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Will Bernardara, Jr.
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spookonrye.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe © 2017

Spook on Rye: a meta ghost story

by

Will Bernadara Jr.

 

Well. I’ve really put the meta in metaphysical this time, haven’t I?

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?

Jerry Palko eats ghosts.

First 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.

So: 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?

Jerry 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.

Alarming secret: Jerry’s stomach and bowels are haunted.

I knew 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 things.

The 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 it’s neither.

Most 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.”

Jerry 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.

          Unfortunately 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.

A 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, right?

As a 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.

To 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.

For 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.

But 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.

Jerry says revenants taste like burnt family.

Jerry says eidolons taste kind of like Pop Rocks only more mineral-y. Like carbonated clay. Banshees, according to Jerry, taste like clean bones.

 

I 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 Jerry says.

The 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.

I 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?

The 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.

 

###





tapeokeefe.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe © 2019

Tape

 

Will Bernardara Jr.

 

 

 

Q. What is “feral art”?

A. It’s outsider art, only more dangerous.

Q. Meaning what?

A. …

 

*

 

Extract: Part of a movie review by Gil Marina [The Psychotronic Burrow/website/ www.tronicburr.com/March 2015]

 

Roller Blade

New World VHS

Dir. Donald G. Jackson

There exist films that appear to have been produced in a world similar to ours but… dangerously skewed. They’re like broadcasts from a dimension of the brain damaged or cable-access fever dreams: analog jabberwockies. These products seem to want something from the viewer. They’re less like movies, more like snares. Visual traps.

          Roller Blade is nearly one of these. In this movie, set on the sidewalks of a post-nuked L.A., slutty nuns pray to a happy-face light bulb upon a crystal altar… ///

- review never posted

*

- [Detroit Free Press] May 2015 headline: Movie blogger Gil Marina found dead of suicide

- Some comments posted on social media re Marina suicide: HE BLEW HIS HEAD OFF WITH A SHOTGUN!!! /// theysaid his head wuz pulverized. unrecunizable. had 2 ID him wif fingerprints /// ALL bloggers should follow suit /// LOL

*

Q. Why do you seem afraid?

A. I’m not.

Q. You look spooked.

A. I don’t like where this is headed.

Q. Relax. Headed? It’s an interview, that’s all.

A. Then get on with it.

Q. OK. [pause] Who’s Lyman Alder?

*

Art gallery ART/IFICE: Ann Arbor, MI:

Janet Zeno’s show is scoffed at. (Behind her back, of course.) The homosexual critics hate it the most: the hairless esthete with the bowtie and martini; the metro gadfly/essayist who does nearly as much coke as Janet.

- Brat. She bought her way into this gallery with daddy’s money.

- She’s probably fucking him.

- Who? Her father?

- Whoever.

- She went to CCS.

- That explains the absence of talent.

- It’s not even shocking. Nothing is anymore. It’s kitsch.

- It’s insalubrious. This show should’ve come with Purell.

All the canvases with their indefinite auburn-reddish streaks and smears look virtually identical. The hook is the paint is menstrual blood. Janet’s. She named the show The Flow of Months. Punning, coked out, faux depth – Janet Zeno deserves contempt. 

A shifty man in all black – black jeans, crow-black hair, black boots and black coat – with a bloodless alabaster face of haunted determination (as though he hasn’t slept in weeks) jerks a few jerky, twitchy looks at the Zeno images and, hands – fists – thrust in his pockets, blurts out, exclaims really, tourettic: “Shit! This isn’t art; it’s fuck-all!”

Those subtly backstabbing mock-gasp, others giggle. The barely visible DJ doesn’t cease spinning, but his set is so ambient it’s somehow less than sound, like audio cotton.

Janet, flustered and coke-edged, elbows and shoulders all sharp geometries, hands off her champagne glass like a baton and marches petulantly toward the man in all black. He sees her coming and seems almost contrite, now, his expression protean.

“Hey!” Stern, Janet is. “If you don’t like my art –“

Is it the word art that snaps some safeguard in him?

It happens fast and slow, stroboscopic almost – the grim man yanks Janet’s head back savagely. She real-gasps. The man’s other hand comes up – a box-cutter. The retractable razorblade jags a deep wound in Janet’s long neck. And again and again, hacking now, as though he’s lancing the trachea in some gruesome spastic mimesis of desperate, wild surgery. A choke-blood erupts messily. It burbles.

Patrons scream. The bow-tie-wearing critic faints. 911 is dialed by numerous people at once. All but a few flee.

The madman jerks Janet’s head around by the hair, controlling the head, aiming the arterial gusher so that its rocketing blood soaks the nearest incandesced canvas: new blood on old blood.

Police officers pour in like blue lava.

*

Ann Arbor Police Station

Detective Browder

Interview with Phil Marina / 2201 hrs.

DB: You don’t look like such a bad guy. I read the report and expected a monster in that chair.

PM: I’ve seen things, detective. Hells.

DB: Hells? Plural, huh?

PM: Iterations. Fucking abominations.

DB: You see things.

PM: Inadvertent invocation, detective. Accidents. Apocalyptic accidents. And I always thought our species would knowingly destroy itself. [dry laugh] Not at all. The artists are the killers, detective.

DB: Miss Zeno, you mean?

PM: The destroyers – they’re of no consequence. Wars? War doesn’t even account for a significant reduction in population; did you know that, detective? It’s the creators. They’re the threat. The ones Wren called the little gods.

[pause]

DB: I heard about your brother Gil’s suicide. That must’ve affected you deeply.

PM: Gil. He looked into the abyss and the abyss grinned, detective. The abyss – it had teeth. [maniacal laughter]

DB: Phil. Why did you kill Janet Zeno? Did you know her?

PM: He showed me the world, unfiltered. It ruined my mind, detective. Wholly.

DB: Who showed you, Phil? Your brother?

[pause]

PM: Lyman Alder.

*

          Hideously deformed infants are God’s art. They’re His sculptures. The Twin Towers: performance art. A high-school prom-toilet abortion: objet trouvé. A serial killer’s mutilated-then-dumped prostitute: art installation. War: man’s greatest theater, with its extremes Shakespeare couldn’t even dream of. Such a torrential, elemental force, art/war is, so great that, like grit off a hurricane, smaller artworks of magnitude spiral out from it: novels, films, memoirs, paintings. War. Art. War.

But no. No. Phil Marina told you already: it isn’t the tanks and armed units that annihilate.

          It’s the artists.

*

What follows is a possibly apocryphal biographical sketch of Lyman Alder:

Lyman Alder’s house is a bench in Palmer Park

Lyman Alder’s mother died in a fire at Eloise, a psychiatric hospital where she was a resident

Lyman Alder wrote a “novel” called Trash Fish Automat, a roman ŕ clef penned in illegible scrawls on bar napkins, food wrappers, leaves, fruit rind, religious pamphlets, newspaper margins, and other detritus the streets of Detroit provided

Lyman Alder lost 98-percent of the novel; the wind “stole” it

Lyman Alder somehow got ahold of a 1993 camcorder around 2014

Lyman Alder made an incomplete written list of works that aren’t true feral art but show glimpses of feral artiness [randomly selected sampling from the list: Wishman’s A Night to Dismember, Wintergate’s Boardinghouse, Things (1989), Roller Blade, Dialing for Dingbats, Nathan Schiff’s Vermillion Eyes, Zelda Fitzgerald’s unpublished novel, YouTube’s Alan Tutorial… (numerous dark web videos cited/REDACTED)]

*

A list of true feral artworks:

The morning star’s Hades architecture

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka’s home movies

Any suicide note

Birth defects

War

Disease

Chiaki Takashita’s diary [teenage years: 1989-1992]

Orlando, Florida’s Mystery Fun House [closed]

Lyman Alder’s untitled video

*

I know Lyman Alder better than anyone. Which is to say not that well at all really, but still. The thing is, you’ve got crackpots and then you got reasonable people. Between them you got interpretation. It’s like the old chicken-or-the-egg quandary, maybe. I mean, reasonable people think Chapman was a loon who shot a Beatle and fixated on that Salinger book. Then you got some crackpots, see, and they believe that that book made Chapman pull the trigger.

*

Q: Your brother Phil, where’s he?

A: We’re estranged.

Q: He torched a video store in Clawson. Two days after you wrote about the same store on your blog.

A: …

Q: Some hipster place. Thompson Video?

A: OK.

Q: OK? You write about Thompson Video for your blog and –

A: It’s not my blog. It’s a site. I’m a freelancer.

Q: - and less than 48 hours later the store’s burned down by your brother. We got him on surveillance lugging a fucking can of gas right up to the front door. In the parking lot your brother leaves behind a VHS tape, some kind of homemade movie –

A: I don’t want to know.

Q: - a movie, Gil. That’s a little, you know, odd. The two detectives who viewed it have been behaving so goddamn strange we had to refer them to –

A: Yeah yeah. Infinite Jest. The Ring. I know this story. Whatever.

Q: Whazzat?

A: Artworks that kill. This one makes you kill, that one makes you rape or suicide or arson. It’s like Remote Control. The Lieberman movie. Only that’s not it. It’s not the movie.

Q: Intimate Jest and what? Ring Libra?

A: It’s not the work, you fucking idiot. [pause] It’s Lyman Alder.

*

Ghost in the magnetic tape?

 

*

Blow-by-blow description of the content of the Lyman Alder video. Pulled from the site Reports From the Deep Web. [NOTE: The legitimacy of this description has been called into question.]

No credits or prefatory material. Static for a few seconds then footage cuts in abruptly. No fade-in or transition effect.

Crappy ‘90s video. AFV quality.

Camera pans across city park. Day. Sun-shocked. Handheld technique is amateurish, shaky. Offscreen, the videographer, presumably Lyman Alder, announces: “This here… is… is uh… a Lyman Alder production.” Shot lasts nearly seven minutes. This should be agonizingly boring, but as Lyman begins playing with the camcorder’s zoom feature (around the two-minute mark) something imperceptible but incontestable happens. Change in the lighting? Camera speed? Whatever it is, this uneventful footage grows unbearably tense.

Mesmerizing even.

Viewers at this point report feeling an overwhelming premonition of “shrieking horror.” Something unspeakable is close to occurring. What, though, no viewer can really say.

Camera, hideously, begins zooming in, sniperlike, on single women: joggers, professionals on lunch breaks, et al. Worse, families. With children.

There is a nauseating sense of leering, as though the viewer is complicit in what’s become a “gruesome selection process” by the videographer. It is as though what is happening is now in real time. A feed. A live stream.

Jarringly, the footage cuts to LOUD static, which causes the viewer to flinch.

Static cuts in to a brownish-black. Lens cap is on. We hear a woman’s muffled gagging and what sounds, horrifyingly, like a child’s broken sobbing. Viewers report, without exception, that this is the tape’s most disturbing moment. Which is difficult to believe (if you haven’t seen it, that is), considering what follows:

Lens cap’s torn from the camera. Sudden brightness blinds the frame. Cam swings wildly. We’re shown a city alley. See an abandoned shopping cart. On the asphalt is a small white and blue shoe. For a baby’s foot. It is spattered in wet blood. Fresh blood. A woman offscreen screams: “My baby!” The sound of this scream is clearly not acting.

The footage once again cuts out.

For nearly three minutes the screen is black. We hear a man breathing. It’s either lascivious or labored, depending.

Footage resumes. For the first time, the camera is stationary, not handheld. (This writer believes Lyman Alder set the camera on a dumpster lid or garbage can, as we are again in a city alley and the shot is medium.)

Alley’s dead end.

Lyman Alder, a fortysomething black man, heavyset, garbed in what look like cast-off rags, staggers into frame.

His hands, chest, chin and mouth are painted in wet blood. Blood not his. He appears exhausted. He stumbles, drags his feet.

Lyman has a brown bottle of beer in his right hand. He strikes the brick wall with the bottle, shattering its bottom into a jagged cavity.

He braces himself, planting a wetly red left palm on the wall. Without preamble or hint of any kind, he begins mechanically, almost drunkenly, stabbing himself in the throat with the busted bottle. His tongue protrudes grotesquely. His eyes bug out. His throat becomes a ragged, dripping wound. On stab #5 the bottle gets stuck and the bottle’s opening acts as a spigot, assisting the blood on its way out.

Lyman Alder collapses out of frame, where he certainly bleeds to death.

And now comes the tape’s most enigmatic and talked-about moment: someone turns the camera off.

*

Ann Arbor Police Station

Detective Browder

Interview with Phil Marina / 2207 hrs.

DB: I interviewed your brother a couple days before he pulled the Cobain.

PM: …

DB: He blamed this Lyman Alder video for your arson schtick. And the video you left –

PM: I didn’t leave any video.

DB: …

PM: I burnt the store. I slashed that dumb cunt’s throat. I tell you all this and you think I’d lie about leaving a fucking videotape at the scene. Gimme a break.

DB: I’m a cop, Phil. In copworld, in life, things add up, and this, this –

PM: In life things add up? What life are you living, detective?

DB: This Lyman Alder was a homeless Detroiter who killed himself in September 2014. Some drunk crack addict. Mental case. He had two arrests for indecent exposure. No Charlie Manson, this guy, but you’re tellin’ me –

PM: Where’s the tape, detective?

DB: Evidence locker. Why?

[pause]

PM: He’s in the tape. You don’t have to watch it to be affected by it. It’s radioactive. He or it will haunt this entire fucking goddamn jail. Infect it.

DB: [sighs] I’m just going to turn you over to the psych, OK Phil?

PM: I don’t care.

DB: Neither do I. I get my paycheck either way.

*

The Ann Arbor station where Phil Marina is being held is a small, quiet place. It’s not a jail proper, just two holding cells, primarily for drunk and disorderly U of M students. The holding cell Phil’s in is white and the harsh overheads remain on 24/7.

Phil stares at the white wall. It’s not unlike a drive-in screen. On the wall, over and over like a loop, plays clips and bits from the Alder tape. Over and over. And Phil thinks about putting an end to himself just to stop the images.

*

It’s 3:22 AM and the police station’s quieter than a morgue. The one sound, the only sound apart from the faint buzz of the lights, is coming from the black VHS tape shut up in the green evidence locker.

No one can hear it though.

Emanating from the plastic tape, muted by its plastic case, is the video’s audio – sans VCR or speakers of any kind. The tape is whispering its horrible audio track, its wind noise and woman screaming and baby crying and awful choking suicide.

The VHS tape isn’t alive. No. There’s something dead on the tape’s thin ribbon. Spectral information has been stored on the magnetic coating.

 

 

###






Will Bernardara Jr. is the author of the novel America (voidfront press). His stories have appeared in The Society of Misfit Stories, Grotesque Quarterly, and Underbelly Magazine. He is a co-founder of the criminal artist collective The Tender Wolves Society. 

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