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By M.C St. John
She woke up to a great clattering downstairs in the kitchen. The frying pan led the parade by banging the soup pots. Spoons were tapping four-four time on the counters, hitting rim shots on the oven’s burner covers, bass on the butcher’s block, and crash cymbals on the salad bowls.
Old Gloria lay in bed, glaring at the ceiling. “All right, I’m up, I’m up!”
The oven door didn’t believe her. It creaked open and slammed shut with a bone-shuddering thunk Gloria felt in her chest.
She threw the duvet off. “For the love of all that’s holy, enough.” Her feet found her slippers, her hands cinched her robe. She nearly drank the water from the glass holding her dentures. “How many times have I got to deal with this noise?” She shuffled downstairs, clutching her head.
By the time she passed the painting of her late husband in the hallway, she heard a telltale chattering: her good china in the hutch.
Gloria burst into the kitchen. “Not the cups and saucers, you lout! If one of them breaks, I’ll break you!”
The kitchen went quiet. Drawers were pulled out to the tipping point, silverware quivered on the countertops, and the frying pan hung in midair—but at least it was quiet.
Gloria stamped her foot. “Put it all down. Now.”
Everything came down in a crash. A queer, singing silence filled the air, one Gloria felt no fear over anymore. She picked the teakettle off the floor and went to the sink to fill it.
There was a shadow in the room, even though sunlight filled the entire space. The shadow watched her. She felt it as she cleared the stove of spoons, lit a burner, and put the kettle on.
She was plugging jasmine tea leaves in her strainer when she decided to speak. “I don’t care how much you pout and whine. When I said it was the last séance, Herb, it was the last séance. We argued enough when we were both alive. What makes you think I’d want to keep doing it?”
On the counter, the toaster popped two pieces of bread into the air. Gloria batted them away without losing sight of pouring her tea. “Go on, then, just keep at it. See if you get your way.”
The lever clicked down on the toaster, the coils inside glowing red with nothing to burn.
“If anything, mister, you’re going to have to sweeten me up something special before I even consider conjuring you up to talk about the past. The way you prattle on, it’s no wonder you missed the holy elevator up or down when you had the chance.”
She sipped her tea, feeling saucy, just like she did during any of their old spats when she got Herb’s goat.
"Papa was right when I told him you proposed to me. I hear it as clear now as the day he said it fifty years ago. He said, ‘Glory, marriage to that man will be a forever endeavor.’ Oh, how right papa was, wasn’t he, Herb?”
The toaster unplugged itself and cooled.
Gloria sat down at the table. The small chandelier above her swayed with a strong wind. It was a gentle motion, soothing, like a porch swing in summer. Gloria watched the glass orbs catch the light. She added sugar to her tea.
“That’s a start, I suppose. But how far you have to get me in better spirits…” She snorted. “Honey, love’s a long road. You know that now more than ever.”
Slowly, as if in a dream, the silverware rose piece by piece, spoons and forks and knives spinning in the air and landing back into their drawers, which closed with soft rolling thumps. The pots and pans on the floor found their spots on the shelves. From the window sill, a vase of wildflowers floated over and settled on the table.
“Okay, all right, no need to lay it on too thick, Herb. Let’s see how long you can keep this up. If you play nice, maybe we’ll talk, hmm?”
Warmth and silence. Gloria finished her tea and then swirled her cup. The curt little smile she had worn faded from her lips. She turned the cup around, poked at one of the limp leaves. “Looks like my nephew’s coming over to the house. Gerald, I think.” She squinted. “Him and his little girl. I can’t tell what for with these old eyes.”
The chandelier jerked and the kitchen dropped twenty degrees.
“Now Herb, you need to be on your best behavior, you hear? We don’t get visitors, and even though things went south with you and my brother…”
But the shadow had heard enough. The cold air slipped out into the hall. There was a bang and a crash that Gloria took to be the oil painting tumbling off and hitting the wainscoting before the floor.
“…doesn’t mean you still have to hold grudges.”
Gloria sat in a now truly empty kitchen. “Lord have mercy,” she said.
She had changed into a housedress and was straightening Herb out on the wall when the doorbell rang. Glaring at the daubs of brown and charcoal that made his husband's face, Gloria glared at the painting. “Not a boo, and I mean it."
The eyes seemed to glare back, but that was her imagination. Paintings didn’t move.
On the doorstep was a man in a white shirt and black tie matching the gap in the two front teeth of his smile. He held a briefcase in one hand and a little girl in the other.
Gloria put her hands on her hips. “My my, Gerald, what a surprise! You and your girl. I never would’ve guessed you two in a million years…”
From the back parlor, a gust of frozen wind blew past and almost raised her dress. She held her hem down. “…well, less than that, I suppose. You certainly aren’t strangers off the street.”
“Sorry I didn’t call, Auntie G. We were on this side of town and thought to stop by. I’ve been meaning to bring Liza Mae over to meet you…”
“Think nothing of it, dear. I love surprises, especially ones like this sweet baby here. How are you today, sugar?”
Unlike her father, Liza Mae had perfect, gapless little girl teeth, and, also unlike her father, she kept them framed in a genuine grin. “I’m doing fine and well, Great Auntie Glory-glory-hallelujah.” She peered into the house. “May I see your forks and spoons? They swim like silver fishies in the air.”
“Liza enough with that nonsense,” Gerald said.
Gloria stared at the child. “What an imagination,” she said.
“That’s what daddy says too.”
Gloria led them to the back parlor. As they passed the hallway to the kitchen, Gerald sucked in a whistle through the gap in his teeth and blew it out. “How long’s that draft been going on, Auntie? You got new windows less than ten years ago.”
“How did you know when I got new windows?”
Gerald’s mouth shrunk to a pinhole. He suddenly found the wallpaper more interesting, darting his eyes from one cluster of repeating flowers to the next.
Liza Mae giggled. She pointed at the oil portrait as they walked by. “Those are bad words to be saying, you know.”
Gerald studied the the wall, more floral patterns, the sconces. “What words, Liza?”
"Daddy, I can’t say them.” She covered her smile. “But they sure are funny to hear.”
He turned to Gloria and shrugged his shoulders. “Kids,” he said.
Gloria grunted. It was at these times she wished she could still read minds—shame that it went just like eyesight and hip bones at her age.
In the back parlor, she sat her visitors on a couch near the windows and the sunny day. An upright piano stood nearby covered with a white sheet. Liza Mae swung her feet on the couch, leaning her head down to get a peek at the piano’s brass casting wheels and foot pedals, the only parts of the piano she could see. Gerald sat as awkward as a Civil War portrait, sweating in the effort to stay still.
Gloria felt the shadow in the room too. Its presence was the space between dust motes hanging in the shafts of sunlight. It was everywhere and nowhere, listening, like Gloria, for when the silence would break. Gloria did the honors.
“Would you like iced tea? I also have some lemon cookies I baked yesterday.”
Liza Mae opened her mouth to say yes, please!, but Gerald piped up first. “No, we’re fine, auntie.” The briefcase on his knees snapped open and he fished out a stack of papers. He was ashen and sweaty but at least relieved to be in motion. “The best thing to do is get down to brass tacks, you know.”
“What’s this all about, Gerald?”
“I’ve been going over my father’s and Uncle Herb’s business papers, and both of their wills. Now, I know they weren’t on the best of terms when the business went under…”
“The tailor shop was a good thing before their bickering soured it. Each one sized up the suit they’d bury the other one in. Best of terms, pah.”
“…nonetheless auntie, they left their respective side of the family well off. But that was years ago. Money and markets are tight nowadays. When my mother passed, I arranged to have the house and assets sold off for a good price.” He handed the papers to her.
“What’s all this lawyer talk, Gerald?” She squinted at the type with as much scrutiny as the tea leaves.
“I’m offering my services to you now.”
“You want me to sell this house? My house?” The gauzy curtains rippled with the slightest breeze, which couldn't come from any of the closed windows. “Our house?”
“This is such a big place for you to keep up on your own. How many more years can you go up and down these stairs, making meals for one and dusting?" Gerald sighed. "Listen, I’m willing to do all of the legal footwork. Consider it an olive branch for the years of bad blood and gossip that happened between—”
“No, I can’t. I won’t.” Gloria stomped her heel into the carpet. It was a satisfying feeling. Along her neck and shoulders, she felt the weight of a phantom arm resting, warm and real, an embrace for once in this forever endeavor.
Gerald rose from the couch. “Auntie, what possible reason do you have to stay here?”
Liza Mae was now laying upside down on the couch, her frizzed-out hair sweeping the carpet. “Because great uncle Herb’s still here, daddy.” She pointed at the covered piano.
“Is that a ghost, too? Its sheet’s too short, if it is.” She giggled.
“That’s enough talk, Liza, thank you. Great aunt Gloria is not crazy, honey,” Gerald said. He rubbed his hands together and whistled a warm breath into them. “Where is that draft coming from?”
“She’s right, Gerald.”
“What part?” When he saw Gloria cross her arms, Gerald’s face soured. “Auntie, please don’t tell me the stories I heard from my father were true. Surely, he was exaggerating about...your knack.”
“My knack?” Gloria said. The shadow jumped back as she stood up. “Go on, Gerald Godfrey Jones, tell me about my knack, according to my brother.”
“I’d rather not.”
“You brought your briefcase and baby child to my doorstep, dressed all snazzy with a deal in your head. What have you got to lose indulging me?”
“Auntie, I am a legal consultant. Discretion is my skill and trade, and I won’t go into any details, unsavory or otherwise, that may have been said in my presence.”
“Oh, twist your logic like a pretzel! I’d just love to hear what’s been said behind my back.”
The two of them were now face to face. Gloria held the paperwork like used tissues and Gerald frowned down at her. The room was filled with snorts and inhalations of breath as each readied their next round of words.
So it came as a surprise when Liza Mae spoke first. “Oh no, Grandpa called Glory-glory-hallelujah that?”
“Liza Mae, bite your tongue,” Gerald said.
“It’s my house, Gerald, she can say whatever she pleases. Go on, honey.”
Liza had her ear cocked to the piano, listening and nodding as if she were testing keys, except there was only silence. “Uh huh…Grandpa called you a…what?” She closed her eyes, straining to remember the words. “A…tarot-reading…crystal-ballin’…tea-leaf-twiddlin' crackpot…”
“Liza Mae!” Gerald grabbed his daughter. “You stop speaking this instant.”
“But daddy, great uncle Herb said it’s the God’s honest.”
“Uncle…? What?” Gerald looked around the room before locking eyes with Gloria. “Is this your influence? Her nonsense?”
“Gerald, she’s got the gift. She picked it up like she got your nose and her grandpa’s eyes. What she's hearing is real.”
“There is no gift, auntie. Just like there are no psychics or séances or ghosts. What do you take us for? Another one of your clients? Palms out ready to have their love lines read? You may have earned a bundle swindling other folks, but it never flew with the family, and you know it.”
Despite the sunshine, the parlor slid into deepening shades of gray. The table lamps dimmed. The curtains grew three extra layers.
Liza Mae darted around to the back of the old upright. “Great uncle Herb is playing hide-and-seek! I know he’s close…”
Gerald, unperturbed by the rippling curtains, the ceramic knickknacks jitterbugging on the end tables, and the flickering lights, went on.
“And would you look at this? You rigged the place like a real haunted house! Please spare me the theatrics, auntie. Dad was right. You put Herb and the business in an early grave with all this superstitious nonsense. Imagine the property value of this place without all this gimcrackery…”
It was as far as Gerald got before the sheet rose off the upright piano in the shape of a Halloween ghost. In its arms, laughing and smiling and clapping, was little Liza Mae.
“I found him, daddy!" she said. "Glory-glory hallelujah, here he is!”
Gloria watched her great-niece swoop around the room. “He most certainly is, honey. Look at you two go! Flying like the forks and spoons!”
Gerald watched his daughter flying without really seeing it. His mouth moved like a hooked fish. “Get her down, auntie! This is a SAFETY HAZARD!”
As Liza Mae swung around a carnival glass reading lamp, Gerald sprung off the arm of the couch into the air, missing his daughter. Gerald grabbed the piano sheet instead, which slid out from under Liza Mae, revealing what Gerald feared the most. “Where are the strings?” he said.
He had collapsed on the floor. The sheet was wrapped around him. To Gloria, he looked like the little boy he used to be, still afraid of the dark.
“Where are the strings?”
Liza Mae put her arms out and dove into the empty air, twirling in the glow of the curtains, a silhouette of a circus performer. “Crackpots have all the fun, daddy!” She whipped by the piano in an ascending scale of tapped keys.
During all of this ruckus, Gloria began to laugh. The sound was rough at first, the gears deep down inside of her heart straining to turn. By her great-niece’s third or fourth spin around the parlor, Gloria then recognized her clear laughter from the younger years with Herb, the days where the tea leaves in her cup were love letters from the future. Perhaps they still were. How else could she explain what was happening right now? It took faith and love to believe it.
“Okay, Herb, you made your point in the way only you could," she said. "Bring her on down now.”
“Oh, but auntie, just one more time around!” Liza Mae floated above the coffee table, eyes shining and eager. She cocked her ear again. “What’s that?...uh-huh…Herb says he wanted to lay it on thick.” Liza Mae paused, listening. “And he doesn’t want to be a grouch anymore. May we have more fun now?”
"All right, all right! Just a few more times. Then we’ll have those lemon cookies.”
“Yeah!” Liza Mae said. She zoomed off again.
Gloria watched her and her husband for a moment longer, the sunshine and warmth returned to the parlor, which helped her eyes and bones and heart just standing there. Then she went to the kitchen for snacks and the smelling salts.
After seeing his daughter fly, Gerald had fainted under the piano sheet.
A few weeks later, the doorbell rang again.
It would have been easily lost amid all the good noise in the house. Dishes were clattering in the kitchen, spoons and pots and pans, but there were voices rising and laughing too. Someone was playing a jazzy Jelly Roll Morton tune on the piano in the back parlor and really laying into the keys. The bing-bong of the doorbell was only one small note in the warm harmony of the house, but it was still heard…in fact, maybe even before it was rung. A quick rumbling of feet came to the door right before it flew open.
“Daddy!” Liza Mae said.
“Hey baby,” Gerald said. He picked her up. “How’s my little girl?”
“Awesome. Me and great-auntie G made pancakes and we played in the yard for a little bit and ate ham-and-cheese sandwiches and great-uncle Herb told me stories about the time him and grandpa made a suit for a magician and…”
“Uncle Herb, huh?”
“Afternoon, Gerald,” Gloria said. She stood in the doorway wiping her hands with a dishtowel. “Can’t believe it’s that time already again. My the time goes with that little one running about. Things good at the firm?” Eyeing him, she tut-tutted. “You’re looking mighty pale, Gerald. Are you eating down at the office? How about you come in for a sandwich?”
Gerald peered into the hallway, still hearing the clattering pots and the piano playing. He knew full well all living bodies were present and accounted at the front door. “I’d love to, but really we must get going.”
“But Daddy, I wasn’t finished with the story!”
“Just a minute, baby.” He turned to Gloria. “How was she?”
“Nothing but smiles. She’s picking up the tarot like nobody’s business. Even read what the mailman was thinking when he dropped off some letters.” She laughed at Gerald’s ever-paling face. “She also makes a mean ham-and-cheese. She’s a bright girl, that one.”
“So, she reminds you…of you?”
“We’re family, if that’s what you mean.”
“It isn’t,” he said, hugging Liza tight. “But that’s all I need to know.”
The piano music swung into a different song. Gloria said, “Mmm, ‘A Creepy Feeling.’ I love that song. Appropriate too.” She focused again on her nephew. “Listen Gerald, I appreciate the cleaning lady you hired coming here to help, and Lord knows I love having Liza over here, but…”
“You’re doing all of these things for me and this family house of ours now, but you won’t step foot in it. Come inside.”
“Yeah, Daddy, come in so then I can tell you about the magician…”
“No, I don't think so.”
Liza found Gerald’s shirt collar interesting and began fiddling with it. “…but grandpa said the magician only needed his cape mended and then they talked him into getting a new suit. They were smooth talkers, weren’t they?”
“Smooth as the silk they sold, baby,” Gloria said. “Still are.”
“Wait,” Gerald said, “Liza, you said grandpa told you that story.”
“Don’t you mean great Uncle Herb?”
“Uncle Herb told me a part of it, and grandpa told me the other part. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”
Gerald moved his wide eyes from his daughter to his aunt. “He’s in there too?”
“Who do you think is playing the piano?” Gloria said. “Herb was dull lazy about the keys. He loved it when I still could play.”
Gerald tried to speak but couldn't. This time it wasn't out of fear.
“Liza Mae is a natural with séances too," Gloria said. "She’s keen on bringing the family in one by one for a reunion. Mending ties and all.”
Liza Mae’s cheeks were burning. She was still playing with Gerald’s collar. “It was going to be a surprise.” She looked up at her dad. “Surprise."
Gloria watched her nephew listening to the piano from far away, the dishes doing percussion in the kitchen, the excited breathing of his daughter, and maybe even the beating of his own heart. Though it was all strange music, his face softened as he heard it.
“I suppose we could stay a little longer,” he said.
Gloria stepped aside. “You know where the parlor is.”
Smiling, Gerald walked into the house. Liza Mae chattered to him about the magician and a dozen other family stories she had been learning for the past few weeks. Gloria watched them go down the hall, closer to the sound of the uncovered piano and its keys being played by invisible fingers.
It was good to have the house full again.
Gloria passed the oil painting of her husband, now hanging straight in a polished frame. There was sweet relief in her voice. “Thank the Lord for this forever endeavor, honey.”
Then Gloria went to get supper ready. It would be lighter work now with Herb pitching in to wash the dishes. With family meals, she needed all the help she could get.
#Unreal #Gloria #Ghosts #Tarot #DysfunctionalFamily
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