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Spook on Rye: A Meta Ghost Story

by Will Bernardara Jr.

Well. We’ve really put the “meta” in “metaphysical” this time, haven’t we?

I wanted to be known as a writer of ghost stories. To me, a scribe of spectral tales was the literary equivalent of a rock star. I mean, haunted houses? They’re perennially cool, right? From Boo Berry cereal to Pac-Man’s 8-bit spooks, I’ve always felt an affinity to the phantasmal.

But what’s up with this ghosts-as-food motif?

Jerry Henderson eats ghosts.

First though, before we get started: the white marshmallows in Boo Berry represent edible ghosts. They’re semiotic. You eat them. You probably did when you were a kid, if you’re my age. Pac-Man’s maze is haunted... but now and again the voracious graphical circle gets to chomp into some temporarily vulnerable ghosties.

So: if ghosts = the past, then we want to eat the past? Or at least some children do, with milk? And a graphics-composed yellow blob does?

Jerry says there are different types of ghosts, and that no two taste alike. Poltergeists, e.g., taste like peachy battery-licking. (Or so Jerry says.) Whereas incubi taste not unlike a curious merger of potato soup and latex.

Jerry says, emphatically, that ghosts are shockingly stupid, like atoms stuck in a loop, mindless as the wind and relatively harmless. He’s described them as “idiot echoes” on his blog. And still suburbanites pay Jerry to eat away their ghost problem. Jerry is paid to eat, like that bald guy who’s always stuffing his face with something bizarre on TV.

Despite constantly being confronted with hard, digestible evidence of some sort of afterlife, no matter how mechanical, Jerry is still a staunch agnostic. Oddly, he doesn’t really “believe” in ghosts. But hey, you don’t need to believe in a donut to munch one down.

Alarming secret: Jerry’s stomach and bowels are haunted.

I knew very little about ghosts. I loved Hirshberg’s stuff and Volk’s “31/10” and the “1408” audio book terrorized me wholly one night on a drive by myself through dark countryside but, really, I was a fraud. I’d never read any of the protoghost yarns; you know, the Big Architects. To rectify this, I read James’ Turn of the Screw. In short, it sucked. And I wanted to like it. I couldn’t. It wasn’t scary or funny or even amusing. James’ wordcraft struck me as clunky and stilted, dull, just... blah. Like some exercise in a high-school textbook. That’s how it read: drab. As though it had been written by a Victorian clockwork thing and not a human. And I mean that in a bad way; no offense to clockwork Victorian things.

The question isn’t whether this story will end in a spooky toilet scenario or a supernatural proctology exam, but whether it’s a crude scatological joke posing as a quasi-“sophisticated” (read: meta or pomo) ghost tale or something deeper: a surface gag with a penetrating insight or authentic heart at its core. Likely it’s neither.

Most likely: a convoluted distraction, for the author is virulently suspicious of anything one would call “insight.”

Jerry needs an agent. That Ghost Safari show is huge, and so are foodie shows, these days. The Food Network and the SyFy channel would salivate onto their Nielsen reports over a Jerry Henderson reality show. They could call it Banshee Buffet or The Spectral Smorgasbord or something inane like that.

Unfortunately for the TV execs, discarnates don’t photograph. It has something to do with the way visitants interact with light. It’s science-y and probably involves actinic or refractive issues or whatever. Anyway, point is they don’t submit to any sort of visual record.

A confession: my soul is absolutely raped and tyrannized by the necessities of successful storytelling. So much contrivance and manipulation and drudgery, all in the service of presenting to you illusions that are never really very convincing at all. They’re ghosts, stories are. Let’s face it: when you read Moby-Dick, you never for one second thought you were on a ship with Starbuck and Ahab. You were on your couch.

Do I really need to do character description? Fine. Jerry is pasty and inoffensively pudgy; he favors black T-shirts and jeans; he sweats a lot. His eyes are sort of dead; his brown hair is short and lazy, like the fur of a stuffed teddy, only a tad darker color-wise. To hell with it: you envisioned Jerry the instant you read his name; only an asshole would now describe him and risk detailing specifics that don’t accord with what’s in your head by now. Jerry looks however you envisioned him. That’s him. He’s fiction. Never mind Jerry. It’s the ghosts that are of interest, right?

As a kid, Jerry Henderson had weight problems. Not ordinary weight issues either. He suffered, like, traumatic events stemming from his fatness. I won’t tell you the exact nature of these events, but I do know them. So do you. Really, they’re worse than anything I could describe anyway.

To recap: fat kid; horrible childhood; loses most of the weight in his twenties; learns to eat ghosts. I have two or three explanations for how Jerry became a ghost-eater. One of them involves a vacant field and stumbling upon an abandoned refrigerator with a murdered child’s corpse inside it. But none of them interest me all that much and would take up far too much space to relate.

And so: eating ghosts NOT a metaphor for a past Jerry wants to “digest”; that’s too obvious. Jerry’s ghost-grubbing business is in the Yellow Pages; you can google it. Lastly, his gastrointestinal tract has gradually become a kind of organic haunted house, due to his apparition-heavy diet.

For no reason at all, this story’s title is a play on the Bukowski novel Ham on Rye. And I don’t even like Bukowski. Haven’t read him since I was a teenager, twenty-some years ago.

But at the age of 15, I did have my mom buy me Ham on Rye at K-Mart. Back in the ‘90s, K-Mart had a decent book aisle. And there was this limpid-eyed, frizzy-wigged bag lady who would haunt the aisle. She had the clearest blue eyes, almost white. I later learned that she and her husband and two children had burned to death in an apartment fire in 1987. And yet I saw her looking at books at K-Mart in 1992. She was some sort of emanation.

Jerry says revenants taste like burnt family.

Jerry says eidolons taste kind of like Pop Rocks only more minerally, like carbonated clay. Banshees, according to Jerry, taste like clean bones.

I could say a lot more about the bag lady. Like how after her kids and husband burned in 1987, she lived homelessly; and, shattered by grief, this insane woman haunted K-Mart and ate all her meals across the street from K-Mart, at Long John Silver’s or Burger King. I could say that now I feel such heartache for this lost, childless mother that I wish I could’ve been a proxy son for her, then and there, in that book aisle. I could say that she killed herself, set herself on fire, in 1990, or that she started the fire that killed her family, therefore whatever I saw at K-Mart couldn’t have been human. But I won’t. I won’t say any of that.

Enough truth. I’m not going to wring pathos or poignancy out of that poor woman’s disintegration just so that you, reader person, can be moved by something. Or feel something. You wanna feel something? Eat a handful of thumbtacks. That’s what specters feel like going down anyway, or so Jerry says.

The Bible says our throats are open graves. And so we speak death and rot and decay; words of entropy. We speak only of the dead, even when we don’t. We make noises with our vocal cords, and these noises are the frequency of what’s gone.

I feel hideous. After introducing a truly uncanny nonfiction tidbit, I’m supposed to transition back to a preposterous story about a semi-pro ghost-eater and his shade-trammeled guts? Doing so would seem to throw a messy pie in the face of the memory of the bookish bag-lady spirit from my childhood. But nonfiction is as absurd as fiction, isn’t it? A friend of mine made a cult film about a bed that eats people. Now here I am writing about a former chub who dines on phantasms from the beyond. What’s the use?

The proctologist’s office Jerry went to was on Dequindre and 7 Mile, somewhere thereabouts. And yeah, his colon was ghost-packed. He hadn’t defecated normally in weeks. He was really sick. Anyway, the proc dislodged the ghosts, and they exploded out into the exam room like one of those confetti party poppers. Then mayhem happened involving the office staff and various spooks. It’s not worth relating, really. You know how this ends.

Copyright © 2019 by Will Bernardara Jr.

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