When the Trinity River Lumber Mill burned down I had reached a new summit in my romantic life. The view was painfully obvious: My attraction to older, unavailable women was not a good strategy. Crushing on women with crow’s feet who walk away from me shortly after I engage them in conversation and being smitten by ladies who show signs of graying and of being in a committed relationship was leaving me lonely. I plunged a flag into my newly crested epiphany: Life is short. Go after what you want, stop staring at it and wishing it would talk to you. Go! Go! Go!
But the only place I went was Weaverville, California, home of Trinity River Lumber Mill. Husked in flannel, capped with a hard hat, I sat with similarly clad millwrights who helped me sort bushings into A, B, and Q hubs. I didn’t learn to overcome my fears and walk up to available women in bars, slosh some bourbon on them and say “Nice pants.” I learned to tell the difference between 120, 140, and 78 chain and that Nipples look nothing like nipples.
When I heard that the fire was estimated to cause over ten million dollars worth of damage, I booked a room at a local B & B for the entire month. The bonhomie was a nice counterpart to spending my days untangling every last coupler, every last anything that looked like something, from a Mobius strip of electrical wiring and pulley chain. I could lounge in the parlor on a Victorian medallion-back sofa and flop my hand into one of several nearby bowls of bon bons, pop two into my mouth at once. Things were fine—boringly fine—until Nicole, the owner of the inn, softly rapped her knuckles on the entryway and informed me that I was sharing the sofa with a ghost, and that’s why the cat had been acting so strange.
“Do you see it?” I asked.
“No, I can’t see them,” she said looking all around the room. “But Bob does. He told me this morning that our place has ghosts. Then he pointed in here and said she was on the couch with you.”
That’s when Bob, her boyfriend, slunk in, wearing some kind of duster. Bob was cute in an Alan Jackson sort of way, and I wanted to like him. But he lacked boundaries. Every evening he’d sit across from me in the parlor and watch me type. I’d hear him uncross and re-cross his legs. If I glanced up, he’d start talking about the rodeo, and gawl, how he missed ridin’ bulls. When Bob was ignored for long stretches of time, he’d make a noisy ordeal out of leaving but not without stopping in front of me and pulling out his last card—even if it was “Did you know I have a special power?”
Yesterday, I learned that Bob’s special power was guessing the gender of unborn things (his cousin, his nephew, Nicole’s baby colt). Now, where I saw empty chairs and throw pillows, he claimed to see the souls of people who were not of this world.
Bob explained that there were three other ghosts that hung out in the parlor, a young couple and an older fellow named James who once threw a pen at him. He said the girl, She, was a middle-aged woman, probably from the 1800s. Then he added that she liked to watch me work. I tried to shoot Bob a look that said Bullshit. It’s you who likes to watch me work, but he told me to come see Princess.
Princess is Bob’s orange cat, and it was true, she was acting strange. She hadn’t joined me in the parlor like usual for the past few mornings, and now she was wedged between an Apple computer monitor and the kitchen wall.
I don’t believe in ghosts. I chalk sightings of them up to gas leaks, tricks of light, the electromagnetic field, or a dire need for attention. I was once hired to inventory the famous haunted Mt. Lassen Hotel after it caught fire, and I became a temporary hero for being the only person who would go into “the murder room,” and record what had been left untouched since a man was brutally stabbed 40 times two decades ago. I was supposed to have felt a cold draft, sensed someone watching me, heard something go bang, gotten pushed. Of course, the scariest thing that happened was that I forgot to turn my Dictaphone on and had to start over after fifteen minutes of talking to myself.
But, when I looked at Princess and saw her hair bristling as her dilated pupils slowly tracked the movements of something behind us, I got scared. Bob may be full of shit, but Princess was the only living thing in the house that didn’t need to see something that wasn’t there to make life more interesting—and the cat was seeing something.
For nearly five minutes, the three of us huddled around that cat. I hadn’t told Nicole anything personal, and I would never tell Bob anything personal. Yet, somehow, right then, they could not misunderstand me, or me them. Like an earthquake brings you close to strangers, the “ghost” in the parlor made my world fall down around me a little, just enough to make me feel like hugging them. Nicole’s long silvery hair was pulled over her left breast and some of Bob’s salt and peppered chest hair poked out where he’d buttoned his flannel; he was older than I thought. It was the sweetest thing about him. I almost touched them both. Then, Nicole said, “Well, I’ve got to go to Costco.”
They asked if I was okay alone because Bob had to go mend a fence. I said sure and something about not really believing in ghosts anyway. But I was beginning to think I was not okay alone; that despite my many smug pronouncements, I’d never been okay alone—that life was one long trick of deceiving yourself, figuring yourself out, then deceiving yourself better. On that note, I summoned the courage to go to the parlor and stare at the couch.
I tried to look through it, like the couch was one of those 3D stereogram images and some transparent middle-aged woman giving me a lustful look would flow forth from the cushion pattern. Nothing manifested, but across the room, Nicole’s dried grass and flower bunch moved ever so slightly. The baseboard heater? A ghost from the 1800s who liked me? I had an incredible urge to go gussy up.
In the shower I became slightly afraid of the other three disembodied souls. Who had this James guy been? Maybe the kind of guy who always wished he could slip through walls to see naked girls showering. Perhaps the young married couple spiced up their afterlife by writing things on steamed-up mirrors, like “We’re here” or “Boo-yah!” I had locked the door, which was kind of quaint. But, it made me feel safer, able to really do a good job washing my hair and then blow-drying it with a big round brush so it had volume and curl. I put my makeup on slow and careful so I looked like I wasn’t wearing any. Except for lipstick. I put that on red. Then I walked down the stairs feeling sexy, and decided the woman waiting for me in the parlor looked just like Catherine Keener. An ectoplasmic Catherine Keener in some kind of 19th century dress.
The parlor was still empty, but entering it felt thick and warm and scary like walking into a blind date. I sat myself down on the middle of the rug so as not to be too forward and accidentally sit on her. I could feel the air in the room moving around, even through the hairs on my bare arms. I was aware of everything. I grabbed a book off the coffee table called Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die and pretended to read.
About two minutes had passed when something gently covered my hand. It felt like a warm electric blanket if you could feel the electric part. I had been leaning most of my weight on that hand, which could explain the weird sensation, but maybe this is my problem—I never let anyone close, I always explain them away. So, I raised an eyebrow and looked over my shoulder. I saw my hand on an oriental rug. As I stared at it, the florid patterns seem to rise up and float in the air. This could be my astigmatism, or it could be my chance to believe a ghost had taken my hand, a ghost who looked like Catherine Keener.
I leaned into her a little, and She didn’t do anything haunting like make me feel alone after I already believed in her, and I didn’t do anything heartbreaking like act like she didn’t exist when we were in the same room. I closed my eyes and felt myself fall further into a warmth, and it was exactly like falling into the dress of a beautiful woman, all the way to the buttons. The warmth was real. It was maybe really happening; her arms wrapping around my waist, her breasts against my back, her face nuzzling into my neck so our cheeks were about to graze, her thick splendid dark hair about to slide over my shoulder.
Then there was a hollow knock. I opened my eyes and She was gone, but on the porch there was a soul still trapped inside a body and it was carrying some sort of jug.
“Pear wine?” Bob asked as I let him in. I told him no, and then no again when he winked and asked if anyone had bothered me while he was gone. It was just too humbling to maybe have something in common with Bob. Or to be trying to. But, I tried again that night. It was my last chance as Nicole was closing the inn for a month, and I had to book a room at the Motel 8 where there would be no creaks, no framed black and white photos of grainy faces long departed. I would probably just come back from the mill, toss my dirty clothes in a corner, order a small pizza and sit on the bed winking at girls on match.com. Then those girls would write some unforgivable thing back like, “What up gurl?” or “LOL!” Or, maybe they’d just write back too soon, and it’d be over for me. I deserved someone who wasn’t so easy, someone who took her sweet time revealing herself to me.
I opened my bedroom door a crack, changed into sexy underwear, put on tinted lip balm, and got into bed and waited. Maybe I’d fall asleep and slowly awaken to her weight on the mattress and then her weight rolling on top of me, cloaking me in a careful and sweet way. I would be scared, but I would not be afraid of intimacy and ask, “Who are you and what do you want with me?” I would say nothing and just lie there unable to move.
In the morning, I awoke with no sign my life had changed. If I wanted to, I could argue that I didn’t remember putting the pillow exactly where it was, but that wasn’t nearly as exciting as what Bob had discovered. As I stood in the kitchen, waiting for Nicole to get my bill, he pointed to the laundry room door and told me all about the squeak he heard at 5 a.m., how the doorknob slowly turned and an old, old woman carrying a laundry basket came out, didn’t acknowledge him, and vanished into the dining room.
I stared at the brass doorknob and thought about the tedious mountain of metal I had to inventory at the mill. Part of me was jealous of Bob. I wished that I could hear a squeak and believe humans can transcend their earthly existence. But I could feel that I was going back to being myself: someone who doesn’t believe in making bigger mysteries to solve smaller ones. I knew that at some point, perhaps under the popcorn ceiling of that night’s Motel 8, I would have to admit that the simplest explanation for my brief, unrequited romance wasn’t that She exists, and I had fallen into her arms, but that I had found yet another way to start falling for someone who wasn’t really there. I mean, who is more unavailable than a ghost from the last century who you only sort of convinced yourself you felt and don’t really believe in? No one. Not even Catherine Keener.
I resolved to call the US Geological survey when I got home to see if there was any seismic activity in the area that only cats can feel. I would research whether it’s possible some mechanical unit produces a sound that wigs out felines but is inaudible to humans. I would consider the possibility of finding older, available women attractive.
I hugged Nicole goodbye and gave Bob a couple quick pats on the shoulder. Then I put on lipstick and took the long way to my car, past the parlor, so I could imagine, just once more, that someone who wasn’t a possibility might rise up from the couch, think I’m beautiful, then float away from me.