GOWANUS Summer 2000
By Paul Toth
from the four hundred miles of driving that day, Charley sat on the couch,
a small one with just enough room for a big man like himself. The shades
were drawn, but there were no neighbors to see him, only a town twenty
miles away that as yet had no idea his house had suddenly been repossessed
by Julia's widower. To them it remained unoccupied just as it had in all
the years since her father died. They thought about the house only occasionally,
perhaps when driving by on their way to the Interstate when they might
say, “I wonder if she's ever coming home?” until the last few months, when
they said, “Looks like she's never coming home now...thank God.”
It was then that he saw what he called Julia's ghost, which was actually just the darkness at the edges of his vision. He preferred thinking this way. In order to feel differently about something, he simply called it by a different name. So “ghost” was preferable to his actual memory of Julia. The ghost, unlike his wife, was quite friendly, happy that he felt better now, encouraging him to relax and enjoy his remaining years. In fact, earlier that day the ghost had actually thanked him for the time he had spent with it-her. “I regret my black moods,” the ghost said, “which you endured and eased for me.” She, Julia herself, would never have said such a thing in real life. Nor would she have ever placed fresh ice cubes in his drink or returned some portion of the bed covers (which she routinely gathered about her head, trying to forget he existed).
“Yes, well,” he said to himself. He located the barely used briefcase he had purchased so many years ago, took it around the back of the house, found a large rock and began hammering the leather. He continued doing so for fifteen minutes. By then it could be called a battered old briefcase. “You are my companion of many years,” he lied to it, “and you have stayed with me since my first days in practice. You've faithfully carried my prescription pads and my coffee-stained notes and about 1,203,002 pencils, and for that I thank you by never, never parting with you, no matter how soiled your appearance, despite your holes and creases and the embarrassment you have often caused me in the presence of others.”
He went inside to the bathroom. There was no electricity, so he had to lean close to the mirror to see his reflection. He studied his hair, pulling it back against the top of his head, stroking his newly regrown beard. He saw that his glasses were much too straight. He removed them, bent the frame a little to the right, then pushed the nose rests apart so that when he put the glasses back on they slid down his nose. His old face emerged. He remembered who he had been before he met Julia: Dr. Galuszka.
“I'm afraid,” he said, looking at his reflection but pretending to be talking to a patient, “this is not the news we had hoped for.” He shook his head, pretending to hold an X-ray toward the outside light. “It could be worse, however,” he added. “We have to learn to balance things, to see them in perspective. We can't think only of the good or only the bad.”
He returned to the living room, picked up the phone and ordered the electricity, gas and telephone service restored. Then he gathered his briefcase and set out for town.
It was a pleasant enough drive, but
as Charley approached
The town actually reminded him of
certain parts of Los Angeles,
“This is a gigantic city, Los Angeles,” Julia used to tell him. “We have the money, we have the ability to travel anywhere we want and eat anything we want, and yet you stay in your same little corner, the same little box, as though you're on twenty-four-hour guard duty.”
“You've got your friends,” he'd tell her, knowing she preferred to socialize without him.
“It's true, I do have friends. And why? I'm a gregarious woman. I can't live like a redneck's wife, going to your patients’ funeral receptions, sitting at card tables in some church cafeteria, picking over fried chicken. It's makes me sick just thinking about it.”
“That's just how you see it.”
“How I see it? Charley, do you know what a doctor is? A glorified janitor. I won't live with a janitor. A doctor is worse than a janitor, which is worse than the freeloader you are now.”
“Maybe I'm just not the man you want. Why don't you accept that and let me go back to being a doctor?”
“First of all, that's ridiculous. How are you going to start practicing thirty years later? How will you treat your patients, with caster oil? Why can't you enjoy what I've made of you rather than always thinking you have to achieve something?”
“The terrible things I used to say,” the ghost butted in. “I realize now how I must have hurt you. And what incredible patience you had not to strangle me.”
“That's all right,” Charley said. “No need to apologize. If you knew what I was thinking whenever I held a fork or passed a knife...”
“Bullshit,” Julia said.
He scanned the strip malls for a familiar local hangout, but even the bars seemed to have been imported from other places. There was not a single place called Ray's or Lucky’s where he might sit down, ease his way into a conversation and say, “You may remember my name: Dr. Charles Galuszka. I'm back in practice, so if you ever need a checkup...” But he also knew that even if such a place existed, such a conversation would never happen. He never started conversations with strangers and, because he radiated discomfort, only rarely and by necessity did strangers begin conversations with him. He kept on driving.
“Well, Dr. Galuszka,” he imagined (then forgot he was imagining) a stranger beside him say. “You don't remember me, but I remember you. I had an appointment with you a long time ago, but then you and your wife moved away. How long did you practice, three months? You must have really fallen for her. Me? I never moved. I never traveled. What's the point? Things trail after you, residue and scrapbooks, dust mites. My name's Harold Wicker. I'm a plumber, retired. With a profession like that, I never had a chance. Don't call me Harold. Call me Harry, Charley. Unless you prefer Charles. I bet she called you Charles.
“Yes, I knew Julia. It's easy to get to know everybody here. I knew all about you too, and you were only here three months. You've come back into that cave you call your self to see what's left. Strip-mined, plumbed of natural resources. You should see my house: Home of the Strip-mined, nothing but ghosts. I hear a thousand voices, all the time, every single minute. There's ghosts in my mind too. I've got comedians, kings, pickpockets, any kind of bastard you can think of. I can't get any sleep.
“Did she ever talk about me, compare me to you? I bet that pissed you off, didn't it? Happened to me too. Never a good comparison. I bet her first boyfriend, some little shit three feet tall, I bet he had it up to here with her talking about fairy-tale princes. Any goddamned thing she can think of to cut your nuts off, she'd do it. ‘A plumber!’ she used to say to me. ‘A toilet cleaner!’ ‘That's right,’ I'd say, ‘a necessary and important profession,’ and she'd shake like she was having an earthquake. But with all her promises, I started thinking about it. Why not? My dad worked hard enough for ten men. That left nine more after me who wouldn't have to work. I tried living with her for a summer, the one before you first came to town. I lived like a king. She had it worked out we'd move together—New York City. All I had to do was not eat dinner with the goddamned salad fork. But then, every time I ate anything that summer, staring across the table at her with that salad fork in my hand...you know. Her spidery nature couldn't help but emerge.”
Charley watched the rows and rows of corn stream past, splitting the moonlight and, remembering, said, “The day before we left, a plague of caterpillars covered the house.”
“That happened every year,” Julia said. “It had nothing to do with you.”
“Well, now I'm lost,” Charley said,
and though the moon was
“If I were you I'd drink myself to death,” Julia said.
“Fall in love, and forget about me—her—us,” the ghost said.
“No, no, no,” the plumber said. “I'll tell you what I'd do. Actually, I'll tell you what I've done. I mean what I did all those years ago, between when I told her to get lost and when she made you get lost. I retired from that part of life is what I did. I told myself, Harry, Harold, Wicker, that part of life is gone for you now. Most people need something to recover from—a hangover, sickness, anything—before they get to dusk, to music. But I tell you, say goodnight to that spidery bitch. Tell him, ghost. You're just playing with time, thinking about her the way you do. Playing tricks with your mind.”
“Yes,” the ghost said.
Harry said: “Would you like us all to come together now, your little Greek chorus? Even Julia, for we need her wasp-filled throat to sing this tune.”
“We all agree on this?” Charley asked.
Julia sighed. “Harry's right this time: I have to sing with these fuckers if that's what you want.”
They sang a terrible-sounding song, arrhythmic, full of grunts and moans. It was a song that would give anyone a headache. Charley's head did indeed begin to ache, fiercer and fiercer until he could hardly see. Then the car shot into a cornfield, straight across the rows. Ears of corn splayed off the windshield into the blackness. The tires caught mud ruts, choked, spun, slamming over row after row. Then the car seemed to find its way onto a road—certainly he himself had nothing to do with its sudden achievement.
“Here I am,” he said, realizing he was in control again and, even more surprisingly, alone and not hearing voices. He saw his symptoms clearly now. They made sense like a once impossibly complicated math problem made clear. “There's nothing wrong with you at all,” he said. “All of these things have just been in your head, and if you scratch your ass you'll see it turns red as any ass should when scratched.” Talking to ghosts, having conversations with a wife's ex-lovers, hearing Julia's recriminations at this late date, all of these were as strange to contemplate as pining for a childhood security blanket or a set of bicycle training wheels.
That night he put his ghosts all away
in the attic where no one but spiders would visit them again and he dreamed
of new strangers who had never heard his name or the name of anyone he
knew. And, despite feeling quite odd and not a little frightened, he was
glad at the mystery he found outside himself. He was glad at the stretch
of time he found there too, which passed so naturally that eventually it
just disappeared like the faded yellow lines in a parking lot.
(Paul A. Toth lives in Michigan and has been published in The Blue Moon Review, Pif, Satire, WebDelSol/InPosse and many others. His short story "Fizz" is available from Powell's Books as a Pick Pocket chapbook (Phony Lid Publications). His feature comedy script Black as Day is currently making the rounds.)