Conversations With Ghosts
by Michael Chin
Those nights when the other wrestlers’ breathing descended to low, rumbling snores, and the ache in my lower back wouldn’t give way to dream, I talked to dead people.
Cowboy Sam most of all. A second father to me, dispelling advice on how to throw a working punch and the psychology of the business, brim of his cowboy hat over his eyes, seat reclined while I steered us down highways and dark country roads to make the next town. Cowboy’s was the second funeral I’d ever been to after Dad’s. And I remember the boys all in black, but a lot of muscle shirts, a lot of cowboy boots, long hair tied back and chrome domes shining in the morning sun that peeked through the stained glass windows. Men much older than me. Men who’d known Cowboy long before I did. But younger men, too.
He lay face up and still in an open casket. Now I lay on the floor—I drew the short straw for a bed at the Motel 6 tonight. And I looked up at Cowboy standing over me, wearing full wrestling gear—the hat, the leather vest, the red spandex and kneepads and boots.
Why don’t you take the pills, son?
I told him I don’t want to end up like him. Like all the wrestlers from the eighties, addicted and ornery and buried six feet under.
All this ruin you’re running from, Cowboy says, you got it all wrong. It ain’t about ifs, it’s about whens. It ain’t about the speed limit, it’s about whether you enjoy the ride.
Hours later, it was my father—my actual father. Always the early to rise sort. He shook his head at me, because I was still covered in a blanket when the sun was starting to show outside.
You’re never gonna make something of yourself. He commenced his jumping jacks. His morning calisthenics. He didn’t breathe hard, it didn’t affect his speech. Easier when there’s no breath to worry about, sure, but it was no different from how he was in life. You’re lazy.
I told him I was trying. I told him I bet everything I had on this life of my choosing. That I thought he’d be proud of me, moving out of the house. Trying to be the kind of man people will remember after I’m gone. Someone who counted. Dad dropped to the floor. Pushups. One of the boys gagged on his own spittle, coughed, moaned a shit, and rolled over to fall back asleep. Dad was on his tenth pushup. His twelfth. And that common refrain, you’re nothing. You’re going nowhere.
Except one night, easily the hundredth time we’d had this conversation, while he was doing pullups on an exposed pipe eight inches from the ceiling. The script changed when his lats were biggest, bulging with power. You don’t survive in stories, son. The only immortality is having someone to tell your story.
He put a finer point on it. Settle down. Have kids.
I tried to imagine what stories they’d tell and came up empty. I guess the point was that these stories didn’t exist yet.
And for Chrissake, Dad said, falling to the floor, legs falling through the floor, on the verge of disappearing entirely, tell somebody one of mine once in a while, will ya?