“Nothing Like a Ghost” by Wen Henagan

Ghost, by Patrick Stacy
Illustration: “Ghost” © 2005 by Patrick Stacy

Dan Constantine had steeled himself and thus was not at all surprised. When Lucian Renoir’s small hand came out in greeting as they stood at a side entrance of the magazine of Dan’s employ, Dan knew not to evaluate what his eyes saw. Here was a fellow, hardly a man yet, with fair eyes and skin and already acclaimed of greatness in the mode of the stalwarts of science. His eyes instantly balked at placing this fellow on the same podium as Newton, Pasteur, Einstein, and Hawking. Yet, what he’d done was as astounding as any of them. Lucian did not smile and his eyes merely darted at Dan’s own, and they quickly entered into a corridor of BOLD QUEST until they found the room where the interview was to be conducted.

Just inside the door another shaking of hands, this time with Lou Mangionne, Dan’s managing editor. “Monsieur Renoir, we couldn’t be happier to have you with us. Can I get you anything?”

“Yes, maybe two crackers and some mineral water, please.” Renoir’s English came out with a strong hint of his French heritage but otherwise was excellent.

The men quickly sat down and Renoir immediately took in the lighting. The protocol letters they’d exchanged had clearly stated his aversion to certain kinds of light, and the gentle nod of Renoir’s small head gave Dan immediate hope.

Lou spoke first and gestured with exaggerated, beefy strokes. “I’m glad we met initially by tele-conference, because you already know who we are. Of course we know who you are, but our thirty million subscribers are very curious about the most famous man on this planet. We hope our questions today will be forthright, to the point, and revealing. Monsieur Renoir, I’m going to leave in a minute and you and Dan can get to work. Do you have any questions for me at this time?”

“The questions I have will present themselves, Mr. Mangionne.” The cryptic answer made Lou cock his head to one side, and yet he forced the smile. Renoir must not be irritated. For one so young he was extremely confident or arrogant, or both. His reasons for accepting this interview, when he had turned down so many others, were still murky and unexplored.

The water and two crackers came in on a silver tray, and Renoir set them on the lampless table at his elbow. Lou nodded and shut the door. He would remain close by and Renoir was aware that the interview was being recorded and was going out on BOLD QUEST’s Internet programming live and unedited.

Dan had prepared his dry, crackling throat as best he could beforehand. Writing was his specialty, and he’d done precious few interviews in this manner. But Lou felt Renoir would be more comfortable with someone closer to his own age. Just now, Dan wished he were anywhere but right here.

“People are curious,” Dan began, “as to why you wish to be called Monsieur rather than Doctor Renoir. Can you hash that out for us?” Dan sat just across from Renoir’s folded legs and he’d made a little, official temple with his ten arched fingers.
“The reason is very simple. I was never granted any Ph.D. for my original thesis idea.”

“And why so?”

“My committee of esteemed scholars felt it was not valid-enough science I was trying to demonstrate, since I was beginning with a false premise. It smacked of the paranormal.”

“So what did you do about this large problem?”

“I immediately left France and sought funding from people who believed in me.”

“And yet at the time, you knew practically no English.”

“Very true. I’d had no time for language study. But in order to find people to invest in my project, I had to learn how to beg in English. So I stayed at someone’s estate for thirty days until I had learned it adequately.”

Dan knew his heart rate had zoomed up. People really wanted to know this about Renoir, and he’d said very little about it until now. “People study English for many years and they must feel very jealous of you since you accomplished that amazing feat in only thirty days.”

“It does not require genius to learn English, Mr. Constantine. If I may say so, in terms of raw IQ, you are as smart as I.”

Dan’s lips snapped together. The first real bump in the road. “Monsieur Renoir, please do not flatter me…”

Renoir showed a fragment of animation as a hand chopped at the air. “No, it’s absolutely correct. I thoroughly check out almost every aspect of an interview before I consent. I am aware of your high IQ. Perhaps you will forgive my impetuousness if I tell you this: I am no genius myself. There are some myths springing up that I am, but it’s not so true. I’m low MENSA. There’s nothing so wonderful about the way my brain works.”

Dan’s eyes wandered into Renoir’s chest. Renoir did have a way of gyrating one’s emotions. The information about Renoir’s personal IQ seemed stunning enough, but how did this fellow acquire Dan’s score? He’d deal with this prying turd later.

Dan managed a smile. “As for your name, Renoir, it’s the same family right, as the French painter?”

“Yes, the painter Renoir was an uncle, according to my family genealogy.”

Dan had managed a look at the wall clock behind Renoir. They had only an hour. He had to stay on schedule.

“It seems incredible to me as we sit here today, that the great and almost unfathomable mystery of the human soul has been solved, and by the man sitting across from me in this very room.” Dan let the idea trail off. He’d practiced this line so many times, and it felt like a perfect delivery.

Suddenly Renoir’s face shifted colors. It had been pallid but now both cheeks had flushed into a rose hue. His azure eyes focused squarely on Dan and a gesture of protest preceded any words.

“Ah, at last we can get to the point as I see it. Now I will reveal to you and to your base of supporters, why I wanted this interview.”

Dan Constantine’s heart rate jumped. Another big surprise coming. Renoir was turning out to be a handful, and too much for a rookie interviewer like Dan. Something Lou had told him in the pre-interview session stormed down from above: “Renoir is a fellow who is very young, quite brilliant, and very flaky…”

“Uh – Monsieur Renoir, yes, tell us. It’s something we need to know.”

“Indeed you do.” Now it was Renoir’s turn to clear his throat, and he leaned forward, tapping Dan on his knees every now and again.

“My discovery was declared irrefutable more than six months ago. It could be both verified and conducted by the scientific community. And yet, your magazine, for the past six months seems to be on some kind of quest to set mankind back on its collective heels.”

Dan frowned. He was so lost. How had the interview turned so sour so fast? And now, he had no clue about what the Frenchman was saying. “I don’t follow your point, Monsieur.” Some trembling in his leg had started and was working its way up fast.

“I’m talking about ghosts, Mr. Constantine! Your magazine has been sponsoring some contest trying to give a prize to the person who can verify they’ve had an encounter with a ghost! Do you not know about this? It’s going on as we speak.”

“Yes,” Dan nodded erratically. “Of course I know about BOLD QUEST’s contest. But why are you so offended, Monsieur?”

Renoir shook his head sadly. “Surely, I thought you’d understand. My discovery, as you are so fond of saying, has truly changed the way human beings look at death, dying, and the afterlife. We know each and every human has a soul, we know where it exits the body upon death, and we can observe a snapshot of it as it departs. Surely, the world itself is not populated with these mere ghosts. The world’s religions may actually lend an important hand here. Where do they all say the human spirit departs to?”

Dan shifted uneasily. Religion was not a place he was expecting to go. He’d known Renoir was Catholic, though maybe not a regular church-goer. “To heaven, hell, purgatory, or to be reincarnated. There are some other variations on this theme, I believe.”

“Yes, precisely! Our souls don’t just vanish and they cannot stay on this Earth. They go into their next destiny. Our age is fortunate in knowing this. The word ghost should be banished, locked in the relic chamber for the time when people had justifiable fears of the unknown, especially of death.”

“It would be OK with me, Monsieur Renoir, if we reduced use of the word ghost. But as you know, I’m only a writer at this magazine. But Lou Mangionne has the authority you seek. Can we have a five-minute break while I confer with him?”

Before Renoir had finished nodding, Dan had already bolted from his seat. A few giant steps down the hall and into another small room, and there sat Lou, in full glower.

“A great many questions have been revealed in the last few seconds. That arrogant SOB. He’s trying to use us. That’s all,” Lou said.

“But he’s gonna bolt if we don’t give him what he wants. He’s got the power and we don’t. He could seriously humiliate us. Pretty smart of the twerp.” Dan eyed Lou’s cigar lovingly. A little high-powered nicotine couldn’t do him a bit of harm just now.

Lou tapped and rapped his knuckles on the side of the chair, and suddenly he whirled and stood to face Dan. “Tell you what. Let’s make him a little wager, a little stiff bet.”

“I don’t think he’s in the mood for that, Lou.” Dan moved himself into a smoky loop and breathed in hard.

“For good measure throw in another fifty thousand. If he wins the bet, he gets one-hundred-thousand dollars and the interview is concluded. If he loses the bet, he gives us two hours instead of one lousy hour today.”

Dan pawed at the tiled floor before raising the next point. Lou was known for a mean temper. But the issue was on Dan’s mind too sharply to ignore. “One other thing. Lou, did you tell him my IQ score?”

Lou patted Dan on the neck, like a grandfather would to his favorite grandson. “I forgot to mention that it was one of Renoir’s key demands. Before he gave his consent, there were several quirky things he needed. That IQ business was one of them. Look on the bright side. Being compared to this guy is not such a bad thing, now is it?”

Dan didn’t fall into Lou’s smiling trap. He’d deal with his boss later. “Oh, Lou, about that bet. What is the damned nature of this damn bet?”

Lou pointed at the clock and then at the door. “You’re a smart boy. You have about twenty seconds to decide.”

* * *

Renoir was up and striding about the room impatiently. Only Heaven knew what the Internet audience was thinking about this little drama. When Dan sat down, he motioned his guest to do likewise. “I’m pleased to say our little problem-solving session is concluded and with good results. We have a solution.”

Renoir said nothing as he sat down on the very edge of the couch. Dan continued. “It’s quite simple. We will wager a bet with you. The stakes are in your favor.”

“A bet? Stakes? Are you becoming a lunatic today?” Renoir’s expression had turned stiff, and he was wrinkling his nose as if a bad scent were in the air.

All Dan could do was sit right there and look at the fledgling genius. He’d played a little poker in his time. Maybe Renoir was not so flaky that he’d fold without satisfying his insatiable curiosity.

“OK,” Renoir finally said. “Tell me about your little game.”

“If you win the bet, Monsieur, we will double your interview fee. We will also immediately cease our survey about ghosts.”

Renoir jerked back. “I cannot be bribed, Mr. Constantine.” His weight shifted onto both feet, but only for a second. Renoir eased back into the leather couch. “But I am nevertheless somewhat intrigued by the boldness of your offer. What of the other part?”

“If you lose you will give us two hours instead of only one, and we will consider your request about the ghosts.”

“And the bet itself? A simple question within my area of expertise?”

Dan smiled and nodded. “Absolutely. In fact, my simple query lies in the French language itself. It concerns a certain word, or not, that may be in the 2027 French Unabridged Dictionary. The bet is whether it’s a real word, or am I just making it up, faking it.”

Renoir said, “I should think I know my own language better than a Yank.”
Dan clapped his hands together. “Then you accept the bet.”

“Under the terms you gave, how could I refuse? They’d never let me back into France.” Renoir showed dimples on either side of his cheeks.

“Fine. Here it is.” Dan paused. He’d barely had time to think of what to bet, much less how to frame the question.

“The word we are questioning is MALFROID. One word. Is this a legitimate French word?”

Renoir rubbed his chin. If his mind was racing ahead, there was no hint of excessive thinking. He could easily be mistaken for a stumped grad student. “I think,” he said coolly, “You are likely playing games with me. Our word for bad is MAL and the French word for cold is FROID. But they are always two separate words. I’ve never seen them combined, and in truth of fact, bad cold or MAL FROID is not a term we Frenchmen would use. Yet, I wonder, how you could devise this clever test so fast. Maybe you think you can outsmart me by using, as it’s called, reverse psychology. So I will go with my instinct and say no, MALFROID is not a legitimate French word.”

Dan arose and walked over to the wall unit and tapped the ‘search’ function. He called out. “2027 French Unabridged Dictionary to access, please.”

In a few seconds the wall unit projected a fuzzy 3-D image of that dictionary in the space just in front of Dan’s legs. He waved Renoir over.

“Monsieur, I think it should be you who makes the request for MALFROID.”

Renoir sprang forward eagerly and said: “Dictionary, access page where MALFROID is found, please.”

The pages turned in a virtual way, and in a bare second of time, it was Renoir’s turn for his mouth to lay itself wide open. He mumbled to himself what he read:

‘MALFROID: Killer cold. Put into the lexicon when the main Gulf current shifted a bit southward, leaving parts of northern Europe in the grip of massive, overlapping, and unseasonal cold waves.’

Suddenly his hand shot out. Dan grasped it and this handshake seemed so much more human than the first time, barely 30 minutes ago. “My apology, Monsieur. I should never have dueled with you. Any Frenchman who has been justly vanquished should be gracious in defeat.”

Dan laughed suddenly, and his strange smile provoked Renoir into a burst of guttural chuckles. Now, maybe, they could get on with the business of learning from each another. Maybe the time had come when Dan and a curious world could determine something about the true magic of this fellow, Lucian Renoir, and of his discovery.

“All my life,” he said, sipping now at his second glass of mineral water, “was to accomplish something new, but along the lines of Pasteur. Maybe you are not a science man, but I’ll tell you this: In all the annals of science there was not a more beautiful, elegant, and persuasive experiment than the one designed and executed by Louis Pasteur. It was in the 1880s and even at that late date, people discounted some major issues of science, such as what germs were, and where they came from. Some people believed fervently that they came from nowhere, just arose spontaneously. Pasteur shut them up once and for all with his flask experiments. Such was something I wanted to do, just shut up some superstition. But what was left that hadn’t been discovered? It is not an easy thing to set about concocting a hypothesis that is truly important, and which you have a fighting chance of proving.”

“You made a long journey and spent most of your twenties in search of some kind of answers?”

Renoir’s eyes glowed a shade more than blue. “Yes. After I’d obtained my Masters degree, I felt there was something I should do. My family financed my travels and they were invaluable. I realized there was a wealth of anecdotal evidence about Man’s spirit. It exists in almost every society. Just turn the pages and it’s right there and has been for thousands of years. So I began to think, how could everybody be so wrong? Or to put it another way, where does myth end and science begin?”

Dan led him on expertly. It was like interviewing some good friend, so effectively had the iceberg between them dissipated. “This must have been when you framed your general idea.”

“Somewhere in this time period I began to realize that right in front of my very nose was the simple, elegant, experiment, along the lines of Pasteur’s, that I needed to design. It needed to be a paradigm buster, as was Pasteur’s. I began to frame my general hypothesis and started to initiate designs for the special equipment we’d need.”

“What was the hypothesis?”

“It was exactly this: Man has a soul-entity. Each and every man and woman. It exits the body upon death in the same manner and in the same location. Its nature of quasi-matter can be discerned, seen, and measured.”

“So this idea was more or less rejected in France, and thus you turned elsewhere.”

“Yes. It was no problem to attract investors. So many people craved to know the answer to this eternal mystery. I was the first scientist they’d ever seen who could reduce the question into realistic science. They gave me a place to work, good workers, and, more important, they believed in me.”

Dan breathed in beautiful, fresh air. It was a fine time to be alive. Renoir’s energy swelled far from his mere flesh. Dan took it in, exalted in it. “So in a simple way, please tell me how you did it, how you proved the soul is there.”

Renoir nibbled on a cracker and had to brush away a few crumbs that fell onto his sleeve. “I will, but first let me tell you a surprise. As a youth, I thought a ghost appeared to me more than once.”

Dan knew his eyes were narrowing, focusing like laser beams on this loquacious, entertaining man. The word contradiction floated around in Dan’s brain, and given the thawing between them, he decided to use it.

“You are truly a man of vast contradictions, Monsieur Renoir. Can you elaborate on this?”

“I imagined my great-uncle Renoir came to me. His image seemed to perfectly match the pictures I’d seen. A private family portrait we have gave me the first clue, that what I was imagining I was seeing, could not possibly be his ghost.”

“And how was that possible?” Dan listened, utterly rapt. Perhaps the audience wanted to know, but no more than Dan did at this moment.

“Because,” said Lucian Renoir, “if you looked carefully at the portrait you can clearly discern the initials of the tailor he used, a Monsieur Gregoir Dechamps. Upon this ghost that came to me, was the same suit with the same lapel and the initials, G.D.

Dan flicked away a stray hair on his forehead and tried not to look too puzzled. “The significance is therefore what?”

Lucian Renoir gazed steadily into Dan’s eyes. His calmness and honesty seemed to flow from his body and permeate an aura well away from his body. “Here is the significance and the ultimate reason I cannot believe in ghosts as they are reputed to exist. My mind simply took the exact replica of the portrait and transfigured it into a ghost and it told me what I really expected of myself for the future. It wasn’t the ghost of Renoir making a prophecy, because it was my own mind informing me of my possible and best destiny.”

Dan tried not to stutter. “OK, Monsieur, we have never heard of this before. The figure you mistook for a ghost told you something about your future?”

“Yes, it did. I still recall the exact thing it said. ‘Your art will be in transforming the static walls of science. Do not shrink from the task.’”

Dan could only shake his head. “That’s an amazing thing indeed. You became a disbeliever in ghosts, after you’d been confronted by one. For almost every one else on this planet, it works the other way around.”

“Perhaps. But we should approach the subject with a sound, conservative mind, asking questions about the details of our observation. This is what I did, and it has led me to truly believe ghosts are a powerful manifestation of our fears, hopes, and dreams. It wasn’t the ghost of my old uncle Renoir appearing before me; it was my own mind, and there had to be a figure to speak the words since words do not arise from thin air. My mind couched those important words in the image of that old portrait. The evidence was right before my eyes that it was no ghost at all.”

Dan sunk back into his chair, his mind still reeling, his energy level diminished. “That’s really something. You are an amazing fellow, if I may say so. But, let’s get into the heart of your discovery. How did you prove that the soul is there?”
“Yes. First, we had to know if it left the body from the exact same location. Evidence showed that was the case. A soul exits just about here, at the very top of the bridge of your nose.” Renoir pointed to the spot.

“Knowing this, we reasoned it perhaps could be blocked for a milli-second or two, so measurements could be made of it. We had designed and patented the plasma gauze. It’s actually a magnetic barrier that’s placed across the face of the dying patient. The equipment is extraordinarily sophisticated, and I do not take full credit for its design.
So the soul tries to get out, is blocked and therefore diffuses its energy pattern across the contours of the face.”

“That’s when you get the snapshot?”

Renoir smiled broadly. “Sometimes, Monsieur, in science you are greeted with happy surprises. We did not predict the photographic effect. But in fact, when we release the energy for the plasma gauze, the soul’s own energy shoots out in a uniform way. It still bears the exact facial contours of the deceased. So, unbelievably, we get a distinct energy pattern highlighted over the face of the dying patient. Proof positive of the soul.”

“And this procedure has since been accomplished by other scientists all over the world?”

“By using our devices and procedures, it’s duplicated perfectly. No matter the society or customs. The soul transcends all of that. Literally, one second the soul is there, held in place by the plasma gauze, and the next second the soul has gone away.”

“To where?” Dan asked.

Renoir began to laugh. He laughed so hard tears came to his eyes. Dan managed to resist, but he was smiling. This Renoir fellow was absolutely extraordinary – unpredictable to the core.

“Where do they go, you are asking?” He was still laughing and the words barely came out.

“Yes. Tell us what you think.”

Renoir expanded both arms wide. “Why, Monsieur Constantine, they go out into the world, to increase the population of your ghosts! What else?”

Now Dan could laugh. And when he stopped he had to dab the tears away before they rolled down onto his tie. “We know now,” Dan said, “that they are nothing like a ghost. Right?”

“That’s correct!” Renoir clapped both hands in mock relief, and Dan wondered if his life would ever be the same. *

About the Author: Wen Henagan has written informally all his life, yet living in Korea and working as a Professor teaching English to both college kids and professionals has given him a newfound appreciation of the language. Thus, he is sharpening his writing skills in a far more serious way than before. Also, he has found there is nothing more challenging, intriguing, and worthy, than thinking of a GOOD story, a unique one, and one worth telling. He has plans to put the five best ones in a book of original short stories and market them within Korea. Wen was born in Louisiana and the bulk of his family is there. He has been a newspaper reporter, and written articles in many small magazine venues. He holds a Master’s Degree in Science Education from the University of Southern Mississippi. Wen thanks Planet Magazine for offering a way to get this story out into the eyes and minds of people who yearn for a good yarn. Wen wants to live and work in Korea about five more years, continue to improve as a writer, and then move to Hawaii, the Big Island, where he will do who-knows-what and re-invent himself yet again.
(c) 2007 Wen Henagan whenagan@yahoo.com

About the Artist: Patrick Stacy got his degree at UMass in what seems a long time ago. He works in a variety of media, from pen and ink to oil, preferring to illustrate all genres. Winner of the L. Ron Hubbard’s “Illustrators of the Future” contest back in ‘96 (which is not a contest to become a Scientologist or meet Tom Cruise!) and currently is working on getting published more often.
(c) 2007 Patrick Stacy pstacyart@comcast.net
Web site: http://www.portfolios.com/pstacyart

3 thoughts on ““Nothing Like a Ghost” by Wen Henagan

  1. Hey Wen,

    Pretty good short story. Your writing is really impressive. Me I like to curl up with a murder/mystery, you know a who done it. John Grisham is one of my favorite authors. What ever happened to the story about Fishville? Thought it had a lot of potential. Keep up the good work, can’t wait to read the next one.

    Aunt Crystal and Uncle Chester

  2. Hi there old pal,
    I finally got around to reading your shortstory. You are a master of words!! I want you to think more about writing a full length novel. I know you are busy but a novel would allow you to really showcase your abilities. Keep at it!!

  3. Hi Professor Henagan

    I finally logged in! I had the difficulty in logging in.

    I enjoyed reading your short story. You proved you have much talent in writing. I hope you will be a famous writer in your future. Good luck!


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