The Ghost Lives
by Anthony Jones
The Montreal Review, January 2011
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When The Ghost was a young man and had just begun to wear his armor to go on nightly patrol his wife stopped him once and said something that-even in middle age-he couldn't forget.
She said, "Whatever you're looking for is right here."
She was lying in their bed when she spoke. Her brown hair spread out all over their pillow. He lingered next to her for a moment but didn't take her comment seriously. All he knew in those days was his dream and his dream wouldn't let him rest. In his mind, he was already very close to becoming a hero.
Part of that had to do with a newspaper story that had been written about him at the time. He had put on his armor one night and clubbed a man who was trying to steal a woman's car. The woman told a newspaper reporter at the police station that the man who had saved her had just "appeared out of thin air, like a ghost or something."
That's how he got his name. He thought it was the beginning of a fearsome reputation, but then came the mistakes-the mishaps. One night, he confused a man's house keys with a lock pick and subdued a night janitor who was simply trying to get into his own apartment. A week later he chased away a painter who was trying to finish a seasonal advertisement on a supermarket window early one morning. The Ghost thought he was a vandal.
Another night, he jumped down from a second story fire escape and broke his ankle. He was trying to land on a drug dealer a few feet away. His wife came to the hospital and she was furious. She had suffered through his night patrols in the beginning because she didn't think they would last. After seeing her husband's exhilaration from the newspaper story, she began to get scared. For her, the broken ankle was the last straw.
"That's it," she said. "You have to choose-your crusade, or me."
For a short while it seemed like The Ghost would choose his wife. They were together all the time while he recovered and she was happy to have him stationary and unable to move very far without her help. The Ghost was happy too, in a way. He loved his wife and didn't want their marriage to end. His dream, for a time, disappeared.
He talked about the desire with his wife one night when he was drunk on pain killers. He tried to describe the intensity of the force that had been driving him. With tears welling up in his eyes he said, "I couldn't protect my mother. I let that bastard ruin our family."
He was talking about his stepfather. His wife knew the story, he told it almost every time he was intoxicated. The man had married his mother when he was ten. His stepfather brought liquor into their house and The Ghost blamed him for turning his mother into an alcoholic. Some nights he would come home drunk take sexual liberties with her that The Ghost remembered and brooded upon-nights when his stepfather would force himself on his mother, reducing her to a whimpering, trembling mess for days afterward. He still felt deeply disgusted with himself for only lying in his bed, listening.
The Ghost had always wanted to take revenge against him but he had been too young and too scared. He swore that after he grew he would beat his stepfather into submission but the man had a heart attack just before his sixteenth birthday. It was only after his stepfather died that he began to dream about the mask and armor and what he would do to those who dared oppose him.
"I want to fight evil," he said. "I want to punish criminals before they can ruin people's lives."
His wife listened and nodded but she was afraid of what he was becoming. Deep down, she knew that he was a good person-it was why she had married him-but what drove him now was suddenly getting in the way of all that. He was changing into someone that she didn't understand.
"I need you here with me," she said. "Not out on the streets every night. The past is the past. You can't go back in time and save your mother. I'm here now. You need to help me protect this marriage, that's the most important thing."
Crying now, The Ghost nodded. He admitted that the fantasy had gone too far. He didn't want to ruin his relationship with his wife. He swore that he was done with his patrols. He promised that from now on, he would lead a normal life.
But that wouldn't last. His ankle healed and his muscles grew strong and he began to dream again about his growing legend. His wife sensed the change and she became very nervous. She questioned him frequently and he lied and promised that he would stay true to her.
He got away with it for a few weeks-sneaking out late at night and sneaking back in before she woke up. But then a drug fiend slashed his face with a razor blade during one of his patrols. The blow was vicious and had sliced through his mask and cut him from eye to chin. The scar was still with him today. When he got home that night he was bleeding. His wife was awake, waiting for him.
"I hope this kills you," was all she said after she saw his face. She was gone for good the next day.
At first he didn't miss her. In a strange way, he was relieved. A great emotional burden had been lifted off his shoulders and he didn't have to feel guilty anymore during his patrols. Now, he could go all out.
Without his wife he became more savage. He acted on impulse and was quick to use his club. He was good in a fight-adrenaline fueled him and he battled with such ferocity that it was apparent to whoever he was facing that the only way to stop him was with a bullet. But he wasn't afraid of getting shot. He wasn't afraid of anything in the beginning. He felt like he had supernatural importance. He believed that he was living out his destiny.
Empowered by this feeling, he ambushed two men involved in a drug deal one night without warning or provocation. He emerged from the shadows and was on both of them with his metal club before they could react. He beat them brutally and then disappeared just as quickly as he had attacked. He never knew that one of those men was an undercover cop. He never realized how badly he had screwed up a part of his investigation.
The police posted wanted flyers for him in subway stations after that. When he saw them, he was furious. He felt betrayed by the people he'd risked his life to protect. Suddenly, it seemed that it was against the law to be a hero. After brooding on the issue for more than a week-along with his pending divorce-he decided to move away and start somewhere new, a place where he'd be appreciated for his effort. He had no idea that this would be the beginning of endless wandering. He could not have conceived the hardships that awaited him.
Before he left, he saw his wife one last time. She was staying with her sister and he went to their home one night. He didn't go with mask or armor but he moved around the perimeter of the house with the same caution that he would use to approach a villain on the street.
What he saw didn't hurt him at the time. It would take many years before the memories of his wife caused him great pain. Still, the image stuck in his mind. It was a dinner party. There were a few guests drinking coffee in the living room. His wife was in the kitchen, washing dishes. A man he didn't know was drying the dishes for her with a checkered towel. They were talking while they worked and they both seemed very relaxed. At one point his wife laughed so hard at something the man said that the sound reached The Ghost where he stood-outside the window, just beyond the reach of the kitchen light.
For a moment, The Ghost desperately wanted to be a part of what he saw. He wanted to wash dishes and drink coffee and lounge on couches at night with friends. But he didn't understand how to live that kind of life. He didn't know how to be like the people inside. He never had. He used to pretend but deep down he always knew he was different.
Standing there in the front yard, it didn't take long for The Ghost to remember his calling. He was destined for greatness. He didn't have time for dinner parties. He had to train and prepare for the battles that lie ahead. His emotion shifted and suddenly he was disgusted by the people inside that home. As he disappeared into the night, he was happy he didn't belong.
. . .
His travels took him many places in the following years. Upheaval and chaos surrounded his life, but the desire that fueled him remained constant. Each night he would try harder to do something heroic and he spent most days training. Even when he had an odd job-sorting mail in a post office or sweeping up at an auto body shop-he'd find time to do pushups or situps or study diagrams of martial art submission holds.
He was a warrior. He turned his body into a weapon. He dreamt of glory but prepared for the worst the night could offer. Co-workers would occasionally stumble upon him curling paint cans in storage closets or delivering roundhouse kicks against invisible enemies and they thought he was insane.
He had an opportunity once in Central Florida to prove himself, but he'd let it slip away. He'd been stationed underneath an SUV and was watching a corner that was on the fringe of gang territory. During the early hours of the morning he saw an older man walking toward the bus stop. He had on the uniform of a civic employee. He was a courthouse desk clerk most likely.
The Ghost watched him shuffle toward the stop and then from the shadows of broken fences and backyards he saw the boys come. They were man-children really-almost full-grown, moving together like a pack of jackals. They seemed giddy as they descended upon the older man. They knew that their victim wouldn't put up resistance.
The old man needed a hero. He needed The Ghost to come out from under the SUV, walk boldly into the pack and dismantle them with his club. But when The Ghost saw what was happening, he froze. He was afraid. He had never directly confronted more than two men before and here were five. He thought they might be carrying guns. There were too many unknowns.
And so he just watched as the pack stomped the old man. They crowded over him until his body wasn't even visible beneath their blows. Their attack was short and vicious and when they were satisfied they disappeared back into the shadows, hollering out the name of their gang. The Ghost waited several minutes before he crawled out from under the car and then ran to a phone booth and called for an ambulance.
He stood over the man while he waited for it to come. A deep gash in his temple bled down the side of his face. He was unconscious. The Ghost waited at the bus stop until he heard the first faint wailing of the ambulance and then vanished off into the night.
His failure to protect the old man from the gangsters disgusted him. He didn't think about how he may have saved the man's life by calling the ambulance. He didn't acknowledge that one man versus five was nearly an impossible fight to win. He only felt like a coward-like he was a boy again in his stepfather's home-and in order to forget this feeling he trained even harder than before.
He studied Chinese boxing. He learned escape techniques from illusionists. He dreamt about a chance for redemption. Always, he dreamt about the heroic things he would do before he died. He was still young. He was confident that his legend would be that of a great protector.
. . .
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Anthony Jones's work has been published in Westwind (Spring 2006) and The Furnace Review (Fall 2010). He was also the 2007 recipient of the Ruth Brill Scholarship, awarded to the most outstanding fiction writer at UCLA. Jones has performed his work with The Noah Garabedian Sextet (http://vimeo.com/13471981) and, most recently, he was selected to read one of his short stories at The Franklin Park Reading Series. Currently, he coaches basketball in the South Bronx.
Illustration: Untitled, (2006,
oil on board,
30 x 40 inches) by Steven Assael
Steven Assael was born in New York, New York in 1957. He attended Pratt Institute and presently teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York. Mr. Assael balances naturalism with a romanticism that permeates the figures and surroundings of his paintings and drawings. The focus of his work is the human figure, either individually or in a group, rendered in glowing relief by gentle beams of warm and cool light. Steven Assael's classical talents are as rare as they are essential to the diverse art world of the late Twentieth Century.
Assael's works can be purchased at Forum Gallery, 730 Fifth Avenue 2nd Fl. (between 56th & 57th Streets) New York, NY 10019
Steven Assael's web site: www.stevenassael.com