Fantasma

When I was fifteen someone at an advertising agency told me she thought I could model. When I was nineteen and looking for ways to make money that involved as little actual work as possible I decided to put this compliment to the test. My tenure at the local modeling school lasted exactly as long as it took me to understand these model folks were really only interested in my looks. They didn’t seem to care at all about the Real Me.

It was an odd career choice anyway, especially given the relationship I would come to develop with the camera. One morning in my late twenties I arrived at my restaurant job and was asked to be a part of a promotional photo. The result had me posed in profile at the bar looking hauntingly pale. When the Guatemalan pantry cook saw the photo he laughed and pointed at me. “Fantasma,” he chuckled. Ghost.

And so began fifteen years of frightening pictures. Someone would aim a camera my way, tell me to smile, and the trouble would begin. It seemed to me that cameras must have been made exponentially more complicated since my childhood when the duration between point and shoot felt as brief as a snap. Now there was an interminable pause, a pause plenty long enough for something within me that had once felt valuable but now did not wish to be seen to flee.

Pictures of me became a joke at work. One taken at a garden party had me with my arm around a good friend, smiling uncertainly. My face was the color of clay, and my eyes had the hollowed out look of a junky between fixes. Someone posted the picture in the waiter’s station and everyone had a good laugh about it. Look at you, Bill! What is wrong with you?

I had the creepy sensation of glimpsing my own corpse. I hated the picture. That’s not me, I thought.

And I was right.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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A Real Ghost Story

It was Halloween night, the makeup had been washed off, the Jack-O-lanterns extinguished, and my wife and I were sound asleep in our bed. My bedroom has no windows, only a sliding glass door that, as we live in a one-floor ranch house, leads directly out into the backyard. It has never pleased me that one wall of my bedroom is made entirely of glass, and that any trespasser could peer in on my wife and I as we slept. Still, we’ve lived in this house for over ten years, and eventually you get used to things.

The knocking woke me up. I had been dead asleep, but the three rapid reports pulled me from my dreams, and even before I could open my eyes, I heard my wife say,

“There’s someone knocking on the glass door.”

I turned my head. Floor-to-ceiling, vertical venetian blinds serve as our only curtains, but I could see through the wide gaps. Was that shadow a man? I was still half asleep. The idea that a stranger was knocking on our glass door at 2:00 AM felt like a dream. Had I even heard something?

Then, three more rapid knocks, these from the wall, as if the murderer had begun to move down along our house, and was now outside my youngest son’s window. I jumped from my bed, awake now, moving with no idea what I would do but knowing that I must do something. My wife cried out behind me, “Should I call 9-1-1?”

My son’s bedroom is adjacent to ours. Light shown from beneath his door. I pushed it open, took an inventory: Sawyer was sitting up in bed. The overhead light was on. His flashlight was on his desk, still lit.

“Oh, dad!” he cried. “I’m so sorry. Please don’t punish me.”

I staggered to his bed and assured him I would not punish him but he needed to please tell me what the hell was going on. Now my wife arrived. He begged her not to punish him either. After five minutes of assuring – sometimes soothingly, sometimes less so – that we would not punish him, Sawyer agreed to tell what happened. He closed his eyes, reached under his pillow . . .

And pulled out two computer printed images of the video game character Tanooki Mario.

He began his confession: “I woke up and didn’t know what time it was and so I grabbed the flashlight so I could read the clock, and that was when I noticed these on the floor. I don’t remember them ever being there. I don’t remember ever printing them. So I assumed a ghost had left them there and I didn’t want to go out into the dark hall and so I knocked on the wall.”

I told him how I had put them there on Sunday while cleaning the living room. A kiss good night and I was back in bed, eyes closing, when my wife returned and said. “I’m so sorry! I thought the knocking was on the glass door. I was sure it was on the glass door.”

The ghosts and goblins were sleeping in their little beds all over Seattle, but now I wasn’t sleeping in mine. Tomorrow was coming, and sometimes that is threat enough. Where better than my Halloween bed to see with closed eyes what a darkened imagination believes is certain?

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Christmas Spirit

Christmas time is near, and so those must be chains I hear rattling in my attic. Ghosts are as fond of bright lights and happy music as they are of shadows and cobwebs. I loved Christmas as a boy for the star on top of the tree and the songs about Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men because who in their right mind wouldn’t want that?

Even though gifts are disappointing compared to songs, it’s easy to become confused that what you want is wrapped in a bright package. After all, you know you want something. You know that as sure as you know you must eat. You know that you are looking for something, but the search is as frightening as it is fascinating because what if you never find it?

I think a small part of me died whenever I opened a gift and felt disappointed that what I was looking for wasn’t in a box. Except what dies cannot stay buried, and so roams my attic in chains, waking me in the middle of the night or interrupting my gruel. Ghosts never want to leave you alone no matter how kindly you beg.

Yet the more I hear from them, the more I see they hold no grudge. Very generous, considering I killed them once. They just make such a racket. It’s hard to do anything else when they are around, least of all write. I finally invited a few in, and frankly they scared me straight out of my nightshirt at first sight. They tell me graveyards are for the living, not the dead. Christmas is for the dead—so here they are.

I tell them Christmas is about a baby in a manger and Figgie Pudding and a fire in the fireplace and a decent bottle of wine. They tell me I have it all wrong. Christmas is every bit about ghosts. They will haunt me as long as I want know love. Build a tree to love and light a star on top and they come all the quicker. And why shouldn’t they? Love beckons what I need most, and lights the path toward what I have been searching for.

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