There was a ghost in the car with me. It surprised me that he showed up, it’s been a long, long time. But I am glad to see him.
I ask what the occasion is.
“Oh,” he says. “I just came to say ‘hello.’”
The ghost looks just like me. Or rather, I look like him. We are close in age—he was only forty-one when he died.
I still miss him.
Anyway, he and I drive past prairies and cotton fields. The sky has never been so blue. The music on the radio has never been better. Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits.
Salve to the ears.
My father used that word a lot. “Salve.” There was no such thing as “ointment,” “balm,” “Mentholatum,” or “Vaseline.” To him, everything was salve.
He would rub salve on my sunburns every summer—I spent three quarters of my life sunburned. Redheads are like that, of course. Fair-skinned people like me can’t mention the sun without blistering.
A lot of redheads are also allergic to poison ivy. In fact, I can’t bear to talk about this subject. I’m sorry I even brought it up.
My father would rub salve on all my rashes. He was every bit as redheaded as I was. Every bit as fair.
I’m passing Kinston, Opp, Elba, and Brantley.
I pull over at a gas station. I buy black licorice, Coca-Cola, and hot dogs. He loved black licorice. He loved hotdogs.
Funny, I forget most of the things he hated, but I remember what he loved.
On the road again. There’s not a cloud for miles. His arm is dangling out the window. Mine is too. Willie is still singing. I’ve already finished my Coke and dog. He hasn’t touched his.
Luverne, Rutledge, Highland Home.
He’s not telling stories today. So, I’m remembering some of my own.
I remember the time I fell off the tire swing and knocked the wind out of myself. He came running. He lifted me by my belt and shook me—I’ve never understood how that helps.
The time rural hoodlums played Homerun Derby with our mailbox. My father, the stick welder, spent three days welding an iron mailbox. He sunk the mailbox post six feet deep. He painted it to look like wood.
One morning, we found a bat lying near the mailbox. I can only imagine how it got there.
And I’m suddenly tired of driving. I pull my truck into the parking lot of my hotel. There’s a hayfield behind this place. I see bales, big oaks, and clouds.
I shut the engine off.
The ghost is slumped in his seat. He’s staring through my windshield the same way he used to stare when he’d get depressed.
Long ago, he’d park in our field after work and stare. I’d see his truck in the distance and come running.
His eyes would be red from crying. I never knew what he was crying about. So, I tried to entertain him. For years, in fact, I believed that my sole purpose in life was to entertain him. Or to make him laugh, even. I did make him laugh.
That must count for something.
I wasn’t the a kid who could pull off double plays, run fast, or bring home straight A’s. But I could make a depressed man grin.
We’ve had a good day driving. But I’m tired. I ask him, “Can’t you stay a little longer?”
I don’t want him to go. I’ve still got things left to tell him. Decades of things. About his daughter’s daughter. About his widow’s boyfriend.
I want him to know about me. When he took his own life, I was a kid. Today, I’m a man.
But he didn’t come for that. He didn’t come to eat hot dogs or learn things. He only came to say “hello.”
He’s any ghost of a deceased loved one, he knows that no matter how old we get, no matter how much time goes by, we never stop wondering why they left us. We never stop missing them.
So, he came to rub balm on my heart.
No. Not balm. Salve.