Dave and Johnny were headed East on Highway 23 towards the city of Manitowoc. They were to perform at the Capital Civic Center as part of a larger group from the Baraboo Circus, but the town also presented an opportunity for Dave’s training.
“I still don’t get what Doug thinks I’m going to learn by watching you do your job. You talk to ghosts. I don’t know anything about ghosts. I sometimes get visions in my sleep. I’m not going to be of any help to you.”
“You’ve to see in order to understand. You’re still learning, still just a baby. Your abilities are unfolding. It useful to try to discover where your talents may lie.”
“I’m hoping they don’t lie in talking to ghosts. Just the idea of talking to the dead scares the hell out of me.”
“Oh, ghosts aren’t dead people,” said Johnny. “It’s a common misperception that’s been around for centuries. Quite understandable. A person sees a ghost that looks and perhaps acts like a person they used to know, and they make the assumption that it is the dead person they see. But, no, the dead stay dead. Ghosts are a certain emotional something the dead leave behind when they die. It’s as though it resides on the strong emotions contained in an area around some tragic or intense emotional incident. That’s why certain areas and houses are haunted, because ghosts are confined to a specific area where whatever significant emotional outburst occurred. It contains a certain life-force, perhaps, but I wouldn’t say they’re alive. Certainly not human, not the person the claim and even believe themselves to be.”
“Are they evil?”
“No. Well, they’re quite capable of committing horrible acts, but you can’t really call them evil. They’re like emotional relics, they’re not thinking creatures. They’re bound up in the event that caused their creation, and are always reacting to that event. So while they are reacting to that event, they are capable of causing harm to those outside of that event, capable of dragging others into their reality. But they are not aware of their actions, so I can hardly say they have the moral capacity required to commit evil. But they can appear quite terrifying.”
“That’s not very encouraging.”
“Ah, they don’t frighten me. I have a certain facility with them, a certain understanding. They’re like children, really. They have their emotional outbursts, try to test the limits of their reality. You just have to take a kind but firm hand with them.”
Dave’s life was in Johnny’s hands, now, and Dave wasn’t very happy about it. He trusted Johnny, liked him as a person, but felt that his life was getting out of his control. In fact, it had been out of his control ever since he had let his guard ever since he had let his guard down for an instant, permitted himself to behave like he was still young, acted for a moment without thought of consequence. Aw, hell, his whole life had been out of his control. As a child, his parents and teachers told him what to do. When he worked in an office, his bosses and convention had dictated to him how to behave. And now he was being sent by Doug to observe ghosts. Twenty-nine years old and he felt no more in control of his life than when he was five.
He wished Mindy were here with him, as she had been for his other experience with the supernatural. But Doug needed her at the magic shop, and they were both still his employees. Dave was amazed at the way the normal life was still able to interject itself into the world he now found himself, a world increasingly filled with the most supernatural of beings imaginable. But still the bills needed to be paid, the dishes washed and put away. And his career as a magician carried on. He had that going for him at least.
“So where are we going, again?” Dave asked.
“There’s a house in town that has had reports of ghostly experiences. Doug checks out the various chat groups on the internet looking for experiences that seem genuine. This one qualified. We’ll check it out and perhaps you’ll be able to learn a little about ghosts. Who knows, you might end up taking a fancy to ‘em,” there seemed to be genuine enthusiasm mixed in with his blue-collar English accent.
“Anyway, we’ll see how you do. Any encounter with what they call the supernatural should give you a further understanding of things. By the way, the term supernatural is a misnomer. What we encounter is natural. If anything it is superhabitual, something beyond what we generally perceive to be the norm.”
“So ghosts have always existed?”
“Oh, yeah. You’ve read Hamlet, haven’t you? Well, that story begins with the sighting of a ghost and nobody seems to surprised by it. Frightened, perhaps, but not surprised.”
“But that was just a story,” said Dave.
“Look at you, now. Hamlet was just a story, eh? And I suppose the Sistine Chapel just had a ceiling.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean it wasn’t real. There wasn’t really a ghost.”
“That’s not the point. The point is the audience didn’t question it. And Shakespeare didn’t fear writing a ghost into his story and having people laugh at the notion. People have always believed in ghosts, every age and every culture. Even today, people believe, even if the belief is frowned upon.”
“But that doesn’t make them real.”
Johnny began to laugh, grabbing his stomach for effect. “Oh, they’re real. We get to town, we’ll grab a bite to eat, and then I’ll show you a ghost, all right.”
“Maybe so, but I’m still don’t get it. I don’t see how we as a society could have just forgot about their existence. I don’t see how the spread of science can somehow disprove something that’s real.”
“Look,” said Johnny. “I’ll tell you things how I sees them. You talk to Doug or Izzy or Russell and they might all tell you the story differently, but this is how I approach it. It’s ‘cause ghosts don’t sell cars.”
“Yeah, the knowledge of the existence of ghosts doesn’t help the wheels of industry spin any faster. As a matter of fact, a ghost in the machine would do just the opposite. Believing doesn’t do anyone any good. Consuming, that’s what our culture needs. We need to believe that our next purchase is going to bring us the happiness we’ve always been looking for. The system, whatever system it is, tends to promote itself at any chance, until the system is all you see. In olden times, King Henry took over the church so even at prayer, you were thinking about how the good old king was playing his part in God’s plan.”
“But people still believe in God nowadays,” said Dave.
“Yeah, but that’s been co-opted, more or less. Take a look at the preachers on the telly nowadays and they all pray to the god of consumer goods. Even those that read The Bible, it’s like they don’t see anything the system doesn’t want ‘em to. Any real sort of religion requires sacrifice, and that aint in the best interests of the machine we’re supposed to serve. Believing in ghost might take us away from our sacred duty of producing and consuming. Oh, it’s alright to watch movies about possession, and ghosts and the end of days and such, as long as we’re consuming a product out of Hollywood or some John Grisham novel. Just so we know it’s entertainment. Just so we don’t take it to heart, start thinking about it too long, just so we move on to the next movie about UFOs or some government conspiracy.”
"I don't believe it."
“Believe it. You can’t do anything without being subjected to advertisement. You can’t drive down the road without being bombarded by messages of a consumer culture.” He looked out the window. “Look, there’s one,” he said, pointing to a billboard that advertised the movie Bad Grandpa. “You can’t turn on a radio without being told what to do, how to act, what to think. Rare is a house without a television on, pervading the consciousness of everyone in the house. They capture the young ones early and they never let ‘em go. And as bad as it was for my generation, yours is even worse. You don’t wake up without running to your phone to check for messages. You fall asleep with the telly on.”
"Messages aren’t advertising.”
“They’re a constant tie to the group consciousness, which is led by the priests of consumerism. You’ve got to stop thinking of consciousness as your own. You’re only thinking by yourself when you are by yourself. As soon as you are in the presence of others, your consciousness is linked at some level to those others. Everybody thinks they’re individuals. The world is full of people rebelling in socially acceptable ways. The telly speaks and it is filtered down through various other media. But the message is unwavering: consume. Duck Dynasty pretends to promote prayer, but it’s really just a way to push merchandise. Psychologists and other manipulators are paid billions in order to get into your subconscious and plant their seeds. And those who employ them pay billions more to make sure that message gets to you.”
“I can’t believe such an enormous conspiracy can exist in broad daylight without the truth being exposed.”
“It’s not a conspiracy, nor is it a small group of people doing it. It’s a mindset, a paradigm that’s evolved. The consciousness is bigger than the individual. The individual walks around only dimly aware of the role he is playing.”
“So is this what Doug taught you?”
“No, this is what I’ve picked up on. At least, that’s my way of seeing things, as Doug would say. Doug’s up in the air with his philosophies and such. Me, I’m working class. I have a street level view of things.”
“I thought your perspective came from your faith.”
“Well, yeah, that’s true. But you can have beliefs and be practical too. Doug, I don’t think he ever gets his shoes dirty stepping on the ground. I was raised in a pretty rough section of London. It was my mother’s faith that helped me see a way through it, albeit with a few more tattoos than she’d have liked.” Johnny grinned, his smile cutting through the ink that covered his flesh, giving the tattoo that shared his left eye an off-balance look.
“And how does your perception differ from Doug’s? asked Dave, looking back towards the road, away from Johnny’s smile.
“He sees the big picture, but he misses the details. He misses the suffering the little people feel when the world is out of whack. He just sees something is wrong, he doesn’t feel it.”
“Then why is he the leader? Why not you, or Izzy, or Russell?”
“You’re kidding, right? He’s the boss because he signs the paychecks. That’s how life works, Dave, old boy. That’s what keeps me sticking around. Not that he’s a bad sort, or anything, but you can tell he’s used to having things his own way. And me, who needs a job, I aint gointa say too much. Just so long as I can play by my own rules.”
“And do you trust him?”
“He aint missed a paycheck yet.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Dave. The question was an important one to him. If he couldn’t get answers, he at least wanted assurances.
“That’s all I care about,” said Johnny. “Look, I’m free to leave anytime I want. So are you. In the meantime, we have others to compare notes with, mates that won’t think we’re loony.”
Dave let it go at that, awaiting the opportunities for better explanations that would surely come eventually.
Dave knew he would soon be presented with new information, new experiences, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. The thought that lunch stood between them and such experiences, made it all the more appealing. As they approached the exit sign for Manitowoc, he saw the various restaurant signage. “Where do you want to eat?”
“There’s a place called The Penguin,” said Johnny. “Locally owned, nice people, cute waitress. I wouldn’t mind going there.”
“The Penguin it is, then,” said Dave, taking the exit.
The town they entered differed little from any other he had been in lately. The ubiquitous Perkins, Applebees, Buffalo Wild Wings, Qdoba, and Panda Express were situated around the central hub that was Walmart, like appendages of some spider or octopus. Like some metastasizing tumor that threatened to overwhelm the town. They continued to drive down the central avenue until it seemed they had passed the area where eateries were situated.
“Turn around, we must have passed it,” Said Johnny.
Dave turned into a Walgreens parking lot, a building identical to the Walgreens where he lived in the Wisconsin Dells, identical no doubt to the one in the next town over. Made identical so that whoever drove by it would instantly recognize it for what it was. In the world of marketing, there was no taking risks that anyone should have to think too hard in order to find your place of business. Thinking could only cause problem. All marketing was designed to sidestep the whole thinking process in order to simplify the process, funnel customers and their money to their place of business. All quantities needed to be known, everything made as interchangeable as possible.
As they drove back passed the Dairy Queen and a McDonald’s, Johnny cried out, “Oh, no!” Dave turned to look, saw Johnny staring at a Hardee’s restaurant. “The Penguin’s gone.” The distress in Johnny’s voice was palpable.
“Sorry,” said Dave. “Me, I don’t really care where we eat, just so long as we do. Where shall we go?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Johnny, dejected.
Fearing he would run out of choices, Dave pulled into a recently built strip mall that contained a chain restaurant of the sit-down variety.
“Oh, bloody Hell!” said Johnny, looking up.
“You said it didn’t matter,” said Dave, intent on ridding himself of a hunger that was making itself his master. “We’re just here to eat.”
There were speakers outside the door where music was pumped prodigally to the outdoors like a perfume meant to entice. Not a bad song, thought Dave, definitely not Boston. Speakers were mounted on an overhang to the entrance, promising fun and amusement to anyone who entered in between the stereo separation. But between the speakers, Dave noticed a security camera within its dome, sending a less than welcoming message of its own.
There was a crowd in front of them and they were made to wait for the almost unnaturally friendly greeting they too would receive when it was their turn to be seated. They were stuck in an area the size of an elevator, and television screens busily conveyed content above them from each side. On the wall was the catchphrase of the establishment: “wings, beer, sports”. Simple and direct.
Although everyone in front of them should have had their attention towards the front, the presence of Johnny, the Tattooed man, was soon noticed. It was a young crowd, no strangers to tattoos, but Johnny managed to draw the furtive and not so furtive glares of just about everyone who was waiting. Not that he noticed: he must have been used to such attention by now.
Dave wondered why some people seem to go to such extremes to draw attention to themselves only to disregard the attention they garner. Dyed Mohawks and trenchcoats call attention to those who pretend to be disinterested in the stares of others. Perhaps it is an excuse, perhaps it is so that the person knows why they are being stared at, so they don’t have to guess what it is people are seeing. By decorating the outside, it was a message that said what was on the outside was just a container for the real person inside.
They were led through the noise of a crowd and a competing amount of television by a perky blond waitress. Everywhere, television screens stood as distractions to the patrons. Dave and John were seated at a table, rows of televisions on all sides of them. Johnny was talking, but Dave couldn’t help being distracted by the various action taking place on the many screens. There were three screens directly above him, another four neatly arranged one tier below. Televisions were on both sides of him, hanging at the periphery of his sight. One was showing sports highlights, another showing some college football game, still another a lacrosse game. One of the screens was asking trivia questions, but the wait between questions—stuffed with advertising—caused him to lose his attention. Even the commercials distracted his attention, were designed to grab at his attention, he couldn’t help thinking. No, not grab his attention. That was not what they were designed to do. They were meant to grab his eye, to funnel their messages not to his attention but to somewhere beneath his attention to poke at his subconscious motivators.
Various commercials (describe)
Dave tore his attention away from the screens, looked at the people around him. They were for the better part ignoring those they sat with, as Dave felt himself doing with Johnny. As they watched the screens, the wait staff walked around doling out smaller, hand-held screens for the patrons to use in order to interact with the bigger screens mounted on the walls. Thus, Dave couldn’t help noticing, the people’s attention was further divided by having even more competing screens. What interaction that took place at the tables was merely commentary of what was taking place on the screens. It was as though all of the information was sent funneling through screens until it was digested by the patrons. Like pigs at a trough, thought Dave, not knowing what it was they were consuming, nor caring why it was they were being fed. He found Johnny’s voice to be just one of many sources of information competing for his attention. Text scrolled across the television in front of him in layers, too quickly for him to process. And all the while the screens at the periphery of his sight were pumping out vast amounts of information and images, somehow feeding his brain whether he wished them to or not. It was not that they were drowning out what it was that Johnny was trying to convey to him, not even that they left no room in his mind for thoughts and ideas of his own. No, he felt that somehow, amidst the constant barrage of useless and ephemeral information, there was some sinister virus that was travelling along with it, the screens above him like UFOs beaming rays into his head, planting their seeds deeply into his subconscious like spidery aliens.
He tried to relax his mind, allow the messages to come without trying to process them. He thought that by silencing his own mind he would be able to witness in a tranquil manner the effects the messages were having upon his mind. He felt the placid aspect of his consciousness receiving the flow, being played upon by the constant influx like an instrument that has wind blown through it. He felt the items that excited his passive mind, felt the effect they had on it. He contemplated each message that seemed to excite his psyche, wondered what the intent of it was and who or what it was that sent it. He found his mind working on an elevated level, even as he realized it was not capable of any kind of useful action at the moment. He was witnessing the working of his mind that was always occurring but of which he was seldom aware. A vast amount of thought was occurring beyond what he was ordinarily aware of, was always occurring. It was both fascinating and frightening. He was so much more than he gave himself credit for, and yet so little of what made him who he was ever was truly decided by his conscious self.
He found himself beginning to rebel against the information being thrust at him from so many different angles. They all wanted his attention, all wanted a piece of his consciousness, to take from him what was rightfully his. No, they didn’t want to take what was his, they wanted to take hi, to own his mind, to replace his thoughts with their own. Some alien thing wished to replace his internal engine with some overlord kind of engine. And there was too much of it he was being bombarded by to fight back. Fleeing was the only option, and he found himself exiting the building in a less than polite manner, bumping into a crowd of young men as he went.
He did not stop until he was beyond the sound of the external speakers, back at the van. He soon noticed Johnny walking towards him, a look of concern on his face.
“What’s the matter, Dave?”
Dave looked into the tattooed face of Johnny, and he wondered if he had had anything to do with what had happened. “Did you do that to me? Was that you playing with my head? Is this some sort of display Doug had you put on for me?”
“Naw. You’re just beginning to see a little more clearly, that’s all. You’ll get used to it. It effects us all a little differently, we all come to it in our own way.”
“I don’t want to get used to this. I don’t want my consciousness changed.”
“Just thinking of it like you’re developing a new sense. Like smell. Some things stink, but you’re glad you have the ability to smell, nevertheless.”
“But…it was like there was something in the randomness, something I couldn’t quite understand but knew was there. Like there was something living amidst the random messages the televisions were sending.”
“All human thought has a life of its own. That’s the problem. We don’t know a tenth of what’s going on in our mind, but it’s always working. (verb agreement) When the conscious mind does not jibe with the subconscious, we waste our human powers, they get siphoned away and coalesce into something else, something not really living but alive, if you get me. That’s sort of what ghosts are on an individual level, the disparity of energy between what we perceive and what we lack. But when the power of the conscious mind is able to come together with the power of the sub-conscious, when they jibe, that’s what you’re starting to experience now. That’s you beginning to connect with your human powers. In observing what is out of joint, you are given the knowledge and ability to set it right. It’s just…well, it’s hard. It’s a long journey. And just like every other aspect of life, you never really arrive.”
Dave had enough of such things, didn’t really care to understand what Johnny was trying to explain to him, even if he meant to be helpful. His mind was overloaded and he just had to step back from it all for a time. He needed to feel the concreteness of reality, find something to center himself.He stared at the jumble of messages that played out amidst the images on Johnny’s skin, It reminded him of the chaos that had just bombarded him in the restaurant. But as he looked further, he saw the various images seem to blend themselves harmoniously one into the other. With little extraneous ink, each image gracefully flowed into the others, in contrast to the chaos of the television messages. Around the face of a woman that was tattooed on the left side of his face, a tree grew, bearing rich red fruit. Near its base was a snake weaving around the tree, its eyes peering at Dave. And next to the tree and the snake was—
“That’s the Garden of Eden, isn’t it?” Asked Dave with a sudden understanding.
“And that’s Daniel in the lion’s den,” again Dave noticed another image upon John’s neck.
“Good catch,” said Johnny.
“Do you have any other biblical tattoos?” asked Dave, the panic of a moment ago beginning to fade with this new interest.
“They’re all biblical,” said Johnny.
“Who’s the woman, then, the big one?”
“Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Actually, it’s an image of my mom when she was young, since I don’t know what John the Baptist’s mom really looked like. My mom’s name was Elizabeth, too. And if you hadn’t noticed, my name’s John. Nothing my mother planned. I’m the fourth son, and she just liked the name. Still, I’ve always felt a sort of affinity with Elizabeth, a sort of righteous woman whose faith was rewarded after she had resigned herself to being childless.”
“You’ll have to show me Deuteronomy, sometime…I mean, if it’s not somewhere inappropriate, of course,” said Dave, feeling suddenly a little awkward.
“It’s alright,” said Johnny. It’s art.”
“Yeah, but couldn’t you just buy art and put it on your wall?”
“I got what was available. The woman who did this, she was incredibly talented, and she was a tattoo artist. I couldn’t let her work go undone. She needed a blank canvas, and I volunteered. I carry with me her memory, her talent. I have to think the world is better off with her work brought to life. And I have to believe she is better off having done it.”
“Johnny drifted away briefly, lost in memories of someone who must have meant a lot to him. An awful lot, thought Dave, thinking of how such a commitment must have determined the course of his life.
“They’re amazing,” said Dave in order to console his friend, not insincerely.
“Thank you. But wait a few hours, you’ll see something amazing, alright. That is, if you’re receptive to this sort of thing. Not all of us are, you know. Izzy seems immune to ‘em.”
“Alright, But I’ve got to get something to eat yet. If you don’t mind, we’ll just hit a drive-through. My nerves are still a little jangled.
They arrived at a house that must have been near the age of Doug’s apartment, or his own apartment, or the apartment he used to live in. Something about old houses, he thought. Something about old houses that harbored memories. Maybe it was just that with greater age came greater opportunity for some emotional crisis to trigger such an occurrence. Or maybe there was something about the era, the turn of the century, the rise of technology and the receding of the shadows.
The house itself was idyllic, with a large porch that was perfect for hanging plants and flags and swings in the summer, as well as for the Christmas lights that now adorned it. The light dusting of snow added to the seasonal quaintness, making it worthy of a postcard. But with any older house, as there is with any older story, there was history, and no history was without some darkness.
“I hesitate to say I can almost feel it from here,” said Johnny as Dave parked the van next to the curb. “There’s a lot of anger here.”
“So, what’s the story?”
“The couple living here have been reporting strange noises at night So did the last owners. Strange occurrences, too.”
“And how did Doug happen to hear about it?”
“He’s always looking for things like this. Nothing mystical, I don’t think. He’s just on the internet a lot. Gets involved on a lot of chat groups and forums and such. They’re out there, check ‘em out sometime. Lotsa kooks out there, taking pictures and thinking they see ghosts in the reflections of windows. A lot to sort through. Most of ‘em just wanting to believe in something. This one, though, musta caught his eye. The backstory is the guy who lived here, sometime in the twenties, his wife was cheating on him with his best friend. He hung himself in the attic. Lots of potential with this one. Those kind of emotions tend to stick around even after the person who experiences them is gone.”
“You sound like one of those psychics.”
“Yeah, well I wouldn’t put too much stock in them. Those who can see, people like you and me and the others, we don’t go around advertising on television. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you want everybody to know.”
As they were talking, an SUV pulled up and parked behind them.
“Mrs. Wilsing, I believe,” said Johnny. “Dave, my friend, it seems our little adventure is about to begin.”