All Stories, General Fiction

Ghost Hats by Marco Etheridge

Grace Walsh stood on the platform of the train station, imagining the dead. The tracks and platforms of the Bahnhof were cut into a hillside. On the far side of the tracks, the earth was held back by a concrete wall fronted with rough concrete pillars. The wall was the height of two Irish women, more or less. A graveyard crowded the brink of the wall, almost spilling over onto the tracks below. Above the concrete edge, Grace could see headstones adorned with bright splotches of flowers. The Viennese tended their dead well. At least you could say that much for them.

She stared straight ahead, as if her green eyes were empowered with X-ray vision. Her sight penetrated the concrete wall, saw the coffins tucked into their dark vaults. Whoever built this wall should have installed portholes for the dead folks. Then the dead could watch the living. They could see the people peering up the tracks; pacing, smoking cigarettes. But maybe that wouldn’t be so interesting. Maybe being dead is a lot like waiting on a train.

Toby would like it. He always loved any place where strangers were thrown together. Bus stations, train stations; it didn’t matter to him. Grace could picture his face, like a little kid enthralled. Her sweet Toby would take everything in, each person in the room. Then he’d push back his battered old fedora and lean over to whisper through the tangle of her dark hair. Hey Gracie, check out that little girl over there. She’s driving her mom nuts. That woman is going to crack any second now. Him pulling out his tattered notebook, scribbling down a few lines. Those cryptic notes would eventually become a lyric in one of their songs.

Grace shook her head to banish the thoughts. The portholes were a stupid idea. The dead didn’t need windows. They could travel wherever they wanted. Toby had crossed the width of the Atlantic Ocean as easily as if he were stepping across a puddle.

She searched for her cigarettes amongst the clutter inside her messenger bag. She lit one and watched the smoke float down the platform. No one waved their arms, or engaged in any indignant fits of fake coughing. Goddamn civilized country, that’s what it was. Toby would have liked that as well.

Where was an American tourist when you needed one? She felt the need to annoy someone, provoke a reaction. Damn, Girl, you need to get a grip on this. The only thing that followed you across that ocean were memories. Toby is dead; dead and buried in a box in Portland. If he made it to Vienna, it’s because you carried him here. And if he really were here, he’d be telling you to write this shit down.

You’re wasting material, my terrible beauty. That’s what he would say. She could hear his words, see his crooked smile. Gracie darling, when life throws grief at you, it’s giving you a song. Sorrow, suffering; that’s just a song in the making. You know that. That was our mantra, right? Our one true thing.

Yeah, Toby, it was our one true thing. But you weren’t supposed to die, you asshole. And stop nagging me. I’m doing the thing, or trying anyway. Look at me, will you? Here I am, taking the train into the old city. I’m going to meet some people, try to put another band together. What else do you want from me? Toby did not answer.

A train appeared around the bend, its electric motors whining down as it slowed. She crushed the cigarette out with three violent stabs. The doors of the train swept open with a pneumatic hiss. The people waiting to board stood on either side of the doors as those disembarking stepping down from the cars.

Grace laughed to herself. Everything was so orderly and polite. She took her place with the others, standing tall and lean in the queue. Grace held a black case clutched against her chest. It was the most unlikely of family heirlooms for a poor girl from County Sligo. The violin and bow inside the shell of the case were worth more than the entirety of the auld family farm.

The gravestones slipped past the window as the train pulled away from the platform. Grace saw the spires of an arabesque church behind the cemetery; another building becoming a familiar sight. This was home now, this strange city of musicians. She was an EU citizen free to wander, back in the Old World and no longer dependent on a green card. She leaned back in her seat for the short ride to the city center.

Her mind drifted to another train and a different landscape. She and Toby on the Portland MAX, their gear piled around their feet. It was too much stuff to lug around, but they had no choice. Someone had stolen their crappy van. The bastards pinched it right out of the driveway at the house. Toby and Grace had to play gigs to afford a replacement. So they stacked two hand trucks with amps and crates, wheeling the gear and themselves onto the train.

They lived in a run-down rental house in the Hollywood district, with a collection of misfit cats and three other musicians. There was a constant air of chaos in the house. People came and went at all hours. They struggled home from shitty day jobs then packed up to rush off to a gig. Late into the wee hours, they staggered back from making music and tried to snatch a few hours of sleep.

The house was full of music, always the music. The heartbeat of the house was a makeshift recording studio in the basement. They rehearsed there, or sat in with the others to make demo discs. The music flowed out of the studio at all hours. It was a magical house for music and a terrible house for sleeping.

Sleep they could live without. Who needed sleep when there was so much music to make? Grace could hear it even now, her fiddle riffs weaving in and out of Toby’s percussive guitar. Traditional Celtic melodies met edgy Punk and fused into something other. And there were Toby’s lyrics, growled out over the minor chords and the dark voice of her fiddle. When they exhausted themselves with music, they fell into bed and exhausted what was left of their bodies.

It lasted three years. They had three years of building a life, of building a band and a following. Even with the sometimes bitter fights and the hard times, in the end it was magic. She and Toby didn’t know that the clock was ticking, but the clock is always ticking.

Then it was over, just like that. Toby out for a ride on his crappy old motorcycle, a stupid soccer mom turning left without looking; a life erased without reason or meaning. Toby’s family stuck him in a coffin without a decent hat on his head. After they buried him in the wet Portland earth, Grace fled back across the Atlantic Ocean.

An electronic voice broke through her memories. Precise German words announced the next station, then repeated the announcement in English. Vienna Main Station, we wish you a pleasant trip and hope to see you again soon. Grace rose from her seat and joined the queue to disembark the train.

Grace threaded her way through the labyrinth of tunnels under the main train station. Clad in black denim, she was a shade moving through shadow. She emerged on the far side of a wide boulevard and disappeared into a narrow street.

Tall stone buildings pressed in on both sides of Argentinierstraße. The granite and limestone walls formed a canyon running straight into the heart of the old city. Grace felt protected in the closed space. A narrow strip of blue sky hung overhead. She walked with the violin case dangling from her hand; just another violin in a city of violins.

A wide park space opened on her right. Two hulking towers rose above the greenery of the park. The soaring windowless structures were topped with stark concrete platforms, ragged crowns silhouetted against the blue of the sky. One of the towers overshadowed a children’s playground.

During the dark days of the war, the Flak Towers had spit fire and death at Allied bombers flying over the beleaguered city. Now they were brooding monoliths; paired reminders of ominous times.

The towers gave Grace the creeps. Toby would have loved them, but Toby wasn’t here. He was the one who remembered everything, the smallest detail. The longer I am with you, the more the past shrinks. That’s what he had told her, as if she were stealing his history. But I’m not a thief any longer, My Love. Now I carry our history like a millstone. She shook her head at the thought, disgusted with herself. No, that’s not fair and you know it. What you’re carrying is a crucible of memories. The flames of your love and life are still flickering. You cannot blame Toby for that. She walked on, back into the protection of the narrow street.

The delicate spires of the Karlskirche rose behind her as she crossed through Resselpark. A busker was playing just inside the entrance to the U-Bahn. Grace approved of the spot the kid had chosen. There were good acoustics in the long Karlsplatz tunnel. The natural reverb and echo of the marble amplified the kid’s beat up guitar.

Grace paused to listen, watching the kid’s bony hands walk the chords up and down the neck of the old acoustic. He wasn’t half-bad, this boy busker. The crowd swirled behind her, ignoring them both. She waited until he finished the song, then pitched a euro coin into the open guitar case. Grace got a quick nod and a smile for her trouble. She turned away, walking up the polished marble of the brightly lit tunnel.

A swarm of tourists and commuters pulsed around her. Shops and food kiosks vied for their attention. Grace wove a pathway through the crowd, keeping a tight grip on her fiddle case. She reached the far end of the underground hive. An escalator carried her back to the surface, depositing her in front of the State Opera House.

The huge stone bulk of the opera house stretched down the entire block. Selfie sticks waved above the milling tourists. Men dressed in tawdry capes hawked tickets for the opera, for Mozart; for anything the cultural tourist wanted. Classical music was a big part of the Vienna tourist draw.

Grace spotted a few working musicians hurrying through the crowd. They were all dressed in well-worn black formal wear, the standard attire for third-chair string players. She laughed at the image of herself, all worn black jeans and boots. No one was going to mistake her for a string quartet member, that was sure.

Aye, Lass, you’re hard core through and through. And good on you, but we have an appointment to keep. You need to find a paying gig, My Girl, or you might find yourself sitting in a third chair yourself. Toby would laugh himself out of the grave at that, you sawing away at some Mozart piece from the back of a tourist orchestra. She smirked at the thought and plunged into the throng.

Her destination lay in the shadow of the main cathedral. It was not a long walk, but she felt like a salmon swimming upstream. Vienna’s main shopping street was a gauntlet of tourists, as busy as Grafton Street back in Dublin. Tour groups trotted behind their designated leader like ducklings behind their mother. By the time the third herd of Chinese tourists tried to trample her, she was muttering Gaelic curses aloud.

Bloody Hell! These pikers had better be worth it. She tried to remember what she knew about the folks she was to meet. Two were friends of friends, the keyboardist and bass player. The third was some barmy multi-instrumentalist, an Austrian who had a reputation for being brilliant and difficult.

Grace sighed to herself as she dodged yet another sawed-off guide holding a tour placard. Ah, a contentious musical match made in the heavens. Sure, there’s nothing new there, Girl. But they are all supposed to be top-notch musicians who liked to play the dark tunes. And that is exactly what we need; partners for a dance on the dark edge of it. Aye, and a spotlight to illuminate the fall.

The spotlight had never been for Toby. He pushed Grace into the light, keeping the shadows for himself. His hat pulled down over dark glasses, hunched over his stool, banging that guitar like a demon in the darkness. Even ripping through a solo he would tolerate only the dimmest spot. Toby’s tirades about lighting were well-worn stories amongst the stage hands.

Grace stepped into the vast space of Stephansplatz; Ground Zero for the hordes of tourists. The cathedral rose into the sky, an immense pile of cut stone. Scaffolding clung to one side of the ornate building, as it did to most European cathedrals. She gazed out over the heads of the seething crowd, trying to get her bearings. When she was sure of the way, she set out across the expanse of flagstones.

The spires of the cathedral were drenched in a bright afternoon sun. Crossing into the sunlight, Grace found herself blinking like an owl. A young woman materialized in front of her, a leather notebook held in the crook of her arm. Grace blinked again. No, she was not a woman, more a teenaged girl. Grace tried to slip past her earnest smile but the girl was too quick for her.

“Excuse me, but do you speak English?”

Sure, there it was, the short code for someone trying to clip a tourist for a euro or two. But this lass didn’t look the part. Curiosity got the better of Grace, though not enough to part with any coins. Nor was she in the mood to spare anyone’s feelings.

“Aye, Lass, I speak English and I’m poor as a church mouse.”

The young woman tilted her head quizzically, a small smile on her face.

“Sorry, a church mouse?”

“Yes, a mouse that lives in a church. They are always very poor, as a rule. I don’t know why.”

The girl laughed and opened her notebook. She pulled out a pen and began writing and speaking at the same time.

“I like that very much, this church mouse. We have such a saying also, but I did not know it in English. In German it would be Kirchenmaus.”

Grace found herself charmed by this girl’s bright laugh, but business called.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but I am in a bit of a rush. Did you want to ask me something?”

The girl looked up from her notebook, bright blue eyes shining out from her pale face.

“If I could ask you, yes, it’s for a school project. Could you tell me what you think would be a good name for a band?”

The question broke over Grace with the force of a wave. Why this question? Why now?

“I’m sorry, do you mean a name for a musical band, like Thin Lizzy, or The Pogues?”

Again, that quizzical tilt of the head.

“I don’t know these names. But if you can think of a new name for a band, that is what we are supposed to ask for.”

Something at the edge of Grace’s vision caught her eye. She thought she saw a tall figure moving through the crowd, a thin young man carrying a battered guitar case. A worn hat was pulled low over the man’s face. Grace swung her head to get a better view, but the figure had vanished into the shifting crowd.

Grace turned back to find the blonde girl still standing there, her pen poised over the pages of her notebook.

“The name of a band, that’s what you’re after?”

The girl nodded, flashing that damned bright smile again.

“Ghost Hats, that’s the name you’re looking for.”

The blonde girl smiled and nodded. The pen moved across the page.

Without another word, Grace slipped past the young woman. She walked through gleaming sunlight, her green eyes searched each figure in the swirling crowd.


Marco Etheridge

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9 thoughts on “Ghost Hats by Marco Etheridge”

  1. Inner thoughts tend to wander, it takes awhile to get a handle on who this person is and what she is doing in Vienna, she’s taking stock of her life and losses, it seems. It’s quite subtle, requires a few readings to understand, I like the connections made at the beginning and at the end. Interesting!


  2. Lovely. I liked the drifting atmosphere, and the concrete details of the scene which grounded the story, for me.


  3. Hi Marco,
    There is such a beautiful tone to this. We get lost in your words, the story whispers at us and we are left with her tribute as a tie-in.


  4. If this short story was s song, it would be called “Ghost Hats”. Wait, it is a song and I can’t get it out of my head. It keeps playing over and over. Each time reveals new emotions. Well played Mr. Ethridge, well played.


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