They are such nice clothes.
But how can I wear them, in light of how they’ve come to me?
With an exuberant air, Dulcianne presented me with two large trash bags. She was my aunt, but for as long as I could recall, always only Dulcianne.
“Her family left all of these behind,” she said.
Then: “They took only the jewelry and the furniture.”
And then: “I think they might be ‘bout your size.”
I accepted the bags with splayed fingertips. They’d been sitting in one of the sixth-floor apartment rooms with, I understood, two polished bookshelves and a dead body.
“I took some of her hats myself,” Dulcianne said. “And a few of the books. They all ‘bout witchcraft.” She shouted over her breezy air conditioner; the place felt like an icebox. If I complained, I already knew what she’d say: that she was going through “the change.”
I stood in Dulcianne’s kitchen, looking at the morbid, pilfered loot stacked high on the oval table.
“The folks who live on the same side on the fifh floor?” Dulcianne went on. “They the ones that called. They noticed a stain on their living room ceiling, and it began to smell, then it began to flake off, then it began to drip. When the drippin began—well Mandy, that’s when they called the super.”
I stared at her, keeping my gaze neutral. She wore an oversized white tee with The California Raisins in a Temptations-style pose, mikes in gloved hands. I could smell the pine-scented cleaner she’d used on the table.
“’Course, me being here on four, plus on the opposite side, I couldn’t notice nothin. Didn’t know the girl myself. But heard she was a model, and a successful one at that. That ain’t easy to do here in the Rotten Apple. And she was real pretty—I got a snapshot here to prove it, and she looks to be about—”
“How did you manage to get a picture?” I asked.
“After the police left—and they’d, you know, taken the cats away and cut ‘er down—she chose one of those old-fashioned ceilin fans, you know?—and the folks came through and only took the essentials, like I told you?—well then, the apartment was just left wide open for three whole days, and we neighbors, we went in and sort of divvied up the leftovers. Everything was gone by Thursday.” She shuffled over to a large crystal bowl and scooped a fistful of striped peppermints.
“Like a garage sale,” I said drily, but my insinuation was lost on her. I sank onto Dulcianne’s prized deacon’s bench, my hip grazing the bags and causing them to roll onto the floor like overstuffed pillows.
“Watch out for those; those’re high-octane threads in there. Some of ‘em never worn—still have the Bloomingdale’s tags on ‘em. Corporate suits and such. Now Amanda, you’d never be able to afford this level of wardrobe, yourself.”
This level of wardrobe?
Dulcianne launched into a rehashing of the neighbors’ gossip, fixated on the condition of the dead woman’s apartment. The witch, as Dulcianne christened her, had both planned and provided for her demise: while her air conditioner had been turned off, the whole place had been swept, mopped, dusted. The cats’ conditions led the investigating officers to discover that, although food and water had been left out, the rations hadn’t lasted the entire thirteen days. What must it have been like for the poor dears, watching their caretaker’s death dance at the end of that rope? Seeing her decomposition? The woman no doubt had expected to be discovered earlier, perhaps by a boyfriend or fellow model. Dulcianne noted with some venom that the authorities confiscated the answering machine. It would have had two weeks of juicy messages on it.
Dulcianne was especially incensed not to have been at home when the family came to collect the most valuable effects. But Amy, Dulcianne’s next-door neighbor, allowed that the witch’s folks had “dough up the yin yang” and had appeared distracted and unconcerned with most of the woman’s possessions. The family had told prying neighbors that the woman had a genius IQ, the potential of which had been marred by a host of unspecified psychological problems.
The witch’s apartment door was painted with crude symbols, courtesy of her coven well-wishers. Unlit candles had been placed at the threshold. I’d gotten a chill when I climbed up to the apartment before coming back down to Dulcianne’s door.
Dulcianne stacked the bags neatly as she spoke, then returned to sifting through the loot on the table. “Let me get the picture for you—”
“I don’t want to see—”
“You sit right there.” She bustled down her narrow hallway, her girth just clearing the treacherous corners.
The dishwasher door was open, half-filled. I skirted the booty-laden table and finished loading Dulcianne’s breakfast dishes. Noticing the empty nutmeg jar in the spice rack, I located the small tin in her pantry and refilled the jar. I put the grapefruit juice bottle in the fridge and turned to consider the table.
Most prominent in the mass of items was a large-print wall clock frozen at 1:08. Had that been A.M. or P.M.? No way to tell, of course. Had the clock stopped ticking as her heart beat its last? A witch’s clock might do that.
The clock was propped against another object. I lifted the clock—it was heavier than it looked—and discovered a small ceramic piece, fragrant and white with orange blossoms painted on it. A potpourri warmer? Leaning over the perforated top, I took a cautious whiff: sandalwood. I straightened abruptly. I had a whole package of sandalwood incense sticks at home in my top kitchen drawer. But sandalwood was common enough, wasn’t it? I carefully re-perched the clock, leaving two sweaty fingerprints on its brass trim.
Stepping around the table, I found a yellow plastic basket filled with the sort of items I stored under my own kitchen sink: drain cleaner, a bottle of ammonia (half-full), floor wax, a nearly empty detergent box and a tall can of Black Flag insect spray, its top on. I smiled grimly. Here, at least, we differed. I used only Raid and furthermore, always kept the top off for instantaneous deployment. I rattled the basket to shift its contents about. Behind the pest repellent was a commemorative Cadbury’s tin released in celebration of 100 years of business, 1889-1989. How had the woman come across such a beautiful piece? Dulcianne said she had been a model; had milk chocolate biscuits been her weakness? Or had she, as I would have done, purchased the cookies simply because they were packaged so quaintly? I smiled for the first time since entering Dulcianne’s apartment. I shook the box and the items within rattled. Prying the lid open, I found three matchbooks and an emery board. One of the matchbooks was from the posh Peninsula Hotel. On a yellow square of paper, in penciled block letters, I read what appeared to be book titles: Hexes and Spells, Hedda’s Book of Herbal Healing, Lost Spectres. Were these books she had planned to purchase?
I replaced the basket on the table and noticed the robin’s-egg blue of a small Tiffany’s shopping bag. It stood elegantly, crisp and straight, amid the haphazard effects, sporting a tease of white tissue paper. I wiped my hands on my jeans and lifted the bag, but it was empty.
“There’s nothin’ in that, hon, but I took the bag anyway.” Dulcianne came puffing back through the corridor; finding the photo had taken much exertion. “I like to dump a couple batteries in bags like those–go on, look at it—[with an impatient gesture of the photo-bearing hand]—I like to dump a couple batteries in them and take those bags and walk down Fifth and Madison avenues with ‘em. Make folks think I’ve just been shoppin at Tiffany’s. Sometimes at the office? The fancy-pants lawyers leave shopping bags from Lord & Taylor? Saks? Well, I do the same thing with those. The other paralegals used to roll their eyes at me like I was nuts, but guess what? Now they follow suit. Suit!” She waved her arm at the bulging trash bags. “Broad’s got a ton of ‘em in there, I think I mentioned.”
The photo was a 5 x 7, probably part of a contact sheet of identical portraits. She was blonde, hair feathered back, dark eyes, evening makeup with blue accents, early thirties maybe, smiling.
“Now, this don’t work if the bags’re all crinkled and creased. If they’re all crinkled and creased, I won’t take ‘em. We got a whole slew of ‘em in the break room.”
The witch hadn’t been a showstopper in my opinion, but pretty enough. What would she think of me, a black freelancing web developer living a check-to-check existence, claiming her high-and-mighty finery?
“...Baccarat. Tourneau. Not too many Lancôme, but a few, sometimes. You got to try it, it’s fun. Let me check on Monday and see if there’re some that aren’t all crinkled and—”
I could never have afforded her top-floor apartment. There were just two apartments on the sixth floor, and both were the only two-bedrooms in the building, with balconies, Italian marble baths and real fireplaces. Nor could I have afforded her spiffy car. (The family had not left that to the covetous neighbors.) She’d had a touch of the maverick in her, though: part of the minority of Manhattan car owners. I was a free spirit, myself. Of course—if Dulcianne’s reckoning about the occult was on target—this woman would have known more about spirits than I.
“—one or two Ann Taylor bags, I shouldn’t wonder. Ann, she’s too conservative for you, Amanda, I know, what with your hippie get-ups—”
“I’m not a hippie and I don’t wear get—”
“—but the bags are crisp and important-lookin, and Ann don’t run a cheap shop. Folks’ll think you’ve just been shopping at—”
“There isn’t really an Ann Taylor, Dulcianne,” I said. “That’s just a brand name. It’s not like Coco Chanel or Oleg Cassini. Those are real designers.” I handed the picture back to her, then fetched my fanny pack from a wall hook beside the door.
Dulcianne studied the photo, holding it close to her face. “Name’s Federoff. Her last name, anyway. I got it off the mailbox downstairs before they removed the label. Don’t recall ever seein her around the building. Course you never know who your neighbors are anyways in this city. No one makes eye contact. Could’ve passed her on the stairs and I wouldn’t’ve known. I wonder what ‘er first name is?”
I cast a sidelong glance at her. “You seem to know everything else about her. I can’t believe you didn’t get her name.”
She cackled. “Ain’t that somethin’, though? Maybe it’s in one of her witchy goblin books. She looks more like a Charlotte or Suzette or Nanette.”
Dulcianne waddled to the table, shifting contents around until she held up a slender brown volume with gold symbols emblazoned on the cover, but no title.
“I went upstairs you know, before I came here,” I said, squinting to see the book cover. “One of those, the second one from the left I think, was sprayed on her door.”
“Oh yeah? You recognize it?” Dulcianne grinned, flipping to the front of the book, then to the back.
“Not neat like that one, though. It’s hard to draw with a spray paint can. If that’s what they used.”
“A-ha!” Dulcianne slammed the book on to a pile of manila folders and smacked her thumb against a page.
“A-ha what?” I asked.
“I was close. Not Suzette, but Susan. Which really is the same as Suzanne, which sounds an awful lot like Suzette. So I basically guessed it. Susan Federoff. See, it’s written on the back page.”
“Why there and not the front? Most people write their names in the front of books.”
“Witches do everything backwards. In reverse.” Dulcianne snapped the book closed.
“You don’t know that. You don’t even know if she really was a witch.”
“Them symbols on her door! Those are witchy symbols! I can’t wait to delve into some of her books. Bet some of them got recipes in ‘em. Recipes for itchy witchy brews!”
“For goodness’ sake.”
“Hey, the broad’s in the ground. She won’t mind a bit of a chuckle. You’re leavin now? Well wait—I’ll lend you my shopping cart to take the bags home in. You can bring it back next weekend.”
I sidled towards the door. “They probably won’t fit. The bags are too bulky. Why don’t we donate them?”
Dulcianne whirled on me. “Have you lost your mind? Who donates spanking-new threads like these? Who’d get 'em? Some wretched body who’s not half worthy. You, we know you’re worthy, you bein my niece and all it could scarcely be otherwise.” She beamed at me and extracted her folded cart from the crammed broom closet. A small box tumbled down in the process, but she kicked it out of the way. “Want the picture?”
“What?” I was incredulous.
“Want the picture, too?”
“What would I do with the picture of a dead person I never knew? I’m still trying to figure out what business you have with it.”
“I’ll keep it a bit. Look at ‘er while I’m sortin out her books and knick-knacks.”
“Why? You think she’ll have suggestions as to where everything should go?”
Dulcianne loaded the three bags into the cart, leaning on the topmost to jam them into the battered cart’s confines. She guffawed. “Wouldn’t that be just like a witch? You know, maybe tell me where the clock looks best, her spirit directin me from the picture?”
I put one hand to my stomach.
“Waxin squeamish, are you?” Dulcianne crowed. “You’re gettin too involved. This is all a matter of practicality. Bloomy’s don’t sell clothes like these for cadavers. The witch is dead. We’re alive. So thus, the clothes’re for us.” She grinned, proud of her grisly syllogism. “Wish I could fit ‘em myself, but that ain’t in the cards. But no use in letting such fancy, pricey threads go to waste. ‘Resourceful’ is one of my middle names.”
“Opportunist” would be one too, I thought.
Dulcianne opened the door and pushed the cart as far as the landing. “You’ll be all right, then?” she asked, peering at me. “These four flights? It’s Saturday, I ain’t doin’ nothing. Maybe I should help.”
“No, I’m fine. I can bump it down and then it’s just a few blocks.” I was twenty-six, but Dulcianne seemed to think I was still sixteen.
“All right, then. I’ll watch from the window till you get past Duane Reade. I can’t see past that cause they put up that damn scaffolding—what are they fixin now, I ask you?—so I can’t see down to the Chinese laundry no more. You know they changed hands in there?”
I eased the cart down the first treads. “Bye, Dulcianne. Thanks for saving these for me.” The stairwell’s echo seemed to amplify the insincerity of this last remark.
Dulcianne’s face lit up, her voice softening with affection. “Well, you know, I could never get any of these outfits on. They wouldn’t begin to fit, wouldn’t hardly be worth tryin.’ I look like a pregnant whale as it is.”
I turned around the next landing. “No, you don’t. I’ll call you next week. I’ll shuttle over from work and we’ll do lunch.”
Dulcianne leaned over the banister and observed my progress, calling out, “That Chinese laundry? They changed hands. You can’t hardly tell, though, since the lot of ‘em look alike anyways.”
I pushed the cart faster. “That’s what people say about us, Dulcianne.”
“I know it,” she bleated, her voice reverberating off the walls, two landings now between us, “only with them, it’s the truth!”
I made no response and thankfully, reached the corridor leading to the building’s entrance.
“You call when you get in!” She had to yell, and I felt the familiar burgeoning irritation. Not disposed to screaming up four flights, I bobbed my head and hastened towards the street.
* * * *
I set myself a deadline for dealing with the two trash bags. Two weeks...a mourning period of sorts? Albeit for someone I’d never met. I banished the spoils to a dusty corner of my studio apartment. Dulcianne felt I should unpack the clothes immediately, “to air ‘em out,” then hang them up, blending them seamlessly into my wardrobe. She had done as much with her stash; she’d interspersed the books in her bookshelves, alphabetically by author. She’d even taken the model’s blender and promptly pressed it into service: butterscotch milkshakes.
I attempted to carry on with daily life in my apartment, but I realized I was investing a disproportionate amount of time in wondering what Susan would prefer I do with her clothes. Would she prefer they be donated to charity? The Salvation Army? The homeless? Would a witch—if Susan ever really was one—even be concerned with charity?
The two-week period I had assigned myself passed soon enough. I wrenched the bags open and began sorting the clothes into separate heaps. Three blazers, one black, one maroon, one white and double-breasted; one paisley-patterned chiffon scarf, four dresses (two with scooped necks), another with tiny buttons from hem to neckline. She’d been more patient than I; I kept buttons to a minimum in my wardrobe.
Suppose Ms. Model was eyeing me from some ever-after realm? Perhaps she was appalled that her garments had found their way into common, no-frill hands. I sifted through the piles, checking sizes. Some of the clothes were imports and were cut in odd ways. She’d been just one size smaller and, because of the fine tailoring of the items, most would fit me well.
But one taupe woolen skirt-and-jacket set seemed too large for me, even allowing for one of my bulky sweaters underneath. So, despite her vaunted career, she hadn’t achieved the perfect figure, either. I discerned from a tiny halter top that she’d had a tad less to put into it than I had. Score one for me.
I cleared a rack and one shelf in my closet, allotting that space to the new additions. I decided to treat them like fine china. I would only bring them out for the best company. The first outfit I tried on was a yellow summer frock with large white polka dots, long, falling below the knee. I eased the dress on, moving my legs in an experimental manner, as though they’d been cracked from casts that morning. I felt a mild irritation each time the full skirt tapped the backs of my calves. I twirled before the full-length mirror, watching the hem full of halved polka dots.
* * * *
Dulcianne phoned me the following Thursday evening as I was fine-tuning some HTML code for a client’s Web site launch.
“Hold on, Dulcianne, just let me save my code.”
“This a bad time? What’re you doing bringin’ work home anyway?”
“What’re you workin at home for?”
“I’m finishing up a last bit of programming. Remember, I’m on a six-month contract with this firm. The client needs the code tomorrow.”
“Don’t make a habit of it.”
“Bringin work home. It’s a sign of poor time management and signals your client that you’re not organized.”
I whipped my baseball beach towel from where it draped on a chair back. “You sound like one of those how-to-get-ahead-in-biz books in the organizational management section of Doubleday & Company.”
Dulcianne gave a hard shout of laughter. “You should read them books, hon. Don’t want to be at some codgey supervisor’s beck and call forever, do you? I have been reading some books, though. Hers.”
I imagined Dulcianne’s left eyebrow crooked upwards, as it did when she intimated some cryptic clue and wanted the listener to fill in the blanks.
“Hers!” Irritation flooded Dulcianne’s tone.
I grinned but snapped my lips over my teeth to remove the smile from my voice. “All right. Anything interesting?”
“This broad was into lost spectres and earthbound spirits big time.”
“Spectres?” I smoothed the towel into an orange-and-blue rectangle and lowered myself into the yoga lotus position.
“Yep. Called ‘disembodied spirits’ too, accordin to one of the glossaries.”
“What are they?”
“Each book defines it a little differently, but the gist is that they’re people’s spirits that have trouble moving on after the person dies.” She cleared her throat, pitching her voice a register higher. “‘Because the spirit is in denial and refuses to accept that he or she is dead.’”
I heard pages flipping. “We don’t even know for a fact that she was a witch. This could have been a hobby.”
Dulcianne snorted. “What about those coven folks who graffitied her door? Bet I find those symbols in one of these tomes. She’s the real thing, all right.”
I lay down on the towel, the receiver curving from my ear like a red comma, pointing at the queue of track lights above me.
“‘Yet others are overcome with guilt and fear, too ashamed to enter the beckoning light,’” Dulcianne intoned.
“Oh for heaven’s sake. Name me a spiritual death experience that doesn’t include one sort of ‘beckoning light’ or other.”
“‘If you sense a lost spectre in your home, it will benefit you to light a white candle anointed with sage oil—’”
“‘—speaking in an empathizing but firm tone.’” I stifled a laugh. “Speaking? Speaking what?”
Dulcianne’s voice took on an aery register. “‘There is no reason to be afraid. It is time for you to move on. Go into the light with love and peace within your heart. Be released from your earthly—’”
“Chains, right? It’s always chains or—”
“Oh, forgive me. Bonds and not chains.” I heard the soft muff of the book cover shutting and envisioned a cloud of rising yellow dust.
“So! Have you hung up all the clothes?”
I inhaled sharply. “Not yet. First I separated them all out. I laid them in piles on the floor—”
“Gads! The floor! Not the Bloomy-bagged outfits?”
“Some of the clothes are for winter and some are casual wear. A lot of the suits still had store tags on them. Her taste was way more refined than mine.”
“Meaning that I probably would never have bumped into her downtown in the Village. I’ll bet she’d have been put off by the tattooed, body-pierced, blue-haired denizens there.”
“Who knows? Maybe she let her flaxen model locks down on weekends. She might have been one to go villaging with you.”
“I doubt it. Listen, Dulcianne, let me finish hacking this code.”
“Okay, you go on. Hey Mandy, how bout that lunch on Friday? You up for that?”
“That’ll work. I’ll meet you in front of the Plaza Hotel.”
* * * *
She stood in my cool cedar-wood closet, diaphanous as the dry-cleaner’s plastic that covered all of her suits, between two racks of clothes: one rack held my clothing and the other, hers. A sylph of a woman in nondescript attire, a sleek apparition, shorter than myself, her hips more richly blessed. I took deep breaths of the Tahitian-vanilla incense smoke curling in from my bedroom and squeezed my armful of metal hangers against my chest. I should engage in some manner of female histrionics, shouldn’t I? Scream, run, throw my arms in the air, wring my hands. That’d be exciting, for both of us. Wringing my hands, I mean. I’ve read so often about someone wringing her hands, but I’ve never actually seen it done. In last week’s phone call, Dulcianne said Susan had as many bookcases in her abandoned apartment as I had in mine. She was a reader then, just as I am, so she must have come across such literary passages. Ones where people distressfully wring their hands. Only problem is, I didn’t feel the requisite level of duress. I’ve been addressing her in my mind so frequently these two weeks, that all I can manage is a hiccup and a hard swallow. What is the proper protocol to follow when one meets a ghost? All I knew about spiritual realms came from Twilight Zone re-runs. I’d left those witchcraft books with Aunt Dulcianne. No doubt they held clues as to how to proceed in this type of encounter. Had I read them I would know how to behave. Well, hospitality was still in order, wasn’t it? Perhaps I should offer a snack. The leftover banana cream pie from last night? No, no, she used to be a model. Just because she’s dead doesn’t mean she’s not still watching her weight. I could warm the vegetable casserole downstairs and—
“How long are you going to keep them like this?”
My hangers clattered to the floor. The first histrionic. Her voice was higher than mine, but not really musical, the way I thought ghosts’ voices were supposed to sound.
“How long are you going to keep them like this? Mine on one side?”
“Oh. Uh. Well, now that you’re here, maybe you could help me with that.” My chest throbbed where the metal hangers had impressed my flesh.
“I don’t see how I could possibly help you with that.” She tilted her head and smiled indulgently, as though speaking to a child.
“What...would you like to see done...with them?” What an awful sentence construction, the passive voice. She’s a reader, she’ll notice that. I just can’t afford to invest too much of myself in this discussion right now. “What would you like to see done with them?”
“I told my parents but they pretended not to care.”
This piece of irrelevance hung in the pungent air between us. So she’s not ready to get it on either, I see.
“Where have you gone?” I asked. My heart was speeding up, and to slow it, I bent to retrieve the fallen hangers.
Hangers. Hanging on a clothes rack. She’d been hanging from a ceiling fan.
“I have not gone anywhere, really,” she responded. “I have merely moved.”
“You must have gone somewhere?”
“Look at all the visitors I have had in the past few weeks.”
“Visitors? The landlord, police, investigators and neighbors?”
“Gone people do not get visitors; moved ones do.”
I tried to smile, but the pulse beating at the corners of my mouth hindered my attempt. “What...what do you make of all the...your visitors?”
“That delightful scent. Where is it coming from?” She craned around her clothing rack to peer out the door.
With trembling hands, I placed my hangers on an empty rack. My laundry, fresh out of the dryer, would be thoroughly wrinkled by now. Too late to rescue it. “That’s my incense. I have a large collection of it.” I barely recognized my own voice.
She swiveled on me. “Is that right? I am into potpourri, myself.”
She hadn’t called me on my use of the passive voice; I wouldn’t point out her use of the present tense. I recalled the ornate warmer on Dulcianne’s loot-laden table. “I know. We both like sandalwood.”
She regarded me for a long moment, then glided out the door.
Stunned, I stood transfixed. As long as we confined ourselves to the closet, I could view this entire encounter as some half-lucid fantasy. I’d snap out of it when I tired of the exercise. I’d felt a preposterous measure of security, as though communing with a ghost in a cedar closet provided a protection level equivalent to what I’d have if I kept a date with a vampire in a garlic grove. And weren’t some kinds of incense supposed to repel spirits? Well, here was one who was drawn to it. Perhaps witch-ghosts are different.
I found my legs and followed her into my bedroom. She stood in the center of my gray carpet, touching nothing but surveying all.
I didn’t have a lot of furniture. There was my daybed (unmade), the periwinkle folding table (cluttered) and four matching chairs (scattered). A tall box draped with a Mets baseball beach towel served as my nightstand. My small television sat on my laptop’s original shipping carton. My stereo, in the corner nearest my bed, sported a set of unmatched speakers, one of which supported my stuffed laundry bag. Two vine-covered windows splayed a dappled pattern on the carpet. The ghost drifted over to the nearest window and looked out. She’d lived a comparatively privileged lifestyle; what did she think of my common quarters?
“I did not realize you were this high up. What floor are we on?”
“The fifth,” I answered, my breath catching. She’s here in my apartment—knew where to find me—but is unaware of her larger surroundings.
“My cats...who took my cats?” Accusatory.
“I...I don’t know, exactly. But I’m sure they’re with good owners. I believe one person took them both in. They were... in desperate need of care.”
She whirled on me. “Naturally I did not mean for them to be left un-tended that long. I thought someone would discover them sooner. Someone certainly should have.” Her voice crescendoed.
It is not wise, it really is not wise, to vex a witch-ghost, particularly while she is a visitor in your home. “Nobody knew what you...”
“That does not matter! Somebody should have called.” She stepped across—she didn’t appear to float this time—to the adjacent window, gazing out at the sidewalks below. Her chest heaved a little but I couldn’t hear her breathing.
“Actually, several people called,” I offered in a thin voice. “The police heard two weeks’ worth of messages on your answering tape.”
“Well, when I failed to return their calls in a timely manner...you would think someone would stop by to check.” Her translucent hand gripped my lace curtain.
I took a deep breath and held it, then squatted to retrieve some red lint, courtesy of my ever-shedding bedspread, from the carpet. My knees functioned like rusted hinges. “Look, I...I really am not experienced in this.”
"In what?” Her tone shifted to pure curiosity, though she didn’t turn from the window.
I eased back up to my feet, cupping the lint in my palm. “In this ...hob-nobbing with ghosts.” I used my foot to nudge a tin trash can from under a corner of my draped bedspread and watched the lint float down into it.
“I am not a ghost!” The hard edge returned to her voice. She gripped my delicate curtain harder, causing one of the top loops to slip from its ring.
“Has anyone ever said to you, ‘That’s life. Life’s not fair?’” She pivoted to face me, her expression serene again. Her ghostly garb had shifted so that her scoop neckline was off-center. Is this what she’d been wearing when she’d fastened that noose to the ceiling fan? Had she purchased it at ritzy Saks, or tony Lord & Taylor? I coughed to stifle the hysterical giggles percolating in my throat.
She continued. “Interesting, is it not—funny, even—how people accept the unfairness of life?”
“I need oxygen,” I said, and hastened to the first window and pushed the sash up past the entwining vines. The humid air entered at once, bearing acrid fumes through my window. Loud rap music emanated from a yellow convertible waiting behind the crosstown bus.
“What are those? You are a gardener?” She indicated two flowerpots on my sill.
The city’s smelling salts hadn’t worked. I turned to regard her. “What? Oh no, not really. I just grow a couple things on the sill. These are scarlet runners. They’re a type of bean.”
“But do you not agree that it is strange how people accept the injustice of life? Think about it. None of us asked to be born. When we were still unconcieved, floating around in the ether—”
“Is that where you’ve moved to?”
“—we were never consulted about whether or not life was something we wanted.”
Impulsively, I dumped my lint out the window, watching it float down. My back teeth ached; I’d been clenching them.
She sensed my distraction and moved up beside me. “Think of it. No choice in the matter.”
“I’d like a drink,” I mumbled. I spun about and headed out the bedroom door at a brisk clip. I rounded the kitchen corner, grazing my shoulder when I didn’t quite clear it. I had proper liquor glasses in the cupboard, but I went for the dishwasher, swinging the door down so hard it bounced partway closed again. The top rack trundled out with a delicious clamor. I clinked two black coffee mugs together as I headed for the counter-high fridge. Pulling out a tall bottle of premixed Fuzzy Navel, I filled both mugs to the brim. I placed hers on the table and gulped from mine as I replaced the bottle in the fridge, closing the door with my hip. I leaned against the counter.
The ghost had followed me, watching my industry in silence. After I’d taken my third sweet swig, she spoke as though there’d been no interruption. “If people cry foul in some aspect of their lives, they expect and endeavor for that aspect to be remedied somehow. But when it concerns Life Itself, they cry foul and then, well—just shrug it off.”
Both my head and my hands were steadier. “What other choice have we, really?” I asked. “I mean, you...”
“I am an example that choice exists.” She sat in one of the chairs, not pulling it out but pouring herself into it. She sat before her glass, yet didn’t touch it.
“There must be other choices.” I watched her warily. “More reasonable ones,” I muttered.
She crossed her legs, shaking off her right shoe but keeping the left one on. I stared at the discarded footwear. She was determined to convince us both that she was truly here, in my kitchen, at my table, in this moment. She gazed at me with impervious eyes. Was her silence a reproach?
I said, “Most people view life as the most precious kind of gift.”
She jiggled her bare foot, held up a clear hand. “Spare me the philosophical homilies.” The indulgent smile returned.
I withdrew to the refrigerator and the bottle. “Don’t you like your drink?” I asked. “Would you prefer something else? Soda? Ice water?”
“Who taught the idea of life as a gift?”
“I have some banana cream pie. Can I offer—”
“My choice is unconventional all right, but no one can say it is wrong.”
“Was wrong.” I pulled a chair away from the table, dragging it across to the counter, and sat down, facing her squarely. “I almost never wear shoes in here, you know. You can take off your other shoe if you’d like. I’ll put ‘em up in the shoe rack.”
She jiggled her foot harder.
I swirled the drink around in my mug. “Life was given to us, wasn’t it?”
She inclined her head and smiled, tugging at her skewed neckline, exposing a shoulder. Did she wear a bra under there?
“I will grant you that gifts certainly presuppose a giver,” she intoned. “But we cannot presuppose that the gift is a positive thing.”
My stomach tightened, then began to cramp. Perhaps Saturday morning Fuzzy Navels did not agree with me. “I can see how some people might come to regard life as a curse instead of a gift, but you seemed to have everything.”
Her shoulders lifted just slightly. “Mandy, what is the true difference between a gift and a curse?”
“I don’t rightly know, Susan.”
Her foot stopped jiggling. She uncrossed her legs and re-shod her foot, appearing to grow taller in her chair. I straightened my own back, setting my mug down hard on the countertop.
“You have not ever plummeted to a point where you could no longer continue living with any semblance of self-respect? So low that you had to stretch up just to touch bottom?”
“Is that the point you reached?” I asked. Where were we headed here? I grabbed my mug from the counter behind me, hoping to steady my hands in the process. She was silent while I took a drink. “Of course,” I began, “I have met some hard times, but I never—”
“There is a despair to this world, a futility, a putrid sinkhole in the heart.”
My mug was halfway to my mouth. I froze.
“...a passing from transitory autumn to wintry infinitude...”
Was this some literary allusion? “I—I’m sorry. Are you quoting someone? I don’t recognize—”
“...a passing from anticipated daybreak to seamless night after night.”
She rose from the chair, staring at a point above my head. I dared a quick glance behind me but saw nothing save for the box of dishwashing detergent I’d left out, and my wilting African violets. She advanced first one step, then two, arms outstretched.
I got out of my chair in a hurry.
She continued. “In a moment of blue triumph—”
“Susan.” I spoke louder. “Please. I have no inkling what you’re talking about, and—and you’re not making sense. Perhaps you’re not feeling—”
“In a moment of clairvoyance-on-the-rocks in a shattered snifter...” Her face became radiant. Clearly, she was seeing something above me that I could not. Her arms widened now in an encompassing gesture.
“...a mind reaching, reaching for spectators–”
“Spectators?” I felt for the counter behind me. My mug didn’t quite clear the counter’s edge and it fell to the floor, shattering and splashing cold Fuzzy Navel over my sheepskin slippers. I felt a sting in my left ankle from a flying shard.
Susan snapped out of her trance at the mug’s crashing, jerking her head to regard the mess about my feet. She lifted her eyes to meet mine, and our gazes held for a lengthy moment.
I broke the spell, moving to the sink to collect the orange sponge I used for minor mop-ups. I swung the faucet over from the disposal side of the sink and ran the hot water over my hands until my palms were flushed and steam rose into my eyes. I squeezed the sponge out three times.
When I turned to attend to the spill, she was gone.
* * * *
“Over here! Amanda! Over here!”
I peered through the crowd and spotted Dulcianne. She waved her arms over her head, performing erratic knee bends as though she were on a pitching boat. Even after we’d made eye contact across the lunch-time horde, she continued dipping and flailing until I was right beside her.
“Would you stop that?” I hissed in her face. I glanced about to see who might be watching her spectacle but, this being New York, everyone focused only on their lunches. “What is the matter with—”
“Oh there you are! My favorite niecey!” She displayed a grin that showed both rows of teeth and squinched her eyes up. She enveloped me in a tight bear hug, as though we hadn’t just seen each other two weeks ago. My sandwich and applesauce ricocheted in my cooler.
We were at the fountain plaza just across from the Plaza Hotel. The area was a noontime gathering place during the balmy months, and Dulcianne and I had met halfway between our offices for lunch. She wore unrelieved red—earrings, suit, heels. As we sat down on the fountain’s low rim, she surveyed my attire with disappointed eyes.
“Oh phooey! I thought you’d wear some of her clothes.”
I pulled out my bottle of spring water and engaged in a struggle with the newfangled cap. “Whose?” I affected a curious tone.
“Hers. Hers! You know, so I could see ‘em.”
“You’ve seen them before. You saw them before I ever—”
“On you, not on you I haven’t. I was sure you’d wear something today.”
“I am wearing something today.” I extracted my egg salad on whole wheat and busied myself with the tacky sandwich wrap.
“You’re treatin’ that like it’s a Christmas gift,” Dulcianne mumbled. “Why don’t you just rip it off.”
I threw a sideways glance at her. She slumped over her own brown bag, eyes downcast.
“How’s your diet coming along?” I inquired.
“I’m tired of everyone askin me that.”
“Must not be going well, then, I reckon.” I bit into my sandwich and chewed while I looked at the traffic on Fifth Avenue.
We fell silent. I glanced about the grounds, catching the eye of a lone black man sitting on one of the flower bed benches. He nodded, saluted me with his soda can and grinned toothily. I stared at him just long enough to telegraph my supreme disinterest, then returned my attention to my egg salad. “Have you read any more of her books?” I ventured. I hadn’t walked eight blocks for an hour of sulky silence.
Dulcianne shrugged with one shoulder and opened her brown bag. “I skimmed through more of ‘em. I’m decidin’ which one to read clear through first. There’s a small paperback devoted to symbols, a glossary, like. But hell, even I already knew some of those. It has the zodiac in there and the meaning of colors and numbers. Then there’s an awful big one, too—like a dictionary. It took me half an hour just to leaf through the table of contents.”
“What sorts of topics are in the books? Did she write in any of them, you know, make notes?”
Dulcianne took out a large container of potato salad and a bag of corn chips. The diet was on the fritz, I saw.
“Not the sorts of things I expected.” She paused, hand on hip, and furrowed her eyebrows. “Some of it was about spirits, visitations, that type of deal, like I told you before. But most of it’s about stuff like herbs, plants, gardens, even healing. Nothing but a backwards National Geographic.”
“So not enough ghosts n’ goblins for ya, huh?” But I wasn’t quite able to smile; my own hallucinatory encounter—yes, that’s how I chose to package it—was still a vivid, unsettling memory. Was my mind unwinding loop by loop? Was I overworked? Perhaps I had been tired that morning. Quite tired. Very, very ti—
“It’s in there somewhere.” Dulicanne whipped her whole torso around. “Just got to find it. Some of those books got to cover that. I’m gonna look again in that symbol book, see if I can’t find the ones they sprayed on her door.” She munched on the chips, having designated those as the first course. “You haven’t worn anything of hers?”
I was not a nut case. Remember the governess in Turn of the Screw. There’s plenty of time to figure out—to decide—what happened later. If anything. Really. Happened.
“You know I have. I told you about it. I wear some of the suits to work.”
“Well, you’re workin today!”
“I also have not discarded my old clothes.” My voice wavered with a first angry undercurrent. I chased the last bit of sandwich down with the spring water. I did not wish to refer to the clothes as “hers” any longer.
“Still can’t believe you were daft enough to spend that mint at the dry cleaners. When I told you that most of them never been worn, still had the Bloomy’s tags—”
“’On ‘em,’ I know. But they sat in that apartment for twelve days...with her!”
“In a closed closet! Nothing settled on ‘em.”
My stomach lurched and I gulped down the rest of my water. “It’s the idea, Dulcianne. The idea, and the thought.”
“What idea? The idea that she took care to put the clothes neatly in the closet and then shut ‘em in. What thought? The thought that, in the course of an ordinary year, you’d never amass—ha, ha! How do you like that word? Amass!—that level of wardrobe.”
“And to think that before all of this, I wasn’t aware that wardrobes came in levels.” I reached into my cooler, hooked my finger under the applesauce cup’s lid and yanked it out.
“You’ve got to keep in mind, Mandy, the goal of moving up the corporate ladder. Your mom hasn’t told you? Dress at the same level as your supervisor, or higher. Listen, stupid as it is, irrelevant as it is, promotions are based on things like that. This witch, she’s gonna help you snare a better position. She’ll put you into a high salary bracket.”
“Then my financial worries are over.” I crumpled the noisy sandwich wrap into a ball. “Has she proved of any assistance to you yet?”
Dulcianne watched me, uncertain whether I was jesting. “Just wait till I puzzle out some of her spells. She’ll be plenty help then.”
“So she did write in some of the books?”
“No, no—I don’t know. Ain’t seen them all yet, I told you. I flipped through to spot a bookmark or piece of note paper or a stray photograph, but those books’re as clean as the apartment was.”
“Maybe she’s like me and turns down the page corners to mark her place.”
“My feeling is, wasn’t no need for her to mark any place. She knew she wasn’t coming back to it.”
Slowly, I stirred my applesauce. “Dulcianne. Do you think of life—living—as a gift?
She whirled on me. “Now where did that come from? You thinkin bout our Miss Susie?”
“No. Just...is life a gift, in your opinion?”
“I don’t know, Mandy. Might be. But then we’d have to ask who gave it. And what sort of personality would give it. He’d have to be an ornery little creature, too, because life can be grand one minute and sheer hell the next.”
We cannot presuppose that the gift is a positive thing.
“It can be going along just fine and then, without warning, it blows up in your face like one of the Unabomber packages. And that’s worth thinking about right there, cause his packages masqueraded as gifts. But they weren’t.” She narrowed her eyes and peered at me closely. “You’re sure in a flighty temperament today. You been dwelling on the hanging and the cats and all that? Maybe I shouldn’t’ve told you so much detail about the way she did it.”
“No, no, I haven’t been dwelling on anything,” I said. “I’ve just been thinking—in a general way—about suicides in general. You know, the whys and wherefores. You have not ever plummeted to a point where you could no longer continue living with any semblance of self-respect?"
“If you’re thinking of our little Suzette—”
“Whatever? What do you mean, ‘whatever?’ My God, Dulcianne. And she’s hardly ‘ours.’”
“Sounds like you’re warming up for a bit of soapboxing. All I was gonna say was Susan isn’t the only person who’s offed herself in this city in the past month. It happens. But you shouldn’t obsess over it and think it’s common. Who knows what demons drove her to do what she did, instead of hanging tough—sorry—and being woman enough to stick around. We’ll never know.”
“Neither will her family.”
“But don’t drive yourself batty trying to decode and decipher and demystify. No need to be dwelling on suicide at all.”
A passing from transitory autumn to wintry infinitude.
While I wasn’t prepared to capitulate to Dulcianne over these clothes, I decided to accommodate her just a little. “I might be interested in seeing one of the books if you do find any handwriting,” I offered.
Dulcianne’s face softened. “Well now, I’ll certainly be sure to let you know that. You know, we need to change our view of this experience. What can we learn from the witch’s effects?”
“I can’t help but feel I’ve learned more from the way Susan lived, not the way she died, and what she left behind. If she was a witch, that is.”
“Glowing, we’ve already established that—”
“—as a fact.”
“Conjecture, you mean.”
“Listen, I know this sounds kooky to your young ears, but people spill all kinds of secrets when they die. That old business ‘bout folks takin’ things to the grave with them? The dead don’t tell tales? Bunch of poppycock. You wanna know ‘bout skeletons in someone’s closet, wait until they become skeletons themselves.”
“You think I’m lyin? Think I’m jokin?”
“I thought we were going to talk about that doo-wop extravaganza over at Radio City next month.”
“Yeah! Did you want to get tickets? I spoke with your mom and she says she’ll go. You could bring a friend and we’ll make it a foursome.”
“Not too many people my age really appreciate what doo-wop music is. They aren’t familiar with it.”
“So? This’ll be their learning experience. Perhaps you’ve got a slick, smooth beau under wraps that you want to introduce to your favorite aunt?”
“No, Dulcianne. And I wouldn’t be after slick and smooth—that sounds like a thug. And if I had him under wraps, he’d be there for good reason.”
Dulcianne chuckled, conceding the point, brushing the chip crumbs from her skirt. “Well, all right, all right. You just invite whomever you want, beau or sister-friend. Tickets are sixty bucks. The Delmonicos are gonna be there!” She fished her compact out of her purse and reapplied her lipstick.
“And the Coasters and Persuasions. It’s worth the sixty for the Persuasions alone.” I popped a breath mint into my mouth.
“We can get all dolled up, have dinner beforehand. At the Sea Grill they have entertainment—a live pianist!” Dulcianne cackled. “And I’m glad he’s a live pianist,” she continued, “as a dead one would be hard-pressed to provide suitable entertainment.” She swatted at my knee and rocked with laughter. I managed a wan smile: the deceased were more capable of entertaining than she’d ever know.
“I’m going to wear my short black dress with the roses on it, and you can wear one of—”
“I can wear one of any number of things.” I tried to head her off.
“I’ll probably buy something new. Casual Corner is having a great sale right now. I’ve been working hard and saving; I deserve to treat myself. Don’t you think so?”
Dulcianne was using her liquid pencil and she stopped mid-brow. She rolled her eyes towards me without turning her head, pencil poised like an architect’s compass. “Don’t know what’s got into you,” she muttered, as if to herself. Aloud she said, “Are you okay today, hon? You seem in a particularly contrary mood these days.”
“Only because I am contrary to what you’d like to see me do,” I parried. “Sorry, but I’m no longer the pushover of yore. When—if—I become more comfortable with the clothes, you’ll see them more often. I know you believe in seizing any and every opportunity at a moment’s notice, but you have to admit, there’s something eerie, even macabre, about claiming the clothes of a suicide.” I sighed, then retreated just a pace. “It’s possible I may wear one of the Blooming—”
“I knew you would!” Dulcianne grinned.
“Dulcianne, I didn’t say for sure—”
“How ‘bout that short and sheer black number? You’d look fab in that! And it’s never been worn before; if I recall, that’s one of them that’s still got the—”
“We’ll see. We’ll see.”
Dulcianne linked her arm with mine. “Let’s walk lunch off in the park. You know, I’m thinking of joining Weight Watchers to get more motivation.”
We rose and strolled north towards 66th Street, crossing in front of the neat line of horse-pulled hansoms, our heels wobbling on crooked sidewalk cobbles, past the secondhand jewelry hawkers and the stretch limos parked across the avenue, between the zoo on our left and the M2 bus stop to our right, beneath the trees’ arching canopies and back into the sunlight.