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The Ghost Who Came To Say He Was Sorry
Chuck Palahniuk
Scanned from The Week, Dec 6, 2002
Originally published in The London Independent 2002
a.b.e-book version 3.0

Contributed by Jorge Pinto


When novelist Chuck Palahniuk invited friends to a haunted-house party, he was more prepared to snicker than hide behind the sofa. But his murdered father had other ideas.

A friend of mine lives in a "haunted" house. It's a nice, white farmhouse in the country, surrounded with gardens, and every few weeks he'll call in the middle of the night to say, "Someone is screaming in the basement. I'm going down with my gun, and if I don't call you back in five minutes, send the police!"

It's all very dramatic, but it's the kind of complaint that smells like a boast. It's the psychic equivalent of saying, "My diamond ring is so very heavy." Or, "I wish I could wear this thong bikini without everyone lusting after me."

My friend refers to his ghost as "the Lady," and he complains about not getting any sleep because the Lady was up all night, rattling pictures on the walls and resetting the clocks and thumping around the living room. This is a practical man who's never believed in ghosts. I'll call him Patrick. Until he moved out to this farm, Patrick was like me: stable, practical, reasonable.

Now I think he's full of it.

To prove this, I asked him to let me house-sit his farm while he was away on vacation. I needed the isolation and quiet to write, I told him. I promised to water the plants, and he went off and left me there for two weeks. Then I threw a little party.

This man, he's not my only deluded friend. Another friend -- I'll call her Brenda -- says she can see the future. Over dinner, she'll ruin your best story by suddenly drawing a huge gasp, covering her mouth with her hand, and rearing back in her chair with a look of wide-eyed terror on her face. When you ask what's wrong, she'll say, "Oh. . . nothing, really." Then close her eyes and try to shake the terrible vision from her mind.

When you persist, she'll take your hand in hers and beg you, "Please, please. Just stay away from automobiles for the next six years."

For the next six years!

Brenda and Patrick, they're odd but they're my friends, always hungry for attention. "My ghost is too loud. . ." "I hate being able to see the future. . ."

For my little house party, I planned to invite Brenda and her psychic friends out to the haunted farmhouse. I planned to invite another group of stupid, ordinary friends who aren't troubled with any special extrasensory gifts. We'd drink red wine and watch the mediums flit around, lapsing into trances, channeling spirits, doing their automatic writing, levitating tables, while we laughed politely behind our hands.

So a dozen people arrived at the farmhouse. And Brenda brought two women I'd never met, Bonnie and Molly, both of them already swooning from the ghost energy they felt there. Okay, all my friends were swaying a little. But for the sane ones, it was the red wine. We all sat around the dining-room table, a couple of lighted candles in the center, and the psychics went to work.

First, they turned to my friend Ina. Ina's German and sensible. Her idea of expressing emotion is to light another cigarette. These mediums, Bonnie and Molly, they'd never met Ina before, but they took turns telling her how a woman's spirit was beside her. The woman was named Margaret and was showering Ina with tiny blue flowers. Forget-me-nots, they said. And suddenly, Ina put down her cigarette and started crying.

Ina's mother had died of cancer several years earlier. Her mother's name was Margaret, and every year Ina sprinkled forget-me-not seeds on her grave because they'd been her mother's favorite flower. Ina and I have been friends for 20 years, and these are details even I didn't know. Ina never talks about her dead mother, and now she's weeping and asking for more red wine.

Having reduced my friend to a mess, Bonnie and Molly turned to me.

They said a man was near me, standing just over my shoulder. He was, they both agreed, my murdered father.

Oh, please. My father. Here, let's just take a little break from the nonsense.

Anyone could know the details of my father's death. The strange, ironic circle. When he was 3 years old, his own father had shot his mother, then stalked my father around the house, trying to shoot him. My dad's first memories are of hiding under a bed, hearing his father call, and seeing his heavy boots walk past, the smoking barrel of the rifle hanging near the floor. While he hid, his father eventually shot himself. Then, my dad spent his life running from the scene. My siblings also say he spent his life trying to find his mother by marrying woman after woman. Always divorcing and remarrying. He'd been divorced from my mother for 20 years when he saw a personal ad in the newspaper. He started dating the author of the ad, not knowing she had a violent ex-husband. Coming home from their third date, the ex-husband shot them both in the woman's house. That was in April 1999.

Really, these details have been published everywhere. The whole mess has gone to trial, and the murderer is sentenced to death. Bonnie and Molly needed no gifts to know any of this.

But still they persisted. They said my father was very sorry for something he'd done to me when I was 4 years old. He knew it was cruel, but it was the only way he could think to teach me a lesson. Bonnie and Molly, they held hands and said they saw me as a small boy, kneeling beside a chopping block. My father was standing over me, holding something wooden.

"It's a stick," they said, then said, "No it's not. It's an ax. ."

The rest of my friends were quiet; Ina's weeping had effectively silenced their giggling.

Bonnie and Molly said, "You're 4 years old, and you're deciding something very important. It's something that will shape the rest of your life. . ."

They described my father sharpening his ax and said, "You're about to be. . ." they paused, "dismembered?"

I pour another glass of wine and drink it. I pour another. I tell Bonnie and Molly, our guides to the ghost world, please tell me more. I smirk and say, "No, really, this is fascinating."

Then they say, "Your father is very happy now. He's happier now than he ever was in his life on earth."

Oh, isn't this always the case. A little scrap of comfort for the bereaved. Bonnie and Molly are just the same sort who have preyed on grieving people throughout history. At best, they're misguided, deluded fools. At worst, manipulative monsters.

What I don't tell them is, when I was 4 years old I slipped a metal washer around my finger. It was too tight to remove, and I waited until my finger was swollen and purple before I asked my father for help. We'd always been told not to put rubber bands or anything tight around our fingers or we'd get gangrene and those bits would rot and fall off. My dad said we'd have to cut the finger off, and spent the afternoon washing my hand and sharpening the ax. The whole time, he also lectured me about taking responsibility for my own actions. He said that if I was going to do stupid things, I should be ready to pay the price.

That whole afternoon, I listened. There was no drama, no tears or panic. In my 4-year-old mind, my father was doing me a favor. It would hurt, chopping off my fat, purple finger, but it would be better than the weeks of letting it rot.

I knelt beside the chopping block, where I'd seen so many chickens meet a similar fate, and put out my hand. If anything, I was wildly grateful for my father's help, and resolved never to blame other people for stupid things I'd done.

My father swung the ax, and of course he missed. We went inside, and he used soap and water to remove the washer.

It's a story I'd almost forgotten. Almost forgotten, because I'd never told it to anyone. Because I knew other people wouldn't understand the lesson. All they'd see was my father's actions, and then label it cruelty. For 36 years it has been my secret. And my father's. And now these silly women, Bonnie and Molly, are telling it to me and all my drunken friends.

No way was I going to give them any satisfaction. While Ina sobbed, I drank more wine. I smiled and shrugged, saying it was all very interesting prattle. A few minutes later, one of the women fell to the floor, ill, and asked for help getting to her car. The party broke up, and Ina and I stayed behind to finish the wine.

It was disappointing, really, that stupid party. Watching my friends take this nonsense seriously. I can't explain Bonnie and Molly's little magic trick, but there's so much in the world I can't explain.

The night my father was killed, hundreds of miles away, my mother had a dream. She said my father knocked at her door, begging her to hide him. In her dream, he'd been shot in the side -- a year later, the coroner would confirm this -- and he was trying to escape from a man with a gun. Instead of hiding him, my mother shut the door in his face.

That same night, one of my sisters dreamed she was walking through the desert where we grew up. She was walking beside our father, telling him she was sorry they'd grown apart and not spoken recently.

That night he died, I didn't have any dream. No one came to me in my sleep to say goodbye.

Oh, I'd love to believe in an invisible world. It would undermine all the suffering and pressure of the physical world. But it would also negate the value of the money I have in the bank, my decent house, and all my hard work. All our problems and all our blessings could be readily dismissed because they'd be no more real than plot events in a book or movie. An invisible, eternal world would render this world an illusion.

Really, the spirit world is like pedophilia or necrophilia: I have no experience with it so I am completely unable to take it seriously. It will always seem like a joke.

There are no ghosts.

But if there are, my dad should damn well tell me himself.



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