Usually, the only time people in public stop and talk to me is to say: "Hey, guy! What's that all about?"
To which I invariably reply: "It's a fuckin' proton pack; the hell's it look like?"
I say it just like that, too; like they're clearly asking a stupid question. I'm not really all that interested in chatting, I just want to see if anyone notices. In reality, it is exactly what it looks like: a backpack with vacuum cleaner attachments heavily duct-taped to one of its smaller compartments.
"It's for bustin' ghosts," I say even when they don't ask, my eyes wide like its purpose is even more obvious than the pack itself. This is the part I usually tell to people's back. After engaging them verbally, they don't typically stick around long enough for me to say it to their face.
I've got no bona fide illusion about what it is — or what I am, for that matter. I mean, I'm obviously not a Ghostbuster, but being a grown man and pretending to be Peter Venkman in public is definitely a lot of fun, especially when people really believe you really believe you are. The general idea is there.
So it goes or something, right?
Getting a rise out of people for kicks is as old as cheating at cards or prostitution (though I submit it's much less lucrative than either of those).
The other day, this guy who was in a real hurry said to me: "How come people like you only hang out downtown?"
People like me? What people like me? How many people do you see downtown rockin a taped-up Jansport apparition zapper on a daily basis?
Those questions are obviously rhetorical and, consequently, went unsaid.
To be fair, the gentleman machingschnell, as it were, made at least half-a-point — even if he was a bit more condescending and smug than any prick in his late twenties ever ought to be: I do frequently haunt the passageways down here in The Old Market. I'm sentimental for cobblestones and horse-drawn carriages and other old-timey shit from way back when. It's like I feel sentimental for an era I wasn't alive to see for myself, but an era that always sounds so nice and quaint.
Nostalgia's crazy like that, I guess.
One day, I was sitting on the corner of 11th and Jackson, taking a break from my routine because my leg was bothering me. Sometimes it just goes numb and I can't feel it like it's not even there. I mean, I can see it, but my brain doesn't register any sensation. It's crazy.
But so I was just sitting there, eating a sandwich someone'd packed away in my ghost-blastin rucksack, minding my own beeswax as I'm wont to do from day to day, just enjoying the fresh air. All that, and whatever. And but so my bag was sitting there on the curb, just like me, and a woman in her forties — who was very attractive by the way, you know, for an old chick — walked by and tossed a quarter, two dimes, and a penny into the smaller compartment where my zapper attaches to the pack itself. Then you know what she said? She said, "I'll pray for you."
Of course, I was like: "Hey, what gives, lady? I'm not homeless!" Then I looked at the change she threw in and said, "—and what the hell am I supposed to buy with forty-six cents these days?" It's not the 1950s. I couldn't spend it all in one place if I wanted to. I mean, if she thought I didn't have a house, why would she think I had the time machine necessary to go back to when you could buy something for less than two quarters? Because if I did have a time machine, I certainly wouldn't have been sitting there having that discussion with her.
I quickly got a strong impression that both she and her charitable god were probably cheapskates.
Forty-six cents… C'mon…
Today, I see my buddy Gary crossing the street, walking toward me with a purpose. His face says it all. Gary is a veteran and likes telling me war stories all the time. I always listen because I don't have much else to do. I'm retired and I live alone. Plus Gary's a real card. He always asks me if I remember this time or that time about this or that thing that happened — Gary tends to mumble when he talks about things he remembers, so I'm never really sure what he's asking me, but that's just Gary being Gary. I don't think he really believes I was there for any of the stuff he remembers, but Gary isn't all there, like upstairs, I mean. I always tell him I wasn't even born back then, so obviously I don't remember any of it, which always just cracks his shit right up. Gary's laugh is the best because it comes from deep inside him somewhere, like if he doesn't let it out, he'll pop like an overfilled helium balloon.
I tell Gary sometimes I used to work as a clown selling balloons in grocery stores, and he totally believes it. He nods all seriously and says, "Yeah man… Gotta do what you gotta do…" I'm just kidding of course, but Gary's so serious that I let him have the moment. It's like he remembers it happening even though it never did.
Gary seems to be the only one who can see me when I don't have my proton pack on. It's kind of weird, but I don't mind because I like his company. He's also the only person I've ever let try it on. Gary thinks it's hilarious to throw the straps over his shoulders and pose in front of really high-polished glass, striking movie poses. He always like, "Who ya gonna call?!" which we both get a kick out of. It'd probably be even funnier if I could see my own expressions. But when we stand there staring at ourselves in the glass, I can only see Gary staring back. He says he can see both of us and I'm just pulling his prosthetic leg.
"Only vampires can't see their selves in mirrors," he says, "and you ain't no fuckin vampire."
I tell Gary we're lucky that at least we've got one good pair of legs and one good pair of eyes between us, and he just howls at that. Between my numb leg and inability to see my own reflection, Gary thinks I'm a little loony, which is pretty funny itself. Either that or he's glad to be a one-man audience to my hilarious comedy routine. Maybe it's either or neither of those, it's tough to say.
Now and then, Gary and I like to pass time pretending we're mobsters from the 1930s, made men who've somehow got misplaced in time and stuck here in the present. Gary says something about anachronisms or whatever, but hell if I know what that means. Gary can go from vampires to anachronisms and circle around to mobsters in a split second, which is honestly sometimes a little hard to follow.
"Bunch of gizmos and lemmings, man." Gary says, shaking his head, nodding, then shaking it again like he's having an argument inside his head. "Gizmos and lemmings…" he says again. I get the feeling that neither of us is sure whether he's winning or losing.
"And fuckfaces, too," I say, nodding and biting my lower lip.
"Exactly, gizmos, lemmings and fuckfaces — the lot of em."
"Situation is gettin' sketchy, Gary. Real friggin' sketchy."
"Suspect," Gary chimes in, bobbing his head, "at best."
"For sure. Real friggin' suspect, Gary."
"At best," he says again.
"Shit man, two keys and a baker's dozen. Some serious weight," I say, really just spitballing.
"Some serious weight we're talking about moving here, my friend. Serious friggin' weight."
"Gonna be a lotta heat on this, too, Gary. Lotta friggin' heat."
"So we gotta have someone runnin' ghost on this. Catch my drift?" though I don't even know what I actually mean. It all feels like something I could've actually said in a previous life.
"Yeah, man, no — for sure. I hear you, man," Gary says. He's really getting into it today.
"Need to be ready to eighty-six the whole treatment at the drop, if you're pickin' up what I'm layin down?" I say.
"I mean it's not friggin' amateur night at The Apollo, you dig? Our intel's gotta be rock solid. No excuses."
"Solid." Gary starts packing his cigarettes and pacing like maybe it's more real for him today than usual.
"Gotta be friggin' brick-solid."
"Yeah, man, no. I can dig. Like a friggin' brick."
Gary and I take turns being the point-man, depending on the day. There's not much behind the decision; the conversation just sort of flows and our roles just sort of happen.
For the record, I should probably reiterate that I'm not crazy. So then why do I act like a half-crazed vagrant with a thing for '80s movies and silver pipe adhesive? I just find it's about the only way to get noticed with the world being in such a hurry these days. In Germany they'd say, "mach schnell." Make haste. Even the slightest reaction beats none at all, I figure. Parents shield their children's eyes when they walk by, immediately picking up their pace and whispering things like: "Don't look at that man, sweetie, something's not right with him." But typically, the kids can't help themselves. They think my proton pack is awesome. It's a sort of public litmus test, really. It's how I make sure I'm still visible to other people since I can't see myself for myself. If nothing else, it's a good way to prove I'm still here.
Living on your own with no reflection stirs up all kinds of lonely feelings. Feeling alone both is strange and intense because of how it makes you feel so empty and massless, like your entire person couldn't displace even a microliter of water if you stepped into a bathtub. Gary told me once that everything you've ever done in your life leads up to right now, to the person you see in the mirror every single morning. I never see anyone, though. It's like everything I've ever done has led up to a singular instant where there is nothing — where I am nothing — an empty proton pack with a hollow vacuum hose slung over invisible shoulders.
Such a hollow feeling more or less reaffirms my conviction that the lady who wanted to pray for me would've been wasting her time — empty things don't have souls; a soul would take up space, but I suspect there's nothing like that inside of me.
The backpack makes me visible; it's like a bridge between things people can see and things they can't. It's what keeps me between those two worlds — the tangible and intangible. It's what I have in common with ghosts; we're just looking out for one another, nodding and saying, "I see you. You are real to me."
"Ted?" a voice comes from a car to my right.
I look in that direction and see a familiar face. It takes a couple seconds for me to place the name. "Cheryl?"
"Who else would it be, Ted? Get in the car. We need to get you to your appointment."
I feel like I've known Cheryl a long time but she mostly just drives me around places. My leg makes it all but impossible for me to drive myself.
"Cheryl, you worry too much," I say because it seems like the right thing to say. "Besides, I'm kind of busy right now."
Cheryl pauses, looking miffed. "Doing…?" she says, waiting.
I look back to Gary for some support, but he's gone. He hates even the smallest conflicts, so if he senses an argument brewing, he slips away without being noticed, like he's a ninja or something.
"Nevermind…" I say, getting into the car. "Just so you know, I'm only coming along because you're so pretty," I say, hoping flattery will get me somewhere.
Cheryl snortlaughs and pulls away from the curb.
I hadn't seen Gary in a week until today. It's been really windy lately, especially so downtown where the drafts carom between all of the tall buildings. It gets this way every spring, but it doesn't mean I ever come to like it. It feels like you can lean with all your weight to the side and the buffeting wind will keep you propped up. It's kind of like walking diagonally, which makes me think of music videos with rapid flashing lights and amorphous peopleshapes for some reason. I say this to Gary and he asks me if I remember something about something that I can't hear over the wind, so I play along this time and nod like I remember.
"Damn right…" Gary says, nodding, clearly satisfied.
A kid walks by and stops in front of Gary and I. I'm guessing he's like five or six. I ask Gary how old he thinks the kid is but Gary isn't paying attention. The kid doesn't even look at Gary, just starts giggling at me. I laugh too because I guess something is funny.
The kid points at my proton pack and says, "Can I see?"
Of course I'm reluctant. I've only ever let Gary put on my pack. It's like something he and I do, something that's just our thing. I'm just not sure and it's clear the kid picks up on my hesitation. I ask Gary what he thinks but he's still not listening, just standing there mumbling something to himself. Gary is clearly not going to be any help. When he gets in one of his moods, even an up-close gunshot can't break his concentration.
"See with your eyes," I say at last, turning a bit to the side so he can see where the zapper is duct-taped to the backpack.
"I want to see it with my hands. Pleeeeaaase?!" the kid says, appealing to my practical side — that is to say the one that doesn't like to be annoyed by repeated questions and/or whining.
I agree to let him see it with his hands, but I don't really want to. I keep wondering how I'll feel if he breaks it. I tell him he can see it with his hands for ten seconds.
As soon as I hand it over, I immediately regret it. The kid whips it over one shoulder and bolts out into the cobbled Old Market street. The flood of panic is overwhelming and I become instantly nauseated. I realize I can't remember not having that bag; it's somehow become a significant part of me. It's the only way people can see me, I think to myself. I'll be invisible forever if I don't get it back.
Without looking, I dart into the street after the kid. As I reach out to grab it, I hear a deep horn blast from my left.
Everything happens so fast.
The sound causes me to stumble and my outstretched hand plants palm-first into the kid's back, hurtling him forward, sending him tumbling to the far-side curb. It's the last thing I remember and an avalanche of steel pulverizes my body with an unimaginable force. It feels like I am being squeezed, compressed upon every square inch of my body. Things go black. Intermittently flashes of color appear with noise — so much noise — and then black again.
When the world flashes back, a million muddy shades of indiscernible colors begin bleeding into solid shapes and recognizable objects, I realize I'm lying in the street. Tremendous bolts of pain explode back into awareness. I feel like a grenade has gone off inside of me. There are people everywhere, standing above me, looking concerned, talking nervously.
My first thought is: Now you see me…
Then a wave of nausea takes me and I start to throw up, just barely able to turn my head to the side so that most of it ends up next to me in the street. I notice it's awfully red. With my head turned to one side, I can see the kid I shoved sitting on the curb, crying, still holding my backpack. The vacuum cleaner attachment is missing and only a few scraps of duct tape remain reminding me that it was ever there in the first place.
"Gary?" a disembodied voice says from nowhere in particular. "Gary, are you OK?"
Gary… Where did he go? Where is he?
"Gary, can you hear me? Gary, are you OK?" the voice says again. I wonder if Gary followed me into the street and got hurt too. Maybe these people can't see me after all. I feel panicked; want to scream, "I'm hurt too! Please, someone help me!"
But all I can muster is, "Gary…"
"Everyone stand back," the voice says. "Give him room! Give him room!"
I'm so confused. Everyone keeps talking about Gary, but I can't see him anywhere.
A few other people are saying my name, "Theodore," but it sounds wrong; no one calls me that. No one has in years. Usually, I'm just Ted.
". . . Yes, hello? Hi," a woman says, talking into a cell phone, "Are you Mrs. Genabackis? Cheryl Genabackis?" I recognize the woman talking on the phone… "Is your husband uhm Gary Theodore Genabackis?" She's the one who said she'd pray for me… "Ma'am your husband's been hurt. A pickup truck ran a stop sign. Downtown. Yes, in the Old Market. Oh, you're close by? OK, Eleventh and Jackson. Yes, somebody called 911."
"OK, Cheryl, we'll keep him talking until you get here."
"Yes, ma'am; will do. You'll just want to hurry."
Cheryl Genabackis. . . that's so . . .
. . . familiar. . . .