Photo by Jenna Solderling. Illustrations by Teddy Salazar
Ghosts is the topic for this issue of The Sick Muse. The prompt is figurative. As such, a decent, responsible member of the community to which the publication caters, themself looking to contribute, might take the figurative topic as a chance to reflect on the impact of their art and activism in Chicago. Here I do no such thing, and quite irresponsibly proffer two literal ghost stories, presented with full indecency. After all, I am your rowdy homoflexible stepson, all dogbreath and foxtail, impervious to propriety.
These stories are real and true, with embellishment only as necessary to make them more literary. In their telling, I shielded some witnesses with pseudonyms I’ve known them to don. But for all intents and purposes, all the following really happened. At least, I experienced it.
I. Summer, 2011. Rogers Park.
His fake ID’s name field read “Steve Archer.”
Every few seconds, Steve shot a furtive glance toward the lady to whom he’d just scalped the Lolla tickets, who was probably in her forties. She didn’t return his gaze. She was wrapt, alternately, with whatever the light of her smartphone conveyed, and with nursing her frappuccino.
Steve and I, we were waiting in the Starbucks’s bathroom line to piss before meeting up with Stylo on the Gold Coast yacht club’s lawn. We’d each eat a ten strip off this hundred sheet of 25I I’d brought in my back pocket. We would watch Adventure Time on Steve’s laptop forever, atop some sunlit hill, until we all became vapor.
I wondered if Steve’s ogling her was an attempt to allay his discomfort at brimming with urine. When he and I were fifteen, our biology teacher told us that if you have a penis and you have to piss but cannot yet piss in good taste, you can arouse yourself to diminish the sense of having to go. So, then, at twenty, I tried it, with the guy in front of us in line as my object. Svelte but unkempt, scruffy, swarthy. Thirty-something, I was sure. Just my type. Small and lithe, an olive-skinned otter, with the sort of lips you want to grind real tender between your teeth like rainswollen worms. But his distress at being overfull was evident, all crossed legs and nervous tapping, and that only reinforced my own distress.
A half hour passed, but all I remember is the overwhelming need to piss, that anxiety of the impending threat of wetting myself. Why were we waiting?
We’d all seen her go into the restroom. Little woman, gaunt, thinning greasy blonde hair. Timeless, ageless, either fifteen or fifty. So gaunt, with sallow cheeks and alabaster skin. But none of us saw her come out. Did we miss her? No, aside from Steve’s intermittent perving and my own abortive attempts at the same, all three of us had our gazes fixed firmly on the door. Further, the corridor to and from the restroom was so narrow, she would’ve had to nudge by each of us to exit.
I edged toward the door, knocked and hailed. No response. I looked to Steve and the otter behind me. We nodded solemnly, and I jiggled the door handle. Unlocked. Slowed by the fear of what I may find in there, I peeled the door open gravely. What if she’s in there, eating her own shit? What if she’s a corpse now? What if she’s cutting, having a panic attack? What would I do, then? What would she do to me?
None of my expectations even so much as glanced off the truth of the matter. I opened the door and entered, still holding the door wide, scanning the room madly. She wasn’t doing at all, far as I could tell. Not even hidden by the bathroom door or squatting behind the trash can. She was gone.
The piss pressure subsided for a moment. I suppose it did for all of us. Maybe it was the same one pressure afflicting all three of us at once, then attenuated by the shock of the shrunken woman’s disappearance. Because, for a while, we all ambled about the restroom, interrogating it as best we could, untroubled by our strained bladders.
So, what’s even? A drain in the floor, about 5” in diameter. A vent cover, about 4” x 12”, not evidently disturbed. How would she screw it back on from inside the vent anyway? The ceiling was one continuous surface, likely concrete. Our cursory knocking and kicking failed to reveal secret panels in the tiles of the walls and the floor. Did she fall in and get herself flushed?
That’s all we had. Steve and the otter shook their heads, wild-eyed in perplexity, as they left me to unload, despite them both being before me in line. I worried, maybe she’s just become invisible, intangible, and what if I’m pissing through her? Of course she’d curse me until the end of days for that. Or maybe not. Really, she’d suggested nothing of her own inclinations, let alone the nature of ghosthood or the efficacy of curses. But for sure that’s the longest piss I ever took.
II. Fall, 2016. Going home.
I was visiting Chicago. I can’t remember why. Probably for their funeral. But everything I remember has to do with their suicide now.
Driving from Chicago, back to the home Joan and I had made in Pittsburgh over the past year, barreling down I-80 in my sturdy Mazda 5. The type of car that would survive a collision at my survival’s expense. Chasse so insulated, not even the knocking of tires on irregular asphalt could reach me unless I rolled the windows down.
It was dark, nobody else on the road until I reached I-76 or maybe it was I-79. But I-80? Late on a weeknight, it was always one of those treacherous hypnotic straight stretches with no streetlights. Just outside of Toledo, dense occulted wood thronging the highway. I kept falling asleep at the wheel despite the five grams of caffeine that was boiling my guts.
The radio was down low, whispering white noise from an unoccupied AM broadcast band. I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off, even if its soporific wash could be the death of me. Waiting for pareidolic voices, auditory hallucinations from the randomness of the static, to point me in the right direction. Instead of killing the noise, I called Jolene to keep me company. I cracked the window to chainsmoke. Anything at my disposal to keep me active and awake. Anything to stay awake with the noise.
After all the perfunctory telephonic hellos, and please keep me awakes, and how’s everyone settling, and wow so-and-so was hammered, and how’s your sui ideation, and oh what a lovely service, and from this day forth I’ll miss them like I need them, and so on. After all that, Jolene was the first to point it out. Then I heard it, too.
Atonal plainsong, a single serpentine melody conveyed by what sounded like hundreds of voices. The lows were virtuosically low, the highs likewise, the pitches and their procession precise with few blending errors. Finally, the radio had channeled the spirits that would set me straight.
But I turned off the radio, as a sanity check I suppose, and the singing continued. The singing was here, somewhere, with me, ahead of me. Not just getting louder due to our closing distance, but by virtue of the performers’ concerted crescendo.
And there was an orange sunset glow, growing in the distance, in the dead of a starless night with no moon, or a moon that hides from horrors like the one unfolding there, just outside Toledo. In minutes, the source of the glow was in sight. A roaring pillar of flame in a clearing by the highway. I slowed my vehicle down to a crawl, scanned the wood for the source of the singing as I approached the pyre. I saw the conflagration, I heard the song, and I supposed how could the two events be unrelated?
And how did I miss them in the first place? Hundreds of people. I presumed they were people. All cloaked in black robes that hid their entire bodies. They dotted the wood, but they were grouped closer the nearer they were to the fire.
Those that circled the towering inferno closest were shoulder to shoulder, maybe two hundred deep in two or three rings, and by the time I saw that heart of the congregation round the blaze, they were all screaming their impossible tune, still in unison, and they were still, standing deathly still. I could hear their song clear enough to know it was wordless, or in some rudimentary ancient language whose alphabet consists of only a couple vowels.
Maybe I misremember this, but I swear I saw one nearer the road turn toward me. I hesitate to say that that one’s garb was more ornate than any others’ per se. It was simply more: the hood and pauldrons and cloak far larger , given a cursory glance at the mass. Though that one’s face, too, was draped with total black, I felt their gaze fall on my puttering vehicle. Or on me, inside. And although I’m familiar with the sense of being looked at, being seen, their gaze was something far more severe than a looking or a seeing. It felt as though their eyeline pierced my soul, pinned it to that spot on the highway, which is why nothing goes quite right or feels good anymore. Needless to say, I sped off, perhaps leaving my spirit behind.
Eventually, I moved back to Chicago. This city is far too large for me now , even for an instant. But it’s where I’m from. Maybe that’s why I moved back. Really, I can’t remember why I moved back. But since, Joan and I haven’t talked, let alone seen each other. And when I’m walking around Lawndale late at night, before the drunken stumble back to my lonesome hermetic loft, I still hear that song, or something like it, carried on the high lake wind.
III. Spring, 2019. Hyde Park.
It was more like an episode than an encounter. Not a ghost story at all, or a coded one. Something fucked up in me or that fucked up in me, rather than something from without. But I don’t have a compelling third ghost story per se. No dearth of stories about urban exploration or inscrutable haunts teasing me in my hovel, fleeting apparitions troubling the corners of my eyes in some derelict corridor. Trite.
So, I was in line at a different Starbucks, looking for chemical assistance in waking up for work. Standard. There were nearly no features, just distressed flat surface, until I could dose again.
Before I reached the register, a barista asked for my order, which was a large coffee, no room. Once I reached the register, it was waiting for me along with the cashier.
And the cashier asked “what did you want?” And, being dysfunctional, nearly sleepwalking, I pointed speechlessly at the cup.
And the cashier asked “No, but what did you want?” Feeling I was being made a fool of, my frustration managed to pry a response from the depths of me. “I ordered a large coffee.”
And she boomed, silencing the rest of the cafe’s clangor, “I know! But what did you want?” And I had no idea how to respond to her. I’ve never known how to answer that, not even when troubling the thought on my lonesome. Maybe I don’t want at all, the class privilege for which my parents fought so aggressively having emptied me of all aspiration and basic decency and responsibility. So, I’m sorry for entering this establishment without the requisite clarity of purpose and purity of motive. All of my desiring is not true desiring, but a proliferation of distractions from my own grotesque selfishness and impending death, too, probably. Once, as a child, an uncle read and annotated one of my journals when I’d left it unattended, writing that its author is “callow and aloof… reaching beyond his grasp.”
Or maybe what I want is so foul, I’m not even aware that it repels me. I’ve mistaken my disgust and shock with this feigned ignorance. My want is so wholly repellant that I cannot see it and still even so much as play at remaining a person.
Since he read the journal, I’d still write entries, but I’d craft elaborate and compelling lies in them, purposefully lurid and depraved, as a sort of defense against prying eyes. For instance, a fantasy about wanting an older boy at school to break my nose against his fists, do things to me.
For instance, allusions to Freudian sex guilt, nausea from my burgeoning adolescent libido poisoned by homosexual desire. I’d localized the contrition to my penis, which I wished to cut off with my father’s hacksaw and burn on the grill in my childhood home’s backyard as an act of penance not just for the mounting gay longing, but also for how close these supposed confabulations came to representing an honest desire of mine.
Maybe I just wanted to hear myself talk, even if none of it makes very much sense. Always, the first thing flirts tell me is I should be in radio with a voice like mine. But it doesn’t feel like mine usually. Most moments I can barely reign the damned thing in. I’m always talking, whispering, pontificating, joking to myself.
Even as I stared at the cashier, I was terrified that I’d said all of that audibly. I was certain I at least murmured it. I’m always murmuring, too.
So I grabbed the cup of coffee. It was only two thirds full, but it would have to do. Delivered without one of those little coozies, it was scalding hot and threatened to slough the skin off my palm with its heat. I was aware of the pain, but I didn’t care anymore. I wanted out. I backed out of the cafe, my gaze fixed on the smiling cashier, who waved as I exited.
And in my peripheral vision, a whole cast of smiling faces came nearly into relief. Still slightly blurry, enough to say they were blurry at all. An elderly gentleman more paunch than anything else, two young girls with pigtails who must have been truant given their age and the hour, two massive Polack cops with ARs shouldered, all smiling and waving at me in dead silence as I stumbled backward in suspended time. Even my footsteps were inaudible to me, as I finally made it to press my back against the rotating door and work my way out of this waking nightmare.