Every town in America has their legends, their hauntings, their myths, and we’re no different. For kids who grew up in Vallejo and Benicia, we had ‘The Ghost.’
He wasn’t actually a ghost, but a man we called ‘The Ghost.’ Everyone in town knew of ‘The Ghost,’ but despite universal knowledge of ‘the Ghost’s’ existence, very little information could be verified in relation to this man.
We knew he was homeless and we knew he frequented Mare Island, a decommissioned naval base that closed in 1996, which is ultimately what led to Vallejo’s economic deterioration.
Benicia, the town I’m from, fared much better. We had the refinery to fall back on. Pollution is a fair price to pay for economic stability, at least that’s what Mr. Evans has said in relation to the presence of the refinery in our small North Bay town.
It was senior year, and our Journalism teacher, Mr. Evans, informed us that our last assignment, worth 30% of our grade, was going to be a profile piece on a significant local of our choice. We would have to conduct interviews with this significant local, take their photo, and ultimately “write a story that’s worthy of being called news.”
For whatever reason, Mr. Evans would work that “write a story that’s worthy of being called news” line into every single one of his class lectures, sometimes more than once. It never really had the impact that I think he had intended. Other than forced catchphrase, he was a good teacher. We learned about nut graphs, the inverted pyramid, AP style and everything else our collective teenage brains could absorb to assist us on our journey to “write a story that’s worthy of being called news.”
Most of the students in the class didn’t care about journalism. The room was filled with people who settled because Journalism was one of the last elective classes available and Benicia High School required that an elective be completed to graduate.
Their choices of who to profile reflected this apathy. Many of my classmates picked from a suggestion list passed out by Mr. Evans. You had Benicia Police officers, senior faculty members, business owners, and executives from the refinery who spent their money to keep the lawn of Benicia High School green and made their money from mixing chemicals that would eventually turn our lungs black.
It was fucking boring.
My story wasn’t going to be boring.
“Mr. Evans, do we have to pick from the list or can we pick someone ourselves?” I asked.
“Mr. Evans, do we have to pick from the list or can we pick someone ourselves?” I asked.
“While I appreciate your no rap rule, Mr. Evans, if there is a group with the inclination to call themselves the Benicia Ballers, it is an absolute obligation to interview them, not because of their music, which I’m sure would be… incredible, but to find the underlying source of their bravery.”
Mr. Evans stared blankly at me and gave a faint smirk.
The bell rang.
“Remember, AP style! This is not a normal essay. I know some of you have been struggling with that. My office hours are 4 to 5 PM Tuesdays and Thursdays. If anyone needs help with the profile or any refreshers, that’s when I’ll be able to devote my time,” Mr Evans announced as most of the class rushed out.
I stayed behind.
I often stayed after class because I was passionate about journalism and Mr. Evans was one of the few people who I could discuss the subject with at length. He wasn’t just a teacher, he was a friend.
“So Ben, who are you thinking of covering for the piece?”
“Honestly, someone kinda unconventional.
“Unconventional can be good. Who?”
“You know ‘The Ghost?’”
“The Ghost, as in the pale creepy guy that hangs out in Vallejo and pushes a shopping cart filled with random shit and half-finished statues of people? That Ghost?”
“That would be the one.”
“Isn’t he a rapist or something?”
“People say that. But people say a lot of things about him. No one really knows anything. I’ve heard everything from murderer to rapist to Napa State hospital escapee, but no one has any proof. They just say that because he looks weird.”
“So, when I assign a project about a significant member of the community, instead of a police officer or a firefighter, you wanna cover a weird looking homeless man who’s famous locally because he looks weird?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“That’s why I like you, Ben.”
“Thanks, Mr. Evans.”
“Just one thing.”
“If anyone asks, I didn’t know you were planning on covering him, okay? The last thing I need are parents in Benicia thinking I’m encouraging teenagers to go and hang out in Vallejo, let alone to interview creepy old men in Vallejo.”
“I think if I’m going to write a story, it’s going to be a story ‘worthy of being called news.’”
“Shut up, Ben.”
“See ya later, Mr. Evans.”
“Be careful, Ben. Sometimes when you chase ghosts, you end up haunted…”
The weekend came, but my certainly left. As each day moved closer to when I’d actually have the free time to find and interview ‘The Ghost,’ the more hesitant I became.
I didn’t know where to start. How do you walk up to a clearly man, who you assume is mentally unstable and ask him questions for a school project?
As I sat in my car, the car that my parents bought me, I felt like a privileged vulture picking at a corpse discarded by a system with insufficient safety nets.
I felt like a piece of shit.
Who was I to shove a camera phone in this man’s face and take photos? Who was I to tell his story to a bunch of high school kids who lacked sight of his basic humanity and used his visible despair as a subject for gossip and ridicule?
But I needed to tell his story.
I hated the stigma associated with Vallejo. To me, Vallejo was a city of beauty and childhood nostalgia.
I was born in Vallejo, and up until 5th grade, I lived in Vallejo.
I only knew that Benicia existed in theory. My family and I were Vallejo people. My grandfather worked on Mare Island; he didn’t build ships, he was a custodian. He mopped floors, washed toilets and after some time, he was able to buy a modest home on Hayman Avenue in East Vallejo. My father grew up in that house. When my grandfather passed away, that house, bought and paid for with years of my grandfather’s labor, was left to my father. My father, who should’ve been grateful to have property handed to him, seemed unsatisfied with the house on Hayman Avenue.
He seemed unsatisfied with Vallejo.
But I loved that house. When I thought of Vallejo, I didn’t think of crime or bankruptcy. I thought about walking from my house with my friends to Steffan Manor Elementary school and the thrill my friends and I got from listening to local rappers like E-40 and Mac Dre. It made me feel cool when I’d hear them mention Vallejo proudly in their songs. It was elementary school, so we didn’t know what they were talking about in their raps, but we knew we were from Vallejo and they were, too. We felt like we were a part of something special, which was a really unique feeling at that age. Or any age, really…
It was at that moment I decided to go ahead with the story. I was nervous, but growth without nerves usually isn’t growth at all. I turned the key, heard the roar of the engine and began my search for a ghost.
To calm my nerves, I decided to take a scenic route from Benicia to Vallejo. I exited the freeway at Columbus Parkway and drove north on the parkway until I reached where it intersected with Tennessee Street. The view from the top of Tennessee Street was a sight to behold. You could see the entire city from up there. I could see the blue pillars of the Mare Island bridge, the colorful cranes, the transparent fog that settled peacefully on the ever-moving waters of San Pablo Bay. I could see it all.
Most of the eastern-half of Tennessee Street was residential. I passed apartment complexes and postwar homes situated under the shade of mature trees. I felt a longing as my car reached Maple Avenue. I walked up and down Maple Avenue as a child when my family and I lived at the old house on Hayman. A part of me wanted to abandon the interview and just drive by the old house a few times, but my dad sold it. It wasn’t ours anymore.
During the 7 years that had passed since I moved to Benicia, little about Vallejo had changed. I-80 was still used to divide the city across class, if not racial lines. The middle and upper-middle class, if they still decided to live in Vallejo, had a tendency to reside on the eastern half of the city. While there were some exceptions, the majority of the poor and working-class neighborhoods were found west of 80.
Many of the trees that could be found east of 80 were decidedly absent once you crossed the overpass to the western half of Tennessee Street. Homes were more likely to be in disrepair. The area became more commercial. Predatory check cashing businesses, tire shops, weed dispensaries, poorly maintained churches and restaurants that served food from behind bullet proof glass were found not long after the last stretch of tree-lined, quaint suburbia that managed to survive the split just west of I-80. The squalor depressed me as I continued westward to Mare Island.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was approaching the bridge. My anxiety reached a point of crescendo the moment my tires came into contact with the steel in the center of the causeway that produced a loud buzzing noise. The Napa River was far narrower than I had remembered. Or maybe it was always narrow and my nerves made the typically short trip over the water feel shorter.
Mare Island was still desolate. I had heard of redevelopment efforts, but the only evidence of such plans were the signs zip tied to chain link fences surrounding the old barracks announcing that the property was in the hands of a developer called the Clemitz Group and that trespassers would be “prosecuted to the full extent of the law” under some obscure California penal code that no one really gave a fuck about. The warning felt disingenuous. Anyone who attempted to trespass in the derelict buildings on Mare Island likely fell into one of two categories: people who were excited at the idea of exploring the innards of a coastal corpse left by the American empire and the “full extent of the law” for them would likely be a ‘rent-a-cop’ telling them to leave or people who had so little to lose that the threat of the “full extent of the law” was as about as significant of a deterrent as holding in a fart would be in the fight against climate change.
I had no idea what I was doing. I aimlessly drove around a peninsula that was called an island for 30 minutes looking for a man that was called a ghost. Mount Tamalpais loomed in the western horizon. No matter where I drove, the gaze of Mount Tam felt inescapable. Seeing the natural beauty of Marin County in the distance juxtaposed against the twisted structures left to rot as a result of the man-made catastrophe that befell Vallejo made me feel nauseous. Poverty and prosperity was everywhere in America, but in The Bay Area, they were often forced into a staring contest and behind the veneer of civility on behalf of ‘The Haves,’ you could see the subtle smirk, reminding you of your place as a have not.
I continued to roam, until eventually, I spotted it: the shopping cart. It was filled with statues of people and trash bags that contained God knows what. Some of the statues were close enough to completion that you could make out genders, facial expressions and age. The statues that appeared to be of children all seemed happy. Smiles carved into their faces. The ones that appeared to be of adults seemed to be in pain. Some were remarkable in their attention to detail, others looked rushed; incomplete; uninspired.
The shopping cart sat unattended beside a large hole in the chain link fence that surrounded a dilapidated warehouse that appeared to have no other purpose than to look menacing.
I pulled to the side of the road and stopped my car. I took a deep breath as the roar of the engine went silent. Brand new bolt cutters leaned against the fence just inches from the hole. I assumed someone may have assisted ‘The Ghost’ in acquiring such tools. He was too visibly deranged to casually walk into a local hardware stole to purchase, let alone steal tools of any kind. I sat in my car, both hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. I was waiting for any kind of excuse I could deem legitimate enough to not approach this man, to not walk into that creepy looking warehouse, made accessibly by a suspiciously new set of bolt cutters. Some part of me felt that he was waiting in there for me, butcher knife sharpened, salivating at the thought of slitting my throat. I looked at my cell phone as it sat upside down in my excessively-large cup holder that I assume was made to accommodate America’s increasing appetite for 64 oz. soft drinks to wash down their 1/2 pound of heart disease with a side of fries. No calls came, though. No texts. Nothing. No ‘get-out-of-jail-free card.’ If I backed out, it was on me. The universe seemed uninterested in providing me with excuses. I had to choose. So, I did… I got out of my car and walked through the hole in the fence toward the warehouse.
The crunch of broken glass punctuated each step I took inside the vast warehouse. Trash and debris were everywhere. The walls were covered sporadically with graffiti; some of the pieces had artistic merit, others were nothing more than scribbles afforded a larger canvas than the crumbled binder paper they usually call home. I knew this structure was at one point used by the Navy, but despite finally being within the building, there was no indication what its initial purpose may have been.
I continued to move forward until I reached a massive wall with a single door in the middle of it that I instinctively felt would lead me back outside. To my surprise, this large wall divided the warehouse into two sections of similar size. When I opened the door is when I saw them; hundreds of them. The statues were everywhere. Some were life-size, others were so small you could place them in your pocket. I wanted to turn around and run, but I didn’t. I just stood there, trying to wrap my mind around the amount of statues I was looking at. Some were made from wood, and looked like they had been carved with nothing more than a kitchen knife. Others appeared to be made from clay. They seemed to be placed around the warehouse at random. I walked slowly and felt a sickness in my stomach. I smelled smoke and heard the crackle of firewood. There was a hole in the ceiling in the far corner of the warehouse that let a beam of sunlight in. In the clarity of the sun’s partially obscured glow, I could see the smoke. I absentmindedly went toward it, and that’s when I saw him: I found ‘The Ghost’
He sat on the ground directly facing the fire, his legs were crossed. He was still, but his shadow danced wildly with the flames. His skin was as pale as chalk. His long white beard was tan in comparison to the opaqueness of his face. A pile of small wooden statues were burning. I heard him let out a whimper. He was crying…
I just watched. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away, however ‘The Ghost’ seemed unaware of my presence. I felt voyeuristic. I was watching a homeless man cry while he destroyed his own possessions — his own creations. Relief shouldn’t have been the first thing I felt when I witnessed him weep, but it was. When I heard the cries, the sniffles and the moans, I knew he wasn’t a crazed murderer. I knew he wasn’t going to hurt me. He was a person… He had a soul. He was in pain. Just like me or you…
“Are you okay?”
I don’t know why I asked. I just did. My mind was silent. It just came out of my mouth. He slowly turned his head toward me. His tears became visible, they glowed a fiery orange as they streamed down his cheeks until they settled upon the surface of his beard.
“I am, but they’re not,” He said. “They were never given a chance to feel the warmth of the sun or the cool air of an ocean breeze. We’re complicit. All of us, but some more than others. I, more than others and others more than I.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yeah, you do. You just don’t know that you do.”
I began walking toward him. He looked away from me and returned to staring at the pile of small burning statues. As I approached, I felt the warmth of the fire soothe my skin. I don’t know where this sudden bravery came from, but it felt natural. I cleared a spot on the concrete of debris with my foot and sat by the fire. I was directly facing ‘The Ghost.’ He just sat there — eyes focused on the burning pile, tears still streaming down. He was completely uninterested in my being there. I felt purposeless. I just stared at him. I looked into his mournful blue eyes and couldn’t see his pupils, they were hidden by the reflection of the flames. I was transfixed by his eyes. They were bright and beautiful. With the moisture of his sorrows and the blaze that stoked them, the hue of his eyes were reminiscent of the Pacific ocean mirroring a reddish-orange sky produced by a California wildfire.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
His eyes rose above the flames to stare into mine. “I believe people around here have decided to call me ‘Ghost,’ right?”
“You know about that?” Of course he knew about that. I don’t know why I asked such a stupid question…
He didn’t respond. He just stared at me for a moment longer and stood up. This startled me. As he pushed himself off of the ground, I flinched. He retrieved a bucket of water and doused the flames. The fire was reduced to a fast-moving upward surge of steam and smoke that reeked of sulfur. The cold, soot-filled water flowed from the base of the smoldering pile of wooden statues and soaked my pants. “Dude, what the hell?” I said as I sprung to my feet. I looked down and noticed that not only were my pants and shoes wet, they were blackened by the ash carried in by the puddle that surrounded me.
‘The Ghost’ tossed a tattered backpack on a small metal table that was reddened by a layer of rust. He dug his hand inside and felt around for something. I anticipated he was searching for a weapon.
“Listen, I’ll leave. I’m sorry,” I said with a quivering voice.
He stared at me with confusion as he pulled out a sandwich bag filled with joints and a severely dented silver Zippo lighter.
“It’s just weed, kid.”
“Why did you pour water on me?” I asked with an audible mix of fear and anger in my voice.
“Because you need water to put out a fire.”
“You could’ve said something.”
“We could do a lot of things, but we don’t.” He said as he placed the joint between his dry lips. He attempted to light it, but the Zippo didn’t produce a flame, just sparks. He pounded the lighter on the table. I flinched.
“Stop with with the theatrics. I’m not gonna do anything to ya, you little shit. It’s just low on fluid. You gotta better chance of it working if you bang it around a bit, see?”
He flicked the lighter again, and like he said it would, it worked. The scent of marijuana filled the air and overpowered the damp, sulfuric fumes that lingered from the charred statues. He sat down on a metal chair with faded black letters across the backrest that read: PROPERTY OF U.S. NAVY 1977. There were labels like that on nearly everything the Navy left behind in the warehouse. Something as small as a metal cup or as ordinary as a table had to be branded as a product of the United States military. Any system that is powerful enough to upend democratically-elected governments and petty enough to add a stamp of bureaucracy to the production of a single cup is a system you should be afraid of.
“So, kid, what do you want?”
“I’m a student journalist and… I want to do a report about you for my final.”
He stared at me for a moment and then his eyes moved downward. There was shame in his eyes. He took a slow drag off of his joint and slowly exhaled.
“That’s actually very kind of you to consider me, but there’s nothing to report. I’m not newsworthy.”
“But you are,” I said. “Everyone in town wonders about you and there’s even like… local myths about why you make your statues. You’re kind of a famous enigma.”
“A famous enigma, huh? An enigma is a someone who’s a mystery, right?” He asked sarcastically. “I’m not an enigma, you guys just make shit up about me. A mystery is something that is difficult to solve. Anyone could ask me and I’d tell ’em why I create; I do it so hopefully, one day, I can be… forgiven.”
“So, you’ll let me do the interview?”
He deeply inhaled and began to laugh. The laugh turned into a coughing spell. Smoke flew out of his mouth and mucus flung from his nostrils. His brilliant blue eyes reddened. He hawked a loogie and wiped all the excess moisture from his face with the sleeve of his jacket. His jacket was filthy. He didn’t care. Our eyes met and he said “Pull up a chair, kid.” I dragged a rusted chair, covered in thick cobwebs to the table he was sitting at and pulled out my cell phone.
“It is okay to record the conversation?”
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Benjamin, but I go by Ben.”
“Well, that’s a logical thing to go by, Ben. If your name’s Benjamin and you decided you wanted to be called Ralph, I’d wonder what the fuck was wrong with you. Not even people named Ralph want to be called Ralph.”
“What’s your name?” I asked as I wiped old spider webs from the chair and sat down.
“Yes, no one named Ralph lies about the misfortune of being named Ralph. The female equivalent is Karen, my mother’s name.”
I chuckled. ‘The Ghost’ or Ralph had a sense of humor. I was still nervous, but seeing him go from tearful and cryptic to sarcastic and self deprecating made me more confident that the interview would go well.
“So, I can record, right?”
“Go ahead,” He said with a smirk as he lit another joint.
“What’s your full name?”
“Ralph Alexander Wilcotts Jr.”
“Where are you from? Are you from Vallejo or somewhere else in The Bay Area?”
“I wish I was from The Bay Area. I’m from Michigan.”
“Where in Michigan?”
“Warren. It’s a town just outside of Detroit.”
“So, how did you get here?”
“How much do you want to know?”
“I want to know everything.”
“When I was a kid, I always enjoyed creating. First it started with drawing. I used to draw superheroes and people I loved and I’d tape them to the walls of my house. Not just my room, but all over the house. My father would come home from work and tear the drawings down. He would throw them in the trash, but I kept drawing. This happened every day. I’d go to school and right when I got home, I’d sit in my room and I’d draw for hours. Michigan is really cold in the winter and miserably humid in the summer, so being outside wasn’t great like it is here in California. If I was living in a warehouse in Michigan, I would have froze to death a long time ago.”
“Your dad wasn’t supportive of your drawing?”
“He wasn’t supportive of anything or anyone. He wasn’t a builder. He called himself one, but he wasn’t. He destroyed everything he touched.”
“What do you mean he ‘called himself a builder?’”
“He worked at the Bord automotive factory in Detroit. He worked on the assembly line there until I was 12, the day he was laid off from Bord was the day things got bad. Really bad.”
Ralph paused for a moment, his eyes glossed over and he stared into the distance. He crushed the cherry of the joint with the tip of his fingers and without a moment of hesitation, reached into his sandwich bag and lit another. He took a deep drag and exhaled the smoke with a sigh and said “Before he would just come home and throw away my drawings. He would verbally attack me, but he rarely hit me. He was too tired from the factory to hit me, but once he got laid off, it seemed that was all he had the energy to do. He beat the artist out of me. By the time I was 13, I didn’t draw anymore.”
“I’m really sorry, Ralph.”
He looked at me, the blueness of his eyes barely visible as the marijuana turned them into little more than slits. He took another hit and passed me the joint. I don’t know why, but I took it from him. I placed it in my mouth and breathed in deeply and coughed harder than I thought was humanly possible.
“Got them virgin lungs, huh, Ben?”
“I don’t usually smoke weed, this is maybe the 5th of 6th time I’ve done it.” I replied between coughs
“I didn’t smoke weed in high school either. The first time I smoked, I probably coughed even harder than you did.”
“I’m not a huge party person. It distracts me from my homework. I am pretty driven to go far in school so I can be a journalist. A real one. I’d love to write for the Chronicle. I think about it a lot. I know it’s San Francisco and there’s a ton of people there who are always high, but I want my stories to be smart and fun. If you want to write a great story, you have to keep yourself sharp.”
“Yeah, but sometimes life is about more than documenting it, you gotta live it sometimes, too.”
In a way, I knew that he was right, but I didn’t feel like justifying the method I had perceived as the best way to reach my goals to him or anyone else, so I continued with the interview.
“What did you do after you stopped drawing?”
“I’d stay out instead of come home. I’d hang out at the lake or I’d go to Downtown Detroit with my friends. I made a best friend. Tim. His name was Tim… Tim was… Tim.”
Ralph’s eyes shifted suddenly every time he said “Tim.” It was bizarre. Everything about Ralph was bizarre on a surface level, but the way his eyes jolted and widened when reminiscing about Tim truly startled me. There was a madness that could be seen inside of him.
“Tell me about Tim.”
“He taught me a lot about myself and it led to a lot of shit in my life.”
“How’d you and Tim become friends?”
“He betrayed meeeeee!” Ralph screamed as he slammed his own fist into his mouth. He continued to punch himself in the face and grunt. I just sat there. Frozen. My fear had returned. Blood and saliva dribbled out of his mouth. Ralph suddenly became the ‘The Ghost’ to me again. His humanity was stripped away by my nerves… Again.
“How did he betray you?”
Ralph’s eyes were pointed directly at me, but he didn’t see me. He was looking past me — through me. The blood that coated his beard was crimson. It didn’t look like normal bleeding. The backdrop provided by the whiteness of his facial hair gave it a warm glow. His blood had visual qualities that one may first interpret as supernatural, but upon further inspection, would come to the realization that no special or unexplained influence existed here. The only abnormality was mental. The weight of the psychological burden that forced his fists to mangle his flesh was far more difficult to comprehend than the hue of the liquid that spilled from the blunt force.
“He lived a lie and killed me with my truth.”
“What does that mean?”
“Tim was the only friend that would come with me to the abandoned parts of Detroit. Everyone went Downtown, but that was it. They were scared. There were abandoned houses and big industrial buildings kinda like this all over Detroit. Tim would go, everybody else was too pussy. They were scared some black folks were gonna rob ’em.”
“So, basically how people around here treat Oakland?”
“No. Oakland has life; Detroit is death with a zip code.”
“Hmm… That was strangely… Poetic. So what happened in Detroit?”
“At first, nothing. We’d break into boarded up homes, buildings and other abandoned places and find stuff. Some times really cool stuff: movies, toys, books and some times we’d find crazy shit. I can’t tell you how many times we would sneak into some weirdo place and found bums or drug dealers and then we’d run like hell. It hurts to know that I’m what I would have ran from when I was a kid, but in truth, there’s no such thing as youthful nostalgia without longing and a lingering, but distant pain. I don’t believe I’m alone in that feeling. I think it’s the same way for everyone. It’s just more openly visible with someone like me.”
“What do you mean by someone like you?”
“I mean the homeless wear their pain. The scars manifest in actual filth. There’s no junk drawer to put the garbage you’re emotionally attached to in. No quiet room to sit and cry in. It’s all done outside. It’s public. Everyone knows something is wrong, but no one says a word about it. They just hide behind their walls that hold up their roofs and they go insane. Quietly. People aren’t afraid of me because they don’t understand. They’re afraid that they do.”
“So how did Tim betray you? I’m not trying to force you to talk. You can end this interview at any time, I just think it’s significant. It seems that way, at least.”
Ralph looked at me with a sudden focus and asked “your name’s Ben, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“You a faggot, Ben?”
“It’s okay. I am. Do you understand?”
“I’m not gay if that’s what you mean? And what does that ha…”
“It has a lot to do with a lot,” he interjected.
“Is that related to Tim?”
“Tim and I would explore the ruins of Detroit. We were alone together a lot. One day we were drinking in an abandoned house on Detroit’s East Side. We were bonding over us both having shitty fathers who sat at home all day waiting on a phone call from a car company that would never come. Whoever lived in the house before it got boarded up left a stereo system with a tape deck and record player attached. The place still had electricity. Which was pretty fuckin’ weird lookin’ back on it. Tim had a David Bowie cassette and we put it in the tape deck and the thing worked. We sat there, drunk as shit listening to “The Man Who Sold The World” and he kissed me. I kissed him back… And my life as I knew it began to end.”
Ralph’s eyes shifted toward the floor. “My father didn’t have much use for me before, but learning that his son was a fag gave him all the excuse he needed to get rid of me.”
“How did he even find out?” I asked.
The shame in Ralph’s eyes had been replaced with what I could only describe as a latent rage: a hatred never truly expressed in full form. The type of rage that isn’t a result of a global injustice, but the pain of letting someone inside your sanctuary, only for them to burn it down.
“I don’t like to talk about this, but I will because no one talks to me at all and it’s nice to hear a voice that isn’t an echo of my own every now and then.”
And then there was silence… It didn’t last for more than 30 or 40 seconds, but it felt longer. I was uncomfortable and I wanted the silence to end. “Are you still capable of hope?” I asked.
He focused his glare on me.
“Anyone is capable of anything. It’s something you learn, Ben. And once you learn, you shouldn’t forget it.”
And I wouldn’t…
“Tim and I spent time together whenever we could. Which was pretty much all the time. We didn’t explore Detroit’s ruins as much and went to the same house on the East Side of Detroit. It was basically our second home. No one came to bother us. They were all too scared. We had it all there. We had electricity, music, and most importantly, we had each other. At least I believed that we did.”
His blue eyes blazed with brightness as he reminisced about the moments he shared in the abandoned house on Detroit’s East Side with Tim.
“We listened to music! We listened to so much music. We used to go to the record stores and find good deals on tapes and we’d save our lunch money and buy them to bring back to the house. We’d listen to all the good shit: David Bowie, ACDC, Queen, Velvet Underground, Michael Jackson, Prince. We used to argue over who was better Michael or Prince. We both knew it was Michael, he wouldn’t admit it, but I knew that he knew. That’s not to take anything away from Prince, he was such a talented artist!”
“It sounds like Tim meant a lot to you.”
“Everything was too good to be true, so naturally, it wasn’t.”
Discomfort: I felt discomfort, but a subtle fascination. I never truly understood how a single event could shape or disfigure someone in such a permanent way. However, I was about to find out. One event can really change everything. Humans are fragile. Ralph was human, Ralph was fragile. He wasn’t a ghost. Even if everyone around him pretended he was. He wasn’t.
“We were on the porch of the abandoned house. Our house. On the entire street there was only two homes that had people living in them. The neighborhood was shit, but the street was quiet, it had already been destroyed, there was nothing left to take, or so I thought.”
“Did you guys get beat up or robbed?” I genuinely asked.
He smiled. “That would have honestly been preferable,” he said. “I would have gladly gotten the shit kicked out of me by every thug in Detroit rather than what actually happened.”
“So what did actually happen?”
“Cops. Or a cop. One our friend’s dad was a Detroit city cop. Even though barely anyone lived on the street where we hung out, the cops used to patrol the shit out of East Detroit. It was black and poor and several blocks of it were abandoned. It was an ideal place for cops to kick the living shit out of people without any repercussions.”
“Were you arrested?”