Flash fiction, almost by necessity, favors magic realism. I believe in ghosts though I have no reason to. The perspective they offer is wide. My favorite ghost in fiction is a character from Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead. I started this piece before I’d read Williams’ novel, with the intention of writing something longer. When I returned to it, much later, I may have had Joy Williams on the brain. Not that this ghost is anything like her ghost, but without her example I may have wound up with a character closer to Hamlet’s Ghost.
This was one of those pieces written between projects, with the hope of finding something to run with. It’s a meditation on my Italian grandfather, who was an immigrant and a laborer and who died before my parents married. I marvel at how much the world has changed in such a short span and at how much we still don’t know.
John Minichillo’s novel, The Snow Whale, a contemporary retelling of Moby-Dick was an Independent Publishers Book Awards regional gold medalist for the West-Pacific, an Orion Book Prize notable, a Hey Small Press! Best of 2011 selection, and a Chicago Center for Literature and Photography Best of the Best selection for 2012. Hey Small Press called The Snow Whale “the funniest book we reviewed all year.” His short work has appeared widely, with two stories selected for the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2012. He lives in Tennessee with his family and he has two more novels out for consideration.
Don’t think I don’t know what this is. I know my grandson. He sits at his desk as words fill a computer screen. He reads and mumbles to himself, thumbs through his wordbook, his sentences shrink then grow. He is a writer. I’ve never met him, but we spend days together. He has summoned me and I surmise his desires. I’m not of the living world—with work-sweat, the inky smell of cash, the spit-wet kiss, evening meal farted into the night, wine gone to the head, limbs rested burdens on the sunken mattress, and in the morning the dry tongue, with a boiled egg and coffee at breakfast, the ache of eyesight when dawn has hardened into day—no, I’m left with memories of water, I am insubstantial, I’m a ghost. There is no hunger and no coitus, my dead body discarded and buried. Cement crumbles while new ideas blossom, like his computer and the way he belongs to it. Ancestor ghosts would say that he worshipped words, that he was drugged by them. I understand him, though we’ve never met, and I am here because he called. He hopes I will manipulate levers from the other side, so he can be one of the lucky ones and live out his writer’s dream.
His prayers are scattered and desperate. He asked for a girl and his wife appeared. He asked for a child and they had a son. He’s gotten accustomed to the idea of his life as preordained, and that his wishes will come true. So he works, he calls it work. And I am supposed to be proud of his potential. I listen and watch him. I endure his meditation, the notion of pages made better, pages added up. He carves out time for himself and I imagine him writing my story, the story of a ghost, the grandfather who died before he was born, his namesake, who worked in the rail yard and took the train to Chicago on weekends, who never learned to read English but bought a newspaper to wrap the aged cheeses and the smoked fish he carried home, who sipped anise liquor late into the night, with the radio tuned to a race station from Gary, piano jazz whispered in the dark living room with his wife and children asleep upstairs. The grandfather returned to the rail yard in the morning for dirt wages, his wife to her tomato garden, his brood of children needed to eat.
The grandson’s request goes like this: help me get a literary agent and a famous editor, so the student loans will evaporate, so the house will become a larger one with a flat green lawn, the teaching assignment will pay more, with fewer classes, and at a more prestigious institution. His students will also be hopeful writers. And piano jazz is sometimes heard late at night in the grandson’s home accompanied by the distinct smell of anise liquor.
He is unknown to me, but I understand the desire to be respected, and to be paid: the ego-dream of wealth. The grandson’s conversations with his wife are uncertain, about stretched budgets, and they never go to a restaurant. He keeps champagne in the back of the fridge, the cork waiting for a ‘yes’ from a literary agent, any agent, but preferably a New York agent. Someone who can sell the book, who validates the time he’s put in and his idea of himself.
His writing goes out in stacks of envelopes, and I note the zip codes, numbers universal; numerals I can read. I walk back to the old neighborhood, out and about in sunlight, and I walk to the post office, a very long walk, a ridiculously long walk, at least for the living. I’m better off in the places I’ve known, though the people in line at the post office, none of them are Italian, with all the grown-up children of the neighborhood moved away.
The post office seems smaller somehow. The line zig-zags to fill the room. An authoritative woman in uniform says, “Next please. Step up.” The line inches forward. There is no conversation, the men and women in mismatched old clothes. Someone buys a money order. Someone sends a package. Someone returns a stack of mail, “He don’t live here.”
No one buys the Sinatra stamp advertised in the poster. They would have sold out when the Italians lived here. There are bins of packages, sorter windows of mail, a conveyor, a man at a desk eating a sandwich. There are scales, drawers, and a safe, this post office a de facto bank, with money orders the preferred exchange.
I am a shameful grubby ghost, wearing the clothes I donned in life. There’s not much difference between now and then, for the poor, working, walking, praying. We should have seen. How were we so proud? Caught in rooms to look on piles of incoming and outgoing mail, the workers distinguish each piece, with bar code scanners, tracking computers, fingers covered with protective latex, a wet sponge to lick envelopes and stamps, paper messages sent to and fro, the mechanisms laid bare.
I wouldn’t have needed to read: I could have sorted by matching the numbers. The job came with a pension and health insurance. In my life I was a pack animal with a family. I moved crates and boxes: loading and unloading. I watched the postal workers with envy as they sorted small scraps of paper. They didn’t need to give me any test.
Over the course of the day, a letter is mailed with recognized zip code, and the woman behind the counter says, “New York City? Any liquids or flammables? Do you want insurance?”
I leave with the truck to New York, and then what? The grandson had it pretty good, but wanted so much more.
by John Minichillo