V: A Town of Ghosts

Tunnelling

Like some mad captain obsessed with hunting a chameleonic sea serpent, I took the helm all afternoon and chased the highway. The salty spume from hangover waves stung my eyes and the sirens’ call of rest areas sang to me. After dinner, a nap generated a vibrancy I would not have felt had I not irrigated myself the previous evening. Imbibing polishes the marble halls of a man’s mind, but until it dries he cannot see the shine. As the ambitious playwright, Sophocles, once said, a man must wait until late in the afternoon before he can determine how splendid the previous evening has been.

Seeing how he took no credit for the ascertainment of this phenomenon and, in any event, did not connect it to the consumption of fermented beverages, I humbly submit my maiden discovery in psychology: Petronius’ General Potation Theory. (The requisite justification of counterfactual analysis will be provided later when it will not delay the Reader’s fantastic journey.) This is distinct from my Special Potation Theory, which shall be submitted in due time. Both illume heretofore ignored boons of a much-maligned elixir.

In grateful possession of the necessary preconditions for night driving, an exacting blend of tranquility and diligence, I longed for an interstate to Alpha Centauri. My car, the Taj Mahal with an orange glaze and hovercraft engine, glided along with the windows down. Atop the side mirror perched my hand, slicing through the warm butter of air resistance. Sandy hung her bare feet out the window, resting her head on the armrest.

The assurance of steady progress soothed our journey’s colicky infancy. Once a man begins a grave undertaking some of the urgency dissipates. He can savor the rapture of completeness: nothing more is necessary or even possible for the acquisition of his goal. Though many throughout history have experienced this sensation, shamefully no one has named it. I hereby christen it the Third Petronius Sensation.

Upon conquering the globe, Alexander expressed sorrow. He had no further frontiers to tame. He had deprived himself of ever again tasting the bliss of the Third Petronius Sensation. Commonly it is assumed a man’s greatest joy is the attainment of his heart’s desire. This is folly. Satiety is a glacier that leaves a chasm of yearning in its wake. On life’s many journeys it is not the arrival that thrills us: we wait in line to check in, discover our room overlooks a gas station and the bar doesn’t sell carry-outs, learn our girlfriend “just wants to cuddle.” Nay, the joy is the journey. How regrettable that such insights cannot be perceived without hindsight, thus sparing a man from commitments to dead-ended paths, permitting him instead to pursue the mastery of fly fishing or any quest approaching its kingdom via an asymptotic curve.

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The elegant lane shifts of my Fleetwood, the Renaissance curls of its turns, even its smooth course down a straightaway, were these not calligraphy flowing across the pages of the road, composing poetry that could make the hardest man weep? Though it hurled through space at 120 miles-per-hour, I experienced it not as motion but the exaltation of surfing a tsunami in a luxury liner. As my toe brushed the landmine gas-pedal, the ravenous hood devoured the road and the distinction between us blurred. “I” became the rational faculty of a mythic being: half car, half man.

As if mocking the distinction between transcendence and immanence, the soul of this latter-day satyr neither existed apart from us nor was it pantheistic. Though the product of a synergy, it could not be equated with any sum. When the dichotomy between my car and I collapsed, when we attained oneness, our coalescence became irreducible like an elementary chemical. Any insinuation of my cognizance of this unity would be fraudulent. Something infinitely greater than man’s powers of reckoning absorbed me. More cannot be said. Some experiences (per the First Petronius Sensation) cannot be contained in the cheap Tupperware of language. You cannot take a shining star from the heavens and place it in a meatloaf dish.

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 Sandy awoke at dawn and took the first tentative steps toward building a bridge across the awkward distance between us. “We need to talk,” she said. The declamation resounded like a seventh trumpet, a certain augury of “lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm.” In fact, she needed to talk while I occasionally nodded my head in thoughtful agreement. Reduced to its elements, the reconciliation ritual is a matter of forbearance during the verbal stage. After enduring it unscathed, a man may savor the remainder of the ceremony, which is blissfully free of verbiage. As that clever but overrated poet observed, “Love quarrels oft in pleasing concord end.” Pleasing concord indeed.

I fixed Sandy with repentant grimaces. She chose her words with a circumspection necessitating frequent pauses, giving me ample time to retreat my eyes to the dash whenever they met hers for more than an instant. No doubt she had been rehearsing since we left the motel. The harsh taskmaster of experience had long since demonstrated to me the strategic superiority of silence in these situations.

My unspoken defense stood upon the eternal pillars of physiology, biology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy: a man lost in the throes of a dizzy-spell cannot be held morally culpable for his words and deeds. He is as blameless as a man whose actions were caused by the winds of a tornado. But Sandy, impervious to Reason, would only become inflamed at this. Like most people incapable of distinguishing an excuse from an explanation, she condemned any list of causes with the incoherent epithet “rationalizing.” Not languid in my silence, I composed a hymn to Aristotle:

O Great One, how far we have fallen in our headlong race from Truth. You taught us “… as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject. And the same must necessarily apply to all mankind.” Oh Master, in the dreadful night of the present era I cannot, on pain of death, even repeat your wise teachings aloud. How shall we return? Who will show us the way? Anoint me, o Great One, and I shall lead mankind back to —

“I never intend to hurt you,” I said instinctively, my paean interrupted by a long pause from Sandy.

“But you always do. And you words words words words words words words words words words words words words words …”

She constructed the bridge in earnest. As with countless scourges endured before, the fortification of Stoicism (modified by my innovatory Blender) sheltered me. During her meandering diatribes — critical of fermented drinks, the consumption of meat, the appreciation of music composed before 1900, polygamy, and the gods only know what else — my eyes remained sad and thoughtful, my hand stroked my chin, and my mind freed itself with meditations on the miraculous fine-tuning of our universe described by cosmologists. Of all the ones that could have formed, in only an atomistic percentage of them would intelligent life have evolved.

(Willfully ignorant or congenitally obtuse, atheists overlook the mystical proportions of this. As a crystalline reformulation of the Anthropic Principle, in order to fill even the most hardened Skeptics with awe at the ingenious and philanthropic nature of the gods, I suggest the substitution of ‘intelligent life’ with ‘sensate beings capable of enjoying fellatio and cunnilingus.’ Verily, it will inspire all unbelievers to run outside and carve a graven image. O miracle most divine, what were your odds?)

We drove past a billboard that portrayed a sports celebrity with a caption bubble next to his head. Watching Sandy’s mouth, I imagined the words floating out in little plastic letters. As they stretched over the hood and beyond the horizon, I wondered how long the line of them would be by the end of the day, how many miles. This whimsical inquiry may have had its place under different circumstances: pillow talk, for example. But raising the question aloud would have had devastating repercussions for the next stage of the reconciliation ritual, in all likelihood precluding it altogether.

I pondered how long a man’s word-line would grow in his lifetime. If every utterance from “mama” to “Rosebud” were written in a straight line of refrigerator magnets, how long would it be? A thousand miles? A million? What difference would it make? From even a short distance it would be indistinguishable from one consisting of cigar bands and pop-tops. If anything, the latter would be aesthetically preferable. But all our words are not preserved, I thought, bringing this amusing daydream in for a landing. What becomes of them?

The deluge of Sandy’s letters suddenly stopped. Her eyes, concerned and earnest, met mine, signifying it was the part of the ritual where I had to add a few cigar bands and pop-tops to my line.

“I apologize for putting myself in situations where I lose control,” I said, looking to my hood ornament for inspiration. “I assume responsibility for the initial decision.”

Sandy kissed me on the cheek, concrete flowed under the car, and the earth turned to face the sun. We drove all morning until seeing a sign that said, “Township of All – Five Miles,” when we agreed it would be a good time for brunch.

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 On sun-scorched pavement we meandered from store to store. “This one looks interesting,” said Sandy. The dilapidated exterior concealed a cavernous depth. Rows of shelves displayed refuse not connected by any unifying theme except that the previous owners had quite understandably abandoned it, and the junkyard, with good reason, would not accept it either. She stopped to inspect a crystal ball.

“Be on the lookout for a monkey’s paw,” I told her before wandering off on my own. In the back of the shop I discovered actual antiques. Mounted on the wall were the head of a warthog and a swordfish. Between them stood a tatty mannequin of an old witch. I visualized how splendidly the head would adorn my study, how my comrades, even if not convinced I felled the beast, would nonetheless affirm its fierce grandeur. I then visualized the bridge Sandy had just constructed, what it led to, and saw it engulfed in flames as she watched in abhorrence while I struggled out to the car with my trophy.

“Can I help you?” said one of the antiques, launching me a foot off the ground. “Are you looking for anything special?”

My flight instinct made a rare appearance until I realized the witch was alive, human even. “Browsing,” I said. “Are any of your treasured relics exalted above the others?”

“I’m so glad you asked.” She burrowed through a pile of junk while I contemplated the tortile nature of the tusks. She handed me a pair of horn-rimmed glasses with absurdly thick lenses. “These are very special. You’ll like them.”

“I put these on and I can see what people look like without their clothes, right?” I said, insulted by the offer of a child’s toy.

She cackled hideously. “They’re more special than that. They make you see things more clearly, much, much more clearly. Go for a little walk. They work best outside.”

In case they did enhance my ocular powers I waited until I was a safe distance from her. I walked through the cluttered rows and found Sandy still examining the crystal ball. She held it inches from her face, rotating it slowly, inspecting something preserved in the center. I went outside, slipped the glasses on, and turned my head every which way to initiate their effect. Stepping off the curb I sensed something huge moving above me. I covered my head and watched the sun zoom toward the horizon. It rose in seconds and soared across the sky and set again.

By the time I made it to the end of the block it must have flown past fifty times. Perhaps I will purchase these, I thought. I knew that Sandy, an aficionado of psychedelic phenomenon, would be quite taken with them.

Two men seated in front of a barbershop played chess, paying no heed to my approach or the sun’s newfound velocity. When one of them reached to move a piece, I saw the board through his arm. I bent over to engage in a more circumspect analysis and confirmed that both were ghosts.

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Stepping back, I shook my head and looked down the street. It seemed as though a deranged stage hand was flicking a blinding light in an amphitheatre. (On account of a misguided dig with my Shovel, I considered the sun’s activity as “stranger” than the presence of ghosts. An important lesson arises from my error: it is not enough to be equipped with a mighty tool; one must know how to use it.)

I studied the complex endgame position: White had a king on d2, a pawn on d4, and a bishop on e5. Black had a king on d7, a pawn on d5, and a bishop on e4. The ghost-man playing the white pieces pulled at his thick silver mustache. Rage and longing filled his eyes. His hand trembled over his king. He vanished and another ghost-man, young and smiling, replaced him and confidently slammed the piece down. Likewise, his opponent changed with no disruption to the flight of the bishop. The successor completed the move and in a flicker of the sun another replaced him, this time a ghost-girl.

Ignoring the absurdly ephemeral players who scarcely existed long enough to have any significance, I concentrated on the game itself. White enjoyed what seemed like a decisive edge until Black turned the tables. Eventually, the status became uncertain. My own excellence at this divine convergence of art, science, philosophy, and religion came from incendiary middle-game tactics, which spared me the drudgery of grinding my opponents down in the endgame.

I glanced skyward at the orange streak, swooned, and looked earthward. It is a good thing these ghosts do not look up, I thought. They would never be able to concentrate on the game.

The pieces bounced around the board until something tugged on my shirt. A little skeleton with baby teeth grinned up at me. A baggy yellow shirt and gray gym shorts cloaked his pale bones. This phenomenon was more in keeping with the old comic book advertisements for x-ray glasses, which always depicted the wearer surrounded by skeletons and naked ladies. I hoped he would take me to the latter.

He clasped my hand in his cold little bones and led me around the side of a post office. His tibia and fibula protruded from black Nikes, shimmering like swords in a thunderstorm. He let go of my hand and pointed, shaking his little finger.

“Impossible.” I said. “Absolutely impossible.”

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We stood atop a hill overlooking a field bordered by two ponds, between which thousands of ghosts toted buckets of water. So swift were the sun’s revolutions that they appeared to move in slow motion. Some emptied their buckets in the pond to my left and filled them at the one to my right, others contrariwise. Some emptied and filled their buckets at each, which seemed odd. Awaiting their turns, they huddled impatiently. Whatever order the caravan possessed could best be attributed to an absence of chaos. Despite the commotion, the surfaces of both ponds remained smooth.

Individual ghosts changed in the same abrupt fashion as the chess-playing ghosts, supplanted before their buckets could hit the ground. An old woman hobbled past us in jerky segmented motion, water sloshing from her buckets, her face contorted in agony. In a flicker of the sun she vanished and the ghost of a young girl replaced her, laughing and swinging the buckets devil-may-care.

I was, of course, reluctantly acquainted with the puerile superstition maintaining how the foremost difficulty confronting ghosts is a lack of insight into the nature of their condition. As this rancid scrap of conventional wisdom has it, they are unaware of their ghostly status; they continue to labor under the misapprehension, the delusion that they are real. While regarding such preposterous ravings with the contempt they deserve, this was my independent diagnosis of these ghosts: they were simply ignorant of their condition. They mistook it for something else. They behaved as though engaged in something of great importance, as though the phantom twinkle of their existence mattered. I would have laughed but the spectacle engendered pity.

The skeleton-boy tugged at my shirt. He pointed to the ghosts, then to me, then back at the ghosts, nodding his head slowly.

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“I most certainly will not go out there you scrawny little urchin.”

He shook his head no, but continued pointing.

“Perhaps I will take a closer look,” I said, “if only to discern the nature of this chimera.” I made my way down, stopping short of the field itself. The multitude of ghosts homogenized into a fog that buckets appeared to float through. (Fear not, the oblique nature of this outrageous spectacle will be eviscerated in my excursus to Part V. If it becomes the Reader’s most beloved portion of my annals no one shall blame him.) The strobe light above gave the field the offending ambience of the noxious dance parties Sandy often dragged me to. The ghosts, scarcely persisting long enough to fill their buckets a few times, much less make any observations about the nature of their surroundings, ignored the disorienting flash. This was in their best interest. Had they noticed it would have sent them clutching at the grass for stability.

The view from their level disturbed me and the sun devastated what remained of my counterpoise. Turning from the melancholy vision to surmount the hill, I fell. As I scrambled to the post office I saw grass and rocks through the misty outline of my arms. I screamed and looked away. The skeleton-boy towered over me, nodding and pointing and grinning sadistically. He reached down and held a bucket out to me. I tore the glasses off with my ghostly hands and shut my eyes, begging the gods for the return of my mundane vision.

“Are you okay?” Sandy called.

When I finally looked up the sun was anchored by an unseen tether. Sandy’s face evinced a degree of concern I had not seen since her sister’s birthday, when my festiveness, according to some eyewitnesses, eclipsed my sensibility. “Those glasses are worse than that so-called Ecstasy you poisoned us with last summer.”

“The lady said you might need help, that you might get lost or something. What did you see? Let me try them.”

“Your poor little brain has been through enough. I lost my way and fell down the hill. I could have been killed. They cause occular damage at the very least.”

She took my hand and led me away. Before turning the corner I looked back at the field. The ghosts were gone and the water in the ponds stood unperturbed.

“Did you like what you saw?” the old gypsy said with a toothless grin. “Want to buy them?”

“That is not the kind of pageant a man would want to see more than once.”

“Once is all you need. Most people never see it at all.”

“And they are none the worse for it. If a man wore those glasses all the time –”

“He’d go mad,” she whispered. And we looked into each other’s eyes for a long time.

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Sandy held her crystal ball up to the window, examining it in the sunlight while I drove. The size of a softball, it contained a tiny, rainbow-striped armadillo in its center, seemingly preserved like an insect in amber.

“Is that thing real?”

“Of course not, but isn’t this beautiful?”

“That creature will contaminate the prophecies you receive, will it not?”

“What do you mean?” she said, putting the ball in her lap but keeping her eyes fixed on it.

“Oh great and mysterious ball, what are we having for lunch? Rainbow armadillo. Oh great and round crystal ball, what does the future hold for me? Rainbow armadillo.”

“It’s not for predicting the future. The armadillo is probably part of some cultural narrative. We’ll have to look it up when we get home.”

“Cultural narrative? Like the Phoenix?”

“Maybe, but isn’t that one shared by many cultures?”

“Like a plague. I recommend not looking it up. The aesthetic value of mythical creations invariably exceeds whatever meaning they have, if any.”

“Like your hood ornament and dashboard mascot?” she said with disapproval.

“Precisely. I could care less what outlandish tales they denote. The sight of them brings me joy. The only meaning that matters is what meaning they have to me. Besides, she said it was a real crystal ball with special powers of prognostication.”

She raised the ball so the sun again shone through it. “What a character. Tourists love that shit.”

***

 At the fall of night we entered a rest area. Sandy climbed in back and gained immediate passage to the Land of Nod. The gatekeeper had always been fond of her. For reasons never disclosed, he despised me. Even the most excessive bribes proved insufficient to gain his favor. While I leaned against the trunk and reflected on the day’s proceedings, an epiphany befell me: I must begin my annals, my history of this portentous odyssey. How else can I sift the revelatory elements from the dross? There can be no certainty while adrift in the middle, for the moment is always given precedence by the senses. And hindsight is a flighty harlot indeed, popular and acquiescent but scarcely faithful.

Grateful that my muse contacted me before any precious details were shipped off to the overflowing landfill of history, I retrieved a notebook from the trunk, located a pen in the glove compartment, and turned on the reading light. Sandy’s snores indicated that no stimuli could awaken her (one curious and delightful exception being the corner of a bed sheet tickling her ear).

Not wishing to begin my chronicle in haste, I paused to gather my recollections, lit an Oval to vitalize my gifts of transcription, reflected on the accomplishments of my peers: Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, and Seutonius. And I began my annals, writing slowly at first, refusing, like any great historian, to permit vain concerns of style to interfere with the simple accuracy of my narrative. As my confidence ascended, a natural eloquence took over, and Truth joined splendor in an uncompromising union.

A ponderous yoke left my shoulders, a gratification common to all practitioners of this noble science. When a historian documents events he witnessed it not only confirms their ontological status for posterity, it endows him with a distance from which he may provide a level survey. I could not fathom how the self-evident necessity of this undertaking had evaded me.

I filled a third of the diary in an hour and made a mental note to purchase more notebooks the following day. I wondered if the signs had the same meaning by themselves that they did in the overall context. I footnoted this exegetical query, hoping the answer would be forthcoming once my annals were complete and I had time to meditate upon them.

Whereas the events of the afternoon were fresh in my mind, I devoted a disproportionate amount of space to them, secure in the belief that I could recount the other epic encounters at my leisure. The remembrance of the benighted phantoms slithered across my flesh. Though reluctant to relive the experience, I needed to purge it from my mind, to trap it safely behind bars of ink.

When cramps silenced my arm and the fog of enervation clouded my transcriptive faculty, I turned to the first page to peruse my annals, prepared to savor that sweet but guilty pleasure common to all great writers: the vicarious enjoyment of one’s creation via the imagined bliss it will bring his reader.

The page was blank.

Frantically flipping through the notebook and not finding so much as a smudge, I felt the nauseating momentum of the earth hurtling through space. My voodoo doll mocked my failed authorship with his savage leer and a perverse and cantankerous determination overcame me. I turned to the first page and began again.

“So what if it all disappears,” I whispered, bristling with defiance. “The transcription itself is ennobling. It preserves what happened for a moment, which is better than nothing. Indeed, it staves off the Nothing — for an instant.” In my fervent state I believed this to be important. In the coolness of detached reflection I often wonder if it is. How can a historian reconcile himself to the disappearing ink we delusively use to preserve our chronicles?

I went outside to stretch and smoke. Headlights on the interstate sliced through the night but always left it intact. I reeled from a sensation common to all eminent historians taking a rest from a momentous project: a wearying synergy of woe and agitation begot of the recognition that there is much to be done and one is not doing it. I hereby christen this Petronius’ Fourth Sensation. With odium, I will tolerate its application to pauses from momentous projects in general. (The perspicacious Reader will recognize how it forms the yin to the yang of Petronius’ Third Sensation.)

When I tried to sleep, my eyelids became screens where ignorant, pathetic ghosts marched back and forth. “Impossible,” I said. “Completely impossible.” I sat up, not frightened but enraged. (Do not worry, dear Reader, as you shall see in the excursus to Part V, the manure of this rage fertilized a most wonderful fruit.) I opened the back door and eased my way in. Though it provided extensive space for travel, the backseat did not comfortably accommodate two with the intention of sleeping.

***

 Viewed with the detachment of satiety, the attraction between the sexes, the magnetism that mercilessly and inexorably drags them together, appears as nothing more than bizarre cajolery hoodwinking us to populate a madhouse with fresh inmates, something the distant murmur of Reason could never do. (Salubrious for the madhouse is that satiation rarely exceeds thirty minutes.) Considered from any other standpoint it seems the most lavish of tricks, magnificent chicanery, Mother Nature’s greatest special effect: commanding the perpetuation of an existence that most of its heritors have grave reservations about, yet making the means of perpetuation its most redeeming feature. Bravo, you magnificent, deranged, diabolical bitch. Bravo.

Sandy’s arms gave me sanctuary from the ghosts. But where would that comfort be tomorrow? For what can comfort a man who has found himself in a town of ghosts?

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The Dialogues of Supernatural Individuation

So that the Reader may fully share the perturbation I experienced in Part V, it is essential that he understand and fully acknowledge the theoretical impossibility of ghosts. To the philosophic novice, being theoretically impossible is a far graver offense than being physically impossible. The latter is a misdemeanor against the laws of nature; the former is a desecration of logic herself. Unfortunately, a straightforward descant would expose even the most learned to arguments intricate and arcane. Despite the technical perfection, my exposition would prove insufficient to infuse the Reader with the perplexities that assailed me or bring him to his knees with the unique awe of a grand philosophic revelation. His loss would be of tragic proportions: the argument I shall unveil is as original and profound as the introduction of amino acids into the primordial soup. Remember, I was not frightened of the ghosts; the impossibility of their existence agitated me.

To clearly elucidate and explore this point, I have decided to demonstrate it by means of a dialogue. If the format was good enough for Plato and David Hume it is good enough for me. The Reader is encouraged to imagine himself seated at the table with the participants, actively following (perhaps even participating in) the discussion.

The Participants

Sophia represents the voice of Reason. Scatius is a wily philosopher whose views are in diametric opposition to mine. Cretinius holds the views of the common man.

***

At a picnic table in Pulaski Park sat Sophia, Cretinius, and I. The morning sun or Sophia, which article of creation deserved greater reverence, which was more conspicuous and inexplicable in its beauty and power? Though she was barely eighteen, to look into her dark green eyes was to confront wisdom itself. We shared a bottle of schnapps (far from discouraging my enjoyment, Sophia filled my glass the instant it was empty) while giant but gentle Cretinius worked the morning crossword.

“Sophia, a fascinating problem vexes me. In the realm of the supernatural how, in theory, would we individuate things? How would we recognize one entity as being distinct from another?”

“What’s a two-letter word for alternative?” said Cretinius, rubbing his salient brow.

After some thought, Sophia leaned forward, revealing cleavage from the plentidudinous bosom concealed beneath her toga. “It couldn’t be the same way we individuate natural things. Consider five coins. What distinguishes each of them is their occupation of different spaces.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Now I am not asserting that spatial continuity is the only consideration, but it is essential.”

“Cretinius, that’s a terrible habit,” said Sophia, her radiant, non-Asian features grimacing as his finger excavated his nose.

A loud belching interrupted her as Scatius staggered into the park. His spindly legs seemed incapable of supporting the humpbacked torso upon them.

“I fear he is in his cups again,” I whispered.

“Those are sandals,” said Cretinius, his lazy eye looking up and away from the crossword.

“I wonder what views Scatius holds on your position,” said Sophia.

“And what position is that?” he said, taking a seat. The black caves of Scatius’ eyes provided the only contrast on his forbidding face to his pasty skin. Though his hair was thin to the point of endangered, his skeletal arms were covered with dense patches of beastly fur. He helped himself to our schnapps, guzzling it from the bottle.

“I was maintaining the theoretical impossibility of ghosts,” I said. “My critique is more severe than the assertion that they do not exist. I maintain that it makes no sense to even speak of them.”

“Ah, the cheap solvent of logical positivism,” he said with a hiccup. “That’s about as original as breathing.”

“Scatius! Don’t touch me there,” cried Cretinius.

“My argument owes nothing to the lazy and arrogant positivists,” I said. “They assert that statements are only meaningful if they are verifiable. My position is that we cannot coherently speak of ghosts because they cannot be individuated by the criterion of spatial continuity. The difference between one and three of them is not a feature of the distinct chunks of space they occupy. By what criterion can they be separated?”

“Your argument is fascinating,” said Sophia, cradling her chin in her hand and batting her long lashes.

“It is interesting,” agreed Scatius.

“What about Casper the Friendly Ghost?” asked Cretinius. “He takes up space. So do the ones on Ghostbusters.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Sophia.

“Be patient,” I said, stroking the celestial crop of sun-bleached down on her arm. “Something good will arise, non-Phoenix-like, from his point. Cretinius has voiced the common perception of ghosts. Although we say they do not have spatial dimensions, we conceive of them as gaseous or luminous beings who occupy space in a mysterious fashion that allows them to float through walls. Unable to conceive of non-physical, non-spatial, invisible beings, we are reduced to the conceptual level of tabloid sightings and cartoons. Oh, what can comfort a man who finds himself in a town of ghosts, a town where the stern sheriff of logic is not obeyed?”

Scatius belched. “The answer is both obvious and devastating to your cute little argument. Ghosts can be individuated on the grounds that they have unique minds or personalities.”

Sophia turned to me and put her hand atop mine. So soft the skin. So unequivocal the yearning in her eyes. The sun beamed on its masterful handiwork: sporadic freckles on her nose, shoulders, and in the heavenly valley of her mountainous bosom.

“What’s a three-letter word for opposite of later?” asked Cretinius.

I winked at Sophia and clasped her tiny hand and prepared for triumph. “On the contrary, we cannot speak of distinct personalities unless individuation has already occurred. ‘I have seven minds but my bother has only four,’ is a ridiculous statement, but if physical embodiment is not a criterion how can we criticize it? From this it follows that we have no means of individuating disembodied minds.”

“Sophistry,” groaned Scatius, reaching for the schnapps. He finished the bottle and smashed it on the bike path. “Let me think,” he said, massaging his temples.

“Oh Petronius, your arguments shine with the light of Truth,” said Sophia.

“Here is the fundamental difficulty,” I said. “Terms such as two, many, some, and few are coherent insofar as they refer to distinguishable items. If we have no means of theoretically distinguishing one ghost from another, what sense would it make to say that there are many of them as opposed to a few, or one as opposed to three? When we attempt to determine the autonomy of entities in a domain where spatial and physical considerations can not be applied we are, to put it politely, speaking gibberish.”

“Gibberish indeed,” said Scatius, pounding his fist on the table. “You would deny what all of mankind has believed since the dawn of time?”

“He’s angry,” said Cretinius.

“Mankind does not know that what they think they believe is conceptually impossible,” I said. “It is the philosopher’s task to demonstrate this, not to encourage their folly with trickery.”

“Writer’s throughout history have documented the tragic plight of ghosts,” said Scatius, putting his head on the table. “Trapped between planes, ignorant of their condition …” He began to snore.

“You mean cynical hacks know a good gimmick when they see it,” I said. “The lost-ghost cliché is absurd on the face of it. After a full day without hunger pangs or trips to the restroom even Cretinius would figure out that something special had occurred. And what should we make of the supernatural dimension that stands as the basis for these tales? What could possibly transpire in a bodiless, non-physical realm? The traditional answer is the experience of bliss or a reunion with deceased family members. Has no one noticed these are mutually exclusive?”

“But wouldn’t you want to see your father again?” said Sophia, running her fingers through my hair.

“Exceptions only prove the general rule. Regarding the plausibility of the former answer: compile a list of all the types of bliss you have experienced without the use of your body.”

Sophia giggled. “There aren’t many, and the best one isn’t included.”

“Something smells bad,” said Cretinius.

“Oh my,” cried Sophia, pinching her nose. “Poor Scatius has had an accident.”

“He pooped,” agreed Cretinius, and we all abandoned the table with its slumbering defecator. “Petronius, look at the bugs,” said Cretinius with glee. Attracted to the sweet liquid from the broken bottle, a squadron of yellow jackets darted about the shards.

“No Cretinius, those are –”

I put my finger to her lips. “Sophia, when I establish my academy, Experience shall be granted an honorary professorship. Hopefully all my pupils will be as receptive to my teachings as you. And as lovely.”

Cretinius screamed and lumbered away flailing his arms.

“Now, even if we can conceive of a disembodied state of bliss, what do we mean by bliss in this context? A state of schnapps intoxication? For all eternity? As much joy as that syrupy nectar can bring, would you want to feel like that forever?”

“Oh Petronius, let’s go for a walk in the park.”

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Petronius Who?!

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