By John Thomas Tuft
“Her only friend was named trouble, and he was back in town,” sang the singer at the piano. Helen sat in the hotel bar, lost in her thoughts. When her grandmother’s mantel clock broke when Helen was a little girl, she wondered if time would disappear, or at least stand still, but that had not happened. Now, with 40 in the rearview mirror, when her heart broke, she hoped the pain would drown her, but the hurt was still there and, sadly, so was she. She was tired of being alone and afraid of being known. If depression is anger turned inward, then she was thoroughly vexed to the point of self-hatred. “Was it all a mistake?” she asked herself for the hundredth time. “Maybe I’m just not supposed to be happy.” It was the end of one more in a series of relationships that always seemed to end with the lament, “why do men treat me so badly?”
As she sips her white wine, a woman half her age slips onto the next stool. Her unlined face belies the worry and weight in her eyes as she orders some Tennessee Honey. They sip in silence for a time, while their minds commit to the spuddle of stray worries. As the man at the piano does his best imitation of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”, the younger one finally mutters, “We’re just like starghosts, aren’t we?” Helen spins to face her, eyes wide. “What did you just say?” The other woman said, “Have you ever been in so much pain it felt like your soul was being sucked right out of you?” “Only every day,” confirms Helen. “I’m Rachel,” says the woman, adding, “You’ve heard of starghosts before?” Helen tries to compose herself. She nervously took another sip, hoping that the trembling in her hand does not betray her. “My father used to say that.”
“What?! My Uncle Robbie used to say it to me,” said Rachel. “He really wasn’t my uncle, but he was somebody special when I was a little girl.” Helen grew thoughtful, “My father used to take me outside to look at the stars. He’d tell me to think about how far away they are. So far, he’d say, that the light from a star that died long before I was even born, might just now be reaching my eyes. Kind of like a ghost, gone long ago, but me being able to see its light that very night.” She was surprised to feel tears gathering in her eyes. “A little girl, standing there looking up at the night, with her dad. Seeing Starghosts.” She looked away and ran her finger around the edge of her wineglass before adding, “And who knows where that light goes after I see it.”
“Maybe on to another little girl?” ventured Rachel. “Uncle Robbie would stop in to see how I was doing and show me the stars from up on the roof. I remember that he seemed so big, so strong and invincible. The stars would reflect in his eyes and it seemed like the moon made his badge glow. That’s what I remember when I think about starghosts.” Helen nodded. “Was he a cop? My Daddy was a policeman for the city. Wonder what he would say if he saw me now, wishing this would all end. Wallowing in self pity.” Rachel smiled, “I know what Uncle Robbie would say. Same thing he always said when I wondered about all the crime and suffering that he had to deal with: ‘They’re just people, child. Just people.’” She sighed. Helen added, “He always told me, ‘Remember, death is not a punishment for living,’ when I worried about all the danger.”
Then she went on, in a quiet voice, “I was away at college, but I still think about that and the night he didn’t come home. Stopped a car, didn’t know there was an escaped convict inside, with a gun…” Her voice trailed off. Rachel’s face betrayed her anguish. “That’s how Uncle Robbie died, too. A few years before that, when I was little, my parents were driving through a fierce thunder storm. Another car spun out and hit us, knocked us into a ditch full of fast water. Next thing I knew, an angel was pulling me out of the rushing water, taking me to safety. It was him. My parents were hurt, so he stayed with me. Wrapped me in blanket, comforted me, showed me the stars. After that I always called him Uncle Robbie and he called me Rachie. He said Sgt. Johnson was too formal for friends. When he died, it felt like punishment.”
Helen dropped her glass, eyes wide. “Sergeant Johnson? Robert Johnson? Pittsburgh City Police Department? But…but…” Rachel covered her mouth with her hand, her voice quivering. “Yes. Do you mean…your father? My Uncle Robbie is your daddy?” They stared blankly until mutual grief overwhelmed and they came into each other’s arms. When she could talk, Helen started to laugh through the tears. “You know what that means, don’t you? That makes us his starghosts.”
And she was right.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.