Eric Bennett

Ghost Pains

Dan Wolfsen is the man Mother meets where the employees take their smoke break. She’s captivated by his slow brown eyes and the way he strikes matches on the zipper of his Dickeys. The remarkable thing about that is Dan only has one arm. He’s telling the circle of smokers how the stamping machine crushed his right hand as he strikes a match on his zipper with his left, a shower of sparks near his crotch.

Mother and Dan eventually neglect the smokers to stake out a place of their own behind the Dempsey dumpster, and so it goes that their love is conceived by the factory trash-bin. With one sleeve neatly folded and pinned at the elbow, Dan moves into our double-wide trailer. About those first days, Mother says she was never happier. What she means by happy is she doesn’t have to smoke alone.

Always, I’m the one sent to buy cigarettes – Marlboros for Dan, Menthols for Mother. And though I’m barely fifteen, my characteristic expression is furrowed and serious so the freakishly tall guy behind the counter doesn’t ask to see ID. Walking home is when I pocket my right hand to see what it’s like using my left to zipper-light a match. By my sixteenth birthday, I’m proud to say, I can generate sparks using my zipper.

What seems stable often is not, like Dan for instance. Mother sits in the kitchen, fingers following the graphite design across the gold-veined dinette, when Dan says the American dream turned against him and he’s got to go and find it. Mother’s eyes go hard as she devotes herself to having not heard Dan. The next morning I wake to discover Mother shaved her name on the back of Dan’s pit-bull. In the way that we know things before we know them, I understand Dan will eventually leave.

“Come here,” says Dan to me a few days after the dog-shaving incident. Mother sits listening at the kitchen table where she’s arranging cigarette butts in the thick glass ashtray.

“Have I ever told you about my arm?”

“You lost it in the stamping machine at the factory,” I say crooking my fingers one by one feeling the resistance in my knuckles.

“Yes, but have I told you about the ghost pains?” Dan stares at my hands while I’m playing with finger fat and then drones on in a faraway tone, “Since the accident, I get aches in my arm even though it’s missing. Sometimes I can even feel the fingers moving, but nothing is there, not really.”

From his wallet, Dan then pulls a worn and folded picture and hands it to me. The image of his pit-bull fills the frame, a hand resting on the dog’s head and another on his back, but the body to which they belong is just beyond the edge of the picture. Dan leans back saying, simply, “Those are my hands.”

My eyes roll slowly from Dan to the picture and back while he’s saying, “Sometimes I feel what isn’t really there.” He asks me if I understand. “Yes,” I say. I say yes, but I’m not certain if he means what he’s saying or if ghost pains are a metaphor for something. Without a word, Mother upends the ashtray and leaves the room.

The next day Dan and his dog are gone. And later that same evening I have my first ghost pain when I arrive home with Mother’s Menthols – and a pack of Marlboros.


Eric Bennett lives in New York with his wife and four children. He loves the silence between songs on vinyl records and beginning sentences with the word “and.” His work appears in numerous literary and art journals including Writer’s Bloc, Bartleby Snopes, Ghoti Magazine, LITnIMAGE, and PANK.