There is a ghost that lives in the San Francisco Flower Market at the corner of Brannan and 6th Street.
The ghost, like the flower market, is nocturnal, and so he sleeps high in the rafters during the day, a shipping box that reads Fresh Flowers Keep Cool as his makeshift bed. Late at night, he awakens to the sound of carts rumbling on the uneven pavement, wheels rattling, and the scent of newly imported flowers. Although he can feel his body, he can’t see it. When he floats down into the flowers, he can only feel their coolness as he passes through them. By now, he has given up wondering what he looks like, and no longer stands in front of the mirrored wall in the Brother’s Floral Co. venue.
The ghost doesn’t have a name because he can’t remember it, but then again, he can’t remember anything from his past life. But he does know that he is in love with Marta, the petite florist who wears overalls under her bulky coat and Eiffel Tower earrings that dip to her shoulders. Every Tuesday and Thursday she comes to the market, and he trails behind her in a daydream as she runs her errands.
When he returns to the rafters in the mornings, he pretends that if he could talk to her, he’d start by saying hello.
Hello, he practices. How do you do?
The ghost thinks of her eyes that twinkle like jewelry, and how when she’s tired, her head tilts to the side. He imagines her kisses would be like bobbing for apples, and they’d have to come up for air until they could continue. Here’s a mouth, the points in a chest bone. There’s a sweater thrown to the floor. Two feet, the toes curling into the carpet.
The ghost, who complies with his existence, thinks of himself as a drift seed riding on an ocean current, weightless and without means.
At 1:40 a.m. Marta pulls into parking spot number 50 at the flower market. To Marta, the market is a world under the sea. As she groggily drifts from vendor to vendor, she pretends she is walking on the bottom of the ocean. Strings of pearls drip down from the ceiling beams like a kelp forest, and buckets of cockscomb line walkways, reminding her of coral kingdoms. Russ, Marta’s black Scottish Terrier, likes the stiff, ruffled ribbons of the cockscomb, and frequently rubs his face on the folds of the flower. Marta always brings him because he gets too lonely at home and yowls, waking up the neighbors.
Her first stop is at Brannan Street Wholesale, where they regularly have a self-serve coffee station and an assortment of cookies. Stephen and his men usually have her preset flower order ready, and take it out to her truck in spot 50.
“Morning,” Stephen says.
“Morning,” Marta says, sipping on her coffee. Stephen’s belly fat reminds her of a fish bowl, spherical and full.
Russ happily scurries to his water dish beneath Stephen’s desk, his nails clicking the pavement, and Stephen stoops down to tickle the wet fur under his chin. “Killing Me Softly” is playing from a dusty radio and a man whistles along, as well as at Marta.
“I’ll be back later to see what else has come in,” Marta says to Stephen, then hustles next door to get first pick of the dahlias.
By 5 a.m., she is fading fast – her eyes begin to lose focus, and her head lulls to the side when making decisions. She runs back over to Brannan Street Wholesale to refill her coffee (not as fresh as before) and nibble on an almond cookie. Her bones feel old and worn like a used washrag – rough but familiar. A high-pitched laugh echoes deep within the warehouse, too loud for this time in the morning.
During the car ride home she begins to see the sun peek through the darkened clouds, a sign for her to crawl into bed and sleep until the afternoon. She can never distinguish whether her day was just beginning or coming to a close when she finally tucks herself under her covers.
The ghost knows Marta likes to indulge in gluten-free chocolate granola bars on her rides back home from the flower market. He knows this because he habitually tries to follow her home. He waits in the passenger seat of her truck, while she reorganizes the cut flowers she’s bringing back to her shop. Engorged hydrangeas, curlicued larkspur, carnations and stems of spindly curly willow form a mountain in the truck bed.
Marta is familiar with the traffic lights at this time in the morning, and speeds right up to them when they are red, knowing they will turn green at the last moment. She doesn’t like to listen to the radio, and the ghost strikes up pretend conversations to fill his silence.
Oh, Marta, your hair is so shiny, he says.
Marta chews her granola bar.
Tell me your favorite song, Marta, the ghost says. He twiddles his invisible thumbs.
Marta chews. Munch-munch.
He stares at her hard, willing her to look at him. Yellow light from the passing streetlights zip across her face in stripes. He wishes he could see where she lives, but they are quickly approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. The ghost fantasizes what her home looks like. Probably a quaint, colorful house with a wind chime and overgrown plants pawing the walkway, he thinks. A mug with cold tea left on the kitchen table. A blue sofa where Russ curls up because she doesn’t mind the dog shedding. The soft drone of the refrigerator, and sparkly clean emerald countertops.
They are at the lip of the bridge and the ghost can feel his heart swell in his chest (Is that possible? he thinks. Do I have a heart?), because he knows this is as far as he can go. It starts like an earthquake, his internal walls crumbling in, shaking his world. His vision goes black and he feels as if he is wasting away like an eroding cliff. With a whirring shove, he pops out of the wormhole, finding himself back at the flower market to await Marta’s return.
Marta’s favorite flower is the hydrangea because they can change color when you alter the amount of iron in their soil. Brother’s Floral Co. always have at least ten buckets full of them, ranging from white, purple, blue, pink, and sometimes brown or speckled, as if it’s diseased.
Marta wishes she were a hydrangea blossom – how lovely it would be if she could turn herself from blue to green.
Blue is the color of loneliness, Marta thinks.
First came the toes. One moment they were invisible, and then the next they were there. Ten toes, the size of acorns. The ghost was ecstatic and obsessed over their fleshy appearance. He rubbed them and stuck his invisible fingers in between each toe, spreading them out like a fan. He felt the tops of the nails, hard and smooth like pistachio shells, and knocked on them with his knuckles.
It happened after Marta entered the market. The ghost slipped down from the rafters to walk with her and Russ. She had a flower list in hand and was sucking on a peach like a fruit bat. Before making her rounds to each vendor, she passed out small gifts to the growers and florists for the holidays: a small bottle of lotion for Vicky’s dry hands, a cinnamon muffin top from the café for Chris, a little notebook for Diane’s desk, and so on. The ghost wondered what he would get her if she could see him, and remembered her particularly liking green hydrangeas.
And a bouquet for you! he would say.
As soon as the ghost finished his thought, the toes were there, pressing into the cold concrete.
With his new toes, he follows Marta to her last stop, Americana Flower Brokers, where a lone man is counting bunches of pussy willow. A Boxer is bundled in a dog bed under a shelf with variegated pots, and pokes his head up when he sees Russ.
“Morning,” the man grunts, barely turning to face Marta. His hammer tattoo on his bicep wiggles as he shifts some branches into an empty bucket. His plaid flannel hangs off of him loosely, and his jeans are streaked in mud.
From her knapsack, Marta pulls out a children’s book, Stellaluna, and holds it out to him. “For your newborn when she’s old enough,” Marta says to the man who is wiping off his hands to take the book.
The ghost watches from the eaves in admiration.
“One that I particularly enjoyed as a child,” she says.
And without another moment, the ghost has shins and feet! Their arrival came as a surprise, and the ghost feels a tingle in his stomach. He strokes his shins and the hairs that coil down from his nonexistent knees, and twirls his feet in circles. He drifts to the nearest mirror with delight, but still cannot see the reflection of his shins, feet, or toes.
To Marta, I am still air, he says aloud to no one.
Marta watches Ben’s face as he flips through the picture book she gave him.
“Thank you,” Ben says, rubbing his thumb over the spine.
Marta doesn’t have anyone to go home to, and instead, fills herself up by giving. Once, Ben brought his newborn daughter to work, because his wife also worked early in the mornings. The baby, who was nestled in the blankets of her rocker, was as big as a sack of flour, and the Boxer protectively sat under her feet. Strings of spit hung off her mouth onto her hands and she smelled of lavender soap. Marta curiously asked Ben if he planned on having another child.
“I hope so,” he said.
By Saturday, the ghost could see everything below his waistline. He got knees when he saw Russ pick up Marta’s knapsack when she forgot it, and thighs when Marta gave the last almond cookie to another florist. He observed how Marta filled herself up with kindness, and he told her so everyday.
Marta, your heart reminds me of the vine of a groundnut, he says. Full and contagious.
Marta goes into the supply shop on the other side of the market and stands in the ribbon aisle for twenty minutes. Outside the door, Russ is sniffing the bottom of a planter holding azaleas the color of Christmas, and nibbling on its petals.
Marta picks up three different variations of creamy-white ribbons for wedding bouquets, and examines the blues and greens on the top shelf. Touching the ribbons reminds her of her speech lessons when she was younger, because her th’s and ssss’s needed work. A woman with heels that clucked the kitchen tiles would come to her house on Monday afternoons. She’d bring ribbons – ivory, pink, gunmetal, and dark gray, the color of tea – and snake them across the table. Marta would slowly stroke her fingers down the glossy ribbons and practice saying sssssssss, over and over.
“When saying the letter S, you put your tongue behind your teeth,” the woman said, batting her eyelids.
Marta drops all the ribbons she’s holding. She picks them up and puts them back on their correct shelves: the blues with the blues, the whites with the whites, and the greens with the greens.
She calls for Russ so they can leave the supply shop, but Russ is deep within the azaleas, unable to move.
While Marta is in the supply shop, the ghost is buried in the azaleas with Russ. After seeing Russ eat a whole flower, the ghost flies to the edge of the warehouse where flats of wheat grass are kept, and rips out as much as he can.
Stalk by stalk, the ghost feeds Russ, slipping them down his throat.
Oh no oh no oh no! the ghost says, stroking the small beard of the dog.
Russ has tremors and his nose is warm. The ghost tries to roll Russ out of the azaleas into the walkway. Push-roll-push-roll.
Come on Russ, says the ghost.
Russ looks the ghost in the eyes.
Are you blind Russ? the ghost asks.
Russ is flopped on his side, gazing at the ghost as if he could see him. Once another stalk of grass slides down his throat, Russ begins to throw up in little piles. The ghost pets Russ’ fur, glossy and soft like fish scales.
Russ, your fur is so shiny, he says.
When the ghost looks up, Marta is staring at him in shock. Marta could see him! The ghost, realizing it was his big moment, gives Russ another pat, wipes his hands (his hands!) on his pants, and stands up.
“Hello,” he says. “How do you do?” It was just as he had rehearsed.
The ghost holds out his hand, but Marta refuses to take it. Her hand is on her chest in alarm, and the tendons in her neck are strained and sticking out. Russ pants between them.
Marta knew it had to be him – the downward slant of his eyebrows, his skeletal arms, and the multitude of earrings that spiraled down his ear.
“How are you . . . here?” she asks him.
“I am a ghost,” the ghost says. He can feel himself smiling because he is delighted that she knows who he is.
Marta is not smiling.
Both of them stand there, blinking. Russ gets to his feet and wobbles over to Marta who picks him up and presses her face into his fur.
“But I don’t know why,” the ghost finishes.
Marta squeezes Russ and ignores the ghost’s comment. Her Eiffel Tower earrings are swinging.
“Thanks for saving my dog,” she says. She feels awkward and wonders if other people can see the ghost. “I think I’m imagining things,” she mumbles, and begins to turn away.
“Wait!” says the ghost. “You know who I am.” He tries to catch up to her but walking on his two feet is proving harder than floating. “Or was,” he corrects himself.
She keeps walking away.
“Marta,” he says to her back.
Marta stops. “How do you know my name?”
“I just do.” The ghost doesn’t want to scare her, but she’s already started to walk faster.
The ghost can really feel his heart now.
“My heart has pins in it,” he says to his reflection in the mirror. He watches as his mouth forms the words. He configures his lips into a perfect “O,” like the ring in a ripple, and touches them. They are soft like tissue paper and remind him of orange slices.
“To Marta, I am still air,” he says.
In the mirror, he can see Marta rifling through a bucket of chocolate cosmos behind him. She doesn’t seem to notice him, so he gets closer. She weaves through the pails of flowers, comparing them with the list in her hand, and he follows. He gets as close to her as he used to, practically standing on her shoulders.
“I can feel you behind me,” she says without turning around.
“Hi Marta,” he says, embarrassed.
“Hi,” she says. She peers over her shoulder. “I’m really not sure why you’re haunting me.” She says it matter-of-factly, but her eyes are shifty.
The ghost feels as if a flowerpot was cracked over his head. “Haunting?” he says. “No no no. You are mistaken, Marta.”
Marta seems nervous.
“I just want to talk,” he says.
She reluctantly agrees and tells him to meet her at the flower market café by the supply shop at 4:00 a.m.
For those next couple of hours, Marta can feel the ghost following her from afar like a little fly. Every time she turns around, she sees his shoulder poking out of a wall, or his legs dangling from the ceiling beams, his attempt at hiding. Sometimes she hears him whispering her name.
When she arrives at the café, he’s already there with a mug of piping hot green tea waiting for her. He pushes it towards her when she sits down.
“For you,” he says. And then from nowhere he pulls out a bouquet of green hydrangeas.
“Oh wow!” she says.
He even scraped the large leaves off from the stems so they were easier for her to hold. The blossoms, as green as unripe bananas, are full and round like cotton candy. The ends of the stems are dripping since they had just been pulled out of a bucket.
By now, Marta had gotten used to the idea of the ghost existing. She takes a sip of her tea, burning her tongue, and then tells him what had happened: the night, the bridge, the ocean, The Jump, and the waves.
The ghost never blinks once, but instead, closes his eyes, trying to feel anything of who he was.
Two years before, Marta was on the Golden Gate Bridge on her way home from the market when she experienced an Earthquake. But not the type of earthquake that had destroyed her quaint flower shop in the lower Haight in 1989. During that one, the walls had crumbled in, swallowing glass vases, dozens of centerpieces, and her pride.
This time, the Earthquake was a young man shrouded in loose cloth, standing on the other side of the barrier on the bridge, naked toes gripping the edge. Marta had seen the oddly parked car blockading the far right lane before she saw the man. The peculiarity of a car parked on the bridge struck her, and she immediately parked behind it. Once Marta got out of her truck, she saw a figure contemplating the deadly plunge, and whimpering with fright. Clouds concealed the moon, deepening the darkness that cut between Marta and the man, and the man and the ocean below.
“Please don’t!” Marta cried.
The man ignored Marta and stood there motionless despite the wind that gently bounced the suspension of the bridge. Marta scrambled for her cell-phone and called 9-1-1, but immediately dropped it when she saw the man open his arms to the sky.
She sprinted towards the railing and screamed to get his attention. The man looked back at Marta and she was surprised that he was not that much older than her. She was able to get a good look at him before he jumped, a leap towards the cold ocean below. He had a downward slant to his eyebrows, skeletal arms, and a multitude of earrings that followed the spiral of his ear.
Marta waited until the police cars disappeared, and let the darkness sink heavily into the spaces between her and everything else. To her, the ground shook beneath her feet and tipped the world on its side. Something inside her head ruptured, as if the ground cracked, splintering between her legs and beyond the limits of the bridge. She watched as the waves pulled the man’s body near Marshall’s Beach, a rescue boat skipping towards it.
That morning, while the ghost is lying in his bed in the rafters, he tries to remember The Jump, the whoosh of falling, falling, falling until the final hit, and the crumpling of his limbs. For the first time as a ghost, he cries and cries, his tears reminding him of what it’s like to be submerged underwater.
The ghost had done this drive many times before, except this time, Marta was aware he was in the truck. He straps himself in with the seatbelt when the engine rattles to life. The wrapper of Marta’s granola bar crackles as she opens it.
“If I could eat, I think I’d like gluten-free dark chocolate granola bars,” the ghost says.
Marta lifts her eyebrows and offers him a bite.
“Oh, no thanks. I don’t have an appetite,” the ghost says.
The silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge is slowly materializing in front of them. The clouds are illuminated in bright pinks and oranges from the rising sun, while the ivory of the moon slowly blends into the day. Many of the floral workers are now on their way home, while their spouses are just beginning to rise. Living alone, Marta never had that problem.
Marta pulls over into the far right lane and stops in front of the south tower of the bridge. She takes the keys out of the ignition and clutches them tightly to break their shrill jangling. The bridge is empty, and both the ghost and Marta sit in silence for a moment, their heads turned towards the view of the city over the water. The city lights wink, transitioning from the night to the morning.
“This is where it happened? This exact spot?” the ghost asks.
The ghost is nervous. He is nervous because he doesn’t know when he will drift away, but he knows it will happen shortly. He can feel the slow ripple starting to roll through his body. But he’s even more nervous because he is sure the ripple he feels in his chest is what he felt before The Jump.
Marta pops open the door and a chill from outside sneaks into the truck. The ghost gets out too, but instead, wafts through the walls. Together they swing open the back doors of the truck. A hodgepodge of flowers are stacked to the ceiling: potted orchids extend their stems, crisscrossing over one another, branches are draped in a pile behind the driver’s seat like a wild thicket, and amaranth dangles over the edge of a bucket, dipping into a mound of dahlias. Marta jumps into the truck, bending low. She shuffles through the flowers, while the ghost hovers along the railing of the bridge, peering over the edge to see the tossing waves below.
Marta scoops large blossoms into the cradle of her arm, and the amaranth sways down from the bouquet, bright red like the belly of a black widow. The ghost felt a little silly watching Marta honor his death with a bouquet. Marta hands him the flowers and he places it on the sidewalk where he stood years before, the beginnings and ends of the stems interwoven like a green braid.
Now when the ghost slips away, it’s different. Instead of being sucked away like a magnet, it happens bit by bit. His extremities begin to look like the ends of burning cigarette butts, smoke spiraling. It spreads to his arms and legs, and he notes to himself that it doesn’t feel like he’s wasting away. The ghost hopes that Marta will be able to see him again. He tries to say goodbye to her and sees her name leave his mouth in fog.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, Marta.
Marta watches as the air swallows him until he’s completely gone. The wind ruffles her hair and the back of her neck prickles from the cold. She climbs into the warmth of her truck, the lonely roads welcoming her and the headlights beaming towards home.
Dorian Maffei lives and writes in Santa Cruz. She is an editor at Reputation Books and her work has appeared in The Gateway Review, Matchbox, Oblong, Red Wheelbarrow, Cusp, and Chinquapin.