October 6, 2015
Jack awoke with a start in his bed. He was freezing, in spite of thick pajamas and several blankets on the bed. Moonlight streamed through the light thin curtains, a frigid draft blew in through the cracked bedroom window.
Something stirred in his peripheral vision. His head whipped around but he saw nothing beyond his old worn dresser, missing three knobs, a kitchen chair with his clothes piled on it, and the plastic shower curtain covering the bedroom door opening. Wind wailed against the house and tree branches whipped at the roof.
Jack rolled into a ball and pulled the covers over his head. He used his arm as a pillow.
The cold seeped through the blankets, through his pajamas, into his skin. He lay shivering until the weight of the cold outweighed his desire to stay in bed, and he got up in search of more clothing. He pulled on his jeans and sweatshirt from the day before on over his pajamas, and squinted at his dirty socks. He pulled a clean pair, his last clean pair, out of the top dresser drawer and pulled them on. He stepped into his work boots.
In the main room of the house, what passed for the kitchen lined one wall. An old stove, a sink, and a small refrigerator/freezer took turns with cabinets between each. A tiny microwave rented space on top of the freezer. He set the tin saucepan on the stove and waited for the water to boil, held his hands aside the flame to warm them while he waited. Again, something caught his eye, but as his green eyes searched the dusky living space, he could see nothing unusual.
A white lady’s glove, tiny. A child’s? Balanced at the edge of the wooden crate he used as a coffee table, it glowed in the grey dawn. A branch whacked against the corner of the house as Jack picked up the glove with two fingers, and he jumped.
No woman had entered Jack’s home in over a year, since his mother died. No woman he knew could wear such a small glove, not even his dead wife, even as tiny she was towards the end. Well, now she could probably wear it, being as she’s just bones by now. He held the glove to his nose and inhaled jasmine, then placed it on the kitchen counter, shook his head, and squeezed back tears.
He tipped the saucepan into his shipped jumbo coffee mug and dropped in a tea bag. Herbal tea was one luxury Jack permitted himself these days. The collection agencies and the hospital corporations had relieved him of any possessions that could have been considered superfluous, and had taken some possessions most would consider vital. Cancer had stripped Jack of his wife and his life, and he wondered exactly, for the fiftieth time that week, if he shouldn’t maybe borrow Luke’s shotgun and finish the job on himself.
A rustle of plastic brought Jack’s eyes back to the bedroom door. The drafts were getting really bad in his shack, and he reminded himself to pick up spray insulation after his shift. But, something else? He clomped back to the bedroom and held the curtain aside.
Jack’s eyes and mouth opened wide.
His brow furrowed. Nothing there. He cocked his head, closed his eyes and listened.
Just the wind. The wind, unrelenting, inside and outside the shack.
He finished his tea, rinsed the cup in the sink, and grabbed his heavy canvas work coat and hat. He peeled out of his gravel driveway, pebbles kicked at the heavy pickup truck fenders.
Thirteen hours later, Jack arrived home from work. He turned on the stove and set the pan of water before he even removed his coat and hat. He set his bag of fast food on the coffee “table” and tore into his superfries with one hand, stabbed at the old tube television clicker with the other. As the evening news explained patiently to Jack that Donald Trump indeed had more money than God, and that the Gates Foundation was curing malaria, the glove caught his eye once more.
He squinted at it. It was on the coffee table, exactly where he’d found it that morning. He looked at the kitchen counter, back at the crate, unsure of where he’d set it down in the groggy dawn so many hours ago.
He hauled himself up and checked the locks on the front and back doors. The doors were so thin, and fit the frames so badly, that a motivated raccoon or mudcat could gain entry inside fifteen minutes, but the point was made to his conscience. He sank back down on the couch and finished his tea, fries, and cheeseburgers.
Shivering in the shower, Jack didn’t kill himself trying to remove all the automotive grease from his hands and arms, though he ensured his pits were clean and his hair was empty of metal filings from work. He checked the locks once more before climbing into bed with a bonus afghan sweet old Nancy had brought him at work. He clicked on the bedside lamp and cracked open his library book.
Dante’s Inferno was slow going, not because Jack found the writing difficult, but because he found himself daydreaming the landscape of the story. The colors, the textures, the people, their clothing; what he would do, with the right resources, to see that on a stage! He paused to look up ‘litany’ in a pocket dictionary, another gift from Nancy. Finally, he felt himself nodding into the pages, so he clicked off the light, and rolled over, huddled in his blankets.
The wind eased a bit, but the draft continued stubbornly through the crack in the window, pushing out the warmth. A fitful fiery dream awakened Jack and he rose to go to the can, wash his face with warm water. As he mopped his beard with a towel, a glint in the bathroom mirror gave him pause, and he turned around. Nothing in the hall. He flashed back to Old Brutus, his pitbull, wished he were still there for the company and peace of mind. Brutus was a big baby but he had the best ears for miles. Old age hadn’t cared for Brutus’ hearing, though, and Death came for Brutus a scant two months after Cecilia died in hospice.
Back in bed, Jack rolled and shifted and rolled again. His ears were icy, the tip of his nose was numb. He felt something shift on the bed, a heaviness on his leg. He bolted upright.
“What the hell?” he boomed to no one in particular. A fleeting flash of white through the curtain. He was out of bed in a flash and into the living area. He looked wildly around the small space, listened intently.
The glove. The goddamned glove.
It was lying on the arm of the couch, as if its wearer were resting her arm on the edge. Jack looked hard at the glove. It shimmered in the moonlight streaming in the front curtainless window. He squinted, looked harder, stood stone still.
In the dark, the air around the glove seemed empty. As if the molecules had vacated. His eyes slowly swept from the glove up the arm of the couch, to the back of it, finally, the seat. No dent in the seat, but something was wrong, different, off. The absence of atmosphere on the end of the couch was perceptible.
“Hello?” Jack whispered. “Are you wearing the glove?” He tried to sound gentle, tried to contain the wavering of his own deep voice.
The glove moved, just a touch. The index finger raised, then lowered. Jack inhaled, held his breath. His heart beat a war cadence inside his chest. Blood rushed his ears. If whoever this was spoke, he knew he wouldn’t hear it.
He took a tiny step forward. The air around the couch shifted. He froze. The glove shifted, stretched. He stared. The index finger tapped the couch, then the fingers drummed, one, two, three, four, one two, three, four. Impatient? Jack took another step forward. The air shifted again, the glove collapsed. He felt the slightest breeze brush his beard as the plastic of the bedroom door bent, crinkled, then relaxed.
Jack turned and followed into the bedroom.
Dawn was just a half shade into the world, and the bedroom was empty, utterly. Warmth had returned to the room, and he climbed back into bed, bone-tired. He snored until his alarm clanged angrily on the bedside table.
After work Jack joined the guys for few beers at the local dive. His pickup pulled lazily into the gravel driveway some time after midnight. He lurched into the house and collapsed on the couch, freed a loud, lengthy belch. Kicked off his boots, one, two, heavy thuds. Dragged himself to the shower.
If the hot blur of water, he found goosebumps across his shoulders. In the fog of the bathroom, he found words written in the condensation on the vanity mirror.
Shall we dance?
Jack wiped the words with his towel and angrily stomped off to bed without brushing his teeth. He tossed and turned, had the same dream he always had: Cecilia, just out of reach, backing away from him as he shouted obscenities at her. He reached but as always, it was too late, and she sailed backward into the deep ravine, falling, falling forever falling into the void. This time, he jumped after her.
Jack woke himself up screaming. The front door slammed shut, the house shook. The gale-force winds had re-grouped in the night. Back to the kitchen.
The glove was still in its home on the armrest of the couch. Flat. Jack sank into the middle of the couch with his tea and clicked on the television. Infomercial, infomercial, an infomercial on how to produce infomercials, a movie from the 1970s. A PBS fundraising drive. He clicked and clicked until he fell asleep on the couch again.
He awakened as he expected, freezing, teeth chattering. The glove was full, the seat next to him was freezing, there was a severe frigid heaviness on his left thigh. The index finger of the glove tapped gently on the armrest. The heaviness in his thigh traveled, lightened, down to his knee, then it was gone.
Ice on his cheek, icy breeze through his beard. Chill on his chest, over his heart. Jack’s heart slowed, relaxed, he inhaled deeply. Jasmine.
“Who are you?” he asked the absence.
Icy lips, ice on his eyelashes, brittle breeze ruffled his hair. The absence grew more firm, more established, the hole in the atmosphere was visible, not just perceived.
“Did you ask me to dance?” he whispered. The answer appeared in his mind. Jack stood up from the couch, both knees cracked, his ankles cracked across the threadbare carpet. He dialed the ancient boom box until he found an old 80s station, then held out his hand.
The filled glove rested on Jack’s shoulder, his left hand filled with cold wonder. His right hand tentatively rose until he felt the chill on his fingertips, then stayed. He swayed to the music with his eyes closed, and the breeze swayed with him.
As The Cars sang, and then Boston lamented, and Air Supply took the radio’s crackly stage, Jack’s fingers warmed, his holdings substantiated into something not quite matter, yet not quite anti-matter. He opened his eyes, and found himself looking down into warm brown doe eyes, golden brown curly hair, and a freckled, pale face in her mid to late 20s? Early 30s? Hard to tell with dead folks. She was soft-featured, curvy in her transparency. She wore a white lace gown with long wide bell sleeves, deeply cut, and buttoned high-heeled black boots.
She squeezed his hand with her gloved one, and he smiled down at her.
“There you are, finally,” Jack sighed and laughed a bit. “What’s your name?”
Her lips moved, but he couldn’t hear her name. He held up a finger, hang on a sec, and turned down the radio.
“Sorry?” he asked. Her lips moved again, air escaped her mouth, but no vibrations. He shook his head. “Never mind, it’s ok, unnecessary information.” A dark looked passed over her before she squeezed his shoulder again.
Clara appeared in his mind.
“Clara,” he whispered. She smiled and nodded, satisfied.
The wind picked up outside the house again, the DJ on the radio announced Bon Jovi as the last slow-dance tune of the late night show, stay tuned for The Morning Drive at 6am with Rob and Jay and the Zoo Crew!
Clara softened at the edges and pulled away from Jack. His brows rose in confusion. I have to go now. He nodded.
“Will I see you again?” he asked. She nodded as the icy breeze blew through him, back to the bedroom, and out through the crack in the window.
Jack stood in the middle of his living space, holding a white glove, listening to The Morning Zoo Crew, wondering if he was still drunk, if any of that just happened, and what the hell was in those buffalo wings from the night before. He brushed his teeth, dressed, grabbed a travel mug, and headed out the door.
Night after night, Clara arrived. Night after night, they danced. They talked in their own way. She asked questions about modern life. She asked questions about his life and wept dry tears as his low gentle voice recounted his years in the theater, his beautiful director wife, his dog who would play any animal part, his mother who designed all the costumes. They swayed on.
He asked questions about her life in the early 1900s. Her family, herself, drowned in a riverboat accident on the Ohio River: her husband, a teacher, her young sons; her parents, both blind. He saw the images in his mind’s eye, as she told, tearless, of her death, searching up and down the river for the ghosts of her children, her family. It’s been so long, and I’ve never seen another ghost in all my years of travel. I might have passed them by altogether, her eyes downcast.
“Perhaps they’ve gone on?” he murmured into her ear. “Perhaps you’re still walking Earth for a different purpose?” She smiled up at him. He nuzzled her neck as they swayed to The Pet Shop Boys, Cheap Trick, Cyndi Lauper.
She was more solid that night than ever before, even as dawn approached. She rested her head on his wide shoulder, inhaled and pulled back, shock widened her eyes. I can smell you!
Jack searched Clara’s face and smiled. Dawn broke, sunlight streamed through a corner of the front window, through Clara’s leg as it dissolved. He bent to kiss her, held her face in his large warm hands, but she was gone in an instant. A cool breeze, no longer icy, swept through him as he opened his eyes once more to his empty shack.
Jack grabbed his worn copy of Dante’s Inferno and shoved it in his work coat pocket, cornered Nancy at lunch. They sat head to head for an hour solid, speaking in low tones, and paging through the book.
That evening, Jack prepared his home and himself, scrubbed everything from top to bottom. If she could smell now, what other senses may arrive soon? He set the radio and took a short nap.
She arrived on the wind, nearly formed before her feet hit the ground with a slight click. Jack took Clara in his arms in a long embrace, buried his head in her warm brown curls, wisps of gold shimmered in the lamplight. Are you ok?
He nodded vigorously and kissed her lips lightly, tentatively, then deeper as she gasped and gripped him tight. Warm breeze surrounded them, the lamp flickered, their skin tingled where they touched each other. The refrigerator crackled, the microwave turned on by itself, the electrical outlets in the shack sparked.
He paused but didn’t break contact as he met her terrified eyes. I’ll keep you safe, he thought. Please hear me, I’ll keep you safe. You taught me how to live, how to find joy again. Please stay with me.
Clara coughed, grabbed her chest, inhaled deep with an agonizing gasp. Jack caught her in his arms and carried her to the couch. I heard you.
“I…” she stuttered, gravelly voice, new yet, “I heard you!” Real tears formed in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Jack wiped them with his thumbs. Will you stay?
Clara nodded, then fainted. He carried her to his bed and covered her first with Nancy’s afghan, then the rest of his blankets.
Jack called off work in the morning. His supervisor was not buying the fake cough and wheezing.
“Buddy, can you make it in for half a shift? We have a lot of work due out today,” he complained. I’ll be ok, I’ll be right here. Jack confirmed he would come in for a half shift, six hours.
Nancy took Jack aside as soon as he entered the plant at noon. His grin explained everything. She patted his arm and reminded him of his wife and mother’s promises to look after him in the afterlife, before leading him back to the parking lot to her old minivan. A pitbull puppy frolicked in the back, jumped in circles and yipped in excitement at the presence of humans.
“I’ll keep her safe and start her training, and then when y’all are ready, you take her home. A young lady new to the area shouldn’t be home all day alone. I’m sure she’ll get her bearings, but a dog is a necessary and welcome family addition in these parts,” Nancy explained. Jack hugged her hard and wiped away his tears.
“I almost gave up,” he sniffed, “I almost joined them.”
“They knew that, I think. And your Clara had her purpose, it was just a matter of putting the pieces together. Not all ghosts move on after they’ve served their purpose. She’s fulfilled part of her purpose, and you two will serve each other.” Nancy pulled Jack down by the t-shirt collar and kissed him on the forehead, as she had when he was a small boy, as she had his mother on her deathbed.
That night, Jack joined Clara at home, and the following week, Jack and the pitbull puppy Bela joined Clara at home. The small house was warm again, although Jack had to replace all the electrical outlets.
Purgatory doors swing both ways.
(Author’s Note: This story was inspired by Little Ghost, from The White Stripes album Get Behind Me, Satan.)