Ghosts of North Beach: Part 2

The Grateful Dead Society are the crème de la crème. The absolute pinnacle of San Francisco Afterlife Society. Meeting every night at 6pm in the basement bookroom of the Bridge Span Bookshop, this motley crew are the no longer beating, but nevertheless vital heart of what remains of the creative life of the city. The gossip is hot, and the poetry readings mostly don’t suck.

I had only moved to the City a few weeks previous to the point where the TGDS (motto: Post Mortem, Vita) made themselves known to me. I was visiting Bridge Span Books for the first time, standing in a corner of the basement, thumbing through a particularly beautiful and grossly overpriced used copy of Women of the Beat Generation, when I noticed a pair of sparkling blue eyes shining from across the way, body half obscured by one of the pillars that held up the elderly staircase. Hat pulled down low, collar of his plaid thick shirt-jacket pulled up, and unbuttoned, showing his white egg-stained tee shirt. A thin brown belt held up baggy tapered brown pants, and he had a pair of fine railroad worker boots on his feet. Hugo was not a tall man, but had a certain not imposing, but strong presence. His black hair, semi tamed, poked out from under his cap. Even though he was pale with afterworld pallidity, his skin retained a healthy tanned glow. He was a handsome man, even though he did hunch his shoulders is sheltering from a hard wind and rain. A thin curl of smoke rose from his shoulder and curled around his head into the distance like a highway.

He seemed to be sizing me up from his outpost by the stairs. I didn’t recognize him for a few moments, hiding my own face behind the book which I had no intention of purchasing. I was just wondering if it could be, if it was when a thick set muscular man in his early 40s tapped me on the shoulder. He was almost solid, nearly present, very nearly ‘here’, whilst simultaneously not being so. There is something about this kind of (extraordinary to most) situation that elicits a knee jerk response. It is impossible not to jump. It might be possible to mitigate the outward show of surprise and fear, but there is something about it that never becomes totally mundane. An icy chill filled my veins. Dead things have no business talking to the living. Once my body had finished revolting against his presence so close by, his touch on my skin, and my prehistoric mind had finished warning me of imminent danger, I managed a nod, almost imperceptible to any live humans who might be watching, he beckoned me towards a corner bookcase. The shop was not busy, only a few tourists wandered around dreaming of history and others insanity made into art. I half wondered if others could see him. He looked pretty convincingly alive from a distance, at least to those not in the know, I suppose.

The voices of the dead are unbearably loud to the living, they hit all the wrong frequencies, but my new friend had worked out how to modulate his utterings to be neither wispy nor unpleasant. Looking at the floor, his movements staggering slightly, like a flickering lightbox projection or a mismanaged hologram before he gathered himself and solidified once more, he stared at me with intense brown eyes, only partially faded by the effects of the Afterlife. “Hello,” he said, partially testing me out to see just how clearly I heard and saw him, partially greeting me as would be polite whether dead or alive, after initiating such contact. “Hello,” I whispered back to him quietly as he turned away from me. A large railroad hammer was shoved crudely through the back of his belt, the handle hanging down by the seat of his pants, emanating from it was strange music, road-rap, harmonica wails and the chugga-chugga of a train on the tracks. It glowed with strange red light. “Thursdays, the witching hour, same place. The gang would like to meet you,” and with that he faded to black and then disappeared entirely. Once the Grateful Dead Society had come into my life, there was never going to be any going back.

I put the book back on the shelf, climbed the stairs, paused to flick through a six-month-old copy of a literary mag, full of other people’s stories, and exited to the street, resolving to return on Thursday. I didn’t know whether I decided to visit these lingering threads of the past out of curiosity, or a desire to know more, or perhaps even a chance to live out my dreams of making one of those ‘who would you invite to a dinner party’ lists come real. I don’t know about eating with ghosts, but I am always a sucker for a good story. These spirits who possessed both self-awareness and a strong continued consciousness were not exactly commonplace. I suspect they are kept in place partly by other’s dreams and continued interaction. They are kept alive and pinned here by the attention of others, the reading and re-reading of their souls and lives upon pages and out of speakers, and directly into the minds of their devotees. The key to eternity is perhaps fame, or else a strong determined personality. Maybe these souls are damned, cursed, forced to stay in this realm rather than moving on to some place better, some place where they belong. Some place they can heal from the harms of the world, or at least that is what I believed before I met The Grateful Dead Society.

I left Bridge Span Books in a hurry, rushing up the stairs, and making for the door straight ahead that led directly out to the right of Jack Kerouac Alley, pushing my canvas shoed foot against the worn wood of the doorstep. I wondered how long that piece of wood had been sitting there, getting stepped on by the living and the nearly dead. Standing up against the wall, under a street lamp was a skeletally thin ghost in a solid black raincoat, his dark fedora pulled down over his skull, one bony hand in his pocket and the other holding a typewriter case embossed with the word Underwood glowing with the glitter of Hades. A pristine apple fuzzed in and out of reality on the floor before him, a smoking gun laying beside it under his left foot. As I approached, he put one bony hand to the brim of his hat and nodded his head politely. An involuntary shiver ran up my spine and exited through the crown of my head. His typewriter case was jiggling and chirruping, as if inhabited by an angry swarm. One thin serrated grasshopper-like leg emerged from a crack in the case, looking alarmingly solid, and he swatted at it with his hand. “Peace!” he snapped. I hurried past, but he called after me: “Ma’am! Ma’am!” I can’t say that a tired sigh didn’t escape from my lips, an infuriated outlet of air, and I also can’t say he didn’t notice. “I won’t keep you long….”

I don’t know what persuaded me to turn around, but turn around I did, and a sly smile crept across a face that was only barely covered with ghostly skin, only hardly hiding his shiny smooth luminous skull. “I would advise you to stay out of the business of the Dead, Miss…?”

“Wendy….My name is Wendy.” I offered him a name not mine, that I generally borrowed for public interaction.

“No, it is not, but it will have to do.” he stung back snippily. “Listen, “Wendy” you have a gift, a talent, that much is undeniable, but if you indulge yourself in talking to the likes of me and those boys and galls in there” – he gestured out of the alley into the walls of the bookshop – “Then you will eventually come a cropper. It is unavoidable. No one of the living world is equipped to meddle in our affairs, but your meddling is certainly useful at times. We all need a bridge occasionally. You will be used up, Miss Wendy. Used up and discarded when your brain melts and the crickets take up residence in your damn typewriter case. Ignore us. Pass us by. You cannot fix the troubles of the Ultra Alive, my open-eyed friend, and you should not even try. Understood? You just know a little more than most others do about what goes on. That is not insanity, but it certainly is not normal and not to be encouraged in the pursuit of a healthy and happy life.”

“Telluride. It is a pleasure to meet you,” I replied with a smile. “See you at the meeting on Thursday. You will be there, won’t you?” He chose not to acknowledge the fact that I had recognized his earthly identity despite the lack of skin and flesh over the bone.

“As you choose, lady,” Telluride replied with a toothy, skull-y smile. “It’s your funeral.” And with that he turned his back, picked up the apple and the smoking gun, stashed them inside a pocket of his voluminous raincoat, and headed off towards the Pier. “I am going to go stare at the crab as they pull ‘em off the boats. It disconcerts the fishermen, and they don’t know why. Some of them have the most magnificent arms. Beautiful claws. They scuttle across the sea floors like that is their raison d’être”

He himself scuttled away at high speed, phasing in and out of time and space so fast and skillfully it could make a girl feel sea sick. I headed back towards home. There was nothing else for it. You either embrace a life like mine, or else you do go insane. Ignoring the dead is a mission doomed to failure, you are on a hiding to nowhere on such a curtain closing kick. The dead are like ants, they get everywhere, and getting rid of them is almost impossible. They breed so fast and climb in through the smallest cracks. I would rather embrace reality than run from it screaming and jumping at their reflections as they smile at me in my mirror while I brush my teeth in the morning. I would say I am sure Telluride meant well but I am not sure at all. What I am sure of is that Telluride has an agenda and he is going to do whatever it takes to push it forwards. That insectoid puppet master doesn’t look or feel as if he has an altruistic bone in his body, but I have been wrong before. I know this much, any attempt to keep me away from something is always guaranteed to push me towards it. Maybe that was his agenda. I suppose we will see on Thursday.

I had barely made it up the hill when I spotted Maria.  The walk back towards my apartment is indeed one of the most grueling in the city, climbing up California is not for the faint or weak of heart. I often feel as if I am about to expire on the spot halfway up, with the incline blocking the horizon and still plenty of climb to go, gulping down air and pulling my jacket off, threading it through my sling bag before I push on towards the top of the hill and head back down into the ‘Loin.

Maria was on a bicycle that had become barely a shadow of wheels and metal, and peddling smiling down Van Ness, her basket piled high with daffodils, a bottle of red wine and a whole food ready cooked rotisserie chicken. She was passing the art supply shop on the corner opposite the San Francisco school of art, when she reached for an invisible phone, looked down distractedly patting her jacket pocket, hitting a pothole in the road, and losing control, sliding down under the wheels of a speeding truck painted with the livery of some local business. The truck appeared for a millisecond, eating up Maria and chicken, wine and daffodils, rubber wheels and metal spikes, crushing her head between black top and heavy tire, bursting her skull like an over ripe melon. Her left arm draped under her body, her right leg drawn up into the inner workings of the truck after hitting the bull bar like a missile. Maria could not have possibly felt a thing, she must have died instantly, perhaps too quickly to even realize what had happened, which may have been almost the entire problem. After all if a girl doesn’t know she is dead, how is she meant to deal with the situation?

I don’t usually look too closely at such slow-motion replays of disaster. I don’t usually turn my head towards horror. Every body deserves privacy at the end, and since Maria seemed to be doomed to replay her end over and over again, every day at 3pm down Van Ness, outside the Art School, the only thing giving her a measure of privacy was her invisibility. The only relief was that no one else apart from me and a few unquiet souls seemed to see her grand finish on a regular basis, though I suspect occasionally some drunk or poor soul tripping on the local bottled sunshine might be treated to a replay of 3pm, April the 3rd 2019.

I wondered briefly how many other live denizens of San Francisco ever watched this recording of pain and misery and loss that had seeped its way into the tar and concrete along with her blood. I wonder how many others had flinched as she was dismantled by the truck, and then leaving her broken flesh behind, floated above the whole disaster, rising above the bicycle and the truck and the disappointing shittiness of a world that can start with a date that you don’t even know is going to end in being kicked to the curb, and then finish the afternoon in a terminal full stop. The end. The end of everything, of every hope, every love, every breath, every possibility. My mind simply cannot comprehend such senseless and sudden unexpected ending to a life that has barely started, and neither could hers, obviously, as she simply stares down at the carnage before it can fade away leaving not a trace, leaves the mangled ghost-bike behind, the detritus of the accident fading away as she leaves and staggers off down the road limping towards her destination: Joey’s house.


  1. clcouch123

    Pausing in the creation of this story is fine. It’s human, and we often need a break in order to deal with other, pressing stresses, such as you have (to say the least). But it’s an intriguing story with an engaging narration and especially narrator, combining a number of breakfast-impossible things: life and afterlife, conversations with the living and the dead, the present day with the Beat generation in the background. Actual actions and ghostly actions that come across the same until distinguished as one or the other. Or maybe it’s how far goes the interaction between the living and the not-so-much with “Wendy” as the point between. And as the storyteller for us. When it suits, I hope you’ll resume, unless you don’t want to. C. S. Lewis, when writing his letters from Screwtape, was glad to have it over. He said the writing of this work was tormenting.

    1. The Paltry Sum: Detroit Richards

      There is a lot more – I am 50 thousand or so words into it. I will put the rest of it up in parts. I really appreciate the feedback, and am glad it at least amused someone, if nothing else! I am concentrating on my memoirs, poetry and my journalistic writing for now. I have to try and make my freelance career work. I suppose I fancy myself as a gonzo writer, a la Hunter S Thompson. It is strange, isn’t it, when writing, how much a crisis of confidence and a huge amount of stress can make writing into a pleasure, but dealing with the business of writing a horror! I really do appreciate you reading and taking the time to respond. Thank you.

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