Spook on Rye: a meta
I’ve really put the meta in metaphysical this time, haven’t I?
wanted to be known as a writer of ghost stories. To me, it was the literary
equivalent of a rock star. I mean, haunted houses—they’re perennially cool, no?
From Boo-Berry cereal to Pac-Man’s 8-bit spooks, I’ve always felt an affinity
to the spectral. But what’s up with this ghosts-as-food motif?
Palko eats ghosts.
though, before we get started: the white marshmallows in Boo-Berry represent
edible ghosts. They’re semiotic. You eat them. You did when you were a kid, if
you’re my age. Pac-Man’s maze is haunted… but now and again the voracious
yellow circle gets to chomp into some temporarily vulnerable ghosties.
if [ghosts = the past] then we want to eat the past? Or at least some children
do, with milk? And graphics-composed yellow blob does?
says there are different types of ghosts, and that no two taste alike.
Poltergeists, e.g., taste like peachy battery-licking. Or so Jerry says.
Whereas incubi taste not unlike a curious merger of potato soup and latex.
Jerry says, emphatically, that ghosts are shockingly stupid, like atoms stuck
in a loop, mindless as the wind, and are relatively harmless. He’s described them
as “idiot echoes.” And still suburbanites pay Jerry to eat away their ghost
problem. Jerry is paid to eat, like Anthony Bourdain or that bald guy who’s
always stuffing his face with something bizarre on TV. Despite constantly being
faced with evidence of some sort of afterlife, no matter how mechanical, Jerry
is still a staunch agnostic. Oddly, he doesn’t really “believe” in ghosts. But
hey, you don’t need to believe in a donut to munch one down.
secret: Jerry’s stomach and bowels are haunted.
very little about ghosts. I loved Hirshberg’s stuff and Volk’s “31/10” and the
“1408” audio book terrorized me wholly one night on a drive by myself through
the dark country but, really, I was a fraud. I’d never read any of the
proto-ghost tales; you know, the Big Architects. So I read James’ “Turn of the
Screw.” It sucked. And I wanted to like it. I couldn’t. It wasn’t scary
or funny or even amusing. James’ wordcraft struck me as clunky and stilted,
dull, just… blah. Like some exercise in a high school textbook. That’s how it
read: drab. As though it had been written by a Victorian clockwork thing and
not a human. And I mean that in a bad way; no offense to clockwork Victorian
question isn’t whether this story will end in a spooky toilet scenario or a
supernatural proctology exam, but whether it’s a crude scatological joke posing
as a quasi-“sophisticated” (read: meta or pomo) ghost yarn or something deeper:
a surface gag with a penetrating insight or authentic heart at its core. Likely
likely: a convoluted distraction, for the author is a hardcore misanthropist
and cynic and doesn’t trust “insight.” In fact, he’s virulently suspicious of
anything one would call “human” or “humane.”
needs an agent. That Ghost Safari show’s huge and so are foodie shows,
these days. The Food Network and the SyFy channel would salivate onto
their Nielsen reports over a Jerry Palko reality show. They could call it Banshee
Buffet or The Spectral Smorgasbord or something inane like that.
for the TV execs, ghosts don’t photograph. It
has something to do with the way spooks interact with light. It’s science-y and
probably involves actinic or refractive issues or whatever. Anyway, point is
they don’t submit to any sort of visual record.
confession: my soul is absolutely raped and tyrannized by the
necessities of successful storytelling. So much contrivance and manipulation
and drudgery, all in the service of presenting to you illusions that are never
really very convincing at all. They’re ghosts, stories are. Let’s face it: when
you read Moby-Dick, you never for one second thought you were on a ship
with Starbuck and Ahab. You were on your couch. Do I really need to do
character description? Fine. Jerry’s pasty and inoffensively pudgy; he favors
black T-shirts and jeans; he sweats a lot. His eyes are sort of dead; his brown
hair’s short and lazy like the fur of a stuffed teddy, only a tad darker
color-wise. Fuck this: you envisioned Jerry the instant you read his name; only
an asshole would now describe him and risk detailing specifics that don’t
accord with what’s in your head by now. Jerry looks however you envisioned him.
That’s him. He’s fiction. Fuck Jerry. It’s the ghosts that are of interest,
kid, Jerry Palko had weight problems. Not ordinary weight issues either. He
suffered, like, traumatic events stemming from his fatness. I won’t tell
you the exact nature of these events, but I do know them. So do you. Really,
they’re worse than anything I could describe anyway.
recap: fat kid; horrible childhood; loses most of the weight in his twenties;
learns to eat ghosts. (I have two or three explanations for how Jerry became a
ghost-eater – one involves a vacant field and an abandoned refrigerator with a
murdered child’s corpse inside it – but none of them interest me all that much
and would take up far too much space to relate.) And so: eating ghosts not
a metaphor for a past Jerry wants to “digest” (too obvious); Jerry’s
ghost-grubbing business is in the Yellow Pages; you can google it. Lastly, his
gastrointestinal tract has gradually become a kind of organic haunted house,
due to his ghost-heavy diet.
no reason at all, this story’s title is a play on the Bukowski novel Ham on
Rye. And I don’t even like Bukowski. Haven’t read him since I was a
teenager. Twenty-four years ago.
at the age of 15 I did make my mom buy me Ham on Rye at K-Mart. Back in
the ‘90s, K-Mart had a decent book aisle. And there was this limpid-eyed,
frizzy-wigged bag lady who would haunt the aisle. She had the clearest blue
eyes, almost white. I later learned that she and her husband and two children
had burned to death in an apartment fire in 1987. And yet I saw her looking at
books at K-Mart in 1992. She was some sort of emanation.
says revenants taste like burnt family.
says eidolons taste kind of like Pop Rocks only more mineral-y. Like carbonated
clay. Banshees, according to Jerry, taste like clean bones.
could say a lot more about the bag lady. Like how after her kids and husband
burned in 1987, she lived homelessly; and, shattered by grief, this insane
woman haunted K-Mart and ate all her meals across the street from K-Mart, at
Long John Silver’s or Burger King. I could say that now I feel such heartache
for this lost, childless mother that I wish I could’ve been a proxy son for
her, then and there, in that book aisle. I could say that she killed herself,
set herself on fire, in 1990, or that she started the fire that killed her
family, so whatever I saw at K-Mart couldn’t have been human. But I won’t. I
won’t say any of that. Enough truth. I’m not going to wring pathos or poignancy
out of that poor woman’s disintegration just so that you, reader person, can be
moved by something. Or feel something. You wanna feel something? Eat a
handful of thumbtacks. That’s what specters feel like going down anyway, or so
Bible says our throats are open graves. And so we speak death and rot and
decay; words of entropy. We speak only of the dead, even when we don’t. We make
noises with our vocal cords and these noises are the frequency of what’s gone.
feel hideous. After introducing a truly uncanny nonfiction tidbit, I’m supposed
to transition back to a preposterous story about a semi-pro ghost-eater and his
shade-trammeled guts? Doing so would seem to throw a messy pie in the face of
the memory of the bookish bag lady/spirit from my childhood. But nonfiction’s
as absurd as fiction, ain’t it? A friend of mine made a cult film about a bed
that eats people. Now here I am writing about a former chub who dines on
emanations from the beyond. What’s the use?
proctologist’s office Jerry went to was on Dequindre and 7 Mile, somewhere
thereabouts. And yeah, his colon was ghost-packed. He hadn’t defecated normally
in weeks. He was really sick. Anyway, the proc dislodged the ghosts and they
exploded out into the exam room like one of those confetti party poppers. Then
a bunch of mayhem happened involving the office’s staff and various spooks.
It’s not worth relating, really. You know how this ends.
Berbardara, Jr. is a writer of experimental fiction.
has had two published works, a story in Poor
Mojo's Almanac(k) and a flash piece in Weird