Ghosts of North Beach Part 7

Exeunt, stage left. Pursued by Maria

The Grateful Dead Society had held an emergency meeting the night before I was due to go to play stage hand, and sometime extra. I had the job of various older female parts. Woman on a park bench, old woman at window, understudy for Glad Hand. I was dreading it, not being the most social person on earth, and having shut myself off from society after the accident, this was everything everybody wanted me to do, and everything I had resisted with every fiber of my being. Still, I could not leave Joey alone in the world being pursued by Maria, so I went anyway.

The missing Brando had reappeared, apparently having been dragged back to his default place of haunting, his habitual residence, when he got drunk on whiskey fumes and passed out in my armchair, having been too embarrassed to drag himself back to apologize for his hasty and rude exit. As I climbed down the stairs of the bookshop, pushed my way past various cold bodies of the dead, and stood fuming in the center of the room, he looked at me with a smile and mouthed the word ‘sorry’ in my direction. Brando was not a man to be relied upon for much, and I respected that about him. He was a free spirit, a ghost in the machine. I figured if I failed to pass on after death, I would behave in much the same way. I smiled back at him, as I banged my fist on the side of a book shelf. “Hey! Can I have your attention! I don’t have eternity!” Titters of ghostly laughter and a few sad groans filled the room. A good dead joke always got some kind of reaction with this crowd.

“Hey! People! Ladies and mmm…Gentlemen! Can I please have a few moments of your time!” Tom was sitting on top of a book shelf, his legs crossed beneath him, Telluride was lurking close to me, just to my left, Cassady had shifted position to my right shoulder, Faux Rimbaud was holding a giant ghostly light bulb and rapping quietly to himself about secrets beyond the grave, Rose and her Phantom lover were standing just in front of me. Highway Man peeked from behind the column that held up the stairs. The rest of the assembled Spooks, Ghouls, Phantoms and Spirits milled around expectantly. “Post Mortem, Vita! Post Mortem, Vita!” After death, life! Telluride called order, shouting the motto of the Grateful Dead Society into the ether of the basement room. “Mortui post vitam velocitate colligentes!” the crowd returned with guts and a flourish of their own. “After life, the dead gather speed!” Faux Rimbaud waited until the room had settled and raised a skinny, flouncy white lacy shirted fist into the air and declared, “Post Vitam, Mortem!” Post life. Death. “That is the way that we want it to be, right? The natural order of things? After life, you get to die. I mean I have been trying to fathom this one a while. After that stranger arrived at the crossroads, offering me a deal, I thought, you know, it couldn’t hurt. After all, that shit was not real. It was just some old grandpa in his uncle’s suit, still stinking of mothballs, who wanted to fuck with this pathetic little romantic poetical wanna be. I don’t even believe in the Big Guy, or his nemesis, and if I don’t believe then what on earth can go wrong.” Telluride smirked coldly. “My friend, it doesn’t much matter if you don’t believe in either of them, the real kicker is whether they believe in you.” Faux Rimbaud shook out his curly hair, and looked at me with dark pleading eyes. “I hadn’t finished, Telluride. As I was trying to explain here, to Wendy. Hello, Wendy, by the way, as I was trying to explain to Wendy, before you tried to steal my thunder and flash your own lightning into the conversation, I didn’t believe. I didn’t even believe after I got split in two by some guy on the crossroads who wanted me to write my name in blood into his family bible. I didn’t believe because I didn’t want to believe. It didn’t suit me to accept that there was more in heaven and earth, Telluride, my old buddy, than most everybody has a will to comprehend..”

“…Or dares dream of in their philosophy?” Interjected a smiling Brando. “Hey Rimbaud, we don’t even need a skull for this scene, old Telluride has it right on top of his shoulders. Brando strode up to Telluride, and cupped his skull-chin in the palm of his ghostly hand. “Alas, poor Telluride…I knew him, Wendy…” The room fell silent. Telluride’s eyes flashed red in his skull. His hat had tipped back slightly revealing his bony pate. A deep rumbling emanated from his ribcage, that was covered by a smart yellow waistcoat. Telluride was laughing. The noise carried on for few moments, then Telluride raised his right hand and socked Brando across the jaw, somehow making contact with Brando, and violently jerking his head to one side. Brando rubbed his jaw. “Hit a nerve, did I Telluride, old man?” What ya gonna do about it? Shoot someone? Throw a temper tantrum? Stalk Wendy and pretend that you are protecting her, whilst talking to that Maria chick, amping her anger up, and convincing her that she deserves revenge? Cause that shit don’t sound like you at all, Telluride. Not at all, right?” Highway Man snickered in the corner, his mouth behind his hand. Rose and the Phantom looked about ready to split. Tom continued to click his Kodachrome camera into the room and pick at his fingernails from his post on top of the ‘Non Fiction: Politics’ shelves. 

Faux Rimbaud smiled openly. “This is all how I figured. None of us get along any better in death, than er did in life. We are still the same people, with the same hang ups, and the same uptight attitudes. Telluride still has a stick up his ass when challenged. Brando is the same old circus master he ever was, holding the entire room in rapture when he speaks, a one man show, a performance of ‘Brando, the movie’ every night.”
“I prefer to think of myself as a cartoon,” Brando shot back.

A scream echoed off in the distance, alive and terrified. Another followed it. Outside the bookstore there was the sound of feet running away down Kerouac Alley towards the direction of Chinatown. If something, or someone had scared them down the alleyway, the chances of them finding Chinatown any less terrifying were about zero. The quieter, less haunted streets of Broadway were a better bet, or better still head into somewhere that was still busy, some 24 hour coffee joint or late night bar, and wait for a taxi home, presuming they had a home to go to.

“Look,” I whispered, not wanting anyone outside to know I was in the basement ostensibly talking to myself, “If any of you jokers can make it out to the college rehearsal rooms, I could do with the back up. Tuesday and Friday at 7pm. They are going to be practicing West Side Story. It seems to attract Maria, and not her in her replay motions either. Joey is losing his mind.” Telluride leaned in close towards me and, almost breathing, a few inches from my face, hissed one word: “Run!” I decided to get out of there before I was arrested. As I slipped out of the side door and ran down the alleyway into Chinatown, I saw the flashing lights of cop cars pull up and shine their lights into the bookstore window. As the fingers of the dead clutched at my ankles and pulled at my arms I saw Brando out of the corner of my eye, chasing after me, shaking off the ravenous spirits and hoping for another glass of whiskey.

I stopped at the bottom of Mason, regarding the hill with horror. There is one constant in eternity: what goes up must come down, and in San Francisco, what goes down must go up in the end. I wonder that is why everyone is high in this city. The hills always rise and never seem to fall quite often enough to balance out the climb. Brando had his hammer out of his belt loop and was tossing it in the air and catching it as he walked towards me. “Want some company?” he asked almost shyly.

“I read your old letters to your friend,” I told him softly. “You can really write, Brando. What happened? Why did you never get round to doing it?” Brando looked at me waggling a finger and shaking his head, as he slouched up the road, and pulled his peaked flat cap over his eyes slightly. “You know, if you are stuck in those clothes for eternity, they are really working for you, Brando.” Brando looked at me puzzled, before finally finding some words. “I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the education that the other boys in the scene had. I had the talent, they had the discipline. People did try and help me, but not all of us are meant to be lead violin in the orchestra.” He pulled the hammer up to his neck and started to pretend to play it like a heavy metallic stringed instrument. “I wrote the music, they played the song.” He paused a moment, and looked at me slightly differently, through narrowed hungry eyes, with a playful glint playing across ultra alive consciousness.

“You read all of them?” He asked. It was easy to giggle at his concern, but I figured that Brando deserved more kindness than that. After all letters are not meant to be read except by the person they are addressed to. There are laws about that kind of thing. Stealing the mail is a federal offence, except when it is collated, collected and printed post mortem, for the vultures to pour over, salivating at the ups and downs of someone else’s life. The average life is about as interesting as the lifecycle of a gnat, I suppose, and everyone is nosy. There is intense enjoyment in reading things that are not meant for public eyes.

“You know you got nothing, you know nothing you are nothing, but when nothing is the end result, there is not much to say about it all.” He pulled off his shirt, revealing a stony pale Adonis torso. I had never really looked at him before. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes wide and blue, his hair had arranged itself effortlessly into waves and curls. He was a handsome man. I nodded my head, as he grabbed my arm and pulled me into his icy grasp, throwing his shirt into the wind and hauling me up Mason.

We were almost at the top of the hill when he looked at me, and sighed hard. “If you were more alive, and I was less dead, we might have something, Wendy. I am not entirely queer. It was a habit I picked up in jail, or at least that is what I tell people.” I shook my head. “Times have changed Brando. It’s ok to be gay nowadays, as long as you don’t live in Florida, I suppose. They are still hiding round the back of Lowes and pretending they are fixing car engines rather than sucking off their best friends and dreading their wives demanding they stick their dick in them.” Brando laughed. “What I would really like, Wendy, isn’t sex or even affection. What I really want is to drive.” He looked at me hopefully. “I don’t have a car, and besides, do you even think you can do it in your…current condition,” I replied. “Want a drink?”

On The Run

Joey walked his dog three times a day. For his evening walk he usually went to Ina Coolbrith Park, taking Maria’s dog along with him, the ghost of Maria trailing behind them. Sometimes it seemed as if she remembered that she knew he was going to break up with her on that day of the accident. Sometimes she just ran through the motions of things she liked to do. Maria was mourning being dead. She would throw a ghostly red ball and remember how Mochi would run for it, while the real live living Mochi cowered and whimpered every time she came near. She went shopping, she sometimes turned up at work, waiting tables at a restaurant near the Wharf, delivering plates of remembered lobster to heaving tables of drunk tourists.

Maria was busy today. She seemed to be in a remembering mood, capering around an unseeing Joey, slapping him round the face, hovering in front of his eyes and spitting in his direction. I decided to pretend to go for a run, and take Brando along with me. The lengths I was going to, trying to get close to Joey in an attempt to save him were increasing rapidly. I had not gone for a run for years. I felt faintly ridiculous, and a little put out, but could not just do nothing and wait to see if he died in some strange accident.

Maria was getting stronger: stones moved under her weight, dogs baulked, but no one else quite saw her apart from me and Brando. She was riding on Joey’s back, strangling him with her half-realized paws, trying to scratch holes in his jugular with green-black rotting talons, biting at his cheek and trying to pluck out his eyeball to match hers. Eventually, I figured, she was going to break through.

“You take the live one, Ill see what is going on with Ms. Frightful over there.” Brando motioned towards me, not looking as if he relished the possibility. I walked past Joey and Mochi, dawdling to let him get a good look at me. “Hey!” said Joey, rubbing at the back of his neck. “You are doing the prop stuff on West Side Story? I play Tony. Name’s Joey.”

At that moment, with an angry Maria glaring at Brando, through one good eye, I had second thoughts about all of this. The kid didn’t deserve to live, or die that way, but still, was it really my war?

“Yes. My name is Wendy. I signed up a bit late, but you know, it is good to get out of the house and everything. Nice dog you got there. He seems sweet.” Joey looked towards me sadly. “He belonged to my girlfriend, ex girlfriend, Maria. She died earlier on this year. Accident. I took him in…after…” Joey paused. Maria when she was happily running through her motions, reliving the days of her life looked much like Maria looked in life. Black shoulder length hair, small upturned nose, brilliant blue eyes, olive skinned and small framed. Maria in the middle of realizing her reality was a different creature, a grave mistake. She seemed to deteriorate by the day, rotting, smashed, dismantled, lost, and was currently hanging round Joey’s neck switching between kissing his cheek and trying to strangle him, like a fucked up tinkerbell on speed. Brando was swatting at her, attempting to pull her off Joey, but she simply turned her head around, twisting it improbably, and hissed in his face. Brando winced at the stench that I could barely smell, but to him clearly was unbearable.

Joey tried to loosen his collar and rubbed at a rapidly appearing scratch on his neck. “I’m so sorry to hear about Maria, Joey.” He stopped and looked at me with a look of uncomprehending fear on his face. Maria paused and hopped down off Joey’s neck, starting to crawl towards me. “Are you really sorry!” she screamed. “No one is sorry! He isn’t sorry. You aren’t sorry! I’m dead…and he doesn’t even love me!” I looked at Brando. “Nope,” he said sadly. “Can’t do it. Can’t hit a woman.” Standing in the park with a chivalrous Brando, a murderous Maria and a dumbly unseeing Joey, I didn’t really see a way out. I decided to ignore Maria. She came over and started to pull at my clothes, testing the fabric, fussing around trying to open my purse, and playing with my hair. The stench grew stronger. She dripped ghostly blood and saliva over my shoes and sniffed my neck like an animal testing to see whether or not I was still alive and could be scavenged. A small drop of blood materialized on my shoe and sat there glistening in the sunlight. Joey’s dog licked at it hungrily. I could feel the gorge rise in my throat.

“Joey,” I said quietly. “Maria is standing in front of me right now.”

“I thought she might be,” he said sadly, and with that turned away and walked down the hill back towards the darker, sadder, poorer side of town. I didn’t try and stop him leaving. I didn’t try and give him my phone number or tell him about The Grateful Dead Society. I didn’t even run after him and tell him I thought his life was in danger, and that his eternity would most likely be spent being chased by an obsessed and furious Maria. No. I didn’t do any of these things. Instead, I let him go, possibly to his doom. He looked too sad, too resigned and, to be frank, too aware of his potential fate to add to his harassment. He had almost disappeared off into the distance when decided to yell after him. “Joey! I want to help!” I saw the outline of his shoulders shrugging, as Maria detached herself from hanging around my neck and scampered downhill after him dragging her broken body and loudly singing, “Always you, every thought I’ll ever know, everywhere I go, you’ll be. All the world is only you and me…tonight…tonight..”

I love you too, Maria Browne?

Joey had walked back home, Maria’s dog trailing sadly behind him, neither of them knowing quite what to do next. He tried apologizing to where he guessed her to be standing, squinting slightly at the shadows, trying to make out her outline in the dark of his bedroom, but her empty laughter echoed around the room at midnight as he spoke to the writing on the wall, and she stood next to him, distinctly unimpressed and failing to hold onto her rage. He tried asking her for a sign that she forgave him, which was all well and good, but she didn’t and instead threw books at the windows and made the dog whimper pathetically. He tried telling her to go towards the light, but his commands felt empty, powerless and hokey. It was so weak and clearly not going to work that he started laughing and telling Maria that he was a fool to think getting rid of her was going to be so easy. She laughed along with him, softening slightly at his familiar awkwardly boyish charm. He had been a good boyfriend to her and she had no idea why she had got so damn clingy. He even simply sat and talked to her about his day and what was going on in the living world. Maria sat there and held his hand, breathing graveyard dirt into his face and resting her head on his shoulder, while he shuddered and tried to come to terms with his fate as the eternal lover of the dead Marie. Joey had started to give up. After all, would it be so bad? Was there even another option.

One night after a long talk about the situation in eastern Europe, the lingering pandemic and what it felt like to die, Joey broached the subject of the stage hand, Wendy. Maria always accompanied Joey to his rehearsals, and had seen how Wendy looked at Joey. What was in fact concern, Maria determined, wrongly, to be desire. She had even wandered past Wendy’s meagre home defenses and scrawled a message across her wall. Only Telluride had been helping her. He had helped her make herself be heard by Joey, who now heard her voice at least some of the time. He even gave her a scummy old lipstick in a small metal compact, not a stick, which she used to smear the message on the wall. He said it had belonged to his wife, but she had no need of it now, not since he killed her back in the day. He had told her it was an accident. She did not believe him. He had told her the dead could kill the living if they really tried and knew a few tricks. “My dear, you can either drive them to kill themselves, out of sheer terror. You can put suggestions into their dumb bloody brains and get them to hang themselves, or smash the car they are travelling in, but you, my sweet zombie-child, are not up to such subtle moves, at least not yet. You might have the necessary rage to possess someone and drive them like they are a car, or that bicycle of yours. Then you can do what you like with them, use their meaty outer layer to cause harm to whosoever you wish. But if you do this…” Telluride stopped, realizing that Marie was drifting, “Marie! Snap out of it! Here! Now! Do you want to know these secrets or not?” Marie liked secrets. No one ever let her into secrets, mainly because she was pathologically unable to keep her own counsel in life. In death she had barely changed, not really, it was just that all that anger and hatred and feeling of injustice and inadequacy had been dug up and exposed, infecting the rest of her sweet loving personality with poison.

“Telluride. Do you think he will love me once we are together?” Telluride, appearing to the tortured Maria in his full skin and softness, easier to draw her in that way, or at least that is what he would have said if anyone had asked him. Truly, Telluride had a deep love for his people, The Dead, grateful or otherwise, and sought nothing more and nothing less than what he saw as their best interests. Telluride had ceased to see living as the default best option. Living, life, it meant nothing to him. “Marie. You should do what you want. But you must know if he continues to live and you, of course, must continue to not live, there is no way around that, he will eventually be freed of you, and move on. He will have other girls, other lovers, perhaps even marry and have children, and leave even the memory of you behind. You understand that? If you want him to be happy….let him go. If you want him to be with you, then you have a few choices to make.” Maria took his hand, “Grandpa Telluride. Thank you. I do not know what I would do without you. Will you help me?” Telluride nodded and stroked her hair. “You will feel so much better once you have made this choice, this deterioration will reverse, you will be your young pretty self once again. Let me get you something pretty to wear for the stage, little one. Now, tell me about yourself before that nasty little spill on Van Ness?”

Maria told him that she had always felt bereft of love. Her mother had been a college professor, teaching philosophy at Berkley, and had always been more devoted to her career than Maria, choosing instead a kind of benign neglect style of mothering. Her father, a stern man who travelled a lot for work, saw her as a trophy, another sign of his success, and was rarely affectionate or loving, instead choosing to inspire her to greatness and academic success, both of which she failed at. Maria didn’t do a doctorate, she didn’t go into STEM, and she was not talented at ballet, tennis or chess. Maria liked to sing, but that was not something to boast to the neighbors and colleagues about, and so her parents never encouraged her, choosing instead to tell her to hush because she was irritating them with her renditions of various showtunes and pop hits. Maria worked in a small bakery, decorating cupcakes and mixing vast batches of cookie dough. Her boss had grand aspirations of taking their San Francisco gig, a hip artisan joint that made improbably flavored baked goods, all the way to New York. They just had to come up with the new cronut, or lucky charms and cornflake flavored panna cotta and it would be easy breezy plain sailing. The day after Maria died her boss hired a new girl who came up with a bacon crème caramel with honey mustard drizzle, made her a partner and went to New York to hawk egg and cream. Maria would have been happy to know that they were failing miserably. The New York bakery scene was more viciously competitive over turf and supremacy on the streets of New York than any battle between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story ever had the potential to be.

 Maria was never the star of any show. Maria was not even the star of her own life or death. The Costco chicken, having been tossed from her basket during the accident flew once again, post mortem, and ended up on the roof of an art shop, having reached heights in death that it never made in life. People took photos of it and marveled at it’s perfect positioning, perching on the ledge and peering out over Van Ness. Even in death she was outdone. Even in death people merely groaned and looked away. Even in death she had failed to be special. Her mother had written a very successful book on grief and  was working on a follow up on mourning the loss of what could have been when parenting the underperforming child, and was hawking her ideas on daytime TV shows with mean women who made jokes about flying roast chickens. Her father divorced her mother and married a twenty year old eastern European woman, younger than Maria was at the time of her death. They were having twin boys, who her father determined were going to be fantastic. He felt ready to be a father after the failed experiment that was Maria.

Maria fell in love hard and fast, looking for someone who could hear her sing and be happy to see her smile; someone who was happy with mediocre but kind, pretty but not beautiful; someone who was good enough, but not superlative in anything besides being Maria. Joey was not a superlative kind of guy. Moderately successful, mildly funny, kind but not overly interesting. Joey was the kind of man who was amusing for a dinner party’s worth of conversation, but not able to hold a group’s attention for an extended period of time. He made a good sidekick but would never be the superhero. His parents were ordinary people with ordinary lives, who, if they had ever met Maria, would have adored her and her delicious but not innovative cookies. Not everybody can be a star, but the heavens had aligned and for one night and one night only Maria and her Joey were going to wow the room and take the stage. For one night they were going to be the center of attention.

Joey had kept his distance. On opening night he came up to me and stiffly declared that he did not need any help, that the situation was under control, and that he would never date again, Maria hissing at me from behind his shoulder. “Joey,” I said quietly, “I am not interested in dating you. We don’t even have to be friends. You don’t have to live like this, let’s try and work out a way to help Maria move on.” I glanced over my shoulder to make sure we were not being overheard. Maria move stickily towards Joey, and whispered in his ear. “No. I know what your game is,” he continued, directed by Maria, “I can see her now, and I hear her just fine most of the time. You won’t break us up.” Maria danced around him joyously, as he took the chance to mouth the words “Help me!” in my direction. “I’ll try.” I mouthed back, before saying loudly and clearly, “Of course, I am sorry Joey. Sorry Maria.” Maria nodded her head and licked Joey’s face.

The performances of West Side Story had gone quietly enough. Maria had stood there at the side of the stage, hiding her decrepitation and decomposition behind a ghostly uniform of smart shell pink pedal pushers, short sleeved white sweater and a string of pearls She was the perfect Maria, or else would have been if she had not taken on a sickly green pallor and her hair not been falling out in ghostly lumps, sometimes leaving nasty traces on the stage, small sprigs of hair complete with rotting black chunks of scalp. She remained resolutely hollow, see through and unbodied. Sometimes she almost managed to physically manifest herself in the living world, but this required considerably more juice and rage than even she had access to.

 I had wondered where she had got her new clothes from. The Grateful Dead Society had turned up in force on opening night, but nothing particularly interesting happened. Maria swanned around shadowing the actress playing her namesake, singing alongside her and gaining a few rounds of honest applause from The Grateful Dead Society, but resisting any attempts of the ghostly cohort to get close to her, talk to her, or banish her. She was stuck fast to Joey, who was playing Tony just how he played everything in his life – with just enough effort to scrape by and sufficient enthusiasm so not to get into any trouble with his boss. So far, so am dram.

The Grateful Dead Society, whilst maintaining a presence drifted back to their usual haunts leaving me and Brando to hold down the fort. I had to admit that nothing was going particularly south. A few drops of blood on the stage mingled in with the stage blood, Maria made a nuisance of herself, but was barely affecting the physical world. Lights sometimes blew out as she (and the Grateful Dead hooligans) drained the bulbs for energy, some people saw a few shadows that were not quite right but discounted it as theatre. There were a few complaints amongst the actors that they felt the stage was haunted, and they heard ghostly laughter backstage, or felt icy fingertips on the backs of their necks, but it didn’t escalate enough even to call up some lame tv ghost hunter and declare the Community college to be haunted, besides it didn’t have an interesting story of death and jealousy to interest media types. They were not excited by anything less than the La Bianca house, the Hotel Chelsea, or at least a southern mansion with dubious civil war era history. A 1970s red brick and concrete box housing the hopes and dreams of the poorer young members of society with a possibly haunting and some reports of icy fingers on the back of necks did not float their boats.

Brando and I had been keeping each other company upon occasion. He would knock on my door, or rattle the window, in a distinctly non-spooky way. As scared as I was of making connections with the living, death could not remove Brando, and he had quickly become my friend. Maria had taken to a little traditional haunting and poltergeist activity, which he quickly shut down. The more time we spent together, the more he was able to interact. I even bought him a few different bottles of booze, and would pour a shot into a saucepan and bring it to a boil while he inhaled the vapors like the booze-hound fiend he had been in life. Death does not change everything. It doesn’t even change most things. Death draws a line that most of us are not able to step over. Of course there are the casualties, like Maria, or even myself to a lesser extent, but mostly the dead world and the living one fail to mingle, like oil and water they repel each other as they are used to. Brando described me as a spiritual solvent, an unknown quantity which managed to make the oil and water mix and swirl together in something else, a bridge, an alchemical alliance which brought the two worlds colliding. Things could never be the same again, not for me.

“I might as well have died in that accident, Brando.” I told him one night over hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls, as I burnt another stick of incense. He shook his head defiantly. “Wendy, sweet Wendy. Wendy of the hills, being dead is never a good idea, never something to wish for. To be alive, to be vital and breathing, to have possibility for change, real meaningful change is a wonderful thing. This is who I am. Who I am, who I was, is now all I will ever be. I cannot change. Death fixes a form, solidifies it. Life is the time you get to grow, to evolve, to be different and try on different costumes and ways of being. By the time you die, you had better have got it under control, because, t-t-t-t-t-that’s all folks, you is what you was and that is that.”

“But….I should have gone too, Brando.” Brando stared at the floor, picked up the large teddy bear that sat on my dresser, and brought it over to me. “I would give you a hug, but I must feel like hell to you. Who needs an icebox to comfort them, eh.” He dropped the bear on my lap. Imagine it is from me. I am glad you lived. I am not sure that I believe that there is a reason for everything, but it sure is handy that you didn’t die.” He picked up the photograph of the little girl that I kept turned around on the shelf. “Did she move on?” He asked. I got up and poured two shots of whiskey, heating one up on the stove and drinking the other.

“So, you think Maria is going to be content with haunting Joey?” I asked Brando. “Unlikely,” he shot back, “highly unlikely.” The kitchen filled with the scent of ten year old bourbon. “This is really groovy.” He sometimes sounded as anachronistically out f place as he actually was. “You know I am still surprised that the rest of the world continued for so long after my death. I suspected that the living were all going to sacrifice themselves to a big bomb, well before we reached the millennium. I suppose none of us expect life to continue without us. Our little ends all feel like The End, yet continue it does.”

He took one last huge gulp of whiskey vapor, shut his eyes, and disappeared, dragged back to wherever his personal starting place was, the place that he never talks about, and that he rises from like some drunken fucked up, tripping plastic jesus, and comes back to my apartment to be the best friend that I had managed to cultivate since everyone else I loved checked out and left me alone and bereft. I suppose I could have simply headed out to be with them, but like Brando said, I needed the opportunity for change. The dead don’t grow. Some get lucky and check out at the peak of their creativity, as good as they are ever gonna get. Others leave before they have had a chance to become much at all. That is the tragedy, not the leaving.

Curtain!

The evening of the final performance came around. The director was flushed with success, and mean with disappointment. He wanted to be a great stage director, and ended up putting on flawed performances of bubblegum musical fun for the perpetually bored residents of San Francisco. He knew that he was never going to make Broadway, and was not ok with the fact, and boy oh boy did we all know it. Not even stage hands like me were safe from his ranting about shoddy craftsmanship and lack of dedication. If it had not been for Joey I never would have showed up in the first place, let alone stuck around. It was almost bearable to have to hang around the living. These days I was far more comfortable around the dead than the alive, even ones as disturbing and hostile as Maria.

The Grateful Dead Society met once a week or so, and I would turn up, though not at Bridge Span Bookshop since the incident with the cops. They never did work out who was screaming outside or why, though I presumed it was simply a civilian seeing a ghost down Kerouac Alley that did it. I half wondered whether a member of the Society had spooked someone on purpose to try and make me leave. It was not impossible. The Society were divided as to my attendance. Some wanted to use me, others were hostile, a few friendlier than they should be, and then there was my Brando, the heart of the beat and the soul of the party. They sometimes met in the café next door, since everyone could stay there comfortably, and it was not too far from their various home bases. Other times they met in the graveyard, partly for the kicks, partly because it was mostly deserted by the living in the middle of the night. The first time I walked in there the overwhelming death energy of the place terrified me, but it is amazing what someone can do with their friends by their side. The nameless fear melted away. Brando made me feel as if I could stare Death Himself in the eye and walk away unscathed. The ones that could travel sometimes made it to my apartment in the ‘Loin. I resolved to find digs in North Beach. It would make everything easier all around.  

They had resolved to come en masse to the final performance of West Side Story, though there was not a lot of desire to save Joey’s life, partly because many thought Maria was just messing with him, partly because being dead themselves, they did not see it as a big deal.

The first half of the show went well. Maria was clearly enjoying playing the part. Tom wandered onto the stage, leaving Brando guarding Joey, who was giving the performance of his life as Tony. Tom walked up to me, his camera hanging around his neck, lens flashing in the stage lights. He moved closer to me than he had before, motioning for me to allow him to whisper in my ear. “Telluride has been spying on you and Brando. I’ve seen him out with Maria too.” Tom produced a pile of photographs of Telluride talking to Maria, one with him affectionately sitting with his hand on her rotting spirit body head, followed by a series of photographs of Telluride outside my apartment building, standing silhouetted under a street lamp. He whispered into my ear, “Sorry. I didn’t know what to do. Brando and I don’t exactly get along. Roland, that journo in Nam who sent me to my death, was a friend of his. You might say I hold a grudge. No one ever takes me seriously anyhow, and to be frank, I am scared of Telluride. Don’t say a word, Wendy, just nod if you understand. Let’s see if we can play this better than the enemy have done.” I shuffled behind the curtain to think as Act 2 came to a close and it was almost time for me to lower the blue velveteen curtain with the fire retardant backing, and change the scenery.

Brando stood bored stiff, as much as any spirit can be stiff, in front of Joey, keeping an eye on Maria capering round the stage and performing the part of West Side Story Maria alongside the sweet young woman who had won the part was continually complaining of feeling cold, of and had confided in Tony that she was seeing things in the mirror whenever she did her makeup. Maria was in her element, for once she felt like she was the star, the center of attention, the absolute be all….and the one who could end it all too. Her power was growing. Her face appeared visible at the stage window, hands supporting her face, standing like a winsome Juliet waiting for her Romeo. She appeared peeking round the curtain, just off stage. As the performance wound on she got bolder and bolder. Some members of the audience started to murmur, but it was hard to be sure in the dimmed stage lights, and out of the spotlight which bleached out Maria’s apparition in their glare. Maria existed in the shadows and the crevices. 

It was time for Joey’s big number, his grand performance. It was time to sing Maria. As the opening bars struck, Joey, his hair greased up into an impossible pompadour, poured into tight pants which were about as much Joey as having guts or a backbone was, found some bravado lurking deep within his troubled soul. Joey, hardened by suffering, bold through facing fear and death straight in the face, realizing that if he was going to be someone, be the man he knew he could be, that now was the time. Maria hung back, waiting for her song. Joey was meant to stand, center stage in the spotlight. His psychiatrist front row, waiting to see if her idea would bear any fruit. It bore strange fruit indeed, but the fruit was rotten and was currently dragging itself on the floor, decaying as it sat, trying to move limbs that were impossibly twisted, singing through a smashed mouth and destructed tongue, horribly destroyed by the speed and steel and all the time, hiding behind eyes that were now glowing red with anger and fury and the injustice of being removed from life’s equation all too quickly. Joey, who was meant to be skipping alone across the stage as the doomed Tony, in the total joy of existence having met the love of his life, at that point not knowing he was doomed to die, ignored the well-practiced steps, the familiar traced dance, and instead moved towards the writhing Maria. Telluride moved towards me. He might as well have been wearing a cloak and wielding a dagger. The stage suited him, he was glowing with pleasure. “Do something!” I hissed towards him, as he wrangled the cardboard suitcase that was hopping and jumping with strange alien life. “I have,” he said. “I never wanted her to suffer.” He looked at me and laughed. “You never cared about Maria’s suffering, her pain or who she was and who she ever could still be, because you are prejudiced against the dead. You don’t believe the dead can suffer, that is why you torture that poor meathead with your living body and that sweet smile of yours. “You mean Brando?” I asked. Brando looked over and winced. “Not a meathead! I can hear you from over here, Telluride!” he yelled over. Telluride’s ghostly tongue slid across his bony bleached white jaw and hung where his bottom lip should be. “Transformations, Wendy. I did warn you that you were not equipped to deal in the days and lives of the dead. I did attempt to get you to stay away, but you just would not listen to me, would you?” I realized everyone was staring at me talking to the wall. I pretended to be whispering into the Bluetooth headset that I had put into my ear, in an attempt to not be seen as crazy, and instead just on an intense and inappropriate phone call in the middle of the performance. Fingers were raised to lips, I moved further backstage and glared back. The pay was not nearly good enough to take that kind of hassle.

“This is merely an in-between stage for Maria. Birthing pains before she comes into the pinnacle of her post life being. It won’t always be like this for her…at least I don’t think so.” Telluride looked as if he was hiding something. Brando came hurrying over as if I was in more danger than Joey was. “Wendy. You had better look at this.” He said quietly and with the air of someone who was trying to break bad news without being blamed for the state of affairs he was reporting on. Looking around the corner, Telluride taking up a position off stage right with a perfect view looking straight at Maria, I turned to see what the fuss was about. Joey had his arms around Maria, sitting on the stage floor, cradling her spirit body, and pulling her to her feet, and was dancing with a figure unseen to most. A few concerned yelps came from the audience. One woman, a dark haired beauty in her early twenties, put her hand to her mouth and tried not to scream. Her brain could not decide whether or not to run for the exit, or stay in place and see what happened next, but it was absolutely clear, absolutely crystal clear, that the young woman could see what was happening. A weight lifted off my shoulders. I had been worried that I had lost my entire mind, that I had imagined the entire thing, that what was transpiring on the stage was only happening in my own head as a result of a head injury after the accident or perhaps some terrible psychiatric crisis that was playing out in response to the trauma of my entire family being killed in a car accident three years previously. No. Clearly that was  not the case. She could see it too. I caught her eye and nodded my head. It took me a few attempts to gain her attention, but she saw me mouthing “speak to me after!” ..as did the rest of the audience. I was beyond caring. Let them think me insane. Let them believe I am crazy, what did it matter anyway. I had another ally and this one was flesh and bone and blood and a heart that beat and a brain that fired up in electrons and neurons, not some residual consciousness made out of who knows what. Stardust and god particles? It didn’t matter. Maria was being brought back to life. As Joey twirled her around singing “Maria, I just met a girl called Maria…” and looking lovingly into her eyes, Maria started to regenerate. The decay was regressing, and the life flowing back through her spirit body. Her hair reappeared on her bald and greening head, her skin changed from the colors of decay into delicate pinks and peaches with rosy cheeks. By the time the final Maria escaped from Joey’s mouth, she was lovely once more. My new ally in the second row was peeking through her fingers. A chill filled the room, and as the song ended and the play moved on, Joey gathered himself, and Maria hanging on his arm, proceeded to perform the rest of the play without a hint of what had happened.

Tony came off stage for some Jets and Sharks action, a cosplay dressed actor in a cop costume played a ridiculous Officer Krupke. He was so absolutely terrible the audience erupted in laughter. He took this as a sign his performance was wowing the crowd and dragged out his time on stage. Maria sat next to Joey backstage, laughing and stretching one balletic and perfect leg out admiring it, and the other was tucked neatly behind her. Joey was talking to her out loud. The director went around telling everyone to get through the play, get to the end, and then they could take the broken down Joey to the ER once again, for a spell in a psych ward. The show must always go on!

Telluride strode over to Maria and whispered something in her ear. Maria looked serious a moment and kissed Joey on the cheek. He barely shuddered. I couldn’t help but think I should stop whatever was going to happen next but not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing how to stop it was powerless to even begin to form a game plan.

That was when I saw Maria stand behind the warm live body of Julie, the girl playing the character of Maria, and then she possessed her. She walked right in. It was like watching someone levering a foot that didn’t fit into a shoe a few sizes too small, but persevering anyhow. Julie unconsciously fought back, wiggled and moved and twitched, but Maria was intent and desperate. The force of Maria’s desire was hotter than the strength of Julie to fight against a force she had no idea existed. You cannot fight what you cannot see and don’t believe in. Julie’s innocence, her stolidity, her normality signed her fate. Julie didn’t deserve it. She just wanted to play the part of West Side Story Maria…but now she got to be her, and play a much bigger and more permanent role than she bargained for.

Joey had given up. I shot him a look, tried to get over to him to shake some sense into him, but it was no use, there were too many people, and Joey was being corralled by a small group of players, who were intent to get him on stage for the big finale. It was like swimming through treacle, trying to get past people moving scenery, people changing costume, people setting up props. Finally there was a loud and (at least to me), audible pop. Pop goes the Julie. Pop goes mundanity. Maria finally shoehorned herself into the living body of Maria, and after a few drunken looking test runs, admired her new slim arms and twirled around like a girl who had not had a physical body for six months or so. She ducked the movers and shakers, the director and his goons, and Joey pushed through to meet her. They embraced, Joey stroking her head and kissing her eyes and apologizing. There was no resisting Maria and the strength of her will and the terrible finality of the situation, so Joey had simply given up. Joey wanted to live and if living meant living with Maria, then that was what he was going to do. A man shouted ‘curtain!” and everything slid into place.

The final scene with the lie that west-side-story Maria was dead, and Tony’s first joyful hope to settle with Maria in the countryside and have babies, and then his wicked final murder, and Maria’s forgiveness breaking the cycle, was always a blast to play and a relief to wind up. I had enough of this am dram bullshit to last me a lifetime. I missed my nights at home with a book and my thoughts, or hanging out with Brando and being lectured about the creative supremacy of jazz. No, I thought, let’s wind this up now and get on with life. Joey had made his choice and if he didn’t want to fight it, if he wanted to live with the ghost of Maria, who was I to complain or insist differently?

Telluride was nowhere to be seen. Tom sidled over to me looking concerned with a handful of ghostly photographs in his hand. Telluride pulling a gun out of his black-hole briefcase, Telluride handing it to Julie/Maria, Telluride laughing, Telluride patting Maria on the shoulder. The gun surely couldn’t be real, surely couldn’t be physically in this world. I looked over to the stage prop desk and it was empty. The prop gun must be on stage with the guy playing Chino, whose character was in love with Maria and thus wanted to kill the member of the wrong gang who wanted to take the girl he wanted away to get married and settle down. I looked over to Chino. He didn’t seem nervous. He was playing his part with his usual amateur bravado and over acted kitsch. I looked to Julie/Maria who was standing in the crowd watching the scene. Her face was stretched into an unnatural rictus of joy and anticipation. Brando ran over to me and Tom, but as he did, Julie/Maria and Chino raised the gun at exactly the same moment in time. Julie had a small derringer pistol, it had slipped into her jacket pocket unnoticed, palm-sized, wild west era, old and beautifully wrought in pearl and steel, inlaid with flowers on the grip and so small  nobody else noticed, or if they did, failed to make sense of it before Chino pulled the trigger of the stage gun with the accompanying sound effect and muzzle flash of smoke and Maria/Julie pulled the trigger on her little pistola and shot a bullet right through the ghost of Brando, and between the eyes of Joey. Joey stood there looking stunned for a moment, as if he hadn’t realized he was dead, shouted one word, not in the script and fell to the floor. The final sound from his lips was Maria. A pool of blood spread around his head a neat hole through and through. The bullet had gone through Joey’s head, and stuck itself in the shoulder of the director who clutched his chest screaming and the lights all went up. Joey was dead.

I had seen the point of death before, but was too distracted by fire and smoke, injury and chaos to observe the process. Brando stood by my side. Tom ran to the body and clicked off a few reels of film, photographing the death and the horror, the screaming and the terror and the stampede of people leaving the theatre all at once, trampling and falling over themselves in the rush to get out of there. Pleas for calm were of no use. Yells of “active shooter!” filled the room and the large man who played Chino launched himself at Maria/Julie, but too late, as Maria forced Julie’s hand around to face her own head, and before anyone could do anything about it pulled the trigger mercilessly. Julie fell to the floor with barely a moan or a cry. Joey’s spirit, shocked out of his body, was now hovering above his corpse and wailing. Joey wanted to live. Joey had been willing to do anything to live, had been willing to go along with any reality in exchange for his life. Maria and Julie’s spirits separated and were fighting, struggling and wrestling on the floor with Joey looking on horrified. Brando went over, separated the two girls while the living world continued with cops and medics, lights and the smell of cordite hanging heavy in the air. The Ghosts of North Beach milled around chattering and observing, pointing and performing. It was life after death as usual for them, well not quite as usual. It was rare that the living and dead world collided ending in such high drama and additions to their ranks. Julie’s ghost was wriggling in Brando’s left hand trying to claw her way out of his grasp, while Faux-Rimbaud stuck his cigarette firmly between his lips and grasped Maria around the waist, pinning her arms behind her back. I could do nothing but watch. The cops were asking questions, someone had thrown a silver blanket around my shoulders and was asking me if I needed anything or was hurt at all. Audience members who were crushed in the stampede were being stretchered out, and the coroner’s office had arrived to take the bodies. Tom was inspecting the work of the crime scene photographers, while Highway Man sat in a corner and cried. Brando took Julie to her body. “Honey. You are dead. I am sorry you are dead, but you are dead nonetheless, and it is not fair and it was too soon and I am sorry we couldn’t save you, but this is what has been done. You gotta say goodbye, Julie. Say goodbye.” Julie calmed and went to walk to her body and then a blinding light showed up and she was pulled into it, dragging her into an infinite tunnel of light. Voices came from the tunnel calling her name. The Grateful Dead Society stood back in horror. The tunnel was both feared and desired. The tunnel closed and Julie was gone. Maria and Joey stood there, in their ghostly bodies staring at each other. Joey had clearly had enough.

“You fucking crazy bitch! How fucking dare you do this without asking me what I wanted. I wanted to live. I was only with your insane ass because I had no choice. You wouldn’t leave me alone so I figured I could play along and get you exorcized or something. I should have listened to Wendy, but when you threatened to kill her if I talked to her, I didn’t want that on my conscience. I knew you had it in you to kill. I knew it Maria. Now who is going to look after the fucking dog, huh! You thought about that!”

“I already killed the dog, baby, just after you left to come to the show. All good dogs go to heaven you know”. Maria smiled.

The Grateful Dead Society were enjoying the show. It was the best thing they had seen in years. Most had settled into the first few rows of the theatre seats to look at the action from the best, and safest, place possible. Who knew what could happen next.

“Maria. You are dumped. We are over. It is over. I never want to see you again. Do you understand what I am saying to you? It is over. Done. Kaput. Finished. Forever.”

Faux Rimbaud pulled his fountain pen from his jacket and his notebook from his back pant’s pocket and started writing. The Grateful Dead Society got up en masse and moved towards Maria. Telluride reappeared from stage left, looking somber.

“Maria. You did what you wanted to do. I merely helped you get there. Dead rights first in my book, and really, when the living look at it right, this dead world is the real world, and their living one,  but a transient stage. You were reunited, and Joey has spoken. Joey doesn’t want to be with you Maria. It is time to move on.” Maria was on her knees crying pitifully, all the anger drained out of her, all the fury and the unfairness of her own end, had mutated and infected, and all the killing had begotten, was more killing.

A cop came up to the Director as they were loading him onto a trolley to take out to a waiting ambulance. “How many dead? He asked.” The cop looked at him and sighed. “Provisionally, we have two dead on stage here, and three in the audience crushed in the stampede. Obviously we will want to talk to you, but this is not your fault, Greg. My wife loves coming to your shows. Everyone knows what happened here, it is just motive we are missing. Perhaps they were in some failed relationship, a love triangle usually. You go get patched up. We will bring you and Amy a casserole over at the weekend.” The director lay back still holding his shoulder.

Telluride had stopped so his own production could play out. This was his play, his grand finale, his masterpiece, that he had got on the stage and presented to the Dead in their various forms, as entertainment under the guise of therapy for Maria, and at that moment, I hated him.

“We are going to have to ask, Maria, that you stick to your part of town, that would be the area around the place of your death.”

Maria wailed. “But there is nothing to do up there!”

Telluride smiled benevolently. You can present your case again after a while. Let some time pass by, let’s see if you can get along with others and leave Joey alone. Perhaps you should move on.”

Joey had gone to sit with the Grateful Dead gang in the front row of the theatre. He was stuck wearing the clothes he had been in to play Tony, like some cut-price Fonz on an outing with a Teddy Boy’s convention. His hair was slicked up into a ridiculous pompadour and he was visibly wearing greasepaint and eyeliner. Faux Rimbaud was trying to get Joey’s hair to stand flat against his head to no avail. Joey was sulking, but laughing. No more work, no more bills, no more feeling like life was a struggle and he was losing the race. No more Maria, no more worries about going bald, or not making enough money to be able to ask some girl to marry him and have a baby together. No more of any of that. Brando walked over to Joey. “Joey, are you angry?” he asked gently. “I mean your life has been taken, everything totally screwed up for you, and you are dead when you wanted to be alive. Are you angry?”

Joey looked up at Brando and smiled. “No, Bro. Not at all. I mean you see where angry gets you? It gets you being a rotten filthy piece of trash like Maria, who leads others to this undead shit. I forgive her, I just don’t want to be near her. I am going to make the best of it. I would like to see that tunnel one day, like Julie went into, but for now, I hope I can hang with you guys and do some stuff I never had time for when I was alive. I think I would like to read a book. I’ve always wanted to write poetry.”

Brando smiled. “Atta boy!” All that anger and death leads to more anger and more death and more suffering, and it never turns out well in the end. I have some time. Maybe you and I can get to know each other and brainstorm some poetry ideas. These fools love a good poetry reading, though don’t let Faux Rimbaud get going, you will never get him to shut up with his tenement building, trash collection, medicine mixing stream of consciousness jive talk.” Faux Rimbaud punched Brando in the upper arm. The Ghosts of North Beach started to drift away, as the live cops milled around and the crime scene cleaners started to clean up the dreadful mess of brains and blood and flesh and pieces of skull. Brando, grabbed Joey by the arm. He could see him looking at his body. “You want to go take a look? I mean you are not zipped up in there yet? They had already taken Julie away on a stretcher. Joey shook his head. “I don’t think so…Hey man, what’s your name?” Brando smiled. “Good choice, Sir. Well played. Leave it behind. It is not ‘you’ anymore. I’m Brando.” Brando held out his hand, and Joey pulled him in for a hug. “Can I ask you something, Brando?” asked Joey. “Were you hanging around looking at me, in my house and stuff?” Brando decided on honesty being the best policy and nodded his head. “Cool,” said Joey. “So I can go haunting people? I mean I can go looking in places and people won’t even know I am there? I can just walk through walls and stuff?” Joey looked almost hopeful, as he threw his arm around Brando’s shoulder, and the two of them walked off out the door.

I decided to leave the dead to it, and to talk to Joey later. The cops gave me the green light to go, and I walked out into the cold night air and looked at my phone. It was 2am. The final curtain had gone down. As I walked down the street, I noticed a slightly built woman of about thirty years old standing under a street lamp trying to look inconspicuous. When she spotted me, she started walking towards me with a nervous smile on her face. I recognized her as the woman from the theatre. She was the one who could clearly see the Ghosts and had made eye contact with me. In the drama and all the dying I had almost forgotten about her entirely. She clearly had not forgotten about me.

Her mouth was opening and closing like an asthmatic goldfish, her eyes looking at me pleadingly for some kind of access point which was risk free, but there was none. I was obviously more used to appearing like a madwoman than she was and took the plunge. “I know you see them too – the ghosts I mean. I know you see them and you probably hear them, and I expect they are causing you some trouble as well. My name is Wendy. I live up on Nob Hill. What is your name?” The goldfish type gaping paused, and a stuttering sound emanated from her mouth. “I – I – I’m Sally. Sally Seedly, I live out near Jackson Square. I’ve always seen them. I’ve seen them since I was a baby. My mother thinks it is because I almost died when I was born. She says I was born haunted. She died a few years back, but still lives with me, at least most of the time. Wendy. I don’t want to end up like that poor man with a hole in his forehead, and I am sure you don’t either. There has to be a way out of here, that is  not a doorway to grief or chaos….” Her voice trailed off. “I’m sorry. I talk too much….” I don’t know why I did it, but I did. I reached out to Sally and hugged her close to me, patting her back and stroking her hair as she started gulping back tears and her shoulders shaking.

For once I felt nothing, and feeling nothing felt pretty good to me. For once I felt strong. For once I felt like I might actually have a handle on this situation and that I might be able to come to some kind of agreement or way of living with the dead. “Sally,” I said firmly, “You don’t know me, but you can see me and right now you are the best friend and the most hope I have got. Would you mind if I came home with you tonight, or you can come to my place? I don’t want to be alone.” Sally raised her tear-stained face up to mine and for the first time I realized how extraordinarily beautiful she was. The moonlight played off her eyes, which were a brilliant jewel-like shade of green, and her skin was the color of warm sand. “I’m not sure which is closer, but of course you can come back to mine, Wendy.” And with that, she grasped my hand and the two of us walked down Post Street, away from the Playhouse, away from the disaster zone, away from the ghosts of North Beach and all the petty confusions and deaths and losses and games and plots and subterfuge, and towards a brightly lit room, and the company of another living body. “Do you like silly movies?” I asked. “Perhaps something with that dude in, you know that Jewish guy with the goofy smile?” Sally Seedly smiled and nodded. “You got it, Wends, whatever you need. We can talk about this in the morning.”

Off in the distance Brando stood watching Wendy and Sally leave together, holding hands, and hugging, Wendy’s head on Sally’s shoulder, and he crumpled. His shoulders started shaking and if someone was watching they would think it was a very localized and strange rain storm, because as his tears fell, they materialized and dropped onto the parched dry pavement and puddled there as Brando cried and howled into the moonlight, and all the pigeons fled and a stray cat bolted. Telluride stood there in the shadows with a smile on his skull, and Maria standing behind him with a steely look on her face. Things were never going to be the same again, just like her song promised.

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