Most of the Time
(A Ghost Story)
“Where shall we begin?” The fussy little man moved his little mustache back and forth like a typewriter carriage gone slightly out of control. We were off to solve a mystery, Hercule and I, and although I followed along without a clue as to where we were going or what the mystery was, I had faith that this friend I had followed through so many adventures would once again take me to a worthwhile place. I had caught up to him by quickening my step, but my legs were so much longer than his that doing so caused me to sprint out ahead a bit until I shortened my stride to match his. The combined effect of walking faster but taking shorter steps gave me a prancing quality that I’m sure was humorous, but since no one was viewing this daydream but me, I had no sense of embarrassment.
It is only in retrospect that I gain a viewer, but since that viewer is me, I am perhaps harder on my protagonist than an impartial viewer might be. What does one do when she is the narrator of her own life? It is an exercise in schizophrenia. You are you. You are she. You are you. You are she. When I see through the eyes of that woman, feeling the onset of middle age years before the appropriate time to do so, I understand the need for flight and escape. What she needed to do was to leave her outgrown marriage, but how many women do? Instead, they seek to alter a dress that no longer fits–to plump sofa cushions that have grown too matted to plump years ago.
They live in fantasy worlds of ladies luncheons or afternoon movies or midnight novels. They simply neglect to fix the thing that needs fixing or to leave it behind for a new set of life problems. For it seems to me from the vantage point of my sixties that that is what life is–a series of puzzles that we can either confront and try to solve or merely overlook and seek distraction from. Fold up the paper and use the puzzle to swat flies or form it into an origami bird or party hat. Use it to wrap up garbage and count on someone else to carry the problem away for you. All the different solutions we invent in response to our problems is the point of life. We are all our own choreographers, doing our version of the dance. So I try to be more patient with Susan than I want to be, calling forth more sympathetic narrators. Susan at 40. Susan at 35. What would Susan at 20 have to say about me, I wonder? Stretching my mind to this task sends me off in a different direction, to tell a different story.
A woman lies in bed in her short purple cotton spaghetti-strapped nightgown. She shows upper arms too heavy for showing outside of her own room. She lies typing, which is true in more ways than one. For when she writes in the very early morning, as she has said countless times before, she writes from a different part of her brain than that which guides her actions during the day. She writes more about the present, with spare bits of the past popping up as well, as they do in dreams.
That whole part about Peter is imaginary, but where did Peter come from? Is he a manifestation of something she really was trying to escape at the time–some dream lover she might have in fact married in her twenties if she had not in reality been off pursuing the life she described as a metaphor in her initial chapters? This whole hierarchy of selves is getting so complicated that even I as the real person narrating this story cannot keep track. How did Doris Lessing keep all those separate selves straight in The Golden Notebook? By compartmentalizing. Other writers do it by splitting themselves into separate characters, but I’ve never been successful at that. I write best as myself and somehow can’t make the jump into dividing myself into the parts of myself.
When I split here, it is my whole self being presented at 20, at 35, at 45 and at 67. It is so complicated that the plots become intertwined, but since this is what they want to do, I’m going to go along with them. Like Alice down the rabbit’s burrow, I will swallow bitter pills and grow and shrink–but in my case it will be in age as well as size. Let’s see where this acid trip of imagination takes me. No doubt some readers will drop away, but at this point I think this has become an exercise more for myself than for any viewers who are free to jump on and off this slow moving platform at will.
“We have arrived at our destination,” my twitching little companion tells me, his prissy voice cutting through my reverie.
“And what is our destination?” I ask him. “I’ve never known where we are going. I’ve just been so busy trying to get in step that I never asked.”
“You don’t recognize this place?” he asks, as he swings open a wide door before us.
I step into the view on the other side. It is a large golden yellow house with rose pink domes. Two dogs rush up to greet us–obnoxious dogs that jump up and bark and then rush out the open door behind us into the street. They vanish in seconds up the big hill that we, too, might have climbed if we had not taken this detour. The courtyard of the house is full of flowering trees and bushes and succulents and palm trees towering or contained within pots. As we walk, the door to the house opens. Inside is a table and a computer, but we keep walking to another door, open it to see a woman in a purple nightgown lying on her back in bed. Typing on a laptop. Lying in two different ways. I take off my coat and shoes. Lie down next to her. Roll over into her, and we are one. And that is why, dear reader, when you ask me the question everyone inevitably asks, I admit that yes, “I believe in ghosts.”
The opening and closing lines today are from “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline. Thanks, Patti Arnieri, for furnishing me with your second prompt.
You may find Chapters 1-5 of this tale in postings made over that past 5 days.