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  Barry Yourgrau: Haunted Traveler


After the plane crash, I decide it's high time I give up my wandering life once and for all, and settle down. Where I am in tropical mountains seems as good a spot as any.

I set about shopping for a suitable partner for domestic life. After so many years banging around alone, I'm not much of a hand at these matters. I make the mistake of bringing up my air disaster. "But I thought there weren't any survivors," my dates murmur, looking up in confusion from forks poised over Iocal, flan-style desserts. There's a little awkward pause. I clear my throat. "Actually, I'm not a survivor, as such," I admit, with a sheepish laugh. I waggle my chin in good-humored self-deprecation. "I'm one of the so-called 'tragic victims,'" I declare. There's another pause, of ashen silence. This is followed by a scream, or a curse and sign of the cross; or in one case, a threat to call the police.

I realize, under the circumstances, it's best I kept my mouth shut. This produces results. I manage to nurture a budding relationship with a lively young woman who, appropriately, runs the local travel bureau. She likes to dye her hair a different color each week--as a form of cosmetic travel, she notes, with a grin! This sort of drollery is dear to my heart. I begin to indulge hopes. Then one afternoon, as dusk is settling, I stand foolishly by the window, flipping through brochures while she gets ready to close up for the day. Suddenly from behind me I hear a strangled gasp. I turn around, and am informed, in strained, horror-hushed tones, that she can literally see right through me.

I'm forced to make a clean breast of things, long before planned. "My god, go away--leave me bel" I'm hissed at, by the voice of someone crouched down in hiding behind a desk. I can just make out the top bob of a brand-new champagne-blond dye job. "Get out of my shop--and my life!" I'm ordered.

The next morning a nervous priest appears at my door, in the ruins of the former pensione where I'm squatting, and announces that if I make any further attempt to consort with a certain one of his flock, I will find myself in the gravest trouble imaginable! He mutters something about "You unquiet ones," and waves a big black crucifix at me, and scurries in retreat down the broken stairs.

I am so disheartened, I just sit in the rubble of my room with the door locked, immobile for hours on end. Bleakly I stare off through the window cracks at the minor sunwashed plaza beyond, and out beyond that, the ill-fated peaks and crags raising their glories against the blue sky. Perhaps, I despair...perhaps I've simply waited too long to cultivate the domestic. And so my fruits are this sequence of catastrophes in both modes, physical and emotional. The bitter harvest of delay. "I mean, who wants a spook for a mate?" I ask myself. I close my eyes at the answer.

I find myself brooding away afternoons out at the poky cemetery where they've got us and our remains. I prod some daisies into the mud by the grave marker, and clean up the wilted litter scattered by the mountain wind from the day before. The wind blows its lonesome sigh in my ears, and I'm faced with the bleak truth, that this is the only tune probably I'll now hear: the music of loneliness.

And yet....

And yet, somehow, the innate spark of hope that inspires the heart of life--of being among the living--comes to my aid. I take my morbid self in hand. I give it a shake. "Now who do you expect to meet, up here in a graveyard?" I demand internally. But then I realize: "Why, just the right person--if you keep your eyes open. Someone with a passing acquaintance with the Departed."

I start monitoring the bereaved comings and goings around me. Not only at this particular sanctuary of those passed on, but at the drowsy little town's other one, there behind the rough stone of its venerable basilica. Happily a yawning priest presides here. And here it is, not too much later, where my eye falls across the jumble of memorial rows, onto an appealing, round-armed and thirtyish graveside visitor--an early widow, perhaps, judging by the clutch of memorial posies in her smartly gloved hands.

Just what I'm after. I drift closer. From behind a droopy cherub on his pedestal, I spy the name on the gravestone she attends; and the jowly, middle-aged and mustached visage inset in its commemorative photo medallion. My breath quickens. I trail her auburn-haired, dusky-necked form out to the gate. I watch her walk off, the tight black warmth of her dress catching the mountain sun like the pelt of a seal. I turn away, and make straight for the shade of a cafe, where I raise a fuss until I'm supplied the use of the grimy slim local phone book. A thrill shivers through me: I find one lone entry for the name I reconnoitered in the graveyard. It bears a "Mrs." in front of it; and an equally heavenly suffix: "Music Teacher." I sway on air back to my cup of bitter chocolate at a corner table.

That very afternoon I arrange my first lesson.

And so begins my late-schooled courtship. I whisper not a word about airplanes, accidents. I avoid dusk-hour appointments. I apply myself to my instruction, which turns out to be on the accordion, an instrument that stands in for the piano, alas now too dear for my teacher's widowed circumstances. So her crowded, cheerful parlor resounds to my straining, sluggish fingerings of polkas and waltzes and sprightly military marches. Tunes from worlds and oceans away. Unexpectedly, I find myself drawing compliments for a native musical sense; which makes me want to blush, if I could, with posthumous childish pride.

While my teacher imperiously pries my hands about with her soft hands over the buttons, I venture a tidbit or two from the glamour of my wanderings. Over a pot of tea afterward, she talks a little in turn about the late man of the house, lost in his prime two years before when his car ran off a mountainside to avoid a cat, and plunged into the town reservoir. No drinking water for a week, she recalls somberly, dropping another brown lump of sugar in her cup. The cat turned out to be a crude toy, set in the road as a prank by local teenagers no doubt. No culprit was ever found.

The ill-served victim looks down at us from his foggy photo portrait over the armchair. He was in the small-scale import business, apparently with no appreciation of culture whatsoever. Brought her up here when she was very young. But he worked hard, was decent, and paid for their home. And for her beloved piano. Which she had to sell--alas, alas!--and replace with the humble accordion.

The accordion leans against the side of the hearth like a boxed, soft-gleaming bellows. The widow sighs.

"Up in these mountains, it hasn't been easy, finding someone who appreciates culture...music," she declares, and she gives a haughty twitch of her pretty nose. I smile at this. I go further, and grin, intimately. She blinks at me. Then quietly--intimately--she grins back. A note chimes in the parlor between us, struck by the heart. Her eyes flicker up and down over me just a moment, noting something. I glance down at myself. I gulp, jarring my teacup.

I can make out the cushion I'm sitting on, through my wavering cotton trousers! I stare horrified out the window at the advancing twilight: a ghost in the grip of dread. "I have to be going--" I blurt, struggling up, flinching in distress against the oncoming screams, the curses, the prospects in ruins. The widow sighs again, in a tone of regret. "And here I was about to invite you to stay for dinner," she announces airily. And she leans back and raises her joined hands to her lips, and regards me over them, her eyebrows slightly lifted in amusement, and her eyes narrowed.

A woman unalarmed by the undead.

Our romance begins in earnest that evening, after a domestic serenade of claypot chicken and the ubiquitous local chocolate and corn and flan variation, and most of a bottle of fizzy acrid wine from her holiday stock. At last we lie together in the brocaded sheets of her bed, she honey brown and plump and naked, groaning softly in the crook of my grey arm. At last I have a tender someone to spill it all out to, the final moments of the flight, the nightmarish veering chaos of the cabin as the pilot struggled--the shrieks, the strange windy silence afterward, the desolate--

Suddenly she presses her fingers into her ears and winces. "Enough!" she cries. "Let's talk about happy things!"

I'm shocked.

"All right," I tell her, swallowing, flustered by her blunt, unkind vehemence. "All right, I'll--I'll tell you some more about my travels," I offer. "NO, not that either!" she protests. "You've talked and talked about them enough alreadyl They're all so gloomy!"

I am entirely taken aback now, by such a peremptory dismissal of the trophies of a lifetime. "Well then what should I talk about?" I murmur tightly at the lacy shadows around us, in insulted distress.

"Kisses!" my amorous widow whispers. "And only sweet, intimate things!"

And she means it. As our passion blooms into odd, loving domesticity, I am shown an astonishing new world--here cracked up for good in the mountains--where my far-flung wanderings and trials are simply of no interest. "Why would I want to hear," she announces, "all about the troubles a lonely, rootless man got himself into, in the course of a strange and mainly wasted life?" Which puts some things in a nutshell, I have to admit.

She sees me as little as possible in public, because of the scandal of my condition. She insists also I dye my hair, so as to look as if among the living. And she dusts me with powder puffs from her cosmetic case, to make me presentable, those times when we ramble the main cobblestone plaza of an evening.

I continue my lessons under her supervision. (In truth I'm her only pupil.) Her parlor swells with my wheezy approximations of tangos, of barcaroles. This is how I do my travelling now--musically, as well as via the guidebook.

I'm tinkering away at in the privacy of the proper boarding house to which she's had me move. The guidebook contemplates the region's cemeteries, which after all were the birthplace for our propitious meeting...were the venue where I resisted the plaintive drone of the wind, and kept faith in my search for a harmony.

One sour note strikes into my happy requiem. Periodically the dead husband shows up. He misses her cooking, it seems! The widow feels an obligation not to turn him away, out of gratitude for past domestic generosities. And from a vestige of marital decency, though his nattering on and on about his current living conditions, she exclaims, drives her to distraction. NO intimacies pass between them, I'm assured. Even so she can't bring herself to tell him just yet about the new dead man in her life, for all sorts of arcane reasons. This gets my goat, in no small way.

But what's a ghost to do in these matters--and one determined what's more, regardless how late, to renounce his days of roaming solo, and learn the art of being two? Just accede, he must; and strive for composure, and wisdom. I draw some solace from the harsh dismissals the other must be subjected to, whenever he tries wanly to bring up what life's like on the other side.

So the couple of days every few months he's around, I busy myself off touring mountainside cemeteries, and tidying my notes. I make a point of keeping my spirits up, while I amble past the headstones. When the breeze tries to play its sad song in my ears, I whistle my accordion tunes over it, and practice my button fingering.

And soon enough I can return to the hearth I've won the right to haunt--a dyed-haired specter reunited with his posthumously adulterous Mrs. The parlor seems clammy to me at first, from the watery interloper's visit. But we take up our instrument once more, we resume our lessons, my musical widow and me, and things regain their hospitable warmth soon enough.


 
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Copyright © 1999 by Barry Yourgrau.