It wasn’t quite twilight as the sunset glinted through the trees and the shadows lengthened over the verdure green of Forest Park. As for St. Louis, the dusky old city seemed at once, indifferent and mild as the light winked through the dappled leaves. It was literally a forest-like expanse of gnarled trees and open greenways— an area bigger than New York’s Central Park and the hub of activity for those who braved the early summer.
Through the muddiness and sodden grime of spongey earth, cars whisked along paved roads as bicyclists geared past and roller-blader’s vaulted out their arms as they passed the low-set, white compact pulled-up to the curb– two figures sitting inside.
And there, Beetlejuice—or “The Ghost with the Most” was at a loss as he sat in the driver’s seat with his instructor, basking in misery and just about grilling-himself in what felt like a furnace. The seats weren’t only leather, but upholstered with “polar-bear” fur as it his hide was cooking. . . . . all-too-pale as mostly a night-breed who didn’t muster-much, the clean living of daytime routines.
Oh, the frazzled aggravation—his mind had turned to goop as his plucky companion encouraged him, on this terrestrial divide of informal driving lessons, hoping to earn his license and traverse the bio-living plane.
It was that hour when late afternoon pivoted toward the purple lurch of evening, as endorphins splashed through the muscles like liquid ease like a pleasant soreness. The lesson continued.
“So put-in in drive, again—try that”. Lydia gestured with a wave of her hand. “Just like I showed you”.
So much to learn—they had been at it for half the afternoon, at least. He with his ragged old coat, half unbuttoned work-shirt, and tour-guide hat with a badge as he was as white as the dumb, gulping mouth of a rotted fish, one that was beginning to bloat in the useless sun.
She looked at him attentively, as her acerbic countenance was full of bright distinction and her voice was at once, teenaged and plaintive with biding nasality as her eyes traveled to her companion. She wore a spiky head-dress and dark rag-shop outfit that screamed, more “punk-rock” than “observance” like the black partridge pomp of the silver rose, putting up with his certain lack of finesse.
“C’mon”, coaxing-along—but her friend seemed more dumbstruck than receptive.
“This is like 13-steps-to-nowhere”, Beetlejuice groused in a feral, scratchy voice, gripping the steering wheel and staring-down at his bandage-swaddled hand.
For a beat, or two—reluctant, stunned. And wearied.
“It’s been 700 years and I’m feeling a kinda anxious, if you know what I’m sayin”.
He clucked his tongue, trying to remember the steps—AND HOW AGAIN, DO YOU PUT A CAR INTO DRIVE?—as he tapped at the plastic levers with a tic-tac sound, as Lydia sighed and looked-out the window before turning back with a sharp glance.
“No, those are the windshield-wipers!”
“Just a little rusty—give me a second”.
She knocked him aside on the knee with two dabbed-out fingers.
“Don’t worry, start over again”.
“It all eludes me, somehow darlin’. . . . . what if I tried this?”
“Just like that”.
Beetlejuice shifted in the driver’s seat. He stared into space, briefly as if collecting himself.
“So get it started, huh?”
He pumped the stick.
“Stubborn, here—what”. . . . . he clinched his teeth. “What if I tried this?” He reached out, and v’d his fingers into the console display to the hard tack of retractable buttons.
The engine roared to life, and there was the car—scuttling forward “herky-jerky” as it humped and stuttered and threw them back into the seat. His old sprung-torn shoe pressed on the gas along the slender meat of his ankle. Pump, lurch. Pump, lurch. The thrown momentum.
Rolling a few yards, and coming to a standstill.
“C’mon, where’d you go?” whapping the steering-wheel with his palm. He pounded the dashboard, covered with glitter and spangles– and started throwing switches and dials like the punch-slap of a screwball apparatus, or maybe a vending machine as it was slots and grills.
Punch, drag, press, drop. Whomp. Whomp.
In response, the car went hay-wire– the lights flashing on-and-off and the car horn honking as the engine revved-up uselessly. Hey, what gives? He rattled the steering wheel, tugged at the ignition key.
And Beetlejuice started hopping up and down, like a weevil in a dirt-box as he was imprisoned behind the wheel. He socked the dashboard and then fell back, his yellow teeth snaggled into an expression something a lot like rotten, mush-mouthed defeat.
Lydia looked aside in disgust as the car filled with stinky gasoline fumes.
“You flooded it”, she grimaced. “Gotta be careful, it’s the only car I have”.
Demurely, she took a sip from her straw that was dunking in her soda, to the very guzzled-end.
“Play nice, you know?”
She turned back to him.
“Hey, this isn’t working. Maybe we should call it a day”, with a puff of air from her pursed-lips.
She reached-out and readjusted the figurines on the dashboard, held in place by a glued-down magnet. The California Raisons. Hello, Kitty.
Half-cool air spackled through the grill and the crumpled leavings from last fall clumped-up in the rest between the windshield-wipers.
“Let’s hear-it for the liquefied dinosaurs. You could get high off these fumes”.
“Hell, yeah”, as Beetlejuice turned his head and looked out the window.
It was too hot—too bright. A food truck sold hot-dogs across the park and stray wrappers glinted in the mad summer sun. The clouds were fluffy and toasted across the devil-in-the-blue-sky vastness of the sultry afternoon as you could go crazy in the heat and the steam.
Amateurs were playing tennis, knocking the ball back-and-forth as a woodsy breath permeated the air and only if a cooling wind could nip at your bare shoulders. The rest was hard black-top and feld-spar like hydro-carbon grease as the civic activity floated-by like a dream, as the shade came and went through the rhythms of the swaying branches.
“I could go for a fraggle-berry slushee, later—my ghoulish friend. Maybe even a ‘boo’-berry if you’re feeling adventurous”.
“That would sound good, about now”.
“Learn baby learn”, as Lydia made the head-banger’s sign of the devil with her hand and pumped-it forward in a rallying cry. Beetlejuice grimaced and shook his head with a “I can’t believe-it” face.
“Oh, boy—we’re really a couple of spooksters” as the filthy apparition rummaged around in his shirt pocket for a cigarette. Then he began waxing, “poetic”.
“For surely, my brat princess. . . . . Funny how the forces of fan-fiction have conspired to put us together, again. He affected a Shakespearean accent, holding out an importuning hand.
“By what strange literary device do I fret and strut and fuck-up and make a mess of things?”
He rested his chin upon a clenched-fist.
(To answer that question, the lord of all high realms shall sit behind the drafting-board like a master-artist, looking over his shoulder with a devilish-grin. “Who, me?” the vast silence seems to say)
Back to the car, where Lydia and Beetlejuice answer in unison:
“Fan-fiction!”, like reciting the obvious. They both looked pleased with themselves. Lydia opined:
“Oh, he was a local author. Should have answered his fan-mail” as the teen grimaced, and looked-out the window in her black head-dress. So many fans. Tacky, tacky.
“BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND”, Beetlejuice carrying-on like an amplified Monster-Truck announcer. “It’s the SECOND-LIFE and THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT. . . . . a tale of TWO CITIES. . . . . LOS ANGELES WEIGHING IN AT EIGHT-HUNDRED POUNDS, and our St. Louis challenger, MOSTLY UNKNOWN”.
“Yeah”, Lydia snorted, laughing. “Unless you want Seth Grahame- Smith to do it”. She smiled. “Our present writer? He owes it to me as a favor’.
“Heh”, Beetlejuice chortling. “Had to call in some favors, myself for a bit of action on the page. I’ve been knocked-outta circulation for so long. At least he unburied me”.
He coughed, hawked, and coughed into his coat pocket, patting the unwritten contract that should have been there.
“Damn lawyers”, his eyes darting ferally. “Can’t beat ‘em, can’t join ‘em. I need a beer”.
“Well, put it this way”, Lydia explained. “This is an unofficial-release from a stalled franchise. Hope we don’t get caught”. Lydia made a funny face with antlers, sticking her tongue-out. “I guess as long as we still live in someone’s mind we have presence and get a second-lease on things”.
Beetlejuice coughed into his fist. And somewhere, you could hear the grinding of crickets through the humid, minutes before deeper dusk. An awkward silence ground-on as destiny seemed like a wide-open prospect.
“Well, what does he have against us?”, Beetlejuice leaning against his palm in contemplation, looking out the window as if at a loss.
“No, it’s probably more like what he has for us”, Lydia added hopefully.
Beetlejuice craned-down and lit his cigarette, as she continued.
“Funny, I don’t remember how we got here. Where were we, like ‘five-minutes ago’? It seems like we just arrived here, or something”. She crinkled her brow, thinking. “Well, we’re here now. . . . . In a car. . . . . In St. Louis”.
Lydia reached back and returned with “the script” she began to consult, flipping pages as she studied over-it intently. Beetlejuice let the cigarette dangle out of his mouth, casually as he traced through his copy, in his lap with a bone-white finger.
“According to the script”, Lydia continued—“we’re in Forest Park, not far from THE MUNY PARKING-LOT”.
Beetlejuice bared his teeth.
“What the hell is THE MUNY”?
“It’s an open-air theater, I think. But hey, get this—we’re part of a short story. I get to play a character!” Lydia sang in a sing-song voice, flinging her arms up in the air.
“You’re telling me”
“St. Louis, of all places. . . . . He can’t be too much of a malevolent creator. I guess he’s writing the sequel”.
Beetlejuice scratched a bug-bite on his knee as Lydia continued.
“I guess one good turn deserves another, though I’d rather be here than Philadelphia”.
Beetlejuice squinted out the window, as if he was right next door to hell.
“There’s THE ARCH, you see there? Way off on the horizon?. Seems real-enough to me. N’yahh. This is stranger than the time I drink the world’s largest margarita and left salt on the toilet-lid”.
Lydia was revolted. “Oh, I’m practically mortified to be seen with you. I feel like a teenager, I guess. Or maybe it’s just my job, to be sarcastic and dead-pan”.
“I don’t know”, Beetlejuice slurred. “Maybe we should leave it up to the official guys. I don’t mean to be a dead-ringer, but we could get sued for copyright and shit”.
Lydia mugged a sad, absurd mouth and looked out the window with mellow good nature, an exercise in absurdity as her eyelids drooped with presumption. She trailed her hand along the door from the inside.
“No, they wouldn’t do that. Bad cop, no donut. This is unofficially entertaining”. She frowned. “Besides, this looks like the kind of shit-box I’d drive. My father, Charles Deetz never walks away from equity. He bought it from a retired art teacher”.
Lydia drew back in and then faced her driver.
“So are you going to try again with the car? It’s simple. . . . . take-it out of park and put it into drive. It’s not so bad, when you do it like a reflex”.
Beetlejuice knocked the steering wheel with his hand.
“O.K., now. Nothing to fear. I’m your student, not your date to the prom”.
“Yeah, and like ‘angst sells’. It’s a band”, Lydia smiled. “So what do you have to remember?”
Beetlejuice looked all around and then his eyes fell on the key in the ignition-switch. He turned the key, released, the brake, and took it out of park. He put on his sunglasses.
“I’m hell on wheels—so hold onto your squeals!” The engine revved, he wrapped his hands on the wheel to the left, and they were on their way.
“Funny, how we end up together” as Beetlejuice drove-on with a wide-mouthed grin through the windshield.
The dying sun’s reflection skirted off the ponds as the geese glided over the water and soon they were in the vast parking-lot of The Muny outdoor amphitheater, rolling by the street-lights like an obstacle course.
“Yeah, here I come baby”, steering to the right and left of the moored sodium-arc lamps as the world was a brilliant gold.
“I’ll pay for those slushees”.