Critical Mass

turtles_panoramaI have several ideas percolating in the old grey matter right now, trying to come together to form some semblance of a solid. Failure is more likely. I might get to the point where I realize the kind of thing I had in mind has been done much better than ever I could, so that would be that, This one began with a dream – in which I had already written the story, and the title had already been chosen, and the plot pretty much as well. It was a love story, which is surprising because I’ve never written a love story. This romance blossoms between a dying man and the ghost of a woman he knew as a child. They had not seen each other in decades, or ever knew what became of one another. Only in the hospital, as he lies, mostly abandoned on a gurney in a hallway, do they reconnect, through some kind of mold in the walls which act like a sort of conduit, a ‘facebook for souls’, if you will.

It should go without saying that I believe in ghosts exactly the same amount as I believe in souls, which is to say not a measurable amount, but who knew that underground fungus can act as a channel between plant root systems, allowing information about aphids to flow between neighboring weeds? It’s a mighty strange world after all. (Afterthought: crows are severely under-appreciated creatures. They’re not the biggest or the fastest or the cutest or make the prettiest noises, but they are certainly quite capable, and under-rated).

That man once lay beside me in a hospital hallway as he was dying one night and I right next to him on another portable bed, gratefully saved by emergency room nurses. His nephew was also there, complaining about what a pain in the ass it was for him, to have to navigate through a maze of buses and subways after midnight on his way back to Hoboken. It was going to be a nightmare, but no one else in the family had any consideration whatsoever. Periodically a nurse would ask the old man if he knew his own name. He was never able to respond with more than a gasp. I imagined that each time they asked him, he came up with a new one in his mind. The nephew had transportation issues. Meanwhile, the uncle died. No more transportation issues for him.

The old man was definitely dreaming during those several hours we were neighbors. Every now and then he turned his head toward me and his eyes were somewhere else entirely. Maybe he was seeing the ghost of that girl who’d given him a nickname back in the seventh grade, and was nice to him when nobody else was, and about whom he’d heard rumors and stories in the years since then, but never found out if they were true, or what really happened to her. Maybe now, this was the mystery he’d like cleared up before he passed on forever, not his own life flashing before his eyes, but hers.

So this is the fabric I had in mind, the structure, the scaffold on which a number of related tales could dangle. Thinking about it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five‘, which I’m about to read again (this time out loud to my son). Billy Pilgrim was able to experience his entire life as if it were all one and the same moment. (I’m sorry, but people are really really picky if they don’t give that book five stars on Goodreads!). I’m also reminded of the Jim Jarmusch movie ‘Dead Man‘, in which the main character only begins to truly live the moment he receives a mortal wound.

Some questions. Do ghosts sleep? What are the rules of ghosts? Besides the obvious (“haunting”). Can they also love? I might have to make up some new guidelines.

So there are the many stories of the man and the woman, their time together and all the time since, plus those of the nephew, of the hospital staff and other visitors and patients, the throngs of comers and goers in a busy New York City emergency room in the middle of a Saturday night. There’s no way I can guess right now if I’ll get around to writing this one, or putting it back in the oven, maybe keep it warm for some other time.


2 thoughts on “Critical Mass

  1. One of the most interesting takes on the concept of ghosts is Tim Power’s “Expiration Date”, and “Earthquake Weather” (which is sort of a sideways sequel, tying together characters from “Expiration Date” and “Last Call”).

    However, he looks at ghosts from more of an electrical perspective than a biological one. I can’t think of any works that explore the concept of human consciousness being preserved in a fungus–it’s a creepy one.

    As far as the rules of ghosts, you’d have to make your own with an idea like that. The big question would be, are they actually self-aware, or just fragments of memory being replayed biochemically through the medium of the fungus in the walls? Do they know that they are dead? Are the minds able to communicate with one another? How many consciousnesses get caught up into the fungus–everyone who dies in the hospital? Just in certain rooms? Or just people who are particularly well “attuned” to the paranormal? Or some combination?

    Depending on your answers to those questions, I can see this story ranging from the bittersweet to the really bleak.


    • those are lots of good ideas and questions. sometimes the most fun to be had in writing is non writing, but thinking about it all beforehand. i’m pretty sure if i get to critical mass, it’ll be a more positive than negative story – a love story, after all – and that’s the challenge. death and happiness together. we’ll see.


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