I heard the following ghost story one February evening when I was buttonholed in a corner of a tavern where I’m a regular and go to drink and read or take in hockey games I don’t especially like, no matter I was born in this country. The man (his name was Dunn) was imposing, long haired and thickly built with a dark, challenging expression in his face, and not somebody you can easily avoid indoors, though that was my first intention. Fortunately I had drunk enough and—with no clear avenue of escape—found it prudent to hear him out amid dreary conversations at nearby tables and the sound of the big screen TV. In over an hour he unburdened himself of his demons and this is what he told me.
The first time Dunn saw the apparition was at his apartment on a Friday night when he was shit-faced. He insisted it wasn’t a question of fear—he of ferocious temperament and deadly fists, though not the wild man he once was when he hung around and partied with a notorious motorcycle gang whose clubhouse was in that end of the city. With his hair grown to the waist and tied in two pony tails, Dunn himself resembled a biker and earned a wide berth by everyone. He’d spent enough time in jail to garner the reputation of someone you didn’t dare cross, though that alone might not guarantee safety since he was also a bad drinker, prone to violent outbursts for no reason. I couldn’t help thinking of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dunn had the same kind of eyes, eyes that seemed to resist light like those animals you find run over on the street. At any rate, it was unnerving gazing into them. Later I became aware of uncomfortable rumours he killed a few guys long ago; as a favour to his biker acquaintances or at their instigation, I could only guess. To put it succinctly, nobody who wasn’t insane fucked with him.
To round out his biography: employed in a lumberyard measuring and cutting up wood before it went bankrupt and since had been a drywall contractor for businesses that weren’t completely legitimate, while selling drugs on the side. These enterprises allowed him to have a one-bedroom apartment in a rundown building owned by a pair of shady Russian brothers who sometimes waived the rent in exchange for some muscle work from him. Occasionally he screwed a prostitute or a stripper who needed to get high. Nobody ever knocked on his door or visited. The bikers he had known were dead, in hiding from other gangs, or had gone straight and wanted no trouble.
So on this particular Friday night he was smoking and drinking. The television was on as it almost always was, since (I gathered) silence was not only not a virtue there, it was held in distrust by the occupant. He had nodded off already once or twice. A bottle slipped from his grasp and beer spilled over the linoleum floor which, Dunn admitted, was never swept or washed and was incredibly dirty. (I have lived in these same shitty apartments where numerous cracks spider everywhere like crazy hieroglyphs).
When he opened them a man was suddenly standing in front of the television, his back to him. Confused and not a little startled, Dunn could only stare in surprise.
He relaxed on the sofa and closed his eyes. When he opened them a man was suddenly standing in front of the television, his back to him. Confused and not a little startled, Dunn could only stare in surprise. Then he composed himself, yet not without hesitating—partly from the beer and partly from the shock of an absolute stranger appearing out of nowhere:
“Who the fuck are you, man?”
The other did not answer. He was no more than five feet away, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved blue shirt.
“I asked who you are, man. What are you doing here?”
Still he ignored Dunn. Though there wasn’t anything actually malicious to it, Dunn suggested. It almost was as if he didn’t know he was there. Whether because of the brazen audacity of the man or simply that he couldn’t see the television, Dunn raised his voice:
“Don’t fuck with me, man. Get the fuck out. Don’t make me get up.”
Then slowly the stranger turned around, as if only now realizing someone was behind him. He studied Dunn with wonder, maybe even outrage, as if Dunn was the one in the wrong, intruding on the man’s own personal space in a way that was wholly unacceptable. He leaned across the coffee table which was littered with matches, cigarette ashes, and beer bottles.
“Arsehole!” he snarled.
Without a word Dunn swung at the man, swinging through air and landing across the coffee table which cracked and splintered in two. Bottles scattered everywhere. Dazed, he lifted himself and swore angrily. In a mania, he rushed about the apartment trying to find him. When he couldn’t, he searched the hallway. Then he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t all an hallucination caused by the booze. He kicked aside the wrecked coffee table. The television was on a channel about African safaris. Dunn looked at the door a few times, believing the man was on the other side. But he didn’t bother going to check. He went to the fridge for beer. Hours later he passed out on the sofa.
He said the next few days he kept an eye on the other tenants but didn’t recognize the person who’d been in his apartment. He made a round of the floors without success and inspected the lock. There was no sign of tampering. He began thinking of his brother who lived in another city. A onetime biker who succumbed to alcoholism. Though it was a long time since they’d met, Dunn remembered the former biker’s shocking transformation into an out-and-out drunk panhandling for change near the local Beer Store, shuffling like an old man though he was two years younger. Mumbling like an idiot and completely fucked. The parents were drunks so maybe it was hereditary.
Weeks passed and he forgot the incident with the intruder. The drywall business was going slow with no work in some time. One night he entered a bar to meet his dealer who never showed up. He learned the next day he’d been arrested in a police raid, a crackdown on drugs that was in the newspapers and on television. Without much money he wasn’t doing anything when the two Russian brothers came to him.
Apparently no one knew if they were émigrés or cast outs from the Russian mob. They appeared five years ago when they took over the building with its long history of mismanagement. Nothing was ever repaired, least of all the furnace which, inexplicably, was on the roof. The elevator was so unreliable only unwary visitors used it. The new owners didn’t change a thing, and to any complaint merely shrugged and said the rent wasn’t very high, so how could they bother them with anything?
The older brother, Arkady, a fat man who came across as a horticulturist or an oenophile, told Dunn someone owed them money. They wanted him to go and retrieve it. He mentioned a sum they would pay and they would forgo the rent for next month as well. It was a good deal, wasn’t it? The younger brother, Sergey, smiled though visibly frightened of Dunn.
“Yes, it’s a good deal,” he agreed. Arkady glanced at his brother who was near the door. He stood to one side of the sofa where Dunn was smoking.
“What if he doesn’t have the money?” Dunn smiled.
Arkady held out his hands indicating how unnecessary the question was. He obviously knew what was required of him “You handle it, my friend,” Arkady said in conclusion. He wrote out an address. They hoped to see him again shortly.
Dunn said he opened a beer, the last one in the fridge. He put the bottle on a kitchen chair that replaced the coffee table. The apartment was cold and he was almost broke. He finished the beer in a bad humour, called a taxi, and left.
Two hours later he was back with a bag, inside which were stacks of bills. The guy he met, a Russian, believing Dunn was the vanguard of a gang of bikers armed with baseball bats, quickly made a few calls and within an hour placed the money in Dunn’s hands. He counted out the denominations to prove he was on the up-and-up which only annoyed Dunn.
“Don’t ever fuck with me, man,” he said. In the taxi, Dunn felt unbelievably thirsty. That one beer only made him irritable. At his apartment he phoned the Russians who were there in minutes. Arkady gave the money to his younger brother to hold. He paid Dunn and thanked him. Then the brothers were gone.
Dunn remembered looking at the fold of twenties on the chair and wishing he had asked for more. Still, the rent was taken care of for next month. His thirst became more urgent. He decided to go to a bar around the corner; once a pickup joint, but with the deaths of a few women who’d frequented it, it became just another watering hole. He dressed and went out.
According to Dunn he got pissed on rye. Several times he was at the point of punching people he suspected were eyeing him. After a few hours the bartender refused to serve him anymore. He said something. The bartender left and came back with the owner and bouncer. The owner knew Dunn and didn’t want a disturbance. He sure didn’t want the cops. He explained the situation and invited him back another time. Dunn glared at the bouncer but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. When he got to his apartment he called a place that delivers beer and alcohol. His order was dropped off within a half hour.
He said he drank beer and watched Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. He was certain he could knock the movie star’s head off. Everybody in Hollywood was a faggot. He laughed when he thought this. Then he went to the washroom. When he came out, laughing to himself, the chair which he still was using in place of the coffee table was pulled away and the same man who’d been there before was sitting on it, watching the television.
Dunn did nothing for thirty seconds. Then he carefully shot the deadbolt on the door to the apartment and fastened the chain lock. There was no way he could get away quickly now. He took two beers from the fridge and slammed the door so hard bottles fell over inside.
He finished the first beer in minutes and tossed the drained bottle onto the sofa, even dirtier than the floor. Now he held the other beer and scrutinized the man with a malicious gleam in his eyes, a predatory kind of glee (at least this is how I imagine it). But, like the previous, occasion the man did not seem aware that Dunn was there. He wore the same short-sleeved blue shirt and jeans. The movie was at the scene where the girl jumps to her death at the bidding of the cult leader played by James Earl Jones. The stranger laughed. Dunn laughed too, then said:
“Did you think that was funny, man? After I’m done this beer I’m going to kick the shit out of you. You’re dead meat.” The man ignored Dunn, who didn’t know if the other heard him. He repeated what he said. “You fucked with the wrong guy, man.”
Then with a swiftness Dunn said he could not have foreseen the stranger leaped out of the chair. He was astonished as the man sneered and, with his thumb and finger, made the sign of the arsehole over Dunn’s forehead.
Dunn jumped up and threw himself at him, but crashed into a vacant chair that fell over and slid across the floor. Enraged, he thrashed about drunkenly, cursing horribly. He raced to the door. The deadbolt and chain hadn’t been touched. Foaming at the mouth, Dunn took in the apartment. To the left was the small kitchen. He searched the cupboards where an adult could not have crouched anyways. He checked the bathroom and shower. He peered into the closet where his coats hung. The only place left was the bedroom. Dunn smiled. This was the last spot and the game was almost over. But the man was not in the closet or beside the bed or even under it. Befuddled, he went to the living room. That was when he realized there was one hiding place he hadn’t considered: the balcony—but that seemed out of the question. The door was locked for the winter. He unlocked it and a mid-February wind blew against him. The balcony was deserted as he knew it would be. He closed the door and got to the sofa.
If it was a wet brain from all the boozing he’d done in his life, that would explain everything. That might be more comforting than the idea someone could just appear and then disappear. A chill shook his body. The apartment was cold. The goddamned Russians wouldn’t call anyone to look at the furnace that kicked off all the time. Conan the Barbarian was over so he changed the channel until he found another, John Carpenter’s Halloween. He drank without paying much attention to it. He drank himself insensible and fell asleep on the sofa. But his sleep was restless, whether from the cold or uneasy feelings about what had happened, he couldn’t be sure.
He said he didn’t awaken until noon the following day. He finished off the beer and then phoned for more. He drank until evening with the television on, then closed his eyes and a dream began.
In it, he was sitting cross-legged on grass in the presence of a huge lion whose breath stank. They were in a clearing in a wooded area that Dunn wasn’t familiar with. It didn’t look like a jungle. It could have been a park. But all the trees were dying. The leaves were dried up, falling off, and branches and trunks were split and rotting. As if to show it had eaten, the lion opened its mouth. Dunn could see bits of flesh trapped in the teeth. Blood darkened the jaws. Then a fly settled on one of Dunn’s arms. It was the biggest fly he had ever seen. The fly wandered up and down like a green shadow. Then another fly landed, followed by another and another. Soon Dunn was overrun by thousands of them, covering him like a garment. Flies crawled over his face obscuring his sight. They filled his mouth. He couldn’t raise his arms to strike them away, the weight of all of them pinned him down. He couldn’t move and was choking. He screamed and woke up in the cold apartment.
He wasn’t accustomed to fear. Abruptly he got to his feet, pacing the living room, throwing his arms up in the air and grinning, like he used to in jail when showing off in front of the other inmates. He was laughing and talking to himself. Maybe he was crazy.
He wasn’t accustomed to fear. Abruptly he got to his feet, pacing the living room, throwing his arms up in the air and grinning, like he used to in jail when showing off in front of the other inmates. He was laughing and talking to himself. Maybe he was crazy. He began to pant and slumped on the sofa. Whiskey and beer were stacked in front of the sofa. The chair was still where it was from the previous night, upended in a corner. The television was turned to a medical drama. A doctor was informing a young woman that her cancer had spread, despite their best efforts to stop it she had only a short time left to live. She nodded but tears swelled in her eyes. The woman was incredibly beautiful.
A noise came from the bedroom, like someone had bumped against something. Dunn looked in the room. It was a mess as he had left it, the blankets thrown everywhere, pornographic magazines all over the place, a lamp knocked over. No one was there. Unsteadily he returned to the living room. To his amazement he made out a figure now squatting on the floor. It was the intruder again, watching television. As quietly as he could, Dunn crept up and put a hand on his shoulder. It was like plunging into a bowl of jello. Stunned, he pulled away. He collapsed on the sofa and grabbed another beer.
For the next half hour Dunn observed the man. He hadn’t changed clothes at all. He must have been middle-aged. Nothing out of the ordinary. An average guy. Just as he thought an average guy, the man crooked his head and stared. He seemed agitated or on the verge of speaking but, instead, came over and sat beside Dunn. For the life of him Dunn couldn’t understand how this could be happening. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at the man who now was firmly fixed on the television. He said he searched his memory but couldn’t remember ever meeting the guy before. He was a total stranger, an unknown.
The two stayed side by side until the medical show ended with the woman’s death. The man laughed.
“Why did you laugh?” Dunn asked, puzzled. The man didn’t know.
“Who are you, man?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied. Then he asked Dunn to see what else was on. Dunn flipped through the channels until deciding on a B movie he’d never watched. A woman in a house was hiding from a man while he stalked her with a grimace of determination. You knew he was going to kill her.
“You don’t know who you are?”
“What does it matter?” the other finally answered. Maybe he had seen the movie before but he seemed bored or uninterested in it. He shifted a bit on the sofa.
“Where are you from, man?” Dunn asked.
“I might be from here. I think so,” he said.
“You mean you used to live here?”
“Yes, I think so. But actually I’m not sure. No, probably not,” the stranger conceded.
“Why do you keep coming?”
The man shrugged.
“How do you get in here and then get out?” Dunn asked.
The man shrugged again. He just did and that was all.
Dunn drank whiskey straight from the bottle. He knocked over several beer bottles which rolled and struck the wall before coming to a halt. The girl in the movie managed to elude her pursuer by pushing him down a flight of stairs. Now she was pleading with another man that someone was after her. The man didn’t believe her, arm around her, squeezing one shoulder. She was sobbing. All this happened in a restaurant where the waiters wore black and bowed with elaborate decorum while serving couples and families. It was very loud and the dining room was full of cigarette smoke. The man told the woman she was mistaken. It was all in her imagination. The recent death of her father had pushed her over the edge. She needed rest.
Dunn said he began laughing. Maybe this was all in his imagination.
“Are you a ghost, man?” he asked.
The man didn’t know. And what exactly was a ghost? he ventured to ask. What was the exact definition? There were things nobody understood no matter what they said. He sounded sad. Dunn laughed. He wasn’t sure if he was laughing at the man or because he was so drunk. Again he put a hand on him. The sensation of jello, of something fleshless and alien like garbage, made him recoil. Then as on the previous occasions the man just disappeared—now before Dunn’s very eyes. Faded was the better word, he said. He faded like a shadow when a lot of lights are gradually turned on. Dunn was left alone in the frigid apartment.
For the next week he drank non-stop. The apparition which didn’t have a name came every day now, sharing the sofa and once in the morning when he awoke Dunn spied him on the edge of the bed, looking with curiosity at him. They had conversations that went nowhere. In the building the other tenants began whispering of the strange occurrence: they could hear Dunn talking as if someone was with him. He was boozing too much, they said. He had lost it.
No matter how often Dunn questioned the man he was never able to get a definite answer. He might have been an HVAC technician once or a poet. He couldn’t be sure. As for questions about the afterlife, the immensity of space or its solitude, the man offered little information. He liked to watch television, that’s about all he could confirm to Dunn, drooling on the sofa going from one drunk to another with his phantom companion surfing the channels.
And then one morning the Russians appeared. Sergey stayed at his post near the door. The older brother who at first figured Dunn had been partying waded through beer and whiskey bottles scattered on the floor. The place was a mess. He cast a suspicious smile at Dunn who hadn’t shaved or bathed in over a week.
“How are you, my friend?” They needed Dunn’s services again. Another account was overdue. It wasn’t a great sum of money but of course there was the principle of the matter. He wrote the address on paper and slipped it to Dunn.
“Let us know when you get back,” said Arkady and they left.
“They want me to get their money,” he said. Without being aware of it, he was speaking as if the other was with him. “This dump is freezing and they won’t fix the heat but they want their money.” He finished off the last of the beer and cleaned up, staggering to the bathroom where his reflection in the mirror didn’t inspire confidence. He shaved and showered and caught a taxi.
At first the man, another Russian, denied owing anybody any money. Dunn said he had no patience. He grabbed the man’s throat and began kicking him, vicious kicks that left him screaming. The man relented and pointed to a desk. Dunn found an envelope stuffed with twenties. He couldn’t understand why he would have denied owing such a small amount of money, barely two thousand dollars. His hands started shaking. He needed a drink badly.
There are choices fraught with dangers that tempt everyone and I include myself in this. He did not call the Russians. He went to a bar and bought cocaine from someone in the men’s washroom. He used it himself and drank rye all day. A woman wearing too much makeup sat on the stool next to him and they started a conversation. They went to her place. She snorted coke and they ended up in bed. In the evening Dunn left the woman, still sleeping, and visited several bars. He bought more cocaine and other drugs at all of them. He returned to his apartment and ordered beer and whiskey. Suddenly he began sweating. He opened the door to his balcony. The temperatures had been warmer the last few days. The phone rang but he didn’t answer. It rang minutes later and several times after that. Then it didn’t ring again.
This was as much as he told me that night. He said he had come here to get away for a few hours. He looked terrible, beat up and worn down. There were distressing indications he was out of control. Once he eyed me like I was an enemy or a rival who’d strayed without permission into his territory. Another time it was like he had just woken out of a long sleep, maybe the sleep of death, and seeing me was a reminder of something terrible or prophetic. He seemed to black out and I worried what he might do with those enormous hands that lay ominously on the table. When he finally went to the men’s room, I made my escape, relieved to get away. But there was more to come. Based on what I read in the newspapers in the upcoming days (articles that hinted at foul play and that the deceased was known to the police) I have tried to piece together what could have happened. I admit I might be completely wrong. This is how I will end it.
For the next two days he spends all the money he should have given to the Russians. He buys as much cocaine as he can and beer and liquor. He goes through the money quickly. Does he hear knocking on his door without going to it? He will have to square it with the Russians somehow. It isn’t good what he has done.
On the evening of the second day Dunn’s resident apparition steps from the balcony. He doesn’t go to the television. He looks worried or is there something else Dunn detects, some cunning possibly hinting at a joke?
“You’re in trouble,” he says.
“You screwed up this time. They aren’t going to let you do this to them. They will come for you with help.”
Dunn mumbles. The other stares intensely. Or is he smiling? Dunn doesn’t like it.
“Don’t fuck with me, man,” he says. But the man won’t stop staring, his eyes seeming to get bigger by the second. Dunn warns him a second time. Who does this asshole think he is to fuck with him? To tell him his business? To come to his place and watch his television?
He gets up, swaying a bit, but sure of what to do. His cold apartment is an extension of himself and now the apartment is going to evict someone. The man is at the open balcony door. Dunn runs at him in a clumsy fashion, stumbles out onto the balcony—into the February night—and, unable to stop his drunken charge, tumbles over the railing. He falls thirty feet.
His body was discovered next morning. His head had hit against a dumpster and then a concrete partition in the parking lot. He had been dead for hours.