What ghost story do you love?
I was waiting for a Manhattan-bound Q train to pick me up and I thought about this.
The platform was hushed, as outdoor platforms often are in between passing trains. I heard a woman at one end, or maybe the other side, humming to herself. I couldn’t tell if the song was a spiritual or a love song. A teenager I see every day walked by whistling loudly and disrupting my eavesdrop. Another pillar away, a slick college boy in a suit waited with his hands in his pockets. I could overhear his headphones: a man talking–maybe a book on tape or NPR.
I had been reading a piece in BUST about women who were said to haunt certain places after their deaths. Most of them had a right to; they’d been treated miserably during their lives. But the hauntings were innocent enough, save the ghostly woman who possessed a mother of five children in Rhode Island. All of the living lived. The dead stayed dead.
I suppose the problem with being frightened by real ghosts is the distance they must travel to confront the living. Real ghosts must make a terrible fuss to be felt because belief is stronger than reality. In order to hear my ghost woman hum, I had to listen hard and even then, she shied and fled. I didn’t want to see a spirit at 7:00 am on a Tuesday anyway.
Maybe this was what David Foster Wallace meant when he sprinkled that phrase, “every love story is a ghost story” throughout his writing. Belief is stronger than reality and the act of loving anything or anyone is mostly about the projection of your own stuff.
My favorite ghosts are the ones that do more than scream, though they do that as well. I like the ghost that waits with sharpened nails for the overly confident Casanova. A ghost should mark her victim by the pressure of heat around his throat and arms in the night. He will tell his friends about his spectral to their laughter; he will show his burn marks to a priest and be advised to light candles on the matter. The problem with that solution being that he has a new terror of fire. One morning, his blackened corpse is found in the safe of the bank where he worked.
The best ghost stories are the ones in which the ghosts win.
When I was writing this, I confused the Joan Didion quote, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” with the DFW quote to become: “We tell ourselves ghost stories in order to live.” It’s safe to say that most writers are troubled by the shape of a thing. Writing is a night light, a pillow fortress to oppose the horrible creatures under one’s bed.
If you do tell yourself a ghost story in order to live, please be advised that the telling of the tale will not necessarily save your ass.
That humming on the subway platform. . .
That was not a woman, that was a warning. While I petted my pretty thoughts about the banker’s death and about other cozy spirits that my thoughts so easily kept away, my skin suddenly was blanketed by a frigid damp, as if my entire body had been dropped, briefly, into a bonfire. That humming grew louder and higher in frequency. What was she saying? My home. The hum became a screeching. Commuters were covering their ears, their jaws were dropped and twisted to the side. Agony against sound. A metal pipe just a few feet above me twitched and I jumped away just before it was torn from the ceiling.
She was a tornadic wretch; her fingers dug long paths in the cement with lines of blood filling the ruts and trickling down the walls. A woman in a nurse’s uniform was screaming. The Q train had halted about 100 feet from the platform and began to do a remarkable thing: it backed away as stealthily as a muti-ton train can. The commuters had fled from the platform quickly and now I was the only one to watch the dead woman’s destruction. She tore a bench from the ground and a second later it shattered against the opposite wall. Tiles were thrown like confetti towards a B train headed south for Coney Island. I slipped down into the tracks and hopped away. YOU. Where are you going? The blood on the wall animated into flames and whipped into a fire that resembled the shape of a woman. My home. She screamed. Give me my home. I was wearing heels and tripped as I ran over the train tracks out of the station. My skin on my knee was busted open by the fall and the wound smarted as though she, the wretch, had poured salt onto it. “I didn’t do it,” I told her. I wasn’t sure what I meant by this. She wasn’t listening anyway; she was leaping from wall to wall, leaving only skeletal black marks on every surface she touched.
I was outside of the station, a few yards from where the train had stopped. I could see the shadow of a train conductor watching the chaos inside the ghost’s station. I could not see his expression.
Then, her presence lifted off. The wind died down and the ground steadied. The atmosphere cooled. A woman hummed a spiritual, or was it a love song?
This is my favorite ghost story of all: The force that surprises the arrogant.