Sunday, June 05, 2011

Encountering ghosts in my imagination and along the North Platte River

I take lots of notes at any gathering I attend. Old habit from my days as a reporter. And, as a writer, I never know when or where I might find ideas for the next story.

This weekend at the Wyoming Writers, Inc., conference in Casper, I heard many good stories. Historical novelist Lucia St. Clair Robson has parlayed her background as a librarian into a career where she researches and writes novels about the Apaches' "Apacheria," Comanches, the U.S.-Mexico War, Episcopalian settlers to The New World, warlords in feudal Japan and many others. She finds many fascinating facts while conducting research. Facts are important but it is the real people she attempts to portray.

I was drawn to her opening session on Saturday because she named it after a James Thurber short story: "The Night the Ghost Got in." Thurber, she said, didn't believe in ghosts. Neither does she, but she lives with the ghosts of people she's met in her research and the characters who have sprung from it. During a school residency a few years ago, Lucia admitted that she lived with ghosts. One student warily asked: "They're not here with you now, are they?"

For writers, the ghosts are always with us. My characters live with me while I'm writing about them. They are with me now. This gives me the distracted, absent-minded professor persona that my wife Chris loves so dearly. They feed my dreams. In fact, I don't dream if I'm not writing. If I'm writing well, the dreams become vivid and strange. They've led to a few nightmares.

Speaking of nightmares, they happen regularly in real life. During a break in yesterday's action, I walked the Casper riverwalk along the North Platte. The water is high and flowing fast. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. On the far bank, some teens were swimming in the pools created by the rising water. Probably not a great idea but it was hot and the water was cool. On my side of the river, a group of volunteers was putting up tents and stringing banners for Sunday's Casper Marathon. Over at Mike Lansing Field, home of the Casper Ghosts, the grounds crew was preparing the field for Saturday night's Legion Baseball games. The Ghosts, the Class A farm team of the Colorado Rockies, don't start their schedule for a couple more weeks.

Lots of people on the path. Families and cyclists and couples with dogs. I passed the ballfield on my left and walked by the park and playground. In the picnic shelter, a woman sat on the floor cavorting with two miniature chihuahuas. The dogs headed for me and the woman got up to follow.

Meanwhile, I looked to my right and saw a man standing on a fallen tree trunk. The man wore a ballcap, T-shirt, baggy shorts and black sneakers. He clutched something in his right hand as he stood staring at the river.  At first I thought it was a brown bag. But the way he held it -- it looked like a grip on the stock of a rifle. Not unusual to see people with rifles in Wyoming. But it seemed all wrong on a sunny June Saturday along the Casper Riverwalk.

As I got closer, he looked over and the grip on the object changed. His hand slipped a bit and he caught the object that wasn't a gun but something inside a brown bag. I suddenly understood.

The woman was now closing in on me, she and her two tiny dogs. She had black hair and wore a colorful blouse, leggings and sandals. I said hello and she responded the same. Couldn't tell if she was happy or sad or mad. The dogs negotiated the tall grass, their pointy brown ears and tail tips about the only things visible.

I walked another 10 yards when I heard this from the woman: "Are you going to carry that around all day? Or drink it and fall down?"

Now things were more clear than ever. The man's voice wasn't. He responsed with something that sounded like "gribble, grabble, mumf."

"Then drink it and throw up."

More "gribble, grabble, mumf." The words hit me hard. I realized that I was in the midst of a domestic drama that had no happy ending. I turned. The man was off the log and on the path facing the woman. They seemed calm. No wild gesturing or -- what I feared most -- punching or kicking or even shooting. The dogs carried on in their hyper way, not paying attention to either human.

I walked on. Could not keep those people out of my mind as I walked until the path was blocked by the rising river and I turned around. The couple wasn't there when I passed their confrontation site. I wondered if they had driven away and if they had, was the drunken man at the wheel? Of had he actually puked or maybe even fallen down in the parking lot.

The two people and their dogs are now part of the crowd of ghosts swirling in my imagination. I may use this scene in a story or I may not. I may use the dialog in a story but different characters. I may use the scene in a new place or time. Time will tell.

Ghosts. I may not believe in them. They are real, just the same.


RobertP said...


The ghosts are real, as I learned when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' autobiography. I bet they are just as real for you.


Michael Shay said...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is another one of my writing heroes. A mentor, too, although we never met. "100 Years of Solitude" taught me new ways of writing.