In the halcyon days of the mid twentieth century, when cars were big and skirts were short, it was an accepted idea that one could choose a career, pursue and finally achieve it. Even such fanciful occupations as rock star or cowboy were not things unattainable then — before cowboying was officially rechristened a “support activity for animal production” and being a rocker meant geeking about with websites and compressing music files.
Nowadays it’s the rare fellow who finds himself in his first career choice. Most of us have traded down from our original “Plan A” to “Plan B” and so on through the alphabet, finally settling on something near “L” or “M,” the sounds that linguists call liquids and nasals — with horrifying aptness, as it turns out. As careers go, options that far down the alphabet are — as phonology would suggest — less like a vocation and more like a persistent cold.
As the twentieth century made its appearance in a glowing nimbus of optimism, the twenty-first has begun under a shadow of disappointment and disillusion. If employment (and unemployment) is any indication, and it is as good an indication as any, it seems we live in an era which is a phantom of former glory. Our twenty-first century is a shadow of the twentieth, a plaintive echo, a neglected, overgrown garden of second-hand time. But just such periods, the tarnished silver ages which follow on golden ones, are particularly suited to inward turning, metaphysical doubts, and incursions of the uncanny. Brighter times are less welcoming to ghosts.
Ernest Waxgum was a man of singular gifts, and accordingly had singular difficulty finding a job that suited him. His employment ambitions began with a “plan A,” along the model just described, and had long since exhausted the entire Roman alphabet, and branched out into different writing systems altogether. He spent a bad decade or so with the Hebrew letters and had recently graduated to the Greek, in which his current job registered as plan Gamma. Ernest was one of those unfortunates who took a degree in the more rarefied quasi-sciences — no, not Linguistics or Semiotics. Worse. He had gone to one of those experimental New England colleges where they let you cobble together your own major. Ernest held a Master of Arts in Parapsychology (with a minor in Mathematics.) Despite the current TV vogue for ghost-hunting videos, the market for shaky, hand-held black and white videotape of psychic blurs is not all one might hope. And Ernest’s thoughtful essays on the world beyond, sprinkled with quotes in barbarous scholastic Latin, and fantastical parallels from higher mathematics, were met with tepid enthusiasm even from the spectrophile community.
Ernest’s actual job, being of no interest to Ernest, will be of even less concern to the reader. His apartment, however, presented problems of a far more complex order, which may well detain us.
It was located in the once genteel town of Pocus, New Jersey, inconveniently far from Manhattan, but close enough to it to have no true independent existence. The rundown town center of Pocus offered such amenities as a grandiosely gilded but poorly attended Catholic church, an imposing and dilapidated Victorian town hall, a green with a Civil War canon, and a main street of shuttered shops. Beyond the old town center, all was strip mall and suburb. It was a faded and hand-me-down location, all the life laundered out of it.
On the verge of the commercial desert surrounding the town, well maintained garden apartments were to be had for less than one would suppose. Here Ernest rented his home, which consisted of three largish rooms, (though one of them was merely a kitchen.) The place was respectable, quiet, sunlit, and slightly haunted. Ernest had had enough experience of apartment life not to be dismayed by such a trifle. There’s always something amiss — an incessantly barking dog, a neighbor given to borrowing small sums, a landlord stingy with heat. . . . Seen in this perspective, a ghost was a minor inconvenience, and certainly one that he was trained to handle.
It wasn’t a troublesome ghost. It didn’t toss objects onto the bed while one slept or moan plaintively in the wee hours from a bloodstained murder room. It was the spirit of a young woman, dressed in the style of the nineteen twenties, who actually looked sort of chic in an offbeat way. The kind of clever, rakish and knowing girl who makes a shy but intelligent man scintillate in spite of himself. The sort of girl he thinks about with a pang on his way home — if only she didn’t have a boyfriend! — if only she weren’t just visiting from five states away! — there’s always some problem. As now — if only she weren’t, you know, dead.
I wasn’t long after he’d moved in that he first saw her. She was looking right at him, half-hidden by a projecting ceiling-high book-case. At first he thought she was one of the landlady’s daughters come to bring him the spare keys. She had an arrogant, aristocratic air about her, which he found immediately attractive. Then he noticed she was a little in and out of focus — a painterly effect which made him remove his glasses and give them a quick polish. When she finally spoke, her voice had the soft distortion familiar to psychic investigators, a sort muffled quality that has been compared to hearing something under water. And she seemed startled, even a little indignant — evidently, she was not used to being seen. Suddenly she was saying,
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” said Ernest, submissively lowering his eyes.
“Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m a ghost too,” replied Ernest.
“No you’re not.”
“Sorry. Just a nervous attempt on my part to fit in. “
An awkward silence ensued.
“You’re not very good at small talk,” the spirit ventured.
“You brought a lot of stuff with you,” she continued querulously.
“No one comes without baggage, ” he ventured. He couldn’t tell if she appreciated this sally, for she was already gone.
Ernest felt he had handled the situation with the skill and deliberate sensitivity of a professional parapsychologist, a calling which (as he maintained in his thesis) has as much to do with psychology as with anything “para.” Now most hauntings are what are called in the profession “residuals” — mere psychic echoes of emotional events, without awareness or even meaning. These require little skill to elicit, and promptly cease when beleaguered by twenty-something investigators waving cameras and tape recorders.
What Ernest was sharing an apartment with was an “intelligent presence.” The popular wisdom about such spirits is that they seek to unburden themselves of secret griefs so they may proceed into “the light.” Such theories are as implausible and boring as the movies that make them their rationale.
Inhabitants of the supernatural landscape are as diverse in mood and character as those of the physical one. Like other fauna, they do not see the world as people do, nor do they always understand that people are not just another animal — potentially food, friend or foe, and mostly just irrelevant. There is accordingly no secure method for judging their tastes and motivations.
The ghost, whatever her personality, had made in the course of her brief appearance a telling and intuitive point. Ernest never had been very good at small talk. At school, then at work, he was always a bit of a loner. Most people assumed he was shy, but that wasn’t quite it. Rather, he lacked a basic interest in how society works: the sheer primate pecking order of it. He had never cared to have a costly car, to acquire the costlier nuisance of children, to distinguish himself at his pointless poorly paid day jobs, or to share any of the normal passions, because such things just bored him — and that you really can’t hide. So he remained, just as in high school, an outsider, a phantasmal figure peering in through the windows of life, rarely noticed and even more rarely credited with full existence. When he had told the specter he too was a ghost, he had had spoken more truly than he knew.
His only social assets were a ready tongue and a nimble mind, and although these made him superficially well liked — he could be counted on to leave the secretary chuckling or set the break-room in a roar —that is not the same thing as being a real member of the group.
As a degree-holding psychic explorer, Ernest didn’t wish to frighten off potential contact with something so rare, fascinating and skittish as an intelligent presence. And also, it must be confessed, he wanted the company.
He didn’t have long to wait. After a week or so of pretending nothing had happened, he began to notice a dark shape crossing the periphery of his vision, an angular shadow fleeing down the wall as he passed from room to room, and the faint carnation scent of a female revenant. He observed the decent restraint required by the laws of dating. One always waits a week after an initial outing before phoning up. With virtuous self-control Ernest did not pester her with Tweets upon the Ouija board. Being alive was a sufficient handicap: he would not compound this by seeming desperate.
Then one morning, after a shower, Ernest found a word written with a fingertip on the steamed mirror. “Rosa.”
“Rosa.” he spoke aloud to no one in particular. “A beautiful name.” When he returned from work he set , in a vase on the living-room coffee table, a bouquet of flowers he’d acquired on the way home. Simple, but effective. All girls love getting flowers. Even dead girls. In fact, they like it better than anyone.
The logic behind it is an erotic one. Flowers are after all the genitals of plants, and the faint suggestiveness of petals, (as Georgia O’Keeffe made tediously clear) are a refined tribute to the sacrality of a woman’s gender.
The dead have a further motivation towards the floral. Inhabitants of the earth’s universal womb, they are literally immersed in the symbolism of fecundity.
One should technically be able to attain the same effect on ladies or ghosts by making a gift of seashells. Their shiny pink volutions have the like implications, even more unambiguously. In fact, seashells are the most ancient and universal of grave goods — they are plentiful even in Paleolithic tombs. Although they have fallen out of favor as funerary offerings, pretty shells remain, as in prehistoric times, a romantic courtship gift, in the form of pearls.
Making gallant gifts to the dead may appear a questionable undertaking. But falling in love with a ghost is not that unusual once one ventures outside the European sphere. The legends of East Asia offer ample accounts of amorous phantoms, of mortals who return their affections, and the complexities such mixed conjunctions occasion. The seemingly instinctive Western horror at mixing sex and ectoplasm has most to do with the Western horror of sex. For their part, the dead have passions; cemeteries are erotic places (as many a teenager with no place else to take his date has learned), and the most effective love spells always incorporate “goofer dust” — that is, cemetery dirt.
Suddenly she was sitting in a chair beside Ernest’s desk. He set down his book and looked at her carefully.
“Rosa Lebensboim.” The name sounded exotic in her vaguely Eastern European accent, and she spoke with a self-certainty that made her name sound like a title. She then asked deliberately, as she studied him, “Why did you bring me flowers.”
“I like you. “
Rosa studied him even more carefully, not sure he wasn’t making fun of her.
“Well,” she said finally, “It’s your funeral.”
As it turned out, they got on splendidly. Ernest being so much a loner, there were no conflicts with other commitments. Nothing seemed excessively odd about a middle-aged bachelor taking solitary walks and talking to himself. And Ernest was continually intrigued by the opportunity to add to his stock of parapsychological learning.
Ghosts are not easily able to change their physical shape any more than the living are. Their appearance, like their personality, remains in the condition familiar to them: how they most persistently pictured themselves in life. They can however generate clothing ectoplasmically at will, and so a female ghost may spend quite as much time adjusting her appearance as a living woman. They have no need of mirrors, for (being spirits) they are in a sense pure self-awareness. And mirrors are to them what windows are to us, portals onto the outside world. No well bred lady ghost would adjust her makeup in a mirror any more than a living woman would think of perfecting hers in a shop window. Yes, many living women actually do this — and they should desist.
Female ghosts have far more modesty than male ones, though for ghosts the focus of shame is not on the organs and functions of evacuation and reproduction — the “facts of life.” Rather, modesty centers on the “facts of death.” A female ghost is at great pains to appear “lifelike” — though male ghosts, particularly adolescent ones, often show a tendency to exhibitionism: bone-rattling, skull-rolling, display of fatal wounds and the like.
Rosa was particularly careful about her appearance. For example, though she liked to be well dressed, she was at best ambivalent about wearing an evening dress. She didn’t want it to look as though she were a participant, or the subject, of a solemnity. As she became more familiar with Ernest, she made him a partner of her fashion anxieties, and sometimes even asked his advice.
“Does this dress make me look dead?”
This is of course the riddle of the Sphinx, best known to the living in the form “Does this make me look fat?” The man who answers it incorrectly — that is to say, directly, is in peril. Had Ernest been a man moulded from the common clay, he might have replied impatiently “Whaddaya mean? Ya look great. Can we go now?” thus solving the problem with instinctive Oedipean skill. But Ernest, as earnest as his name would suggest, seemed to have taken his cue from the Gospel of Matthew:
Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.
Arguably, anyone who looks to the New Testament for dating tips deserves what they get, so we should not perhaps be overly sympathetic to the luck which attended Ernest’s response to the demand that he validate Rosa’s choice of clothing. To the query, “Does this make me look dead?” he opted to utter the simple truth.
“No, you look beautiful.”
At this Rosa knitted her brows. “So it does make me look dead.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to. Now I don’t know what to wear and I don’t have time to change.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“If I have to tell you, it won’t count.” Now tears of vexation glistened in her eyes. “And now I’m crying, it looks like I’ve been to a funeral.”
“No really, you look beautiful.”
“Do you mean it?”
“Yes. I only wish other men could see you too, so they could envy me.”
Rosa’s expression relaxed and she almost looked placated. Ernest pursued his advantage.
“And I wish other women could see you because they they’d look at you and feel totally inadequate.”
Rosa’s good humor was now quite restored.
Ernest shook his head and smiled.
“What amuses you?” asked Rosa.
She raised an eyebrow.
“I’m just surprised sometimes to find how feminine you are.”
“I am, after all, a girl. Sometimes I think you forget that.”
Ernest bowed towards her slightly, as if to say touché, but once again Rosa, with an artlessness (or tactlessness) Ernest found both winning and alarming, had gone to the awkward heart of the matter. There was something masculine about Rosa. Not physically. Her body was almost perfectly proportioned, with tiny aristocratic feet and a figure that would have let her look good in almost anything. And her conversation was decidedly a woman’s: meandering and sociable, even — and perhaps especially — when she was getting down to business. Also, she had a witty tang to her tongue such as few men who aren’t gay attain to. No, there was nothing mannish about her appearance or conversation, but there was sometimes something subtly feral, a sophisticated sensuality, in her expression. It was oblique and elusive but once you knew how to look for it, it was patently there. And Ernest not only knew how to look for it, he had dreamed his whole life of finding it in a woman. There was a certain cruel beauty, or perhaps a beautiful cruelty to her. Quite understated. You would would never expect her smile to open onto fangs: it was something very subtle. It may suffice it to say that she was the kind of woman who looks exceedingly good in furs.
Rosa was a complicated woman, and death had done nothing to simplify things. Ernest, for his part, was no Garrison Keillor character either. The latent stresses in their relationship began to appear as it evolved beyond evening walks and awkward conversation.
At the age of forty-six, Ernest was what one used to call a “confirmed bachelor.” He wasn’t exactly gay, despite a few short lived male-male involvements. In fact, had he actually been gay, he would have been more readily understandable. Homosexuality could have accounted for a number of his intellectual tastes, while offering him a ready-made, and nowadays quite acceptable, social context.
On the other hand, it would have done him no justice to say that he was straight. Although he had been infatuated with a number of women over the years, he did not usually succeed in winning them. He over-thought the situations, created complexities for himself, paused to decipher contradictions in social syntax which ordinary people take for granted and ignore. As a result, Ernest lacked that intuitive self-assertiveness one finds in more average men. This made his timing a little too slow. Women wish to be won. Few ladies are flattered when they find themselves wondering if they must themselves must make the critical move. As for the women who had thus far proved amenable to Ernest’s style of courtship — let us draw the curtain of charity over these episodes, permitting ourselves only the line from Shakespeare that often acidly occurred to Ernest himself,
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
A strong woman, who knew what she wanted, assuming she wanted him, might have claimed Ernest’s heart at once. Regrettably, the women who seemed most unequivocally to exude this kind of power tended to be lesbians or doctrinaire feminists.
But for all his awkwardness a male and gallant heart beat in Ernest’s bosom, and Rosa’s Theda Bara graces and persistent interest finally brought a moment when his ardor overwhelmed his sense of metaphysical delicacy. One night he touched Rosa’s shoulder and leaned forward to kiss her. They had held hands before, so he knew she could be palpable, though contact left a faint residual tingling. Ernest half expected her to draw back like Eurydice and fade into the shadows behind her while his arms groped hopelessly into a rush of receding wind.
On the contrary, she returned his kiss. Gently but decisively. The reader may wonder how such contact is possible, but a moment’s reflection on how one idles away an hour on in internet will show physical contact of a sort truly mutual is not a strict prerequisite for romantic activity. We will now unfocus the lens of our narrative, blurring the particulars, so as to advance the action without spoiling the artistic and metaphysical mood.
Soon she lay alongside him —he smelled the rich carnation spice of her perfume, heard her speaking to him in that indistinct watery voice, blurred words heard from far away.
Illimitably later, he woke alone in the darkness, mentally savoring the damper details of a very wet dream. He felt a cool patch in the center of the bed. He pulled aside the sheet and saw faint in the total darkness on the bed, and on himself, the moist trail left by pleasure, emitting slow pulses of bioluminescence.
Delirious dream-love was characteristic of the earliest days of the romance, but even the supernatural becomes routine in time. Romance takes on a more everyday character, and it was just this intrusion of an ordinary concerns that posed the greatest challenges to an otherwise happy relationship. In an age when so few marriages last, it is salutary to contemplate Ernest and Rosa’s success. And success is seen to best advantage at the moment when it seems most in doubt.
Rosa wanted a child. Ernest responded to the suggestion that they become parents with a lack of disquiet which was itself disquieting.
“Is it possible?” he pondered blandly, half to himself, “I mean, the child of a living person and, not to put too fine a point on it, a ghost — could that be?”
“It’s not as though I’m the first ghost who wanted a child. There’s La Llorona . . .”
“Do you mean you want me to steal a child for you?”
“Men never even try to understand how a woman feels . . .” said Rosa a little icily.
“So, when you say you want a child, you mean a child I would beget and you bear?”
Ernest’s easy acquiescence was so disarming as to be distressing. Rosa had assumed his pragmatic concerns were merely cover for deeper opposition. She hesitated now, suspecting a trap.
“Why is it OK?” she finally inquired.
“Well,” said Ernest, “I do love you, I am always eager to gratify your desires. I can’t honestly say that I ever felt the ambition for fatherhood, and I would assuredly attempt to evade a parenthood involving diapers and baby-sitters and twenty years of unpayable bills. But to be the parent of a fantasy — how could I demur? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I imagine it would work out like one of those mortal-divine unions in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, only much more insubstantial. Sexual congress with a deity would produce offspring who were larger than life, — the ichor that flows through the veins of gods is is more real than blood, while ectoplasm is, I believe, somewhat less than sanguine.”
“You’ve thought this out.”
“I did take a degree in Parapsychology, so I’ve some idea where this leads. But now I’ve a question for you. Why me, why here, why now? There is an element of the unprecedented in play. There are to be sure phantom wooers in literature and legend, but such unions are a story that has no epilogue. I’ve never heard of a phantom bearing a mortal’s child”
By way of answer, she kissed him on the lips, with a solemn emphasis that sent a shiver of pleasure and indeed of gnosis through him .
The next day Ernest jocosely observed that all “mixed marriages” brought, unexpected pleasures.
Rosa looked at Ernest eerily said “For it to be a mixed marriage, we’d have to be married.”
“Is that what you want? Do I need to meet your parents?”
“No, you need to meet my friends. I think perhaps it’s time I took you a little further into my world.”
This gave Ernest far more pause than whole baby question ever had. The intoxication of love had for some time blunted his taste for paranormal investigation, and lulled his attention away from questions whose answers had less personal pertinence.
“Into your world ,” said Ernest, “You mean the world beyond?”
” I mean the Lower East Side.”
“That’s easily reached from New Jersey.”
“I don’t mean the modern Lower East Side. All the places I knew there are gone. The café that saw a number of my finest hours is now a CVS. Manhattan has become a live-in mall, a yuppie Golgotha. I couldn’t remain there. None of my people could.”
“Then how do we get to your vanished New York?”
“You’re already in it. That’s why I’m here. The spiritual Lower East Side has been drifting westward into Jersey for fifty years now, a glacially-paced shift of phantom tectonic terrain. As Manhattan cheapened into another square on the Monopoly board of a global real estate market, everything that held the island’s soul — the bookstores, the artists, even the ghosts —floated off to where the rents were less ruinous.
“Your town of Pocus now intersects with the New York of the early Twentieth century’s Yiddish poets.”
“Hoc est Pocus?” (meaning “Is Pocus this?”) asked Ernest in a tiny transport of nerdy Latinity.
“Are you taking this seriously?”
“Yes, yes. It’s just a lot to absorb. So you’re a poet in Yiddish, Rosa?”
She sighed. “I was.”
Ernest was startled — he had never heard such bitterness in her voice.
“The Yiddish poets,” said Rosa, “are the most life-cheated and dispossessed of literary phantoms. We flourished for a few decades in a Yiddish-language milieu that disappeared while we were still alive. And then our “world to come” turned out to be New Jersey. The Jews all moved to the suburbs. And now, it turns out, so have their ghosts.”
“Did you publish anything? Can I read it?” asked Ernest, for whom the saddest of Rosa’s facts were revelations full of wonder.
“This is exactly why I never mentioned it.”
“I wasted my art on nonsense, and even if it amounted to more than that, my Yiddish is as dead a language as your Latin.”
“But you want me to meet your friends, the other poets.”
“Not because they’re poets — because they’re my friends.”
“OK. How do we get there?”
“That’s the easy part.”
Ernest saw his apartment morph into a room in a tenement from the early twentieth century. They had passed into the psychic geography that now underlay the physical building. He followed Rosa into the hall, and walked up several flights of stairs that smelled of cabbage and fried onions. They knocked at an apartment door and a moment later they were in the home of the poet Rosenfeld. A thin man with a frizzy hair parted on the side, and a wide, waxed moustache, he stood very straight as he pumped Ernest’s hand.
“So you’re Rosa’s feller.”
It was all extremely normal, and soon they were sitting around the kitchen table with insubstantial cookies and figurative glasses of tea. Rosa made the introductions, in the course of which Ernest learned that Rosenfeld was a poet thoroughly imbued with Jewish folklore, German Romanticism, and Socialism. He had written a number of once-famous political ballads, in a style with the metrical bounce of Kipling and the lurid poignance of Baudelaire. He obliged Ernest by reciting one.
Ernest’s German barely sufficed to get the drift of Rosenfeld’s stentorian Yiddish, but so far as he could tell, the poem was — well, quite something. Rosenfeld was particularly proud of this poem, which he had written recently. A “posthumous work,” he called it with a laugh. It was a socialist ballad about a heroic worker, killed in an industrial accident, who returned from the grave every night at the moment of his demise, eternally determined to finish his shift.
Since it was clear Rosenfeld wasn’t shy about discussing matters eldritch, Ernest tried to get his thoughts on his developing involvement with Rosa. Should they, for instance, consider getting married?
Rosenfeld looked suddenly grim. “Absolutely out of the question.”
“Because I’m not Jewish?” asked Ernest.
“Because we’re Socialists!”
“Rosa, you’re a Socialist? ” asked Ernest.
She shrugged. “On the old Lower East Side, everyone was a Socialist.”
Rosenfeld continued, “It’s unthinkable to lend credibility to the imposture of organized religion by celebrating a marriage. Anyhow, I don’t think marriage with a dead person is possible under Jewish law.”
“Setting aside the marriage, what about the child,” asked Ernest. “Is it even possible to have one, with the difference in our, ah, metaphysical status?”
“There’s the interesting problem,” began Rosenfeld. “ Technically, it should be possible to have a child with by a departed person. Mary Tudor had a phantom pregnancy; which would have become king of England, had it existed. And the virgin Mary was with child of the Holy Ghost . . .”
“Yes,” Rosa broke in, “How did it work out in those cases.”
“Well, here it gets a little awkward. Mary Tudor’s anticipated child only achieved a short term reality as a factor in politics, after which it returned to the realm of fantasy. The virgin birth, owing to the difference of opinion regarding its actuality, likewise can’t escape its subjunctive status.”
“Meaning what?” asked Rosa.
“Meaning that such an offspring is merely possible. “
“So I can’t have a child?” queried Rosa, desperately.
“No no, you can have one,” said Rosenfeld, patting her hand. “It’s nothing if not possible. But it would be sort of wispy and vague. Wouldn’t really bear too close a scrutiny.”
“But you, Rosa, will be a beautiful mother. After all, pregnant women glow.”
Everything worked out well. Ernest discovered he had a number of interesting if insubstantial neighbors. He turned his college German to good account by acquiring Yiddish which, though possibly a “dead” language was by no means a departed one. Rosa, after a potential pregnancy experienced a delivery which might have been difficult but wasn’t, and became the putative mother of an indistinct child. Her offspring’s existence was at least as factual as the abstractions of math, like the indisputably real (though hard to picture) “point five” of the statistic which lists the average number of children per family as two point five. In honor of his ontological status, the boy was named Quintus (Latin for “fifth”.) He was a source of steady if uncertain satisfaction to his parents. They all lived as happily ever after as it is plausible to suppose.