Unheard Words

The streetcar came out of its barn every Sunday. Like a relic from an era long forgotten, it ding-ding-rattled down the center of Transverse Street near City Park. The restored streetcar lurched, jerked, impeded impatient cars as it moved through the shadows of high modern towers. It halted long and inconveniently. Few people rode it.

A traveling businessman who needed to be at the convention center in no more than twenty minutes stepped aboard.

The streetcar driver was waving his arms while he waited for the traffic light to turn. He was engaged in a conversation.

“Who’re you talking to?” asked the anxious businessman, sitting down in one of the empty seats near the driver.

“That’s Edmund,” explained the driver.

“What?”

“That’s Edmund. He used to manage a cannery north of the pier where the aquarium is these days, but that was well over a century ago,” explained the driver, smiling up at the businessman’s reflection in the rear view mirror.

“What are you talking about? I don’t see anybody.”

“That’s because Edmund has been dead for over a hundred years. He likes to ride through the city and remember those old days. He tells me stories that everyone else has forgotten.”

The businessman stared at the back of the driver’s head. “Are you crazy?”

“No, I’m not. What’s that? Edith says I’m crazy. No, Edith, everyone in the car thinks the only crazy one here is you.”

The businessman rapidly turned about and observed rows of narrow, empty seats. He wondered if the ramblings of this apparently deranged driver would make him late. He looked out an antique green-tinted window at rush hour traffic and people hurrying down the sidewalk and decided it would be smart to remain quiet.

The traffic light finally changed. The driver started the streetcar with a sudden jerk. Waving his arms, he resumed his former conversation.

“You’re right, Edmund. It’s exactly like those old days leading up to the war. Everyone getting ready for the future. People coming and going, worrying how to survive should the worst happen. Nothing ever seems to change. He’s probably going somewhere important. No, I’m sure the man thinks his trip is very important. Can’t you tell by the way he’s dressed? There’s no point saying that. He can’t see or hear you, Edmund–you know perfectly well that you’re nothing but a sad, used-up ghost. So why do you keep trying to talk to the living? What’s that Stanley? What did you say?”

The streetcar driver looked up at his rear view mirror and addressed the increasingly annoyed businessman: “Stanley sees you live in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Which is an amazing coincidence. That’s where his grandchildren live.”

The businessman jerked his head back, startled. “What the hell? Who told you that?”┬áHis intense aggravation with the driver turned to angry suspicion.

“Stanley was born in Brookfield many years ago,” explained the smiling driver. “He was raised there, in a farmhouse a few miles from Al Capone’s distillery. Then he moved here to the city and died from a series of strokes two years later. He has an important message for you. He wants you to inform his grandchildren who still live in Brookfield that he loves them.”

The streetcar bell dinged as it pulled into a station. The doors flapped open. The businessman bolted from his seat and fled. Not a living soul boarded.

The driver pulled a handle to shut the door. He started the slow streetcar again with another jerk.

“No, Stanley, that man is gone. All of this talking scared him away. I’m sorry. You know I have no control over the actions of people. No, I can’t go after him–who would drive? You say you would? A ghost? Someone with two hands has to drive!

“I realize you tried your best but you couldn’t reach him. I’m really sorry. You love your grandchildren. You love them with all your heart. You want Seth and Marge to know you still think of them. You want them to know you still love them.

“Eventually somebody else who still lives in your small town will take a ride with us. Be patient. Somebody will.”

A Ship Without Ghosts

Simon had felt curious about the century-old ferryboat. That’s why he sat for a few minutes in the center of the elegant passenger deck. Nobody else was present. Even on an early Saturday afternoon, the museum ship was dead.

As he rested on one of the many varnished wooden benches, Simon was touched with wonder. The eternal sun was beaming through the wide, open windows on the port side; it shined through panels of stained glass that crowned every window. Rays of bright colors made small rainbows in floating dust. Obviously, ordinary people had once traveled in high style. Light reflecting off the water outside twinkled on carved rosettes in the ivory-like ceiling. The spacious passenger deck seemed almost holy: perfect, light-filled, quiet.

Empty and quiet.

Simon tried to imagine passengers sitting all around him on those rows and rows of elegant benches. He tried to imagine what they might talk about, crumpled newspapers in hand. He tried to imagine what they wore, their facial expressions, their innumerable stories, their hardships and destinations.

He struggled to see it.

Simon did observe in a shadowed corner near the ceiling a place where the wood was rotted. He noted dust under the benches, mildew along window sills, missing tiles on the dirty turquoise and gold checkered floor.

“Do you have any questions?” a voice startled him.

He turned about to see a white-bearded museum docent. The gentleman in a ratty sea captain’s cap stood with a small smile, patiently awaiting a question.

To his own surprise, Simon’s mind was blank. So many vague questions–he really didn’t know what to say. None of it seemed to matter.

“Why does nobody come here?” Simon finally asked, ending an uncomfortable silence.

“People no longer care about ships,” came the smiling reply. “Ships are old news.”

“Old news?”

“Passengers don’t travel by ship anymore. Not the way they once did. People nowadays just see them in television or movies. Pirate ships, mostly.”

“But aren’t people even curious to see what it was like to ride on a vintage ferryboat? When I was a very young child I rode on an amazing old ferryboat. I still remember the shining ornamental brasswork. I remember that feeling of floating on the water, and gazing out a window at the sparkling bay. I remember my sister buying me a Hershey’s candy bar from a man in a uniform behind a polished counter. It wasn’t that long ago.”

“Look around at this big crowd. How curious do you think people are?”

“I see what you mean.”

The docent smiled. “Any more questions?”

“Yes. Wait–” Simon searched his mind. “I don’t get it. There are thousands of people who drive down the highway past this old ship every single day, going to and from work, or going somewhere else, but nobody even wants to stop and take a look inside? Do you think that’s because people are too busy?”

“Yes, everybody’s busy. But there’s no need to stop. See this?” The man pulled from his pocket a brand new smartphone. “Today every one of us carries a tiny universe in the palm of our hand. Everyone can see a nice picture of everything.”

“But it isn’t real!”

“Oh, yes it is.”

“But what about the sea breeze coming through the windows . . . and the ship’s roll . . . and the salty smell . . . and the wood’s shine? What about the piercing cries of gulls above . . . and the sparkling water below . . . and sunlight through stained glass? What about the faint echoes of those who lived . . . words spoken stranger to stranger over crumpled newspapers? The infinite stories that speak from the dust?”

“Only this ship’s ghosts can remember those things,” replied the white-bearded docent.

The old man waved his smartphone, jammed it back into his pocket. “And ghosts, as you know, don’t exist.”

“But you– And me–”

The man turned away.