I haunted my old apartment all that summer, just waiting around for the new volunteer to show up. I watched The Wire all the way through for the fourth time. Then I watched Six Feet Under. Not a bad show; a bit too morbid for my liking. I even got so bored that I watched the first two seasons of Lost. Then I watched them again. What a stupid show. Why can't I stop watching it? I was brooding on that when the door flew open and the new volunteer came in. She dropped all her luggage and naturally, she screamed. I was almost inclined to scream, myself. But I pulled it together, counted to five, and floated over to shake her hand.
"Keith Petit," I said. "China 15."
"You're ... dead."
"No," I chuckled. "Not dead. It's a long story. Have a seat."
I indicated the plastic leather sofa. She didn't so much sit there as much as she passed out and faceplanted there. I floated off to the kitchen to fix up some coffee.
When the new volunteer finally came to, I asked her if there was anything she wanted to know about Nanchong.
"Thanks, but I don't drink coffee," she said. "If you're not dead, why are you a ghost?"
"I've been trying to figure that out myself," I said. "I don't even believe in ghosts."
"But my best guess is, well - you know how if you sit on a couch for long enough, you leave behind a more or less permanent ass groove?"
She glanced over at the ass groove seated beside her. My ass groove.
"You might say I was a bit of a slob in my day," I said. "So my best guess is that I left behind a more or less permanent imprint of myself. In your apartment. Sorry about that."
"It looks pretty clean now," she said.
I laughed. Then I laughed some more.
"Yeah," I said. "It's clean now."
"So, can you leave the apartment at all?"
"Nope," I said. "I've tried a few times. I'm pretty much stuck here. I can float through the front door, but I've only ever gotten as far as the 3rd floor stairwell. Then I disintegrate and reappear right here on my sofa. Your sofa."
"Can people see you?"
"You can see me, can't you?"
"I mean, can other people see you? Can Chinese people see you?"
"If I hover in front of the window for a long time, sure. They point and shout yang gui-zi."
"What does that mean?"
"'Ocean ghost', if you want to be all literal about it," I said, "but 'foreign devil' is probably more to the point."
She coughed. I took out a pack of Shuangxis.
"Do you mind if I - "
"No. Go ahead."
I lit a cigarette.
"C'mon. Let me give you the tour," I said.
I floated across the living room and she followed me into the study.
"I left behind a lot of books for you," I said. "I wanted to keep them all for myself. But there was only so much room in my satchel."
"Um, thanks." She took a book down from the shelf. "Eat, Pray, Love?"
"Oh," I blushed. "That's not mine. I found it when I got here."
"Huh," she said.
"This here is the air conditioning unit," I said. "As you can see, most of the paint on the wall has chipped off. That's because the AC leaks like a motherfucker. If you leave it on, it leaks down through the floor and your downstairs neighbors will give you no end of grief about it. So try not to use the AC at all."
"But what do I do if it gets hot? It's already hot."
"I'm not sure," I said. "I never figured that out."
I floated into the kitchen.
"You cook at all?" I asked.
"Yeah, I do."
"I don't," I said. "I almost never came in here, come to think of it."
She started looking through the cupboards.
"Isn't there supposed to be, like, silverware and stuff?"
"Where did it go?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "You lose track of things sometimes, you know?"
"Right," she said.
I floated into the bedroom.
"This here is the bed. If you can manage it, I recommend sleeping somewhere else."
"Somewhere else? Why? Where else would I sleep?"
"Sleeping in this bed," I said, shaking my head. "Sleeping in this bed is like sleeping on a plank of wood. But at least you can brag about sleeping on a plank of wood. You can't really brag about sleeping in an uncomfortable bed."
"The paint's coming off this wall, too."
"Correct," I said. "So you should probably avoid using this AC unit as well."
"Shouldn't you have gotten all this fixed?"
"I should have," I said.
I floated into the bathroom.
"And the last stop on our little reality tour," I said. "The grand finale. The shitter."
"Um," she said.
"Except if you've gotta go number two, I recommend going somewhere else."
"Somewhere else? But - "
"Like a restaurant or something. It's a crap shoot, so to speak," I said. "It's Russian roulette with this toilet. Most of the time, everything goes down easy. But sister, you don't wanna be around when the shit hits the fan. I'll just leave it at that."
"Let's see. What's next? Oh, right. The shower. They cut off the water for no apparent reason every couple days or so. And the hot water is pretty much cold water. And the water pressure comes and goes. Most showers, it just feels like an old man is drooling on your scalp. But it could be worse, right?"
"I guess it could be."
I hovered over to the couch and sipped my coffee.
"I'm sorry," said the new volunteer, "but that's really disgusting."
"You. When you drink that coffee. I mean, I can see it just - "
"Then don't look," I snapped.
It got quiet.
"Sorry. I'm just touchy about certain things, is all," I said. "I'm new at this ghost thing. Anyhow. Is there anything you'd like to know about our fair city of Nanchong?"
"What is there to know?"
"Not much," I shrugged.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but I get the impression that you're pretty worthless."
"I get that impression sometimes, too," I said. "Of course it doesn't help that I'm an insubstantial blob of ectoplasm."
"Like, how long do you plan on haunting me? I didn't exactly count on having a roommate."
"I'm not sure," I said. "Maybe another ten minutes, maybe another month or two. It really depends on how big of an ass groove I left behind."
Again, her eyes lingered upon the ass groove on my sofa. Her sofa. She smacked it with her palm. She smacked it with both palms. Then, shrieking like a rabid lemur, she picked up the cushion and punched it in the face repeatedly. She threw it back down. The cushion was smooth for a moment. Then, slowly, audibly, the plastic leather snarled into a familiar pair of basins. My ass groove.
"I might be here a while," I sighed.
"Believe me, sister, I'm every bit as happy about it as you are. You think I want to hang out in this dingy apartment watching Lost all day?" I huffed. "I just want to go home."
"But you won't go home, will you? You're a ghost. You'll just ... disappear one day."
"I'm not so sure," I said. "But you're probably right. There's already another one of me out there. A real me. He's back in Nebraska right now, working for a temp agency or something. Now there's a spectral existence for you."
There was a knock at the door. The new volunteer looked at me.
"Isn't this where you're supposed to float away and hide yourself in the closet or something?"
"Naw," I said. "It's cool."
She grunted and stomped off to get the door. It was my old boss.
"Good afternoon, Jennifer. Your apartment is okay, yes?"
The new volunteer - Jennifer, I guess - glanced back at me for a moment.
"Yeah. Everything's fine."
"That is good. You must be tired. You had better have a rest. But tomorrow the English department will invite you to a banquet. Will you go?"
"That sounds great."
"I will call your telephone tomorrow. You had better pick it up."
My old boss gave me a definite look.
"Great. See you tomorrow."
Jennifer shut the door and turned around to face me.
"I thought you said people could see you," she said.
"They can. Some people just choose to ignore me."
If they were a long two years for Jennifer, they were an even longer two years for me. At least she was able to get out of the house every now and then. She got homesick a couple months in and stayed that way for a while. Then, the following spring, she hooked up with another volunteer, this guy Jared. Pretty alright dude. After that, nothing really seemed to faze her. Young love. Jared came over to visit sometimes and I'd have to hide out in one of the kitchen cupboards the whole time and stuff my ears with Kleenex at night.
Jennifer kept the place impeccably clean, no thanks to me, but most of the time we got along okay. After a while, though, she decided to ignore me, too. It was easier that way, I guess. When she was out of the house, I'd re-watch The Wire or re-watch Six Feet Under. I even re-watched the first two seasons of Lost. I still don't know if they ever get off the island, and I don't really care to find out. And I still don't know why I keep watching that stupid show.
Jennifer returned to America this past July. I heard that somewhere along the way Jared proposed to her and she said yes. So I'm happy for them, of course. I hope everything works out okay. She took most of my DVDs home with her and a lot of my books, too. I started reading Eat, Pray, Love and when I finished it I found myself weeping uncontrollably all over my sofa. My ghost tears pooled up in the twin basins of my ass groove. Then they evaporated. The AC's broke again.
In the evenings, I hover in front of the window and watch the construction going on outside. I can't tell if they're building something or tearing something down. After four years, I can barely even recognize the place. Everything has changed so quickly, and so much. It's only a matter of time before they tear down my apartment complex. And then where will I go?
The new volunteer doesn't show up for another two weeks. I hope she is cool. Or that he is cool. I hope, whoever it is, they bring plenty of books. I'm tired of re-reading the ones I have. I'm tired of re-reading Eat, Pray, Love.
Nothing to read, nothing to watch, nothing to do. No one to talk to. These days, I just float around the apartment, looking for old junk in the desk drawers, behind the bookshelf, under the sofa cushions. There isn't much of anything left. Jennifer cleaned this place like a woman possessed. But I did find a little scrap the other day when I was rummaging around under the bed, a sliver of faded canary yellow paper, a crumpled-up scribble that read: I can't wait to get the fuck out of here. Well, Keith. Neither can I.