"A ghost isn’t alive. Not in the way we think of something being alive." My son Evan stands in the middle of our kitchen as I rinse the dinner plates.
"What’s it like then?" I ask. Our kitchen is small, and every trip to the stove, sink, or refrigerator requires sidestepping him. I slide a cellophane-wrapped bowl onto the fridge’s bottom shelf. Evan waits, planted in the room’s strategic center. His eyes are wide, his fingers twining. My knee complains when I stand up. "I mean if it’s not really alive but already dead, what is it?"
"It’s more like an echo," he says. His fingers etch tremulous waves in the air. "An echo of the way the person was and what they did. But it’s an echo that moves and does things on its own."
I return to the dishes. "Should I be scared if I see one?"
"No. Most people are scared, but that’s just because they don’t understand."
Another trip to the stove, but instead of brushing past, I pick up my son and sit him on the counter. He is eight, and sometimes I grow nostalgic for his toddler’s weight and our celling-scraping games of Superman. "So how are ghosts formed?" I ask.
I return to the dishes. In the dark window above the sink, our faint reflections, mine close, my son’s over my shoulder. "Ghosts are born when you die." His sneakered heels tap the cabinet beneath. Evan raises his hands above his head. "And when you die, the chemicals in your brain fizzle out and make the ghost." He lowers his hands into his lap. "What do you think of that, Daddy?"
The left behind. Few experiences approach its gut-punch intensity. Study the child not picked to play. Study the mother hugging the deploying soldier. Study the faces of the dying and those who love them. The left behind understand the weight of absence, an empty measure that defies physics but burdens the heart. The water runs over the silverware clenched in my hand. I turn, and, from atop his counter perch, my son smiles expectantly Is his recent obsession with ghosts simply a boyish fascination with all things spooky and bizarre? Or is this his first grappling with the question of what happens when a soul is forsaken by its fleshy home?
I turn off the water. "Daddy," he says, "do you think ghosts are real?"
"I have my doubts." I dry my hands and pick up the day’s mail stack from the counter. "But I’m interested to hear what you think."
I flip through the bills and catalogues until I come upon a letter for me. The[img_assist|nid=7831|title=Fall Hillside – Pennsylvania by B.J. Burton© 2011|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=250|height=335] past week has been a blur-work, my boy’s birthday party, Halloween shenanigans, hockey and karate practices-and only when I check the return address do I recall the awkward phone call that triggered the envelope’s arrival.
I slide out the contents, a formal letter printed on hospital stationary and a pamphlet. On the pamphlet’s cover, a drawing of an oak branch, a ribbon tied at its base. I open the pamphlet and skim the details of what happens to a body donated to the hospital’s medical research program. My son launches into a monologue detailing the actions ghosts are and aren’t capable of.
Evan and I sit on the living room floor. Before us, sheets of white paper, colorful sketches of planes and tanks, explosions rendered in dreamy hues. My knee momentarily locks as I reposition myself. "So how do ghosts behave?"
His marker squeaks over his latest creation. "They behave like the people they were before. If you were a helpful person, your ghost will be helpful. If you were mean, your ghost will be mean."
"Does everyone get a ghost?"
"Only if they want." He examines the smeared colors on his fingers. "A ghost is a memorial your body gives itself." He shrugs and returns to his drawing, his nose inches from the paper. "At least that’s what I think."
I jog across the street to avoid the well-dressed crowd exiting a neighborhood church. Leaves skitter along the curb, the sky above gray. A cool mist hangs in the air. A few months ago, a doctor diagnosed my meniscus tear. Some days are better than others, but this morning, I’m hobbled, a choppy stride that mars what little grace I still possess. A young runner hustles by, and the gap between us quickly widens. I nod a pained hello to an old woman who clutches an umbrella in one hand and a bible in the other.
The hospital’s signed forms wait on my desk. I could have mailed them yesterday or this morning, but I’ve hesitated. I always knew I didn’t want to be buried, the confinement of casket and grave as unsettling than death itself. Cremation, with its elements of fire and reduction, had always appealed to me on a practical and, more importantly, an aesthetic level. Breeze and water would carry my ashes, the carbon-laced flecks destined to mesh into the all and everything of this life. Then my father died, and I received a crash course in the business of dying. Cremation, even in its simplest form, cost thousands. Aesthetics yielded to practicality, and I could not justify wasting the manna of one life upon another.
So I researched. I called. I filled out the necessary forms. Witnesses signed. Soon I will mail the letter; the notion has already achieved critical mass in my mind. I just need a day or two to make peace with the harvesting of my skin and eyes, with my ashes buried in a nameless plot. I think of my body-this sensual filter, the first-person frame for all I’ve known and been-laying gutted beneath harsh lights, a butchering by curious strangers, my bad knee poked over by tomorrow’s surgeons. It’s not so much these thoughts but their origins of vanity and possession and the fear of the left behind that vex me as I gimp to a stop in front of my house and catch my breath.
"Do you believe in angels?" I ask.
"No." My son strikes the pose of his latest karate kata. "I don’t believe in angels, devils, goblins, or elves." He executes his first gyrations of punches and blocks. "I’ve seen a ghost, you know."
"Really? What was it like?"
"It was tiny. Like a little white flare. It was in my room." Evan pivots and kicks. "I think it was a baby that didn’t get to be born."
I’ve been reading the bible. I’m not a religious man, yet I desire to better understand what is important to so many. I’ve slogged my way through the archaic language, the detailed lineages, the Gospels’ redundancy. In return, I’ve been rewarded with an appreciation for both the book’s power and its status as a touchstone of literature. I feel for the plights of Pilate and Judas. My heart aches for Jesus’ sufferings and for his acceptance of what must be. I struggle with the raising of the dead, but I find solace in the metaphor of faith triumphant.
Where I balk is with the notion of what follows one’s last breath. Paradise for the believer, the unquenchable fire for all others. If not believing is a sin, then I know which flock is mine. As one of the left behind, I will gaze upon the heaven-bound riding sunbeams into the sky. Despite my conviction that what awaits is, at best, beyond my comprehension, I experience the same hesitation I did picturing my picked-over carcass in a med school lab. When I die, I will be left behind in body, and if I am wrong about religion, also in spirit. Despite its logic-defying roots, this notion haunts me, leaving me with my own thoughts of ghosts and what may be.
My wife helps dress our son. I don a sweatshirt, a knit cap. Cap gun in hand, my boy breaks free, a one-shoed romp to the kitchen and back. "Yippee!" he cries. The gun clicks with each trigger squeeze. My wife corrals him on his next pass, and Evan acquiesces to her demands to finish dressing.
We set out for our nightly walk, a mile or so through hushed suburban streets. A few Halloween decorations remain, paper skeletons hanging on doors, pumpkins in various stages of rot. Stars shine above. From our mouths, the steam of warm air hitting cold. The envelope in hand, we navigate a slight deviation in our route, but the mailbox I’d expected is missing. For a moment, I question my memory; then I spot the four concrete footings in the grass. I wonder how long the box has been gone and why hadn’t I noticed before. Evan takes my hand. "Daddy, I’ve been thinking about ghosts again."
My brother and I pick through our parents’ garage. On the way here, I finally mailed the letter, a journey that will put my name on a list, a plan of action that will remain dormant until my death. The day is bright and chilly. Outside the garage door leaves lift and swirl on a vortex of captured wind. Last night we turned back the clocks, and soon the early evening darkness, the beginning of the second winter since my father’s death.
Three piles mark the oil-stained concrete-one for my brother, one for me, and by far the largest, the items destined to go. My father harbored a fondness for hardware and gadgets, and we come across lock deicers and circuit testers. Fuses in ancient tins. A floor jack. Assorted clamps. Pipe cutters. Sockets and light switches.
I pick up a hand drill. The years have tarnished the metal, the wooden handle smoothed by my father’s grip. The drill fascinated me as a child. In our basement, I bored holes in scrap wood, pleased by the drill’s bite and the sawdust that scattered with a puff from my lips. I consider the drill a final time before dropping it in the scrap pile.
Our mother appears. She offers us water and thanks us again. Earlier, she broached the subject of moving to a retirement community, and I imagine a near future where strangers will live in this house. Yes, we agree, sensing the loneliness she tries to suppress. She quietly dreads the approaching winter, the memories of last year’s blizzards and drifts still vivid. She misses my father in many ways, but perhaps none greater than as a sharer of burdens both mundane and overwhelming.
Bundled in a hat and vest, my son joins us. I keep an eye on him, wary of the rusty razor blades that litter the shelves. Evan retrieves the hand drill. Kneeling, I explain how the tool works, the transfer of one type of motion to another. I open the chuck and allow him to insert a drill. His gyrations produce a creaky tune unsung all these years. By his side, I consider the shelves, the paint cans and spackling tubs, the tool kits unexplored. Too much has been left to sift through in one day. I picture the hour-long car ride ahead and the darkness that waits our return. I turn to my son. "Up for a game of kickball?"
We’re joined by my wife and my brother, a playing field claimed in the leaf-speckled yard. Bases are fashioned with wrench-anchored plastic bags. The ball, red and rubbery, produces a happy twang with each kick. There are shouts, laughter, good-natured taunts. With only two to a side, the base paths become populated by imaginary runners, ghosts who help tally the score.
I roll a pitch to my waiting son. I will never know what waits ahead; I will never know anything beyond the fact that one by one, we will leave each other. Evan kicks, and the ball sails into the air. My wife and brother cheer. Perhaps this is a taste of the believer’s heaven, a place of happiness, a place where one is surrounded by those he loves and is comfortable within his skin. I give chase to the ball, my knee’s pain a mere inconvenience today. My boy sprints by, whooping with joy, a blur upon the base path.
Curtis Smith is the author of the story collections Bad Monkey and The Species Crown and the novels Sound and Noise and Truth or Something Like It. His most recent book is Witness, a collection of essays.