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Jonah Sees Ghosts

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Jonah Sees Ghosts is a shocking, touching, and humorous first novel that blends magical realism with a figurative study of how alcohol abuse shapes the personalities within a family.

$13.95 $10.46

Excerpt from Jonah Sees Ghosts

Chapter 1

Dan Hart died on his son Jonah’s sixth birthday. Jonah waited quietly all day long for his father who, filled with several lunchtime martinis and fumbling with the tape deck, had run off the road and cut his throat on his way through the windshield. Hidden from sight in the gully where he had landed, he bled to death and waited three days for discovery.

*

After the call from the state trooper, Susan Hart replaced the receiver and began jotting notes for the funeral on a pad she kept by the phone. There was Mr. Stevenson at the funeral parlor. And Dan’s parents. And the other partners at the firm. She sat down in the chair next to the phone table there in the front hallway and put the end of the pen in her mouth while she thought who else. She couldn’t think of anyone.

*

Susan had known her husband was dead for about forty-eight hours now, the way you sometimes just know a thing. The difference between Susan and most people, though, was that when Susan just knew something, she acted upon the knowledge. Her self-confidence was such that, early in life, she had tempered an ordinary intuition into a kind of clairvoyance, and by the time her child was born she could play a hunch for a sure thing.

And so, instead of grief, Susan found the emotional preparedness that comes with foreknowledge. She had realized years earlier that her husband’s primary sense of responsibility was to alcohol and had built up around herself the invisible walls that allowed her to preserve her family and save herself. Dan never saw much past the rim of his glass anyway and so had scarcely noticed the barrier she placed between them.

*

The windows were closed against the afternoon’s rain, and as Susan chewed on the end of her pen, the smell of the cleanser she’d been mopping with filled her sinuses. It made her feel efficient and vaguely cheerful. She picked up the notepad, jotted down the number of their lawyer and some of the questions she had for him, then looked up and saw that Jonah, who’d been in the backyard, was now inside and tracking mud across the kitchen. He was walking a stuffed dog, pulling it with a length of twine and erasing his small muddy footprints with a long, brown streak.

She looked up. Jonah was standing in front of her.

“Honey,” she said, “listen to me. Your father is dead.”

Jonah looked up at her. The beauty of his wide, clear eyes was more than she could bear and she pulled him to her. Undeterred by the news of his father’s death and suffocating calmly between his mother’s breasts, Jonah continued the wait he’d begun the day his father hadn’t shown for his party.

*

Susan stayed up later than usual that night wondering what she was supposed to be feeling. She drank the remainder of Dan’s bourbon, musing that it was almost certainly the last bottle the house would ever see, and let her thoughts wander, not missing Dan so much as wondering why the men in her life kept dying. Her dad’s plane had gone down en route to Da Nang. Her first fiancé had drowned in a boating accident the summer of their junior year. And now Dan. When she reached the bottom of the bottle she laughed out loud at her tendency, regardless of the situation, to think about her dad. His memory was so strong sometimes it was as if he were standing right next to her.

*

Before she passed out, Susan fell to staring at her right hand. She’d lost her index and middle fingers to a table saw in college and still couldn’t figure out where they’d gone.

*

Jonah did not want to go to his father’s funeral. Not because he didn’t believe that his father was really dead; going to the funeral of someone who was going to show up at any minute made as much sense as anything else adults made him do. He didn’t want to go because of the suit his mother was making him wear. For one, it was navy blue. The worst color on earth. For two, the collar was too tight and it made him feel like he was in a choke hold. For three, the pants were loose, but the waist gripped him too high on his hairless body and it made him feel funny. And for four, it was navy blue. The worst color on earth. Jonah glowered back at the idiot boy in the mirror. Transported by disgust, he pulled his shoulders in, stretching the fabric across his back, feeling the suit bite at his armpits, testing the seams by degree until, finally, one of them gave. Jonah straightened up and, caught irrevocably between his rage and the fact that he would get it if he wrecked his clothes, vented his spite by eking three drops of urine out of his penis and into the suit. Not enough to show, but enough to lodge the complaint with God.

*

Susan was far more comfortable in her suit. She did not, however, relish the thought of having to appear bereaved for the sake of those who would come to pay their respects. The whole thing was a nuisance really, but, she supposed, a necessary one. Susan sipped her coffee and stretched out diagonally on her huge bed, lying still while the morning sunshine warmed her clothes. It wouldn’t be so bad. And it would be over soon enough. Then they could come back home and she and Jonah would have the house and the afternoon to themselves. As she sifted through what she knew would happen that day, the thought of her and her son, unhurried as they made their way through another summer’s day, made her feel happy and relaxed. She smiled, linked her hands behind her head, and recrossed her feet. Poor little Jonah. She closed her eyes and thought about her son, about that smart little suit she’d picked for him, about his smooth, soft forehead wrinkling as he concentrated on his shoelaces. He was growing up so quickly. Her mind drifted back to nighttime feedings, alone in Jonah’s moonlit nursery, while her baby suckled and the rest of the world slept.

*

“Do you know where we’re going, honey?”

“Uh-huh.” Jonah was looking out the car window but wasn’t seeing much more than the tops of the trees. Susan was concentrating on the road.

“Can you tell me what it’s called?”

“A foon-earl.”

“A funeral, that’s right. Can you remember why we’re doing it?”

“To help us not be sad and . . .”

“. . . and to mark a rite of passage with a ritual.”

Jonah slumped further down in the seat so that the shoulder strap caught him at the neck. He was wondering about the tinted part at the top of the windshield.

“And do you know why we do that, Jonah?”

“To not be sad?”

“To help others not be sad. We do it to help others. So when people talk to you today, remember that we’re doing all this for them.” Susan caught her son’s eyes for a moment, but then had to look back at the road. Jonah looked at his legs.

“‘Kay. Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Who’s gonna be there?”

“People like us. People who are sad that Daddy’s dead.”

“Is Dad gonna be there?”

Susan thought about it.

“Yeah. Dad’ll be there too.”

Jonah straightened up and began to pay attention to where they were going.

*

There were no walls apparent in the funeral parlor, just curtains and doors, and although there was no chink through which sunlight could slip, there were plants everywhere. Jonah reached up to grab one of the huge plastic ferns on a display shelf in the entryway and just as he touched the tip of one long, green leaf, he lost his balance and brought the plant, pot and all, down onto his head.

When she heard the crash, Susan turned from the funeral director and ran to her son.

“Jonah! What are you doing?”

Jonah didn’t give an answer, knowing full well that his mother didn’t want one.

“Jonah, you’re bleeding! Mr. Stevenson, get me some paper towels, some antiseptic, and some Band-Aids!”

His mother barking orders helped Jonah gather some of his attention, and he reached up to touch the spot where the falling vase had split the skin of his forehead. He furrowed his brow, feeling the dull sting at either end of the cut and watching the blood as it dripped off his cheek in fat droplets. He could also see Mr. Stevenson, scuttling to and fro at his mother’s behest. His mother was still talking and Jonah began to listen.

“. . . don¹t know why you insist on communicating your feelings indirectly. Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell me you’re upset because of the funeral? Why can’t you . . .”

“Mom, where’s Dad?”

“Oh, Jonah, honestly, I thought we’d . . .”

Susan was dabbing forcefully at his forehead with paper towels and hydrogen peroxide and Jonah stopped paying attention. Mr. Stevenson hovered nervously over his mother’s shoulder, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and sending nervous glances from side to side. One of the glances caught the scattered flowers and broken glass and Jonah saw the man swoop over to the mess, gather it between his hands, and take it in several quick trips over to a trash can hidden in a wall recess behind a burgundy curtain. Trying to hold his head steady against the repeated pressure of his mother’s attentions, Jonah wondered at the dexterity adults seemed to possess that allowed them to pick up broken glass without cutting themselves.

The first of the mourners arrived and with a word to Susan, Mr. Stevenson hurried off to greet them.

“Mrs. Hart, if you would be so kind as to take your place . . .”

“Okay, Jonah, now I know you’re upset, but I want you to listen to me, okay? Honey? Listen. Daddy’s friends are starting to arrive, so we have to go and sit down. Now, if something’s upsetting you, I want you to feel free to talk to me about it later on, okay? If you don’t want to, that’s okay too, but if you want to, you can. Okay? You’re very important to me, Jonah.”

Susan leaned forward to kiss the Band-Aid she’d placed over Jonah’s cut, hoping to underscore her point with a little affection, but as she put her lips to the plastic and found her nose filled with the smell of his scalp, she lost control, pulled him to her, and buried as much of her face as she could in his thin hair. She could feel his ribs and shoulder blades through his suit as she hugged him. She pulled herself away and sighed sharply, using her wrists to wipe away the tears that had formed.

*

Though Dan Hart looked natural and relaxed at his funeral, he did not look a thing like himself. This was due mostly to the fact that on his way into the next world, he had left half of his face on the windshield. Reassured by an enthusiastic young embalmer who claimed he could work from photographs, and believing that a closed-casket funeral was the same as no funeral at all, Susan had consented to the reconstruction knowing that even the most sincere efforts could not capture Dan’s primary features: the smile on his face, the veins on his cheeks, and the drink in his hand.

Behind Susan and Jonah, friends and associates arrived and slid into place, filling the chapel with muffled conversation, the creaking of wooden pews, an occasional cough, and, less occasionally, the sound of laughter. The room was lit by carefully situated stage lights, which shone down in blue, purple, and gold, and were intended to simulate the feel of stained glass. Two single shafts of white light coming down out of the darkness drew the attention of the mourners to the casket, surrounded by flowers, the few sent by friends bolstered by selections from the funeral home’s permanent collection. Usually the temperature in the room sat at a comfortable sixty-seven degrees, but due to a glitch in the thermostat, it was now careening back and forth between fifty-five and eighty. People were sticking to their clothes one minute, noticing a cold sweat the next.

The house lights dimmed and Mr. Stevenson appeared at the pulpit. When the silence was complete, he began.

*

“. . . knowing we all come here today with a burden to share. The love we had for . . .” He paused. “Dan . . . has become our grief . . .”

“. . . for in our dreams of what might have been, feelings of grief can turn into feelings of guilt, both for things done and things left undone. But, you know something? That’s okay. Each and every one of us can turn to the other and say, ‘Hey, it’s okay . . .'”

*

The delight began at the very center of Jonah’s soul and welled up within him as he sat bolt upright, transfixed by the sight in front of him. Even his expectation hadn’t prepared him for this, and it was pushing the hair along the back of his neck up into little vibrating points. There, seated at the end of his own casket, looking fresh out of the shower with his thin hair combed straight back, a grin on his face and a drink in his hand, was his father. He caught Jonah’s eye, and in the moment that he held it, winked. Jonah, smiling at the congregation like it was his birthday and they’d just surprised him with a party, left his seat and went to go sit next to his dad.

*

Inside the casket, nestled momentarily with his father, Jonah supplied the particulars of the birthday party he’d missed.

“. . . and Ben was there and and we waited and waited, but you still weren’t there, so Mom gave us cake.”

Snuggling against the wool of his father’s suit, Jonah continued, oblivious to the riot that approached. “Dad, why did you have to go?”

“Don’t worry about it, kid. I’ll be around. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, you know.”

Jonah had no idea what his father was talking about, contenting himself with the sound of his father’s voice. He was trying to formulate a response when many hands grabbed him and he was borne away.

*

“Jonah! There you are! Where on earth have you been?”

Jonah didn’t have an answer for his mom. It just felt good to sit in the still darkness. But the calm was ruined when his mom pulled the burgundy curtain back. He looked up at her and answered.

“I dunno.”

“Well, why are you in the trash can?”

“I dunno.”

“Don’t you want to get out?”

“I guess so.”

Jonah stepped out and his mother gasped. He had been kneeling in the shards from the broken pot and had dozens of cuts up and down his pale legs.

“Jonah, not again.”

Jonah was surprised too. He hadn’t noticed.



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