The ghost in the penthouse made himself known to me, but not at all to my guests – some lady and her professor boyfriend. It was maddening, me knowing it was a ghost, and them not knowing dick – especially when shit started to get weird – I mean really weird – not your normal NYC penthouse party weird. There were exploding light bulbs, giggling oil portraits, hairy snakes, &tc. I tried to talk sense into my guests, they were so frightened, but everything I said came out garbled and spooked them worse.
A door swung out of the green-paneled wall and revealed a muddy room. Hm, I had never noticed that before. As soon as we walked in, a vàsé drifted off its shelf and crashed to the floor. The lady looked at the professor with this unbelievably precious expression. Like, Honey, did you do that? And I was like, I know your face from somewhere, and I don’t like it one bit. I still couldn’t talk, so I kicked a chair to show my displeasure.
“Did you say something, my desert rose?” said the professor.
“I think there’s a ghost, Bunny,” said the lady. That got the professor real excited. He knew exactly what to do. First, he ran around the room twice. Second, he cleared his throat. Third, he incanted a poem: Rimat Ninsun Anu Uruk Borek Gunush ....
He paused and waited for something to happen. When nothing did, he repeated the lines, but shifted the emphasis to the second syllables: At Un Nu Ruk Ek Nush .... Still nothing. I got bored, and left before he could repeat it again.
For a second, things were bright lights and blurry outlines. A motorist flicked off a jaywalker – I was the jaywalker – so I scuttled into a Dunkin' Donuts. No, no – this wasn’t right either. Where’s the “ugh” in “Donuts?” On line was a squishy man dressed in priest garb, his soap-smell creeping into my mouth. This priest guy whispered into his Bluetooth about cases in his basement, cases filled with dirt, cases shipped from Acacia Cemetery to his little church. Intrigued, I inched forward, but not too close. He turned around anyway.
“Hey, Boy,” he said with an Irish lilt. “You’re lookin pretty blue.” He thumbed at my pea coat lapels. The thumbs: 2mm moons, pink skin under the nail, no stray cuticles.
“Hey, Father,” I said. “I know you from somewhere?” I winked at him, as though I was in on the situation. He asked me if I was hungry, and I let him buy me an apple cruller. He got a coffee for himself, light and sweet, and we took a table by the window so there’d be something moving to look at while I ate.
“You wanna see a dead body?” he asked, those neat thumbs brushing crumbs of cruller off the table. I continued to chew.
“You can touch it, even.” His eyes twinkled. Hitchcock had said the scariest thing he ever saw was a Catholic priest talking to a little boy. When he saw the two of them together, Hitchcock leaned out of his car and shouted ‘Boy! Run for your life!’ This was the same Hitchcock who gave us ‘Touch me, Tippi! No one is watching’ – you know, his famous sexual harassment of Tippi Hedren on set of The Birds. I hear he was naked when he said it, splayed across a bear skin rug unfurled in Rod Taylor’s living room. People are complex, I guess. That’s why I mention the Tippi thing.
Right, we were on our way to see the dead body at the father’s church, which was a few blocks off. I had ended up pretty far from the penthouse, I think. The father told me he’d started out as a shepherd, or something. I was swooning with the Irish accent – but – wait – what he was saying was so weird it was hard to follow. I felt bad for the sheep. He probably scared them away by talking too loudly. Yep, the father was a shouter – so loud he spooked the pigeons chilling on a roof five stories up. They flew in unison down the canyon of 3rd street, then rose into the sunlight and bent to the left, then down and to the right, like a giant, shiny piece of fabric.
“When pigeons fly together like that they’re more flock than bird,” the father said.
His church was big and traditional – lots of shell-shocked men and women carved into the columns. Inside he clapped his hands, twice. Somewhere, hidden above, the organ began to play Bach. They played Bach at a funeral I had drifted through recently. I had been warned explicitly by powers higher up not to touch the body, not a sleeve nor a finger, not a single rosary bead. Because I couldn’t touch it, I closed my eyes, vibrated, pretended the body was made out of stone, like the church, and the stones and it were shaking together because the music was so pure.
On the wall before us was a damp red tapestry hanging from an iron rail. The father pulled it back to reveal a musty dark hole, about four feet tall. My eyes adjusted, and a spiral staircase formed itself from the dark. Our flight downward was long enough for me to feel I had been born in the staircase, chasing the father’s shoulders, back and legs, his hands and feet extending invisibly around the spiral. Then it stopped. We had landed on a cold dark place beyond the reach of the organ.
“This is pretty cool,” I said.
The father pulled out his phone and cast a narrow beam of light. It inched through the very thick dark until it found a stone slab. Something was on the slab, gradually solidifying as we got closer. My heart hurt in my chest.
“A real-life body,” the father said. He picked up an arm that was skeleton. “His watch still works. Here.”
I twisted the papery wrist-bone around. It was 11:43 AM.
“Neat,” I said. The father stared at me, staring at the body, staring up at him. He wanted me to look for something specific in it. So I looked again. Its face had mostly rotted away, letting quarter-sized chunks of skull poke through. But from the tissue that was still there I could make out the nose, the brows, the chin. This all seemed very familiar.
“Oh,” I said. “Oh.” Like coming home it dawned on me.
“Hey Father, is this body – my body?”
When he started to smile my world got wobbly and blue. I hovered thirty feet up in the air to calm myself down. The vaulted ceiling of the crypt was enormous: it must have gone all the way to the church foundation, all the way back to Earth. I could fly?
“Boy, it’s time you moved on,” the father shouted below me. I floated around the vault’s ribs, moaning, embarrassed I was trapped. Dozens of bats, shook from their roosts by my disembodied wails, fluttered about. I must have looked ridiculous. Slowly, I let myself fall back to the father, on the ground. His hand on my shoulder, he marched us to the altar, where the body was, my body.
“Hey father,” I said, “I’m afraid of eternal slumber.”
“It’s not sleeping so much,” he said. “Much stiller.”
“I want to haunt the penthouse.”
“Not an option. The lady you met’s a movie star. She wants you out.”
The father whisked my ghost onto the skeleton and I slipped inside. It clinked shut around me. I could feel my ten dead little fingers and ten dead little toes, my dead femurs and pelvis, the delicate sinuses of my dead skull. Weird, but I felt fine. The father had slipped away as I locked into my body. He came back down a few hours, days, or weeks later, lit an incense stick, and said some prayers. Then he left me to the daily grind of death’s eternal rest.
Little pieces of me flake away now and then, that’s how I know a lot of time’s passing. It’s just me, and the small little man who speaks in my head, the two of us, on this little slab, an altar really, forever, in the dark. When the little man talks I can’t hear the other things going on in my mind – echoes – squelches – the progression of mathematical proofs. It’s especially difficult to listen to in the circumstances of morning, whenever morning happens here.
I suspect the father is dead, and so is the movie star, and her professor boyfriend, and the motorist, who flicked me off, plus all the people and robots in the supply chain that put that apple cruller into my mouth. Perhaps the idea of an apple cruller is also dead.
Steeping in my profound loneliness, we’ve gotten very close, this man and me. Sometimes I pretend I’m him. Like now. And he calms down, settles. We say the same phrases back and forth to each other, repeating each other’s stories exactly the same way but with a mild and slowly accelerating rate of distortion. Like, you can say “yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow yellow,” and the image at first is very clear, your ideal “yellow,” but then it becomes yell, yelp, low, armadillo, and then it’s not a word anymore. That’s what’s happening to the little man and me now, but with everything, not just yellow. You dig?
I’ve already said this. I try to enjoy it while I can, let it carry me where it will with its limited and diminishing power.
He and I take the long winding staircase back up to the ground floor. The church is no longer there, the surrounding city also vanished. Sitting on my shoulder together we sing
As though it were the last time it will be sung, always returning to our crypt like close to happy.
Charlie Corbett is a solid 8 and unemployed.