Excerpt: 'An Honest Ghost' by Rick Whitaker


Photograph by Nick Perla

From Flowers:

David introduced me to a man named Roy Hardeman. He was not good-looking, but his policeman’s uniform, and the idea that he was a policeman, excited me. It was a new, glamorous world. In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting. Or was I wrong about that?

I stared at him, holding my breath. He was tall and strongly built, his face rather pale. He had a huge hairless head. In his left ear he wore a gold earring: a snake swallowing its tail. He’s a former pro boxer, and once had a fight in Mississippi where he kicked his opponent in the scrotum when he couldn’t conquer him with his fists, then wept tears of frustration.

For all I know he may be a prince in disguise; he rather looks like one, by the way—like a prince who has abdicated in a fit of fastidiousness and has been in a state of disgust ever since. Perhaps the man was the less handsome for the deep lines in his face, the irritable tension of his brow, which gave him the look of a man who fights with life. He also struck me as a rather cruel man, although it would have been difficult for me to say why. The handshake of some people makes you think of accident and sudden death. There are some people who invariably make a favorable first impression.

A single insight at the start is worth more than ever so many somewhere in the middle.

As a child, he had been raised by his grandparents, and been allowed to run wild. And so on. He was one of those young men whose age is difficult to determine. His bald head sits solemnly on the brown plinth of his neck. He stared at me with such interest that I could only feel flattered.

The signs of some incurable gastric disorder were written all over his sour face. There was a very definite smell of fish and chips.

“I suppose I’m a little disturbed. I was just brushing my teeth and about to go to bed,” I explained, nervously. A bitch, of course….

David said he was sorry. Dandruff dusted the lapels of his Jacket.

“David, what is Tofrinal, that I see it in the medicine chest, a big bottle full?”

The young man said something wonderful in response. “David told me how hard you work in the garden you made, and the way you love all the flowers.” His voice was like his look: dull and proud. He uses a language, has a way of speaking, that instantly made me think: inimical to civilization.

“Ah, they’re part of the comedy.” Sometimes not so comic. “It’s regrettable, but that’s the way it is. Oh, honey, don’t let me commence.” So alone, in this galaxy of fairies.

“We met on a plane,” David said.

Ridiculous. He went from going to bed with handsome people to going to bed with ordinary people, and finally ugly men; with Jews, Italians, Slavs and Brazilians, Dutchmen, Germans, Greeks and Arabs. Our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system. But the fear of going too far, and that of not going far enough, robbed him of all power of judgment. Being full of lust and hatred, envy and deceit, his desires are insatiable. I don’t pretend to be a judge of these things, but I thought the effect exaggerated and not in the best of taste. There is no bad taste—only taste and no taste. He has become a wolf. Drinking, unfortunately, can make the symptoms worse. It is a horrible thing to feel that all that we possess is draining away.

Oh, dear, I am so tired of feeling spiteful, but how else is one to feel? The measure of your loyalty is the reluctance you feel to give up an attachment for an attraction. But, dear David, enough of this is enough. “You wicked boy!” I said.

Some time was spent looking for a subject of conversation. “His wife is in France.” My eyes fill with tears as I think of her. While his soul had passed from ecstasy to languor where had she been? Even now, after years of marriage, they foundered on the same gloomy psychological shoals every time they made love. “He’s living with a young Japanese girl.” So I think he must have felt quite an acute sense of discomfort in France. Perhaps.

And homesick is where, when you go home, they make you sick.

It was interesting to see the concentration in David’s face. What was his purpose in doing this? He seemed to be considering having a heart attack. I remember everything right down to the last detail. I found his drunkenness scary and appealing since he wasn’t quite himself.

“What do I have to do to make you want to live with me again?” I asked. There should have been background music. “I’m not recommending it, I’m just asking.”

“I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t,” he said with a feckless sigh.

“You are sleeping with me to-night, you know, David,” I said. “I love you.” When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation. But not David’s. “Well, I mean, it’s Christmas…” I segue into the vanity of human attachment. Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety. This estrangement is a recent phenomena [sic]. “I’ll give you just ten seconds to wipe that stupid grin off of your face.”

“Now, just wait a second, sonny,” he said. David beams, showing me a photo of a hillbilly trucker with a giant dick. “I’m sure you can find plenty of other people to talk to.” But there he was probably wrong. What better way of assuring oneself, on the point on which one is mistaken, than to persuade the other of the truth of what one says! “I wish you’d learn to leave the goddam party when it’s over,” he said. He was happiest and most truly himself when he was alone in the quiet countryside.

I watched them for as long as I could, until they disappeared, two shrinking forms, around a corner. Like lightning they were gone. But what do they have in common?

“Every son loves his father,” I said, getting into bed. One is inclined to say so. “Joe needs you to look after him.” He could not be entirely alone.

I thought of my garden. We used to have picnics. To the east there was a belt of trees, warped and stunted by the wind from the sea.

But soon I fell smack into sleep and did not dream any more. Why not?