This Is a Ghost Story12 min read
These are not all the same man, but they could be.
On a muted television:
He smirks like he’s found the way out of an impossible maze, like he hasn’t a care in the world. Except that if you look in his eyes, you’ll see the breadcrumbs leading right back to the labyrinth. You’ll feel a memory of unrelenting stone walls and know that it wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling, being held. Suffocating.
Turn up the sound too late for the question.
He runs cigarette–stained fingers over the stubble on his chin and leans on the arm of the leather couch. He crosses his legs, skinny jeans worn and ragged. He’s still wearing old Chucks with the tread half–gone, even though he could buy a thousand new pairs. He doesn’t wear the Mister Rogers sweaters anymore. Sometimes he still wears dresses for the fuck of it, but today he’s wearing a white t–shirt that looks like his kid doodled on it with four colors of Sharpie. A bloodied stick man holds a shotgun.
He licks his lips, and he doesn’t look at the camera, or at the floor, or at the interviewer’s face. He’s focused on the space between, like it’s a gulf or a fence or a wall. He says, “Yeah, it was pretty rough for a while, you know. I kept saying things were getting better, but really they weren’t. Eventually it was clean up or die, so…
“I started thinking about doing music for other shit, not because I needed the money, but to fuck with people. Then I thought maybe I’d do a Disney soundtrack, but it’d probably end up like in Fight Club where the guy’s splicing porn into kid movies.”
Then the interviewer asks about his kid, and he grins. “She’s great,” he says. “I know that’s not very ‘punk rock’ of me, but whatever.”
What are you looking at? This interview never fucking happened.
The day the war starts, he’s in a Washington college town at a demonstration that begins with a march. People yell about what democracy looks like and wave cardboard signs inscribed with timeworn slogans. Several members of the university marching band accompany the chant with arrhythmic banging on purloined snares.
The decision to block the freeway isn’t made by any one person. The demonstration’s hive–mind — maybe twenty people — walks up the on–ramp past dead grass, three lonely fir trees, cut–back Himalayan blackberries, bent guard rails and crumbling basalt. The bicycle cops follow, bemused, hoping they won’t have to make any arrests.
The cars drive past at seventy miles an hour, and at first everybody clusters on the shoulder. The cars slow. The snare beats its awkward tap tap tap. The freeway smells like exhaust and oil and hot metal. The protest pushes out into the freeway and the cars slow further, cross to the left lane. The passengers stare out their windows.
The drivers in both lanes stop, glaring over their dashboards at the ragged band of protesters, at the police, and back to the protesters.An older man with a limp, long gray hair, and a blue Mariners hat sits down on the dirty asphalt, right on the dashed line between the two lanes.
A trucker gets out of his semi and storms up to the front of the traffic jam, to figure out why the hell this stretch of freeway is stopped. The trucker doesn’t give a damn about what the protesters want, about what demands or concerns they might have, about why they decided to hold interstate commerce hostage. And why the fuck would he? He’s paid by the load.
A few intrepid anarchists cross the grassy center meridian and begin an incursion on the northbound lanes. They are successful for a moment, and then come back when they see that whatever is going on, it’s going to involve an angry trucker and a bike cop, both of whom talk at the crowd like frustrated parents reasoning with a three year old.
The trucker says, “I’ve got to get back on the road before I run out of diesel.”
A teenager mutters, “Oh, like you can’t turn the engine off,” under her breath. Her hoodie is safety–pinned all over with the remnants of t–shirts for punk bands who OD’d before she was born.
The cop suggests, firmly, that the protesters have made their point and need to clear off now.
But the old man in the blue hat lies back on the asphalt, spread–eagle like if he were making a snow angel. Eyes the color of a cloudy sky stare up at the partial sunbreaks overhead. “I was in Vietnam,” he says, and he starts to cry.
Besides that, the only sound is idling engines.
And our hero stands there awkwardly, a foot from the freeway shoulder, embarrassed. Then the others are talking the veteran off the road, and our hero chimes in, says, “Yes, yes, we’ve made our point.” We’ve gone far enough.
Later, he’ll wish he lay down on that rubber–baked road. That he’d stretched out, palms to the sky. But he’s too timid. Too afraid of getting arrested.
So later, or earlier,
There is a stage and a microphone, and a video camera, and
￼￼there is that crowdswell noise.
They move for him. They scream for him, and there’s a sickness in his stomach because this
he holds this power in the palms of his hands, like water fresh from a mountain stream, and maybe it will cool the burning bile taste in his mouth
just give him giardia.
See the houses all in slumping rows, with their high–water marks and muddy yards. With their paint peeling off in short chipping flakes or long curled strands depending on age, depending on brand, depending on the time of year. Moss and mold find purchase in the topmost layer of river silt, in crumbling concrete, in cedar shakes and aluminum siding.
See the pilings listing in the river, split from age and the unrelenting damp, sucked at by the current and the tides. These once held up docks and lumber mills and paper mills and canneries and brothels, maybe a tavern or two, and now they’re nothing but stands for shit–a–quarts, gulls and the occasional osprey.
See the old buildings up for lease, the family businesses closed. The new stores opening, flourishing, slowing, folding, spreading out in concentric rings from the dead center of what used to be a logging town, until you hit the outermost circle of newly built box stores sitting fat on the land like new kings of the floodplain.
See the tree farms like peachfuzz over naked rolling hills. The single species plots tumble in windstorms, and what’s left is turned into toilet paper.
He thinks about suicide so often that it becomes another autonomous system, like breathing. He can imagine concrete rushing up to crush his bones as if the street is a giant hand. Every time he drinks, he wonders if he has the guts to take a handful of pills and let fuzziness go to unconsciousness and then death. Or just keep drinking, so fast that not even the urge to vomit up poison can save him.
Sometimes, he puts his hand between his teeth, pointing his index and middle fingers at the roof of his mouth. His fingers taste faintly salty, but he imagines them cold and steel, imagines running his tongue across the oiled barrel, holding his finger on the trigger and squeezing.
He doesn’t even own a gun.
It is his pornography. It is a release but afterward he feels no better, drowning in a rush of the wrong neurotransmitters. He used to cry when he was younger, but now he just lies on his bed with his hands behind his head and stares at the popcorn ceiling.
He says, “I’m warped. Totally fucked.”
He can’t get a handle on this city, on these millions of people a single paper–thin apartment wall away. He felt too sophisticated for his hick hometown, but he misses it sometimes, feels lost. Admits to himself that maybe some part of him belongs there with the shitty janitorial job he wanted to believe he was too good for.
Oh, God, he doesn’t really want to die.
He has started to think of suicide as the ultimate breakdown of evolutionary tendencies. This, despite the fact that bad biology analogies make him cringe.
So he talks about it.
They say to him: You just don’t understand how good you’ve got it. That’s why you’re depressed.
No, he does understand. He has everything going for him and he’s still miserable. If this isn’t enough to make him happy, then what could possibly be enough?
They say: Go to Africa or Haiti. Go to China. Go see people with real problems and help them. That’ll fix you.
As if people in the impoverished nations (continents) of the world exist to make him feel better. As if they are not human in their own right, but an exercise in self–aggrandizing pity.
They say: ‘tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
And so he stops.
But he doesn’t stop dreaming ways to die.
I remember this one time when the slough turned black.
Yeah, “the slough” as if it was the only one. The others cut through the island like old–time roads, clear and broad and tidal like the estuary.
The slough was mud–brown, the filthy bile duct of this island shaped like a liver, situated between the cow field and the sheep field. It wasn’t good for anything but trying to catch river carp with a kid’s fishing pole, little bits of corn stuck on the end of the hook. Rat–like nutria invaded the banks, building their dens and creating sinkholes that could snap a floundering heifer’s leg.
But the invasive milfoil grew too thick and so the state came in with herbicide just like they had on the other sloughs. Everywhere else, the plants died and the water ran clear.
But in this slough, this useless little ditch, the water turned black and sluggish like tar. For weeks, the only ripples were from wind tunnel river breezes, and everyone kept their livestock and children away.
But we are drawn like moths, each to our own personal flame. Did I let you to push me to the hottest point, where my self blistered and began to burn? No, I stepped back and I washed my hands of you and pretended that I could stand on both sides of the fence. That I had no part of your leaving.
The last I heard, you were living in a car with some girl. That was years ago. Are you still alive? Are you safe, or am I just talking to another ghost? I am always talking to ghosts…
I don’t know what I’d say if you turned up, except maybe, “Fuck you.” You left. Went looking for those artists who lived too fast, winking out like the fireflies that made me scream in Kansas. Except maybe I’d ask: did you find him?
Did you find your hero, pickled, circling the urinal, puke–choked to a super–star death? You followed him into square bottles and slammed fists and heart and mouth and dick against thick glass to the sound of a tortured guitar having penetrative sex with a pawn–shop amp.
Did you go out in a blaze of self–destructive glory the way you promised, or do you still linger, getting too. fucking. old?
I learned your secrets secondhand. Who am I kidding? You’re still alive, aren’t you? We’re too alike, you and I, drowning in this unlife, afraid to breathe smoke and burn ourselves on re–entry.
and he wants to snap them against the stage, bleed out on the drum set, congeal on the rim of the snare, but how would you choreograph that, huh? not without someone coming wise through their beer and cigarettes and coke or whatever so instead
he makes them sing a song that’ll never make the album
the b–side of his life
You might almost think his bones were hollow. Like a smacked up, screaming, gear–smashing bird. He throws himself at us with that guitar in his hands, giving us amplified feedback, the sound inside our heads.
Look, they’ve got their hands all over him, they are lifting him back to the stage. Look, he is a lonely king in a sold–out room and he is pacing the cage of his skull.
Admit it. You only care he’s dead because he was beautiful. Because he was doomed. Because falling stars leave longer imprints on the retina. Because he was pale and skinny and angry. Because no matter what, it wasn’t your fault he died, was it? You can always blame the money. Or the drugs. Blame rock and roll. Blame. The. Woman. Yes, the woman. Just how fucking hard is it for you to believe that he loved her and she loved him?
No one asked the woman if she wanted a husband or a martyr and no one asked their daughter if she wanted a father or a god.
You broke your vinyl and burned your flannel and got on with it. Did you get what you wanted? You have a shiny new–slightly–used car, just like your parents, and you have a fixer–upper house, just like your parents, and you have a great job, just like your parents, saving for a retirement you’re not sure you can afford anyway, just like your parents.
Are you frightened?
Oh, you have kids! Of course you’ve got kids, and they’re willing to carry around the tracking devices you gave them. And you listen to Bieber with them, and they listen to the Beatles with you. Let’s all share the defanged rebel anthems of yesterday! And the only way they can fight back is by being even more commercial than you are, by spending your money on overpriced faux–punk merchandise with cute pink flowered hand grenades and a bandaged, bleeding Hello Kitty packaged to be edgy.
We’re angry that our parents have sold each other our rebellions, profiting on our ability to apathetically give a shit. Our older brothers and sisters raged this way, and our parents did too, before it was time to settle down and get serious, to pay our war taxes and send our youth to die in the jungle, in the mountains, in the desert.
Someone else started it; it’s not our job to end it, is it? Do you know the taste of bullets?
This is for my older siblings. This is for me. This is for everyone who took their conscience into the back yard and shot it like a rabid dog.
I talk about suicide the way an addict talks about junk. Once upon a time, I had this problem, but I’m fixed now, and functional. It’s over. I don’t even think about it anymore, except for interviews, when I’m answering your questions. Don’t look ashamed, I’m fine.
Fuck. It’s all lies. Can’t you tell that I’m lying through my teeth?
I would die if you could see this gangrenous mind. These festering gray matter sores.
Walk out on the frozen bay. Wipe away the snow. There’s ice down there, black like the northern sea, and you wonder if you stomped, if you took to it with your nails and teeth if you could dig deep enough, dig through, melt through with fire and silver. Cook it down to perfection and submerge into the inky, lightless, brackish depths.
Someone always finds
the bodies. They fall
and wash ashore on
remote islands, ruining
with their polished white
and rotting flesh
and tennis shoes.
His death has musical accompaniment.
This is where he pulls the trigger. Nobody hears the gun go off. If a man kills himself and there is no one watching, does he truly die? For three days as he cools and his wife goes looking, couldn’t he be alive, as legendary as that dead–not–dead cat?
Neglected, the album plays to its logical conclusion. Nobody starts it anew. Nobody flips through the CD collection and puts a new one on.
The stereo whispers white noise to an empty room.
But wait, there's more to read!
when I was fifteen my younger brother slapped me hard in the face to prove to us both that he was the stronger faster meaner