From Cimarron Man and other stories: link
June 8, 1953
“Believe me, fool, there’s ghosts in this place. I dare ya to go in there. I dare ya.”
Johnny looked at his friend, the always dirt-crusted and foul-mouthed Jim Tavor, whose eyes were so dark it made him look like a sheik, and gave a hard shrug. “It ain’t haunted. It’s just a heap, that’s all. I hope they get rid of it for that new park.”
For at least a good five minutes the boys took in the exterior, not talking, only doing human stuff like chewing grass and spitting and swatting at flies. The wind ran cooler right there by the Staffelbach, a structure so worn down it appeared gray. White paint clung to the clapboards the way snow or frost clung to a blade of grass in the wintertime. All the doors and windows had been boarded shut.
There was talk of tearing it down, but no one seemed to have the heart to do it. That old whore Ma Staffelbach was said to haunt the place. Maybe people were afraid she’d set a curse or something.
Johnny didn’t believe in ghosts, but still, the air sure did run cold right there. He stared and stared, bike straddled between his thighs. “Hey, why you so worried about me goin’ in there?” he said. “It’s you that’s curious. You go on ahead, and I’ll wait.”
Jim swallowed hard, shifting the little Adam’s apple in his throat. “Aw, hell, sounds like you’re chicken. I would go in there, but damn, I’m kind of thirsty right now. You wanna get a pop or something?” Jim avoided Johnny’s eyes and peeled off down the street.
A board fell, something crashed inside the house, and it sent a chill down Johnny’s back. He jump-started his bike and caught up with his friend.
“I ain’t chicken,” he called out. “I’m cool, Johnny Cool, and I ain’t afraid of nuthin’.”
Not afraid of Daddy, not afraid of old whore ghosts, nuthin’. Absolutely nuthin’. He always found out that if he stood still, real still, and kept his eyes closed, the thing, that feeling, stopped. If he ever got sent to war in Korea, and there was a big shootout, he’d do just that: close his eyes and wait.
They rode a few blocks down along Main, dodging Chevy’s, toward the Royal Drug Store, though they could have gone to its rival the Palace Drugs just across the street. The reason they didn’t was because it always filled up with miners out on lunch, and there was nothing more annoying than a bunch of men shaking lead dust all over your food. Not only that, those men smoked. A miner could suck the holy life out of a Lucky Strike. The Royal wasn’t as bad as the Palace because it only filled up halfway. People said that was because the coffee was stale, but since he and Jim didn’t drink coffee, they was good as an ace.
Inside the Royal, the boys cut through a line of folks waiting to pay, and went straight to a booth in the back corner. It wasn’t clean yet, but it didn’t matter. Johnny picked up a spent matchbook and rubbed his thumbnail across the flint strip. It made his nail hot. Jim shoved a plate of half-eaten fried catfish aside and leaned across the table. “What’re you orderin’?”
“I only got money for a Pepsi.”
“If I order a plate of fries, we can share both. The Pepsi and the fries. What you say?”
“I say, fine.”
Johnny scanned the diner and didn’t see his father among the smudged faces of men. It was always a fear that that they’d end up in the same place together unknowingly. Once it had happened at the post office, and a few weeks later at the IGA. He didn’t mind the proximity, it was merely the element of surprise Johnny didn’t like.
Donna, their waitress, came swaying up. “What do I got here today? The cleanest faces I’ve seen in hours, but your shifty little eyes say you’ve been up to no good. What’s the matter? You boys been running the Red Hot or something?”
Johnny and Jim eyed each other, and flushed deep. The Red Hot was the name of a road that ran from Galena to doomed Empire City, with all sorts of illustrious and illegal activities sprinkled in between. Jim stammered but Johnny cut right out, “Hell, no, we ain’t been on the Red Hot. We’re too young.”
Donna laughed. “But you sure know what I’m talking about.”
“Ah, shit,” Jim said into his chest.
“Can we just order our food?”
“Sure you can. What’ll it be? Veal, prime rib, lobster Loraine?”
“Just a Pepsi and fries,” Johnny said. “And don’t chintz us with too much ice. You always do that and then we only get five sips of pop. It’s a rip off.”
“Listen here, the real rip off is letting you two sit at this table and order only two things, that you’re gonna share. Then you’ll leave me a penny tip, if any. That’s the real rip off.”
She was right, and the boys shut up before she kicked them out for another set of diners. She certainly looked to be in the mood for it. When she left, Johnny whispered, “What a bitch.”
“Yeah.” Then Jim covered his buck-toothed grin. “But she’s got huge tatas.”
They laughed real hard until the man in the booth behind them started coughing up a lead lung.
“I ain’t never working in those mines,” Jim said. “I’ll open a shop or move outta here to Kansas City or St. Louis.”
“Yeah, me either.”
The miner coughed, incessantly, until their order arrived, and when he left the place grew deathly quiet. Most of the miners were now outside, talking at the curb, leaning half-in their cars and trucks, half-out, headed back for another shift of digging. Working in the mines was the easiest way for a man to make money. Johnny heard they hired you no matter what, because all you needed was a strong pair of hands. Johnny looked at his own and thought they were far too fine for a pickaxe. In eleven years he had only collected a few scratches: one from a stray cat, and the other from the day Mama’d thrown Daddy out and Daddy’d tried to take Johnny somewhere else all for his own. Otherwise they were perfect, and he didn’t want to mar them up just for lead. He wanted to do something fantastic with his hands—with his life. Something unbelievable no one had ever done.
If only he could figure out what that was.
“What you got that strange look on your face for?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know. Just thinkin’.”
“Are we going into that house tonight?”
“I’m game for it. Told you I ain’t chicken.”
Johnny held out one of his perfect hands. “Hand me the pop. You’ve sucked down about ten cents worth and now there’s almost nuthin’ but ice.”
“It’s ‘cause I’m so thirsty.”
“Well, I am too.” Johnny sipped hard and it wasn’t long before the fateful sound of empty air erupted from the bottom of the glass. “It’s all gone. You asshole.”
Exiting the Royal later, he was surprised to be grabbed by a set of hands, big hands, black and dirty as the deep end of a pond under the shade of a sprawling willow tree. He stammered and looked up into the coal-smudged face of a miner. The profile he knew, but not the eyes. They were dead eyes, as dead as anything, and they was scary as hell.
“Boy . . .” the man said, slowly.
Johnny wanted to do his trick, the brave trick, but he couldn’t. His father had a good grip on him, in ways a person couldn’t escape. A shaking started, from his feet to his chest, and all he could do was wait. Wait for release. Wait for someone to say something, anything.
He rose up one of his lily-white hands to pry his father’s away, but the grip was tighter than anything he’d ever known. It was like being caught in a web, or in a thatch of seaweed down in the bottom of the ocean.
Urged on by another miner, Johnny’s father let go and stumbled across the street. Lead had made a black crown around his blonde hair where a helmet had once been.
“Hey, who was that?” Jim asked after it was over, mouth full of ice.
Johnny didn’t answer. He squeezed his eyes shut. Too late, but at least he’d remembered.
They hopped on their bikes and headed for the Staffelbach for a second look. Once there, they leaned into its slated windows to peak at a veil of sifting dust inside a cavity of darkness. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” Johnny said, and his breath fogged the thick pane of the window. He could just as well have said, I’m not afraid of ghosts, but he’d already said that. It was apparent what he was afraid of; it breathed and it could grab you.
“I don’t either,” Jim said. “But if they do exist, this’d be the place to find ’em.”
That night after meeting near the Owens’s trailer with its pink plastic flamingos stuck inside a plot of tulips, the boys headed down Main on foot, heads low and hands shoved inside their jacket pockets. A trickle of sweat trailed Johnny’s neck toward his banded collar. When they arrived, he was soaked as a dirty mop, but for some reason he didn’t have the nerve to unzip his jacket and take it off, or even do anything—anything but just stand there and discern a cavern of darkness that was like psychic darkness, evil darkness. Darkness that spoke to you. Invisible eyes that stared and knew all your thoughts.
Jim’s eyes were terror. “I don’t know if we ought to do it. I bet there’s rusty nails. That last tetanus shot I got hurt worse than the devil. They stuck it right in the wound. I got bad feelings. I got the same bad feeling when my cousin said he was going to the lake, and then he almost hit his head on a rock while diving.”
“But he didn’t die,” Johnny said.
“The same bad feeling.”
Johnny rattled the corroded brass knob until the door released from its frame. A smell of dry rot came out; the decay of wood and textiles. A stale, dusty air.
“Are you really goin’ in?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Because, it’s so dark.”
Inside, Johnny stepped onto a pile of something gritty. Crushed rat bones. Dead beetles. The grit of existence. Of Death. It made his teeth hurt, like someone rubbing steel wool together. Oval-shaped pictures with ornate frames had been arranged on the fireplace mantel, all covered with grime. He twisted to see Jim at the open doorway; the boy’s silhouette consisted of a rectangle head because of his buzz cut, rounded shoulders, and Levi’s cuffed two times at the bottom. “Jim, shut the door.”
“Shut the door?”
“So Pickering won’t get suspicious.”
Pickering was the only cop in town, a tough bastard who’d give you a ticket for not closing your fly, if he felt like it. Jim shut the door. “I feel sick.”
The carpet had gold fringe on it. No one respectable bought carpet with big braided gold fringe or hung a painting of a bare-breasted woman above their couch. Johnny looked to the narrow stairwell.
“You ain’t goin’ up there—”
He had to go up there. Something called him to do it. Johnny reached to his back pocket and pulled out his old rusted knife, and held it in front of him while taking each step. He didn’t know what he wanted to see, but it sure would be an adventure. He’d long outgrown Howdy Doody and Lassie and warm milk with cornbread dipped in it, and now he was heading into a den of sex from way back, from when women were women and the men were all John Wayne. He whistled that old favorite song of Mama’s “I got the lovesick blu-es” to distract himself, but cut short when he heard someone whistling along, two steps behind.
“Is that you, Jim Tavor, playin’ tricks on me?”
From downstairs: “I ain’t playin’ any tricks. I’m just standing here holdin’ in a mass of pee.”
“So you weren’t a-whistlin’ right now?”
“Hell no, not me.”
Johnny stood at the upper landing and peered through black licorice darkness into a hall with three doors, one of them wide open. “I’ll be damned if ghosts can whistle.” He headed for the door. “Of course ghosts can’t whistle, and there ain’t no such things as ghosts.” He stepped into the room. “And if there were, they wouldn’t be in Galena, they’d be someplace else.” He was halfway inside when the door shut behind him. Just shut. Without him touching it or anything.
Johnny rattled the knob, but the damn thing wouldn’t budge. “Jim, you asshole. Let go of this door.”
A feeling, like iron nails dipped in ice, ran down his back, and then the room filled up with a luminescent blue. “Oh, holy shit, Jim, open this goddammed door!”
Jim answered back, but it was from faraway, not outside in the hall. Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. He thrashed his knife at anything that might try to get him. He just kept thrashing and stabbing to give it the idea that he meant to kill.
Something knocked the knife from his fingers, and it flew, blade tip down, into Johnny’s left pinky toe. He cried and opened his eyes to look at it, because he’d never had a knife in his toe before. What he saw was a white mist that floated immediately before him, and if anyone were to draw a picture, or try to explain what a definitive ghost looks like, they could use his mist as a perfect example. It even had a face. Not a pretty face. It didn’t have any eyes. Just sockets. Billowy, kohl colored sockets of forever which he averted his eyes from the second after he saw them, because if he looked too long, he might die or something.
It was a woman. Jowly and breasty. She lifted one of her fog-like hands to touch his shoulder, and Johnny felt a chill go all the way through to his innards. It froze his muscles too; he couldn’t move, and he couldn’t scream. It was a terrible feeling. The worst feeling he’d ever had in his life. Like when you hit your funny bone, but your whole body is the funny bone. Then, as he stood there paralyzed, the mist of the woman opened her corset and let him see her breasts, then she leaned in and gave him a kiss—right on the mouth. His lips, the only thing he could move, started kissing her too. A ghost, he was kissing a goddamned ghost! She made a horrifically ethereal sound that was all pleasure and sadness, and in a moment she faded.
The door opened wide and the cold feeling went away.
He had a boner, the first real one of his life, and it took a whole ten seconds to settle down.
Later, after Johnny had plucked that old switch knife from his foot and hobbled down the stairwell, he looked at Jim and headed straight out of the house.
“What happened up there? I heard ya scream and then it went quiet and I wondered what in the hell you were up to. Sure as hell wasn’t gonna go up there myself. I ain’t chicken, but I ain’t stupid either.”
“Shut up, Jim. Just shut the hell up.”
“Did you see anything?
“Yeah, I saw something.”
“What was it?”
Pickering swung around the corner in his zebra car, cigarette in hand. Johnny’s father sat in the back seat, drunker than anything in this world. There was a strange, greenish tinge to his washed skin, and his head was laid back, mouth wide open to flies.
The two boys fell into the ditch and grew silent. Johnny spit at the car’s fender as it went by. They were most likely headed for the station. Another night in the clink. They’d call Mama and want her to pay bail, and then Mama wouldn’t be able to buy cake for Johnny’s birthday. Worse, it would wake her and she’d discover that he wasn’t in bed. “Aw, hell.”
“What is it, Johnny?”
Johnny stood and kicked a hollow box of Lucky Strikes out of the way. His father didn’t look so fearful with a clean face. But the question was, why did he stop him earlier at the Royal? Why did he grab onto him like that, and what was it he’d so desperately wanted to say?
It pained him that he’d never know, just like he didn’t know what the future was, or why a ghost-woman would just up and kiss him for no reason. Maybe there were things in life you weren’t supposed to understand, at least, not now.
“Well anyway, I saw her.”
“The woman. Ma Stefflebach. The whore.”
Jim stopped picking at his elbow scab long enough to give the effect of being truly frightened. “Fer real?”
“Sure as shit.”
They walked on the loose gravel road, Johnny limping because his toe was hurt and bleeding.
“What did she do to ya?”
Johnny didn’t answer. Ghost breasts.
Mama yanked Johnny through the front door the second he got home and gave his face a hard, effective slap.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“You’re damn right, you’re sorry.” Her eyes were opossum eyes, spitfire and haste. Her face had taken on a swollen appearance.
“Guess they called, huh?” He rubbed at his cheek.
“Johnny—Johnny, they say your father died. He’s done had a heart attack and I’ll have to pay for the funeral.”
The phone was off the hook. The line hummed to itself. No one answering, no one ending the call. Just a hum. An empty bottle of gin sat next to the receiver. More and more she drank that stuff and it only seemed to be making her less and less like herself.
“Is he really dead, Mama?”
“Dead as a ghost.”
His toe hurt. If he asked her to put iodine on it, she might use cyanide instead, she was that upset. Sometimes he just wanted someone to give him comfort, and that person wasn’t around.
Mama crossed over to switch on the record player. Frankie Lane wailed out some lonely tune and she fell into her rocking chair with her body all sunk like it was made of foam. She began to cry.
“Please, Mama, don’t do that.” Johnny hesitated then walked over and threw himself into her lap. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He felt guilty for his erection. Maybe that was the cause of all this bad luck.
Her hand brushed along his hair and it felt good. It didn’t reach far enough into that empty spot that seemed to grow and grow like a picked mine, but it did fill it slightly. It filled it enough, just enough to get by.
He kept his face in her lap and smelled her musky sweetness while listening to the deep warm sound of her voice sing ‘The Wayward Wind.’ He wished it were a different song, though. It often had the effect of making him want to hitchhike somewhere and do wild things—who knows what and who knows where. Somewhere that went forever. Only, he couldn’t tell anyone that or they’d think he was nuts. But still, it had that effect.
Years later, he received a postcard from Jim Tavor. “Remember the Staffelbach?” That’s all it said. Johnny found out Jim had died two days after posting, shot dead in Tien Jiang. So the letter was a ghost-letter, and wasn’t that ironic? The letter, it sent strange feelings through him, of coldness, of his own sexuality just emerging, and the smell of his mother’s lap. And of his father’s coal-black face, the only face he could seem to remember.
The day after Mama’s funeral, Johnny laid her belongings in front of the old trailer and had an impromptu sale so he could buy a Ford advertised in the Thrifty Nickel. There was no use keeping any of Mama’s stuff, because it was all outdated and half-broken. Things no one wanted, but he managed to unload most of it before three p.m. The record player and her vinyl collection were the hardest to depart from, he’d have liked to keep them, but what the hell use did he have with those things anyway? A fat senorita bought her dresses and shoes and coat. What’d it matter that it was leaving like a breath in a gust of wind? Johnny took the money and said nothing.
Mama wasn’t in those clothes or records. She was somewhere beyond. The same place Daddy’d gone. And now there was nothing left to hold onto, except his own self, and a dream.
A week later, a tornado skidded up and damn near tossed him and the whole trailer into the sky. It’d scared him. He had to get out of Galena.
Johnny bought that car and drove through town one last time. Past the Royal and the Steffelbach, over the bridge that separated them from ghostly Empire City, the mines—the Red Hot. He’d never see any of it again.
What was a person, really? Lonely. You ended up in a coffin alone. No room for two.
Like the core shaft of a twister, empty and sucking.
He lit up a joint and kept along Route 66, heading west for California.