I’m not sure what this lovely little flower is that volunteered its presence near my kitchen door. If you know, please give me your verdict.
(A Ghost Story)
“Where shall we begin?” The fussy little man moved his little mustache back and forth like a typewriter carriage gone slightly out of control. We were off to solve a mystery, Hercule and I, and although I followed along without a clue as to where we were going or what the mystery was, I had faith that this friend I had followed through so many adventures would once again take me to a worthwhile place. I had caught up to him by quickening my step, but my legs were so much longer than his that doing so caused me to sprint out ahead a bit until I shortened my stride to match his. The combined effect of walking faster but taking shorter steps gave me a prancing quality that I’m sure was humorous, but since no one was viewing this daydream but me, I had no sense of embarrassment.
It is only in retrospect that I gain a viewer, but since that viewer is me, I am perhaps harder on my protagonist than an impartial viewer might be. What does one do when she is the narrator of her own life? It is an exercise in schizophrenia. You are you. You are she. You are you. You are she. When I see through the eyes of that woman, feeling the onset of middle age years before the appropriate time to do so, I understand the need for flight and escape. What she needed to do was to leave her outgrown marriage, but how many women do? Instead, they seek to alter a dress that no longer fits–to plump sofa cushions that have grown too matted to plump years ago.
They live in fantasy worlds of ladies luncheons or afternoon movies or midnight novels. They simply neglect to fix the thing that needs fixing or to leave it behind for a new set of life problems. For it seems to me from the vantage point of my sixties that that is what life is–a series of puzzles that we can either confront and try to solve or merely overlook and seek distraction from. Fold up the paper and use the puzzle to swat flies or form it into an origami bird or party hat. Use it to wrap up garbage and count on someone else to carry the problem away for you. All the different solutions we invent in response to our problems is the point of life. We are all our own choreographers, doing our version of the dance. So I try to be more patient with Susan than I want to be, calling forth more sympathetic narrators. Susan at 40. Susan at 35. What would Susan at 20 have to say about me, I wonder? Stretching my mind to this task sends me off in a different direction, to tell a different story.
A woman lies in bed in her short purple cotton spaghetti-strapped nightgown. She shows upper arms too heavy for showing outside of her own room. She lies typing, which is true in more ways than one. For when she writes in the very early morning, as she has said countless times before, she writes from a different part of her brain than that which guides her actions during the day. She writes more about the present, with spare bits of the past popping up as well, as they do in dreams.
That whole part about Peter is imaginary, but where did Peter come from? Is he a manifestation of something she really was trying to escape at the time–some dream lover she might have in fact married in her twenties if she had not in reality been off pursuing the life she described as a metaphor in her initial chapters? This whole hierarchy of selves is getting so complicated that even I as the real person narrating this story cannot keep track. How did Doris Lessing keep all those separate selves straight in The Golden Notebook? By compartmentalizing. Other writers do it by splitting themselves into separate characters, but I’ve never been successful at that. I write best as myself and somehow can’t make the jump into dividing myself into the parts of myself.
When I split here, it is my whole self being presented at 20, at 35, at 45 and at 67. It is so complicated that the plots become intertwined, but since this is what they want to do, I’m going to go along with them. Like Alice down the rabbit’s burrow, I will swallow bitter pills and grow and shrink–but in my case it will be in age as well as size. Let’s see where this acid trip of imagination takes me. No doubt some readers will drop away, but at this point I think this has become an exercise more for myself than for any viewers who are free to jump on and off this slow moving platform at will.
“We have arrived at our destination,” my twitching little companion tells me, his prissy voice cutting through my reverie.
“And what is our destination?” I ask him. “I’ve never known where we are going. I’ve just been so busy trying to get in step that I never asked.”
“You don’t recognize this place?” he asks, as he swings open a wide door before us.
I step into the view on the other side. It is a large golden yellow house with rose pink domes. Two dogs rush up to greet us–obnoxious dogs that jump up and bark and then rush out the open door behind us into the street. They vanish in seconds up the big hill that we, too, might have climbed if we had not taken this detour. The courtyard of the house is full of flowering trees and bushes and succulents and palm trees towering or contained within pots. As we walk, the door to the house opens. Inside is a table and a computer, but we keep walking to another door, open it to see a woman in a purple nightgown lying on her back in bed. Typing on a laptop. Lying in two different ways. I take off my coat and shoes. Lie down next to her. Roll over into her, and we are one. And that is why, dear reader, when you ask me the question everyone inevitably asks, I admit that yes, “I believe in ghosts.”
The opening and closing lines today are from “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline. Thanks, Patti Arnieri, for furnishing me with your second prompt.
You may find Chapters 1-5 of this tale in postings made over that past 5 days.
The Prompt: Tight Corner—Have you ever managed to paint yourself into the proverbial corner because of your words? What did you do while waiting for them “to dry”?
While I was looking for a personal tale that works for this prompt, (never did find it, but it was perfect for the prompt) I found this beginning to a story or novel that I’ve long forgotten. I’m going to print it here for suggestions and advice. Should I abandon it? Continue? I know there are problems, so any suggestions would be appreciated. Oh, what we find in the bowels of our backup drives! And it even loosely meets the prompt.
The doorbell was answered by a tiny redheaded girl resplendent in conical Pokemon party hat. She grabbed the present that Dick held out to her and immediately whirled and ran back into the yaws of the party, which was in full swing. His daughter Nell surrendered his hand after one tight squeeze and chased after her hostess.
“Hi Dick.” It was Shirley Hudson who next emerged from the cacophonous din in the living room. “You can stay if you want to, or you can pick Nell up at six.” She held his right hand in her own, while her other hand stroked the black thatch of his forearm. It was something Jane had always done, and he hated it. He wasn’t a cat, for God’s sake.
Dick put his arm around the shoulders of his wife’s friend as an excuse to withdraw his arm from her stroking grasp. “I guess I’ll go home and take a catnap, Shirl. I’ll see you in three hours.”
“Dick? Have you heard from Jane?”
“Shirley, I don’t want to go through any of this now.”
“Hey, I’m not going to give you any trouble over this. She’s my best friend, but I know you’re in the right. I don’t blame you. I just want to know how she is.”
“There are visiting hours at the city jail, Shirley. I’m certainly not using them up. Go see her.”
Now he sat in the car for a minute, letting the wipers remove an accumulation of mist off the outside of the windshield as he wiped the inside condensation off with the arm of an old sweater that was stuffed down beside the seat.
He started the car up and pulled into midafternoon traffic. Not too bad. His thumb worried a spot below the knuckle of his left-hand ring finger where an ingrown hair had grown infected. It was so swollen now that he hadn’t been able to remove his ring, even with Jane gone and no one to blame him if he removed this mark of the chosen.
Bored of the rings. This is what a friend had said just before asking his wife for a divorce, but marriage to Jane, although anything but ideal, had never been boring.
In college, her possessiveness and jealousy had been sort of flattering. He had been amazed that this ravishing sorority girl, cheerleader, beauty queen, straight A student had marked him as her own. She had been known to haul other women who monopolized his company for too long at a frat kegger away from him by the hair. Everyone knew that he was Jane’s property. She was so beautiful and so soothingly cute when they were alone. He had been a lucky man. All of the guys said so. In Jane Clark’s pants. Lucky man. Lucky man.
They had been married right out of college. He had been fortunate to find the job in New York. Well, actually, he had been lucky to have been found by the job. After months of sending out resumes, checking and being checked via the web, pulling any and all strings that were within his grasp, he had finally been recruited by the friend of a friend of an acquaintance. And he had taken the job. It had always been his dream to live in New York and six months after graduation, six days after his marriage to Jane, there they had been.
He couldn’t deny that Jane’s looks had had something to do with his being the darling of the firm. After the first office party, when everyone had seen her in the backless silver sliver of a dress, they had been invited everywhere–to the houses of all the mucky mucks, whose wives were as taken with Jane as the men were. Jane was smart about that. Jealous herself, she never let another wife see her moving in on her man. No. She never let her moves be seen. By wives.
They’d been married about a year when he caught her in the designer bathroom of his boss. With his boss. She hadn’t even pretended to have an explanation. “Shit, we’re caught!” she had said, zipping up her dress, grabbing her panty hose and moving behind the shower curtain to get herself straight.
“Dick, I hope you don’t. . . .” He’d been gone before his boss could finish the line.
They’d moved to Denver two weeks later. He’d taken a job in the ad agency where his best friend from college worked and Jane, contrite, had been the model wife for a year after that. She’d met Dick so young. She’d just never had the chance to sow any wild oats. And she’d had so much to drink. But she loved him, really loved him.
He’d actually preferred his job in Denver to his job in New York. Denver was a more sophisticated town than he had guessed it would be, and Jane had scared up several old sorority sisters living in the area. She had worked for a few years as a talent coordinator that provided entertainment for big conventions–a job with a lot of variety in it, a chance to use her charm and looks and brains. But she’d quit when Nell was born. And that was when the real problems started.
Dick pulled the car into his own driveway, flicked the switch for the garage door opener. Flicked it again. The damn thing usually worked every fourth or fifth time he pushed the button, but sometimes it would take a rest for a few days and if it was in a snowless season, they’d just park in the driveway, which he did now. The garage door was on his long list, somewhere down near the middle.
They’d put money down on this house when they first moved to Denver. He had the money from his Dad, who had died his junior year in college, and they’d seen no sense in pouring money down the drain by paying rent when they could be making house payments. The house was on two acres of land and behind its own high walls. Privacy. More than they needed, really. It had come cheap because the house was old and in need of a lot of repairs, but Dick’s dad and granddad had both been handymen, and he had spent most of his time with them as their assistant. So the idea of a house that needed lots of repairs was inviting to him. He associated open walls with plastic tacked up over them and paint cans in the corner as homey.
Jane, on the other hand, liked projects in the planning stages and when they were over. She hated the mess and bother of the actual repairs. But they had discovered this only after they bought the house.
When Jane had first seen the house, she had wanted it immediately. Its size, style and the extent of the grounds had sold her. She had not realized that it would take more than a coat of paint and a few flats of flowers to make the house livable. When the whole first year of repairs involved practicalities such as wiring, plumbing (they actually had ended up pouring money down the drain after all) and the jacking up and reinforcement of walls–projects that did not even show cosmetically–she had grown frustrated.
By the second year, they had proceeded to painting and landscaping, and Jane grew happier. She had a great sense of style and color and soon the house looked great superficially. They started to have parties and soon grew famous in their own world. Jane seemed to entertain effortlessly and they collected around them a mixture of old friends and new.
Work, work on the house, play, work on the house, sex, work on the house. Their lives were pretty full.
If, occasionally, Dick went in search of Jane at parties, testing the bathroom and bedroom doors and if locked, loitering in the halls a bit, it was something that did not totally dominate his thoughts or his time. And, indeed, never again in that first two years in Denver did he ever catch her with another man.
Now and then he’d see vestiges of Jane’s earlier jealous inclinations. When he got a new partner at work, an attractive girl just out of college named Julie, Jane started dropping in at the office at odd hours. A couple of times when he’d had business lunches, she had coincidentally shown up at the same restaurant with a friend. Denver was a pretty big town and their house was across town from his office, so after awhile, these meetings seemed to be more than coincidence. When he asked the office secretary, she confirmed that his wife had called and she’d given her the name of the restaurant where he’d be.
But when he’d asked Jane about it, she’d been offhand. “Oh, yeah. I called to tell you where I’d be and then when Lucy said you were going to be at the same restaurant, I thought I’d surprise you. Don’t you remember my telling you about that restaurant? You strayed into my territory, dear, not the other way around.”
It hadn’t been important. He had let it drop. His life was so busy that he didn’t seem to have time to worry about anything that wasn’t immediately pressing.
He slammed the car door, fingering the keys in search of the front door key as he moved up the front walk. Too many keys. No matter how many times he weeded them out, he always had a fistful on his key ring. As he swung the keys over his hand, searching for the right key, one of the keys caught on his sore finger. “Shit.” it was starting to fester up like a felon.
He put the key in the front lock. The aroma of the house came at him full force as he opened the front door. Dry wall, scented candles, a little mildew–in spite of Jane’s best efforts to Lysol all of the fungi away–plastic sheeting, rug shampoo, something else. He couldn’t quite fix on the smell that was turning all these familiar smells sinister. The house, once exciting and welcoming, seemed somehow frightening to him. He didn’t think he could go on living in this house, he suddenly realized.
This was the house they’d fussed and bothered over and primped over like a prom queen. No, more like their queen bee. This house had been their queen bee. He’d been the drone. Jane, he guessed, had been the warrior and defender of the hive or hill or whatever he was comparing their busy, involved, convoluted lives to. Let’s see. How had it happened? In what order? Had Jane started getting strange, really strange, before or after Nell was born? When had her accusations begun? Before or after he’d caught her with the first of a long succession of men? When had the craziness begun?
The first sign he’d noticed had been when Nell was about ten months old and he’d opened his tool chest and found all the fingers of his work gloves cut off. There had been no accounting for it. Jane had been as mystified as he was. A week later, he’d come home and found a note from her on the kitchen counter. She’d be home late, she said. Nell was at Polly’s, she’d pick her up on her way home.
He heard her drive up at ten o’clock and went to the door to meet her. When he took the sleeping baby from her arms, he could smell cigarette smoke and aftershave. She’d met Shirley for drinks. Jake had joined them later, she said. She moved into the bathroom to shower. Later, in bed, she’d turned away from him. She was too tired, she said. He’d thought little of it. He was tired, too.
But several days later, when Shirley had called to propose meeting them for drinks and Dick had teased her about hitting the bar scene pretty heavily lately, she hadn’t known what he was talking about. It had been months since she’d been out on the town, she insisted.
A week later, Jane had again left a note. She was again meeting Shirley, who was having some problems at home. She’d tell Dick about it later. Again, she came home around ten with cigarette smoke and aftershave clinging to her skin, clothes and hair.
“Jane, are you seeing another man?” he had asked.
She had spun on him, livid, her eyes accusing, little specks of spittle flying from her mouth as she spit out the words at him, “You fucker! You are accusing me of infidelity? You with your cute little chickie partner and your business dinners and your cushy office with the door that locks? You are asking me if I’m seeing another man?” She was holding Nell who, half asleep, came fully awake now and started to cry. Jane thrust the baby at him angrily. He took the baby, so astounded that he couldn’t even think of words to refute her charges.
She slammed into the bathroom, locked the door. Later, after all her usual night sounds–the shower, the opening and closing of the medicine chest, the creaking and spinning of the bathroom scales, the flushing of the toilet–she entered the bedroom. He was in bed. She walked past him.
“I’m sleeping in the goddamn guest room!” She left the bedroom door open so he could plainly hear the sound of the guest room door slamming and locking behind her. From the crib near their bed, Nell whimpered and again started to cry. Dick was flummoxed. He rocked the baby, not knowing which of them needed the comfort more.
The next morning, Jane refused to talk to him. His breakfast was on the table as usual. The baby, seated in her highchair, prattled and rubbed food in her hair, but Jane was silent, doing the crossword puzzle at the kitchen counter with her back to them both.
When he got home from work, she was at the kitchen table. She greeted him as though nothing had happened. “I invited guests for dinner Friday night.”
“Great, Jane. Listen, we have to talk”
“I am talking. I’m talking about inviting company for dinner on Friday. Aren’t you going to ask whom I invited? “
“Jane, I don’t really care a whole lot whom you invited to dinner. I want to talk about last night–and last week. Are you seeing another man, Jane?”
“Are you seeing another woman, Dick?”
“No, Jane, I’m not.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“What in the hell are you saying, Jane. Am I sure of that? As though I could forget something like that–overlook it? Oh, yeah, Jane, come to think of it, I forgot. I am seeing another woman?”
“Are you evading the question, Dick?”
“Are you evading the question, Jane?”
She didn’t answer him, just took the baby out of the highchair and walked out of the room. “Everyone will be here at seven on Friday, Dick.”
That night after dinner, when he went into the present room in progress to cut some sheetrock, he couldn’t find his saber saw. He searched for a good fifteen minutes in every conceivable place before asking Jane if she had seen it.
He found her in the baby’s room, folding clothes fresh from the dryer.
“I don’t know where your saw is, Dick. I’m not responsible for your toys.”
“I’m not saying you are responsible, Jane. I just wondered if you knew where it was! “ He kissed Nell, who was murmuring and making sucking motions with her mouth. Jane continued to fold clothes as he stood there a moment, saying not a word until he finally gave up and went to watch a little TV before bed.
When he woke up, there was a buzzing sound that indicated that the station had gone off air. He got up groggily to switch off the set, but the buzzing didn’t seem to be ending. He went to each of the bedrooms that were being used to see if it was an alarm clock. He checked out the kitchen and both bathrooms. But the buzzing always seemed to be coming from a place other than where he was. Each time he shifted rooms, the sound seemed to be coming from a different direction.
Finally, he moved to the basement door, which opened off the kitchen. The buzzing got louder. He opened the door and could definitely hear that the source of the buzzing was the basement. But when he went to switch on the light, nothing happened. Switching on the kitchen light, he searched through the utility drawer to find a flashlight. He found three, all minus batteries. Finally, he found a box of matches. That would have to do.
The light from the kitchen lit the stairs half way down. Then, he could see only black. He lit the first match, which lasted until the bottom of the stairs. Then it went out. Another match took him through the large room that had formerly housed the washer and dryer. Preferring easier access, Jane had had him move the utility room up to the second floor, between their room and the room that would be the baby’s, so that it could be accessed by the three rooms in the house that generated the most laundry: the baby’s room, their room and the main bathroom. Since he already had a great tool room/workroom off the garage, this basement room was unused, except for storage.
As he lit another match, the shadows loomed up: the extra crib given them by his folks after Jane’s folks had already given them one, the youth bed that was in storage until it was needed. Jane’s Stairmaster and electric bicycle exerciser. Two bikes with flat tires, and boxes of assorted stuff they’d probably never look at until the next move. These things registered fast, as he moved through the room swiftly, trying to keep the match lit while trying to also get as much mileage from it as possible as he fumbled for the next match.
In a small room off this main room was the room where the people who lived in the house before them had left a large coffin-shaped freezer. They had never even plugged it in to see if it worked. He remembered thinking that they needed to get rid of it before Nell was old enough to start exploring. It was a potential hazard. A kid could get locked in it and suffocate. Now, he could hear the buzzing coming from that room.
Could someone have plugged in the freezer? Was it defective and thus causing the humming? But why would anyone have plugged it in? He moved to the door, which was shut. Lighting a new match, he tugged on the door. It seemed to be locked from the other side. He held the match closer to the doorknob, but it didn’t have a keyhole. He tugged harder, and the door gave way. As it did, he felt a rush of water around his feet, a jolt, a flash. The match went out. He dropped the box of matches. The buzzing sound was loud now, coming from inside the room. Meanwhile, he could feel water rushing around his ankles, splashing up his legs. What in the hell was going on?
By force of habit, his hand searched the wall in the proximity of the door frame, first outside the small room and then inside. Maybe there was a light here. If so, it might work. Finally, he found a switch and flipped it. The room was flooded with light. The water he could feel gushing around his ankles was coming from a one inch hole in the front of the freezer. On the floor of the room, half submerged in water, was his skill saw, turned on, dancing a sideways jerking dance across the floor. He immediately jumped back from the door, heading for a dry portion of floor that was in a raised corner of the room.
From this safe place, raised above the water, he watched the water stream out of the freezer. What in the world was going on here? He could see a five foot length of one inch tubing tied to the inner door handle, the other end flopping back and forth in the stream of water. What was that about? Then it occurred to him that the tubing must have formed a plug for the hole in the freezer. When he opened the door, he must have opened the door wide enough to pull the plug out from the freezer. This enabled the water to rush out and come in contact with the saber saw, which had been left on.
This is what had been causing the buzzing. The heating ducts that led up from the basement had disseminated the noise throughout the house, which was why it was so hard to locate. Why he hadn’t been electrocuted, he didn’t know. Perhaps the saber saw had some safety seal which protected the electrical current from moisture. Maybe it was his rubber soles on his tennis shoes. Ordinarily, he would have been barefoot–just out of bed or the bath. But he had fallen asleep in front of the TV without removing his shoes for once and maybe that had saved him.
The bigger question was, who had done this? Who had reason to kill him and access to the house? His first thought was Jane. She’d been acting so crazy lately. What was going on? Surely Jane wasn’t crazy enough to try to kill him. The water by now was slowing down to a trickle. It occurred to him that the best thing to do would be to turn off the electricity at the breaker box before unplugging the saw. Luckily, the breaker box was in the basement. He found the dry box of matches tucked behind the pipe that ran up from the box, lit a match, then turned off all the electrical switches. Lighting a match, he moved to the freezer room and unplugged the saber saw.