Ghost Season 

Afterlife in the afternoons

John Rember

It's the time of blood moons, of warm windless afternoons, of the distant crashings of beetle-felled trees, of spawned-out salmon turning and drifting back downriver to the seas.

Giant motorhomes turn and drift back down Highway 75 toward St. George and Havasu and Tucson. Diesel pickups full of camo-clad hunters—glassing the dry hillsides for deer and elk—cruise slowly up and down the valley's dirt roads. Old men make the journey from Sun Valley to Redfish Lake Lodge in new German convertibles, accompanied by their granddaughters or friends of their granddaughters. Old SUVs crawl up Galena Summit, pulling trailers overloaded with firewood. Frost coats the deck in the early mornings, making it impossible to take the puppy out without finding slippers first.

It is also the season of ghosts. I've reached the age where most of the influential people in my life are dead. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers and professors, politicians who shaped my future with their sly offer of a student deferment—all gone, save for flashed smiles in old photos. Their memories come back, like smoke from distant fires, and they shade the evening light. Mostly they're welcome, at least when I'm sitting on the deck with a book.

Subject to ghostly interruptions, I'm reading lots of books these days, mostly ones I wrote myself. It's a kind of temporal Rorschach test. The words haven't changed, but I have, and hindsight has shown that I wrote my life before I lived it—stories and essays that I thought wild speculation turned out to be fate, and characters I thought were pure invention turned out to be me.

The future looks entirely predictable when you're looking back at it. It's like a hard-boiled but well-crafted mystery. When you get to the last few pages, you realize the bodies and the blood were only distractions. There was never more than one choice to be made, and the real clues—and the real villains—were staring you in the face all along.

Lately I've gone through a small collection of 1960s Life magazines stored away by my parents for their photos of assassinations, moonshots, marches, and riots and rebellions. Memories of the '60s return quickly, and they spark further recollection of how much wild hope and possibility hung in the air. Contemporary political issues, seen from the perspective of yellowed magazine pages, begin to look like a culture's frantic efforts to make sure the '60s never happen again. And they won't, not because of the drug war or the destruction of middle-class disposable income or tie-dye shirts for sale at Costco or the perfection of dissident surveillance techniques, but because the wild hopes of young people no longer focus on communes in the desert, free love, drug-expanded consciousness or stopping wars. Instead, they're about craft beers, Facebook statuses, paying off college loans, getting full-time jobs and someday maybe being able to afford down payments on houses.

The past doesn't stop at the '60s. In an old trunk, I've found some letters to my parents from my Uncle Grant, who fought in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. In every letter he says he's "still on the right side of the grass." In a letter dated May 13, 1943, he writes about Patsy, his dog: "I got a letter from Mom. She said she was going to have to get rid of Patsy. If you possibly can take her, I wish you would. I know you would take care of her. She will make you a good hunting dog, and she is not too much bother. In fact she is the best damn duck dog in Blaine County. I probably won't get back in time to ever see her again, but if I knew you were taking care of her I would feel a hell of a lot better."

The letter carries a burden of sadness. Grant survived the war but he didn't survive the decades. He's on the wrong side of the grass now, as, of course, is Patsy. What speaks to me now—with a new puppy in the house—is the faded letter from a man half a world a way, with people trying to kill him, thinking mostly about his old dog and trying to find a home for her. We measure our lives by our dogs, and when one of them goes, the passage of seven or 10 or 15 years hits hard.

If our kindness toward them and willingness to take care of them isn't a Rorschach test, it's still a test of who we are as human beings.

These books and letters and magazines and the thoughts that go with them might seem like unwelcome reminders of mortality, but I'm getting better at mortality these days. It no longer carries the threat of annihilation, possibly because Uncle Grant still seems to be as alive as he ever was, and Patsy's still a damn good duck dog, at least to my mind. My grandmother still casts shadows, even at night. Faulkner was right when the said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

That's a good thing, these days. Life seems to have depth and substance, and if I could press a button and thereby live through an eternity of early fall Sawtooth Valley afternoons, I'd press it. I'd press it again, for Julie. I'd press it a third time, for the puppy, but I might wait a little, until she grows out of chewing on the furniture.

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