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Papa's Ghost 

by JOHN NELSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & e stares across the windowless room at the mammoth elephant with the pea eye staring back at him. The aged animal's ocular marble seems to be eying the Bruttle's cashew brittle on the cart-of-temptation, filled with snacks and spirits from every vendor in the Davenport District. He slides off the tall, oversized bed and grabs an eight-dollar bag of peanuts, creeps across the room and waves it under the rumpled staircase of the elephant's trunk, letting it linger enticingly below the gold-flecked picture frame. "Not going to move? Not surprised. Nothing moves in this room. Not the pictures, not the air, not my pen. It's one thing to be blocked when writing a memoir set in Endicott during the Reagan Era, but a suicide note? Shouldn't it flow like blood? " His eyes flick to his messenger bag and the cold metal it hides. His blood will flow soon enough.





He would have preferred a room with windows, but a hocked laptop only gets you so much when you insist on the Davenport. He hears rustling in the hallway and cracks the door to the extent of its security latch. A gaggle of old women with bulging bags of Christmas wrap are waddling toward the elevator, proud of their Boxer Day discounts. Even the day after Christmas requires tithing to the gods of retail. He closes the door and presses the do-not-disturb button, invoking its red lamp. Returning to the cartel cart, he opens the peanuts, washes them down with a half-empty glass of Canadian Mist then picks up a slab of cashew brittle. Twelve dollars, so what. He'll never get the bill.





The nuts are soft and the sugary mix shatters into a mass of sweet splinters. Heaven. Sure, he thinks, the streets of Heaven could be confection laced. Makes more sense than gold. If there was anything Jesus wasn't interested in, it was gold. He probably would remedy our holiday consumer orgy with less X-Box and more Tiny Tim. "God bless us everyone, " he smirks.





"You can steal from Dickens to get started, Puppy. But you'll hate yourself if it's in the final draft. "





He jumps with the words from the uninvited guest. Brown, syrupy spittle oozes from his lips as he lurches forward catching the bedpost. His heart drums away.





"Who the hell is that? "





No answer. He reaches for his messenger bag and pulls out the 9 mil.





"This isn't funny. Who's there? "





Still, no answer. There is no noise at all, save for the balls of his feet, catching and releasing the tile with sticky perspiration as he peers into the bathroom. The open design of the shower provides no curtain to hide the intruder. There is no one there. He checks the front lock. Solid. He walks back to the bed, eying the elephant in the picture, as if he was somehow to blame. "A little too much of this, I suppose. " He swirls the diluted mix of ice and alcohol at the bottom of the water glass, then finishes it. "Or not enough. Why am I so jumpy, anyway? It'd almost be better if someone else did it. Easier to get pushed into cold water than jump in. "





He tucks the gun back in the bag and picks up the notepad, its empty teal lines mocking him. He must write something, even if just "Goodbye Mom. "





"Ahhhchoo! " He sneezes hard, his body bowing viscously. A cold or sinus infection, maybe even mold, whatever is causing these nasal blasts has haunted him for two weeks. Ceaseless runny noses during the day and at night, sneezing. Some headaches too. He can't afford a doctor so he utilizes the prescription demanded of most uninsured, live with it and hope it goes away.





"Ahhhchoo! "





"Bless you. Hell of a haymaker, Puppy. "





"O.K. What the ... who the fuck is doing that? Room service? Dick Cheney? "





"Say fornication. Fuck is lazy, means you aren't thinking. I hope you don't write like that. "





"Shut up and show yourself. " He reaches for the gun and points it at the flat-screen and then the phone, as if there must be some techno-intrusive gremlin brewing this insanity.





"You don't even have the safety off. Not much of a threat. "





It's true. He knows nothing about guns. He had to steal this one from his roommate, along with some Lorazepam.





"Handguns can be a risky proposition, Puppy, even when you know how to handle one. Shot a shark once with a handgun. Enraged him. Almost bought the boys a chest full of teeth. Always used a Thompson gun after that. "





"So now you're Dillinger? "





"If you want, but he wouldn't be much help with your writer's block. "





"Oh, you're here to help. " Feeling ridiculous, he looks around the room. "That's funny, considering you're not here at all. We both know I'm just talking to that last glass of booze or the pills. "





"Actually, I'm right over here, kind of in the chair by the mirror. "





He swings his head around so fast his glasses slip off his ears. He pushes them back in anticipation. Of course, there is no one there. He fumes over being sucked into the game. "Kind of in the chair? "





"I could tell you that I'm actually more here than the chair is, but if you can't see me then you're surely not ready for that. "





He's heard it all before, in college. Reality is pure energy, thought. Matter is just a manifestation of that thought. Heaven resides in the space between atoms. The professor spewing it looked like John Ritter so it was hard to take him seriously.





"So, what am I ... ahhhchoo. What am I ready for, besides a straight jacket? " He shakes his head, almost laughing at himself.





"Apparently a Kleenex and a few suggestions. You can consider it talking to yourself, or that mosquito-keg bourbon if you have to. "





"And what would you prefer? "





"Papa. "





"As in ... sharks, Thompson gun ... Hemingway? " He is amused at the irony, the ultimate inside joke, a collaboration of sanity and insanity that could only breed in his own mind. His idol, his muse, helping to break his block so he can off himself. Sadly, conversing with a self-proclaimed ghost is no desultory behavioral detour for him. In fact, it's just the latest of many recent delusions. Earlier, when he was checking in, he thought the valet was whispering warnings of impending doom. And the other night, he could have sworn the sound machine was calling his name, even after switching from rainforest to waterfall. All his life he's heard voices in the wind, blowing through dumpster lids and broken trees. He's just never listened, until now. "O.K., Papa, I think I'm beginning to get it. Where do we start? "





"By putting the gun down. No shooting. Not until you've written what you want. The purest, truest sentences you've ever written. If I understand your intentions, there's no second draft for this piece. "





The weapon drops from his thin fingers onto the cart, jiggling the whiskey in the half-gallon. He picks up the pen and pad. "I must warn you, there's really nothing here right now. " He points to his forehead.





"Funny thing about being blocked, it has symptoms, painful as a bayonet, but no one knows the cause. Many theories, but no definitive answer. The only thing you know is when it's over, you don't want it coming back. "





"Nice dissertation. But what about my block? Can we discuss that? "





"No. That's the worse thing you can do. Don't think about your block. That's like cleaning the bloodstains before treating the wound. First things first, Puppy. Concentrate on your emotions, the words that convey them. Focus on your depression. Identify what brought you to this point, the simplest, hardest act of self-destruction a man can commit. "





He sits on the bed and rubs his sagging jeans, smoothing the wrinkles. He runs his hand over the faded denim, going along with the grain of the fabric. It lightens in color. He pulls it back and it darkens. He remembers using that once in a short story, just because he liked the image in his mind. Perhaps that is his problem; his writing is too selfish. Or he goes against the grain too often. Maybe that's what makes him so dark. So incompatible. No girlfriend, no steady job, in and out of college twice. All he wants is to write, to be told he can write. Sure, he's a starving artist but it's not food or money he craves, it's affirmation, validation, publication.





"I'm not getting what I want, and it's wearing me down. " He takes off his glasses, runs his hand behind his ear and scratches an itchy patch. "But that can't be it. You got everything you wanted, and you still did it. "





"You mean put a shotgun between my eyebrows and blew off the top of my head? "





"If that's how it went down. "





"Oh, it was. I tried it once before, but they caught me. Said it was the alcohol, or maybe the E.C.T. but it wasn't. I had done my best work. I was dried up, simple as that. But you, early twenties, you can't be dried up. You're just not tapping the right wells. "





"They don't seem to think I have any wells. They've seen my best and it's still not good enough. I'm beginning to believe them. " He nods his head towards the wall, the outside world, the world where right people don't talk to ghosts, or themselves.





"Who is 'they'? "





"Everyone that has ever rejected my work, which is pretty much everyone except my mother. We can't all have Scribner in our back pocket. "





"Don't speak of things you don't understand, unless it's to say, you don't understand. Otherwise, you're just faking. That's the worst thing a writer can do. "





"I thought being biased was the worst. That's the accusation nowadays, anyway. " He flings his hand towards the blank flat screen. "The funny thing is, it's mostly talk-show hosts making that argument, and they're more biased than anyone. "





"There will always be critics. Critics make rules. Writers break them. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have discipline, but there is no liberal or conservative writing, only good writing and bad writing. If you write what you know, what you experience, then there is no argument. "





He could swear the area near the chair was somehow brighter, not with any form but liquid air, like viewing an LCD screen from too far to the side.





"Focus on the truth. What you've experienced, not what others think. "





He runs his hands over his dark stubble and darker, unwashed hair, and then lies back on the bed. The pillows are huge marshmallows. He wonders if they'll soak the blood up nicely or if it will drip off and pool like cough syrup on the short carpet.





"I pour out my soul only to receive antiseptic rejections, telling me that I'm trying to explicate my problems, guising them as fiction. I especially hate when they scribble the phrase, 'This doesn't work for us', like my brain is using old software, incompatible with their supreme knowledge of prose. Who ordained them? "





"That's pretty bitter, but does it apply? Will any of those editors ever read your suicide note? "





Unusual, but he really hadn't considered his audience. He sits up in bed, wavers for a moment as the blood equalizes in his skull. "I need coffee. "





"What? "





"I haven't had any all day and I'd really like some. "





"Fine. Call room service. But we're not stopping now. You haven't written a thing. There's little in the pot to simmer. "





"No, I'm going down to get Starbucks, in the lobby. Coming with? Of course you are. "





On the five-floor descent to the lobby, he feels alone, but as they pass the Isabella Ballroom, Papa asks to stop.





"What? What is it? " he discreetly asks the voice.





"Just a memory, and why are you whispering? "





"I don't want to get thrown out for being a nutcase. "





"You are a nutcase, and whispering is suspicious. If someone asks, tell them you're practicing the lines of a play. "





At the counter, he orders an Irish, waves to someone in back and scoots past the fountain to the other side of the lobby.





"Never cared for the Italian latte. The French cafe cr'me is far superior. Coffee should be warmed slowly, not steamed, like that gal you waved to. "





"Careful, she's a friend, I mean ... I use to work with her, at the Starbucks on Ash. " He sits in a tall, satin chair near the fireplace. He can feel the frame through the thin padding.





"Most people think of tobacco or cane when they think of the Cuban countryside, " the voice rambles, "but I remember the coffee growing on the leeward side of the Sierra Maestra. They say Castro... are you listening? "





"What? " Suddenly he feels out of place, like the goldfish in the fountain, a marlin in the fountain. Everyone seems to know. The concierge is staring. He pats his pocket to locate his key card, stands and strides hastily to the elevator.





"Slow down, you'll draw attention. "





He doesn't answer or look back. He is sure someone is following, but the elevator doors slip shut before anyone else enters. Back in his room, he splashes cold water on his face and realizes he has left his coffee in the lobby. It will stay there.





"She makes you that nervous? Must be a story there. Reminds me of my little Rabbit ... "





"Can we just get on with it, " he snaps.





"You're in that big of a hurry? "





"Yes. "





"Afraid you won't go through with it. "





"No. "





"You know, you might just screw it up. " The voice seems harsher, darker. The air around the chair is shaded. "End up in a wheelchair, unable to write, to talk. Crapping your vitriol out in a bedpan every day. Inverted Vesuvius. "





"I won't screw it up. That's why the note must be perfect. No second draft, remember. Let's get on with it. "





His increased urgency ignites his imaginary friend. The area of the chair seems to glow once again. Subtle ripples of heat distort the air like summer pavement.





"So give it to me. Who drowned you? Who was this stingray? What was the barb, the poison? "





He grits his teeth. No hesitation. "The Inlander. "





"What's their problem? Corrupt? Yellow? "





"No, actually, they're great. The only local worth my time. I thought their short fiction contest could resurrect me. "





"Instead you got a rejection letter with brutal, disconnected reasoning. "





He feels despair choking him again, like an oven mitt stuffed in his mouth. There's been little relief the last week, except sleep, hot showers and booze. He closes his eyes and clasps his cheeks, distorting his voice. "That's the worst part; they leave you twisting in your bed at night, waiting for a phone call that never comes. They only contact the winners. " He slides his index finger across the dry slits of his eyelids. "It's like the aftermath of a blind date. You exchange numbers, wait for her to call, play it cool. Then, when you can't wait any longer, you call her, only to discover she's given you a number for a sperm bank. "





"And the story that won, is it better than yours? Can you learn from it? Be honest. "





"I don't know. It comes out tomorrow, along with a bio of the author and pictures. I assume the winner gets a call at least two weeks in advance, just to set it all up. They didn't call. I lost. "





"Aren't you at least curious who beat you? What story won? Can't you postpone this for a day? "





"I can only afford the room for one night. "





"And it has to be here? "





"This is where it started, this is where it ends. " He runs his hands over the cool sheets, wondering, imagining, shaking his head violently. "My mother was a cleaning girl here, right before it closed. When I was a child, I use to imagine he was a football player or C.I.A. Now, I realize, he probably was just some salesman. "





"Or a writer. "





"You know, I considered that. I even went so far as to tell people he was related to you, second cousin or some bullshit like that. Stupid huh? But he could have been famous. Sent her cash for a while. Seemed to have plenty to spare. Said he didn't want any trouble, didn't want a kid. "





"She told you all this? "





"When I was sixteen, moving out with some friends. She never admitted 'till then that she knew who he was. Still claims to know where he lives, but I doubt it. She's been in and out of rehab so many times I don't think she knows where she lives. I found an old credit card in her dresser once. George Harnish. It could have been him. I researched it. Goes all the way back to the Mayflower. Maybe I'm important after all. Just not to him. "





He reaches for the pen and pad lying on the cart near the gun. "All that bottled up inside and yet, when I go to write it down, I can't get past the word 'I'. "





"Maybe you should change the point of view. Start with 'you'. "





He considers the suggestion for a moment. He feels movement, at a glacial pace, but movement nonetheless. Even glaciers have their moments, splitting, shattering, plunging violently into fjords. His creative catalepsy shears off like a frozen blue avalanche. "I think I can use that. I can feel a change. I think I'm ready now. "





"Good, but not yet. It's just an inkling. Let it simmer. "





"Simmer? But I'm ready, " he protests with a shake of the pen.





"No you're not. And stop arguing with the Nobel laureate. Now go take a shower, as hot as you can stand. Clear your mind. Don't think of it, any of it. Focus on the stream running through your hair and down your neck and over your spine and spilling off your buttocks. Think only of the stream. And when you're clear and the time is right, then come out. Don't even dry. Dry your hands but nothing else. Stand there freezing naked and write the truest, cleanest, sentences you ever have. Write until you're done, but not after. Boil it down, distill it. Don't dilute it. Now go. "





"I'm not writing in the nude. That's cliche. You're not even here, anyway. You're not Papa. You're Canadian Mist. I'm all alone. "





"People that kill themselves usually are. "





Suddenly he is chilled. Even when he was stealing the gun, it never seemed as real as those lucid, icicle words made it sound now. Whatever was speaking to him, be it the ghost of Hemingway, alcohol or his own withering synapses, it was clear and intense. Is that all ghosts are, he wonders, extremely intense thoughts that make you see things, hear things ... do things.





He doesn't shower. Instead, he picks up the gun, rubs it against his cheek. It is colder than he feels. He gulps one last sting of whiskey. Then it comes to him. Clean. Boiled down.





Trembling, he scribbles. The room is so quiet he can actually hear the ink adhering to the paper. You're the only thing I'll miss Mom, love always - Duff.





"Is that enough? " the voice asks.





"It's my best. "





"But is it enough? "





"It never is. " He surrenders, sliding off the safety and squeezing the trigger.





"Is this? "


"Heaven? " The woman in the white jacket completes his sleepy probing for him, and then chuckles faintly behind her platinum glasses. "I've heard the A.P.U. called many things by many desperate people, but that's a first. "





"A.P.U.? "





"Yeah. You are currently a guest at the Sacred Heart Adult Psychiatric Unit. "





"Guest? " he yawns. "Looks more like a jail than a hospital. Reminds me of high school detention. "





"Sure. Did you think you could just shoot yourself and there would be no consequences? "





"Looks like there's plenty. " Still groggy, he surveys his body. Tubes are taped to both his arms. He reaches up and touches the bandages on his head. A careless brush with his index finger and his skull is on fire. Needles of pain stretch to his jaw. He winces. He's awake now. "But if I shot myself, how come I'm still alive? " he asks.





"One of two things, either you passed out and changed the angle of the gun. I mean, there was a high level of alcohol and ... "





"Or? "





"Or you didn't really want to do it. Either way, the bullet grazed your scalp. You lost a lot of blood, a little bone, no brain tissue. "





"But I did want to do it. I remember that much. "





"And why is that? Fear of success? "





"Success? " He searches out the information on her hospital nametag. "You couldn't be more wrong ... Debra of the A.P.U. "





"Some might argue that. " She unfolds the newest Inlander and holds page seventeen in front of his face like an x-ray. "The morning charge nurse made the connection. Or are there that many Duff McKierneys in the world? Ones that carry a thesaurus in their messenger bag? "





He shifts his eyebrows distrustfully.





"It was nothing personal, " she states clerically. "We have to check and seal the personal items of everyone that comes in here. But back to this. " She shakes the paper slightly. "It's a great read. Congratulations. "





He stares at the stylish fonts, dancing on the page, animated by their absurdity. But, they aren't absurd. They're real, more real than anything he has ever experienced. He can feel it in his heart, in his nearly defeated soul. "The winner of this year's short fiction contest is "Papa's Ghost ", the story of an adolescent who learns his father's identity only after happening upon a fatal car accident near Bigelow Gulch. We would normally tell you more about the author but we cannot. Through typographical error or reticent reflex, he provided an obsolete phone number with his manuscript. If anyone out there knows a gifted writer named Duff McKierney, slap him on the back and tell him to contact us. "





"Fiery crash, big explosion. See the artist's rendition on the cover. " Debra folds the paper shut, lays it on his lap. "Any reason for that? "





He is silent, motionless, caught in the fog of non-experienced time. The world has fast-forwarded while he was swaddled in a morphine drip. Debra stands, kinks her back, popping the cartilage between her shoulder blades. "I sat in that chair most of the morning, waiting for you to wake up so we could talk. But if you still need more time, that's fine. While you're waiting, you should read this, make sure they didn't pretty it up. I heard they don't, though. " She turns and exits through the open, cafeteria-sized doors.





He tries to digest the moment. His mind is as blank as the cracked, unadorned gray wall he faces.





"Congratulations Puppy. "





"Oh God. " Startled, he sits up in the bed, tugging on the tubes in his arm. "I lost blood and bone, but not you, apparently. " He looks around then whispers, as if there's judgment in the A.P.U. "What happened anyway? I was sure I wouldn't screw up. "





"Turns out you don't have a cold ... or mold. You're allergic to suicide. "





"What? "





"You sneezed, Puppy. Cocked your head just enough. Guess you get a second draft after all. "





Somewhere down the hall, a security door buzzes. He wipes his eyes and begins to read.

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