Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
This week’s words were helicopter, rapscallion, bibelot, picaresque, and peccatophobic.
I did manage to use all five of these words in this week’s story, but the exercise has prompted me to tweak the rules of my game a little bit going forward.
I had an opportunity to talk with one of the Jellyvision employees who had been in on the design of the initial assignment, and one of the things he pointed out to me about the words chosen for their test was that each word could be used in at least two different ways, which increased the versatility of the work they received.
The five words I was given last week very powerfully inspired this week’s story and the character who tells it, and for that I’m very thankful for your continued participation. That said, I’m concerned that the words stick out like a sore thumb in the voice of this narrator, and that I ended up resorting to a handful of cheap tricks just to get the words into the story, which I’m sure you’ll notice as you read it. In and of itself, this is not how I wish to write…I have no desire to sacrifice the integrity of the tale told to the arbitrary boundaries of my exercise.
So what I’ll be doing from here on out is asking for five words and using them to create a story inspired by the combination of those words, but not necessarily requiring myself to use those words exactly.
For example, the sixth word I received last week was “defenestrate.” In this case, I may write a story in which something is thrown out of a window, but I may not necessarily add that something was “defenestrated” if it would cause that word to appear out of place in the larger fabric of the writing.
Perhaps you’ll cry foul. But these are my rules, I make them up, and the only real goal I have each week is to craft a new work of fiction.
As before, I need five words for next week, limit one suggestion per person. Thanks for your continued indulgence.
ETA: We have next week’s words. Thanks, all.
by Bilal Dardai
I’ll tell you what I know of ghosts.
Your mother, I’m sure, has made it clear to you that I ain’t to be trusted on this matter, and that you’re not to believe a goddamn word out of my mouth. So I don’t imagine you’re going to believe this story I’m about to tell you.
But it’s as real as the rasp in my throat, grandchild of mine. It’s as real as lemonade and scaling knives.
This here is what we call a picaresque story. No, I don’t know why. I told this story to a fella I met at the garage, this sharp dresser on his way to Los Angeles, and he told me, that’s a picaresque tale. He had this look about him like he’d been an English professor once, maybe wrote a book that caught some attention, maybe was on his way to Hollywood to watch that book get turned inside out. I don’t know what it means, “picaresque,” I didn’t quite catch the explanation, I was trying to get the register to run his card, none of that’s important, now you hush now listen. I’m trying to tell you.
About twenty thirty years ago I used to own a helicopter. You look in the hallway by the stairs, you’ll see a picture of me and your grandma with it. Sold the car and sold an old diner I had wasn’t making spit, and I bought a helicopter. I flew them, before, in the war, the one in Korea. Your mother never told you about that, I’m guessing, because your mother thinks I used to dip babies in napalm and wear enemy skulls for loafers. All I did was fly the chopper. Here to there, there and back, day and night, up and down, ten months. Understand? That’s all. Your mother ain’t wrong about war is and what war does but she’s wrong about what I am and did in the war.
I wouldn’t tell her that. Just start an argument.
So I bought this chopper and I’d hire myself out, tours, you know, of the Grand Canyon, because it ain’t that far from here. Painted Desert that way, Lake Mead the other, and you could make a living from that back then because the gas didn’t cost you your first-born child.
Although if I’d been asked.
Never you mind.
Every so often I’d get a customer who’d want to hire me to take him out to the border for some reason or another, and I’d tell them, I got two rules about how I run my business. One is that I don’t leave American soil, and two is that between me and you it’s always gonna be me. I see you running towards my chopper like the devil himself is after you, I will let the devil have you. If you say you’ll be gone for an hour and I don’t see you after 61 minutes then I guess you ain’t coming back. Those were my rules.
I’m getting to it.
One day we get this preacher come up to our home, this tall skinny Mexican fella with this beard looked like he’d got it at a costume shop, one of them beards where the sideburns have hooks you stick over your ears. That’s mostly what I remember about him. Black jeans, black shirt, and about everything else above the collar was shaggy gray beard. And he walks up to Christine and I and he tells us, I need a lift into the desert.
So I told him, padre, you’re in Arizona. I need you to be a might more specific.
He says to me, he can’t be, but if we get up in the air he can point at it.
Now I’m a sensible man. I’ve always been a sensible man. So if some unshaven so-called preacher comes up to me says he’ll point me into the desert, and did I mention he had no money? Some penniless, unshaven so-called preacher says he’s going to point me into the desert, the very least he’s gonna get from me is a polite no. But Christine, rest her soul, she’d have given a rattlesnake her hand, it said it was an agent of God.
And me, I’d have done anything for that rattlesnake if Christine told me to do it.
So the next afternoon, that preacher and I got up in the chopper, and all he has with him is this tiny Bible. You know they have a word for that? For a tiny Bible? Like how you’ll put “ette” behind any word you choose and everybody knows you mean it’s a little one? No, it ain’t “Biblette.” It’s “bibelot.” He had himself this bibelot attached to his belt by a chain. Like the chain went through the spine. That’s all he had with him.
So we get up in the chopper and he starts pointing south, southwest. His eyes closed the whole time; I don’t know how he thinks he’s steering us, but his hand doesn’t ever move from that position. South southwest the whole time. We go past Scottsdale and Phoenix, I think right over Buckeye. Finally his eyes pop open and he tells me to land. Just like he said. Somewhere in the middle of goddamned nowhere.
We land, and I say, now what.
And he says, we wait.
How long, I ask him.
Awhile, he says.
Which would have been about the time I’d say that it costs him extra, except you can’t charge extra to a man who ain’t paying you in the first place. So it might also have been about the time I’d have reminded him of my rules, and left him there to wait on his own, but that weren’t gonna happen neither.
I ask this preacher where his church is. He tells me he ain’t got one. I ask him to tell me about his congregation a little bit, tell me what denomination he serves, and he says to me, it’s not one you’ve ever heard of.
We go on like this for hours, the preacher and I. Long silences, and then I ask a question, and he answers it in one sentence that ain’t no answer at all, and then more long silences.
Eventually the sun goes down. Your mother ever take you out to the desert to watch the sun go down? It’s a crime if she didn’t. It’s an outright sin is what it is. Out there, the sun doesn’t just go down, the entire night sky rises. You look at the horizon you can see the world tilt itself, and the night just spills itself into the space where the sun used to be. And I’m watching that happen, getting the scent in the air of coyotes waking up hungry, feeling the temperature drop, and right then, finally, the preacher gets to talking.
Now I don’t remember exactly what he said. My memory ain’t as sharp as it used to be and it never used to be no razor blade to begin with. But I remember that he was talking about his mission, a bit, talking about how he got on the path he was on. For a bit there, I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me, what he was doing really was staring at the moon. Like he was explaining himself to the goddamned moon. And then he turns to me and he asks me, am I afraid of God?
I tell him no. Because it was true. I liked God all right, and I respected him just fine, but I wouldn’t say I were ever afraid of him. Good, he says. Then, he says, ghosts. How about ghosts? What about ghosts, I ask. Are you afraid of ghosts?
Before I could answer, and this I swear to you, I swear it’s true. Before I could answer, there they were.
You know those fancy effects they put on ghosts in movies, where they glow blue or green. This weren’t like that. I was looking out at the horizon, and I saw them walking towards us. Hundreds of these things. They didn’t glow, not even in the moonlight, what they looked like…what they looked like was people behind lace curtains. You know? Like everywhere they went they were surrounded by lace curtains. I asked the preacher who they were.
Lost souls, he tells me.
But there’s so many of them, I say.
He just nods at me.
What do they want, I ask.
To listen, he says, and then he walks off into the crowd of’em. He disappears behind all of those lace curtains, and they all stop walking towards me. Every so often I think I hear him in there, but I couldn’t ever tell if it was just the wind. And I’d imagine what kind of people he was preaching to, out there in the desert, people whose faces I couldn’t make out behind their curtains. Ghosts of old gunslingers, and prospectors, and con men and thieves, all manner of rogue and rapscallion. Arizona ain’t never been easy country for nobody. I can’t imagine many of them what it’s killed ever been ready to die.
A little after midnight, he walks back to me, looking all haggard, and that flock of ghosts starts moving back toward the horizon, fading away in the dust. Then they’re gone, and he collapses into the helicopter. We fly back home. That was the first night.
That’s what I’m saying. Yes. We did this once a week for about a year. Out to the same spot in the desert, same ritual, and every time he’d come back looking like hell, but I’ll tell you what was different each time. There were fewer of them ghosts each time. You couldn’t tell at first, but after a couple of months, you notice that you’re seeing more of the desert past the ghosts, and that’s when you realize they’re going away. He never explained it to me but I knew what it was. Every time he went out there he reached a few more of them. Every time he went out there he sent a few more to their final reward.
And one night we went out there, and we waited. Nobody, nothing at all, showed up.
And he smiled at me, we flew home, and right before I never saw him again he shook my hand and said to me, have no fear. Never have fear. That’s what he said.
Now this is what I get from all that, grandchild.
People go through their whole lives afraid of their sins, afraid that at any moment whatever scales they got living on their shoulders are gonna tip the wrong way and that’s when they’ll get hit by a bus. There’s a word for that. You know that? It’s a phobia. Peccaphobia. No. Peccatophobia. Fear of sinning. Even the atheists and what have you, there’s a part deep down inside them that’s all peccatophobic, just for the sake of insurance, you understand? But here’s what I think I learned from that preacher, that preacher who barely ever said more than ten words to me at a time. It doesn’t end with your natural life. All that matters is that you get yourself right eventually. And it’s harder after you die, sure, but what God there is, He’s gonna send somebody to you wherever and whenever.
You hear me? We’re talking about somebody who measures hours in eternities. You got more time than you think.
Maybe you don’t believe me. And that’s all right. It’s not as important to me that you believe me as it is that you heard it.
And I reckon that’s the way God feels about it too.