Chapter 1. One hell of a turnout
You order your coffee from the ghost that looks almost exactly like the barista rather than the barista herself. Originally an honest mistake, this has become the running gag between you three. You and the ghost snicker while the barista acts left out, then you all laugh louder.
This café is great. You come here a lot, though never before at 3 AM. Tonight’s the summer solstice and you’re in a funny frame of mind. You have to sit at the extra long metal table in the middle of the place because you’ve got so much damned company with you. You and all your ancestors take seats. So do the ghosts of admired authors and political nemeses. The ghosts of singers of pop songs you can never quite exorcise but don’t actually mind too much were not invited, but here they are, yanking out chairs and straddling them backwards like guidance counselors, also here. Goes without saying the ghost of every friend and the ghost of every enemy have come as well, along with the ghost of every girl you ever dated and the ghost of every girl you ever came even close to dating, like hand-holding-on-the-promenade-in-early-evening close to dating, or that-one-kiss-that-one-time-before-one-or-both-of-you-had-a-change-of-heart close to dating. These are the ghosts that first taught you that ghosts don’t need to be dead to haunt you. They’re here now, all of them. So is every stranger you’ve ever made eye contact with on your twice-a-day ferryboat ride across the Sound. So are your colleagues you ride the ferryboat twice a day to collaborate with. So is Jesus from Jesus’ taco truck. So is the weather woman with the wild grey curly hair. So am I.
It’s one hell of a turnout. There are always lots of ghosts around, sometimes even a gang, but never a legion like this, never two legions, three. You could never sleep through all this, so you figured might as well come to the café to commune and caffeinate while awaiting precious dawn.
You’ve brought reading materials along in case communion wanes. The big black book you ordered weeks ago finally came in the morning mail. It’s ten commandment-sized and you’re excited about it. The cover is actual leather and titleless and the page edges are gilded. The thing weighs as much as an infant. This particular copy is not strictly new-new, but it’s new-ish enough, you feel, to warrant the book breaking-in ritual.
Chapter 2. The book breaking-in ritual
A teacher taught you it during a formative year in the medium long ago. He’s dead now, the teacher, and present, seated three seats to your left. Doctor Garden was/is his name. He has flabby jowls like a bulldog and wears his black academic cap and gown all year long and often cites medieval symbology. He’s how you came to know that graduates wear black gowns on graduation day to symbolize their recently acquired knowledge of their own mortality, that the cord on their cap is draped to their right/righteous side at the start of the ceremony and is switched at the end to their left, sinister in Latin, to signal receipt of the very same intelligence that doomed their great-great-great-times-a-thousand grandparents in original paradise when they chewed up the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Doctor Garden taught you this. He also taught you how to break in books.
Books are meant to be kept, he always said/is saying right now.
First, open the book almost halfway, almost halfway but not exactly halfway. This almost-but-not-exactly stipulation is crucial. Lift the almost-but-not-exactly-halfway opened book to your face, close your eyes, inhale deeply from the crease. Smell the glue with the same focus with which you would read a sentence. Men of Letters of Old could make pronouncements about the nature and quality of glue used to bind the pages as if discussing a major plot point or tragic flaw. Next, place the book back on the table and flatten your right palm over the verso and your left palm over the recto. Doctor Garden never ever said/says left-hand page or right-hand page. He says verso or recto. Place your respective palm over the respective page and press gently and then press firmly. Next, open the book to the three-quarter mark, lift, inhale, think about your life. When you have sufficiently thought, place the book down and flatten your palms appropriately and press gently and then press firmly just as you have done before. Repeat this exact technique almost exactly but never exactly exactly at the one-quarter mark, followed by the five-eighths, the three-eighths, the fourteen-sixteenths, and finally the two-sixteenths. You must do exactly this in this exact order always almost exactly although never exactly exactly exactly.
Every word here bears monumental significance, Doctor Garden would say/has just finished saying. Books are meant to be kept. Maintain them properly and they will stay with you forever.
You believe the man completely. You hear his every word as you ritualistically break in the big black book that finally came in the morning mail. The glue smells almost but not exactly like banana bread. You are not a Man of Letters of Old and so do not know what this means. Still, you think about your life, you think about your death. You are almost exactly fourteen-sixteenths through the ceremony when a photograph slides out from between the gold-edged pages and glides across the metal table.
Every ghost freezes too.
Everybody freezes, eyes fixed on the photo.
Chapter 3. Worth a thousand words, figuratively
One of the ghosts will weigh in first. That’s what ghosts do, whisper surmisings in your ear before you’ve even had a chance to think. But now none of them says shit. You wait but nothing forthcomes. When you finally dare to pick the picture up, somebody sucks a breath.
The photo is of a woman. She’s handsome. You’ve never used that word unironically to describe a woman before, but that’s the first word that comes to mind. She’s a handsome, middle-aged, well-dressed, semi-familiar-looking woman. The photo is old-ish, an early color job, and yet it’s not so old that anyone depicted therein could not possibly still breathe. Nonetheless, you understand two things instantly: first, the woman pictured therein no longer breathes, and second, she at one point meant something to you.
This reasonably hot older woman in a not-too tight but still sexy in a classy sort of way blue and white striped dress, she’s looking to her left, smiling with a closed mouth, her left hand perched on her hip, her right leg a little forward. In her right hand, she holds a little white card as high as her face and on that card is written either the letter O or the number zero. She wears long, clear, tear-drop-shaped earrings. Two aisles of benches run on either side of her, people in the front rows turning around to watch. A fashion show? Auction? You can’t tell. No matter. You can ask her yourself when she shows up here any second now.
You kick back and wait for her to show up.
You look around the cafe.
You check your watch.
She doesn’t show up.
You look at the photo again and then down one side of the long metal table and back up the other to see if she’s already present. Every single ghost is staring at you. She is not already present.
You look at the photo again. Without question, she’s the haunting type. Supernaturality oozes from her likeness. She’s coming, you think. Just wait.
You look around the cafe.
You check your watch.
You go to sip your coffee, but it has turned ice-cold.
Chapter 4. Exorcism
Over the coming weeks, you’ll carry the photograph with you everywhere. You conceal it from Doctor Garden’s gaze. You hide it from your father’s barber. You stay silent when your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents ask you where you are hiding. The cold shoulder of the ghosts of ex-girlfriends gets even colder. You stay up late in small and quiet rooms. Ghosts come and go like they always do, but now they mostly go. The equinox tips towards shadow.
Chapter 5. Ellipsis
On the winter solstice, you go back to the café for the first time in a long time. The barista is there alone. You ask about her sister. She gives you a filthy look. With a cup of decaf, you settle down at an extra long metal table. You were going to do something, either read or write. Which? You check your pockets for clues. You check your pants. You check your shirt. In the pocket above your heart, you find an old photograph. The photograph is of a woman. Do you know her? No. You don’t. You flip the photo around. Drawn on the back in thick black ink is a circle. Looks like the letter O, you think. Or could it be a zero?
Dan Tremaglio is a recent graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program and now teaches creative writing and literature at Bellevue College.
Lead image: “Cafe Sign” (via Flickr user Professor Bop)