I think it was Arizona. Bonnie wanted to visit some family in Tucson. I just wanted to get some decent pictures of the desert for a coffee table book I was working on. We pulled up at about half past eight in the morning, strung out and sleep deprived and lit up like Christmas trees from all the caffeine we’d imbibed on the road. Bonnie got out to use the restroom and I twitched my way over to a gas pump and started pouring money and dead dinosaurs into the tank. That’s when I spotted it.
Picture a bus barreling through the desert at eighty miles per hour, flanked by dust storms and bandits on bikes and decorated by some guy playing a flamethrower guitar with a switchblade. Now strip out everything cool about that image and dump diesel in your mouth. That’s what it was like seeing the future president’s campaign bus. It pulled up for gas, got gaggled by reporters, and Bonnie flipped it off on her way out the station. She looked at me and we shared a tired smile—we both felt the Bern back then. She got into the truck and I finished pumping gas and here’s where the ghost comes in.
I looked back to the bus and my eyes were pulled down onto a weird coin on top of the pump. It was a quarter someone had painted yellow. There was a submarine etched in tiny, vivid detail over whatever state quarter was supposed to be on the back. I shouldn’t have picked it up, honestly, but I’d been driving all night and my condition was flaring up a little and I didn’t wanna risk pills then when I had to keep my eyes on the road and I just got carried away and so fucking sue me. I pocketed the stupid quarter right off the pump. I don’t think I bragged about it but I don’t really remember. I do remember what Bonnie and I said to each other as we pulled out and left the bus behind.
‘God, I hate that guy.’
‘Bernie or bust,’ Bonnie agreed.
Then the ghost appeared for the first time and I almost ran us off the road. He just sat in the back, shimmering green in the early morning light with this big grasshopper grin on his noncorporeal face. He put his hand through my shoulder and steadied the wheel and then whispered in my ear, and in Bonnie’s ear: ‘Trump’s gonna win, guys. Let’s go get some catnip. It'll take the edge off.’
‘Oh fuck off,’ I told him. Bonnie shooed the ghost into the back seat with the emergency crucifix in the dashboard. We rode in not-quite silence for a couple hundred feet, racing a crazy weed down a long, low hillside.
Then I heard her say, ‘I mean, better him than Hillary.’
‘Droski, bro,’ said the ghost. ‘Domestic.’
‘What the fuck are you talking about,’ I mumbled.
Donald Trump is the president and there’s a ghost getting dank as a wine cellar in my closet. I wouldn’t mind so much except my wife keeps using it to dispose of all my weed. This is my life right now. I’m in between when we met the ghost and when we divorced, somewhere way before I got comfortable with it. I need the weed though. I have to self-medicate ever since my insurance got cancelled. ‘Paraquo Disorder’s not in the DSM, Jay. Sorry,’ they told me, then ditched the state before I could pursue litigation. Bonnie doesn’t think it’s a big deal.
‘Just ghost the joints and get a better job,’ she tells me.
‘I would but you keep giving them to a dead colonial in the closet.’
‘He has a name!’ she tells me.
‘Hey, ghost!’ I shout. His head pops out the ceiling, instantly stinking up the room. He smells like wet gunpowder and sloppy seconds on a cracked water bong.
‘What even is your name?’ I ask him.
‘Kush,’ the ghost says, translucent as purple haze.
‘Really?’ we both ask.
‘Nah.’ He disappears.
‘I want a divorce,’ Bonnie and I tell each other.
I took my pictures and Bonnie visited her dad and the ghost rode back with us and I never got his name. A couple months from the day he started wafting after us, the floor fell out. Trump got elected too, but the floor literally fell out in our living room. I was on the couch when it happened—one minute there’s a good rerun of Jerry Springer on TV, the next the ghost bops his head up through the floor and asks if I got any jungle juice, then I’m standing up to find the spray bottle full of holy water and then bam.
Hash me right down to the floor with a gash up one leg and a lead pipe through my liver.
I come to in a hospital bed later that night. Bonnie’s kipped out in the recliner beside me, we’ve got a curtain for privacy, it’s Election Night and I open my eyes in time to see the results show up for North Carolina a couple time zones over. The firewall’s collapsing and all I can say is, ‘Shit,’ and hold out hope for the other swing states. Michigan can save us. It’s not setting in yet.
‘Red dirt all over the Rainy Day Woman,’ the ghost tells me, ‘It’s a blue crush tonight.’
I finally look at him. I’d seen him plenty of times before but I never really studied him. My ghost looks like this lit-ass Colonial dude with a powder wig and macaroni curls. He could pass for a reject from Washington’s army with a flute in his belt, but that’s actually just a weird bong.
‘Who are you?’ I ask him. ‘Why do you keep following me around?’
‘You picked up the Acapulco Gold, Jay B.C. Budd. I was just minding my wheat in the dody djamba dizz desert,’ he tells me, ‘You’ve got Paraquo and we’re ace now, dry high dizz ditch weed. Bash that in your pipe and smoke it.’
Two months later I got the actual story. Again, but clearer this time. Not the one about Russia and white supremacists; I’d been trying to wrap my head around that from the moment Michigan fell through.
What I’m calling the actual story had nothing to do with the twenty-five-eight flood of social media wearing me down, and it barely had anything to do with the pain that was eating my bones from the inside out. I was sitting in our hotel room in an abdominal cast when the ghost popped out of the TV, his eyes full of old-timey static: black, white, and purple all over. The screen fizzled behind him and for a moment I was glad. No inauguration.
Bonnie was already leaving me, I think. I just haven’t got to that part yet. Instead of accepting it I threw myself into dystopia politics and my ghost looked at me, through me, and said, ‘No quarter asked and none given, but you took mine and now you’re gonna pay.’
‘How?’ I asked.
‘Gummy bears and giggle smoke,’ he told me. ‘Let’s get started.’
I’m sitting on a stool in the kitchen a few days later when they tell me that Paraquo doesn’t count. ‘Yes,’ says the fuzzy lady on the phone, ‘Paraquo exists, and it’s legally a thing, but, Mr. Toklas, I’m sorry. Your insurance policy just doesn’t cover it.’
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘It’s legally defined as a mental condition—’
‘Right. My policy covers mental health.’
‘—but it’s not in the DSM5. Your mental coverage only extends to things in DSM5 or earlier editions,’ she says.
I got up then, and I looked around and didn’t see the ghost or Bonnie anywhere. I shambled over to the living room, every step made harder by the cast, and I found her on the refurbished couch on the rebuilt floor eating gummy bears while the ghost hung off the ceiling fan. There, on the TV, our new president was giving a not-state of the not-union. Half the people in the room were clapping. Half should’ve known better.
‘Bambalachacha,’ says the ghost. ‘Shit’s about to get hemp, y’all.’
I’m taking my first hit off a rolled joint on an unofficial holiday for students everywhere, April 20th, and Bonnie comes in to see the ghost orbiting my head like Pluto. For the first time in weeks, I’m not hurting so bad.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ she snaps. I look over and her blue jeans, man. They’ve never looked bluer. Like blue cheese and blue sage and blueberries all rolled into one. I bet they even taste blue. I kinda want to try eating them. I haven’t eaten her in a while. I don’t feel good about myself anymore and she hasn’t needed it from me anyway.
‘Medicating,’ I tell her for the first time. I don’t tell her how expensive the legal painkillers are. I don’t tell her how Obamacare’s being allowed to fail. She doesn’t tell me how she’s been spending time with the contractor who fixed our floor. We don’t tell each other a lot of things now. ‘Want a hit?’ I ask.
‘That’s disgusting,’ my wife tells me.
The ghost giggles in my ear. ‘Alfombra,’ he says. ‘Acapulco Red up in here.’
The United States Drug Enforcement Agency has cataloged at least four hundred different names for cannabis. The ghost whittles through every single one of them at a rate of one to five a day, until finally he says his name is Kush and my wife and I admit we want to get divorced. He’s gone in the one moment when I can’t be, a chronic pain in the cabbage that isn’t there when it matters most. When I need the excuse to be dishonest with myself and with Bonnie.
When we can’t laugh it off as a joke.
‘I can’t put up with the hooch anymore,’ she tells me. ‘It makes everything smell like a green skunk’s been through here.’
I tell her, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ and she sniffles a bit and the president is on TV doing something stupid and I can’t get insurance anymore and I’m one surprise drug test out from losing the job that keeps a roof over our heads. Over my head, soon.
‘You’ve been staying with your Aunt Mary a lot lately,’ I say.
It’s quiet as a Chernobyl sunset until she says, ‘His name’s Jared.’
Bonnie leaves me before I can ask which one she’s talking about.
‘Hey, man, hey,’ the ghost says, ‘Bobo Bush Boo Boom Budda mine, don’t be so sad. Smoke up some little green friends and be glad. Spouses come and go but the Righteous Bush is forever.’
‘If I flushed that quarter down the toilet, would it get rid of you?’ I ask between pulls on a churo cigar. My living room smells like cheese and fire. Black gold cola flowers in my lungs, a fluffy garden of smoke blitzing out of each nostril.
‘Grenuda,’ he says with a shrug, as if that explains everything.
Cartoon Network on the TV. No more Mr. President, no more Bonnie. Just me and this stoner ghost and a hankering for Tex-Mex and Count Chocula.
‘Why you wanna get rid of me so bad, anyway?’ he asks, as if he’s oblivious to his own oaths of revenge for moving that stupid fucking yellow quarter. ‘Do you like being alone?’
‘On the bright side,’ I tell myself not too long after he’s gone and I’ve practiced and I’m sitting disconnected on a hillside under the Northern Lights. ‘I can ghost my own joints now.’
‘Who are you, really,’ I say as I hold his quarter over the toilet. I am beyond merely asking questions at this point. Foreclosure looms and the housing market’s going to shit and everything hurts deeper than bone marrow now.
‘You’re not joking,’ he says, wafting about the bathroom, his face distorting light through the bubble-thin skein of whatever we call reality. My stuff’s going to be in the front yard by next week. I don’t know how long I’ll be around after that but Bonnie hasn’t returned my texts in months. She ghosted me right after we put ink to paper on the divorce contract.
I watch the ghost drift silently. He is afraid for the first time.
‘Donald Trump is the president and I just lost my job,’ I tell him.
‘What if I blow a little smoke in your ear and tell you this’ll all be over soon?’ he asks me the day before, when I get the feeling that tomorrow’s gonna come with a pink slip.
‘I won’t believe you,’ I tell him.
‘I don’t fucking believe you,’ I tell him about a minute before I drop the quarter and hit the flusher.
A year and a half of putting up with this poltergeist loafing around my house and all it takes is ten seconds of running water in a porcelain bowl. I chase him down with a couple pots full of boiling water and then flush him a few grains of crying weed, just to show there’s no hard feelings.
‘Paraquo Disorder is something of a controversial topic,’ I’m listening to some froo-froo PhD explaining on a podcast. It’s before the divorce but after the election, after the quarter but before the casts come off. I’m trying to build up the nerve to call my insurance about the ghost. I don’t think they cover exorcisms but they might cover hauntings.
‘The Supreme Court recently defined it as a health issue, but, really, the realm of punditry and politics hasn’t yet ceded it to the doctors.’
‘Right, right, and just to refresh—what’s the origin of the name? Could you just define it for us a little?’ the interviewer asks.
‘Well, it stands for Paranormal Status Quo Disorder. And to be fair, taken historically, nothing about the past year or two has been what we would consider normal. Historically.’
‘But you think it is normal?’ the interviewer asks.
‘I don’t think it should be, but it is. We saw a huge uptick with it this past election cycle and, at least for the foreseeable future, I think it’s here to stay.’
‘Everyone’s got ghosts now,’ the interviewer concludes.
‘Fuckin’ gluten-free animal cookies,’ the ghost says behind me, his mouth full of half-chewed graham zebras.
‘Everyone always had ghosts,’ the doctor tells him, ‘We just have to pay attention to them now.’
Indian hay tickles my sinuses like a burly-fingered linebacker. I lean back on some big pillows, cross my legs and feel the dew wetting my scars. The sky turns jolly green and Canadian black and I ghost some joy smoke and think, y’know, maybe I can get through this.
About the Author: Ben Blythe is a first-year MFA candidate at George Mason. He’s worked as a political researcher and as both a co-managing editor and fiction editor of Waccamaw, Coastal Carolina University's graduate-run literary magazine. His work has appeared in Archarios, International Policy Digest, and Inverse Genius. He credits MuckRock's FOIA journalism for inspiring this story. Find him on Twitter at @FlailingWriter.