One man believes Linda Bascomb was murdered. A second believes she took her own life. The first is her husband, Warren, an aging surgeon who has lost his medical license because of his morphine addiction. The second is her son, Ben, a husband and father who struggles every day to remain sober and avoid bankruptcy.
Warren has entered into an arrangement with his son that has since kept Ben financially afloat and Warren supplied with morphine. Ben's wife, Emma, desperately seeks to distance her husband from Warren before their relationship destroys her family. Opposing her efforts is Victor Javier, the mastermind of the arrangement, an immigrant whose cruelty masks a hope for his mother's deliverance.
Though Linda Bascomb was once the true connection between Warren and Ben, her memory becomes the specter that polarizes them. As the pain of unresolved history accumulates, their embittered agreement collapses, and in the process destroys one life, changes another forever, and drives both from the emotional and chemical shelters in which they hide. In the inevitable reckoning, Ben and Warren are forced to acknowledge the power the dead exert on the living, the elusive nature of redemption, and the ways the things we lose define us.
Sometimes shocking, always incisive, Keith Dixon's brilliant debut novel is a harsh but compassionate portrayal of love and need. Set on the emotionally bleak outskirts of New York City, Ghostfires, with stylistic power and psychological precision, lays bare a corrupt American dream-and a family with scores to settle.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)|
About the Author
Keith Dixon works as an editor for The New York Times. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The shuttle bus came around the access road in the dark with its headlights scouring the pavement ahead. He watched it follow the long fence and turn into the entrance to the long-term parking lot. It passed under the raised gate and drove between the lines of parked cars to the blue kiosk halfway up the center row. The halogen lamps high overhead reflected brightly off the dark glass.
Please be on this one, he thought. Oh if you aren't on this one, Victor.
He'd been waiting here in his El Dorado for more than an hour, parked miles from the main terminals of Kennedy Airport, and it occurred to him now that among the many divisions of the human race lay a simple partition that overrode all others: there were those who were not in control of a particular situation and had to be on time, and those who were in control and could show up whenever they damn well pleased. He was always early, and not because he was punctual-he was early because he was comprehensively indebted to his addiction, and his addiction could not wait.
This past November he had turned sixty-eight. By any measurement, however kind, he was much too old to be waiting in this cold. It was supposed to be getting warmer all the time, wasn't it? Icebergs feeding the oceans. Antediluvian millennium. And still every winter the mercury fell further-that morning, the Channel Nine weatherman had predicted the wintriest, the most Hyperion, the most hibernal December second in recorded history. Now, with the mercury not just asleep but asleep and dreaming at six degrees below zero-and how demoralizing was that? to know that even mother nature could hit bottom, and penetrate, and keep going-even now, after an hour in this cold, the forecast made him think not of the temperature, but of other people. Cold he could handle. Wintry weather he could repel. Hyperion December frightened him not a bit. It was other people-dealers, sons, neighbors, informants, police, wives, two-bits, meter maids-who troubled him. It was they, with their wintry dispositions, with their squalls and advancing high-pressure fronts, who could really fuck up your day.
Please be on this one, Victor, he thought, and opened his car door.
At the first lash of wind he felt a crazed arrhythmia in his chest: he realized he was not up for f0this. He, Warren Bascomb, was sixty-eight and a morphine addict, and his heart was not up for this.
Twenty yards away, the interior of the idling bus brightened suddenly.
Passengers blinked up at the fluorescent light with childlike distress, then stood to take their bags down from the overhead rack. Warren spotted Victor, still dressed in his cobalt flight attendant's uniform, near the back of the line. A feeling not unlike love washed over him. Even from a distance, he reflected, you noticed the symmetry in his looks. You noticed the inevitable way his features converged with his reflexive manners, with his antigallantry. After you. I insist. And then that sharklike smile. He looked like the handsome killer from a B movie.
Warren waved to him. Victor set his flight bag on the pavement and began rolling it noisily toward Warren's car.
One hour late, he thought. Almost four thousand ticks of my watch, and still I go to pieces at the sight of him. Victor, he noted, had remained perfectly groomed, despite the turbulent in-flight drinks. His Latin good looks had probably seen him through a number of unpleasant moments. Or gotten him into some.
"For God's sake, Victor," Warren said. Victor had rolled his flight bag to a stop at the rear of the El Dorado. "One hour. I waited for one hour."
Victor made no explanation for his lateness. None was required. They both knew this was part of a structured, tedious foreplay that would lead, eventually, to a predetermined outcome. The only sign that Victor had even heard Warren was the sigh he expelled, suddenly and wearily, from between clenched teeth. His sigh suggested criss-crossed time zones, the detritus of persistent risk, and a failing patience. Warren let the matter drop. He fished his car keys from the pocket of his khakis and unlocked the El Dorado's trunk, then lifted out the steel jack and heavy toolbox. Victor, impatience suddenly all gone, coldly methodical now, scanned the lot for the white security minivan, then squatted down and unzipped the front of his bag. Inside was a locked steel case with world health organization and the UN insignia stenciled on its face. Warren slipped the penlight off his key chain and twisted the end until the narrow beam sprang out, then placed the penlight between his teeth. He lifted the case from Victor's bag and set it on the pavement, then snapped the lock with a screwdriver.
The clear glass ampoules of Dilaudid, seated tightly together inside the case, reflected the beam of the penlight. They seemed to give off a gentle warmth. Whenever he looked at a full case he understood that the Dilaudid was stronger than he was. Accepting that had been dn0 difficult at first, but after a while it had been like having accepted gravity or time.
This case, Warren knew, wouldn't be missed. The three years he had spent in the Congo after medical school had taught him that lost medication was never missed. The bush doctors simply assumed the morphine had been used to bribe customs agents or soldiers at the local airfield. Whether you were in Kinshasa or Jakarta or Algiers, attrition was an accepted part of the humanitarian effort.
Even in the business of kindness, dishonesty and empathy battled to dominate the human condition. "This is a rotten business," Warren said. The depression that was the hallmark of approaching withdrawal had begun to insinuate itself into his thoughts. "What we're doing."
"It's an unpleasant business. But it's no more or less rotten than what's already underway. Half the morphine we take comes in through the Russian mob, anyway."
"Still," he said. He hadn't explained himself well.
Victor had begun to shiver. He crossed his arms over his chest for warmth. "You need to adapt, Warren. You need to achieve a level of comfort with the unpleasantness."
"Unpleasant. That's how I used to describe the sensation of pain to my patients. 'This might feel a little unpleasant,' I'd say. Then I'd hack up their articular bursal wall. One of them once said to me, 'Doctor, you're like a politician with knives.' I was insulted."
"Of course you were. You're like those spineless reformists who sit in cafes and talk about change, but do nothing. You want something, but you're not willing to do the things you have to do to get it. All the dirty work gets left to someone else."
"It's not like that," Warren said. "I just get upset at night sometimes."
"Too much television." He turned and scanned the lot for the security van.
"You've got to switch the set off after dark. Six o'clock, it's all laugh tracks and underwear models. But by midnight you've got jumpers and some guy who stuck his baby in the freezer." He yawned luxuriously. Warren heard his jaw crack.
"Tomorrow could be big. Anthony says they've got four C-130s on the runway."
"Does he know where they're going?"
Victor shrugged. Warren sensed that the intended destination made no difference to him. He envied Victor's clean conscience. "The hangar's full of 463L pallets. Ben should clean out his trunk. Could be ten, twelve cases of morphine, depending on the shift foreman. Wes will be overjoyed."
"What time do you want him?"
"Eight o'clock. Which does not mean eight-ten, or eight-thirty, or nine o'clock. Has it occurred to you, Warren, that your son has a problem with lateness?"
Warren remarked that Victor should know a thing or two about lateness. When Victor grimaced, Warren artlessly attempted to change the subject. "I'm surprised they airdrop with military hardware. The natives don't much like seeing stateside planes."
"They paint the fuselage gray, now. If they don't, they get the occasional grenade shot up from the canopy. Even if they do paint it sometimes they get the RPG anyway. The stress is devastating. Most of the freelance pilots are speed freaks. Some fly twenty hours straight on nothing but Mars bars and diet pills. All for a thirty-second drop."
"It's a strange business," Warren said.
"You help other people. In return, you end up in rehab. The divorce rate is unbelievable. I think there's a lesson there somewhere."
Life, Warren reflected, was always about something else. There was always a human subtext fouling the works. He had gone to Africa specifically to irritate his father, in retaliation for being forced to go to medical school. Even the most selfless work of his life had ultimately been about satisfying a private agenda. Sometimes he wondered if everyone was that way. It depressed him to think so. He still harbored a faint hope that the world was a kind place.
Life had been simpler in Africa, and the return to America had been a catastrophic upheaval, his first encounter with true culture shock. His flight had landed in the middle of the night at Idlewild Airport, and, too exhausted to travel north to home, Warren had taken a room at one of the airport flophouses. The hot shower that the doctors had all fantasized about back in the bush had been nothing more than a miserly, scalding rain. The bed had been disquietingly, almost obscenely soft, and Warren had awakened in the dark later with the distinct impression that it was trying to devour him.
"I'll tell Ben to be here at eight," he said. "Anything else?"
"He should drive straight out to Wes's house after. We want to streamline things a bit."
Warren studied the razor wire that topped the parking lot fence. He hadn't decided yet if it was meant to keep things in or out. "You're not going with him?"
Victor shook his head.
"That's awfully trusting of you," Warren said.
"It's not a problem."
"Ben won't do anything without a paycheck, Victor."
Victor unzipped the front pocket of his flight bag and removed a taped envelope.
"Six hundred there. If we do a double I'll have Anthony bring him the rest."
"I should count it."
"There's no need, Warren."
There wasn't, of course. There was never a question of absolute relative honesty between the three of them.
"You'll give it to him tonight?"
"He's at a dinner party. But I'll stop by later." After, he thought.
After I've taken care of myself.
"Fine. I need you to drop me at the subway." With a rough twist of his hand, Victor removed his wedding ring and placed it in his pocket, then latched the lid of the toolbox and set it back in the trunk. He sat in the passenger seat and blew into his fists to warm them. Warren drove between the rows of parked cars to the exit gate and paid the four-dollar fee, then put the car in park.
Victor asked the cashier if he could try to guess what perfume she was wearing. "Eternity?" he asked. He was stretched across Warren, straining toward her. His eyes were closed, his profile sleek and sharp in the halogen light. The woman opened the cash register and shook her head. Victor sat back in defeat. She seemed flattered by the attention. Unwilling to let the moment pass, she looked at Warren and asked, "What do you think it is?"
Thank you for choosing JFK, the raising barrier read. Buckle up for safety.
"Eternity," Warren said. "Not familiar with that one."
"Warren's favorite is Opium," Victor said.
Warren turned left out of the gate, then right at the corner of the employee parking lot and followed the long fence up the slight hill to the green sign for the Van Wyck. At the bottom of the on ramp, the traffic slowed and then stopped all at once where it fed left into the slowly rolling lanes of inbound cars. Taillights queued ahead like an endless string of Christmas lights. Cold sweat painted the back of his neck. It would be hours before he could fix again.
Some people, he knew, believed that he'd earned whatever suffering he encountered during years of vice. He rejected that. Vice, after all, wasn't an acquired taste. That was precisely what made it vice. Everyone knew that it came easily, and guiltily, and naturally. Warren didn't believe that he was flawed or selfish. He'd simply been less successful than others at holding weakness at bay. Virtually everyone he knew was addicted to one substance or another, to the nicotine he inhaled or the alcohol he swallowed; his was simply a less socially acceptable medium with which to entertain the same need that eventually consumed everyone. The needle, he believed, was what made people uneasy. It seemed strange to them that he could, without hesitation, feel a sort of love for an object they associated with explicit pain, with the chilly sterility of doctors' offices, with sickness.
And he believed the ascetics were wrong about what they were preparing for, their infinity of afterlife. In thirty years of performing surgery, Warren had seen no epiphanies in dying faces, no golden halos, no optical phenomena; nor had he sensed the presence of dead souls stirring about the operating table.
Death-and he'd witnessed more than he could count-was neither transformative nor comforting. It was never pretty or dramatic. It was merely violent, and final, and often it was like something you'd expect to see in a stockyard.
"Easy, Warren," Victor said, looking ahead at the traffic. "Mind over matter."
Warren's hands, gripping the steering wheel, had gone pale from the pressure. He loosened his grip and flexed the joints. This was bad. Traffic was bad, yes-sitting here in traffic, unable to fix, with a full case of Dilaudid in the trunk, was a screaming agony of almost. But any amount of traffic was less bad than waiting for Ben's pickup tomorrow night. He would be all right. He would be all right soon. As he came to understand this, he felt a sudden wash of gratitude toward Victor. "Thanks for setting me up early," he said. "I didn't plan well this month."
"I prefer not to, you know? There's a reason why I use Ben and not you."
"I don't ask often."
"I guess not."
"Is it really such a problem?"
"No. And it does have its upside. The Dilaudid keeps you docile."
Warren didn't respond. It was true.
Victor removed his wedding ring from his pocket and polished it on his arm. "I don't know why you started in the first place, Warren. You of all people. You know what it does to people."
Warren prepared to trundle out his The Drug Chose Me argument, but stopped himself. Victor was a businessman. He wouldn't understand the premise of subjugation. It lacked the plottable geometry of a bottom line. "It really wasn't my fault, you know?"
"Everyone says that, Warren."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, that's so. Whether you were burned or not is beside the point."
"It didn't feel like it was beside the point. It felt like it was exactly the point."
"Lots of people get burned, Warren. How many of them become addicts? Lots of people get hurt and come out of it fine."
Warren recalled that his own wife hadn't come out of it fine. She had sickened and hadn't recovered, and near the end she had been an addict, too. Except, as a physician, you never openly called it a habit if the drugs were being used to manage pain. She had known her tolerance was up, and when she decided to end her life she'd taken enough MS Contin to kill ten people, so much that even the six milligrams of Naloxone he'd injected in her veins, enough to bring Jesus Christ himself back from heaven, hadn't saved her. Warren thought often of her silent departure. He often felt the merciless sting of regret. There were mistakes that could not be undone, he'd found, experiences that could only be put away or remembered differently or masked. Which was exactly why fixing was an act of mercy one took on oneself. Fixing removed you from that plane of existence where everything was charged with consequence.
His own habit had developed three years ago through the accident of his survival. He'd been burned very badly in a fire at his father's house, nearly killed. The burn specialist, noting his forty percent burn coverage, had expected him to expire within a few days, and had started him on Levorphanol for the pain. Nauseated by the Levorphanol, Warren was switched to Dilaudid the next day. Though his survival wasn't exactly miraculous, it was something of a surprise to everyone. Already, it was too late. Just a few weeks later, he began to sense that the daily injections were about something other than pain relief.
He assumed that eventually his affliction would be exposed, that he would be publicly humiliated and privately pitied, but the actual moment of discovery didn't happen until six months after the fire, when he lost his medical license, suddenly and catastrophically, for operating on a healthy knee while gliding along on six milligrams of Dilaudid. He remembered the day clearly, the sensation of glissading into the operating room on the slipstream of his high, unsure of himself after four months away for rehabilitation. The scalpel felt unfamiliar in his hand, almost awkward. He remembered a clash of steel on steel, and the sudden confusion that moved through the attendants in the room as he opened the knee and encountered an intact, elastic anterior cruciate ligament. For a terrifying moment he thought the Dilaudid was causing him to hallucinate. So he did what one does when one has a scalpel in one's hand-he began to cut.
"Not many people," Warren explained, "get burned as badly as I did." Or if they do, he thought, they're fortunate enough to die afterward.
"Let me see."
Warren rolled up his sleeve.
"Christ," Victor said. He turned away, revolted by the sight of the grafted skin.
"Don't go prima donna on me now, Victor."
"Warren, you should be dead."
"You should have seen it before it healed."
Victor was silent as he tried to picture Warren's burned limbs. "Ever try to stop?"
Warren looked over at him. He doubted that someone who had never tried it could understand.
"I'm guessing all you need is to go some place where you can't get it." He scratched his arm. "Maybe I should cut you off."
"Maybe I should cut your throat."
Victor sighed. He seemed bored. "You junkies. All the same. Make one joke about your supply and you're ready to pull a knife." He looked around the car. "You don't have a knife, do you?"
Warren blotted his upper lip with the cuff of his shirt. "No," he said.
"Then get one," Victor said. He looked away and tapped his fingernails against the glass, silent for a moment. "I'm getting worried about your son. Anthony says he's coming unglued."
"Ben has been unglued since his mother died."
Victor made a sound in his throat. "It could be bad for you."
"For me." A drop of sweat rolled down his ribcage.
fs20"If there's trouble with Ben, this stops. You and me. No more rolling pharmacy."
"What sort of trouble are you worried about?"
"Maybe he's thinking of looking elsewhere for work. Wants to clean himself up. Or maybe he's thinking of flipping me."
Warren was thinking coldly and methodically, trying to figure out how to lead the conversation away from where it was headed. He had no money of his own to support his habit, and without this arrangement with Ben he'd be finished. "Ben needs you more than you need him."
"For now." Victor looked at him openly. "What do you think?"
"I think Ben has all the optimism of a kid out cutting his own switch. He needs a little positive reinforcement now and then."
"My father used to hit me with his belt, while he was still around. He called that positive reinforcement." He tapped his fingernails against the glass again.
"You ever hit Ben when he was a kid?"
"I was always worried he'd hit me back."
Ben sometimes remarked that time turned things around; what he meant was that time took what was true and reversed it. He always managed to infuse the remark with his special brand of oblique menace. He seemed to be suggesting that Warren had been a hideous, tyrannical father, and that his time would come. Warren was glad he hadn't ever hit him.
"I was worried when my dad wasn't hitting me. After he left, it was all I could remember about him. The light bulb over the kitchen table swinging. The scars on his knuckles. His boots. Teeth. It was all flailing extremities with him."
Warren cracked his window. He was beginning to feel sick. Brake lights swam liquidly in his vision, doubling and trebling. His own father had never hit him, he recalled. He wondered if things would have turned out differently if he had.
Victor watched the traffic roll slowly north into Queens. He was still unsure of whether or not he had done the right thing by setting Warren up a day early. It was important to keep Warren supplied, he believed, because Warren, as a relatively crafty, well-educated man, seemed capable of causing more trouble than most. Almost as a rule, it was unwise to do favors for ljunkies. A favor conveyed two messages: first, that you were a friend, second, that you were a reasonable and perhaps even accommodating person. If you gave a junkie an inch they always wanted the proverbial mile, and any sign you gave them that they could mine the world any farther than they already had was, of course, a mistake. It was always more and more and more with them.
Ordinarily, he would have had nothing to do with someone like Warren. Victor preferred to leave all the unpleasant work of distribution to Wes. Trafficking narcotics made him feel unclean enough, but at least the trail seemed to end when the cases of morphine were handed over to Wes. Dealing directly with someone like Warren, who was obviously almost completely lost in his addiction, seemed to illustrate too clearly the end result of what he did. It was too real.
That was partly why he had decided, from now on, to have Ben drive straight out to Wes's and skip picking him up in Queens on the way.
The three of them had been working together for two years, now, and it seemed to be the logical step. Warren had met Wes through another surgeon who'd become addicted to Percocet. At the time, Wes had been aggressively seeking to expand his mid-level operation into high-level dealing. At the time, he'd made most of his money dealing to rich high school kids from Garden City. Now, virtually his entire roster of customers was composed of defrocked physicians who had been caught dipping in the cabinet. There was safety in that sort of work, yes-but very little in the way of serious cash. Everyone knew that serious cash was in heroin, in Ecstasy. Pharmacists were the only ones who made money off the designer drugs Wes's customers were hooked on.
Ben, he was reasonably sure, could handle this, if he kept his head together. And it seemed best to leave as much of the immediate risk as possible to someone else. He hoped that Ben was too frightened by the inherent risks to gamble with changes to the basic plan; but still, Victor had found that people always became someone else when they were put under pressure. He would have to count on Ben's lack of initiative. The only thing required of him was that he appear to be an exhausted businessman driving home from the airport to Long Island, and Ben did that better than anyone. And it wouldn't go on for much longer. If he, Victor, could avoid any problems, in another six months or maybe a year he would have saved enough to move back to Culebra. His life here had begun to make him feel diseased. People like Warren and Ben made him feel diseased.
Before he'd met Warren, Victor had been using his friend Theo as a courier. As a Queens Boulevard mercenary, Theo was well known for his sadistic tendencies, but he had a trenchant qldistaste for narcotics, and eventually he quit. Victor had moved the morphine himself for a while afterward, but narcotics gave him the cold sweats and the night horrors, because there was some serious jail time involved whenever you mixed narcotics and theft. He'd been pulled over twice on the LIE for not using his blinker. Yes, he was a bad driver, but it was obvious that the New York cops had him made from the moment he hit the on-ramp. As far as they were concerned, his black hair and dark complexion marked him as Puerto Rican, just another cuchillero with attitude. And he knew himself to be the sort who would never survive jail. It was true that he was a cheat, but he wasn't a criminal.
The problem of finding a suitable courier had been solved on the night he'd met Warren at Wes's house. "This guy," said Wes, pointing to Warren as the three of them stood in the front hall, "comes to us with a sterling resume. He's a newbie chipper." Victor took his hand back to wipe it on his pants, and replied that he hoped Wes was right-chippers, in his opinion, were entirely untrustworthy, because they lived with one foot in real life, one foot in their addiction. Victor preferred criminals, because criminals were predictable. Victor and Wes had gone out back and after they had finished their business, Warren, exultant with armfuls of morphine, volunteered to drive Victor to the train station. During the drive, Victor asked Warren if he knew anyone who could be trusted with some work.
"My son's looking for some money," Warren said. "He might be right for you."
"And what do you expect to get out of this?" Victor asked. Because that was how it worked: everyone had to get something. Or the whole system collapsed.
"I'm in a little trouble at work. Problem with a patient. If things go the way I think they'll go, I might need a cheaper source than Wes. Maybe you and I could make an agreement." Within ten stoplights it had all been worked out. The very next day, Victor met Ben. Since then, business had been good. So good that Victor almost felt obligated to worry.
Warren reached forward and switched on the dashboard radio. "You want me to take you into Queens? It's going to take me hours, anyway."
Warren had volunteered, Victor realized, because he intended to drive a few blocks north after dropping him off, and park on a residential side street to fix before he drove home.
"That's princely of you," Victor said. "Just make sure you lock the doors." It was amazing how easily and how quickly an addict could fuck things up. You had to watch them like children.
When Trina had given Victor a key to her Queens apartment months ago, she had asked that he use the intercom to let her know he was on his way up, but he almost never did. It was her apartment, but he felt that she owed him.
He let himself in the front door and found her wrapped in a quilt on the couch, watching television with all the lights off. The television cast her shadow against the back wall.
"Victor," Trina said. "I've told you about this."
"You're staying in?"
She sighed and adjusted the quilt. "I got my period this morning."
"Feeling all right?"
"It's not that. I just didn't feel like having anyone see me, you know?"
"I know. You want me to fix you something?"
She thought it over. "I want you to come over here."
He sat on the end of her couch and began to massage her feet. In a strange way, it made him feel good that she wasn't feeling well. Victor knew himself to be of the sort who needed to be needed. "What are you watching?"
"One of those bad movies."
"With the actors you know but you can't remember their names." But that was a stupid thing to say to her so he changed the subject. "How was class?" Trina was taking Expression Through Communication nights at a dance school on West Seventy-Fourth Street, in the hope that it would help her with her hand problem. She never knew what to do with her hands during readings, she said, and hadn't had a callback in months because of it. The classes were expensive, but Victor felt they were entirely worth it. The payoff was the same as meeting Warren a day early. He preferred both of them docile.
"It was strange. They had us lay on the mats in silence for ten minutes. All the lights off. No talking. And then one at a time we were supposed to say our name, loudly, as if we were introducing ourselves to God."
"That's what she said."
"And this is supposed to help you with your hands."
"Victor," she said. "Please?"
"How was it?"
"Everyone used their stage name," she said.
0"How was it for you?"
She flexed her ankle joint in his hand.
"It was kind of creepy," she said.
"Talking to God?"
"Hearing all those people use their stage names. It seemed-I don't know, like lying? So I used my real name. But it didn't sound like it was mine. It sounded like I was introducing someone I'd never met before."
"I'm sure it'll come back to you. You'll remember. You just need to be patient."
"I guess. If it didn't, would that be so bad?"
Six months ago, Trina's ex-boyfriend, a former associate of Victor's, struck her in the head with a lead pipe outside a Montauk bar and left her for dead. Victor was with them that night. Trina and her boyfriend had been arguing outside, and at some point Victor saw her boyfriend's car leave the parking lot. They left without saying goodbye before, so he thought nothing of it.
Later, with the line too long at the bathroom, he went outside to piss and found her prone in the weeds by the trash dumpster, moaning, her hair matted with blood. He took her to the hospital, where they learned that all she remembered about herself was her stage name, Trina Taylor, that she was a dancer and an actress, and that Victor was a friend. A few hours later, they allowed her-somewhat naovely, Victor thought-to leave with him, on the condition that he take her back to her apartment and return with her the next day.
During the drive to her apartment, Victor told her nothing about her past. Are we friends? she asked. We are, he said. I've known you for a little while. But only in a peripheral way. I don't really know anything about you other than your name and that you never drink beer. That's strange, she said. You seem so nice. Strange that we weren't close friends. He turned on the radio to end the conversation, because he didn't want to lie to her any more than he already had.
She had, before the accident, been a mediocre actress and had briefly worked as a high-priced call girl. A few weeks later, when they were in bed together for the first time, Victor found that her past work as a prostitute somehow excited him. As time went by, he occasionally fantasized during sex that he was a customer of hers.
To this day, he still remembered the resignation that crossed her face as she first entered her apartment after the hospital. A small part of her, he realized, had hoped that seeing her home would bring everything back. She walked around the apartment, studying the photographs and the architecture, getting her bearings for a few minutes in the way one does when staying in a hotel room or in the guest room in a stranger's home. The photographs, she said, even the photographs of herself, seemed like someone else's memories. Eventually, she removed them from the frames.
Her parents flew in from Oakland the next morning, but seeing them brought no more memories back. They left a week later, defeated, when her doctor suggested that it was possible there were psychological underpinnings to her memory loss. Soon after, her parents began to accuse her of trying to forget. That may have been true, she reasoned, but if it was, the forgetting was being done by someone other than her; thinking of this and its paradoxical implications gave her a headache. Whatever the reason, she said, her parents were strangers, and it made her feel odd when they told her they loved her.
She had stopped telephoning them three months ago, but they had continued to pay half her rent and her utilities. All in all, she said, it wasn't such a bad deal. Once you got used to the memory loss, you came to see that there was nothing to feel sad about. If you had forgotten completely, there was no sense of loss.
Privately, Victor didn't want her to remember what had happened. He had developed an elaborate explanation of how he had found her that night, not a word of which was true, and he worried that if she ever learned of his association with her earlier life and its sudden, violent end, she would leave him. It seemed obvious that he needed her more than she needed him.
"No," he said, "I guess it wouldn't be so bad if it didn't come back."
"I mean, I'm happy. Not remembering."
"I am too."
Under the blanket, he crossed his fingers.
Copyright © 2004 by Keith Dixon
Reading Group Guide
1. Ghostfires uses a great deal of fire imagery – what do you think the book was saying about fires and their aftermaths?
2. Discuss the possibility that the author was trying to write a ghost story. Did he succeed? What is a ghost story?
3. Do you think Ned Strickland was a moral or immoral person? Was Victor? Discuss whether or not a person's goal justifies the means he uses to attain it. Is it possible for a person to be kind and cruel at the same time?
4. Is heaven really, as Rhazi suggests, ‘a place with no memory'? Why did that remark appeal to Warren so deeply?
5. Why did the author use such an unusual approach to writing chapter seven? Did having Ned read the evaluation make the chapter more or less interesting? Would you have preferred to have seen the actual evaluation?
6. Was Emma's situation better or worse at the end of the novel than it was at the beginning?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
New writers or usually instructed to write about something with which they are familiar. Clearly the author had little knowledge of the nature of antidepressant medications, depression, and the difference between depression and addiction. The story about an addicted father and son, both on his own road of self-destruction, could have been an interesting read. However, I found myself continuing to read this novel solely because I was looking for the next ridiculous flaw, such as when a character feels 'high' on Zoloft or when a wife is able to commit her husband to a locked mental ward, simply based on her own impressions. I cannot understand how this book received the positive reviews that it did.