Three Ghost Stories

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Occasionally, always in the evening, my cat will turn her head and stare at something I can’t see. She will follow this invisible entity with her eyes as it moves, apparently, along the wall just below the ceiling. She does not seem alarmed by what she perceives, just keenly interested. After a moment or two, she will blink and look away, settle back into my lap. Whether the object of her attention disappears or she simply grows bored with it, I will never know.

Two of my previous cats displayed this same behavior, and several people have told me that every now and then their cats are likewise enthralled. “It’s their eyes,” a friend says, “those elliptical pupils. Their eyes absorb light and then reflect it—like headlights on a road sign. Cats see a whole world we don’t.” I have no idea what my cat sees in the dark; I only know that sometimes, in my living room at night, we are not alone.

A couple years ago I met a woman at a party, a grief counselor named Anne. I liked her calm, her attentiveness; I thought she was probably very good at what she did. We fell into an easy friendship, and one day over lunch I mentioned my cat and her odd way of peering at the ceiling. Anne picked up her sandwich. “They’re out there, alright.”

“Who?”

“Ghosts,” she said, “spirits. Whatever you want to call them.”

I took a swallow of my drink, studied her a moment. “You seem pretty definite about that.”

“It was the kids,” she said, looking up at me. “When I started counseling kids, I learned a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many children see ghosts.”

I stopped chewing. “You mean like the movie? Like ‘I see dead people’?”

“Something like that,” said Anne, nodding. “They see their relatives—grandmothers, brothers, fathers. People who have died recently.”

“Wow,” I murmured. “They must be terrified.”

“That’s the thing. Most of them aren’t afraid. They’re not really haunted, these kids. It’s more like they’re…visited.” She paused, considered. “It sounds like their parents, grandparents, whatever, just sort of appear and hang out for a while.” Her eyes widened. “It’s like the kids don’t know that this isn’t supposed to happen, so it does. They allow it.”

“How old are these kids?”

“Six, seven, eight. I’ve talked with four-year-olds who’ve seen ghosts.”

I paused, reflecting on this possibility, and then my mind snapped shut. “Lots of kids have imaginary friends. Don’t you think they might be imagining their relatives, willing them to be?”

Anne nodded. “Some of them, maybe. But Jean, the consistency is amazing. I’ve asked these kids the same questions on different days and they’ve answered exactly the same way. Their recall blows me away.”

“What about your adult clients? Do they ever see spirits?”

“Rarely. In eight years I’ve spoken with just three.”

“I wonder why it’s so common with children.”

“I’ve wondered about that too,” Anne said. “I think it’s because they’re closer to their time of birth. Closer to creation.” She paused, considered. “They really do live in a whole different world. They don’t understand how things work so everything amazes them.”

“Or terrifies them,” I add, thinking of my own childhood.

Anne shrugged. “Well that’s true, but trust me, they’re a lot more afraid of real people than they are of ghosts.”

I have heard—I suppose we all have—a few stories about unexplained encounters: sounds or feelings or visions beyond the margins of daily life. I remember an especially convincing account told to me by a math professor. We were sitting at her kitchen table while our spouses chatted outside. The house we were in had once been inhabited by my partner’s grandparents, and the property held many happy memories for her. This teacher—her name was Elizabeth—told me that she and her husband loved the house and were delighted we had come for a visit. I asked if she any children, and she said no, conceding that it was a big house for just the two of them, especially since her father had died. “He lived with us for several years—he died four months ago.” I expressed my sympathy and she smiled. “Well, we had a nice goodbye.”

I looked at her quizzically and she folded her arms on the table and told me something that made me stop breathing. For three nights after his death, she said, her father had visited her. They had sat at this table—he in the chair I was in—and talked about life, about things they had not shared or explained or apologized for before his death. She said it was the sweetest time, the easiest time, they had ever spent together. After three nights, she went on, everything they needed to say had been said; they both knew it. “He didn’t come back after that,” she finished, looking up from the table.

I couldn’t understand. “You talked? Like we’re talking?”

“No. Not like that. We talked without speaking.”

“Where was your husband?”

“He’s a dispatcher,” Elizabeth said. “He works nights.”

I must have looked dubious because she gave a shrug and said, “You’re not the first person who thinks I’m crazy.” She paused, regarded me straight on. “What can I tell you? It happened. You can believe it or not.”

That’s the thing with ghost stories, isn’t it? The listener knows they are not true, the speaker knows they are.

The last story I will tell you concerns an artist friend of mine, a first-rate photographer. Before she began taking pictures, she worked as a forensic psychic for a police department in Chicago. I didn’t know what a forensic psychic was until she explained it to me. At first I thought she saw the future and could predict crimes, but she said no, she could not do that and she doubted anyone could. She told me that she had gone to crime scenes—always homicide—where, in her mind’s eye, she sometimes saw the violence that had taken place. “It had to be a recent crime,” she added.

I was impressed. “Did you actually solve cases?”

“Oh yes. Several. Not so much the crimes that had taken place outdoors—I was better at seeing things that had happened in a house or apartment. I saw the people that had been involved and the police used my descriptions to find them.”

“Wow,” I said. “What a talent.”

She frowned. “Well, I don’t know how much talent is involved. See, after something violent happens there is residual energy in the space. Like images left on the retina when you close your eyes. After a time, that energy goes away and the room is just a room—at least that’s how it was for me. That’s why I couldn’t do anything with cold cases.”

“Have you seen this kind of stuff all your life?”

“No, thank god. It started in my twenties. I’d see a broken window, or a smashed-up car, and I’d get this glimpse of the people who had been there, the victims and the bad guys. I started working with the police when I was thirty-four. I quit after three years.”

“Why?”

She gave me an incredulous look. “Are you kidding? It was awful, seeing those things. It was wrecking my life. That’s why I left Chicago and moved to the country. It’s a whole lot nicer here.”

There is a photo circulating on the internet, beach sand viewed through a 250x microscope. It’s a stunning surprise, all those bits of beauty beneath our feet—honeycombs of coral, tiny crosses of glass, sea shells almost too small to be. Who knew?

As I writer, I am always trying to get to the bottom of things, the hidden, ever-retreating truth. There’s so much going on that we can’t see. In their possibility, the stories I’ve been told haunt me. I’m not saying I believe them, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just saying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alabama For Beginners in bioStories

A big thank you to editor Mark Leichliter for featuring my essay “Alabama For Beginners” in bioStories. This is my fourth appearance in bioStories, and I am honored to be among the many talented contributors.

“bioStories offers word portraits of the people surrounding us in our daily lives, of the strangers we pass on the street unnoticed and of those who have been the most influential and most familiar to us but who remain strangers to others. We feature essays from an eclectic variety of viewpoints and seek out writers of literary excellence. We particularly look for work that offers slices of a life that help the reader imagine the whole of that life, work that demonstrates that ordinary people’s experiences often contain extraordinary moments, visionary ideas, inspirational acts, and examples of success and failure that prove instructive. In short, we believe every life displays moments of grace. bioStories wishes to share pieces of these lives and celebrate them.”

 

The Larger Geometry

If you’re in the mood for some spirit-lifting literature this holiday season, please consider the new Poems For Peace anthology, The Larger Geometry. Three of my poems are featured, along with wonderful work by many others. There is some serious talent here, at a time when we need it most. Wishing everyone a peaceful holiday season.

 

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Dolls vs Dames–Who’s Winning?

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So much for the new sex doll brothel. Slated to open this month in Toronto, Aura Dolls met a roadblock after a city councillor denied the company’s right to do business. A sex doll brothel falls under the “adult entertainment” category, which is forbidden in the Willowdale wards. Outraged locals are triumphant over the derailment; others don’t care what happens between a man and a robot behind closed doors. To be sure, Aura Dolls will pop up somewhere.

Depending on the features and customizable options, sex bots cost upwards of $15,000—clearly out of reach for most customers. Aura Dolls are priced at $80 for a half hour and available 24/7; package deals are in development. With six models to choose from, even a modest inventory could soon translate into a fortune. Bear in mind that each doll is meticulously cleaned and sterilized after use. The estimated shelf life of a bot is six months, though some of the more popular models may face earlier retirement.

Those who question the viability of a sex doll rental business might consider the facts. On its website, Aura Dolls states that its “vision is to bring you an exciting new way to achieve your needs without the many restrictions and limitations that a real partner may come with.” In other words, Aura dolls never have a headache and don’t need a safe word. All orifices are fully functional and scientifically enhanced to produce maximum pleasure, reportedly more intense than anything a real woman can offer. The dolls range in age from 21 to 24 and each has an online description that includes ethnicity and descriptions of physical attributes as well as personality quirks. Some are even said to be jealous of other dolls and prefer to be booked in advance.

To ensure privacy, an Aura Doll brothel will feature separate entrances and buzzer-activated exits, and payments will be handled without human interaction. Patrons will not see staff or other customers, though a camera will scan them upon entry. Their chosen “bad Barbie” will be waiting for them in the room, along with the option of music and/or televised porn.

In answer to many requests, the company is planning to add male bots. Presumably these full-size Kens will be as realistic and accommodating as the females. The penis of course will have to offer more than an erection, considering the vibrator competition. Perhaps the mouth will work, specifically the tongue—Aura Dolls is not giving away any secrets at this point.

Those adverse to the idea of a sex doll brothel believe that the industry is degrading to women, that it objectifies them in a literal and vulgar way. In comparison, there have been no complaints of dildos and vibrators dehumanizing men in the same fashion: frankly isn’t a vibrator just a stripped-down male with a few bells and whistles?

Some have no beef with the entrepreneurial angle; it’s the robots that creep them out. What sort of depraved weirdo would pay for intercourse with a silicone doll? It’s true that mail-order sex dolls have been around for a long time, but their cheap artificiality provokes more derision than outrage. Aura Dolls are hyper realistic, astonishingly human-like, and this is where the lines begin to blur.

While robots are being enhanced with memory, speech, voice recognition, even functioning G-spots, human females are working hard to keep up. Between make-up, Botox, face-lifts, tummy tucks, hair dye, weaves, fake fingernails, push-up bras, Spanx and waxes, women are becoming more robotic every day. Men readily accept these improved versions of their spouses and are in fact uncomfortable when reminded of certain realities like menstruation, body hair and the physical tolls of aging. Nor do they have any trouble believing in their own deceptive measures, like the bogus erections Viagra makes possible. And wives, gladly or reluctantly, go along with the prank.

Beyond the possibility that sex doll brothels might lower crime rates against women, the practicality of the dolls, their unarguable advantages, are alarmingly numerous. Assuming the bots are maintained as promised, there is no risk of contracting social diseases and no risk of spreading them, nor can Aura dolls become pregnant. Any kinky proclivities—things a man would not ask or expect of a girlfriend or wife (and might even resent them for)—can be accomplished in complete anonymity with a willing partner who keeps her secrets. And no guilt cause, hey, she isn’t real. It’s the ultimate affair.

On the downside, there are certain hazards to relying on sex dolls to make your carnal dreams come true. These dolls mean business—some of the more high-tech models come with a choice of 40 nipple colors and can talk and even understand their customers. If a doll is real enough to rent, can she be real enough to fall in love with? And what about her talents, those scientifically boosted orifices? How can a lowly wife compete with those? There is also the financial issue. What if a patron begins visiting these brothels with frequency. Will he be able to afford his habit? Will there be interventions? A new subcategory of sex addictions?

However realistic these dolls are, we need to remember they are toys, albeit expensive ones. Our greatest threat from sex doll brothels is not the shredding of moral fiber—our fiber is pretty threadbare as it is. Of larger concern is the degree to which artifice is shaping our lives, leading us farther and farther from the qualities that makes us human. We need to ask ourselves why our bodies and faces are not enough, why we mask and alter them, why fake has become the new real, and if we will ever find a way back.