A Ghost Story by A.C. DeLashmutt
For a long time, I was preoccupied with the circumstances of my death. How had it happened? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t have the kind of life that was exactly beset by perils, so it must have been a pretty regular kind of death. Not that I need anything fancy! If a car crash was good enough for Diana, it’s good enough for me. I never did drive fast, though. I wasn’t ever in a rush and I mostly took the bus. I thought maybe it was some kind of fall; I remembered a feeling of… descent. So was that it? But then how had I fallen? Down the stairs, off a ladder? Ill?
Sometimes I sort of flattered myself that I might have been murdered. I know that sounds weird. But it was exciting to think that somebody out there hated me so much they had actually killed me. Finally, a fit of passion! But then I thought, get real, Lynn, who would murder you.
For a while I was the only dead person I knew, and I didn’t really know what to do. I mean, I thought there would be…I don’t know, either nothing at all, or like a system for dead folks, some kind of intake procedure. But I wasn’t too worried, I figured if there were no dead people around, logically, they must be somewhere else, and wherever that was, I would go there too. Eventually.
The thing is though, once the shock has worn off, death can be kind of boring. And it kind of took the fun out of things I used to think were fun, like scrapbooking, and Real Housewives. But it looked like I had some time to kill until Heaven or wherever, so I guessed I should find out what kind of ghost I want to be. I really don’t like yelling or loud noises, so I didn’t want to be a polterghost, or like a scary under-the-bed type of ghost. But I thought you know, maybe I could be a friendly ghost? I could do favors for people, blessings, sort of, and they’d have no idea because I’m invisible. Just little things - like put quarters in people’s parking meters, and stop cats from walking in the road, or watch over little children, and like, smile down upon them, and then I’d get in some practice for being an angel too.
So I got started on that. I went to Mercer Playground and sat on a bench with some animal crackers and waited for some children to smile at, but it was a little rainy and there were no kids and after a while I was also getting pretty cold. You would think a spectral person would be immune to weather but one of the disappointing things about the afterlife is that you can still get wet in the rain. And you can’t walk through anything, not walls or carwashes or stuff like that. And you can still feel pretty lonely.
So anyway I left the playground and I got on the 26 bus and went to the Sunrise Daycare down there on Mackinaw Road. I walked in and immediately I was like, whoops, this was maybe not such a hot idea. The kids were really excited about a box turtle someone had brought in to class, they were all swarming the turtle, who had gone completely no-head, no-legs, no-one-at-home. So with the kids all screaming I just put my hands over my ears and scooted into the little kitchen area they had there. I found a lot of cups that were on the counter, so I washed them out, and I also cleaned out the fridge there which was really in need of some attention.
When I walked back into the playroom the lights were so dim I thought everyone had gone home. Then I felt that kind of damp hush in the room, and I saw all these little lumps lined up on the floor. It was nap time and all the kids were asleep. Even one of the young people who was looking after the kids was asleep in her chair. The turtle was the only thing awake, he was eating a piece of lettuce in his terrarium. So I realized, this is the ideal scenario in which to smile down upon a child like a benevolent guardian angel type. So I tippy-toed into the middle of the children and one little girl caught my eye, she was wearing a Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls and had brown hair with a little yellow barrette that was barely even in it, and she had a little wrinkle in her forehead, right between her eyes, and I thought maybe something was troubling her in her sleep. So I went and I folded my hands and I smiled at her. And I tried to stay focused and think good thoughts for her, like that she looked like a smart little girl and I bet her parents loved her and I knew that her snack was going to be graham crackers and peanut butter which she would probably really enjoy, but I started looking at all the other little children around too. Some of them slept all curled up, and some of them slept with their arms and legs all flung out, like starfish. They were all breathing little huffs of air you could hear, like the whole room was breathing. I looked close and I could see all of their eyelids were sort of fluttering, just in the most delicate way, a kind of tremor like moth wings, and I could see they were dreaming, they were very busy faraway being cowboys or singing a song for someone or blowing out birthday candles, and back in the room there I was, knee deep in their dreams. And then I heard this little splatter and I looked at my little girl that I was supposed to be smiling down upon and her little forehead winkle was gone, she looked peaceful and she had even a little smile almost, and I thought, yes! I did it! And then I saw tiny little star on her sleeping mat and I realized I was crying on her, which I know is not good for children. So I left.
It was still raining outside and I tried to get out of the rain in the bus shelter, but there was another person already waiting in the dryer end of the shelter so I stayed away at the wettish end. I was feeling pretty down at that point, I admit. I think I was coming to terms with my death for the first time. Or maybe my life, before my death? I thought, if only I could remember how I died, maybe they wouldn’t have been so hard to tell apart.
And then something amazing happened.
The guy at the other end of the shelter spoke out loud. He said “Wow, she looks so sad.” And I looked around for the person he was talking about and his eyes were looking right at me.
I said “You can see me?!” And then he was so startled! He sort of staggered back against the shelter and all the rain drops trickling down the plastic jumped. And then he said, “You can hear me?!” And I said yes and he said “Are you dead?” And I said yes I was and he said “So am I!” And that was how I met Stuart, my first ghost friend.
Stuart lived, or had lived, now haunted, just a few blocks away from me on Remington Crescent, and he’d been dead for a couple of years. He couldn’t remember how he died either, but he said “I have a guess” and sort of patted his stomach, which was, I hope this isn’t rude to say, but it was, you know, significant. He’d also worked at Staples for a long time, mainly in the copy center, and he thought maybe the aerosolized ink had contributed to his death. But who knows. “It’s academic,” he said.
So we talked all about being dead. I asked him if he’d found any clues about where Heaven was. He raised his arms and was like “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“So what kind of ghost are you?” I asked him. We were at his house have Stouffers when I asked this.
And he goes “Oh, I’m an okay ghost, I guess.”
“No I mean, like are you a scary ghost, or a mischievous ghost, or what? For example, I’m a friendly ghost.”
He says “Oh sure, I’d say friendly.”
Too easy. I ask him the question. “So how much time do you spend looking for naked ladies?”
And he goes, “None!” But really, you know, I want to be a friendly ghost but not a totally dumb ghost.
“Really none at all?” I said.
And he sighed and he put his dinner on the counter and he says “Okay. This one time - I didn’t even really plan it, it was summer and this lady just had her porch door open. I’d been dead for a while and I was finding it really wasn’t much to write home about, and I thought, y’know, maybe I’m doing this death thing half-way, maybe I should be using my ghostly powers to see more things, and when I say “things,” I guess the main thing to see, if you consider your options, is naked ladies. So I used my invisibility to walk in via the porch and headed for the bathroom. I got in the tub, and I was behind the shower curtain, but, honestly, I could see in the mirror between the wall and the curtain. So the lady came in. The owner. And she used the bathroom. She did. And it was the most embarrassed I have ever been in my entire death or life. I couldn’t even really watch, I closed my eyes but then I could still listen and it was almost more embarrassing even than watching! So I grabbed this big poufy washflower type thing in the shower and a bar of soap and I held them over my ears. And when she was finished she left and I got the heck out of there and I have never, cross my heart, hope to die again, ever peeped on anyone since then.”
“So what have you been doing then?” I asked.
“Mostly weeding,” he said. Apparently one afternoon Stuart was standing in his backyard over a big dandelion plant, and he just bent over and pulled it out, and he thought, “Well, that’s done.” And he felt a little like, glow, he said. So he pulled another. And another. And then he looked up a few hours later and his whole back yard was completely weedless and he was so sweaty and thirsty and he had a glass of lemonade. “It was the best thing I’d tasted ever,” he said. And so the next week he weeded his neighbors yard, and then his other neighbors yard. That was just about a year ago and he’d just be weeding his heart out ever since.
That qualified Stuart as a friendly ghost in my book so we started spending lots of our deaths together. Just watching movies, going for drives, looking at things. For example, one day he asked if I’d been to the seafood section of the Stop n Shop to see the new live seafood tank, and I said I can’t say I have, Stuart. “But isn’t it just like a fish tank?” He was like “Wow, Lynn, get you’re coat and meet me at the tandem bicycle in three minutes.” In case your store doesn’t have one, a live seafood tank is like your typical tropical fish tank, but a tropical fish tank is basically just a pointless, never-ending pretty-fish party at a fake castle. Stuart says Fredrich Nietzche probably definitely had a tropical fish tank. A live seafood tank on the other hand is like a POW camp for crustaceans. It’s life and death! It’s very exciting. So Stuart and I would eat animal crackers and take bets on which lobsters would live to see another day. Very few people in Clayton, Delaware buy lobsters so their chances were okay but not great, especially on Thursdays for some reason, and on Sundays the tank got cleaned so at that point, all bets were off. But a few had some fight in them, and the seafood guys would avoid those lobsters, especially after their smoke breaks when Stuart and I would pick out a couple of smaller ones and snip the rubber bands off their claws.
Every Monday through Friday around 2, I would take the bus to the daycare center, and while the kids were playing and their teachers were reading to them or sorting out problems, I would sort of tidy up in the coat room or the supply closet or the kitchen, and then during nap time I watch over the little kids while they dreamed. If something went missing, like if Adam lost his bear or if Julia forgot her shoes in the playhouse, I would find it and tuck it in with them. Stuart would weed while I did that, sometimes at the daycare center.
A couple of months ago, Stuart and I were walking down to the community pool, which we’d started going to – I didn’t wear bathing suits when I was alive but when you’re dead and invisible it literally doesn’t matter, so I was wearing this old ruffle-y pink number I’d found in the closet that Stuart thought was technically “flirty” - and he said, “Wow, hang on it a minute Lynn. I just had a radical thought.” And I said what do you mean. And he walked into the middle of the road and spread his arms wide and he said, “You know where we are?” And I said yes, Sycamore Street, and he said, “Wrong. I think we’re here. We made it.” And I still didn’t get it and made this like “Hello!” arm swing and he said “Heaven!”
It took me a minute. You don’t really hear about people dying and going to the community pool. But he was right. We were in Heaven.
The very next day, someone said hello to me.
“Hello.” You – you’re a young person, a beautiful person. I bet people just walk up to you and say hello all the time. Not me though. Did you ever realize how close that word is to a curse? Just take out the ‘o’ and there it is. It was this woman at PetSmart, I’d been looking at her because she was wearing this straw cowboy hat, with a turquoise hatband, and I was thinking, maybe I’m the kind of ghost who might wear a straw cowboy hat with a turquoise hatband, like I could be like a new age, desert genie kind of ghost who just has a very healing Southwestern presence, and then suddenly the woman smiled at me and said it. Hello. Is that irony? I don’t know, you all are wordy people, you’d know better than me, what is it when all you want your whole life practically is just to be smiled at and hello’ed from time to time, and you hardly ever get that, because maybe you’ve gotten a little older and you were maybe a little shy and took care of your sick Mom mostly and enjoyed Julia Roberts movies and Cup o’ Noodles and everyone could tell all of that just by looking at you. And then you die somehow, and your life is over before you even got up the courage to live it and you’re dead, and you’ve come to terms with no one saying hello to you ever again, and you realize there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore, you’re a ghost, one of the scariest things there is, and that knowledge has let you do things like wear bathing suits and make a birthday cake for breakfast and help out at daycare and meet a boyfriend and then someone says hello to you and takes it all away?
Well, the next day at the library someone asked Stuart what time it was, and suddenly there were signs of life all around – someone tried to pay Stuart for weeding. A little boy who was crying at daycare ran to me for a hug.
A few days later, Stuart and I went back to the playground. The sun was starting to go down but it was still warm out and there were lots of kids and their Moms. I had walked over by the swings and I recognized one Mom from the daycare center, I was trying to remember her name – I knew she was Lauren’s Mom – and I saw she was frowning, and I couldn’t tell why, and then I saw that she was frowning at Stuart. Then Lauren’s Mom went over to another Mom and said something. And then that Mom also looked at Stuart. And then she took her son by the hand and walked him clear to the other end of the playground. Then lots of Moms started glaring at Stuart. I looked at him, he was wearing his favorite green sweater that had been his Dad’s, and he just looked so sad, standing there alone, with this big empty playground around him.
So I sat down in the swing, and I said “Stuart! Come give me a push.” He walked over and pulled my swing back, and let it go, and I swooped out. I swung back, and he gave me another push. One of the Moms yelled “That’s for the kids you know!” and we started giggling. Stuart shook the chains of the swing and just so I could hear he said “WoOOOOooo,” all ghostly, and then we started really laughing.
“Stuart,” I said, “our deaths are over.”
“Well, nothing lasts forever,” he said. “So what do you want for dinner?” He pulled my chair back and gave me a running push, all I could see was mulch whizzing by and then a blur of trees and then the huge twilight sky, and I yelled up at it, “Lobsters!”
© A.C. DeLashmutt, 2016
A.C. DeLashmutt is a New York-based writer and editor. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Trop Magazine, The Washington Post, Flash Magazine, and elsewhere. Her first play, The Policy, was produced in New York in the fall of 2013.
A Ghost Story was read by Kristen Calgaro on 6th April 2016 for Mistakes & Missteps