by Cornelius Fitz
On certain nights, when the moon is whole (and yellow (and evil)), ghosts press their sorry rags for faces against windows, admiring their sun god. Should a gust of wind push open these barely-closed summer windows, they would be blown across the city, scattered into new haunts, sending those chills down the spine we allude to as people walking over our graves in the process. This great upheaval of in between souls would then run amok, tasting the freedom of displacement, of removal from the kitchen sink, the wardrobe in the bedroom, that uneven attic beam or the first steps of a staircase, where life suddenly ended, where they loiter, awaiting recognition, the useless righting of a wrong, an approximate swing at what the earth calls justice.
A strange haunting we had of it, they’d sigh, their wispy half-lives now rendered more meaningful. The tatty rags of souls blown hither and yon, the spindrift of a life denied, we’d melt into each other, you and I, and back out again, as we tore through the piss-strewn streets of half-past witching hour, the rich too lewd and the young too drunk to see us. Ah, but the tramps, those raving souls who abandon life mid-stream to coexist with the surer truths of the park bench and the dustbin, they’d surely sense a disturbance in the atmosphere of their limited circle, should we brush past this fellow fraternity of loiterers, with their finely-tuned antennae of uncut fingernails and rioting strands of hair.
Yes, they’d surely halt their rummaging and soliloquys, pause, look about, sniff the air quite like a hound. They’d sense and finally see, see us, exposed as only ghosts can be.
How they’d gawp as the gust dropped my shredded limbs down in the moonlit park, and I dangled there on invisible wires, a circus act minus the circus. How he’d stagger and point and garble his awe. And I, all out of sorts myself, being not where I was given to be: a bath tub. (More desperate nights and I’d fill it with what their whimsy, in time, would call rosé.)
So strange, to see this thing called the world again. Its solids, its edges, its weight. And you, a sort of halo around a bush, that’s how I had you pegged at first. A mere wisp, a straggle of not-quite holes. But still. Enough of something to be noticed, even with my eyeless sockets.
The wind buffets one so, you can’t just saunter over all nonchalant. Oh, no. No, the whatever-is-left-of –the-mind, the cerebral residue, has to will it there. Such concentration, all for such meagre movements! She better be worth it, you think. Your not-quite mind is limited to the ruts and grooves of its former use – no fresh thinking here. Still, the jumble of the former has its riches, should the quarry merit the quarrying.
[On closer inspection, he sees she’s got no nose.]
Jesus! What the hell happened to you?!
[As opening lines go, it was more prune than peach.]
Very rock and roll.
More rock than roll, in actual fact.
What were you? A lawyer?
[She sees he’s got no forearms. Hands, yes. Upper arms, yes. But no forearms.]
No. An escort. And your story? Bomb disposal?
Razor blades. Escort, eh?
Yuck! Of all the methods…
Yes. Well, you don’t think about that at the time, do you? Still, an escort.
No, I suppose you’re right.
I’ve never met an escort.
What were you expecting? Two heads?
I’m not sure. I’d hardly given it thought. Then there’s lots I never thought about.
And now you can’t.
No. Stuck in a rut.
Yes. Stuck in a rut.
Quite a night, eh? I tell you, I didn’t half pass some sights on the way: a headless fella, kept walking into a wall and bouncing off it. A woman in…
Nonsense! We don’t bounce off walls.
We don’t, no. But then we have heads to know just what we are and aren’t capable of.
And I saw a woman in quarters. Quarters! Each one was trying to lead the others, so she didn’t hardly move. Twin girls skipping down the street on footless stumps. Babies tumbling like tumbleweed.
You don’t know what tumbleweed is?! Well, it’s a… a, well, a twiggy bush. That tumbles. You must’ve seen cartoon tumbleweed. I never saw real tumbleweed tumble. Only the cartoon stuff.
Oh, it’s impossible.
Don’t give up. This is the most fun I’ve had since everything stopped. Tell me about escorting.
Not much to tell.
I bet there is. I bet there’s loads to tell. All sorts of outrageousness.
Like, well, weird kinks and whatnot.
I’m not sure what wank mags you’ve been reading, but you’re way off. It’s mostly stale laughter, bad breath, B.O., hands roaming where they shouldn’t, ugly men and ugly women, and all with ugly thumbs.
[It’s squealed out. She looks away, unimpressed. He tries again.]
Ugly thumbs used to be a bête noir of mine, too. Mind if I look?
[He coos between non-existent teeth.]
Tattered and stinking, both of his own volition, this tramp is a rogue satellite in orbit around the throng. Measures his success in objects salvaged and cigarette nub-ends rescued from stray footsteps and tyres, wine bottles drained and coins pocketed. Such scraps worth preserving are all stowed meticulously inside plastic bags, these then slotted inside two large plastic tote bags, and these last check-patterned Mastrushka dolls arranged inside a rickety supermarket shopping trolley. His profits and losses are the very stuff of the boardroom, only reduced to a company of one and its survival. Were the arc of his days writ in charts and stock indices, he’d have been bailed out by now.
He was – is – of sound ontogeny.
If not in externals, it shows in the silent mutterings, an effort made not to disturb or frighten those most often in the park: the old and retired, the mothers and their young. It’s there in the completed crosswords he leaves behind on park benches.
Busies himself with his fettered stooping and rooting, this bin, that bush. Rests up on a bench with his booty. Sleeps sitting, or horizontally askew, until the ground slaps him awake. Those pocketed coins are mostly converted into cans of super-strength lager, or a cheap wine with a sweet kick. Keeps snails for pets, or seems to, to those eyes that skip away scared of being caught looking, pulled there by an indelible curiosity, a child’s wonder, mystified by the alien nature of such an existence, if they could call it that, even, which they always decide they can’t.
There is no stink as sickly-sweet as the reek of weeks-old summer sweat, locked in a cotton jailhouse, and being sweated into anew.
It’s not that he’s not aware of it, it’s just that there’s nothing he can do. He was felt up at his first shelter, robbed at his second, when he braved it years later, then beaten up at his last, when he stupidly braved it once more.
Now he washes in public restrooms. Well, splashes in public restrooms. Public restrooms have only sinks to wash in. Those arch fascists, the laws of physics, dictate that he can only splash in them, not wash in any luxuriant expunging sense of the word.
He doesn’t complain, except for chiding the misnomer of the compound noun ‘public convenience’.
Today, he sees a curious thing, an apple-sized asterisk rolling on the ground. Closer inspection reveals he’s not that pissed, a conglomeration of hair has evolved into a hollow ball. Whose hair? He watches its erratic peregrination, scuttling that way, this way, that way, this.
a chinless beard
kicked by the summer breeze
escaped housewives chattering
In a spell of drunk lucidity he thinks, I know, I’ll call myself Pissa. After Kobayashi. With the tip of a moribund knife, he carves into the sea-green of a wooden slat:
Buddha nature, is
it not to be found
in piss-drips and cheap liquor?
Does it not overshadow the great man himself? He ferrets around in the back of dusty drawers in his memory for bits of Issa.
First, the one he’s already borrowed from.
A giant firefly,
that way, this way, that way, this
and it passes by
and yet, picking lice
is all I do.
everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble
Fair does, Issa. You win.
He returned to his bench where the Cinzano eventually punched him to sleep. When he wakes, the same strange glow of midnight last hovered above his feet.
What the f…? Who the he…? What d’you mean useless?!
Last night. With what’s-her-name.
I dunno. Thingy.
Yes. That’s the one.
You were listening in.
This is a public place, isn’t it? If you wanted a private conversation, you shouldn’t have had it above my bed.
Oh. You can blame the wind for that.
Got gas, have you? Brassicas, I expect. Or red peppers. My diet is mercifully free of both.
Anyway, I’m not blaming the wind. I’m blaming the windbag.
Oh, so it was my small talk that was useless.
Oh, yes. Pitiful wooing. Pitiful.
Did I blow it?
Well, after all that giddy schoolboy titillation over her previous gainful employ, I’d be bloody surprised if you hadn’t.
Look, all might not be lost. On the off-chance this humdinger floats on back, take a word of advice from me. Let her do the talking. Feed her cues. But no letching. And if all else fails, use the snail.
Yes. Issa. Zen poet. Had a thing about snails. The girls go wild for it. Least they did in my day. How good’s your memory?
Reasonable. Pah. Here goes.
And leans forward and cups his hands around his mouth and whispers something in the approximate place where the young chap’s left ear would formerly have been.
His eyes light up.
But where will I find one? And why are you whisp…
For that bush is haloed once more.
Here, you can have one of mine.
You keep snails?
Someone’s got to. You could say I have a very close relationship with my snails.
He burps. Evening moon. Pond snails singing in the kettle.
And he ups and shuffles off and leaves them in peace.
And soon hears a girlish squeal.
Peals of laughter follow.
Issa being misremembered? It doesn’t really matter.
And so it continues, into the first breath of dawn, when the revenant dies a thousand second deaths.
Illustration by Ingeborg Bernhard
About the Author:
Cornelius Fitz is an English teacher and long-time contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. He completed a Masters in Cultural & Critical Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, and was awarded the inaugural Verso Prize for writing submitted on the speculative aesthetics of human extinction, an extract of which has been published on the Verso blog here. He has also written for 3:AM magazine, STORGY and Minor Literature(s). Cornelius can be found on Twitter as @lapsedhermit.