Page 7

On the tiled and built-in bench adjacent to the shower sat a famous portly man in a three-piece black suit, white shirt, black tie, and black wingtips polished to a high shine. His round face, full cheeks, and two chins had been less pronounced but evident even in photographs of him as a young child. Then as now, his lower lip protruded far past the upper; however, as both a boy and a man, he never appeared to be pouting, but seemed instead to be pondering some profound idea.

“Mr. Hitchcock,” I said, and he smiled.

So soon after being shot dead and finding myself miraculously alive again, I wasn’t ready for Alfred Hitchcock. Bewildered, I went to the sink, leaned toward the mirror, searched the reflection for the concrete walls and the single hanging light—for the dungeon or abattoir, or whatever the place had been—but saw only the clean, bright shower room.

I have never liked looking at myself in a mirror. I don’t know why exactly. I’m not movie-star handsome, but I’m not the Creature from the Black Lagoon, either. I’m pretty much a face in the crowd, which is a blessing when, like me, you have a reason not to draw attention to yourself. There’s just something unsettling about studying your reflection. It’s not a matter of being dissatisfied with your face or of being embarrassed by your vanity. Maybe it’s that when you gaze into your own eyes, you don’t see what you wish to see—or glimpse something that you wish weren’t there.

At least my face was not splashed with blood, and my eyes were not dead-flat yet fevered like those of a zombie. I didn’t know what it felt like to be a lingering spirit unwilling to pass over to the Other Side, but I was certain that it didn’t feel like this. If the encounter with the rhinestone cowboy had not been a hallucination or a vision of a future confrontation, if I had in fact been shot in the throat and killed, I was nevertheless alive again by virtue of a miracle.

I didn’t try to puzzle through how such a thing could be. The world is filled with mysteries; and I have learned that every mystery will either explain itself—or it won’t. I can’t force Nature to draw back her curtains and reveal the hidden machinery that constitutes the true workings of the world.

When I turned once more to Mr. Hitchcock, the great director gave me two thumbs up.

I sat beside him on the bench. My hands were shaking. I clutched my knees to still the tremors.

“I saw you the other day,” I said, “walking on the shore, past the cottage we’ve been renting. You waved at me.”

He thrust out his lower lip even farther and nodded. Although his face was perhaps best suited for a dour expression, he smiled and seemed almost merry. Judging by the wry look in his eyes, I thought that he had something to say that would have made me laugh. Having died in 1980, however, he was a spirit, and spirits never speak.

In previous volumes of these memoirs, I have written of other famous souls who have sought me out, hoping that I could help them find the courage to cross over. Mr. Elvis Presley was with me for a few years before I understood why he lingered in this world and could convince him to leave it. Mr. Frank Sinatra kept me company for a much shorter time, a more volatile spirit than the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, always exciting and perhaps more helpful to me than I was to him, though Old Blue Eyes eventually did cross over.

From those experiences, I wrongly concluded that if another famous person among the lingering dead came to me for counseling, he or she would be a legendary singer. Perhaps Bing Crosby or Bobby Darin, or John Lennon. On some bad days, I worried that it might be Sid Vicious or Kurt Cobain.

Instead, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, surely one of the five greatest directors in the history of Hollywood—maker of Psycho but also of the sparkling comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith and numerous masterpieces in between—had come to me for help, decades after his death. I already knew much about him. Later I would learn much more. But at that moment in the Star Truck shower room, I felt intellectually inadequate to counsel a man of such accomplishment.

Still shocked from being murdered and resurrected, if in fact such a thing had happened, I found myself speechless. I stared at him for a long moment, and then looked around the white room as if what I ought to say to him might be printed boldly on the walls. It wasn’t. Consequently, more embarrassed by my loss for words than by any stupid thing that I might say, I babbled in search of substance.

“Sorry, I’m a little shaken. The walls were concrete. The cowboy was just suddenly there. Or maybe he wasn’t. He shot me point-blank in the throat. Or maybe he didn’t. I’m sorry. You don’t know about the cowboy. He’s not a cowboy, really. He drives a big truck, not a horse. Nobody drives a horse, of course, it doesn’t have wheels, but you know what I mean. The creep called me Johnny Appleseed. Not that the name Johnny Appleseed is an insult. Johnny was really a great guy. It was the way he said it. Scornfully. With contempt. He’s a nasty piece of work. I mean the cowboy guy, not Johnny Appleseed. I don’t have anything against Johnny Appleseed. If he hadn’t planted all those trees a couple hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have had any ammunition in that supermarket and I’d probably be dead now in the produce section.”

Mr. Hitchcock raised one hand to rest his chin on it, and he regarded me with keen interest, as if I were Sherlock to his Watson, although I was more likely Larry-Curly-Moe to his Einstein.

After several deep breaths, I regained my composure. “Sir, I’ll do what I can for you. I’m honored that you’ve come to me. But since you weren’t murdered, then you must be reluctant to cross over for personal reasons. Psychological reasons. Maybe a sense of guilt. Maybe remorse for something done in life.”

He raised one eyebrow.

“Mr. Presley and Mr. Sinatra,” I said, “were almost as public about their private lives as they were about their careers, so I was able to puzzle out the reasons why their spirits lingered here. I think you kept your family and your personal life private, and since you can’t talk, this is probably going to be a difficult case for me, so I just hope you’ll be patient.”

He removed his hand from under his chin and used it to pat me on the shoulder in a kindly manner, as if to reassure me that, having lingered in this world so many years, he did not expect to be led directly to a celestial escalator.

The spirits of the lingering dead feel as warm and solid to me as does any living person. They could comfort me with a pat, as Mr. Hitchcock had just done, or accept comfort from me, but they could not punch, claw, strangle, or otherwise mutilate me. If they struck out in anger, their fists passed through me without effect.

The only human spirit that can be dangerous to the living is one that goes poltergeist. This condition results from frustration and rage. The furious ghost draws energy from some dark place and pumps it into this world, flinging everything from books to furniture, to storms of cutlery.

Generally speaking, spirits capable of going poltergeist were unredeemed if not malevolent. If they ever finally departed this world, they would most likely wind up in the Dark Side of the Other Side, where you never get cookies or hot chocolate. There were exceptions, poltergeists of good intent, of which Mr. Sinatra had been one, when he came to my rescue in a desperate moment in Magic Beach, little more than a month earlier.

I am aware that this part of my experience has started to sound like shameless name-dropping and calls into question my veracity. In my defense, I can only say that the spirits of famous people are a tiny fraction of the lingering dead whom I have helped to cross over. And if you think I’ve imagined them in order to sell more copies of my books, you are proved wrong by the fact that these memoirs will not be published while I’m alive, to ensure that I will never be imprisoned in a secret government facility and studied like a lab rat.

Besides, regardless of where I might be going on the Other Side, whether into the Light or the Dark, I won’t have a use for royalties after I’m dead. If I’ve got my theology right: In the Light, all that I could ever need or want will be free; and in the Dark, no currency ever minted can buy my way out.

Mr. Hitchcock stopped patting my shoulder, rose from the tiled bench, and crossed the room. He beckoned with one finger, and as I rose to my feet, he walked through the closed door, into the hallway.

Apparently, travel is much easier when you’re dead. No need to concern yourself with doors, tollbooths, or airport security agents who want to probe your butt.

When I opened the door and stepped into the hall, Zilla was at her workstation, folding freshly laundered towels.

Mr. Hitchcock stood a hundred feet away, at the intersection of this corridor with one serving the TV lounge and the chiropractor’s office. He raised his right arm high and waved, as if we were in a crowded train station and he needed to attract my attention through the bustling throng.

The attendant couldn’t see him, of course. She said to me, “Is something wrong?”

“I decided I didn’t need a shower, after all, ma’am. The idea of a shower was refreshing enough.”

“I can only give you a partial refund,” she said apologetically.

Eager to follow Mr. Hitchcock, who seemed to intend to lead me somewhere, I said, “That’s all right. I don’t need a refund.”

As I turned away, she stepped out from behind her station and approached me. “Wait a minute, sir, please. It’s just, you see, whether you used the towel or not, we still have to wash it, and clean the room.”

She was earnest and clearly wanted to treat me fairly.

“I understand,” I assured her. “No problem.”

“But I can return half your money.”

“No, ma’am, really, it’s fine. It was only the idea of a shower, but I paid for it with paper money, which is only the idea of money, so it was a totally fair exchange.”

My attitude perplexed her into silence as I hurried toward Mr. Hitchcock.

He led me along the intersecting hallway to the very back of the building, where he phased through a fire door labeled STAIRS. I opened the door and entered the stairwell in a more traditional manner, in time to see him floating down the first flight, his feet a few inches above the treads.

As I followed, looking down on him, I decided he had manifested not as he had been late in life but as he had been in his early fifties, hair still dark but receding, the beginning of a bald spot at the crown of his head. He was born in 1899, so his fifties were the 1950s, a decade in which he made Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, and Vertigo, more classic films than most directors produce in a lifetime. Rebecca, the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Notorious, Spellbound, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and so many other great works were already in his past. Psycho, The Birds, and others were in his future.

We descended four flights, which put us in the basement. With the aplomb that he exhibited routinely in life, the director floated through another closed door, and I discovered that beyond it lay the mechanical heart of the truck stop, a chamber that perhaps seemed more vast than it was, housing huge boilers, chillers, a maze of big PVC pipes serving the heating-cooling system, and banks of circuit breakers. There was also much equipment that I could not identify, in fact so much that I might very well have been in the engine room of a starship.

Cold harsh light fell from the fluorescent fixtures. Shadows had sharp edges, and the stainless-steel housings of the various machines glistened as if crusted in ice.

Mr. Hitchcock cast no shadow at any time, of course, and my own shrank under my feet as we came to a halt beneath a large array of fluorescents in what seemed to be the center of the room. He put one finger to his lips, suggesting silence, and then tilted his head to the right, cupping a hand around that ear in a theatrical gesture, which reminded me that he had begun his long career in silent films.

I cocked my head, too, and we stood there in a comic posture, as if we were Laurel and Hardy puzzling over the source of a peculiar sound that would prove to be a block-and-tackle failing in the moment before a piano dropped on our heads. The humming and purring of the machinery had no menace, however, and I heard nothing else, certainly nothing that would put the hairs up on the nape of my neck.

But then I did hear something, two men arguing, their words muffled and not quite decipherable—yet close. Surprised, I turned, but no one shared the open center of the room with us, and between the banks of machinery, the aisle by which we had arrived here was also deserted. Other passageways serving additional rows of machines waited to be explored, but I didn’t think I’d find the two men in any of them. That angry pair seemed near but not quite real, their voices sonorous and distorted like those of malevolent presences in a dream.

Their conversation faded, then returned, louder and closer than before, though still indecipherable, as if they were just a few feet away but on the farther side of a wall that I couldn’t see. I turned again, and an infuriated man in jeans and a black-leather jacket stalked past close enough to touch, oblivious of me.

His face was hard and seemed subtly broken, the countenance of a stubborn but inept boxer who had taken too many devastating punches. Fierce under heavy lids, his eyes shifted here, there, here with the desperation of a beast born to be free but caged from an early age.

And he was semitransparent.

The lingering dead look as real to me as they would have appeared in life. If they don’t manifest with mortal wounds—as did the decapitated woman crossing the street—and if they don’t pass through walls or float inches above the ground, I am not often able to recognize them as spirits.

This stocky, thick-necked man with the fractured-stone face was not a spirit. His voice, though seeming to be filtered through a foot or two of cotton batting and distorted like a recording played at too slow a speed, was nonetheless far different from the silence imposed upon the deceased.

He changed course abruptly, passed through me, and I shuddered as a chill marked the moment when we occupied the same space. As I turned, he stopped one step away, swung back to me, and we were face-to-face. He had abruptly ceased talking. He looked left, right, up, down, and I suspected that he’d felt a chill, as well, but he didn’t otherwise react to me. From my perspective, he was a see-through ghost, as in a movie, but I was invisible to him.

For a moment I perceived—without quite seeing—that the room he occupied had the same dimensions as the chamber in which I stood, but that it was an empty and desolate space. Cold concrete and ashen light.

The second man in that other basement now spoke again, stepping into view: the rhinestone cowboy. He was as semitransparent as the guy with whom he argued.

Turning from me, the first man joined the would-be murderer of children, and they walked away, swiftly fading from sight as their voices slid into silence.


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