Memoir of a Ghost
A century ago, at Central High, I studied the Greek classics. Foolish boy that I was then, I found the lecherous gods and lying humans boring and unbelievable. But time and death have changed me: At last, I truly understand Cassandra. Day after day, I try to tell the reporters the truths I know, but they neither hear nor see me. At most, I might be able to move the AP stylebook on their desks, or send a paper clip flying, but otherwise I can do nothing. People joke about the ghost in the newsroom, but it’s no joke to me.
And, then, I am not always in the newsroom. Sometimes I find myself dropping from the sky into the city. Layers of skyscape unfurl as I fall through them. First, the sheets of bright glass and steel hurtle by, giving way to the grimy brick of the old city, followed by rotting wood and beneath it native dirt — and then what’s under the dirt. Fact: It isn’t just Wissahickon schist down there.
Inevitably, I arrive in late afternoon. The light is brutally clear, like the light you see in Edward Hopper’s paintings. Despair in sharp relief. Even when people are together in Hopper’s paintings, they are always alone. Clearly isolated. And so are the people I see, the ones that I am drawn to. No detail is so minute that I cannot see it. Every pockmark on every brick stands out, precise as a pointillist’s dots. Every shard of glass on the playground sparkles like a jewel, the crumpled soda cans gleam, the broken cigarette butts and tiny used crack bags pose in the grass. Everything unfolds before me in slow, aching clarity, because hindsight is 20/20.
Long ago I failed to intervene and my punishment now is that I cannot intervene. And I see so much I long to tell someone: The drug deals on the playground, the little girls raped in abandoned row houses, the boy shot on the street corner, the mother searching for her missing daughter. I travel alongside the suffering and they cannot hear me, though sometimes they sense me.
“Under the bridge,” I whispered over and over to the frantic mother. She’d been searching since 4 p.m. and now it was dark. She heard my voice murmuring on the fishy night breeze from the Delaware. Every time the waves slapped against the pilings shoring up the bank, I cried “bridge.” Her teenage daughter was lost and she’d been searching, praying, praying for a sign. She heard me, and under the bridge, beneath the muffled roar of the Interstate traffic, she found her baby. I sat beside her as she wept, the girl’s broken body in her arms, and I wanted to tell her how it happened, but I can’t.
And then there’s the sad girl — she’s always there too. A ghost haunting a ghost. I saw her standing in the shadows of the pylons, beneath the bridge. A strobe light flashed over the water from the Jersey side and for one second, I saw her white, drawn face. Her blue eyes shimmered with tears as she watched the mother and dead daughter enact their tragic reunion. I sense her gaze shift to me, though the darkness has again come between us. I’m glad I can’t see her eyes, for I know what they would say to me.
As usual, she evaporates before the police come. As the mother’s wails intersect with the wails of the coming sirens — someone has heard this loud grief, called 911 — I hover helplessly near. And then I follow the mother home, when finally she can go home, and I sit with her in the dark, hot bedroom of her rowhouse, listening to her sobs until, finally, she falls asleep. I wish I could comfort her; I want to. At least, I know she can feel my presence, my empathy.
For this much is true: With the grief-stricken, I can almost communicate. It’s the complacent who miss every sign, ignore every signal. And the denizens of the newsroom sometimes seem the most complacent of all. They think reporting the news matters more than intervening in it. I understand them, for I used to think that way too. But I learned: There is no such thing as objectivity. You cannot witness something without being a part of it yourself.
So I sit on Chad Fielding’s desk and peer over his shoulder at his latest set of photographs, recently uploaded to his computer and flickering on the monitor. He’s been visiting a shooting gallery in Kensington. Yeah, he’s gotten graphic shots: Heroin addicts pushing needles between their toes, showing him the tracks up their withered arms, lying in their torpid dream states on fetid old couches. There’s no electricity in this abandoned warehouse, but plenty of waste ground surrounding it. The windows are broken. Not all the syringes are clean. Bad things are happening here and Fielding prides himself on bearing witness. He shouldn’t.
I see the back of the prostitute’s head in one of his photos, recognize her blue-streaked hair. She’s the one who needs Fielding’s help the most, but he doesn’t know it. If he doesn’t help her, she’ll die, and it won’t be from an overdose. Fielding has no idea. I knock his coffee over and he swears, but thinks he hit it with his elbow. Dammit, Fielding, look again. Who is near the prostitute? Who’s that guy in the Grateful Dead t-shirt, his cap pulled low so you can’t see his face? He’s half out of the frame, but his forearm is visible, reaching for the girl. Look at the tattoo on his arm, moron — it’s a grinning devil head, with horns and goatee. If Fielding paid any attention at all to what his colleagues were up to on the City desk, he’d know he has a photo of a serial killer on his monitor.
From where we are, I can just see Bunny Phillips’ strawberry tresses. She and Juan Ramirez are going over the news the Police Commissioner has just given them. The last victim managed to get out of the guy’s car before he strangled her. As he was raping her, she pulled the keys out of the ignition and drove them into his ear. She got away and she gave a description: Devil tattoo on the left forearm.
That’s the bastard, you idiot! I’m screaming so loud that, though Fielding can’t hear me, several people — including Bunny Phillips — turn around; they’re not sure why. Fielding has just deleted the photo. He didn’t like the composition; the prostitute was barely in the frame and it’s impossible to tell what the Grateful Dead guy is doing. Besides, Fielding doesn’t want to get hassled for taking a photo of a john, especially after the guy refused to sign a release form. The others, the junkies and the prostitute, were happy to sign: He gave each of them fifty bucks.
Later, he’ll recognize the error he made, but right now he is oblivious. That’s how I was. This smug little prick, Chad Fielding, could have been me. I can just see him daydreaming of the Pulitzer he could get for this series and I want to smack him. Still, his hubris might give him another shot. Bluzette, the prostitute, has agreed to let him take some photos of her on the street where she works — a street near Temple where almost all the houses are condemned, windows broken or boarded up. It’ll be gritty, alright. The johns pull up in old beaters and sometimes they get out and take her to a mattress in the empty house she stands in front of; other times she gets in the car and they do it there.
Fielding is going to find a broken window he can shoot out of so that he can see the customers, but they won’t see him. Only Bluzette will know he’s there and, later, if anyone she knows sees the spread in The Insighter, she’ll deny she knew a thing about it. Nobody needs to know about the money Fielding has promised her. With it, she’s going to buy her mother and daughter tickets to Disney World. Won’t they be surprised. She’ll do it quick, too, before she puts the money up her nose or into her veins.
Fielding is whistling, checking his datebook. I want to kick him, and I do manage to make a noise near his wastebasket. “Did you hear that?” he asks Bunny. She’s coming by now, all 5’10“ of her, her red-gold hair a beacon, her beautiful yet stern face like the prow of an old ship. Fielding, like half the guys in the newsroom, lusts after her even as he fears her.
“Hear what?” she asks, glancing down at Fielding, who stands up so he won’t be so far beneath her gaze.
“The mice are back,” he laughs. “I just heard one in my trash can.”
Her smile is cold and Fielding withers beneath it. Too bad: If they’d had an actual conversation, something might have come up about his photos and she might have asked to see them. Instead, she says, “Hm,” and walks on. Fielding kicks the can himself.
Two afternoons later and we’re on Sapphire Street. Bluzette has told Fielding about the glassless windows in the building across the street. The door’s ajar. I go with him, listen to him curse. Someone’s made a latrine out of what was once some nineteenth-century banker’s living room floor. Fielding is holding his nose, gagging, but I can’t smell it. I don’t seem to have all my senses anymore, which is an ironic piece of luck in this case. Fielding has tied a bandanna around his nose and mouth, like a bad guy in a Western. He’s setting up his camera on the windowsill. No one saw him arrive, because no one is on the street right now.
Soon, though, Bluzette comes out of the house across the way. She looks like shit — probably took a hit of something tainted last night, or drank too much Night Train. I can’t imagine who’d want to bang her, but my imagination is beside the point here. Some guys do. Someone also wants to kill her. She’s been on his radar for a while. Giving him itchy palms, as he’d say. I’ve heard him say it. I’ve seen too much. I know what happened to the girl under the bridge her first time with a john — that was the first I’d seen of the devil tattoo, the forearm muscle straining up beneath it as he held down the girl’s carotid artery. Sad girl saw, too, from the rafters of the bridge. Her tongue started from her mouth and her eyes were full of rage as her gaze flicked from him to me. Neither of us could do a thing.
The devil is Bluzette’s fifth taker. By now it’s dark and Fielding spends half his time checking his light meter, wondering if he should just call it a night. After all, he’s getting kind of scared himself — people dot the street now, but they aren’t the kind of people that would help a guy like him. He’s wondering how he can slip out and make it back to his car when the devil strolls up to Bluzette. I see her tense. Some animal instinct has told her to be afraid. I also see a white shadow behind her. It’s the sad girl. She’s watching too, leaning in close, her arm around Bluzette as she peers into the devil’s face.
And that’s when Fielding’s flash goes off. I don’t know how it happened, and he doesn’t either, but now the devil has swiveled to stare at our window. Bluzette turns, too, mouth open, and two of the drug dealers emerge from the shadows and cross the street, shouting, “Hey motha — who in there? We goan get yo ass!”
Fielding races for the back door like a soldier trying to get out of a booby-trapped house. He’s managed to hold onto his camera, but the zoom lens has fallen off and is rolling on the floor, its big eye winking blind. I mean to follow him, but I find myself frozen near the window, gazing out. The devil is slinking away from Bluzette — it won’t be her time tonight — but the sad girl is still there. Our eyes meet and, for once, I don’t see blame, or rage, or misery in the look she gives me.
Susan Balée regularly contributes essays on literature and culture to The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Hudson Review. Her work has also appeared in many other journals including The Times Literary Supplement, The Women’s Review of Books, The Weekly Standard, and Wild River Review (“Memoir of a Ghost”). Years ago she edited a literary magazine, Northeast Corridor, where parts of Dana Gioia’s libretto for Nosferatu originally appeared.