Michael P. Ackley has worked more than three decades as a journalist, the majority of that time at the Sacramento Union. His experience includes reporting, editing and writing commentary. He retired from teaching journalism for California State University at Hayward.More ↓Less ↑
Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns are satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. In this case, he mixes his words with those of a great storyteller. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which are which.
With deep apologies to Charles Dickens …
Henry was dead, to begin with. I had no doubt whatever about that. Old Henry was as dead as a doornail.
I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it.
He had been dead to me for time almost past memory, so let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that when I returned home the other night, and put my key in the lock of my door, that I saw, in place of the knocker, Henry’s face.
Henry’s face. It was ghostly and gray and the once-heavy jowls now were sunken and hard-looking. The wavy hair had retreated higher up the hill of his forehead and, like the hedges of his eyebrows, was streaked with frost and had the aspect of a street after the first morning commuters have driven through six inches of new snow.
His lips were mouthing some words that I could not discern, and as I looked fixedly at the phenomenon, it was a knocker again.
So I went in, taking a moment to look cautiously behind the door to see if the back of Henry’s head was protruding there, but saw only the screws and nuts that held the knocker on.
I said, “Pooh, pooh!” and closed the door with a bang.
I had a cold sandwich for dinner, made from the last strings and gristle of a holiday bird, with scarcely enough meat attached to call it turkey. Feeling dyspeptic and still uneasy due to the apparition on the portal, climbed into my nightshirt and cap.
I closed my door and double-locked myself in, peered into my closet and under the bed, unable to dispatch the vision of Henry’s face.
Finally, exclaiming “Humbug!” I extinguished the light and climbed beneath the covers.
From my basement came a clanking noise, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain across our old lawn furniture and disused exercise bicycles. Then it was coming up the stairs; then coming straight toward my door.
“It’s humbug still!” I exclaimed. “I won’t believe it!”
But my attitude changed when the door flew open and in walked Henry. The revenant’s complexion was gray, indeed, but his shoes were highly polished, his dark-blue, pin-striped suit handsomely cut, and his dark tie neatly knotted at his fashionable shirt collar.
Like the apparition on the door knocker, he was muttering, and gradually I was able to make out the words: “Ve vill haf peace vith honor!”
These chilling words he repeated over and over, shaking for emphasis the chain that was clasped around his middle and wound about him like a tail.
The chain was cunningly wrought of Kalashnikovs and M-16s, grenades and mortar rounds and belts of ammunition, telephones with taps attached, covert microphones and spy glasses. And interspersed with these were documents bound with silk ribbon – treaties with whereases and provisos and codicils, files stamped “top secret” and one prominent scroll labeled “Nobel Peace Prize.”
These papers, which should have rustled and crackled as they moved, instead rattled and clanked like the rest of the chain, except for the peace prize, which gave a hollow, booming sound, like an empty oil drum struck with a mallet.
Carefully arranging this clangorous train, Henry seated himself on the end of my bed, which sank as though under a most unghostly weight.
“You don’t believe in me,” he said.
“I don’t,” I replied. “You may be a slight disorder of the stomach. An undigested fragment of turkey, a bit of bad mayonnaise.”
“Nah,” he said. “It’s really me, and I’m not dead at all – just been out of circulation for a while. But I’m back in the game now!”
He leered at me with a grin that showed just his small, lower teeth.
I shrank back, pulling the counterpane up under my eyes and tucking my knees up to my chest to withdraw my feet from his frightful presence.
“I … I suppose,” I stammered, “that in my life I have forged a chain like yours, and if I don’t mend my ways, I’ll be forced to wander the earth like you, ever burdened by my past.”
The apparition threw back its head and laughed – a tight, dry “heh, heh, heh.”
“Your chain?!” Henry chuckled (for by now I was convinced it was he). “Compared to mine, you’ve got about three feet of stout twine, is all.”
Feeling a bit more secure and poking my chin from beneath the covers, I ventured, “Aren’t you going to send three spirits alternately to beguile and terrify me, before I wake up and find it was all an awful dream?”
“Well,” said Henry, rising and clattering toward the door, “I was going to send George Mitchell around, but then I figured I’d just tell you this isn’t a dream. I really have been hired to find out what went wrong with our intelligence operations before Sept. 11, 2001. I figured that would be enough to scare the Dickens out of you.”