by Theresa Nicolay
Deep into her nineties Mrs. Curtain drove an old Chevy Impala with an interior so expansive you could have pitched a pup tent in it. Man, they don’t make them like that anymore. 396 cubic inches, Turbo Jet V-8 engine with 325 horsepower. Four doors, four-speed manual tranny. The thing used to belong to her husband. He was a teacher, too. No, I couldn’t tell you their first names. They were known at school and around the neighborhood as Mr. Curtain, ninth-grade English, and Mrs. Curtain, ninth-grade history. It didn’t matter that all us kids grew up and grew old—well, most of us anyway. For us they would always be teachers, and every kid knows that a teacher’s life goes into suspended animation between the hours of three p.m. and eight in the morning. Yep, we would forever be ninth graders around Mr. and Mrs. Curtain.
Sorry, did I not introduce myself? My name is Jason Ellison, but you can call me Slim. Only my teachers ever called me by my Christian name. And my mother. She would always call me Jason right before she was about to whip my butt for whatever trouble I’d managed to get myself into. Playing stickball too close to the railroad tracks, staying out too late, stealing beer from Mr. Laporte’s garage, getting drunk on peppermint schnapps behind the grocery on the corner of Hornbeam and Monroe. Toilet-papering the beeches around the Mountain mansion on Halloween. We lived over on Oak Avenue, right near town. But what does it matter? It was a million years ago. Nowadays I live with my sister Minnie—ever since her husband passed—at her and Hugh’s house on Van Buren. I sleep in the sewing room, the one that she had made into a nursery at the start of all those years of trying and failing.
Minnie watches over me so well that every day I have to take my German shepherd for a long walk just to get a break from all that sisterly care and concern. Duke—I give every dog of mine the same name—Duke and me, we like to go up and down the New Streets. The Curtains’ house is way down Elm Avenue, a few blocks from my old house. I always found it strange how the Curtains moved to that particular house. See, their house is number seventy-nine, but the old lady had grown up right next door in number seventy-seven.
Wouldn’t you find it strange to live next door to the house you grew up in? Thinking about people who are no relation of yours eating breakfast in your kitchen or watching TV in your living room, playing hide and seek in your backyard, or sleeping under the window where you slept and looking up at the moon in the middle of the night, just like you did? Or maybe you think it would be nice to live so close. Like you could keep an eye on it and still kinda feel like it was your house. I don’t know which way Mrs. Curtain looked at it. I never asked her and she never told me. But she did give me a real earful about her husband one day, about how she saw his ghost all the time, and that’s the story I’m gonna tell you now.
It happened one morning when Duke and me were chasing the pavement up and down the New Streets just like we always did. The old lady was dragging an overfull ashcan from the garage down to the curb, mumbling to herself the whole time. Folks around the neighborhood had started whispering over their fences a little while back that Mrs. Curtain had finally fallen off her rocker, and from the look of her, I could see their point. Tufts of silvery hair floated and bobbed around her head like she had her own personal breeze blowin’ around her. She’d pull the can a few inches then stop and talk, tilting her head back a little like she was tryin’ to see eye-to-eye with some invisible person.
It was a fine clear morning, still not too chilly to be out in shirtsleeves. We were standing in the driveway. Mrs. Curtain was breathing heavy from dragging the ashcan. Over her shoulder I could see bright white sheets and towels flapping around along the old clothesline that ran from the house to the big elm tree that marked the back corner of her property. The kitchen window was cranked wide open. She was probably making applesauce or apple butter that morning. The smell of cinnamon and cloves mixed with apples—probably Macs or Granny Smiths from the farmer’s market in town—came floating down around my head. The old girl must have been frying up some sausage, too. Lord, it was distracting! Those links were talking to me, all that glorious fat sizzling and popping on the other side of the window even before the smell of sage snaked its way up into my head. Duke was straining at his leash, lickin’ his chops as though spicy sausage was about to descend though the air on invisible arms and put itself right into his mouth.
“Hello, Mrs. Curtain.” I won’t lie. I was angling for a real breakfast, not that squirrel food my sister feeds me. But Slim, it’s full of fiber was her favorite excuse for serving me that ground-up particle board. It’s good for your cholesterol was her next-favorite fairytale. Between you and me, I gotta say that there’s no point in livin’ if you can’t enjoy a good fry-up time and again. And I was dead certain that there was one sizzling and spattering away just on the other side of the window. “That can looks awful heavy. Want me to carry it to the street for you?”
The old lady shot me a look that put me right back in the ninth grade. “Who are you?” She pulled a pair of dirty glasses out of a front pocket of her housecoat and stretched out her neck like a chicken about to peck its way through a pile of cracked corn, squinting those faded blue eyes to get a better look at me. Seemed like she forgot that she had her glasses in her hand. “I don’t know you, young man.” I looked down at the ground. She was wearing those camel colored slippers with red and black flannel on the inside, like my old man used to wear. Looked like she had on men’s socks, too, one brown and one black
“Oh, but you do, Mrs. Curtain.” I smiled, partly at the idea of me being a young man. “I’m Jason Ellison, but all the kids called me Slim. I have a sister, Minerva.” I stopped talking to give the old lady a chance to remember me. She scowled at the German Shepherd who by now had pulled and scratched his way to the side door. I gave the leash an unmerciful yank. “This is my dog, Duke,” I told her. “Don’t worry. He’s as friendly a dog as you’ll ever meet, aren’tcha, boy?”
“My husband is the one who likes dogs,” she said. “not me.”
“I was in your ninth-grade history class, you know. And Mr. Curtain was my English teacher that year. He made us read “Young Goodman Brown.” And you taught us about the Puritans and the witch trials in sixteen—um, what year was it? Sixteen—”
“Ninety-two,” she said. For one brief second her eyes flashed with light.
“Yes, that’s right. Sixteen hundred and ninety-two.”
“Of course, it’s right. Don’t be a fool, Jason Ellison.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” I said, feeling fourteen again.
“You were one of my husband’s students?”
“That’s right. He was one of my favorite teachers. We all liked Mr. Curtain.”
“Here,” she said, stepping away from the trash can. “Take this to the curb and come inside. Are you hungry?”
“I am now. Let me just tie Duke to the gatepost here.”
“That’s alright. He can come in, too. You let him eat table food?”
“Then I’ll feed you both.” She took the leash from me and led Duke in through the side door. I carried the can to the curb and was inside the house in less than a minute.
“Wash your hands before you sit down. You can sit there, in Mr. Curtain’s chair.” She pointed to one of two old Hitchcock chairs pulled up to a small maple dropleaf table. I did as I was told, eager to get my teeth into freshly cooked breakfast sausage dripping with artery-clogging fat. If my sister Minnie could have seen me, she would have been mad enough to pop a blood vessel of her own.
Mrs. Curtain pulled two bisque-colored dishes from one of the glass-front cupboards and set them on the table along with silver forks and knives and white linen napkins. The plates had little wreaths of faded blue and yellow flowers at their centers, like the ones my grandma had. I unfolded my napkin and laid it across my lap while she filled a bowl with tap water and put it on the floor near the side door steps. Duke jumped up to inspect the bowl and then went back to his seat next to the stove. He’d licked up all the fat splatter around the old lady’s feet and was waiting for more to appear.
After putting three sausages and a ladle of applesauce on each plate, Mrs. Curtain went to the fridge and took out a bowl of rice, dumped a ladleful into the frying pan, stirred it around in the grease for a minute, scraped the whole mess into a tin pie plate, and set it down on the floor next to the bowl of water. In the time it took her to pour two cups of coffee and settle into her chair, Duke was done with his meal. He spent the rest of our visit licking the pie plate while Mrs. Curtain told me why, even though her husband had died a long time ago, she had never stopped making enough breakfast for two. “You see,” she said, “he never really went away.”
“Come again?” I just about coughed up a mouthful of coffee.
The old lady cut each of her sausages longwise, straight down the middle, and piled them with applesauce. “Eat your food and I’ll tell you the story.”
“I didn’t choose that Impala, you know,” she said. “Too big for my taste. I told George that. Told him we should get a Cutlass. He wouldn’t hear of it. He was a Chevy man, and besides, the bigger the car, the safer we were, as far as he was concerned.
“Well, he didn’t drive that car for very long. Got so he couldn’t read the road signs so well or rightly judge how close he was to the car in front of him. Almost hit some young idiot in a Camaro once. Smartass kid got out of his car and started yelling at George. I thought he was gonna put his fist right through the window right there in broad daylight in the middle of Main Street. But George, he wouldn’t roll down the window. He just kept looking ahead, waiting for the light to change. When it did, all the cars behind us starting honking their horns for that kid to move that Camaro. It was holding up traffic, you see, right at the four corners.”
“What did the kid do?”
“What do you think he did? He got back in his car and took off. Left a nice pair of tire tracks in the road, I can tell you. George’s hands were shaking even though his fingers were wrapped tight around the steering wheel. Oh, he managed to get us home alright. Then he handed me the keys and told me that from now on I would have to drive. For the rest of his life he never said a word about it and he never drove again.
“I don’t understand. What does this have to do with him being a ghost?”
“I’m getting to that. Lord, you young people are impatient.”
“Beg pardon, Mrs. Curtain.”
“That’s alright. Just don’t interrupt me again.”
I popped another piece of sausage into my mouth and chewed it as quiet-like as I could. Outside, the crows were calling to each other across the backyards of Elm Avenue.
“The first time it happened, I was in the car. The front seat was so big, you see, I couldn’t reach far enough to unlock the passenger door for George, so one morning he made me drive him over to the hardware store to buy a yardstick.”
“You promised you wouldn’t interrupt.”
“Sorry.” I speared another piece of sausage with the tip of my knife. Then I caught myself and transferred it to my fork.
“Yes, a yardstick. He cut about five or six inches off of it and carved a slot with a round notch into one end, just big enough to slide around the button on the passenger door and pull it up. That way, I could unlock the door for him from my seat on the driver’s side. Well, one afternoon we were getting ready to drive over to the Northmeadow Inn for a fish fry. George was in the bathroom shaving, so I told him I’d go out and warm up the car. After a few minutes, I noticed that he was standing by the passenger door like he always did while he waited for me to unlock it. But this time he says, ‘You don’t have to do that, Dee.’
“I was about to ask him what he meant when, before my very eyes, he disappeared! Just like that! Can you imagine? He disappeared and then reappeared in the passenger seat. In the blink of an eye, as they say. One second he was standing outside the car with snow falling on his hat and coat, the next second he’s inside the car, sitting next to me like he always did. Not a flake of snow on him and dry as a good martini.”
“What did you do?”
“What would you have done? What would anybody have done? I started screaming.”
“But you didn’t faint?”
“No, of course I didn’t faint. Don’t be ridiculous. I was screaming at George. ‘What are you doing? What’s going on? Are you a ghost? Are you dead? Am I dead? Am I ghost? Are we both dead?’ My thoughts were spinning so fast I thought my head was gonna pop off my neck!
“George, he looks at me, very calmly, and says, ‘You’re not dead, Delores. You’re not going to die for a long time. But I’m dead. I died upstairs just now.’
“‘Oh, George,’ I said, ‘Please tell me you didn’t die in the bathroom. You’re an English teacher, for God’s sake!’
“‘I didn’t die in the bathroom, Dee,’ he said. ‘It happened in the bedroom. Heart attack. I was tying my tie when all of a sudden, my knees gave out. The next thing I knew I was looking down at myself lying there, all crumpled up on the floor.’
“‘Why are you here, George? Why aren’t you in heaven with your mother and father and the rest of your family?’ That’s when he told me he didn’t want to leave Northmeadow. That his father had come for him, but George told him that he wanted to stay with me, and that’s what he was going to do. Said I wouldn’t be able to get by without him. I’d need help with all the arrangements for the funeral and then, after that, help with the house and the bills and the car, all the things that he used to do.”
“And you didn’t find that scary or, I don’t know, weird?”
“Not really, no,” she said, picking up her coffee cup. “I’ll tell you why: it was because of what George told me that day in the car.” She set her cup down. It was still half-full.
“I’m all ears, Mrs. Curtain,” I said, scooping the last of the applesauce off my plate.
“There’s more. You want some more?” She got up and came back with the pot, tilted it and let the last of the applesauce slide onto my plate. Then she refilled my coffee cup and sat down heavily. “George should tell the next part of the story.”
“Can’t you see him? He’s sitting right there next to you.”
I looked around at the empty space between us. “No, actually, I can’t.”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter. He can tell the story, and I’ll speak it so you can hear it.”
I set down my fork, and looked around the table. I half-believed that the old man’s ghost was gonna appear out of thin air.
Mrs. Curtain sat up straight in her chair and cleared her throat.
I had just finished getting dressed to go out to the Northmeadow Inn with Delores. I liked to wear a suit when we went out for dinner, even though nowadays most people show up in dungarees and tee shirts, even the women. I was tying my necktie and thinking about how no one gets dressed up for anything anymore when my heart started pounding to beat the band. I felt a rush of blood to my head, stronger than any I’d ever felt. Then the next thing I know, I’m pushing myself up from the floor. Only, when I look down, I see that I’m still on the floor in a sort of pile of arms, legs, head, blue suit and red tie. Then I hear the voice of my old man telling me that everything’s okay and I should go with him because my mom and my brother and my grandparents and a bunch of other people are waiting for me back at home. So I tell him that I am already home and I don’t want to go anywhere. He tries to explain to me how much everyone is looking forward to welcoming me and how much I’m gonna like it, but I tell him that I don’t want to go anywhere without Delores. And anyway, how would she get along without me? How would she know how to keep up the car or get the furnace going? How would she know how to manage the monthly bills? Where to send the payments and how to divvy up the pensions? And the taxes. She’d never to be able to manage those on her own. And what if the TV broke? Or the water heater? Who would split the firewood or carry it into the house? Who would answer the phone when it rang late a night? A woman shouldn’t have to do that. She shouldn’t have to do any of those things. My old man, he didn’t argue with me like I thought he would. He just shook his head and looked sad, like when his own pop died. He told me that he couldn’t make me go if I didn’t want to but that he wished I’d reconsider. It wasn’t natural, he said, and Delores would pay the price for my stubbornness. I didn’t believe him at the time. But now I see what he meant. Dee can see me. Hell, she talks to me all the time, even at the grocery store or when she’s hanging the washing on the line. She thinks the neighbors don’t notice, but they do. They think she’s losing her mind. They’ve called our kids.
“I know all of that, George. Of course I do.” Mrs. Curtain sat facing the empty space between us. “Why do you think I brought this young man into the house this morning? So he could hear your story for himself and then tell everyone that I haven’t gone soft in the head.” Before she could turn back to me, I had clipped Duke’s leash to his collar and burst out of the side door, my stomach churning and bubbling the whole time. As I lurched into the sunlight, I heard her call after me.
“You will bear witness, won’t you, Jason? You always were such a nice boy.”
About the Author
TF Nicolay is an award-winning educator who has published books on American women writers as well J.R.R. Tolkien. Her short stories have been published in Coffin Bell, Litro, and Iris Literary Journal. She holds a BA from the State University of New York at Buffalo and an MA and PhD from the University of Rochester. She teaches writing and literature in upstate New York.