“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?.

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


2 comments:

gillt said...

Excellent read as usual.

(Late as usual)

Before the rains when the grass crunched underfoot they found his car at a trailhead just off I-90, keys in the ignition and wallet in the glove. Since then I have been drawn to his home. Sometimes I would stand at the edge of the mock-sea wall enclosure which curved around the front yard, daydreaming, gawking, wanting to know.

A few nosey souls had been brave enough to speak to me in passing as I stood against the mossy stones which may very well have sheltered the secrets of his passing. All kept their eyes off the house and on those rocks like they were tombstones and would warn against moving closer.The street’s old couple had even said, “I believe his ex-wife is watching over the place and we’ve seen his daughter about. I don’t think they’re taking visitors right now.” To that I would meekly nod and bustle away, knowing the sorts of whispers that went unchecked by those types.

Yet there I was again on a dreary October day. Standing still in the falling rain. They beaded like tears on my grey mac before displacing a tiny wind strewn leaf that had settled directly on the calmly glowing apple.

Fixated, I nonetheless turned toward home and began to walk away. Apparently aware, the wind threw hair in my eyes and hissed, high-pitched and angry. I looked back at his house. It had been four months and no word, no leads, no clues, hows, whys—everything unsolved.

This lone front porch on the block uncluttered by pumpkins and orange twinkle lights beckoned like a dark theater.

In the direction of the wailing wind, I decided today was the perfect day for secrets.

Dennis Junk said...

Okay, now I'm curious. (And no worries about the lateness since you were apparently off the peninsula.)