"Hello, Jonathan!" he booms cordially.
"Good evening, Mr. Thomas."
"How is life?" the ghost asks.
"I've started a new job."
"Got tired of dishwashing, did you? Scrubbed yourself out?"
"Not really," I reply. "I'm a shift leader now, so I still have to show people how to scrub, pick up slack."
Mr. Thomas scratches his bald spot thoughtfully. I consider that he might not be familiar with that expression. In context, he could likely figure it out.
"Is it a higher wage than before?" he asks, adjusting his long coat before placing a hand on his own tombstone for support.
"No, but I get more hours."
A long pause forms between us. I know this silence well.
"I have a new neighbor next door," I say.
"She's about 35 and works at a casino as a hostess."
"Is she," Mr. Thomas winked, "Comely?"
"Oh no," I say, grimacing. "But she has a daughter, about 15 years old. She looks a lot like your girl."
Mr. Thomas looks down and tugs at his vest.
"You've never asked me what happened to your children, Mr. Thomas."
"You've always had your own beliefs, Jonathan. I couldn't contradict them."
Mr. Thomas' daughter had been accused of poisoning him. She was imprisoned and nearly received the death penalty. Life imprisonment was unkind to her, and she died shortly after. Looking at Mr. Thomas' one existing photograph, I would say she was wrongly accused. Her face was blurred, turning towards her father with an impish grin, not at all like the hundreds of other photos that I came across while searching.
"I think you would tell me if you had something you wanted to share," Mr. Thomas says in a hushed tone.
"She loved you. I am convinced."
"Because you saw our photograph?"
I never mentioned it, but I’m not surprised that he knows about it. I nod.
Mr. Thomas pulls a long wooden pipe out of an interior coat pocket. He starts smoking while a familiar vacant expression starts to form across his face--his eyes look into the distant street, as if I have stopped existing. We have reached the limit of things we can talk about. I swear to myself that I will look up more information on him to have more to say, but I also remember the hours I have already spent with library clippings of old newspapers.
"What happens after we die?" I ask. I always ask questions like this.
Mr. Thomas glances at me for a moment before looking at the street again. I never get an answer.
"Oh well. It's time I went further in. It was nice seeing you again, Mr. Thomas," I said, waving goodbye. He sets his pipe on top of his tombstone and smiles again.
"You too, Jonathan. Say hello to Miss Melody for me," he shouts as I walk away.
I still try to rationalize it, but James Thomas from 1850 cannot know about Melody Fisher from 1922. It's not possible. They are not having casual conversation over the graveyard's cobblestone walkways. I need more, I think. More voices, more facts.
It's a big cemetery. I hate the distance between faces I know. The October air isn't breezy, just bitter. I walk roughly a city block before I run into Melody. I guess they built it chronologically, adding plots like a chunky timeline towards the far end, recent graves hidden by browning maple leaves.
"How are you?" asks Melody, with her hands folded together behind her, rocking back on her heels. She's doing better, I think. Two weeks ago, she was clutching her neck to hide the rope's thick, splotched curve.
"I'm fine." I say. "I had to pull in the rest of my potted garden. It was getting too cold."
"Heavens, you took long enough. Anything left besides dried, frozen roots now?"
"Hmm, not really. There is a little green coming out of the tomato pot, but I think it's just a weed."
"Well, you don't heat your apartment. They would have died anyway." I never mentioned that, of course. She knows everything I know.
"I hate winter," I say. "I always slip on ice and can never find a matching pair of gloves."
"It was winter when I was waiting for Benjamin to come home," Melody replies solemnly. "I was so excited that I forgot to wear gloves. When no one I knew hopped off of the train, I sat on a bench at the station holding my hands together."
I only take the time to learn about people who have unusual age ranges. I learn more if I find that they didn't die of disease. The rope's shadow around her neck is a shallow comfort, but I need it.
"Have you seen him since then?"
"Not while I was alive. My Benjamin never returned to me."
"No, no, I know all that already," I snap.
"Then what do you need?"
It is uncomfortable to talk about need. These faded stories of people know my purpose in knowing more.
“Why don’t you carry on and see her, if that’s what you really want to do,” Melody adds, without a hint of irritation. Of course she’s sympathetic, I think.
“I need to know about what comes after.”
Melody’s face changes. The color of her eyes shifts to grey even though her eyes never reflect the sun. She’s not looking at things within the cemetery anymore; she’s looking out beyond the city streets, out to the ocean.
“What is heaven like? Have you been there?” I ask, knowing that I will get no reply.
I am done with Melody. Taking what I know and making them real is a practice that is limited by willingness to talk—
“Do you know that she will always love you?”
I stop. I’ve never heard that line before. “I know,” I whisper, before I walk towards the cemetery’s end.
They’re in my head, I made them up, I tell myself. I believe it, but I can’t stop digging into their backgrounds to make them even more real. I’m a crazy man who can see only the apparitions with which he is familiar--specters tethered to their own corpses. I look over my shoulder while I walk away, but I still see Melody sitting on her own tombstone, tapping the heels of her sandals against it with her fidgeting legs. Is she there when I look away?
I think that they only exist for my eyes, for my mind, but I can’t stop coming to the cemetery.
“Hello, Jon,” my mother says smiling faintly, as if she carried the disease with her when she went.
If I stopped visiting her now, would she be lonely? How can I leave my own mother to live in a grassy field with dead-looking marble slates all around if I don’t know whether or not she’s real right now?
“Hi, mom,” I reply before choking out small talk. “How have you been, lately?”
“Lovely!” she sings quietly. “The weather has been a little chilly, but I can’t find any real reason to mind being outside yet. The groundskeeper has kept the grass nicely trimmed, and I always enjoy the flowers you bring me.”
I will bring her flowers in December, when the snows piles over her headstone and leaves her shadowed visage, from a distance, like ash flecks in the snow. She will still tell me she enjoys the weather, as if my particular form of dementia of refuses to let her speak her suffering.
No, it’s worse. My mom was cheerful until leukemia took her last breath, just like she is now. If I could touch her hands, I think I would feel the calluses from the last time she forced herself to shovel her flower bed to plant new tulips, to look happy. Either my mind is only maintaining the image I had of her, or she’s real and trapped.
“Mom, where did you first meet my Dad?” I ask, probing for things I never bothered to know when she was alive.
“I really can’t recall, Jon. It’s been so many years, and my head isn’t the same as it was when you were younger.” It’s a perfect non-answer. If she said nothing, I’d have too many suspicions that she wasn’t real. She really did suffer from some memory loss towards the end, though I blame the chemotherapy.
I’ve tried every trick I can think of to prove her existence. The way she was at the end invalidates it all. I have called family members to tell me things about her childhood; they’re usually annoyed that I cannot seem to let this go, but her brain fog silences any benefits I could get from the new information. She says “If you say it’s true, then I believe you.” If I invent stories from her past and convince myself that they actually happened, it’s the same problem.
Only one question ever gives me something to consider.
“Mom, I know I ask you this every time. Sorry.”
“It’s OK. I’m here for you.”
“What is heaven like?”
“Heaven is you, Jon. You’re my heaven.”