A story about ghosts and possums.
I saw my nephew, Ricky, in the Amvets parking lot on a freezing Saturday in December with a centimeter of slick ice on the blacktop and a fair amount of booze in my veins. My three friends, Burt, Leo, and Klaus, came out with me to the car, since I was their ride. Bar time was now midnight at Amvets because the owner lacked joie de vivre.
I recognized Ricky immediately. He was sitting on the hood of my Tercel. When we got close, he pulled a gun out of his parka.
“Ima stick you up.”
Burt said, “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”
Leo said, “You better get us all in one shot, kid, or you’re in some shit.”
And my friend, Klaus, the only one I could ever stand in the late hours after we’d all been kicked out of Amvets, said, “You’re definitely in some shit. That’s a pellet gun.”
“This ain’t no pellet gun, dawg. You wanna test me?” Ricky held it up so we could see it in the moonlight. Then he pointed it at each of us.
I nodded, wobbly on the ice.
“Hey I remember when you had that piñata for your birthday,” Klaus said. “What was that, like five years ago? How’s your mom?”
“Don’t say shit about my mom.”
“Come on, man. I also know your dad. Kevin, right? I know your whole family.”
Ricky glared and turned the pellet gun on Klaus.
Leo yawned. “Why don’t you just put that thing away? You might kill a bird.”
Everyone but the stick-up kid thought it was funny.
“You wanna flex on me, motherfucker?”
“Who is this guy?” Burt said. “And why is he talking like that?”
“It’s the rap music.” Leo fished keys out of side pocket of my jacket before I could object. He had long fingers and had once made a living as a pickpocket. The more he drank, the more graceful and charming he got with bartenders and waitresses and the more likely he was to rob them. In a way, I envied that about him. Even his problems were smooth.
“It’s the Internet,” Klaus said.
“Video games.” Burt leaned against the car and crossed his arms.
Leo nodded. “Yeah. And the social media.”
“That’s clearly a pellet gun,” I said.
“Uncle Dave, I didn’t even know this was your car.”
“It’s okay, Ricky. Get in. We’ll drive you home.”
That evening in Amvets, I’d been hugged by a woman named Celestina, who’d been after me since high school. Now that we were both old and divorced and only associated with our respective groups of friends, she must have concluded the time was right for a full-body embrace.
The time was not. She’d been sitting on the barstool next to me, ignoring her two friends the same way I’d been ignoring Burt, Leo, and Klaus. Then, without warning, she put down her empty glass, slid half off her stool, leaned in, and hugged me. Celestina was a wide woman, stronger than she looked. When she hugged me, I had to stand up. She whispered something in my ear, but I couldn’t make out what she said over the music.
Someone had played Waylon Jennings’ Never Could Toe the Mark in the jukebox and it was loud, louder than anything I’d ever heard played in Amvets. You rarely heard country blasting out of the ceiling. But time and space had distorted while steady pressure was being applied to my body by the woman who’d sat behind me in Civics decades before.
I knew I’d see her around town. Hauberk, Missouri, was on the small side and you ran into the same people about once or twice a month. Celestina and I were destined to encounter each other again in line at the bank or next to each other at a stoplight on Lagniappe Way, or drifting through the produce section of Harveys. Then we’d both have to smile and nod hello and think of her hugging me off my stool.
We’d all squeezed into the Tercel when she came out, waving at us across the parking lot. She almost slipped on the ice in her big, puffy, white jacket.
“Who’s the old lady?” asked Ricky.
“Christmas,” said Burt. “No, Christina.”
“No,” Leo pumped the gas as the engine sputtered. “Celestina. Like the stars.”
“You’re gonna flood it,” I said. “You don’t need to do that. Just relax. It’ll go.”
“She’s coming over here,” Klaus said.
“Bitch be crazy.” Ricky took out his pellet gun. “Ima blast her.”
I put my hand on the gun and guided it down. “Don’t do that. She nice. She’s just got a drinking problem like everybody else.”
“Oh shit,” Ricky said. “I’m not sure, but I think she works at Hoover. I think she’s the nurse.”
“You’d know if you ever went to class,” Klaus said.
The engine turned over and the vents started to blast hot air. Leo rolled down the window and smiled at Celestina. “How’s it going?” he said.
“Hello,” She leaned over and peered past Leo into the car. It took her a moment to place me in the backseat. “Dave, I think you, um, left your wallet at the bar.”
I smiled and nodded even though I could feel my wallet in my back pocket.
Celestina straightened up and held it out to Leo, her breath hanging around her like a halo in the moonlight.
“Well, thank you kindly.” Leo handed it back to my nephew without looking away and Ricky immediately removed the bills, folding them into his jacket pocket.
“Say,” Leo said, “you wouldn’t be interested in a nightcap over at David’s house, would you?”
You sonofabitch, I thought. You absolute, pristine, solid-state sonofabitch.
She focused on Leo as if she were noticing him for the first time. Then her eyes came to rest on Ricky sitting between me and Klaus. “No, but thank you. I think I should go home. I have to work tomorrow.” She tilted like she was about to pass out.
“Oh, that’s a shame.” Leo gave her his minty smile. “Don’t be a stranger, Celestina.”
She smiled back, glassy but very happy, showing teeth, and hugged herself, trying not to shiver in spite of the enormous jacket.
Burt leaned across Leo and said, “You better get inside. It’s cold out here.”
“Yeah,” she said, swaying a little but still smiling. “Good-night to you all. Good-night, Dave!”
Burt waved and said good-night, but we pulled away before she could hear. I looked back and saw her standing in the parking lot, still hugging herself, staring at the car.
When we hit the street, I dropped my hand on Leo’s shoulder and he flinched. “Why are you turning my nephew into a fucking criminal?”
“You mean the kid with the gun?”
“I’m sitting right here,” Ricky said.
Burt turned around in the passenger seat and coughed out a nicotine booze cloud. “It’s a good thing you are. Good thing you ran into us instead of some cop or a peckerwood with a hog leg.”
Ricky ignored him. He held the wallet open and squinted at it like an old man who’d lost his spectacles. “Terry . . . Ig-nat-ee-us.”
“Igneous?” asked Burt. “Like the rock? That’s a weird one.”
“Gimmie that.” Klaus snatched the wallet and angled it toward the window. “Ignatius. Terrence Ignatius. Any of you guys know a Terry Ignatius?”
“Never heard of him,” Leo said. “Let me concentrate. I get another DUI and it’s over.”
“You don’t strike me as the kind of dude who’d have multiple DUIs,” I said. “Then again, you don’t strike me as the kind of dude who’d encourage somebody’s nephew to steal money out of a stranger’s wallet.”
This made everyone laugh, even Ricky.
“I am that dude,” Leo said to the windshield.
“He’s not a stranger.” Klaus snapped the wallet shut. “He’s Terry Ignatius. We know him. He’s our buddy, Terry. Good guy.”
“You guys’r fuckin’ strange,” said Ricky.
Burt sighed. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Leo dropped me off and they continued on in my car. He said he’d bring it back in the morning, but I knew he wouldn’t. The night was young and there were other cars to drive before bed. It would take me two or three days and that many bus rides to get the Tercel back but, like Leo, I couldn’t get another DUI. Unlike Leo, I didn’t talk about it to Burt and Klaus. Each of us had our things, our lingering problems, our punishments and payments, times when we’d made wrong turns or said wrong things or spent money or didn’t spend money or got in cars with the wrong people or made promises when we should have kept quiet. Leo had his own car, but he never drove it.
I walked up the outside steps to my tiny apartment, stopped to listen at the Porres’ door to see if Martin Porres was beating his wife—their customary family activity on Saturday night. But it was all silent. Was that good sign or was it bad? I decided to believe it was good and not think about it. Because who the hell was I?
Usually, when he was ranting and slamming doors and she was calling him a cocksucker and their two kids were crying and the dog was howling, I’d knock and one of them would answer, usually her, and say what do you want. I’d say excuse me but can you keep it down? She’d wipe her eyes and look at me more closely and say oh it’s you. And I’d say yeah, from upstairs. And then she’d say sorry and shut the door. We did that every weekend. It added continuity to our lives. But tonight, nothing.
My apartment was spare, save a few pieces of yard sale furniture. A Formica table with two rattan chairs, a diseased-looking velour Barcalounger with a rip down the seat, a mini-fridge and a two-burner stove, a twin mattress on the floor of my little bedroom with a cardboard box as a bureau-nightstand. I didn’t have a lot of clothes, either. My most valuable possession was the Tercel. I wasn’t some kind of ascetic, but I’d had reversals since the divorce. Money was infrequent. I was currently between jobs and had sold or pawned most of my things. I opened all the windows and sat at the table in the dark. I had an almost-full bottle of wine and, though my head was pounding and I felt unsettled by the Porres’ silence, I poured some in a coffee mug and started to drink.
Air had gotten into the bottle and I hadn’t touched it in about a week. So the wine already tasted like vinegar, but whatever. I turned on the radio, found the old person’s jazz station. Thankfully they weren’t playing Kenny G or fucking Manhattan Transfer. I turned Ugetsu up as loud as the little speaker would go without buzzing. It was Saturday night. If the Porreses weren’t screaming, I wanted to do my part.
That was one thing—the frozen wind coming in, lifting the dusty lace curtains. Sometimes a car hissed along the street. Apart from such infrequent movement, there’s a certain stillness after bar time, when all the drug freaks and booze mutants have either passed out, holed up somewhere, or are making their way home as quietly and inconspicuously as possums on a moonless night. Because, at such a time, every possum knows the same universal truth. When all your friends have left, there’s only one way to get your car back to the driveway: side streets, frontage roads, alleys, and the occasional cornfield turnrow. At least, that’s the Missouri version.
When you do get home, you open all the windows and put on some music. You give thanks. You drink whatever awful remainder’s lurking in the back of the cupboard. And you try not to dwell on the foolishness you’ve seen earlier in the evening or that you’re bound to participate in later in the night. This constitutes a good time, all things considered. If the night ends there, you’re safe. You’re lucky. The things you don’t remember don’t have to be remembered. And you can’t be held accountable for things you haven’t done.
Tomorrow will happen in the fullness of time and you will not need to contact an attorney or make a court appearance in ten days. But if the night doesn’t end there, be advised that whatever happens between the hours of 2 and 5 AM may negate all your previous good luck. They call midnight the witching hour, but they call 3 AM the devil’s hour. And they call it that for a reason.
But a ghost or an ignis fatuus can appear earlier than that: I saw her puffy white jacket at a distance hovering over the dark snow like a will-o’-the-wisp. And I thought, what are the chances? In a small town like Hauberk, the chances are already decent and in the devil’s hour they might even be fair-to-good that you will see some degenerate you left at the bar wandering down your street. Maybe drawn by the hard bop tumbling out your windows. Maybe just following the serendipitous magnetism that the devil’s hour exerts over all creatures of the night. Celestina’s jacket reminded me of a large segmented marshmallow. The night wouldn’t be over for me until dawn. Apparently, it wasn’t over for her, either.
I moved to the Barcalounger by the window and watched until she was half a block away. Then she noticed me.
“Hey!” She waved, swaying in the snow, her eyes half shut. “Hey, you live here?”
“A lot of the time.”
“I can’t find my car.”
“Amvets is ten blocks back the way you came.”
“What?” Celestina looked around. Did she still think she was in the parking lot? Her black hair had gotten stringy and stiff in the cold. The way she swayed, I thought she might fall.
“You better come up.”
“Oh, I couldn’t, Dave.”
“You better. Then we can find your car.”
She processed the thought, then nodded. “Okay,” she said. “I like you, Dave. You’re a good . . . ”
“No, I’m not a good. I’ll be right down.”
Celestina was bigger than me. When she slipped on the narrow stairs, one arm hooked around my neck, we both nearly fell backwards. It made her laugh. I couldn’t tell if it was because she was drunk or embarrassed or a bit of both. But I couldn’t pass judgement. I thought of how many times I’d come home from Amvets and slipped on those concrete stairs. To be honest, I’d done much worse.
I let her down in the Barcalounger then hung her enormous white jacket up on the back of the door. I pulled one of my wobbly rattan kitchen chairs across from her and offered her my cup of wine, but she waved it off.
“I had a dream about you,” she said, her head nodding forward.
“Yeah, a really great dream. It was beautiful.”
“What was it?”
“We were walking through a field of sunflowers.” Her head dipped again if she were going to topple forward out of the chair. “They were huge.”
“I’ve never had a dream like that, but it sounds nice.”
“It was nice. We were holding hands.”
I leaned forward and held my hand out. She took it in her big puffy grip. I thought I could at least keep her from falling out of the chair that way. She had a nice hand, warm and enveloping in spite of the cold wind coming in the open window beside us and the snowy blocks she’d walked.
I turned down the radio and we sat there for a while, listening to Sister Sadie, my left hand holding Celestina’s right, her nodding then gripping my hand harder to steady herself, me staring at the discolored circle over the door where the clock used to be. I’d even pawned the clock. Got $15 for it.
Eventually, she grew quiet and still, passed out. Maybe she was dreaming about sunflowers. Then I had to let go of her hand because Leo knocked. I knew it was him. I’d have known even if I hadn’t been expecting him. He had that soft, tentative knock—just like the way he’d smile and say something kind while picking a waiter’s pocket and ordering the souffle. Behind him came Burt and Klaus. They were holding cups of coffee. Everyone looked sober.
“Shit,” Burt said, closing both windows. “What’re you trying to do, get pneumonia?”
“That’s right,” I said. “You got me.”
Leo raised an eyebrow at Celestina and grinned. “So you and her, huh?”
“No. You wouldn’t believe it. She was just walking down the street.”
“This street?” Klaus said it flat with the straight face that meant he was joking.
“I was sitting here and she kind of floated down the sidewalk.”
“I can see her doing that, floating,” Leo said.
“What happened to my nephew?”
“Took him home,” Burt said. “You know, he’s kind of a shit. He’s on a bad path. He better straighten up and fly right.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Well,” said Leo, “it’s getting about that time.”
I nodded, put the cup of rancid chianti on the floor next to Celestina. Then I went into the bedroom closet and got the bolt cutter, a mini crowbar, an old sawed-off Ruger over-and-under, a box of buckshot, the HK 9mm that looked like it had been burned in a fire but still worked, and a hardware store machete. I wrapped it all in a pillowcase.
On our way to the door, we stopped and looked at Celestina, now snoring loudly, her head lolled to the side. Burt said hold on, got my bedspread, and covered her with it, tucking it under her chin. Then the four of us went out and crept softly down the stairs. A car I’d never seen was idling on the street. We got in and put our seatbelts on. Burt and Klaus sipped their coffee. Leo pulled away from the curb and we glided into the dark.