In the back of Ray’s hardware store, Mr. Meems dusted off the remains of the pizza left behind by Ray himself. He poured little packets of powdered cheese on top of the cold, melted cheese, and listened to Bob Dylan on the radio. He’d grown up with Dylan, and half the artists he found flipping channels ought to have to pay royalties for style, because they owed Dylan their shirts. When the bell jingled in the front, he dropped a slice, and froze, until he made up his mind he’d forgotten to lock the front door. That’s really all it could be – there was no breaking glass, and he heard it jangle merrily shut. “On the way!” he said with a mouth half full. There, was no answer, and he grabbed the blue smock from Ray’s office chair and walked pulling it over his head with the crust end of a new pizza slice hanging out of his mouth. If you did that with the narrow end, you made a mess and it broke, and you dropped it. One more customer, then he could wash down dinner with a root beer from the machine, count the night’s receipts, and get home in time for Archie Bunker, which was still on cable, the way Dylan was still on the radio – gods of a feeling, outliving themselves in analog, digital, and whatever was next. The front of the store was dark. He flipped on the light. He had never turned it off. The aisles seemed deserted, the store was small, and he knew every inch. The door didn’t budge when he pulled it, to see if the customer had given up. And that’s when he remembered, he didn’t work there anymore. He’d never been fired, and he hadn’t quit anything in his life – not Dylan’s music, not Caroll O’Connor’s hilarious gaffs and barbs as Archie, and he hadn’t walked away from the place he’d earned his first decent buck just before the draft hit and, even though he wasn’t quite the right age, had gone anyway. It had simply been just a parenthetical moment, if a gruesome one. He’d come back to the store just the way he’d found it, though technically a piece of him didn’t make it home – he never talked about that. Years later, when the ambulance had been there the once, he came back as soon as he could, and hadn’t missed a day since. Actually, he still worked there – he just wasn’t employed – he knew that. He hadn’t been paid a wage in long time. It wasn’t so bad. He didn’t need much, and some days he’d had so much fun, he had often thought he could do the work for free. “Hi, Ray,” he said, and heard a chuckle from behind the counter. Ray wasn’t employed there anymore, either. He’d founded the store in 1936. Ray liked Benny Goodman and Fats Waller. He’d switch the channel. But at least he made sure there was pizza. Every day since 1942, the year Ray’s son didn’t come home, Luigi’s had sent a cheese pizza, the boy’s favorite meal, whether anyone still wanted it or not. In memory of the old man, too, Luigi’s grandson had said. He was still over there – that Luigi, and a couple of his sons who kept up with the family business. Just like Ray and just like Mr. Meems. They were from different generations, but they kept at a thing, once they started it. They never missed a day’s work from laziness, and never took handouts – the pizza was different – when they could do for themselves. You could count on men like those. He was right, too – Ray did change the station. Sometimes he’d let Meems have his Dylan, though. On those nights, he’d say his boy would have liked that youngster too. Meims didn’t mind the pranks. Whatever happened to Ray’s son over there was the hardest thing, because he never came home after that – no one ever saw him again, dead or alive. There was just another slice of cold pizza. Thank God there was the store to tend to. “I started the books. Math looks mostly right,” Meems said. “All right, let’s listen to Dylan tonight,” said Ray.
Occurred to me about the loneliness of ghosts: what if they weren’t lonely for us, but for other ghosts.