Readers, here’s an original (fictional and, consumer warning, unPC!) ghost story, Cafe Merde, from my collection: Death Be Not Loud: Ghosts, Haunts and Tall Tales for Restless Nights. I hope you enjoy it! Read on, below:
I’d come to the coast to escape the oppressive heat. It crept up on one like a pile of unopened bills. St. Swithin’s Island had been a haunt of the elite since the Gilded Age. There’d be crumbs from their picnic tables for my column, Dish on Dish. I wrote, you see, about food, and those who ate it.
The haute-r the cuisine the better, to my readers (those who watched on the sidelines): they had six bits for my checkout stand rag, but not six hundred for dinner and drinks. That’s for sure. No, my readers worshiped from afar. They might gawk at one the exclusive bistros from the safety of their minivans: “Look, Fred, that’s the place we read about in Cynthia’s column! Imagine! And I saw it on Housewives of Savannah, they went there for brunch! So elegant!”
My readers bought the slop, I mean hype, they were sold: by the networks, by Madison Avenue, by society, and not the least by me, purveying praise for crap disguised as lunch by these greedy restaurateurs and the celebrities they hosted. This enabled them to bask in the false glow of their own value as reflected by Nielson or Zagat and food writers who were bribed to rave (and who accepted free meals and drinks). And I made money, too, don’t forget. It was a popular column if I say so myself.
Damn, though, the humidity. It beckoned the wildlife: gorgeous exotic birds, but also multitudinous flies, a wide variety of reptiles and mosquitoes, Lord, the size of aircraft carriers. Their buzzing sounded amplified, louder than I remembered. You could almost see their obsidian, deadly eyes. Lots to feed on here, certainly: inflated wallets, egos, waistlines and waste (the food these people throw away in half an hour would feed a suburb anyplace else).
So it was that I found myself delighting in a fragrant espresso on the lovely wraparound porch of the St. Swithin Inn. I’d had a Virgin Mary and toast for breakfast and was jotting notes for my next essay. It was in this peaceful mindset that I was quite abruptly smacked in the head by the pink quilted Chanel Jumbo of Carson James, who was famous pretty much for just being famous. No one knew from whence she sprung, nor could anyone remember whether she had acted, modeled, or designed couture. She just was, a force of nature, as much a part of the summertime Island as the hibiscus that grew, wild, on the hillsides facing the ocean. She had wealth (or sponsorship, as the villa she’d rented was at least $10,000 per fortnight). In her middle fifties, she looked ten years younger thanks to extensive fillers and the very best spa treatments known to man.
“Oh, so sorry,” she said. “I must watch where I’m going!” She sounded actually nice.
“That’s okay,” I said. Was she being genuine or averting a future personal injury claim? (Your Honor, she didn’t give me a second glance! My displaced collarbone and resulting anxiety disorder resulted from the velocity and impact of her $5,000 bag).
“I’m Cynthia,” I offered. She looked me right in the eye and responded: “I’m Carson.” (Like so many rich women she had a surname instead of Mary or Diane).
“You’re not . . . are you Cynthia who writes for Social Climber?”
“I am indeed. How clever of you to have known,” I responded, actually stunned that anyone so notable recognized me.
“Honey, I read your column all the time. You’re the only one who tells the truth about these five-star excuses for diners.” At this, she waved her hand vaguely indicating Main Street, which was about as quaint as it could be without violating the boundaries of kitsch. But then everything was too expensive for that. The emperor must have clothes after all.
We chatted for a bit and she then invited me to come by that night.
“I’m having some people over, why don’t you come? You could write up the caterer. It’s Charles Wankereich. You know, of chez Wanker?”
I knew, all right. By far the snootiest restaurant on the island (which was saying something), with competition like Café Merde (pronounced Mayr-DAY), Pazzo, and Jacqui’s . . . Each haughtier than the next.
Jacqui’s was particularly vile, serving up tap water in fancy bottles as Eau d J for $9.99 a pop, passing off leftovers as fine dining and serving up desserts ($35) which were smudges of Sara Lee cheesecake or chopped up (years past the Sell By date) Dove Bars, which she coated in whipped cream and rum. That way, customers couldn’t see the fade in the chocolate and thanks to the liquor, wouldn’t care.
Pazzo, of course, was a Pazzo family enterprise. Richie Pazzo, our local Soprano, was the major shareholder. (At least the food was good there. The consequences of it being bad did not bear contemplation).
Café Merde was the Island’s own “continental” restaurant. Actually, they provided all-American meat and potato dishes (some of which suspiciously resembled Healthy Choice frozen entrees). The entire menu was in French. Since no one here knew French from Serbian, Café Merde could (and did) get by with anything: “soupe d’oignons français au gratin” was in actuality Campbell’s with Velveeta. The “filet mignon” made me wonder what had become of Trigger. There was Trout Al Mundane (it was carp) and Chopped Steak ala Merde (Alpo). But I digress.
Carson’s gathering sounded like a marvelous opportunity to get up close to some of the actual cuisine not to mention the creators and consumers thereof. I said I’d be there.
The house Carson had leased was a huge Richardsonian Romanesque pile: a county courthouse with illusions of The Breakers. Huge, it brooded: a monster in REM sleep, darkening the sky above it. I nosed my aging Camaro behind a line of gleaming Bentleys, Porsches, and Ferraris. The valet took my keys and whisked the car away, assuring me it would be ready when I wanted it if I would just ring).
Through the massive front doors was a hall reminiscent of a European royal house. Everything was heavy, rich, marble or fine wood: wainscoted, coffered, carved, and crown-molded to the nth degree. Weighed down by its own grandeur, it didn’t fit the direct and seemingly unpretentious Carson. Why on earth did she stay in this heap when she could rent any lovely beach house, and for much less? I wondered why anyone other than the Duchess of Windsor would choose it.
Entering a cavernous drawing room, I joined the other guests. There were some locals and a sprinkling of actors and writers: it wasn’t yet the high season. Supper was splayed across a long side-table. I stepped closer: ah. If this was “fresh” fish and not Gorton’s, call me Julia Child. And the salad. Seriously, did Charles really buy the big bag of lettuce at Costco and just add (I paused for a taste) Sam’s Club Zesty Italian? I shook my head. The wine? Not bad, but Yellow Tail, really? (For what Charles had undoubtedly charged Carson I’d expect Chateau Lafitte). I sharpened my mental pencil and approached the desserts. Cream puffs (a bite of soggy pastry screamed “frozen!”), Dutch apple pie (props to Marie Callender) and teeny Baked Alaski (baked Aleutians?). At least someone in some kitchen had created those.
I shook my head. You can’t buy a palate. As I thus mused, in walked Charles, “the Wanker” himself. He was dressed like a guest but with an apron, so he could pass himself off as a chef. I now knew better. What a greedy fraud he was.
“Hello, Charles,” I intoned.
“And you are…” he pretended not to know me.
“Cynthia from Social Climber. We met at the Michelin Guide dinner I chaired. I’m here to review the catering.” Charles had the good grace to blush but Prussian bluster rapidly overcame shame.
“Ah, yes. Come, have the salad, I’ve got a new one. It’s a panzanella.” I could hardly believe Charles doing what was basically a Tuscan peasant dish until I realized he doubtless had mountains of year-old croutons piled up in his pantry: what better way to recycle).
“Charles. I didn’t know you did Italian. How do the folks at Pazzo feel about that?” I inquired in my best Nancy Drew voice. Charles paled slightly and said, “I’ll be calling it Salade de Pain.” I nodded sagely. Charles dashed off to supervise whatever was being “prepared,” i.e. microwaved, in the kitchen and I mingled with guests.
“Cynthia!” Carson seemed happy to see me. “Come sit with us.” She was surrounded by stars: two actresses (Mimi Sims and Lala Firestone, one in soaps, one in some meshuggenah sitcom about people in a blue collar neighborhood. Lala wouldn’t know a blue collar unless it was Louis Vuitton and attached to a five-pound dog). There was the Episcopal priest from (where else) St Swithin’s, Fr. Icevayne; a crooner (Carlo di Buono, known to be deeply indebted to Richie Pazzo for his warp-speed rise in show business) and two local matrons, Margaretha von Scheisse and Carole (with an “e”) Devereaux, of the Charleston Devereaux’s). I fit in as would a schnauzer at a cat show.
For I did not drip with diamonds. I had no diamonds. I did not wear Hermes. I wore Macy’s (and gladly). I was not a size double zero (the actresses were in their twenties but had the bodies of twelve-year-olds) or two (Carson and Carole, but I knew Carole had had her midriff frozen and siphoned off, like gas from someone else’s tank. People were nice enough (to my face: probably Carson had shared that I wrote for Social Climber, their Bible).
“Ah, Cynt’sseya,” said Margarethe in her fake generic Euro accent (she was from Queens but had married into Island money). “Ve are so heppy ju are weeth us.” (As if). The others greeted me and Carlo said (his teeth were improbably white):
“We have been having the most intriguing conversation. Carson thinks this place is haunted. She’s pretty level-headed. Now, I don’t know from ghosts but you’ve been writing up the Island for years: have you heard anything about this?”
“Nooo … “I started to say, and then “but wait. There was a rumor. It was years ago when those Texans stayed here? Remember them? The Perrys?” Carole nodded and wrinkled her wee bobbed nose (which was now way too small, like that of La Toya Jackson, for the rest of her face).
“Oh, they were something. We on the Island Commission have considered a ban or at least a quota on how many of Texans may stay here at one time.” She was quite serious.
“May I ask why?” I asked, innocently, big-eyed and with mental notepad at the ready.
“They were de trop,” Carole elaborated. “They didn’t appreciate our ambiance here. They put statues of horses and cowboys in front of one house and one, God save us, had longhorns on his Escalade. ” Everyone mournfully nodded their condolences. “Worse than Saudis,” they were thinking. (Whether about the horns or the Cadillac pickup I couldn’t be certain). The priest crossed himself: this was how the devil gets a foothold.
“Anyvay, zey may have been trashy” (said Margarethe) “but zey vere not crazy. Zey said they heard noises, knockings, all kinds of deeesturbances, ya?” I nodded.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“The Ravenals, one of our oldest families, had this place for decades,” said Fr. Icevayne. “I remember Dickie Jr. (the son, not the uncle, that was Big Dickie) coming to see me once about blessing the place but his wife (a Baptist) ruled that out as too Popish. It’s a shame because that might have nipped it in the bud.”
I turned to Carson. “What have you observed?”
“At first I thought it was nothing,” she said. A house this large, there will be noises. But things escalated. I hear crashing as if the china department at Saks all got dumped on the floor. There, of course, is nothing to be seen. The handle on my door will move as if someone is trying it, but when I open it, no one is there. But the security cameras picked up some kind of green mist in the hall when it happened.
Then there’s the library, which is probably the worst. You can hear people talking, even loud arguments. Suddenly a fire will appear to be blowing out of that huge fireplace (this time of year, no one lights fires at all). The curtains billow out as if a window is open and there’s a gale force wind. Things get moved from one place to the next without anyone actually picking them up. Then, too, the lights flicker. The wiring is supposed to be just fine, the electrician can’t account for it. So, there’s nothing really menacing, but it’s not normal, either. Like finding a book from the top shelf (she waved upwards) in the refrigerator. Now, I’m not that imaginative and I’m far from psychic. I have no idea what’s going on.”
“Carson, aren’t you the first one to stay here since the last family left?” put in Carole. “Ten years ago, something like that? I remember they left in a real hurry. Left all their belongings. The front door may have even been ajar. They were very tight-lipped about it. Their attorney has been trying to sell it ever since but has had to settle for leasing it out. No one wants it.”
“Of course they don’t,” said Mimi, “it’s not Tuscan.” (something had awakened her Inner Architect). The locals exchanged a few raised eyebrows: “young and dumb,” they signaled in their Isle code.
We nibbled crackers and Charles’ “Pâté d’ Wanker” (tofu spread from Safeway) and then – we all heard it – came a thunderous crash. Nothing of course had moved. We heard a combination of the broken china Carson mentioned and a wrecking ball meeting an outdated building. Before we had time to even digest that (not to mention the “pâté”) it was followed by footsteps, heavy ones, striding towards us. The lights flickered. We all looked towards the great hall and soon saw the source: a tall figure, dressed in what looked like well-tailored evening clothes from the Edwardian age. Pallid, he was three dimensional, but faded: a primitive hologram. He stared at us, shocked.
“Who are you people? And why are you here?” He sounded angry, if surprised. He pointed a long finger: “The servants’ hall is in the south wing. I can’t believe Johansson didn’t direct you to the trade entrance. You are all dressed very inappropriately, we’ll have none of those (he looked at us women in our skinny jeans) around here. There was then a harsh jangle as he furiously rang for his butler to sort this (and us) out. “And what is this . . . swill?” he gestured at Charles’ catering efforts with disdain. “My dogs eat better!” he sneered and then vanished.
We looked around and shivered, if a bit belatedly. What had just happened?
“There are some very old photos at the parish,” said Fr. Icevayne. Tomorrow I’ll see if he’s in any of them.”
“I’ll check at town hall,” added Carole. “I can at least find out who lived here after the turn of the last century…”
We passed the brandy and then departed, after being sure Carson would be all right. Her personal assistant was home, she said, so she’d not be alone. She added that she was more curious than spooked.
I myself decided to see what I could learn from my online sources. I looked under noted homes in the area and found several; but this one, while large and expensive, was invisible. How odd. I’d thought it would be featured, like homes on movie star maps of Beverly Hills. But no. I wondered how it was that such a massive, costly house, gigantic even by Isle standards, was not part of local history, or at least tourist lore.
Next thing I knew (I must have been exhausted, I couldn’t remember at all how I got there) I was back at Carson’s. It was as if we had not left at all (but we had. We were clad in different outfits, we were nibbling a (quite excellent) pizza from Pazzo’s, with a respectable Sicilian chianti (Richie Pazzo, say what you will, has great connections in the wine world). We compared notes.
“There were no records at town hall,” said Carole. “Hard to believe, this place has been around … as long as I can recall.”
“The church social albums yielded nothing,” added Fr. Icevayne. “Perhaps they were Lutherans.” (This seemed unlikely, as all the old money here had filled the back pews at St. Swithin’s Episcopal).
“I have to tell you.” (I joined in) “I did some digging and there is nada. I expected to find lots of information about a house this … important. Did the island have a different name back then? Am I missing something? You’ll have to excuse me, I’m feeling pretty wiped for some reason. The damn humidity, doubtless.”
“Us, too,” chimed in Mimi. “We figured it was jet lag.” The two girls looked lovely (as would any pretty young women treated to the best in beauty products and fashion) but yes, sleepy as well. Dark circles had appeared under their beautifully made-up eyes.
In fact, the whole lot of us appeared in need of a long nap. Maybe it was something in the air.
“Come along, Reverend,” said Rod. “I’m glad you could fit me into your busy schedule.” (This last was heavy with attitude. Rod had after all bought and furnished the new parsonage).
“Yes, sure. Have we got everything?” Rev. Jimmy Don Renfield entered, wearing a collar (which he never fastened quite the right way. No one from his denomination wore them but here on the island, he had to compete with the Episcopalians and other snob churches. Thus he’d been known, when his deacons weren’t looking, to slip on a collar when calling on rich members).
Of course, they were all loaded here. His superior, Elder Catwauler, said his congregation had more money per capita than any in the entire denomination. The bishop always mentioned this when asking for special assessments for his South East Region. Clearly, the Elder had no experience with the very rich, who tended to scrimp in some areas. Like tithing. Renfield sighed. Things hadn’t been the same since the young men had all volunteered to be doughboys and had gone off to fight in Europe. He missed them and their energy, and he couldn’t understand why they were dying for that nasty old continent full of Catholic papists and heathens.
“Yes, (pay attention!) it’s all here,” snapped Rod. “The water you asked for, the Bible, the salt. This better not waste my time, Renfield.” Rod Usher was nothing if not peremptory, especially with those he deemed his social inferiors. Which would, reflected Rev. Renfield, include everyone.
The two walked into the drawing room of Rod’s massive stone house. Renfield thought of Rod’s place as the Mausoleum. It was so dreary there, and he’d heard stories. When Rod called for his help, then, he hadn’t been completely surprised. But nervous? You betcha he was.
Renfield orated “Our Lord, we just want to offer up Rod’s home for you to bless. Bring the light in, Father.” He proceeded to sprinkle the water about (he had just now blessed it) and not knowing the Latin, he kept repeating “We adjure thee, Satan! (Poor Renfield. He should have said “Abjure.” His English was as poor as his Latin, which does matter in these rituals). He added “Fall back, Devil! In the name of Jesus,” which he pronounced “Jaysus.”
As he finished, there was a slash of light and a loud sound, as if Rod’s entire golf club collection had been tossed down the stairs. Mercy! What was this?
“See, I told you as much!” exclaimed Rod. “It was NOT the brandy!”
Renfield rubbed his eyes and saw a strange assemblage. Were they from another planet? (His Scientologist Auditor brother had shared his faith that day at the clergy breakfast). What strange clothes. Servants, they must be. Every one of them looked very tired, and pale. It’s hard doing the devil’s work, no doubt. Look at that man with the glowing white teeth. A vampire?! And those two jezebel girls with the streaks in their hair. What have those other women got on, where are their dresses?!
The minister grabbed the holy water and threw handfuls of it at the strange group. They had the good taste to shimmer a bit and then disappear. Well, almost. What was this big box? “Pazzo: The Best Pizza Pie inna’ Town!” “That’s not pie,” thought Rod.
Rev. Renfield got up to leave. “Your problem is solved, Rod. It takes spiritual warfare to fight wraiths. You won’t hear another peep out of them. I trust the House of Usher is now at peace.”
“Huh?” We’d heard that, as the two weird-looking men faded into the air.
As it turned out, the House of Usher, was now at peace. (Cynthia was mistaken. It is indeed famous: in a story by Poe, and at least one lower budget horror film. Yes, it had indeed been haunted. But not by Rod.
Carson had been dead for five years. She had had a reaction to bad fish served by (whom else) Charles Wankereich. Carole and Margaretha were poisoned one night by the Eau d’ Jacqui, which was in fact not tap water but rife with germs from the “reclamation pond” from which she’d drained it.
Carlo, sadly, had been late on the vig he owed Chuckie “Chopper” Rossi, the Pazzo loan shark. He was found dead of a “heart attack” at the studio one morning. (His dentist sent a wreath).
Mimi and Lala died in a plane crash on the way to St Swithin’s Isle, where they were to film an episode of “Survivor: Rich and Famous!”
Cynthia had … it was tragic, really. She’d gone to the Isle to cover the restaurant scene for her column. She’d been lounging on the wraparound porch at the St. Swithin Inn when she’d got nipped by a large and deadly mosquito carrying oodles of malaria in its saliva. It was the size of the Queen Mary.
Fr. Icevayne? Well, he wasn’t really a priest at all. He was a Purgatorial Assistant, a daemon named Jenkins (like many rich women, he had a surname, instead of Armpit or Dogfart). His job was mostly ahead of him. He’d be babysitting these egotistical morons for several eternities.
Fortunately, he’d brought his Kindle.