My she-friend was saying I should ask the handyman if the cabin’s previous tenants had had the same problem with pesky ghosts. Very unnecessary, I was thinking. In this country it was not unusual to hear what we’d heard–footsteps in the night, or fingernails scratching on windows–or to wake up and find framed paintings turned diagonal where they hung. Due to its high altitude and proximity to one corner of the Bermuda Triangle, Mexico City had unusually active electromagnetic fields (which could lead to the sudden opening or closing of doors, though this did not happen at the cabin) and, along with the constant little earth tremors, such factors explained the crooked pictures. As for the scratching sounds, outside a zillion stray cats and dogs pried and scraped for food scraps and shelter. The footstep sounds could have been various things, including a heavy-footed ghost, but in Mexico that was not unusual either. My family went back many generations in Mexico City, and there was not one among us who didn’t have some ghost story. Except me, your servant Gonzalo Agustín Gomez. Until now.
On November 1, the Day of the Dead (which could be called the Night of the Dead; it is in the wee hours that the graveside vigils with food set out for the deceased take place), again we’d heard the slow and heavy clack of footsteps, as of dress shoes. Adriana was unusually persistent that I ask around about these noises and, before her large, pleading eyes, I felt myself yielding.
My “she-friend,” I liked to call her–“girlfriend” was too precious for me–but after 16 months she and I were still enthralled with each other. Both of us in our mid-20s, there was nothing we didn’t share. To be honest, she stirred my heart; it’s fine if you want to say she was my girlfriend. Adriana didn’t mind that I called her my she-friend. She knew that was code for dream-love. There were only a few occasions where she also heard these noises at the cabin–though it was not really a cabin, wood beam ceiling notwithstanding. It was mostly brick painted white, and there on the mountain the moist air clung to it and turned the lines of mortar greenish-brown. It’s fine if you want to say it was mildew. Because the cabin was not really in Mexico City but on the outskirts in the mountains to the west–by bus you’d go past Cuajimalpa, and before it chugged up to the village of Acopilco, the cabins were there on your left among the tall pines and Eucalyptus. And they were cheap. A little musty and damp, and there was no water in the winter because the pipes froze. From late December to early February I bathed in bottled water, heated to preferred temperature.
On that November 2, which was a Saturday, the sun shone bright and we had invited my relatives and Adriana’s up for a little feast. Adriana’s nephews had fashioned miniature ghosts out of white handkerchiefs, and they were running around dangling them by strings when we ran into Heliodoro, the handyman, out on the dirt road leading up to the cabin.
“Yes,” he said, his eyeballs bloodshot and yellowed amid the heavy folds of dark skin around them. “Everyone who’s lived there says the same thing.”
The squat old fellow stood no higher than my chest, but you should know that I was taller than average (though not so good-looking that people would think I was with Adriana), and he peered up at me as we waited for him to explain. I didn’t like to pressure people, and Adriana was also cool. So we just squinted at each other: Heliodoro smiling full of secrets in his tired overalls, me aiming my fu manchu (which helps fill out my shrinking chin) down at him, and Adriana standing slinky with her weight to one side, elbow in one hand, and in the other a cigarette held near her Indian princess cheekbone.
“Like, uh, what kind of things have they said?” I finally said.
“Well,” Heliodoro said, “like they hear noises at night. About the crooked pictures, I don’t know.”
“What kind of noises?” Adriana said, in her low, lush voice.
“Well, that it sounds like someone is scratching on the windows,” Heliodoro said, now grinning with dark-stained teeth except for one gold incisor. “And that in the night it sounds like someone’s walking through the house, but slowly. But don’t worry, nothing ever happens to you.”
It was true, I’d been living there for nearly two years without suffering any scandals. Adriana would say I was maddeningly centered, that nothing rattled me, that I didn’t even resent it when my boss at the graphic arts studio cut my pay in half. Everything passes, I believe; they say if your problem has a solution, then there’s no sense in worrying, and if your problem has no solution, then there’s also no sense in worrying. There’s nothing to do. I’d listened to the invisible presence tramping around for more than a year and never thought to ask the neighbors about local ghosts. But each time I heard those footsteps – while reading by the fireplace, or in bed trying to fall asleep – I did feel a little uncomfortable.
“Well,” I said, having taken Adriana’s cigarette and blowing smoke to one side, “does anyone know who this ghost is, and what the hell he wants?”
“Yes, more or less,” Heliodoro said, as my parents pulled up in their cornflower blue VW bug. “Several years ago on this same path a camper was backing out, and the driver didn’t see the old man walking behind it. The old man who lived in your cabin, he was very feeble, and when the vehicle hit him he died so fast his spirit didn’t have a chance to escape the earth. There was no time to prepare for departure, you know?”
“Of course,” I said.
“They say his spirit got trapped between this world and the next one,” Heliodoro said. His gold tooth flashed in the sunlight. “Normally he doesn’t want anything. He just wants you to know he’s there.”
At our gathering the ghost, whose name the handyman said was Señor Felix Arciniega, seemed to make some overtures. The previous night some of my great aunts had kept vigil at the graveyards with a few of their grandkids and offered some chiles rellenos and candies to our ancestors, but apparently Felix Arciniega’s descendants had let him down. He was still hungry. My sister, mother, and cousin had brought a roast chicken each, as had a few of Adriana’s cousins, and there was still one of these well-seasoned birds left in the kitchen. It was wrapped in foil in an old metal baking dish with a heavy lid on it. I had four dogs, the only one large enough to snatch a roast chicken from a countertop being Ojo, a yellow Labrador who lost an eye when he got hit by a truck. All of the dogs were outside, but if Ojo somehow got into the kitchen – there was a door there that led to the patio – and got the chicken, then he had the good sense to return the foil and the lid to the dish. And on his way out, he thought to lock the patio door behind him.
I’m sorry to say we interrogated the kids till they cried. They insisted they had not done any mischief with the chicken. As far as any of us knew, it simply vanished. Being that time of the year when the dead expect to eat, all signs pointed to Sr. Felix Arciniega.
My Aunt Angustias clutched my arm and held up some purple and green and turquoise pebbles, some as big as almonds, to my face. “Put these in the corners of the house,” she said, her eyes brimming with both merriment and a far-seeing wisdom. “They absorb ghosts. And I can bring holy water to sprinkle, if you want.”
I told her the colored pebbles would probably be sufficient, and we got them placed on the floorboards or ledges in the corners of the den (where we’d eaten), bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. Adriana helped to do this, with a purposefulness that was unusually strident. I mentioned that she seemed very serious, and she became a little annoyed.
“How you can sit there so calmly . . .” she said, hurrying into the bedroom with the pebbles. I could only draw on a Marlboro and blow smoke at the floorboards. I said nothing.
The next night I was sitting on my bed with my sketchbook and a set of drawing pencils, attempting to capture the moment when Adriana revealed her desperate fear of the ghost. I’d felt a tenderness toward her in that instant, when she rose to claim some colored pebbles from my Aunt Angustias, and I was working on the adult tenseness in her schoolgirlish face, and on the suddenness of her jump off the futon couch. My concentration level was intense, owing to my emotion and to the problems of recasting the moment in various values of graphite. The only light reaching the sketchpad was the residual shine from a desk lamp. I was oblivious to the quietness and the surrounding darkness. My focus was keen. I saw only Adriana springing off the futon, specifically the fearful hunch in her shoulders and the wobble in her footfall from being too eager.
The radio clicked on. Tinny northern ranchero music shattered the stillness and quiet of my little hovel of a room. The interruption was so annoying that I only sighed, “Pinche fantasma” (“Scummy ghost”) and flicked it off. When I returned to my pencil rendering, though, the flow had gone on without me. All the motion of the drawing appeared static. Setting the sketchbook aside, I fired up a kettle of herb tea and put on the sweats I like to sleep in. I lay under my bedcovers in the cool, damp darkness for some little while, not so much vexed at the thwarting of my artistic flow as saddened by it, and this along with the uncomfortable sense that I was alone with a ghost. At last I said, “Okay, Sr. Arciniega, I officially recognize your presence–now please move on, it’s pretty late.” And I closed my eyes, to doze at least.
At some point I thought I heard a man’s voice: “Tell me you’re not afraid of the whole world.” Since I was half-asleep when this voice came, it’s difficult to say if I heard it in a half-dream. In any event, I remember thinking, Okay, I admit it, I’m afraid of the whole world. Partly out of spite at the voice trying to keep me awake, I willed myself into a sound asleep. I did this by reciting poetry in my mind, Ruben Dario and Antonio Machado, great stuff, but when I’d try to remember it silently, it always caused me to drift. One had to let go of the waking world–that is, to drift–in order to sleep. Drifting being a kind of flow.
The letting go was beautiful, but then Sr. Felix Arciniega walked into my room, and I turned on the desk lamp to get a good look at him: corpulent, dressed like a gangster, wheezing horribly. He did not manage his roundness well. In turning to shut the bedroom door he knocked over a decorative gourd. At the time his appearance seemed real enough, though for reasons that I will explain later I’m sure it was a dream. I was as much irked as afraid, though neither as much as you might expect. It was a relief not to have to guess whether he was there or not.
“Sr. Felix Arciniega?” I said. He did not answer but hustled about the room with his large, thick, black-rimmed glasses glinting as he gathered up the colored pebbles. He was muttering. I said, “Sorry about the rocks.”
Irritated as hell, in a raspy voice he said, “With you I don’t care to speak!”
I was sitting up in bed, watching as his dark, pin-striped suit rustled and stretched with his movements. I lit a cigarette and waited for him to announce his intentions. After he’d waddled into each corner of the room, his bottom expanding each time he bent to scoop up the pebbles, he held them before me in a plastic bag.
“Whoever told you to stash these around the house was a complete fool,” he said. Sweating and panting, he dropped the bag of pebbles into a wastebasket. “And not for being superstitious – but for making the house tacky as crap.”
“The colors?” I said.
“The colors in this particular combination,” he said, “and the crappy look overall of little rocks littering the house.”
Already I felt we were on the same wave length, even if he was smelly – a virulent mix of coffee breath, spilt wine, and unwashed fabric – and noisy in his breathing and bumbling. Sr. Arciniega pulled out the desk chair, scraping it against the hardwood floor, and plopped into it with surprising weightiness for a ghost. He was staring at me, his eyes like wet snails behind his lenses. For the first time I noticed that he did have the faint transparency one expects from a phantom; I could see the wood grain and nicks of the desk through his curled fingers, and, beneath his Derby, through his face, I could see the curtains.
“I thought you didn’t want to talk,” I said.
“I,” he said, there pausing, “definitely do not want to talk. But we have to talk.”
He pitched his hat onto the desk, agitated. His pumpkin-wide head was mostly bald, the ring of hair around the back surprisingly dark, with only scattered threads of grey. I offered him a cigarette.
“A cigarette will do absolutely nothing for me,” he said. “Remember that I’m just a ‘pinche fantasma.’ But, then, that’s just one more thing.” I got the feeling that the affront in Sr. Arciniega’s voice was not particular to whatever offense I had given, but was his usual state – had been all his natural life, and would be forever. So I said something that I never would have said were it not a dream.
“Sr. Arciniega, it’s not for lack of respect, but are you going to spend the rest of eternity as if everyone were always crapping on you?”
“Oh, stop it,” he said. “You know nothing of me. And don’t think I’ve come to tell you something that will change your life. I’ve come to your dimension to tell you what a slimy, stinking stream of diarrhea you are as a roommate.”
I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not, so I swallowed the urge to chortle. “Your servant is listening,” I said.
“That’s just it,” he said. “You’re doing it again, you clown-nosed, gypsy prick. A ghost appears and tells you you’re not sufficiently accommodating a roommate who lives in a completely different dimension, and you sit there totally open to change. Totally calm, totally compliant.”
“It’s infuriating!” he said. “On two fronts. First, because it’s unnatural. It goes against the natural order of things that someone in your dimension should live as if he were already in the world to come. How can you be trapped in material existence and live as free, when I’m free of it but still trapped in its contours – most horribly, and against my will?” Posing this intriguing question, Sr. Arciniega was truly waxing philosophical. But then he just seemed to be a cranky old coot again in the spewed way he added, “This is not fair!”
This was something to contemplate, and I let the smoke swirl around the complaints he had brought into my room. Sr. Arciniega said, “How do you do it? You haven’t even seen the ineffable things I’ve seen on the other side of death.”
“Well, it’s not my fault,” I said. “I’ve always been this way. Since childhood it seems the Lord has instilled in me the awareness that everything turns out fine in the end.”
“Young man, how do you know that? Did it turn out fine for me?”
“Well,” I said, “after every crucifixion there’s a resurrection, no?”
“Forget crucifixions. I was hit by a camper and I lost both heaven and earth. And the worst part is this–being on this side of death doesn’t make being trapped here any easier. You don’t understand. It makes it harder.”
His voice was still full of complaint, which I found pretty pathetic. “So it’s true what they said,” I said, “that you died so fast you got trapped here.”
“It’s true, but it’s also true you’re trapped here – even if you act like you’re not,” he said. “You lost half your pay at work through no fault of your own, you lost your little brother to a traffic accident 10 years ago, and you have more faith than those of us who’ve had glimpses of the other side.”
I was going to ask him how he knew about Adalberto, who had been hit by a drunk driver, when I remembered I’d talked about him with Adriana in the cabin. “Adalberto’s death just about killed me,” I said.
“What kind of tears did you cry?” he said. “Tell me you weren’t full of hope that you’d see him again one day.”
“They were tears of bitterness–worse than death,” I said. I had to admit to myself, though, that I had recovered relatively quickly, I suppose, a few years. “But you’re right,” I said, “little by little, my tears were replaced by the sense that everything would turn out fine. There was nothing to do. It’s fine if you want to call it faith.”
Sr. Arciniega seemed to be staring into a high and distant place, his dry lips cracked apart. Hard to say if it was vision or a moment of elderly disorientation. It seemed unlikely that the voice I’d heard before falling to sleep, accusing me of being afraid of the whole world, had been Sr. Arciniega’s. I tried to relate that virile, rich voice to Sr. Arciniega’s hoarse lament. I asked him about it.
“That wasn’t me–you’re obviously not afraid of anything, that’s your gift. It must have been your subconscious speaking, like any other dream.” He drummed his stubby fingers on the desk. “Leave it to your own pinche subconscious to malign you. But, then, with a subconscious that needles you about fearing everything, maybe that’s why you fear nothing.”
I reminded him that he’d said my unflappability was infuriating for two reasons.
“Ah!” he said. “Yes, let’s not forget the second reason, which is that it’s disgracefully disrespectful to me. In my dimension I can’t touch you, all I can do is give you signs. And you just ignore me.” There were a few things I could have told him–that for a ghost he had a lot of expectations, that I was sorry (which only would have made him madder), that I wasn’t sure how he wanted me to respond to his signs–but I could only mirror his regret by returning his stare. I reflected back to him the hurt and scorn in his eyes. I decided it was best to keep silent.
“Don’t you see what you’re doing?” he said. “You’re taking someone who no longer exists for anybody, and you’re treating him like he’s not there.” Then he struck the same pose as before, staring off into distant high places. When he turned his gaze back to me and had seemingly surveyed the contents of my soul, the quiet words vibrated off his tongue, almost inaudibly, “You think you have a big nose and saggy jowls, but you don’t realize how all that works for you. Especially with those inky black irises. You don’t know it, but you’re pure.”
“Thank you very much, Sr. Arciniega,” I said. “By the way, that was you who ate our roast chicken, wasn’t it?”
“I’ll tell you this,” he said, standing up, seizing his hat, and pursing his froggy mouth as he stood over me, “sometimes when Adriana’s not up here on the mountain with you, she’s down in the city with another man. As if you didn’t exist.”
I woke up, my heart thudding. Daylight dwelt yellow and muted behind the curtains. The colored pebbles were all in their places and the gourd was still upright, which is why I maintain that my entire encounter with Felix Arciniega was a dream. He had, however, turned upside down a framed picture of Adriana.
Christmas, New Year’s, and Three Kings Day came and went, and once again I was bathing with bottled water that I boiled on the gas stove. On those cold, clear nights I did my pencil renderings by the fireplace, but it was not like the kind you’d imagine in most cabins; for one thing, it was not located in the wall, but was more of a hearth built right in the middle of the den. When we’d had the relatives over after Day of the Dead, we’d had to sit at two separate tables, one on either side of the snapping and hissing fire. I had what amounted to a brick chimney in the middle of my house, the heat blasting on all sides as from an oven.
At night I would sit on the futon by the red embers with my sketch pad and a mug of white wine (some day, I thought, I’d get wine goblets). All four dogs stayed in at night, but while I drew Ojo was the only one who accompanied me, lying at my feet with his snout resting over one big paw. I’d put the drawing of Adriana aside. Actually, I’d put it in the fire. It turned out that when she was not here, she was indeed treating me as if I didn’t exist. So we didn’t see each other anymore, I figured she was the other fellow’s problem now. Felix Arciniega had stopped clomping around, I didn’t know if he’d changed tactics or was just walking around in his stocking feet. The truth was he didn’t need to smack his wingtips on the floor or flip on the radio anymore, in the late hours I could sense him drawing near. Never did I hesitate to offer him a chair by the fire. Ojo would growl at those invisible arrivals, but even he got used to Sr. Arciniega. I knew that Felix Arciniega was there, and he knew that I knew it, and often I would remark to him how hard it was to be trapped between this world and the next. And sometimes we shed not a few tears together.
Jeff M. Sellers has published short fiction in The Chariton Review and other literary journals, and his bilingual “Folk Wisdom of Mexico: Proverbios y Dichos Mexicanos” was published by Chronicle Books in 1994. His work as a journalist and writer includes nearly three years in Mexico City and four years in Madrid, Spain. He wrote the yet unpublished, “Prayers of the Butt-Kickers,” a novel set in the era of the Rodney King beating depicting anger about nearly everything except the Rodney King beating. In the COVID-19 era Sellers is cloistered at home in the Mountain West, where he works as a writer and editor and lives with his wife Karen and their two children; Eli, 10, and Zoe, 7, compel him to attempt Korean “K-pop” dance routines with them.