Hungry Ghosts

Hungry Ghosts

By Lauren Kinney

Every Friday after school, I walked two blocks down the street and then down the stairs into the Metro station. It was two stops down the line, then back out into the sunlight. I used to bring clothes to change into, and then I didn’t bother anymore. In the spring, I wore my plaid pleated skirt to school instead of the stiff navy blue trousers. When the bell rang that Friday, I rolled my skirt up so it was closer to the hem of my blazer than my knees. This was easier than bringing a tote bag into the bathroom to change, where the floor seemed moist, and the gap between the stall and the stall door threatened to reveal all.

Camille had told me about the arcade when we were both volunteering at Kaleidotone to fulfill our community service requirement. Camille picked it because her aunt used to work there, and she thought it would be easy. It was easy. She liked the plastic smell of the cassette tape cases, and I think it made her feel important to volunteer at a braille press. I had similar feelings.

The press was closed that Friday, so we headed to the arcade instead.

Camille fiddled with the safety pin that kept her skirt’s broken zipper closed. “We wouldn’t want a wardrobe accident,” she said.

“Who are you trying to impress?” I said.

Camille crossed her arms over her ribs. “Dress to impress,” she said. “That’s the end of the saying. It’s not dress to impress someone.” She shook her head at the entire empty block before us.

I followed Camille around and watched her play out her batch of quarters. I knew she would want to leave, and I told her I might stay a while longer. Now, alone, I walked around the perimeter of the arcade. Near the window painted over with cloudy paint I could see the dusty air swirling in eddies above me. Farther back, there were no windows. In the rear corner there was a carpeted counter with a lone employee seated, reading something. Before I reached the counter I turned and looked closer at the glowing displays.

I recognized some of the games. I came face-to-face with one I’d never played but which I knew: Pac-Man. I couldn’t remember when I’d heard it, but I knew its beeping music. While I watched, a little yellow blob jetted in terror through a maze, trying to get as much as he could—as much of what, I couldn’t say. The objects of his desire were nondescript—little white blobs. Who knew what they represented. I put my quarter in the machine. It only took one time dying for me to fear those hungry ghosts, and once I knew to flee them, I thrashed the joystick to the four corners twice as fast as before, feeding the rest of my coins to the game one by one.

*

In my room after dinner that night, I cracked my window open and lay on my bed. I knew the sound of Camille’s car, and when I heard the screeching of her engine followed by a percussive whoosh, I sat up. As a formality, I waited to hear the sound of her tentative horn. When it came, I shut the window and ran outside.

“Where are we going?” Camille said.

“Let’s go to Hollywood.”

Camille parked her car off Hollywood Blvd, and then we just walked. We were not alone on those sidewalks, not at all. There were people who looked like models, and sad old musicians, and there were groups of blonde tourists speaking a different language. I began to play a game of spot the tourist. As we walked I’d look at each face and see how quickly I could decide with certainty: “local” or “tourist.” I imagined that everyone who passed me was doing the same thing in their own heads. Sometimes I’d mess with them and alter my facial expression or my gait to try and influence the outcome. That night, I felt very much like a local. I wanted to be around people, and I wanted them to look at me, but I also hated some of them. They didn’t look back; they didn’t see me. It was a wonder no one tripped over me. But I hadn’t set upon any particular route yet and we could change where we were walking, if it came to that.

We walked all the way to La Brea and then back. I counted three people wearing fanny packs and one person crying. Tourists, I guessed. It was getting late and the crowds had gotten drunker.

“Should we buy beer?” I grabbed Camille’s wrist, “Let’s go. Let’s ask someone.”

I knew him when I saw him almost half a block away, a lanky street kid sitting with his back against a darkened business. He had a cardboard sign sticking out of his black backpack, which was capsized on the sidewalk. His hair was greasy in the best way.

“Him,” I said to Camille.

My legs felt strong as I walked toward him. We stopped directly in front of him, Camille and I, with her wrist still in my hand.

“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing?”

He cocked his head and said, “Not as much as you two.”

Camille glared at me.

The boy stood up and said, “Can I walk with you?” and off we went.

We talked about all the drunk people as we passed them in lines for clubs or leaning against street lamps, or walking the other way and laughing too loudly. Camille and I took turns asking the boy questions. His name was Richard. He was from St. Louis and had hitchhiked to California six months before, after he’d graduated from high school. He didn’t say why he’d ended up out here, but he did mention that he hated Hollywood at night. Some drunk people yelled at us as they walked by—no words, a nonverbal shout, and then tittering laughter.

Richard said, “I can’t buy you alcohol if you haven’t guessed by now. I’m not 21. But I have a little weed.”

We followed him around the corner and took turns hitting the joint he pulled out of his backpack, and then we sat on a bus bench, each of us in one of the three slots separated by those bars that made it so homeless people couldn’t lie down. When buses came, we waved them on.

Camille frowned.

“Where else have you been? St. Louis to Hollywood—that doesn’t take six months,” I said.

“Smart girl,” Richard said, and I smiled, though when my dad said that it pissed me off.

“Have you heard of an ashram? Most people haven’t. I was raised on one, for part of the time. I stayed at a sister ashram on my way out here. I didn’t mean to end up in Hollywood, like I said.”

“What happened?”

“Let’s just say the guru lost his shit.”

This made sense to me. One time, my freshman English teacher started yelling in class, then started crying, and then walked out. A couple kids left too, while they had the chance, but most of us were freaked out by this and stayed in our seats. The freshman class president had to walk to the school office to tell the principal that the teacher had flipped out. The whole thing was annoying.

“We all have wisdom. Some of us don’t know it, and some of us know it but can’t express it without fucking people over. And some people’s wisdom is hidden by their outer nature. They’re like animals, or they’re like demons—other spirits. We’re all just spirits of one kind or another,” he said.

He shifted on the bench, pulling one of his legs underneath him, and pulled out a cell phone from his backpack. He slid it back into its pocket. A plane’s red light blinked in the sky in the distance.

He continued. “Next time someone tells you to do something, guarantee: if you watch them close enough you’ll see them ignore their own advice.”

Camille shivered at my side. I knew her silence was a good sign, that she was too stoned to talk, and also stoned enough to be experiencing each of these words in her skin, each of them sufficient as sensations and requiring no response. We’d known each other since kindergarten, but we’d only really been friends for the past six years. We’d shared some secrets with each other, but still we kept some.

“I’m worried about high school ending. We only have a few months left, and four years didn’t feel like a lot. I don’t want it to be longer, but I don’t know if it was enough. I don’t know if I’ll have enough time to do everything I want.” I trailed off.

I saw a quarter on the floor and picked it up, but when I touched it, it felt sticky. I threw the quarter clear across the street.

Richard’s gray eyes caught the light from the street lamp above us.

“It’s too much that it’s never enough,” I said.

Richard stood up and took my hand. We walked and Camille followed us. At the corner, he stopped and hugged me, and I forgot the entire world.

“We should probably go,” Camille said.

Richard lowered his voice so that only I could hear, “It’s not about having enough time. It’s about how much you can feel.”

I knew what he said was true.

“I’ll never forget you!” I said.

I grabbed Camille’s hand and we giggled as we skipped off.

I didn’t notice my wallet was missing until I got home.

The next day I told my mom I couldn’t find it, and she told me to think of the last place I had it. I pretended I didn’t know where that was, or whose wallet it was now. When the following Friday came, Camille and I stopped at the arcade again, and I asked Camille to borrow some quarters. I didn’t explain why, and she didn’t mention it. A month after that, my birthday came, and my mom gave me a new wallet, one that matched hers—a golden ridged vinyl billfold printed with sunflowers that she bought from a kiosk in the mall. When I opened her gift, I thought for a moment that it was her wallet, before I saw the tag. She always said to me Beggars can’t be choosers—it must have been her favorite saying. She’d say it when I complained about hand-me-downs from my cousins or the food she made for dinner, or just about any time I complained. I kept that wallet for years. I must have had it for ten years before it finally wore out and I bought this new one, the first wallet I’ve bought myself, I suppose. To this day, I’ve never spoken to anyone about what happened to the old one.

 

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