By Casey Gauntt
Ghostwriter: A professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, stories, reports or other texts that are officially credited to another person. [Source: Wikipedia]
Paranormal: Not scientifically explainable. [Source: Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary]
Over the 2009 Christmas holiday my older brother, Grover, came to visit us in Solana Beach, California from New York City. On Christmas Eve day we went for a hike up Mt. Woodson in nearby Poway. Halfway out the door I grabbed a disposable camera from a drawer in our kitchen and put it in my pack. I wasn’t sure how long that camera had been lying around or what might be on it. Didn’t give it much thought, really. At the top of the 3,000 foot mini-mountain crammed with cell-phone towers and T.V. antennae, my brother and I took some pictures of each other. It was a clear, crisp day, very beautiful, but the flimsy camera didn’t seem to be working as we snapped some shots— the film wasn’t advancing properly when we thumbed the wheel. You get what you pay for, I guess. Regardless, when we got back from the hike I took it out of my pack and tossed it on the kitchen counter.
In mid-January, my wife Hilary and I travelled with our good friends Frank and Penny Dudek to Death Valley for a weekend trip, the product of a question Hilary had asked me a few months earlier: “What do you want to do for your 60th birthday?” We stayed at the Furnace Creek Inn nestled up against the Funeral Mountains. Cheery. My parents honeymooned at the Inn in March of 1946, but none of us had been there before. In packing for the trip I found a new disposable camera in the same drawer where I stumbled upon the one I used at Mt. Woodson. Once again I threw it in my bag. Turns out Death Valley, despite its name, is actually quite picturesque; there’s the endlessly salt encrusted valley floor, to the west the snow-capped Panamint Mountains, 11,000 feet plus and jagged peaks, and the Funerals with slot canyon walls painted by a variety of colored minerals embedded in the rock, not to mention well-punctured by the holes and scars of abandoned borax mines. A strangely beautiful and inspiring place, put in perspective by vestiges of toil all around, that predominantly fruitless labor of men who worked their meager claims over a hundred years ago, their remnants palpable. I took several pictures of us with the disposable camera simply in the midst of these surreal settings and thought of my parents eyeing the same scenes some 65 years prior.
The week after we got back, and tip-toeing around my first colonoscopy (God help me), I began to focus on the film project I’d been working on with Steve Date. Steve is the 5th grade school teacher from Minneapolis and the documentary filmmaker Hilary and I met the previous year in Coalwood, West Virginia at the October Sky Festival; an annual event to commemorate the town’s celebrity, Homer Hickam, the author of his memoir The Rocket Boys and made into the movie October Sky in 1999. Quite unexpectedly, Emily Sue Buckberry and I told Steve the story of “The Letter,” the roots of which are also embedded in Coalwood, and he captured it on film. Steve mentioned he was getting close to finishing the first rough cut of the 10 minute piece and put me to work to find some still photos and home movies of our family that could be spliced in. He specifically asked for “photos and objects of your father and your son, Jimmy.”
Over the next several days I spent hours in our attic pouring through photo albums—and grocery bags of pictures that haven’t quite made it into albums—and pulled several to send to Steve. Thanks to a tutorial from Brittany, I learned how to use the scanning function of our Hewlett-Packard printer and email photographs. So much quicker and cheaper than taking the photos to CVS to have copies made and mailing them. Yes, I am a technology moron. At that time we didn’t have a digital camera, and although my cell phone had a camera feature, I didn’t know how to use it. We’ve since gotten slightly more with it.
As for objects for my dad, I thought of the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star With Cluster (i.e. two Bronze Stars) awarded to him for the two years of his nightmare spent in the South Pacific during World War II which, after gathering dust in a box of my mother’s things for over sixty years, are now prominently displayed in a glass framed case hanging in my law office. [Dad’s Story HERE] And for Jimmy, the hard copies of his screenplays and plays came to mind. I had some film left on the disposable camera I took to Death Valley, and on the morning of Tuesday, January 26, before heading to work, I found and artfully arranged Jimmy’s mountain of scripts on the coffee table in our upstairs family room and snapped a few more pictures.
Hilary suggested “What about his saxophone?” Of course. I pulled the much travelled instrument, made by Henri Selmer in Paris, France and hand-picked by his sax teacher Anthony Ortega, out of its case, placed it on a maroon leather desk chair on our front lawn and photographed that. [Story of Anthony Ortega & Jimmy HERE] So artsy! I was on a roll now. Next day when I got to my office I took a couple of shots of my dad’s medals and finished-off the disposable camera.
When I got home that evening I put the used-up camera on Hilary’s desk in our kitchen. An hour or so later I was looking for something and spotted the older used-up disposable camera and put that on Hilary’s desk as well. On Wednesday January 27, Hilary took both cameras to CVS to have the pictures developed. I was hopeful at least some of the ones I shot of Jimmy’s scripts and sax and my dad’s medals would be good enough to forward to Steve.
Around 2 P.M. on Thursday, Hilary sent our daughter Brittany, her husband Ryan and me this email:
From: Hilary Gauntt
Date: Thu, Jan 28, 2010 at 2:02 PM
Subject: A bit of a shock…
“I just picked up some photos taken with the two disposable cameras that had been laying around. There were even some pictures from Prague. Then, there he was. Two of Jimmy in his favorite spot on the couch, wrapped in the blanket with Princess on his outstretched legs. Wearing a cap and a huge grin, snacks on the table and reading a book by Phillip Roth called “The Ghost Writer” of all things. He couldn’t look happier. It seems more impossible than ever. Love you all so much—H.”
I called Hilary right away. She was a little shaky.
“I was just so surprised. I wasn’t expecting to find a new picture of Jimmy. It was so out of the blue and so him.”
The pictures were taken with the old disposable camera I used on the hike to Mt. Woodson with my brother. The two photographs of Jimmy were bracketed by pictures from our trip to Prague with Frank and Penny in September, 2007, and some shots taken when Hilary and went to Borrego Springs in late January, 2008. There they were, sometime in between. It might have been over Thanksgiving or Christmas—hard to say.
Hilary thought she remembered taking them, but it was over two years ago. We were both struck by how he holds the book, The Ghost Writer written by Philip Roth, in front of him, so the title and author’s name are clearly displayed. Almost deliberate. He was reclined in “his spot” on the couch. Every visit home he would claim that spot. When Hilary, Brittany and I came home from our dinner with my sister and her family at Fidel’s on August 8, 2008, Jimmy, who had driven down from Los Angeles, was on the couch, in his spot, watching the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. These days when Hilary and I are in the family room talking about or to Jimmy, as we often do, we always look over to him, to his spot on the couch, and we acknowledge him. Always. We catch each other stealing glances to see if there might be a slight depression in the cushions where his head and shoulders have pressed against them.
We have other pictures of Jimmy that were taken after this. That’s not what is remarkable. For one, it was the timing of the thing. The past few days had been “heavy Jimmy days” as we call them. We’d been looking at so many pictures of him as a baby, family pictures with the four of us, birthdays, holidays, graduations, other achievements, happy times—trying to find just the right ones for Steve and the film. Lots of tears between us. I had watched Steve’s initial cut of the film several times since he’d sent it to me on January 23rd and, even though I know the story better than anyone and have shared it hundreds of times with others, I broke down every time.
These pictures, of course, captured the things we had completely overlooked: his precious cat, Princess—she has never been “our cat,” she was and will always be “Jimmy’s cat”; a book—he was always with a book in his hand and several in his backpack; his favorite blanket wrapped around his legs; multiple drink glasses and snacks; and, of course, his spot on the couch. These are Jimmy’s things. They define Jimmy.
I noted my very first reaction to the photographs in an email I sent to Hilary moments after I received hers. “I think it was a present for you—he’s happy—he wanted to reassure you.” That was surely part of it. But later that day I couldn’t help thinking ‘he knows what we’re up to’ and decided to provide some much needed input of his own in response to Steve’s request— “Hey guys. Don’t forget about these things!” We can see him smiling in the pictures as though he is sees the shock on our faces and the brightening of lights in our heads as we pieced it together.
Steve used The Ghost Writer photos of Jimmy in the film. Most of the ones I took and sent to him did not make the final cut.
And yet, as we are learning, there was a lot more to this story. More layers.
About a month after the arrival of The Ghost Writer photos, Hilary and I had a session with Mary The Coffee Reader. This was the “capper” of our weekend spent with Tarra and her Psychic Workshop held at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Solana Beach. Tarra is a well known and respected medium and psychic from Sedona with whom we’d worked and come to know quite well over the past year. [ Tarra of Sedona ] There were sixteen of us in attendance at the workshop including Robert, a retired and recently widowed physician from Del Mar, Nancy, an elegant lady and a hospice worker also from Del Mar, Andy, real estate consultant in his late 50s from La Jolla, and Mary, mother of three and restaurant owner from Coronado. Hilary, Brittany and I had met them four months earlier in Sedona at Tarra’s three day workshop focused on grief, connecting with loved ones who have passed over, ancestral spirits and ourselves, and so much more. Just another relaxing weekend. Kaye, Debby and Cathy were also at the Psychic Workshop. Hilary and these three women have too much in common: late 50s early 60s, live in north San Diego County within a few miles of each other, had lost their youngest sons between the ages of 18 and 24 under tragic circumstances within the past two years and continue to struggle and suffer mightily—together.
Mary “The Coffee Reader” is an immigrant from Iran, in her early 70s I would guess, and was accompanied to the hotel by her granddaughter. Mary has thick black hair that hangs heavily on her shoulders, a little over five feet tall and stout of build. She has coal black eyes, the deep hoarse voice of a heavy smoker and a strong, serious face that tolerates little laughter. Coffee reading is an ancient art that originated in the eastern part of the world. It involves the interpretation— a reading—of the coffee grounds that remain in a cup of strong Turkish coffee. Hilary and I had our reading together. First, Mary’s granddaughter brought each of us a small cup of very dark coffee and a saucer. We were still in the conference room where we did the workshop. Mary was doing the readings in a room down the hall. We were instructed to drink most, but not all, of the coffee and turn the cup upside down in the saucer and hold them tightly together for a minute or so. The granddaughter retrieved the cups and saucers and came back to collect us a few minutes later.
When we came into the room, Mary was seated at a table, her granddaughter was standing by her side and they invited us to sit in the two chairs at the table across from them. They both appeared agitated or excited—we weren’t sure which. The cups were upside down in their saucers on the table. Mary pointed to the cup and saucer to her left and asked “Who belong to this?” My immediate thought was “Damn! It didn’t occur to me to mark my cup—I had no idea.” Hilary said “That’s my cup.” Mary and the granddaughter looked at one another, their faces serious but with a slight suppression of a smile, and then at Hilary. Mary grabbed the bottom of Hilary’s cup and lifted it up; the saucer was stuck to the cup.
“This is very rare!” Mary exclaimed in a thickly accented voice. The granddaughter jumped in “This is very special! This has only happened a couple of times in the thirty five years my grandmother has been doing this!” Now we were excited. “What?” our faces implored. Mary looked at Hilary and said:
“You will get everything you wish for this year. This is the sign of good luck, and a good heart. You are very wise. It is all good.” Mary looked at me and asked “What do you do? Engineer?” I said I was a lawyer. With a withering look on her face Mary chastised me “You listen to this woman! You don’t know everything. She does. She is to be listened to.” Hilary smirked—she liked that.
And that was the end of Hilary’s reading. Ninety seconds, tops. Hilary had the winning lotto ticket of reading—a grand slam—hit it out of the park. Nothing more to be said.
Mary picked up my cup and the saucer remained fixed on the table as though a nail had been driven through it. There was a little puddle of thick coffee in the saucer. She lifted the saucer, poured the remnants onto a white napkin and then looked into the cup. After about thirty seconds she began my reading, but permit me to further set the stage. Mary’s English is not so good, ergo the presence of her granddaughter. Several times during my reading, Mary would look over to her granddaughter and say something in Farsi, which her granddaughter would translate for us. If Mary didn’t concur with the translation, she and her granddaughter would argue in Farsi until Mary was satisfied. OK—here’s what came out of all this.
“Something bad will happen on your job, but you will get past it; it will be ok. There’s a big problem, some big case with two big firms. Something with this job is making you upset or angry. Don’t finish it if its making you upset. Walk away. It’s ok. You will make good money this year. There’s three things involving money; one is your house. Three things—that’s good. Three is a lucky number. People are jealous of you at work, and some may say some things to you or about you. Ignore it—let it go. There’s a man, maybe he is a client. Be patient. He will want to argue with you. You are honest and people like and believe in you. You do excellent job. There’s a good meeting in Coronado. Go over the bridge into the village, and go to the meeting. More money.
You have two children, yes? Everything is good there. You and your wife will have a long life together. There’s a ghost in your house, but nothing to be afraid of.”
What? I looked at Hilary staring at Mary, her eyes bugging out. Mary didn’t pause,
“You and your wife will go on a long holiday—but not more than two weeks. Don’t go for more than two weeks.” Mary then looked at the napkin on which she poured the coffee and pointed to a pattern. “You see this? This is the sign of the dolphin. It is the big dolphin in the moon. This is a good sign—more money.” Mary then asked if we had any questions.
Uh…yeah. Hilary jumped right in, fighting back tears: “You said we have two children and everything is good. Eighteen months ago we lost our twenty four year old son.”
Mary drew in a breath as if Hilary had punched her in the stomach. “How did he die?” she asked, and Hilary told her. Mary reflected before speaking. “God gives and God takes. This can’t be explained. He’s the ghost—your son is the ghost in your house. He’s around you and this is good. Don’t be afraid. And you have another child?”
Hilary began to cry and told Mary “We know this—we feel him around—and we welcome his presence. And, yes we also have a daughter, Brittany, almost thirty, and she and her husband are expecting their first child, our first grandchild, a boy in May.
Mary emphatically interjected, “This baby is to have your son’s name. This is very important. And don’t worry. Nothing bad is coming your way. Only good things. It is ok.”
As we thanked Mary and her granddaughter and said our goodbyes, Mary took each of our hands and assured us “You’ll be OK. It will be alright.”
And more layers.
A few weeks after our Coffee Reading, Hilary, Brittany and I went to see the new film by Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer. Although we didn’t really know anything about the movie or the book Jimmy is holding in his hands, we understood they were completely unrelated stories. It was a Sunday and my sister Laura had called from her home in Switzerland that morning and I mentioned we were going to see the movie. At the time Polanski was under house-arrest in Switzerland and it was there he finished this film. Since leaving the United States in 1977, Polanski had been living in France to avoid extradition back to the States for sex-with-a-minor charges. In September of 2009, he travelled to Zurich to receive a life-time achievement award and was arrested by Swiss police at the urging of U.S. authorities. Laura said she and her husband Anton had seen the movie the week before.
“It is a very good film but I need to give you a ‘heads-up’—the ending is very powerful and….well, I don’t want to say anything more about it…be ready.”
Polanski and Robert Harris, a best-selling English novelist, co-wrote the screenplay based on Harris’ novel The Ghost published in September, 2007. The film/novel is about a writer, played by Ewan McGregor, who has been hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of the recently retired British prime minister (starring Pierce Brosnan) and in the process of doing so uncovers an espionage conspiracy intended by powerful people in the U.S. and Great Britain to remain deeply buried.
The penultimate scene of the film takes place in Manhattan at a star-studded event celebrating the release of the new book. The ghostwriter, Ewan McGregor, is at the event and he passes a note to the widow of the recently assassinated prime minister—it turns out the wife had been a CIA operative during her entire marriage to the bloke—to let her know he has put together all of the pieces of this well-crafted puzzle. She is not pleased and begins to muster her co-conspirators.
Ewan promptly exits the party into the chilly, rainy, New York evening, the original six hundred pages of manuscript tucked under one arm. He steps into the apparently deserted street, his car parked on the other side. As McGregor goes out of frame to the right, the camera latches on to a dark, sleek sedan, headlights off, roaring with pace down the street from the left across the frame.The camera remains focused straight ahead; it does not follow the car to the right. There is only the sound……The sound a car would make if it hits a pedestrian travelling at a high speed. A brief screech of brake, followed by the throaty roar of the big engine sedan as it resumes acceleration. The camera remained focused straight ahead. Everything goes quiet for several seconds. A feint rustle emanates from the right; like large dry maple leaves scraping the pavement. And then, scores of pages of manuscript blow to the left across the frame, the camera following them as they cartwheel down the middle of the street, dancing in the air, propelled along by a freshening wind.
We sat rigid in our seats for what seemed like minutes; but likely only seconds. I grabbed Hilary’s leg and asked Brittany “Are you alright?” She and Hilary were in a state of shock—staring straight ahead—tears erupting from their eyes. The credits were rolling up the screen. All we saw was flashback.
Friday night, August 8, 2008—the last time the four of us were together. Jimmy had driven down from Los Angeles that evening to see my sister and her family visiting from Switzerland and to do some shopping with us to get ready for a two week sea kayaking trip to Southeast Asia he’d be making in a few days. Jimmy brought home with him the latest draft manuscript of Now’s The Time, the screenplay he’d been working off and on for the last two years. He placed our copy on the piano bench in our family room. He could hardly wait for us to read it and talk with him about it.
In a drawer in our bedroom lay his other plays and screenplays, including the other project he had been furiously working on the last nine months; a screenplay for a motion picture he and his best friend, Evan, had ghostwritten for a major Hollywood director.
That Friday night Jimmy left our house to meet up with some friends at a party. Early Saturday morning, after too many beers, he decided to walk home instead of drive. On the dark and winding Del Dios Highway he was struck by an automobile and instantly killed. That car flipped over but the driver, thankfully, suffered no physical injuries. Two other cars would hit him as he lay in the road, already gone, but they accelerated and left the scene.
Thousands of pages blowing across the screen.
Jimmy, stretched out on the couch, holding the book The Ghost Writer, big grin across his face—smiling—late 2007—now.
“Fuck me!” I succinctly summarized.
Hilary had already said it, better:
“It seems more impossible than ever.”
Later that evening, as Hilary and I debriefed the film experience over a glass of wine, we looked over to his spot on the couch, raised our glasses and toasted, once again, our beloved ghostwriter.
The “bad thing at work” began two days after our reading with Mary. My largest client, who liked to yell and scream, ran a billion-dollar investment fund. He was embroiled in a major dispute with his largest investor and one of the biggest pension funds in the world. I told him he either had to calm down or I was going to quit. He did and, although the negotiations were really tough and took place over two and a half years, everything was finally resolved in late 2012. And then I quit the law practice.
I went to work for a very large family owned real estate firm founded in San Diego in 1906. Shortly after I started the family patriarch and I figured out that the founder-his grandfather- and my grandfather, Vern Case, knew each other when Vern was working and living in Coronado in 1944. The meeting in Coronado had already taken place and my grandfather stood in for me!
In October Hilary and I travelled to Switzerland and flew together with my sister Laura and her family to Tanzania for a photo safari and one of the best trips of our lives. We spread some of Jimmy’s ashes in the low hills above the Mara River in the western Serengeti. Two weeks later we were back home.
I listen to everything Hilary says.
We will always have two children.
And as for our ghost? Jimmy continued to stay very busy.