For My Ghouls
For My Faithful Ghouls – Back to the C.P.F.
Reality of Romance
I sat on the porch steps for the two hours it took Ian to finish the gravel sorting. I doubt he would admit it, but I believe Derek appreciated me staying there. The idea was to keep off any police driving by and wondering what was going on this time of night. I had the ready answer: “We have to do it at night. It bothers the folks coming during the day to visit to see the mess.”
And this is true. Grandpa Dov had a very sharp exchange one morning with one of the Plutarchs the first time Grandma Rose tried to “gussy up” the front beds with the then-brand-new gravel. She worked on her own with shovel and wheel barrow, which took some time. It seemed too much time, according to some busybodies in the neighborhood. The Plutarchs arrived and took exception to the pile in the driveway next to the north arch and the ruts in our front lawn. Grandpa Dov took exception to his whining.
I believe I was eleven at the time, but had yet to hear such language spoken by my grandfather. I brought out cold lemonade to him after the Plutarch left and asked him about his choice of words.
Now, some grandparents or parents might shift the conversation to dire threats of bodily harm or an eternity of grounding should those words come out of my mouth, but my grandfather merely sighed. He sipped at the lemonade. “Tell Grandma Rose more sugar next time. There’s enough sourness in the world, I shouldn’t have to drink it, too.”
And your question: no, nothing came of it. The Plutarch complained to the Board, who did the due diligence of finding they had no legal reason to do more than suggest my grandparents use the union gardeners from then on. To which, Grandpa Dov nodded and then, once inside our house, responded, “Sons of bitches! Gai in drerd!”
I like to think he would remember that day and smile if he had seen or heard me say, “Oh, shit!” when I found Derek in my bedroom three nights after the party.
I’d run my nightly routine and a moment before come from a second shower – the day had been humid and the air conditioning unit had decided to take a spring break. I stood there in my underwear and bedtime T-shirt. He sat in the green stuffed chair that faced my bed. One of my romances lay open on his lap; the spine had been broken for a long time, but I had yet to find a replacement copy and it was my second favorite, Return. He flipped the pages in a manner he knew would annoy me.
Derek raised his eyes and gave my bare legs a good, long look. He shuddered.
“Tell me something, please,” I said. “Which of my ancestors had the bad judgment to invite you into the house?”
He lounged with that harsh grin that showed only the tips of his canine teeth. “I wouldn’t want to spoil any unrealistic opinions you must have of your Hebrew forefathers.”
“I don’t suppose that invitation has limits? Like to the downstairs rooms only?”
“It does not.”
I sat cross-legged on my bed. No doubt he also had a good view of my flowered underpants because he sat up straighter and the grin disappeared. “So what do you want, Derek?”
“I merely wished to ask if you were well after the other night’s…festivities,” he said. No silk-snagging in his voice tonight.
“And have we heard from the thief? A return visit perhaps?”
“You know very well that Missy and Mischa would have broadcast the news from here to St. Agnes’ if ‘we’ had.”
“That is true.” Another semi-toothy grin. “Do you in fact expect one?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“And yet –“ he flicked a page of my book with a pointed fingernail and I winced; I mean, the book was old and deserved more respect – “I can infer from your choice of reading material that you do expect a, shall we say, happy ending?”
I let my shoulders sag and put my metaphorical hackles down. “I could say that you’re inferring up the wrong tree, but I won’t.” I shook my head at him. “Let’s have a little reality for a minute, Derek. I turned thirty last March. I didn’t go to school dances or proms or even fraternity socials when I was in school. I went to class and came straight home. I didn’t date at all.” He nodded, but I knew his mindset would not get that inference, so I spoke plainly. “I’m still a virgin, Derek. Not by choice, but by the simple fact that I’ve never even had an offer. Never. I know that would have been appropriate in your time. Hell, it would be expected for a spinster my age. But in this day and oversexed age, that’s just weird.” He made a sour face, the one Derek would make when he was embarrassed. I thought for a moment of his wife and their wedding night. I wonder if he pulled that face then.
“Oversexed is an understatement,” he said. “Some of these passages can be downright pornographic.”
“You haven’t kept up with the current best sellers’ list,” I told him with my own sideways grin. “These are tame by comparison to some.” I shrugged. “But they’re all I have.”
Derek shifted from one hip to the other in the chair. He flipped the book closed. “Some would find that a celibate way of life laudable, even sanctified.”
I laughed. “Jews don’t do the nun thing, Derek. We’re supposed to be fruitful and multiply. I’m not doing a very good job of living up to that standard, either.”
I expected one of his patented (or should be patented) anti-Semitic quips, but he looked at me with an expression I had never seen before. If I had not known better that night, I’d have said there was some tenderness in his gaze. “And so,” he said, “you place your hopes on this…this Tischler.”
“Not really. I don’t really have the right to hope for anything from him. Except a few well-dug graves now and again.” Neither of us laughed.
“Then he has regular employment?”
“You heard him. Packing books by day, burying stiffs by night. People still read or collect books and they die every day, so a gravedigger’s work is never done.”
“And yet he dresses as if he were far from prosperous. Not surprising. Not many of you ‘living’ are.” He stared at the half moon outside my window. “I had a man beg me to take his life last night.” Derek smiled with the memory. “He told me he had lost all his money, lost his wife and family, lost his faith and had nothing to live for now that a Democrat again lived in the White House. I obliged him, of course.”
“Of course you did.”
“It was the Christian thing to do.”
Yes, he was being sarcastic. “Of course it was.”
“And so I began to consider: was it also the thing to do to share my misgivings about your little, ah, affaire de Coeur?” I pressed my lips together. Nothing good could come of the several acidic responses that scoured my brain. He shrugged. “Still, it is not my concern, is it?” He stood. He placed Return carefully on the chair’s dented seat. Then he turned to me. “I suppose he is also a Jew?” Derek could make words sound so ugly.
“He may be. I have no idea.”
He shrugged. “Then I would say you deserve better, Grace Farmer, but I cannot honestly say what ‘better’ might be.”
The next morning did not begin well.
Treasurer Meecham called two days later to complain about the flower bed and their new look. The grounds keeping funds did not include monies for “luxuries,” once again demonstrating his selective memory. I told him the truth: I’d paid for the rainbow gravel myself. He muttered something about my pay surely not being high enough to afford such things, but had I called him on it at the next contract negotiation, he’d have denied saying anything of the sort.
He next brought up the union business again. “Work on CPF grounds was to be done by union employees and only union employees.” Funny how some people can quote chapter and verse when it serves their position and then reject the whole book when it doesn’t. I offered to call the union and apologize. He demurred. Something about the union placing a surcharge on the workers’ pay as “union dues.” He blathered on for several minutes about the destruction of profit-making cemeteries and “bloodsucking” (yes, he used that word) unions and how the Board should take the union to court. I made noises I hoped were sympathetic at best, but mostly non-committal. That was one battle I preferred to watch from afar.
Meecham finished our conversation by reminding me of some inane Board Policy that, in future, organic mulch would be used in flower beds. This he had created out of the proverbial whole cloth. I know because I had to memorize all the policies and procedures before they would interview me for my job; and there had been no additions or amendments because the current Board members could not agree on what time of day it was, let alone on a Board Policy pertinent to cemeteries in the twenty-first century.
The man managed to hang up with arrogance. I searched my desk drawers in vain for headache pills.
Missy swept into the office to tell me they’d decided that Lallie and Rin needed “educating” in far too many of the ghostly ways, and she was worried sick about it. (No, I don’t know how a ghost can feel sick or what they vomit, should it come to that. Frankly, I never want to find out) Missy had not been successful and died before she completed much of any similar life lessons for her own two children. The idea of giving death lessons simply overwhelmed her.
She acted miffed because I did not have much sympathy. The headache pills hadn’t kicked in by that time and I still had Meecham’s braying in my ears. Before me on the desk lay the CPF map. I had to reconfigure the remaining space in the Potter’s Field to accommodate the five bodies the Commissioners were willing to sue us to bury. Without more land, I could not see how it would be done. I could feel the tension from the Potter’s Field over the imposition of new bodies like a fist grinding against my neck. I’d already thrown a perfectly good blueberry muffin at the nagging cuckoo clock for nagging about the too-swift passage of the morning. It was not an opportune time to discuss ghostly education.
“They’ve only been dead two years,” I pointed out. Missy waved that off. “Never too late to get it right!” She floated over to my desk. I felt the chill of her non-corporeal hand on my shoulder and fought the shiver. “I’m sorry your young man didn’t come around again. You’re a prize, Gracie Farmer. You wait. One of those thousands of fish in the sea will take your bait.”
The mental image depressed me. I didn’t need the reminder about Charlie. Neither did I need to pick a fight with a ghost on a mission. Even a mission of complete panic. What I needed were solutions I could get neither from matching finite resources to infinite demands nor from the social advice of a ditzy ghost. Nevertheless, I found a weak smile for her. Maintain the peace. The faint smile was enough to satisfy her. I watched as she floated through the closed front door. Then my logistics-weary mind ran in fishing tangents: bait means hook. If I catch one, does that make me a hooker? I found an empty piece of lined paper and a pen and sketched myself in high heels, fishnet stockings, hot pants and a tank top, with a fisherman’s vest supplied with pockets full of lures, hooks and cans of worms and hanging lower than my pants.
The phone’s clanging sent me up out of the chair and shoving the CPF map over my artwork. The second series of rings brought my breath back. I picked up the receiver.
“Hi, Grace.” Charlie.
I held the receiver away from my ear, needing those deep breaths Grandma Rose taught me. “Hi.”
“Are you all right?”
“Fine. Busy. You know, the constants in life: death and taxes.”
“Yeah, except there’s not enough of either to go around. Union work couldn’t pay my rent, so I went back to packing books.”
“Cut my hours back, though.”
“You did or the B.O.M. did?”
“I did. Took me all of last week to fix it, but I work three double shifts and I have four days off.”
“That’s cutting back?”
He laughed. My heart raced. “Doesn’t sound like it, does it? The thing is, I wanted to thank you for the other night.”
“Glad you enjoyed yourself.”
“I wouldn’t say that. It wasn’t all bad, but – shit! What I mean is, I have been thinking about you a lot since then.”
Where is the orchestral soundtrack when you need it? “I wondered if you liked to cook.”
The word, “chutzpah” slammed into my mind, but I said, “Yes, but I’m no Top Chef.”
He laughed again. I pulled my lips away from kissing the receiver. “I’m not either, but I thought, if you would like to, we could cook dinner together. Do you like pepper steak? I can bring the meat.”
He also brought wine.
Two nights later, he stationed me at the counter next to the sink. I had a rainbow of bell peppers to slice – “quarter of an inch, no thicker,” Charlie instructed me – while he worked with my minimal spice selection to season the steak. “My mom was no cook at all,” he said, standing at the island, happily rubbing the seasoning mix he’d made over and into the steak. I envied that small slab of beef. “So I had to learn.”
“Do you still cook for them?”
“Can’t. They moved to Georgia three years ago.”
I turned away from my cutting. “Georgia? Not Florida?”
That laugh. I swore if I heard it again, I would need no dinner. “Well, south Georgia. Just over the border from Florida. Anyway, this was my mom’s favorite dish. And I managed to season this meat with your pitiful selection, too.”
“Oh, really?” I put my hands on my hips and felt the pepper juice run down my fingers into the lining of my jeans pocket.
“See for yourself.”
Couples in most, if not all, my romance novels experience, did this. They bantered, teased, all in the beginning of the relationship. And it all ended in a kiss. Well, a lot of kisses and the logic of their bodily needs upstairs afterwards; dinner could wait. I saw nothing to say this dinner preparation was not going the same way. I walked with hope over to the island.
Charlie pointed to the row of spices and herb he’d lined up in front of the steak pieces. There were eight containers, if you included salt and pepper. Eight soldiers waiting to spill their insides for the betterment of our bellies. Grandma Rose never cooked with more and I didn’t cook enough to need more.
“Okay,” I said, “I guess that’s not exactly an wide assortment.”
He laughed. “Ever heard of paprika? Chili powder? Season salt? Cumin? Fennel or dill?”
My face burned. “I’ve heard of them. I don’t have much use for them, though.” Still, I moved closer. My right breast brushed his elbow.
“I bet. You only put butter and syrup on your frozen waffles, too, don’t you? Ever think of using some parsley and basil with some cheese on one instead?”
“For breakfast?” I shifted a little to position his muscular forearm between my breasts.
He leaned towards me. “Waffles aren’t just for breakfast, but, yes. You could do that.”
I lifted my face. I closed my eyes and waited.
Charlie’s meat-smelling hands came down on my shoulders. They spun me around and gave me a not-so gentle shove back to the counter and my pepper-cutting.
It was a nice dinner.
Charlie did not stay long after we washed and dried the dishes. I followed him out the front door. Keeping a good five inches between us, I walked him down the front walk. He turned to me at the end of our property. First he looked out over the CPF, which was easing into the evening shadows. Then he looked down at me. “I start that three-day double shift thing tomorrow,” he said. “But I’ll call you after that, if that’s all right.” I nodded. He looked once again over the cemetery, then leaned down and kissed me. On the forehead. “’night, Grace.”
I did not wind my grandfather’s clock that night.
Nor would I wash my forehead.