Two Ghost Stories
“This ring here. Look. It was a gift.”
I hold her cold hand, look at the ring. It’s a small diamond, almost transparent, set on a thin gold band.
We’re sitting on a bench near the empty downtown parking lot where the flea market is held every Saturday—cracked asphalt, low power lines strewn with black birds. Over there, metal, graffiti-tagged girders, the curving back of a car-humming overpass emptying out onto Interstate 64. She’s wearing a clean, blue pant suit, one of those gussied-up track outfits for elderly women that can be worn to church or to bed.
“Who gave you the ring?” I say.
“I’m glad you asked,” she says. “It’s a good story, and I think there might be a lesson to it.”
“Well, maybe.” Her face is tapeworm white, wrinkled. And she has a smell hard to place—sweet, and something strange. After a moment, she says, “What’s a parable?”
“A simple story with a lesson.”
“Sure, then,” she says. “Yes. That’s what it is. A parable.”
Back in ’47, she started working at The Deli, one of the first, maybe the first, real Jewish delicatessens in this part of the South. “It was run by Al, Al Bernstein,” she says, looking toward the tops of speeding cars above the off-ramp’s dented guard rail. She pauses, looking back at me, then at the ring, then: “I loved Al. He was a true friend.”
But not at first, she says. “I was real suspicious of Jews, you know, back when I was young, and I’d been told more than once that if you took off a Jew’s shoes you’d see hooves, like on a goat. A Southern Baptist minister told me that when I was a little girl, just maybe four or five years old. So I was prejudiced, you know, just kind of worried about Jews being linked up with the Devil. People’s taught such ignorance. Raised up in foolishness passed one to another.” She shakes her head.
She needed a job, though, prejudiced or not, and it was good work—hard, long work but fair—and Al paid better than most would have. Later, in the fifties, after her husband had been killed on a gunner ship during the Korean War, Al gave her time off in the afternoon from waitressing to pick up her son and daughter from school. “He always said your family was what you had. He was real big on that, just like a good Christian, because some of his family had died during the big war—World War II—though he never wanted to talk too much about that. He was right private in that way.” She knew all the regular customers, and they knew her—the favorite waitress. When grandkids came along, in the sixties, she’d bring them in, and Al would give them free homemade pickles. “He was special to those kids. Me and my grandkids—four boys—would close up on Friday nights and count out all my tips, each boy getting a mound of coins to sort through. Then they could each pick one candy and a can of Coke. That was a real big treat, and Al would make a big to do at the candy rack about trying to guess what each one’d pick tonight. ‘Snickers,’ he’d say. ‘Twix! It’s gonna be a Twix!’ Then I’d try to pay him for the four candy bars, but he’d never take my money, not once.”
One day she began coughing, and she couldn’t catch her breath. But she kept working. “I’ve never known nothing but work,” she says. “I was raised up in Ahoskie, in North Carolina, and my people come over in the early eighteens and something, from Liverpool in England and from Angus or thereabouts in Scotland, and my daddy run a country store and had a small tobacco crop. I started working at Daddy’s store, sweeping and stocking, when I was six years old. But I was coughing and carrying on right there in The Deli, so Al took me to the doctor. Said I had to go once that coughing got deep and rattling, said I wouldn’t be any good to anybody if I didn’t get some medicine. I couldn’t catch my breath and my legs started to ache, and I’d see sparks in my vision, but I kept that to myself. I was having congestive heart failure, I found out later. That’s what they said, the doctors and nurses. Sort of like your nose getting stuffed up, only it’s your heart, my heart. Well, I had to go the hospital, and then I had to quit work, and then go on all kinds of medicine, three pills in the morning, two after lunch, two more before bed. Al would stop by my home once I was back there from the hospital. He was there at the end. Not my kids. Not my grandkids. My boss. My Jew boss who was my friend, my true friend. He held my hand. He told me he loved me and I was the best waitress he’d ever seen, that I was a great light in his life all these years, that I was like family, was family, and that too many of his loved ones had been taken. He said he’d miss seeing me every morning, he’d miss that the most, me coming in and complaining that the place wasn’t spotless and ready for the breakfast crowd, me sweeping in there and saying, ‘Got work to do, Al!’ Then he bent over top of me—I mean right there at the end—and said a prayer in a language I’d never heard. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood what he was getting at, what he meant.
“That’s when he gave me this ring.” She turns the diamond back and forth. “He slid it on my finger. It had been his great grandmother’s over there in Europe, blessed by a Jew preacher, and it was supposed to protect you on a journey. Al’s mother wore it, and then Al’s older sister wore it.” She continues modeling it. “This ring sat in a box for years, in a little old box with some of Al’s watches and money clips. He wanted me to have it, he said, because it was blessed, but he didn’t know I heard him say all that.” She sighs. “I couldn’t thank him proper.”
We’re silent. The roar of engines. The chatter of black birds.
Then she says, “I was buried with this ring, a ring come all the way over from Europe, from European Jews, how about that, and this here suit I’m wearing, my favorite outfit, which I bought from Sears. Al said a prayer for me at the service, said things that would have had me blushing had I not been all white and in the coffin, and he even sang in that odd language. Some of my people, my relations from out of town, got a little fidgety, and I figure it was because he was a Jew. They settled down, though, because of all he was saying and because he’d been my boss for more than forty years. Everyone knew he was good to me. And afterward, Al went to my daughter’s, with all my people, and everyone was long-faced, you know, and he brought bagels and knishes and salted fish, put them right down by the ham biscuits and fried chicken, and he told stories on me and how I was at The Deli. He got ’em laughing pretty good on my account, yes he did. He told how I used to talk to myself while I cleaned up after we closed. He said it was like I was scolding all the bad customers from earlier in the day. You should have seen him shaking his finger and mimicking me. Then he got going about how I had to have the label of every ketchup bottle on every table facing toward the door. Oh boy, my grandsons and their wives and kids were laughing so hard they had tears in their eyes. It was good to see everyone cheer up. And it was good to hear Al’s voice, to hear him talking about me.”
She looks past my face and smiles, as if she sees someone she knows behind me. I turn to look, but there is only the parking lot, the birds along the wires, and the underside of the graffiti-tagged overpass. I turn back: an empty bench and her scent—sweet, and something I want to call electric.
Closer to the Earth
She and I are talking in the Richmond Public Library, where I’ve taken to loitering. I’m unemployed. She’s the librarian. This is almost two decades ago. She’s telling me about taking her husband to what turned out to be his last doctor’s appointment. “He was so sick by then,” she says. “He was scaring me. And he kept saying it, over and over, the city was filled with the dead.” A week before he died, they began appearing—all along the streets, in front of buildings and on sidewalks, standing at bus stops and exiting grocery stores. Sitting at the front desk, she wobbles her head a bit, points to show me how he was acting. “‘There’s my mom,’ he says. ‘There’s Uncle Irving.’ And he’s getting tearful. I started to hyperventilate. I thought I might crash. I held the wheel. I tried not to panic.”
She has a face pocked with acne scars. She’s heavy, maybe three-hundred pounds and about my height, five-eight. She slumps like a sandbag, like someone who has long felt ashamed. I’ve talked to her several times now, the first time because I checked out Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As she swiped the book over the demagnetizing security machine, she told me it was her favorite novel. “I love this,” she said. I said I liked it, too, read it in college and wanted to read it again. She said she especially appreciates that Kundera, in the midst of the narrative, would step in and remind the reader his characters weren’t real, were only the imaginings of a writer, who was, more or less, working out a philosophical essay, or, as he put it in Art of the Novel, a specifically novelistic essay that is lyrical, playful, and ambiguous, about how you can never avoid pain: The history of the world in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a history of catastrophe. “The heaviest of burdens crushes us,” wrote Kundera, “we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground…The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
She met her deceased husband, an Englishman, through an ad in an alternative weekly magazine. Their courtship was carried out over the phone, long distance, from her home in the country outside of Richmond and his home in London. He suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder. In the spring, summer, and early fall he was funny, absolutely alive, and they told each other everything, stories of childhood, old loves, the death of family members. He was a successful computer programmer, but his childhood, she says, had been filled with loss and dislocation—violence, family dysfunction, poverty. She knew a certain kind of violence herself—self-hatred. (She could still hear her father, “Stop eating,” the kids at school, “Fat pig!” her first love, “It’s your body.”) So when England’s winter came, and dark descended, and he grew tender against the returning ghosts of his past, and the phone conversations slowed, or became halting and tear-filled on his end, she understood his sorrow, had, in her way, been clothed in it for as long as she could remember. And it was in winter that they decided, sight unseen—not even a photo—to get married. He could move to Virginia, where the weather was sunnier, the winters shorter. Stranger things happen every day, she says. People change all the rules—get rid of the old rules—for love.
“We were happy,” she says. He was beautiful, but felt ugly. She points her index finger toward her face. With him, she forgot how others saw her, how she had been taught to see herself, and she saw and became what he saw—beauty, a desirable and loved person.
His depression abated—sunlight, a new relationship, a sex life. They fucked all the time. Like college students trying it all—everything—for the first time. He often accompanied her to work, since he couldn’t work in the States until his paperwork came through. He’d read all morning—papers, magazines, American detective novels, histories—and then take breaks and lunch with his new wife, the two of them, the handsome English dandy with the dark and hard-to-forget past and the portly, scarred librarian, walking arm in arm through the historic parts of the city, along Monument Avenue, past the museum, around the statue of General Lee.
It was only a year into the marriage, before he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, when he felt the lump on his throat. No elongated drama. No confusing information. No medical mystery. Lung cancer, which had gone untreated for some time, had now spread to his larynx. Then it was trips to doctors’ offices, waiting rooms, intimate conversations with strangers who’d lost their hair, who wanted to make it to their kid’s preschool play, or college graduation, or just have enough time to get their finances in order so their spouse didn’t lose the house.
“When we got to the doctor’s office, I was shaking,” she says. “And he kept saying it, that he could see the dead. By then his belly was swollen like a balloon. Ankles, too. Like someone had poured water inside of his skin. I thought the tumors had spread to his brain, or his new medication, I don’t know. What he was saying—it was crazy.”
The doctor came in with test results. Cancer is, among other things, dozens and dozens of tests. They waited for the next test, and then the next. Their life together, their moods, depended on the next test. Hope is a result. Despair is another result.
The doctor left. It was time for hospice. It was the end—not the end of the world, but the end of a world, which, if it’s your world, is the same thing. They held each other. Of course they cried. The world was senseless, a compendium of the dead, a history of catastrophe. I imagine them, as I take my books and walk into the gray, humid day, and it occurs to me that when he died, her beauty, in a way, died too. She came crashing back to earth with her flesh, her face, her burdens.
She answers questions. She checks out books. She reads. She slumps. She has her stories, like you or me, like anyone. You can see her at her desk five days a week, except on holidays. And when she drives into the city for work, she looks carefully at the people along the streets.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.