by Chris Sharp
Unraveling a costume handkerchief, the red silk blossoming into the air like a shot of blood hitting the snow, Justin Mercedes beckoned the wandering family man among hundreds at the flea market.
"Are you promoting a period play?" asked the meandering Christian Hodges. He looked at his watch as he spoke. It was unusual for him to be the first to address any stranger, so he used his watch to temper his openness. He knew his outburst was entirely tied to catching the full brunt of the vendor's soliciting presentation, including his theatrical and sequined topcoat, all at once.
"I produce a ghost," Justin Mercedes explained in his melodramatic 19th Century style, his vowels and syllables richly served. "Have you ever encountered a ghost, sir?"
"Never have," said Christian. But this statement -- he was sure he had never said anything of about this subject since his adult years started -- made him glance at his watch again. While he was now talking about ghosts with some joker, he knew his wife was balancing the pressure of cooking a weekend dinner for everyone and making each of their children feel he or she was number one in her heart.
"A true ghost selects his audience carefully, my dear gentleman," the vendor asked. "He'll never out himself at any old time or place. He'd rather deliver pizza or answer the phone than show you his dead parts."
"Okay. I say skip his dead parts, too."
"What I have to educate you is a show for the whole family," the vendor went on, spreading his arms to expose a brass chain watch and shining metallic buttons on his vest. "A complete, true ghost show for the whole family at the price of one typical Broadway ticket."
"How much do I have to pay then for a group of five?"
"For your family of five you'll meet a great American who sadly has been dead for over a century. He will make a personal presentation at Ventura Beach of the Theatre on Saturday, tomorrow at two sharp. And you will only pay one hundred dollars for your whole group."
"What's it about?"
"It's about ninety minutes on a Saturday afternoon. He brings something different to talk about every time, but it always has to do with taking life more seriously than you and I do. Do you want to see it happen?"
"One hundred dollars even. It takes care of the whole family."
Christian patted the wallet he kept securely in his front pocket among all the fleas in the flea market.
"Wait a minute," Christian said. "What does this ghost do in your show? Anything that might improve my uppity kids?"
"He draws life material from his past, which was rich and diverse by anyone's standards, even though he lived to be only twenty-eight years old. He used to be a foreign war correspondent, and he can bring scene of the war to the edge of your seat, believe me."
"Okay. But I have smart kids and they don't tolerate fools." Christian patted his wallet again. Patricia was now probably garnishing the pot roast being slow-cooked for the family weekend dinner. "What's your ghost's name?"
"Mr. Stephen Crane. He's a writer by profession."
"I know that name." Christian had finally escalated to taking out his entire bulging wallet. There was still plenty of cash there that had not yet been claimed by the surrounding market impresarios.
"He was a great American writer, before the 20th Century began," explained Justin Mercedes. "His most popular novel, 'The Red Badge of Courage' on the Civil War, never came from any personal experience, but from meeting those who were there."
"Such a thing then," said Christian. He took out five twenties and in exchange for five tickets to the ghost show and driving directions to Ventura Beach. He did it quickly, before his better judgment could catch up with him and kill his wicked fun.
When Patricia served dinner to him two hours later that day, Christian felt chastened by the attention she showered on him. "Daddy gets the first bites," she said pointedly to the three children who were already forcing the issue of their early teenage years.
He watched gloomily as Patricia seemed to never stop piling the chicken casserole onto his plate. I don't deserve this, he told himself, as the food pile kept growing higher. The only thing he did for all this deference was spend the weekend money on a flea-market ghost show.
"That's fine," he said at last, as Patricia was simply getting even more energized about feeding him.
"The reason there's never leftovers," said the 15-year-old Ben, pointing at his father's mountain of meal, "is the way Dad eats."
"There's nothing wrong with eating chickens," Christian told his son. "It takes them out of their crazy misery. Chickens are crazy anyway."
"I like chickens," Ben said. "Because they're funny."
Christian returned to eating his own dead, grim chicken.
To bring some life to all this chicken noodle malaise, Patricia had added reds in the form of red onions and red peppers. Like French horns, they sounded the brighter flavors so the pallid chicken and noodles could concentrate on serving as the body and texture of the evening. In other ways, the onions and peppers served life to the whole four-bedroom beige condo. For years, no one in the family could stand looking at this place for more for two straight weekends.
"I have an interesting bit of news," Christian said with some improvised dramatics, as he took a break between bites.
No one seemed ready to react so Christian went on.
"Has anyone ever seen a ghost?" he said. He just kept moving forward into all the downward faces. "I have a ticket for us all to see a talk by a ghost on Ventura Beach tomorrow morning."
"Boring," said Rocky, at 17 always the oldest of the children. So far, the only one who hadn't said a word was 9-year-old Elizabeth.
"What is it, tickets to summer-stock theater or something?" asked Patricia off-handedly.
"Sometimes summer stock can be uniquely fun to watch," said Christian, looking at the silent little Elizabeth. "I always thought that when actors aren't that good at acting, it's more like watching real people on the stage. Anyway I got the ticket from the producer himself. It was a good price for all five of us."
"So do we have to go?" asked Elizabeth in a little voice.
"Yes, because I already paid good money to buy the ticket."
"I don't want to go," said Elizabeth, covering her face with her hands. "To see a ghost."
Christian refused to look at anyone's eyes when he told everyone when to wake up in the morning.
"We're all going to Ventura Beach first thing in the morning, whether we like to or not," said Christian royally. He rose from his place of honor at the dinner table, hunched in front of the family book case and took out the "C" encyclopedia, where he found the author Stephen Crane waiting for him.
He read the little bio briefly, until he got sleepy. Then he did his sleep walk into his bedroom.
Looking at his clothes closet on that next Saturday morning, while wandering in a clueless maze of thought on a dress code for a ghost show, Christian picked up one of his old solid ties.
"And you're going to wear a tie," said Patricia, "for a show on the beach?"
"This producer I talked to showed me the press kit and the glossies about his show. Don't you think it heightens the excitement to dress for it?"
"People don't dress formally for summer stock these days, do they?"
"But ties are the way men sitting together show respect to each other without catching germs from their hand shakes."
"I'm not wearing a dress to the beach."
"What about those Valentino bolero fashion-victim pants you
treated yourself to on Rodeo Drive?"
"That is so last year, Christian."
"How about you kids, ready for the ghost show now?" Christian asked, finally turning away from his all-knowing wife.
"Are you all dressed and ready to go?"
This time no one responded with even a word.
Christian steadied himself in front of the mirror as he knotted his solid red tie. "Better be ready by the time I count to ten," he said. "One, two, four, eight, ten."
When he went to see the children, they were clinging to their beds under their sheets.
"I can't believe this. I set up this day with a ghost for you guys and no reaction."
"We're all asleep and scared," said Ben.
Christian tore off his cover, and there was the full Ben in total slacks and white shirt and even shoes.
"I'm just kidding," said Ben. "I'm just lying."
It then took over a half hour from that juncture to get everyone into the old red Plymouth Voyager that served both as a car and a sort of time machine of Southern Californian road history.
"As for me, I've always wanted to see a ghost," said Christian as he drove the time machine into the freeway.
"Good, Dad," said Ben.
"Do I hear excitement?" asked Christian. His right shoulder moved to Golden Oldie soft rock he had found on the radio, The Fifth Dimension singing of a balloon as they drove toward Ventura. Wouldn't you like to fly in my beautiful, my beautiful bal-looooon...
"You better be happy now because there might not be any happiness at all next week," Christian warned his all-so-silent family.
Downtown Ventura pointed out the Theater on the Beach with a crooked finger, at the best the kind of home-made sign that would point out a home-made garage sale. "It's a sign that looks like it was made by a kid on Halloween," Ben told everyone. But after over an hour on the road, Christian was triumphing that a theater on the beach really existed.
"We have fifteen minutes before the ghost comes out," he said, the energy returning to his voice. "Now, for me, this will be the second time in my life I've seen a ghost."
Although nothing happened, Christian plowed ahead.
"The first time I saw a real ghost I spotted him as the night watchman for my little college. It was after three in the morning, and after a full day of classes I was so sleepy I was dreaming things. I saw this thing, this broad light pass across a grove of trees over the entrance of the school. I've no idea where that light came from."
Christian was driving into the parking lot of the Theater of the Beach even as he spoke, while again he was sending serves into other courts that no one would hit back, or even swing under for the sake of gamesmanship. He started feeling less like he was playing tennis with his family then he was their major-league pitcher, throwing heaters across the plate while the batters in his group just stood there.
The Theater of the Beach wasn't much. It was just two sets of bleachers sitting in a cove cut off from the public beach by a mildly rugged terrain. About 50 serious-looking audience members slumped along the bleachers in their white things that set off only soft colors on their backs and legs. When Christian actually counted them, he found 46. Everyone faced the sea, which was restrained by a small spur of sand that perpetually fed the surf.
"Hello! Hello! You may please sit anywhere," said Justin Mercedes, who was suddenly standing beside Christian in a ruffled white shirt and riding breeches. "Thank you so much for coming here with so many of the family here." He cuffed his hand over his smile.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Justin Mercedes said, stepping back and forth in front of an arena theater he had evened in the sand. "Today we're going to be visited by that greatest young genius of American letters, Stephen Crane of New York. He has practically no education or formal training to do the kind of brilliant writing he did. In fact when he failed Lafayette College in one semester, he went to Syracuse University and did the same failing all over again. But Stephen was no student. He was too busy learning to produce witchcraft with the English language."
Justin Mercedes looked at the audience with his still smile, but he saw no humor or laughter returning to him, not even in small change. The boys at Christian's side picked out this disconnect moment between the master of ceremonies and his audience of strangers for their overall reaction. Christian's boys tore the hiatus apart with hard fists landing on each other's arms.
"Boys," said Christian, his voice lowered to a stage whisper even as his eyes yelled out to them.
"This cost us one hundred dollars, Dad," Ben stage-whispered back. "That man has your hundred dollars. That could have lasted us a week with new games."
"Be quiet," said Christian. He said it in his own kind of French to these young students. "Tai-tois!"
"Remember Stephen Crane died so very young, and that's why he had so much life that he put into becoming a ghost. He was seriously ill with tuberculosis for years since he suffered extreme exposure from a shipwreck described in his story 'The Open Boat'." Justin Mercedes had raised his voice in subtle acknowledgement of the rustle among the children in the seats.
"He was hellishly sick and he was in pain, and yet what he wrote went straight into his reader's spines. With his writings he triumphed over his tuberculosis, and finally he even overcame his short mortal life. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Mr. Stephen Crane today."
A thin young man dressed surprisingly like the forty-something Justin Mercedes then strode from behind the only large rock on the beach and sat comfortably toward the audience. He wore knee-high black boots over yellow riding breeches and a kind of half cowbot hat, leaving the effect that he was air-filled under a theatrical costume. In contrast to his costumed theatricality, he must have been under five and a half feet tall. His fierce eyes burned between his dark forelock and wide mustache exactly as they had lit up the old photo Christian had looked up in his encyclopedia.
Stephen Crane was carefully handed the microphone by Justin Mercedes, and when he said "hello," the audience gave a second applause for the human voice that triumphed over the ongoing breaking of the surf.
"I thought we might just say hello to each other," said Stephen Crane, looking around at seemingly every face in the audience. "By going back in time a bit, like a century or so, to the year 1879. Let's go to the Drew Methodist Church in Port Jervis, New York. That's just off the Delaware River, where my brothers and I would swim in the hot summer months. In the church at this time, my father is the pastor getting ready to deliver a sermon. My mother is in the congregation. She keeps a lid on me and my seven brothers and sisters, but at eight I am the youngest. I am in fact a full another eight years younger than the last born brother. So you can imagine, with all these old brothers and sisters, and my father and grandfather both Methodist ministers, how squirrelly I got to announce my being there to this sober company. In a month, my father would be dead."
As the young man at the center of the arena theater offered introductory remarks, Ben competed against his presentation playing a tiny game on his cell-phone screen. Rocky was looking on before Christian covered the cell phone with his hand.
"You do not do that," he whispered to Ben.
"Rocky did it first."
Christian slipped the phone into his pants pocket. As if the exchange between father and son had somehow been relayed to the stage, the young man had ceased speaking until both people had stopped speaking to each other and were again facing the stage.
"All right then," said the young man in the stage space. "You know I'm the one in our church everyone is watching. I'm the eight-year-old whose next youngest among all the Cranes is 16. Stevie -- that's what my mother called me, even when I was growing the world's biggest mustache in an artist's loft in the most dangerous block in New York City. Stevie wandered everywhere on the excuse of going to the bathroom."
In the words of Stephen Crane, the bare stage had given way to the suggestion of a post-bellum Methodist church, strictly shingled and acutely framed, fiercely taut in the sun, in all a sober backdrop in contrast to a slight eight-year-old boy who kept running outside to hear the Delaware River.
One by one, the 19th Century pictures Crane had spoken him were taking their phantom places at the makeshift Theater of the Beach.
"My mother and I were the two who depended most on my father, me being the littlest and least resourceful and she being the one parent all the children would read to see what the future of each morning brought. If she were happy we were all free to be just as happy."
Christian detected a slight break in Stephen Crane's voice as he described the unexpected death of his father.
"We knew he was tired. His congregations were poor, many were orphaned by the Civil War, but he was the last person who would want to take a family's last dollar. But still, if he sometimes didn't ask for that money, he was unable to support all of us. He placed such a high value on the English language to bring spiritual sense to his sermons. Because words were what he had to work with. The widows, the orphans and all their relatives were counting on what he said, words that drew power from a true witchcraft he had learned as a preacher."
He stepped aside for a moment, and then turned his back on the audience. Then, after a moment of watching the ocean, he was back.
"That's when I learned to become writer."
Stephen Crane read two of his short stories in a broad stentorian voice that he practically excused as the theater style of his day. Then at the reading of his final short story, "Mr. Brinks' Day Off," the voice changed into something between that of a propped-up actor and one of a defenseless young man. His voice broke as he read the story's final word.
Justin Mercedes stepped into the stage to be at his side. Crane had been speaking and reading for a little over an hour, using his descriptive talents to create a feeling of a revival on the bare side of a beach.
"Thank you, Mr. Crane," said Mercedes, clapping his hands. It set off applause throughout the two bleachers.
"Does anyone have any questions for Mr. Crane?" asked Mercedes.
For several seconds, there were no questions.
Then young Ben raised his hand.
"Yes," said Mercedes. He was so eager to hear at least one question he was overjoyed to see it even coming from Ben.
"Are you actually dead?" asked Ben.
Stephen Crane looked at Ben and gave him a grin that seemed to join a co-conspiracy.
"I had no choice," he said. "After I died at age twenty-eight, that was my only option. It ain't so bad, son. Nature knows best."
There was a tinkle of laughter from the audience that stirred Ben to raise his hand a second time.
"Another question from the brave young man?" said Crane directly to Ben.
"Since you were such a New York writer, why are you now in California?"
"I don't know why," said Stephen Crane. "But why not? California, after all. The one interesting place I never got to when I was a living person."
There was a little more laughter before the show truly ended with the large voice of Justin Mercedes. "Thank you. Thank you all."
Stephen Crane started walking off stage. But he started becoming transparent even before he left the podium. The white waves on the beach got stronger through him until his transparency collapsed on the beach without a human body inside.
"Goodbye, Stephen Crane," said Justin Mercedes. The words drew a robust round of applause as only a miraculous sight can.
Some minutes later, Christian held Patricia's hand even as he took the old Voyager to the speed limit with his one free hand. Immediately he felt an alert through his fingers telling him this little affection with Patricia was about a week overdue.
This ride home was so remarkably serious compared to the irreverent miles that had gotten him there.
"So," he said, breaking a vast quietness. "Did you learn anything from this man Stephen Crane today?"
"How did he just vaporize in air like that?" said Ben, at last.
"Nicely done production effects, Ben," said Christian.
"But you really have to be a ghost to do that. Doing something like that automatically makes you a ghost," Ben went on.
"Interesting," said Christian.
He was afraid of saying anything more to Ben that would add or subtract. It would be better if Ben could think through this kind of thought exclusively, Christian thought, without Dad messing with it.
"So how did he just vaporize?" Ben asked.
"Clear screens." Christian told him at last. "Don't you remember all the ghosts getting reflected off clear screens in Disneyland?"
"But that was in the ride through the Disney Haunted House, where it was so dark you couldn't see the screens."
"That's why they do it on the beach, to blind you with sunlight so you don't see the screens."
"But we would see them even with all the sunlight."
"Really, how did that man just disappear, Dad?"
"I don't know," said Christian. "Good theater makes things look real"
"What do you mean?" said Ben.
"A passion for good theater can make you develop illusions that anyone can believe in, they say. It's called a theatrical suspension of disbelief."
He held his wife's hand more firmly as he drove onward home with his driving hand.
"It's hard for me to believe they could be that good." said Ben, after a moment of practically breathtaking silence. "If they were that good they'd be some other place than some isolated patch of Ventura Beach. But if everyone there was a ghost, this show was something they did just for us."
"I think he was doing it only for each of us," chimed in Rocky. "We were the only living people living there. The people in the audience had to be dead, too, as well as that guy who called himself the producer."
That made Christian want to weep.
"No, there are not. Because we don't do that anymore. We don't somehow slip into some dimension with people whose life just miraculously passed from this earth. It is just what we see. This was an entertainment," Christian said. "And I paid one hundred dollars for this day. It was something for the spirit. That doesn't mean it must also be truthful."
But something left of Rocky's words kept moving into the family as they headed toward their home. At last Patricia made Christian stop the car at a convenience store and -- after filling everyone with refreshments -- she took the driver's seat.
Christian's head leaned softly against his wife's shoulder as she drove her family home, and she mentioned that he was shaking.
"Because if that was a ghost," he said, "then ghosts are beautiful."
© 2009 Chris Sharp
Bio: Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's most recent appearance in Aphelion was The Gold and Green Ball, a haunting tale of love, ghosts, and talks shows, in the July 2009 issue.
E-mail: Chris Sharp
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