Before I could begin my second whiskey sour, the warm air of the bar froze. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck electrified.
Death had come for me.
“You’re late,” I told him.
The specter raised an ectoplasmic appendage, unleashed a moan that sounded more like the death rattle of a humpback whale, and pulled up a chair.
“Sorry,” the ghost said. His name was Pete. It was an unusual name for a ghost. “Traffic on the turnpike was kill—er, difficult.”
“It’s fine.” It was. I hadn’t been waiting long.
The waitress came around, holding my fabled second drink. “Can I get you… anything?” she asked Pete, tripping over the last word.
Pete flowered and the lights flickered. Even I knew the anger was bullshit. He had spent so much time holding on to every ounce of anger that drifted into his orbit, he wasn’t about to let an errant question fly past him.
Wind flew, rattling glasses and sending wine lists flying. Pete’s face took on a demonic air; the hellish fury he now summoned directing itself entirely toward our hapless waitress.
Also, bullshit. Just as quickly as it appeared, his volcanic displeasure subsided. When no one was laughing at the display, Pete almost seemed guilty. “How are your spirits?” he asked icily.
The waitress remained frozen. Pete’s wispy approximation of a face held its frown for several seconds, before erupting in a gale of laughter. “I’m just kidding…” the glowing orbs meant to serve as the spirit world’s answer for eyes narrowed, squinting at the waitress’ name tag. “Petunia. I’ll just have a Cab Sav. Can’t drink or eat anymore, but I sure can smell.”
Petunia the waitress went to retrieve the order, and he turned his gaze to me. “This is where you say, ‘Damn right, you smell.’”
I said nothing. He often made this—I want to say “joke,” but jokes usually have some degree of mirth and aren’t repeated ad infinitum—when we went out in public. It made me feel uncomfortable. It made everyone feel uncomfortable. It needed to start making him feel uncomfortable. I’d like to think that my lack of reaction tonight might have brought him to that point, but he’s a fucking ghost. What the hell does he have to be uncomfortable about?
We let the silence hang for a moment. Maybe he was starting to wonder just how long he had been making this joke.
I chose to euthanize the silence. “So, you brought me all the way out here…What have you got for me?”
He took a moment to collect his thoughts. Whatever he had rattling around in that ephemeral head-shaped blob of his, he didn’t want to just come about and say it.
“I have an idea for a new book,” he finally blurted out.
My honest reaction—too honest? maybe—cemented itself on my face. This wasn’t the reaction he was hoping for. Then again, this wasn’t really the conversation I had been hoping for. Life and death can be so unfair at times.
“I know what you’re going to say!” he lunged into my argument for me. “The last one didn’t do so hot. But this one is a whole new idea. It’s never been done before!”
I tried to stay silent, but knew that would be mistaken for permission to continue. He would continue with his pitch either way, and I eventually opted for an illusion of control over how this conversation would play out. “Go on…” I muttered.
“Do you ever wonder what happens after you die?”
I tried to find Petunia. I then called out, “Check please,” to an uncaring and disinterested universe.
“I’m serious,” he insisted.
I turned to look to him. I had no trouble believing he was serious; hence my panic. “No. I don’t wonder what happens to me after I die. I’ll turn in to one of you. Everyone does.”
“But what if you didn’t?”
I reached for my purse and retrieved a few tens from the billfold. It was probably too much, but not having to wait for Petunia to summon the courage to return would be a steal at twice the price.
“Come on, it’s high-concept,” he said after I reached to finish her own drink. “A ghost’s gotta—”
Stymied, he looked away. It was weakness. Even if I was into the idea, this would have soured things. “I was going to say ‘live,’ but there’s not really a good word with which I could end that sentence.” He shrugged. It looked more like wind coursing through drapes. “I’ve got bills, just like everybody else.”
I relaxed, if only for a moment. If I insisted on ending the conversation here, he won’t stop calling the office. “What’s the story for your idea, hm?”
He hesitated. “Well, I haven’t figured that part out yet.”
"In this world of yours, do ghosts exist?”
“Sure…” he hissed the word; it could have been any other word when he started with “s.” Clearly he hadn’t thought that part through yet, either.
“How do people feel about ghosts in this fantasy?”
“They’re… scared of them?” he answered. I got the sense that he wanted to end the sentence any other way, but couldn’t.
“People are scared of ghosts, but at the same time not entirely sure they exist?” I asked. I was halfway out of the bar before he could manage an answer. “Pete, it’s a little far-fetched. Don’t call me again.”