I saw him again, yesterday. He was walking away.
Maybe I should be hashing this out with a shrink, rather than on a piece of paper, but neither of us ever believed in that kind of thing. Besides, when youíve gotten to my age either you have faith in yourself or you donít. So, when I was on the subway platform yesterday and saw him walking away from me, I paid attention. Something real was happening, something that mattered, even if it was only inside my own head.
It wasnít the first time I saw him, it was the third time. That works out roughly to once every four years since Wolfe died, which is a pretty low level of haunting, or hallucination, or whatever it is. He never says anything. He doesnít even look at me. But heís not ignoring me, either, heís just preoccupied with something else, as if the glace or Dendrobium of his dreams is right ahead of him, a little ways down that platform, that path, that corridor, that sidewalk.
Okay, I confess that it was really the fourth time that Iíve seen him. Even I didnít believe it the first time I saw him. I was still in the hospital waiting room, in that state of vacant shock where you know youíve been hurt but havenít had time to really feel it yet. When I looked out the window, trying to pull myself together, he was down on the sidewalk below, walking away. I didnít lie to myself. I knew it was an illusion. Iíd only just left him in the hospital bed, after all, with the sheet drawn up over his face. I was there when he went, I couldnít be mistaken. Thatís why I got a grip on myself and went to be helpful about the paperwork. It was still part of my job, then, to be helpful.
I wish to hell now Iíd run down the stairs, yelled after him like a fool, followed him.
But Iím not angry now, not even at these pointless visions. I was mad at first, I admit it. Itís hard to forgive someone for leaving you after thirty-eight years, even if they didnít mean to. I always intended to be the one to leave first, not like what happened with my folks when they died. Off I would go to get married and open my own office. I would be successful, I knew. We both knew that. But, somehow, it was never quite the right moment, the right woman or the right annoyance for me to leave. The brownstone was my home. I wanted excuses to stay, I guess.
Heís not angry with me, either. Thereís no air of reproach about him. He didnít show up when I shipped out the orchids and sold the brownstone, or when Fritz half-retired to be the consulting chef as the Kanawha Spa, or even when Saul died, burnt out inside by all the cigarettes heíd burned himself over the years. If he didnít blame me for any of that, he sure wasnít going to blame me for deciding to grab a corned beef sandwich when I was done following my target through a subway station, even if he never did like that smell on my breath.
Heís not warning me. Nothing dramatic ever happens after I see him. My life keeps going: I work out of my office, I see my friends, and I go to ball games. His appearance doesnít signal danger. Since he died, Iíve been knocked out twice, shot at once, and broken an arm in what even Iíd call a stupid accident. He never showed up when any of that happened although the timing would have made more sense. In my mindís eye I can see how heíd stand over me, wearing the annoyed scowl on his face that he kept for the times I was hurt, as if Iíd done it on purpose just to get out of typing up the germination records for a few days. But that was never what I looked for. It was the other expression I wanted to see, the one half-hidden behind all the trash, the one in his eyes. It would make sense for him to come back and let me see that look again, even if it would be like something out of a womanís novel. Thatís not it, though.
Heís sure not keeping me company. He does that anyhow. Too much so, some say. My friends were right. It was time to stop writing up our past cases and write something different even if it meant using a pseudonym. It was more than time to let him go. Heíd been dead for five years. I quit raking up the past and seven more years went by, so the memories should be fading by now. I know thatís how itís supposed to work, but what do you do when your recall is perfect? How do you let go then?
I canít seem to let loose, a sign, Iíve read, of getting old. Maybe thatís it. Maybe Iím just past it, hallucinating. I donít do as much field work these days to remind me, but Iíll still be seventy sooner than I want to think. Sure, Iím taken for a younger man, but a man in his fifties, not in his thirties. Sure, Wolfe worked right up to the end, but he had to. His lifestyle - and wouldnít he grunt at that word - was too expensive for him not to. Besides, he sat on his fat behind in a custom-made chair all day, and the work I do, even now, takes me out of my office and into the ever-tougher streets. As near as I can tell, though, Iím still tougher than those streets. Clients still call. I submitted a bill in five figures last Tuesday for services rendered and it was paid. And, if I stop working as a detective, itíll only be to spend more hours in front of my typewriter, hours like this one.
I think he was wearing the fawn summer overcoat from the mid-thirties, and he was carrying something. Not a briefcase, of course, but something. Something for me? He wasnít wearing a hat. I wonder why.
Why doesnít he ever look at me? He knows Iím there.
Iíve never been much good at introspection. Maybe itís time to stop brooding about myself and start thinking about whatís going on. The books tell me that thereís four main reasons ghosts usually show up: to reproach, to warn, to recall, to advise. Not to reproach, to warn, to recall: Iíve covered those possibilities, over and over. To advise? Advise me of what? He gave me all the advice I needed while he was still alive. What he didnít know, he had Saul teach me. What Saul didnít teach me, I found out for myself, usually in the company of a female friend.
Some little punk at a party two weeks ago had the gall to ask me if--well, the hostess got there quickly enough to separate us before anything serious happened. Later, she told him, ďOne doesnít ask that question of a man of his generation.Ē My hearingís well enough trained to have picked that up across the room, even at my age. My generation, sure: he was so confident, sitting in judgment on my - our - lives. But, then, so were we, in our time. We were rebellious after the Great War; we had learned from our parentsí mistakes that we, not they, were right. Now I watch whatís happening in the world and know just how often we were wrong. Wolfe taught me not to argue with the facts although he did it himself, constantly. Even so, I know what we did and what we thought and what we felt and that punk didnít. I was there.
Wolfe was there. Wolfe was with me, then. Not in any vision but in flesh, solid, abundant, annoying flesh. Clean and familiar flesh too, less flesh than I made out, flesh that I didnít mind seeing across the office from me no matter what wisecracks anyone would make about that, then or now. Other people never make the right wisecracks, anyhow. The purpose of a wisecrack is to get someone going, to make him think, move, and act. Being annoying isnít just a game or a shield; itís also a tool with which you take care of someone.
Oh, damn it. Is that what youíre doing, annoying me? Is that your idea of being helpful, forcing me past the wisecracks? Then why did you lie all the days you were alive? Punks or no punks, it would have been better to lie next to you than to lie to you or hear you lie to me, the way we did so often. Although we both told the truth, too, just not in words.
Okay, then, here are the words, neatly typed out. I love you. Even more: I love you like your friend, like your companion, like the man you love. Howís that for being advised, you fat genius?
God, it hurts so bad. Iím bleeding. After twelve years of practice it may not show, but--no, that isnít Archie Goodwin. Try again. My heart is pounding and I feel a little dizzy. It will pass. Some fresh air will help.
Heís down there on the street, walking away like always, like the first time. But his pace is much slower than usual, and, finally, he has turned to look up at me, standing in the window. Iím going down there to see what he wants.
I donít think Iíll be back.
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