Tales of the City, Part Two: Suburb of the Dead :
“Do you know what the problem is when it comes to ghosts in this city?”
“Chains are last season’s look?”
“All the cool ghosts moved to Portland?”
“I’ll think our waitress is a ghost if she doesn’t hurry with those drinks.”
“Scoff if you all will, but I’m making a point here: To have ghosts, first you need the dead. And nobody is ever dead in this city.”
“You must not read the police blotter.”
“I never said nobody dies here, what I said is that no one is dead. We get rid of the dead right away, and we all know where they go.”
“Oh god, I hate that town.”
“It creeps me out too.”
“And it should. But it’s even worse than you think: There are probably some things none of you know about the dead. Living here, you wouldn’t have many opportunities to learn. And what’s where my story comes in…”
It was, as it happened, a dark and stormy night. The dead man could hear the rain, even, as he was, trapped in a cold box under the ground, smothered by the weight of the earth. He was tired, but he felt a potency in his dead limbs and a sudden, unexplainable sense of urgency that allowed him to press the lid open and drag his aching bones up through the dirt and out into the fresh air and the black night and the world of the living again. The dead man left his grave and he knew where he was: the city.
No, not quite, he corrected himself. He was in the town ten miles south of the city. They buried no bodies in the city itself. A hundred years ago the city passed a law against any new burial sites and they even moved the ones they had, evicting the dead, and this town sprouted like a mushroom on the city’s southern border to hold all those dear departed who no longer had a place in the city itself. It was a town of cemeteries and mortuaries, a town of coffin makers and embalmers, a town of mausoleums and headstones, where the city’s dead migrated for their eternal rest. A town with a thousand occupied graves for every one occupied house. The north became the city of the living; the south became the city of the dead.
For the most part the two kept to their respective cities and existed in peace. But tonight the city in the south was sending an emissary: the dead man. And his mission was to increase the population of the dead city by one. There was someone in the living city who did not deserve to be there. The dead man sensed his target and knew, instinctively, who it was: his killer. The dead man remembered everything about his killer: his voice, his face, even the way his killer smelled. Death could not rob him of this knowledge. He would find him.
Tentatively, the dead man tried to walk. His legs were stiff and tired after so many years in the grave. The cold rain felt good on his face. One step at a time the dead man learned to walk again and when he was ready he walked down the hill, away from his headstone, through the little cemetery gate and out onto the highway. Yes, this road he remembered. He could follow it north the whole way. The dark night and the rain would hide the dead man’s face from what few drivers and pedestrians there were.
As he walked he tried to make sense of things. He remembered dying in a far-off city in another state. His parents must have had his body shipped back and buried here, close to home, close to the city he grew up in. Were his parents alive now? Should he look for them? No, he decided; best that they not see him like this. Best that they never know. The dead man understood (with the same ingrained, reasonless certainty that directed him northward) that his killer was both alive and nearby. That was enough to worry about for now. He would have business with no other living person.
The dead man had left his own cemetery behind but others dotted the roadside. If he strained his ears he could hear them, the other dead men and dead women down in their graves. Most of them snored away an eternal slumber, occasionally shifting to a more comfortable position in their coffins. Some of the restless ones muttered to themselves, or even had smothered conversations with those buried nearest them. A few talked about coming up, like he had, but no one else seemed ready to do it tonight. He suspected they often talked about such things without actually doing them.
The dead man did wonder, though, whether he shouldn’t pause for a conversation with a few. Why, right over there Joe DiMaggio was buried. Imagine the talk they two could have. And over there was Wyatt Earp’s grave, and over there was Turk Murphy, and Vince Guaraldi. Doc Barker had been buried out here somewhere too, after he died trying to escape from Alcatraz. Lily Coit, Charles De Young, even Emperor Norton himself, they were all here, and surely they wouldn’t mind trading a few words with the dead man? Surely they were just as lonely as he was…
But he had no time. Revenge was too precious, and had been too long coming already. So the dead man slogged on, through the rain, past the graves, toward the city lights reflecting off those great shining glass towers like lighthouses for the fates. The dead man had always loved those great buildings. They made him feel young again.
Something appeared then, a long, snaky, blazing apparition screaming its banshee wail into the night as it flew through the air. The dead man fell, panicked, terrified, scrambling for a hiding place while the impossible thing slowed and then seemed to hover overhead. He clung to a concrete column, praying it did not see him. He tried to hold his breath only to realize it was now not only impossible but unnecessary. There was a snapping sound, and then a ball rang, and then, strangely, the sound of feet tromping overhead, like a column of soldiers marching on thin air. He dared look up and then realized what the glowing specter really was: an elevated train. The column he hugged supported the tracks. Late-night commuters filed onto the platform twenty feet overhead and when the doors slid shut again the entire shrieking assemblage streamed off into the night.
The dead man felt foolish. Clearly things had changed in the years since he died. Once his embarrassment wore off, he realized the rail-line was a boon for him; it would lead into the city, and if he followed underneath it he would encounter fewer late-night pedestrians than on the main highway. Staying close to the lights on the tracks he followed them, into the heart of civilization, and closer to his prey.
The pouring rain made rivers and streams of everything. He was glad that it seemed to be relieving him of the grave smell. The city by night was a strange thing: dark and vacant but still teeming with artificial animation, with the glare of electronic lights and the low whine of tires on asphalt. He did not belong here; the people of the dead city kept in their place. It was the unspoken law of the dead. But tonight the rules bent. The dead man scampered beneath overpasses, through alleys, along ditches and across vacant lots. Those few people who saw him took him for another homeless vagrant in his shapeless, foul-smelling clothes. The heavy rain hid face from them. He was tracking using senses he did not realize he had. Maybe it was the spirit of revenge itself that guided him. He came to one block, one street, one house. It was one of the tall Victorian homes that they called the painted ladies. Yes, this was the sort of house his killer would live in. His killer was a rich and powerful man, so powerful that he was never punished even though everyone knew he’d killed the dead man.
The dead man crept up to a window streaked with rain and squinted into the soft yellow lamplight inside. The living room was filled with boxes, and the floor lined with newspapers that suggested painting project. Of course, the dead man thought, that explains why I’ve come back tonight: My killer has only just come to live here in the city. The dead man smeared the glass with his blackened fingers, rage welling up in the hollow of his chest where his heart once sat. There was movement in another room. He clamored over a fence and into a side yard, creeping up to a bedroom window. Yes, there he was! The dead man felt poisonous joy at the sight of his enemy.
The killer wore a faded blue bathrobe as he picked through the rooms of his new house, feeling the stacks of boxes with his hands. But how old he was! He’d become gray and bent in the years since the dead man last saw him. And what was this? The killer’s hands moved over everything with such delicate care, and a faithful dog trotted at his side at all times. He’s blind, the dead man realized, blind and all but helpless. But why the lamps? Then the dead man spotted the tire tracks in the wet driveway. Someone else lived here too. A caretaker, or a wife? Whoever it was, they surely wouldn’t leave the old man alone for long. The dead man wanted to break through the glass and seize the old man, to break his bones and twist his limbs (his body was tired and clumsy but strong, terrifyingly strong.)
But no, he had a better idea: He’d get the old man to open the door for him. Yes, open the door and invite him in, never realizing that he was bringing doom into his home. The dead man went to the front door and knocked as loudly as he could. The door opened, just a crack, and a voice (his killer’s voice! Old and frail, but the same voice that the dead man knew so well!) said:
For a moment the dead man wasn’t sure he was capable of speech, but when he opened his mouth the words came, though they sounded garbled and strange. “Sir,” the dead man said in his voice like brittle leaves, “I’m a poor man with nothing in the world, and the rain has wet me to the bone. If you don’t mind, I’d like permission to rest a while here on your porch, and hopefully dry out a bit.”
The slim yellow line that indicated the door opening wavered for a second, as if the house itself were pondering. Then the door opened and the old man (the killer) beckoned him in. “Can’t have you freezing out there. Come in and dry yourself off properly.”
The house was warm. The dead man felt the change in temperature vaguely, as if it were happening to someone else and he was only observing it. “You must excuse me,” said the killer. “I have not moved in yet.”
“The first night in a new house is always the loneliest,” said the dead man, following his killer deeper inside. The old man walked with two canes, one to hold himself up and the other to find his way. Even the dead man walked faster than his killer did.
“That’s very true,” his killer said. “But when you get to be my age, any night can be a lonely one. I find I’m loneliest of all when someone is with me.”
“It’s the same with me,” the dead man said. He dripped rainwater on the hardwood floor, water black and green with the residue of his body. The rain, he knew, would cover the smell of his moldered flesh even to the blind man’s sensitive nose, but not for very long. That was all right. He would not need long. The old man’s dog crouched near the door, tail between its legs. It looked at the dead man with head cocked to one side. The dead man put a finger to his lips as a signal: Shhhhh. The dog ran away.
The killed grunted. He’d reached a chair and was doing his best to sit in it. He told the dead man his name. “And who are you?” his killer said.
The dead man told him.
The killer was quiet for a moment. Then he said: “I’m sorry. I don’t think I heard you right. What’s your name?”
The dead man said it again.
The killer dropped his cane. Somewhere, the dog was crying.
The old man began to shake. When he opened his mouth no words came out. The dead man stood over his killer’s chair, dripping rain. It was a long time before the old man spoke. When he did the only words he said were: “I’m sorry.”
“You murdered me,” the dead man said.
“No!” said the killer, and the dead man’s anger boiled over. He screamed:
“Don’t lie! You murdered me, you bastard!”
“You don’t understand,” said the killer. He was crying, feeble old man’s tears.
“No, I don’t,” the dead man said. “Because I’ve never killed anyone. But I’ll understand soon.”
“But I had to do it,” said the killer. “Don’t you see? It had to be done.”
The dead man touched his killer’s cheek, gently. “Answer a question,” said the dead man, “and I may let you live.”
The killer’s old, blind eyes looked up at him.
“How many?” said the dead man.
“How many what?”
The dead man wrapped his fingers around his killer’s throat. “How many people did you kill?” Outside, the rain was loud, like a thousand wet, clammy hands beating on the walls and windows. “Do you even know how many there were? Tell me that our lives meant at least that much to you, and I may let you go.”
The killer blinked. He furrowed his brow. He stammered: “I…I…”
And he started to sob.
Slowly, very slowly, the dead man reached for the lamp. He turned out the light. In the dark, there was a sound like the last bit of water swirling around the drain. In another room, the dog began to howl, and then he began to cry.
And then everything went quiet.
They read about it, as the saying goes, in tomorrow’s paper:
A blind retiree was murdered in his home late Saturday night, stunning this quiet residential neighborhood, and police say his assailant is still at large.
“His wife had gone out to the store. They just moved in and there was no food in the house,” a police spokesperson told reporters. “She came back to find the door open and her husband dead.”
Police identified the victim as Martin Coughlin, 79, a former assistant district attorney from Reno. Coughlin had been both strangled and bludgeoned. Police said there were no signs of a break-in and it appears that Coughlin opened the door for his attacker. Coughlin was blind due to complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor two years ago.
During his career as a Washoe County prosecutor Coughlin tried over 700 homicides. He achieved national notoriety after petitioning for the death penalty in the case of Dante Riggs. Riggs was accused of abducting and murdering a seven year old girl while on a gambling trip. He was executed in 1995, but the conviction was overturned posthumously when new evidence was discovered. The public outcry against Coughlin’s handling of the prosecution prompted his retirement.
“We came here for a fresh start,” said Martha Coughlin (70), who made a brief statement to the press. “It’s hard to know what to think. I guess I’d really hoped that, in this place, maybe, after all these years, we could finally be free of the ghosts of the past.
“But now it looks like the ghosts are all I have left.”
“…and that’s why we’re the only city in the world that banishes our dead.”
“Wait, why? I don’t understand what that has to do with the story?”
“When the dead stay too close to the living they always want to come back up and cause trouble. If you put a little distance between the living and the dead, it means that only really important business can get them back up again.”
“Well I don’t think I understood it. He wasn’t really even a ghost, was he?”
“And if you’re saying this story was true, then how do you know about it? Who told you?”
“Who do you think? I work in one of those cemeteries. The dead get chatty sometimes. They don’t have very many occasions to talk, you know, so when one comes along they’re hard to shut up. They’ll tell you almost anything.”
“I don’t expect you to believe me. But you’ll all understand, someday. None of us can stay in the living city forever. Sooner or later we’ll all take that trip south. And then you’ll see.
“Anyway, that’s my story. Does anyone have another?”