A long time ago, back in the last century, I used to write stories. Back then there were publications called “small press magazines,” and an unpublished writer had a chance (a very slim chance, granted, but a chance) of having a story accepted by one of them. As a matter of fact, one of my stories was accepted by one of them. Unfortunately, the magazine went out of business immediately after I signed the contract. I took this as a sign and gave up writing stories.
But now there’s this thing called The Internet, where I can publish anything I want, and anyone in the world can read it. Of course, hardly anyone in the world will read it, and I won’t get paid a cent for it. But guess what? Hardly anyone read small press magazines, and most of them didn’t pay a cent either.
Below is the first new story I have written in decades. It’s a ghost story, but it’s not all that scary. It’s a humorous story, but it’s not all that funny. I’m not a very good judge of my own writing, but it’s probably not all that good either.
In fact, I can think of no earthly reason why you should read it, other than the fact that it won’t cost you a cent.
The Artful Transition
“Nature is a Haunted House - but Art - a House that tries to be haunted.”
Perhaps it was because Edward was dying that he could see the ghosts.
Yes, that must be it. The last time he had been in the museum—when was it? at least a year ago—he had been healthy. There were no ghosts then. And now, only a year later, he was dying. That’s the way it was with cancer.
And now there were ghosts.
They were everywhere—strolling through the galleries, pausing to look at paintings, sometimes occupying the same space as the living visitors. In fact, that was how Edward noticed them. It’s impossible for two people to occupy the same space, he said to himself, unless at least one of them is a ghost. (There was also the fact that their clothes were out of date and from different periods, but that meant nothing. People who frequent art museums often dress oddly.)
He made up his mind to speak to one. He followed it until, except for a sleeping security guard, the two of them were alone in a gallery. Edward was fairly certain it was a ghost, having observed it walk through a bench, a potted palm, and the aforementioned security guard. There was also the fact that it was dressed very much like the lady in the Gainsborough portrait it appeared to be studying.
“Er…excuse me,” Edward said.
The ghost did not reply.
“Excuse me, madam, but am I right in supposing that you are dead?”
The ghost turned from the Gainsborough. “Were you speaking to me?” it asked.
“I’m sorry. It's just that I’m not used to being spoken to by the living. Generally, they ignore us. I was under the impression they could not see the transitioned.”
“The preferred term for persons who have made the transition from life to death. And yes, to answer your first question, I am one such person.”
“‘Transitioned,’” said Edward, savoring the word. “I like that. The fact is, I have recently begun my own transition. My doctor tells me I have only a week or two to live. I supposed that was why I was able to see you—and the others.”
“Ah!” said the ghost. “One foot in the grave, so to speak.”
“Yes. I must admit that I was surprised to see so many of you. Have that many people actually died here? It must be a very unlucky place.”
“On the contrary!” said the ghost. “Oh, a few of the transitions were accidental, I suppose, but most were quite intentional.”
“Intentional! You mean suicides?”
“We prefer the term ‘planned transition.’”
“But why on earth…?”
“Some of us were ill, like you. Others were simply tired of living. In either case, we chose to die here because we love art.”
“Speak for yourself,” said the security guard irritably. Apparently, he had been awakened by their conversation. Also apparently, he was a ghost.
“One of the accidental ones,” said the Gainsborough lady.
“Heart attack,” said the security guard, “And I wish to God it had happened at the pub.”
“As I was saying,” said the ghost, “Most of us chose to die here. After all, if you are an art lover, what better place to haunt than a museum?”
“I see,” said Edward. “But how can you be sure you will stay behind? Don’t most people simply pass over?”
“The best way is to leave some unfinished business—the idea being that something that under ordinary circumstances might keep you awake at night, in the end might keep you awake for eternity. In my case, I neglected to pay my milliner for the last hat she she made me—the one I'm wearing, as a matter of fact. According to the rules, as long as the bill goes unpaid I must stay here."
"But surely your milliner must be dead by now."
"It doesn't matter. All that matters is that the bill was never paid."
"Supposing someone else were to pay it?"
"Ah, now that would be a problem. It helps to have no heirs. One unfortunate fellow was only here a few days. He was taking his time, because naturally he thought he had an eternity. He had barely gotten through the Renaissance when his heirs paid all his debts, and poof!—he was gone. You can just imagine his disappointment.”
“Trust me,” said the ghost, “Nothing can ruin a planned transition like an heir with good intentions.”
“I have no heirs, good intentioned or otherwise,” said Edward.
“Lucky you,” said the ghost.
That evening, Edward had much to think about. What the ghost had said made a great deal of sense, but was the museum the best place to haunt? He also loved music; perhaps the concert hall was a better choice. The trouble was, lately the Philharmonic had been programming so much of that horrible modern stuff. The last concert he had attended featured a new piece with a half-dozen men breaking sticks for nearly an hour. And what would pass for music in the years to come must surely be worse! No, the museum was the place. With art, you were not forced to look at paintings you did not like. Only one question remained: how was he to do it?
The next morning, he returned to the museum and sought out the Gainsborough lady for her advice. He found her in a quiet gallery on the second floor, studying a Turner seascape.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Edward.
The ghost turned from the Turner. “I’m afraid I don’t see it,” she said. “It just looks like a lot of random smears to me.”
“You need to take a few steps back,” said Edward.
The ghost took a few steps back, disappearing into a wall.
“Not that far!” called Edward.
The ghost took a step forward, out of the wall. “Ah!” she said. “I see what you mean. It looks exactly like the sea—as seen through a very dirty window. Do you know, I was at sea once. My parents took me to Spain when I was a girl.”
Edward had no idea how to broach the subject of the ghost’s demise. After all, even though it must have happened a long time ago, she might still be sensitive about it. He decided to go straight to the point.
“How did you do it?” he asked.
“In a ship, of course. How else would one go to sea?”
“I mean your transition. How did you manage it?”
“Ah! Decided to join us, have you? Follow me.”
The ghost led Edward to the central staircase of the museum and up two flights of stairs, to the top floor. “Look down,” she said.
Edward peered cautiously over the railing. It was a sheer drop to the marble floor of the lobby, four floors below.
“Be sure to go head first,” said the ghost. “Otherwise, there’s a chance you might survive.”
Shaking, Edward backed away from the railing. He staggered to a nearby open window and took a few deep breaths of air. “I couldn’t!” he gasped. “I just couldn’t!”
“It’s up to you,” said the ghost. “There are other ways, but if it’s anything messy, I must caution you to be careful not to spatter any of the paintings. Whatever method you choose, it should be done artfully.”
“I thought perhaps an overdose of sleeping pills…”
“I wouldn’t advise it. Suppose they find you and cart you off to hospital, and you transition there? Think how depressing it would be to haunt a hospital!”
“It’s just that I’m terrified of heights.”
“Perhaps a blindfold,” suggested the ghost.
“That might work,” said Edward. “The next time I come, I'll try to remember to bring one.”
“What about your cravat?”
“You mean right now?” said Edward, fingering his necktie. “I couldn’t possibly…”
“Why not? Trust me; the longer you wait, the harder it will be.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Best to get it over with.”
“Yes,” said Edward, making his decision. “You’re absolutely right.” He tore off his necktie, wound it around his head so that it completely covered his eyes, and knotted it tightly.
“Ready?” said the ghost.
“Yes, I think so,” said Edward. “On three: one…two…”
“Wait!” said the ghost.
“What?” Edward snapped, impatiently. Now that he had made up his mind, he was eager to get on with it.
“Sorry, but what about the unfinished business?”
“Oh,” said Edward. “I’d forgotten about that. Let me see… I haven’t paid the gas bill. Do you think that will do?”
“Is it overdue?”
“It will be by the end of the week.”
“Are you at all anxious about it?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“Well, just think of all the trouble you’ll be causing the gas company! That should make you at least a bit anxious.”
“I suppose it does, a bit.”
“Let’s hope that’s good enough,” said the ghost. “Ready?”
“Ready,” said Edward. “One…two…”
“Hold on,” said the ghost. “Someone’s coming.”
Edward heard footsteps approaching. “Excuse me,” said a woman’s voice, “But do you mind my asking why you have your necktie tied over your eyes? Is it some sort of artistic statement? You should be careful, you know. You’re standing right next to…”
“Three!” Edward shouted, and hurled himself in the direction he believed the railing to be. The woman screamed.
“Help!” she cried, “A man has just flung himself out the window!”
“Oh dear,” said the ghost.
* * * * *
When Edward awoke, he was lying on his back. He felt no pain, but he could not see. Had the transition blinded him? Then he remembered the necktie. Apparently, ghosts could be blindfolded as effectively as the living. Did this mean his necktie was also ghostly? And for that matter, what about his other clothes? Did they transition with him? He supposed they did, for none of the ghosts he had seen in the museum had been naked. Suddenly, it seemed he had a great many questions. Perhaps he should have thought to ask them sooner.
Well, there was plenty of time now.
He pulled off the necktie and opened his eyes. Something was wrong with the view. Instead of the museum staircase, there were trees and sky—and the Gainsborough lady, waving to him from a window.
“Hallo!” she called.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“The park behind the museum. You got turned around and jumped the wrong way. Bad luck, I'm afraid. Still, it could have been worse.”
“How could it possibly have been worse?”
“You could have jumped out a front window and ended up haunting the street.”
He looked around him. “Where’s my body?” he asked.
“Oh, they took it away hours ago. You’ve been out for some time. It’s not unusual. After all, you have suffered a shock.”
“That's putting it mildly,” Edward muttered.
* * * * *
At first, Edward was bitterly disappointed at being shut out of the museum. However, as time went by, he began to see the beauty of the little park.
Never much of a people person in life, he began to appreciate the beauty in faces: the good-natured face of the museum guard (not the grumpy dead one, but a happier living one) who came to the park every day on his lunch hour, the careworn but kindly face of the old woman who came every day to feed the birds, the rosy-cheeked faces of nannies and their rosy-cheeked charges, the starry-eyed, blissful faces of young lovers, strolling hand-in-hand.
Never much of an outdoors person in life, he grew to appreciate the beauty of the seasons, each offering a different palette: the soft pink and lavender of spring, the bright red and yellow of summer, the muted copper and gold of fall, the stark grey and white of winter.
About a year after his transition, he saw the Gainsborough lady again waving to him from the fourth-floor window.
“Hallo!” she called, “How are you getting on?”
Edward was somewhat surprised to hear himself say, “Quite well, actually.”
“Really!” said the ghost. “I should have thought it horrible, being this close to so much beauty and being unable to see it. After all, what is death without art?”
“As it turns out, not that bad,” said Edward. "In fact, it's incredibly lifelike."