The Ghost of Jack Kerouac
There's a ghost standing in downtown Lowell. He's wearing a wrinkled suit and has slicked-back dark hair, and he's looking at the Jack Kerouac Commemorative on Bridge Street. Duncan only wishes that was the weirdest thing he's seen in the past four days. He saw a creature, it looked like a little lion only it had orange fur, eat Mrs Salgado's cat, and there was that French class at the high school, seventeen kids and the teacher just disappeared between one bell and the next. Mrs Angeletto across the street, yesterday morning her front porch was covered with plants, all these spiky green things growing like crazy out of their plastic pots. By the end of the day they'd covered the porch and started climbing the posts to the roof, and this morning it looked like they were eating the front of the house. Duncan hasn't seen Mrs Angeletto in a week. He hopes she's ok, but there's no way to get in the house past the mutant plants.
The ghost almost looks normal, compared to that.
As Duncan gets closer the ghost becomes less and less transparent, until he looks as if you could actually touch him. Duncan tries to put a hand on the ghost's shoulder, but it falls right through. The ghost turns to look at him.
"Hey," Duncan says. "You ok?"
Talking to a ghost as if it's just a guy who's lost his way. Still not the weirdest thing he's done or seen in four days.
"This is mine," the ghost says, pointing to the words carved on one of the pillars of the Commemorative. "I wrote this."
Duncan looks between the pillar and the ghost, and says "Jack Kerouac? Dunno how to tell you this, dude, but you're dead."
"I... yes. I think I remember. I should know this place."
"Yeah, you were from Lowell. Bet it's changed a lot, though. It's probably ok if you don't recognize it."
"I was born here. But I died in my mother's house in Florida."
"Yeah, I know. What a way to go, huh? At least you're buried here."
"I lived in New York, too. I went out west, I lived in California. I wrote books. Was I good?"
"I guess. We had to read On the Road in high school. I liked it ok. My friend Jon, he liked The Dharma Bums."
Jack is still reading the words on the Commemorative. Duncan looks around at this deserted part of Lowell. He hasn't had anyone to talk to in four days. His Aunt May disappeared, he can't get a hold of his sister in Worcester, his buddy Tim is gone, Tim's little brother, his buddy Steve's dad, Steve's dad's girlfriend. No one's answering their phone. Maria, the cute Portuguese girl down the street, hasn't vanished, but her parents don't like Duncan and won't let him talk to her.
So he's standing here having a conversation with Jack Kerouac's ghost. It could be worse.
"Hey, what's it like being dead?"
"I don't remember," Jack says. "I don't remember being alive." Duncan is about to point out that Jack remembers living in New York and writing books, but the ghost still looks a little confused, and maybe coming back scrambles your brain. Either that or he got it from the Commemorative. Duncan's never actually read what's chiseled on all the pillars.
Jack seems harmless, and Duncan misses having the company. He's tired of talking to himself, trying to get a TV station to come in, and wondering where everyone is.
"I'll show you around," he offers. "Maybe you'll see something that'll jog your memory or something."
"Thank you. Are you - "
"A tour guide? Dead? Nah. Just don't have anyone to talk to. Everyone's gone, it's just me. And my sister, I guess. She lives in Worcester, but I can't get her on the phone. We don't talk much anyway. She moved out right after high school. My mom died when I was fifteen - she had cancer. My dad fucked off when I was little, so she raised us herself. Well, and she had my Aunt May. She took care of me after Mom died."
He really is lonely for the company, he thinks. That's some personal shit to tell someone you just met.
"Where is she?" Jack asks.
"Aunt May? I don't know. She just vanished. Lots of people did. I heard like three-quarters of the world's population is gone. Maybe more. That's some freaky shit, huh? Before we lost our internet I read all this stuff online. This whole city in India disappeared, just like that." Duncan stops. He's not sure he wants to talk about this. He's got a couple of cigarettes left; he shakes one out of the pack and offers it to the ghost. Jack shakes his head.
"You can't smoke?" Duncan says. "Man, that sucks." Jack shrugs, Duncan lights the cigarette, takes a drag, blows out a cloud of smoke. Jack watches him, then looks away across the street. Duncan follows his gaze but can't tell what he's looking at. "What do you see?"
"A woman talking on the phone." He gestures. Duncan doesn't see anyone.
"That some leftover ghost thing?"
"She has brown hair, a black t-shirt, a red shoulder bag. She might be a ghost too."
"She look like anyone you know?"
"She might." Jack scratches his chin thoughtfully. "Who did I know?"
"Lots of guys. But I think they're all dead now. Allen Ginsberg died a bunch of years ago. My aunt was all upset. She used to say she knew him. After college, I guess, I dunno. Burroughs died about the same time. I think people were surprised he lived that long. He was kinda like Keith Richards, he shoulda been dead years ago."
Jack shrugs. Duncan can't remember if he lived the same time as the Rolling Stones, if Keith Richards would even mean anything to him.
"My ex-girlfriend, Alex, she was all into him," he goes on. "She read all his books." Now it's Duncan's turn to shrug. Alex went to college at Northeastern. He hasn't talked to her since high school, and she's another one of those people who hasn't answered the phone. "She was nuts."
"You were going to show me Lowell," Jack reminds him. "Help me remember who I am."
"Right, right. I'm Duncan, by the way,"
"Hello, Duncan. I'm Jack." Jack grins, pleased with himself for knowing something, and something in his expression reminds Duncan of Steve's little cousin holding up the appropriate number of fingers and telling him proudly that she's four.
Well, it's something. Maybe he'll remember enough for them to figure out what he's doing in Lowell and why he's wandering around in the first place.
Duncan stubs out his cigarette on one of the pillars of the Commemorative and leads Jack away, up Bridge Street to Merrimack. The Massachusetts and Boott Mills are right behind the Commemorative and across the street, but something about those big buildings and weirdly empty parking lots makes him nervous.
"You know," he says, "I'm showing a ghost around town and it's still not that weird."
"How many ghosts have you met?" Jack asks.
"Just you. But there's a lot of weird shit going around. Not just people disappearing. Or cities going poof. Mrs Angeletto, she lives across the street, her plants are eating her house. Last night, when the sun set? The whole sky turned pink, like Pepto pink. Then it turned purple. The clouds did this weird melty thing, like they were being stretched. They looked kind of like curtains. I thought I was tripping. Or the milk was bad that I put on my cereal."
They head up Merrimack away from Kearney Square, Duncan chattering the whole way. Jack doesn't ask why Duncan can't shut up, which is just as well, because Duncan wouldn't know how to answer. "I miss talking to people" seems obvious when the reason you have no one to talk to is because everyone is gone.
"Check it out," he says after about ten minutes, stopping on the sidewalk to point. Jack follows his finger. There's a storefront across the street with one broken window and one whole window. There's a long strapless plaid dress behind the unbroken pane of glass. "That looks like the dress Steve's date wore to prom. Hers was red and blue, though. She said it was for her Scottish heritage. I think she just wanted to have a dress that no one else did. She made it. The dress, I mean."
"How old are you?" Jack asks.
"Nineteen. What, do I look older? Younger?"
"I can't tell. I don't remember my prom."
"Did you even go? Oh, uh, I guess if you can't remember you're not gonna know that." He starts walking again and Jack follows. "Prom was kinda fun, I guess. Me and Alex broke up like the month before but I'd already bought the tickets. We went as friends. She looked really good. Aunt May thought we'd get back together. She really liked her."
"Yeah. Aunt May thought she 'd be good for me. She thought Alex was all smart and shit, 'cause she went to college. I guess Alex liked my aunt ok. She was always nice to her."
"Do you always talk this much?"
"Yeah, pretty much. I really miss having people to talk to, you know? It's weird when all your friends are gone. I can't get a bunch of them on the phone either." He still doesn't want to talk about this, and so changes the subject.
"I had this history teacher in high school," he says, "Mr McNeill. He taught American history, government, that stuff. He was always telling us to shut up and think for a second. But thinking's where you get in trouble. My mom really thought about marrying my dad. She told me she made him wait a month so she could think about it. And then he left her. If she just said no right away, it mighta saved her some grief."
"But she wouldn't have had you."
Duncan tells Jack more about high school, which teachers are really old, what the building looks like, how the football team is doing. It's easier to talk about than his mom, and maybe it will remind Jack of something.
He doesn't even realized they've passed the high school until they cross the canal, and then he figures they'll just keep going until Jack sees something he knows.
"Where are we?" Jack asks, stopping on the sidewalk. "I think I know this place."
"That's the library. Pollard Memorial. I worked there for like a month. You could get a job shelving books when you were fourteen. But then my mom got really sick and I quit."
"It was called the Lowell Library. I used to cut class to read the books." Duncan looks from Jack to the library and back again, wondering why the hell anyone would cut school to go to the library. What would be the point?
"You wanna go inside?"
"I remember what it looked like inside," Jack says. "I remember the books in the stacks." He puts his hands in his pants pockets and bounces a little on the balls of his feet. He still reminds Duncan of a little kid. "My father worked for the newspaper. I remember the alley behind the building. I remember, Duncan."
"That's good, man. What else?" If Jack's starting to remember his life he might be able to figure out how to get back where he came from. Duncan doesn't mind tour-guiding, and he really likes having someone to talk to, but it's not right, ghosts walking around. There's a lot of weirdness in the world suddenly, and if Duncan can make this one thing normal - if he can help Jack go back to where he came from, Heaven or wherever ghosts hang out - well, it's not much, but it's a step in the right direction.
Besides, from what he remembers from high school English, Jack didn't like Lowell that much, and Duncan would be the first to agree that no one should stay here any longer than they absolutely have to.
"I remember San Francisco," Jack is saying. "Sunflowers. Sailboats. I remember City Lights. I remember the lookout tower on Desolation Peak. I remember a man... Allen. I remember Bill, Neal, Lucien. Edie." He looks surprised and pleased. "I know their faces. Where do I find them?"
"I dunno," Duncan says. "I think they're all dead. You'd have to go back to Heaven or wherever. You'll get there eventually. I could take you back to the mills, maybe you'll remember them. 'Cause Lowell was still a mill town, y'know? Maybe that'll help you go home. Go on, whatever. Where the rest of those guys are."
"I think I remember the mills. Take me there."
About halfway back down Merrimack, Duncan changes his mind.
"Look," he says, "you sure you wanna see the mills? There's no one there. Everything kinda stopped. I could, uh, where'd your mom live? We could go by there. You could see the old house. I guess you don't wanna see the cemetery, huh?"
"I don't remember the old house. I remember some of my life after I left, but not my life here. I thought you were going to show me around so I remembered."
"Yeah, I did say that. It's just... they're kinda creepy empty."
"I'm dead, I'm creepy." Jack actually grins. Duncan realizes he's making a joke, or trying to, and grins back.
"Ok, ok. We'll see the mills."
Duncan walks Jack all over Lowell, until his feet start to hurt and he has to stop and sit on the curb. Jack sits next to him, unsweaty and no more wrinkled than he was when Duncan first saw him standing confused in the middle of the Commemorative.
"Man, I gotta stop smoking," Duncan says. "I think I inherited it. My grandpa smoked like a chimney. My mom used to bitch him out all the time. He died of cancer too, when I was eight. Well, kind of cancer. He went in for surgery but there were complications. There's this picture of me and him when I was a baby. I think it's the only picture I ever saw where he's not holding a cigarette." He digs the pack out of his jacket pocket. He's got one smoke left. Lucky cigarette. He knows enough about irony to not find that particularly funny.
"Duncan," Jack says.
Duncan shrugs, lights the cigarette, and sucks smoke into his lungs. He and Jack sit on the curb for a while, Duncan slowly smoking his cigarette and Jack staring pensively across the street. Duncan wonders what he's thinking about. He wants to ask, because the silence is making him nuts. He's had enough of that to last him a long time.
"What're you thinking?" he asks eventually.
"I'm thinking about Stella," Jack says. "My third wife. I was still married to her when I died. George. Sammy. My friends from childhood. Football got me a scholarship to Columbia and I was not sorry to leave."
"Hey, you remember! That's great. You can go home, I guess. Wherever it is ghosts are supposed to be."
"I want to go to New York, if I can get there. I don't think I would recognize it any more than I recognize Lowell, but it was the next place I lived and I would like to see it."
"How do ghosts travel?"
"Man, I don't know. Sure you don't wanna stick around some more? Maybe I can hotwire Mrs Angeletto's car and we can go to Boston or something."
"I think I do this alone. Thank you for showing me the town, Duncan. Now I must see the city." He holds out his hand for Duncan to shake, and then gets up and heads off down the street. Duncan is about to stand and follow, but with every step Jack gets more and more transparent until he disappears altogether.
Duncan is a little creeped out. He wonders if that's how people disappeared, that three-quarters of the population that's gone. Did they vanish step by step? He's glad he didn't see anyone go, if that's how they did it.
He gets to his feet and looks both ways, up and down the street, maybe hoping Jack changed his mind. He doesn't want to be alone again. He liked having company.
"Well, shit," he says to himself. "Now what?"
New York's a little far, Maybe he'll try to hotwire Mrs Angeletto's car and go to Boston himself. One thing's for sure - there's no reason to stay in Lowell. Even the ghosts knows that.