The Ghost Lives
by Anthony Jones
The Montreal Review, January 2011
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It wasn't until the middle years of his journey that the bitterness began to invade his mind. The exhilaration from his minor victories had faded and after his optimism wore away he started to believe that the people he was trying to save were just as small and stupid and petty as the criminals he battled against.
At times, it seemed that he was only a small distraction in the intimate relationship between civilians and criminals. More often than not, both were upset with his presence. Buyers and sellers of drugs, pimps and whores and johns-they all hated The Ghost for disturbing their transactions. He had been shot at, spit on, assaulted, injured and plotted against in the cities and towns that he had worked patrols in. Some nights it felt like everyone on Earth was against him.
Others were grateful, occasionally. Certainly those who he had saved from getting mugged were happy with him-but even then, people were often too scared or drunk or stupid to show the proper respect. And even if he managed to do well in a particular place, he always wound up in trouble with the police. He had been charged with trespassing, loitering, disorderly content, conspiracy to commit assault, and suspicion of vandalism. He had skipped out on a number of court summons and citations. He avoided jail at all costs. Prison was no place for a hero.
Still, only once in a great while would his focus on his mission waver. During these small slips he would skip his patrol and spend the night searching for a woman in whatever town he happened to be in at the time.
Once, he slept with a girl that he met in a roadside bar outside New Orleans. She had blond highlights that caught his eye and he'd only had to buy her one drink before she went home with him. She didn't talk much. He hadn't been with a woman in over nine months and didn't have much to say. He bought a pint of gin at a liquor store next to his motel. They drank some of it on ice in plastic cups and then he fucked her. After he was done, she told him that she was a prostitute. According to her he owed her sixty dollars.
The Ghost stayed silent for awhile. Her news had surprised him. When he didn't respond, she walked in front of where he sat on the edge of the bed and asked for the money again. He refused to pay. She began to threaten him with the force of her pimp but he didn't say another word. He was already lost in the confusion of the moment. He had just committed a crime that he had punished others for, but now he didn't know how to make amends for his own wrongdoing. Did his ignorance absolve him? He wasn't sure. He was sweating and disgusted and a little too drunk to figure it out right then. Heroes didn't sleep with whores though, he knew that much.
Finally, the girl got tired of yelling and promised that she'd be back soon with her man who was sure to take those sixty dollars from him with the help of his sawed-off shotgun. Her final threat shook The Ghost from his internal debate and thrust him back in the present moment. He knew that she wasn't lying-the pimps down south were quick to use their pistols-and if the situation was going to get violent, he was going to be the one who struck first.
After she left The Ghost grabbed his mask and metal club and watched her from the window of his room. He saw her waiting for a bus across the street and when she got inside the bus, he followed her in an old pickup truck that he had borrowed from work. He figured that she would go straight to her pimp. It was past four o'clock in the morning. He tailed the bus on its route until she got off. He watched her cross the street and head to another motel. He parked the pickup next to a fried chicken restaurant. He crept out into the tall grass on the side of the road. It was a humid night and sweat beaded on his forehead. Insects jumped and screamed in the grass. He saw which motel room the girl went into and then he waited.
About twenty minutes later the girl left. He waited until she was out of sight and then put on his mask and walked to the motel room. Her pimp was probably just starting to load his shotgun. A greenish swimming pool glowed in the middle of the courtyard. There was nobody else outside or awake. A mosquito bit him but he didn't notice. He tried the door and it was unlocked. He opened it just a crack and peaked inside. The lamp was off in the room but light leaked out from the bathroom along with the sound of running water. The Ghost stepped inside and then hid in the shadows next to closet. When the man turned off the faucet and walked into the room, he froze and tensed up.
"Brenda?" the man said. That was the girl's name. "Is that you?"
Right then The Ghost knocked him off his feet with a savage club blow to the temple. The man was short and fat and hit the ground hard. He didn't want the pimp to be able to get up and use his shotgun and he wasn't going to let this man corrupt any more young women. So before he could even scream The Ghost brought the club down on his forehead again and again until he knew he was dead.
The Ghost looked around but he didn't see a shotgun anywhere. He didn't have time to search the entire room though. He had to clean up and get out. He grabbed a fresh towel from the bathroom and wiped the blood off his club and then put the towel in a garbage bag that he pulled out of the wastepaper basket next to the bed. He rolled the towel up in the plastic bag and stuck it under his arm and then left the room. He had only been inside for a few minutes.
He stalked back through the tall grass and screaming insects to the pickup-stumbling a little as he walked up the small embankment to the parking lot, still drunk from that cheap gin. He had sweat completely through his shirt. He saw that the sun would rise soon and he knew that he had to be headed out of town by the time it was morning.
By nine o'clock all his belongings were packed and he had a ticket for a bus that left for New Mexico at noon. During his wait the local news came on the television at the bus station and their lead story was about the man The Ghost had murdered. The news showed a picture of a fat, older bald man smiling pleasantly. They didn't say anything about him being a pimp or his association with anything illegal. The newscasters called it a motiveless crime-the work of a stone-cold killer.
The Ghost's thoughts were volatile during the bus ride. He wondered if the dead man was the girl's pimp or just another john. He pictured his wife's face if she knew what he'd done-or who he'd become. He was very confused. It seemed like the longer he continued this mission, the more goodness got sucked out of him. He didn't know what his values were anymore. He didn't know who he was even trying to protect. Evil associated itself with evil where he patrolled and there was rarely anyone worth protecting-almost no one that he would consider himself a hero for saving.
Still, the desire burned within him. He wanted revenge against his stepfather. He wanted to save people. He yearned to be back out on patrol even during his most intense moments of self-loathing and doubt. It wasn't logical. There was no way to articulate this feeling past his urge to prove to himself and others that he was the man he dreamt he was-a legendary protector, a hero. The desire had rooted itself somewhere in his DNA. It was insatiable. To question it would be as pointless and absurd to question the need to breath or eat or sleep.
It just was. It was who he was.
Somewhere in the West Texas desert there on that bus, The Ghost decided to stop thinking about it. It was too late for him now anyway. He could never go back to a normal life. He had chosen his path and-to stop all the doubting and confusion-he promised that, no matter what, he would see it through to the end.
. . .
By the time his wanderings took him to the West Coast, he was middle-aged-very much an old forty. There were deep creases in his face to go with the scars. He didn't sleep much-he never had-and his eyes seemed permanently bloodshot. He had blown out his knee a couple years back and it ached every single day. He tried not to limp though and he never complained.
As the years passed he thought about his wife more and more and now she was in his head constantly. He often continued an imaginary dialogue with her for days on end. He was very unsatisfied with his life-his legend was incomplete and the desire wouldn't let him rest. He still wanted to go back in time and save his mother. He still fought criminals. But now he was becoming an older man and his health was in rapid decline. The years of battle had caught up with him. Chest pains and dizzy spells were the norm. Some days, his knee ached so bad that he could hardly even walk. His body didn't have many nights left and it wouldn't be long before his dream had to end.
He'd given up on patrols. He had stopped diving headlong into the randomness of the night. He didn't have a choice. Injuries had diminished his physical abilities. He was much slower now and not nearly as agile as he'd once been. Five years ago he'd almost been killed by a teenage punk who he'd caught jacking car stereos. During their short fight the kid had gained the upper hand and wrestled his club from him. The kid used it to break four of his ribs and puncture one of his lungs. The fight sent him straight to the emergency room.
The Ghost had to rethink his strategy after that. He started to avoid head-to-head combat at all costs, preferring to ambush his adversaries-ending fights before they even began. Survival dictated the change in his approach and as an older man he'd become more of a thinker, more of a detective. Instead of moving blindly on impulse he patiently pursued the leads that he thought would bring him to the most serious offenders.
It was about this time that he'd first heard about The Graveyard. On his trip north from Bakersfield-all the way through Fresno-he'd heard rumblings that some of the most heinous crimes in the state were going unnoticed in that neighborhood. Word on the street had it that guys were coming in from all over to use the empty homes for their most insane criminal fantasies. Police officers dismissed it as nonsense. Ex-cons said he should go there if he wanted to stumble into something that would blow his mind and maybe even change his career.
So for a week and half now The Ghost limped through side streets in the neighborhood known as The Graveyard with his metal club strapped to his back, seeing if any of those rumors were true. The area itself was mostly barren. The bank had foreclosed on the homes there and they were abandoned. Bordering the failed neighborhood was nothing but open space-acres of former farmland, bought by development companies but unused, rolling flat out into the night.
This was the Central Valley of California, the last stop for The Ghost. He didn't have the energy for another move. There was already a warrant out for his arrest in the southern part of the state-as well as five others in different states-and he figured it was only a matter of time before the police here stumbled upon him and connected the dots.
He tried not to think about it. He tried not to think at all because when he did his mind slipped back to the memory of his wife and with that came the imaginary conversations that always ended with his desperate apologies to her that nearly reduced him to tears. On the bad days he admitted that she'd been right about everything-that he should have let go of his hatred for his stepfather, that he should have protected their marriage above all other things.
Other days he fought the feelings. Despite everything, he still had fight left within him. And so he trusted in the desire that drove him and moved within the confines of his dream. He held his mind and would not let it slip to his mistakes or his warrants or the past. All he could do was be in the moment and all he wanted was a crime.
A big crime.
Even though, despite the rumors, it didn't seem like he would find it amongst these abandoned homes. He passed by a place whose front windows had been busted out and took a quick glance inside. It was empty. Maybe some junkies would come by later and fire up but that was the last thing he was interested in. He wanted what he always wanted-he wanted to fight evil.
The Ghost stalked through a fenceless back yard toward a steel water tower that stood at the edge of the street, where the concrete rolled out into grass. He took a step further and then felt such a sharp stabbing pain in his left knee that he stopped suddenly and kneeled on the ground. He grit his teeth until the pain passed and just as he was about to stand back up, he saw something in the distance that caught his attention.
Someone had parked a pickup truck next to the water tower. The Ghost saw a man walk over and toss a garbage bag into the truck bed. Then he watched him walk back inside a house at the end of the street. It all seemed normal enough, but The Ghost thought the man looked white and he'd never seen white people living in that area of town before-it was mostly migrant farm workers. The man probably just bought one of the foreclosed homes, which certainly wasn't a crime. Still, the situation was enough to spark his curiosity.
Cloaked by night shadows, The Ghost moved to the end of the street. The house there was two stories and the windows were boarded up with plywood. There may or may not have been lights on inside, it was impossible to tell. It was the last house on that stretch of pavement and beyond the home endless space spread out into the dark.
A radio tower blinked red in the distance. The Ghost crept behind the pickup truck and opened up the garbage bag. Inside was the FOR SALE sign of a house. Fresh dirt clung to the bottom of the sign. The Ghost looked over at the house, examining the front yard as best he could from the cover of the truck. He thought he could see the small spear in the grass where the sign had once been lodged. He looked up at the boarded windows in the second story of the house and then decided to check out around back.
He slipped through an open gate that lead to the back yard. Coarse, dying grass grew in patches amongst weeds that had reached abnormal sizes. The yard was barren except for a few silver beer cans that lay crushed on the ground. The Ghost inched toward the back door and then stopped suddenly. Something in the grass had momentarily reflected the moonlight and caught his eye. He crouched down-his knee aching-and picked it up.
It was a cheap, gold-plated hoop earring-the kind that has a nameplate in the center. This one said, Marissa. The Ghost stopped and stared at it. Marissa was his wife's name. The coincidence left him dumbstruck temporarily and then he regained his composure. He put the earring in his pocket and continued on.
The back door to the house was locked. The wood paneling felt flimsy and The Ghost knew he could break through easily. As a younger man he would have done exactly that. He was more cautious now though. He scanned the perimeter and saw a small window near the ground, party concealed by weeds. It led to the basement. The Ghost crouched down and tapped the glass, gauging its resistance. There wasn't much and so with a swift, compact strike he broke the window with his elbow. The break was surprisingly silent. He cleared spare shards of glass from the pane and then slid inside.
His heart rate picked up once he was in the basement. All the rumors that he'd heard about The Graveyard swirled in his mind. Sweat prickled along the back of his neck. He took deep breaths to calm himself down. He didn't want to rush into anything. He had no idea what he might encounter. He realized that he might have just broken into a recently purchased home. He stepped forward and his boots crunched over bits of broken glass. Moonlight filtered in through the broken window. A rusted bicycle frame lay twisted in the corner. He walked up the stairs as quietly as he could. The door leading to the inside of the house was open.
Darkness saturated the interior of the home. There were no lights on and the plywood blocked anything from filtering in through the windows. He paused to let his eyes adjust but even then he could only see very little. A strange buzzing noise pulsated above him-coming from the second story of the house. He eased forward and felt the shape of a refrigerator. He was in the kitchen.
The Ghost stopped after every third or fourth step to look around and listen. Everything looked indefinite and hazy in that extreme dark. The metallic buzzing above him filled his ears. He inched out of the kitchen and almost immediately he sensed that he wasn't alone. He took a step backward but by then it was already too late. A wooden baseball bat swung out of that darkness and slammed into his forehead with tremendous impact. The Ghost felt a short white burst of light explode behind his eyes and then there was nothing. He collapsed on the ground, totally unconscious.
. . .
A flashlight was shining in his face when The Ghost came to. His forehead throbbed and both his eyes had started to swell. He felt woozy. Blood ran down his nose and dripped over his chin. His mask was gone. There were voices beyond the light. He lowered his eyes and listened to the conversation beyond the blinding glare.
"You think he's a cop?"
"Cop's carry guns."
"Maybe he's off duty, I don't know. I don't like this."
"That's because you ain't been upstairs yet."
"You think it's her dad?"
"They look related to you?"
"I don't like it-it don't feel right."
"It's not supposed to."
"We could get in a lot of trouble for this."
"We can't get in trouble if we don't get caught and we ain't getting caught."
"What are you doing with that damn saw?"
"I left it on."
"Because it scares the shit out of her."
"What do you plan on doing with it?"
The man chose not to answer that question. He stepped in from the light. He had close cut blond hair. He wore a black tank top and camouflage cut-off shorts. A tattoo of a rattlesnake coiled up around his arm and ended on the side of his neck. He slapped The Ghost in his ear.
"Hey," he said. "Wake up." The Ghost looked up and saw the pockmarked face of a man whose features had been hardened by the penitentiary.
"Who the fuck are you?" the man said.
The Ghost just stared at him and blinked. His mind teetered on the brink of consciousness. He had a severe concussion. He grit his teeth and forced himself out of the blur. He tried to assess the situation. His hands were bound behind his back with duct tape. He was sitting slumped on a hardwood floor. His legs were free in front of him. His metal club was gone.
"What are you doing here old man?" he said. The Ghost ignored him. He could still hear that eerie buzzing. It came from the second story of the house and it was louder than before. He noticed a hunting knife in a leather case hooked to the man's belt. He hoped that he didn't have a gun.
Disgusted with his silence, the man grabbed The Ghost's face and jammed his fingernails in his cheeks. The Ghost cringed. It felt like the man was going to dislodge his molars. "What's wrong with you," he sneered. "You don't speak English?"
The Ghost's eyes rolled up into his head and he lost consciousness. As soon as his head lolled back though, he regained his wits. The man scowled at him. He walked back behind the flashlight momentarily and then returned with a roll of duct tape. He pulled a sock off his foot, stuffed it in The Ghost's mouth and then wrapped duct tape around his face until the gag was secure.
"This guy's fucked up," the man said. "He probably don't even know his own name right now."
The Ghost listened to him walk away and then heard his footsteps creaking up stairs. He was having difficulty breathing with the gag in his mouth. All that blood was still streaming down his nose.
"Where are you going?" the other voice said.
"Back upstairs. I'll deal with this shit when I'm done."
"I don't think that's a good idea."
The man scoffed. "I didn't ask your opinion."
"When do I get to go upstairs?"
"When I say so."
The other man sighed. "What do you want me to do with this guy?"
The creaking on the stairs paused for a moment. "Watch him," the man with the tattoo said. "And if he tries anything, kill him."
. . .
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Anthony Jones's work has been published in Westwind (Spring 2006) and The Furnace Review (Fall 2010). He was also the 2007 recipient of the Ruth Brill Scholarship, awarded to the most outstanding fiction writer at UCLA. Jones has performed his work with The Noah Garabedian Sextet (http://vimeo.com/13471981) and, most recently, he was selected to read one of his short stories at The Franklin Park Reading Series. Currently, he coaches basketball in the South Bronx.
Illustration: Untitled, (2006, oil on board, 30 x 40 inches) by Steven Assael
Steven Assael was born in New York, New York in 1957. He attended Pratt Institute and presently teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York. Mr. Assael balances naturalism with a romanticism that permeates the figures and surroundings of his paintings and drawings. The focus of his work is the human figure, either individually or in a group, rendered in glowing relief by gentle beams of warm and cool light. Steven Assael's classical talents are as rare as they are essential to the diverse art world of the late Twentieth Century.
Assael's works can be purchased at Forum Gallery, 730 Fifth Avenue 2nd Fl. (between 56th & 57th Streets) New York, NY 10019
Steven Assael's web site: www.stevenassael.com