Happy Holidays from the CPF

Week 75

Back to the CPF

Wishing all a Blessed Yule, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa and best wishes to my Muslim brothers and sisters for their holidays (I apologize for not knowing the proper greeting). May we all know love, friendship, and peace in this season.

Chapter Eighteen

The Reed and the Oak

The next morning, the union sent two mowers I did not know: two lean, crew-cut young men who drove the mower with enough care not to knock over headstones. To be honest, they mowed with too much care. There were one to two-inch tufts of un-mown grass circling each and every headstone. Still, I dropped my second cup of coffee when they returned the mower to the shed, then took out green cloths to wipe down the headstones. I choked out the one thank-you prayer I remembered. I even called the secretary to thank her for such diligent workers. She sniffed.

“I didn’t have much choice. Your usual mowers won’t answer their phones and nobody’s seen them since the last time I sent them over to dig for you.”

We had an unseasonable break in the summer heat and the temperatures cooled enough to make sleeping under Charlie and the blanket bearable for two nights. I woke in the dark again, but Charlie’s deep, even breathing told me he slept the deepest of sleeps. I wriggled enough to get him to draw his arm back and turn over away from me. He moaned something that was not my name. Or any name I recognized.

Mansfield Road mimics the CPF for lacking in noise around two in the morning. Traffic noise from Genesee falls to one or two vehicles per quarter hour when the police drive by. The regular cruisers on patrol along Mansfield keep the living night creatures away from the main road. And the residents make little noise above the hum of the air conditioning units and faint whine of the flickering street lights. Kids off for the summer stopped their shrieking profanity while playing games in their yards, which always brings the at-home parents out to demand that the children shut the fuck up. Daylight workers are home for the night. Second shift workers are home and either visually glued to their televisions or sleeping or some other inside activity. The third shift workers are at work. And Mrs Schnosburg sleeps lightly beside her bedroom window and her telephone.

The evening air on the porch soothed me. I sat in a wicker chair and crossed my bare legs. I was in the state of dress, or undress that had horrified Charlie so when I dealt with Varney and Trumbull, but the street light’s glow only reached the front beds. If someone wanted to see my panties, they’d have to look a whole lot closer.

And someone did. I rubbed the hairs on the back of my neck and shuddered. About seven undead somebodies with a white-blonde, leggy vampire in the middle were looking way too closely.

“When I was your age, I wore a full-length nightgown in summer and winter.”

I stood up and came to the top step on the porch. She stood at the bottom. “Hello, Ambr’. You were never my age. Derek made you when you were what? 24?”

Her face twisted into a sour grimace; whether due to her disapproval of my clothing or the fact that she had to look up at me, is anybody’s guess, if you want to get into vampire psychology. Too many thick spider webs in their heads for me. The answer to your question is no, I’ve never asked a vampire if s/he ever got a pain in the neck or simply caused them.

“Not quite 23, thank you. And I would never have exposed so much as my ankle without some sort of stocking, let alone permit the general public to see my entire leg up to my unmentionables!”

“The general public is in bed asleep. And don’t you mean ‘my limb,’ instead of ‘leg’?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“Which is?”

“I have a reason to walk abroad this time of night. What reason do you have, half-naked as you are?”

“I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.”

Ambr’ mounted one step to lower the angle at which she had to raise her head to see me. Her entourage took this as permission to move forward a few steps as well. I recognized the shaved-head vampire, although her hair had started to grow back enough for her to gel it into semi-conscious spikes. “My mother would have said insomnia is due to a guilty conscience. Do you have a guilty conscience, Grace?” I should not have done so, but I could not help grinning. “Not that I know of, no.”

“Is there a man in your bed, Grace? A man who is not your lawful husband?” Her ugly smile said that she knew quite well there was.

“If I said no, would you believe me?”

“I would not.” She flounced a dark maxi skirt with a handkerchief-style hem. The light blouse was a button-down which Ambr’ wore completely buttoned up. And well tucked into the skirt’s waist band. The light was poor, but I thought she might have been wearing a corset. “Deceit is part of our nature as women. And an especial trait of your people, as the Bible tells us. No, I would have to look into your bedroom.”

“Yes, you would, but you can’t.”

I would have sworn she pouted at my words. “I have not been invited into your house.”

“I know. Only Derek has, and I don’t know who did the inviting.”

“And yet you don’t rescind the invitation.”

I shrugged. “Not sure I can, since I didn’t give it originally. Besides, it’s easier to keep the peace. But can’t you fly? I have a good-sized window that looks right in on my bed. You could satisfy your judgmental curiosity that way.”

Ambr’ made a disgusted sound. “And allow someone, even one of our family, to come along and look up my dress? I think not!

In high school, I had heard of girls so intent on preserving their virtue, boys spoke of them shoving ice cubes ‘up there” first thing in the morning, last thing at night. It did not, however, seem appropriate to ask Ambr’ if this was or ever had been her practice in order to become so frigid and frustrated after mortal death. “Then let your posse here have a short hop up to my window. I know four of them, but who are the others?”

Ambr’s smile could horrify a snake. “My daughters in our little crusade. One from Avery and Nikki Vine here – “ another long-haired, somewhat darker blonde with bug eyes and what I considered an appropriate dog collar – “is all the way from Baldwinsville.”

“You do get around,” I said.

“Want to join us, Gracie?” Nikki Vine hissed and snaked her long, sapphire blue fingernails towards me. “I’ve always wanted to taste dirty blood.”

Ambr’ spun on her and grabbed the girl by the throat before either of us could take in a breath. Ambr’ held Nikki’s head to the side so that we could all see a vein pulsing in Nikki’s neck. She squeaked a protest. The other six gathered around licking their lips. I noticed Shaved-Now-Spiked Head also had a cleft tongue she flicked at Nikki through her sharp teeth.

“I told you about this one!” Ambr’ snarled at her prey. “Must I punish you again?” Nikki fought to say no. Ambr’ was not in a forgiving mood, however. She struck like a snake and bit off the top curve of Nikki’s ear. Nikki wailed, falling to her knees. “Leave her!” Ambr’ told the others. “I can do the same to you.”

Perhaps it was watching Ian feed on the local that made this scene not quite as shattering to me as it seemed to be for the seven vampires. I stopped my limbs shaking in less time and waited until Ambr’ had daintily wiped the blood from her mouth before I asked, “So what can I do for you? Somebody ransack your crypt? Pee on your grate?”

She growled a rather weak rebuke, considering what I heard on television and from the children during the day and her “daughters” seconds before. “Your language!”

I let my chin drop to my chest, letting her think I was sorry, but only to “maintain the peace.” Then I tried another topic. “Naomi made quite an impression the other night. News folks won’t let it go.”

Ambr’ nodded. “It would have been better if I had said it, but – “

“Not exactly possible, was it?”

“There will be more opportunities when the days get shorter. The solstice is not far away. That’s when everything will change.”

“And you can be in your glory.”

She made an ugly sound, like a muttered curse. “Do you think that’s all I want?”

“What else? That’s all anybody in politics is after these days: attention. Do anything and say anything, so long as it hits the nightly news and maybe an opinion piece or two. Although, if your success hits the national wires, I doubt Derek is going to be pleased.”

The smile flattened. Her voice went low and jagged. “If he does object, he can tell me himself, can’t he?” Here I chose not to quote Derek on the subject of pets and leashes. Ambr’ smoothed the button band of her blouse, re-tucking it to smooth out any folds. “That might make a change, though. He never sees me these days, you know.”

“I didn’t know.”

“We hunt in different areas now.” She did something with her hands, a blackish blur over her grayish dress. Was she wearing gloves on this steam bath of a summer night? Then she tossed her pale hair again. I considered offering her a scrunchie, but decided that could lead to other invitations I did not want to make. “He has his prey and I have my work.”

“Which is what? I don’t think I understand precisely what you’re trying to do.”

Ambr’s crossed her arms. My eyes were adjusting to the dim light, but I still had to imagine the schoolmarm pose she had used all those years she had tried to teach me my place: the grim smile and the folded arms with fingers twitching to slap a ruler down on some vulnerable part of my body. “Did you listen to Naomi? What did she say?’

“You seriously want to repeal the 19th Amendment?”

“It’s a first step, yes.”

“Towards what?”

The chorus smiled with all their fanged teeth. “True emancipation for women!” In fingernails on the blackboard unison no less.

I sat down on the top step. We were finally at eye level with each other. “Emancipation from what?”

“Everything that ails the feminine gender in this day and age.”

“And emancipation begins with revoking women’s right to vote?”

“Exactly.

Where was my ancestor Jacob Baumann when I needed him? A dull ache had started between my eyes, so I went straight for the practical. “Do any of you know what is involved in repealing a constitutional amendment?”

“The Volstead Act was repealed, was it not?”

“Because it was an economic disaster. And it still took some time! I really wish one of you would read a damned book. The 19th amendment involves a whole lot more than that. You’re talking about convincing over half the population of the whole country that they have no right to vote.”

The smile did not move. “I am aware of that.”

“Then how will you do it?”

“I have a plan.”

I sighed and stood up. I wanted my bed again. “You have a plan,” I repeated. “You know, even in an election year, with every politician spouting vague promises and ‘progressive plans,’ we humans can tire pretty quickly of cryptic remarks like that. We even have a name for your sort of talk. We call it bullshit.”

The smile died. Ambr’s hissed and snarled at me. If she had had that ruler or a switch or something in her hand, Charlie might have found me unconscious on the porch, covered in welts. She raised her fists, then flew off down Bayberry and the lower income housing that surrounded the library. In a second gust of foul wind, the seven daughters took after her.

People would pay. I felt sick as I admitted this to myself: someone would pay for my flippancy with their lives.

Charlie woke three hours after I returned to bed. He left me a pancake breakfast and a buttered kiss on a paper napkin. I salted the grease with a couple tears before I pressed my own lips to it. Split his lip, hell. There was no blood in that butter, but I had felt some love in the pancakes and syrup left to hold warm in the oven. Happiness was mine.

Until I took my plateful into the office and turned on the morning news. The brunette buddy with the smoky shiner eye makeup read out the mysterious deaths of three subsidized housing residents near the Sayresville Library.

“Two men with money and drug baggies in their hands were found in the parking lot,” Black-eyed Susan announced with appropriate, her smoky eyes-wide shock. “Let’s go to Randy on the scene for the details. Randy, how horrible is it?”

It occurred to me that some network exec had to be thinking, “Where’s the guy who could finish that joke with, ‘It was so horrible…’”

“Yes, Susan, it’s a horrible scene. Two black men with their throats torn out and, some sources say, all their blood drained from their bodies. And the horribleness doesn’t stop there. A third victim appears one elderly lady, who had come out onto her stoop to see what the noise was. Neighbors have identified her as Janiqua Mathers, a hematology tech at Crouse Hospital. Her throat was torn out, too. All three victims had their throats eviscerated – “ here Randy toyed with a smile for including such a big, new word in his report, but thought better of it and resumed the wide-eyes of shock – “by what authorities are now calling ‘person or animal as yet unknown.’”

I left Susan and the red-haired presenter exchanging synonyms and variations for the word horrible.

Person or animal was not exactly unknown to me, and not exactly human or animal, I thought. Try one pissed-off, anti-feminist vampire and her seven maniacal brats. And three unlucky people would hardly feed eight mouths when their appetites had been whetted by indignation. I suspected there would be more corpses gone unreported. But I doubted the news buddies or even most of the media could wrap their heads around that.

Now, Grandma Rose never saw much use in feeling guilty. “Decisions get made with what we know and who we are. It doesn’t turn out how you would like? You fix what you can and live with it. You can’t do more.” Still, I had little appetite for my pancakes.

Besides, the CPF wouldn’t allow me to do more, even if I knew how to fix Ambr’s outrage. The City had more indigent dead. A salmonella outbreak at one of the soup kitchens. And the Commissioner’s attorney had called Treasurer Meecham again.

“Why can’t all the old graves be used? There are no famous names in there!”

“There are no names at all in the Potter’s Field,” I said, squeezing Charlie’s kiss napkin in my free hand. “That doesn’t mean there weren’t human beings buried there that deserve respect.” Not to mention their lingering spirits who deserved their privacy.

“Have the diggers dig up any graves older than fifty years!

That’s an order!” he shrieked.

“You can’t do that!” I shouted back from the edge of my chair.

“We own the property and we can do that!”

I took some Grandma Rose’s breaths. “No, you can’t.

It’s immoral. And the Field backs up to Egret Street. Do you think the people who live there won’t notice extra digging? Not to mention the coffins and skeletons that might still be intact? Word will get around that the CPF is exhuming bodies to dump in more bodies just to keep a lucrative contract with the city. That kind of reputation kills cemeteries.” I felt as if

I was grabbing at the cold air of a leaving spirit.

Meecham’s voice grew ugly. “And just how will the word get around? A news ‘leak,’ perhaps, from you?”

I counted to fifteen and punted. “Hardly. I have to live here. You know diggers drink when they’re off duty.”

“I did not know that.”

I didn’t know it for a fact, either. “I’d say it’s a fair bet.”

“Are you telling me our union employees are drunk on the job?”

“Not even close. I’m telling you that you have a choice: to unzip your…money belts and cough up enough money for some new land or lose everything in the ugliest of ugly lawsuits with the City, the unions, maybe even the ACLU and NCAAP jumping in for a class action! And,” I held the receiver in front of my face, “I will make sure they know that I did warn you!”

Meecham covered his end of the call in spittle. “I will have your job for this!”

I sank back into the chair. “If you don’t buy the extra land and you do cause the riot that I think you will, Mr. Meecham, you can have my job.”


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