The Creative Cafe
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The Creative Cafe

Original photo by Dtopa.

Angry Ghosts

The people in the lobby posed at awkward angles, like cast off pieces of an irregular puzzle. One piece, who worked in my office but whose name I didn’t know (or care to know) stared at the walls, his feet, the slowly revolving fan, as though rehearsing lines for the one moment the spotlight turned to him.

I stepped softly as I passed, hoping to escape notice.

“Damn shame isn’t it?”

No such luck.

He sighed. His eyes lost focus. Picturing his script one last time before he committed to his line. “We’ll miss her.”

Spoken with the same tone as auditors reviewing department expenses, by an actor picked to speak one line because he was the only one to audition.

I clutched my program at my waist, rolled like a white flag. “What would you have done?”

He stared past me to the walnut panel that framed the exit.

I’d departed from his script. A script in an imaginary drama playing different lines in fifty peoples’ heads.

I’d departed from his script. A script in an imaginary drama playing different lines in fifty peoples’ heads.

I knew Mary Mallory in passing. Five-ten and ninety pounds. Jung might have made her his muse; her body a narrative — bulimia, diet pills, adrenaline, nerves, compulsive guilt. She sprinted from desk to desk, office to office, never still for ten seconds. Half of every month’s salary went to her wardrobe but only her hair and the lines of her dress fell into place.

She drummed her fingers, smoked two packs a day, a different brand each time I saw her. We passed on the sidewalk. “How’s it going?” I’d say. Not an attempt to engage, merely to acknowledge.

She’d stop and gather her thoughts, form a list behind her eyes. “I have to edit three reports and a legislative assessment by five.”

Once, she brushed my wife back as we returned from lunch, never noticing our presence. She battered the elevator button like the head of a drum and when the doors didn’t open she sprinted to the stairs. File folders, loose papers, and legal pads splayed from armpits, elbows, hands. The receptionist blew a low note through her lips, like a child’s slide whistle. “How long can she keep that spring wound?”

The comment haunted my thoughts during the service. An ear worm that wouldn’t fade.

The first piece her sister-in-law spotted was her scalp in the kitchen doorway.

“Do you think he’s right?” Carol asked. We hiked Town Lake trail the day after the service.

“Who’s right?”

Carol plucked thoughts from the air as they floated past on a breeze.

“That suicide is an act of moral courage?”

Still brooding over the minister’s eulogy from yesterday’s service. I’d forgotten about Mary when we merged into traffic from the church parking lot.

It was the first week of November. The weather turned. We stepped onto the trail wearing t-shirts. By the time we returned to the car, temperatures would fall below freezing.

“Well?”

Carol defines life by conversation. A trait grandfathered under the “or worse” clause in our vows.

Carol defines life by conversation. A trait grandfathered under the “or worse” clause in our vows.

The leaves that buried the trail crunched like bones beneath our feet.

“Hardly orthodox theology.”

She walked in silence. It was, at best, a temporary reprieve.

“I think it’s a cop out. Death takes away your choices. There are always solutions.”

“Maybe Mary exhausted her solutions, and no one extended credit.” A mixed metaphor perhaps but I earned another moment of peace.

Before I met Carol, I walked hours a day to escape the noise.

We crossed the bridge at Lamar.

“Have you ever thought about suicide?”

“Not since we married.”

“What kept you from killing yourself?”

“The thought I might go through with it.”

She stopped, pulled my elbow to stop me, not sure I was serious. “Isn’t that cowardice too?”

I walked away. She rushed to catch me. She knew me well enough by now to know I wouldn’t answer.

The day after Mary’s sister-in-law found her body beside her shotgun, a new hire dropped by my office. (He, as did half the office, thought I brewed Oaxacan coffee for everyone.) He leaned against my bookshelf and looked out the window. “How strange that she killed herself.”

He was twenty-five, a Vanderbilt MBA. Probably lived with his mother until we hired him. His body hadn’t shed his baby fat, a fact I resented. I worked hard for every pound of mine.

He watched me type. Only then did I realize he wanted a reply. “She lived under pressure. Every moment. Every day.”

He volleyed, still in college defending his thesis. “But her life was coming together.”

He must have noticed my skepticism because he barged ahead like a train speeding toward a falling bridge. “Last Thursday. She planned to visit her daughter after work. She lost custody, you know, but now she can see her every day.”

Do you laugh or weep at ignorance?

He waved his cup (i.e., my cup filled with my coffee) toward the window, his free hand toward the door. Stage directing the conversation. “Wouldn’t you be happy to see your daughter again?”

I closed the memo he wouldn’t let me finish. Mid-sentence. I might lose my train of thought but ones and zeros, once committed, last forever.

“Her daughter died of leukemia. Her husband shot himself last Christmas.”

I debated whether to spook him with graphic, gratuitous details. The summer her daughter died, a trucker behind his schedule and ahead on coke barreled into her parent’s Audi at ninety miles an hour. Her sister died from third-degree burns after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. An asshole poisoned her dog. Her husband left her mired in bankruptcy, the hospital chased her for her sister’s burn unit bill, a stranger raped her in the parking lot when she stayed late at work. Broke her nose and collarbone.

The police never identified a suspect.

At what point do you run out of solutions?

If this story reads like soap opera, please recall that, except for the hungry and homeless, Americans experience despair in High Definition with Dolby Vision sound.

I planned to skip the service. Game seven, Astros verses Dodgers with the series tied 3–3. Darvish on the mound for LA, having left Texas for greener contracts.

The same way skipped my grandfather’s funeral. College finals, I said, even though they were weeks away. My grandmother spent her last six weeks in a hospital five miles away. I never visited. I attended the funeral of a woman I dated in high school, but the mourners faded in and out of awareness like apparitions. As though a wall in space and time stood between us.

Carol tossed the car keys into my lap. “She worked with us.” Her reason didn’t compel me as much as my dread of hostilities when she returned.

We sat in a wood pew, ornately carved and polished to shine, padded with plush purple cushions. A man in white silk robes droned like a Buddhist throat singer about a woman he never met.

They closed her casket, reducing her to abstraction. A representation in wood. The program read: “In memory of Mary Melodies” in forty-point type. The priest spoke of courage and the world to come. Carol nudged me every few minutes to ward off my snore.

Words aren’t real. They’re like pretty pictures in children’s books. The minister recalled a work of fiction. Mary surrendered selfhood to storytelling on the Sunday afternoon she aimed her shotgun at her kitchen window with her head between the two.

Don’t think me a cynic. In a few more years, I’ll fade into story too. A story quickly forgotten.

They closed her casket, reducing her to abstraction. A representation in wood. The program read: “In memory of Mary Melodies” in forty-point type. The priest spoke of courage and the world to come. Carol nudged me every few minutes to ward off my snore.

The priest, a man who spoke for a Jesus Mary denied, a man ornamented with nineteenth century vestments, this man assured us we need not grieve. I glanced at the faces that floated above the pews and saw no grief in need of reassuring.

Instead I saw spectators, specters rehearsing their role in the ritual to follow.

The priest, this ornamental figure, this character on stage, never mentioned Mary’s despair. He never mentioned the .45 automatic that blew her husband’s eye through the back of his skull, the leukemia that ate her daughter’s body and soul until she remained little more than a wraith writhing in her bedsheets, of the scabs and screams of a sister whose body never healed. Of creditors finding each new number and calling every hour she was home. Of making sixty thousand a year with nothing to show but rising debt.

This man spoke of Despair. As though it were a free-floating phantom setting traps for our souls. He spoke of Love and Truth, Courage and Despair. And God’s Solace.

Which Mary never found.

He concluded, “Perhaps we should see Mary’s act, not as one of desperation, but as one of courage.” Perhaps we should. Perhaps we should see it even if Christians and Carol can’t. This man may have expressed a powerful, fundamental truth.

It drifted past me, fading into the ether.

Around me souls blinked and sighed, fidgeted, dabbed their eyes with tissue. Collecting tears that may or may not have been for her.

We gathered in the lobby. Evening scratched at the chapel doors, whispers contained conversation. No coffee served, no wine, no food for people to distract their hands. Instead we checked our watches and smart phones.

I wanted to leave. I wanted dinner. I wanted to not speak with others of substantive questions with banalities and proverbs. The words that hovered in the lobby were phantoms conveying sound and bewilderment, signifying disconnection.

A receptionist collected tears at the corner of one eye. She didn’t speak a civil word to Mary in her three years with the agency. The men who hovered about the receptionist offered handkerchiefs and tissues. Today she wore a black cocktail dress, belted at the waist by a slender gold chain, and black spike heels.

A receptionist collected tears at the corner of one eye. She didn’t speak a civil word to Mary in her three years with the agency. The men who hovered about the receptionist offered handkerchiefs and tissues. Today she wore a black cocktail dress, belted at the waist by a slender gold chain, and black spike heels.

A lawyer shared hushed words with Carol. Laid his fingers across her shoulder to share his reverence for the moment. He dropped by to drink my coffee at least twice a week. Once Mary passed my door and he said: “Who’d want to fuck her?”

The new HR supervisor touched his fingers to his forehead, massaging it like a performance of Shakespeare. The week before she died, he asked me, “What drugs does she take?”

During our drive to the chapel Carol listed the documents she’d have to file with Mary’s death. She grieved Mary more than anyone at the service.

More than me.

The people in the lobby posed at awkward angles, like cast off pieces of an irregular puzzle. One piece, who worked in my office but whose name I didn’t know (or care to know) stared at the walls, his feet, the slowly revolving fan, as though rehearsing lines for the one moment the spotlight turned to him.

I stepped softly as I passed, hoping to escape notice.

“Damn shame isn’t it?”

No such luck.

He sighed. His eyes lost focus. Picturing his script one last time before he committed to his line. “We’ll miss her.”

I clutched my program at my waist, rolled like a white flag. “What would you have done?”

He looked past me. To a walnut panel next to the exit. Did it matter? He spoke his lines. All that remained was the cue to exit.

I don my grandfather’s Stetson. My coat is already buttoned. I step from the chapel into the cold where I’ll wait for Carol to join me when she pays her last respect to no one who deserves it.

The portico faces the Capitol. Street lights shimmer in the mist. I’m desperate for a cigarette.

I haven’t smoked in twenty years.

Cars lock bumpers the length of Congress Avenue. Exhaust escapes like phantoms seeking new homes to haunt.

It will be hell driving home.

Wry noir author Phillip T. Stephens wrote Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell, and the Indie Book Award winning Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt.

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