the ghost at the bank
So it’s around midnight last night and driving by the Commerce Bank not too far from my house. I’ve written about this place before. The bank sits on a hunk of land that use to be a graveyard. I watched them out the window of a Burger King taking out the headstones.
So as I’m driving by I look into the darkened bank like you tend to do when it’s late and the roads are empty. I guess I was looking in to see if anyone was robbing the place. I’m not sure if I saw a group of men inside with masks and bags full of money if I would have called 911 or smiled and thought “good for them.”
So I’m looking in and I do see someone inside. Just standing there looking out. I was going at pretty good late-night hope-there-are-no-cops clip so I passed by quickly so I wasn’t even sure of what it is I saw.
I had to know.
So I make the next left and turn around and go back. I drive by again, slower this time, and sure enough there is somebody standing there. Right in the middle of the lobby. Just standing there. Too weird.
So I go to the next light and pull a U-turn right in the middle of the street and rive back. This time I pull into the parking lot. Slowly. I’m a little freaked out, I’ll admit. I think I see the figure again but when I pull into the parking space facing the bank my headlights shine through the whole place and I don’t see anyone.
So I turn them off.
He’s standing there. Right where he wasn’t standing 2 seconds ago.
So I turn on the lights and squint to see if he’s there.
He’s sort of there. In the bright lights, reflecting as they are off the glass windows, I see a vague outline of him but I also see right through the guy.
So I sort of shit my pants.
He’s looking right at me. I would have immediately backed the car up at 100 miles per hours and driven the fuck out of there except for the look on this guys face. I can’t even explain it. He was looking at me with a ‘what the fuck’ look on his face.
So I turned the lights off again to get a better look at him.
Then it hits me. I’d completely forgotten that this bank use to be a graveyard. Once again the urge to shit my pants becomes high on the list of possible things to do in this situation. I swear I’d have probably lost bowel control, I’m not much of a brave guy. Except for now the headlights were off I could see that muddled look on this face. If he was planning on biting through the top of my skull or draining my soul through glowing red eyes he was keeping his intentions pretty well hidden. Instead he looked like a lost old man waiting for someone to point him in the right direction of his room at the nursing home.
Either he’d missed the latest “Fashion Don’ts” issue of GQ or bought all his clothes from a local Amish outlet store but it didn’t appear to me that he was from around here… or more accurately now.
The stupid shit I do sometimes.
I got out of the car and stood looking at him. My hand never leaving the door handle. We stood like that for what seemed hours. In reality it was probably just a few minutes but the way my heart was racing it was hard to tell. Even at this late hour I could hear cars driving by. Somebody on there way somewhere… completely oblivious to the little drama going on inside and outside of the Commerce Bank. Behind the bank and up a little hill was the Burger King I’d sat at the day they came to remove all the headstones. It was all bright and lit up like a lighthouse in front of an ocean of closed stores. Ever since they changed the way they made their fries I’d suddenly been forced to order onion rings instead and my intestines have never been the same. I could see a few people milling around inside or sitting at their booths eating.
“I watch them a lot too.”
The voice came from in front of me. The stranger in the lobby was now the stranger standing next to me and I’d never seen him move a muscle and I knew for a fact that the big glass doors were not only locked but that they had never been touched.
His voice was melancholy and it may have been the only reason I didn’t scream out loud at seeing him suddenly so close to me.
His face still had that indescribable look that ‘what the fuck?’ can only claim to be somewhat close to indescribing.
“What are you doing out here?” It was the only question I could think of but I had a stronger-than-suspicious feeling that I knew the answer. No matter though… I also had a pretty-safe-money feeling that he was not pressed for time.
“When they put me here it was such a nice place.” His gaze seemed a long way off now. “It was a beautiful ceremony. I guess you don’t think about it when you’re first deposited somewhere… that it may change.”
I thought about the irony in his choice of the word ‘deposited’ given we were standing in the parking lot of a bank but I felt it best to keep it to myself. I guess I still hadn’t completely ruled out the head biting or soul sucking at this point.
“But change it did. At first there were a lot of us who decided to stay. We would wait like children for a visitor to come. I remember when my wife would come by….”
What he was thinking behind those pale eyes was impossible to tell but I felt myself feeling great waves of grief that threatened to bring the tears to my eyes that he was no longer capable of crying.
It was quite a long time before he spoke again and for awhile I thought he’d completely forgotten I was there.
“After awhile some of the people began to leave. The hardest time was when your loved ones stopped visiting. I can still remember the last time I saw my wife place her usual bundle of daisies by my grave. She looked so much older.”
My hand finally relaxed the grip on the door handle and I leaned against the car.
“They all stopped coming. I was never sure why my wife didn’t join me here. The plot next to me stayed vacant for almost a decade after her last visit. I waited. I waited for the hearse to bring her here… but after enough years past I gave up that hope.”
Funny thing was he never really moved. He stood stiffly upright, never shifting his weight from foot to foot. I felt bad thinking about such things while he poured out his heart to me but the idea that he had no weight to shift made me think that he could stand all day with no fatigue. Maybe forever. I wanted to ask if he ever lies down or even crouches but it seemed trite.
“Then they built the adult bookstore across the street and that was the final straw for most of the ones here. When I was alive I had a pretty good sense of humor about such things but it only made it harder to sit here as a forgotten shell.”
Another long pause.
“That’s the thing… when you first get here you forget this is the last stop. I think most of them just got sick of watching. Then they put up the Burger King so while there was more to watch it didn’t get any more interesting.”
“So you can stay here as long as you want? You can see what happens 1,000 years from now?” I asked and the idea made my head swim a little. Why stop at 1,000 years?
“When you’ve gone from a scenic little graveyard tucked away from the quiet village to being stuck between a dirty book store and a fast food restaurant you pretty much think that the worst is behind you. Can you imagine what those of us who were still here thought when the trucks rolled up and they started tearing down our headstones?”
He said it in such a way that there was no humor in it. His voice was like sand blowing across pavement. Brittle and cold.
“I’m not a man who uses profanity but I distinctly remember thinking ‘What the fuck?'”.
I felt a quick sense of pride about recognizing the look from such a distance.
“That’s when the last one left. The last one except me.”
The idea that he stood there and watched them tear down his ‘home’ and build a new one around him made my chest ache. I couldn’t even begin to put myself in his place.
I had to ask one question.
“Do people walk through you all day? I mean… where are you during the day?”
He looked at me and for the first time our eyes met. I felt a charge run through my body and I could feel every year that he’d been here. I could feel every year that was to come almost like a taste in my mouth.
“I’m here and I’m not here. As if loneliness could be a physical malady to someone without a body. The word ghost seemed to me to have such a romantic connotation before I became one.”
I’m such a chicken shit. I tried to hold his gaze but it just scared the fuck out of me. His eyes were grey and empty and I swore that if I didn’t look away I’d become as transparent and hopeless as he seemed.
“So why don’t you go…?”
Maybe for the first time I saw him flicker in and out, like bad reception on an old TV. My question must have struck a chord.
“Simply put… I’m afraid.”
“Afraid of what? You’re dead. Isn’t that pretty much the worst thing that can happen?”
“My wife wasn’t buried with me.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that but I didn’t want to start guessing as if the fear that had kept him frozen in place for these long years was a hackneyed thing to be figured out instantly with no effort or discarded as unworthy of my interest.
He wouldn’t continue until I once again looked him in the eyes.
‘Wherever it is I’m going… what if she isn’t there waiting?”
What do you say to that?
If I hadn’t of looked over at the bank as I drove by tonight my new friend would have remained here as he’s been since decades before I was born. Alone. I guess it makes sense that we who have yet to slip this mortal coil try to measure time in words like years and millennia but I now know it can also be measured in other ways. Eternity is every second you spend in fear.
I always thought that fear was a shadow cast by death into life. Now I know better. It stretches both ways.
I didn’t want to ask him his name. It would make him more real and I swear I thought it might make me go over the edge.
But I had an idea.
If I could get his wife’s name I could find out what happened to her. I could get him closure… maybe.
He told me the name and the years that he had lived here.
I told him I would be back as soon as I could.
I got back into my car and drove away.