Ghosts and Machines is a piece of short fiction which I later made into a zine you can view and read here: Ghosts And Machines
The story is part of a series of shorts about characters living in the Bay Area. It was inspired by a job I took working at a small transcription firm when I first moved to the region. I always felt haunted by the disembodied audio I listened to every day at work.
Ghosts and Machines
When Sally looked up from her monitor, she saw figures moving — in grainy green and black night vision — on a screen across the room, and Dan, the A/V tech, leaning forward, his elbows on the desk, his chin planted firmly in his palms, and a pair of enormous headphones engulfing his ears, watching.
In the lull between audio-digitization projects, Dan consumed ghost hunting shows, anything to be found on YouTube or Netflix, with the hunger of a starving man.
And there were plenty: shows and lulls.
Blame it on the economy or the technology, but Gemini was landing fewer and fewer jobs. Transcription services, Sally was learning, were a necessity only until they became a luxury. All of those cold cases, divorces, marketing focus groups and city planning commission hearings clients used to demand same day delivery for, would have to wait until better times to be transcribed from disembodied voices into text.
The year before, when she had first seen the Craigslist posting for the editorial position at Gemini, Sally had been working at an office down on Mission Street. It was the kind of place with an organizational chart, where the size and placement of one’s desk meant something essential about her value, and where one had to know the critical difference between flip flops and flats, lest she be sent home for breaking the dress code.
Too many months of being packed morning upon morning and night upon night into an over-full BART commuter train, and riding the escalator fronts-to-butts with a bunch of other poor saps up and down into the station, then taking an unreliable elevator ten stories up to a big room full of stained canvas cubicles, its only perks being endless cups of burnt coffee and the camaraderie of whispered gossip about the CEO’s family life, had taken its toll.
On BART, in the morning, into the city, the commuters all had a routine for their time. Some slept. Some read real newspapers and felt smug about it. Others got the news on their phones. Some put on make-up or listened to music.
Sally liked to read poetry.
She had decided she was the kind of person to read poetry, to really like it, to really understand it, not just pretend to. Even though Sally always felt she was a clumsy kind of person, she thought she looked good reading poetry, in her casual office attire, her straight brown hair combed into a pointed bob, geeky-smart girl glasses, and flats that walked the line, a thin one. She could have been a hip, young librarian instead of an office worker.
Each morning when the train entered the tube that went under the bay, Sally felt a distinct unease. She would close her book and her eyes and recite Coleridge:
In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree…
Sally was long in the habit of reading the missed connections section of Craigslist, too. Her lover used to leave ads for her there, and she would respond in turn. He was dead, now, and though she had nothing to say, she kept reading anyway. One afternoon, at her cubicle computer, Sally found an ad about herself: To the Girl Reading Poetry on BART.
Her heart ached.
Sally just wasn’t the kind of person to work ten stories up in some nondescript office where words like productivity and metrics were used. There was something more inside of her, something she couldn’t hide from herself, something even other people could see burning up inside her chest, something that couldn’t breathe in there.
She was a girl who read poetry.
Sally gave notice and left.
“Anything on the roster today?” Dan’s headphones were drawn around his neck, and he was watching her watching him.
Sally blushed and shook her head. “I got a lead from a film student at UC, so maybe something this afternoon.”
“What about the city stuff?”
“It’s come in, as always, but there’s a moratorium on it until the budget freeze is over.”
Sally wondered if those things left un-played on tape or file, an audio/visual limbo of sorts, were less real in retrospect. If a tree falls in the woods or some-such bullshit, she thought.
But then she thought, what of her life?
To cut costs, the boss had asked them to keep the lights off during the day, but even with its expansive windows, the office, which occupied the second story of an old building in North Beach, seemed dark and cold, not unlike the places Dan’s ghost hunters frequented. Full of wires, recording equipment, old tapes and CDs, unopened mail, reams of paper invoices and a twenty year hoard of odd items dragged in from the surrounding Chinatown junk shops, the place felt abandoned.
On the slowest days, Sally wondered if she and Dan had been abandoned along with it, if they were just ghosts themselves, waiting.
It was Sally’s job to listen in on the lives of others.
When Gemini received audio or video, Dan would digitize it, then send it out to transcribers, usually stay-at-home moms or hungry grad students paid by the word, audio quality, and speed of work. With a set of headphones, start-and-stop foot-pedal, and a computer, their transcribers could work anywhere in the world.
The finished text files were emailed to Sally, who sat in the office in North Beach with a passable view of the Bay Bridge, in front of a computer, with her own pair of headphones on. She listened to the recordings and read the text against them. She made sure all of the words were there; everything uttered became true written fact beneath her eyes and fingers.
Sally spent hours watching and listening to murder suspects being interrogated, molested children being interviewed by social workers, and corrupt officers being deposed. But she often felt as if she was the one being watched. Left alone in that place too long, her skin would get itchy; a dread terror would grow in her stomach, and Sally would have to run outside to smoke a cigarette with the old junkie, Charlotte, who liked to frequent the stoop down on Columbus and flash her best crazy-eyes at tourists on the walk.
Sally once mentioned this eerie discomfort to Dan.
“EMFs.” He had said, then laughed. “Ghost hunting one-0-one, sister. This place is a classic fear cave.” All the electrical equipment, he explained, gave off some kind of magic waves that caused nausea and paranoia. “Add in a good dose of dust and mold, and it’s a wonder we’re not tripping eight ways to Sunday.
“Don’t tell me you actually believe in ghosts?” Dan said. He shook his head and gave a derisive snort.
Dan kept watching the screen, and Sally watched him. It was hard not to. There was something about him that made her jealous. He was a guy, but he was prettier than a lot of girls. Slight and androgynous, Dan could look fragile. He was all straight lines with perfect posture, perfect teeth, and perfect hollows where hollows should be on a tragic kind of a person.
Dan always looked a little hungry, even when he was stuffing his face.
Sometimes, the investigators’ eyes caught light and flashed like those of deer grazing on the edge of a country road, white hot stars on the far side of the dim office, flaring against the lenses of Dan’s glasses. Dan delighted in it. His slight body twitched from the blast; his lips curled up in a smile.
The ghost hunters were after the dead. They wandered through old asylums and prisons with EMF detectors lighting up in bright arcs in their hands, as they called out into the dark: Is there anyone there? Is there anyone there? They hoped to catch some movement on camera or EVP, a spirit recording from the great beyond.
The ghost hunters carried the very same brand of digital recorder the Parks Department Budgetary Committee chronicled its monthly meetings on.
On the long, dead afternoons, Sally had the sense that the Gemini office didn’t occupy a physical space at all. It was fixed somewhere in between, not so much a place, but a pendulum swinging from one eventuality or another. She and Dan could start and stop time at their whim.
She was happy and scared all at once.
She could remember. She could forget.
Sally found herself taking out a missed connections ad in Craigslist:
For Physicist, 30
The Large Hadron Collider could or could not open a tiny black hole through which we might or might not all tumble. It could rend the fabric of the universe(s) or simply disappear with a little “poof.”
I have an imperfect understanding of time and space, dictated as they are, by a secret group of scientists who hang about together summoning black holes and universes and stars and any number of types of matter out of a top hat.
I’m certain BART will one day slip through time and get stuck in it. You, whoever you are, will understand this feeling, because you too have found yourself somewhere under the Bay with nothing behind you and nothing ahead. You’ve looked at the people around you, and you wondered: is this who I’ll be spending eternity with?
You have also wondered: am I dead?
Sally hadn’t expected anyone to answer, though part of her had hoped.
What she got was a dozen or so responses from men afraid to show themselves: blurry photos of dicks, shaved pectorals, close ups of hands, half faces, tattoos. One man sent a picture of himself dressed in a tuxedo. He was wearing a green and blue luchador mask.
None of them were her lover, of course.
The dead don’t reply to Craigslist ads. She had to remind herself.
Dan played a few enhanced versions of EVPs for Sally when she asked him about them. Behind the snap and crackle of audio track, the few spare scared and angry words, supposedly made by a departed soul, sounded no different than the recordings Gemini received every day.
“So you really don’t believe in this ghost thing?” Sally asked Dan one slow afternoon. He had agreed to teach her the basics of manning the fear cave, and they sat side by side in front of his two monitors.
Aware of his body next to hers, it was only something to say.
Near him, Sally was always more cognizant of the way she slouched, of her shortness and the mounds and bumps that made her a woman. He was graceful, not like her. Dan had a kind of body that would be beautiful in grief, but Sally thought her own was too comical to express any dark emotion like that properly. At best, she might come off as stoic.
One of the monitors featured a team of ghost hunters wandering through an aircraft carrier; the other registered audio in the form of waves, spiking and falling between words.
Dan leaned forward and flipped a switch; he was moving between computers, and the wave turned to a video, a pair of students building a tower of wooden blocks. It was some kind of experiment in consensus building.
Dan sat back. He stared at the team of ghost hunters on the opposite screen. “Not like they believe in ghosts.”
“Then you’re a skeptic?”
Dan shook his head. “I don’t think souls get trapped here or anything. All that helping them to the other side stuff, it’s crap.” He said to her. “I think that places hold memories, and the memories get replayed, kind of like these tapes.
“Who says memories can only get glued to a disk or a digital file, vinyl or wax cylinders or whatever? Why can’t this wall or this floor hold onto them, too?”
He flipped the switch on the computer. The block towers disappeared. In their place was a smart looking man in a lab coat talking at the camera with a slight smile.
Sally didn’t say anything.
Dan’s ghosts were just unorthodox recordings, like what they worked with every day. But sometimes what they worked with could be more unnerving than ghosts. Sally felt as if each file she moved between was a capsule in which time itself existed, a memory captured and kept.
Computer One: When I saw him, I knew I was going to pop on that bitch like a jack-in-the box;
Computer Two: Did her mother know you were alone with her?
Computer Three: …only six thousand years old. If you look at the stones…
Computer Four: …quarterly earnings for division twelve…
Computer Five: We know you didn’t mean to do it…
And so on and so on and so on.
Each time she flipped the switch between machines to check the progress of a file, Sally had to catch her breath, as if she has caused some kind of tear in the fabric of things and had taken a tiny quantum leap.
That evening, Sally went home to her studio apartment and searched for anything her lover might have touched when he was alive.
She thought of these memories, these ghosts, these units of time stopped up in the great cosmic flow, as bright little bombs waiting to go off. What was left of him? A pair of earrings he had given her at seventeen, a broken ring, a copy of Tropic of Cancer he used to read from to her aloud?
She felt a thrill looking at these things; it was a feeling without name.
Sally wondered whether she would welcome the spectral incarnation of her lover visiting her in the middle of the night when, as she lay in her bed near the window, train whistles and the sounds of horns calling from barge to barge could be heard loud and lonely from the port of Oakland? Would she see him dead, if, in life, she had decided to never see him again?
Ghost memories, Sally imagined, were fickle and unpredictable. There was no controlling them. There was only living with that uneasy feeling at the base of one’s spine: half hoping it would go away, half hoping it wouldn’t.