A Time for Ghosts (A Poem)

Autumn is a time for ghosts.
When the days turn,
when the world comes to rest,
there’s space and time
for those who’ve
stayed behind.
In the changing of the leaves
and the chilling in the air,
the smoky breeze
and the golden sky,
they join us,
just there.
As close as a breath,
and far as they’ve always been,
as fall to winter and winter to spring,
they wait for us in that place
between.

Writer’s Block (A Poem)

Inspiration…
lacking.
And slacking on the list.
Hours turn to evenings with
nothing to show.
I know, I know –
I can do better than this.
(One breath,
one step,
one task
at a time.)
Just choose the words
and make them rhyme.
Take a moment
and let it grow,
let it live
and sing.
Just make something.
(Anything.
Yes, you can.)

Ghost Light (A Short Story)

The last dress rehearsal did not go well. In fact, it went very, very poorly.

“You know what they say,” Mitch told me.

“You know I don’t,” I answered.

Why would I? Years of restaurant experience had led me down a dead-end path and straight into the wings of the Old River Theatre. Desperate times, Mitch had said. And anyway, I’d only be the assistant to the Stage Manager. He thought it was funny that I was going backwards.

“You’re supposed to wait tables while you try to make it,” he’d said. “You’re working the other way around.”

Now, as we closed up the final dress for the season opener, he clapped me on the back and said, “I forget sometimes. Feels like you’ve been here forever.”

“Is that a compliment, boss?”

“Frank’s been here forever, too, man.” And he pointed up towards the catwalk.

Frank managed lights, sound, and all other things technical and sundry. And he drank himself into a stupor every night. He was probably at it now, somewhere up there, taking swigs from his hip flask and tapping his foot to music only he could hear.

I rolled my eyes. “He’s a liability, Mitch,” I said. “Anyway, tell me, what do they say?”

“Bad dress, good opening. Should be a great show.”

I didn’t feel so confident.

“Don’t worry, kid,” he said. “We’re all professionals here.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Even Frank,” he added. “Let’s finish out and go grab a beer.”

This year, Old River decided to open its fiftieth season with The Sound of Music. The playbill proudly proclaimed it “America’s favorite musical!” Could have fooled me. Ticket sales moved fast enough, but the cast and crew came in every day looking like they’d rather be anywhere else.

“Twenty fucking minutes of ‘Do, re, mi,’” the director said, one evening, after a particularly grueling dance rehearsal. “What do you even do with that?”

The production so far honestly seemed sort of cursed. We’d been hit with a volley of issues starting on day one. Bolts of fabric that never arrived to the costume shop, a music director who lost hearing in one ear halfway through, three von Trapp kids coming down with the flu on the same night. Just one thing after another, culminating in a last dress rehearsal from hell.

“Is all of this normal?” I asked Mitch as we started on our second beer at the dive bar down the street.

“I’ve seen a lot,” Mitch told me, “but this one does feel sort of different.”

“Different how?”

Mitch sat for a moment, and then took a deep gulp of the rest of his lager. “Every show has a few issues,” he said. “I had a lead actress a few years back who used to get laryngitis during every tech week. But this cast, I don’t know. Normally, it starts to feel like a family, you know?”

I nodded. I did not know, but I thought it might be nice to see, one day. Lots of restaurant owners say that about their staff. It’s never true.

“This one just feels off. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve never liked this show.”

I hummed an agreement.

“Next up is Midsummer, and I’m looking forward to that one. Shakespeare’s wild.”

“I think I read that one in school,” I said.

“Trust me, it’s better on stage. Fucking funny.”

I did trust Mitch. I didn’t know what to think, at first, walking into this new world. Actors are a weird bunch, but I’d enjoyed this job so far a lot more than my last three. And the hours suited me fine. Servers get used to late nights and slow mornings.

“Isn’t one of his plays cursed?”

“Shakespeare’s? Oh, yeah,” Mitch said, and laughed. “The Scottish play. Don’t let anyone hear you say the name, ever.”

“MacBeth?”

Mitch bobbed his head. “I think it’s silly,” he said, “but lots of people believe it. I should give you a rundown of all that shit.”

“All what shit?”

“The legends. The bad luck and shit.”

“I don’t believe in that stuff either,” I said. “But I also don’t want a reason to get fired.”

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Mitch said. “After things calm down. For now, we ought to get going. It’s late.”

I looked at my watch. Just after 2:00, and with an early call tomorrow. I left some cash on the table and stood up.

“I think I left my coat in the green room,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” Mitch said. “I need to run back and grab my notebook anyway.”

We walked back at a pretty slow pace. The weather had just started to turn. The days still felt summery, but in the evenings, the temperature and the humidity dropped. It was a relief, after the summer heat, to finally feel a bit of fall.  

“I bet September’s chilly this year,” I said.

We reached the stage door, and Mitch fumbled with the key.

“It always sticks,” he said, and shook his head. “It’s like the ghost doesn’t want us in there late at night.”

He pushed the door open and flipped the lights to the green room.

“The Old River’s haunted?”

“Every theatre has a ghost,” Mitch explained, a little like he was talking to a child. “That’s why we always leave a stage light on.”

We made our way into the left wing, where Mitch’s station was set up by a small podium.

“We do?”

“Geez, kid, I know you’ve seen me do it.”

I thought back and realized I had. I just hadn’t really thought about it before now.

“Or, at least, that’s what they say,” Mitch added. “Really, it’s for safety, but people love their ghost stories.”

“It’s not on right now,” I said. And sure enough, the stage was dark. The house was pitch black.

Mitch turned to check, and I think he actually gasped. We walked to center stage and I looked up.

“Maybe Frank turned it off,” I offered.

“Frank!” Mitch walked to the right wing, and called again. “Frank?”

“Or maybe he went home,” I said, quietly.

“Nah, he’s here somewhere. Go up and check the catwalk.”

“He’s not on the catwalk, boss,” I said. “He’s out in the auditorium. Er, house.” Now that my eyes had adjusted, I could clearly see someone out there, seated towards the middle, looking straight ahead. I pointed, “You can see him, right?”

Mitch shook his head. “Not Frank,” he said.

“What do you mean, not Frank?”

He didn’t answer.

“Who is it, then?”

Just then, the stage light flickered on. I looked out into the house again.

“He’s gone,” I said.

“Let’s go,” Mitch said. He turned on his heel and practically ran back to his station. He grabbed his notebook and stuffed it into his bag. “Come on,” he said.

We hurried toward the door. At the stairs to the catwalk, Frank met us, smelling like he’d swallowed a whole distillery’s worth of whiskey.

“You’re here late,” he wheezed. Poor Frank.

Mitch just nodded.

“Have you been up there this whole time?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Yeah,” Frank answered. “Just came down when I heard you on stage. Ghost light was out. Got it fixed.”

Mitch didn’t say a word, and the three of us walked out together as if nothing strange had happened at all.

************

Just as Mitch predicted, opening night went off without a hitch. The cast hit every beat, nailed every song, and the orchestra played like they’d practiced together for years. For all I knew, some of them probably had. Even the kids were perfect. It was exhilarating, being part of this kind of magic.

Mitch took us out for a drink after the show. “I’m buying,” he said. “You did a good job tonight.”

“Thanks,” I told him.

“So, are you hooked?”

I thought about it. I’d never been part of anything quite like this before. And so I answered, “I think I am.”

“Okay, then,” Mitch said. “Then there are definitely a few things you need to know, if you’re sticking around.”

“Okay,” I said.

“The first thing is, you never look directly at Mr. Holly.”

“Mr. who?”

“That’s who you saw last night,” he said. “You know I said every theatre has a ghost? Well, he belongs to the Old River.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. I put my beer down.  

“I’d never seen him before last night,” Mitch told me. His flat tone indicated to me that he was, in fact, completely serious. “And I’d like to never see him again.”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I thought about it again, and nodded once. “Okay. Well, tell me the rest,” I said.

And Mitch smiled. “You’re one of the good ones, kid.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the eighth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of September.

Your Time Belongs to You (A Poem)

(…that I definitely didn’t write for myself, because I needed to hear it.)

Your time belongs to
only you.
So take it easy,
slow and steady,
and stop
and breathe
if you need to.
It’s okay to
just be
or to not
be okay.
The rest of the world –
it can wait.

There Is a Time (A Poem)

There is a time for
all things –
for grief,
love,
and change,
and for
the way forward.
There is space
enough
in this world to
feel,
to learn,
to see,
and to grow.
This, we know,
even in our worst moments,
and on our
saddest,
sweetest,
shortest,
longest days.
We don’t get to
choose
the minute
or the place,
but they belong to us.
We are
made
to live.

The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil (A Short Story)

My grandfather was a deeply religious man, but he never went to church. Grandma went every Sunday, in her best clothes and her favorite jewelry, but Grandpa always stayed home. I asked him about this once, when I was younger, before he passed away.

It was a summer afternoon, and we sat together, rocking back and forth slow and lazy on the front porch swing, looking out at the mountains.

I pointed to the little steeple in the distance, the one that belonged to my grandmother’s church, and asked, “Why don’t you ever go?”

Grandpa answered. “This is God’s own country. Why would I want to be stuck in there,” he said, and pointed to the steeple, “with all those other people, when I could be out here,” and he gestured around us, and towards the ridge, “where it’s just the Lord and the land and me?”

And then he told me a story.

I don’t know, to this day, whether this story is true, but he told me, and now I’m telling you. Maybe someday, you’ll tell someone, and they’ll tell someone. Stories have a way of keeping themselves alive, don’t they?

“You know where I grew up?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, that’s where this story happened,” my grandpa said.

My grandfather grew up not far from a crossroads called North Fork, on a lonely strip of Appalachian land the locals called Hell’s Half Acre. He knew that his future was tied to that land, whether he liked it or not. And he didn’t like it.

Walking home from school every day, he’d wonder if it would be the last time he’d make the trip. And then one day, it was. He left school in seventh grade and started work at the coal mine right outside of town. It was that, he told me, or be sold to another family. So he worked, hours and hours in the dark, damp underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, walking home, covered in coal dust and exhausted from head to toe, he’d stare at that fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to really choose any direction at all.

And then one evening, as the sun dipped below the mountains and the holler grew dark and alive with lightning bugs and cricket song, Grandpa met a stranger at the fork.

“Evening,” the man said.

Grandpa nodded and kept walking. In all the years he’d walked this road, he’d never met a stranger on it, and this stranger was certainly strange. Dressed to the nines in July weather, a nice suit, starched and pressed, and dark hair as slick and shiny as a crow’s feathers.

“The name’s Scratch,” the man said.

“Evening, sir,” my grandfather said, and kept walking.

“I’m looking for a young man named Jim,” the man told him.

My grandfather stopped. He was Jim. Jim was his name, and he most definitely didn’t know what this man might want with him. So he answered, “No Jim’s around here, Mr. Scratch.”

“Oh, well, ain’t that a shame,” the stranger said. “Had some good news for Mr. Jim. Sure would have made his day.”

Here was a choice, my grandfather thought, standing stock still, staring at this outsider in church clothes. Confess or keep quiet and start walking. Learn more, or go home and get some sleep.

“Had a deal to make with Jim, I did,” said the man. “Could change his life.”

“All right then, I’m Jim,” my grandfather said.

“I thought you might be,” said the stranger. “Figured there couldn’t be that many teenage boys called Jim in a place like this.”

My grandfather nodded.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jim” said the stranger, and stuck out his hand.

My grandfather shook it, and felt ashamed for the fine coating of black dust his own sweaty hand left behind.

“Like I said, my name’s Scratch, and I’ve got a deal for you, if you’re interested.”

“Don’t know much about deals,” Grandpa answered.

“Well,” the man said, “this one’s easy.”

Grandpa nodded again. Easy sounded good.

“I heard that you were looking to get out of here, maybe do some traveling, and I might be able to help. I’d just need you to do me a favor.”

“What favor?” It didn’t occur to Grandpa at the time that he’d never told a single soul about wanting to leave, and how he hoped to travel.

“Well, I’ve been looking for a woman named Ella, and I think you could help me find her.”

Grandpa raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Ella was the preacher’s wife.

“Do you think you could do that? I need to find her, and if you can help me, I can give you some money and a ticket to New York. You’d just need to get yourself up to Roanoke to catch the train.”

“I know Ella,” Grandpa said.

“Oh, good,” said the stranger. “Can you tell her I’m looking for her? Do that, and meet me here tomorrow. I’ll have that ticket all ready for you.”

Grandpa nodded one more time.  

“And one more thing, Jim,” said the man.

“Yeah?”

“If you take the ticket and the money, there’s a chance I might need your help again. But I bet you’d be okay helping me again, right?” The man smiled then, and that smile, my grandfather said, just looked all kinds of wrong.

Grandpa didn’t nod this time. He just stared at the man and his too-white teeth and his not-right smile.

“I thought so,” said the man. “I’ll be waiting for you here tomorrow. Have a good night, Mr. Jim.”

So dismissed, my grandfather walked away, replaying every bit of their conversation in his head.

“Grandpa,” I asked, “did you go back? Was he there?”

“Of course not,” my grandfather answered. “I went home and thought about it and it didn’t take me too long to figure out just who that man was.”

“What do you think he wanted with the preacher’s wife?”

“Nothing good,” my grandfather said. “There’s only one person in the world who uses the name Scratch, and he’s not a person at all.”

“Wasn’t he there waiting for you?”

“No, he wasn’t,” said Grandpa. “I’d made up my mind that night that I wasn’t gonna help him, and I reckon he knew. The devil has ways of getting into your head.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“No, and good thing. But you keep your ears open and you’ll hear stories about Old Scratch. He’s always out there, trying to make deals and collect souls.”

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I said.

“He doesn’t much care whether you believe or not,” Grandpa answered, with a tone of finality. And then he went quiet, and we went back to swinging in silence, looking out on the hill country.

“Is he the reason you don’t go to church?”

“Nah,” Grandpa said. “But every time I see a man in a suit, he’s who I think about.”

I wonder, sometimes, if my grandfather really thought he met the devil, or if it was just a story for a lazy Saturday afternoon. He’s been gone a long time, so I’ll never know. But I do sometimes hear stories about a man named Scratch, and I figure, if he’s real at all, he’s still out there. Grandpa was a good man, and he’s gone. But they say evil lives forever, don’t they?

************

Thank you for reading! This is the seventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of August.