“Have I ever told you why I believe in spirits, son?”
“Are you talking about the haunted house in Iowa you and mom lived in?”
He laughed his breathy laugh, his eyes wrinkling at the edges showing his age, “I’ve told you about that house?”
“Yeah, the one with the noises coming from the basement that made your cat freak out every ten minutes? You’ve told me that story like ten times. It’s not proof that spirits exist, dad.”
“Yeah that house scared the shit out of me on a daily basis” he seemed offended by my snappy remark, “I’m talking about when I lived in Phoenix and worked at that warehouse.”
“No I haven’t heard that one” I slouched back in the lawn chair as I opened another beer. My dad has always mentioned ghosts and spirits ever since I can remember. As a kid visiting my grandmother’s house in rural Iowa, I was always scared that there were ghosts in the basement, which had dirt floors and limestone walls that sagged and crumbled. My dad always reassured me that he knew for a fact that grandma’s house wasn’t haunted because he knew every building in town that was. Walking around town he would point out the haunted buildings which included the Manning Hotel by the river. I trusted his word as absolute truth as kids tend to do in the presence of adults.
As a twenty-year-old college student, I felt like I knew more than him when it comes to the unexplained. My generation grew up learning that everything in our physical world is finite. Everything can be explained through science. Science is rational, superstition is not. We understand ourselves in terms of chemical and electrical impulses that bind us to our habits and control our every emotion. We don’t have control of our actions, we just think we do. I predicted this story to be one that would have scared me as a child, back when I was naive and impressionable.
“Like I said, I was living in Arizona and working for Sysco. It was 1990, so a year before you were born. My boss, Dave, another guy that I worked with, and their two girlfriends were on their way back from vacation. It was 11:55 pm and they had just made it back to town.”
“Hold on, why do you remember when your boss got into town?”
“Don’t worry about it; just listen to the story, okay?” He shook his head at me, palms facing the sky. I could tell he was slightly inebriated now after our four hours of casual drinking. His newly inebriated state showed his experience. There was a sense of urgency in his voice. I cracked my neck and readjusted my posture in the lawn chair, the sparse grass between my toes. Four hours of drinking effects my small frame a little more than my dad’s. The cracking of the fire was the only sound other than our voices. Twenty yards away I could see the creamy reflection of the moon off the lake, my neurotic dog lying on the dock having been sprayed by a skunk not two hours before.
“The men were sitting in the front of the car and their girlfriends were in the back. They were passing by the warehouse, which is right next to the interstate. The road they were on goes underneath the interstate as it passes the warehouse. As they were approaching the interstate, a drunk driver swerved off the overpass. His car broke through the guardrail”
His eyes widened and he was leaning forward, elbows on his knees. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and ran his hand through his thin, wispy hair, once jet black. The soft hum in my ears made itself evident as I leaned my head back to look at the sky, my head resting on the cold metal of the lawn chair’s frame. The stars in rural Michigan are much more beautiful than in Chicago. I had forgotten the disparity between light and dark in an un-light polluted sky. I leaned even farther back in the chair and looked at the lake house upside down, my eyes rolled as far up as they could go. I saw my mom suspended from the ceiling in a dated brown-green rocking chair, the kind that looks dreadfully itchy, reading a book by lamplight, the only light permeating the glass of the house. I assumed my brothers were watching television in the next room, something my mother had tried to quell all week. I looked back at my father
“So the guy’s car breaks through the guardrail of the overpass and starts falling, front bumper first, straight at Dave’s car.”
“Are you serious?”
“Unbelievable, I know! What are the odds a car falls on you from an overpass? So the falling car and Dave’s car meet at the same time and the front bumper of the falling car goes right through Dave’s windshield.”
“Holy shit! What are the odds of that?” I stared blankly through the dog, using him as a canvas for imaging the scene. I was actually intrigued now. I wondered what I would think at that moment; looking up through the windshield of my car to see another car falling from the sky. I probably wouldn’t have time to think anything. Instinct would tell me to swerve one way or the other before my brain could have a coherent thought.
“So Dave and the other guy in the front seat die instantly. They didn’t even know what hit ‘em. This happened right in front of the warehouse, mind you. Their girlfriends survived with bumps and bruises because the car landed perpendicular to theirs with the front bumper going through their windshield.”
“That’s insane! I think you have a better chance of winning the lottery than dying like that or surviving in the back seat.”
“Yeah but the story gets even weirder.” He opened another beer and caught his breath. I looked back at the house, nothing had changed. My dog trotted by the fire, aiming for the back deck. He trotted up the three wood steps and sat next to the glass door of the house. I knew my mom wasn’t going to let him in. Skunk smell can take weeks to extinguish. I looked back out over the water. I could see six other fires of similar size and strength burning in the distance. A retired swimmer, I wondered if I had it in me to swim across the lake. I stared at the fire and added another log. I wasn’t focusing on a specific aspect of the fire as I allowed my vision to blur. My dog whined in the distance as I dug my toes into the cool, sandy soil beneath the sparse grass. My ears hummed in absence of a distant highway. I got a strong whiff of skunk, or was it gasoline?
* * *
“I’m asleep in my bed, or I’m not sure if I was asleep. All night I had been having trouble sleeping. Your mom snores so bad sometimes, but this night it was my mind. I couldn’t shut it off. I kept thinking about work and what I had to do the next day and how long of a week I was going to have. That job was the most stressful job I’ve ever had. I kept track of the entire fleet of trucks by myself, and that was my only job. This was before cell phones and GPS, mind you. Anyway, so I’m finally falling asleep when I get the feeling that someone is standing at the foot of our bed. So my heart starts pounding and I get really sick to my stomach because someone is in the house and staring at us in the dark, their silhouette formed from the streetlamp outside.
“Lemme guess, you were dreaming?”
“That’s the weird thing! I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or just laying there with my eyes open. It was like I was in sleep paralysis, unable to move, yet knowing your surroundings.”
“And the figure starts speaking to me. He says ‘don’t forget about those reports tomorrow’. I realize the figure is Dave, my boss. Why in the world would Dave come inside our house? I know he’s there but I can’t move or speak to him.”
“I think I made my way out of the sleep paralysis and I was able to sit up to ask him why the hell he was in my house when he disappeared completely.”
“So I’m there in a pool of my own sweat, screaming at the top of my lungs because I thought Dave was standing next to my bed. Your mom wakes up and she’s going ‘what’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ and I tell her ‘Dave was just standing next to our bed telling me what mundane tasks I have to do for work tomorrow. She says ‘what the hell are you talking about, John? You were just having a nightmare or something.’ I go ‘No! He was standing next to our bed I swear to God! You mean to tell me you didn’t see or hear him?’ She goes, ‘No umm, I didn’t otherwise I would be reacting like you, now wouldn’t I? Just go back to sleep, John.’ There was no way in hell I was going back to sleep at this point. I was so freaked out by it all that I had to get up and walk around the house.”
“You’re making this up right, dad?”
“No! I swear on my life! This was either the most vivid dream of my entire life or Dave was actually standing next to my bed.” He chuckled as he exclaimed “no”. My dad half-chuckles when he’s excited or is telling me something that’s slightly unbelievable. His face gets red and the crow’s feet become more pronounced as his voice becomes more booming. This one was totally unbelievable to me. I looked to my left, thinking I heard an owl. Suddenly I felt more exposed than I had before, as if someone was hiding in the woods to my left waiting to jump out and scare the living shit out of me. A swift breeze started off the lake and I could see small waves germinate in the moonlight. I caught another stale whiff of skunk. I felt naked wearing a sweatshirt and shorts.
“So mom thought you were crazy?”
“I think she just wrote it off as my having a night terror.” He leaned closer to the fire, illuminating his face.
“So sleeping was not an option at this point. I stayed on my back for the rest of the night, tossing and turning. I think your mom woke up a few times to tell me to settle down. No position was comfortable because I couldn’t shut off my brain. The thought of how vivid Dave’s figure was next to my bed, the streetlight shining in on his face, made me want to call him.”
“Don’t tell me you called him in the middle of the night.”
“No, I didn’t call him.” He chuckled at the absurdity of my question. I realized how socially odd that would be for someone to call their boss late at night to ask him if he visited their bedroom.
“I got up around six to make a cup of coffee and just get out of my bedroom. So I’m sitting at the kitchen counter when the phone rings.”
“People actually used home phones back then?” I said sarcastically. He ignored the question.
“On the other end is the owner of the warehouse. He says, ‘John, I have some bad news for you’”
The lights were off in the house. The TV’s flash was extinguished. My dad sat one leg up on the arm of the chair, inebriation taking its toll. The fire was dying and I knew adding more fuel would be a mistake. Clouds had covered the illuminated skies, hiding what I was now sure was there.
“Why the hell did that dog chase after that skunk?” was all that was left.
“ ‘Dave died last night in a freak car accident with a drunk driver’. I say to him ‘Let me guess, it was at 11:55?’ and he says ‘yeah, actually it was’ and he paused ‘how did you know that? You’re the second person I’m calling and I just got off the phone with Mike not fifteen seconds ago.’ I just said , ‘It’s a long story.’”
“You’re definitely making this up, right?” I was cold again. I looked up at the night sky.
“I swear to God” he said chuckling at his own disbelief. “To this day I’ve never told the story to anyone. I feel like it’s just too crazy of a story to be telling everyone.”
“Yeah I guess. So, you saw his ghost as he was dying. That’s the only logical explanation”
“Exactly. His spirit was passing into wherever it goes after life. Right at the moment of impact he must have been looking at the warehouse and reminding himself that he needed to tell me something the next day.”
“Shit, I mean, I guess ghosts aren’t real until you have an experience like that.”
“And I know how real his presence was in that room.”
I looked back at the house. The dog was lying ten feet behind me, clearly defeated by my mom’s deliberate ignorance. My mom sat in the same position, only now I could clearly make out the multi-colored, catatonic flash of the television’s light on the picture frame adjacent to her. She had hated the idea that the house we rented had a TV in it. My family goes on vacation maybe once every five years, and she was convinced that this would be our final hurrah before I moved away for good and my brothers went off to college. She was assuming my brothers wanted to go to school. She was assuming I would move away.