I see dead people.  The first sighting occurred while watching a Charlie Chaplin film made in 1915 when I realized every actor who came on the screen – everyone – was now dead but also now alive and spooling along in a grainy black and white digitized film.  The Tramp, dead.  His love interest, dead.  The villain, dead. The director, dead.  I couldn’t shake the thought.

Jump ahead almost a century and I’m watching a 1981 episode of the Late Show with Johnny Carson. Sitting on the couch are Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Ed McMahon. They are now all dead as a doornail. I look up each celebrity’s obituary and discover Johnny will die in January of 2005, Pryor 12 months later, Carlin three years later and Ed four. But now they are sitting on a couch and Carlin is expressing concern for hanging plants that are afraid of heights and Pryor is promoting a new film. I read Johnny’s obituary and learn that he is/was an intensely private man and when asked what he wanted his epitaph to say, replied, “I’ll be right back.”

Carson is/was true to his word.

I watch more Carson episodes and find what the ghosts reveal about themselves unsubstantial. Why should I be surprised: That’s what ghosts are – unreal, see-through. Though they say lots of words, there is nothing of substance that will weigh on my mind when I go to bed.  These ghosts won’t  haunt my thoughts. Although there was that one interview where Richard Pryor laughingly said he dreams every night about setting himself on fire. Johnny and Ed laugh.  The studio audience laughs, and I wonder why that’s funny. Pryor then discloses that the burns on his body have healed well. That’s good, Johnny says, and then he asks Pryor to talk about his new film.

I reach out with my index finger and touch Pryor on the television screen.  I can’t poke my finger through him.

It is almost midnight and a strange question comes to me. I do an internet search for guests who passed away while on a talk show. Expecting nothing, I am aghast to confront the ghost of Jerome Rodale, a healthy-eating advocate who had a fatal heart attack and became a ghost during a taping of the Dick Cavett show in 1971. I tremble. The irony is too bitter and the ghoulish laughter from beyond Mr. Rodale’s grave cuts too deeply into my mortal flesh.

I watch more Carson repeats and look up how many years each ghost who sits on Johnny’s couch has left to live. And Death, the true King of Late Night, asks me a question that leads me to pull my bed covers way over my head: “When shall I visit you?”

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