I am Americus Ash, forty times forty years of age, with the tough, unbitten cortex of a sapling. My father Pelonius Ash shaded the walls of Troy. My mother, a diminutive myrtle, attractive in canopy and of a tender, leaning disposition, did not outlive her own mother, yet in her short life her generous boughs gave rise to the poetry of Bashō and the secret verses of Lao Tsu.
I am Americus Ash, brother of Armand who fell early and honored us all. For he was the chosen. He held aloft the Christ. The paintings show them bound one to the other, the man afoot, walking to the field of his death. Armand on his shoulder, my very brother on the shoulder of the very Christ. How he wished himself weightless (for the man struggled beneath him), wished to turn back the mountainous tide of ill will, wished his own death at the hand of the ax for naught. My sisters too fell early, dozens of them burning in the fires that took Saint Joan. Green wood. A smoky, slow, deliberate burn. They wept, I am certain. Of course they wept.
And now I am guardian of a man. Where the wild world stops and the tame takes root, I shadow his dwelling. I watch through the glass. The man and I, we age together. I listen to him praising his dog, his children who are grown, his reflection. Sometimes if he thinks of it he praises even me.
Every day people congratulate me. “Oooh, they say, so you’re the ghost of Lincoln. That’s a status job.” I hear the jealousy, the longing for greatness, and I try and ignore it, but the truth is it gets to me sometimes, all this envy. “You want this job? You can have it,” I tell them. They think I’m joking and they go away laughing.
Abe and I met on a rainy evening in April at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. . . . I wasn’t much impressed by the play. It was something called Our American Cousin and was about as flavorless as the name suggests. I wasn’t out for attention that night. I was wearing a gray overcoat and ordinary galoshes. Abe got a close look at me but didn’t shake my hand or introduce himself. That came nine hours later, across the street at the Petersen House. Abe surrendered then with the mysterious words, “No city on earth. . .” I always finish his sentence for him and no one’s the wiser. No city on earth will call itself home to my wandering soul. No city on earth will claim me again, as I am flown to Heaven. No city on earth will serve the kind of pastrami sandwich found only on New York’s West Side. That last is an improvement I came up with to bring me and Abe into the modern world.
So am I happy in this life? This afterlife? Let me speak frankly: a ghost is a ghost. We’re made of the same smoke, every one of us. Nothing special about working for a dead president. But I’ll admit, it’s been interesting to get to know this gentleman whose face I wear. He’s a well-read, well-spoken, intelligent guy. Had a lot of tragedies in his life. Wives, sons, wars. Now that I’m his ghost, we’ve cut back on the tragic endings. I’m practical. Shoot, it should have been me filling the job of president. But that would have meant I took the bullet instead of Abe, and I’d rather be a ghost than the man who became one.
Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, and many literary magazines. She won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and The Butterflies of Grand Canyon (Plume), was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Margaret welcomes responses and conversations at www.margareterhart.com