I write an ad on the Internet:
“Haunt for hire.
Any time, any place, any loss.”
I don’t expect much, but when the requests pour in, I realize I’m on to something.
If you take up a career in haunting, you have to leave everything else behind. You have to forget your face and your voice and your friends. You have to abandon your own ghosts. You have to keep the distractions in check. You have to leave bloody impressions on your apartment wall and remove the rosary hanging from your car’s rearview mirror so no one will recognize it’s yours.
Those are just the basics.
When I decided to do this, I didn’t have anyone to hold my hand. I figured it out on my own. The first time your phone goes off when you’re haunting is the worst because it’s the easiest to avoid. You’re representing the dead. Don’t be rude about it. I had only kept my phone because of the people emailing about the ad. Easier to ditch the friends than to ditch the phone.
I bought new sheets and meticulously cut holes out for my new ghost eyes. I made all sorts of variations; some sheets had floral patterns, some were covered in blood. I use the plain white one the most. Standing in my apartment bathroom for the last time, almost every defining feature of who I am obscured by altered linens, I could be anyone’s ghost.
I get asked to haunt a children’s party. At first it sounds like a mistake, but the mother clarifies: “It’s a haunted house-themed birthday.” She tucks a lock of brown hair behind her ear with a hand withered from years of disinfecting scraped knees. “He just really likes ghosts right now.”
Behind her there’s a framed picture of the birthday boy. His face doesn’t want to cooperate with his smile and the frame is surrounded by a minefield of greeting cards of which most were only skimmed.
The mother asks if I make balloon animals. Do I tell jokes or paint faces? What about magic tricks? “No,” I say, apologetically. “I just haunt stuff. People mostly.”
“Well, it certainly would have made the day more interesting,” she says with a sloped smile on her face, her buried hand warming the can of mace in her pocket.
I’m wearing the plain white sheet. The one covered in blood seemed potentially inappropriate.
I stand behind the railing of the staircase, looking down at kids running—almost floating—across the hardwood floor. An hour passes. No one looks up. A pizza arrives and the delivery guy doesn’t notice the full-grown adult standing by the banister in a poorly made, slightly stained ghost costume. I wonder if I should leave and spare the woman the obligation of paying a stranger for standing in her house. I stomp hard, my right shoe leaving a scuff on the cherry hardwood. No one notices. I am so good at my job that I am starting to feel like a real ghost.
There’s a tug at the corner of my sheet. I follow a tiny wrist to a tiny arm all the way back to a tiny body sitting beside me. “She’s going to be mad at you,” he says. “You didn’t take your shoes off.” He points at my filthy Chucks and I feel like inconsideration incarnate.
I know this kid’s face. It’s on the wall behind me, and on the mantle downstairs. It has worn a thousand different expressions in his tiny lifetime but they always look like him. He is the birthday boy. I don’t know his name. His mother is Janice. She didn’t introduce him.
“It’s too loud out there,” says the birthday boy. “There are too many people.” He motions for me to follow, and leads me into the master bedroom. I try not to look at the photos on the wall. I am an intruder, a stranger soiling the floor with my filthy shoes pretending—maybe too successfully—to be a ghost. He goes toward the balcony but I stop him with a not-so-ghostly stomp. I pull the sheet from the bed and cut the eyes out with my Swiss Army knife. The birthday boy smiles and puts it on.
The balcony overlooks a backyard that, aside from a pile of paper plates covered with cartoon bats and a fistful of autumn colored napkins, is strangely devoid of haunted house décor. The usual balloons and streamers are there, but they are neon. There’s a piñata hanging from the lone tree wrapped in ribbon and it is the most colorful gallows I have ever seen. The piñata is shaped like a donkey, and judging from its eyes, it seems at peace if not completely absent. There’s a collection of gifts on an old card table and every wrapped box looks uncomfortable, checking its watch or phone, daydreaming up excuses to leave.
Janice brings out the cake. Kids circle around her. Candles are lit. Happy Birthday is sung. The kid’s name is Michael. Michael, the birthday boy.
Twenty minutes pass and we’re still on the balcony and the sky is turning that beautiful burnt skin color. No one has looked up, except for Michael, whose eyes are fixed on some distant star not entirely visible to those with a decayed imagination. He is certain that if he looks long enough he will lock eyes with some other child seated on some other balcony with some other ghost beside him, and they will wave, relieved that someone saw them on their birthday. I can only suppose this.
Contrary to popular belief, Patrick Denny did not beat his wife to death. She died of cancer and his temper had softened every day during her decay. He made the rules clear in his first message to me. “Don’t talk,” he said. “Just haunt.”
I arrive in my plain white sheet in the afternoon. It’s Thanksgiving and I parked a few blocks away, as I always do. Ghosts don’t drive Volkswagens.
I don’t knock. Denny told me not to do that, either. I simply open the front door and sit on the sofa like he told me to. I turn the TV on and settle into one of the shopping channels. On the screen, a plastic man and a plastic woman try to sell me USB drives disguised as sterling silver jewelry. I reach for a purse that isn’t there even though Denny isn’t in the room.
Behind me I can hear him in the kitchen, the sound of plates clinking is half domestic, half drunken. He’s yelling something at me, his wife. It’s slurred and struggling like his tongue can’t manage the heft of his words.
He comes around the corner in a t-shirt that was once white. “Thanks for the goddamn help,” he says, but he isn’t angry. He says it like he’s out with his childhood friends and he’s quoting an inside joke they used to share. “Looking for more shit to fill the pit?” He gestures towards the TV. I shrug my sheet-covered shoulders. “Well, some of us have work to do,” he says, turning back to the kitchen. When he’s gone, I can hear humming behind me.
We sit at opposite ends of the table. Denny has on a flannel now and his hair is plastered against his scalp with a thick pomade. He spreads a cloth napkin on his lap. The food that isn’t blackened looks frosty. Denny scrapes his fork against the plate beneath his microwaved potatoes, sending the scream of silverware into the kitchen. My body and sheet contort and Denny smiles like it’s some game he had with his wife.
It was the memory of every good night, the nights when Denny would come home from work sober and sweating. The TV would be off and his wife would be on the couch reading her Bible. She’d heat his dinner in a Tupperware container that shows with its size that she made it just for him. She’d sit opposite him and he’d scrape the silverware against the plate—not so that he could see her cringe, but because he thought it was the loveliest thing when her face finally relaxed again.
I echo his long dead wife’s exhalation. Denny smiles. Maybe the parts of our lovers that disarm us are not so unique after all.
I’m standing over a body. He’s covered by a sheet that looks a lot like mine. It’s white underneath all of the blood. His doesn’t have eyeholes though. His brain is leaking out under the sheet and pooling in uneven sections of the faux-wood flooring. He is shorter than me. The gunshot that ended him was the loudest sound he had ever made.
There’s a girl in the corner, barefoot and asking all the regular questions. I try to answer them like the body would answer, each a mild variation of, “I don’t know.” I try to make my voice sound deeper than it actually is. It is a tricky thing, to haunt with a voice. She picks a glass ornament from the Christmas tree and throws it at me. It hits me in the shoulder and shatters, its shards littering the blood on the floor like glitter. “Get the fuck out of here, Dylan,” she screams. Dylan is not my name but right now I can’t remember mine. I tell her I’m sorry and walk further into the house to find a broom and dustpan. She’s barefoot and the glass is still on the floor.
My head is on the lap of a stranger. She’s looking down at me with cough drop-colored eyes, nearly unblinking. She’s running her hands across the top of my sheet-covered head like she’s combing leaves from my hair.
If I had to guess how old she is I would stop myself out of fear that the question would be rude. Her age is present in her hands. You can always tell by the hands.
She says, “I got that kind of pie you like, with the crumbles on top.”
“Thank you,” I say, my ghost eyes fixated on the mobile hanging above me, a tiny representation of an altogether tiny part of the universe. The mobile doesn’t spin. It only tilts.
She was a good mother I think, the kind of loving parent you can only be in such a small pocket of time. She is still a good mother in the way she remembers.
“You’re going to be a great man someday,” she says with cough drop eyes glowing. “And when you’re rich and successful you’ll drive by this old house with your own kids and tell them about the time you broke the sliding glass door and blamed it on a meteorite.”
“That’ll be lovely,” I say. The mobile tilts again.
Most nights I work for free. I stand in the window of whichever hotel I am infesting and, wearing my sheet, flick the lamp on and off. I look out across the courtyard for signs of movement in rooms half obscured by curtains. Tonight, there is a couple about my age sitting on the bed. They are huddled together in front of the glow of a laptop computer. They laugh and embrace. He starts to remove his clothes and with each garment shed, he moves closer to the window to close the shade. But he stops when he sees me rhythmically clicking the lamplight. He lingers for a moment before shutting the blinds with such force that I expect them to catch fire. The light inside is still on. Its gentle warmth makes the hotel glow like a jar of fireflies.
There’s a knock on my door despite the DO NOT DISTURB sign. The man is in blue coveralls saying someone complained. “Stop peeping in other people’s windows,” he says. “Nobody likes a voyeur.” He walks away.
I move back to the window in time to see the couple emerge from the entry. Their bags are packed and they’re moving at a sort of jog that reminds me of wounded deer. The man looks at me. I wave as if to say I’m sorry to have disturbed them. He gives me the finger and I click the lamp off.
I can’t remember whose socks they were, but it doesn’t make a difference. They’re being used for something more important now. I ball them up, fresh out of the laundry, and put them in the old lacquered jewelry box I got from a different person I don’t remember anymore.
Sometimes you get a client that asks you a question you can’t answer. They can’t figure out how to deal on their own so they just have you deal instead. Parents and schools do this all the time. Usually doesn’t involve ghosts, though, real or imaginary.
The woman’s name is Sarah. She says it’s an emergency. It doesn’t sound like my kind of job. Ghosts come after emergencies, not during, I try to explain. She says her son’s dog has died. Clovis was its name. She buried it while her son slept but beyond that she didn’t know what to do. She asks if I have a ghost pet that I could pretend was Clovis. Maybe that would make it easier for her son. That is all that people want, just a way to make all this twisted stuff easier.
Their house is the best kind of small. It is the type of place I would drive by in the night and imagine the family living inside. I would craft every detail of their existence from the light peeking through their front window.
Sarah’s eyes are red and her hands are all scraped up. When she sees me she instinctively reaches for a bowl of saltwater taffy on an end table by the door. It is the middle of November, and even as she starts to realize this, she keeps the bowl of taffy in her hand. “I’ll go get Bradley,” she says. She hands me the bowl of saltwater taffy. It has been so many years since I’ve been trick-or-treating.
I wonder what the occasional car or cyclist would think. They’d see this makeshift ghost standing in some stranger’s doorway just staring down at a bowl of candy and they’d think they were imagining things. Or they’d imagine a thousand reasons for my being here. Maybe I’m a door-to-door salesperson, or maybe I’m casing the house, or I’m a gardener with a strange aversion to sunlight.
Bradley is missing some of his front teeth. He asks, “Where is Clovis?” I search behind his shoulder for Sarah, but she’s off somewhere else whispering into a telephone.
“I have to take care of him for a while,” I say. “But in the meantime, I brought you something.” I pull the jewelry box from my bag. “This is my pet,” I say, opening the box to reveal the balled up pair of black dress socks. “His name is Rutherford. Take care of him. Treat him like you’d treat Clovis and before you know it, Clovis will be back.”
Sarah appears behind Bradley. “What did the nice ghost bring you?” she asks, her voice pitched up in the way adults think is comforting to children. Then she sees the socks. She grabs the box from her son’s hand and pushes him back into the house. She steps toward me and slams the door behind her.
Through gritted teeth she asks me if I think this is funny. This isn’t what she called me for. I was supposed to bring a puppy to visit or something, a cute little dog covered in its own little bed sheet. I was supposed to resurrect Clovis, not box up some old fuckbuddy’s socks. She tosses the box at me and turns to go inside.
I still have the bowl of saltwater taffy.
Every headstone has its own piece of taffy. I leave the empty bowl at the foot of a marble angel. It’s daytime in the cemetery and I’m still wearing my sheet. I sit down in front of a grave bearing the inscription, Evelina Bellevue 1906-1912. An approaching man-shape blocks the sunlight.
“What are you doing?” he asks. His suit is rumpled and his hair is mostly gone. I tell him I’m just sitting. I’m waiting for an appointment, so I figured I’d rest for a while. A snort climbs through his nasal cavity. “I mean, why are you wearing that?” he asks.
“I haunt things,” I say. The lacquered box feels soft and warm in the sunlight. I open it and move the balled up socks to my lap. “It’s my job. People have me visit them dressed like this. It helps sometimes, I think.”
“Well, no one asked you to be here,” he says.
I hold Rutherford the sock ball in my hands. I imagine the pattern of his breathing and the texture of his fur. I pretend to comfort him, pet him, make him feel better about earlier when Sarah tossed him from what was supposed to be his new home. I hear the footsteps of the rumpled suit man as he moves back out of my life. I count to three before I leave.