Are You Alienated, Jealous, Adaptable, Loveable
. . . Haunted?
Among the short stories in this collection is my first ever: “Are You Jealous”. Three on this theme grew themselves into novellas — Alienated, Loveable, and Haunted.
As time goes by, I’ll return to the “Are You” concept, and you’ll see more such stories appear on the menu. Where did it come from? I was researching at the time I wrote Inimical, in old British newspapers, and came across a series of article heads, such as, Are You Jealous, Are You Adaptable… Seeing them all lined up on the search results page made me think, “There’s an idea.”
A sojourn in St. Petersburg creates an odd resonance for Minta Castelberry, touring this most European of Russian cities with her mother-in-law. The women are accosted by an insinuating stranger. John Emmett insists on telling his story, and Minta soon finds that his arrogance hides a melancholy soul…and finds herself invested in his quest. Then she finds this crossing of paths is no coincidence.
The doors opened. The queue bunched.
Like the oysters of Walrus and Carpenter fame, the group were mostly fat, and many, by this time, winded. When at large, their Americanness did not stand out badly. They were tourists, but wore what everyone wore, parkas and windbreakers, sweatpants, sneakers.
At their sides their nylon sleeves, as they pressed onwards, swished. Those who had come prepared to photograph everything were strapped from left shoulder to right hip, left hip to right shoulder, black zippered bags bumping, massive-lensed Nikons and Olympias dangling, nervous elbows stilling these.
Blood had spilled here; sorrow, biding its time, had smoldered here, restrained behind intentful eyes…hatred had flared in revolution. Today, the square’s indifferent paving blocks were trodden by spongy petro-chemical outsoles. The guide took his post at the top of the stairs, his assistant counted heads; the group drifted to their lodestar and lodged in a roughly deltoid shape, fanning wider towards the rear. Stragglers, reconnecting, gulped their way to the bin, dropping off bottles and cups.
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, leaving Gabriel aware only that one can’t stop a thing once set in motion.
Gabriel heard Eva’s voice…her put-on voice, he called it. She spoke this way to delivery people, sing-song, thanking them, ushering them out the door.
He heard the door close, slue into its frame with a rush of air followed by the metallic thunk of the bolt hitting home. He heard silence, then rustling. Eva talking to herself about scissors. Next, she was on the phone. He guessed she was speaking to Presby. He heard her say, “I did get your email. Fad, you know I have no attention span. Ha. I didn’t know it had a calendar. Oh…”
Gabriel heard uneven, muffled footsteps, with something labored about them, as she climbed the stairs. She approached, and her conversation approached, growing more distinct, Eva interspersed with microbursts of Presby. “McFadden!”
Oh, Gabriel said to himself. McFadden, now.
She laughed. “Well, it sounded funny. I don’t know what you call those things. I know you said bushings.”
He kept his back to her. She had broken his concentration, but he kept his back to her. McFadden Presby. Could anyone on earth have such a name? Eva rang off. She placed the clock on Gabriel’s desk…near, almost touching, his right hand. She leaned over him, and straightened his collar. She placed her phone in front of his keyboard.
It was her little habit. She was always tucking her phone under Gabriel’s eyes, at the dinner table, on the coffee table. At his desk, while he tried to work. She would tap an arrow in a box, a video or song would play. He would have to love it, for her sake.
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.
“Clear out. We don’t allow no one loitering in the lobby. And I ain’t got room for any a-one of you. So clear out.”
Mulhall found this lobby unpromising, more the size of a bookmaker’s corner booth. Within the meaning of the act, the Bay Tree House offered a roof overhead to travelers. One might, then, have called it a hotel. The front desk was of the roll top variety, its back to the foyer. Grease-penciled on plain panel-board meant to face a wall, black scribblings, indelible carpenter’s specifications, greeted clientele.
One flight of stairs led to the first story, a second to the remaining. Mulhall suspected the Bay Tree of being in its day a gin mill, or discreet bawdy-house (or, of course, both—the Mickey Finns of the lower chambers a source of rifleable pocketbooks to the upper). He had concealed himself here among the ranks of the press…but these were thinning. Most of his colleagues had conceded the point.
Rain enfiladed the pavement, bulleting in sheets across brick. Thunder shook the window frame. They were stranded in this backwater burg, this southerly Podunk of the state of Illinois. Its two hostelries could not accommodate the traffic.
One man stood holding the door, rain pelting his left side, darkening the fabric of his brown suit. Mulhall shook his head.
“I said, clear out,” the hotelier repeated.
“You aren’t speaking to me,” Mulhall said.
“No, sir, I’m singin a church hymn,” the man answered. “Hoom am I speaking to?”
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 New England town, by watchman Lloyd Guy given temporary shelter in the remains of the Drybrook works. On the hill opposite sits the family’s empty house. Taken with an urge to settle, Powell conceives a plan to prove his usefulness. He meets Heinz Rohdl, a man seemingly insane. Then a visitor named Summers arrives to tell a ghost story.
The walls that remained almost sheltered like a roof, when the wind pitched up and drove the rain. They were edged in dust; dust sifted with charred splinters and shards of glass. It was dry on this lee side. The rest was mud. Powell’s shoes were caked with the worst mired there, clotted pebbles throwing him off-balance. He remembered this, how it felt. Only then he’d had army boots to snug round his ankles. Wet socks were misery.
He would roll tight against the farthest corner. He would pull his jacket over his ears, and sleep. The immigrant Rohdl spoke, from the other side of the wall. “What have I done? If I have done anything, then goddamn. Prove it. Or why should I go?”
Rohdl was welcome to all the territory in this burned out ruin he chose to claim. He called to Powell, “There. You heard that.” Rohdl was a short man. Powell, wanting only to lie down, came to the wall and looked over it, into his eyes. “No. Sorry, I didn’t.”
But the voice was constant, Rohdl said. He heard it, telling him, “Go. Get out of here.”
He could carry on, fighting his ghosts, and it would make no difference to Powell. Powell had grown used, once, to sleeping through thunderous racket. Rohdl might dream aloud, ramble in his delusions. Probably these states, dreaming and waking, shaded into one another, as Rohdl’s English shaded into German. After nightfall, Powell could only listen. Lightning flashed, but his chamber walls were shown, by the daylight intensity of its illumination, to be bare. Nothing scrappable would have passed the shortages of wartime. Tomorrow he might find a sturdy piece of wood and root around in the mud. Without too much effort, he could fill a bucket with washers, bolts, screws, surviving bits of metal trodden deep…if Mr. Guy would lend him a bucket.
He heard crickets, and the repeated call of a whippoorwill. And they would not have started up—he knew this much of nature—unless the storm were retreating. He heard Rohdl.
“You know nothing about me. For a very long time, I will stay.”
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 are upended.
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.”