Editor’s note: This story was obviously submitted well before the November election and, thus, may appear dated.
Author’s note: The apparition quotes are drawn from original quotes from Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abbey, mashed together in a couple places and edited lightly for continuity]
I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
It was long past dark on Christmas Eve 2008 and I was still at my desk. I had a backlog of political blog entries to read, several recordings of Congressional hearings to watch and nearly a dozen Internet bulletin board comment-thread “flame wars” all going at once.
Upstairs, the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care, and my finally asleep children’s heads were filled with dancing visions of a gift-wrapped wooden pirate ship play set — said set still requiring “some assembly” by daddy.
A cheery if threat-tinged motivational suggestion floated down the stairs from the wife: “Honey, we still need to wrap several gifts and clean the kitchen. And, remember, my parents will be here at 6:30.” A.M., that is.
“Humbug” is what I barked toward the door. Because I had work to do.
My name is Ebenezer, and I am a very important man. My work is far too important to yield to a Hallmark-holiday festival of drunkenness, gluttony, merriment and sloth. And in-laws. Especially in-laws. Particularly raving right-wing Fox-News-immersed in-laws.
You see, while everyone else was celebrating a particularly joyous holiday season — we had after all just elected in a landslide a liberal/progressive/hip African-American savior, who would travel the skies on Inauguration Day and send hope down our chimneys and leave change in our stockings. But I knew better.
“Humbug,” I said again, to no one in particular. So, I went to the “comment here” section below an online op-ed about how Obama was going to bring Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Liberals and Conservative alike and typed it in: H*U*M*B*U*G.
As if to underscore my gloom, a Steve Earle song came across the Pandora Radio web stream, one referring to another Christmas, exactly twelve years earlier.
It’s Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Getting’ into gear for four more years
Of things not getting’ worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, ‘He cannot seek another term
They’ll be no more FDRs’
There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell
“Man, that Earle guy knows what’s up,” I thought to myself. But then I got even more depressed, because more than a decade has passed, and nothing at all has changed. Check that; it’s gotten worse.
It went on like that for a while — brooding over the dimly lit screen of my computer, then flying upstairs to wrap a gift, then hurrying back to check my internet conversation threads, until, despite myself, I drifted off to sleep, still seated at the keyboard. And with that, I entered a fitful slumber.
Although technically asleep, my mind was by no means resting. That damned song kept passing across my consciousness:
So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now
So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring
As the bells of freedom ring … bells ringing … bells … BELLS! I awoke with a start. My forehead was resting on the keyboard and my computer was beeping to tell me to get the hell off.
I became aware of a presence in the room. I turned to find a ghostly apparition next to me in the room. “Great Marley’s Ghost,” I shouted, for it was Steve Earle himself. “What do you want with me?” I wailed. “Much!” is all he said. “Why do you trouble me?” I asked. He simply replied, “You will be haunted by two spirits,” then he pointed a guitar pick toward the bookshelves on the back wall, and with that he was gone.
“Thanks for nothing,” I shouted at no one in particular. But it was late of hour, and I was much in need of repose, so I slumped into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.
My slumbers were soon interrupted by a second apparition. This one had a shaved head, wore a Hawaiian shirt and clutched in one hand a pistol and in the other a tumbler of whiskey, while between his teeth he clenched a cigarette holder, which he removed with a curled index finger and began waving about the room. “Goddamn bats,” he screeched, then leveled his gaze at me. My voice-activated webcam recorded the conversation, which went as follows:
Ebenezer: Who and what are you?
Apparition: I am the ghost of Raoul Duke. [Then gesturing towards the window] Rise and walk with me.
We left my room and after passing through a haze of smoke, entered what appeared to be a Las Vegas casino. Casino security staff approached to try and take the pistol from the apparition.
Ghost of Raoul Duke (GoRD) [tucking the pistol in his waistband]: Don’t take any guff from these fucking swine.
GoRD [gesturing at the drunken crowds around the craps tables]: It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. Who knows? If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix, with everyone being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there.
Somewhere in the casino, a slot machine paid off; the crowd cheered raucously.
GoRD: What passes for society is a loud, giddy whirl of thieves and pretentious hustlers, a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities. Freedom, Truth, Honour — you could rattle off a hundred such words and behind every one of them would gather a thousand punks, pompous little farts, waving the banner with one hand and reaching under the table with the other. In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together. The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we know it. Doom is the operative ethic.
Ebenezer: Why won’t people wake up and see all the madness and deceit?
GoRD: Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. The importance of Liking Yourself is a notion that fell heavily out of favour during the coptic, anti-ego frenzy of the acid era — but nobody guessed back then that the experiment might churn up this kind of hangover; a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything.
A red convertible Cadillac pulled out of the casino bar and stopped at our feet. It was driven by a massive and clearly intoxicated man of Pacific Island descent.
Driver: Let’s give that boy a lift.
GoRD: We can’t stop here — this is bat country.
They grab me by the shoulders and push me in. We roar off through a swarm of bats and pterodactyls, and come to a stop next to a hotel swimming pool. There appears to be some sort of political convention going on.
Ebenezer: What can we do about this official madness and deceit and violence, why can’t we get off our asses and throw the bums out?
GoRD: The massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.
GoRD [Gesturing toward a fat couple in matching red-white-and-blue track suits]: Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. George W. Bush was a natural-born loser with a filthy-rich daddy who pimped his son out to rich oil-mongers. He hates music, football and sex, in no particular order, and he is no fun at all — all the dumb bastard could show us, after eight years of total freedom to do anything he wanted with all this power, is a shattered national economy, disastrous defeat in a war, and a hand-picked personal staff whose collective criminal record will blow the minds of high-school American History students for the next 100 years. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?
GoRD [Shouting]: This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 300 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
Ebenezer: Well, what about Obama? Democrats seem to think he’ll fix everything and usher in a new progressive era.
GoRD: We’ve come to a point where every four years this national fever rises up — this hunger for the Savior — and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Obama will be now, that when you vote for President today you’re talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years. The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip each other with big sticks. You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.
Ebenezer: Why don’t the media expose the charlatans then?
GoRD: Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Bush to slither into the White House and launch a war on Iraq in the first place. You have to get Subjective to see things clearly. Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.
We left the convention in the Cadillac and ended up at some kind of farm. There is gunfire and explosions. And strange birds shrieking in the woods.
Ebenezer: Since 9/11, Bush built up a massive security apparatus and world-wide military machine waging overt and covert wars all over the globe, while spying on everyone everywhere. Where the hell are the right-wingers who supposedly fear big government?
GoRD: We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear — fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.
GoRD [Blowing smoke rings towards the ceiling]: The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy… We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or all three at once. This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone.
Ebenezer: Bush said we were on a righteous crusade against the Axis of Evil, that we are the Good Guys.
GoRD: We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world, a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you.
We moved into a kitchen. There are piles of books and papers, old posters and perhaps twenty televisions all tuned to different channels.
Ebenezer: I know, I know. The fix is in, and we are savage and hated. So, where do you find solace then?
GoRD: The Edge … there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. So, every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether. I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.
Ebenezer: Ye Gods, this is vicious and ugly. Spirit, remove me from this place. Leave me. Take me back. Haunt me no longer. (Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it?)
And with that he was gone. Since it was even later of hour, and I was in even greater need of repose, I slumped back into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.
Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, I heard another bell ringing. Dammit, I had fallen asleep on the keyboard again. Sitting up to get my thoughts together, I soon became aware of yet another apparition. This one was tall and bearded and wearing flannel. He threw a crumpled beer can at my computer, tucked a monkey-wrench into his belt and then motioned toward a beat-up pickup truck that had appeared in my basement office, into which he climbed behind the wheel and glared at me like a vulture contemplating road-kill.
Apparition: Come in. Come in, and know me better, man.
Ebenezer: Say, did you pass a guy in a Hawaiian shirt when you came in?
Apparition: Among apparitions I have but one hero, and that is Raoul Duke. I honor him because he reports the simple facts, in plain language, of what he sees around him. His style is mistaken for fantastic, drug-crazed exaggeration, but that was to be expected. As always in this country, they only laugh at you when you tell the truth. He is one who sees — a seer.
He again beckons me into the truck, so I climb in amongst a pile of empty beer cans, dog-eared books and bottles of molasses.
Ebenezer: Alright, but before we go, I need to know who you are.
Apparition: I am called Henry Lightcap, but known as The Ghost of Cactus Ed.
He shifted the truck’s transmission into low-range, whereupon we plunged into a roiling flash flood, eventually coming to rest high-centered and hanging halfway out over the edge on the rim above a vast desert canyon. The silence of the place was deafening.
Ghost of Cactus Ed (GoCE): Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse — its implacable indifference.
GoCE [Stamping his feet]: We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there. Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.
Ebenezer: Yeah, but the Republicans insist that wilderness is a waste of valuable real estate.
GoCE: What most humans really desire is something quite different from industrial gimmickry, that is, liberty, spontaneity, nakedness, mystery, wildness and wilderness. And joy. Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.
Ebenezer: Naked joy in the woods, that reminds me of the last time I took mushrooms. But I am too old and have too many responsibilities for that now. What can we do to defend wild places now?
GoCE: The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in. Our job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.
Ebenezer: But wilderness — actual on-the-ground wilderness — is wild, and can be dangerous and scary. It freaks a lot of people out when bad things happen.
GoCE: If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.
As the truck shuddered and tilted forward a bit, Cactus Ed slammed it into gear and we careened down a canyon trail, until we came to a graded dirt road, which we followed to an industrial site. There were giant bulldozers kicking up huge plumes of dust, strange trucks on balloon tires crashing about in the sage, long lines of trailers marked “hazardous” and drilling derricks spewing flames from their tops.
Ebenezer: My God, it’s even more medieval than I imagined. It’s something out of Dante. This cannot be the only way to grow our economy.
GoCE: Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Everywhere I look, I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding, the land smothered under airstrips and super-highways, the natural wealth of a million years squandered on atomic bombs and tin automobiles and television sets and ball-point pens.
Ebenezer: But the Republicans say we need more activity just like this, or our economy will crash and the terrorists will win.
GoCE: For more growth, we must give up the very qualities that make a high standard of civilized life still possible…for more development, we will transform what we prize into temporary jobs…and fat bank accounts for the powerful minority of land-speculators, tract-slum builders, bankers, car dealers and shopping mall hustlers who stand to profit. What we need is an optimum industrialism, neither too much or too little. Technology boosters say it’s the entire package, plagues and all, or nothing, but it is not true. We can pick and choose, we can learn to select this and reject that.
Ebenezer: The Republicans insist that we are ordained by God to uncover and use every bit of fossil fuel we can find, that’s why God put it there.
GoCE: From the point of view of a tapeworm, man was created by God to serve the appetite of the tapeworm. Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God, this saves much wear and tear on the brain tissues. I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. The world is older and bigger than we are. This is a hard truth for some folks to swallow.
Ebenezer: Speaking of God, one of the people who ran for the GOP Presidential nomination is a Mormon.
GoCE: Mormonism: Nothing so hilarious could possibly be true. Or all bad.
We drive onto a highway and down into a shimmering desert city. Pulling into the driveway of a small house, we enter to find its occupant watching television on which there’s a conservative politician bloviating about “democracy” and “liberty”.
GoCE [Kicking the TV with his boot]: Bullshit! Democracy — rule by the people — sounds like a fine thing; we should try it sometime in America. Counterpart to the knee-jerk liberal is the knee-pad conservative, always groveling before the rich and powerful. Our “neoconservatives” are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell. A true libertarian supports free enterprise, opposes big business; supports local self-government, opposes the nation-state; supports the National Rifle Association, opposes the Pentagon.
Ebenezer: Liberal; conservative; or libertarian — which has become and arm of the GOP — what choices are there besides statism or authoritarianism?
GoCE: There’s anarchism. Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners. Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.
Ebenezer: You know, there were protests by the left at the Democratic nominating convention this year. It was an echo of Chicago in 1968, complete with riot police beating up everyone who got in their way.
GoCE: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government. Representative government has broken down. Our politicians represent not the people who vote for them but the commercial interests who finance their election campaigns. We have the best politicians that money can buy. The purpose and function of government is not to preside over change. But to prevent change. By political methods when unavoidable, by violence when convenient.
Ebenezer: But I don’t want to get arrested or beat up, or go to prison. I’ve got kids. I don’t want a psychopathic cell mate.
GoCE: Here’s how to overthrow the system: brew your own beer; kick in your tee vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.
Ebenezer: We’ve elected another charismatic Democrat; all the liberals are ecstatic, but I don’t buy it. He’s just more of the same corporatist DLC crap; beholden to Wall Street
GoCE: The one thing worse than a knee-pad Tory is a chickenshit liberal. The type that cannot say “shit” even when his mouth is full of it. Among politicians and businessman, Pragmatism is the current term for “To hell with our children.” “Be fair,” say the temporizers, “tell both sides of the story.” But how can you be fair to both sides of a rape? Of a murder? Of a massacre?
Ebenezer: There’s been a huge meltdown on Wall Street. The bankers committed gargantuan acts of fraud and theft and made bad bets that crashed the economy, now they are getting bailed out no questions asked while the middle class is eating a shit sandwich.
GoCE: When the biggest, richest, glassiest buildings in town are the banks, you know that town’s in trouble. One thing more dangerous than getting between a grizzly sow and her cub is getting between a businessman and a dollar bill. That’s why administrators are respected and school-teachers are not: An administrator is paid a lot for doing very little, while a teacher is paid very little for doing a lot. There is no force more potent in the modern world than stupidity fueled by greed. Nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.
GoCE: It’s not all gloom though, take comfort in this: the rich can buy everything but health, virtue, friendship, wit, good looks, love, pride, intelligence, grace and, if you need it, happiness.
We leave the truck behind and strike off on foot. After walking for a very long time in silence, the apparition stops and spreads his arms out toward the vista of canyon country that lies before us.
GoCE [Speaking toward the horizon as in a benediction]: May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill. May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge. May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may great sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night.
Ebenezer: That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s just too goddamned brutal out there to take seriously. NOTHING HAS GODDAMNED CHANGED.
GoCE: When the situation is desperate, it is too late to be serious. Be playful. In my case, saving the world was only a hobby. Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourself and your life for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.
Ebenezer: But what should I do? All I can do is write. Why should I write?
GoCE: Why write? Write to entertain your friends and exasperate your enemies. To record the truth of your time as best as you can see it. To investigate the comedy and the tragedy of human relationships. To oppose, resist and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a global technocratic police state whatever its ideological coloration. To oppose injustice, to defy power, and to speak for the voiceless.
He knelt down to the ground and picked up a handful of bones from the skeleton of a long-dead coyote and then held them for a moment in silence. Then he ground the bones into dust and they drifted off on the breeze.
Ebenezer: Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only.
Ebenezer: Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.
I heard the sound of coyotes’ mournful howls. It sounded almost as if they were saying my name.
Coyotes: EBENEZER! EBENEZER! EBENEZER!
Overcome and trembling, I reared my head back and howled back at the distance: “No, Spirit. Oh no, no.” Then I stood up, drained, and an awakening washed over me like a waterfall deep in a hidden canyon. I turned to the spirit and spoke.
Ebenezer: Spirit, hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. I see now that nothing ever really changes, but the important thing is what we do with our lives. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. I will not burn out or turn away from life and hide in my basement seething on internet chat boards.
At that, the apparition transformed into a Turkey Buzzard, craned his neck toward me and croaked: “remember, Life is too short for grief. Or regret. Or bullshit.” And then he flew spirals into the sky and disappeared from sight.
I must have fallen back asleep onto my keyboard, because I awoke once again to the ringing of a bell. Nope, it was the doorbell this time, and I was in my own bed. Church bells began to ring. Christmas morning was before me!
Oh glorious, glorious! I ran to the top of the stairs and shouted: “Merry Christmas, wife. Merry Christmas, kids. Merry Christmas, in-laws. And God bless us, every one.”
Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale, Colorado, with his wife and kids.