David Foster Wallace once wrote that every love story is a ghost story. That phrase always had the ring of truth in it to me, but I’m afraid that I don’t fully understand what he meant by it. I’m afraid of not understanding that phrase in the way that only a closeted and fledgling art kid can truly be afraid. Unless I can successfully demonstrate my full comprehension of every layer of subtext, every referential nod if there are any, everything that he could have and did in fact mean by saying that “every love story is a ghost story” then I am…well, a fool. One of them.

But then, does it really matter what he meant when he first used that phrase? Or when he used it again and again and it kept resurfacing, dolphin-like, now in a personal letter, then again in the first draft of The Pale King, then one final time in a later draft? Or is the thing that matters most how the words affect the listener and then how well the listener can articulate that, how convincing they can be so that their meaning is listened to and accepted?

Thinking about this now reminds me of a story.

More than ten years ago my best friend and I were talking online. I think we were using AOL Instant Messenger, which we called AIM. “We gonna AIM tonight?” we would ask each other, nary a care in the world. Of course we would be AIM’ing tonight. Of course we would. The kind reader will recall that this all took place in a world before unlimited calling on nights and weekends, when “long distance” calling was still a thing. Not just a thing but also a cause for concern when your father was as sharp-eyed as mine was when looking over the monthly Sprint phone bill.

But let’s get back to the story.

My best friend, who I’ll call Brian, and I were AIM’ing away when he began to tell me about an English homework assignment that he had received from his high school English teacher earlier that same day.

He began:
“mr. adams gave us this assignment today, it was impossible. so subjective”
“what was it”
“we had to read this short story and tell him what we thought it meant”
“what was the story?”
“the story was about this woman who is having an affair and every day her lover comes to her house and they sleep together in the middle of the day when her husband is at work, and while they’re having sex she always says out loud ‘French film. French film.’ weird right”
“i’ll tell you what it means” I said.
“yeah? go for it”
“the words ‘French film’ remind her of a movie whose name she can’t remember that she saw with her father when she was really little, before he died. it is one of her only really good memories of her dad and she thinks that if she can remember the name of the film it will help her to put every piece of the memory in the right place and will give her some comfort now that her dad has passed away. the whole point of the affair from her perspective is to remember the name of this film and she thinks that if she can feel good, totally abandoned and free in the act of breaking all vows to her husband, it will put her mentally more in the place where she was before she ever took those vows, before she was married. When she was just a little girl watching a movie with her dad. And so she keeps trying to remember and she keeps failing. It has gotten now to the point where she tries every day, but she’ll never remember it. She’ll go on living and the memory will still be in pieces and the rest of her life will be too.”

For almost a minute there was no reply and I clicked on the Juno icon to check my email.

Then:
“Dude you should really be an English teacher.”

And that, I think, was the day I fell the rest of the way in love with stories.

I fell the rest of the way in love because I realized that what I had done wasn’t some kind of clever interpretation, because there wasn’t much to interpret. I had just started telling a story myself. It was like writing.

“This is something that I can do” I thought to myself. Later that year I wrote a paper in my own high school English class and my teacher, Mrs. Hanania, wrote across the top of it “Call me when you win the Pulitzer.”

It was some real feel-good BS but it was encouraging at the time and I kept writing.

So the first love story I can remember living out is between me and books. And the ghost? The ghost is that French film. The last nagging hole in the picture, the frayed end hanging from the sweater that you can’t stop wanting to pull on. The ghost is the story you haven’t written yet.

Maybe what the phrase really means is that we are haunted by what we love. That it will follow us, wake us up in the middle of the night with that bump of inspiration that seems to expand, to grow inside of you, as soon as you touch it until it fills you all the way up and you forget about the frayed sweater end because now it doesn’t matter. Now, you can just wear the sweater and be.

People say that we crawled our way out of the ocean and found a way to survive on land, evolved somehow.  So there must be some part of us that remembers that dark cold briny wet and wants to go back into the great womb of the world that bore us.  That delivered us up onto a forgotten shore and whose slow circulating deep cries out to the deep inside of us and pulls us back. 

I was thinking this as I sat up there on the deck and looked out and saw them down by the water’s edge.  They were holding hands and seemed to be so small and slow as they walked, with the whole damn Sea of the world behind them moving and shining coldly in its green even as the storm piled up far out and down to the horizon. The heavy air was pouring in from over the water, wet and as wild smelling as a song.  The air poured in and around them and they made their slow way through the salty thick and talked as if they would live forever and always be as they were, confident of the future and happy.  She was wearing her red shirt that fit her loosely and flapped like a flag and held your eyes when they had just been passing over and made you think if you had really ever seen red before you saw her wearing that shirt or if you were seeing it now as if you’d just been born. 

So people were always seeing new things around her. 

They made their way along the edge of the great deep green and didn’t seem to look at it once as if they remembered every piece of it from their long crawl out. 

I sat up there and watched them until they passed behind the edge of the wall to my left and after that I looked at the wall for a long time and went out into space somewhere in my mind, way out beyond the deep green that was in front of me and the storm that would break in a little while and soak everything. 

I thought about how I’m nothing but a small and slow-moving shape in front of the deep sea of green and at the bottom of a deep sea of air and at the top of the deep sea of my heart.

I thought about how the two of them and me and all of us really are Ocean deep and wild inside but sometimes we hide it or only see the top of it in each other. 

I thought like that for a long time until the glass door behind me slid open and brought me back.  It was Annie.  I smiled hi and the corners of her mouth stretched a little as she turned and closed the door.

“Join you?”

“Sure.”

She pulled a chair a little closer and sat down.

For a while we just looked out over the water and were quiet.  The wind had picked up.

Then I looked over at her, at Annie.  Every once in a while when I really look at someone I’ve known for a long time I start to see and hear and feel again the time that we’ve spent together and the places we’ve been.  So when I looked over at her and her far-looking green eyes that barely squinted just now as she saw the storm and studied it and I saw her hair as it fell short around her neck and her soft square of a face that would point right at you when she talked and was brave too, my mind ran back and back and deep into the ocean we shared, splashing out into it all.

We had floated on our backs in the rolling saltwater and seen the deep blue and the gulls flying.  Our arms were floating out and our hands had brushed but kept moving. 

We had stood hunched out in the hard cold because that was the only place we could go to talk right then and she had to tell me about her choice, about moving West just for the summer.  I had smiled and we had laughed about what was ahead for us in a few months but in my legs I felt vertigo and wanted to step back or grab something. 

We had sat and stared at the table when I told her about Papa dying and she hadn’t looked at me when I broke down and was shaking and couldn’t stop.  She had let me do that as if I was alone in the world but after I had finished she looked up and showed me in that look that I was not alone and couldn’t be.  Ever since that day I’ve seen a warrior inside her. 

And then almost a year later to the day when she told me about the accident and her sister and the coma and it was my turn to look away and let her be and then look up at her the same way, I did my best. 

So looking at her then, on the deck, those other times rose up in my chest and caught in me.

Her eyes were still far off on the storm as if she was sitting there alone.  I looked out over the water too. 

We sat there and looked out as if we were orphans of the world.

John and Sara made their way back along the beach; Sara’s red shirt was flapping so hard I could almost hear it.

“You know,” Annie started, still looking way off.  She took a deep breath.

“Yeah?” I said.

Now she looked at me and smiled.

“There’s so much beauty here and we can’t escape it.”

She laughed and pulled me into it.

And the rest of that day?  Well, it passed.

There is a memory somewhere in my warm, folded brain that still means something, that doesn’t and couldn’t have any significance attached to it by anyone else. There is a memory that I’ve locked up that is still fully mine and is its own captive world of cool water and the sunlight flashing out around us. We were swimming in a lake like those warmed-up greenish-brown lakes with the mud banks and willows that you can find in the summer. There are enough fish in there that you could fish if it was a Saturday afternoon and the sun had gotten high and you still had nothing done and nothing to get done and no particular thoughts in that warm folded grey brain of yours besides to find a grassy place where the sun stormed down in its towering silence and the breeze comes through when you get too warm.

It was that kind of lake.

It looked warm and still in there until I swung out as far as I could and flung myself in, then I could feel how cool it was and how new the old water seemed to be. It was like being in a new place, with the coldest water down around my feet and it gradually warming all the way up along my body until the line around my shoulders where there was no more water because my head was in the July air and I was breathing it in.

They were all closer in, splashing and scrabbling back up the bank to the rope and swinging out again and again. I watched a little and they started calling out for me to get out and swing in again, and to try doing the back flip this time. I looked over their heads and then leaned back in the water so that I was floating and my ears were underneath and there was nothing but the muffling pressure of the lake sounds, the slow music of the water than kept its own strange rhythm.

Lazing out towards the middle, the Sun was across my face and with my eyes closed the world was bright red and weightless and eternally caught up in the contented sadness of the afternoon.

I flipped over and dove down.

I kicked hard and pulled the water past me and reached down.

It was cold and my ears were crushing in.

Nothing.

Kicking harder, pulling more and more and more and then my hands brushed the reeds and I knew the mud was close; the silty black of the lake floor.

In a slimy rush my hand went in up to my wrist and I grabbed two fistfuls of the stuff before kicking off and rising up to the airy light and feeling the mud slipping out through my fingers as I gripped it so tight because I wanted it all to come back up with me, into the day.

My eyes were open and the bright spot was growing, was coming down to me. Then I was through.

Shaking the hair and water out of my eyes I smeared the mud across my face and my hair and felt like part of the lake, and old like it was. I felt deep and dark and cold and muddy all the way down as I swam in, and I thought about how the day is always young and dark when it dies and how high the stars are and how many peoples’ hearts were beating at the same time as mine right now this second ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum.

I bet a lot of hearts were. Would we all have recognized each other or known we had anything in common or would we just look at each other and think oh, he’s fat or she’s really little or any of the other dumb things we think that never mean much.

So I thought about those things and swam in slowly and dove under once to get the mud off.

Take something down from the shelf and put it on.  Move your shoulders around and see how it feels and try it on, really try it on.  Take a self off the shelf and put it on, your new self, see if it fits and if it does then wear it and wear it out.  Feel like it’s really you, if you can, until the thing wears out and the mirror can reach all the way past that down to the you that is really you instead of some thing from a shelf.  Do this, though, all of it, if only so that you know finally that you are the real you and you are not something that you wear but that the real you is what gives shape to everything you put on and that things you put on are just things on a shelf without you there to shape and fill them and to put them on.  So that you know that any suit or mask or whatever is not really you but is only something that is either worth being put on or not, and probably it is not.

So wear whatever you want, but if you want to change then you have to be the one changing.

And if you want to change then rejoice, because you are in the land of wants but your want is a good one, and difficult.

Part 1

There are thunderclouds piling up over a highcorn field and a cooler, wetter, breeze coming in too that he can smell, that is filling his lungs as he continues down that road, lengthening his stride so that he can maybe make it home before all the water falls.  The tempo of pavement hitting feet, gh gh gh gh, increases and then holds steady as all that fills him is the stride, the breath, his fixed eyes on the end of the road.  The pavement ends up ahead, with a stop sign and everything.  And the pavement; It’s gravelly concrete, old and rutted and narrow and silent but for his feet and his breath and the corn rustling breeze.  Gh gh…gh…gh…and he has reached the end, hands on his hips and turning.  Looking back down the flatroad past the square clumps of trees and toward Town.  The corn is green and higher than his head.  Fast growing fields this year, with all the rains.  The clouds have drawn up overhead, blackly piled castle-high and reaching low, weighted down.

A drop hits and then four more.

He starts running back, really running.  As the rain begins bombing down he catches a bright flash in his left eye.  Gh gh gh gh gh gh and then the crack of it.  It’s maybe half a town over.  He’s drawn even with the trees when flash gh gh gh gh crack.  He runs faster, form breaking apart now.  Underneath the spotty tree canopy, now, the rain is lessened, feels more remote.  Slowing up, wiping off his brow and eyes he can see more clearly up the road. It is empty of everything but the dark press of rain; The air is full of the rolling rumbles, the flashes.

He is standing there, soaked and panting, considering it.

“It will end.” he says

The trees are roaring with the storm.

Reaching a decision, he sits facing the field and the black sky, pulling in the thick wet air.

“It will end.”

—————–

Part 2

The Sun has already quickened high overhead by the time Danny steps out of the house that Monday.  Sloping down through the riot of a lawn and hitting the sidewalk in stride, self-consciously shoving his hair over, checked shirt neatly tucked, stomach full of Apple Jacks cereal, feeling, in short, that almost everything is in its proper place, that he is ready for this, he sets course to the exit from The Grove.

Clipping his way past the modest square houses, the modest square yards, the modestly planted smallish trees, through the wide rivers of unshaded pavement, he began to imagine what everyone would say when they all met.  He and Sarah would talk first, then would propose it.  DJ would love the idea but be too busy to go.  He could give them good ideas of what to do.  Annie would sit and smile and speak last, when they asked her what she thought she would say something sweetly open-ended.  Eddie would want to leave tomorrow and would forget about it by the end of the week.

Maybe it would end up with only him and Sarah actually going; Maybe.

Hunching around the corner, hitting N. Main and heading south, he can see Joe D- up ahead.  People say that Joe always carries a gun.

“Hi, Joe” he says.

Joe just looks at him and nods.

The rest of the walk to Simple he thinks about Sarah, wonders if she’ll remember they agreed to meet early.

He hits Union St. and turns left, walks half a block, turns, opens the door, walks in.  The sign over the door says:

Simple Coffee

since 1980

He glances around, steps to the counter.

“Just a coffee for here.”

“$2.50″

“OK. Thanks.”

He glances around again.  Nobody.

Just as he’s settling in, Sarah walks in, comes over without making any move toward the counter, sits, looks at him.

“Hey, we should…” he starts.

“I heard you had an adventure yesterday,” she cuts across.

Her eyes are open wide but he can see a smile somewhere in them.

“You could say that.  Got poured on during my run.”

“And you stood under a tree? For an hour? In the lightning and everything?”

“Who’d you talk to?”

“Eddie thought it was hilarious.”

“I was sitting down, actually. And I don’t think it was an hour.”

She crossed her arms now, leans back.

“What?”

“The one time you run without me.” she says.

“The storm of the whole summer.” she says.

“Sitting under a tree is stupid.” she says.

“I know.” he says.

She sighs to her feet, orders a coffee.

Watching her there, he knows that when she comes back they’ll talk about nothing and soon the others will be there.

Right at 2 o’clock, Ed and Annie walk in.

Ten minutes later DJ boils into the room, out of breath.

“Sorry, lighting took a while.” he says.

“That’s OK, Danny?” Sarah leads off.

Looking around the table, taking a breath,

“Let’s all go on a road trip to Chicago.  We can leave in two weeks, stay up there with my uncle.  He’s got a nice place right in the city.  We can stay there as long as we want. It’ll be fun.”

Sarah gives him a look, then,

“We could stay until school starts, explore the city! It won’t be expensive because Danny’s uncle will let us stay with him and probably pay for a lot of the other stuff.”

“That’s right.” he says.

Eddie is fidgeting excitedly and looking around at everyone’s faces.

Annie is looking down but the corner of her mouth is turned up.

DJ is frowning,

“I’m running audio for Bob and his guys that Saturday. Maybe I can reschedule with them or something.  The trip sounds cool.”

“OK,” says Danny.

“You know, let’s sleep on it.” says Sarah.

“Yeah.”

—————–

Part 3

Two weeks shaking themselves out.  Two weeks take off the sweatshirt after the warm up and run past, stretching legs out for the heel-led impacts.  Two weeks in a conversation in the corner, wrapped up, oblivious to their own passing and then, the next time you life your eyes from the latte and the paper they’re both gone and you don’t know when they left or where to.  But they are gone and for good, you know that.

This is how the next two weeks passed: Quickly sliding by while Danny’s head was down.  Moving through the door and into the right.  They left and Danny realized; My God we’re all leaving tomorrow.  Chicago is happening.  What do I need to do?

The van he already had.  The uncle, part of the gas money, the idea still unformed but shot through with the outside bright and the inside hope and the images o the others swimming out somewhere northwest of him, where the great city lay.

The city.  He’s been there only once, driving through I-94 from south to north through the heart of the city up to ___ Lake, for the wedding of a family friend when he was still small but not too small to remember.  And then the drive back down from north back into Indiana again through the entrenched heart of the city, the train keeping pace with the car and now lagging behind, the overpasses flashing past the sunroof in the dark as he held the moon in his eyes and meditated on that deep interrupted dark between the moon and him and dreamed of casting up some bridge to go out there to it, or some rope to draw it down into the deep busy lit-up dark of the great city.  He would draw it down if he could, but not to keep it for himself, to put it in his pocket.  He would draw it down to the moon-low point just above his head that was still high to him, small as he was, and, leaping, embrace it.  He would hold it high up overhead and everyone on the street would see it and know that he had drawn it down but not to keep, but to give it away.

In this way Danny thought of the time they would share together in the great city.  Blurred streetlights and the well-known faces and that high round light looking down from spheres above; the pale light that saw them all and was seen and that he would draw down, one day, and give to her.

Places you live grow into you and you grow into them. People you live with are the same. So you’re growing out on two levels and sometimes, then, they’re intertwined. Root on root on root, shoving around growing and shrinking. Until eventually you know you want to stay or want to go, or are pulled away or forced to stay. What happens when some roots die and maybe even poison the water; what happens when on drinks all the water? What happens to the others and who tends to them? The roots tend to each other, probably, and the raingiver does. So our lives are intertwined with place, time, and people and this is one of the good things in life, this tangle. Some above ground and easy to see and most hidden underneath everything else.

But we get to pick where we’re planted, sometimes.

So what do you say when one word could end the world? And where do you look when one look can unmake what you see? When every glance falls on some fly-wing thin thing that winks away, out of the world, just before you can really tell what it is. What do you touch when everything will just turn to gold and heavily fall, useless. Move your feet; learn to eat gold. Walk through the world mute, blindfolded; golden gloves imprisoning you, weighing your arms. Learn to stop your ears to the friend-sounding calls of the others begging you to touch something of theirs, anything. And the growing mob then, finally, stealing your gloves until the first one brushes your thumb and is cast eternally as the thief: golden man holding golden glove. As you stop moving and wait. Thinking I may have to open my eyes just this once, just for as long as it takes. Until after the rushing pause you hear the people crashing in, taking the golden man away to wherever, to maybe satisfy their greed for a day.

Until there is only one left and you can just hear the shifty step. Your neck pricks with the animal knowledge that you are seen.

“Hi.” she says. She sounds little.

“Say something.” she says.

“Hi.” you say.

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