"What's a ghost? Unfinished business, is what!"
"Let my name be the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was."
Henry Scott Holland
" 'Fore they lay you on the table, better keep your business clean. Else there won't be no harps and angels coming for you. It'll be trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks and tambourines. "
"In Heaven, there is no beer. That's why we drink it here. And when we're gone from here, all our friends will be drinking all the beer."
Art Walunus (English lyrics)
I realized instantly that I was dead. It was blinding headlights, a semi's horn and that was it. The last thought of making the choice to not clench up, underlining the verbal uttering of 'Oh Shit'. There was no pain. Just a silent darkness that lasted forever or maybe less than a .....thing. I always did that, blank on the one word that would complete the sentence. I called it CRSS or Can't Remember Shit Syndrome so it seemed right that struggling over the search of a word would be my final thought. Suddenly, it looked like sugar was pouring before me, each granule landing on a clear screen, providing motion and color and form and eventually a memory of a long-haired Warren Beatty riding a bike into a tunnel with the unspoken implication that he would never ride out, at least not in his late 70's hunk form. It seemed like ages ago that I started thinking about this memory but it happened so quickly and it's meaning so clear that I just accepted it as dogma and I instantly knew that I first deciphered the word dogma when I was 14 and I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain it to my daughter Michelle when I was 38 and never thought of any of this when I walked the earth which seemed like a distant time that correlated with dinosaurs and big metal fins on the back of cars and the reason I couldn't remember the name of the Warren Beatty movie was because it just wasn't important, that I had squeezed all the useful shit from that one scene and I knew that I would never really need to use the word shit since info would be better and then be better could be replaced with suffice.
It occurred to me that I was outside, the coolness in the air led me to remember that the sun had gone down. I was floating or lingering above something, a commotion, sirens, pulsating lights. My final scene. My end. I tried to view my gruesome fate but I kept spinning out of control, away from my mechanized yet blase death. While I started thinking about my Drivers Education class and the overtly dramatic movie, Mechanized Death, I also sensed another sugar coated memory. I was sitting on my couch, 11 years old, watching a Spyromania commercial, the jingle still fresh, spinning one revolution for every bar in 4/4 time but the commercial becomes a program about NASA, concerning the Gemini Space program, specifically how the astronauts were having trouble training in a zero gravity environment. They could not physically function. Their movements were too strong, too uncoordinated yet Buzz Aldrin had no trouble whatsoever. He knew instinctively how to move with grace by not fighting or resisting. Armed with this obscure 40 year old memory, I stopped my spinning and started to move back to my accident. Answers were coming to me before I could frame the question. Things I did not know or ever thought about were now at my disposal. The image of my new expanding knowledge sat in a holster like General George S. Patton's Ivory-handled Colt .45's ready to be yanked and fired at any low-down scoundrel of a problem. I tried to mask this awareness with a blanket of humility, that it was an entire life that I hid my stupidity with arrogance and bluster and only in death do I realize that I might have always knew everything as my entire being literally vibrated with my latent intelligence.
I quickly developed some rudimentary actions and moved in to view my demise. Holy shit did I get messed up! I do not feel the need to improve the word choice but it's there if I change my crushed mind. Looking at was once my head, it would be a safe bet that I would not be the recipient of an open casket ceremony. Now I'm reminded that my family will have to deal with this and I'm hanging in the pallor and reality that will soon envelop my family. A first responder approaches my carcass and starts to toss his cookies. Somebody is yelling at him for debasing my remains with his technicolor yawn. I start to flash that it might be his first day and I create the scenario where he was in the middle of his lunch from Arby's when the call came and now he has to scrape my gray matter out of the dirt. Poor Bastard. More than likely will never eat at Arby's again but if it's any consolation, neither will I.
I look up to see the all the traffic that has backed up due to me and notice that the stars seem practically touchable and certainly brighter than the headlights below. I can hear more than I want to. Distant screams, arguments in different languages, animals fornicating. I can taste the exhaust of every car below me. A few muscle cars that run rich. A radiator on the way out. I smell rotten eggs and/or sulfur, the odor of a mis-fueled catalytic converter. I don't know why I equate this smell to an archived automotive attachment and right on cue appears my father, dressed in coveralls, his hands black in grease, smoking a filterless Lucky Strike between the pinky and the ring-finger of his wrench-strengthened right hand, where less grease resides and he is lecturing me, or maybe ranting to anyone who will listen, on how the the catalytic converter will be the ruination of the American automobile, and I remember the passion of which he spoke, and the early summer evenings in his garage, with one of my recently purchased 300 dollar beaters, hood up, festooned with a hanging, tethered light explaining the intricacies of tweaking a carburetor or the harmonic symphony of an eight cylinder engine. He was a gifted mechanic and he guided me, taught me, yelled at me and essentially shared with me the one thing he was in complete possession of until they started to put computers in the processes and then he was through. The rant about the catalytic converter was one of his many swan songs, complete with beer soaked baritone and a winsome whisky chorus that sat proudly on the work bench, as prominent as the four-tiered toolbox. This particular rant was truly his goodbye to the ever-evolving science as a stroke took his grip and his thirst for combustible engines and he spent another nine years in a variety of loungers with a giant ceramic ashtray, never to venture out in his garage unless to give away a tool or smoke another Lucky Strike, the vast library of his expertise erased by an aneurysm and further calcified by a lack of interest. A phone on a desk at a job that I was working for until a most recent accident rings and it is my stepmother talking somewhat hurriedly about my father being taken to a hospital better known for GSW's and police being stationed outside of OR's. She could not specifically tell me what was wrong but she mentioned two or three times that he had been saying that "...this was his week." since Sunday and this was Tuesday. I remember knowing exactly what she was talking about as my father had a cavalier and grandiose way of addressing such matters. I'm now at the hospital's front desk, asking about my father and I'm directed to the 3rd floor where my queries are answered by a staff member handing me a phone. Somebody on the other end, with an air of nonchalance, tells me that he took a turn for the worse.
"What exactly does that mean?"
There was an interminable amount of silence, as a distant February wind shook empty branches outside the window and the person on the other end realizes that I am not a doctor but perhaps a descendant of the man who would not ever be King.
"Oh, he died a couple of hours ago."
The product of the multiplication of nothing proved to be false as the interminable silence doubled in time from the first question. In it's chasm floats emotions fired from uninvited neurons, a weak surrogate for words I could not think to say.
"Did you want to see the body?"
Now I'm in the basement of this hospital where I am led around several covered bodies on wheeled gurneys by someone in a lab coat and in bad need of a haircut. A coif that outrageously does not match the gravitas of this moment or this profession. The horrendous hairdo opens a small refrigerator door and pulls out the largest covered body on a wheeled gurney and a sense of righteousness overtakes me as if there could be some pride derived from being related to the biggest dead body in the morgue. I look at his uncovered head and the dried blood that framed his upper lip, like half a red mustache and kiss his cold forehead and remember his utter surprise at the time, in my adolescence, that I took his broken black-rimmed glasses and fixed them with his clip-on sunglasses so we could drive home or the begrudgingly way he was shamed into spanking me via my mother when I found some playing cards in the jockey box of his truck that displayed naked ladies and passed them out to the kids in my neighborhood and I realize that cold kiss was the first time any sort of physical affection was ever demonstrated between us and also realize that was exactly the way it would always be, that standing among covered bodies in an increasingly cold morgue is not the place to be asking for second chances or do-over's. This humbling revelation would soon enough permeate my own household and it became obvious that I needed to return but before I could channel my energy toward that thought, I hear a familiar raspy voice,
"I heard you were coming."
Not some distant memory but standing right before me, as they break out the spatula's to peel out the sticky parts of me from Mother Earth right below me, is my old friend, Gary Trumbo, who passed away some years ago from either Hep C or Aids. I never got a direct answer other than shared needles. When he passed, he weighed in around 125 lbs yet before me was Trumbo at his most imposing 290 lbs, complete with full beard and Osh-Kosh-b'Gosh overall's. His eyes erupted like the Perseid Meteor shower on a clear Montana night.
"Yea. Somebody has to tell my wife." It was the first time I spoke in my new environs.
"They have systems in place. The wheel still turns even though you're not there to watch it."
How strange it was to hear him say that and how much stranger that he did not bother to color his sentence with a 'fuck', a word that fell out of his mouth as often as carbon monoxide. He appeared different. Wiser? Healthier? I was swept by how much I missed him. I wanted to hug him, laugh at him for still wearing those stinky overalls, discuss old times. Even take the chance and ask him what it was that killed him. Our friendship was one where the judgments weren't as necessary as the temperature of the beer but instead of exhibiting any truth in my emotions, out of my mouth tumbled,
"Will you come with me?" He laughed.
"I'm not your fuckin' tour guide."
That was it. He was gone. Just like I remembered him and yet nothing like him at all. The distance between us un-bridged by some war stories. Was this how things were up here? I was blowing up with all my new found faculties and vocabulary(chasm? interminable? Who the hell am I trying to impress?) yet an old friend now is a rank stranger. Now I felt my insignificance. As if I needed something else to humble me. I was behind. I had to catch up, study for the next moment. There wasn't any way to fake it around here. I wished like hell Trumbo would re-appear but the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed I might not ever see him again.
Despite my wavering confidence in ever seeing Trumbo again, I was struck with the infinite possibilities of who I might encounter, including my own parents and it was the thought of my father that reminded me that I needed to get home and be there when my news arrived. As soon as I started to formulate the idea, I was above my house that quick. And though I knew there were a thousand sophisticated ways to express this phenom, I just thought it was some pretty cool shit! So enamored with my new found skills, I entered my house through the chimney only to be staggered by the presence of at least 50 people in my living room. Trying to figure out why there was a party that I wasn't invited to when it dawned on me that the room was filled with my new found demographic. Dead souls inhabited my abode. My wife Abby, perched on the couch, totally unaware of any presence and also seemingly oblivious to the loud, pounding bass-driven music pulsating through out the house. Scanning the room, I did not recognize anybody save for one woman and that one woman was somebody I had never officially met. Based on the irritation that instantaneously flashed upon her pallid face when our eyes locked and the aggressive manner of which she left her table of card players and knocked against the other semi-see-through denizens on her way to meet me, I was fairly certain that this person still did not hold me in high regard. Her approach also brought the illuminating sting of hindsight. It was Abby's grandmother, Annaliese. She had passed before Abby and I started dating but Abby always felt her presence was close by, that she was watching over us. My original motivation upon meeting Abby was more primal than esoteric but I had the foresight to know that questioning such a belief might jeopardize my original motivations and as our relationship grew, it seemed a rather benign matter so I never felt the need to squelch what I secretly considered nonsense. I even consented and paid for a meeting with a medium, who I nicknamed Sigmund Fraud and confirmed Abby's belief's that she was indeed, very close by and was so involved in our lives as to inform the medium that I needed to "get off the pot." Bubbling above the meridian of disbelief in regards to any afterlife, I gave some time in trying to understand if Annaliese meant I was lazy or using marijuana or if it was some sort of metaphor for doing more with my life. At that point in my life, this ghostly trident of accusation was actually a winning trifecta of utter truth. Of course, I railed against this claim by way of guilt and what a profound waste of my hard-earned money but the message was clear and the point taken. It also served as a cracking of the door to any sort of life beyond what I knew life to be but I'm 100% convinced I did not use the word profound when thinking about that incident.
I recognized her from photo's but she was younger now than the pictures I had seen. The resemblance to Abby being much stronger in the flesh, or whatever physicality of which we now existed yet her familiarity to my optics did not stir any of the other emotions I felt when I looked at her grand-daughter. Her greeting cemented all that I feared.
"You stink." I could not deny this as the sulfuric aroma had followed me from the accident, it's origin becoming obvious. I put up a defiant front under the misconception that I actually had some pull by standing in my own house.
" Yea, well I just got run over by a semi and I'm pretty sure that my underwear is housing my intestines, among other things. Who are all these people?"
"We support Abby.We always have. We've been here longer than you have." So much for trivial formalities like pleasantries. Staring into her cold, gray eyes, I was struck with a flash of knowledge that she had, indeed, been here longer than I owned the house and that she was privy to all the actions, disagreements, incidents and passive/aggressive behaviors that may or may not have occurred during our twenty year occupation. I felt defensive, as if I needed to justify anything I might have said or done. Ever. There was this urge, boiling from within, to just start verbally ripping into her. It came upon me fast. Scary fast. I didn't want to engage her as strong as this urge wanted. I had to look away from her only to discover the chaos that raged inside my living room. A mass of sweaty post-humanity, moving to a bass line that was felt inside one's sternum. Looking closer to the crowd, I was having trouble finding some bloodline or community with these Thriller imposters who bore more of a resemblance to another era than any long lost Aunt from Abby's side of the family. Ill-groomed, badly dressed or what we now call retro. Men wearing heels. Striped bell-bottoms, waist length tan vinyl jackets. Qiana shirts, buttons opened to the diaphragm, showing off chest hair but mostly sunken chest cavities. Hair choices that should have been declared illegal. Sideburns, porn 'staches, facial growth that could only be loosely described as attempted beards and the time tested Hitler hair part. Incessant smoking. Chain smoking. Smoking while dancing. Smoking while kissing. Smoking while taking a drink. I never thought it to be an Olympic sport yet every hollow body standing or grinding in my living room was smoking. It was a collection of bad 1970's TV characters, the rejects who ended up on the Rockford Files cutting room floor and another flash as to why I caught whiff of some abhorrent odors when I was breathing. Accusations of the kids smoking that even Abby denied on their behalf. The dozens of times I smelled horrid perspiration and through muscle memory, changed the offending shirt. Endless, restless nights, laying awake in bed, hearing something just beyond the the closed door, right against the other side of darkness. Something raucous and lustful. An active synergy but from where? The neighbors? That jackass down the alley with the Harley and his commute that starts at 5am? And finally, the answer to that agonizing question as to why I would wake up with some stupid song running through my head that followed me throughout the day like a stomach virus but none of these flashes answered the only question I had.
"Who ARE these people?"
The answer to my question would have to wait as the doorbell rang. It was the State Trooper bringing the news of my untimely demise. Before I could react and sidle up to my wife, Annaliese started to assemble her unmerry masses into an unfamiliar formation in the foyer. As Abby walked to the door, they piled behind her making a wall of see through humanity and when she opened the door, the entire population of spooks that inhabited my house were now completely surrounding her. A wall of support so strong that despite my crawling and finagling, I could not get even remotely close to her. The aesthetic was not lost on me. They were an emotional rock of support and the imagery was extremely touching but this not only was Abby's moment but a moment for Abby and I. A moment that I would never be able to recapture. I tried to make my case to Annaliese but her stern "We are doing what we're supposed to do" was as close to an explanation as I would get. I never felt so useless in my afterlife.
As the front door shut, I found an opening and rushed in around her mid-section. I wrapped my arms around her and held on as she moved and seated herself on the hall tree. With my new lack of physical status and my inexperience in moving about in my new lack of physical status, I did not tackle her. She took me with her as tears ran down her face. She stared straight ahead while I tried to tell her that everything would be alright. Don't know if she could hear me but eventually she uttered the words "You stupid bastard, you have triple A." I'm fairly sure she did not hear my correction of " I had triple A." but her mood did change and she got out of the hall tree and went up the stairs. Most of the itinerant labor force drifted on back to the living room, obviously worn from having to exert any more energy than passing gas or flicking ashes into non-existent ashtray's. I followed her, thinking I would help her up the stairs but her gait was strong and I just followed her to our daughter Michelle's bedroom as she sat on her bed. Watching my daughter's reaction just destroyed me. Since none of the transparent Brady Bunch thought it necessary to come upstairs, I got to hold point on consoling her. I could literally feel the pain course through her body. With the flush of emotional pain came a flash that this was possibly my biggest responsibility here in the afterlife, the soother of loss. The moments of traumatic experience were few and far between but when they occurred, I had to be there. Her mother touched her face and told her I died instantly, that I felt no pain which was true. Funny how they knew that. I suddenly remembered my life insurance policy that would allow Michelle to attend any school she wanted as she was applying for scholarships. It seemed that Abby would be going to the basement to tell our son Jacob. I had no idea how he would receive the news. One never knew with Jake. He was always a bit out of step with the world. He had trouble with routine and more trouble with change. He certainly was taking a different path than his sister. So I went downstairs, anticipating he would be the next whistlestop on the Daddy's Dead tour but his room was empty when I got there but I noticed some basement dwellers of Annaliese's Army that gave off the appearance that they were most comfortable in a subterranean level. Moving towards their skankiness had them scatter like roaches but I knew I had not exterminated them. I went back upstairs to find Abby now in our bedroom, brushing her hair, getting ready for bed.