The Beautiful Signature
by Gary William Crawford
I don’t know how a signature can be a ghost. But I believe it was by association. It seemed to me that the ghost of my Uncle Paul was in that signature and had a life of its own.
My Uncle Paul gave me a book from his own library, an edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories, when I was twelve years old. His name was inscribed on the front endpaper in the upper right hand corner, the usual place where the owner would sign a book. It was in his extraordinarily beautiful handwriting, something I always loved about Paul.
Where did it all begin? It must have been in my earliest days when I was attending a Catholic elementary school. At that young age I was fascinated with the drama of the Mass. I even played priest and would say Mass, myself, at home. I had no brothers or sisters; such dramatics were for me alone. So much of my life has been for me alone. I’ve so often withdrawn from life out of fear of something in life I can’t understand.
Like my childhood Catholicism, I’ve discarded everything supernatural in my life. I do not believe that there is a God. But that signature of Uncle Paul’s... How do I explain it? I am beginning to think that not everything has an explanation.
* * *
Paul and I were very close in the last years of his life. For the first ten years of my life he lived in Florida, where he worked as a hairdresser. I was too young to make a connection between his occupation and his sexual orientation. I knew he lived in a house with another man. This man — I never knew his name — died, and Paul moved to Baton Rouge to be close to his sisters, his only family. This was when I was ten.
Paul loved movies, and he would take me to them often. One of the first ones we saw together was Goldfinger with Sean Connery. I didn’t think much of it then, but Paul remarked on how good-looking Connery was. I knew even then that I thought he was attractive to me, too. I was only ten, of course, and really didn’t understand my own attraction. It would grow in time.
But gradually Paul would slip away. He had five heart attacks in one year before the last one killed him. He was a very heavy smoker. My mother and aunt tried to get him to stop, but he would tell them, “Cigarettes are better than tranquilizers.” He died when I was twelve.
I remember visiting the oppressive funeral home and viewing his body and wondering why he had died. I had him only a short time, but he was my best friend. I cried a little, and that night I was very sad.
I was up later than usual. I had trouble getting to sleep, and I thought about the book that Paul had given me. I just wanted to take a look at it again, to hold it in my hands as Paul had done.
But as soon as I opened the book I saw that the front leaf on which Paul had written his name was blank. His signature was gone. How could that be? I turned the book over and over, flipped through the pages. I knew it was the same book. What could have happened?
I turned out the light and lay in bed, trying to sleep, but finding it impossible. I stayed awake for hours until finally I fell into a troubled sleep. I dreamt I saw Uncle Paul in a cloying Victorian room holding a candle that illuminated a desk. On the desk were stacks of papers.
As a dreamer often sees, my vision was through Paul’s own eyes and there were hundreds of handwritten letters in Paul’s uniquely beautiful hand. For some reason the dreaming part of me wouldn’t let me read them. All I could see was his signature, this time reading only, “Love, Paul.”
Then in a moment I saw Paul’s hand lower the candle to the letters. He set them on fire. I woke up screaming and feeling helpless and lost. “He’s dead,” I said to myself, “the only way he will visit me now is in my dreams.”
The early light of dawn was creeping through the bedroom window. I got up and saw the sun peeking over the horizon, and I had the uneasy feeling that the sun was going to set the room on fire.
I dressed hurriedly and took Paul’s book to school with me that day. I must have looked at it a hundred times, but still there was no signature. I carried it around with me all day, wondering if the signature would reappear, then finally I gave it up. I was too frightened and ashamed to tell anyone about it, and I set it far back in my mind for years.
* * *
By the time I was twenty, I had begun to realize that I was homosexual. It had been a big secret, just the way I knew Paul had been about it with his sisters and me. By this time, gay liberation was beginning to become more widely recognized, but there was no one I could talk to about it. I knew if Paul was still alive, I could talk to him.
Then I believe I saw his ghost. Believe. A matter of faith. It was not at all what I expected. There were no clanking chains or moans to betoken ghostliness. The thing seemed as alive as you and I. But he was dead! I knew if Paul was still alive, I could talk to him. But he was dead!
One day I was outside in my parents’ garden. I was a student in college, but I didn’t have many friends. Because I felt ashamed to be homosexual, I stayed away from people and did not make any lasting friendships.
It was about sunrise on a cool autumn day, and I was outside smoking a cigarette. I heard a car pull up at the front of the house. A woman was driving it, a strange woman with long jet-black hair and long, Victorian black dress. I thought, She’s just coming from a funeral. Then I saw her face.
Her eyes and features looked like those of my Uncle Paul. But this was a woman. It couldn’t be Paul.
The figure saw me as she got out of the car. But then, without reason, she looked at a piece of paper in her hands adorned by many diamond rings. Then shook her head, no, as if she had the wrong address.
She got back into the car, but before driving away, she blew me a kiss. I was astounded by this. The cigarette I held had burned down to my fingers, and I dropped it to the sidewalk suddenly. There was a burn on my first and second fingers.
I thought it best to get some ice for it, so I went into the kitchen and got some ice cubes from the fridge.
It was all so strange, and I began to doubt that it could possibly have been Paul. I went into my room and thought of the Sherlock Holmes book, and decided, for some reason I could not understand, I needed to look at it.
To my amazement, Paul’s beautiful signature was there as it had originally been. Then I began to cry, now knowing that he had come back. He had come back to speak to me.
I cannot explain it, but the next day I met someone who had met me before, at a party. But I could not remember having met him. It was a student at the university to whom I spoke. He gave me his phone number, and we stayed in touch. I later learned he was gay, and he became one of my best friends, and the door to another phase of my life opened, I think because of Paul. I can only believe; there is no proof. But some things in life have no explanation.
Copyright © 2008 by Gary William Crawford