Catch-Up

Week 54

Catch-up

So it’s again catch-up time, so I have some thoughts mustered that readers might relish…

I’m not going to follow the pack in doing some sort of Father’s Day tribute, despite loving my dad as much as I do. He’s an intensely private person. I doubt he’d appreciate that sort of effusion in such a public forum.

What I will do is announce I have “un-followed” pretty much all the political feeds on my FB page. A matter of sheer desperation, for my blood pressure and sanity, but especially after my FB “guardian angel” once again pointed out that a meme I shared is inaccurate, never happened, etc., etc. All well and good. We do want accuracy and a lack of bias in our news reporting (does anybody remember when we actually had that?) this angel chooses to wait until I have tripped the land mine of misinformation escapes me, but I’m leaving the FB minefield until the 2nd week of November. To be safe. And relatively sane.

Onward.

A note to my faithful ghouls: I had originally given Ambr’ the surname of Cadwallader, then changed it to Pembroke. However, on reflection, I have reversed the change. Ambr’ is a Cadwallader again. Sorry for the confusion.

Chapter Eight

Matters of Belief

Fevers run high in May. Hay fever, spring fever, and every four years, the pernicious virus known as election fever.

This particular spring brought the most virulent strains of all the above, especially the election insanity. Local, state and national offices were up for the hands that paid the most for them. Tempers and temperatures rose and fell with the incessant polling. The more it intruded on my morning routine and with signs appearing in the neighbor’s yards along with the other weeds, the more I began to understand my ancestor Jacob’s antipathy towards the living.

One of the uglier state races saw a man named Spaccone running again what my news buddies insisted was the favored son, name of Kluzky. It doesn’t move this story along to describe either man. Their faces were on the news often enough that whole spring, the following summer and a quarter of the fall. All I will say is that a politically incorrect cartoonist captured them better than any words could: he drew a hyperactive weasel named Spaccone hissing and running in loopy figure eights with an elegantly “decorated” king cobra named Kluzky raised to striking position. These two differed on any number of issues generally, and, in Spaccone’s case, spouted his “stands on the issues” at the top of his voice and in increasingly outrageous statements or accusations. The more absurd the statement, the more the weasel both stood firm and added insult to outrage. Predictably, the national news folks all the way down to Syracuse’s news buddies pandered to the never-ending show.

Women both candidates treated with a little less bombast. Kluzky pretended to be a gentleman. Health care, fine; opportunities in sports, okay. Until it came to the idea of equal pay. Kluzky stood a step short of swearing on the Bible that he would work for equal pay for women (after the election, he called the same issue a “nice thought”).

Spaccone refused to consider equal pay. “A woman’s work is not equal to a man’s,” was his soon-to-go-viral comment. A television reporter from the state capital, a woman, snapped at him that such a position would cost him the women’s vote. Spaccone gave her a once-over with his eyes, then shrugged. “Maybe women shouldn’t be voting.”

I once asked my Grandpa Dov why women earned less than men and had what seemed to my eight-year-old eyes as lower status than men in general. My grandfather took the questions seriously, as he took all my questions. He considered his answer and then told me, “I think it goes back to Eve after the Garden of Eden.”

I knew the story. I had not at that time given it much more credence for being “The Truth” than I gave Grandma Rose’s bedtime stories of Chelm. Neither made sense and the morals they purported to teach were vague at best, to my preschool mind. This day, three learning years later, I looked at my grandfather with a frown. “That was a long time ago, zaydeh. It seems like pretty shaky ground to be keeping women down.”

Grandpa Dov nodded. “You know, Gracie, I think so, too.”

Charlie spent three of his four days off over the next five weeks with me (he needed one day for laundry and groceries, he said). Each week, Charlie arrived early morning with two armfuls of grocery bags (“Your kitchen needs this stuff,” he declared, noting also that I had no idea of proper nutrition). He left rather muddy work boots by the back door and cooked breakfast. He started the dish du jour and turned off the news buddies. “You don’t need this first thing in the morning.”

“How am I supposed to know what’s going on?” I pointed out.

“What kind of stories did they report on yesterday?”

“Shootings, fires, break-ins at houses or a cemetery or two.”

“And the day before that?”

“A car crash on 690, shootings, fires and break-ins.”

“Two days ago?”

“I take your point. What’s for breakfast?”

One morning, I asked him what he thought of the weasel-cobra race. He said, “They’re both crooks. And I don’t pay attention to politics. Not sure I even voted last time.” I made a shorthand note in my ledger that we would have to work on that sometime in the future of our relationship.

Yes, I think by that time, we did have an almost relationship, as relationships go. Which is to say, if there could be a one-half gear or something lower than first, we were stuck there, one grind away from idle. He arrived mid-morning on his days off with groceries or some other item he said the various rooms in my house “needed.” We cooked lunch and dinner together and he watched from Grandma Rose’s rocking chair by the south window while I saw to the cemetery’s business. If the afternoon was free, we walked the paths of the CPF. Charlie held my hand while we walked.

One month or so into this “relationship,” the night felt warmer than the day had, so I showed him “my cemetery” by night. We walked the same paths, but the blue-black of the night broken only in vague circles of the pole lamp lights had that Gothic air. I almost wished for the ground mists. Almost. After a time, we stopped to sit on one of the black iron benches that donations after World War I set up in Sections G and H and, recently, C, where the trees gave each section privacy and shade. We sat. We just sat. I waited for his arm to snake around my shoulders.

But Ambr’ strutted by, arm in arm, with an Old Guard I knew only as Tessa. Like Ambr’, she wore no wedding ring and I had heard enough man-hating vitriol come out of those old teeth (year of death: 1900) to make Mischa shudder. I cannot say they saw us or if they smelled us or what motivated these two bitchy vampires, but they swept up in front of us on the bench.

“Oh I shall die from the sweetness!” Tessa said with a drama queen’s back of the hand to her forehead. “Little Farmer and her boyfriend!”

“Jealousy looks bad, Tessa. Even on you.”

Tessa still wore the layers of clothes and corset under a sack of a late Victorian-style dress that she’d been buried in all those years ago. And yes, she was as vain as any of Derek’s “family,” despite the fragile state of her clothes.

She snorted. “Do we need men, Ambr’ my dear?”

Ambr’ had a particularly unpleasant smile. I’d heard Derek say she could mesmerize men with that smirk, but it turned my stomach. Or perhaps it was Ambr’ who did that. “As the saying goes, like we need a bicycle.”

Charlie chose that moment to put his arm around me. I leaned forward and ever so slightly in front of him. “Yes, well, women did need bicycles in your day. I believe you weren’t expected to drive. And the saying goes, ‘like a fish needs a bicycle.’”

“That makes no sense,” Tessa said.

“Neither do you.”

“I beg your pardon!” Hard to imagine, I know, but they snarled this in unison.

“You’re not technically alive,” I pointed out, “but technically, you’re not dead, either. You, Tessa, hate men – what happened, by the way? A bad marriage? Overbearing father?”

Tessa sputtered like a pot of water boiling over, followed by hissing as it hit the heating element of the night air. “That is not your concern!”

“No, but I think Ambr’ made what we the living call a Freudian slip. You hate men, Tessa, but Ambr’ needs them. Or one. Right, Ambr’?”

Note here: vampire eyes no more shoot lightning or fire anymore than the living do when angry. Vampires, however, can contort their faces and fanged mouths into something quite horrible. Ambr’s normal expression of a snobbish doe in the headlights twisted with the reddening of her skin. The wide but demur brown eyes narrowed to painful squints and her mouth opened wide to show all her small, piranha-sharp teeth.

“I would drain you and dismember you and set you up on the north gate as a warning!” she snarled.

“But your idol forbids you to drink my dirty blood,” I finished for her. “So you’ll have to suck it up and feed elsewhere. Which reminds me.” I felt Charlie moving out from behind me. “When you feed, do you choose mostly men or women?”

“We remove the criminals and drug dealers from your world, you little ingrate!”

“Which, if you believe the news reports, are primarily men. You need the blood to live and the blood you take comes from these men. Ergo, you need men.”

Ambr’ grew wistful for one shocking moment. “Mother always wanted me to marry.”

“It is better to marry than to burn!” Tessa intoned.

I leaned back against Charlie, who said nothing, but felt tense all the same. “We’re quite comfortable with the temperature here, thank you.”

“And yet, best you marry before he makes your home his, little Farmer!” Ambr’ warned. She took back her smirk. “Or does he wish to be a kept man?”

All right, they won that one. Their parting laughter could have shattered my grandmother’s crystal wineglasses.

“Ignore them,” I told Charlie.

He grunted and pushed me away to stand up. He did reach for my hand, though, and pulled me to my feet.

The night turned quite suddenly cold.

We finished the walk back at my house in a hurt silence. I found papers that needed filing. Charlie headed straight for the kitchen, rummaging through my refrigerator and cupboards making sure I had enough to supplement what he brought in the way of ingredients for a late night snack. He would give me a quick shoulder-squeeze when we cooked and if I had prepped my part to his satisfaction. And there was always the kiss on my forehead when he left just before sundown.

Question time: no, I was not happy about the state of the affair. Barring any more interference from the undead, we fell into a routine. I had even returned to washing my forehead in the shower. Yes, I wanted more. More conversation, more affection. Definitely more affection. My grandparents were big on gifts and words, but there was a gaping hole in our family’s fabric where the physical side of their love for me might have been. I ached for something more.

I had skimmed most of my romance novels to see what I was doing wrong or what he was not doing, and found a few answers. The women in my novels had ways to take some initiative in the physical areas and the men unfailingly found that attractive, even sexy. So I tried the initiative thing. Once.

Don’t ask me why, but I remember it was a Thursday. I sat hip to hip with Charlie on another May afternoon on Section G’s bench – the same section where the night before I had to persuade a nine-year-old ghost to go back to “bed.” The little pisher tried to negotiate a later bedtime!

But there Charlie and I sat with only the hiss of the road traffic and the velvety softness of a breeze through the oak behind us. I moved my shoulder under his armpit. He grunted then slid his arm across my shoulders, letting his hand dangle against my hip. I leaned in turning my face towards his with lips slightly parted, readying for what I hoped would be our first lip-to-lip contact.

Charlie rejected the offer and idea in the form of a not-so-playful potsch in tukhas that jerked me out from under his arm. I stood up with my face burning and tugged at his hand. We finished the walk in silence, and I made sauerkraut for dinner that night.

He still called the next day, his last day off before the three double shifts, and asked if I wanted to see him. I did. God help me, with my aching pride, I did. He cooked dinner, and then took me to the Plaza strip mall for ice cream cones.

Teenagers and toddlers filled the benches around the ice cream stand, so he took my free hand in his and we walked the length of the strip mall. Charlie commented on this window or that. His “Whoa! Read this!” meant he was impressed with the stationer’s gaudy display of lime green papers, orange journals and snarky paperweights made of lemon yellow plastic. I wanted to laugh at him, but a thin line of a double-chocolate ice cream escaped my mouth instead. I loosed my hand from his, pulling a napkin from my jeans’ pocket. He waited until I’d “tidied” myself. Then he took my hand again, holding it a little tighter because I refused to lace my fingers with his.

“I bet they have some good scented candles. Romantic ones, I mean.” I kept my mouthful of the cold and creamy concoction that tasted like cake batter and made some acknowledging noise.

L.L. Bean, however, was not his taste: “I wasted too many years in Boy Scouts getting poison ivy or sand in my shorts. And who the hell wears a pastel pink polo shirt?” I made another noise which, when I considered it later that night after five chapters of A Fine Romance, I realized was more of an inarticulate, “Up yours” sort of grunt.

Another thunderstorm threatened. The wind picked up enough make the evening cool. “We have to get you home,” Charlie announced. And he did, leaving me, as before, on the front walk. He pressed his sticky, Bubble Gum lips to my forehead. For once, I felt like washing it off the minute I stood inside the house.

The nights had been warm enough before this night to open the windows in our house. After the long, closed-in winter, even with the threat of rain and having to tumble out of bed to close them again, I wanted that fresh spring air. And I was willing to tolerate the morning freeze to get it. After a couple of nights, I found the road noise on Mansfield almost soothing. And if I could fall asleep before one of the diesel truck passed its fumes into the night, so much the better.

That is how I heard the muttering.

My first thought was of the ghosts in the Potter’s Field. The battle between the City and the Board had arrived at the point of both sides filing injunctions, motions and other documents that took up four of my file folders. The Board ordered me to order the union to take up five markers and prepare the oldest graves in the Potter’s Field for roomies. I knew Greta wouldn’t care; she was long gone. However, the second oldest grave belonged to the spirit who’d told me he could now complain. I could only hope the imposition would convince him and the other two who still haunted the CPF that it was time to pass on.

I had not taken my hands away from the window pane before Missy drove through me like winter’s wind. She circled the office twice, huffing and gesturing and knocking the papers on my desk all over the place until I said as calmly as I could, “Are you upset about something, Missy?”

She halted in the middle of my desk. Literally, the middle of my desk. Her non-corporeal breasts bounced just above my ergonomically correct keyboard. I had the vague memory of a salesman saying, “Lift and separate.”

“Mischa says I’m wrong, but I know what I know! There’s going to be another ending and it’s going to be soon!”

“Hold on,” I said. I hoped she did not see me shudder at the memory of Helen and Nestor’s ending. “What’s happened?”

“Can’t you hear?” Missy’s shriek was the more painful of that pair, a higher-pitched set of nails on slate. She pointed to the window. “Out there! They’re all talking about it!” For a moment, I considered Missy’s husband to be the most patient man in the world.

“What are they talking about, Missy?”

She came out of the desk and fixed her float right in front of me. “Ambr’ Cadwallader has not been feeding in the areas Derek assigned her. Not for two weeks now! And I heard one of the Old Guards say –“ here she leaned in so close I could smell and feel the chill of her grave – “she’s been going to church.”

If I could have put my hands on her shoulders, I would have. “The Old Guards say a lot of things, Missy. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them wanted to end all the others. More room and victims for them.”

Missy’s eyes widened until I could see through the back of her head. “Do you really think so? I’d better go find out which ones they want to get rid of! Derek will want to know!” She was out the window before I could say I was not serious.

And you ask the question: I also thought vampires could not enter sacred places, like churches; however, as we shall see, that is not quite the case. I’d grown up believing that Catholic churches and cathedrals are almost always off limits to them because, as my grandparents told me, Catholics holy-water and incense their buildings from the dirt of the ground for the foundation to the top spire. We suspected Protestant churches bless their sanctuaries and everything in it through prayer and singing, but they neglect to sanctify the grounds and, more importantly, the basement. Windows, doors and the outside steps leading to said basement were un-hallowed ground. Ergo, if a window or door is opened to a vampire, a vampire goes to church.

There’s a certain irony to that, if I think about it: a vampire can go into a basement and a group of vampires is called a basement. Go figure. To answer your comment, yes, it gives me a headache, too. Vampires give me a lot of headaches.

I will admit the thought of Ambr’ writhing her way through a small, pious group of gray-haired church ladies, sizing up their carotids, did worry me. Any binge-feeding there would make headlines and “breaking news” segments for days. However, as far as I could see, that was Derek’s problem.

I had enough on my plate of problems.

Varney and Trumbull appeared the next day to start the doubling-up in the Potter’s Field. They had to lay five plain pine coffins in the ground. Orders to trade plaques in the oldest appeared on my desk with a faxed copy to the union office for Varney and Trumbull. The first was my complainer, whose plaque read, “Indigent, died 1841. John 11:25.” I wondered if the city had bothered to find out back then if the deceased was, in fact, Christian. Likely, in those days, they presumed every white person in Sayresville was.

The other graves were likewise labeled and opened. In all, Varney and Trumbull disturbed the resting places of five men and women who died between 1841 and 1887, all of them named, “Indigent.” All of them presumed Christian.

The new burials showed a sort of largesse by the City and the Board. Three of the plaques gave the deceased names in place of “Indigent,” to go along with the year and Scripture. There was, however, a Times New Roman I stamped into the lower right hand corner of each plaque. The bodies buried in 1841 and 1930 remained anonymously “Indigent.”

Since there were no mourners and no one reading burial services, the doubling-up took less than three hours with the backhoe in use before and after the coffins were lowered by ropes into the graves. Trumbull started to offer an off-key serenade of some country-western song about drinking and sex, but Varney shushed him.

“Just because these stiffs were poor don’t mean we have to disrespect them while we plant ‘em.”

I considered walking through the Field that night (one of Charlie’s working nights) to apologize through the upturned soil to the imposed-upon residents. But it occurred to me that, were I in their place and having to deal with uninvited and unwelcome roommates, I wouldn’t want to hear apologies as much as a timeline of when these interlopers would get the hell out of my place of eternal rest.

Before you ask, I will tell you something more about ghosts. Yes, they can move things in the physical world. That is, some of them can. It requires a great deal of concentration, and a strong will or at least a lot of anger, but I’ve seen it done. Old Man Sharpe once raised and smashed a vase full of flowers against the headstone next to him because his neighbor had an Irish family name and he wanted no Catholics buried near him. It turned out the man was a Methodist, but his spirit hadn’t lingered, so it didn’t much matter to anyone but me who had to clean up the mess.

Before she left us, Greta “threw” a fallen tree branch at my grandfather when he arrived to take the two-year-old me back inside on a particularly cold autumn night. Recently, Missy and Mischa have knocked the telephone receiver out of my hands when they felt I was ignoring them.

And the anger of those original residents of the Potter’s Field who were still around proved more than strong enough to act. That fury boiled over the same night as the new coffins were buried.

I don’t even go to Fourth of July fireworks displays because I don’t care for the loud noises the rockets and the people make. The blast that threw me out of bed that night was louder than anything I’d ever heard; it shook the windows and set off car alarms for two blocks in every direction. Dogs and Mrs. Schnosburg barked out the windows in their own languages.

Downstairs, the phone rattled my nerves with its echoing ring. The calls did not stop for two hours. The callers had the same question: what the hell had just happened in my cemetery?

By two in the morning, we had fire trucks and police squad cars and a small cluster of bath-robed or shirtless neighbors in the Potter’s Field to view the pine coffin, smeared with mud and turf and standing upright next to the once-again open grave.

Officials and the media at first labeled the event a prank. They vowed swift justice and weeks of community service at the sewage treatment plant for the perpetrators. However, they had no leads to start the investigation. They had no foot- or fingerprints. No tire tracks, either. Ghosts do not leave any of those clues. And I was not about to tell the police or the Board that this had not been an explosion so much as an eviction.


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