by Caitlyn Ryan
I light up. Zippo snaps shut. I inhale deeply, the deepest, endlessly and lean back against the pipes and punched out plaster that separate the kitchen from the bathroom. Goddamn toilet looks like it was katana’d in half. Won’t stop running.
Beneath my bruising ass, the linoleum is tattered, toothy. Looks like someone was trying to dig it up with a plastic spoon or his fingernails. Shining shards of a designer lampshade mosaic the floor around me, seem to retain the glowing memory of the 60-watt that used to live inside them. I’m pretty sure I still have a few pieces of that memory lodged in my left ass cheek.
A sudden chunk of ceiling dislodges, catches on a few wiry hairs of drywall, swings overhead as though adrift in a sultry summer breeze. There is no breeze here. In every corner, broken inheritance. Dining room table sawed to splinters. Grandmother clock laid out like a baby’s coffin, stuffed with busted gears, pieces of pendulum. Phony-ass oil paintings made neo-dada with steak knives, pieces of that lampshade. We used the fake Monets as shields.
And then there were the collector plates. It would break your heart to know what we did to those plates.
Out of the china-powdery naval scenes that have sailed their last, a ghost ship graveyard on the kitchen floor, a slender, freckled, perfect hand fishes a busted coffee pot. The hand plugs the pot into a plaster-dusted Cuisinart. For as battle-torn and dystopic as the thing looks, the little red light miraculously comes on. The hand pulls back. The woman attached to it recedes into the nook of two adjoining countertops.
Filthy and gorgeous. She’s third-world, world-war filthy, and… And.
Through the silence, the sudden gurgle of the percolator, the broken everything – she grins.
I’m on Facebook again, because I’m always on Facebook when I’m not kicking the shit out of ghosts. Reading people’s status updates is the next most visceral thing you can do at 2:00 AM.
People on Facebook treat their virtual walls like toilet stall confessionals. They’ll tell you what they really like and what they really hate. They’ll tell you which celebrities they want to murder and which hole they took it in last night. They’ll post pictures of themselves holding lethal doses of alcohol and looking borderline euthanized, oddly sublime. They’ll pin up their broken hearts on this, the largest community board in the world, for everyone in their apartment complex to see. Everyone in their office. Local watering hole. Library, synagogue, high school. If you want to find out who Joe Mundanity really was before his sudden and unexpected death off the Aleutian coast, Facebook him, and then Google him for an encore. These days, the obituary is only where it begins.
Rob Romero breaks into utility sheds and steals weed whackers and kerosene. I know Rob from my days bagging groceries at Giant Eagle. He was the guy who used to crush your eggs and bread with pop cans and a big seedless watermelon. He’s the guy who still would be crushing your eggs and bread if they hadn’t fired him five years ago for stealing DVDs from the video department. Back when Giant Eagle still had a video department. Back when video departments were still the awkward, overpriced dinosaurs in the back of every grocery store. Before Netflix hit like a fucking comet.
Brian Nash stole his professor’s wife and, with her, half of his professor’s money. His professor’s car, house, and collection of taxidermied critters. (Squirrels, mostly, and things smaller than squirrels.) Brian’s wife is thirty-two years older than him. I actually think that part is kind of sweet. Brian’s professor has a double Ph.D. in Economics and Finance. I actually think that part is kind of funny. You would think that, in ten years of postgraduate education, someone would have warned the man against the riskiest of all investments: marriage.
Stacey Benedict thinks she “might be an alcoholic lolz and wouldnt that be some kind of irony……..????/?” Stacey Benedict likes punctuation. And laughing out loud. And obviously alcohol, despite the fact that Stacey Benedict doesn’t know the first thing about irony. Actively trying to become an alcoholic through years and years of consumption makes you a pathologically stupid person. Not ironic.
I’m such a fan of Facebook. I love every one of my Facebook friends. I have 159, and their lives are all fucked up. Their lives are post-postmodern. Their idea of funny is a marshmallow that screams when you roast it. A personified sponge that wears tube socks and suspenders.
Anyway, I fight ghosts. Wrestle ’em, spit on ’em, scream in their faces. Use my fists and teeth and big, black boot heels and sometimes a wrench to beat the absolute fuck out of them. And when I’m drenched in their blue, clammy blood and totally spent, satisfied that they’re not coming back, that they truly believe the pain I bring them just isn’t fucking worth it, that there are easier marks elsewhere in the goddamned world, I sit back hard on my ass and have a cigarette. I go mellow from the rush of endorphins, and I close my eyes and feel my skin begin to purple and swell. I close my eyes and roll my head back, Lucky hanging from my lips, toasted menthol, cold like aerosol as it slides down my throat. The perfect victory. The perfect moment. Like fucking steak and fucking pussy.
I used to be a poet. Not a great one, but I had a few things to say. And I said them in a way that would stick.
There’s poetry in kicking a ghost’s ass. There’s poetry in most things, but there’s a little bit extra in beating the shit out of something intangible. I’m such a fan of my job. I love kicking the shit out of ghosts. And people love watching me kick the shit out of ghosts. They love it so much that someone even made me a fan page – on Facebook.
I have 569 Facebook fans. 569 people have either watched me or watched video of me biting the ears off ghosts. Ramming my entire forearm down some dripping specter’s throat. Using staplers and Barbies, umbrellas and tridents, feather boas like a strangler’s cord.
I’m a picky man when it comes to Facebook friends. I treat each friend request like an application to an exclusive club. In order to get in, your life has to be more fucked up than mine.
Anthony Gianna just had his third illegitimate kid. His third kid by his third girlfriend in half as many years. While he was having said kid with girlfriend number three, girlfriend number four was having her second abortion. Both his. Both, probably, would have been good-looking. Anthony is good-looking. Probably better looking than someone with his loose moral outlook deserves, but I’m not here to judge.
Anyway, Anthony’s doing great. And his new baby is just fine. He’s well on his way to becoming one of Pound’s “unkillable infants.” I’m sure, at three weeks old and nearly fifteen pounds, he’s looking forward to the challenge.
I’m such a fan of Anthony. And he’s a fan of me. Of Riley the Ghost Wrangler. He’s one of the 569. 569 people think of me as the cowboy of the ghost extermination business. As though I somehow corral these bad boys when they wander off the pasture and into your crawl space, refrigerator, little girl’s closet.
I let them believe it because I’m not one of my fan page’s administrators. How’s that for some shit? I didn’t start my fan page, so it doesn’t belong to me. I can’t edit it. If I could, I’d probably have fewer fans. And I’d definitely change “wrangler” to “fighter,” alliteration be damned. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of alliteration, I really am. But not when it makes me sound like a charter member of the Mickey Mouse Ghost-Bustin’ Club. Or when it makes me sound like I’ve got a fantastically ironic sense of humor. A post-postmodern sense of humor.
I will never be the guy roasting screaming marshmallows.
My newest Facebook friend request is from a girl I knew in third grade. Little Carrie West.
Carrie was a teakettle with a mini-megaphone soldered to her spout. She didn’t speak; she proclaimed. She had a lot to say, and when she said it, she always came across like the loudest, drunkest guy in the bar building to a punch line. Only Carrie was sharper than that. And she didn’t have a mean streak, like the drunkest guy usually does.
Carrie was a hayseed, saw the world through a shield of glass wrapped around the dashboard of her life. A dashboard she sat safely behind, plowing through creation, watching things go splat.
Of course that, all of that, wasn’t quite enough to convince me to accept Carrie’s friend request. I hadn’t seen her since we were eight years old, but the Carrie I knew wasn’t more fucked up than me. She was just your typical, run-of-the-mill, fearless kamikaze type.
When I see her friend request, I see what she would look like as my friend. The brightly colored thumbnail that hosts her familiar smile, those enormous ready-to-mix-it-up eyes.
It’s always a strange experience, stumbling upon a face you haven’t seen in years, especially when those years bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. It always feels like watching one of your childhood friends crawl inside a cardboard box labeled, “Mortality Machine.” Crawl inside with the dial set to twenty-three, and crawl back out with tits and fine lines and a worthless degree. A shit job. Something verging on a drinking problem.
In Carrie’s case, it feels a little like that. But it feels a lot more like she had stuffed a lit M-80 in her mouth. Stuffed it in and clamped down hard and said through a smile, through gritted teeth, “Watch this, guys,” and BAM! And what came through the smoke, the ash and debris, the chunks of childhood blown from her tiny, tiny frame was virility. Sex appeal. A gorgeous young woman with the same childhood charm, the same smile, the same fire, the same belief in her eyes that she could still light a fire, and get away with it, that was there a moment before, when she was eight, and the world was an oyster, and she was a crowbar.
Don’t laugh. That’s what her thumbnail shows me.
Little Carrie West.
The message that came with her friend request sounded so promising: RILEY! I haven’t seen you since the day I threw your ass in the mud and arm-wrestled you and won. How the hell you been, playa? How’s the last million years treated ya? I’d like to say I wrote right back, but I didn’t. Like I said, I’m careful about these things. Anal. She has to be the exactly right kind of fucked up to make the grade. The more-than-me kind.
I learn her photos. The better part of her photos. Carrie West has 794 pictures of herself spread out over thirty-two albums. Pictures of her graduating from some faraway high school that looked exactly like my old high school. Exactly like it, right down to the industrial grays, the half-assed patterns in the linoleum floors. The asexual-looking faculty. Exactly like it, except that it wasn’t, which means that it smelled funny. Like someone else’s house. A used car or a thrice-loved book. Goodwill furniture. A suit jacket from the 1970s.
I hold down my right arrow key, and I watch a shutterbug slideshow of three plus years of her life. I watch her braces come off, her boobs come in, her hair curl suddenly and darken, and then fade and straighten slowly until the day that ten inches dramatically disappear.
I watch her arms and stomach and jaw line and neck become sharper, more sinewy. I watch her smile mature, mean more somehow, as the days stretch into years. After a covert op to Idora Park and its arson-scarred earth, I see Carrie run a marathon. Pink top and the number six on her back. Muscles of a thoroughbred in every centimeter of her body, rippling. A smile as fresh as a goddamn breeze. Her tenth mile, and she isn’t even winded.
This girl could hurt me. This young woman.
Carrie in the woods. Carrie at Cedar Point. Carrie wearing fishing waders and somehow pulling it off. Carrie line-dancing on a curb. Carrie with her chinchilla. Carrie at McDonald’s, a McFlurry in her hand and that All-American smile… Carrie.
Two hours later I have a private message waiting in my inbox. It’s from Carrie. Apparently, she had spent some time on my info page, too.
I just inherited my granddad’s old foursquare, and the bastard won’t leave. (At least, I think it’s the bastard that won’t leave.) SOMETHING won’t leave. And I’ve asked it nicely, and I’ve asked it meanly, and I’ve even left out a bowl of Cheerios as a peace offering – and fuck’s sake, Riley! A girl needs to sleep at night. You know, without the g-damn Bavarian collector plates rattling on the g-damn Bavarian collector shelves. (At least, I think the shelves are Bavarian.) Arrghh! It’s so frustrating, inheriting ghosts and plates and ancient wicker furniture and closets that smell like thousand-year-old mothballs…
Would you mind coming over and exorcising the shit out of this place? Or jumping my ghost – or whatever it is that you do? I am a poor college student, so I have no money to offer you. But I’ll be your buddy. And I’ll let you buy me a taco sometime.
Btdub, I am SO not joking about this. I need a ghost wrangler. And I need it to be you.
I take the job. I instantly take the job. Before I’m even done reading the third line, before I even give a thought to compensation, I’m on it; it’s mine. And it has nothing to do with how cute I think Carrie is. And it has less than nothing to do with how intensely Carrie’s hugely blue, bluer-than-Toni-Morrison’s bluest eyes pout at me from the screen. Pout and plead, as if to say, “Help me, Riley Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
It has less than less than nothing to do with any of that shit.
My decision to take the job, and do it pro bono just so we’re clear, has less than less than absolutely nothing on God’s green Earth to do with my penis.
I do it because of the chink in her armor. That which makes her imperfect. The humor wrapped like a pulsing artery around the very thing that makes her human. The truth that she’s ashamed of.
Carrie West is afraid of evil spirits.
I broke my first dead nose two weeks after washing out of grad school. Two weeks after YSU said sayonara to me forever, I was strung out as fuck on… everything? I was determined to turn my brain into the little pressure-cooker that could. Could steam up
nice and hot and
like a dinner plate.
A dinosaur egg
in a lava bed of primordial
I don’t know. I sucked at poetry, remember? I washed out like a something washes out of something else, something brilliant and poignant and glorious, to tie this, the best simile of all time, together.
During the washing-out process, I did a lot of acid. A shit-ton, by some people’s standards. “Some people” being the experts.
I was trying to kill my brain. I remember that. I was trying to get a permanent room in Belmont Pines. A really nice one, with three squares, a comfy, restraint-strapped hospital bed, and a view of the parking lot.
I was ready for Alzheimer’s minus the mood swings. I wanted to lead a mellower existence.
So I did a cube hit of acid.
I did a cube hit, and I sat on my couch for three straight days and three nights, watching my entire life story on television.
That old rumor, the one about “Seven Hit Wonders”? It’s total bullshit. Just so you know.
One hit can send you right back to the college sidewalk, where you’ll spend the rest of your days yelling at mailboxes, eating cigarette butts. A cube hit of acid is a stack of hits, each hit a single stamp. It takes thirty stamps to literally make a cube, hence the vernacular, “cube hit.”
There were over thirty-five stamps in mine.
A quick Facebook search for “Riley the Ghost Wrangler” will land you on a page with a wall full of graffiti written in Lucida Grande. On this page, people spray-paint-scribe and carve with their QWERTYs. They make me “feel the love” with their profanity and Peter Pan optimism, their lawless grammar.
They say things like, “good shite man. i seen u stomp the ghost of dutton alley that fcker was ruinin our parties 4 yrs.” Someone wrote that yesterday. I stomped that ghost last June in front of thirty people whose favorite word was “WOO!”
Sometimes, people ask me questions. They ask me things like, “hey do u listen to music while u wrang? and what kind of music do you listen to? and do u kno that your the bomb diggity?”
I hum sometimes while I wrang. Wrangle. Fight.
I sometimes start singing if the fight is going really well. Weezer’s “Sweater Song.” “Any Man of Mine,” Shania Twain. “Hello Tomorrow” – that creepy, midnight Tinker Bell piece Karen O. did with Squeak E. Clean. Or, you know, anything by Talking Heads. Or The Smashing Pumpkins.
Under the Info tab, you’ll find out all about yours truly. My likes, dislikes, preferred Victorian-Era quotes. Which fights are my favorites. Which Beatle I’d be. I didn’t provide any of this information, and none of it is correct. But like I afore-way-back-mentioned, I’m not an administrator, which means I can’t edit my page. Which is a real shame, because I hate the fucking Beatles, and my favorite quotes sure as hell aren’t from the Bronte sisters. And as for my favorite fights? Well, for that modest highlight reel, check out the Video tab. I think you’ll find my best work to be exceedingly visceral. Evocative. Popcorn-and-lawn-chair worthy.
There’s the two-minute clip of the ghost I dropped from the Mr. Peanut Bridge downtown. The fight started a block up in the Rust Belt parking lot. Coke Oven Stout and Blast Furnace Blond are delectables for both the palate and potbelly. So you can imagine how, when I got the invite to come out and exorcize the bastard ghoul that was fucking up the fermentation tanks, I accepted and accepted and accepted.
There’s the one of the little living dead girl at the Renner mansion. She was a brute. Fucking kid bit and kicked and called me Kindergarten curse words, which is to say she called me “doody head” and “poop face” and “jerkwad.” I don’t think any of those names would have cut me, if she wasn’t so good at making me bleed.
Then there’s the accountant in front of the Wick Building. Note how he’s not wearing any shoes. That’s because he took them off before he jumped from the roof. He took off his glasses, too, but I don’t think that had anything to do with how much of a mile he missed me by every time he threw a punch.
And then there’s Big Al Lucci. Before any of the others, there was Big Al. Watch this one when you get a chance. Al’s was the first dead nose I ever broke. It was in the old Republic Steel building. The place was pitch, filthy. Sabres of dusty
from the ceiling
through the crawling
midnight of the abandoned…
This one was filmed by some bum with an iPhone. Hearing his wretched, cackley, homeless laughter is the first thing I remember after taking that cube hit, after watching my entire life story on television.
I asked him what he was doing.
“Uploading to Facebook,” he said.
Btdub, I am SO not joking about this. I need a ghost wrangler. And I need it to be you.
She needs it to be me. She said so.
And so, to her I shall say…
I don’t know why they kicked me out of poetry school. I haven’t the fucking foggiest. I am the king of brevity, the queen of witticisms. I am the anti-Prufrock.
“Carrie!” She greets me like a sexy, young, fertile thing. I greet her like a man with dust in his soul. An old, dusty-souled centenarian trying hard for young. Ish. Youngish. Trying hard for maybe half his age.
Carrie West. With her big, bright, fresh-catch smile, her bigger, brighter, blue-on-a-cool-gray-morning eyes, her effortless, morphine appeal.
She bounds through the open door (opens on her like a grin), and she leaps from the landing, leaps from her porch entirely, and catches me around the back of the head with both arms and – relief? Goofy joy? The kind of things only the French have names for.
Either way. Whichever way. However, whyever. Irre-frickin’-gardless. My nose and eyes are bear-hugged into her straining neck; my mouth and cheek mash against her clavicle.
Her chin digs into the top of my head. She’s giving me chin noogies. “It’s so good to see you, Riles!” I imagine her eyes are shut tightly. That she’s smiling ferociously as she says this.
“It’s,” I try to say, “so good to see you, too, Carrie.” Mostly, my words come out slobbery, gasping. I’d like to say I feel self-conscious about slobbing up her collarbones, but I don’t.
Carrie gasps. She gasps like a bird just shat on her head. “Are you here to murder my ghost?” Her chin tips forward, digs in sharper. I imagine her straining to look down her nose at me. I smile into her trachea, but not because I want to have sex with it. I smile because I can’t imagine Carrie West ever looking down her nose at anyone.
She leans back in my arms like music, and I realize I’m still standing in front of her recently-inherited stoop, her legs wrapped around my waist, a thigh in each hand. She looks down at me and says with eyes that are dinner plates as big as the moon, “Or do you wanna take me out for that taco first?”
I laugh. I laugh with my whole face. I feel the skin around my eyes fold like new skin. I feel my cheeks and temples tomato. I feel something sugary, thick flush out my cankerous heart valves. I think of maple syrup and Mill Creek Park.
“Let’s murder something first,” I say reassuringly. “And then we’ll see about that taco.”
“Come in, come in!” Carrie West says. She takes my hand. It feels like tiramisu tastes.
She gently pulls. I gently let her. “I want you to see my humble abode,” she says.
“It looks,” I say, “laminated.” And it does. Plastic wrap covers the couches and chairs. Glass cabinets showcase several hundred thousand collector plates. I’m not sure if they’re Bavarian. Probably they are.
“Makes it easier to wipe off the love juice,” she says.
A sudden shadow, belonging to nothing, streaks like a giant devil across the ceiling. Two shelves convulse to crescendo. Thirteen or maybe three hundred plates begin to chink and glint and twist and shout. The Tiffany lampshade swings like we’re on the Titanic, scrubbing the walls and floor with rich reds and greens, dragonfly blues, Cheers mahogany.
“Dude doesn’t waste any time, does he?” I actually formatted this interrogative on my way here tonight. I practiced saying it nonchalantly in the car. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror a lot while I was driving. Probably too much I looked. I wanted to sound so cool, asking it.
I sort of sound like Kermit the Frog. Carrie doesn’t seem to notice. She says, “Jesus H. Christofferson, Riley! This is what it’s like all the time. I can’t even say the words ‘love’ and ‘juice’ in the same sentence without somebody moaning about it. Or shaking some plates. Or making me think the place is going to spontaneously explode into flames. But it never does explode, Riley! My super lame ghoster just smacks the stupid flue around and gives me some shit.”
“Um,” I say, “Carrie? The walls are bleeding.”
“Oh, are they? That’s cool,” she says.
“Well, I mean, that one’s starting to bleed, I think. Yeah. Yeah, take a look,” I say and begin to move in. I don’t want to freak her out, but whoever, whatever, is bunking up with her, it isn’t tiny, young, or happy.
“Yeah. Wow,” she says from behind me, her chin suddenly perched on my shoulder. “Ain’t that some shit? I mean, walls with veins in them. You only see stuff like that once in a while, right?”
“Once in a while,” I say. “Give or take, but probably give.”
I feel Carrie’s eyes cock up at the side of my head. “My grampy left me some pretty sweet digs, huh?”
“The sweetest,” I say. I make a fist of my left hand.
Index, middle, and ring go snapcracklepop.
I think about calcified wood. I think about Rice Krispies.
I think, There’s a poem in there somewhere, I suppose.