“I am not a ghost,” says my son, because he is not.
“You are not a ghost,” I say, confirming his suspicions.
“If I was a ghost,” declares my son, “I would be a huge ghost beloved by birds and all flying animals, including insects, and I would haunt the president of the American Pharmaceutical Board to exact revenge for his cruel and unnecessary market inflations.”
“You are very young,” I tell him, worried by what can only be described a growing obsession with the American Pharmaceutical Board, an organisation which does not exist or, if it does, is so obscure as to defy all my attempts at explanatory research. Annoyed by this mention of his age – my son considers age an unwanted imposition, over which he has no control and therefore feels no sense of responsibility – he immediately fell asleep. I went downstairs.
Robert F. Kennedy was in my kitchen, as usual, making eggs. He is not always here, but it is a regular enough occurrence that I would not call the scene amiss, or at least not in the way that you would if you were to find Robert F. Kennedy in your own kitchen.
“You have been discussing ghosts,” said Robert F. Kennedy, “with your son, a boy who you love, if I recall.”
“Those are some lovely looking eggs,” I replied.
“I am the ghost of Robert F. Kennedy,” said Robert F. Kennedy who is – and I should have admitted this earlier, but it slipped my mind – a ghost who lives in my kitchen.
“Do you know?”
“I do know.”
“How do you know?”
“You tell me often.”
“Noble man!” yelled Robert F. Kennedy ghostishly, “You may call me Bobby.”
This too he has told me many times before. I never do. I do not want to become overfamiliar with my ghost. I do not want him to feel like he is not imposing on me by haunting me. He very much is. Do not be lulled, as I first was, into thinking he restricts himself to my kitchen. When I am home he tends to loiter there, often cooking, or tastefully rearranging furniture – but when I go out he seems to stalk me. This is not the same as haunting. He tries hard not to be seen, floating above my head like a translucent, well-dressed bird, or following me around in slow-moving black cabs with tinted windows. Yesterday in my lunch hour I walked into our office cafeteria and he was there, serving soup from behind a counter, hair pulled back in a white bonnet, staring at me, smiling.
“Have you heard my announcement of the death of Martin Luther King late on the 4th of April in 1968 to a crowd in Indianapolis?” the ghost of Robert F. Kennedy asked me, ladling chicken soup into my mug.
“It’s a sensational speech.”
“It really is Robert.”
“Did you cry?”
“I didn’t Robert.”
“Not even when I quoted Aeschylus?”
“Do you know Indianapolis is one of the only major American cities that didn’t riot that night?”
“I’ve spilled my soup,” I said, reaching for a napkin. When I looked up he was gone. I turned around and the man behind me in the queue was staring.
The ghost of Robert F. Kennedy turned my son onto his obsession with the American Pharmaceutical Board. They talk a lot. I asked my son what they talk about, but he said “We talk about the American Pharmaceutical Board” and I couldn’t get another word out of him. I think he has been sworn to secrecy. Sometimes when I catch them at it they go quiet right away and stare up at me guiltily. I think they talk about me. I think they worry about me. Since this whole thing started my nerves haven’t been the same.
And when did it start? After I made a trip to Arlington National Cemetery, to visit the grave of my favourite politician, Robert F. Kennedy. I had been fascinated with him ever since he died – I was seventeen. The day it hit the news my dad (who’s dead, by the way – I wouldn’t lie to you) pulled a deckchair into the middle of the backyard and sat in it, half naked, surrounded by increasingly empty beer cans. He was there for hours and hours. I went out a few times but he would pretend to be asleep, and I went back in and watched him press his palms into his forehead and stare at our newly painted fencing. At the very least he was looking in that direction. At about 8pm he came back into the house and said “Well, that’s that”. We never talked about Robert F. Kennedy again.
Maybe because of that, or maybe because of some universal magnetism, my own interest in the man picked up. I listened to his Indianapolis address obsessively. I had all his public speeches on cassette tape. After I had listened to every single one more times than I could count I borrowed a second cassette player from a friend, and I would play a speech on one and at the same time, on the other, music, sometimes Beethoven, sometimes Brahms, sometimes Bowie. His voice was beautiful with the music. Somehow any rhythm or aria would inevitably find its peak at exactly the moment the speech did, and I would weep, and grieve, and then go out to sit in the garden, looking at our chipped and peeling fencing.
At any rate, it was when I was twenty-two that I decided to go to Arlington. Then life sped up, and getting married distracted me. I had a son, as you’ve deduced. It was shortly after his birth – about four days after – that I finally went. I was thirty-two, at this time. I first visited the JFK memorial, and was unmoved by it, never having been taken with the lesser brother. I walked over the hill and down to Robert’s grave, which looks exactly how it is, and is backed by a white brick pool of moving water. I thought about my dad, a little bit, but mostly I thought about Robert F. Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, and conspiracy theories involving the undue influence of the CIA. The grass was fresh. I stretched out on the lonely concrete. There was an extract from a speech carved on the wall of the fountain: Robert quoting Aeschylus. A quote within a quote. I looked at it for a long time, and wondered if we all become our dads. I thought about my dad, a lot. Other people were walking over the hill, still some distance away but evidently headed towards me. I stooped and looked at the Catholic plain white cross. In front of it was the grave itself, a small plaque. It said
Robert Francis Kennedy
1925 – 1968
and nothing else. The sound of the water looped up from the pool behind me. There were flowers beside the grave. I slid one (a tulip) from the clasp of its brothers and into my sleeve. I greeted the arriving family, walked out of Arlington, and flew home, to discover my wife had left me. The note said that she wished to rediscover her spiritual roots in Latin America, and I should not expect her home. The note also said that my son was next door with Mark Pankhurst and his wife, and would I please collect him as soon as possible, and please raise him to the age of eighteen, and thank you very much, and please don’t try to find me, and goodbye, and there is food in the freezer.
The next day when I came downstairs the ghost of Robert F. Kennedy was making eggs in my kitchen. It has been six years now, of all this.
I must confess to you that in more recent weeks his behaviour has taken a turn. He talks often about heaven. He talks about his brother. I find him riffling through my tie rack. When I come home often the TV is turned to ‘The Merv Griffin Show’, and somebody is saying “every love story is a ghost story”. The fuse blows on cue. My TV can do this but it cannot receive terrestrial TV channels.
Just yesterday when I went to pick my son up from school I was told that a very pale man had retrieved him at lunchtime for a doctor’s appointment. I ran home.
“Robert,” I said, eggs fumigating my nostrils, “where is my son?”
“Didn’t you pick him up?”
“You picked him up,” I said, furious but unable to show it.
“Well I don’t think- or perhaps, perhaps I did. I believe we went to the ravine.”
“The ravine, Robert?”
“I would say we went to the ravine.”
“Why would you go there Robert?”
“To see ghosts.”
“Where is my son, Robert F. Kennedy?”
“I imagine he is still at the ravine.”
I zoomed my car over there and found him. I half-believed Robert had thrown him into the gorge but he wasn’t dead, of course, or even hurt – just very cold, shivering in the car park, barely moving when I gathered him into my arms and carried him into the car.
“SSRIs can result in permanent erectile dysfunction,” murmured my boy, sleepily.
“Fuck the American Pharmaceutical Board,” I said, comfortingly.
“Fuck them, dad.”
When we got home every light in the house was on and my furniture was strewn across the lawn.
After I had manhandled my son’s bed back into his room – and put him to sleep in it – I went out into the garden again, and saw my ghost, sitting – or floating – in a nearby tree, looking balefully down at me.
“You need to get out of my life,” I said.
“Then get out of mine.”
“You make me hugely miserable, Robert,” I cried.
“I only haunt you.”
“You follow me to work and back. You steal my son. You throw my furniture about the grass. You meddle with my television. Daily you steal my eggs.”
“I will follow you until you set me free.”
There was a boom, then a crash, then an enormous noise. John F. Kennedy walked through my garden gate and joined his brother on the tree. Their noble faces looked down at me. John turned to Robert.
“I am waiting for you in heaven.”
“I love you, John, and I miss you.”
“You are the better man Robert. I am waiting for you in heaven.”
“I am a ghost, John.”
“I love you Robert. I will wait for you in heaven.”
John F. Kennedy reached upwards, arm hanging in the air for a moment, and looked at me impassively, before some force took his hand and he disappeared skywards.
“You like having me around.”
I implored him that I did not. I told him in no uncertain words that I was entirely opposed to having him around.
“You visited Arlington.”
I stiffened. I did not know he knew that.
“You loved me because your dad loved me. But you don’t talk about that now. I could be any ghost.”
“I loved your speeches,” I murmured, “but I didn’t know you at the time.”
“I assure you, you don’t know me now. What is in your copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’?”
The question hung in the air. My bookshelf was very near me on the grass. I walked over and found the book. I opened it. A pressed flower fell beside my feet.
“That is a beautiful flower,” said Robert F. Kennedy, weeping.
I picked the tulip up and held it in my soft, warm fingers. I felt another warmth as Robert put his hands through mine and touched the petals carefully, caressing their velvet edges. We didn’t move.
“Where did you get this?”
“I stole it, Robert.”
His eyes shone in the dark of the night. I looked at him, his kind face and famous brow, and knew suddenly I did not want him to leave me.
“Did you desecrate my grave?”
“I took a tulip. This tulip. I stole this flower from you, Robert. I am sorry. I feel ashamed.”
“You sin badly, taking this from me. It is a beautiful flower.”
“I loved your memory, Robert. I wanted a memento.”
“It was not yours to take.”
“Robert, I know.”
“May I have my flower back?”
Robert F. Kennedy put the pressed tulip into an invisible pocket, and clasped me closely.
“You should not break up a family of flowers for a memory.”
“You are right.”
“I will name this flower Robert F. Kennedy,” said Robert F. Kennedy.
“But it has wilted,” I said.
At this point I am not sure what happened. I gnashed my teeth and wept, and afterwards he was gone, and walking back indoors the house was light without his presence, but I felt a terrible longing, and the weight of loss. Immediately I wondered if the past six years had wholly been a dream. The furniture on my lawn reassured me it had not. As I was standing, looking out at the wreckage, my son joined me at the door.
“Is Robert F. Kennedy gone?” my son asked. I confirmed that he was.
“I am pleased our lives will cease to be so turbulent, but saddened to have lost a dear friend,” he trilled. We gave up on the garden and brewed some tea back in the kitchen, which I now noticed was the only room untouched by Robert’s violent home redecoration.
“Why are you so opposed to the American Pharmaceutical Board?” I asked, to fill the quiet.
“A man with significant passions lives more richly than a man with none.”
“You are a very intelligent six year old,” I said.
“Thank you father, Robert thought so too.”
“Go get ‘em,” I mumbled absentmindedly.
“Say, dad,” my son warbled from the larder, “it is a strange thing, being alive.”
“Yes,” I said, rightfully.
“I wonder if I will be a ghost, in the end.”
“Oh, I expect so.”
“Will you make some eggs, father? I am hungry but unqualified.”
“Of course. Go and see if anything on the front lawn is worth salvaging.”
“I will make a full investigation.”
I watched him go and sighed with love. How will he remember this when he is older? Will he get older? My son already feels timeless. I resolved to make him eggs, and find out if he was planning on ageing. Absentmindedly I opened the carton, then nearly dropped it. I stared. From the smashed shells of a dozen eggs emerged enormous, vibrant tulips, which spilled out all over the floor, bursting with colour and life.