In 1997, when my father moved to heaven, I moved to New Mexico. He had been ill for a long time. I had tended to him for at least a year. He went the way of many. Shortly after, perhaps too shortly after, I filled a yellow truck with books, magazines, a mattress, four green shirts and three pairs of jeans, and I headed toward the sun from Jacksonville.

A highway married another and then another until I had trucks on both sides and the view grew blurry with soot and smog.

My first real stop was at a Delta casino. To stop was to go with the flow, actually, for all the truckers were stopping too, so it felt right. I figured I would play a little before dinner, and then retire to a fine motel.

I wasted 180 bucks and walked out dizzy with the sound of electronics still ringing in my ears to an early and bright morning sun. I was there all night. I bought a beef stick and an energy drink at a gas station and got right back on the road.

I got a little excited at two in the afternoon and thought I could keep driving nonstop to Clovis. Then, at 4 pm, I suddenly grew lightheaded and couldn’t tell a road sign from the back of my shoe. I grew obsessive with the idea that I couldn’t for the life of me remember having driven through Alabama. Yet Alabama comes before Mississippi, does it not?

I pulled up anywhere, and anywhere turned out to be Abilene. I checked into a nice motel and collapsed on the bed. My hands still reeked of quarters. I woke up at 5 am, washed my head on the sink, drove down to some greasy spoon diner, and downed me a four-egg omelet. It was the first real meal I had had in weeks. Ten aunts had not been able to convince me to put fork to mouth after my father’s funeral. I had lived on purple Gatorade and Crunch bars for the longest time during his decline. I flatly refused sit-down meals, or anything warm. If my father couldn’t have a proper meal, why would I?

I was rapidly gaining weight, and it was becoming quite obvious to those around me. An aunt, somber as a mortician, told me how fat forms around the heart muscle and eventually hugs it to death. But I wanted to die, anyway. I wanted my heart to explode into a million pieces. I wanted twelve angry Spaniards to eat my heart bits in a paella while drinking bitter early-grape wine and toasting to fascism or anarchy.

Truth is, I wanted out. I was first quietly sad, but then quickly turned sour and violent. I spit at the laptop of the funeral home guy that sold us the headstone. At home, I tossed a perfectly good bowl of black beans to the floor. After spitting in it, of course.

A successful uncle with a bit of clout in the family appeared out of nowhere. He assumed that I remembered him well. He did look familiar. I had probably seen him twice when I was eight or nine. He had several of my mom’s feature traits. He smelled heavily of French cologne. He lectured me wide and long. I held back my drive to spit at the little man that played polo on his shirt. He wanted me to talk to a psychiatrist that he knew, a very reasonable, open-minded guy, he said, someone who could level even with a volatile type like me. He didn’t use ‘volatile,’ he used ‘bohemian’ or ‘unconventional.’ In any case, I negotiated it down to an old social worker from Medicare that had come to visit my father occasionally when he was already gravely ill. He accepted after I promised to never again spit at anything.

I kept my side of the deal. He disappeared. He left his business card behind. Indeed, he wore the same last name as my mother. He was a lawyer or an accountant, or both, some kind of honorable hybrid professional. He was the type too.

I met the poor social worker twice and she didn’t get more than one-syllable answers from me. After our second meeting, she suggested we pause, and that I call her back when I feel ready to open up and let my guard down.

I made it to Clovis smack at noon. It was destiny, it seemed, no matter how I played my cards, like buttered toast hitting the floor buttered face down, I would arrive smack at noon, midsummer, at what was almost no man’s land, a pack of stray dogs barking at their own shadows. It felt great. I was somewhere where I knew nobody, and where nobody knew me, a random town in the middle of the desert. Nobody I had to smile to. Here I could let my guard down, if ever.

That I did. In such a place it happens even if you don’t want to. The desert makes you do it. First I got a shitty warehouse job and rented an efficiency at a rundown building downtown. I settled down. First month was as normal as could be. I accommodated into the routine. But then odd things started happening.

The psychiatrist my uncle had recommended to me started popping up in my dreams. He had an attitude and said the most random things. He said his billing rate was the same in dreams as was in real life. He also said I could not refuse his services, for one does not control one’s dreams. He said I should just lay down and relax; but hell, I was already sleeping, so that was a given. We had nightly sessions. He started by asking me whether I had any theories of why I had moved to New Mexico. He asked the question, but then answered it himself before I could muster an answer of my own. He said New Mexico’s environment was obviously a sort of dreamscape, and the fact that I had chosen to move there was in itself a blatant symptom of my escapism, of the way I settled things by not settling them.

I woke up each morning feeling encroached, feeling as if my private realm of dreams had been profaned. However, it made me appreciate my waking life even more, all those hours when I was free to roam outside the grip of psychoanalysis and its constant barrage of questions.

With time, however, I adapted to the nightly sessions. After all, Mr. Psychiatrist had all the answers himself, so I was truly but a spectator in this ordeal. He had questions, and answers, all the way back to why I had chosen to sit in the last row in my high school classroom, or why I had avoided looking at my mother in the eyes since my father died, and everything in between. So, I just listened in with curiosity, and got used to brushing it off, as I woke up each morning, as what it was, the stuff and revelations of dreams.

When I felt I had settled in the dreamworld as much as I had settled in my waking life, a ghost appeared to me on the way back from work while I waited for the bus. Keep in mind that night in Clovis falls like a stone from the sky, so there is little in the way of dusk or magic hour per se. It’s as if New Mexico’s wide-open sky has no memory, and the merriness of daytime quickly dissipates in a void. We, its nighttime citizens, are like prisoners, debtors, escapees, daytime’s exiles awaiting light’s return.

The ghost that appeared was my father. He appeared as night fell and stood by my side under the flimsy bus stop roof. Had it not been him, I may have dismissed it as one of those bus stop apparitions that plague lonely commuters everywhere.

He was upset. His initial qualm had also to do with my choosing to move to New Mexico. He insisted that New Mexico was but an outer suburb of heaven; same vibe, same light, just different bus routes. Why, then, had I not moved to heaven instead? Might as well, he said. We would have then shared the experience. He wouldn’t have to visit me as a ghost, and shlep his soul all the way there to meet me.

Shortly after that encounter happened, Mr. Psychiatrist asked me why I had started meeting with my father. He answered, as was his style, saying that longing was a mighty weapon, a weapon factory, really. He suggested I put a stop to those encounters. It very much felt like a ghost suggesting I stop hanging out with another ghost. Turf rivalry, so to speak.

With the ghost of my father, it turned out, there was only that one topic: Why had I settled in New Mexico? Why? Why? Why not heaven instead? I never answered him. I looked back at his ghostly eyes blankly and left him standing there as I boarded the bus every time.

But ghosts, it turns out, are more persistent than most. They wait for buses longer than mortals and wait for answers longer too. Dad’s ghost was always there, without fail, when I showed up to wait for the 5:15 to Downtown. His demeanor, his face, his entire body said ‘Why?’ Or more like a ‘How could you?’ Really.

Mr. Psychiatrist also grew more persistent with time. He had more questions and more answers, which now revolved mainly about my recurrent meetings with my dad’s ghost. He had a theory that doing so was like a penance, my way to get back at myself for everything that I felt I had not been able to say, think or do during his lifetime, during the time we had shared.

One day, I finally mustered the courage to answer back to the ghost of my father. I let the 5:15 bus go with a dismissive wave and turned to face him. “You wanna know why? I’ll tell you why,” I said. “Because I forgive myself for all that I was not able to say, think or do while you were here. That’s why. That’s why we don’t have to live in the same plane. Not now, anyway.” It was as if I had uttered the magic words. As I boarded the next bus, my father’s ghost finally smiled a little, a Mona Lisa smile, but a smile nonetheless, and he vanished before the bus accelerated, and never came back.

That night I slept like a baby, and Mr. Psychiatrist has never appeared in my dreams since.


Michael Ben is a writer based in Florida and focused on self-help fiction, urban fantasy, utopias/dystopias, comedy, and satire. He published his first novel, ‘Adiós Polanco’, using Amazon’s self-publishing platform in 2014. His work has appeared in the San Antonio Review, Letralia, and a Main Street Rag anthology, among others.