I'll admit. I saw this a few days ago but I didn't read it because it was long. That's no way to go through life, but it's the truth. I finally read it yesterday evening, and hot damn was it worth my time. Couldn't stop thinking about it while I was trying to fall asleep. Woke up this morning still thinking about it. This is the first fanpost I've promoted to the front page based purely on literary merit.
There are two things that make a great ghost story. First off, it can't actually be about the ghost. The ghost is a tool to make us understand something fundamental about human existence. Check. Secondly, you can't be sure what's really going on. The metaphysical must always be about choosing to believe or not. If you know whether or not to believe, it ceases being the metaphysical. Check.
Based on these criteria, my favorite ghost story is the final section of Pirx the Pilot by Stanislaw Lem, who also happens to be my favorite author, period. My second favorite ghost story is Ghost on the Highway, by Caliph. I'm trying to work out exactly where I stand on Caliph's place within the canon. I'll keep y'all posted. -Ian
Ghost on the Highway
He glanced over at the GPS screen on the cockpit dash, but it was really just out of habit; he’d done this road so many times before, he could do it in his sleep. Which, he realized, he almost was. All 40 feet of the giant RV rumbled across the centerline, snapping Joe Maddon back to attention, back to the lonely asphalt strip leading into the pitch-black desert, a hundred miles west of Albuquerque. He rubbed his forehead above the glasses and remembered that somewhere down I-40 near Gallup he could pull off the freeway onto a ranch road and call it a night. He’d make L.A. tomorrow; there really wasn’t any rush anyway.
Joe eased the big rolling house off the freeway, then a half mile away from the thin stream of cars, and down a crumbling side road into the late New Mexico night, easing it onto a wide dirt turnout full of broken glass. He shut off the engine, and in the deafening silence, he could hear the faint buzz of a distant powerline, and the faraway clack of a westbound freight. It felt good to relax.
He checked his iPad; nothing new tonight except Game 5 of the Series, which he couldn’t help glancing at in spite of the fact he said he wouldn’t. Four-hit shutout. Bumgarner’s pretty good. Tough. Calm. Then he scanned his phone messages, of which there were many. But none really caught his eye, and the few that looked halfway interesting could wait till the morning. Joe was exhausted, and without even cracking a beer, soon found himself sound asleep on the wraparound couch in the ultramodern Phaeton.
A sudden noise cut through the night. He bolted up. It was a sharp knocking at the door.
"Who’s there?" He said that with just a hint of alarm, but there was no answer except the wind.
There it was again—that knock.
Now wide awake, this time Joe realized it wasn’t the door at all, but a tree branch banging on something metal outside the window, maybe an old oil drum, or a road sign, or a rusty car fender. Relieved to have figured out the problem, he shuffled across to the tiny kitchen for a quick glass of merlot, and flipped on the widescreen TV. The satellite dish on the roof worked perfectly, and right away there was Harold Reynolds on the MLB Network enthusing about something, but Joe didn’t exactly know what because the sound was down.
A voice. That wasn’t Harold.
"Joe! Turn around!"
Startled, Maddon did just that. But there was no one there.
"Who’s there?" He reached for the light switch that led to the back of the huge RV. Cautiously, he moved toward the back end, past the bathroom, as if entering some sort of lost catacomb. Nobody there.
"Joe!" There it was again, this time from the kitchen, back where he had just been.
"Joseph! Right here!"
He knew the voice, of course he did—but this was impossible. He hadn’t heard that voice in years. That sounded like…Uncle Rick. Just like him! But he was dead.
"Goddammit Joe, don’t you have any cheese in here??"
There he was, like he owned the place. Stooped over in front of the open refrigerator, ratty white beard, white t-shirt, loose striped robe. Uncle Rick. It was him!
But before Joe could make sense of it all—was this a ghost? or just a bad cannoli coming back?—Uncle Rick had cracked open a Coors Light, and offered one to his host. This had to be a dream, Joe realized, but… Uncle Rick?
Maybe he could help.
"Is this right what I’m hearing? That you quit the Rays?" Uncle Rick always got straight to the point. No small talk with him.
"I opted out of the contract." Always best to answer Uncle Rick with as few words as possible.
"Sounds like quitting to me." Rick took a long swig and set a block of gouda on the counter. "Jeez Joe, don’t you have any American?"
They debated the semantics of the term "quitting", the circumstances that differentiate quitting and seeking opportunity, but Rick was right about the basic fact—Joe chose to leave the Rays. He didn’t have to. But he did it anyway. Call it what you want, but any way you look at it, here was Joe, alone in an RV in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. With a ghost.
It was good to see Uncle Rick again. Better not to ask how; Joe knew that might wake him out of this dream, weird as it was, and this was too good to risk that.
Maybe this (let’s call it a visitation) was exactly what Joe needed. His clearest thinking came to him in dreams, and tonight, in this dream, he saw a chance to figure it all out. Just like he’d done a million times before on Uncle Rick’s worn out couch with the burn holes back in Long Beach. He can still remember coming home the night after that last game in Anaheim against the Mariners in ‘95, the one that finally killed the Angels after they blew that huge lead in September. Rick didn’t show any sympathy then, and he wouldn’t now. God bless him.
"You can drink beer? Aren’t you a…"
"Dead? A ghost? You can say it."
"Yeah, I guess. A ghost." It felt just like old times. Just Joe, Uncle Rick, and a TV. The only thing missing was the parrot.
"Jesus, Joe—I’m just like you. Of course I can drink a beer. Being dead doesn't change that." Uncle Rick rummaged into the back of the bottom of the fridge. "Where’s the goddamn salami?"
Joe wasn’t sure what to believe now, but there was no denying what his eyes saw. That was Uncle Rick. Apparently back from the dead. He asked a few questions, things only Rick would know, but didn’t want to ask too much. Like how Aunt Ted was doing. Or his own dad. Better not to know. This couldn’t really be him, could it? But it was. They hugged, caught up on what had happened since Rick left. Was it 2007? He missed so much! So much had happened! Rick assured him he saw it all, didn’t miss a thing. They talked about old times, new times, Hazleton, Long Beach. News happy and sad. Politics. Sports. The Angels. Uncle Rick loved the Angels. And the Rays, of course. It was as if they’d just seen each other yesterday. Like old shoes, back on the feet. Speaking of which…
"Listen Uncle Rick, you gotta tell me something. If you were in my shoes, would you have, uh, opted out?"
Rick closed the refrigerator door, dropped an unopened pack of something that looked like meat onto the counter, and took a bite.
"Why did you do it?" Rick asked with his mouth in full chew mode.
"I don’t know." Joe thought for a second, and pulled some crackers from the shelf. "Well, maybe I do. I had it pretty dialed with the Rays. I could have been there forever. They loved me. I loved them. Honestly, I wanted to win the World Series there, that’s what I wanted. That’s all I wanted. Thought about that on a daily basis. Knew we could—that we would—but only if… You mind if you cut me a slice of that, too?"
Rick cut a fat hunk of whatever it was. Joe cracked open a beer, and held up his bottle of Becks.
"Na zdrowie!" Uncle Rick returned the toast with the only Polish he knew, and the two old friends clinked bottles.
"Honestly? Maybe I was bored. A little. Maybe it was something else. I don’t know; I couldn’t tell you."
"C’mon, Joe. That’s horseshit, and you know it!" Uncle Rick could read Joe better than he could read himself, which is one of the reasons Joe liked him. Rick always forced things out of people; Joe thought it was like dealing with Obi-Wan Kenobi. They both sat down on the couch. A train whistle moaned in the distant night.
"Well, there’s the future. I’m 60. I want to win. I thought we could with the Rays. I still think they can; I just don’t know when." Joe drained the beer in his hand.
"Then Andrew left—more power to him—and next thing I know the L.A. Times is calling me, wondering when I’m gonna take over the Dodgers! Can you believe that??"
"But you hate the Dodgers."
"Tell me! That’s why it’s so fucking funny!" They both laughed at the ludicrous idea. "But you know, it all got me thinking. Andrew’s there now, which is a huge plus. And I could ride my bike to the park! I mean, it’s a short ride down Ocean to downtown, then just hop the Blue Line to the Red Line to Union Station, and from there it’s just a quick ride through Chinatown up to Chavez Ravine. I mean, how good would that be?"
"Cut the bike crap, Joe—you’d get there on the freeway like everyone else."
"No, Uncle Rick, I would not. I’m telling you. In that particular situation, I would ride my bike. Honestly. Hey, have you lost a little weight? You’re looking pretty good. How does that work? I mean, when you’re dead?"
"Some things I can’t say, but I can tell you that being dead isn’t nearly as bad you might think."
Just then, the cell phone in Joe’s pocket began to play the theme from The Godfather.
"Excuse me a minute, I gotta take this."
Joe left the kitchen, and went to the back room, while Rick turned up Harold Reynolds, who was going on and on about how dominant Bumgarner was in Game 5 against the Royals. Royals-Giants? Are you kidding? What a ratings disaster that one must be! Rick flipped the channel to an old movie, something with Robert Mitchum in it. That’s better. Twenty minutes later, Joe came back.
"Sorry Uncle Rick. Had to take that."
"No, that was Theo. Epstein." Rick gave him a blank look. "Cubs President. You know, Epstein."
"Shouldn’t that be ‘Ep-STINE’?"
"Maybe so, but that’s not how he says it. Anyway, interesting call."
"The Cubs? They want you, I suppose."
"They already have a manager." Then he thought twice. No sense in playing dumb with a dead man. "They do, indeed. Want me, I mean."
"But do you want them? The Cubs? Really?"
"It’s good to be wanted, that’s all I can say. I don’t know—hadn’t really thought about this. But the Cubs? I kinda like the idea."
"Jesus Joe—it’s cold in Chicago! Your wife won’t like it. YOU won’t like it!"
"Chicago’s got nothin’ on Hazleton. You know that. Besides, I’ll be there in the summer. And the gnocchi at the Home Bistro on Halsted? Fabulous. Like an upscale Third Base."
"But the Cubs? The Cubs are not the Angels. Or even the Dodgers."
Joe thought about that for a minute. "No, they are not. And that’s probably a very good thing."
"You’d never win there."
"Maybe not. But what if I did?" Joe flipped the TV back on, this time to ESPN. They were talking about the new NCAA football playoff system, enthusiastically, as if global peace depended on it. Joe popped a couple more beers and handed one to Rick. "What if I did?"
"Well I don’t know this Ep-STINE guy, but I do know it’s been a while since the Cubs did anything."
"It was 1908. Mom Klocek was still in Poland."
"And what? Now you’re gonna win the World Series? What—you gonna have Mom Klocek batting leadoff?"
"They’ve got the talent. They’ve got a farm system. And Jesus, they’ve got money. We never had that with the Rays." Joe paused, and glanced at his phone. New text message from Theo. "It can be done."
"I don’t think so."
"No, that’s what Theo’s text says. Look." Joe showed it to Rick. It can be done.
"How much are they gonna pay you?" Uncle Rick never wasted words, especially the unnecessary ones.
"Enough. If I took it. Which I’m not saying I am."
"So there’s an offer? You ARE going to the Cubs. Unbelievable. I’m telling you—you’ll never last. You might end up in last." As Rick said this, he saw that Joe was distracted, fingering a message on his phone. "What did you just tell him?"
"No—I was writing back to my daughter. She wants the latest scoop. I told her there wasn’t any, but that rumors are fun."
Just then, a short burst of a siren punctured the silent night, and through the back window, red and blue lights flashed. Joe pulled the curtain. State trooper. What did they want? Two men approached the RV. Joe came to the door, just as one of the officers knocked.
Joe opened the door, and the officer eyed Joe suspiciously. "You okay out here?"
"I’m fine, officer. You want to come in?" Joe figured politeness is always the best opening.
"I see the Florida tags. Where you headed?"
"California. L.A. Home."
The officer peered around the door. Nothing looked out of place. He pulled out a photo from a notebook. "Have you seen this man? He could be dangerous." It was a blurry photo of someone who looked a lot like… Uncle Rick. Joe put his hand to his chin, then glanced backward. He didn’t see Rick. Maybe he was in the bathroom. He hoped he was.
"What did he do?" If you don’t mind my asking."
Then a sudden look of recognition came over the trooper’s face, like the sun rising. "Hey! Aren’t you Joe Maddon? The manager?"
"Yes, I am Joe Maddon."
The trooper called to his buddy in the dark outside. "Hey Dave, you won’t believe who’s in here!" Then he broke into a wide smile and extended his hand. "I’m Bob. I’m from Clearwater! Originally, anyway—live in Gallup now, past 10 years or so. You know, Mr. Maddon, I love the Devil Rays!"
Joe chuckled, almost a smirk to himself. "Thanks, Bob. I appreciate that. Is there anything else I can do for you, officer? It’s getting a little late."
"Oh, sorry! You sure you haven’t seen this man?" Somebody said they saw him causing trouble down by the Interstate.
Joe took a hard look at the big picture. "He doesn’t look so bad to me. I hope you find him. Looks like he needs some help." The officer thanked him for his time, reminded him to keep the doors locked and to stay safe.
Once they had gone, and the squad car pulled away back toward I-40, Joe called out. "Uncle Rick!" The bathroom door was open, the kitchen light on, but otherwise there was no reply. Joe went to the back bedroom. No one. And at that moment, Joe realized that Uncle Rick was no longer here. Had he ever been here?
Joe’s phone rang. Chicago area code. He decided he’d take the call.