An Honest Ghost


One time I was walking down an alley late at night. The clouds were gauzy over the moon. Suddenly a ghost jumped out at me. “Woah,” I said, because I was not expecting it, to be honest. “Sheesh,” I said, because I still hadn’t recovered. I shook my head at the ghost. I shook my finger at the ghost too, because . . . maybe a little more careful next time.

Then the ghost told me we were going to walk to the nearest ATM. The ghost was real scary, with horrible teeth and bloodshot eyes. I realized that the ghost was probably real out of it, having been dead so long and everything, so he probably need help with the ATM machine. Withdrawing funds, or making a deposit. For the living, these actions are part of our daily routine. Not so for the dead. Not so. Maybe there’s no direct deposit in the afterlife. And the ghost need help depositing a paycheck. I tried to ask the ghost about this, but embarrassment at his lack of technological prowess made the ghost threaten me in alarmingly corporeal terms.

I’m quite capable with technology. I almost always complete my ATM transactions on the first or second try. I help my parents with their printer on a pretty regular basis, and they’re impressed with my ability to Google answers to their problems. I’m a bit of a techie, I guess. I just love the internet, and email, and gaming, and gamer culture, and hacker stuff. It’s how I’m wired. Get it? Email me if you get it.

Of course, I told the ghost I could help him. My tech skills are a point of pride.

The ghost wanted me to use my debit card when we got to the ATM, and I was like ,”Right—so he can see how a pro does.” The ghost was pretty specific about me withdrawing 300 dollars, even though I assured him it works the same with any amount. He was like, “I don’t flipping care.” I reproduce his harsh language here out of respect for the dead.

After my demonstration, the ghost seemed ready to leave.

I felt like I’d misjudged the situation. Now I saw that the ghost had unfinished business. He must have owed someone money. He’d chosen me as his Haley Joel Osment. I felt honored.

As this restless denizen of the netherworld left me, he whispered a word of warning: “Don’t tell the cops.” This baffled me. Of course I wouldn’t tell anyone. I knew I was the only one who could see him. I walked off home—a swing in my step, but a weight on my shoulders. I had been given a gift. One I would not take lightly.

An Honest Ghost

Death and Taxes

deathandtaxes“Oh, man,” Brian said, without opening his eyes. He had a bad feeling the icy hand shaking him by the shoulder belonged to a ghost. He opened his eyes and was disappointed to discover that he was right. The ghost looked like it must have been a casualty in a car accident. Starting under the nose, the face had a semi-circular concavity where the steering wheel had not given way.

Brian went to his computer on the kitchen counter. The ghost followed, moaning. “Please, can you stop that?” Brian said. The ghost moaned a little lower. Brian opened up a few applications on his laptop. “Do you have your W-2?” The ghost appeared to remember. Still moaning, he searched through his pockets, found the document, and handed it over. Brian helped the ghost complete work through the required forms. Brian help the ghost submit both State and Federal tax returns. He helped the ghost get the largest possible return.

As soon as Brian pressed the “submit” button, the ghost’s incessant low moan stopped— the translucent body began to radiate light in the dark. The ghost lifted up off the ground. Brian yawned as the ghost became a being of unspeakable glory. Its business finished, the ghost shimmered and then faded, passing on to the next realm, the next life. Brian walked back to bed. He hated being an accountant for all these stupid ghosts.

Death and Taxes

Surprisingly Vocal


The following is a list of people who’ve lost respect for you when you’ve been surprisingly vocal about not being able to help your fourth-grade daughter, Rachel, with math.

  1. Your friends: When you were hanging out at Spills, having a couple beers after the that Bourne movie, you said that you realized that you’d forgotten how to work ratio problems when you were helping Rachel. You said: “I always get confused about the numerator and the denominator, like which is on the top and which is on the bottom? That’s just a terminology thing, I guess. And then how do you know . . . I don’t even think I can explain it.” Everyone at the table laughed, because they’re not monsters, but they were all setting up and solving ratio problems in their heads to check and see if they found it confusing, and none of them did. They kept it to themselves. Dan, as an engineer, has no trouble with ratio problems at all—he’s more than a little familiar with differential equations. Everyone at the table lost a moderate amount of respect for you.
  2. Most of your coworkers: You showed a lot of surprise when Debbie calculated the total number of cookies in 9 boxes of 1 dozen snickerdoodles in her head. “Oh,” Debbie said, “it’s just 9 times 12.” You started to tell everyone in the break-room about how you’ve been helping Rachel with times-tables and when she gets up into the 9 times or 11 times or 12 times level, you’re pretty much useless. Everyone in the room knew their times-tables, all the way up through 12 times 12 (which is 144). They had a really hard time empathizing with you on this, and it’ll be reflected in your loss of opportunities at the company.
  3. Your in-laws: To be completely honest, they’re starting out with a pretty low level of respect. So this is a drop in the bucket. But you were talking about how smart Rachel is, and said that you “can’t do division unless it’s set up in the box way,” and that if it’s a problem where there’s a “line with a dot on top and a dot on the bottom, I’m stumped.” They’re resigned about you at this point, but your father-in-law couldn’t stop thinking about this and was silent for the rest of Rachel’s birthday party.
  4. Scarlet, a cashier at Martin’s Country Market: You thought you were overcharged for lentils, so you held up the line and tried to use a pen and paper to figure out exactly where the problem was and couldn’t do it. The problem was that you’d forgotten about borrowing in subtraction, and Scarlet knew exactly what you’d forgotten to do, but just stood there staring at you, not telling you. When you finally gave up, you said that you should have brought Rachel, your fourth-grade daughter, and she would have been able to do it. “She’s way ahead of me,” you said. Scarlet spends every shift being annoyed with nearly every patron, but now when you buy bulk oats (cheap by weight), she puts in the code for pine nuts (expensive by weight), and you never notice.

Please stop doing this. It’s ruining your life.



Surprisingly Vocal

You’re Invited


I wanted to send this note along with Liam’s birthday invitation. Try as we might, there’s no way that we can guarantee that our alcoholic neighbor, Dave, won’t crash the birthday party. I know that it’s a party for a 7 year-old (I can’t believe he’s already 7!!!), but Dave has been ‘acting out’ a lot since his wife left. He’s been pretty isolated. So he’ll find just about any excuse to drop by when we have company. He showed up at my baby shower a couple months ago, trying to get our wifi password. He kept assuring us he’d pay every month and wouldn’t look at porn, which pretty much convinced us that he wanted the internet almost exclusively to look at porn.

But the party is going to be a lot of fun! Liam’s going through a big giraffe phase right now, so we’re going to have giraffe crafts, play pin-the-tail-on-the-giraffe,  and eat giraffe food—any acacia leaf allergies out there? Just kidding!

Because the party’s at 10:00 AM on Saturday, Dave will have had a good three hours of drinking behind him. Honestly, I should have scheduled it for like 3:00 in the afternoon, because he’s usually passed out on his back porch by then. But we could only get the bouncy castle (savanna themed!!) from 10:00 to 1:00, so we’re locked in. They had other bouncy castles available at different times, but Liam was insistent about the giraffe theme. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Dave is terrifying. Please prepare your children. His demeanor is pleasant but erratic. You might consider googling images of people in advanced stages of dental decay, and then showing them to your kids in the days leading up to the party. If your kids are unfamiliar with the ravages of addiction, consider viewing Leaving Las Vegas or Trainspotting with them before the party. It might seem like a lot, but honestly, over-prepared is better than under-prepared.

If we owned the house, we’d put up fences. But until we pay off Chad’s abortive attempt at an MBA, we’ll probably be living next to Dave, asking visitors to park down the street and sneak down the alley, so he doesn’t come over asking to borrow a hammer during dinner, just so he can have a look at our guests. I don’t actually think putting up fences would make a difference. He’s relentless.

We have a few activities, but mostly we’re going to just let the kids be kids and run around, while avoiding loud noises and sudden movements. Everything should be fine. We’ve got cake, ice cream, and some weird pasta salad that Dave insisted we serve, that he got from a friend who works in the kitchen at one of the sororities on campus.Tell your kids to avoid the pasta salad.

Don’t let Dave ruin this for Liam. Don’t let your fear of Dave ruin this for Liam. Don’t forget to prepare your children. Don’t forget to RSVP!

You’re Invited

David and Michal


Often, when David and Michal would fight, he would bring up the foreskins. Her father, Saul, had required 100 Philistine foreskins as a dowry, and David couldn’t let it go. Michal learned to expect it. To be fair, he didn’t reach for them right away. But he did find a surprising number of ways to connect them to the issue at hand. They might be an example of the ways he’d sacrificed for her.

“I was shedding blood for you even before we were together,” he’d say. “Two hundred  Philistines killed. It took me nearly all day. And at the end of things, I was really picking through the dregs. I didn’t kill anyone who wasn’t able-bodied, mind you, but some were on the line. It was a hassle. I did it for you.”

They might support his industriousness, his identity as an overachiever.

“I go above and beyond, every day,” he’d say, “just like with the foreskins. Your father asked for one hundred, I brought him two hundred. So don’t tell me I try to skate by with the bare-minimum, ahuv.”

His perfectionist streak.

“I do care about the details,” he’d say. “I killed every last Philistine myself, and harvested every last foreskin myself. I didn’t leave it to Ahithophel, or anyone. I counted them several times, myself. I knew I’d gone above and beyond, but I didn’t want to end up with 182 or 199 foreskins. I wanted the impact of an exact double of the requirement. It mattered to me, that detail. I know that you’ve never counted a significant number of foreskins, but, oyI don’t want to go in to it too much, but a bundle of foreskins in a bag, in the hot sun . . . it’s not easy.”

And then sometimes he’d speak of them wistfully, an example of how things used to be.

“I remember your face, motek, when I brought in the bag, threw it on the floor in front of your father, and a dozen foreskins spilled out of the bag and scattered there. You were so happy to see those foreskins. Your face shone like Moshe’s. Now I doubt if 400 Philistine foreskins could produce the same effect. I can’t impress you like that anymore.”

Michal stood there and looked at him. She felt hopeless. David couldn’t understand that it was never about the foreskins.

David and Michal

Home Together


Veronica answered the door. A man without sleeves stood there. She felt her right eye twitch involuntarily. She saw a large truck parked on the street behind him. “We’re here to . . .” he said. Veronica cut him off. “It’s Wednesday,” she said. “You’re working on the bathroom floor.” The man appeared to be choosing his words. “It’s ah Thursday, but we are working on the bathroom floor.” Veronica nodded, ignored a flurry of twitches in her eye, observed another man standing with him who did have sleeves, and kept nodding and did not open the door any further.

Eventually, the men entered the house. They did not mention the cold pot of oatmeal on the floor in the hallway, but they did seem to stare at it for a while. Slowly, though, Veronica felt a realization break through the stress. She grew aware that her three homeschooled children became docile and obedient with the men in the house.

“Go get the oatmeal out of the hallway,” she said to Tim. He did.

“Put on pants,” she said to Sara. Sara was clothed and in her right mind at once.

“Stop playing that,” she said to Lindsey. Lindsey abandoned her careful study of one line of Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood in an unending loop, closed the lid over the piano keys, got her math book, and started working practice problems

By the time Veronica turned her attention to the other two, all three of her children were working math problems. They did not bicker. They cleaned the kitchen in less than an hour. They sat in the living room discussing relations between Israel and Palestine without shouting.

This period of bliss continued for one week, until the work in the bathroom was complete. Veronica noticed that the twitch in her right eye was gone. Her hair seemed to have regained its luster. She witnessed herself having the thought, “I can even.”

On Monday of the next week, however, the twitch came back in full force. At one point, when she burst out crying after restarting a history lesson for the fifth time in an hour, the children had the audacity to laugh at her tears. She went to her bedroom, turned the children over to Satan, and locked the door. She watched six consecutive episodes of Fixer-Upper on her phone, and then sat in silence for nearly an hour. At the end of this period of reflection, she had a plan.

On Thursday, she let the children sleep in until 8:00 AM. They started breakfast.

“Oh,” she said. She peeked through the curtain over the sink, out the window. “They’re here.”

“Who’s here?” Tim said.

“Some men, doing some work in the garage,” she said. “I’ll go let them in.”

She went out to the garage. The children stuck their spoons into the rice pudding and took bites, and listened to the sound of the garage door opening, and men’s voices trading sentences with their mother’s. Veronica came back into the house, and the sound of tools began in the garage.

“What are they doing out there?”Sara said.

“They’re men from the city,” Veronica said, almost cutting Sara off. “They have to work on a sewer main that runs underneath our house. Someone reported some problem down there this week. The only way to get to it is through the garage, I guess. Finish eating, clean up, and start your math.”

The effect of the workers took instant hold on the children. They finished all of their schoolwork before lunch, and spent the early afternoon conducting a forensic analysis of the apparent controlled demolition of building 7.

Later, Veronica sat on the couch, reading the novelization of the 2006 film Failure to Launch. The children sat with her, reading novelizations of other films. Tim looked over at Sara.

“Did you feed Svetlana?” he said. Svetlana was their cat. Veronica’s head snapped up from the book.

“I’ll do it,” said Lindsey. She stood and stretched.

Veronica jumped to her feet.

“I have to go for a run,” she said. “The alarm on my phone just reminded me. I’ll be back in a bit.” She jammed on her shoes and ran out the door. The three children sat on the couch, staring at each other. Lindsey shrugged and opened the door to the garage.

A sheet hung down from the rafters, bisecting the garage. A bright light shone against the sheet, clearly showing the silhouettes of four hard-hatted figures engaged in various tasks. Spray paint on the sheet said, “Dust Sheet—for controlling concrete dust”. The workers didn’t seem to notice Lindsey, but kept at their tasks with admirable consistency. One of them seemed to roam in a continuous circle around the others. Lindsey assumed that he must be the foreman. She got the cat-food down and poured some into Svetlana’s bowl. The other children watched the workers for a moment and returned to their reading. Lindsey came inside, shut the door, and picked up the novelization of My Dinner with Andre.

In the garage, Veronica let go of the ropes she’d been pulling to move the three mannequins. She could barely contain her joy. She turned off the train set, and the looping train came to rest right at her feet. A life-size cutout of Matthew McConaughey from the multiplex marketing for 2008’s Fool’s Gold—taped to a wooden dowel that stuck up from the top of the engine—smiled at her.

Moving the mannequins from the basement to the garage had been the hardest part. Since the beginning of their marriage, Chet had never understood why they might ever need three mannequins, but she’d had a gut feeling for the past 16 years that they’d come in handy. And she was right. She smiled back at McConaughey. She could have it all. She could do anything.

She stepped over the cord that ran from the stereo, still playing audio of men working, to the outlet on the wall. She said a prayer to Kevin McCallister, patron saint of people who own several mannequins and need to fool their enemies. She snuck out to the street, ran as fast as she could to the front door, and entered the house panting—time to make dinner for her enemies.

Home Together

Cakes Mingled with Oil

cakes“God is love,” Pastor Denton said. “And that goes double on Valentine’s Day.” The joke got almost no response. Denton had grown adept at moving on after failed jokes. But he thought the double on Valentine’s Day joke was at least as good as the thing about the new coffee pots he’d done a few weeks ago. And that one had gone over great. What the heck? though Denton. Was it not Valentine’s Day? He checked his phone with a deft motion. There—it was the 14th. What the everlasting heck?

Trudy Vinter, in the third row from the front, seated on the middle aisle, did not register the joke. She didn’t hear it. She couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d seen during coffee and donuts, right before the service. She’d wanted to chat a little with Damon, and then get to her seat to prepare her heart for worship. But she’d been disturbed the whole time. Was it actually four? she asked herself. Well, she thought, it could have been more. She only started paying attention when it became obvious that he kept going back.

It was definitely six, Stan Barclay thought. He ate six donuts. He couldn’t think of a reason for it. He tried to think of a reason why someone would do that. If you were really hungry, you might eat three, he thought. Like if you’d done a full workout before the first service, and hadn’t gotten breakfast, and then made it through the first service, and then seen the donuts and just not been able to help yourself, three would kind of make sense. Even four would still be comprehensible. Five was crazy, and then six was completely insane. But it was definitely six, Stan thought.

He’s trying to tell me something, Trisha Denton thought. He’s trying to make a point. I’ve been a little distant, haven’t I? she thought. He’s under stress with the sanctuary expansion. But what the heck? He ate six donuts in less than ten minutes. He still has some glaze in his beard, on his chin. What is going on? I could have made a bigger deal about the Whitman’s Sampler he gave me. But it seemed so basic and almost, whatever, perfunctory. But then for him to eat those donuts like that . . . Why? 

He was trying to intimidate me, thought Rob Wexley. He stood right next to me for all six. And he’s trying to let me know that he knows that I have no self-control. That’s why he was doing it, it was like, “This is you.” He knows. Ugh. How does he know?

We’re going to have to talk to him about it, clearly, thought James Pizzolatto. It’s a Matthew 18 situation. I’m going to have to get a couple of the other elders and we’ll talk to him. Six. Come on, Denton.

“So that’s ‘L’ and ‘O’,” said Pastor Denton. “Let’s move on. ‘V’ stands for ‘Viscous'”. He could feel them all drifting. Why weren’t they paying attention? He felt like he was bombing. His vision clouded for a moment. He was feeling surprisingly light-headed. Maybe, he thought, I should have had another donut.

Cakes Mingled with Oil