portion of the artwork for Sean Lovelace's short story

Sean Lovelace

I’ve personally seen a ghost seven times. Don’t know if that’s a high or low number. The second time was during a cookout in Southaven, Mississippi, in the backyard of a ranch house with dark-wood paneling and a garish lime-green shag carpet. The adults mingled on the patio, slinging lawn darts and Coors (a can cost 43 cents), talking of key parties and Ford Pintos, the air full of hotdogs, Marlboros, and Donna Summer. We kids were trapped in that fog where you didn’t understand grownups, but you sort of did and it was frightening, tinged with sadness and improbability. Someone kicked a half-deflated soccer ball too far—it rolled away from the light to the tall, wooden fence out back—and Kimberly and I ran, laughing, and looked above the fence and there floated a gigantic, terrifying eyeball (the size of an ice chest), bright, neon blue, with a vivid orange corona of flames. It shimmered and pulsed. My heart jolted, and my throat seized tight.

“What is it?” I hissed to Kimberly. But she was already running, screaming, “Eyeballll!”

We tried, pleaded, tugged at clothing of the adults, but they were high on Fleetwood Mac, dancing, summer haze, some fading, desperate thing. Finally, I saw Mom in the kitchen talking urgently to a man I didn’t know.

“I saw a giant eyeball on fire!” I stammered.

She frowned, shook her head, put out a cigarette in the sink, and hurriedly left the room. The man clucked his tongue and said, “Far out.” He opened the fridge and tried to offer me a bottle of Mellow Yellow.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Take it.”

I stared at his stupid hand. Went to look for Dad.

I was writing at the kitchen table. Writing what? A check. Something caught my eye, a red flash, a piece of cloth tumbling past the window. I walked outside into the bitter February, brown grass, icy, prickly on my bare feet. An overturned and twisted lawn chair, a wiry tangle of frozen dog leashes. Patches of crusty snow. The red fabric quivered in the wind. It was a shirt? I picked it up: a light chef’s coat with buttons, and an emblazoned patch, CASEY’S GENERAL STORE. I glanced around, stunted bushes swaying, arthritic leafless trees. Winter. My legs shivered. We lived on a county road lined with cut cornfields, and the nearest house was a mile away. I walked back inside.

“Somebody’s jacket just blew into our yard,” I said to my spouse.

She looked down, at her phone. I rustled the clothing. “It’s a chef’s coat. Don’t you think that’s kinda weird?”

The back of her head, silence. Thick hair, glossy black, curls. The windows moaned and rattled. I held the shirt to my nose: cigarettes, light odor of maybe bread. I draped it on the kitchen chair. Sat and picked up my pen. Looked out the window at the birdfeeder: cardinal, blackbird, dove.

It’s true: As a teenager I shot my uncle. It’s not something I really want to talk about. He lived, OK? Only thing is every Christmas I see him at my grandmother’s house, and we always lock eyes at least once: you shot me, he says, with his eyes, always trying to hold my gaze. And I always feel queasy and look away.

Age 21 I attended the University of Tennessee Martin, and it happened during a prank we (myself, two friends) were playing on a dorm roommate. The prank was staged on a dark rural backroad, was complicated (overly so, in hindsight), and my part was to hide in the back of a pickup truck with a green tomato and a bocce ball (I forget why) and to leap out at the correct moment after the driver had pretended to hit a deer and stopped. Only either the relentlessly screaming cicadas or the full moon made me momentarily rash, and I leapt out while the truck was still driving. Feet. Then head. Like that. Feet—BAM—head. Knocked out cold. (I would awake later in the center of the road with the bloody taste of rust in my mouth and a golfball-size knot on my noggin.) While unconscious, I had a floating, bird’s eye vision, my body far below. Flung there like a wind-blown scarecrow. Crumpled. And then the lens receded farther off the Earth; and I was ANOTHER of myself standing alone on the moon, wearing tan slacks and a matching sweater, just looking at the lunar dust pensively, nodding my head. Then my vision receded even farther, like galactic, interstellar far—wide, wide, wide lens—and I saw ANOTHER of myself standing on a tiny, round asteroid way out into space. Just black, starless abyss. A pale boulder, drifting through endless nothingness. I stood there, same tan clothing, same quizzical staring at my feet, head nodding. Alone, utterly alone. Total, total silence. I think this third me was a ghost.

I pulled into the apartment garage and shut off the engine. Ticking. Paused a moment to wind down. Took a breath, as they say. The passenger seat held a six-pack of Budweiser, a single slice of cheesecake, a beige envelope of paperwork, and a movie from Redbox. I used to think, “Who in the hell rents a movie from a physical Redbox?” Days pass, days pass. Time cuts through the calendar like a bird of prey. What you thought was a Tuesday, now a Thursday. Or what you considered a Friday evening is a Monday morning, gauzy rain. I mean to say a person has to be open to being wrong about everything. I stepped out of the truck and felt a tugging at my pants leg. It was a small dog, a gray and rumpled Boston terrier puppy. A collar but no tags.

“It’s all right, little guy,” I said, and picked it up and glanced around.

I walked about the garage, surveyed the parking lot. The dog squirmed and licked my hands. Finally, I took it inside my apartment. It wagged its tail. Yipped excitedly and jumped on and off the futon. I filled a Tupperware with tap water. Then gave the dog a slice of leftover cheese pizza and it wolfed down the slice, lapped up the water, and grabbed a sock on the floor and ran in circles, faster, faster. I picked up the puppy and examined the collar, leather, scuffed blue. Unsnapped the buckle and put the puppy on the floor. It ran in loopy figure eights, hyper, under the table, down the short hallway to the bedroom, back to the kitchen, yipping, tongue flapping. I turned the collar in my fingers, my thoughts floating off, motes of dust. Put the collar on the puppy, lifted it, and went back outside.

“Elvis!” I heard someone shout. “Elvis, oh no!”

A young blonde woman walked up and said, “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” (This was the Midwest where an apology is the default.)

“It’s OK.” I handed her the dog. “Elvis? I was actually born in Memphis, Tennessee. I lived only about two miles from Graceland.”

She stood there holding the puppy and scratching its head. I smiled awkwardly.

She thinks I’m funny, or she thinks I’m weird. She thinks I’m interesting. She thinks I’m uninteresting. I should ask her where she works. I should tell her where I work. I should tell her how long I’ve lived here. I should—

“Well, I’m sorry,” she said. “It won’t happen again.”

I pointed off generally, into the air (to what purpose, I couldn’t say). “No problem. My dogs used to run off all the time.”

She nodded and glanced upwards. The sky, a cloud. Another cloud, drifting. And then she turned and walked away.

Sean Lovelace’s Comments

This story was inspired by one of my obsessions: Casey’s General Store gas stations. I shop there daily. I purchase various Casey’s merchandise and memorabilia at yard sales, thrift stores, or online, including clothing. I’ve found that used Casey’s corporate gear—whether T-shirt (or shirts), wool socks, kitchen aprons, blended polos, polyester slacks, cargo pants, plaid jackets, fleece jackets, pastel turtlenecks, etc.—invariably smells strongly of cigarette smoke and despair. Therefore, I must air it out. One Saturday evening I hung a Moroccan chef’s coat on my back patio. The next morning, while taking the dog out in a bleary fog, I saw the shirt quivering in the wind like a Victorian ghost. I screamed! Then I brought the dog back in and made nachos and wrote this story.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 59 | Spring/Summer 2022