I awake to the murmur of voices from another room, the babble of words falling together, white noise like the ocean on a distant beach. I lay for a moment thinking the voices are the remainder of a waking dream, but as I rise to consciousness the susurrus is clearly audible, rolling in from the glowing center of the house.
Alarm stiffens me and I clutch at the covers. I live alone, a solitary life, and the voices can only be intruders, bent on what I cannot imagine. A hard afternoon glare assaults the windows. I look at the clock. I have somehow slept through to the early afternoon, knocked out by last night’s whiskey and sleeping pills, safe and comatose to the world until this rude intrusion.
If only I had my phone, I could call someone, the police, a friend, and seek out help, but the phone is in the same direction as the voices, trapping me in my bed. I am doomed. I listen intently now, straining to hear conversation, but the talk is too distant, too subdued, as if the voices are aware that I am sleeping and are trying not to wake me. I hear soft movements as they walk around, perhaps sizing up the worth of my possessions, perhaps sealing my fate, perhaps bent on mayhem..
Is there some event I am hosting that I have taken leave of? Have my guests assembled without me and are carrying on knowing my predilection to reverse night and day? Could I be the victim of some kind of practical joke? Have my friends convened for an intervention and are waiting to confront me about my lack of a life? They all seem like unlikely explanations as my mind churns, trying to rationally propose an explanation for what I am hearing.
And what I am hearing sounds more like a cocktail party than a crime in progress. I hear friendly, warm tones, lilting laughter, gentle guffaws, the clink of ice cubes against glass. Another question arises and troubles me. Why have my guests not checked on me? Why have they not roused me? Why am I not included in the festivities in my own house? Again I return to the central question: What the hell is going on?
Curiosity is a powerful force. I rise, still stiff from sleep, naked as a newborn, and ease across the room and peek around the edge of the door. Looking down the hallway, the first person I see is my ex-wife talking animatedly with a man I do not recognize. Though I have not seen my ex in more than twenty years, it clearly is she, older, frumpier, a different hair style, but there she is. The man she is talking to turns in profile and after a few seconds I recognize my best friend from my college days. Two younger women, giggling as they cross the room together toward the kitchen, pass out of view. I have no idea who they are.
A sense of outrage begins to well up. These people, whatever they are doing, are uninvited, unwanted, unwelcome. Plain and simple they are trespassers, breakers and enterers. Whoever they are, they have no right to be socializing on my turf. How rude. I decide to confront the situation head on. I quickly pull on a velour sweatsuit and take a quick glance in the mirror to be sure I am presentable. Reassured by my comely good looks, I move boldly toward the living room.
There is no reaction when I enter the room, no heads turn, conversation continues apace. In fact, it is I who is taken aback. There are even more people than I imagined and their coldness in ignoring me seems creepy and odd. I stand rigidly and take census: My old drug dealer, my therapist, several former girlfriends, an army buddy, a pizza delivery boy, and an old woman I slowly recognize as my childhood nanny. But most of the assembled are unknown to me, strangers, though they seem to possess a troubling air of familiarity.
I consider just ordering them all out, clearing the room, but in the end I cannot resist trying to fathom the common cause that has brought them together. I make myself a strong drink and begin wandering around to the knots of standing attendees, eavesdropping on the conversations. They continue to ignore me as if I do not exist.
My ex is holding forth in one of the larger groups. I sidle up and listen.
“. . . and then I found out about the sluts he was bringing into our bed and even for that I was able to forgive him, but when I found out about my sister . . .” She stops, sentence unfinished, gulps and shakes her head. I slip away and approach another group.
“.He always complained that the pizzas were cold, but I think he was just trying to get out of tipping, which he never did, not even once.”
My old drug dealer nods in knowing agreement.
“Same thing he did to me, only worse. Claimed my coke was too stepped on. He stiffed me for thousands. ”
As I circulate I quickly realize that I am the subject of all the talk.
“He gave me herpes.”
“He told his parents I molested him and I ended up in jail for six months. Of course no one would hire me as a nanny after that. It ruined my life.”
“He stole my granny’s ruby ring.”
“The son of a bitch wrecked my Jag.”
“I’m pretty sure he poisoned my cat.”
“My mom killed herself after he dumped her on her birthday.”
“He forced me to have an abortion.”
“I found out he was the father. My marriage never recovered from that.”
Alarmed, I retreat to my bedroom to reassess things. There I take big slugs from my drink and think, what can I do? My standard behavior would be to deny everything, but I don’t think this will work against the mass of accusations against me. I squirm, seeking a way out. Maybe I am hallucinating, I think, and none of this is real. It certainly has an surreal quality to it Even worse, maybe I’m dead and I’ve just witnessed my own wake. That would explain why I don’t seem to be a part of things given that I am not a ghost and not even visible. The whiskey and sleeping pills have finally killed me.
In the end, I find a very obvious way out, the bedroom window. I pull up the blinds, throw open the sash, push out the screen and hop out onto the lawn. I get in my car and drive away, problem solved. I have no particular place to go, so I drive around the streets, wondering how long I will have to wander before returning home. After an hour of cruising, I am bored and irritated at being forced from my home by a bunch of petulant whiners.
As I am driving by the pizza place, an idea hits me, a chance to put in a little complaint of my own. I park, go in and ask for the manager. I go off on the delivery boy, making up vicious allegations, claiming he has cursed, stolen, kicked my dog, propositioned my wife. A talented liar, I wax creative and the manager, unlike my accusers at home, listens. Apparently I am not dead, but alive and kicking.
The manager asks for the name of the delivery person and I do not know it but I describe the little peon to him and he nods his head in recognition.
“He was one of my best drivers,” he begins. “Sadly, he died in a car crash on his way home from work just a few days ago.” The manager turns on his heel and leaves me standing there agape.
Thoughts whirl inside my head. Stunned I walk back out to the parking lot and sit in the car a while thinking. There is a pay phone outside the pizza place. I drop in some coins and dial the number of my old dealer, a number I still know by heart. His live-in answers and she confirms his death, by speedball overdose, six months earlier. I dial up my mother and learn that my nanny passed over in a nursing home years ago and, she adds, did I know my therapist had very recently committed suicide?
I do not believe in ghosts, I tell myself as I drive home, seeking by my will alone to exorcise them from my house. I park and climb back in the window and for a moment I hear nothing and I think it is over, all a bad episode that has passed. But then I hear them again, grumbling softly, distant voices like the sound of thunder from a far off approaching storm. I climb back into bed and pull the covers up over my head.