Willis stopped seeing ghosts the moment his mother told him they didn’t exist. The clouds that inhabited his darkened bedroom were beams cast by the blue-white headlights of passing cars. The movement in the shadows were phosphene afterimages floating in his eyeballs. The gnome who perched tiptoed on his pile of dirty play clothes simply stopped appearing.
The evening thus emptied of its denizens, became a hollow empty place where the boy’s imagination rattled like a bean in a maraca. Now traces of multicolored fear lingered on every creak as the Miller home leaked heat into the night. While they existed, the ghosts were the night. They were the spirits of those who strode nobly through life’s trials and finding Willis curious, sought to impart to him the wisdom of their days. Ghosts were the spirits of the earth, eternal, omniscient, the core of pure wisdom. Ghosts were the residual meaning of life that was. While the ghosts existed, Willis knew he was a ghost who’d managed to clothe himself in flesh. When they disappeared, he lost himself.
The ghosts Willis had seen for as long as he could remember were gone on Bettina Miller’s utterance. She stood over the kitchen sink drenched in orange after-supper sunshine, lemon yellow gloves pulled up to her elbows, white and blue striped apron tied around her waist, the geography of her body jiggling in attempted unison with each stroke as she scrubbed at the hardened remains of dinner carbonized on the bottom of a steel pot.
“But are there angels?” young Willis complained, trying any logic he could summon to resurrect the spirits.
“Course there are,” his mother said. She held the pot under the stream of hissing white water that fell from the faucet. “Bible says so.”
“Well if there aren’t any ghosts, how come there are angels? Aren’t angels ghosts?”
Bettina stopped her scrubbing in mid stroke and tilted her head toward her son. From a full two feet above him, her eyes appeared over the top of her glasses like those of a wizened owl sizing up a field mouse.
“Son, where do you come up with these questions?” She held the pot and scrub brush motionless. Vegetable scented water drizzled into the sink.
“Well? Are there? Aren’t angels ghosts?”
Mrs. Miller shook her head slightly as if reserving the energy for the dish washing that needed to be completed. Water hissed from the faucet.
“I want you to go outside and play. There’s a full hour before it gets dark. Go.”
“But nothin’. You go find your sister and tell her I want her playing in the yard where I can see her. Hurry up before I warm your bottom with my wooden spoon. Scat. Shoo.”
Willis ran into the cooling summer air, his world forever modified.
“A man can change a shitload of reality with a word or two.”
The speaker was Travis Hartwig, Willis’s university roommate. Hartwig stood on the stone wall, crushed the beer can in his fist, and flung the crumpled metal toward a green trash dumpster that squat brimming with garbage behind the brick dormatory.
“Man, you glow in the dark. You know that?” Willis said. He lay on the top of the wall separating the dorm parking lot from the residence square. His head spun, aloft on clouds of cheap malt liquor. The oval of Hartwig’s head eclipsed the moon for a moment. When Travis moved, his white-blonde hair seemed to light up like a phosphorescent fire.
“Everybody stands out somewhere,” Travis said, slurring the words with a spray of saliva.
Hartwig was an albino. Skin and clothes seemed as if they were draped on his gaunt frame like bed curtains. The brilliant white hair atop his head set off his laser blue eyes. To Willis he was a genetic oddity--some experiment in human pigmentation gone dreadfully awry. Among the mass of Caucasians, Hartwig was more of a minority than Willis was and he reminded Travis of the fact at every opportunity. Travis could respond with a wit that distinguished him among men as much as his genes. To have a friend as physically odd and mentally acute as Travis Hartwig seemed an opportunity no one could pass without committing sin.
“Take you at that rally. . .” Travis said. Willis interrupted.
“What’d you mean by that?”
“That black power rally of two, and only one of us actually black. . .”
“No no no. Not that crap. What you said before about the words.”
Travis sat down hard, almost falling from the wall as he landed. His thigh brushed Willis’s hair. He pawed at the last aluminum can on the wall next to him, trying in vain to remove the collar of plastic rings that had once held five other cans. When he couldn’t extract the can from the plastic, he shrugged, folded the six-pack holder down along the side of the can, popped the top, and poured a stream into his mouth. The beer dribbled down the sides of his face, along his neck, and into his shirt collar. A few drops dabbed Willis’s forehead.
“Hey, watch it,” Willis complained.
“If you don’t like it, why the hell don’t you find us both some women so I don’t have to waste my weekends getting wasted with an ugly sonofabitch like you?”
“Why the hell don’t you?”
“Because. Because I’m a frigging. . .” Travis said. He cut himself short leaving two breaths of silence between them.
“You’re a frigging what?” Willis said.
“It don’t mean nothin’,” Travis replied. “See, that’s what I was meaning before, about the words.”
“Wha?” A belch erased the last phoneme from Willis’s mouth. The burp brought a green monster that swirled in the pit of his stomach and rose to his forehead. He swallowed, hoping he’d beat the nausea that was soon to follow. “Oh shit,” Willis said, laughing. “I’m going to be sick.”
“Don’t mean nothin’,” Travis said. “Say it.”
“What the hell good’s that going to do?”
“It changes re-al-i-ty. My papa says so.”
Willis slapped his hand to his forehead. The impact seemed to raise a cloud of noxious fumes inside him. “You’re not going to start with these war stories again. . .think you were there or somethin. . .”
Travis ignored him and stood on the wall. He howled at the moon and poured a stream of beer toward his mouth. Droplets fell onto Willis’s face, temporarily cooling him.
“Papa was a LURP in Vietnam. Long range reconnaissance. Paint his face green and black. Crawl for miles into enemy territory, living off the land, mission focus maximum--search and destroy. Man’s got to be hard to live that way.”
“Hartwig will you shut up. I’m sick of. . .” A gas bubble erupted from Willis’s mouth spreading an acidic aroma that seemed to pile in his head and throat.
“Kill or be killed. The VC used to eviscerate their prisoners so the screams would travel, scare the shit out of the boys on patrol. Popped their heads onto sticks. Posted them as warnings. Pa killed the VC. ‘Don’t mean nothin’’, Pa said. ‘Don’t mean a damn bit of nothin’.’ You say that enough, it’s true. Get it? Life’s like that. Life’s a bunch of patterns. You pick the ones you want. Shitcan the other ones. Life IS that. You make the meaning. Don’t mean nothin’ without you’re there to make it. You gettin this, Will? I’m a frigging prophet tonight.”
Willis rolled onto his side. A plug of concrete seemed to rise from his stomach. What he thought was gas turned out to something more substantive. The muscle under his groin screamed as he vomited over the side of the wall.
“See this, Willis? You only listen when you want to,” Travis held his beer can toward the moon and took a step backward as Willis puked. “Your mama tells you ghosts don’t exist. They went away, didn’t they? You seen um’ your whole kid life. Floating around your room. Hiding in corners. Telling you things. You think it’s normal. Don’t even think to say anything because they’re always there. Then one day you ask your mama about them, she says they don’t exist. You believe her. They go away. Suddenly they’re headlights from passing cars. Shadows in lightning flashes. Piles of dirty clothes.”
With his head hung over the wall, Willis swiped his arm in vain toward Hartwig. Travis danced a step backward. Why didn’t that skinny nothing of a guy ever get sick? Willis wiped his mouth in his sleeve. His mouth was full of rancid sour paste, but the ache in his head and stomach were subsiding. Hartwig took two steps forward and crouched next to him.
“But they were ghosts. Weren’t they, Will? They were ghosts. I’d bet my left nut on that. Pa changed the whole world so he could survive an ambush. Walked straight through crossfire from two machine gun nests. Don’t mean nothin’. It’s what things mean that counts. You following me, Will, you sick puppy? I’m onto something here. When I asked my Papa how come none of those bullets hit him--that wall of flaming metal--how did he walk though it without even one bullet grazing him? He said, ‘I became a ghost.’ You follow? I think I get it. Christ, I think I get it.”
“You must really like talking to yourself,” Willis said, rolling onto his back. Travis held his beer can over Willis’s face and turned it over. A few drops landed on his forehead. “I can’t deal with this. How come we never get any girls?” Willis said.
Travis crushed the can and launched it toward the overflowing dumpster. It missed, clattering on the hard pavement below.
“You gotta keep asking that?” Travis said.
* * *
And then there was Donnelle. Donnelle froze time with her movement. She integrated to his life as if she had emerged from the pattern of the wallpaper in his bedroom. From the moment he met her in his Lit class it was as if she’d always been there and there was nothing before. Donnelle was a music major. Willis, communications. She didn’t understand why someone needed a college degree to communicate. He couldn’t understand music the pop stations didn’t play.
“Ellington’s dead,” Willis once said to her, as usual not understanding a point of logic she’d made.
“Not when I play him,” she said, curtly. She tucked the yellow exercise book firmly beneath her arm. “He’s ‘Mood Indigo’. He’s been ‘Mood Indigo’ since he wrote it. The great ones are all immortals. They became the music.”
Willis sat on the piano bench next to her as she turned practice room 124 to the site of resurrection. As Lazarus walked, so did Mozart, Gershwin, and Jelly Roll Morton. Donnelle’s hands scrambled across the keys like incensed tarantulas forming patterns in the ether he could sooner follow than divide the Gordian knot with a disposable razor.
“How do you do that?” he asked. Jealousy tainted the awe she extinguished with a kiss.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You must know. Come on. You’re doing it, aren’t you?” He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed away at her embrace. She examined his face making him feel as if she were seeing something he’d forgotten to wipe clean after supper.
“How do you write your name?”
“What?” he said, incredulous.
“How do you speak, or breathe, or pee? How do you do those things? Do you know? No. You don’t. You just do them. I just play. Can you understand that? Or are you really as dumb as you look right now?” She knocked her knuckles on the top of his head.
He sighed. Donnelle turned away from him and created Bach so thick Willis thought he could see the old German’s white hair floating in the corner of the room.
“I become the music,” Donnelle said, one evening when he pressured her for the answer. They lay in bed in his apartment contemplating their lives after the love they’d just made. It was as if the world had ended and begun again in his bedroom. The closer he got to Donnelle, the less he seemed to know. He wondered if she’d ever be able to satisfy his hunger to know her.
“When I play, I don’t think. I just am. I’m possessed by the spirit of the composer. That’s what music is. It’s the soul of the composer. It isn’t a reflection or a creation. It’s immortality. Any time the music is played is as good as the first time. Music knows no time boundaries. It doesn’t sour. Each time someone touches a note on the keyboard, a soul is born. We are music, Willis Miller. Even your name is music. Willis Miller. Say it.”
“Willis Miller,” he said, feeling a thread of purple self-consciousness wind its way from his head to his stomach.
“See, it’s like a poem. Every time you say the name, there you are. We’re patterns. Patterns of light. Sound. Touch.”
The words danced in his mind, tickling him until he couldn’t stand the way they ignited his nerves. She was beautiful. She was in touch with a knowledge he couldn’t begin to comprehend.
“Really?” she said, snorting. “This is a hell of a place to ask a woman to marry you.”
She picked up her pillow and beat him with it.
“No. Not here. If it’s here, then, no.”
“Wait!” He buried his head in his arms.
“It has to be somewhere. . .somewhere real. . .somewhere romantic. . .at Gertrude’s. It has to be over champagne. You have to wear a tux.” She accentuated ever word with a blow. Feathers and dust filled the air around him.
“But I don’t have a tux.”
He rented one.
Willis proposed over a bottle of Dom Perignon highlighting a sumptuous Continental meal that cost him nearly a week’s pay. The food went untouched on her plate as he opened the small box and set it before her.
“Will you marry me now?”
She made him kneel while he asked again. They sipped champagne from glasses held in arms intertwined. Then she looked into his eyes and kissed him.
There was a grand piano in the corner of the restaurant’s dining room. It seemed to glow in the muted light reflected from its black lacquer finish. She sat before the brilliant teeth that formed its keys, her small sienna hands resting on their surface. From her touch came sounds he knew Paris heard when he saw Helen. The music wrapped him in a gaseous embrace, filtered in through every pore in his skin, and tore his soul from where it had been embedded in his bone and sinew at his conception. He felt her caress, her kiss, the warmth from the fire that bore her life.
It was her answer. She never said the word. The restaurant immersed itself in silence as if it had just slipped below the ocean’s tormented surface, the dining room on a desperate ship.
“How did you do that?” He struggled, unable to summon more than a whisper to his lips when she was finished.
She raised a finger, one from which the essence of her being had tempted his spirit from his flesh, and touched it to his lips.
“It’s yours now,” she said. “It’s me.”
His senses intensified. All that was blue around him solidified to azure. Green was a mountainside teeming with movement of new life. Silence was velvet. Warmth love. Snow muted harmony. Music was God’s mercy. In his mind a lock flicked shut. Time froze and remained thus through the wedding, the honeymoon, and two years of time only other people could feel. Willis slid like a bearing in greased grooves. Place to place. Voice to voice. Touch to touch. Life was music. Music was love. Love was meaning, and she was Donnelle, the motive force of his being.
The day the lock opened an image seared into his mind leaving a pitted lesion of bubbling flesh smoking deep inside him. Everything he was, was kneeling on the floor. She leaned against the wall, crouching below the bedroom window as if hiding from something outside.
“Donnelle?” He puzzled for a moment, standing in nothing but his jockey shorts, his mouth full of toothpaste foam, the toothbrush wedged between his teeth and cheek, he squinted. What was he seeing?
Donnelle ran her trembling fingertips against the wall as if she were examining the paint.
“Is there something wrong honey?” He quickly tossed the toothbrush into the bathroom sink, spat, and walked toward her as he wiped his mouth in a damp towel. “Honey?”
Her fingers ran over the wall’s surface in discontinuous jumps. It was as if she were somehow imprisoned by the single plane of plasterboard--as if she were trying to get past it to the outdoors beyond. As he drew closer, Willis could hear her whimpering.
“What’s the matter, honey?” He said it louder. Then, as he drew near he knelt next to her and said it softly, touching her shoulder.
She pulled away from him as if the contact hurt her. Her head snapped robotically--first upward, then toward him, her eyes locking red and glassy onto the hinge of his soul. Willis swallowed the gasp that crawled up his throat.
“Donnelle. . .” the word left him unconsciously. The woman he saw couldn’t be her. “Honey.”
“There are ghosts in this wall,” she said, her voice trembling.
Willis put his hand on her shoulder--first tentatively, then firmly when she stopped resisting him. He slid his arm around her.
“There are ghosts in this wall, Willis. I can feel them.”
“Let’s go lie down. . .”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Yes I do. Let’s go over. . .”
“Willis, I’m going to say this to you once, then I’m done,” she said. She turned away from him and touched the wall with her fingertips. “Feel here,” she commanded.
He didn’t know what else to do. He pressed his fingers to the wall above hers, drawing away as if from a flame when he felt the fluttering. A squirrel. He knew it had to be a squirrel behind the wall.
“Honey, it’s probably a. . .”
“Where does life come from? Did you ever wonder about that? I did all the time and now there’s life in me. Life in my womb. Life made from nothing. Made from love. From music. Did you ever wonder how it gets here--life?”
Willis swallowed. His heart pounded in his chest. What could he do? An ambulance. He’d call 911. But what would they do? She wasn’t hurt physically. What could he say to them? “Help. My wife has gone crazy?” The panic solidified in his chest. His throat tightened. He felt water come to his eyes.
“Honey. . .don’t.”
“It’s the music. It’s the reason to live. These ghosts, they’re in here. They came to me and told me I had a baby in my womb. They put the life in there--I saw them do it.”
Thus Donnelle removed the bliss she’d implanted years before. Where there was once immortal joy was now a cycle in Willis’s mind. It was a phrase repeated over and over. Words spoken by an albino on a wall back at a university in Pennsylvania. They told of a man who once walked through the thick lightning of machine gun fire protected by nothing more tangible than the magic phrase.
“It doesn’t mean anything. It don’t mean nothin’.”
Willis pulled a curtain across his life and everything moved from the realm of high-definition reality to low quality animation.
Along the way there was a man in a white lab coat who said something to Willis that resembled, “Temporal lobe epilepsy. It’s classic. Religious allegory. Seizures. Somehow triggered by the pregnancy.”
There was an ultrasound technician who thought it might be a son for them. A name flashed through Willis’s head while he considered a future that could never be.
“I’ve always liked the name Brandon,” he said, cradling Donnelle’s limp hand as the respirator timed her breaths.
“It’s a tumor.” Another white coated know-it-all. Who were they to define his life? They made up things and the things happened.
“It’s malignant.” Those were the words that made Brandon irrelevant. “Size of a baseball. . .an orange. Size of my fist. It’s amazing she’s gotten this far without any symptoms. Inoperable. We’d kill her trying.”
“It don’t mean nothin’,” Willis said to the cartoon that had become his life. “It don’t mean nothin’.”
“You have to eat, son.” His cartoon mother.
“Sing for me.” Who said that? Not Donnelle, she’s. . .
“I’ll do anything. Just don’t leave me,” his voice rattled against his throat. “Dear God, take me instead. Don’t leave me here.”
"...in the song.”
“But I don’t know how. I don’t know how, Donnelle.”
“Ashes to ashes. . .” something a priest said before the straps holding the casket groaned when they lowered the metal box into the ground.
“You have to. . .” somebody reminding him of some life sustaining task he’d forgotten to perform, so silly in the world of animation. Pow. Bang.
“It don’t mean nothin’.” Nothing hurts. No fatigue. Boundless energy. “But nothing means anything anymore, Donnelle.” Nothing MEANS anymore.
Nothing means anything.
A sound from outside.
“Play for me,” Donnelle’s voice. Where is she?
“I don’t know how.”
“Then learn. Then learn it for her.” Someone different.
“It don’t mean nothin’. Can’t touch me. Walk through fire.”
“But it does, Will. It means everything. That’s why we’re here. She didn’t want you to go that route.”
Willis stood and turned, his knees burning from having knelt in the church for the greater part of the day.
The albino hooked the handle of a dark cane over his left forearm and offered Willis his right hand. Willis took it, still dazed.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“About two weeks, buddy. Where have you been is the question. You have a lot of good people worried. We’re all worried about you. You gonna come home or are you gonna wander around forever?”
Willis examined himself. He couldn’t remember having dressed that morning. Images of Donnelle’s death and funeral filtered through his head. He rubbed his forehead and winced. The world spun then stabilized. He was still in the chapel. He shook his head. Things resolved from thick dabs of color to pencil lined clarity.
“I’m a mess,” he said.
“I’ll say.” Travis draped a bony arm over Willis’s shoulder. “Come walk with me.”
Willis took a step, then stopped.
“Wait a minute. Where. . .”
“Your mama called,” Travis answered the incomplete question. “I’m the only friend of yours she remembers. How she tracked me down I’ll never know. Good woman, there. Told me all about it. . .all about you and Donnelle these past few weeks.”
Willis swallowed a lump in his throat and embraced his friend. Travis returned the hug.
One of them said, “It’s been too long.” It didn’t matter which.
They caught up on missing time, filling each other in on the tactical details of the paths their lives had taken. The information seemed wilted, meaningless. Willis answered Travis’s inquiries with two or three word sentences. It was difficult to construct anything more complex. Initially, the conversation didn’t seem to matter. Later, Willis felt as if Travis had breathed the smoke of his spirit and read its contents like an open book.
“Things don’t seem to mean much without her,” Travis said pushing a cup of hot coffee over stains in the tabletop. He added “. . .I’d imagine.” Conversations fluttered around them, sounds resolving in and out of focus, snatches of human interaction in the busy restaurant. The cogs of civilization meshed and drove despite them.
“Ridiculous,” Willis said. His eyes glazed, unfocused in senseless relaxation. No need to see. “Why was she even here? Why--if all she was going to do was to die on me? Why be born?”
Travis shook his head slightly.
“Don’t mean nothin’.” Willis felt himself fading into the bleak cotton nothingness beneath his own skin. Suddenly there was pressure on his wrist. Travis’s hand. The albino leaned toward him. His shoulders formed a launching platform for his head, for the face that sucked him to the surface of himself.
“Don’t you go sayin’ that. Those are powerful words. Powerful incantations. Don’t go there.”
“Your daddy. . .” Willis began. Travis stopped him.
“I know the story. I told it a million times.” Travis tightened his grip on his wrist. “You know why it works? I never told you.”
“No,” Willis said, avoiding Travis’s laser stare by boring his own gaze into the table top.
“We all go wandering around this life wondering what it’s all about. People go whining from place to place, day in and day out, ‘What’s it all about? What’s the frigging meaning of life?’ Hell, Willis, that IS why we’re here. To give meaning to the whole goddamned mess. All the blood. The war. My pa survived the ambush because he chose to make the whole thing meaningless. He made it mean nothing long enough to get out of the war. Problem was, once it didn’t mean anything anymore--I mean--once he stopped believing in living--he couldn’t get it back. His life never started meaning anything again. He was as good as dead to us. That’s what I never told you, Will. My pa, he might as well of died in that jungle for all the good he was to himself and us afterward. That’s not what Donnelle wanted for you. She didn’t want you to lose the meaning.”
“What meaning?” Willis blurted. A tiny spark of heat formed in his chest and solidified to deep red anger. “She’s dead.”
“The meaning’s in the patterns, my friend,” Willis said, leaning back in the booth. “The stuff you did. The sounds. The action. You told me you used to see ghosts when you were a kid. You saw them until someone explained they were car headlights and shadows. Then you only saw the damned headlights criss-crossing your room at night. So what were they really? Were they always headlights? Didn’t they talk to you? Do car headlight beams talk?”
Willis slid out of the booth. He fished a bill from his pocket and tossed it onto the table.
“I’m sorry. It’s not like the old days, buddy. I can’t talk about this now.” He pushed past the waitresses and aimed for the door. He hesitated for a moment when the cool street air hit him. It was enough time for Travis to catch up to him, weaving from side to side as he hobbled on his cane. He put his hand on Willis’s shoulder speaking between heavy breaths.
“Listen for her then,” Travis said. “Life’s in the patterns. It’s giving meaning to the patterns. We love the people who give meaning to our being here. But every now and then we have to do it ourselves. If you listen, you’ll hear. I promise.”
“She’s frigging dead,” Willis said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Travis leaned on his cane and smiled. “It doesn’t last forever, bud. That’s what makes it beautiful.”
“And that’s a load of bullshit,” Willis said, trying to keep his anger from detonation. He shook his shoulder, freeing himself from Travis’s hand. Without looking back he headed away. Anywhere. Nowhere. Everywhere was the same.
He walked until he found himself kneeling at the baseboard in his bedroom. He caressed the wall Donnelle had touched. Under the window. It was where she’d knelt when she knew what was coming. Light was the train bound to crush her.
Ghosts in the wall.
The vibrations ran from the painted plasterboard, through his fingertips, into his arms, thumped against his heart. What the hell was it? Electrical failure? Water hammer in the pipes? Trapped animal? Should be dead by now if it was an animal. He pressed he ear against the wall and heard only his heartbeat. His blood pulsed in time with the rhythm of the wall. It was his heartbeat. All the time she thought it was ghosts--the vibration was her heartbeat.
A chord sounded from the piano in the living room and cut through him. He shot to his feet, electrified. Trembling, he peered through the open bedroom doorway toward the living room. He couldn’t see the piano. Somewhere in the house a drop of water fell and concussed against tile, echoing in the emptiness. The sound pricked his nerves.
“Donnelle?” he said, his voice wavering in the still air. “Donnelle?” Half yearning, half petrified at the thought of seeing her afterimage glowing ghostly before him he stepped toward the living room. “Donnelle?” It was empty. The piano lay mute, its fallboard open exposing the keys like dragon’s teeth.
Another drop of water fell into a growing puddle sounding a piano note. What was her song? His song. At Gertrude’s. What had she said?
She was the song.
Don’t mean nothing.
I am the sound. It’s yours.
Water dripped again. From the kitchen a hail of drops descended from a leaky faucet and merged with puddlets of varying sizes sounding harmony in the vacant atmosphere. The song. Her song.
She was in the pitter-patter. There was no one to tell him a loosened valve, a worn washer was the cause. He wouldn’t have listened anyway.
“It means everything to me,” he whispered, sitting on the piano bench. The pattern of white and black keys was an enigma to him. “You made me mean something to me,” he said to the falling water. He closed his eyes and felt the slide of her hands against his.
“Everything to me.” He pressed against the keys and heard the sound. She breathed against his ears. Her lips brushed against him as she floated, caressing him with the warmth of her gaseous being. The sound brought her to him.
“Play,” he heard her say, “for me.”
He didn’t know how the piano worked but he vowed to learn. She would live in the sound, returning on the rising crest of the notes every time he sat to play and bring meaning to the remainder of his life.
The next old story is A first time for everything
The last old story is Endurance: a radio tale
The first old story is The cheshire woman