There were ghosts everywhere, within and without, waxing and waning in the basement especially, but also under my bed. The ghosts within were better than the ghosts without, and so were much more to be feared. For a ghost within can lurk in the hidden places of your body—in the grape-like sacs of your lungs, the space between cuticle and nail bed, and more terrifyingly, in the synapses of your neurons.
You know them when you see them, the ghost-possessed, the ghost-afflicted, the ghost-ridden. Or perhaps the ghost-drenched, since they had taken me and thrown me into a pit of ghosts, who caressed my face and lulled death songs into my ears.
Yes, one day I would be one of them—I knew that. I too would fade and flare into the minds of the living, sucking at the life sap that surged through their veins, that sap that fueled the rage, excited the loins, made men mad-blind with power and women quiver-faint with love.
Ghosts, so many ghosts in my childhood. There were the basement ghosts: one put his hand on my chest as I was sleeping, in the improvised room that was never finished. The carpet—a cheap remnant from a seedy store. The fireplace—red brick. All very good for ghosts, but it was in the back of the basement, where light was shunned, where the dust bunnies could strangle cats, where every demon on earth came, on starless special nights, to mingle and consort—the back of the basement was the very evilest. Mother, my mother—why did you keep the food you had canned back there, on the scratched-together shelves that, by themselves, would have been a magnet for ghosts? Didn’t you know that that’s how they got into us? Infinitely tiny, they slitthered through the Mason jars, moved through the stalactites of the glass and sand and water. Tiny, yes, but then they grew engorged by sugar and water and all matter of nutrients.
The applesauce you made—it was laced with ghosts. The green beans—not so much. The beets were irresistible, and so full of ghosts that they even came out of our urine, the next day. And so we became ghost-filled.
Filled with ghosts, we moved like ghosts—from the green sofa where my father lay after breakfast, trying to cast the ghosts within into the ghosts without. Mother, in the kitchen, waiting for father to leave, so she could sneak a forbidden cigarette on the porch outside. She crashes the cheap, plastic dishes together, and scolds them into the drainer, the anger and the power tidal-waving out of the kitchen, all the better to wake him. To get him to leave, so she can expel the ghosts in smoke.
We were three, my brothers and I—and all of us had ghosts that crept along the sinews of our muscles, and roller-coasted down our nerves, exploding into the synapses.
Ah, a ghost in a synapse is fearfully bad, for the ghost tears from one nerve ending to the next nerve beginning, and then back again. No other message will get through—and none did. The feet moved, of course, and the mind worked well enough, enough so that I can tell you: Lansing, state capital of Michigan. Principal products of Idaho: potatoes, wheat, and livestock corn.
These facts were important, since they could occupy the spaces not yet afflicted with ghosts. But each day, the ghosts grew more numerous. They flitted through our brain and played Frisbee in our guts, nor did they hide or flee when any ghost removal specialist, sent from the Department of Ghost Affairs, came by. No, the ghosts stayed at the street corners of our minds, leaning against lampposts and jeering.
It may have been that they, our parents, wanted us to have the ghosts—and why shouldn’t they, since they themselves soldiered on with ghosts, while the dreams of power and love slowly greyed—the color of ghosts—and then faded, and then turned into a wisp, and at last ceased even to be a memory. Yes, that can happen, I can tell you—I come from the land of ghosts, and I know.
Died the summer after my Kindergarten year
Miss Warren—first grade teacher.
Referred to only as SHE.
The rest? Ah, the ghosts had gotten to me: the names and the faces and the individual quirks all forgotten now. Shoved away by the ghosts, who only got more numerous as the minutes dragged in those leaden days when the holidays themselves refused to come, and summer was a place like Paris. A place for other people, who would know how to order the café au lait and chat with the waiter. Yes, the holidays kept receding even as you approached them, so that Christmas day was an impossibility, a figment of the mind, something occurring—if at all—just after the Second Coming.
The little desk with the chair attached, and the desk top that comes up and reveals last week’s math homework which you were afraid to hand in, so riddled with mistakes it would be, and now your name is on the blackboard, under the heading of “Pending Homework” so that everybody can see. And whose fault is it? The ghosts, of course, who have come up through the hole in the desk and turned the sevens into threes, and have twisted subtraction into division, and have rolled all the sixes down to the bottom of the page, where they are learning how to invert and become nines.
I should have put tape over that hole, that stupid, meaningless hole at the bottom of the desk—did you know that’s pupitre in French? That’s the kind of fact we hurled against the ghosts, only to have them hurled back at us—why else can I, age 59 and with a broken back (so heavy have the ghosts become), tell you this silly fact, that even the French don’t know?
It was a conspiracy, that’s what it was: they knew that Mindy Peckham (future Harvard alumna) had gotten to the desk first thing in the morning of the very first day of classes, and she had PLUGGED that hole, dammit, so that actually doing homework was unnecessary. All that was needed was to lift the desktop, and poof! The homework assembled itself, and then the grade appeared, and then was entered into the fearsome book (grey, of course—though sometimes red, for failure) that the teacher alone could see. Yes, the grade-book, filled with checks and marks and letters and numbers—all the better for the divination of the calculation of the sum and subtraction of the products of the square roots that would be you, on a June day that will never come and that cannot be escaped. Well, by merely lifting her desktop, the numbers in the grade-book are soaring, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Midvale Elementary School hitting the highest notes of Joy To The World, which is what Mindy is, and why John Harvard is salivating bronzely from his perch above the slab of marble in Harvard Yard.
But the ghosts had gotten to me already, and befuddled my brain and fogged my vision—so I didn’t, like Mindy Peckham, who would become the spiritual consort of John Harvard—I didn’t see the hole. And then, all the papers and erasers and pencils and books and notebooks got all crammed together, and then the pens exploded, and it became a SURGING MESS, and that’s when the teacher announced—desk inspection!
I can’t open the desk because the ghosts will come out—you can see that, can’t
you?—and Miss Steensland will look at the ghosts and know: I am soiled and polluted and dirty and filthy and ridden with ghosts. More ghosts than a dog has fleas. More ghosts than a leper has sores. More ghosts than all the piranhas in the Amazon swimming siren songs to all the snakes in the steaming jungle.