In the Balance
I needed to pee. Not to talk, not to fling myself into Charlie’s arms and weep (although the idea floated in my mind right behind my full bladder), but to relieve body of excess fluid and, with any luck, my head of the thoughts revolving like a carousel. I said nothing, as if speaking would cause thought or urine to leak out and shame me.
Charlie also said nothing on the drive home. The set of that beautifully square jaw and the line of his lips told me he was not happy with me. He drove his car, a Dodge Dart of unknown age and color and in very dubious condition into the driveway.
I ran to use one of Great-grandfather Jack’s better ideas: a half-bath next to the mud room behind the kitchen. Amazing how much saner the world can seem when certain functions are concluded. I went into the kitchen, half-expecting to see Charlie fixing something for us to eat.
He was, instead, sitting precisely in the middle of the stairs to the bedrooms, legs apart enough to make passing him difficult, and his lovely hands hanging with interlaced fingers between them. “Now you are going to tell me what the hell that was all about,” he said.
“It’s a long story.” I know, a clichéd dodge. You try weaving explanations at four in the morning after one hour’s sleep and having to exorcise one loony old rich man. Sort of. I’d bet Old Sharpe’s headstone you wouldn’t do much better.
Those sable eyes did not leave my face. “It’s nearly four. Sun’s coming up in a couple hours and I have to leave for work by evening. I think we have time.” I started to move behind my desk. “Don’t. Stand there and talk to me, Grace.”
“I’d like to sit down.”
“Try the floor.” So he had the dominating position and I the submissive. My weary brain started on tangents again and I hoped whips and hot irons were not going to be involved in this confession. I was too tired, I told myself, to convert to Catholicism.
So I talked. I don’t know why, but I started with Greta, and what my grandfather had taught me about ghosts. Then I explained the contract with the City Commissioners and the recent uptick in indigent deaths. I told him about David and the original plan for me to know where the Board could bury in vacated graves. I told him about my night with Ian and the gossips, about the cloth and Varney murdering Trumbull.
“The same cloth that drove that old man crazy tonight?”
“I think it was the same. I haven’t looked at it closely yet.”
“You took it from Meecham?”
“I had to. He’d be ramming through walls by now if he still had it.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“I have ask David about that.”
“No!” Charlie was up on his feet. With or without him. “I don’t want you anywhere near that ghost! I don’t want you out in the cemetery after dark or having anything to do with these- these- these dead people!”
I swallowed a yawn and wondered if there was a submissive position I should assume to get whatever this was over and me in my bed. If the floor had been a mattress, I could have sunk right in and snored. But I could not feel my legs or arms for the lead someone had fused to my torso. “He needs to know that I know.”
“Why?” He stood in front of me.
My neck hurt too much to look up. “I don’t know why! But it has to be done.”
Charlie bent down to grab me under my arms and haul me up so that I was face to face with him, a rag doll in his hands. “Dammit, Grace! I don’t know whether I should…or…I don’t know what to do with you!” He set me back on my feet. Not what I wanted, but I supposed if I sat or lay down again, there was a pretty good chance he’d snatch me up and we’d find out what he would do with me, and the odds were against something pleasurable.
I waited through two of Grandma Rose’s prescribed breaths. “It begs the question, then,” I said, “what makes you think you need to do anything with me.”
Charlie let a sound that tore at my heart: one quarter rage, one quarter frustration and what I still believe was half pain, as if my words had wounded him. He sank onto the third riser of the stairs. “Grace, what are we doing here?”
OK, so the smart-ass answer would have been something like, “Going to bed? Or not?” but I knew what he meant. “That depends on what this ‘this’ is.”
He looked at me, his eyes filling. “What are you saying?”
Question, you ask? No, I was not close to crying, too. Maybe it was the office. There I had always dealt with grieving mourners and death and the arrangements and posthumous declarations of love and fidelity, which, like sugary and pious inscriptions on the headstones may or may not be valid. Maybe I was tired; after all, I’d been in a wealthy man’s house, a man who happened to be one of my bosses, and talked him not only out of trashing his own home but into expanding the Potter’s Field. That’s a good day’s work during the daylight hours. No, the carousel had broken down into some sort of Rube Goldberg track and the images flew along it at high speed.
“I’m saying,” I told him, “I’m wondering the same thing. You told me a few weeks ago that I’m no pinup model, not even close. I think you used the word ‘pudgy.’ That’s fine. But you also told me you saw my plain Jane face everywhere and heard my voice everywhere. You said you wanted to come back to me and you have. Every day you have off you are here with me.” A hit, a palpable hit, to quote someone. “And I know for a fact that I have told you that I love you. I don’t know why. We barely know each other aside from what we eat and the fact that my life is more wrapped up with the undead than the living and you hold things back to the point of dishonesty.” Yes, he was crying at this point. I did not want to celebrate. “Until it all boils over, that is.” I waited for a raging argument to the last point, but Charlie said nothing. He let one more tear from each eye fall. Then he scrubbed them away. Still he would not talk.
“I’ve never had a man with a pulse in my life outside of my family,” I said. “Not ever. But the last two months have been a wonder to me, a roller coaster of love and frustration and horniness…” He grimaced, but I forged ahead. “And here we are. So you tell me: is this a relationship that we’re both planning to build a joint future on? Or what?”
He stood, wiping his damp hands on his jeans. “I think,” he began in a harsh whisper, “that I need to be at work tomorrow, so I’d better go.” He started to walk past me, but I caught his arm.
“Where? Go where?”
Charlie pulled my fingers off his bicep. “Where I go when I am not with you, Grace.” He brushed my forehead with his lips.
“Where is that?” I murmured. The damned traitorous tears were forming in my eyes.
I went to bed before he drove the Dart out of my driveway. And yes, damn your questions, I did cry myself to sleep.
The Board announced in The Post Standard days before Flag Day that it would purchase a long-deserted farm on the other side of the state highway. “A decision made with long and careful thought,” the Board’s source lied. The acreage would be blessed, hallowed and dedicated by clergymen of all major denominations for the “poor homeless souls of the community.” Or at least, as I learned from my copy of the proposed land map, three-eighths of the land would be so dedicated. A group of surveyors were also hired to determine if the swampy five-eighths that stopped at another drainage ditch facing the turnpike could be drained and turned into profit-making gravesites and/or mausoleums. These were finance and accounting men, remember. The charitable thought, therefore, extended as far as their wallets and as tight as any other misers nit-picking a contract for loopholes.
To the reporters’ credit, the article did shoot for full disclosure by making oblique references to the contract the Board had with the City Commissioners. Two sentences covered the clause in the contract that had led to disagreements and potential lawsuits, which, however, were not going forward. For now.
In all, the article’s final three paragraphs filled in column space with verbal back-patting and handshaking and wishes for us all to live happily ever after.
The same morning as the article appeared, Treasurer Meecham informed me in a shaky voice that there would not be enough funds to give me a cost of living raise for the current year at least.
“It’s not my fault!” he made sure to tell me. “We had to put in an wireless fence for the whole plot, what with all these grave robberies around the county! And you know the Board wants to see more income than outflow. But you will have a paying job and a roof over your head,” he said. “Which is more than these poor souls we will provide for had in their lifetimes.”
I couldn’t say if it was the Board’s sanctimonious self-congratulation for doing what they should have done months ago, at the least possible cost and greatest potential profit, or if it had been the leftover pot roast that had gone a little off; but something kept me awake and slightly queasy that night.
I dressed in jeans and a decent tee shirt around ten that night and stepped outside with a flashlight and David’s cloth. The moon and stars were taking the night off behind clouds too high to do more than block out their light. And the city streetlights flickered; there would be utility trucks trying to replace the lights by dawn in time to hold up the school buses and angry citizens trying to get to work.
A few neighbors shouted greetings or expletives at each other. Then Mrs. Schnosburg came out with her trash can lid to bang on it with a rolled-up Post Standard and demand everybody respect that ten o’clock was her bed time now and would they please go inside and open their windows if they needed cool air?
All the better to hear your gossip, I thought. And Mrs. S. would be listening. I often wondered when she would realize that 90% of the houses had air-conditioning in one form or another. I darted around the back and into the Potter’s Field.
David hovered over the iron bench between the Field and Section G. He offered me a look that some might call a smile. I called it a smirk. He gestured for me to sit down. I stood.
“Well, you won,” I said. “I imagine you are happy.”
“I am dead. How can I be happy or sad?”
“You managed anger pretty well.”
He made a sound that in a living body would be a sigh. “Injustice affects us all. You know the desecration of the indigent graves was wrong.”
“So is murder and psychological torture. You forced a man to kill his partner and drove another one out of his mind.”
“Only temporarily out of his mind,” David reminded me. “You brought him back.” He floated around the bench and stopped in front of me. I shivered. “You living all have secrets you would rather have kept secret. You know this. That scrap simply allowed me to enter their minds and learn them.”
“And threaten to expose them?”
He made a laughing sound. “You make too much of me, Grace Farmer. I let them remember. Then I forbade them to forget. Repetition and reminder. That is all. It was the shame and guilt of those secrets that drove them mad or almost mad. Trumbull violated Varney’s woman. Your Treasurer did not make all of his money honestly and his wife whores with two other men. And one woman, if I recall correctly.”
I stared at his shimmering form. “Who were you, David? What were you in life?’
He moved as if to shrug. “I was a man, like many others. I had a wife and sons. I lusted after another man’s wife. I bore false witness against that man so I could fornicate with the woman. My wife left in grief and shame. Then my sons turned their backs to me. I died alone and in rags.”
“And that gives you the right to judge the living?”
“I believe your religion and mine speaks of God being the True Judge, but what is a judgment if there are no means to enact it?”
I held out the scrap. “I have it now. What are my secrets?”
“I do not play at this, Grace Farmer. You are too honest with yourself and others to have secrets.”
“Then I can burn this.”
He nodded. “To ashes. And scatter them to the wind if you like. You have troubles ahead, but not with me.”
“With whom else do you have trouble?”
“Any suggestions on what I can do about her?”
He shrugged; or something did something like that. His spectral shoulder rippled upwards. “Follow the trails you’ve been walking.”
“You know,” I said before he faded away. “We living folks don’t really appreciate being left with riddles.”
His laughter was not a pleasant sound.