He saw a ghost once.
Must have been about ten, maybe eleven years old.
On nights like tonight, when the ghost was foremost on Brady Scrugg’s mind, he abandoned his apartment for the dive bar on the corner. Better to be flush with whiskey, surrounded by people, than endure a haunting sober and alone.
It wasn’t a sports pub, but there was always a game on the solitary television above the bar. A smattering of rough men of a single mind to get drunk and watch whatever was on. Brady kept his head down, eyes on his drink. By his fifth Old Fashioned he was nearly there, thoughts muddled like the fruit at the bottom of his whiskey glass. The ghost was close to gone, only a tiny, lingering specter at the edge of his thoughts.
Brady picked up on a sound, verging on imperceptible, beneath the clamor of drunken debate. Not the wailing, background noise of the city that he could drown out with enough alcohol. Something else beneath the incoherent arguments of the wasted men seated next to him. The sound intermittent, like the drips of a leaky faucet. He finally traced its origin to the television over the assembly of liquor bottles, the men’s faces turned up to the glow of a baseball game.
The contact of bat on ball. It reminded him. It reminded him.
A lifetime ago, out in front of the second-floor brownstone his mother rented when they lived in Brooklyn, during the engorged heat of a summer without rain. Every day Brady’s mother dragged him from the kitchen window overlooking the street and pushed him out the door to join the pack of fatherless boys…
…stick arms and tank tops,
jean shorts and skinny legs,
fruit punch stained lips,
peachfuzz faces premonitions of impending manhood.
Daylong games of stoopball. The Thok of the rubber handball as it bounced off the steps and the scrabble of sneakers as they chased it into the street. Wrestling and throwing each other down, clubbing one another over possession of a ball the size and color of a plum. The fatherless boys’ view of the world inherited from the rough men that passed in and out of their mothers’ lives. The fleeting nature of their adolescence marred by the early toxic bloom of masculinity, and how Brady alone comprehended this, though he had not the words for it.
Only the feeling of being less than.
His mother had allowed no man into their lives since his father left. She formed the only opinion he held of what a man should be.
It was his turn to throw. The hot butter smell of scorched asphalt. Incessant car horns and
emergency sirens. The boys expected nothing, and he usually delivered. They kept their distance, gracious enough to let him join their game because their mothers were friends. Hard punches to his shoulders disguised as greetings. The game broke down as they snatched the Yankees cap from his head in an impromptu rally of keep away. They’re limp-wristed mocking and exaggerated lisps as they taunted him.
Growing bored because Brady offered them no challenge, no rivalry to their dominance, they reluctantly tossed him his cap. Then, one of the boys took a pitcher’s stance, and threw a fastball at Brady’s chest. The rubber ball hit him square, his hands clapping together empty in that spastic way of a boy who had never played catch with a father. He scrambled after the ball as it rolled into the street, crab-walking, finally getting a hold of it. He rubbed his chest where surely a bruise would develop. The other boys laughed.
Brady didn’t know it as self-hatred back then, only heat that prickled beneath his skin, a simmering below the surface that he tamped down, down, down, into the blackest pit of his stomach.
The boys whined for Brady to get on with it. He spun his cap backwards, performed his customary skip to get started, and ran at the stoop. He sidearmed the ball, skipping it off the sidewalk just beneath the bottom step. It rebounded off the stoop high into the air. He felt it as soon as he let it go. He had played the angle perfectly, and if the ball hit off the building across the street on a fly, it would be a home run. He turned around to point his finger and talk shit, but instead saw the ghost.
A man in an ill-fitting cream-colored suit. Tie askew and stubbled cheeks.
The ghost had the dull-eyed gaze of a man listening to music only he could hear. He smelled sour, like a glass of his mother’s wine gone to spoil. The ghost wiped sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his jacket, his form superimposed over the background of boys chasing down the rubber ball like a pack of dogs.
Then, as if only just taking notice of Brady, the ghost’s face grew serious. Looked him
right in the eye.
The ghost said, “What are you doing here?” A fleeting glance towards the apartment window on the second floor. A dim recognition flashed over his features. He brushed saliva from his lips with his knuckles. Eyes red and rheumy. “That’s funny. I see. My mistake.” Keys jingled in his hand, the sound of which seemed to startle him. He looked around, squinted into the sun, then looked back at Brady. “You got big, kid.”
For a second, Brady felt the unreality of it all. The words were a spell that unraveled something in his chest. The opening of a seam down the center of his skin he could step out from behind, as if he himself might be a ghost.
The ghost looked up at the second-floor window once more. A smile that wasn’t a smile. He shook his keys and pointed at Brady’s apartment. “Is your mother…?” The ghost nodded his head, as if he’d answered his own question. Snorted. Wiped his nose. The ghost tapped the brim of the boy’s cap. “Yankees fan, huh? I’m a Mets guy.”
Then the other boys returned, screaming and tussling over the ball, arguing over who was next up to bat. They went silent when they saw the ghost, gaping with crooked jaws, malicious glints in their eyes. They formed a circle around Brady. Put themselves between him and the ghost.
“Okay.” The ghost twirled the key ring on his finger, the jingling like glass breaking. He stumbled down the sidewalk, and over his shoulder he said, “Hell of an arm you got there. See you around.”
Nothing to stop Brady’s lower lip from quivering. The surreal quality of the world made him queasy. Everything felt flimsy, reality the substance of notebook loose-leaf. If he reached out before him, he might touch the street, the cars, the sky and the world entire, and discover they were only a child’s drawing. Crumpling like a paper ball in his hands, leaving only a vast void in their absence.
The other boys stood guard until they could no longer see the ghost. They patted Brady on the back. Told him how good his home run was. The best one they’d seen. They pretended not to see the tears welling. The game continued. He only lasted another inning before he quit, way before the streetlights came on.
Brady retreated to his mother’s kitchen and poured a glass of cold milk. Not because he was thirsty, but only to hold something. The milk grew warm. He was afraid to drink it. Afraid it would pour right through him. Outside, he heard the boys—
Cheers raised up from the street.
A rock in his throat he could not swallow. Vision watery. He might be crying. Might be. His hands were numb. His feet made contact with the floor, one foot in front of the other, but no feeling, as if he levitated across the kitchen. In the sink, a butter knife, smeared with bits of jelly from breakfast. He ran the tap and cleared the sticky remains. He pressed the knife to his flesh, the thin blue veins. The dull teeth sawed over his wrist. He didn’t feel it. Didn’t feel anything.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
The knife not sharp enough. Red marks on his wrist, but no blood.
He needed to feel something. Anything.
In the wood block beside the sink, black handles attached to sharper blades. He picked one. The biggest one. He closed his eyes.
“What are you doing?” his mother cried. The knife flew from his hands and his mother shook his shoulders. Her lips, thin, trembling.
How to explain it? Her hands upon him, however, he could not feel her touch.
Shouts from the boys down below. Different, as if he had never truly heard them before. Cheers that were not cheers, but cries, wails of loneliness and wanting. Screams masqueraded. Far and wide they ranged, echoing through the mountains of steel and glass. Howling of the damned from their place in Hell.
“I saw him,” he sobbed.
He felt her body seize. She ran to the window, swept the curtain aside just enough to peek down to the street. She stood very still for a very long time. Until she was satisfied by some internal measure.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s a drunk. He forgets he doesn’t live here. You don’t worry about him. He’s never given us a dime. He’s dead to us. Remember?”
He remembered the way he touched his cap. A Mets fan. Brady took his Yankees cap off and dropped it on the floor.
His mother picked his cap up and placed it on the counter. “Dead to us. Understand?”
He nodded, yes, but no. No, he did not understand any of it.
She pressed him to her chest and kissed the top of his head and stroked his hair and said all the things that mothers say when there are no fathers. Brady came back to himself, but only a little, in the most perfunctory of ways. Breath in and out, eyes blinking, but not there, not really.
Haunting his own body.
The roar of the men startled him back to the present. To the dingy bar, the game on television. A fresh glass of whiskey he didn’t recall ordering. The game was nearing its conclusion. The row of rowdy men lined up at the bar, screaming at the batter, pounding the bar with their fists. He leaned in their direction. Drained half his drink in one gulp. Tried to catch one of their eyes, some acknowledgment, just to be seen. He imitated them. Knocking the bottom of his glass to the bar, trying to match their rhythm, but always a beat behind, out of sync.
A home run. Game over. The men exploded in rapture, high-fiving and hugging one another. Pushed and shoved with manic smiles. He nodded. Raised his whiskey in salute. One of the drunks stumbled and knocked into Brady’s arm, spilling his drink.
An apology. A hard slap on his back.
Lord, he felt that. The sting lingering.
The men paid their tab and stepped out of the bar, whooping into the night. He followed, the whiskey glass forgotten in his hand, but by the time he was outside, they were a long way up the street, already dispersing.
Brady stared at the line of brick buildings, the passing traffic, and beneath the thrumming heartbeat of the city, if he listened closely, he could hear them still. He looked at the whiskey glass. At the building across the street. He reared back and threw the glass with everything he had.
A home run. A hell of an arm.
He tilted his chin to the stars and joined his voice to the howls of fatherless boys rising and rising and never stopping.
Mario Aliberto III’s short story work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his stories have appeared in Chestnut Review, Atticus Review, Fractured Lit, and others. He lives in Tampa Bay with his wife and daughters, although their dog runs the house. Twitter: @marioaliberto3