'Wake up, typist! Wake up, you contemptible concatenation of columnic catastrophes! A notion has possessed me, and through you, it must possess an entire city!"

The voice was a little more strident than usual, but there was no mistaking its owner. Rubbing sleep from my eyes, I snatched a peek at the digital alarm clock. Sure enough, it said 2:47 a.m. Equally sure: the visitor was my favorite tormentor and tormentee, The Ghost of Columns Past.

"Well, Ghostie, I see you're still flying by night," I began. "I guess the airlines give ghosts the red-eye fare, huh? And you must be a member of the Frequent Flyers Club on top of that, I'll bet."

"I resent the implication that I could be concerned with such a mundane matter as money, typist," huffed the ghost. "I am here to discuss the future of the nation with you. It is a matter of manifest destiny, you might say."

"Ghostie, nothing is manifest at 2:47 a.m. You'd better tell me what's in that invisible imagination of yours."

"Simply this, typist: It is time to move the capital of the United States from Washington to Hagerstown."

I don't live anywhere near Hagerstown, but I'll bet everybody who does could hear me that night. I guffawed. I chortled. I held my sides and howled with mirth. I laughed so hard that I thought my lungs would burst.

Then the ghost upbraided me so sharply that I thought my ears would burst.

"Silence, typist!" he roared. "This is a serious notion, and you must treat it as such! Silence, I say!"

And he said it with the volume King Kong might have used. The bed frame shook, and the pictures on the walls rattled. I was sure Jane would stir at any moment. But it was the funniest thing. When I glanced over at her, she was still z-z-z-z-ing away.

"Well, Ghostie," I finally said, "I guess I owe you the courtesy of a hearing, although I can't for the life of me figure out why. Go ahead. Sell me. Why should the capital move to Hagerstown?"

"First of all, there is a precedent. The capital has not always been in Washington. It sojourned previously in Philadelphia and New York, as you will surely recall. Second of all, there is a need. The Capitol has been swathed in scaffolding for months. The White House bears cracks in its facade. The Reflecting Pool is coated with sickly algae. Alas, the aging process of the present capital is as unmistakable as it is irreversible."

"Yeah, what else?"

"Third of all, there is clutter. Even as I speak, the government has demonstrated that it does not have sufficient room in Washington. Huge segments of the work force have been moved to Rockville, Crystal City and Suitland. And fourth of all, there is the weather. Even you, typist, must find August in Washington an experience that tried our forefathers' souls."

"I doubt it, Ghostie. I figure they all had factory-installed air conditioning in their horse-drawn carriages."

"Please, typist! I find your attempts at levity a trifle lame. This is, as you so often phrase it, an idea whose time has come. Remember, you poor computer-pounding wretch: The country is still moving toward new frontiers, and they're nowhere near established cities. When General Motors wanted to build a huge new factory, it did not look to Detroit. It looked to a pasture in Tennessee! Toward promise! Toward the future!"

So moving was this spiel that I yawned. Deeply. "I have a question, Ghostie," I said. "Why Hagerstown? Why not Boise? Or Yucca Flats?"

"I anticipated that query from a skeptic like you. I endorse Hagerstown because it is so near to Washington. The proximity would allow for better continuity than any western site. But consider my earlier reasoning as well, typist. The precedent of previous moves allows another. A Hagerstown capital would be new -- no scaffolding, no algae. That city is not crowded -- no need for expensive subways or subsidized parking. And Hagerstown is in the mountains! Instead of the mosquitoes of Foggy Bottom, we could have the birds of the Blue Ridge!"

"Let me get this straight, Ghostie. You want me to plug this goofball idea in my column? You want me to wish upon myself a new career as the author of Bob Levey's Hagerstown?"


"No deal, pal. I'm not helping a guy who knows so little about public relations. Here you are, pitching me in the middle of the night. You didn't invite me to Mel Krupin's! I can't even see you!"

There was a growl of fury. The ghost said: "Fool! Abject, hopeless human fool!" And then he was gone.

Jane rolled over. "What was that about pitching?" she asked. "Are you reliving your glorious baseball career again?"

"No, sweetheart," I said. "By the way, would you like to go hiking in Hagerstown over the weekend?"

"Levey," she muttered, "will you pul-eeze go back to sleep?"