Authors: T. M. Wright
A Manhattan Ghost Story
She came into the room, let her coat slide to the floor. “Well, then,” she said, “that’s her burden, isn’t it, Abner?” And she quickly and gracefully slipped her boots and dress off. She was naked beneath the dress. She came over to the side of the bed. In the semi-darkness I saw her glance at her breasts and nod. “Touch me, Abner. Please touch me.”
The odor of damp wood assaulted me. I turned my head away. She laughed. It was a quick, humorless noise, as if she were imitating laughter and doing a poor job of it. She stopped laughing. “You won’t like it out there, Abner.”
I looked back. I said nothing. I was confused. And I think that, for the first time since I’d known her, I was scared, too.
She stepped backward, toward the window, so she was facing me and so her body was well-illuminated.
You won’t like it out there, Abner, she repeated.
Tor books by T. M. Wright
EOPLE OF THE
T. M. Wright
A TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK
For Dorian and for Phil Zaleski
Note: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
A MANHATTAN GHOST STORY
©1984 by T.M. Wright
“Heaven Can Wait,” by James Steinman. Copyright Š1977 by Edward B. Marks Music Company and Neverland Music Company and Peg Music Company, used by permission. All rights reserved.
“This Land Is Your Land,” words and music by Arlo Guthrie. TRO-Copyright Š1956 (renewed 1984), 1958 and 1970 Ludlow Music Inc., New York, N.Y. Used by permission.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
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Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
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is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
First Tor edition: August 1984
Printed in the United States of America
Writing a novel that works is very often the result of a kind of lopsided partnership between a writer and his editor.
It would be hard for me to believe that any writer has had a better partner in the writing of a book than I have had in this one.
Thanks to Chris, who, in her way, knows how to tell me to take a second look.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
T. M. Wright
When I think of a ghost story, I think about children shivering around a campfire while an aging man with a long, austere face summons up—in resonant, wonderfully spectral tones—the way the misdeeds of the dead will soon be visited upon the living, and I think about old, gray houses that have somehow had Evil implanted in them, and I think about rocking chairs that rock all on their own, and about crying in empty rooms, about cold spots, warm spots, hot spots, hounds out of hell, men who hang themselves in attics, and in cellars, again and again and again.
And it’s all true.
that it’s all true.
But there’s a whole lot more going on over there, on the Other Side, than any of us can imagine. And some of it’s very interesting, very entertaining, but some of it smells bad—some of it stinks, in fact—and if you tried to put your finger on it, if you tried to pin it down and say,
Yes, definitively, this is what it’s all about, this is what Death is all about; sit back now, I’ll tell you
, my God, they’d swarm all over you like angry bees, the dead would, like angry bees.
I came to New York, six months ago, on the Amtrak out of Bangor, Maine. I didn’t need to take the train, I could easily have afforded to fly, but the hard truth is that I’m scared of flying, and trains are romantic, after all. And I have long been a romantic.
On the way down, I sat next to a woman in her early thirties who was wearing a very abbreviated miniskirt. Miniskirts were just then on the tail end of their comeback, and since this woman had long and well-muscled legs, with a lovely, soft, even color to them, and since her miniskirt had hiked up considerably around her thighs, the trip was very enjoyable.
No, it wasn’t.
There was no woman in a miniskirt. That’s just a tacky, sexist fantasy I like to indulge in. It has variations. The woman is wearing no underwear; the woman
wearing underwear, but it’s see-through; the woman can’t keep her hands off me—nice fantasies that push the truth away, if just temporarily.
When I got on in Bangor, the car was three-quarters full, and I entertained the idea that I’d get to ride all the way to New York—a full twelve-hour journey—with both seats to myself. In Lewiston, Maine, however, five people got on—a handsome older woman in a tweed suit; a teen-age girl who was doing a lot of giggling; a fortyish man with thinning dark hair who was wearing a gray, pinstriped suit, carrying a briefcase, and trying hard to look important; a fat, middle-aged woman who breathed heavily and coughed every few seconds; and a young guy with a backpack and trendy mustache.
Guess who decided to sit next to me?
Listen, I’ve got a story to tell. You like spooky stories? Well, this is
spooky, about things that crawl and things that slither and things that go bump in the night.
Ever been to Manhattan? I have. I live here, and I want to tell you that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Lots more.
Because Manhattan is, in reality, two cities—twin cities, sort of—and in one of those cities people move from place to place in search of a number of things (in search of employment, in search of food, in search of a place to sleep, or someone to sleep
, or a good show, a building to jump out of, shoes to buy), and in the other city people do pretty much the same kinds of things, only they do them for very different reasons.
And if you get stuck in that other city, that other Manhattan, you find yourself getting awfully desperate and mean-spirited, the way some people are affected by too much heat or the crying of small children.
And you get scared, too. Scared enough to give up even going to the bathroom, because you’re not sure what you might find in there.
My name is Abner W. Cray and I’m thirty-three years old. I’m tall; I have sandy blonde hair, and before I came to Manhattan, I was a few pounds overweight. I’ve been told that my eyes are my most expressive feature, which is a nice thing to have said but which is true, I think, of most people.
I have been staying in Room 432 of the Emerson Hotel, on East 115th Street. It’s early June as I write, and I’ve been here for four months.
Room 432 of the Emerson Hotel is small, and nasty. It’s painted blue and gold; the bottom half is blue, the top half gold. The paint is nearly as old as the hotel, probably. When traffic is heavy on East 115th Street, the building vibrates sympathetically and the paint flecks off here and there, especially on the wall that faces the street, where there is some kind of moisture problem.
The floor has a large, threadbare, red oriental rug on it—from Woolworth’s, I imagine, circa 1960—and there is a wrought-iron, floor-standing lamp, no shade, alongside a green, one-drawer writing desk near the door. The bed is wrought-iron as well, the mattress lumpy and soft. A Gideon Bible rests on a little, dark wood nightstand close by.
I’m a photographer—I’ve been a photographer since I was old enough to pick up a camera and aim it and press the shutter release—and I came to New York to do a big, coffee-table photo book about Manhattan. But I fell in love, instead. And I got stuck here.
Listen, at times it is imperative that we grab hold of things that are real, things that have mass and weight, things that can cut, things that are mechanical, soulless, gauche, and temporary.
And we need such things when we feel certain that we’re going to be caught up, suddenly—or are already caught up—in something exquisite, and eternal. Like death. Or love. Or both.
And we need such things because they help confirm that we are, ourselves, soulless, gauche, and temporary. Sure it’s a lie. I
it’s a lie, but it’s how most of us make it from one day to the next.
January 2nd—Heading Out of Lewiston, Maine
The fat woman who coughed too much asked for the window seat and I gave it to her. I had images of her coughing herself to death there, as Dustin Hoffman had in
. But she didn’t. A half-hour into the ride she said hello and told me her name was Barbara W. Barber. “And you are?” she went on.
I told her my name.
“You don’t have a nickname?” she said. “With a name like Abner you really should have a nickname.”
“My mother used to call me Abe,” I told her. “I don’t know why—I don’t think I look like an Abe.”
She coughed deep in her chest, almost down in her belly, so her whole body got involved in it, and because she tried to keep her mouth closed at the same time, drops of spittle arched from her lips and landed everywhere around her.
“Are you okay, Mrs. Barber?” I asked.
She continued coughing for a few seconds, then held her hand up and dabbed at her mouth with a white lace handkerchief that she withdrew from the breast pocket of her dress. “Your mother is dead, isn’t she, Mr. Cray?”
I said nothing for a few moments. I had always prided myself on being able to read people and situations. I liked to believe that I had all the bases covered and that no one could tell me something I didn’t know or come across with an insight I didn’t believe them capable of. But it occurred to me, at that moment, that this fat, middle-aged woman with the unlikely name was reading
, and it made me very uncomfortable.