“Cartesian Ghost Story,” an essay by Jeff Chon

I should avoid the old neighborhood, but I have nowhere else to be right now. It’s five seventeen p.m.—the day care closes at six—and the kids hate it when I pick them up early, when they have to say good-bye to their friends. Whether I like it or not, I have some time to kill, so I cut through the old place on Western Avenue with its check cashing stores, liquor marts, and that pupusería next to the Laundromat where a toddler walked into traffic, wandering across the street untouched before his mother even noticed he was missing. Cars stopped and let the kid cross and someone from the gas station finally ran out to scoop him off the curb. I used to tell people this story to underscore how horrible that neighborhood was, that people were afraid to get out of their cars to help a baby, but now I realize it’s more of a statement on the commuters themselves.

Who refuses to help a baby?

I drive past that intersection, the one on the corner of Payday Checks Cashed and Hole in the Wall Pupusería, and I think about that baby. He’d have to be in middle school by now. He could be any one of the tweens I’m watching walk home with their backpacks and flat-billed Famous Stars and Straps caps. I wonder if he even knows what happened, if it’s something that his mother is able to laugh about now or if it’s something that shortens her breath when alluded to by passive-aggressive aunts and spinster cousins. I can’t imagine the shame of that, losing a baby in the middle of the street, living with the knowledge that people sat in their cars and watched him patter across traffic, hoping to God that no one ran him down.

A few of the tweens are conscious of my gaze, so I avert my eyes, turning to see a banner over the Ralph’s that reads Closeout Sale 35% Off Most Items. When I still lived here, I stopped at that Ralph’s every morning before work to buy a pack of cigarettes and a Diet Coke, praying the cashier wouldn’t ask me how my morning was going. The cornrowed kids in the front of the line always bought packs of Now and Laters and blue raspberry Airheads before heading off to school. It was hard to be outraged by this, realizing I was buying a liter of cola and a pack of smokes. I felt sorry for them, talking about their dads, uncles, brothers—dead or in jail—sometimes laughing the way young boys do when there’s nothing else to be done. Shortly before I moved away, I overheard them talking about a Mexican woman that got shot the night before, and I almost told them that I knew her, that she wasn’t Mexican, but it felt pointless. It was a terrible place for a kid to grow up. Then I realized I lived there too, and the pity stopped—for them, at least. I pull into the parking lot and cut the engine.

A Vietnamese woman pushes a cart out the sliding doors. Even from behind the wheel, I’m amazed by how empty it looks inside. In better times for the store, I used to wander its aisles, while James Taylor sang about sunny days he thought would never end, and stare at the DVD four-packs of Tom Selleck westerns and the party-sized bags of kazoos because I had nowhere else to be. I crack my window and take a breath.

One of my old neighbors, a portly man with a red goatee, comes out of the store, shopping cart piled high with bags of Doritos. His hair is thinner. I lower my head and pretend to rub my eyes. Seems like just yesterday I was doing this as I walked past him on the stairs or at the mailbox—but it isn’t just yesterday, and looking away from him is just as stupid now as it was then.

My apartment back then was a shit pit. I paid my rent in cash and the day I signed the lease, a crazy-eyed bum was taking a piss behind the dumpster, leering at me, grinning as he shook out the final drops, nodding as if we were sharing some private joke. The place was a dump, but I was twenty-two years old and had just moved to California with no plan and no real job prospects—just a desire to escape everyone I’d traumatized with my suicide attempt—which was why I lived in a shit pit across the street from a Vietnamese donut shop and a 7-Eleven where old drunks bought Penthouse and Hustler magazines and flipped through them in the parking lot, sitting on concrete stops that were cracked like broken Kit Kats if Kit Kats were filled with rusted rebar.

My neighbors were a family from El Salvador. The five year-old daughter and I shared a common wall. The couple used to scream at each other in Spanish at all hours of the night, bellowing and shrieking, dropping plates, thumping against the wall. Sometimes I would curl up in bed and cry like Tom Hanks in Big while the daughter wailed on the other side of the wall. We never made eye contact in the walkways outside our door, or anywhere. Sometimes, we’d see each other while grocery shopping. Our carts would pass in the cereal aisle and we’d nod awkwardly. I’d try to smile at the little girl, who would look away. It was always a relief when she did.

 

On nights when it was really windy, I used to hear scratching on the sliding door to my balcony, the sound of an invisible dog’s claws clicking against the glass. Sometimes I could smell traces of dog piss when I smoked out there. My heart jumped every time those little phantom claws desperately clacked and slid against the door—a lot of sleepless nights back then. I named the ghost dog Chip. He was some kind of Airedale mix and used to sleep curled up in the corner of the balcony. I used to talk to him when I couldn’t sleep, when I sat crouched beneath the railing with my cigarette because I didn’t want to be seen by the esés strolling on the sidewalk below who would always hassle me to toss a cigarette down to them. Chip was the only comfort I had when the couple next door would scream. I’d go outside where I couldn’t hear the little girl and have a smoke, slumped against the wall with my eyes closed, imagining Chip laying his head on my shoulder.

When I finally asked if there had been a dog in my unit, the apartment manager said there had, but it just disappeared one day and he didn’t know what happened to it. The previous occupant was a fat Bahamian on disability named Laurence. I remember getting his mail—mostly letters from the Employment Development Department and the Bahamas Consulate General—and finding the spelling of his name somewhat endearing: L-a-u-r-e-n-c-e, Laurence with a “u.” The fondness evoked by the unconventional spelling of his name would soon end the more I burrowed into Chip’s demise. I used to imagine Chip had canine diabetes. Laurence never housetrained him, choosing instead to leave Chip out on the balcony where he’d step gingerly over his own waste. Seeing how they’d lived in the same shitty apartment I was currently living in, Laurence obviously couldn’t afford to keep up Chip’s treatments, so he gave him an air embolism. The desperate scratching against the glass was Chip sensing danger, trying to get away from his owner, who was heading toward him with the syringe. Every night, especially when it was windy, that scenario would play itself out in an endless loop.

There were times in that Ralph’s when my grocery cart would slow to a stop in the pet foods section, and I’d wonder what it would be like to have a real dog, instead of a psychic trace left behind by someone else’s. I used to sit on my couch, scrutinizing coupons for pet products—addressed to Laurence, sent to me—looking for bargains, wondering what kinds of foods Chip preferred: Iams ProActive Health with Chicken and Vegetables in Gravy (buy three get one free), maybe the ProActive Health Weight Control (with glucosamine for joint health, ten percent off), or maybe just plain Alpo (save one dollar fifty cents on ten cans).

The scratching gradually faded, and it was just as well. A dog deserves better than time spent in a cramped apartment in a horrible part of the city with some anguished kid who hides out on balconies with ghosts.

 

Sometimes, I wonder if my entire adult life is some kind of coma dream. Maybe I smoked a joint instead of downing Bacardi with those sleeping pills, the antiemetic effect of the THC ensuring I never puked anything up, and then maybe my body shut down just long enough to put me in a coma. Maybe my friends found me lying on my back on the bathroom linoleum, my head soaking up wet footprints from the green bathmat in front of the tub.

Maybe only six days have elapsed, and all of this—my marriage, the birth of my children—is just a dream. Maybe when I wake up, I’ll finally realize that I need to get my shit together, and I’ll somehow manage to make some kind of life for myself; but everyone I’ve ever met, everyone I’ve ever loved, in this coma-induced world will wander the empty spaces in my heart, and every time I sense their presence, I’ll feel a burst of sadness that I will never in all of my life understand.

Or maybe I’m lying strapped to a Dutch gurney in the back of a Dutch ambulance, the sad tremolo of the Dutch siren fading as it rushes toward the Dutch hospital, and maybe everything—the Bacardi, the sleeping pills, the wet green bath rug—is the result of my life flashing forward as I plunge to my death, an eight-story fall in the Netherlands, my foot having slipped off the railing as I tried to sneak from one hotel balcony to another. Maybe we’ll never kiss in her bathroom, my back resting against the lip of the bidet, while chasing swigs of Amaretto with cans of Sprite. Maybe I’ll never have my heart broken for the first time, and maybe I’ll never sit in front of the computer wondering if she has children, if she’s gained weight or cut off all her hair, or if she’s married and her husband likes baseball and Military History and secretly enjoys watching House Hunters International even though he says he only does it so they can spend time together.

I’m reminded of a comic book I read when I was twelve. It was Superman’s birthday, and Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman entered the Fortress of Solitude with gifts in hand, only to find Superman locked in a trance. An alien plant had rooted itself to his chest, thorny tentacles wrapped around his massive frame, an alien plant called the Black Mercy, a trap laid by an intergalactic tyrant named Mongul, who planned on subduing Superman and enslaving mankind. The Black Mercy slowly drained Superman of his power, flooding his mind with his wildest dreams in order to stay latched on.

The most insidious part of this comic wasn’t the idea of an extraterrestrial parasite placing Superman in a catatonic stupor, sucking the life out of him while pumping his brain full of “happy thoughts;” it was learning exactly what he’d given up, what he’d lost. Kal-El—never having become Superman or Clark Kent, never having landed on Earth, never having fought that battle for truth and justice—was now a civil servant on his home planet Krypton with a wife and kids. During the entire Black Mercy-induced hallucination, he knew something wasn’t quite right. And as he told his son how he didn’t think any of this was real, the boy disappeared and Superman came to, Batman having finally extracted the Black Mercy from his chest.

I used to wonder what happened in the hours after the heroes defeated Mongul, and Superman was left alone with his thoughts, how haunted he must have been by this experience, if he ever thought of those children that he’d once dreamt were his. Could he still draw the scent of his imaginary wife’s hair into his lungs? Could he feel her phantom pheromones coursing through his veins on sleepless nights? How many ghosts did he carry inside of him from that brief hallucinatory life he had on the home he never knew? How many ghosts do any of us have, drifting just beneath our skin like clouds colliding?

But maybe I’m the ghost, some kind of faulty recollection—aimlessly drifting through the mind of someone I’d met once at a dinner party or a job interview—the creation of a person who didn’t know much about me, someone who constructed all of this on the long drive home. Maybe he wondered about the kinds of people I would know, the places I lived, the kind of car I drove—and then shaped this ghostly world I now find myself in, one I then shaped with my own ghostly thoughts, and maybe everyone around me is a ghost as well, ghosts I’ve created out of loneliness, and maybe none of this is real and everything, all of you, are false memories like Superman’s children.

I think about things like this all the time, because the human brain is a horrible goddamn thing that never shuts off.

 

I was asleep on the couch when a loud pop jolted me awake. I thought a tire had blown out, and I closed my eyes again. Then I heard someone rumbling down the stairs, the security gate slamming shut. I ran to the door only after the old woman two doors down began to howl. My neighbor, the wife, was sprawled face down on the walkway. Her apartment door was wide open, a loud Spanish commercial blasting out of the living room. Her hair was matted with blood, almost oily looking. I couldn’t see her face. The fat redheaded man across the courtyard screamed into his phone for the police.

I instinctively went to the balcony and slumped to the floor. I lit a cigarette and stared at the Ghetto Bird patrolling the starless, photo-polluted sky. When the spotlight swept over my balcony, I swore I could see paw prints dotting the sliding glass door.

When the cops showed up, my account was scattered at best. I don’t know; I was asleep—that was the answer that seemed to set their teeth on edge. They asked me if I’d noticed any problems between the husband and wife. I said they fought almost every night. They asked if they had fought that night.

I told them I didn’t know, that I was asleep.

They asked me if I’d ever thought about calling the police during their fights—and I said I did, but then added I didn’t know why I never called. But deep down, I always knew. There’s a code in neighborhoods like this, a code even a dumb, sheltered kid like me knew all too well. Those black kids from the Ralphs with their Now and Laters and dead male role models once made me chuckle and shake my head when discussing the code amongst themselves. Snitches get stitches, one of them said, and I thought to myself, What a Ghetto thing to say.

Looking back, I wish I hadn’t thought that. I wish I wasn’t thinking about it right now—but at this point, why gloss over one mistake when I’ve made a lifetime of them? My entire time in that neighborhood was one moral failure after another, so what good is it to fool myself now?

I didn’t tell the police because snitches get stitches.

I didn’t tell the police because snitches get stitches.

I didn’t tell the police because snitches get stitches.

Snitches get stiches.

Snitches get stiches.

What a Ghetto thing to say.

I want to stop repeating this. I want to shut it down right now, but I’ve lied to myself long enough. Fact is, reporting it would have created something awkward for me, all I wanted was to move out of there and pretend I never existed to these people. This was why I kept my head down when I passed them, or pretended to look at my watch, or opened and read my mail as I walked past. I wanted to be a ghost, an imaginary dog. I wanted to be Superman’s son.

They asked if the husband seemed like a dangerous person and I said I never thought he’d shoot her if that was what they were asking. Then they said what they were asking was whether he seemed like a dangerous person, and I told them he was a real slight guy, seemed to like yelling a lot, but maybe he didn’t like to yell.

I told them I didn’t know.

They asked why I was so nervous, and I told them it was because I saw someone get shot. You saw it? No, I saw her and she had already been shot. I didn’t mean it like I watched her get shot.

One of them rolled his eyes at this point. I’m sure my answers were pretty frustrating. They eventually left and said they’d be in touch, and thanked me for my cooperation, but I knew they were lying. I told them I hoped I was helpful in some way, and they knew I was lying too. I never asked about the little girl.

 

An old lady struggles with her cart, the front wheel broken. Sitting in my car, watching the automatic door slide open and shut, I can’t help but notice how everyone who comes out looks so depressed. The last time I saw my neighbor alive, I was standing behind her in the checkout line. She was buying generic Corn Flakes, milk, tortillas, and a head of lettuce, paying with vouchers I assumed were food stamps. I’d never seen food stamps before, so I stared a little harder than I should have. Her face fell and she hurriedly paid for her things and rushed out. She was shot two days later.

I turn the ignition and back out of the parking space. Shopping carts are strewn about the lot like roadkill, and I slowly negotiate my way through the debris. It’s almost five twenty. I decide to pick up the girls, even though they’ll be upset because they aren’t done playing. Hopefully, a trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru will win them back.

As I look back at the Ralph’s in my rearview mirror, I imagine the store completely emptied, gutted of its produce, the bakery, freezer aisle—just rows and rows of empty shelves. I picture it at night haunted by ghosts, spectral imprints left behind like fingerprints on glass, like false memories planted to take your mind off the pain of slowly being sucked dry. They push their floating phantasmal carts from aisle to aisle, grabbing cans of creamed corn and bags of vermicelli noodles. Ectoplasmic children ask their mothers to buy them bags of little green army men, and young men stare furtively at condoms they’ll never use. And I’m there too, at least the ghost I left behind, a skinny twenty-two-year-old interloper who never left the neighborhood. He buys a pack of Camel Light 100’s, a case of Diet Coke, and a loaf of whole wheat bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He may even buy a bag of dog food for Chip, who is tied up outside on a bicycle rack.

My young teenage friends are in line too, translucent, electric blue like jellyfish, decked out in their cock-eyed Dodgers caps and oversized Derek Fisher jerseys, paying for their Now and Laters, their raspberry Airheads. Once again they’re talking about that Mexican woman that got shot up behind the 7-Eleven, but this time my ghost points to my neighbor, who is standing at the freezer end cap wondering if she can splurge on a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream. He tells the boys that she’s actually from El Salvador and the boys nod. They don’t give a shit, but he’s still trying to.

 

 

***

Jeff Chon is a graduate of the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Fiddleblack, Barrelhouse, Heavy Feather Review, and The Seneca Review. He is the editor-in-chief of The East Bay Review.

Image: fireflyforest.com

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