Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Cornsilk Ghost

This short story was dated 10/25/99 when I wrote it for the folks at I did a lot of online writing circa 1999-2000, and some of it, like this, sort of disappeared into the mist almost immediately. At the time, I thought it was a pretty good short story that would have made a good movie. Still do, although it would take some fleshing out of the main character’s back story, which would be easy. Many opportunities for obscure 70s soundtrack songs, too. And how many ghost stories are there about the 70s?

But I digress. I’ll give it another chance here, doing some minor editing, but pretty much presenting it as-is. Enjoy.


Last week, I came across a ghost story on my hometown newspaper's Web site. Living in New York now for years, I miss that small-town paper, bad as it is. Reading the condensed front page every day fills me with strange nostalgia for a life I don't understand anymore.

In the story, the parish priest, Father Malloy, noticed something strange after a Saturday Midnight Mass. He claimed to have seen an "eerie visage" of a teenage boy in a blue plaid shirt and jeans hovering in-and out of the edge of the cornfield.

"I could see right through him," Father Malloy is quoted as saying. "He moved like the wind was blowing him across the ground. But there was no wind when I saw him. He was shimmering--like a flag."

Father Malloy wasn't the parish priest when I grew up there, so I can't vouch for him. But there's little reason to doubt his word, as two sightings followed over the next few nights. The same thing: a teenage boy, not walking, but gliding, through the cornfield. And the assurance of both people, a retired postal worker walking his dog and the town's police chief on patrol, that this vision was not human. The police chief claimed that the ghost had shoulder-length black hair and was bone thin. The old man simply said it was a ghost, and that the only time he had seen his dog so spooked was the night they had come across a dead skunk.

No one knows the ghost's identity. Since there seems to be no religious significance to the ghost's appearance, the Virgin Mary crowd hasn't latched onto the story, or at least it hasn't gathered enough steam yet to get their attention.

The strange part for me? I know people back there are talking the kind of talk that never makes the papers. Just by the physical description of the ghost, I recognize my brother Freddy. Freddy killed himself in that cornfield 20 years ago.

It's far away now. Fred was two years ahead of me in high school. Not popular, nor smart, nor handsome. He got high a little too much and pulled straight C's and the occasional B. He wasn't into sports. But he was known around school for one thing: his passionate infatuation with his girlfriend, Tangie. They had been dating for three years going into their senior year, and everyone was sure they would be married one day. Tangie ran with the same crowd as Fred. They thought they were rebels, but they never seemed to do anything beyond getting stoned.

One day out of the blue, Tangie dumped Fred for one of the guys on the football team. Not a certifiable jock--one of those borderline party animals who kept a foot in both crowds. No profound reason--just one of those random teenage controversies that people talk about at the 10-year class reunion. Fred was devastated. He played Bread and Carpenters albums in his room at night--and this from a massive Black Sabbath fan. There was something really wrong with him.

I knew it. Our parents knew it. Everyone knew it. He wasn't the first kid to have his heart broken like that for no good reason and wouldn't be the last. He was quiet to begin with, and stoned half the time, so no one could tell if he had developed any "warning signs."

One morning, he didn't show up for breakfast. Our parents immediately notified the police, as they thought he might have run away. Later that morning, his body was found by a few of Fred's classmates cutting school in the cornfield behind the Catholic church. It was a popular place for kids to go get stoned at night. No houses were nearby, and they could park their cars a few hundred yards away on a side street by the firehouse and walk there through the back of the field. The farmer who owned it lived beyond a hill on the far side of the field and had no way of knowing if anyone was in it at night.

He left no note. They found him lying peacefully in a small clearing near the edge of the field, hands on his chest, gazing at the sky, with dried tear trails on the sides of his face. Empty bottles of quaaludes and Jack Daniels were found next to his body. An autopsy showed an overdose to be the cause of death.

The funeral, as all teenage funerals must be, was awful. One of the worst days of my life. Tangie must have been too ashamed to show. After she graduated, she left town, without the football player, and we lost track of her. My mother was hysterical, and my father was numbed. Two years later when I went to college, they moved to a suburb of Philadelphia. After college, I left, too, and ended up here in New York. I visit the town, and Fred's grave, every year in May, when he died, but I don't hang around long. I simply stay at the town's run-down motel for a night, drive around the next day, look at the house I grew up in and feel strange, go the cemetery, put some flowers on Fred's grave, then leave.

I've asked myself why Fred would come back. Or has he always been there, and it's only now that a few people have seen him? He spent many nights getting wasted there with his friends. I knew because his sneakers would always have corn silk on them. And he made a point of wearing his blue flannel shirt out, as it sometimes got chilly at night, and it reeked of pot smoke, a smell our parents didn't know.

Maybe it was the one place he felt he belonged with other people. I wonder if kids still get stoned there at night. And if they do, do they talk about Fred? He must be a legend. Stories like that always drive kids wild. I can see them now, in the field on a summer night, sitting in a circle, joints and bottles passing from one hand to another, and someone saying, "I wonder if that kid who killed himself over his girlfriend back in the 70's is here tonight."

And even if he isn't, when the warm summer breeze rustles the stalks, everyone knows Fred is there--a lost soul at a stoner's séance, forever young in a way they'll never be.

Fred would be happy to know he had made the paper, even if no one seemed to know him by name. I wonder if Tangie, wherever she is, read the same thing I did and felt the same warm thrill. My parents haven't read it, and I won't be telling them about it.

I've started dreaming about Fred--something I've never done before. It's always the same dream. I'm lying next to him on that night. I can feel the corn silk and stalks rubbing against my back and smell the soil. I can hear crickets and power lines humming. I look up and see the lines and scaffolding of the dark tower against the purple sky. I turn my head and see him. He's quietly crying. The bottles are already empty. The dream starts here, but I know that I have shared the bottles. There's nothing to do but wait until he closes his eyes. I feel like vomiting but keep the urge down, as I know I'll live if I do it. In the dream, I don't want to live.

This dream is the closest I've ever felt to him. We were never that close. We certainly didn't hate each other and got along fine. But in the dream, it's like we're twins who've decided to end it on the same night. Ten year earlier on a sunny day, we could have been laughing at a picnic, naming cloud shapes in the spring sky.

He turns his head, looks at me and smiles. I feel the same way I did when I had my tonsils out and woke up under sedation: stoned, like I'm lying vertically on a wall of grass. I'm floating in some sense. And then we talk. I can recall one conversation we had:

Fred: I don't want to live.
Me: I know. You kill yourself tonight.
Fred: Because there's nothing here for me.
Me: It's only a broken heart. It'll go away.
Fred: I'd rather go away.

He leans his head back and closes his eyes.

I'm never going back there again. Who knows, maybe in the next few weeks, a reporter will do some research, or one of the teachers at the high school will get a flashback, and Fred's gaunt face, maybe his yearbook picture, will magically appear on my computer screen.

Would Fred appear to me if I lay down in that cornfield on a warm night in late May? Would my dream become real? If I saw him roaming the fields, would he stop to acknowledge that we were once brothers, maybe with a certain smile or a wave of his pale, bony hand? What would he say to me?

I don't care. I could drink ghost whiskey from the same bottle, and I don't care. I don't need to see it to believe it. The dream is real enough. Even if it all comes down to a drunk priest, a doddering old man and a paranoid town cop, I believe Fred is out there. I wonder if, as with all those ghost stories, he's doomed to wander forever, never finding what he's looking for, or if there, in the stoner's cornfield behind the church, he's found his home.

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