A TRUE Ghost Story
by Chris Sharp
There it was, the old house.
It stood still at the end of the uphill street determined in its loneliness to stop the time from sliding backwards. Billy figured it would take another half hour to schlep to the little house, bringing into play one of those ancient Yiddish words that wore so well in New York City, but which were so foreign to his little old home town on the California beaches.
Billy had little money in his wallet, and even less anywhere else. He felt so poor he walked everywhere he walked miles from the Greyhound bus station instead of paying for a local bus. His clothes pack and his acoustic guitar on his back reminded him that he was still paying for his trip, even beyond the cost of mass transit.
Oh, he knew what payback meant. He had held himself above the old men who had shaved and sometimes even washed their feet in the white sinks of the Greyhound station bathrooms, so he had only used the restrooms of any nearby restaurant while refusing to shave or wash his body in them. But for that act of quiet haughtiness, his three-day beard now swung back against his comfort, mingling with his sweat to tickle his throat.
When he arrived at the old house, he stood at the porch to adjust to the carefully manicured garden that reached beyond the shadows of the eaves. His mother had never expressed interest in gardening or in anything else that he could remember. He had to think about it. What had his mother ever expressed interest in? Cats. She had a sick interest in cats.
Ha ha ha ha ha, he thought. What a mother. He knocked on the door. As he waited at the door for some response, he calculated that it would cost at least fifty dollars a month to pay a gardener to create funereal floral fantasies like this one.
"Mom," he yelled, rapping the door with the steel toe of his boot. "It's me, Billy, Billy boy son."
At last, she opened the door. She looked like the same old Mom, pretty much the same, at least. But when she smiled, the contrast of her ivory-white dentures against everything else that was so old made the rouge highlights of her cheeks all the more a masquerade.
"Billy, Billy, Billy. Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"
"I tried to. Whatever happened to phones, Mom?"
"Oh, phones cost money."
"Phones cost money." He gestured to the flowers with his guitar fingers. "The care of all these roses must cost more money than a phone."
"Do you like them, Billy?"
"I envy these flowers. These dumb roses really have your tender loving care."
"Come in, Billy, and throw that stuff off your back."
She walked ahead of him, such a short little woman with her hair pulled back into a toy-like bun, so tiny compared to the time when he was a little kid and she was a giant mother.
"Billy, have a seat."
He beat her to it, sitting on the white sofa that used its quiet freshness to cushion him as she spoke.
"I like the new sofa," he said. "You've got a lot of new things here."
"When did you last see the place, Billy?"
"A long time ago."
"A long time ago. All that furniture and things you grew up with got a little tired of waiting for you, my boy."
"Why do you call me 'my boy'?" I'm a twenty-nine year-old man, Mom. Hel-lo."
"Oh. You're an old man, then."
"I'm older than John Lennon was when he broke from the Beatles."
"That's ancient, all right."
"You know who John Lennon was, Mom. Right?"
Yes, of course. That was 'Yesterday.'"
"No, no, no. That was cheesy Paul McCartney who wrote 'Yesterday.' Weak, Mom, weak. Lennon wrote ' USSR ,' 'Give Peace a Chance, Imagine,' 'Revolution.' The stronger brew. Okay?"
"All we are saying is give peace a chance," said his mother. "All we are saying is give peace a chance." She was swinging her little old hand to her singing. She wore a red sweater with embroidered white reindeer in the summer heat, which made her singing and her hand swinging all the more apparent. "All we are saying is give peace a chance. All we are saying is give peace a chance."
"Okay, Mom. Stop. Just stop."
"John Lennon needed to write words less rep-et-it-ious-ly," she said, "like Paul McCartney. Paul, now, that man was a poet for real."
"No, no. Compared to Lennon, McCartney is candy gloss -- Dresden glass. You can't sell Lennon in a 99 cent store but McCartney would fit right into the outdoor racks on 14th street . That's a New York street that sells cheap imports, Mom, if you want to know."
"Paul always knew how to talk the English talk. Listen to 'Yesterday.'"
"Shut up. Mom. Shut up."
Billy held his hands to his ears, the words from his mother getting inside him just like the greased gravy served at a rotten bus station cafeteria. "Lennon was a genius who took millions from his fans while I was stealing sardines from the Red Apple for dinner."
"What? You stole what?"
"I'm hungry, Mom. Hungry, I am hungry."
"For all the performing you did for them New Yorkers, you had to steal from them?"
"Oh, what makes you think New Yorkers are so high and mighty? They're just as dumb as you are, Mom. Look at all the decades Lennon has been dead. Now all his old fans can do is watch me play his songs in Strawberry Field like I'm some kind of imposter, and when I stop singing, they spit and walk away."
"That's because you sing so terrible, Billy. You always have been a terrible singer."
"Mom, not to change the subject, but I don't see any cats here."
"I don't have any cats."
"You sure? I bet you there's a cat lying around here somewhere."
"Brother. Mom, I'm hungry, hungry, hungry. Please get me something to eat right now, right now.
"Can't we just talk a minute? Isn't it over ten years ago that you and I last talked, Billy?"
"Oh. It's at least ten years. It's more than that, I think, because time flies while you're having so much fun in New York City."
He actually tried to think about the last time he had talked with his mother, but his mind was just barely registering what was not in his stomach.
"It had to be over ten years, Billy. We need to catch up. My little man."
"Okay, my big mom. I'll just make some dinner for myself while we do that."
He thought it would be easy enough to step into the kitchen, but even that was met with opposition as this little wisp of a woman stepped in front of him.
"Billy, I will go out and get you a dinner."
"Okay. While you do that, I'll get a little something from the big fridge to hold me over."
"No, Billy. Oh my heavens, no."
He gave her a little side step, and suddenly it was if he were in a National Football League Fantasy camp. When his ancient mother moved right to his feint, he shucked her with his left step and ran to a refrigerator touchdown.
"I can eat old, ugly food. My stomach tells me I can eat your food, whatever it is."
He opened the refrigerator to see an abundance of cold cuts, then two New York steaks and a soup-bowl of cooked spaghetti with bright red tomato sauce. In the background were milks, sauces and a couple of different intensities in salsa.
"Mom. This food is nothing to be ashamed of. This is good red food."
"This is not yours to have, Billy. You are not stealing food from the Red Apple food store tonight in my refrigerator."
She closed the refrigerator door as he stepped back, and he looked at her with a kind of professional performer's disbelief.
"That is mean. After ten whole years."
"I will go and get something for you. But do not take what is not yours, Billy."
"Okay, Mom. But good grief. Good nitpicking grief. Why do you have to buy me food today so I can eat it? I know how to eat unfresh food. I do things like that."
On the sly, he used an old childhood trick, since she had set the pace of their reunion by regressing into her ancient style of being a giant mom. He crossed his fingers behind his back to show God he was lying.
"Anyway, bye, Mom," he said, when the little old woman opened the door.
"If you're tired, take a nap while I'm gone," she said. "Even though I don't have anywhere for you to sleep. Because I had no time to prepare."
"That's okay, Mom. I can sleep on your rug," he said, shaking his crossed fingers behind his back as she closed the door behind her.
He stood still for about five minutes before he went to the refrigerator again. Choosing the New York steak that had the most streaks of fat for flavor, he covered the meat with black pepper. Steak season was a bit harder to find, but after he had dumped to the floor most of the cans and jars in the cupboards to find the right herbs, he dressed up the steak handsomely in green sage and red paprika. The grill was already burning as he massaged a steak sauce into the porous beef and fat.
It took over ten minutes to deliver a hot steak that made him feel more like a serious eater. Another five minutes found him finessing a pot of mashed potatoes that started from a dry box. After that, it took him about twenty minutes to reap what he had sowed.
Then he fell onto his mother's bed in an exhausted but excellently-fed state.
I'm okay now, he thought. His mother might as well come back and talk about whatever she wanted to tell him. He would listen smilingly, as long as it wasn't too crazy to deal with.
Billy only realized he had fallen asleep after he had woken up in his mother's bed.
It was dark in the house now. Billy checked in with his watch to find that two hours had passed.
"My goodness, Mom," he said. "What do you do this late at night, pass out with a boy friend?"
He thought for a minute of cleaning up the mess he left in the kitchen, but as soon as he looked at it, he decided to go outside into the fresh air instead.
Thankfully for his sense of proportion, not everything had changed around him since the old days. The mom-and-pop grocery store that continued to sell gasoline from two lonely pumps was still downhill about a quarter mile, still selling Coca-Cola at an exorbitant rate in exchange for an easy time of getting in and out of the store.
At first he thought that the long-time owner of the store – Chris What's-Your-Face – had hired some old geezer to work the cash register. But on closer look, the old geezer was Chris himself, submerged in years of wear and tear.
"Chris," Billy said. "Do you remember me? It's Billy from up the road."
Chris squinted at him, and then he lifted his upper lip to show his awful dental work. "Hello, Billy. I heard you went off to New York City."
Not exactly a way of saying it was wonderful to see him again. But Chris was obviously still steamed over a twelve-pack of Coca-Cola Billy had taken out of the store when Chris was too busy to transact an actual purchase back some twenty centuries ago.
"I was actually looking around for my mother," said Billy. "She went out saying she would bring me some of my own food, and now she's zeroed out big time."
"Billy. That's not a nice way to joke about your mother."
"I wasn't joking. If I was joking, it would be funny, Chris."
"Well, when people die, any people, it isn't funny."
Billy looked at the old man solidly for a while.
"What do you mean? I was playing refrigerator football with her just a couple of hours ago."
"I have no idea what you want, Billy. Do you need me to remind you your mother died a very lonely and angry woman some six years ago now?"
"This is just so ridiculous."
"No, because you still want to mess with me, Chris, because of the twelve pack of Coca-Cola I once took out of here while you were busy with customers. I was thirsty. I was thirsty."
As Billy left the store, he used the steel point of his boot to kick over five stories on toilet paper to the floor. Then he turned back, picked up a twelve-pack of beer, and stomped out into the night.
This is a true story, and just to treat everyone in a fair way as I wrote it up, I included myself in this sorry tale as well. I'm Chris What's-His-Face, who spanned in at the very end of this story in my own creaky and unflattering way. Unlike what Billy claimed, I never tried to mess with that boy. I just felt kind of sorry for the cub.
Since Billy jacked my Coca-Cola, and then my beer, I have seen him several times in my store again, sneaking stuff into his pockets, and not knowing I am actually just giving him the stuff he's stealing. I think the best time Billy had since he came back was when they put him in jail for breaking into the hilltop house now rented out to some traveling saleswoman. Years ago, it used to be rented by Billy's mom who had brought Billy up there. Once Billy went to jail, though, he got kind of spoiled just lying in bed all day waiting for the guard to bring him some more food.
Today he plays his guitar in our scattered public parks. His music is so bizarre that no one pays much for it, except for some local Mormons who feel sorry for him and sometimes drop him some cash and food. Just to give you some idea of how strange his performances are, when he strums his guitar and starts "singing," no on can hear anything.
I knew his mom better, because she would buy cat food and little chocolates from me. She had this weird inclination to put out the cat food for run-away cats and sneak minced chocolate in it, to teach them some kind of lesson only she seemed to understand. After her neighborhood began to be tattooed with cat diarrhea, deputy sheriffs started putting her in jail. After a while I just stopped selling her things, because I never knew what she was going to feed the stray cats.
"Do you think strays should just be strays the rest of their lives?" she said, when I told her my concerns. "Look at me, Chris."
She stopped and glared at me with such fierceness, I thought she could as easily kill me as look at me.
"That's what they give out consequences for," she said, "Because those stupid animals shouldn't have run away from their mommies in the first place.
© 2007 Chris Sharp
Bio: Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. His story "The Colors of Shadows" appeared recently at PopulistArt.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's surreal tale of madness and mother issues, The Momma on the Beach appeared in the August 2007 Aphelion.
E-mail: Chris Sharp
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