Practical Haunting Considerations

Practical Haunting Considerations

Becoming a ghost requires planning, but few put enough effort into the process. They end up haunting a spot out of circumstance or necessity: a treacherous intersection, a tall bridge, a lonely room in a dark nursing home. And that seems to me the greatest avoidable tragedy, because we all have the same destiny, as inescapable as love or taxes, but we waste our time denying the inevitable and fill up our idle hours contemplating our past errors or planning for a fleeting, ephemeral future that will seem like a firefly’s flash when we awaken in the dark eternity haunting the wrong place.

I first started planning my ghost life when I worked in downtown Minneapolis. I was an expert at off-hours access to my cubicle. After seven in the evening, all the elevators were turned off except the service elevator the cleaning crews used. After nine at night, all the lights went off, but if you entered a secret, esoteric code into your telephone you could turn on the single fluorescent strip over your head. If you cracked the code, you could turn any light in the building on or off from the comfort of your own desk; this could be a diverting sport for a ghost. On the weekend, none of the elevators ran, and only the doors on Marquette Avenue were unlocked. I had to walk up nine flights of stairs to get to my cubicle, and the stairwell door at the street level locked behind me when it closed.

During my last project downtown, I dreamed that I had died but continued to go to the office at night to correct the errors of my co-workers. Only my Herculean efforts from beyond the grave could keep the project going; when it was finally done and successfully implemented I could wind myself in the warm shroud of death and sleep at last.

In my dream, only Molly could see me. And every night she met me at my desk and said, “Go home, you’re dead,” then walked away shaking her head. Not long after that dream I updated my resume, interviewed for a job in the suburbs, and left the project in Molly’s more-than-capable hands.

But that downtown office became my preferred haunting place; I imagined myself standing by the elevators in the morning, following my living co-workers through the locked doors, standing at the darkened windows in the evening and watching the buses on Nicollet Mall ferrying the living back to their warm houses and leaving downtown to ghosts like me.

My office n the suburbs is flat and colorless, unadorned by the mélange of downtown people: instead of the mix of pretty girls, drag queens, Sunday-school sisters, and sharp suits who paraded about my tower office, I’m surrounded by dough-white men who look like me and who take their mothers to the company holiday party. We talk about kids and lawns and gas prices, because the dark places in our souls are filled with such longing and regret that to speak of them would kill us all. Haunting this place, as I think some of them do already, would be an inexpressible horror.

But all around the low, bulky building are ponds and woods and marshes. In the spring and summer I spend my lunch walking around those ponds with Penny; she talks, I listen, and when it rains we run to the covered walkway beside the parking lot and laugh because neither of us brought an umbrella.

Penny won’t walk with me in the winter, so I bring snowshoes and a wool hat and trudge deep into the woods, following trails marked by deer and foxes. Snowshoeing at lunchtime sets me apart, I like to think, makes me different from the quiet, flabby men who mirror my future. Penny times my expeditions, and waves out the window looking over the pond when I come sliding down the hill and lunge out across the frozen marsh, my red coat a brilliant blur against the white and gray of winter. I wave back, though I can’t see her behind the black pane of glass.

In one of my ghostly incarnations I would like to repeat those quiet winter walks that end with a charge down the steep hill, dodging the naked saplings and bare rocks. I would wave my translucent arms and shout silently into the floating snow, and any girl standing at the window then with a cup of hot chocolate in her hands would know that I am waving to her alone.

But I worry that the hill and pond and marsh are not as permanent as death. I’ve heard the tragic stories of a ghost staring at blank walls where once were windows looking out at the sea, or roaming the aisles of a supermarket that went up on the field outside his true love’s home a century after he froze in a blizzard. Already the highways hem the woods into a manageable slice of wilderness, and concrete boxes grow like mushrooms in vacant lots that were prairie less than a hundred years ago. In another hundred years, will my haunted woods be a haunted parking lot? Will I have gone from eerie and disconcerting to ridiculous in less than century? What could be more pathetic than haunting a shopping mall?

Of course, I could find some unchanging desert place, a wasted bog that will lie undisturbed until the earth falls back into the sun. But then who will hear my gruesome wails, or see my faint image fade into the moonlight? Is a ghost who remains unseen even a ghost at all?

The conundrum that faces a ghost is no different than the bargains the living have to strike, though the stakes for a ghost are so much higher. A living person can choose to hold his tongue for the sake of companionship, can laugh at his co-workers’ unfunny jokes or suffer his wife’s nagging screeds to keep the domestic peace, and what has he lost? A few minutes, perhaps, out of the very few minutes we have alive, nothing when weighed against the minutes we will spend dead. On balance, the price is small. But a ghost can choose his haunted place only once, and be doomed to an eternity of clanking his chains unseen or, perhaps worse, unremarked.

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