Being Dead - An Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus

BEING DEAD, A MOMENT AGO

 

Carmella Faye Nighthouse was dead, and because she was dead, everything that happened in dead-time happened at least a moment ago and in the memories of someone else.

 

Minutes and hours no longer propelled themselves with that familiar linear surge of living time. While at rest, Carmella was aware that she was stuck in some odd way-station between the living and the gone, and she knew she had halted the machinery—or at least disrupted the scheduled events—of what was supposed to happen to her spirit in the afterlife.

She liked to cause trouble, but this was trouble on a scale even she wasn’t used to.

 

Carmella Faye was not originally christened with the last name Nighthouse. She had chosen the name after divorcing her first husband, after—as she saw the matter—erasing her individuality to adopt yet another man’s name. She knew she couldn’t go back to being a Scherner; she wanted a name that was hers and hers alone. Nighthouse was homage to a great aunt on her mother’s side who had first introduced and then discarded through marriage a French surname. Carmella translated that French surname, twisted it until it evoked the image of a sole lighted house set atop a darkened hill and cast against a sidereal sky. A signal house. A beacon. A sole source of illumination beaming out from a bleak landscape.

Nighthouse.

 

She learned that because she was dead there was no proper ‘now.’ Now was for the living, and she lived only in the past tense, in the memories and remembrances of the folks scattered around the world who had known her. Those flashes and episodes played concurrently across the globe, meaning she was Carmellas of various ages and personalities to many different people at sporadic moments. She only existed in what had already happened. The world of the present had relinquished her.

 

Lolly Scherner had named her Carmella in a rare fit of whimsy. Carmella’s three siblings possessed practical, Mid-West appropriate names: Sue, Roger, and Brad. How her mother had hit upon the name Carmella, and why she had insisted on naming her second daughter this, was a mystery to all but Lolly Scherner. Only Lolly knew that while she was pregnant, she had had Technicolor visions of flamenco dancers spinning about her head, and the name—Carmella!—had shown in the marquee lights that illuminated her imagination. Carmella was the name of movie star, Carmella was the name of a woman who would be craved, wanted and worshipped, and Carmella would ascend to notorious heights even if it killed mother and daughter both to get Carmella there.

 

Not long after being interred on her parents’ farm, Carmella learned she could access a person’s memory of her and then use that memory to again perceive the world of the living. More than that, she discovered that she could also move from one person’s psyche to another, to shift from one location to another, because a single memory was linked to her by that memory’s every participant, and his or her subjective recall of that event. Remembrances splintered between people, and she could portage those tributaries and rivulets that separated one person’s experience from another’s.

She discovered this memory-hopping ability when Lolly Scherner made one of her daily visits to Carmella’s gravesite. Her mother struggled, and failed, not to weep. Carmella, resting with her body in the earth below Lolly Scherner’s sneakers, became aware of the older woman’s presence and without knowing how, she emerged from a silent, senseless but still aware state into her mother’s bright and loud memory: It was dinner time, and a pre-teen Carmella was demanding dessert.

“You’ll skip dessert,” her mother had said. “Nobody likes a fat girl.”

Lolly Scherner then scooped servings of the apple crisp and vanilla ice cream for Carmella’s father, her sister, her two brothers, and then saved the largest serving for herself. As an enraged Carmella grabbed her mother’s plate and Frisbeed it and the dessert to the floor, Carmella, being inside herself and her mother in simultaneous unison, felt her mother’s guilt, her shame, and her revulsion at her own daughter. Even the ghostly Carmella had to admit that she was chubby and kind of horrible looking as a preteen – a fat girl with crazy eyes who was too damned smart for her own good. Viewing herself from another’s perspective, Carmella had never before conceived that there might be more emotions beside her own at play. She had never considered that she might somehow have contributed to the pain of that episode instead of being merely the victim.

With a little re-orienting, Carmella replayed the same memory multiple times, and from multiple points of view – sometimes she was her distracted father Bobby, sometimes one of her bored brothers, either Roger or Brad, or sometimes she was inside her ever-judgmental sister Sue, who wished with her entire being that her younger sister would just get over herself already.

By switching points of view, which was as easy as sliding her ghost form into the body of the other person, Carmella learned how to first perceive and then follow the various flows of reminiscence back to that person’s collected store of Carmella memories. There existed an entire wet framework of these recollections connecting each person with the other, and the brain or mind or whatever you want to call it used a liquesent energy—part churning salt water, part snapping bioelectricity—to maintain those recollections. Within these remembrances, she found that she could again taste food, she could quench her thirst, she could feel the sun sear her skin. As long as she remained within the confines of someone else’s memory of her, in the past and in dead time, she could slide along the wetworks to anyone else’s memory of her and live again in the scene that they provided. So what if she were trapped in the past tense, at least she was alive back there. Back then.

It didn’t take long for Carmella, who was never content with anything, to decide that traveling and living in someone else’s memories of her wasn’t enough; she wished to enter the living present, the now, where she could act and speak with the independence she so valued. That was how she learned if she pushed herself into the present, she depleted the energy contained within a person’s memory and then erased that memory from the person’s mind -- forever.

Unfortunately, she discovered this when she had tried to appear in the present to her son.

Influences - Gloria Naylor's 'Mama Day'

I have always favored fiction that possesses inherent strangeness and transcendence and mystery. I know part of that aesthetic is due to having grown up on comic books, old episodes of The Twilight Zone, my aforementioned love of Stephen King novels, and my own (overactive) imagination. Even the modernist writers I favor--say a William Faulkner--veer toward something Other (for lack of a better term) that isn't quite realism.

I first read Gloria Naylor's Mama Day as an undergrad taking one of those 'ethnic literature' courses that attempted to upend the dead-white-male literary cannon. There was more good than bad in the attempt for obvious reasons, but when selecting literature for such a course, it's easy to imagine the professor saying, "OK, we have our Asian, we have our Native American, now whom should we pick to represent African-Americans?"  

At the time (the wild and wonderful early 90s, he said with unadulterated nostalgia) if you wanted an African-American female novelist, the choices were two - Alice Walker and/or Toni Morrison. How or why my professor threw in Gloria Naylor, I will never know, but he did. And his was a brilliant choice.

It was one of those courses that we had too much to read in too little time, and I had originally skipped Mama Day because I figured I would focus on the books I was going to write my term papers about. I even sat through the Mama Day lecture, missing the point of it and not much caring. No, it was when we had started the next book that I picked up Naylor's novel and thumbed through it. Then, like that, I was hooked and everything else got shoved aside while I read Mama Day and nothing else. I think I may have even taken on Naylor's novel for my term paper, I was that crazy about it.

The folkloric backdrop, the magic realism (we weren't allowed to call novels fantasy in my program...at least not then), the in-your-face use of 2nd person narration alternating with a present tense 3rd person limited, and the characters--oh, the characters--make the novel not merely good but great. At that stage in my development as a writer (such that it was or is), I didn't realize how much I needed to see someone so masterfully weave the literary, the fantastic, and the human into such a powerful work of art. 

I knew then what I wanted my own novels to be like. 

I place Mama Day in the list of my top five favorite novels of all time. (Yeah, don't ask...I'll come up with the rest of my list someday.) The novel really is that good. Or wondrous strange as the family of one of my favorite painters liked to say about a piece of art that both fascinated and beguiled them.

You may be wondering why the qualification - why not just say that Gloria Naylor is an influence. I don't know her works as deeply as I do some writers, and although I enjoyed Bailey's Cafe, which was the follow up to Mama Day, I didn't find it as life-changing. (And really, can anything be as life-changing as the art we were exposed to in our early-twenties?) 

Gloria Naylor deserves more celebration and study than she was getting twenty years ago (Jesus, has it really been that long?), and from what I can tell by reading the all powerful Interwebs, she is almost criminally ignored in literary circles these days. Here's hoping that her fortunes change. The woman has the gift, and the world could use another masterwork like Mama Day.