Ghost of a Night

Charles Lipsig

I have to tell you
It’s one damned ghost of a night
On this half-lit street.
In every shadow, a face
Is revealed. A face long dead.

Lightning and neon
Duel, flashing versus flicker.
The staccato rain
Keeps its time to each parry,
Thrust, and soggy counter-thrust.

No patrons tonight.
This angry storm has driven
Beggars from begging,
Thieves from stalking their victims,
Even the drunks from their drinks.

I should close it up,
Go home early, sleep at dawn,
But I can’t. I swore.
Tonight, like every other,
I’d be here. Alone, but not.

The ghosts have been here,
Since I first opened this joint.
It’s no bar — thank God! —
Or I’d think I had sampled
My stock, even when I’d not.

I swore years ago
That when time and money came,
I’d open this place:
An overnight coffee house,
A haven from dusk to dawn.

Huddled among bars,
Theaters, and the bus stop,
Between the train tracks
And the highway through downtown:
Borderlines of light and death.

That first night, alone,
Before anyone had known
The place was open,
A face peered in the window:
Pale, female, framed in dark hair.

“I’m open!” I yelled,
But the face vanished, dissolved
In neon shadows.
When I followed to the street,
There was no girl to be seen.

Solemnly smiling,
Old Jared, who’d owned this place,
Stood, waiting for me.
“A good place you’ve bought,” he said.
“Far, far better than it looks.”

“You’ll not want traffic,”
He said. My grave smile matched his.
“So you’ve said,” I agreed.
“This is a fine place indeed.
What brings you here? My coffee?”

“My conscience,” he said.
“This place has one flaw, one curse.
It has many ghosts,
Too many perhaps, for taste.
You may back out, if you want.”

When I was younger
I’d have mocked and laughed, but now
I’d gone through too much,
Seen too much, and made my vows.
“All will be fine,” I told him.

We talked a bit more,
Then Old Jared said goodbye
And went home to die.
Across the street stood the girl,
Wearing a black flapper dress.

A little later,
My first customer came in.
Then came another.
All thoughts about ghosts faded
In the café’s slow bustle.

I woke the sleepy,
Uplifted the graveyard shifts,
And sobered the drunks,
Until dawn ended my day
And I went home to my sleep.

No one has haunted
The café more thoroughly
Than ever I have.
Night in and night out I serve
My patrons, living and dead.

The travelers come
Out of the gray nights, by car,
Bus, and weary foot,
For coffee, tea, and cocoa,
For wakefulness in the night.

On the lonely nights,
When few customers come in,
Some seats are still filled,
By quietly watching souls,
Wary of warm, flowing blood.

Many nights I watch
My guests, scarcely seen, from the
Corners of my eyes.
Then one would allow a glimpse,
Half hidden by a curtain.

In time, more boldly,
They would perch on empty stools
Or gather in booths,
When there was no one else here.
I treat them as customers.

I’ve learned their stories.
Old Jared comes and tells some.
Others break silence,
Tell me themselves, of their lives
And unlives, bars and bus stops.

The girl is Sadie,
A dancer, as she was called,
Out of politeness,
Shot down by a jealous man,
One night, eighty years ago.

The policeman, too,
Was shot, twenty years later,
Breaking up a fight.
Slow nights, he’ll nurse a cup of
Evaporating coffee

The scraggly-haired man
Stares through even other ghosts
With scarce a focus.
He died beside the back door,
Choking on his drug-laced puke.

So many others:
The college lovers, mugged and
Stabbed in the alley.
The small brother and sister,
Whose mother ran a red light.

So many are faint:
Drunks and drivers, suicides,
Criminals cut down.
This borderline has fences
Made of psychic razor wire.

I bring hot comfort,
Steaming in a cup to souls,
Both living and dead,
Twice the job I thought I’d get,
In my youth. But no regrets.

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