gerald's last ghost story
published in The Carolina Quarterly, Volume 65.3
We waited four days for the diagnosis, and I felt every hour of those four days. It was explained that the tissue specimen had to be stained, and that takes a while to set, and then it has to be reviewed under the microscope, and that takes a while to get around to because pathologists work nine-to-five and not on weekends and they don’t miss lunch. So for four days, Ben played with all his toys and several new ones, and had all the ice cream he asked for and only rarely complained about pain under his ribcage, where they had taken the piece of his left kidney. We held hands and watched him, and hardly slept or ate for four days until we were told it was benign and he was going to live, meaning my world will persist and thrive. My son will bury me and all is right.
So I think of Uncle Gerald. I hadn’t forgotten him, but I hadn’t truly remembered. As a boy I went fishing with Father and Gerald off the pier on Saturdays—not every Saturday but a lot of Saturdays—and we never caught anything, not ever. Gerald claimed that the fish knew we were coming because of a secret double agent: Harry, my pet goldfish, was calling ahead to warn them. We’d come home laughing, and I’d run up to my mother yelling: not a single fish mama, Harry called again! I’d tap on the tank and berate Harry in good humor, and Gerald would laugh.
If only I could take Ben fishing with his great uncle, and how wonderful it would be if we didn’t catch anything, not ever. To see what Gerald would tell him that would make it fine. Better than fine: preferable. But Gerald is gone, and his son didn’t bury him. None of us did.
Gerald laughed at everything, all the time, like the purpose of his life was to be entertained. He was my father's younger brother by four years, but they were nearly identical in appearance except that Gerald wore a massive, bushy mustache and my father couldn’t grow one. He worked at the paper mill along with everybody else in town, and even met his wife Tina there, but had a college degree in English—the only degree in our family and I’m including high school diplomas—so my father called him Professor.
When I was thirteen, my cousin Gerald Jr. was killed. He was three years old, only a few months older than Ben is now. He left the house on a Saturday morning and toddled across the road to see the duck pond where his dad sometimes took him. His parents were preoccupied so he walked right out the door and into the world, taking with him a slice of Wonder Bread appropriated from the kitchen. It was still clenched in his fist afterwards. An out-of-towner, distracted by something he saw in his rearview mirror, ran him down. Didn’t even kill him instantly, was the worst thing. Gerald Jr. went ahead and lived for three days on a respirator in a pediatric intensive care unit in the city, while his father begged the hospital chaplain to tell him why this happened. We heard that the out-of-towner shot himself in the head two months later but had survived in a manner of speaking. Tina quit her job at the mill, slowly had herself covered herself in tattoos and was absent from public life for weeks at a time. Within a year she’d filed for divorce and disappeared into the east. And Gerald began to work the pub circuit, discovering a latent relationship with vodka. If you want, you can say that’s what killed him.
Gerald told me ghost stories when I was a boy. He knew a hundred-and-one ghost stories, so he said, but he just made them up as he went along. He’d look around the room and gaze for a few moments at the ceiling fan, for example, and say, “Hey little man, did I ever tell you the story about the demonic ceiling fan? It’s a great one. It’s in my top thirty ghost stories.” I would giggle and jump under the covers, and he’d get me a glass of water, sit at the foot of the bed and tell the story, and none of them were ever scary. They were all... the story about the fearsome electrical outlet! The tale of the... uh... ghostly doorknob! He’d wiggle his mustache up and down and make giant googly eyes, and flail his lanky arms around until I would burst out laughing, and he would too.
I loved Uncle Gerald. He was strong and proud and happy, and looked like Dad and smelled like Old Spice. But then Gerald Jr. was destroyed by the out-of-towner and my uncle began his descent, and he surely felt every hour of each day of the years that came next.
He moved into the city chasing after a job opportunity that never panned out. He came out to town every few weeks to visit. He brought me decorative postcards from the gift shops downtown. He’d pretend to decline the inevitable invitation to stay for dinner, then tell my mother, “Well Annie, you twisted my arm and I’m a weak man. I can’t refuse some of your mashed potatoes, if that’s on the menu.” And he still laughed, at everything, but he didn’t smile. He didn’t tell ghost stories. He listened and ate mashed potatoes and laughed, and then was very quiet, and he drank.
He was living in a motel at that point, the sort where you pay by the week or month, and he did some part-time gardening work until ultimately he wasn't able to pull it together enough for that. He had a falling out with my father after coming to our house late one night, slurring and stumbling. They went out into the back yard and smoked cigarettes and spoke in angry voices while I peeped from my bedroom window. Gerald was yelling—which I’d never seen him do before—and then suddenly he was crying—which I’d never seen any grown man do before—and he threw down his cigarette and blustered off the porch, then skidded his Datsun into a drainage ditch just immediately down the road. Father came inside to put on a heavy coat and then drove over and towed Gerald out and, as far as I know, that was the last they ever saw each other.
Life goes on. Father gets promoted to foreman at the mill, and we move to a bigger house with a vast green yard. Flush with even this modest success, he starts talking about me going to college. I say, “like Uncle Gerald?” He says nothing and leaves the room, and I never mention Gerald in his presence again.
My mother gets a call from Gerald asking if she could pick him up from the hospital in the city. He apologized: he had nobody else to call. He was being discharged and his driver's license had been taken away. Having recently gotten my permit, I ended up driving because my mother was having stomach pains and didn't feel able to make the trip alone. Uncle Gerald was waiting at the curbside wearing hospital pajamas. The clothes he’d arrived in had been deemed unfit for human use.
Gerald had been in the hospital for three days. To hear him tell it, all they did was feed him and give him vitamins. The social worker handed him a phone number to call just in case he ever wanted to have another drink. She told him that the person on the other end of the line had been where he was, and they’d love to have a nice chat with him and commiserate and then at the end of the conversation he wouldn’t want to have a drink anymore.
We drove Gerald back to the motel and helped him stumble into his room. I expected a cascade of empty beer bottles, but Gerald had kept the place clean. The motel manager witnessed our arrival and came to give Gerald an eviction notice, and to explain that he’d been the one to call the police after discovering Gerald roaming lost in the parking lot, incoherent and belligerent. Gerald vomited some blood and collapsed on the ground, and the manager called back for an ambulance instead. He related this story in a manner that suggested maybe thanks were in order.
I stepped out for a while when my mother started crying. I wandered back to the car and found Gerald's discharge paperwork sitting on the seat. His diagnosis was listed as alcoholism. The doctor probably came into Gerald's hospital room one day, stood just inside the door, and said Mr. Harris, the reason this happened is because you're an alcoholic. He came bearing a diagnosis. The passing out, the vomiting, living in a shitty motel, unable to find employment. All symptoms of a disease. It all comes into focus. There are treatments, there are meetings, counselors. There is a special phone number to call. You can easily fit it on a four inch line that is labeled "primary discharge diagnosis."
My mother was sitting in a chair with her eyes closed, holding her stomach, when I returned. Gerald was curled up under the sheets. I got him a glass of water and sat at the foot of the bed.
“Hey buddy,” he said.
“Hi, Uncle Gerald.”
“You’re quite a young man, now, aren’t you? You look just like your daddy.”
He laughed softly, and we sat there in silence.
“Hey, want to hear a ghost story?” he finally said, muttering into his chest.
“Sure, Uncle Gerald,” I said. “I miss your stories.”
“Did you know,” said Gerald, “that at some point in your life, ghosts will become mandatory?”
This was the story:
Gerald said a day will come to pass when every death leaves a ghost behind. Every single one, a hundred percent of the time. Hauntings will no longer be rare and subtle outcomes of the incredibly tragic. They become the inexorable reality of death. John Doe dies at home on the toilet, and it is guaranteed that his spirit persistently haunts that bathroom forever, rendering it unusable. Jane Doe has a heart attack in the parking lot at the grocery, and her angry ghost is pushing shopping carts into parked cars for the duration.
Given how many tens of thousands of people die every day, it won’t take long for the people of Earth to sort out what is going on, and for the most cynical of skeptics to convert. Hospitals will quickly become defunct, given the burden of death they see. Within weeks, the ICUs will echo with screams. You won’t pass through without suffering innumerable scratches on your face, and frostbite on your fingertips. And the hospices? Forget about it.
The time will come when all terminally ill patients, by law, are isolated in quarantined districts. Volunteers (later, paid professionals) will push, cart or drag the weeping sick into the slums, all the while tormented by the talons and barbs of the dead. The patient is abandoned as deep into the district as the transporter can manage, and left to wither under the assault of ghosts, very soon to join them. Children with sick kidneys, will they be deserted too, Gerald? What if the pathologist was wrong? I didn’t know to ask him. These sectors will expand outward as time goes on, as it becomes increasingly dangerous to deposit the moribund into their interiors. There will be reports from NASA that the haunted districts are now visible from space, swirling black voids on the planet's face. Gerald spun his hands to demonstrate. Mother was staring out the window into the parking lot, and I couldn’t tell if she was listening.
He paused to take a sip of water. He was smaller than I remembered, shrunken, disappearing into his own loose skin. His mustache had sprawled out into a rundown beard of variable length. He was recognizable at a glance, but paradoxically was a stranger on close inspection. I could only know him out of the corner of my eye. I was uncomfortable in his presence, this reduced shred of a man, and wanted to leave. Fast-forward fifteen years, with Ben sleeping in Spiderman pajamas and breathing full and hearty little boy breaths, and I would hold Gerald’s hand all night long. If I could be allowed. But he is gone, and there is no understanding until you do.
Death isn’t manageable, continued Gerald. Consider all the falls off ladders, all the out-of-the-blue strokes, all the children murdered by distracted motorists. All the death that can’t be pushed off to the side. All the death that rises among us. It adds up. It multiplies. It is exponential. One lone phantom on a freeway is almost harmless. Until the night it appears suddenly on your windshield, mouth agape, frantically clawing at the glass, and causes a massive pile-up wherein three other people die. And now four phantoms stalk the freeway, and so then tomorrow it’s sixteen.
It will not be contained. The haunting spreads. The population disperses. Civilization collapses. Fear of death becomes nothing short of paralyzing on a grand, societal scale. Because now you know. You know that you're not going to ascend to heaven and be clutched tight to a loving god's chest. Nor are you going to be wiped clean from the slate, and disappear painlessly into oblivion. No, you're going to stay right here, with all the rest, and it doesn't look like a good time.
Within a few generations, the cities will sag and crumble. The countryside will remain relatively sane for decades. The hinterlands, for even longer. Even as late as two hundred years later you’ll be able to find some isolated crag, some remote forest. But you’ll find it and then later you’ll die there, and you will cause it to be forever lost to the world.
Sometime in the future, somewhere out there is the last person. He is at the edge of the Arctic, trying to stay warm. Around him stretches twenty-five thousand miles of haunted wasteland. It could have been me, Gerald, I could have been you. But it was benign, the tumor was benign and my son will live. My world will not perish around me. We have special locks on our doors so that Ben can never sneak out, but I still check them, I get up in the middle of the night and check the locks and look in at Ben sleeping, I lean against the baby gates at the top of the stairs and I disarm and rearm the security system and I think of you in that motel room. I hadn’t forgotten but I hadn’t truly remembered, and now you haunt me.
Mother motioned that it was time for us to go. Gerald was crying. I would never see him again. His planet hurtled through space, exhausted. A tornado of fingernails, eyelashes, bone. Howling, bawling, broken. The only word is Why, why, why. The whole of the earth moans it. You feel it in the ground. Your blood hums it. You die with it on your lips.