Spirits in the Night

Mitchell Waldman

My dead father isn't talking to me. That he doesn't talk to me is odd, since every other spirit talks to me, they all do. But for some reason he's reticent, dumb, mute. No thoughts, no words, no sudden appearances to guide me, to give me direction or inspiration in my life and ways, good or bad. No words to explain why he was the asshole he was during his life, unavailable to me.

He's fucking silent. Still.

Yes, I know, I know. Not nice to speak badly of the dead, but ... thanks, Dad. Thanks, again.

I was sixteen when I heard my first voice. Freaked me out at first. But then the spirit, a guy named Joe, calmed me down, told me to relax, he was just trying to get through, contact someone on this side, to get to his relative who wasn't open to spirit communications, he said. And that someone just happened to be me.

What a stroke of luck, I thought. And, the next second, I must be losing it, going crazy.

He contacted me and wanted me to tell his girlfriend that he was okay, gave me her name and phone number. No shit. I didn't see him or anything. It was the middle of the night. At first I thought I was dreaming, but the dream woke me up.

That's how it works sometimes. They get inside your unconscious mind. It's easier for them that way.

So, I turned on the light on my night stand and picked up my pad -- I always have a pad on my night stand because I fancy myself a writer (but not such a fancy writer as to use the word "fancy" in my writing) and wrote down the woman's name and number.

Then he was gone and ... weird as this may seem, since I didn't really see him, felt like he, Joe, was smiling.

The next day I had the doubts, didn't believe it had happened, thought it really was a dream. But there was the evidence, the name and number on the pad. But I put it off. Picked up the phone once in the morning and put it down again. Then, after school, I tried again. Dialed the number. A voice answered, a female voice.

"Sherrie Donaldson?" I asked.

"Uh, yeah?"

It was her. Unbelievable.

Then I went into it, not knowing really what to say, but saying "Well, I know this is gonna sound strange but ..." And I told her about Joe, about the visit/dream ... whatever you want to call it.

Of course she didn't believe it. "Max, is that you?" she said. "This is not funny, not funny at all. You're so cruel. I can't believe you would do this."

"No," I said, "my name isn't Max, it's Martin," but then there was the click and that was it.

I picked up the phone and called her again.

"Just leave me alone, Max!" she screamed. "Don't you know the pain I'm in right now?" And she hung up again.

So much for the beginning of my "usefulness" as a psychic, a go between between here and the great "beyond." Not really such a great job, I thought, nothing I had asked for or wanted. And, need I even mention, the pay sucks.

The voices started coming after that, and I tried to ignore them. But after a couple of weeks they became louder and more insistent. Like a ringing in your ear that you can't ignore or get rid of. So, I started listening. Not answering at first, but at least listening.

In a month or so it became a regular, at least biweekly event. I was like a cosmic telephone operator between worlds, if that's what you want to call it. Between planes, or whatever. Not airplanes, the other kind.

Sucks, really.

Obviously, I couldn't tell anyone at first, like my mom and my stepfather. They'd bring me to a shrink, lock me up or something. Not that I thought I was overly smart, but I was smart enough to know that much. One step out of the ordinary and they throw you to the shrinks or in the clink. I know how this world works, and knew, probably more so then, as a teen. Not yet accustomed, desensitized, to it all yet. How fucked up the world is, I mean, how you've got to walk the path, toe the narrow line of normalcy that the people who make all the money decide you should follow to make them more money. (Yes, people, at sixteen I already saw all of that in my stepfather trudging off to work every day, my mother staying home in our cookie cutter house, the cars in rush hour traffic on their way to carry their passengers (the male ones) with their ties tied too tight against their necks to cut off the oxygen supply to the brain -- yes I was a teenager, typical, I guess, feeling that I was different, a rebel, that I would somehow escape all that of all those who had come before me. Ha! you laugh, and now older, sadly I do, too).

There was this voice, guy said his name was Rudy, or had been. Maybe still was? I don't know how all that works, but obviously somebody, something was still there that identified with that name. (No, if you're wondering, I wasn't smoking a lot of pot, back then, not a lot.) Said he'd been shot in a convenience store robbery the day before, a 7-11 on Lake Avenue in the city. Wanted me to let his mother and his girlfriend know he was okay. (Here we go again, I thought. I'd tried it that one time, but who knew, maybe this time it would go better).

"But you're dead," I said, sitting there on my bed, apparently talking to know one, as my stepfather just happened to walk by. "What's that you said, Marty?"

"Nothing, nothing. Just talking to myself, thinking about ... something." He looked at me with confusion, just standing there, his long arms at his side, then shook his head and walked on down the hall.

I got up then and closed my bedroom door. Wondering what you would do if you saw me doing that, Dad. (But you were gone, long gone to New York by then, with not as much as a word to me in what, six months, then? A birthday card and a check for fifty dollars. That was your kind of communication. And before that, the Sunday pickups when you happened to show up. But when I was thirteen, you were gone, just gone, just like a ghost, like you'd never been at all.)

"You there, are you still there Marty?" I heard the voice say in my head.

Sitting back down on my single bed with the Cubs patterns on the cover, crossing my legs.

"Yes," I whispered, quietly, my eye on the bedroom door. He gave me another telephone number. His mother's name was Gertie. His girlfriend's name was Frankie. The number was his mother's. I wrote it down in the back of my Advanced Algebra class spiral notebook.

I breathed out, sighed. "Okay, Rudy, got it."

"Call her," he said.

"I ... will."

"Now," he said, "do it now."

Damn, I thought, a pushy goddamned spirit. And felt like telling him, Call her your own damned self.

He was quiet then, for a moment. I wasn't sure if he was still there. Then I heard a softer, calmer voice.

"I'm sorry. She's so upset, she cries all day. I just don't want her to be in such pain, y'know. Losing her only son, can't be easy on her, Marty. Sorry I yelled at ya' ."

"Okay, okay," I said, then reached for the phone, took a breath and dialed the number.

She answered on the first ring.

"Is this Gertie?" I asked. "Gertie Sullivan?"

"Yes?"

"I'm calling for Rudy."

"Rudy's not ... he's not here. Haven't you heard, Rudy was ..."

"No, no, no, Mrs. Sullivan, I'm sorry. I meant I'm calling on behalf of Rudy."

There was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment. Then a raucous bout of old lady laughter.

"Oh, dear Lord, sweet Jesus, what took you so long. I've been waiting for you to call."

I was stunned, didn't know what to say to this.

"Really?" I said in an almost whisper.

"Yes, yes, yes. I'm not new to the rodeo, this particular rodeo, as they say. There was the one who called about my brother, Melvin, and the one about my mother and my uncle Lou ... So, tell me, what does my boy have to say?"

"He says ... he wanted me to tell you he's all right and there's no need for you to worry."

I heard a sigh of relief on the other end of the phone. "Oh, thank you, thank you so much, Mr ..."

"Uh, Jones," I said, and I have no reason why I said that, used that common fake name as a cover then. Freshman Psychic's insecurity, I guess.

"Mr. Jones, yes, thank you so much. Of course, my Rudy's okay. He was always a good boy, and I miss him so much. But, at least, hearing from you today, I will sleep better, I know I will. Give my boy my love, okay?"

Then there was the voice in my ear again. "Tell her ... I forgot ... tell her to look behind the first brick in the first row to the left of the middle of the fireplace. I left her a little somethin' behind there."

I relayed the message to her, and sure enough, as I was on the phone with her, she removed the brick and found a secret stash of folded bills behind that brick. She said, she'd been wondering why that particular brick stood out a little bit, was thinking of having someone come in to look at it and get it fixed.

"Well, you can get it fixed now," I said. She thanked me again and that was it. My first success as a psychic traffic controller or whatever you'd like to call it.

That was a good one, an easy one. Usually people want me to tell them specific details about their loved one, something no one else would know and the voice in my ear/head tells me the answers. Weird at times, I know.

Sometimes I can actually see their filmy vaporous images floating in the room, too. Not that often. One in ten times, maybe. Guess it depends on the strength of the spirit's will, something I still don't entirely understand. And, let me tell you, that's a real trip, makes the hair on my arms stand up, electrifying.

My relationship (if you could call it that) with my father was filled with holes and absences. Absences at my first day at school, my first little league baseball game, my first school concert (on 2nd or 3rd violin, I don't remember and, yes, I know, violin? I know, I know). And absences at graduations, my marriage, the birth of my first child. He just wasn't there.

At the age of twenty-one I hadn't seen him in eight years, receiving only occasional birthday cards with checks (when he remembered) and thought, somehow, now I'm a man (twenty-one for some reason being that magical age) and got in touch with him. I found myself on a flight and then on a week-long visit with him and his third wife in their apartment in Manhattan. The first night I got there I was shocked to learn that his wife was expecting a baby (which I had not even known) and on the second night we were sitting in a bar while she was in the hospital in labor (not sure why he wasn't there with her) while we drank and he starting talking about my mother, the only mother I had, the one who'd raised me, telling me how cold she'd always been. Eating sushi and getting drunk on asti spumanti. And later the next day, after waking, he and his wife, Isabella, were both there, along with their new baby, his new family. I felt like a stranger, an intruder, although the new baby (Emilia) was, in fact (biologically, at least) my new half-sister. I held her in my arms that morning, smiling down at her, but not really knowing how to think, how to feel about the whole situation.

And after that five years passed before I saw him again. Then another five. With each visit the excitement of the child inside of me was high but rapidly, upon our meeting, melted back down to reality because he was, finally, still the same detached man who didn't know how to be a father, my father. Until my final visit with him at his death bed on the day he died of cancer in his early sixties. I felt, saw his spiritual essence rise up and leave his body, but after then I was blank, could feel nothing. It was like a stone wall had hit my innate powers of the sixth sense. I was, he had, it seemed, shut me out, once and for all. At that moment I didn't know what to make of it all because everything that had seemed possible between us (his morphine drip-induced words that we would be closer, that everything would be better between us) was suddenly snatched away, all hope of such things gone forever.

And now, I'm older, approaching fifty, with a wife, three kids, and a job. A respectable picket fence in the suburbs kind of guy. Not too many ways around it, these days, if you're a family guy, if you know what I mean. All the kids -- two girls and a boy -- out of the house at the moment, before one of them comes back for help, loses a job, an apartment, a life ... you know what I'm talking about.

It's on a Friday evening, my wife, Lorraine, is out playing bridge with her friends. (To this day, I still have no idea what that game is.) I'm dozing off, watching the ball game. The Cubs are getting creamed by the Mets. Not a pretty sight. I'm just nodding off, catch myself snoring a little when I hear this voice say once, "Son."

I wake up, open my eyes, but nobody's there. Just imagining things, I figure. So many voices in my head that I'm starting to hear them even when they're not there. I try to concentrate on the game for a while, but fade away again. 7 - 0. Not the most exciting game.

Then I hear the voice again, "Son, son, it's me. Listen, it's me." I see him then in the dream, smiling with those crazy sideburns he had, the jeans and the polo shirt. He's looking right at me, smiling with a sad sort of smile. "I'm sorry I was such an a-hole. Sorry I was never there for you. I was always so involved with so much stuff all the time, there was never any time for�but I know, I know�I should have made the time for you."

I'm still sleeping, I think, or in this unconscious state, and see only him in a fog, nothing really there behind him but his old Mercedes, the one he always drove away in after sometimes showing up on Sunday afternoons for his weekly visits with me and my older brother, Burt.

And I think, and it comes out as words in the dream "But why weren't you there for me, why didn't you play catch with me, show me what a man does? I never knew these things. I still don't." And in the dream I see myself as a kid, twelve maybe thirteen years old, braces on the teeth, the oversized turtle shell framed glasses that were so popular back then.

"I was a selfish bastard," he says. "One of my biggest regrets."

"And even after you died -- what is it, fifteen years ago, already -- you never once stopped by to even say "Hi," to show that you cared. To let me know you were around."

He smiles that smile again, shakes his head. "Sorry, Son, sorry. That's all I can say now. Sorry I can't go back and fix it. But look at you. You're a good man, you've become a good father, a good husband. All the things I never was. I'm proud of you." I -- my twelve-year-old self -- doesn't know what to say. He's still angry. I can feel it. He turns away from my father, walks away, leaves him behind, then hears the old Mercedes start up and drive off. He turns around and looks after my father with some regret of his own, like he blew his chance, but sees nothing beyond the fog, hears nothing but the sound of a distant engine getting dimmer and dimmer in the abstract night.