Present Ghost

Telling stories



The Pencil From Outerspace


As I tell my friend that instead of feeling God I feel death, he sips his coffee and suggests we take a smoke break outside.

The snow snows harder. It swirls down and is whisked upward and circled round in the parking lot as we take alternate drags from our cigarettes and blow into our hands.

In the past, I was always finding myself in situations where I was helping the desperate and encountering the most bizarre scenes of need. My calling isn’t visiting homeless shelters or going on church mission trips. My life brings me into contact with the most dejected and injured people so I might have to listen to the Spirit in order to stop the suffering of one person, even if only for that brief encounter.

In the snow, I think of how it stays gray here for so long that when it finally snows like this, there’s something hope-filling about it. Tonight the Super 8 next door is filled with sleepy semi-truck drivers and they won’t be on the road for another couple of hours.

Inside, the waitress is annoyed with our schedule: slugging a pot of coffee and sucking down cigs under the small green awning outside that hardly shields us from the winter wind. But she pours me another new cup of the night’s dregs with a smile anyway.

I think I’m just sad. And alone.

We talk about church and God, and somehow we get on the subject of the collection plate. When I think about charity, I know in better times, I could write a check if I had checks. I could cash a paycheck and throw some money in a bucket, but I know that my cynicism about that isn’t just because I feel distanced from the money. It’s because I’d rather know what it means to really feel charity as a transitive verb.

It’s almost four a.m., and the inevitable drowsiness penetrates my caffeinated nicotine buzz.

I’ve got to go.

Praying the alternator doesn’t fail and that I don’t hate myself for not learning how to put on my own snow tires, I tell my friend goodnight.

We don’t promise to pray for each other or hug or shake hands like they do after Bible studies or grown-up Sunday schools.

My old car glides like a boat in a river of winding liquid black and dusty white. The thick, stubby fingers  my father gave to me are so cold that lighting the cigarette is nearly impossible, but I manage and as I inhale, I see the cherry glow in the rearview mirror from the corner of my eye, and from that same corner and that same glimpse, I’m also reminded that I’m prematurely balding. I am twenty-one with the hairline of an old man.

Early morning gray whisps of white swirl underneath the smalltown lamplights. They capture the flakes all pinkish. The old elementary school to the left quietly awaits news of a snow day. My car’s wheels slide over the pavement.

A tall, thin creature in the middle of the road waits for me to stop. From what I can tell, he seems a little too calm to suggest a major problem, but it’s too late for the regular bar crowd to be returning home and too early for the factory workers to be heading toward this end of town. He’s probably drunk or stoned and lost—or maybe just down on his luck without gas.

I press my foot to the brakes. Slowly, the car skids a little, so I swerve just to the right of this unfortunately underdressed person clad in a thin black trench coat, sopping tattered jeans, and sneakers. A dark, shaggy short haircut sticks to a piqued face and bangs hang covering the eyes.

My window’s broken, so I open the door.

“Hey. Thank you for stopping. I’m, um, looking for Pine Street,” she says.


Her lank and wasted young figure stands shrouded in threads of whitefloss jeans and a dingy white shirt. She could be a pencil from outerspace. She could be sixteen, maybe a little older. I can’t tell.

“Get in.”

“Hey thanks. It’s really cold. I was just in Columbus. I just wanted to get to my friends’ house, and I think it’s on Pine Street. If you could just tell me how to get there, I can walk. The last guy who picked me up just dropped me off here.”

God. God. God! This is the last thing I need. A drugged out runaway girl in my car at four in the morning.

Her hands ungloved and head bare and so wet that she isn’t rosy-cheeked from the storm; she is nearly translucent and the bones in her cheeks come to points at the far corners of her eyes.

She calls herself Rebel, and she doesn’t strap herself in.  She pushes aside my CDs and tapes to make a place for herself as a passenger. I grip the steering wheel, too afraid to ask her why she has hitchhiked here or if she has a cell phone and drive toward the north end of town. Her last ride has dropped her off only six blocks from Pine—they must not have wanted to play this game. Maybe he just wanted to stay on 250.

“I didn’t run away.”

“That’s good. So, do you know the address?”

She admits that she doesn’t but insists that she will know it as soon as she sees this crooked tree in the front yard that she remembers from childhood. She used to come here all the time to visit her friend. I drive the length of the road as she presses her face to the glass and looks for the identifying tree as it begins to snow even harder. The tiny orange spindle on my dashboard hovers above the letter E.

I’ve never been opposed to picking up strangers.  There was the man in North Carolina in the parking lot. Instead of asking for a ride, he just stood in front of my car, and took off his hat, placing it on the hood. I took off my shoes, and he proceeded to take his off as well. It progressed in a silent pantomime with our shirts and socks heaped in small, separate piles in the middle of a vacant shopping mall parking lot at 11 p.m., two men undressing in mirrored fashion. He said nothing at all, and I continued the game with him until he dropped his pants to the ground. That’s when I threw my café apron in the front seat and slammed my door shut, drove home, and didn’t tell anyone.

It always turns out to be a gay thing, and it’s too bad, too. I would have given him a ride or bought him a cup of coffee or a hamburger. That’s why I left. He needed something else I didn’t have to give.

She interrupts my thoughts.

“Maybe it’s the next street over. None of this looks right. I don’t see any trees that are the right shape,” she says.

The car slides forward over a sheet of ice when she points to a house with several cars parked outside. No lights shine from the windows, and she says, “Stop.”

Of all the houses on Walnut, she asks me to stop in front of the only one without a decorative pear or shivering dogwood planted five yards from the living room window. There are no trees in the whole yard, just unkempt, sprawling junipers and spindly arborvitaes lining the housefront walkway.

“This is it. The tree must have been cut down.”

She tries the door handle on her side, but it doesn’t work.  I forgot that I have to fix that too. It broke off when it iced last time and Jonah pulled too hard. Broke the whole system.

I ask her if she’s sure if this is the one she’s looking for, wondering if I’m delivering her to a drug den, or if I should call the police.

She nods but hesitates to ask me to let her out from my side. Rips off some paper from one of my neglected notebooks, still damp with snow from yesterday. She finds a pen and writes her name: Rebel. And a phone number.

While the engine idles, sputtering, I think of the faulty alternator and the finicky fuse, reach for my seatbelt, and she attacks my hand with her five bony fingers.

“You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. They are such a deep blue.”

Mashing her thin, pale lips to my face, on my mouth and lingering too long, she tastes like nothing and smells like the gray of old snow and the wet of winternight walking. In my hand, I hold the ripped piece of paper, and she says, softly, as one word,  “thankyou.”

I’m out of the car, and she crawls over a mound of my dirty sweaters, dropping two onto the ground before loping toward the entrance of the house.



Some day I would love to collect pieces I’ve written from traveling experiences that date back to when I was a kid. I have it all mapped out, and the project will come together summer 2014. When I wrote this piece in 2011, I was convinced that I might have a narrative structure worth developing.

It seemed like such a vacant vacation. My family arrived at dark and although the streets were clear of any visible riffraff, a few very clean sheets of brilliant paper whipped around in the late June wind. In Minnesota, it’s barely Spring by the time the calendar says it’s time for june bugs and the sleepy  lepidoptera to unfurl their crackling wings.

For a big city, the streets were long and lonely, nothing like I’d ever imagined. Coming from small towns, my father always liked to offer the generous promotion of “small cities” to where we had lived. If there weren’t combines trucking down Main St., society wasn’t all that rural. So this was Rochester: big, full of space and quiet, luxurious pubs with a few fine dining establishments we couldn’t afford.

In the morning after our late arrival at the Raddison, a woman with a leathery lemon face eyed me from her small cluster of round tables of glossy-painted chip board. Her complimentary breakfast choices of milk, coffee, and a Danish were framed by her walker capped with slivered tennis balls, an overstuffed duffel bag, a messy assortment of newspapers, and a weather-beaten black satchel bursting with medicine bottles. Everything teetered in a tower between her legs. If I moved just two inches to the left, I would have knocked it all over.

She caught me staring at her and told me that she’d been waiting for a kidney for three years, you see. She was next on the list, but something always kept happening. She was not giving up, though. It would be nice if they just let her stay at one of those Ronald McDonald Houses, but they didn’t.

“I’ve got a lot of people supportin’ me so I can stay here,” she said.

Her Danish was yellow, probably lemony too. That Pine Sol taste jammed into a jelly and fatty plastic piece of dough.

The Harley crew seemed to have woken up. Tottering children in tiny tethered, tasseled black jackets stamped with HOG sayings about whose grandkid belonged to whose grandma and don’t mess with her because she knows how to ride, doesn’t need you, and quite naturally, loves Jesus.

Quickly, the little brown-haired boy in the corner reached for the milk, spilling it over the silver pitcher lip and onto the counter.

Aw, hell, Jase. Gwine and lookit whatchu dun. Now don’t go worryin about it. Your maw won’t have to know. Go git yurself a doughnut an some orange juice, hear? PawPaw’s gwine git the scores from last night’s game.

The little boy returned to the breakfast kiosk with a chocolate doughnut and a handful of dry off-brand Lucky Charms, some sticking to his little fist and the rest littering the outdated hunter green carpet, getting ground into the floral print.

The woman interrupted my people watching.

“Three years. I don’t think anyone is forgetting me. My daughter comes to visit sometimes. She lives in Moline, works at a newspaper, and has a family. You know, she’s busy.

What about you? You want a family? Isn’t that just the thing. You want to do that too?”

I shrugged.

“Well here’s something I’m sure you know, but don’t take anything for granted. Nothing. I’m alive, but you know, I used to have hair just like you. When I was young—bright red. Curlier, but bright and striking. Copper-like. My daddy used to call it ‘auburn’ because it was more sophisticated that way.”

The rest of the Harley crew herded by the coffee pots, filling their cups and talking about something from the day before. Most of them had hard-stitched iron crosses on the backs of their jackets. Sagging breasts hung like deflated balloons and wrinkly eggs spilling languidly from the gaping sides of their laced up corsets. Dad always said they were the nicest people, usually. Once, someone had given him a ride home all the way from Wichita to Lawrence when his car broke down and he had to make a job interview. He didn’t get the job, but he had the time of his life and it wasn’t crazy at all. All they did was stop by Jim Callan’s mom’s house to catch beans and potato salad. They had a game or two of hearts and were on their way—no funny business, not even beer.

Even though I thought it was obvious that I wasn’t interested in the woman’s plight, and that I was more interested in the morning news or the bikers, she persisted.

“I’m telling you. They’ll probably call me tomorrow. Maybe as late as next week. Jessica’s coming up with little Marcus—he’s half black you know, but I always was OK with that. Always. He’s my grandson, and I couldn’t see it any other way.”

One of the Harley men nodded toward us as he passed by and winked at me. After he’d left the lobby, she leaned toward me and placed her hand on my knee.

“Remember: When I leave, you won’t see me. I’m not trying to harass you. It does get lonely here, but I expect it’s better than the hospital or even that Ronald McDonald House they’re supposed to have. At least the people in here are well. There are some sick people too; but mostly, they’re just going somewhere and I get to watch. Listen. See that lady over there? She stores the muffins in her apron. Her name is Marisol and her little friend there, Ruth Lynn. They both do it and take them to the back.”

From the window’s view, I could see more white papers swirling in the distance. The Harley crowd was leaving, revving and kickstands were kicking up.

At the Snack Machine, II


Explaining to my husband how I had seen God wasn’t too difficult.  He’s open-minded and at that time, he was already used to my frequent, fleeting intimacies with strangers.

“She told me I needed to spend more time with God,” I added.

“Well, she’s probably right.”

And of course she was right, even though she didn’t know all the grief I carried with me or that I had been spending most of my long drives to work and class crying and screaming when I was sure the closest car was out of sight.

After she had left and the front desk paged me to tell me that I owed $700 that I didn’t have, I laughed and rolled my eyes, telling God that if He wanted to send me a check along with that half-crazy Pentecostal Christian, I’d really appreciate it. Better yet, God, why don’t you just let the murderer pay for my new timing belt, and then I’ll have something to write home about—something readymade for the inspirational aisle of Wal-Mart.

When I walked up to the sliding glass window, I was somewhat surprised that my balance wasn’t paid and even more surprised when their credit card machine rejected my check card. I had to call my husband to dictate our nearly maxed-out credit card number over the phone.

God, I imagine, has a low tolerance for sarcasm—particularly my brand of dry cynicism. Although I’ve always imagined the great I Am as having a rather outrageous sense of humor, I still don’t see smart aleck one-offs as a favored form of levity in the celestial realm.

In sending my last fairy godmother, He was being rather direct with me. The two other strangers had affirmed the value of my body and my style when I doubted myself, but Christ, through this woman, had publicly declared the worth of my soul when I had come to doubt its maker.

During our conversation, she quoted the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9 to me, and the word peculiar struck me. Most other versions reference our belonging to Him, and though they may be more authoritative translations, peculiar suits those moments when the knowledge of the Spirit passes from one body into another so that we may pass from darkness into light once, and then, again.

The First of My Fairy Godmothers

In a department store formerly known as Kaufmann’s, I met my first fairy godmother. Instead of glass slippers, she gave me tan knee-high go-go boots. If I am to be more precise, she didn’t give me the boots but she affirmed my right to wear them, which is far more important anyway.

My father and I were on our way out from the mall, and as we were passing the women’s shoe department, he told me we should stop and take a look around for sales. During high school, I hated casual shopping almost as much as I do now, so I objected and he insisted and won.

I pretended to be browsing while my dad rummaged through stacked boxes. From a few display tables away, I saw him lift an enormous box and shout, “What about these? They’re a deal!”

When I made my way over to him and opened the box, I started to laugh.

“These? Dad. You think I should get these?”

I couldn’t believe that my dad, the dad who was always pressuring me to start brushing my hair and to find dates for homecoming dances, would encourage the funkier side of my fashion.

“Why not? They’re fun and only 12 bucks.”

Knowing my father, I knew that wearing a comical bargain was fun.

After trying to reject him a few times by refusing to pick up the box, I agreed and found a spot on one of the muted gray lounge chairs stocked with nylon footies at each arm and shoved in each crevice between the seats. I sat next to a big, older middle-aged woman with a mountain of high heels and comfort wedges piled at her feet.

The long fake leather boots intimidated me as I pulled up one of my baggy jean legs, removed a gym sock, and replaced it with one of the shriveled wormy-colored footie socks. Inside, it was cool, and as I zipped up the long side of the boot, I began to feel like I was crossing the boundaries of the Converse, the Nike running shoes, and the athletic sandals territory I’d always known.

And then the zipper stopped mid-calf.

“Look! See, Dad, they don’t fit. Now we can put them back.”

“Oh, come on. They’re fine. Just pull a little. They’ll loosen up,” he cajoled.

It was too late. The fun stopped with the halted zip.

“It’s your fault, Dad! You and Mom did this to me. Both of you have huge calves. I actually like them, but they just don’t fit.”

We began to argue, and when he walked away exhausted with my rationalizing and explosive emoting, I noticed that the woman next to me had been watching us. She was holding one gold sandal and she pointed it at me.

“Honey. Your daddy gave you those calves, and now he’s gonna give you those boots—and if I were younger and I had your calves, I would wear them. Now. Are you going to put them back on and take a look in that mirror over there?”

She wasn’t asking me any questions, so I opened the box and zipped them up again, this time a little faster than before. After I’d gotten both boots on, I walked over to the slanted foot mirror with both jean legs rolled above my knees.

“Now look!” she said. “Just look at those.”

The two of us looked together. She praised me and told me to turn around, again and again.

“You’ve got to celebrate those calves, girl. You look good.”

Dad walked back to me while I was still on parade with the boots, and he was smiling quietly at the triumph. In an uncharacteristic demonstration of verbal restraint, he grabbed the box after I’d put on my tennis shoes again and he took them to the cash register.

At last, when we were finally walking past the Izod, Nautica, and Polo sections in the men’s department, just when we reached the double doors opening to a snowy, gray mid-January, he said, “And they were only 12 bucks!”

For weeks, I excused myself from not breaking them in because of the ice, but eventually I started to wear them with sloppy, ill-fitting vintage dresses I’d found at the Goodwill. There was one tight dusty mauve and cream sheath dress I particularly liked to pair with those boots.

Walking down the crowded halls of the high school in those boots, I forgot my calves and focused on walking, keeping my gait just at the pace I wanted it and even finding myself glancing around to see if anyone else was looking.

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