Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ghosts, now and then



Lately I’ve been doing long runs with K’s youngest daughter, J, who will be running her first marathon this April. I’m supposed to be her pacer. I say “supposed to” because even though I’ve run dozens of marathons and ultras, and J has very reasonable and realistic goals for her first (don’t die, do finish), she’s 19 and makes running look easy while I’m very much not 19 and make running look like, well, the way someone not 19 and not particularly athletic tends to make it look. Regardless, it’s been fun running with her. The conversations a person has with a running buddy can range from ridiculous to profound, but no matter what the topic, discussing that topic during a run always seems to make it more memorable.

Last weekend, for example, we got to talking about music, since she’s a music major at the university here, and she mentioned that her favorite song when she was a child was “Hotel California.” “I know that’s pretty weird,” she added. “I was a weird kid.”

I suppose a song that celebrates a self-indulgent lifestyle of sex and drugs might not be the most appropriate thing for a tot to sing along to, but I shrugged, as much as anyone can shrug while trying to maintain good running form. “It’s a good song. You had good taste.” Anyway, my favorite piece of music when I was a child was probably Glenn Miller’s “In the mood,” so weird is in the ear of the behearer.

I could actually see a child enjoying the Eagles’ song, and not just for the cool Mexi-Reggae mix but also for the strange story it tells. To a youngster it might sound a bit like a ghost story: a late-night drive through a mysterious landscape, shimmering lights, scary voices. And who, at any age, doesn’t love a good ghost story? Remember Scooby Doo? Every other episode started with a mansion that was supposedly haunted, and every single time those meddling kids and their dog went right in, and every single Saturday morning four decades ago my sister and I couldn’t wait to see Shaggy and Scooby take on the ghosts again, even though the ghosts always turned out to be greedy people in masks. Greedy people really aren’t too bright a lot of the time.

It’s funny, and by funny I mean unpleasantly ironic, that the ghosts were what scared them so much. In our non-Saturday-cartoon world, greedy people do truly terrifying things, terrifying not just because of the harm they cause but because of the complete lack of caring displayed while doing them—and the complete indifference of bystanders watching them done. Being scared by ghosts is a fun scared. Being scared by people who would cheerfully pollute a child’s water or happily deny a woman’s cancer screening or ecstatically wipe out access to health care for millions, just so they can save a buck or two in taxes, well, send me to that haunted mansion, please, and bring on the shimmering lights and scary voices.

It does seem that being haunted by the present is infinitely worse than being haunted by the past. Our new old house practically screams haunted (well, sometimes it whispers it, when I’m there alone, which is just as bad if not worse). There’s a false door, a floor inlay covering up something beneath it, and a wrecked-up room in the back that almost certainly housed a crazy relative the family wanted to keep secret. Seriously creepy shit. I was dead sure at one point there were people living in the attic—I’d hear sounds just as I was entering which would abruptly stop, and I just knew they were watching my every move, even though most of my moves consisted of really boring things like plastering cracks in the walls. K finally went into the attic (I waited below and got ready to scream “ZOIKS!” and run); he didn’t find any people but found a lot of old junk up there which he had to haul out to the ever-growing junk pile.

“What’s in there?” I asked as he lugged a large blue plastic box down the stairs.

“Sad things,” he said enigmatically.

The box was in good shape so I decided to appropriate it (plus I was, naturally, curious, despite my fear of anything connected to that attic), and in doing so I discovered what the “sad things” were: old toys, left behind in a bedraggled heap. They were sad to see, and to wonder about. It’s possible they weren’t necessarily “haunted” things, imbued with mystery and tragedy; it’s possible that the little girl who once lived here simply outgrew them, shoved them away, forgot about them. But that’s a little haunting all by itself. One way or another, that little girl is gone.

Sad, yes, and yet there’s still something almost comforting about being haunted by the past, because that means it’s not completely gone. In ghost stories, even the most malevolent ghosts are usually after avenging a past wrong, fixing an injustice from long ago. Appease them, and all’s well. How do you fix injustice happening right now, when there’s just so damn much of it? I suppose it’s a situation like getting yourself into a new old house. It’s never finished. Plaster the cracks in the walls, now your walls look shitty. Sand and prime and paint the walls, now the floors and ceiling need work. Do those and realize the windows are broken, the toilets don’t flush properly, the siding is falling off, mice are getting in, and the wrecked-up crazy-relative room is still wrecked-up and you might be the one becoming crazy. You don’t fix everything. You aren’t a ghost or a greedy mask-wearing fiend; you don’t have just one single-minded pursuit. You have a life, right now, in the present, so you keep doing what needs to be done.

Incidentally, I put the sad toys in a plastic garbage bag in the junk pile so I could use the box. The next day I discovered that the bag had tipped over and one of the dolls had fallen out. It lay face down, arms stretched out, reaching forward, it seemed, toward the house. I am sure the wind or some wild animal knocked the bag over, just as sure as I am that there’s no such thing as ghosts. You can also be sure that I shoved the thing back in the bag and hid the bag behind a lot of very heavy things, and if I see that doll again I’m calling The Mystery Machine over.