BY MARK THOMAS
Copyright is held by the author.
“Oh, ghosts have more physicality than most people realize,” the professor said. He took a long drink from his glass then carefully replaced it in the centre of a grain swirl.
“You must explain yourself,” the young man said. He was smiling, almost uncontrollably. It was like being in University again, when senior students would meet in this pub after Thursday afternoon classes. The professor would often join them, and tell the most fantastic stories. Now, years later, having met purely by chance, the old man was as entertaining as ever.
“Just imagine being given powers that defy physics,” the professor said. “As a ghost, you are able to float, to pass through solid objects, you are impervious to heat and cold. Theoretically, you could travel to any part of the globe and see all sorts of interesting things.”
“You believe ghosts wander the world like tourists?”
“No! They most definitely do not and that’s exactly my point. There’s something that restrains them, makes them haunt particular neighbourhoods or specific buildings, even individual rooms, rather than seek out new experiences. They also tend to be prisoners of time. I’m sure you’ve heard tales of ghosts who are only able to manifest themselves on the anniversary of their deaths.” The professor shrugged. “For such powerful beings, they are awfully cribbed and confined.”
“Ah,” the young man nodded. “That explains their rude behaviour. When they shriek and gibber, they are merely acting out their frustration.”
The professor took another drink then said “that’s a good observation. You were always very clever.”
The young man smiled. “You always brought out the best in me.” He leaned forward. “You have piqued my curiosity, professor, and now you must tell me, what could possibly restrict the movements of a ghost?”
The professor adjusted his glasses. “I call it the Lateral principle. Look behind you, and you’ll see a perfect example.”
The young man twisted around and saw that the movie Ghost was playing on a large LCD screen. “I see the tradition continues. They always used to show this film as Hallowe’en approached.”
They watched as Patrick Swayze, a reluctant apparition, leapt onto a rapidly moving subway train.
The young man smiled. “I always liked that part. I hope you’re not about to ruin it for me.”
“Well, it’s a little ridiculous if you think about it. How can the ghost pass through the metal and glass walls of the train, but then land solidly on the floor of the car?” The professor was apologetic, yet, at the same time, delighted by his cleverness. “The floor isn’t materially different than the walls, yet one surface supports him while the other is utterly unsubstantial, like smoke hanging in the air.”
They quietly watched the movie for a few minutes more and saw Patrick Swayze struggling to flick a bottle cap with his clumsy ghost fingers, while his knees were pressing solidly against the subway platform. The young man chuckled to himself at the absurdity and rapidly reviewed several similar scenes. “If I understand your principle correctly, the ghost’s powers are limited to movement along a lateral plane. He passes through doors and walls, but we see him walk on pavement beside Whoopi Goldberg, and he lounges in a chair singing to her. If I remember correctly, ghost-Patrick even has to walk up a set of stairs in his apartment to get to the bedroom mezzanine, he doesn’t just rise through the floor.”
“As always, you’ve grasped my point exactly.” The professor’s voice lowered and stubby fingers were splayed on the table top. “You were always my favourite, you know.”
The young man blushed with pleasure, but re-directed the conversation back to spectral locomotion. “Surely the character’s behaviour in Ghost is just a reflection of their special effects budget.”
“Perhaps, in that instance. But I remember as a child watching Caspar the Friendly Ghost pass through a school-house door, then skip down the front steps, his little ghost feet touching each tread. In that case, it would have been far less expensive to have Caspar float through every surface he encountered, willy-nilly.” It was always difficult to tell when the professor was being serious and when he was engaging in intellectual play. He was always uniformly enthusiastic. “I think writers and film makers and even cartoonists have intuitively grasped what they don’t consciously understand: ghosts are bound by the Lateral Principle!”
The young man frowned. “But why should they be governed in that particular way? Why can’t ghosts move up and down as easily as they can side to side?” He suspected that the professor was inwardly seething to provide the answer, but needed a prompt.
“It has to do with theology,” the old man said eagerly. “Souls are destined to ascend to heaven or sink to hell. It seems a bit counterintuitive, but heterodox belief states that we don’t have any control over the final destination ourselves, we are assigned one or the other.” The professor adopted the dreamy look he had during his lectures. His eyes became slits and his head tilted farther and farther back as if it might roll right off his body. “You’d think our earthly conduct would be a clear indicator of which path we deserved, but it’s more complicated than it might seem at first. For example, what’s to be done with a good person who commits suicide?”
The young man’s eyes lowered and he nodded. “True. Suicide is a sin, but damnation seems like a heavy penalty, depending on the circumstances. Pity is probably more appropriate.”
“Exactly! Well, ghosts inhabit a sort of purgatory where the ‘up’ or ‘down’ is yet to be determined.” The professor opened one eye. “It would be presumptuous for a ghost to move very far in either of those directions, until officially summoned. The busy work that we refer to as ‘haunting,’ fussing about on a level plane, that is perfectly permissible.”
The young man was interested in the specific mechanism that restrained the ghosts. Was it like the painful change in pressure experienced by mountain climbers and deep-sea divers when they ventured too high or too low? Although the professor had declared that ghosts possessed a certain physicality, he wasn’t sure that any analogy from our world was appropriate. He was a proponent of a paranormal angst, an internal repugnance triggered by any significant deviation from the Lateral principle. “But ghosts, like most people, aren’t terribly self-aware. They are tugged and manipulated by invisible puppet strings just as we are.” The two old acquaintances discussed the subject for more than an hour, then the professor suddenly announced that it was time for him to go home. Behind them, Patrick Swayze had turned into a translucent figure and was saying his final goodbye to Demi Moore.
“I only live a block away,” the professor said. “Did you know that? Come, walk with me.” They put on their jackets and left the pub.
Bus wheels rubbed the curb right beside them and there was a tremendous hiss as a hydraulic cylinder pushed its door open. The professor took the young man’s arm and steered him to the inside of the crowded sidewalk. He continued to hold onto his sleeve as they moved through throngs of diners and theater patrons. “This street has always been treacherous.” They watched a group of laughing students skip in front of a delivery van and board a street car.
Within 10 minutes, the two men were standing outside the professor’s townhouse. “Would you like to come in for a few minutes and extend this delightful meeting?” He unlatched a decorative iron gate.
The young man looked at the seven broad sandstone steps leading to an ornate entrance door with a beveled glass sidelight. The house was a beautiful century-old brownstone, very slender, but an impressive four stories tall.
The young man seemed vaguely anxious. “Thank you, professor, but no. I’ve been gone so long . . . I think I’d like to revisit the pub and have another drink.”
The old man nodded, as if he had expected such an answer, and watched his companion move fluidly through the crowds on the flat sidewalk, back towards his old haunt.