Seeking Refuge in the CPF
A Woman’s Place
A strange, savory smell woke me the next morning. I sat up so fast my lower back complained with a stabbing ache. I listened. Dishes and glasses clinked downstairs. Something, probably the source of the smell, sizzled. Cooking. Someone was down in my kitchen cooking and it was not me. The only other person I could think who had substance enough to cook was Derek and he could only be cooking - I ran down the stairs in my nighttime tee shirt and panties.
Charlie stood at the stove, shaking a skillet and poking at something inside it. He looked up at me with a smile I wanted to kiss right off his lips. “You like bacon?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never eaten it.”
Charlie’s smile faded and I wanted to beg it to come back. “Don’t tell me your parents were Orthodox.”
“Hard to say. They didn’t stick around long enough for me to know. I don’t think my grandparents were, though. But Grandma Rose honestly never cooked bacon. Or any kind of pork that I remember.”
He grinned again. “Never too late to try something new.” He nodded to the place settings on the island. “Though you could have dressed.”
“Sorry, but my tux is at the cleaners.” That earned me a snaking glimpse of his tongue. I wished he’d put it in my mouth. Then I climbed on one of the stools beside the island.
Charlie had fried two eggs for each of us along with the bacon. Everything he slid onto my plate smelled strangely wonderful and shone with grease. “Hope you like ‘em over easy,” he said, filling his own plate. I didn’t, but he also served us buttered wheat toast and that would wipe up the runny yolk.
Grandpa Dov preferred what he called “dippy eggs,” meaning eggs fried with the yolks still runny enough to dip the point of a toast slice into. I’d never cared for them, preferring the more solid hard. I told him once I didn’t like my eggs “bleeding.” He laughed.
I stabbed the yellow-orange circle in the middle of white edged in brown. It bled down the brown-edged white.
An engine behind the house backfired. Loud curses stopped the toast at my lips. “Varney and Trumbull?”
Charlie bit into a curled and crisp strip of bacon. “Yeah, they arrived when I did. Said they have five graves to dig.” He grimaced. “Varney wanted to know what kind of digging I was going to do.”
“Oh shit!” I flung down the toast. “They don’t know where to dig!”
I ran to the office for David’s map. Then, map held tight in my left hand, I ran back through the kitchen out that back door. Charlie yelled something about my clothes, or lack thereof, but I was not listening.
The backhoe sat at the far end of the Potter’s Field, several yards from the backyard of the house. Trumbull had the engine cover off and was bent with full crack showing over it. Varney, his hands pushed hard into the pockets of his windbreaker, alternately paced and kicked the machine’s side. He saw me first. His grin bordered on a truly ugly leer. A sharp and cold breeze struck my bare legs and I shivered.
“Love your morning frock there, Gracie.”
Trumbull straightened up and cackled. “Gotcha outta bed, did we? Hope your boyfriend didn’t mind.”
“You were supposed to stop by the office and find out where to dig the graves!” I snapped.
Varney shrugged. “What’s the dif? Most of these graves are a hundred ‘n seventy years old. The stiffs are worm poop of worm poop of worm poop by now.”
I waved his argument away, thinking fast how not to tell them about the ghosts. “It’s not that. The City’s all up in arms about the gas pipe break last time. They don’t want another ‘incident’.”
Trumbull snorted. “There ain’t no gas lines in this field.”
“Yeah, you’re the only gas source here,” Varney said. Trumbull kicked at him. “There’s no new gas lines,” I said, working on the lie. “It’s the old ones that broke last time. I had to get a map of possible sites for the old ones.”
“How old?” Varney sounded suspicious.
I shrugged. “Old. Like the first ones Sayresville ever laid. Hundred, maybe a hundred and thirty years ago. There’s always trace gas and with the decomposing bodies, it all bottles up somewhere.” A prayer of thanks issued up from my mind that these two could not spell the words “civil engineer,” let alone be one.
“The damned machine won’t start, anyway,” Trumbull said.
Perhaps David had had a hand in the stall. Yes, ghosts can do that, too, if they want to expend that much energy. “Try putting it in reverse and then follow me. I’ll mark out the right spots.”
Trumbull made a rude noise at one end or other of his blocky body, but he climbed into the cab and did as I asked. The engine spat, then revved into life. I led them along the graves. Even with my back turned, I knew those two continued to give my state of dress a few more leers apiece and waited for me to place stones and twigs over the three sites David had shown me.
I left them to their work and walked back to the house with the prayer that I wouldn’t stumble or step on an awkward stone with my bare feet.
I had a cooled breakfast and a furious Charlie waiting for me in the kitchen.
“What the hell did you think you were doing, running out there half-naked?” Charlie shouted at me.
I stood by my breakfast debating the efficacy of crying my way out of the argument. Not my favorite choice, largely because it had never worked on either of my grandparents. Usually earned me a time-out and/or no food for at least one meal. I opted for a woman’s indignation.
“Cemetery business,” I said. “Those two would have torn up half the Potter’s Field by the time I got dressed and ran out there to tell them where to dig.” Close to the truth, but if his anger was boiling over, my stomach acid felt on the simmer.
“The whole neighborhood might have seen you!”
“If they did, they did. Not much I can do about it now. And besides,” I said, poking the egg again and this time I got a revoltingly cold, gooey mouthful of toast and yolk, “this shirt reached the middle of my thigh. There wasn’t much to see.”
“Until you bent over to put the markers down.” His voice sounded calmer, but the sunny morning feeling in the kitchen had gone wintry. “Your panties are tearing away from the elastic waistband.”
“I doubt that.” I turned away from him, back towards my breakfast. I took up the bacon. I had it to my opening lips when I felt Charlie raise the back of my tee-shirt. He pressed a warm finger in the hole in my panties, right at my tail bone. I stiffened my knees and forbade myself from smiling.
“Right here.” He tugged at my panties.
“If you say so.”
I gathered that was not the answer he expected or would approve. He inserted two more fingers and tore the cotton fabric away from the waistband. Then he brought both hands under the shirt and tore the whole pair of panties off my body.
Not quite a bodice-ripping, and I’d never considered that area of my body the most attractive. Still, I considered it progress. I said nothing. I waited and I hoped.
Charlie pulled the tee shirt back down. “You’d better go put on another pair. And maybe your jeans, too.”
I turned on a bare heel. “Charlie, tell me something.”
“What?” He’d gone back to eating his breakfast.
“Do you find me attractive at all?”
His face drew together in irritation. He slammed down his toast and placed himself in front of me. Before I could back away, his large hands were on either side of my face, squeezing. “I told you to read something other than that garbage you’re lining the bedroom walls with. Since you haven’t, I’ll tell you. Compared to the women in those books, you’re a little on the plain side. Your right eyelid droops a little and your nose is too long. Your mouth is actually quite sweet and almost kissable – when it’s shut. Your hair is pretty limp and your body should run more because it runs towards the pudgy side.”
He held my head tightly against my teary-eyed attempts to pull away (and run away). He leaned closer. “But here’s my problem, Grace Farmer. Ever since that goddamned night on your porch with those ghosts and Derek, I can’t get your face out of my mind. I can’t get your voice out of my ears.
“I go to work. Hell, I see old Maribel, who’s nearing 68 and wrinkled and squatty and smelly as a rotting watermelon. I hear her voice that would normally sound like fingernails on a blackboard. And all I see is your face, your body. All I hear is your voice. And I want to come back to you. Even in this lunatic asylum for the undead, I want to come back to you.”
I closed my eyes. I waited.
Still no kiss.
But he did let go of my head, which was good. My ears were beginning to ache. I spun around to leave the kitchen with a nice breeze behind to tell me that the tee shirt rode up enough to give him one more glimpse. Then I paused and turned at the doorway.
“I have one question, though, Charlie.” He stopped eating, his eyes narrowing. “How did you make out last night?”
He looked back at his plate to get a mouthful of egg and toast in his mouth. “More dirt and shoveling. My friend Jerry helped a little, but I’m going to be sore by afternoon.”
“Good,” I said. “And, for the record, I find you very attractive.”
Charlie stayed the night again, sleeping with me in our version of bundling. He’d rolled over to his right side, however, by the next morning, so I could get up and get some work done. With the TV on.
He was right, of course: the news was break-ins and house fires. Life as usual for the viewing public. I checked the calendar and considered revising the mowing schedule.
That was the plan, anyway. A follicle-raising breeze, and I found Missy and Mischa hovering over my grandmother’s sofa. Their hands were folded and their faces relatively calm, but Missy’s mouth worked hard to hold back what she wanted to tell me.
“There’s orange paper on your porch!” she burst finally. “All the porches in the neighborhood have them! It’s like a big storm of orange snow!”
“No, it isn’t!” Mischa said. “It’s some ridiculous ad campaign! Probably another one of those ‘big deals’ from a carpet cleaner.”
“You didn’t bother to read it?” I asked.
Both ghosts drew themselves up in indignation. “It’s on your porch and therefore it is your business. We don’t butt in,” Mischa said.
“Since when?” I asked. Fortunately, they took that as teasing and tittered.
I opened the front door. A rolled-up, neon orange piece of copier paper fell at my feet. It did my back good to bend down to pick it up. One or two vertebrae popped. The contents of the flyer, however, were something else.
“It’s a political flyer,” I told them. “One of the candidates for state government is holding a town hall meeting at my old high school.” I’d heard about the possibility of Spaccone pulling one of these election-year stunts from the news buddies a few mornings ago, but, since the buddies spoke of it as only a possibility, I had thought very little about it. One never thinks deadly contagion will afflict one’s own home.
“Well, that sounds very civic-minded of him,” Missy said. “We held something like that in the old Mansfield High School auditorium. You know, to talk about ‘undesirables’ moving into the area.”
“Town hall meetings have a long and venerable history,” Mischa went into her teaching voice. “People gather, discuss problems and try to resolve differences. True American democracy in action.”
“Or would be if they don’t screen the attendees in advance,” I said.
“They don’t do that!” the two chorused.
“Yes, they do.”
“Well, that’s silly,” Missy said. “We’d be the only ones who could pass through a screen. That is, if we were to go, which I don’t think we will.” She looked at Mischa, who shook her head.
“No, I mean, the people who are responsible for the meeting decide who can attend and who can’t.” I looked out the front window. There were indeed tubes of bright orange stuck in every front door up and down Mansfield Road. “In the last election for governor, one of the conservative candidates had guys at the door to the meeting. They asked everybody if they were registered voters.” “I don’t think that’s legal,” Mischa said.
“Maybe not, but if the person said yes, they asked a few other programmed questions to tease out the person’s political affiliation or opinions on key issues.”
“I still don’t think – “
“Maybe not, but it has happened! I’ll bring up the articles and news archive videos on the computer if you don’t believe me. Seems if the person was registered for the opposing party or had contrary ideas, the guards wouldn’t let them in. If for the candidate’s party, they got in. A couple groups tried to sue, but it went nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t see the point in keeping people out,” Missy sniffed.
“There isn’t, except that the news people cover a supposedly public meeting and get to report the candidate hearing questions he likes and giving answers he thinks will get him elected without any disagreement and/or argument.” I balled the flyer up and tossed, but missed the wastebasket. “It’s a publicity stunt.”
“You still should go,” Mischa said. “Your grandfather used to say that if you didn’t pay attention, you couldn’t complain.”
Charlie yawned like a creaking coffin from the bottom of the staircase. Damn him, he even had sexy, if a little overlapping, teeth! The ghosts rippled and giggled. Even Mischa, though she fought it with a frown.
I shook my head. “I’m registered for the other party. I wouldn’t get past the bouncers.”
“Tell them you’re independent,” Charlie suggested.
“Can’t do that, either. That implies I can actually think for myself, and the handlers don’t want any of that going on around their candidate.”
Missy and Mischa rose off the couch, then swooped towards the front door. “Well, look at the time of the meeting,” Mischa snapped, “and you tell me if a certain blonde fang-queen won’t be there with her church ladies agitating for…whatever they’re agitating for.” And they were gone into the sunny morning.
“I guess we’re going,” I said.
“Yeah. Maybe you can talk us in the door.” I could see the twisting of his head in agreement with his unspoken arguments for and against going. “Besides, you owe me. Coffee’s on the stove.”