During the Roaring Twenties an amusement park stood along the Pacific Ocean. Anchored by a massive pier, its rollercoaster extended partially over the water. The Depression took a share of the park’s business, but the death of two children flung from one of the coaster’s cars into the sea never to be found delivered the park’s first death knell. The Forties wielded the final blow. The park was demolished, its steel girders used in the war effort. Now, in 1950, the rollercoaster’s barnacle incrusted footers visible only at low tide and the pier are all that remain.
The beginning and ending of life is no big deal, it seems to me. The middle—that’s the hard part, the part that falls down around you. I come to this spot along the seashore on occasion, but there is no catharsis. The pull of the tide and the moonlit stretch of sand is haunting. The night itself seems to breathe as the age-old siren of the sea sings her haunting lullaby. The timbre of her voice is enchanting, a beacon to confused souls. I’ve heard her before, one of the pleasures or curses of living at the edge of the primordial deep. I think about wounds to the heart, those that will never scab over. I stare into the oblivion, both beautiful and horrifying, and think of seafarers lost at sea in pursuit of illusions. Then I think again about my dead fiancée, the maiden in the moonlight, the woman who disappeared into the abyss. I can see her running out of the surf laughing, sparkles of seawater dancing on her skin, returning from the watery grave, for she has become one of my troubling ghosts.
I slip my hand into a breast pocket and produce a cigarette. The flame of my lighter provides no enlightenment as it finds the tobacco. I inhale deeply, exhale … and listen until the two year old memory envelops me.
It was a delicious June night. The landscape along the water’s edge was bright under the watchful eye of a silvery moon spilling light on the sea’s surface like a narrow path to the unknown. Katherine was twenty-six. I was thirty-two. We left an all-night party for a late night swim. I parked my jalopy on a bluff and we ran past the dunes to the shore barefooted. “Go ahead. Get wet,” I teased. Her fingers pulled free of mine. She wiggled out of her clothes so that only the moonlight covered her nakedness. She looked over her shoulder, laughed, and waded out near the old pier. I swayed with inebriation as I watched her instead of joining … up until the moment I could see her no longer.
I called to her, but the only sounds to accompany the hiss of the lazy surf was a siren song heard for the first time, but not the last. And something else. Even in my drunkenness and through shouts for Katherine, I could swear I heard the voices of children calling to her as well.
Too much to drink? Who knows? My only company now is another June moon watching with a vapid eye camouflaged just slightly in a cradle of cirrus clouds. The water repeatedly creeps onto the shoreline like an eyelid closing over the sand before returning from whence it came. The metronomic certainty of its cadence should be soothing, but on this particular night, the shells and seaweed floating to and fro with each indifferent wave reminds me of the bodies of GIs left to loll in the surf on Normandy Beach. I fight against unbidden anger as I look out to sea. It rises and retreats like the tide. An eerie moment of silence between slaps of surf is like the silence before a scream, the following wave mimicking the rhythmic beating of my heart. I listen and wonder what life is other than a deceptive danse macabre all the way to an oblivious end of the line.
The nasty thing about memories is they can come back to haunt you. There is much speculation about what is beyond that long tunnel with the bright light at the end, but a popular theory holds that when a dead person is resentful about being dead, they can hang around and pester the living. Ghosts might be spirits looking for resolution so they can be at rest, but it’s difficult to know how to help them along.
The past is not something you can tuck into a file cabinet and mark the folder Confidential, nor can it be packed in a box and thrown in the closet never to be opened. There is no burying a ghost, it seems.
My name is Sam O’Donnell. I’m a detective who works alone, unless you consider Jim Beam my silent partner. Of course, there are my ghosts. “We all walk with the dead,” a savvy cop once told me. That same cop put a bullet into his brainpan a few years later. I hope it wasn’t because of his ghosts. I have two: Crystal and Katherine.