Every third Wednesday, in the middle of the afternoon, the ghost of my Great Grandfather stops into to my favorite bar in Prospect Heights. Inconveniently for everyone, he always sits at the center stool, creating gaps on either side of him as nobody likes getting wet from the splashing beer falling through his translucent body.
After ordering his beer – Stella or Bass – he grabs a cocktail napkin, produces a pen from his jacket pocket and begins to write. Great Grandfather is a corporal ghost insofar as he can touch things and cause objects to move. But his ghostly pen produces no ink whatsoever, rendering the prose or poetry he commits to the bar napkin unseen to we the living. In this way, Great Grandfather and I have similar problems; no one is reading our stories.
To be fair, before Great Grandfather became a ghost, he was a decently successful writer, not to mention a bit of a neighborhood star. Great Grandfather’s fashion sense, while seeming positively prehistoric now, was retro even in his day. Dressing as he did when he was my age, Great Grandfather’s ghost wears a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, a skinny tie, dark jeans and canvas shoes sporting soles made of real rubber. According to him, he used to pick up a lot of women in this particular bar, and “usually when they were on dates with other men!”
I never knew Great Grandfather when he was alive. He comes from a bizarre historical period of which I have no memories. Back then, actual physical clothing was still a fact of life. I suppose he would have thought the notion of holographically rendered clothing and personalized force-fields perfectly serviceable fantasies for his science-fiction stories. And yet here I am, sitting on a barstool, my naked body obscured by miniature and customizable digital projections. Instead of cloth, silk, cotton or polyester, I’m slathered by complex electrical and magnetic fields. The future – as imagined by Great Grandfather’s generation – has arrived, complete with intelligent robots, flying cars, jetpacks, space travel plus all sorts of other stuff they never saw coming. And whether it’s a hereditary disorder, or just a plain old bad idea, I’ve decided to pursue a career as a Science Fiction writer in this brave new world.
“The problem with this story is the same problem with all your stories,” Great Grandfather says, looking over my latest manuscript. “It sucks.” I type all of the manuscripts out for him at an antique print shop on Flatbush Avenue. It costs me a fortune. Being a ghost and all, Great Grandfather doesn’t have an internet chip installed in his parietal lobe for quick and easy reading, thought I doubt he’d get one even if he could.
“Can you be more specific than that?” I say, “What exactly sucks about this particular story?”
“Listen,” Great Grandfather says setting the pages down on the bar, turning towards me, tugging at the lapels of his blazer, “Nothing happens in any of your stories. No actions. Usually you’ve just got two people sitting around talking. That’s not fiction, and it certainly isn’t science fiction.”
“What should I do?” I say.
“You need some new material!” he says, “Haven’t you ever had a rough night? Drank too much? Screwed someone in a public bathroom?” This is something he brings up each and every time he critiques my stories- how he used to have sex with people in bathrooms all throughout Brooklyn when he was single. Supposedly this bar was his favorite place to do it. I can’t help but think he’s exaggerating. While the ghost of Great Grandfather certainly appears to be a young man, he’s not a dashing one. He’s lanky and geeky, with awkward hand gestures and strange facial tics. He’s a 21st century version of me.
“We’ve been through this before,” I say, “I don’t want to write sex-romps disguised as science fiction! It’s beneath me!”
“You could stand to have a little bit more beneath you.”
“Don’t start!” I say, taking a generous gulp of my beer. “Can’t you be a little bit more constructive?”
Great Grandfather glances to his cocktail napkin, produces the pen from one of his pockets, jots down a few invisible notes, sets the pen down on the bar and looks back up at me.
“You need some fresh ideas,” he says, “Good solid sci-fi concepts.”
“But everything has happened! For real! Just last week Jim Morrison was spotted with Francis Bacon at a Madonna concert.”
“The clone Madonna or the real one?”
“The clone, naturally. But stuff like this is normal daily news. Earlier in the week an octopus gave birth to a kitten, two supernovas were simulated inside of a soda-pop can, and an invisible version of Mars constructed entirely from a special kind of transparent porcelain was discovered by cyborg chipmunks!”
“What your point?” Great Grandfather says incredulously.
“That you had things like this in your science fiction stories over a century ago. You came up with stuff to write about. Your science fiction is my non-fiction!”
“Maybe you should be a journalist,” Great Grandfather says, “Hemingway was a journalist. He turned out okay.” I glare at Great Grandfather and consider making a snide remark involving shotgun wounds to the head, but think better of it. Not to mention, Great Grandfather would just remind me of the story he wrote about the robot Hemingway who sold shotguns and how the real Hemingway time-traveled to challenge the robot Hemingway to a boxing match.
“Maybe you could switch to horror,” Great Grandfather says.
“Nah,” I say, “I don’t know anything about it.”
“You know me. A real ghost. That’s got to count for something.”
“Maybe,” I say hopelessly. I look out the window of the bar and notice a group of four women walking down the sidewalk laughing and talking endlessly. While they walk, each of them is continually switching their dresses digitally with snaps of their fingers. At first all four are in polka dots and then just one. Mid-drifts are exposed and then covered. The colors go from pastel to bright neon while the cuts of the dresses range from daring to conservative in a blink. For an even briefer instant – as the selections of the dresses materialize – the women are momentarily naked, caught in between decisions of what to wear. Fifty years ago, when the clothing satellites first went online, people were frequently found in their birthday suits due to a technical problem or a brief interruption in service caused by an unpaid bill. You still see it in certain parts of this neighborhood, but not often. Suddenly, I feel beer splash my leg and I look up to see Great Grandfather downing his pint.
“What was the most popular genre in your day?” I say. At this Great Grandfather chuckles and takes another swig.
“Memoir,” he says, “True life tales full of thrills and spills and maybe if you’re lucky, a little epiphany at the end.”
“That sounds a little vain,” I say.
“You bet it’s vain,” Great Grandfather says, “Why do you think I come here and haunt your sorry ass?”
“Yeah. I guess I’m one of the few people around these days who has actually read your stuff.” Great Grandfather nods and stands up from his bar stool.
“That’s part of it,” he says and then puts his hands in his pockets and looks at me with this obnoxious cocky grin. “But the best thing about haunting you is ripping you off.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I say.
“Let’s just say a memoir of your boring life is some damn good science fiction where I come from.”
And then Great Grandfather disappears into thin air, leaving behind a beer-soaked barstool and a manuscript marked-up with invisible red-pen.
Image by Gabriela Vainsencher
Read more of Ryan’s stories here. Ryan’s writing has also been published with Nerve, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Opium and Clarkesworld. He has performed stories on stage with The Liar Show, The Moth, Stripped Stories and Heeb. Ryan’s plays have enjoyed staged readings and full productions in New York City with Collective Unconscious, The Longest Lunch Theatre Company and The Tank. From 2008-2009 he wrote a short story every day and posted them to his blog called “Side Affects.”