The night sky is full of ghosts. Altarf, the orange giant anchoring the left claw of the constellation Cancer, was dead by the night I was born. Didn’t stop it from shining, though.
My Pictish ancestors followed it to Alba. It drew the first Hawaiians out of the Marquesas. Altarf shone down on the dinosaurs in my gas tank. Probably already dead even way back then.
Two years after he shot himself, my high school buddy Mike came by. Looked just like the Mike that I saw every day. I was too startled to wonder why he didn’t glow. Seeing him at all was a miracle. I said, where’d you go?
It’s not a bad place, he said, not a bad place at all. And he left.
I kept that a secret. I knew better than to talk. The year before, I got cleat-stomped – both legs, right hand, lower back – after telling other guys on the football team that I believed in ghosts.
Recently, I watched a 60 Minutes segment where several fighter pilots described verifiable near-daily UFO encounters over several years. Nerves-of-steel warriors, sober as glaciers, describing things that only show up in science fiction films and biblical hallucinations. Guys with medals and epaulets saying, yeah, I know it sounds crazy but followed by a dry chuckle.
Good, I thought. We finally got here.
I didn’t set out to write a ghost story, but ghosts are so damn ubiquitous, it’s hard not to write about them.
Which reminds me: Got a text from Roger, lifelong buddy from Lahaina. Got some news from the doc, it said. The Rog Farewell Tour has begun. Sorry to make light of that but fuck it. Smile emoji. Shaka shaka. Heart heart heart.
I replied: Got a flight. Be there Saturday. Aloha.
I’m sorry. I have a lot of dead friends. Four or so in the past few months. Over fifteen if we go back five years; seventeen if you throw in my parents. I’ll try to keep them all straight, but sometimes they just won’t hold still.
My parents would not hold still. They relocated constantly. I had been in eleven schools by the time I was in seventh grade. No reason given. Really pissed me off. They kept moving even after all us kids were gone. When they died, I figured it was my chance to show them what’s what. I put their cremains on a shelf above my writing desk. I vowed they’d stay there for eternity.
Turns out dead parents make shitty roommates. I wound up fighting with them almost daily. Not as ghosts, out here in the world where I could smudge them. In my head. They somehow found a niche in my cranium that mantras couldn’t reach. I finally trucked them down to the post office and shipped them back to the spot where they met, a picturesque chapel in rural Michigan. I wrote a note to the rector that said they’re yours now. I slept like a rock that night.
There’s a stunt that Rog and I would pull back in the 90s, back before cell phones. It worked like this: You call your buddy at work and say, Whattaya doing? When he starts in on what a shit day he’s got, cut him off by saying, Shirk it!
That’s the trigger. He is honor bound to exit the office immediately and join you for tequila shots at a predetermined location. As a Dark Agent of a Shirk Party Sleeper Cell, he can’t resist. It’s in his DNA. Then, fortified by alcohol, he’ll have to call in to work, slurring and blurping an excuse for his absence. Repeat until a quorum of dastards and scalawags is reached.
Once when Rog called me and said, Whattaya doing, I said, Suffering through a shitty marriage. He told me to shirk it, so I did.
I imagined what I’d say when I saw Rog in Lahaina. I’d ask him who was doing a better job of shirking. Was it me for shirking my work obligations and flying halfway around the world just to kipe his top shelf pain meds, or was it him for essentially shirking work forever?
My friend New York Danny is not dead. Before I left, I said to him Hey, could you please not die while I’m on Roger’s farewell tour. He said, Why would you say something so morbid, fuckass? I’m gonna outlive you, raise you from the dead, and kill you again. You’ll see.
If to see at all is a miracle, then to be in a universe that never is — and always was — but never dies — is a miracle. Miracle enough to make New York Danny’s revenge scenario plausible, anyway.
I’ve asked New York Danny at half a hundred times to define “fuckass”. He always says, You’re the fuckass, you tell me.
Aah, so it’s eponymous, I say. He says, Whatever, fuckass. Drink your beer.
The Hawaiian phrase e kanawai moaka’aka has no direct English translation. If you dial it into Google Translate, it comes out literally let the law be clear, but the spirit of it translates as the universe smiles on you. That’s the translation I understand, the one I see in the night sky, the one in Mike’s promise of not a bad place.
When I reach my stopover on Oahu, I get a text from Roger’s number. It’s Michelle. They got married just three days ago. Roger passed away at 12:30 this morning, it says. He adored you and spoke very highly of you. You really made a difference in his life.
Once Rog and I were supposed to get together to see a 7PM show. He showed up a 12:30AM. I had to drop off a casserole, he said.
He was always late like that. Not this time, though.
I get a text from New York Danny. It says, You cursed me, fuckass. I got esophageal cancer.
I return to the mainland on a Tuesday. I pick up New York Danny to take him to his chemo appointment. His esophagus now lives in a bag on his chest. He’ll be like that until after Thanksgiving.
I expect him to be slow and withered, but he glows like a quartz crystal plumed in hippie regalia. With a laugh he says, Good to see you, fuckass. I ask how he’s doing. I’m stardust, baby. He smiles. I am fucking golden.
And it’s true. He’s immortal. He’s a child of God. He is the ghost riding shotgun in a Subaru. He is fossilized light.
Altarf is Arabic for the end.
Thaddeus Gunn’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Brevity, SmokeLong Quarterly, the 2016 Puschart Prize Anthology, Best Microfiction 2020, and elsewhere.