Copyright is held by the author.

“IT’S A big boat,” the man said as he handed Nicolau the keys, “but it will get you where you need to go.”

In fact, the 1968 Pontiac Parisienne handled like a Portuguese galley in an ocean squall. The steering was loose, the shocks were badly worn, and the rear end constantly drifted towards shoals made from guardrails and trees.

The car probably should have been trailered, but Nicolau was eager to curry favour with his fiancée’s family, and personally delivering the Parisienne would be a coup. His future brother-in-law discovered the “dream car” in an on-line estate sale and was paranoid that another bidder would swoop in to steal it. The car happened to be garaged just a few blocks from Nicolau’s student residence in Ithaca so he volunteered to drive it to his in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving.

Nicolau stayed off the I-90, taking Finger Lake back roads, so the Parisienne was less likely get impounded in a traffic stop. He couldn’t listen to the radio because it didn’t work, so he spent the entire drive dreaming about his beautiful girlfriend, Brites, while swirling exhaust fumes supercharged the fantasies.

Near midnight, the Parisienne’s headlights raked across an unusual roadside monument, located on a thin strip of grass between a deep ditch and a vineyard. Usually, those home-made accident memorials were simple wooden crosses. But this one had a carved arch above filigreed arms, and was surrounded by lilies and violets.

When Nicolau twisted around for a better look, he felt a thump and, from the corner of his eye, saw limbs cartwheel into the ditch.

Nicolau prayed he had hit a deer but knew, deep down inside, that wasn’t the case: the body careening past his right fender wore pants and thin-soled shoes.

The Parisienne lurched to a halt and Nicolau jogged back to the point of impact, easily finding the patch of scuffed gravel in the moonlight. A tangle of mustard weeds in the nearby ditch showed where the body landed.

Nicolau tried to dial 911, but there was no cell service. He stepped carefully into the ditch, parted the matted stalks and felt around for knees and elbows.

Nothing but tangled brush.

He searched the ground between the fancy roadside monument and his parked car, even checked for footprints in the nearby grape rows, but the victim had vanished. Puzzled, Nicolau inspected the Parisienne’s hood but there were no blood stains or dents.

A sign from a bar or a motel was flashing a half-mile ahead, and Nicolau decided to report the accident there. He was too superstitious to drive away as if nothing had happened. That sort of behavior would only haunt his future: Brites and his law professors would somehow sense the shameful thing he had done. 

Nicolau parked the Parisienne underneath the pulsing beacon, between a new Audi sedan and an ancient Cockshutt tractor. The business was called “Sintra D’oro,” and promised “Local Award-Winning Wine.”

Nicolau walked through the front door. A waitress immediately noticed his ashen face and led him to a table. She sat down with him and asked what was wrong.

“I hit someone on the road, a little way back; I need to report it.”

The waitress leaned back in her chair and smiled. “But your car was undamaged.”

“That’s right.” Nicolau’s voice was numb.

The waitress wagged a finger. “And there was no blood, and you couldn’t find a body.”

“You’re right, but how . . .”

Her smile broadened. “It’s not the first time this has happened.”

A small, elderly man at an adjacent table twisted around and grunted. “You’ve hit our clumsy ghost.”

“What?” Nicolau wondered if exhaust fumes had impaired his reasoning. “How is it possible to ‘hit’ a ghost?” he said, “they don’t have bodies.” Somehow, he had leapt over the fundamental issue of existence, and was discussing spectral attributes as if they were after-market car parts. The waitress poured a small glass of red wine and slid it across the table. Nicolau drank the warm liquid.

“Oh, some ghosts possess a very robust physicality,” the waitress said, “not all of them are wisps of vapor.” She poured herself a small glass of wine and drank. “With people, it’s the exact opposite, haven’t you noticed?” She raised an eyebrow. “Many people have an excessive physicality; they are grossly carnal. But some individuals are different, they are almost ethereal.” Her fingers made fluttery angel-wing movements to emphasize the last word.

Nicolau drank another glass of wine and thought about his future brother-in-law who was obsessed with material things like his car collection. Then he thought about Brites who was very spiritual and incredibly sensitive to emotional tremors in the people she knew. That quality was the main reason he loved her. “You’re right,” Nicolau said to the waitress.

The elderly man described the area’s strange haunting activity. “Our ghost patrols this stretch of road. He plants flowers and paints the beautiful roadside memorials. We assume he died in an accident himself, long ago, but we aren’t certain.”

“There have been lots of accidents,” the waitress said, shaking her dark hair, “so many. You see, people speed down these back roads to avoid the highway tolls.”

“Our caretaker is often careless,” the elderly man chuckled. “He wanders into traffic and sometimes gets hit before he can disappear like a proper ghost.”

“A proper ghost?” Nicolau stared at his fingers, which looked bloodless and pale pressed against the glass. 

“Our ghost has needs,” the elderly man said, “certain compulsions, which are strong enough to drag him into the physical world for brief periods of time.” The man gave an elaborate shrug. “But he still ultimately belongs to the wraiths, there is no denying that.” He pointed a stubby finger at Nicolau. “You’ve seen evidence of that, yourself.”

The waitress leaned forward, cupped Nicolau’s face with her strong fingers and stared into his eyes. The lights in the bar canted and a voice whispered that he was far too distraught to drive any more that night.

Nicolau wasn’t sure, but he thought the woman asked to see the Parisienne.

When Nicolau answered his phone, it was morning and he was lying in the back seat of the enormous car. “Thank God, you’re alright,” Brites said. “I’ve been calling for hours; you must have been in a dead zone.”

Nicolau buttoned his pants and sat up. He was parked in a gravel turn-around with the Parisienne’s bumper almost touching a grape post. There was no flashing neon bar sign, no building, no parking lot, no vehicles, just endless rolling vineyards.

“I had a premonition that something happened to you,” Brites continued. “I was so angry at my brother for making you drive—I’m glad you stopped.”

“I couldn’t see,” Nicolau said, weakly.

“But you’ll be home, soon.”

“Yes,” Nicolau said, and his smile was the complex grill of a Parisienne.


Illustration of Mark Thomas juggling shit

Mark Thomas is a retired English and Philosophy teacher, and ex-member of Canada’s national rowing team.

1 comment
  1. The phantom waitress was kind of amusing, and the old man too with their comments on the clumsy one. Funny there was a new Audi sedan in front of the cafe. For sure, if you’re going to sleep in a ghost-catching car, make it a Parisienne, lots of room!

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