Another Song For You
By Nadine Darling
The landlord’s son is Brian; he looks like the first guy to be killed in every horror movie ever made, the one who forgets his glasses or condoms and is forced to walk back to camp alone in the darkness. The washer is here, he says, the dryer, here. No laundry before 8:00 a.m. Last load at 8:00 p.m.
He smokes when he talks and Ann cannot look away. It’s as though the cigarette is an extension of his mouth, bobbing beak-like above his slipping chin. He says, not so many boxes. He kicks at one with his shoe.
Ann says, I am something of a light-packer.
There is no one beside her when she says it, no one to ease into while clutching a hank of white shirt from the back of their neck. And the meaning is there, subtle as a tax audit: I am something of a light packer.
Well, that’s your business, says Brian, and the way he says it implies that her business is his business, is the apartment building’s business, something lumped filthily together, urgent as 7:30 wash.
There are mice. Ann is instructed not to leave her dry goods in the lower cabinets adjacent to the refrigerator. Can she store her sugar and oatmeal in tight containers and leave them lined up on the counter instead? The toilet runs, that’s fine. Toilets run. He looks at her as if to say that if she’s the sort of woman who fusses over toilets running then he pities her but has no use for her. There is the body of a large dead spider trapped inside the thermostat at seventy-five degrees. The walls are thin. Watch that music and how loudly you talk on the phone.
At the back of the house, Brian wedges a length of wood between the sliding glass door and frame, because you never can tell. Because you never can tell.
Renee in 1-B is a psychic. She is the first to know. While Ann is folding her laundry Renee appears, varied scarves flailing, and grasps at Ann’s arm. Did she hear? Does she know?
Footsteps, says Renee, at night. Footsteps going up and down the hall stairs from midnight to three. At three they stopped, just like that.
Maybe it was Brian, says Ann, or Carlos, or Jen or Travis.
Jen and Travis are in Georgia. Brian was at O’Finnegan’s. Carlos was working. It was you and me, is what Renee means, the psychic and the lonely girl in 1A, flipping our cards, listening to shit like "All Out of Love" and "I Can’t Fight This Feeling" and figuring out, finally, the massive lie that is everything.
A ghost! says Renee, and her fingers go all sly magician, as though the ghost is up her sleeve, as though it’s crouched in the well of a hat. Up and down our stairs at night, back and forth, almost going out, never going out.
Maybe it forgot its purse, says Ann.
Renee covers her mouth as though Ann has just blasphemized, said Christ was a lunch-lady, said she’s heard there’s a Hooters in heaven.
She says, don’t you know what ghosts can do?
And Ann doesn’t of course. No one’s ever told her and she’s never thought to ask.
Renee shakes her hand. Pay attention, she says, we’re in this thing together.
Ann does her best to hear ghosts. She attempts to make herself open to ghosts. I believe, she says to her own reflection, the end of her toothbrush jutting from her mouth, I believe. There are many things she would like to ask ghosts, she considers as she puts her nightshirt on, as she pulls out the hide-a-bed and prepares for sleep.
For one, she wonders if she will ever be able to hear a song by Roberta Flack or "Long, Long Time" by Linda Ronstadt without crying, without pulling knees to chest and rocking back and forth, eyes squeezed shut tight to keep anything from getting in or out. She wonders if she looks like she feels because she feels like one of those refugee kids on the covers of Time or Newsweek staring to the sun or to God, the tears cutting fine tracks in the clay caked on her face, wondering where is gruel where is mother where is rain.
If ghosts know the answers to questions such as those, well, she can see where they might be very useful to her.
Very late she hears them, the footsteps. Thump, thump, thump. Pause. Thump, thump, thump, thump. Eyes still squeezed shut she waits for them to stop, for the steps to gravitate to her, to wait by her door. This is well past the days when she would’ve balked at a reunion, past a time when she would have folded her arms, balanced one foot on the other and said something trite like, yes, but you understand I have to look out for my own feelings, here. But the footsteps don’t stop and after a while Ann stops waiting for them to stop. They are fine, some bastard pacifier for the lonely and bereft like breath, a fist muffled by a pillow, the stutter of a heart.
On the fourth night Renee invites Ann to her apartment for a talk with the Ouija board. Maybe they can communicate with the ghost and find out what it wants and then maybe it will leave. The very idea galls Ann. She is not well, even worse than usual. Her body hurts, her legs, her back. The whole bit feels like a flu that refuses to come, a sneak preview flu, all creak and swallow.
What’s wrong with the ghost being here, she asks, is he destroying the crops or something?
What makes you think it’s a he, asks Renee.
And there is no reason, of course, other than necessity. She agrees to meet at Renee’s which is very similar to her own apartment but with more artfully placed crystal angels and crocheted zodiac scrolls. The place smells of garbage disposal and patchouli, like animal crackers and candle wax. The Ouiji board is set up in the center of the living room floor on a TV tray covered with a blue and green scarf. Ann finds the fact that it’s only a Parker Brothers model and not some freakish board narrowly swiped from the gates of hell or won in a game of tidily-winks with the devil’s brother-in-law somewhat disappointing.
She kneels with Renee, their fingers, loose-tooth light, hovering just against the planchette until it begins to sweep back and forth with its even Windex wipes.
Renee says, is there a spirit among us tonight, very grandly, as though calling a contestant from the audience on The Price is Right. The planchette points to yes.
Renee glances to Ann. She says, and, tell me oh spirit, are you a male?
Are you here for a reason? asks Renee.
The planchette stutters and then, Yes.
For a particular person?
And does this person have a name, asks Renee, good and irritated now, as though the ghost world should really take the initiative and start answering in more than wooden one word answers. Who is this, anyway? Sean Penn?
The planchette then seems to vibrate a bit beneath their fingers and it wipes back and forth a few more times before it begins to spell.
Garry! says Renee.
Who’s Garry? asks Ann.
I don’t know. It just seems reasonable.
Go Wildcats! says Renee.
Maybe you should just wait for it to finish, says Ann.
They wait for more but there is none.
Gone where? says Renee, but the board remains still. She picks it up from the TV tray and shakes it like an Etch-a-Sketch. Gone where?!
She stops and looks at Ann then she fishes a pack of Kools and a Bic from her pocket and lights up slow. Of all the things I hate about this job, she says, those motherfucking prima donna ghosts are the worst.
That night Ann decides she will stay up late enough to see the ghost. She will crouch by her front door with a knife or a serving fork or a particularly menacing ladle until she hears footstep one and then she will storm the stairs. She will look into this ghost’s face and say, tell me what you know. Tell me what’s so bad there that you have to come back here and climb our stairs at all hours and if the answer is not good enough she will say take me, take me, carry me over the rooftops and away from this apartment, this house, this world, and she’ll leave her skin and body, an empty thing in an empty room, splayed as any hand.
She waits. By Leno’s monologue she is asleep.
There they are, the footsteps. But her eyes are so heavy. There is a fever to the steps tonight, can Renee hear it, too? The ghost is running, bolting, as though pursued. But from what? What does a ghost have to fear, thinks Ann, and then she is very angry. If she were a ghost she would leave and never haunt anyone anywhere, she would know that what was done was done and she would retire to her ghost land, detailed to her by various Warner Bros. cartoons of the late fifties in which well to do ghost wore ties but no pants, enjoyed cigars and made sandwiches out of the smoke, and walked their small dogs to ghostly fire-hydrants while chatting up their comely ghost neighbors.
Stop, says Ann.
The steps speed, they race, and Ann wonders how they cannot miss how they know just where to be.
Her breath is gone and she is falling inside, a slow fall through water, a fall that will not end.
Stop, says Ann and then she opens her eyes.
She stops, her nightgown plastered to her, her bangs sweated vertical, on the top step facing down. The muscles pinch and throb in her, the thigh muscles, in particular, spasm as though electrified, and there is a minute, a moment when she can see how easy it would to hook her bare toes over the top step and just let go. Inches, only. Inches.
A door opens beneath her and Renee appears, her hair tied into strange little projectiles and held in place with tiny bits of rag. Her face is slathered in something green- avocado? She smells like a pita pocket.
Hi, says Ann. She tips a little; she catches the banister.
Be careful, doofus, says Renee. Why are you standing there?
Ghosts, says Ann, wiping a palm down her face. Ghosts.
Well, come on, for Christ’s sake. Did you see her?
And, from her vantagepoint at the top of the stairs, all the first floor hall laid out beneath her like some lost and bleached and background town, Ann says, yes.
Nadine Darling is broke-ass and sick with love. Her work has appeared in Night Train, McSweeney's, and Smokelong Quarterly and is forthcoming at Ghoti and in The Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guide. She lives in Boston with the delicious Kenneth Ryan and their flatulent Corgi, Alex. See more at www.kennay.com.
Photo "Spooky 1" courtesy of Edwin P., Zuid-Holland, Netherlands.
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