David W. Landrum
Carve your number on my wall
And maybe you will get a call from me . . .
If I needed someone.
----"If I Needed Someone" by George Harrison
After his divorce from Bria, Michael Paston found himself going on solitary walks and, oddly, visiting derelict buildings. If he came upon an abandoned house, he would ignore the NO TRESSPASSING sign and find a way inside. The empty rooms that once held life, the vacant interiors where people had lived in their warmth and closeness, spoke to the emptiness he felt in his soul. Two months after the split, he ventured into an old apartment complex slated for demolition. He had heard the Beatles song, "If I Needed Someone," playing on a radio in a parked car just before slipping inside the doomed building. After exploring it, he took out a pen and, remembering a phrase in the song, wrote his phone number on the wall of one of the empty chambers.
Two days later, his phone rang.
"I saw your number on the wall of the building-the one they're going to tear down on Wealthy Street."
"What were you doing there?"
"I used to live there. I go back there now and then-just for old time's sake. What were you doing there?"
Her question took him aback. What had he been doing there?
"I like to go in places like that." He answered honestly instead of obfuscating or making up a story. "There's something about abandoned buildings that fascinates me."
Michael had not expected anyone to call him in response to the number he had written on the wall, let alone a girl. He decided, though, that since he had initiated contact, he at least ought to be polite.
"I'm Michael. You are?"
"Portia. Portia Mallory."
"I'm glad you called. Can we meet?"
"Sure. How about tonight at the Bitter End? Is eleven too late? I work a late shift and like to go there after I get off. I'll be wearing white."
"I'll see you there."
During the day he wondered if it was a joke. He thought perhaps the demolition crew might have seen it and decided to play a prank on him. That seemed unlikely, though. Graffiti covered the walls of abandoned buildings. If the voice-the woman who said her name was Portia-did live there once and had gone there it might make sense that she would call. Perhaps the same attraction to empty spaces made her gravitate to her old dwelling, just as losing Bria had made him feel at home in emptiness. Michael realized he was romanticizing the whole thing. This Portia might be psycho. She might be twice his age or unattractive. She might be a panhandler or hooker. But he had liked her voice. She had sounded lonely. Lonely people recognized one another. He would go and meet her. He had to at least see what she looked like.
At eleven he parked near the Bitter End, a coffee bar open 24/7. He walked in to find the place full. He saw a girl he concluded must be Portia Mallory sitting at a corner table.
Her beauty astonished him. She was small and delicate with long hair, a round face, and a slender body. She had big eyes and a small, bowed mouth, and wore a white dress, white tights, and light brown shoes. Her pale skin and long curly hair reminded him of James Whistler's painting, Woman in White. She sat at the table with her hands folded.
He walked over to her. "Portia?"
She looked up. Her eyes gave off a sadness and, he thought, a weariness.
"Yes." She smiled wanly and put out her hand. "I'm happy to meet you."
He took her hand.
She smiled. "This is weird," she muttered.
He slid into the seat opposite her. "What's wrong with something being weird? It's an odd way to meet, I'll grant, but it's okay. I'm not a vampire or a serial killer."
"Not a vampire?" she interjected. "Damn! So disappointing."
He laughed. "And I don't think you're an ax murderess or a Lorelei-though it would be cool if you were-the last one, I mean."
"You never know."
They laughed again. Things had started well. She was pretty, did not seem weird, and did not seem put off by anything about him. He got drinks-a latte for him, a white chocolate mocha for her.
"So why do you go in old buildings?" she asked when they had drunk.
"I like the quiet and the empty spaces. Maybe I go for the same reason people like to visit ruins. You think of who might have lived there and wonder what their lives were like. You?"
"I miss my old place. I was there a lot of years. I spent some happy times there."
"I have a house I share with another girl. I work on the assembly line at the cookie factory on 28th Street. Tough, boring work, but it pays the bills. I usually work weeknights, but I had time off so I took it."
"Do you like working there?"
"Like it? Hell no. It's all I can get, though."
"Do they pay well?"
"Not a lot. That's why I share a place to live. The factory is a vicious place. The people are hard-and, of course, the guys all think you're just dying to fall into their arms."
"Did you grow up here in Grand Rapids?"
"I was born in Jenison but my family moved here when I was ten."
They talked on. He wondered what the upshot of the meeting would be and how it would end. She did not seem to have anything of great importance to bring up. After a while she said she needed to go.
"Can I give you a ride home?" he asked.
"I called a cab, but you can wait with me."
The two of them stepped outside. Her white dress shimmered in the light of a gibbous waning moon. When the taxi pulled up, she let him kiss her.
"Can I see you again?"
"I'll call you."
At a poetry reading two days later, Michael ran into Sean, who also worked at the cookie factory.
"Do you know Portia Mallory?"
He gave Sean a puzzled look. "Did?"
"She's been dead a year. She was electrocuted."
Michael gaped. He almost said he had just talked to her but restrained himself. "How did that happen?" he asked.
"One of the foremen wanted to speed up an assembly line. He was an engineer and rerouted the current. I don't know anything about how that stuff works. Anyway, he did something wrong. She stepped on a metal part and got fried. She lived a few hours, but it had zapped her nervous system. She died at the hospital. They sent the foreman to jail. Pity. She was nice, liked to have fun and party. How do you know about her?"
Michael said a relative had asked about her. Home, he got on the internet and found articles about the accident, complete with Portia's photo. It was the same girl. No doubt about it. Michael realized with a chill that he had entertained a ghost. What did she want? Would she contact him again?
At eleven p.m. she called. "Can we get together? Stella's is open till two. It would be nice to have a drink."
He said he would meet her there.
She had on the same outfit. The two of them found a table.
"So how's work?" Michael asked.
She shrugged. "Not busy. Like I said, it's summer. Any poetry readings lately?"
"One. Someone gave me a good book while I was there."
At ease, enjoying her drink, she looked up and smiled. "What book is that?"
He took out a copy of Amy Gerstler's Ghost Girl and laid it on the table in front of her. She stared down at it.
"I learned you were killed in an accident a year ago-that you're dead-that you're a ghost."
She downed her drink. "I'd better go."
He gripped her hand. "Don't. I want to hear your story. I want to help if I can."
"Help?" she said, her voice husky, as if she might cry.
"You called me for a reason. It might have been just because you were lonely or curious. I've heard that ghosts want something and appear to people because they think they might get help."
She licked her lips. "Look, I need to go."
From under her light brown hair, her green eyes looked back at him. He saw fear and loneliness in her gaze.
"I'm sorry. I should never have called you."
"I'm not sorry you did." Then he asked, "Do you have a cell phone?"
"I use the desk phone at the Blue Moon-it's a shop down below where I stay." A pause, and then she said, her voice quiet but intense and full of emotion, "You don't know what it's like, Michael. You can't imagine. You die and it's not heaven, not hell, not nirvana or anything like that. It's just existence-empty, lonely, existence that goes on and on and on. Since I died I've never made contact with a living person. But I couldn't stand being alone anymore. When I saw your number, I thought I'd call just to see who wrote it. When I heard your voice, it was like dawn breaking. I couldn't spend another day in that shabby place all alone. The idea of just having someone to talk with was enough to make me give it a try."
He held both her hands. "I'm here. I like talking with you."
"It doesn't creep you out?"
"It surprises and startles me. It turns my beliefs about things upside-down. But it doesn't scare me."
"That's good to know, and I guess." She stopped. Tears ringed her eyes. After silently fighting back tears, she calmed down enough to continue. "I guess I sort of was looking for help."
"What kind of help?"
"Someone is going to tear down the apartment building. It will be bad for me."
"I have to be anchored to a place. I have to have a place to center-somewhere that contains a residue of my past life. By residue, I mean energy, memories, recollections. When the place is torn down, I'll be sent out into the air."
"I'll have no place to be. I'll be a spirit whirling around in the wind and the elements-like in Dante's Inferno where he meets the two lovers."
"Pablo and Francesca?"
"Yes, that part. I did a report on it in school." She smiled, able to break weakly out of her misery. "I got in big trouble showing a BBC film about the Inferno that had that scene in it acted out with full frontal nudity. Anyway, that's what will happen to me, sort of. I won't be in hell, but I'll be swirled around forever because I don't have a place to hold me down."
"Can't you attach yourself to some other place?"
"I don't know. I can't see how I could. It's scary." She laughed as tears spilled from her eyes. "I know it's hard to imagine a ghost could be scared of something, but I'm sure as hell scared about this."
He wiped away her tears with a paper napkin.
She took it from him and blew her nose loudly. They both laughed. "As you can see from that, I do have a body from midnight till about 2 a.m.," she smiled, though still sad. "After 2 a.m., I start to fade."
"If the place you stay now wasn't torn down, would you be okay?"
"As okay as a ghost can be."
He sipped his whiskey thoughtfully. "I'll see what I can do to stop it."
"Do? I can't see that anyone could do anything to halt the demolition. It's already underway. As soon as they finish tearing down Rossdale, where you wrote your phone number, they'll start with the other four places on the block. I live the Harley Building, the one right next to the old Rossdale Estates."
"You say you lived in the older part of the block?"
"I lived in Rossdale for a while. Then a room opened in in the Harley Building next door. I thought the old buildings were cool and moved over there. Why?"
He twirled his empty shot glass. "The old part has historical value. They're usable. We have our poetry slams in one of those places. A couple of businesses still operate there."
"It's scheduled for demolition-the whole block is. I got an eviction notice right before I died. They want to build a parking garage there. How could you stop it from being demolished?"
"I don't know. But remember I'm a poet."
She looked slightly vexed by his statement. "How is that going to help?"
"We see nuances that other people don't see. We write poems. We write our phone numbers on peoples' walls."
She looked up at him, her green eyes big with wonder. Then she leaned over the table and gave him a kiss. She settled back in her chair, looking frightened.
"Am I that irresistible?" he quipped.
She looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I just--" She shook her head.
He touched the tops of her folded hands.
"For heaven's sake, don't be sorry."
"I'm solid until about two a.m.," she said.
"Maybe some night I can ask you out for a real, bona fide date."
"It will be a short date. We'll have four hours, 11:00 to 2:00, to visit, and if we really like each other and get cozy, it will have to be a quickie."
He laughed. "Too late now. In the meantime, I'll look into it. I'll be at the Bitter End on Wednesday. I'll tell you what I find out."
They stayed at the bar until it near closing time. He noticed she started to fade. By the time they went outside she had become transparent.
She kissed him again, though he could hardly feel her body; she walked into an alley and disappeared.
Michael spent the rest of the week doing research on the demolition site. Noting that the buildings there housed several businesses, he decided to visit one. He took a day off from work and walked to The Blue Moon. The interior smelled dusty. Bins of colorful glass beads, hookahs, bongs, and black light assemblies filled the shelves. Retro clothing hung on racks. Paintings and posters covered the walls. Wooden containers stuffed with old LPs took up one section of the shop. Michael counted seven people examining the merchandise. A woman who introduced herself as Patricia, owner of the shop, asked if she could help him find anything.
"Not today. I was wondering, though, if the rumor that this block is slated for demolition is true."
She pointed at a post on the wall, hand-drawn with magic marker: SAVE OUR BLOCK. SIGN THE PETITION. Beneath it sat a table with a clipboard and papers attached. A pen on a chain dangled from the stand.
"Are people signing it?"
"Lots of people. I don't know that it will do much good, though."
"Why do you say that?"
"We're up against a company with money and connections. These buildings are on the historical registry but that hasn't stopped them."
"I thought buildings on the historical registry couldn't be demolished."
"The development company has clout with state government. They schmooze with the boys and girls down in Lansing-also give money to their campaign funds."
He looked at a half-opened door that led into a stairwell. "Can I go upstairs?"
"Nothing up there but old rooms the owners used to rent out. They're empty now."
"Still, I'd like to look around. If I lodge a protest about the demolition, I want to be able to say I walked through the buildings and saw they were soundly built."
With her permission he climbed the stairs and came to a central corridor. He peeked into empty rooms. The sunlight coming through the windows lit dust mites. In the last room on the right, he saw Portia. He could only make out vague contours of her face and body. He heard her voice-not in his ears, in his mind.
You shouldn't have come here. I hate you seeing me like this.
It's shameful to be without a body. You can't understand that because you have one. Being bodiless is like being stripped naked in front of a leering crowd of people.
"You look beautiful."
She might have given him a penetrating glance just then, but it was too hard to see.
Let's go out in the hall. If you close all the doors, there will be less sunlight and you can see me better.
He closed the doors that led into the hall and pulled a brittle, yellowed shade down on the window at one end of it. He could see her more clearly: white tinged with blue, transparent, looking at once humiliated at her appearance and glad he was there. He reached up for her.
No, don't. Your hand will go through me, and it hurts when that happens. I'm speaking in your mind because a person has to have a body to talk-you know: lungs, a tongue and lips, air to puff out and make words. I don't have any of those things anymore.
"Can I see you tonight?"
I'd like that. Why don't you come here?
"Can I get in? Won't it be locked up?"
I'll let you in. Come at eleven so we can be together the whole time I'm solid.
"I've got a plan to keep the building from being torn down--"
Tell me tonight. It may be silly, but I don't want to talk with you while I'm disembodied. I'm too ashamed of how I look. You can tell me about it tonight. With that, she vanished.
Michael went home and began making phone calls.
After eating at Yesterdog and drinking beer with a crowd of poet friends at Harmony Brewing, Michael walked to the Blue Moon and knocked.
Portia let him inside, threw her arms around him, and began to kiss him with wild abandon. Things followed their course. When they were finished they lay on the floor behind the counter, her arms tight around him.
He kissed her hair.
The room filled with light as a car passed and its headlight beams shone through the store's plate glass windows. He got glimpses of her body, lovely in its gentle curves, its unassuming beauty like a gemstone in the alternating dark and light.
She slept a half hour and awoke.
Michael pulled her against him.
Still groggy with sleep, she kissed his shoulder. "I hardly ever do that."
"Well, I can understand--"
She laughed. "I don't mean I hardly ever screw, you dummy-though actually this is the first time since I stepped on that live wire. I mean I hardly ever sleep. I don't have to. This is the first time I've fallen asleep since I died. It's nice."
"You're a sweet woman."
He had wondered how, in such an intimate situation, he would get to the things he wanted to tell her, but she asked, "So how are you going to save the buildings?"
"I've organized a protest and a series of poetry readings. I have an interview with the Grand Rapids Press and a couple of local magazines are carrying stories about the demolition. If people in our city knew about this, they would oppose it."
She did not speak for some time and then said, "I'm impressed."
"Never underestimate poets."
"Will you recite me a poem?" she asked.
"Reciting whole poems is too much work. Let me give you a couplet: "If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee."
Emotion overwhelmed her. When she could speak, she asked, "Was that Shakespeare?"
"Not Shakespeare. It was someone who lived at the same time. John Donne. Ever hear of him?"
"I wasn't big on literature."
"What were you big on?"
"Parties. Drinking. Having fun. I was pretty shallow-minded. Now that I'm on the other side and look back, all that seems pointless and shabby. I feel like I didn't do anything worthwhile. I feel like it wouldn't make any difference if I'd never lived."
"There were people who loved and cared about you. That makes a difference."
"Do you think these rallies will do any good?" she asked-too quickly. She wanted to change the subject.
"The company that wants to demolish this block will be running scared in two weeks."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better."
They talked past 2 a.m. Portia became a transparent wraith.
"Call me tomorrow," he said.
I may need to be alone for a few days to think my way through all of this.
He wanted to kiss her but restrained himself, knowing if he did so it would cause her pain. He left her and went home. Two days later, he attended the rally.
Michael was shocked when a thousand people showed up. He had set a group of his friends to publicizing the rally, but he never thought such a large crowd would gather, though he later reflected that a petition had been previously circulated and that a lot of people in East Town were probably chagrined at the coming demolition. They had only needed a rallying point.
His real stroke of luck, though, came when the president of the development company appeared and asked if he could have a word with the crowd. He extolled the company's plan and argued it would benefit the area. People asked him if the buildings were on the historical registry. Weren't there active businesses operating in the premises? Were there not two large public parking lots nearby? He hemmed and hawed, bullied by the crowd's defiance. This would have been good in itself, but the large crowd attracted local journalists and made the evening news. Journalists focused on the size of the crowd, its militancy, and the company president's inability to give them straight answers. They interviewed Michael as well as some of the business owners. Sentiment against tearing down the buildings started to grow.
He wanted to tell Portia, but she did not contact him. He thought of going to the Blue Moon but decided it would be better to wait for her. She did not contact him all that week.
During the time, two of the local news stations assigned investigative reporters to look into the issue. They did ambush interviews with the state legislators on the Historical Buildings committee who had given the okay to destroy structures on the registry. They were mostly Democrats. When the majority Republicans found this out and saw it as a controversy that would make their party look good, they called for a review the decision before the house voted on it.
Portia finally called and told Michael she would meet him at the Viceroy at 11:00.
When he saw her, she had a long, retro dress she had taken off the racks at Blue Moon. She wore a headband, bracelets, and sandals.
"Wow! My sixties chick!" he said. "You look groovy, baby."
Though she smiled, he detected sadness in her face. He sat down with her. "Sad?"
"Not exactly." She took a drink of her peach daiquiri, thought as she swirled it around, and then looked at him. "I met some other ghosts," she said.
He only nodded, not knowing what to say.
"There are quite a few of us here. I just kind of missed out on it up until now."
"How did you miss out?"
"Well, it's a big adjustment. Is that an understatement or what? And when you're a ghost, you're controlled a lot by your emotions. Since you don't live in the regular world, you sort of create your own world. I was so bitter about being killed because some hotshot engineer wanted to speed the assembly line and so scared and so lonely I created a negative aura. None of the other ghosts in town could get near me."
"And they can now?"
"I let go of some of that--enough that they could get through to me. I've met some really cool people, Michael. I even met a couple of people I know. Some good-looking guys--" She stopped.
He smiled sardonically. "So I'm getting dumped?"
She only looked down.
"It's happened before. I dated a Japanese girl in high school. We split up because her Dad and Mom didn't want her going out with a white guy. Now it's a ghost-girl who doesn't want to have anything to do with a guy who's still alive."
"Don't say that, Michael. I want to see you. It's just . . . well, you know--"
They sank into a miserable silence.
"The rally went well."
"Good. You know I'm still in trouble if they tear that place down."
One of those ugly, irrational thoughts that arise out of anger filled his mind. Maybe he ought to call off the effort to save the buildings. Maybe it would please him to think of her whirled around in the elements like Dante's miserable lovers, forever and ever. He felt hot. He hoped she did not notice.
Both of them drank a lot and did not talk much that night. They parted at 1:30 a.m. He watched her fade and disappear in the alleyway a few blocks from the bar. He drove home and stumbled into bed, head spinning from too much liquor.
The campaign against the demolition turned into a groundswell of public support. Placards reading STOP THE DEMOLITION and BOYCOTT SCOTT CONSTRUCTION appeared in businesses all around town. The company headquarters saw pickets every day. It got more serious when two local enterprises cancelled job contracts with Scott. The jobs were small. Michael knew the loss of them would not hurt the company a lot, but it made news outlets and generated a lot of bad publicity for them.
He saw Portia once more. They made love during her time of being substantial, but their embrace lacked passion. Though both of them tried to act the part, Michael knew something had died out. Being a poet, he smiled at the irony of his love for a dead lover dying. It made for bitter humor.
The rise in sentiment against Scott Development and Construction crested when the City of Grand Rapids announced it would "review" the contracts the city had proposed with them.
The prospect of losing millions if the city reneged on promised construction projects posed too much of a risk to the company. The president announced they had decided against demolishing the four buildings, though the demolition of Rossdale Estates would continue. Scott would build a multistory parking garage there, he said, making certain to match the style of the old buildings next to it. Further, Scott planned to finance a bronze plaque to be placed on the front of the complex outlining its history and historical significance. They would also offer low-cost contracts for any businesses on the block that needed renovation or repair.
The organization that had formed to coordinate protests on the demolition held a celebration at Harmony Brewery. Speeches, a poetry reading, lots of drinking and good will flowed that night. The organization invited the president of Scott and representatives of the company.
Michael stumbled to his car at midnight wondering if he should have asked for a designated driver. When he opened the door he saw Portia sitting behind the steering wheel.
"You're in no shape to be behind the wheel," she said. "I'll take you home--if I remember how to do this."
"You wouldn't forget how to drive in just a year."
"Eighteen months," she corrected. "Get in."
He managed to climb into his automobile and gave her directions. She wore the white outfit she had worn the night they met. Ten minutes later they pulled into his driveway.
"Nice place. Big house for a single guy."
"I was married. I'm divorced now."
"You never told me that."
"Hard to talk about."
"It surprises me that your ex didn't get the house."
"She didn't want it. She's a lawyer. She makes money enough to pay alimony to me."
Portia chucked and then asked, "Kids?"
"We had a baby-two months old now."
"You never mentioned that either," she intoned. "Do you get to see her?"
"Him. It's too early. Since the child is so tiny we haven't talked about visitation. I drop in now and then to get a look at him. Bria and I have a fairly friendly relationship. I'm sure I'll get to see Ian a more when he gets older and we decide on a visitation arrangement."
"I'm sure he'll love you."
"I like to think so."
"You've got some things that haunt you besides me."
"I guess so. I wish this thing haunted me as nicely as you do."
"I haven't been very nice lately. I'm sorry, Michael. I got caught up in the ghost thing now that I've broken out."
"Ghost phrase. Most of us live the first few years of our existence as spirits in the kind of self-imposed bondage I was living in. When we get out of it and meet other ghosts-that's what we call 'breaking out.'" She paused, getting a little teary, swallowed hard, and went on. "I realized it was ironic that you are the one who allowed me to do that. You helped me to break out of the prison I had built around myself."
He wanted to reply but was too drunk and too tired to say anything.
"My ghost friends pooh-poohed it when I told them that, but because you loved me I was able to look past my anger and sorrow and see some light. Some ghosts never break out. They're the ones who become the scary ghosts, the ghosts who frighten people and are malicious and destructive. I could have easily become one of those."
"Thank George Harrison, not me."
Portia sang in a small, pretty, melodic voice. "'If I needed someone to love / You're the one that I'd be thinking of-if I needed someone.' I sang that song a lot after I called you. Nice song, and you carved your number on my wall, but I don't want the rest of it to be true for us. I needed someone. I still need you, Michael."
His head drooped. He was too tired to sit straight.
"Let's go inside," she said. "I want to sleep with you."
"I'm probably too drunk--"
"Even if we just sleep, that's fine. I want to be near you."
"Don't you need to be back at your place before sunrise?"
"I'm a ghost, you silly nerd, not a vampire. We can go out in the sun, though we don't like the sun. Night is more congenial for us. Anyway, it won't be a problem because I know how to project now. The other ghosts taught me how to instantly pop out of one place and into another. Before then, even if I disappeared I had to go the physical distance. I want to be close to you tonight. We can get it on later."
He looked up. "You're not dumping me?"
"Of course not." She again got teary-eyed. "You could have dumped me when you found out my little secret-well, it was kind of a big secret, I guess. I'm sorry I made you think I was going to run out on you after I met some of my own kind."
"I thought that was what you had decided to do."
"I had decided that. I got all caught up with my new, glitzy friends. A lot of cool people have lived and died in this town. Not everyone becomes a ghost, but the people who do are often pretty interesting types. Lots of good-looking guys from years ago or not so long ago-and a lot of them think I'm hot. But--" She did not finish.
They got out of the car. She helped him into the house, helped him undress and get in bed.
Under the covers, she snuggled against him. She was warm and solid. "If a miracle happens," she said, kissing him, "we'll go for it."
"Stranger things have occurred," he replied. "Like the two of us meeting."
"I'd hate to think what would have happened to me if we hadn't met. It's not just that, though. You know what I mean. If I talk about it much more, I'll start crying. I can't leave you. I've got another crowd I run with now, and you might have competition from other men, but you're going to be haunted by a ghost-girl from now on. Count on it."
"I like the idea."
"You'll like the reality of it even more."
He leaned his head on her shoulder. Sleep began to overwhelm him. In the morning, though, she would be there-transparent, unsubstantial, but more real than dreams, more real than possibilities.
Michael drifted off in the ghost-girl's arms.