Ghosts of North Beach 6

“So why do you even care about saving this kid?” Brando was slouching against the kitchen door and inhaling the steam from a fiercely hot cup of coffee, while I made a tuna salad sandwich.  

“Why not? I presume he has a mother, father, people who love him. He doesn’t appear to be actively evil. I see him crying and shaking, he is already not coping. Besides, I don’t like people dying. They are much less bother when they are alive, at least to me.” Brando regarded me through the steam and tilted his head to one side.

“Then I guess we had better try and save him then….’Where’s Joey!’” Bando acted out a passable impression of the guy in that movie about the nut house, the one where he goes full on psycho with an axe after ghosts send him insane. I think he thought it was cute. I don’t much enjoy being reminded of how the rest of the world saw me as a crazy woman when I first started seeing them. It is not like I blamed the ghosts for existing, more like I blamed them for simply not staying away from me entirely. I blamed them for their ill manners which pushed me to the outer reaches of stress and misery, that was until I learnt to live with it and them. After all, why would they bother to hide from me? They are hardly going to get in trouble for it. I am convinced that the only thing keeping society together is the fear of ‘trouble’ and a sense of shame. After death, in a society of spirits, none of that matters. There is no law, no courts no rules. There are no ghostly cops to call. It is afterlife anarchy out there. I think I get away relatively lightly with the whole thing, to be frank.

Brando liked jazz. It was one of the basic essential truths of existence. OK, so he didn’t just like jazz, he was jazz, he inhaled jazz, he became jazz. He lived by that syncopated beat. I went over to the turntable, dragging my tuna sandwich with me, pulled out a pressing of Bitches Brew and laid it on the turntable. “Bet you can’t drop the needle on track one, asshole.” I snapped at him with a smile to show I was only playing with him. Brando skulked over stared at the machine intently and the arm jerked up with a start and started to wiggle up and down fast to begin with, then more slowly and deliberately, before the machine clicked on at 45 RPM and the arm gracefully slid down into the middle of track one. “Damnit!” Brando laughed. “Got any whiskey? A cigarette? Hey look, I’m sorry. I forgot that movie was about ghouls and people going insane because of them, right? It was crass of me. I am an asshole. I can go if you want me to?”

He looked at me like the ghost of a man who didn’t want to go at all. I trudged over to a cupboard, pulled out a bottle of Queen Jennie and poured it into a saucepan, turning the heat on low, grabbing a packet of ancient and desiccated light smokes from the drawer, only two missing from the twenty. “Open the window, would ya?” I called out to him. He looked back at me and shrugged. “It is locked and heavy. I don’t know if I can do that,” he shuffled embarrassedly, “sorry.” Now I felt like the asshole. The whiskey started to steam slightly. Brando bounded over like a dog on heat. “You little fucking genius, you! I never thought of anything like this! I wonder….” He breathed in deeply, inhaling the steam, then hiccupped loudly. “Ye gads,” he exclaimed, “it works! I feel it!” The discovery of the possibility of insobriety in the spiritual world was both a wicked revelation and a worry. He stood over the pan until my kitchen smelt like a southern distillery, or some old hollow where the moonshiners make liquor and money, not even bothering to light the cigarette, as Miles played brilliantly in the background. “This is dangerous knowledge, my friend. I can only think that no one Ultra Alive was able to pull out a pan, pour in whiskey and get the fire going, and of course, the Basic Alive souls like you are not really our friends, at least not before you. No one ever even thought to do this, because it was just not possible.” He laughed giddily. “I’m loaded! Which makes no sense. I used to be able to drink, to tie one on and not end up stumbling like a fool.” He shuffled over to the couch and sat down with his eyes closed and a happy grin playing across his face, and apparently fell asleep, while I sat next to him and ate my sandwich and watched the afternoon turn into early evening.

After a while I got up, left sleeping Brandos lie and went to the bathroom. When I returned he was entirely gone. Not a trace of my new friend and provider of peace remained. I was overrun once again. Scrawled across the living room door in a shade of slutty red lipstick that I do not even own were the words “IT IS LATER THAN YOU THINK.”

I went to look out of the window and saw Telluride’s bony face, highlighted under street lamp light, barely hidden by his fedora, skeletal body shrouded in raincoat and a permanent fog. He was talking to Maria. They were laughing. Telluride’s slack jawbone was arranged into a smile, despite the lack of skin and muscle and flesh to signal happiness. I wondered which one of them had come into my house and written a warning across the wall. I took it as more of a threat, warnings rarely come in desperation bloody red, or vandalism across private white inside walls, or from people who walk in uninvited and unannounced. I didn’t trust Telluride not to simply disappear, so while I had eyes on him and Maria, and damn the consequences of my neighbors thinking I had lost my entire mind, I hissed out of the window. “Telluride! Maria! You two! Were you just in my apartment! Answer me, damnit.” Telluride swiveled round, looked momentarily concerned, tipped his hat, smirking in amusement at my shouting into the sunshine and daylight, with people in the street looking round to see who I was addressing and shrugging their shoulders. Right now, my best defense would be that I was high on something or other and was hallucinating. The other option would land me right back in the nuthouse. None of this pleased me. The Fed Ex worker scowled up at me, “You talkin’ to me?” he demanded, with a shitty look of displeasure on his face. “Sorry, mistaken identity,” I replied, half wanting to shout psychedelic epithets to excuse my seemingly irrational behavior, throwing them out the window in an explosion of freedom. I don’t think this poor man could handle me demanding that he roll the haddock, or dance with the wood elves that crawl from the corners after a decent sized dose of DMT. I shut the window and let him go on about his day. Getting my mail might get tricky.

When I looked back outside Telluride and Maria were gone, and the street was relatively normal and peaceful, which to be frank, are much the same thing in my world. More worrying was the thought that neither Telluride or Maria was responsible for the lip sticked scrawl. The unknown devil is always more scary than the known killer.  

Bicycles, flowers and Costco Chicken

There was nothing else for it. I was going to have to talk to Joey. There is no easy way for me, a stranger, to broach the subject of a dead girlfriend, let alone one that was mercilessly haunting him. Besides how could I explain that I suspected she was on a murderous mission to destroy him mentally and physically? I figured I wouldn’t even try, at least not until he brought it up, or there was some crisis that I was lucky enough to be around to observe.

Back in the day I would have flirted with Joey, insinuated myself into his life temporarily, but now I was a little old for all that. I tried to bump into him at the grocery store, but he merely stepped round me politely. He still regularly sang songs from West Side Story as he ran out for groceries and beer at the local stores. It was only when I found a flyer advertising an amateur dramatic group’s production of the musical, to be staged at City College, that I put two and two together. He was clearly playing the part of Tony. If I could volunteer as a stagehand perhaps I could get close to him, and perhaps some ghostly Maria action.

I had been lonely for so long, bereft of living company, yet scared to pursue it after the accident which I had survived, and They had not. Friends who had stuck around for a while, but then drifted away as it became clear that I was not going to shake of mourning quickly. The hardest thing for those who have not been kissed by death to understand, is that there is nothing to be said or done, and that people are going to grieve as people are going to grieve, and they need their space to do it.

My best friend had turned to me one day when I failed to get out of bed and go to the physical therapy session that she was meant to be driving me to, and had failed to put on day time clothes and failed to brush my hair and clean my teeth and eat for days at a time, that he ‘was not going to tolerate me grieving forever, I was going to have to pull myself up and out of it pronto, because nobody has time for that shit.’ I frog marched him out of my apartment and out of my life. He had intended to shock me into coping, into doing something, into being ok. Instead, he just alienated me and made me hate her with a passion.

I thus resisted all attempts from others to force me to ‘pull myself out of’ grief. I wallowed and thumbed my nose at those who judged me as being self indulgent. I know they only had my best interests at heart, but I never have liked doing what I am told to do and was too old to start to try and change.

I was outside taking a walk up to Joe’s to buy some oranges, when I turned up Hyde Street and saw something unexpected. Maria was standing, ghostly and see through, outside a liquor store, parking her bicycle and clearly trying to decide whether or not to padlock it to a street lamp, or attempt to take it in with her into the store. She clipped the lock into place and grabbed the bunch of flowers, putting them into the crook of her arm, headed into the bottle shop. I ran across the road and bolted through the door after her.

Maria was standing by the wine, the memory of a bottle in her hand, as she peered at the label through her pretty shell pink sunglasses. At first glance Maria looked preppy and pretty, but closer up her eyes had a crazed glint in them, her stockings were torn, and a ghostly vein pulsated in the side of her neck. Maria looked strung out. Whether it was death or some earthly cause before her death, I did not know, but this Maria-spirit did not look like she was okay. I moved close to her and said hello. The man at the counter, sitting with his hands barely hidden by the table in front of him, touched his groin lightly and grunted at me.

The shop was empty apart from the bored looking man behind the counter, who was smoking a vape pen and looking at a dirty magazine. He didn’t look like he was easily freaked out. The man didn’t move from the images of flesh and mundane ass and dick and pussy, he eyes flicked across their bodies as his tongue escaped from his mouth and licked a drop of spit from his thin mean lips. Maria turned her head towards me. “Hello,” she returned, “Have you ever tried this 9 Criminals brand? It’s cheap but hey, I guess it will do the job. I prefer reds, my boyfriend, he likes sweet whites. He barely deserves to live with taste like that.” She let out a tinkly laugh that made the man at the counter shudder involuntarily. She went up to pay for her bottle, running through the motions, her ghostly bottle of wine sitting in her hands. I walked out of the store in front of her. She walked out the shop, put the wine into her basket and started to unlock her bike. There was a chicken joint on Polk, and a Safeway not too far away, or a Whole Foods just up the road. I wondered where she was going to buy that damned chicken that ended up squashed on Van Ness alongside her. She started to peddle up the road, and I lost her. Ghosts should not be allowed to have bicycles. It makes it so much harder to keep up with them. After seeing Maria pounded into the blacktop on a regular basis, I had lost my desire to ride anything with wheels.

As I turned towards home, I realized that I missed Brando, but that was ok. He was already dead. The damage was already done.

Once home tapped in the number I had saved in my phone for the Am Dram Soc. “Hello? Is this the Bay Amateur Dramatic Society…er…’Over-Actors Anonymous’? Hi, yes, my name is Wendy. Wendy Plath. Yes, I was wondering if you were in need of volunteers, I have some time to spare. I would be happy to do anything at all, but was hoping to maybe be a stage hand, or perhaps an extra? I’m 49 years old. Yes. Of course. Wednesday? 7pm? Perfect. I will see you there.”

With that, I put down the phone, the stage was set. I was going to see what happened when Joey really sang Maria.

Lights On, Curtain Drawn!

Joey was standing in his kitchen making a cup of coffee and thinking about how much longer he could continue working from home for. Nobody in their right mind wants to go into an office to work if they don’t have to. In an office you cannot scratch your ass, have cups of good coffee, eat endless rounds of sandwiches, or do the mind numbingly boring work with loud music or a ball game on in the background. James had made his excuses and left. No one wanted to stay at his apartment long. Joey was thinking about moving somewhere else, somewhere cheaper, perhaps in the Mission, or over in Dogpatch. Get away from Nob Hill, and the memories and the goddamn accident. Things had not been quite right.

A smiley face drawn in the mist on the mirror, a pile of brown sugar cubes that had been organized into an improbable tower. They were the fancy ones that made his coffee feel as luxurious as getting a cup from the artisan coffee guy over in North Beach, at the hole in the wall, that made coffee so good his eyes watered and he considered the possibility that there was indeed a deity of some kind after all, at least one who also liked good coffee and fresh French vanilla pods buried in jars of sugar, if not one that stopped girlfriends from getting squashed on Van Ness. That sounded about right to him, a God that cared about coffee, but not about young women making it to dates in one piece instead of smeared over the highway.

Then there were the shadows in the dark at night that moved around his room. He had almost convinced himself that they were just shadows caused by cars driving by outside, their headlights flickering through his thin curtains and into his bedroom. Except headlights don’t have heads. Headlights don’t have hands that reach for him desperately in the night, and grab him by the shoulder, or pick the fabric that covered his butt and legs, or crush against his lips desperately. Headlights don’t give good head. Head lights don’t whisper his name or leave scratches on his back. He could swear that he felt the warm pulsing of a woman’s body on his. He could swear that he could smell freesias and hyacinths in the cold hours of the night.

The easiest thing to do was discount it all completely and let himself believe that he was going insane. He was under a lot of stress. Everyone gets that creepy feeling, he reasoned with himself. It is a type of paranoia, not actually anything really spooky. He prided himself on being a man of science, of reason and fact. All of this was strangely inexplicable, and not at all scientific. Still, in the dead of the night, those car headlights looked mightily like the slender shadow of Maria, leaning over to draw the curtains closed, or pulling a beer from the fridge, or clambering into his bed, and kissing him goodnight. Those shadows never seemed to leave him alone very long. Sometimes they sat on his chest and put long tendrils of hair around his neck and sucked the life out of his lungs until he leapt up and turned on all the lights, and ran for the kitchen for water, slamming doors open. A man of reason could be made to challenge everything he believed in with enough evidence that he was, indeed, fucked on a supernatural level.

James had been busy telling their workmates that Joey had lost his mind since Maria passed away. Even the therapist had suggested to Joey that he accept a referral to a doctor that could prescribe psychiatric medicine. It was her suggestion that he audition for a part in West Side Story. She had seen a flyer asking for prospective actors, and thought it would be good for him to get out and about, meet some new people, and more importantly hear that name often enough for it not to be a trigger for his fear and terror and shame. Twenty nine times in one song that name is uttered. Twenty nine Marias all dancing and loving and hoping and living. Twenty nine times over and over again, like an incantation or a summoning. Ms. Dement had a little exposure therapy in mind, get him used to the stimulus that was causing the discomfort and thereby taking the bite out of the damaging thought processes. The sting remained in the name Maria despite the exposure. The sting could not be removed because Maria was following his every move and living her afterlife as an unwanted squatter in his mind and home. Maria would not let go. She was like a ghostly vampiric feeder, and worse than all of that, Joey was willing prey, driven to giving himself up like a sacrificial lamb by his guilt and stolid sensible dedication to reality.

Nevertheless, Joey persisted. He went to all the rehearsals, he danced across the stage with only a hint of self-consciousness, rattling stage prop gates, as he sang the name Maria, over and over again. “All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word . . .” Maria. Maria. Maria. He sang Maria to the pigeons, “And suddenly that name, will never be the same to me.” Every time he sang the name Maria something sharp and full of hatred and anger stabbed him in the chest, and pulled out strands of his hair, breathing graveyard dirt and tomb-like air into his face. He looked up at the stage prop window, expecting to see the face of the actress playing an elderly woman, a cheap joke intended to make the audience gasp, thinking Maria was going to appear there, when in fact poor Tony, the character he was playing, who was hopelessly in love with his living breathing fictional Maria, was singing like Romeo to the nurse! Except always standing in the window, hands on the actresses shoulders, or rearranging her wig gently, or standing in front of the live woman with her ghostly body passing right through her, as she rested her hands winningly, artificially posed against her chin, in her fingers arranged in the form of a love heart, was the ghostly and obsessed Maria.

Every time he was startled. Every time he gasped and skipped a beat. The director of the amateur production was kind. Ms. Dement had arranged the entire thing with him. It had helped, of course, that Joey looked the part, with his dark hair and Italian roots. He would never have agreed if Joey could not sing or dance. Joey would not have been his first choice, he was a little stiff and unnatural, and to the Director seemed like a nervous man, who might be unreliable, or bail out at the last minute. His usual actors were hams and attention seekers. He used to call his Am Dram society “Over Actors Anonymous”, laughing with friends and cast alike, who more often than not, were the same thing, about certain members ability to come on like some comedy actor of the 1990s, but without the irony that should attend such exploits. “Say it loud and there is music playing” sang Joey, “say it soft and it’s almost like praying”, and every single time Joey would fall to his knees and start to cry real wet fat tears, that plopped onto the dusty stage boards and made the rest of the cast feel quite miserable.

The first time that he did this, cried while singing these fateful lines, the Director ran up to the stage to comfort him. The second time, the sweet young woman who played the west side Maria, jumped up and put an arm around his shoulders. The third time, everyone let him be. On the fourth occasion Joey jumped up and ran like a trapped wounded animal, gritting his teeth and his hands clenched into fists, as he screamed more than sang the word Maria, over and over again. What the Director didn’t know was that Maria herself, the ghostly Maria, had come over to comfort him, that he looked up into her smashed torn features, her twisted broken limbs, her scalp hanging off in pieces, her left eye dragging uselessly out of its socket, even her ghostly body, bloody and rotten and stinking, and that she had leant over to him, frozen as he was to the spot, and planted a red bloody lipsticked mangled kiss onto his trembling lips, and stared deep into his cow-like gentle eyes, as she whispered back to him, in tones that could melt paint off walls…’Joey!’ …that she had just met a boy called Joey, and now that name would never be the same to Maria.

The ambulance came after Joey had started to bash his own brains out against the wall. The sickening thud of a man trying to knock himself out, or else knock some normal rational sense into his brain. People were still talking about it when I turned up, the next week, a battered Joey released from hospital, and sent back into the fray by the therapist who was absolutely sure that the best course of action was going to be more aversion therapy. Her entire theory revolved around singing Maria. She was attached to this course of action, and of course, and the Ghostly Maria was overjoyed. Maria…he just met a girl called Maria….

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