When I saw the ghost sitting on my living room couch, I blindly overreacted. My palms dampened, my breathing grew shallow, my skin crawled as though covered with ants. The ghost, a dark-haired woman in her thirties, did not really merit dramatics. Her stature was small, her skin was parlor pale, and her hair was drawn up in a neat unobtrusive bun. She was pretty, in her black hooped dress, but her sunless demeanor and lack of makeup suggested that she was a lonely spinster.
For a moment, I wondered if she were really a ghost. She was not transparent, as I imagined ghosts to be, and her face wore a shy intelligence—not the insularity of an earthbound soul. But she clearly was not of this century, so she had to be a phantom. She looked like a governess from Victorian England, a governess with a tale of pathos.
She stared at me and gaped, as though I—not she—were the intruder in my home. She then covered her mouth with her hand, blocking a silent scream. The sight of me terrified her—why, I wasn’t sure. Was I following in the footsteps of Dorian Gray, that classic rogue whose monsterdom was discernable only on an esoteric plain? The terror in her face suggested this was so. Hiking her dress above her ankles, she scurried from the room. I could hear the soles of her laced boots tap-tapping as she trotted down the hallway.
I chose not to follow her—I had a more pressing concern. What was it about my appearance that had caused her to dash from the room? Had I grown fangs and horns, had my skin become scaly? Given the extent of her terror, this notion did not seem far-fetched.
I stepped into my bathroom, hit the light switch, and studied my reflection in the mirror. It was the face of a sensual man of forty—a face that was rather attractive in a Hugh Hefner sort of way. But, unlike Hugh, I had my limits. I had not built a shrine to hedonism nor did I view women as disposable pleasures. Rather, it was they who disposed of me, citing my self-absorption as sufficient reason to cast me adrift. And I mourned the end of every affair as though I were attending a wake.
No, I did not have the face of a predator. My eyes were not cruel but exacting, as though straining the world through that rose-colored hue that had roused the romantic scribes. Had I been born in the nineteenth century, I would have surely been a Byronesque poet. The life of Lord Byron would have suited me well: slapdash affairs, mercenary adventures, lavish living on borrowed wealth. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.” Ponder this quote from Shakespeare before deeming me a rogue.
Were it not for that flowery filter, how cloying the world would be. How crushing the darkness that stalks us, how scentless the poppies and trees. Better to suck like the bee sucks and let it go at that.
I live in a midwestern city where I work as a music promoter. And on Saturday, I go to the singles dance at the local Holiday Inn. But the ghost, whom I shall call Little Darling, had distracted me from this sport. I wanted to plead my case to her and wean her from her fears. But, if her terror was any indication, I may never see her again. I thought things over for three entire days. In the end, I decided to go to the dance. When the otherworldly leaks into your life, there is consolation in old habits.
As I entered the ballroom of the Holiday Inn, I drew a consoling breath. Dim lighting, soft rock tunes, and cocktails—these are the things that endure. Even the most draining of unions begins with a honeymoon. And a honeymoon is ever available for the price of a couple of drinks.
I ordered a Tequila Sunrise at the bar then surveyed the half-empty room. Whatever my deficiencies, I did have a remarkable line. “Madam,” I would quip, upon choosing a prospect. “Might you share a dance with this ignoble Caliban?” If she gasped and rolled her eyes, I knew I had saved precious time. A woman with no sense of humor would too soon prove a tiresome commodity. But if she laughed and accepted my offer, my heart would race like a sprinter’s. Only a true adventuress can cope with a Renaissance man.
Perching myself on a barstool, I continued to scan the room. I had picked out my target—a tall leggy blonde—when I spotted Little Darling. She was sitting alone at one of the tables, still wearing that black floor-length dress. She was weeping uncontrollably, her face buried in her hands.
I wanted to keep my distance; I wanted to dash to my car. I have no use for histrionics and hate a woman’s tears. But since we had struck up an acquaintance of sorts, I could not abandon her. An unfamiliar chivalry was stirring within my soul.
She wiped her eyes as I approached her then folded her hands neatly in her lap. What took you so long? her face seemed to say as though I had stood her up. Although she had deemed me a monster, she was not without expectations.
Hoping that no one would notice, I sat in the chair beside her. “Miss, might I be of assistance?” I offered. She looked at me coolly, shrugged, and touched my cheek with her hand. Stymied by this gesture, I could only revert to form. “Would you spare this ignoble brute a dance?” I muttered charitably.
Her smile was wry and dismissive. Is that the best you can do? it said. Sadly, it was so I said nothing more. I just gave her a plastic grin.
Although I had tried to be generous, the charity was hers. Had I escorted a specter onto the dance floor, I’d have seemed like a consummate narcissist—a man so self-protective he was content to dance with himself. Thank god, she had not blown my cover. Thank god, she saw fit to be kind.
As she rose from the table, she wrinkled her nose, a gesture both cute and disarming. Had I forgotten to wear my deodorant? Was she trying to stifle a sneeze? Was she perking up like a rabbit about to bolt from a wolf?
She looked at me, her face now flushed, and I felt an untimely arousal. What an ingrate I was—what a barbarous hound. The esoteric was hardly a sheath for the hard-on in my pants.
Hoping to gain her forgiveness, I bowed my head like a servant. But my rod was as tall as a sentinel as I watched her leave the room.
There is nothing like a whiff of mortality to give a man pause to reflect. By what designation of karma had this shade come into my world? Was she kin to Jacob Marley—a self-righteous prig contemptuous of all who do not lead sanctimonious lives? Or was she the pariah and was I haunting her? The notion did not seem absurd.
Not eager for a third encounter, I stopped going to the singles dance. I did not wish to seek common ground with her whatever the heavens decreed. But I started to cruise the nightclubs and bars where my charms might yet prove productive. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” had never sounded truer.
I also decided to get some religion. Not a lethal dose but enough to make me repellant to lonely haunts. The Catholic church in my neighborhood seemed perfect for my salvation. I had only to endure a prepackaged sermon, then drop a few bills into a collection plate, to buy myself a spiritual shield that would thwart less hallowed souls. There was even the chance I might qualify for a little divine intervention. Sow your wild oats on Saturday night, I reflected. On Sunday, go to church and pray for crop failure.
Six months passed and my romp with religion appeared to have done the job. I saw not the slightest sign of her. My line scored plenty of ass. And I felt so elated that one Sunday morning I joined in singing a hymn. “Eternal Father strong to saaave whose arm has bound the restless waaave, who biddeth the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep.” My voice boomed like a foghorn as I belted out these lines.
A woman kneeling in front of me turned around and stared. I had almost given up waiting for you, her expression seemed to say. She was holding a tiny gold cross in her hand and she pressed the cross to her lips. When she hung the cross around her neck, it glowed like a firefly.
I could practically feel the heat from the cross, and I cringed like Count Dracula. But by deigning to become a vampire, I had cleansed her of her fear. Are vampires not the most humane of monsters? Handsome, well-spoken, and vulnerable, don’t they belong in a class of their own? As I looked at Little Darling, I knew I had risen in her esteem.
Her eyes were not fearful but bold. Her mouth had a trace of a smile. She knew a few drops of holy water would turn me into dust. And so the hymn now mocked me as it thundered throughout the church. “Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.”
As though rushing back to my coffin, I hurried down the aisle. Behind me, I heard her footsteps tap-tapping like a hammer burying a stake. As I pushed through the chapel doorway, her hand slipped into mine. It was as cold and smooth as a mackerel. “This time remember the wine,” she purred. Her voice was as chilling as frost.
I clutched her hand and looked at her. I now noticed her clear blue eyes, her high sculptured forehead, the hint of blush on her cheeks. I also appraised her long slim neck and the rose tucked in her hair. She looked like a Renoir portrait that had somehow come to life.
What did she mean by Remember the wine? Did she want me to take communion? Did she want to me to sample her blood? Or did she want us to have a picnic lunch beneath a sheltering bough?
Her hand squeezed mine like a reptile as I walked her to my car. Her face was as tense as that of an adulteress about to be placed in the stocks. When I let go of her hand and groped for my car keys, her agitation grew. Her head jerked up like the skull of a marionette, and she closed her eyes tightly.
“Take it,” she hissed. “Take it now.” With her head held high, she resembled a blackbird drinking from a pond.
We drove in silence. My hands clutched the steering wheel as though it were a life preserver. Although not a word passed between us, an intimacy bound us together. It was not the closeness of lovers, but something more elemental, like the bond of a pair of cave dwellers huddling from a storm.
I stopped at a convenience store to buy a bottle of wine. I decided to pick up some Falcon Ridge Chardonnay, a label that suited her aura. Hunched in a corner of the passenger seat, taking ragged breaths, she made me think of a bandit bird that had washed up on a beach. I rolled down a window to give her some air and went into the store for the wine.
When I returned to the car and saw that she was gone, I did not breathe a sigh of relief. There was unfinished business between us, which I had hoped to get out of the way. Now my anticipation would linger like a crow upon a fence. Unless, of course, I could come up with a plan that would turn her off completely.
I decided on self-parody. Religion had not worked. Compassion had not worked. But if I turned myself into a genuine pig, perhaps that would do the job. After all, it is only the conscience-stricken that specters choose to haunt. If one is content to wallow in muck, the spooks will leave him alone.
I bought myself a dick mobile: a cherry red Mustang convertible with leather bucket seats. I put a license plate on the car that said, Ibrake4ass. And I fitted my bedroom with ceiling mirrors and a well-stocked mini-bar. Since my image was now that of an aging rake, I was unlikely to score much tail. But I was willing to make the sacrifice if it kept Little Darling away.
Was I doing this for her sake? I wondered. If she saw me as the means of her ravagement, was I hoping to spare her the ordeal? I suspected that this was probably so, and I knew she had touched me too deeply. In the stately glacier of my soul, a dangerous spring was bubbling.
But streams that begin in heaven end up in the vilest of swamps. The thought that my valor would soon dissipate curbed my uneasiness. Does she really need a hero? I wondered. Does she really need lofty intentions? Had she not spoken desperately when she told me to take it now? No, I would not be a hero to her—not if she wanted a beast. The cruelest encroachments of all are founded on noble intentions.
Although our coupling seemed imminent, I still wanted to be a pig. I wanted no magnanimous guilt to contaminate the act. So, I continued to drive my dick mobile, I continued to brake for ass, and I started to hit on chicks with lines like, “Oye, baby, your place or mine?”
I think Little Darling must have known that my debasement was not yet complete. A month went by then another, and she failed to reappear.
The crux of seduction is timing—finding the perfect moment. But time had no meaning to Little Darling; she was content to leave me bereft. Wasn’t I pig enough for her? Wasn’t I shallow and gross? Hadn’t I rivaled Hugh Hefner in trivializing my lust? I finally grew weary of waiting for her, and I chose to take a vacation. If I could not ravage her, why not outrun her? It would not be that hard. Ghosts are territorial, after all, creatures too earthbound for flight.
I took the most vulgar of holidays: a carnival cruise to the Bahamas. No museums in Paris for me. No Great Wall of China for me. Nothing to cultivate my soul and make me a person of merit. When she came to me—if ever she did—I wanted to be a brute. I wanted to make our coupling so base it would free her from this earth. So, I contented myself with dozing in deckchairs and being force-fed six times a day. And I sat by a poolside so crowded with bodies I could barely draw a breath. For all cultural purposes, I may as well have been a boar on a factory farm.
One evening, when I returned to my stateroom, a woman was lying in my bed. She was wearing a long black nightgown that barely hid her breasts. She looked at me reproachfully, like a heretic tied to a stake.
Not wishing to break the silence, I did not say a word. I just hung my clothes in the closet then slipped into the bed beside her. Unwilling to stir, I lay like a log; the first move would have to be hers.
She leaned on an elbow and gazed at me, her face a mask of despair. Her hair was undone, and it tickled my chest as she wearily shook her head. “You’re all I have,” she whispered. “You’re all I’ll ever have.”
I felt a deep pity for her when she kissed me on the mouth. The kiss was not tender but tentative, as though she were sampling a meal. Her breath was cool, musty, and hinted of the grave.
When she mounted me, she mewed like a kitten. Her eyes were like sinking stones. She clung to me as though fighting a current. She slipped her tongue into my ear.
We climaxed together. She wept like a child then snuggled into my arms. As though guarding a statue of infinite worth, I held her through the night.
Hugh Hefner has nothing on me when it comes to exalting lust. I had actually thought that by sleeping with her I would free her of this world. I had truly believed she might walk among angels when her carnality was spent. Maybe if I had remembered the wine, my scheme would actually have worked.
She comes to see me regularly now—once or twice a year. And although I instinctually dread her, I ache for her as well. I have never felt such a tenderness, I have never felt so alone. Our couplings are quick, like summer storms, and afterwards she weeps. “You’re all I have,” she tells me each time. “You’re all I will ever have.”
This story originally appeared Trampset and is also included in James Hanna’s anthology, Shackles and More Gripping Tales.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.