GHOST SONG

TOM LAKIN

 
 

Here’s old Jeff Jones, called ghost by his friends when they were young and slept on floors or in fields or in the beds of rusted trucks. Hey ghost, they’d say when he would lose himself in the music, his eyes closed, body limp and trancelike. Hey ghost, where’d you go off to, man? So many of them gone now: Delilah, last winter, of cancer, and Mickey too, in spring. But the old ghost himself still up here in the concrete stands’ last row, gaunt beneath a tie-dyed shirt and blue jeans, eyes of mottled skin glaring from the holes at his knees and a raggish gray ponytail brushing his back as he swings and dips and bobs his head to the music erupting from the stage far below, shards of silvery guitar and the arterial thumping of a bass, his lined face reverent before the sound, worshipful, the song ragged in his throat and in his mind the strobing blur of memories colliding, for this is what music is now to the ghost: an instrument of remembered things: Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore, August, 1969. Painted light on Grace Slick’s face, pinks and swirling blues and sweat like a gas in the room. Mickey’s on acid, and he tries to leap from the balcony halfway through the second set. I’m going! he calls again and again, as they grab at his shoes and his sweat-slicked arms, and the ghost finally yanks him back up and over the railing by the soft cloth of his turned-out pockets. Later they go downstairs, tumbling in a damp knot toward the stage, and Delilah kisses him hard on the mouth, while the ghost, tasting licorice, stares past her at the singer’s huge and depthless eyes.
 
And now a summer morning: Gold light washing the sea and the salted windows of an old shingled house. Out front a young boy in overalls lies on his back—the ghost, bare feet tapping a rhythm in knee-high grass. Overhead, a gull charts lazy loops on the breeze, the tips of its wings like knives fanned out against the table of the sky. In the distance the boy can hear the dusky roll of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” drifting like a good smell from a passing car. He imagines the bandleader at the foot of a stage, trombone blazing beneath the spotlights, and the regiment of musicians seated around him like attentive children listening to a tale. Then, beneath the brassy trill comes the sound of shouting from somewhere in the house. Clanging tin, a woman’s keening voice, the report of a slammed door. Familiar noises to the boy: one with birdsong and the hiss of waves on sand. Up above, the gull is gone; the sky has emptied itself of life. The boy rises and brushes summer grass from the seat of his pants, and then he moves across the weed-littered yard and down the gravel path and out into the road, in search of the music and the embrace of gentle sound.
 
Buddy Holly on the radio the day he leaves for good. The pop and crunch of truck tires on gravel, a duffel bag in a lump at his feet. Tenements alive with the crackle of records: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, the Dead. Down on the street old women push grocery carts swollen with plastic bags. Through open windows comes the warm belch of the city: piss smells and old brick baking in the sun. A guitar appears; bass lines are drummed on lean bellies, joints float from hand to dirty hand. On the Hudson River near Glasco, Delilah swims naked while the ghost plays harmonica from the bow of a splintered canoe. Her smooth body sealish in the water, hair glossy beneath a wide starlit sky. From the boat he watches her surface and swirl, then plunge back through the pale face of the reflected moon.
 
Afternoons of stickball in abandoned lots. Mickey on a makeshift mound, toeing a cinderblock rubber. Singsong chatter, clapping hands, the slap of sneakers on hot concrete. From behind a chain-link fence children watch them play, their small eyes framed by the wire.
 
Summers painting fences, the sun a torch held an inch above his neck. In winter, the slop and squelch of mop-cloth dragged across tile floors. Cash in white envelopes for concerts, pills, grass. Smack, for a time. The adhesive of acid tabs on his tongue. Ticket stubs fall like bits of confetti to his floor: Dylan at the County Center in White Plains, 1966. The singer elfin, aloof, alone; the Fender a strange animal in his hands. From the back arises a heckler: Judas! he calls. You Judas! Delilah, sweat dappling her collarbone, just laughs and pulls the ghost closer to the stage. A hitched ride to Pittsburgh to see The Doors in ’69, the ghost stock-still in the cab of an old pickup, Delilah on his lap, the driver’s eyes narrowed beneath a military crew cut. Morrison drunk, incoherent. He clutches the microphone stand like a lover, his black boots tangled in the cord. Hidden backstage in Boston, they watch from behind as Hendrix opens with “Stone Free,” his shirt soaked, pink silk pasted to his back, the spotlight bathing him in gold. How thin he appears beneath the loose cloth of his half-buttoned shirt. Three months later Delilah calls from a payphone: Jimi is dead, ghost, she says, her voice gritty with static. Do you remember how beautiful he looked? Like he was halfway to heaven, even then.
 
In a hospital room at Christmastime, machines bleat and loafers slap darkly on linoleum floors. Nurses come and go like apparitions, their wakes soft-smelling and mundane. Outside, snow falls noiselessly past the window, the flakes glowing like cinders in the moonlight. In bed a woman lies back against a pillow, its coarse cloth grimed with sweat. Each breath a marvel, her face a sunken bowl. The old ghost dozes in a chair, drooling into his collar, headphones noosed around his neck. Half-asleep, he shakes and shivers and wrings his gnarled hands. The heat was out on the bus, and the cold found its way into his bones. Suddenly: a sound where for days there has been nothing. An old song—he recognizes it instantly, rising like smoke from the hole of her mouth. Delilah. A stunner in white lace. Tongue like a minnow, licorice on her breath. Never a wife, and he never a husband. No time, no reason, no use. From his eyes fat tears fall: for the cold press of her nose in winter, for the gasping beauty of her song.
 
These things not so much remembered now, by the ghost, as extant, lambent somewhere within him—in his chest perhaps, alive with the hammering bass from the stage down below, or in his feet, skittering now across the slick concrete floor with the indifferent precision of a natural dancer: toes tapping, now the heels, a hop now, a spin, a waggle, a quick little kick. The people around him laughing, spilling their soapy beers. A tall girl taps her friend, giggles and points. Look at this strange longhaired old man—how pale and thin he is; watch how he stamps his ragged shoes. Soon he will die, she thinks with a shrug—rightly, it seems, for the ghost now sees it too, sees his approaching death suddenly and with the bone-deep certainty of a prophet, but where the girl imagines for him a dank church, a cheap chipboard coffin, the airy ring of an empty room, the ghost hears instead the profound bellow of an organ and the rich clap of hymnals laid on mahogany pews. He feels the vibrato of the cantor, listens as a trumpet blows its shining silver notes, and as his coffin is carried down the church steps a soft wind whistles past its lid, and it is the sea-song of his boyhood, a tinkling piano, Benny Goodman’s clarinet. Down on the stage the band plays on, but the ghost is lost to his own music, gone to the tingle of sound in the fingers of his callused hands, which lift now toward the blue-black clouds and flutter a moment, like gulls against a winter sea, before folding into small pale globes that to the ghost, head back and eyes raised to the sky, seem to detach now and surge upward, and merge at last with the cold white stars themselves.

 
 

∘∘∘