Grandpa Dov used to joke that I would sleep soundly in Hell, if there was such a place after life (he was not a great believer in Heaven, either). Before he forced the Board to install central heat and air-conditioning in the house, we spent many a summer night sweltering with windows open and feeble box fans trying to wick away the sweat on soggy cotton sheets. He and Grandma Rose would wake, drenched with nightclothes sticking to their skin, to find me under a blanket.
I do not know if I tossed and turned much in those days, but I woke on my back the next morning still under the blanket, but with no arm over me. I rocketed out of the bed.
Charlie sat in the same chair he’d occupied the previous night, holding the same book. He’d read a few pages, though, by morning light. All the sugary-sweet things a woman could do on finding the man she loved in her bedroom ran loops in my head. My arms were one-quarter raised and my lips barely parted when he told me, “You snore.”
I froze. I took a Grandma Rose breath. “I know. Derek told me. It’s a sinus thing.”
“Derek told you?” Derek’s scowl was second only to this new expression on Charlie’s face for turning my stomach to water. “He’s been in your bedroom, too?”
I groped behind me for the bed and sat down. “Somebody in my family a long, long time ago invited him inside the house. That means he comes and goes around the whole house as he pleases.”
“Then why hasn’t he killed you or let his ‘family’ make you one of them?”
I rolled my head around my neck to get a crick out of the left side. It released with a satisfying snap. “Because Derek has this very nineteenth-century idea that Jewish blood is dirty blood. If he drank my dirty blood, it would turn all their blood dirty. Like some virus.”
Charlie stared at the book. I was grateful for that moment to have his eyes boring into something other than my face. “Then he won’t be bothering me, either.”
I sat on my hand to stop myself punching the air with a loud, “Yes!” I made noncommittal motion with my head. “I guess not.”
He closed the book. “You really need to read other genres,” he said, handing me the book. “Your expectations might be out of whack.” He stood up. ”I have to go.”
“But it’s your day off?” And I was sitting there in front of him in underwear and plain white tee shirt that pulled tight over my reasonably round, sweaty breasts. Talk about expectations.
“Fair Chapel Cemeteries needs a couple graves dug. Two old dowagers in mahogany caskets.” He did tousle my hair and give me a smile. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning. Same time, same chair.”
“Why can’t you be back tonight?”
He shrugged. “My car needs repairs. Besides, Oakwood has three more to dig tonight. Something about a sunrise burial. People can get so weird about death.”
I started to argue his agenda. He kissed my forehead again, damn it. “I’ll be back tomorrow to make you a decent breakfast.”
The cemetery master schedule held nothing for the morning. The big desk needed an organizing touch, but the solution that came to my mind that morning involved matches and running from the house to the fire station down the street to lie about a “mishap” with candles.
The sun shone and birds chirped. No doubt there were early spring flowers blooming along Mansfield Road. And yet my skin crawled with horror. Not because of the early morning humidity, though that was sending salty rivulets down my back. I would have sworn all the thoughts of Charlie and Ambr’ and what I knew and did not want to know were trying to seep out of my pores. I needed to walk. I needed to walk away from the CPF and away from those thoughts now playing “Ring Around the Rosie” in my brain.
I heard Missy and Mischa arguing outside the house. The last thing I needed was to have them gossiping and advising and then doing their “moves” if I pretended to listen or if I told them off. I left through the back door and cut through the northern side yard onto the sidewalk by the time those two oozed into the house.
I walked out to the broken sidewalk along Mansfield Road. School buses had come, deposited their cargo of hormonal and prepubescent students, and roared off to wherever school buses go while the kids are in school. My footsteps echoed along the road. I walked north, dodging the snow heaves and general poor quality cement the city used to repair the sidewalks only to have them crumble after yet another winter of ice, heavy snow and salt.
The pinkish-beige house next to my home sank into its swampy, weedy yard; about a hundred years newer than mine, the builders made it cheap, the owner rented it cheap and there were maple saplings growing out of the gutters.
The next house looked to be of the same generation as mine, but had been poorly tended in recent years. Five years ago, the owners had paid for a re-zoning permit and turned the house into an antique shop. I wondered how many of the original furnishings remained and how many pieces were “antiqued” to jack up the price for gullible shoppers. It occurred to me that the owners of the shop might be vampires, too. If so, they had to lie in a different cemetery since I had no idea who they were. Which would require day employees, since the shop had daytime hours. Either way, I thought with a glance at a price tag, the owners practiced the monetary form of blood-sucking and were no more admirable for that.
The Ace Hardware Store and iron rod racks festooned with planters and tables at shin-banging level full of vegetable and one or two herb seedlings, all “on sale.”
Grandma Rose had been keen to grow vegetables every summer. She told story after story – with frequent overlaps, changes and repetitions – of the amazing Victory gardens she and her parents planted during the world wars. She saw no reason why she couldn’t plant one in the back yard, until Grandpa Dov pointed out the area she wanted to dig up had been the location of the original outhouse.
“So there’s plenty of natural fertilizer,” she’d sniffed.
“Yeah, so much after a century and a half, how should the tomatoes taste?” he countered with a smile.
She’d slapped his arm. “You always say fresh tomatoes taste like piss anyway.” She turned to me. “You didn’t hear me say such a word.”
“What word, grandma?” I asked. Grandpa Dov laughed.
“Never mind, wash your face and get out of my kitchen! Always with the jokes when there’s work to be done!”
I passed up the plants and turned the corner to East Genesee Road. The light at the intersection changed. Trucks one lane away from me led long lines of cars down the hill towards The Plaza. The lane beside was clogged with flag men and women, traffic cones and honking drivers coming uphill.
I passed one of the restaurants along Genessee. I’d eaten there right after my grandparents’ death, when I had a mourner’s inability to restrain my opinions. I found the food mediocre and overpriced. I said so. The waitress, a middle-aged woman of narrow frame and narrow mind informed me in nasal tones that, “one paid for the ‘atmosphere.’” I had had the presence of mind not to remark that the atmosphere could do with a few cans of Febreze. As I left, I had scanned the rest of the diners. This confirmed my suspicion that paying for the atmosphere meant towards I was actually paying so the owners could pack in the senior citizen “early bird” dinners that had the parking lot full every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
Next on the block, as if the restaurateurs might care to repent their highway robbery, was the Genesee Presbyterian Church: a gray-block stone building built in 1930. Cathedral doors nearly black with age against intricate stained glass displaying more shapes and colors that recognizable religious pictures. These caught the rising sun (the restaurant blocked the sunset) next to a cracked tarmac driveway leading to parking in the rear.
And then there was Faithful Servants Congregation. The cornerstone on the red brick building read, “First Baptist Church, erected to praise His Name in 1921.” The rectangular metal doors must have arrived with the new congregation. The beige Krylon finish had yet to lose its sheen. The windows had regular patterns of yellow crosses on light blue-streaked backgrounds with white panes above and below. Worshipers there had the same ordeal as Genesee Presbyterian: a narrow tarmac driveway and parking in the rear. I walked up the drive.
The parking lot looked to be the size of the front sweep of Section A, albeit in faded tarmac with (excuse the expression) ghosts of lines to indicate parking spaces. Two cars, a white Buick sedan and a powder blue Cadillac sat in the morning sun, in the spaces closest to the back of the church.
Voices turned me towards that side of the church. Two ladies with hands clenched to white knuckles on the iron pipe style hand railing struggled up the stone stairs from the narrow basement door. Ambr’ had described them to perfection: one gray-haired, one white-haired, both permed to crowns of curling halos. Both wore light cardigans over blouses and shin-length skirts. Gray-hair wore shades of blue that ranged from pastel in the cardigan to navy blue for her skirt. White-hair mimicked the color pattern of light to dark from top to bottom, but had chosen yellow for her palette. Her skirt was an almost painful lemon A-line and she had no hips, so the blast of bright yellow sagged towards her ankles. Both had white, low heeled shoes. Both wore single strand pearl necklaces and both squealed in delight to see me in their parking lot.
“Welcome, welcome!” The Blues lady chirped. She helped the Yellows lady up the last step before she strode over to me with a veined, bony hand extended.
“We haven’t seen you here before!” Yellows croaked. She stopped at the top of the steps to catch her breath. “Are you new? What service have you been coming to?”
“I-“ I shook Blues hand gently, but could not find an answer.
“Oh, now, Naomi, she’s never been to our church! Have you, dear? She’s new.”
Naomi came up to me and eyed me head to toe with a practiced eye. “Brand spanking new, I’d say. Where’d you go to church before?”
I’d heard that tone and question before. Relatives at a funeral or interlopers with pamphlets from their place of worship were not unknown at the CPF. Four years ago one family split between Catholics and Pentecostals broke down at the graveside. Two of the women shouted and slapped, then ended up grappling and rolling over three other graves before the families separated them.
I braced to receive her testimony. If I named a church, any church, Naomi was primed and ready to offer all the reasons why that was absolutely the wrong church for me and didn’t I want my soul to be saved? The Reverend Whateverhisnamewas at Faithful Servants led the only congregation sure of salvation and didn’t we all want to avoid the fires of Hell?
I used my Board smile for her. “Sorry, ma’am, I’m Jewish.”
“Are you really?” Blues did not miss a beat. “Naomi, she’s Jewish!”
“I got my hearing aid, Beth!” Naomi snapped. She looked me over again. “Can’t say as you look Jewish. What’s your name?”
“Far-Baumann. Grace Baumann.”
Naomi half-grunted, half wheezed. “Hunh! My parents were Gruners until the Great War. We changed it to Green. More American-like.”
“But we’re all Americans, now! Even the Arabs.” Beth clapped her hands. “She’s Jewish, Naomi. One of God’s special people!”
Naomi leaned towards me. I smelled scented powder and bleach. “When are you making that al-ee-yah?”
“When are you moving back to the Holy Land?” Beth translated.
“I hadn’t planned to go quite yet,” I said. The morning air had grown close and too hot for my liking.
“You gotta go back!” Naomi said stamping her foot. “Can’t bring the Messiah if all you Jews don’t go back to Israel!”
OK, so that was an angle to the argument I had not heard before this morning. I gaped at Naomi like a cod fish at the fish monger’s.
“I-we-my family have never discussed it,” I said. Apparently, Hebrew school and my grandparents hadn’t taught me everything. I needed a change of subject. I had to think fast. “I came by to see if I could find my friend Ambr’ Cadwallader.”
Both ladies’ faces broke into delighted smiles.
“Oh, Ambr’!” Beth gushed. “Isn’t she such a sweet girl? So caring. So spiritual. You know she can recite from the Gospels by heart?”
I had heard that vampires could affect the minds of the living to create a false impression. And yes, vampires and ghosts alike can quote Scripture when it suits them. Ambr’ had done quite a job on these two church ladies. And I was not going to be the one to tell them Ambr’s heart had died over eighty years ago. I nodded, to be polite.
“And with all she’s gone through, the Lord is surely testing her!” Naomi said. She might have been smiling, but the steel in her blue eyes would suffer no disagreement. I pulled my lips into a half-smile. “You a close friend?”
“I guess you could say we’ve known each other for years,” I said. Not a lie. I wouldn’t dare lie to these ladies.
“Well, I don’t need to tell you then how she’s suffered. Her daddy dying when she was so young.” Beth’s eyes misted. “And having to care for her sick old mother.”
“Quite a load,” I agreed.
“You won’t find her here this time of day,” Naomi said. “She has to work for some slave driver named Madge Seamsby.” I nodded, noting that Ambr’ had told them the “good lie”: mostly the truth, with only dates changed. She shuddered. “Horrible woman. Steeped to the painted eyebrows in sin.”
“Aren’t we all?” I said before I thought about it. The church ladies’ posture stiffened. They regarded me with an offended air for a moment. Then Beth found a tight-lipped smile. “Indeed we are, Grace dear. We are all of us sinners. Well, we must be getting on. We don’t know Ambr’s address or phone number. You might stop by for worship on Wednesday evening. Ambr’ comes directly afterwards and you can see her then.”
I decided not to tell them I could see Ambr’ any night I cared enough to hang around the “Cadwall” mausoleum. I thanked them and quick-stepped myself down the driveway, then to the right and home again.