Friday, December 05, 2014

Fiction fragment: Cornelius

HE thing that still trips me up is the lack of sleep.

You'd think that after a while you'd get acclimated, but you don't. There's something about the process of going to bed that brings each day to a strong, satisfying coda.  You lie there, awake but resting, anywhere from a few minutes to several hours -- I never had an easy time falling asleep -- thinking about the events of the day, planning out what you'll do tomorrow, ruminating over something you read or something a friend said to you, maybe closing your eyes and indulging in some well-worn fantasy that takes you to your happy place.  Gradually, you let sleep take you.  When you wake, the new day stretches anew before you; even if you didn't sleep well, you're mentally ready for it.  But when you never sleep, there's no delineation in your mind between one day and another; although the night falls and the sun rises, there's no clear sense of a new day dawning.  So although I know I've been dead for some time, the lack of sleep has made it all feel like one very long, drawn-out day.

It makes me irritable.  When I was alive and I wanted to take the edge off, I'd go to a café or tavern for a drink.  I was never a heavy drinker, really; the whole point of the exercise was to get me out of myself.  I'd nurse a beer for hours, or sip a coffee until long after it went cold, talking to the other patrons or listening to their stories.  Most of their troubles were petty and meaningless, to be honest, but others -- especially if the patron in question had been drinking heavily -- were horrifying.  One man was struggling to raise his daughter, an idiot child who screamed and shook with spasms, after his wife had died giving birth to her.  It helped me put things into perspective.

Of course, now there are two troubles associated with going down to get a drink.  First, I can't drink anything.  Once-solid objects have become as fluid as water to me, and I can't even do something as simple as pick up a coffee cup.  Second, since the living don't see or hear me, I can't ask them about their problems or talk about my own.  The last time I visited a café, I left the place swearing lustily.

I'm starting to understand the appeal of haunting a place.  If you're sick of being invisible and ignored, haunting has got to be a sure way to garner some attention -- even if it's all negative.

So what is there to keep a dead guy occupied?

Quite a lot, it turns out.  The modern world has become weirdly obsessed with bringing people together in ways that actually keep them at arm's length.  Thus you have teens who try to get to know each other better by eating together (it's hard to talk to someone with your mouth full), dancing (in a cavern where the music's so loud you can't hear yourself think) and watching a film (sitting silently side by side in a dark room, staring straight ahead at a screen for two hours).  It's no wonder so many couples break up, when they never really got the chance to know each other.  But some of the changes are advantageous to a spook like me, especially if you have a fondness for film, as I do.  The multiplexes in particular might as well have been designed for ghosts; all day you can flit from one theater to another, watching fascinating stories of love or horror or speculation or comedy.  For an hour or two I can just live with the story, laugh or cry or shriek with the audience, and forget I'm dead.  (Though sometimes I've sat at the back of an empty theater, wondering what popcorn and Junior Mints taste like.)

Reading is more of an issue.  I'm just as incapable of handling books as I am other objects, much to my frustration.  But recent developments in electronics have been to my advantage.  After a lot of trial and error, I've discovered I can use some of the low-level energy a disembodied spirit gives off to tweak electronic devices.  So I can read books on temporarily abandoned computers, readers and smartphones.  It's not the same as holding and turning the pages of a real book, and I'm limited to the borrowed time I can snatch when the owners of these devices absently walk away and leave them switched on.  But it's like water to a thirsty mind.

Then there's music.  Music is virtually everywhere in the world now, and the sheer diversity of it is miraculous to me.  I can wander into a recital, an opera, a musical or a rock concert and be filled with a surfeit of sound.  Oddly enough, although physical objects are almost intangible, sound has become more solid since I died.  I can float and swim in it, swirling effortlessly through the air grown thick with music.  Over the years I've learned not to judge too quickly and to be open to new sounds, and although I still have a penchant for classical composition, now I welcome Def Leppard almost as readily as Donizetti.

Still, an existence not shared with others is ultimately empty.  I walk the streets surrounded by people, passing by and around and sometimes through me, incapable of seeing, hearing or feeling me.  After a while of this, you begin to question your own being.  Am I actually real, or was Descartes wrong?  Does the existence of independent thought truly prove one's being, when there is no one to whom you can express that thought?

Definitely irritable today.

I keep asking myself obvious questions which have no clear answers: is there a heaven or a hell, and if there are such places, why didn't I go there when I died?  Or is this meant to be hell?  It certainly can't be heaven, but if it's hell it's not nearly as horrible as they advertised in church.  Or is it somewhere else entirely?  Am I stuck in a place I'm not meant to be, like a card wedged between a drawer and the back of a cabinet?  I can't imagine an afterlife that isn't peopled with other dead, and yet in all the time I've been dead I've never, not once, met up with a fellow wandering disembodied spirit.  Plenty of poltergeists, which are more annoying forces of nature than discrete personalities.  A handful of haunted places, which I don't dare stay to investigate -- even I get the creeps.  And occasionally an animal will seem to sense my presence and back away.  But I've met no fellow travelers in the afterlife.

Sometimes I think it would be easier if I could simply shut off my brain.  But thinking is one of the few things I can actively do.  If I were to stop thinking, perhaps I really would stop existing -- and as frustrating as my post-human existence is, I don't really want to be snuffed out like a candle.  Not again.  So I continue to walk, and think, and go to concerts and movies and plays, read whenever I can, and occasionally try to puzzle out the odd riddle of my continued being.

Seattle isn't a bad place to be if you're dead.  I've tried many other places -- big towns like London or New York, so-called haunted towns like New Orleans, little towns in the heartland, small villages in the Yucatán and on the opposite side of the planet -- but I've discovered I'm an urban dweller and an American to my core. I'm more comfortable in a city that's big enough to be interesting and small enough to be completely explorable.  Seattle has plenty of theaters and music venues, a handful of traveling Broadway tours every year, and an annual film festival.  There's no local obsession with the supernatural, other than an amusing fascination with science fiction -- and, for some reason, zombies.  And of course there are plenty of electronics to mess with.  It's an acceptable fit for now.

It's become important to me that my place in the world lacks an obsession with the supernatural. New Orleans cured me of any lingering hopes that a spiritualist might help me contact the living.  For something like twelve years I searched for a bona fide medium.  Not a single one was genuine.  Oh, some of them thought they had access to the Other Side, no doubt, but they couldn't see or hear me.  I guess whatever it was they felt when they "felt the spirits" could be chalked up to a minor seizure or twinges of rheumatism, or just a bad case of believing their own hype. One of them got me so frustrated I actually started screaming at her.  She didn't bat an eye -- just kept handing out hokum to her customer about how his grandfather was at peace, and they'd find the will soon.  After that incident I decided I was fed up with all things paranormal, from séances to Ouija boards, and gave up mysticism as a lost cause.

Occasionally I'll try to reach out by other means, mostly electronic.  As mentioned, I can tweak computers a little bit, but it's difficult to fine-tune my meddling to the point that I can make words appear on the screen.  Most of my attempts to date look like pure gibberish:

#hl0 m2 pls 8 sm gh$$$$)t 2

I suppose I'll get better at it with time and practice, but I have no idea whether it will do any good.  If you went into the library to use the catalog and saw that someone had typed "please help i am a ghost" in the search box, you'd probably just think some kid was goofing off.  You'd delete it in an instant, not realizing that it took the better part of five hours to compose or that the spirit in question was sitting next to you, trying futilely to get your attention by any means available.

On edge now.  What I wouldn't do for a drink.

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