| Foyer| Dining Room| Living Room| Bedroom & Study| Di’s Lounge| Garden| Blog| Urgent

Ghost Stories

The Death of a Ghost:
A Work in Progress

Her death was not unexpected, but the weather was. A blustery wind sneaking in under the heat, bending the gums at their waists. She had been laying up in her little bedroom for several weeks, books piled all around her as if they were her family come to say good-bye—all kinds, all the sorts of books that had befriended her during her wayward life—a life of Robert Browning, a novel by a Turkish writer, an Australian detective story, a book about drawing with colored pencils, the story of Sydney’s dance halls and picture palaces, a four-generation history of a Vietnamese family, a journal of queer thinking. Glasses of water had to find their balance on these stacks, pills and tissues and thermometers slipped in the crevices between these edifices of Word. That was where she was going, she used to say—into the great black Word, not the word that was the beginning whatever that might have been long ago in some old man’s tyrannical mind, but maybe the Word in the middle of a dirty joke or in a garbled dream or best of all, a Word sung by Ethel Waters when she wasn’t allowed to be magnificent on a white stage—that was where she was going.

We didn’t think she missed her family, never having had a large one, and then having grown far from the one who survived; in a way, she lived without family or nation, the two anchors of Vietnamese life, she had told us one particularly difficult day. Unanchored, was how she saw herself, not devoid of loyalties but just not the usual kind—not to gods or kings or free enterprise which so often, she said, was neither free or particularly enterprising unless you call having old Harvard chums in high places acts of economic imagination.

In some ways our friend seemed most alive in her last days—she was preoccupied with shadows—and they carried a hefty weight. In fact, one night as we sat in her small living room sipping tea and rum, we overheard bits of her on-going conversation with one David Brooks, a New York columnist with a boyish grin, who must have been appearing nightly right above her bed, not on his wishes it would seem, because she would spend a good fifteen minutes reassuring him that his time in her bedroom would be short and he would soon return to his son, baseball and friends at West Point who could always make him feel good about war. How she conjured up this unlikely apparition, we had no idea—our friend was steadfastly closed to spiritual endeavors—just the smell of lavender or apricot-scented candles with messages of healing were enough to slam her door. She did enjoy delightful contradictions, and he in her bedroom, loaded as he was with phobias about the chattering classes, women going down on each other and “really radical people” at democratic demonstrations must have been a charming diversion from dying. That was our friend—conjuring up ghosts so she could see right through them.

Another visitor she entertained quite regularly, or thought she did, was Ethel Merman. “Ethel,” we heard her say one very hot morning, “you’re not even Jewish.” But what they really wanted to talk about was girdles, the old-fashioned kind that rubberized your whole body—that was the real secret of that voice, we heard our friend say—that never-ending O that brought down the fake stars in the Loews’ on Jerome Avenue was forced out of your mouth by body made into stone, one unbroken column of stone, flesh made stone—yep, that was me, said Ethel. Sometimes Ethel Merman made our friend cry—not in sadness but in longing for a sound. And then they would talk about women—their language growing fouler and fouler with each tit for tat. Our friend loved to regale us, between bouts of semi-consciousness, with the glory days of lesbian gossip—like the night Ethel almost bit off Tallulah’s nipple in a fit of drunken grand passion that ended up in the Bellevue emergency room—Ethel, we were told, swore like the sailor she was. It was at these times, when there’s no business like show business, much like the show business of war, was being touted in the sick room, that the little black dog with his impenetrable black eyes would throw his ruffed head back and howl like a foghorn, a small black beacon for wayward ships and dreams.

Our pal was not dying alone literally. We were there, a motley collection of old and new friends; librarians waiting to take back overdue books; old lovers and lovers of the old; the woman from down the street who had shared her collection of the Harmonics, delighting in the tuneful way Jews could sing a cappella before being shipped off to unknown destinations, and most of all, right outside her door sat that little black dog, day and night, sometimes licking our hands, sometimes snapping at our fingers—don’t worry she used to say, he never draws blood. And then of course no one dies alone really, billions of people are dying all at the same time all over our world, an endless stream passing from one dimension to another. Every day she lived she would wonder at those who had been standing on the wrong street corner in Baghdad—was there a right one, she wondered, outside the green zone, and why the green zone, green for grass or money or go ahead and was the rest the red zone, for blood, for stop now—, or in the wrong desert or in the wrong lonely street—accidents of fate some called it and she wondered how starvation or untreated disease or war or exiles from enough could be called accidents when so many seemed involved in making it all happen. She never accepted the belief that history was an accident—in fact one of her favorite sayings towards the end was a loud “That was no accident!” shouted with her old Bronx verve—it sounded a lot like "You’re OUT!" Her dying was no accident and so she was in the company of a multitude.

Besides, our friend always knew dying was part of life—she didn’t belong to a community of faith—our friend. And that was good because then we didn’t have to, either; and if we did, it never entered into the equation. Like Einstein said. When he wasn’t being the Jewish genius. In fact, our friend over the 65 years of her life had been dying for a long time. She never took a trip without calling one of us to say good-bye—and she didn’t mean a little good-bye—she meant the whole shebang. We all had stock phrases like: you will be home before you know it or they have doctors there too. Never wanting to bother us, she would leave her latest last will and testament tucked into her chest of drawers—she loved that phrase, how it conjured up breasts and cunt all in one image of storage—or under her pillow or between the pages of a precariously balanced book. We imagine once we close up her rented apartment, we will find endless goodbyes and notices of who gets what—not that there is a lot of what but there are books and, of course, that little dog. Maybe we could even say that, for our friend, dying was her life—and it involved a lot of living.

How do you say good-bye to a ghost in these days when so many apparitions are on the scene—but this one was special, she was our friend—maybe all ghosts have friends who think they are real, that blood flows in those shattered veins, that nights should bring pillows for tired heads and not concrete floors or armored vehicles that are never armored enough to keep out the piercing ambitions of the nations that count themselves among the righteous. Sorry to slip into diatribe—one of the dangers of our times—the rich baroque language of ghosts—but our friend used to say don’t worry about being over the top, they don’t allow it for very long anyway. She was a good bottom, she was—that woman lying in there, always had her best conversations looking up at the ceiling. We will have to decide among ourselves who bites more, the little dog or our friend’s books.

Ghost Stories: Previous Entries

21 August 2005On-Going Reflections about Grassroots Archiving
9 August 2005Dear friends, readers and Web explorers...
16 May 2005Aging in a Time of War

© 2005 Joan Nestle

It has been brought to my attention that because of my long silences, some concerned readers might think that “Ghost Stories” is about my death bed. I have been advised that, given the present climate about the need for clear literary categories, I should make clear I am still upright and making trouble in my own way. The irony of it all is that I have never felt so real as a writer as when I write my ghost stories. If you do read them, please let me know what you think. ~ Joan

The River Diaries (2001-2002) have moved to

Messages for Joan? Problems with this site?
Please contact the WebMs.