The Rescue Ghost
Silent nights on my stairs.
No calls or letters. No stiff quality cards with their rosy homes and pithy cheer. Not even a dusting of snow to smack my childhood memory. Nothing except this book I bought myself, the glue spine cracked, pages slithered across the floor.
This is the time for quiet visitation.
Iverson sits beside the droopy plants, floats in the doorway. He smuggles himself into the grinning yolk of an egg, swirls in the mashed tea-leaves, the yellowing crease of my daily paper. He catches the winter sun like an icicle, forcing me to turn and pay attention.
In my bath I see him dead, head lolling back over the chair, his mouth pulled into a grotesque rictus caught between a laugh and a scream. Around him the living room, oranges molding on the floor. My footprints pressed clearly into the carpet.
An undigested bit of beef?
Or, even more disturbing, he comes strolling at me as a young man, wearing a brown suit with muted checks, his hair pomaded off to the side. His fine watch ticks away the afternoon, its blunt pointers marking this or that phase in our conversation. He leans into the hallway talking about action, inaction, how I could easily have driven past, pushed him from the important events of that day. Somebody else could've had me, he says, done things differently. Sent me off to somewhere else.
He thinks this comforts me.
Isn't that so, Iverson? I saved you from the street with a gesture, and this is the result. Now I can't get rid of your company, on this day of all days.
And what is today? Why Christmas.
Silly goose come along, share with me, forget the rain outside.
Together we'll wander through a party somewhere, bring a chill to the ham sandwiches, to the trees and baubles, to their crackers with riddles, rhymes, tissue hats. People will dance in the candle light, spin around the glow of hot coal in the grate, and our friendship will strengthen in every fierce chess game, every difficult crossword clue. The folks, sensing our presence, will raise their collars in that exciting silence just before the die roll.
How does that sound?
"God bless you," says Iverson, smiling the cake crumbs off his lip, a toddy sloshing.
"Any stranger would've done the same."
We settle down with them to watch David Niven, to watch them eat tangerines, spitting pips politely. This is how companions work.
But Iverson isn't very cooperative. He shakes his head.
He won't join me and he won't stay where I left him, insisting fate brought us together for a purpose. The police cannot be wrong, he says, smiling, referring to an incident before our meeting, when I had a run-in with the law.
Distracted, driving without purpose, I made a turn as I'd made dozens before, then realized what I was doing as a policemen waved me down.
"No turns before twelve," he said, my car-clock blinking twelve at that very moment. Worthless, divisible time. I suggested he shouldn't be a slave to the law, that he merely uphold its spirit. But he smiled with bored arrogance and wrote the ticket just the same.
He told me to be aware of signs.
To beware of signs.
Had I taken his advice, Iverson, I wouldn't have come down your street again, and then where would we be?
But nobody listens to the police these days.
Wait. Something from the past. Years ago, cycling the boardwalk, the sand filled with daytrippers, striped awnings, the hoot of steam-organ thrill rides, another young policeman waves me down, unsure in front of teasing boys. He writes me a ticket for breaking a by-law, no bicycles between the hours. But he mumbles it's of no importance.
"It don't mean a ting," Iverson says.
He knew and I knew summer trumped the law hands-down; nothing on a day like that ever deserved a fine. "Sentimental fool," offers Iverson. I took the ticket in good grace, and the young policeman shrugged, went back to his post. Then I got on my bicycle, peddled away, throwing the ticket in a trash can.
I peeked behind the scenes, saw the duties and jobs we must perform. Regardless. He gave me a sign, too, only sometimes I don't read so well. Because later there I am, driving under the elms, watching Iverson sprawled among the bulging roots.
I saw you clearly enough. I saw your distress.
But your old body in that situation was too concrete to be real. Was that me cavorting on the sidewalk? I kept driving because I knew that heap, knew every one of its implications. Right then I just wanted to be home, getting on with things, surrounded by familiars, the chairs and cups and biscuits.
"Accidents confuse," suggests Iverson.
But it doesn't change the fact I stopped, went back, watched your silly legs run in the air like a cartoon trying to right itself. Your torso curled upwards, the neck wrung into ropes, one arm stuck out as a counter-balance. Pointing right at me like the finger of doom. Absurd determination.
"Tell it again," Iverson says.
The precise, singular details?
Rising slowly onto an elbow, your breath clouded the leather of my shoe; your heels were worn off at an angle. The shiny slacks were stained with urine, your shrunken hand opened and closed around a bunch of jingling keys held together by knitting wool. All this in black and white.
I said "Are you alright?" Ha ha ha.
A breeze creaked the trees, scratched the leaves, my skin suddenly hot then dead cold. My eye-lashes beat with the force of birds in slow motion.
Then I touched your shoulder.
"I will help you."
I look up the street one way, the other, hoping for the rush of a neighbor towards us, peignoir flapping, a concerned relative hunting for gramps.
But there was nobody, was there?
Not a soul walking, not a shift in the curtains. Just a couple of old ghosts coping with disaster. And around us the stylish houses mock, their blind windows behind bars, signs promising only armed response.
I scoop you up with the trash, your nylon coat squashes flat, the stink of unwashed widower. Your grimaced apology. I walk you with the left leg folding under, partly useless, and you wrestle my neck until I can't swallow.
But we made it though, didn't we. We always make it somewhere.
And your house, so close, only twenty yards away, you must have just stepped out minutes before I saw you. What new air did you hope to breath having breathed so long? What squeezed you out of that peeling brown cell, sandwiched between peach and pastel homes, the neighborhood re-mortgaged to another generation? What errand, nothing for miles around?
There is no reason for you at all.
Yet you walked down that red-tiled pathway, twisted, broken, past the lawn long rubbed to dust. Past your uncomfortable porch, stacked with year-end phone books, exotic food-flyers, the dead bougainvillea.
And I was actually jealous of you.
Of your home, your place in the world.
You are nothing like me on my street, wedged between the business offices, the sixty watt lunch-rush restaurants with their waffle specials. You are lucky not to have workers arm in arm at the stroke of twelve, sitting on your steps smoking cigarettes, grinding them into black smudges. Or the others, driving, hunting for parking, pulling under my window with the music full on, eating and eating, the food like clothes in a dryer.
Iverson says "Boo-hoo."
But they lob the foam boxes and cups in my gutter, walk off, drive off, and every single time I go down to pick it up I think I live here.
A man shouldn't have to do these things. A man shouldn't be jostled by an outraged woman, yelling I had no right to order her, no right to ask she take her own trash. No right to say: I. Live. Here.
But you knew nothing about this, sitting in your tin seat by the front door, me caring for you.
You didn't even know I was trying your keys over and over until a dirty brass yale slid in smoothly turning the latch. Until the door swung in, until I dumped you into a dusty armchair, until your hands worked the familiar nub -- crabs fiddling at low tide.
And somewhere in there a clock gave a fat tock.
The ivory phone just crouched.
There was nothing to do.
Only faith -- in basics -- spoke.
Someone would be there this afternoon, this evening. A broken blood-vesseled daughter, an ugly son wanting you in a home. Somebody. The connection to you would drop in. And this stopped me calling the ambulance, summoning the doctors with nurses, their questions about the facts of you and me. It was inappropriate to our silence. I couldn't stand the implications.
More signs, you say?
I struggled with a tuft of letters sticking from the mailbox, shredded them in the process, placed them with other unread mail.
Bills, junk, and one package. I lug in a cardboard box marked Florida Oranges, someone knowing you are alive. But there is no return address.
"I-ver-son," I spell your name for the first time.
I say it louder than I should, your eyes swivel towards me, "You have a gift," I nod at the table. You nod back.
You are conscious of me. I am now with you.
Satisfied, I drift into the dining room, tink the dusty chandelier gems with my fingernail. Several are missing, many have been replaced, mismatched pieces hang crooked and uneven.
You watch me walk bare corridors, leading off to the bathroom, to the empty spaces without curtains or chairs or light bulbs. Black mildew spreads from the window to the wall, the floorboards beginning to stain.
And the last room is yours as I expect. It is musty, with curtains. Cheap bookcases bow under the weight of flimsy thrillers and war stories. Your unwashed bed an oblong box, the yellow shape of your head. The cold pillow.
You live alone. Of course.
I circle back towards you sunk in that chair, a poorly developed photograph, the queer brown light from the blinds that hang like skin.
Is that a sign?
A brick fireplace chokes on a half-burned log while pictures climb the wall. I touch an impasto blur, the deep curves of faded color filled with grit. A blue bay with white ships, Mediterranean houses spread across the hills into the distance, "R.I. '54" looped in the corner.
"You are R.I.?"
A knight and damsel ride through stylized forests, away from ominous red flames.
Your hand turns over, a shrug, a judgment.
And the others? Vegetables, bottles, fishing floats, two silver fish stiff like candlesticks, faces, fruit and landscapes.
"An artist." I laugh?
And still there was nobody.
Just me, the slight history on your street, those signs under the branches.
Just me, drowned in failure, trying to understand invisibility and fear. You see, minutes before finding you I was searching for a damned book, in print last year, maybe the year before. It would be a real gift to myself.
But that helpless assistant assured me over and over no such book existed. Ever.
I showed him the column of newsprint, the concrete proof. And he says "This is two years old."
White spreading silence.
My mouth shaping his absurd words, scanning the column up and down, looking right at the title of that book.
"Two?" (Please don't laugh, Iverson)
"Years," he says. That pitying look.
He runs his finger under the date, smiling, keeps smiling as I wander from the store, down among the other stores pounding their Christmas jingles, the purple neons pulsing over awful children crashing into customers, yelling across the smooth and shiny floors.
Where had those years gone? What years had I missed?
I was reeling from this, Iverson. Stunned like a lost thing.
Not lost, not nothing, you say?
And you are right. I am always with the derelicts. With the women in doorways rolled in carpet, silver frost down their backs. With the young old men pushing splay-wheeled carts, beyond numbers and television. I have seen them all and they terrify me, leave me ashamed because I have to see them.
Come, remember this with me.
I am standing in line, waiting with those who want to see the fine, new, great art, a hint of icy rain in the day. And there, just before the main staircase, where the ventilator grilles give off steam, there in the middle -- sat the man in the tattered shirt.
Hunched over, one shoe, the other foot bound with rags and cardboard.
And the people keep talking, looking at their museum, at the bushes and gravel, looking anywhere but the man on the grille.
A woman crossed the lawn towards him, removed her long red coat, and calmly draped it over his shoulders. She said a few words. Touched him. Then walked away rubbing herself for warmth.
This was not nothing.
And the rest, still, hushed, warmed themselves in waxy silence, empty and horrible among the art. Their small conversations and easy gasps blotted out the whole world. I couldn't go on, left before I saw it all. I fled the scene. And when I got outside, the man was gone.
What did I give you for Christmas, Iverson?
I left you sitting in your chair, I left you with the simple snap of the latch. I left you with the dignity of your world, the pictures crooked on the wall. All these things your own.
But you understand, sitting there, terrified and calm, reflecting back over the minutes past, how shambling towards a daily errand you suddenly discover a sidewalk under your cheek, the sky replaced by concrete. Then shoes, wrenching effort, a long swim back to the house.
Who was that masked man, who examined my things, left the door open, who made conversation in the room?
"But uncle," somebody will say, "how did you get inside?"
And you'll say, "A stranger." Then "I don't know," stroking the child's yellow hair, its remarkable thickness in the fire's crackle, each hair a strand, each strand a bond.
And I will be with you.
As you move your weak self, heavy on the stick, seeing the street, thinking plants for the garden, doing the paint, that extra-special air in those new found Christmas lungs. Ah!
Even as the rain falls today, I will be with you.
About the author:
Paul Hansom has an MFA from the University of Southern California. His fiction has appeared in many reviews and journals, including New Letters, Chicago Quarterly, Storyscape Journal, Crack the Spine, and Lalitamba. He's also been nominated for the Pushcart prize, a Sundance Institute Arts-Writing Fellowship, and has won the PEN/West John Rechy Fellowship. He lives and writes in Ithaca, New York.