A Ghosty Tale — Accidents and Meetings

When Interstate 5 replaced Highway 99, business life faded along a two-mile stretch running into and out of Snidely, California. Andre’s House of Beauty, Snidely Hardware and Feed, Kiki’s Stop ‘n Go, Adam’s First Rib Steak House—to name a few. A handful of these, Andre’s, for instance, reopened in the MegaMartSuper strip mall. The extra miles, less than six, were hardly a minor inconvenience to most; after all, these weren’t horse and buggy days; people did have cars.

“Beauty is moveable,” Andre would say during comb-outs, then cluck his tongue, tsk-tsk, for those less fortunate trades people “Unable,” as Andre would put it, “to bridge the gap, so to speak.”

Of a nature sensitive to the emotions of others, no tongue-clucking was heard when Kiki’s head leaned into his shampoo bowl. There were no casual sighs as to how decrepitly ramshackle and forlorn the Stop ‘n Go had become, nor mention of any boarded up buildings left behind.

Instead, Andre might ask after her dogs, “Paul and Mary? How are they these days? They must miss Peter. A shame, that.”

He might ask after other things, too, but stayed clear of the “old” days.

Serendipitous happenings occur—of this, Andre was certain, and would be for eons after his death. Take, for example, the accident. Any Wednesday at 9 a.m. would find Kiki in Andre’s chair, her head relaxed back into the retro robin’s egg blue shampoo bowl, his long-fingered hands massaging, coaxing conditioners in for body and bounce.

But Mary had been poorly on Wednesday morning; Kiki had taken her to the vet and postponed until Thursday at four.

Four.

Precisely the hour when a FedEx semi came through the back wall, moving Andre’s interior House of Beauty on through to the parking lot. MegaMartSuper shoppers glanced across acres of parking toward the mishap, then moved on with their business, as if wind at a window had rustled blind slats to draw momentary attention.

It’s not so bad back out on Old 99. No danger from big rigs, and that’s a plus. Rick, the dead waiter at Adam’s First Rib, had a crush on Andre from before, and the crush had not died when his auto immune system failed. Kiki, Rick’s older sister, always promised she’d bring Andre around to visit, albeit they all had pulses then, but . . . you take what you can get; that’s what Rick’s always says.

They wag their heads and cluck about how things might’ve gone, but never complain—not truly.

I watch them from the loading dock at Snidely Hardware and Feed, a fifty-pound sack of oats loaded now for a horse and the child who once fed her, a filly named Star who cantered in a pasture not too far up the road. It’s quite something . . . I shake my head everyday, half disbelieving . . . how the old neighborhood keeps gradually filling back in.

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If Only I Hadn’t

If only I hadn’t been looking for sea glass that Thursday on that beach, I wouldn’t have spotted what looked like a discolored tongue.  The beach was Pete’s Beach and for a Thursday the weather was Sunday good—maybe better.  Not an ominous crow in the sky or a gull in sight as I walked where the tide’s foam lip had just slipped back from licking forward, where the sand was tight and wet.  Even though it’s a walk out of distant memory, nearly a quarter century back, I still see the occasional small barnacled crab scrabbling across my path from one trail of seaweed to a stone or another clump of wrinkled, leathery flags.  The beach was littered with many such clumps, a few broken shells, a fair amount of scattered small stones—but no sea glass, or so it had seemed. Then one of those crabs, hardly the size of a quarter, bits of red showing through the craterlike growths on its shell, darted diagonally across the sand.  The sideways scrabble took the crab over the tongue-shaped rock, directing my search for sea glass right to it, the same way that old bouncing ball in Mitch Miller’s Sing-Along Hours moved the eyes of viewer’s right along to the next word of the song.  The crab jittered its sideways scurry straight to the gray-mottled-with-red, or red-mottled-with-gray surface of the beach debris.  It was shiny somehow, and frosty dull at the same time, and had that peculiar shape that reminded me of a tongue.  I had no choice but to pick it up.

            But the it I picked up wasn’t sea glass anymore than it was stone.  The it I picked up was a tongue.  An odd wedge of discoloration and deflated bloat that once was muscle and now was a grotesque, hardening mush.  Why it glistened in the Thursday sun like reddish sea glass—I do not know.  I can barely record these words.

            That Thursday that seemed Sunday good, that day when I put the tongue back on the tight, wet sand—has never let me go.  I was a programmer then and the walk on Pete’s Beach was a walk to free up the angst of numbers scurrying like crabs from one formulation to the next inside my weedy thinking.  I worked for a multi-national company with thousands, not hundreds, but thousands of other employees waiting for the tricks that would make their workdays possible.  Won’t even mention those employees’ end clients and what might or might not result from some glitch I made if my numbers were wrong—my programming numbers.  This was not a good time for a tongue turned or turning to mush in my hand on a beach in southern California.  I was from Des Moines.  Sea glass would’ve been magical to take home—but not a decomposing human tongue.  I put the tongue back where I’d found it.  The crab was gone.  And then I was gone, too.

            I was gone from that beach on that day.  I was back with my programming numbers.  I was back in Des Moines by week’s end.  The crows are plentiful in Des Moines, always communicating what I had done on Pete’s Beach.  The sky was full of what I’d done, or failed to do.  The sky was the only witness other than the small quarter-sized crab.  Sometimes the little crab is there in my dreams to be plucked time and again by the crows and swallowed down in a gulp.  But he comes back like that god, Prometheus—the one who stole fire to give it to man and got chained by Zeus to a rock somewhere for a bird to pick out his gut.  He comes back like Dionysus.  And like Jesus.

            If only I hadn’t been looking for sea glass, I might have a chance at redemption.  At resurrection, too.

[word count 642]

Moon Mohairs

The girls knew that on the moon mohair sweaters were everywhere, sometimes folded and sometimes not, but in either case settled lightly on the powder and weighted with tear-shaped fishing sinkers so as not to rise, float out of sight.  Although moon sweaters ranged in color from bubblegum pink to peacock, the majority fell into the cheese color family-edam to jack, cheddar to gouda, and all the lovely yellows and oranges in between.  Weavers were, had always been, partial and wool providers made no bones about their bias toward all things mellow and ivory where the moon’s woolens were concerned.  But, generally, the sweaters the girls were most desirous of were out of sight, round the curve there, away from the light.  The coffee-colored cardigans with coffee-colored pearl buttons.  The midnight plum pullovers with low V-neck plunge!  The ebony shrugs saturated with onyx seed beads to replicate meteor showers on a black night. 

The girls coveted the sweaters in the keenest of ways, and they argued among themselves as to how they might successfully fold them into their private closets, wear them on their private backs and shoulders and breasts.  They possessed sweaters they could not live long enough to wear, even if they obeyed every rule, ate every right thing, moved every right muscle in just the right way, forsook games with the opposite sex (including the approaches to same, start ups, blast offs, entries and re-entries, hard and soft landings, all)-even if they gave up transportation all together, avoiding accidents by car, train, plane and bus, and lived in germ-free bubbles-these girls could not live long enough to wear them all.  It was scientifically impossible.  So, they wore what they could, often times two and three different changes between rising and noon lunch: a sweater to match the marmalade on a muffin at breakfast, another one, white, to post the letters at ten, and something pale blue for eleven.  Girls, all of varying heights and shades, some paler and frailer and others more robust and red.  Or brown and leggy.  Or twiggy and black.  They were, these girls, all of that and, additionally, every shade in between-both in skin colorations and eyes and mood.  Yet, in spite of all they had both in common and out of common-they, every one, coveted the moon mohairs on the dark side.

 In town on a June night, the mothers, talking with other mothers, would mention the past as if current gossip had lost all its juice.

The Ferris girl: You recall how it was when she come home . . . they would say and nod.

That second girl of Harriet Striker’s:  Turned Harriet’s hair plum’ white.

                             Did not.

                             Did so.

                             It was already there.

                             That was gray; now it’s white.

                             You are right about that, Berniece.  I’d forgot.

And the girl nobody could remember except that she had been Ellen’s only child:  There’ll be no grandbabies there . . .

                            What ever happened to Ellen?

                            Can’t say.

                            Don’t know.

                           Haven’t heard.

The strong possibility that they would come to no good if they ever set into motion any one of their plans for reaching the far side stared the girls in the face at every turn.  Blacked eyes and missing teeth with their coupon books in Safeway lines.  There was a big price to pay for a “pretty” you might not live long enough to wear.

And the mothers nodding agreements between themselves and eyeing their own, making connections that could come to pass:  You could wind up like Jenna Ferris.  That could be you . . .

The girls all knew it could.  They knew it the same way they knew there was magic in that ebony shrug showered with onyx , knew it like the moon’s pull on the tides, even when out of sight, when fully eclipsed by the earth and all things in earth and on earth and of earth, yet the tides move in and back out, rise and fall, riseandfall-they cannot do otherwise.  Same with the pull of those mohair sweaters upon the girls who don’t recall a mother named Ellen or her only child, a girl, floating just off the powdery surface on the back side of the moon.