Ghosts Of North Beach: Part 5

Back in the High Life Again

I rolled back into my apartment in the early hours of Friday morning. It was still dark outside, but there were signs that the dawn was coming up fast on the day. I was far too tired to safely do much, but started the hot water flowing and jumped into the shower. I always think in the shower. The sound of the water blocks out the sound of the living and dead. I needed to wash some of the grave dirt off me. Hanging out with the dead always makes me feel dirty. As I let the water fall over my face an invisible finger drew in the mist on the mirror. Just one word: Maria. I ignored it and mussed up the surface with the palm of my hand, grabbing a towel and drying myself off, hopping into my pajamas and walking to bed, ignoring the eyes and the hands and the chatter and requests from the ants that had crawled in through the gaps while I was away. As I flipped off the light, and crawled into bed, pulling the covers over my eyes and wrapping my body in the cottony softness, something went bump in the bathroom. I ignored it and went to bed, dreaming of cotton wool sea clouds drifting over Angel Island, eating oysters straight from the shell, and letting the juice run down my chin. Such are the dreams of the living.

I woke up to the sound of the refuse collection workers bumping the trash cans down the stairs, yelling and revving the engine of the truck as they disturbed the sleep of the entire neighborhood, like a dirty wake up call. I am not saying that it had been a few years since anyone woke me up with an enjoyable interruption, but since that day, the one I almost died, I haven’t had much desire to let a living warm body into my packed life. Besides, I was getting old. Everything ached, everything hurt. Dragging my dead ass up from my chair and hauling it to the bathroom, my legs on fire from the 5 hour walk all night around the city, I realized I was not the woman I used to be. That goes double for my personality, for my soul. After losing everyone, everything, carelessly I suppose, and surviving in relative good health, relative to the grave at least, I had no need for friendships or love. Love only causes pain. Pain is just love leaving, at least to me, and once it is gone, it can never return. The hole it leaves cauterized and salted, forever to remain empty. The flesh won’t heal around a new love, the transplanted affection just won’t stick.

I do my best to ignore the bangs and bumps of men protesting having to be up and working at such a terrible hour. If they can’t sleep, they must reason, the rest of the City cannot either. I must have only got forty five minutes rest. With my presence filling up the space, the apartment was quieter. An abalone shell and some white sage sat on the table alongside a lighter and a book of matches. It was not easy to haul myself out of bed, fill the rooms with the scent of sage and the fight back against the intrusions, but I did it anyway, then built a cup of tea and a bowl of oatmeal, and turned on the news.

It was the usual drivel: this politician did do something they should, and that one was caught doing something they shouldn’t. Various crashes, wars, disasters and diseases, celebrity divorces and diplomatic engagements, dropped balls and smashed home runs. I let it run loud enough to make the room feel mundane, as I sipped my tea. I was on my second cup and starting to fuss around with a pitch for a new story, when the television changed channels by itself. Not everything is spooky, and I tried to put it down to Eric next door having the same TV and accidentally changing my channel, or a funky Wi-Fi Bluetooth glitch. A grizzled man’s face appeared, chewing baccy like a cow chewing the cud, muttering about failure to communicate and unreachable men. I always did like Robert Redford movies. It was only when the cowboy show faded into a background buzz, and the face in the screen morphed into Maria’s smashed features fixed in a silent scream, followed by some bloody and dark scene that I couldn’t make out, even when I did force myself to look at the screen, that I realized today was not going to be allowed to be a quiet and peaceful one.

I work for myself nowadays. If I starve it is entirely my own problem. Still there are things to do done, and an outside real world that needs attention. The washing up needs to be done. Food requires preparation. The floor needs mopping. It is all to easy to ignore mundane life when the surprising and surreal comes a knocking. .

It is not easy to put such esoteric matters to one side, nevertheless I settled down to work, turning up the speakers, and fighting with the songs being changed at random. Electronic interference trying to get my attention when I had no time to give, was never anything but irritating. The mixer turned itself on, the kettle flipped on and off. A cup smashed. “Cut it out!” I yelled to no reply. By the time the light started to fade and the day was on the way out, I was about ready to murder the dead.

I heard a knock at the door, loud and definite. I ignored it, since I was sure I had not invited anyone to call over. I never did. I had very little to do with the living nowadays. The knock became insistent. Throwing on my sweater and shuffling to the door, cup of tea in hand, I went to look through the spy hole. As I did Brando’s handsome noble head poked halfway through the door making me jump and spill my tea. “I thought I would try to be polite, you know,” he said winningly, “May I come in?” He skimmed over the tea, and followed me into the living room, as sweetly as he could manage. “How are Things?” he enquired softly. The television switched itself on, flipped to a Gordon Lightfoot track on YouTube, and gave way to Maria’s quizzical face once again. I threw a tablecloth over it and changed the channel. “That good, huh?” Brando raised one ghostly eyebrow and patted the air around my arm. “I don’t know how you take it, myself. You don’t belong in this world. You are alive.” I looked around the apartment at the photos in the frames, turned towards the wall, the collection of ancient files and notebooks and the empty expanse of life around me. “Barely.” I replied with a smile.

“Maria needs dealing with, Wendy.” Brando stated the obvious. “Except I don’t quite know how to do it. I keep myself to myself. There was another nasty incident back in ’86 when a musician passed and didn’t quite believe it had happened to him. He freaked out. It got ugly for a while. No one could play anything without him turning up and blowing up the tube amps. Then there was that chick who died in a hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. She wasn’t too happy about it. Total psychopath. Telluride has stories of death gone wrong, but he has stories about a lot of things. A man of ideas, more than action, as far as I can fathom.”

“So then what do I do? I’m clearly involved whether I like it or not.” This was not what I wanted to hear, not at all.

“Can I ask you something, Wendy? When did all ‘this’ start for you.” Brando waved his arm around expansively.

“Next question,” I replied. The usual. Tragedy, desperation, lsd and what I thought was a psychotic breakdown. They locked me up for six months, citing that I was a danger to myself. I realized that I was not insane when a kind priest with an interest in the esoteric took an interest in me and broke me out of the nut house. I’ve learnt to do the washing up and sweep the floors again. I manage.”

Brando looked hopeful for a moment, “A Priest! Can’t you ask him for help?”

“Well he could, Brando. I expect I could get through to him if I tried hard enough, as long as he hasn’t passed over. He died four months ago. I haven’t seen him post mortem, I’m afraid.” Brando looked at me with a crestfallen expression of pity, got up and started walking round the room. Brando could never stay still. He was not built not to move, not made to stand still. It went against every fiber of his being, even after death. His body moved like a snake, curled up like a cannonball, launched itself at questions and problems and the physicality of the after life, and then reassembled its relationship to sinews and muscles and bone and blood, not solid, but remembered. He was sinuous as a vine, as hard as a nut and weightless as smoke. As far as ghosts go, Brando was impressive. It was almost possible to forget he was dead.

“Tom should be here soon. I know you don’t find his company too taxing. Telluride does his own thing, I am afraid. But we won’t leave you alone with this. What is the use of a Grateful Dead Society, if it cannot help the ungratefully living?”

Brando had that easy way of speaking that boded well for writing. He was full of style, overbrimming with freshness, even though he was way way past his sell by date.

“How about you come by here tomorrow, around 1pm? We should be able to catch her in the middle of her routine.”

By the time it was decided to try and bring Tom and the Highwayman, Faux Rimbaud and try and con Telluride into joining in with the insane quest to save the life and sanity of a man none of us really knew, it was already getting dark, and Brando was drifting towards the door.

“You are welcome to stay, Brando,” I said not quite knowing why. He drifted back over, and laid a cool hand on my arm. “You mean that?” he said with a hang dog look of concern floating over his faded but still handsome features. “You don’t have to be polite, I can go and come back tomorrow.” Sometimes it is just as well to embrace the dead, to hold onto the insane and settle down into the strangeness of things as they are, not things as I wish them to be. Sometimes the reckless thing is the most sensible option. Sometimes inviting the ghost to stay is the right thing to do.

Brando settled down into a corner chair, trying to look as unobtrusive as possible. I pulled a book off the shelf, a copy of a rock chick’s autobiography, and placed it into his waiting hands, wondering if he could pull off holding the book, or if it would simply fall through his waiting hands, and fall onto my tweed armchair. The book hit resistance as I let go, and then sunk slightly as if it was going to fall entirely past Brando’s hands, but then was caught by an unseen force and settled down comfortably. Brando shifted position and the book followed his ghostly form. I went over to my desk that overlooked the window, and opened my laptop, staring blankly at the open document, shifting the white gauzy privacy curtains slightly so I could see out onto the street below. Outside everything was boringly normal. People were going on about their daily lives, as if they had no thoughts of death at all, let alone what life looks like beyond the grave, while inside my small apartment I sat with a man, dead for the last 54 years, while a book hovered in midair, listening to him laugh at the adventures of a New York Punk chick from the ‘70s. I didn’t know whether to be jealous of those outside with their desperately normal lives, or else grateful that the life I lived after I was meant to kick the bucket and haunt my own afterlife was so full of strangeness that I barely had time to grieve. The one ghost I always longed to see hardly ever turned up and never stayed long.

A few hours had passed like this, me making tea, lighting incense and working steadily on this pitch and that story, Brando working his way through my bookshelves. It was like having a guard dog. No other dogs dared come into the yard to bother me. He pushed out the other souls with the sheer force of his presence, and to be frank, I liked it.

One thing about ghosts that the hippy books and old religions get right is that they are affected by smoke. I suppose they themselves are vapor, and so smoke doesn’t just get in their eyes, but also into the nooks and crannies of their black hole souls. White sage drives them out, like bug spray. Sweet aloeswood and violet is like nectar. Brando sat next to the incense burner smiling like a man eating a good supper. The world was peaceful for a small minute. I almost believed I could keep Joey unharmed. I almost thought that I could help Maria come to terms with her fate and Joey’s inability to love her. I was wrong. I knew it deep down. I knew all this was going to end in disaster, I knew the walls would close in and the ghosts that exist on busy daylight streets were going to end up colliding with the bright pulsating living world, like a truck smashing into a 20 year old girl down Van Ness in the Springtime, mixing her blood with the red wine as it spilled onto the shitty dusty road in an orgy of steel and sadness and speed.

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