by G.G. Silverman
There’s a point in your life when you’re a crusty old geezer like me, when the curtain between this world and the next one comes down, and the dead start to bleed through. It’s not meant to scare you. Frankly, they’ve always been there; it’s just that now you’ve earned the right to see them.
It first happened to me about six months ago, shortly after I turned ninety. Before I tell you anything else, let’s just say the first time is always a mind-job.
That day, I hadn’t seen my mother in twenty years, not since the day of her funeral when they put her in a pine box, sealed her up for good, and buried her. When she appeared again after all that time, I was at the kitchen counter, trying to butter my toast, but really just scraping off char and cursing because charred toast makes me angry. Behind me, out of the blue, I heard a faint whisper in a woman’s voice:
I turned around stunned, knocking my plate off the counter. My mother stood before me, not the old, sick lady at the end of her life, but a transparent image of her young self, smiling in her favorite getup from when I was a boy, pink capri golf pants and crisp white tennis shirt, her dark hair flipped in a bob. My mother shimmered like a mirage, then smiled and faded away.
I stood there, staring at the empty space, wondering if what I’d just seen was real.
She soon came again. Her visits were infrequent at first, just enough to stop being a surprise. After a few months, though, she started coming every day.
Since then, more have come along, like my daughter Betsy, who died at fifty of breast cancer, but now appears as a teenager—a young, pretty, red-haired spitfire. It’s funny, but the dead like to come back as their favorite selves. At least the ladies do, because they’re a little more vain.
Then there’s my best buddy Hal, who’s also come back, but chooses not to look any different than his ornery eighty-five-year-old self. I lost him six years ago, when the old fool’s ticker gave out. But now he’s here again with the rest of the ghosts.
They’ve all learned to control their powers, and appear more solid. They can speak more than a sentence and come and go as they please. They can walk through walls. If my mother’s here, she might make my coffee, and move my medication to where I’ll remember to take it. If I forget, she moves it again, and it’ll follow me around the house until I actually swallow those damned pills. Hal keeps my gear in check, he’ll put away my fishing rods when he knows a storm’s coming, or he’ll roll up the windows to my truck. Betsy throws away the old chips of soap when they’re too small, or when she thinks they’re too small, or when they’re stuck to the floor of the shower. “I don’t want you to trip, Dad,” she’ll say. She’ll unwrap some fresh bars, putting one on the sink and one in the shower. They’re all here looking out for me, though lately it’s more than usual.
Meanwhile, Joanne, my only living daughter, calls me every day to check in. She lives in Boston, far enough away from my Cape Cod house to keep her from meddling, except via telephone, which rings reliably at noon, like it’s doing right now. The dreaded sound pierces my brain like a drill. I pick it up and say hello, knowing exactly what she’s going to say.
“Dad, how are you doing?”
There’s been a nervous edge to Joanne’s voice lately. I roll my eyes because I’m tired of the conversation we’re about to have, and I’m grateful she can’t see me over the phone. I feel my face twisting in exasperation. “I’m good,” I tell her.
“Are you eating?”
“Yes, are you eating?”
“Not funny, Dad. What did you eat today?”
Actually, I couldn’t remember.
“I ate eggs,” I lied.
“Good. You need your protein. The last time I saw you, I thought you looked a little thin.”
“Dad, it’s time to have the talk.”
I feel a groan coming on, but I suppress it, biting my tongue until it bleeds.
“I know you’ve been fighting me for years on this, but I think it’s time you came to live with me. I don’t want you being all alone in that house. It’s too far from everything. It takes me an hour to get there. Plus, I don’t want you driving anymore. If you’re not coming to live with me, you should at least sign up for the senior shuttle. I’m crazy with worry.”
I think about the senior shuttle, and all that Ben-Gay, the preferred cologne of oldsters, and I want to scream. I’m not like them. I’m better than them!
“I’m fine,” I tell her. “You worry too much. Always have. Just like your mother, until she decided she hated me and ran away.”
“I can see just fine to drive. I can take care of myself.”
“Promise me that if you don’t feel well, you’ll call me.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got people.” I look over at the kitchen table, where the ghosts are sitting. Hal raises an eyebrow at me, like he smells bullshit.
“Who looks in on you, Dad?”
“Oh, just the neighbors,” I lie.
Hal shakes his head. Betsy and my mother look at each other.
Joanne is silent for a moment, like she’s deciding what to do.
“That’s all well and good for now,” she says, “but later, we’ll talk about this again.”
“Ok,” I say, dreading the inevitable. Joanne used to be a trial attorney, and never, ever lost a case. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
She hangs up, and I let out a deep breath. She has let it go, for now.
The ghosts don’t say anything for a minute, they just stare at me, all accusations and annoyance. The corners of Betsy’s mouth are turned down and my mother’s lips are pressed in a thin, straight line.
Hal barks, “What was that?”
“What?” I say. “I refuse to go.”
“I know that. I mean, why are you being an idiot?” Hal says. Having been a sergeant in the army, he was never one to mince words.
“Dad,” Betsy starts, “we’re glad to help you, I mean, it’s our job, but …”
Hal cuts Betsy off. “But you might be beyond help soon. Our help, anyway.”
My mother’s brow is furrowed. “Hal’s right. We have powers, but we can only do so much.”
“Then I will just die,” I say. “Here, at home, in my bed.”
Betsy shakes her head. “That’s not always the case, Dad. What if you fall in the tub? Or down the stairs? That’s not a good way to go, is it?”
“Look at you, always so smart,” I say. “Some days I wish I never sent you to Harvard.” I can tell I’ve made her angry. She crosses her arms on her chest, and squints her eyes, shaking her head like she’s about to bite mine off.
Hal chimes in again. “Listen, Jack, I like to split my visits to this earthly plane between you and my grandkids, but lately you’ve been taking a lot of my time. You don’t realize how much I’m actually doing for you.”
“Like shutting off the stove at night,” my mother says.
“And I tripped the carbon monoxide detector that one time, because the batteries were dead,” Hal says. “You wouldn’t have woken up if it weren’t for me, you old knucklehead.”
I can feel my face turning red. I feel like I’m surrounded by traitors. I’m so livid I can’t speak. I storm out of the kitchen and head out the back door.
“You’re being a total and complete jerk!” Hal shouts in the background.
The screen door slams behind me as I make my way to the shed, looking for my fishing rod and tackle box. I don’t see them. I start thrashing about, tossing fifty years of junk around until everything is upside-down. I still can’t find them, so I hurry to check the back of my truck. My stuff is of course already there. I swear like a sailor and circle around to the front. Hal is sitting in the passenger seat, wearing his fishing hat.
“I’m coming with you,” he announces.
“No. You need me. I’m coming with you. That’s final.” He points a stubby finger at me. Hal’s always been a son-of-a-bitch, and he’s not about to stop now.
“Goddamn it, Hal.” I climb into the driver’s seat. “I’m not talking to you anymore. Not for today. I’ve had it.”
“Fine, be that way,” he says. “No one said we had to talk.”
I search my pockets for my keys, and grumble because I can’t find them.
Hal holds them in front of my face. “Looking for these, smart ass?”
I swipe at the air, yanking them out of his hands. Then I start the car. I can’t wait to get down to the beach and fish. I back out of the driveway and head east, the ocean’s about two miles from my cottage. I stare ahead at the road, watching the water get closer and closer. Hal is quiet, quieter than he’s ever been. Even when I tell him to shut up, he doesn’t usually back down, not like this. I think I’ve hurt his feelings.
I screw up the courage to speak. “Is it true what you said back there?”
Hal clears his throat, his signature move for when he has something delicate to say, almost always the truth.
I curse under my breath.
“For how long?”
“A while now.”
“I hate to say it, but I have lots of grandkids I miss, but I have to spend my time with whoever needs me the most. Right now, that’s you.”
I don’t know how to tell him how I embarrassed I am, that I hoped my life would never come to this. My eyes mist; the road in front of me becomes a blur.
Hal shouts and takes the wheel, yanking the truck away from a border collie that darts in the street out of nowhere. We lurch in our seats as the truck hits a fire hydrant; water shoots everywhere and sprays the windshield. An air bag explodes in my face and I gag on the powder as the seat belt grapples my chest. I can hear steam hissing from under the hood. I push the damned airbag out of my face and struggle to get out of the truck. Hal is already standing outside.
“Jesus!” I scream. “You son-of-a-bitch!”
“I had to! You were going to hit that dog, you old fuck!”
“Yeah, and now I’ve hit the fire hydrant. Thanks a lot!”
Hal throws his fishing hat on the ground and stomps off.
I hear a siren coming, and I’m as mad as I’ve ever been. But that won’t be the worst of it. They’ll call Joanne, and that will be the beginning of the end.
An hour after I cab home, I hear a car pull up my driveway. Before long, I can see Joanne through a small gap in the curtains. She’s at the front door, pressing the buzzer over and over. Didn’t even bother to call first because she’s so angry. The buzzer annoys me to no end, but I pretend I’m not home.
“Dad, I saw the curtain move, I know you’re in there,” she shouts.
My mother, Hal, and Betsy are sitting stiffly in the living room, because they know what’s about to happen. “You should open the door,” Betsy says, “or I’ll do it for you.”
“No way, it’ll be the end of me.”
“Jack, Betsy’s right,” my mother says.
Joanne gives up on the bell and starts pounding on the door. “Dad, I know you’re in there. Just admit defeat and open this door.”
“Jack, just open it already,” Hal says.
“Shut up, you’re the reason I’m in this mess!”
“Dad, I’m going out to the tool shed and I’m coming back with a pry bar to smash your door in,” Joanne calls. “Five … four … three …”
“Fine,” I yell. “I’m coming!” I whirl around from where I’m standing and march to the door, unlocking it and pulling it open.
Joanne is standing on the front stoop with two empty suitcases, one in each hand. Her face and eyes are red, and she probably cried the whole drive. I wave her in, reluctantly.
She sets the suitcases down in the living room. “You know why I brought these.”
“I’d like to pretend that I don’t.”
Hal and the others shake their heads.
“Dad. You hit a fire hydrant today. You are ninety. It’s time.”
“It was Hal,” I say, jabbing the air in his direction.
He claps a hand over his forehead, and I realize what I’ve just done by opening my big, fat mouth.
Joanne glances at the couch, then focuses her attention back on my face, maintaining an air of calm. “Dad, no one’s there.”
“I was just kidding,” I say, desperate to recover from my own stupidity.
“Dad, tomorrow we’re getting you evaluated. If you’re hallucinating, you can bet at very least the doctor won’t let you drive anymore. Pack your bags. We’re going.”
“No, I’m not going to Boston. I’m staying here.”
Joanne’s face gets redder, like she’s searching for a way to answer without exploding.
“Dad, just go with her,” Betsy says.
The others nod furiously, their eyes begging.
“No, I’m not going,” I repeat.
“Then I’m staying here until you give in,” Joanne says.
I groan out loud this time.
Hal stands up from where he’s been sitting on the couch. “Since you’ve got a real live person to watch over you now, you don’t need me anymore. So I’m taking off for a while. Things to do, people to see.” He puts on his fishing hat. “But don’t be a jerk while I’m gone, okay pal? I’ll see you later.” He fades from the living room, leaving behind an empty space.
“Me too,” Betsy says, “there’s an old boyfriend I want to catch up with.”
“And I have a golf game to practice,” my mother says. “Be good, son.”
Both my mother and Betsy disappear, waving.
I’m standing alone in the room with Joanne, who has started puttering around and straightening out cushions. But I can see Hal out of the corner of my eye through the window. He’s gone outside first to put away my fishing rod and tackle box before leaving to see his grandkids. I smile because that means a storm is coming.
Joanne is making herself comfortable in the living room, cobbling together a bed on the couch with old sheets she found in the linen closet. We haven’t spoken since supper, when she took it upon herself to make some food for us, which I would have done myself, had she not beaten me to it. Normally I watch TV after supper, sometimes even falling asleep in my easy chair in front of the news, but I don’t want to be in the same room with Joanne and open myself up to more commentary.
“I’m going to bed,” I announce, poking my head in the living room.
Joanne stands up from where she’s bending over the sofa, tucking blankets into the corners. She turns and approaches me, pushing gray hair out of her eyes. “Is there anything else you need, Dad?” she says softly, her eyes wet and shining like she might cry.
I pause for a moment, regretting that I’ve been a hard-ass today, but I know that going to live with my daughter will just make me feel useless. I croak out the words, “Nope, I’m fine,” but neither of us move, like we’re both waiting for something.
“Uh, a storm’s coming tonight,” I say. “If power goes out, flashlight’s over there.” I point to the flashlight charger that’s plugged into the wall not too far from the fireplace. “Don’t worry, I’ve got one in my room too.”
“Oh, ok. Thanks,” Joanne says, sniffling. “Sleep well, Dad.” She forces a half-smile, and I pat her on the back awkwardly before shuffling off to my bedroom.
I close the door behind me, and sit on the edge of my bed, struggling to peel off my shoes. I stare at the photos on my nightstand: a photo of me and Hal, from that time we caught the Big One fishing for tuna in the Gulf of Mexico; a photo of me and my mother at her 90th birthday party; and photos of me and the girls, Betsy and Joanne, when they were young and in pigtails. I pick up each frame and I lay them face down one by one, because it hurts to see the images, and it hurts to see myself in them. It’s like those were other lifetimes, and not real anymore. Not since the coming of the ghosts. I start thinking about tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that. The coming endless days of boredom, forbidden from driving, forbidden from doing anything remotely interesting on my own, like fishing. It’s too much to bear. I decide right then that there’s no way in hell that I’d go with Joanne tomorrow. Instead, I make other plans.
I slide into my bed fully clothed, pulling the covers over my body as I reach over with one arm to shut off the lamp on my nightstand. I lie on my back, keenly aware of Joanne’s presence in the next room. I hear her shifting on the old couch; it squeaks as she tries to get comfortable. I remain still and silent as I stare at the ceiling in the dark. I don’t dare close my eyes, instead I stay awake listening, hoping to eventually hear soft snores from the other room. Soon, my patience pays off.
I slip out of bed without a sound, and a soft rain starts to patter the roof. I know it’s only a matter of time before the storm picks up and gets stronger. I put on my shoes again and quietly open my door to sneak into the living room, blindly trying not to step on loose floorboards that I haven’t gotten around to fixing. Thankfully, Joanne has fallen asleep facing the back of the couch. She’s curled up in a ball, and appears to be oblivious. I stand there for a moment, silently wishing her well. She has been a good daughter, has never made me worry for anything, dutiful to a fault. She raised two good kids, Charlie and David, and now they’re out in the world, doing good things. I choke back the urge to sob and I creep forward, groping for my rain slicker in the dark. I find it slung over a chair, then I pull it on, and reach for Joanne’s keys on a hook by the front door. Then I open the door slowly, quietly, and head out into the night.
Cool, salty drizzle hits my face as I approach Joanne’s car. I open the door and climb in, twisting the key in the ignition, but not turning on the headlamps just yet because I don’t want to wake Joanne, that is, if the sound of the engine doesn’t do it. I pray that she still has the sleeping skills of her teenage years, when she could sleep through almost anything. The car purrs as it comes alive. I shift into “Drive” and roll down the driveway at a snail’s pace, hoping the tires don’t crunch the gravel too hard. I finally flick on the headlamps as I’ve come to where the driveway meets the road, and I turn onto the street, making my way toward the beach. No other cars are out tonight; everyone else is home, afraid of the storm.
The beach is dark and quiet. Wind whips my face as I drag my small fishing dinghy from the beach to the water’s edge, where I clumsily shove off and jump in at the same time. The water is choppy, causing my boat to lurch up and down as I row like hell, barely able to see through my glasses as the rain pelts harder. Despite the chop and the gusts, I’ve somehow managed to row far enough from the shore to know I’m in deeper water, deep enough to drown. I’m freezing my ass off; my fingers are almost too stiff to grip my oars, and I’m shivering until my teeth chatter. The wind rises to a gale force; waves toss my boat like a toy as water sloshes over the sides. I open my mouth and laugh like a lunatic, because somehow laughing into the wind makes me feel more alive than I’ve ever been.
Hal appears before me, seated and clutching the sides of the boat. He begins to shout, stabbing his finger wildly into the darkness. “You old fuck! I can’t take my eyes off you for two seconds! Are you trying to get killed out here?!”
I don’t answer. Instead, I laugh again, like the inconsiderate bastard that I am.
“Jesus!” Hal screams into the wind, shaking his head. “Not like this.”
I nod Yes. This is exactly how it’s going to go down.
Hal looks desperate. The boat lurches forward on the roughest wave yet.
“You know I can’t save you, right?” Hal shouts.
I nod again.
He wipes a stray tear from his eye, looking grim. “Ok, buddy. Godspeed. I’ll see you on the other side.” He extends his hand and I shake it, feeling it tingle in mine before he disappears into the ocean spray, leaving me alone in the tempest. A typhoon-like blast hammers the surface of the water, and the boat nosedives down the crest of the wave, ice-cold liquid drenching my body on the way down. I plunge below the surface, and squeeze my eyes shut, waiting for the inevitable.
It’s a clear, warm day, and the sky is blue enough that on any other day, it would call for a fishing trip, except Betsy, my mother, Hal, and I are standing in my town’s old cemetery, waiting for people to arrive. Rows of empty white plastic chairs line the grass before a hole in the ground. The hole’s about six feet long and six feet deep, a dark cavernous space ruining an otherwise beautiful lawn, one so green it makes a grown man weep. I know this hole is meant for my body, and I shiver, because the thought of being down there in a box gives me the creeps, but I remember that I’m really here, above ground, incorporeal, a ghost among ghosts. I’ve always hated funerals, and I’ve always tried to avoid them when I could, but I’m here at my own because I want to hear what people say about me. Maybe I’m vainer than I thought. The truth is, I want to see Joanne for one last time until she really, really needs me, hopefully thirty or forty years from now, though the rules of the afterlife don’t exactly prohibit us from checking in on occasion until the moment has come to help out in a more serious fashion, like the other ghosts did for me.
A procession of cars pulls up by the edge of the cemetery and black-clad mourners step out of them, navigating their way slowly down the path to where the ghosts and I are standing. Betsy elbows my arm and points further afield. “Look. There’s Joanne and the kids.”
I scan the cemetery, bracing myself, because I haven’t seen Joanne since that fateful night. It was only a few days ago, but feels like forever. I finally spot her as she approaches, and I suck in my breath at the sight. She’s wearing all black too, and appears thin and drawn, leaning against both her boys for strength. I feel like I could die twice, watching her suffer like this. She stops just short of where I’m standing, she and her boys facing the hole.
When the service is finished, everyone drifts away toward their cars, everyone but Joanne. She tells the boys to run along and get the car started, she’ll be there in a second. Soon, she’s the only one here in the big old cemetery, aside from the gravediggers, who stepped aside to give her some space before they finish the job of sealing me up. It’s just her, and us.
She’s crying. Hal grips my arm on one side, and Betsy grips the other, because they know I’m tempted to reach out. Not yet, my mother whispers. If you touch the living too soon, it messes with their mind.
But I don’t care. I shrug them off and step forward, standing directly behind Joanne.
I give a gentle tug on her sleeve, and whisper. I’m sorry.
She stands up straighter, and glances over her shoulder, expression quizzical as she rubs her arm where I’ve touched it. She shakes her head, and turns toward the hole again, silent for what seems like an eternity.
“I love you, Dad,” she suddenly says out loud.
I know you do, kid. You tried real hard to do the right thing. I know. It’s better this way, I promise. You’re free, and I’m free.
She turns around, finally, and walks past us, oblivious, eyes on the ground and smiling gently as she begins a slow march back to her car, her form growing smaller and smaller as it moves toward the edge of the cemetery.
Betsy steps forward and reaches for my arm, crying. “Shit, funerals are so sad.”
“Language,” my mother warns, dabbing at her eyes.
Hal clears his throat, pretending he isn’t emotional, and hooks my other arm in his, which he’d never do if we were alive. He nudges me forward. “Come on, buddy. Let’s get out of this place and go fishing.” He pauses, and clears his throat again. “Ladies, why don’t you come down to the beach with us. Enjoy the sun while Jack and I fish.”
The gals nod, thoughtful. “We’d like that,” Mother says. “Let’s make a day of it.”
The four of us hook arms, and together, we fade away.