Are You Alienated, Jealous, Adaptable, Loveable
. . . Haunted?
I am rewriting my Are You stories, as they were among my earliest pieces, and featured writing tics (too much stage business, too much adoration of P. G. Wodehouse), that I’ve abandoned, or at least toned down, with experience.
A sojourn in St. Petersburg creates an odd resonance for Minta Castelberry, touring this most European of Russian cities, with her mother-in-law. Here the women find themselves accosted by the insinuating stranger, John Emmett. Emmett insists on telling his story, and Minta soon finds his arrogance hides a melancholy soul…and finds herself invested in his quest. Then she finds this crossing of paths is no coincidence.
She must throw the weight of her vote, Minta felt, behind the unpopular minority. “Maybe we could order room service…” She moved closer to her mother-in-law. She did not bother to whisper. “I’d like to hear John’s story. He said it was interesting.”
He chuckled once more. “I have prepared a little slide show. However, you no doubt would prefer to begin with…”
“Listen,” Mrs. Castelberry interrupted. “I am a township trustee. I’m not an idiot.”
“Valerie, I have no notion of the job’s requirements. The title is new to me.”
Minta saw her mother-in-law’s eyes crimp. Emmett was a smart-ass, these projected, who thought he was putting one over with his fancy talk.
“My daughter-in-law is happily married.”
Emmett looked directly at Minta. She found herself shrugging, making a comic face.
Valerie said, “Oh, come on!”
“You’re just playing up to her.”
“Valerie, I am going to agree with you. In the interest of suspending hostilities, I will stop right now. I act in good faith. I beg you merely to bear it in mind that you know what it is you mean by ‘playing up’; whereas, I am ignorant. Therefore, if I offend, I hope you will explain to me in plain terms the nature of the offense.”
Gabriel Pinion loves Eva.
They have not been married long, and busily self-employed, Gabriel has made a habit of dismissing their awkward communication, totting up his wife’s mannerisms and counting this personality. When Eva inherits her grandmother’s clock, and in the valuing of it, discovers McFadden Presby, the Baroque mechanism rings changes that leave Gabriel aware only that one can’t stop a thing once set in motion.
How could the repairs have cost so much? Reiff had not itemized; he extenuated nothing…but he had included a phone number. Gabriel stood. His phone would be in his jacket. His jacket ought to be downstairs. The clock ought to be downstairs. Why had he heard it as clearly as if it were in the room?
He approached the thing with trepidation.
Eva had placed the clock on the island, below the pot rack. A thought crossed Gabriel’s mind. If a bus were to go by and shake the foundation, one of those pots…but it would have to be cast iron to do real harm. He tapped up his email, got Reiff’s number.
“I accept a credit card,” Reiff told him. “I accept cash. Also, through McFadden Presby. He will arrange for you.”
“I don’t object to paying… ”
“My business is such,” Reiff said firmly, “that I must be paid. I expect to be paid.”
Well, as Gabriel supposed, ending the call, everyone’s business is such, for that matter.
Beloye has made her adjustments. Quarters with Dan, who likes life just fine (or more accurately, has come to terms with his level of resentment towards it), are a little close. Her almost-sister-in-law Nola, having reached a state of truce with Dan’s brother Arnold, brings Stenner onto the scene. Technically, and for more than one good reason, Beloye should not get involved with Stenner. But she begins to think freedom, the yearning for it, is not subject to being reasoned away.
She ought to have taken another twenty minutes, dressing; and she ought to have taken a jacket, going out the door. Her boots weren’t right for the rain. The gutters puddled, slick leaves lay plastered flat to the bricks. Beyond the trees Beloye saw white clouds drive across the face of others deep pewter, gravid with the next downpour.
Radice’s was two streets from the corner. She could be sitting down with a cup of coffee that much sooner, crossing Green Mount Cemetery. It wasn’t curiosity alone, coming on strong at this thought, but a fluttery surge of adrenalin. Beloye scorned this in herself, that Stenner’s ghost story could scare her in broad daylight.
She saw a mournful, suffocating spirit, a woman stuffed in a box, lodged under a patch of grass…some eternal resting place that had seemed right to a relative. A Tolhurst type, winning at last by attrition. A parent, making the improper child conform.
She was giving a lot of backstory to this ghost.
A story within a story. 1928, the year of the Republican convention that nominated Herbert Hoover for the presidency. Reporter T. O. Mulhall’s train is stalled on the way to Kansas City via St. Louis. He crosses paths, In a small Illinois town, with Alfred Oliver—and Oliver’s protégé, aspiring actress Paulette St. Genevieve. Stuck sharing one of the Bay Tree House’s poorly ventilated rooms, the trio make small talk, leading to Oliver’s account of the infamous (or as infamous as his own exclusive coverage could make it) Bradshaw case.
Daisy wants to lose George, gain a modest fortune, and move to Florida. She exerts her influence on the Bradshaws’ live-in handyman, Oland Coleman. Oland’s grip on reality is a little weak…but his conduct perhaps not so far from the iron-clad expectations of his small-town milieu.
The rear façade of the hotel had been painted, for the edification of rail passengers, with a grinning 19th century medico, and the words: EZ Liver Chews, The Pleasant Antidote To Thin Blood. The rest was peeling paint, white over green over brick. Paulette ushered Mulhall up a freestanding flight of iron steps, and onto a creaking platform running the length of the first floor.
He followed her to the end of this, which led to nothing. She leaned and flailed where the planking abutted the hotel’s corner.
“Gimme a boost,” she told him.
Mulhall felt he might be mistaken.
“Am I mistaken?” he asked her. “Are you expecting me to push you over the edge just here…?”
“We have to go up the ladder.” She pointed. Lightning flashed. For an instant, he saw a second glint of iron. “I came down okay. If I was taller, I could climb up, but I can’t get a foothold.”
“I don’t think I will,” he decided. The plan struck him unsound.
“How,” Paulette asked, “is anyone supposed to help you?”
A remnant of loosely-attached railing trailed without conviction along the platform’s terminus. She studied the Bay Tree wall, reached up to brush away a chunk of mortar, then clamped fingers into the gap between bricks. Against another doubtful corner she tested her weight with the toes of her left foot.
Powell Kenzie has wandered, living the life of a vagabond, since his discharge from the army. The year is 1948. He finds himself in a small town, by watchman Lloyd Guy given temporary berth in the remains of the Drybrook works. On the hill opposite the highway that divides them, is the empty Drybrook house. Powell, taken with an urge to settle, conceives a plan to prove his usefulness. He meets Heinz Rohdl, an immigrant chemist, a man seemingly insane. Then a visitor named Summers arrives to tell a ghost story. Powell finds an ally in Isobel Gilshannon, wife of Dennis Tovey. Tovey himself is of a disreputable local clan, and proves not altogether a friend.
“Hey there, Mr. Rohdl.”
The air buzzed with humidity, and Powell, hands out, balancing on treacherous wet grass, taking deep breaths to dispel the ache in his head, could detect no breeze. He bent to see what Rohdl was doing. Rohdl remained on his hands and knees, parting clumps, these half decayed from the winter past, half renewed with spring growth. He had uncovered something. Powell saw a grating, an iron grid angled a foot or two above the bank of the stream.
It caused him a surge of pain—neck, shoulders, and temples—but he jumped down into the streambed, and crouched beside Rohdl. He touched the grate, laying his hand flat on its surface. The air from the tunnel was cool, not cold. Powell told himself he must only imagine something dread seeping up from the dark, numbing his fingers. He sat back and looked at Rohdl. For all Rohdl’s unwashed stench and raggedness, his eyes were attentive. Powell understood this wish to retreat, to disappear. And when no hiding place could be found, to hide inside oneself. But Rohdl must know.
“You were there, on the day of the accident,” Powell said.
Christmas, 1939. Mabel aspires to the stage, Dexter to whatever good thing comes along next. A stranger with largess to bestow accosts them on their way home from the movies, and the holiday’s dinner plans with Mabel’s Aunt Ernestine get a shake-up.
Maxwell grinned. “And that is only one example of his pig-headed faith in what he calls his ‘business sense’…”
“People like the whodunits,” Chilton muttered. He stood. “Did you say your name was Maxwell? I think I know the guy who sacked you. Told me you were a hoity-toity, backstabbing son of…” Having dropped something, refinement-wise, he lowered himself to his seat, and renewed his grip. “Mrs. Ernestine…”
She blinked. “Call me Mrs. Tolhurst, why don’t you?”
“What about your attic? In terms of, I mean, adding tenants. Why does the space go unused? Are you not the owner?”
“Sure I’m the owner. Takes money, doesn’t it, fixing up a place to rent?”
Maxwell tapped his water glass.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said, when they all fell silent. And though he then lifted the glass and tilted it towards Chilton, as one offering a toast, he added, “I have no proposal to make, myself.”