I saw the ad while drinking my tea on Thursday morning. For the past several weeks I had been experiencing sleeplessness, an irritable stomach and general unease. As a result I decided to amend my diet to exclude coffee as I thought it might be the source of my perpetual discomfort. If you were to ask me how I was handling the transition I might deploy the ageless aphorism that “the cure is worse than the disease.” The worst thing about making the switch was not knowing which kind of tea to drink. Green tea left a dry, soapy residue in the crevices between my teeth that hung around for hours. Assam was fine but flavorless without milk and sugar. Per recommendation by a former roommate, I once made the mistake of buying lapsang souchong, which smells like what a tree’s gym socks might smell like if trees in fact had feet and used those feet to play squash every Monday with Barry from the corporate office.
I drank my tea from a mug that was given to me by my aunt, Ulrika. The mug was decorated with a crude picture of a Prussian lieutenant in full regalia mounting a donkey. I believe it was either a satirical statement of a highly ambiguous nature or our family crest. My beloved aunt had been an actress in Sweden during the 60s and early 70s. She died just before I was born. On her deathbed she made it clear to my mother that the mug was destined to be mine. Nevertheless, it would pass through the fingers of my seven older sisters before it came to me. It rarely remained in their possession for long as each independently complained that anything they put in it would invariably begin to taste like salted cabbage water. Over the course of my life that mug had been my only constant companion. The only other object that ever held any significance for me was a biography of Jackson Pollock that I carried with me to every class during the second semester of my sophomore year of college. It was as thick as a ham hock and was generally accepted to be about as nutritious.
Putting the mug down momentarily, I perused the ad. It read: seeking part-time ghosts for haunting and various duties including but not limited to cash sales, light maintenance and general customer terror. Applicants should have a minimum of 2+ years haunting experience and be able to provide three references, living or dead, who can attest to their abilities. The position is part-time and requires a flexible schedule as some days and early mornings may be required. All interested parties should apply in person at the large eerie mansion on the hill between the hours of midnight and 4am Monday through Friday. Please bring death certificate and proof of residency.
I had done some freelance haunting while traveling abroad in Turkey the previous spring. Haunting in Turkey is no easy task. The Turkish have simply incredible countenances. You can always tell the quality of a country’s spirit by their population’s capacity for growing facial hair. While I was there, I met adolescent girls who had finer moustaches than I will grow in my lifetime. Suffice it to say, they did not scare easily but at the time I was just starting to pay off my student loans and I needed the work. I had gone to an elite private college where I studied transcendental meditation with a minor in film studies. I was expelled for failing to reach enlightenment and damaging school property. In my defense, I was planning to bring back the lunch trays after we had finished using them to sled down the enormous hill behind the freshman dormitories. After being expelled, I briefly looked into forging an Associate’s degree. Technically, I had all the credits required so while it would have undeniably been a felony it would not, however, have been a lie. Unfortunately, the only company I could find that would agree to print my false certification required a semester’s worth of unpaid indoctrination training and I just couldn’t go through with it. Meanwhile a group of deceptively charming Turkish gangsters convinced me, in my increasing desperation and noteworthy failure as a haunter, to do a little job for them that I reneged on at a crucial stage. I fled the country but not before the Turkish mafia trashed my apartment, stole my identity and torched my rental car.
By the time I saw the ad for the position as a part-time ghost, things had gotten somewhat desperate. I was currently squatting in an abandoned factory that doubled as cooperative housing for the Moldavian diaspora. I reasoned that the same characteristics that allowed me to go unnoticed there, my pale skin, gaunt features and taciturn manner, would aid me in my pursuit of gaining employment as a part-time ghost. I borrowed a typewriter from my closest friend: a 12 year-old named Sergei who conveniently already believed that I was a ghost and fled in terror whenever I approached. The way the color drained from that sickly boy’s hollow cheeks was just the kind of encouragement I needed as I sat down on a pile of wet rags to falsify a resume. To begin, I knew that I couldn’t say that I had failed to graduate college. You could barely get served at the local public house without a PhD and there was no way they were going to seriously consider anyone who wasn’t ready and willing to accept half a million dollars in debt in exchange for a rudimentary grasp of plate tectonics and Eisenstein’s theories of dialectical montage.
I revised my experiences in Turkey to have occurred over the course of several years at one decrepit hotel that had the misfortune of becoming so popular that the federal government decided that it warranted revitalization and was recently reintroduced as a four-star resort that should, first and foremost, serve only the finest in trans-European cuisine and, secondly, not be haunted under any circumstance. I invented two contacts, a former manager at a bistro that was also an underground day spa and a professor of modern dance specializing in the interpretation of David Foster Wallace’s memoirs. I gave them the address of two PO boxes in separate counties that would be forwarded to my own where I could respond with witticisms and idiosyncrasies that would lend them credibility as real people and not ciphers of my increasingly fractured psyche. With these incredible witnesses to my capacities and some headshots I received in exchange for pedaling off-brand Lipitor for the Turks, I eagerly set off for the eerie mansion on the hill.
The mansion was run by an elementary school frenemy of mine named Rusty. A degenerate and a world-class ballroom dancer, rumor had it that Rusty had never progressed beyond the Lacanian mirror stage of development. While his psychological condition reportedly made him a very generous lover it also had the unfortunate side effect of making him a lousy conversationalist. My interview with Rusty was more like a homily complete with extensive references to the Book of Exodus. I was moved to tears on several occasions over the course of the 107 minutes I spent in his tiny office that you could only get to by going through the walk-in freezer of the Zagat-rated Thai noodle shop that operated out of the mansion’s basement during non-business hours. Toward the end of our nominal interview, Rusty glanced down at my resume and, without looking up, asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “Right here,” I responded.
As I exited Rusty’s office and made my way back through the walk-in, I saw my future appear before my eyes like my own milky exhalations. Unfortunately it was peak dinner hour at the noodle shop and I was violently ushered out by a diminutive woman with a hand vacuum who never once raised her voice above a whisper. In the lobby of the eerie mansion, several other candidates were awaiting their interviews. Some had been there for hours. Others for weeks. And there were a few that had been waiting since before the position had even been announced. No one could quite agree how long they had been waiting and later there would be lengthy, inconclusive debates as to whether they had even been there at all. Having nothing better to do and knowing that the Moldavians were probably going to spend their evening performing another in a seemingly endless series of séances in an attempt to drive the malignant, typewriter-thieving spirit out of their midst, I decided to make small talk with a pale, portly pedestrian in pinstripes and a pince nez if only because, firstly, his outfit seemed to me to be grossly contrived and, secondly, because I am a great fan of those who take literary license to the point of being literally liable.
It turns out that the gentleman was actually waiting for a table at the Thai noodle shop but had arrived without a reservation and the earliest they would be able to seat him was next Tuesday. He decided that while he was there he might as well apply for the ghost position. He had recently been fired from his night job as a beefeater. It seems he did not quite fully understand the nature of his employment and had consumed an undisclosed amount of prime rib on his first evening and failed to remain stolidly composed throughout. He had never actually done any haunting before but had extensive training as a coroner and a creepy butler. We agreed that the same sort of skills might be successfully applied to haunting. I accompanied him to the bar where we split a Tequila Sunset. We each toasted to the success of the other that would invariably mean our own failure. I told him about my predicament and he looked at me with sympathetic eyebrows and subdued nostrils. He offered some vague words of encouragement though it was unclear exactly who he was offering them to until I realized he was trying to pay our bill with them. I decided to relieve his embarrassment by agreeing to settle the tab. Only I had to visit the john first. While I was climbing out of the window above my stall I inadvertently loosened a ceiling tile. A fully loaded six-shooter descended from the uncovered asbestos and landed in the toilet where it circled pointlessly around the bowl. I stared at it for a moment or two, contemplating its cosmic significance and its value at my local pawn shop. It wasn’t until much later on that I understood its meaning and kicked myself for not having recognized it in the moment.
The sun was setting on my way home and I decided I would treat myself to dinner from the shawarma stand that could be found stationed like a sentry at the corner of King and Main at any time of night or day. I chatted with the Moroccan Muslim running the cart about local politics and the accuracy of Casablanca. He told me he was a long distance numbers runner during the French occupation and spent quite a bit of time at Rick’s Steakhouse. I paid him in some of the good will I nicked off the portly gentleman at the mansion and he accepted it graciously. He even double stamped my frequent falafel card. All in all it had been a good day.
When I returned to the factory, the Moldavians were gone and so was my aunt’s mug. The evidence suggested that they had attempted to stage a sit-in at the local French-Canadian bakery that went miserably awry when the understandably frustrated apprentice pastry chef, who could not even locate Moldavia on a map never mind comprehend what these refugees had against the bakery’s highly sought after mini quiches and exquisite fruit tarts, began viciously beating the occupiers with day old baguettes. The crumbs of misfortune were everywhere. After much stale bread had been broken, the Moldavians, angry, confused and covered in a thin layer of flour, decided they were no longer welcome and took their business elsewhere. They disappeared in groups of two and three into a nearby pharmacy and were never heard from again.
I looked high and low for my aunt’s mug. I discovered that the factory had once been used to print coupon books that were dated in such a way that by the time they arrived in the mail they had already expired, imparting on the unfortunate receiver an impalpable sense of loss. I located Sergei’s typewriter but evidently someone had been using it to write haikus, as there were five and three quarter centimeters of margin on either side of the page. After I concluded combing the factory floor, I paused to consider my situation. The factory was a little too much space for one person and I thought that I really ought to find accommodations better suited to a nearly-college-educated 40something. I was no longer welcome at my parents’ condo after an incident last Thanksgiving wherein I brought a homeless man to dinner, believing this to be an act of unquestionable charity, who turned out to be an FBI agent that proceeded to arrest my first cousin twice removed on sight for passing government documents through kitschy collectible dog figurines with captions like “I woof you” and “Can you keep a secret?” I still defend that mine was an innocent mistake while my cousin was destined to get caught as long as he refused to hire a senior copywriter.
With no job, no home and no mug, I wandered back out into the street. I stared at the reflection of the moon in a puddle of what was either expired Diet Mountain Dew or raw sewage. I thought I saw a single tear trickle down the moon’s hideous face but it must have been an illusion. The moon doesn’t cry and if it does it wouldn’t waste any of those tears on me. Yet, something invisible passed over me in that moment. I felt like the frost on top of a car parked eternally in the shade of early winter. How I loathed being that frost, stuck there for all time. But when the thought of spring came to mind I was struck by fear. Surely it was better to be the frost that never thaws than the dew slipping helplessly into the sky at daybreak. When I came around the corner I noticed a shabby, second run movie theater. Its pitiful neon called deeply into the night like a siren luring witless lusty sailors to their deaths. From the street I could hear an orchestral overture rising from the depths of that shadowy space. Inside that din, a plain melody, played with tender resignation, rose up and approached me with the unpredictable impatience of a feather loosed from the wing of a city bird. As I went to meet it, a young woman clothed in silk and lace appeared from behind the concession stand clutching an elegant cigarette holder that was empty and marked only with a slight kiss of lipstick at the end. She offered me a bucket of popcorn, which I accepted. “Is there anything else I can get for you?” she asked in a husky, faraway voice.
“A cup of coffee, please.”
– Rev’rend, 11/3/13