous.)
            Ada was approaching her dad’s house for the second time in as many weeks. The first had been for the funeral. Now she was going back to inventory his belongings, oversee the movers who were coming tomorrow to box it all up and haul it away, and meet with the real estate agent. The flight, and now the drive, are affording her an abundance of time to contemplate why she, not even religious enough to pronounce herself an atheist, would have a thought like “Someone’s trying to tell you something” commandeer her mind upon hearing the news of her dad’s demise. His death. Two weeks before she got that news a drug store pregnancy test had given her some news of its own. Someone was trying to tell her something—but who was trying to tell her what?
The darkening of the sky that comes into view over the trees as she turns onto her dad’s street finally distracts her. She hasn’t exactly been enjoying the topic of her thoughts, and she prides herself on being able to avoid topics she doesn’t like.
            There’s something achingly pleasant about reminiscing, she thinks now as she tries to calculate the speed of the oncoming clouds. Ada, as a rule, does her best to avoid reliving her past because it causes as much displeasure as delight—that bittersweet tug of nostalgia, stroking the defenseless nerve of cherished memory, oh, with innocence and the charm of the undiscovered fresh untrammeled world and all that, but with the tragedy of loss and disappointment woven into the very texture of remembering.
            Ada, reflecting on how it wasn’t always necessary to search her mind for her present age, reminds herself that the scales were tipped against dwelling on any of those precious scenes from her early years when she began experiencing the added throb of having to measure the distance between them and the present. God, how long ago was it…? Twenty-seven years! Just ten years ago it was unimaginable that I’d ever be older than twenty-seven; now I’m taking twenty-seven-year-spanning trips down memory lane. Jesus. But the temptation over the weekend to ruminate on lost childhood memories is probably going to be sufficiently overwhelming to warrant a moratorium on the rule.
The funeral was, what, a week ago now. A week. A blink. She tries calling up the events of the days between when she stood in the cemetery and when she got on the second plane. Sunday I was here, at the church, then staring at that gaudy, god-awful coffin—you picked it out stupid ass!—feeling as disconnected from all the people, family, standing in half embraces with trundling tears on their cheeks, feeling as disconnected from them, strangers, as they seemed from the rest of the world. Small town in a big world. Still, they get all the newspapers and magazines, the same TV shows—nowhere is really disconnected, not in this country. Most of the people here seem pretty backward though. I guess they choose, insofar as anyone chooses where they end up, a place where life is less hurried and hectic. Less crowded and anonymous. Where homes are cheaper and you don’t have to be rich rich to feel rich.
            Called to the church podium to commemorate her dad, Ada gave the assembled rows of familiar strangers the obligatory story that showed just how he was—and that his way of being was really great and left an indelible mark and all that. “A few years ago now—I really can’t remember how many—I talked to my dad about all the disappointment that attends settling into middle adulthood. You know, how when you’re young it’s all but impossible to make any decisions because the possibilities are infinite and choosing just one path for yourself inevitably comes with this foreboding sense that you’re reducing your future to some miniscule share of life’s potential. That was the kind of dad he was—I could get all highfalutin with my dreary complaints and he’d never bat an eye.
            “And I’ll never forget what he said to me after he listened to me complain for like an hour. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘a lot of people feel the way you do—that adulthood is all about disappointment and foreclosed on potential. But the older I get the more pleasant surprises I find waiting in store.’” She paused, as if to search her memory or calm an upwelling of emotion. “He said, ‘Just imagine all those possibilities, all those doors of opportunity slammed shut—and so many of them without you even making the decision to let them be shut, the opportunities you miss just by waiting too long or being too distracted. You marry one person and forsake all others. You choose one career and it defines you for the rest of your life. I mean, if you dwell on everything you’re missing out on in life you’ll be miserable. And no one wife or husband and no one job can possibly compete with all the fantasies you have about the infinity of people you might’ve been with, the whole gamut of professions you might have pursued.
            “‘But think about it,’ he tells me. ‘Not too many people go around miserable all the time. Sure, some do. The really amazing thing to me, though, is with all the missed opportunities, with all the squandered potential, with all the failures and all the crashing down to earth—I mean, think about it—it’s amazing everyone over thirty isn’t miserable. And we’re not. Most of the time, most of us are happy. I can’t speak for everyone, but let’s face it—I’m old. And yet I still wake up almost every day with things on my mind that I want to do, people I want to talk to, women I want to flirt with and fantasize about’”—chuckles from the pews because that was so what he was like—“‘books I want to read, places I want to visit. We all know our lives are bookended with sickness and pain, or if we’re lucky a gradual slide into oblivion. But it doesn’t stop us from living. Neither does the realization that we’ve reached adulthood and never had one of those storybook romances. We won’t ever be billionaires or sports stars or famous actors. You know, who cares? The pleasant surprise of getting old for me has been that all that stuff has started to seem really, extraordinarily flimsy. Not to mention exhausting. And meanwhile I live my life every day, looking forward to things like these phone calls with you.’”
Every last one of the assembled solemn heads fell silent as Ada stepped away from the lectern with her hand over her mouth. It really was a great tribute to the man, she thinks now. My old pops. Ha! And she made the whole thing up on the spot. Oh, she had toyed with a few ideas for good anecdotes she might tell. That’s what you’re expected to do at these things. But as she was walking up to the front of the church the feeling of disconnection, the sense that this was all theater anyway, these weren’t real people anymore, not to her, nor was she properly real to them, it all conspired to put her in a mind-space for saying whatever sounded good. Wasn’t it all for the sake of appearances and social functionality—so what could it matter?
            Still, it’s pretty shocking that she hasn’t thought about it till now, the fact that she lied. It wasn’t even close to the truth, she thinks. I lied my ass off. They all laughed about the flirting and fantasizing line—it was rather inspired, if I do say so myself—as if it captured the essence of the man so perfectly. Mom left when I was eight and I never heard him so much as mention another woman. Not that I knew him all that well, especially after I left for school. There was never any such routine as a weekly phone call that would have given him a chance to dispense his great accumulated wisdom. (Another missed opportunity?) I totally lied and yet a year from now I’ll probably remember the speech itself much more vividly than I’ll remember driving to his house and pondering the implications of having so brazenly lied. Bald-facedly. Through my teeth. But I had to make a speech and the lie served its function. People do it every day. 
            Pulling into the driveway, the annoyance, the hurried tension, dissipates all at once, almost as if she were happy to be returning home. But her train of thought leaves her doubting how much of what she remembers here is reliable. The most vivid images she can conjure come from the dreams about her brother, even though Dad’s been insisting for years (Dad insisted for years?) nothing even remotely like what happens in the dreams could’ve actually occurred.
The weird thing is that the dreams had already started again, after more than a decade without recurrence, even before she learned that her father was dead (someone trying to tell her something?) and began trying to anticipate all the tasks that would be required of her with regard to the funeral and the house. At least he died with some money. It would all have been much more complicated if there’d been no money. As for Ada, she wasn’t sure that her inheritance would mean a whole lot beyond not having to worry quite as much. I’ll still get up and go to my lame ass job every morning, she thinks. Maybe I’ll have enough after paying off my student loans and setting up a 401(k) to go on a trip somewhere. I’d have to pay Judy’s expenses too—unless I go alone. Taking Guy with me would defeat the whole purpose.
            A spreading inner warmth contends with the caldron of heat she opens the car door into as she stands, laughing softly, on numb feet and bloodless, tingling legs. Guy Saunders has one of those smiles that make you think the person is trying to exert all the muscles around his cheeks and jaw, a big meaty smile exposing big flesh-ripping teeth. He’s just so stupidly irresistible when he does those damn face workouts of his though. And he’s actually onto something, she thinks. It really does feel good to stretch your smile muscles; I’m just never happy quite as vigorously as Guy always seems to be.
            The dreams started up again the night Ada saw the plus sign on the pregnancy test. She tries to calculate how long ago it was that she experienced that particular shock. Dad died two weeks ago now. It would have been at least two weeks before that. Jesus. I’m probably two months pregnant. In a few weeks, I’ll be in my second trimester. Damn it—I have to make an appointment somewhere the minute I get off the plane back home. But where? How do you find a good place for something like that? Would it be listed in the yellow pages? Do I just Google it?
            Rolling her carry-on bag toward the garage whose machinery is locking itself into place and going dormant, wiping its hands with a tiny shudder after the completion of its one simple task in life, Ada feels a sudden chill and wonders if it prefigures the storm she’s been watching approach. Today is the last day of June, she thinks. I guess we might as well send it off with a bang. Anything that tags an event as significant appeals to her, as she finds ever more disturbing the tendency of time to slip away unheralded. You go to bed one night in June, and you wake up in July. A week later you have to logically deduce June ever happened. She leaves her bag standing at the edge of the garage before wandering down the driveway to try and get a better view of the sky.
            The heavy clouds are riding in on sudden gusts of a sort seldom encountered in a town like this. Ada is pleased too with the idea of a storm to mark the occasion of her final trip home, but the raging intensity of the wind, already blasting the uppermost branches of the trees around the house, already tossing about prickling droplets, and the precipitousness of the clouds’ takeover of the overheated blue sky are making her wonder if there might actually be cause for alarm.

Also read: Waking Up a Completely Different Person: From "Dr. McAdams' Method"

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Smoking Buddha: Another Ghost Story for Adults (and Young Adults too)


            My nephew and three of the kids from the old neighborhood were telling raunchy jokes around the steel mesh fire pit the night of my brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law’s Halloween party. All night, I kept shaking my head in disbelief at the fact that they were all almost old enough to get their driver’s licenses. I used to babysit my nephew during the summers back when I was in college. Let’s just say at the time all these kids had a ways to go before they were teenagers.

            What they were laughing at now were some jokes at the expense of an overweight girl they all knew from school. I had a feeling they were playing up the viciousness because they thought it would make them seem more grownup in my eyes. The jokes were so mean I was sitting there wondering how best to get through to them that I didn’t really care for this brand of humor (though I admit I struggled not to laugh at a couple points, restricting myself to a wry smirk).

            “You guys are being pretty ruthless,” I said finally. “Do you think she deserves all that? I mean, you assume it’s okay because she’ll never hear what you’re saying. But I’d bet real money she would be able to recite back to you quite a few of the really good jokes you think she’s never heard.”

            This suggestion received a surprising and not altogether heartening response, the gist of which was that this poor girl did in fact deserve to be made the butt of their cruel jokes. After all, she did choose to eat too much, they pointed out. She also chose to sit around being lazy instead of exercising. They even suggested that their heckling could possibly give her some added incentive to change her ways.

            “Uh-ho!” I erupted in incredulous laughter. “I get it—you guys aren’t picking on her because her flaws make you feel better about your own. No, you’re picking on her because you want to help her.” They fell momentarily silent. “You guys are such humanitarians.”

            Before long, the mood leavened once again, and I began to wonder if I’d been too harsh, my efforts to temper my moralizing with sarcasm notwithstanding. But not two minutes later the snide, and now defiant, references to the overweight girl began to sneak back into their banter. I decided my best bet was to leave them to it, and so I got up from the log I’d been sitting on uncomfortably and went into the house to get a beer and see what the old people (some of whom are younger than me) were doing.

            As I stood in the kitchen alongside the table where several people in costumes were playing a trivia game (which I’m no longer allowed to play with them), I considered bringing up the issue of the mean jokes about the obese girl to my brother. The thought had barely entered my mind before I dismissed it though; the only thing worse than a moralizer is a rat. Plus, I wasn’t exactly one to be pointing the finger, I realized, as I had just that morning been cursing my neighbor, who lives in the carriage house behind my apartment, because she’s always sitting on her porch smoking, coughing loudly at predictable intervals, often blaring music through an open window, shouting into her phone to her mother and her lone friend, completely oblivious to how many people in the vicinity can hear her every word, and, well, just being an all-around irksome presence. I also must confess my own impulse is to look at her with some revulsion. Because she’s terribly obese.

*******

            I returned to the backyard and found the boys still at the fire, laughing at each other’s failed attempts at telling a passable ghost story. It wasn’t long before they started reminding me of all the times back in the days when I babysat them that I either read ghost stories to them, or else spun some ridiculously elaborate ones of my own. They pleaded with me to tell them a good one. “We know you know some,” they pressed. “Tell us the best one you can think of.”

            “It just so happens I know a story about some stuff that actually happened pretty recently,” I said. They all turned toward me with eager grins. “This guy I know named Zach lives in an apartment in an old house downtown, a lot like the place I live in, and one night he brings a woman home with him from a bar. Now this is really good news for Zach because he’s been down on his luck lately. He used to live in a ginormous yuppie mansion up closer to this part of town. But then like a year ago the recession caught up to his company and he got laid off. He’d bought the house and a lot of other stuff on credit, so right away he was in trouble. And, on top of losing his house, his fiancé had just up and left him for another guy. So Zach moves into to this cheap one-bedroom apartment in West Central. As you can imagine, he’s not feeling too good about himself.

            “After a while he manages to get a part-time job. Before getting laid off he used to work as a big shot sales guy for a tech company, so one of the hardest parts about finding another job was having to accept working in a less prestigious position. The part-time gig he got was only temporary—he was helping put together contracts for a bank or something—but he was hoping to get a foothold and turn it into something that would get his career back on track.

            “So one night he brings this woman home—and it’s only like the second person he’s dated since his fiancé left him. Things are going well, you know. They start off talking on the couch, lots of eye-contact, the reach-over-and-brush-aside-the-hair deal, hand on her shoulder, cups the back of her neck, pulls her in for the kiss. I’m sure you guys know all about how that stuff works. So they’re kissing for a while, and then she says, ‘Maybe you should show me your bedroom.’ Well, he’s actually embarrassed about his whole tiny and rickety apartment, so he’d rather leave the lights off and not show her anything. But of course he’s about to get laid so it doesn’t take him very long to get over it.

            “They get up from the couch and he leads her by the hand through his embarrassingly dirty kitchen and into his bedroom. Once inside the door, he decides not to bother with the light switch. He just wraps his arms around her and they start making out again. They make their way over to the bed, and, you know, now things are getting hot-and-heavy. Her shirt comes off, then her bra. Zach’s having himself a really good time because, if you can believe what he says, the girl’s got really nice… well, you guys can use your imaginations. Then he’s sitting back on his knees starting to take his own shirt off when he hears a sound. It’s this kind of squeaky ‘ehuh-ehuhm.’

            “Zach knows exactly what it is. He stops in the middle of taking off his shirt to close his eyes and shake his head as he’s heaving this big sigh. Of course, the woman is like, ‘Are you okay? What’s the matter?’ He tries to brush it off and keep things moving along. So he gets his shirt off and starts kissing her again, and, you know, other stuff. Then he sits back and starts unbuckling her belt, and that’s when he hears it again: ‘ehuh-ehuhm.’ This time she hears it too, which is kind of a disaster. ‘What is that?’ she says. So Zach’s like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Don’t worry.’ He goes back to unbuckling her belt, unbuttons her pants, zipper comes down, and she starts doing that little wiggle with her hips to help him get her jeans off. But before he gets them down, they hear the sound again: ‘Ehuh-ehuhm.’

            “This time he just flips. He jumps out of bed, like, ‘Goddamnit!’ He goes over to the window that looks down on the little yard behind the house and the carriage house apartment behind it. And there she is. Cheryl, his neighbor, sitting at the little table she’s set up on her porch with its neat little patterned table cloth lit up by the single orange bulb in the lamp next to her front door, smoking her cigarette, and looking so completely vacant he’s sure he could run up to her, smack her in the face, and be halfway back to the front door of the house before she even got around to saying, ‘Hey, what was that for?’ Cheryl, who emerged from the carriage house to smoke every twenty-five minutes like clockwork. Cheryl, whose neck and face were so fat she may as well have been holding her head in place with a big pillow. And, as Zach is glaring at her through his upstairs window, she makes the sound again, ‘ehuh-ehuhm,’ the cough that comes at such regular intervals, each repetition sounding so perfectly identical to the all the others, that he imagines it coming from a synthesizer set on a timer.

            “He’s getting ready to lift open his window so he can yell down to her to show some fucking courtesy—it’s after midnight!—when the woman in his bed starts saying, ‘You know, it’s getting really late,’ and all those things women say when the natural progression has been interrupted and they’ve had too much time to think about what they’re doing. So Zach tries to be cool and hands her her bra and walks her out to her car, saying he’ll call her and all that. But he knows the moment is past and his chances are shot. He climbs the stairs, feeling totally defeated, and goes back to his room, where he stands at the window again, just glowering down at Cheryl as she sits smoking in the orange light of her porch, mindlessly lifting her cigarette to her lips.”

            “Let me guess—he kills her.”

            “Shut up and let him tell the story.”

            “Well, he definitely wanted to kill her. You should have heard the way he talked about this woman. I mean he loathed her. He called her the Smoking Buddha because of the totally blank look she always had on her big doughy face. I guess one of the other things she did to annoy him was talk on her phone while she was on the porch smoking. Apparently, she was so loud he could hear just about every word even when his windows were shut. Anyway, one time he overheard her talking to like three different people about how she’d had some kind of panic attack and gone to the emergency room because she thought she was dying. And he was like, ‘You know who pays for it when people like that go to the emergency room? We do. She probably just got winded from lifting her fat ass out of her recliner and freaked out.’

            “Now Zach used to be one of those political guys who think everyone who can’t pay their own bills is just lazy and looking for a handout. Since losing his job, he’s calmed down a bit, but somehow his neighbor managed to get him talking about parasites and worthless slugs and drains on society and all that again. He said over half the phone conversations she broadcasted over the neighborhood were about her health problems. So he’s like, ‘Get off your fat ass and stop eating so much pizza and I bet you feel a lot better—and stop costing us so much in your fucking healthcare bills.’

            “The other thing that pissed him off was that he’d actually tried to get the carriage house a while back. The rent was like thirty bucks less than he was paying for his upstairs apartment, but the place was really cool. He’d gone in to check it out when the girls who lived there before Cheryl were moving out. When he called the landlord, though, he found out that Cheryl had set up a special deal. She and her mom were going to redo all the landscaping in the backyard and get a bit taken off the rent. Of course, the only person Zach ever saw doing any actual work in the yard over the next couple months was the mom. Cheryl just sat there at the little table on her porch, smoking and complaining about all her medical problems.

            “Now, I’ve checked out the backyard Cheryl’s mom worked on for the first half of the summer. The weeds and brush have been cleared away from the hedges. She lined the edges of the grass with stones and put mulch all around the trees. It looks really nice. There’s a sidewalk that goes from the front of the house back to the carriage house and around to an alley behind it. To the left of the sidewalk as you’re walking to the alley, there’s about ten feet of mulch before the hedge. The weird thing is, Cheryl’s mom, who is completely normal by the way, judging from the few times I saw her back there working, she made what I think is a flowerbed right in the middle of the mulch. It’s rectangular and its sides are made up of what look like these tiny headstones. They each poke out of the ground, grayish-white, their tops angled at the corners but curved up in half circles in the middle. There are seven of them on the sides parallel to the sidewalk, and four on the perpendicular sides. So it’s like there’s a six by two and a half foot rectangle of fresh black dirt in the middle of the mulch. The one and only time I ever talked to Cheryl’s mom I jokingly asked her if there wasn’t a body buried in that flowerbed. She jokingly refused to reassure me.

            “Even more, um, interesting, is the statue she has stationed at the back corner of the flowerbed. You can only see its back and some of its profile from Zach’s upstairs window, but coming from the alley you see it’s a cement satyr—they teach you ignorant wretches any mythology in school?—standing with one hand limp at his side, and the other raised to stroke his beard. I think it’s supposed to look relaxed and playful, but maybe because it’s like two and half feet tall—you know, the dimensions are all wrong—its breeziness comes across as mischievous, even a bit sinister. It’s still there. I’ll have to have you guys over to my apartment sometime so we can walk over and I’ll show it to you. You’ll see that it looks like it’s been out in the weather for decades, with mossy blotches and patches of gray. She must have moved it from some other yard.

            “Anyway, there’s an even smaller statue of an angel cupping her hands in front of her beside Cheryl’s front door. There’s nothing scary about that one—just a kind of yard ornament you don’t see very often anymore. Oh, and there’s also this tiny maple tree, maybe four or five feet tall, a little off to one side from Cheryl’s neat little porch arrangement. I just remember that tree because come late September and all through October, its leaves have been this shocking, bright red—almost glowing. It’s actually pretty cool looking.

            “Back to Zach’s story, though. So it’s about the middle of the summer now and he goes to work one day and tries to talk to some of the management figures about the possibility of going full-time and getting a raise. Unfortunately, they tell him instead that once the projects he’s working on now are done, sometime around Christmas, they won’t have any more work for him. Zach tries to take this in stride and starts planning in his mind how he’s going to devote all his free time to looking for another job, a better one. But of course he’s really worried that he’s going to end up working at a gas station or something—and even those types of jobs aren’t guaranteed anymore. To make matters worse, when his work’s done for the day, he goes out to the parking lot, gets in his car, and it won’t start.

            “Now the stress is almost too much, but he just closes his eyes and tries to take some deep breaths. The building he works in is downtown, so it’s like a twenty-five minute walk to his apartment. The whole way he’s trying psych himself out, telling himself all that self-help, bootstrappy crap about how every setback is actually an opportunity, every challenge a chance to develop character and perseverance. They probably give you guys a lot of the same crap at school. I’ll just say Zach was realizing for the first time that perseverance and determination—they only go so far. At some point, no matter how hard you work, the luck factor takes over.

             “This is what he’s thinking about when he’s walking past the carriage house behind his apartment, coming from the alley, and hears dishes crashing inside. He walks around to the front to peek in the window, and there’s Cheryl on the floor in the kitchen, both hands on her throat like she’s choking. Zach steps away. His first thought is that he has to hurry up and call an ambulance. Then he figures that will take too long—he needs to run inside and give her the Heimlich. But he finds himself just standing there doing nothing. He can’t imagine anything worse than having to wrap his arms around that sweaty woman. He says to himself his arms probably aren’t long enough anyway. And he actually laughs. So this woman is inside choking to death and he’s standing there chuckling at a lame fat joke.

            “Finally, as soon as his mind returns to the internet job-searching tasks he’s got lined up in his mind, which he’s been telling himself he’d jump right on the second he got home, he manages to convince himself that he probably didn’t really see anything too out of the ordinary. She probably just tripped or something. He figured he ought to mind his own business and forget whatever he happened to see through her window anyway. And that’s just what he does. He turns around, walks to the door to his apartment, goes upstairs, gets on his computer, and spends the next several hours online looking through job listings.

            “The crazy thing is he actually forgot all about having seen Cheryl on the floor—at least until that night. He’d been asleep for a long time, so he had no idea what time it was. But there was the sound, the ‘ehuh-ehuhm,’ the cough. He remembered it because even though it woke him up in the middle of the night he was still sort of relieved to hear it. Zach’s not a horrible person, you know. He was mostly just having a horrible day. Anyway, he didn’t want to have to think that the poor woman had died because he’d just walked away.

            “He gets out of bed and goes to the window. Sure enough, Cheryl is sitting at her little table and smoke is hanging in the air all around her. The orange light from the lamp behind her is making the big blob of her outline glow, but everything else is in shadow. For several moments, he can’t resist filling in the shadows with the imagined features of a giant orange toad. Then, as he’s standing there, he shivers and feels chills spreading over his back. He can’t tell, but it looks like Cheryl is looking right back up at him—something he’s never seen her do before. She’s always seemed so oblivious to all her neighbors. The more convinced he becomes that she is in fact staring at him, glaring at him even, not even moving enough to take another drag off the cigarette in her hand, the farther he finds himself backing away from the window in tiny shuffling steps.

            “It freaks him out so much it takes him forever to fall back to sleep. But eventually he does, and the morning comes. Of course, he has to walk to work in the morning because his car is still dead in the parking lot. He’s a little uneasy as he’s walking along the sidewalk, around the carriage house toward the alley, trying to keep his eyes forward and not notice anything that might be going on through the windows. But then he turns the corner into the alley and there’s a fucking ambulance parked right outside the carriage house. Zach thinks Cheryl must have choked to death after all, but then he remembers he saw her outside smoking in the middle of the night. He ends up just putting his head down and walking past, rushing to work.”

            “Ooh, creepy. Did this really happen?”

            “Just let him tell it.”

            “When he gets off work later that day, he calls his landlord Tom to see if he’s heard anything. Sure enough, the ambulance was there for Cheryl—who’d choked to death the day before. Now Zach is so freaked out he doesn’t want to walk back home because he doesn’t want to go anywhere near that carriage house again. And this is when all sorts of weird stuff started happening to him. I didn’t hear about it until just a few days ago because I stopped hearing from him at all for a long time. But that day he walked home trying to tell himself that either she hadn’t been choking when he saw her but had choked later, or that he’d dreamt the whole thing about seeing her outside looking up at him. When he gets to the alley, he decides to walk the little extra distance to the road so he can get to the house from the front.

            “As you can imagine, he goes on to have a few sleepless nights. But then, maybe three or four days later, he was distracted enough by his work and his fruitless job searching to wander into the alley again on his way home. Naturally, he tenses up when he realizes he’s passing the carriage house, and he can’t help staring at the place as he’s going around it. He’s staring at it so intently by the time he’s in the backyard where the table is still situated between two chairs on the porch, with its neat little table cloth topped with an overfull ashtray, he doesn’t notice that he’s not alone. When he finally turns his head back to the sidewalk, he’s almost nose-to-nose with an older woman. Jumping backward, he ends up tripping over one of the tiny headstones edging the still empty flowerbed and falls right on his ass in the middle of the rectangle. The woman walks over to look down at him, and he sees it’s Cheryl’s mom. But she doesn’t say anything to him. She just stands there beside the statue of the satyr, muttering something he can’t make out. And Zach’s so startled he just lies there braced up on his elbows in the dirt. Now, this is where it gets really freaky—as she’s standing over him, sort of talking under her breath, he swears the sun, which has been out all day, suddenly got blocked by a cloud. So everything gets darker and then these huge gusts of wind start blowing in the trees and scattering leaves all around.

            “Now, when I saw this woman, she looked completely normal. A bit overweight, like most middle-aged people you see around here. Nothing like her daughter. And I usually saw her in jeans and sweatshirts. She had long hair, somewhat gray. She’s actually hard to describe just because you see so many women just like her every day. But right then she was scaring the hell out Zach. After a few minutes of being in a sort of trance, he says he started to stand up while she just turned and walked away toward the front door of the carriage house, still not saying a word to him.”

            “Oh man, is this guy still alive?”

            “He just said he talked him a few days ago, moron.”

            “Maybe he talked to his ghost—ooOOoo.”

            “Seriously, I want to hear what happened after that. How long ago was this?”

            “It was in the middle of September. But you guys are going to have to wait a couple minutes to hear the rest because I have to piss and get another beer. All this yammering is making me parched.”

            “Ha ha, Yammering!”

*******

            After the intermission, we were all back on our logs and lawn chairs, and a few more people were milling around. When one of the boys explained I’d been telling a ghost story, there was a brief discussion about whether or not someone should go over the highlights of the story so far. But then my brother chimed in, assuring everyone, “If it’s any good, he’ll write the whole thing up for his blog tomorrow.” So most of the newcomers wandered away or only listened with one ear from a distance.

             “So let me guess,” one of the boys said, “the Smoking Buddha comes up out of the flowerbed grave and belly flops on him.”

            “No, Zach never saw the Smoking Buddha again—though I think I might’ve. But you’re going to have to wait for that part. What happened first was that Zach was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, or he had a growth on his thyroid, or something like that. So he needs surgery but the insurance program he signed up for after he lost the insurance he got through his last job won’t pay enough of the bill for him to be able to afford it. Now Zach never said anything about this in connection with Cheryl choking to death. But hypothyroidism causes your metabolism to slow down. It can lead to depression and—wait for it—severe weight gain. So of course when I hear about it all I can think is: dude was mean to woman because she’s fat, woman dies, mom cast some kind of fucking revenge curse on dude, and now Zach has some medical condition he can’t afford to get treated—which will probably make him gain weight. Sure enough, in like a month he’s put on about twenty pounds.

            “I know that may just sound like a coincidence, and it probably is. One of the other things that happened was that Zach’s landlord Tom called him and asked if he still wanted to move into the carriage house. Of course, Zach’s not quite as eager anymore, but it’s broad daylight when he gets the call, so he kind of stubbornly insists to himself that there’s no reason he can’t live there. He tells Tom he wants to move, but no sooner does he get off the phone than he starts panicking and hyperventilating. When he described the dread he felt then to me later, he said he’d never felt anything like it before. He was sweating all over and couldn’t catch his breath. He started to dial Tom back like four times but kept telling himself he wanted to wait until he could calm down before trying to talk to anyone.

            “But apparently his stubbornness ultimately won out. I helped move him into the carriage house near the beginning of this month. Now something else happened that, looking back afterward, is really strange. While he was online looking for work, he found a couple of guys he used to hang out with back in college through some networking site. It turns out they’re both big partiers, and Zach used go barhopping with them all the time. They both happen to live pretty close to Zach, so for the past month Zach has been meeting up with these two guys like four or more times a week at Henry’s, the bar that’s maybe four or five blocks from his apartment, which is good because his car is still sitting dead in the parking lot where he works.

            “The first thing that’s weird about him hanging out with these guys is that they get him smoking again—and I hadn’t known Zach was ever a smoker to begin with. It turns out he started back in high school and quit right after graduating from college. Now, hanging out at a bar with his old friends, both of whom go outside all the time to smoke, and doing a bunch of drinking—you know, it’s only a matter of time before he starts up again. When I asked him about it, he said it’s no big deal; it’s just to help him with the stress; he’ll quit again once he gets his job situation sorted out. The second thing that’s weird is that he starts thinking someone’s following him all the time when he walks back and forth from the bar. And of course that’s the part that really freaks him out.

            “One night there’s a guy walking behind him as he’s on his way home. Now Zach is pretty drunk so he tries to play it cool. There’s no law against someone walking around downtown at night, and it’s no big deal they both just happen to be heading in the same direction. But, after the guy makes a few of the same turns as Zach, he starts getting a bit scared. He keeps doing these quick glances over his shoulder to see if the guy’s still back there, because for some reason he doesn’t want to look right at him. It’s like he’s afraid once the guy realizes Zach knows he’s following him he’ll give up the pretense and just run him down to do to him whatever it is he’s planning to do.

            “Now here’s where it gets really freaky. When Zach rounds the corner into the alley that goes to the carriage house, he’s thinking the guy will stop following him for sure. But then after a while he hears footsteps behind him—and there’s something strange about the way the footsteps sound. So Zach does another of those quick glances over his shoulder, and he’s glad for a second because it looks like the guy is quite some distance away from him still. But with his eyes forward he thinks the footsteps sound like they’re coming from much closer. Even before he has a chance to really think out what this means, he’s bolting down the alley as fast as he can, fumbling with his keys in the door, rushing inside and slamming the door behind him. What he realized was that whatever it was following him—it could have only been about two and half feet tall.”

            “What the hell? Is this all true?”

            “What was it? Like some kind of little demon?”

            “He was probably just drunk and freaking himself out.”

            “Will you guys just listen? So he locks the door and just stands there panicking for a while. But eventually he starts trying to peak out the windows to see if anyone—or anything—is still out there. He doesn’t see a damn thing. Now this goes on and on. Not every time he goes out, but often enough that after a while he doesn’t want to go outside after dark anymore. And he never manages to get a good look. It’s always just on the edge of his vision, or in the shadows. Plus, he’s always drunk and too terrified to look directly at it. So like six times in the past month the poor guy has gotten scared shitless in the middle of his walk home from Henry’s and had to sprint home.

            “But the worst was the night he came home from the bar drunk, passed out, and then woke up because he thought someone was in the apartment with him. He opened his eyes thinking he’d heard little running footsteps in the room. When he sat up in his bed though, whatever it was was gone. So he just sits there in his bed for a minute, listening and getting scared, trying to tell himself that it had only been a dream. Then he hears the sound again. Now Zach is completely terrified at this point, but he works up the courage to go out into the living room and kitchen area to check it out. He doesn’t notice anything at first, but as he’s passing the front door he sees that it’s not even pulled all the way shut. So he rushes over and pulls on the knob to close it, but as he’s doing it he looks out through the window and ends up standing there completely frozen.

            “Zach’s standing at the door, looking out into the yard that's lit up by the orange lamp—and he realizes that the satyr statue that stands at the corner of the flowerbed edged with all the little headstones—well, it’s not there. And as he’s standing there petrified he hears the sound of the tiny footsteps behind him again. After an eternity not being able to move, he decides to run to the bathroom as fast as he can, turn on the lights, and lock himself in there. And that’s what he does. He ended up sleeping on the floor in the bathroom all night. When he woke up the next morning, he crept up to the window again, and sure enough the satyr statue was right back where it was supposed to be."

            "Hell no."

            “Yeah, this was just a couple weeks ago. Since all this stuff started, you guys wouldn’t believe how much Zach has changed. I mean, I barely even recognize the dude. He says he’s freaked out all the time, he can’t sleep; I know he’s drinking like a fish even though he can’t afford it. He’s putting on weight—he’s stuffing his face with something every time I see him lately. And he’s smoking again. In fact, the last time I saw him, just a few days ago, he sat there chain-smoking the whole time. He has two chairs sitting on his porch, and I saw him sitting out there when I walked by, so I stopped to sit and chat. He told me it’s all still going on—the guy following him home, the sounds in the house—and he’s basically at wit's end.

            “It was dusk when I stopped by, and the whole time we’re talking I’m looking at that little maple tree with the blazing red leaves blowing in the breeze in front of me. And that’s when I started getting really creeped out myself—because there wasn’t any fucking breeze. I kind of wanted to get up and leave right then, but before I could say anything Zach’s phone starts ringing. He holds up a finger to me as he answers it. But after about ten seconds it’s like he’s completely forgotten I’m even there. It turns out it’s his mom on the phone, and he just starts unloading all these complaints on her, loud enough that anyone on the block could listen in. He tells her about all the weird shit that’s happening and how he’s always waking up in the middle of the night in a panic. Then he starts in on how he can’t find any decent work. Then it’s his insurance. He tells her how he’s trying to get on Medicaid, but there’s no way he can get benefits in time to pay for his procedure. He goes on and on, so finally I stand up and just kind of gesture a goodbye to him.

            “As I’m walking up the sidewalk that runs through the yard and alongside the house up to the street, I look at the satyr statue and feel chills going down my back. And that’s when I hear it, this squeaky ‘ehuh-ehuhm’ coughing sound behind me. I turn back to see Zach, just as the dark triggers the sensor on the lamp beside the door  and the orange light comes on. He’s sitting there in his chair, hunched, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, still talking on the phone, obliviously loud, the orange light showing his rounded outline and casting his face in shadow. As I stood there looking at him in disbelief, I couldn’t help but fill in the shadowed features with those of a toad. I turned around and got the hell out of there. Haven’t heard from him since.

            “Now, speaking of being overweight, which one of you little punks is going to find me some Twizzlers?”

Finis


Also read the first Bedtime Ghost Story for Adults