Three Common Ghosts

Deborah Steinberg

Deborah Steinberg

The first ghost twinkles on the road, races and glistens in slickness. Spools and unravels, threads itself out and stretches like newly-poured tar, solidifies then re-liquefies just before you reach it. You become a ghost tracking this ghost across a continent full of roads. Desolate stretches. Cruise control. Drive until the fumes drive you out of your car, retching and choking, stumbling smoke-blind after its trace, already lost.

The second ghost shows up for a visit unannounced. He is pushing an empty shopping cart and demands a tour of the city. You stall for time, but grow apprehensive when he begins playing with your new cat, a tiny smoky stray whose name is still under deliberation. He envelops it in fine, pale hands. He strokes and coos, overly attentive, half-smiling. You are ready to attempt a nervous joke about ghost eating habits, but he stands up suddenly – kitten flying – and requests to be taken out for oysters. Despite your protests that oysters do not fall within your budget, you end up around an immaculate table in a pricy bistro with the ghost and a few of your friends, who are charmed by his mystique and his impeccable table manners. He is quite the gourmet, knowledgeable about the whites he orders by the bottle for the table – first a muscat, then a sauvignon blanc, then a sancerre – which render the whole scene slightly blurry, tinged with a sunset gold. The ghost sips oysters out of their shells with aristocratic panache. He converses about the interest of blood splatter interpretation and other aesthetic matters. You are slightly disgusted by the degree to which your friends are impressed by the ghost; he reminds you too much of your ex-husband, if your ex-husband had been a nineteenth-century gentleman with pale skin and thin limbs. When the third bottle of wine has been drained, the ghost announces that he would like now to go to the drive-in. You explain that there are no more drive-ins, but he insists. You end up at a multiplex watching something so forgettable that the ghost dematerializes in a puff of mist faintly redolent of vineyards and fish markets, and you amble out of the building, pushing his still-empty shopping cart, wondering where in this world to look for him.

A third ghost lives in wet acacia blossoms in early spring. She perches in the rain, in the yellow, wearing a navy blue nylon jumpsuit. She appears to little girls gazing out of car windows on their way to doctor’s appointments after school. Materializes just at the moment the girl answers her mother’s naïve question Did you watch the space shuttle launch at school today? The girl has to explain what happened as the ghost rustles the acacia trees and makes the pollen scatter onto the wet suburban sidewalk. The girl unable to turn her face from the window and the ghost, whose eyes say helplessly: Don’t be a teacher, or a mother, or an astronaut. You’ll leave too many little ones behind; you’ll be forced to inhabit the landscapes of their childhoods, yellow like the trees of the moment they first articulate bad, bad news.


Deborah Steinberg’s writing has been published in Shelflife, The Café Irreal, Blood and Thunder, and other journals. Most recently, she is co-editor of the anthology Writing That Risks: New Work from Beyond the Mainstream, published by Red Bridge Press, where she is a founding editor. Deborah lives in San Francisco, where she facilitates writing workshops with a focus on healing and sings in the a cappella group Conspiracy of Venus.


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