Ghosts: An Original Ghost Story

Readers, here’s one of my own (fictional but still fun) ghost stories, from my published collection, Rest In Fleece: Ghosts, Tall Tales & Horror Stories! It’s a short story with an unusual twist and several articulate ghosts!  Enjoy! 

The Forever Home

I moved to the Elysium Row house late that year. The leaves had turned orange and crimson, and lay strewn across the front steps.  That time of year the evenings chilled: the sun sank into the dark horizon, and took the warmth with it. 

I’d found the house by accident. Well, maybe not; at the time that’s what I thought.  It had so much character.  On this quiet street in the city, so elegant.  When I’d seen the sign, I paused.   Without hesitation I called the number and made an appointment to view it.

It was a beautiful, light, airy space inside. While true to its Victorian heritage, it had been updated tastefully and with quality appointments.  There was a modern kitchen with antique, refinished cabinets and marble counters. Downstairs there was also a formal dining room, a butler’s pantry (equipped with a second small dishwasher and a wine fridge), a living room, a study which could double as a guest room, and one and a half baths.  It was a great space, which as a food writer who entertained often, I’d put to good use. 

The baths had been redone in Restoration Hardware reproductions, down to the heated towel bars. Upstairs were two more baths and three bedrooms. The master was partially housed in a turret and had a rounded window seat.  All the floors were hardwood, with authentic, small hexagon tile in the baths and kitchen.  There was a compact, walled back yard (any yard space in the city was something), which was attractively landscaped, with a seating area under a covered patio.  What was not to like? I felt I could stay here forever.  Which, as it turns out, was rather prescient.

The price was right (maybe too right?). I quickly sealed the deal and my lease began the following week. The house came furnished, so I and my few things were quickly transplanted. 

I had a housewarming party planned for that Friday.  In the rush of shoving boxes into closets, cooking and last-minute trips for forgotten groceries, I wouldn’t have noticed a ghost if it wore a name tag and said “Boo.”

My guests arrived and admired my new digs. “You scored, Mary” was the consensus.  We were having drinks by the fireplace after supper when footsteps were heard in the dining room.  No one was unaccounted for, so I peeked in.  Whoever was there could not be seen; but his shoes made impressions on the rug.  One after another.  I beckoned the others and we watched the prints approach, then stop. 

A hollow chime bounced off the high ceilings.  We all heard it.  After that there was a cold breeze, which ruffled the drapes, and some guests’ skirts.

We looked askance, eyes wide.

“You got yourself a tenant, Mary.” This from Quincy, my editor.  He had a gift for stating the obvious.

“Did the realtor tell you the place was haunted?” asked Diane, a colleague.  “They’re supposed to disclose this kind of thing.  People have won lawsuits.”

“So weird,” said Sam, a restaurateur acquaintance.  “I’ve seen it before.  My last bistro (remember chez S?) was located in that historic building, you know, downtown?  It was beautiful but haunted.  Funny, when there was a flurry of news about it, it brought in lots of new clientele.  But it didn’t scare off anyone: quite the contrary.” 

“Fine,” I replied, “but this is my house. I don’t want customers, living or dead.”  This may have come out a bit too emphatically:  everyone laughed and the tension was broken. 

The evening went on without incident.  After seeing everyone out, I put things away and went up to bed.  Make that, I meant to go to bed.  But it was already occupied: I saw the indent of a body in the featherbed.  It squirmed a bit, as one does trying to get comfortable.  That was all:  except a little later, the occasional soft snore. 

I went to my guest room and, shutting the door, stretched out in the hope of sleep.

The following day, I called the realtor who’d shown me the house. When no one picked up his cell, I called the agency office.

“Hi, I’m trying to reach Seri Barras.”

“But she hasn’t worked here in years,” responded the secretary. 

“She certainly has.  She rented me this house and I have her card in my hand.”

“This is impossible.  It can’t be. Would you hang on a moment, please?”  I heard whispers in the background.  “But no!” “What?!”  “Shhh!”

“May I ask you if you’d be willing to come down to our office? It’s not far from the house. Or we can send someone over?” she offered.

“I’ll stop by.  I’ll be bringing my paperwork with me,” I replied.  I arranged to be there in an hour.

Rivers, Lethe & Mortson’s was an established real estate firm which had been around for as long as I could remember.  There were no bad Better Business Bureau ratings, nor was any negative buzz whatsoever associated with them. I felt confident this was but a simple misunderstanding that would be cleared up in no time.

A dignified, white haired man in a gray suit came up to greet me. 

“You must be Mary. I’m Char Rivers.  Please, come in and sit down.”

“Thank you, Char. As you might imagine this is, to say the least, puzzling.”

“I’m sure we’ll make sense of it,” Char added, in what sounded at the time like a sincere tone. “May I?” He gestured towards the papers I’d brought with me.  I nodded, handing them over. I added

“You know, I couldn’t sleep in my own bed last night!  And the ghost stole the show at what was supposed to have been my housewarming party.”

Char frowned and skimmed the lease forms.

“These appear to be in very good order,” he remarked, his brow furrowed.  But you must understand, Seri hasn’t been with us for years.  She was a wonderful, highly competent and professional broker: she accomplished so much, you’d think she had three heads! But she died in a plane crash over four years ago. Yet, this does look like her  handwriting.  Can you describe her for me, please?”

“Sure. She was tall, with reddish hair, slender, attractive. Also, she had a (what do you call those) – it looked like a dueling scar on the left side of her face.”  I thought possibly someone had posed as Seri.  I was mistaken.

“But that’s her! Even the scar (she used to fence).”

“So, Char, you’re telling me I leased a haunted house from a dead real estate broker?”  He looked unsure of himself for a nanosecond, and then replied

“Yes, it looks that way.”

“But what about my lease?”  Ghosts notwithstanding, I was not eager to move so soon.

“Well, strangely enough, it’s fine.  The owners are longstanding clients here and you’ll see here (he indicates a place on the lease) they’ve signed off.  Legally, it’s yours.”

Sure enough, a spidery, old-fashioned calligraphic signature was splayed across the page, with an accompanying ink blot. How affected, I thought.  We spoke some more, and Char’s courtliness, concern and courtesy, so rare today, won me over.

***

I came home to find my clothes shuttled to one end of my closet by invisible but palpable full-skirted gowns.  In the kitchen, I saw no one, but heard hustle and the occasional bell.  Someone brushed past me.  It was as if I had tuned in to another place; but in audio, no video.

“Here, then!” shouted an officious voice.  “Get to work!” I was unceremoniously handed a towel and pointed in the direction of the dish rack, where a large quantity of damp china stood at attention.  “Henry, you just can’t get good help these days,” I overheard.

Far too intrigued to be afraid (part of me still thought this was a scam) I dried and stacked a large quantity of old Royal Doulton.  The sounds faded then and I got some tea and went to the living room.  There, I saw the andirons at work, poking at nonexistent logs in the fireplace. I ignored this and went to work on my next column: On Bread Alone: with Real Butter. 

A few hours later, I overheard voices in the next room. 

“Callie, the corset has to be tighter. Just pull.  Get Jojo to help.”  This was followed by some soft noises punctuated by a sharp intake of breath. In an almost falsetto tone was added “That’s more like it. Now go get my pink tea dress from the closet. Why is it so crowded in there? You’d think someone had moved in.”

***

I left for awhile to do errands, stop at the office (I worked for People Like Us, a snobbish but beautifully produced, glossy publication. It was ostensibly a spread covering all aspects of gracious living, but in actuality, was all about how to upstage others.  Needless to say it was a highly popular read. 

The publisher was the Conte di Calascibetta, Enrico Portobello.  He was called the Mush behind his back for obvious reasons, but with great affection, for he was, for all his (purely professional) social elitism, a well-liked man.  His was supposedly a long, distinguished noble line.  This may well have been so, although Calascibetta’s largest export may have been mobsters, some of whom shared the Portobello name (but had changed it in order to sound more American. They went with Luciano, Vendetti, and Genovese).

Nonetheless, Enrico himself was of an old school continental genre: fifties movie star from Italy would best describe it.  He was America’s idea of European aristocracy.  He looked like one who knew the ropes. He had an accent of the right sort.  What more did we need?  His word was law in the social world of his wannabe readers.

“Enrico,” I called.  He waved me into his office from across the busy room. 

“Come’a in, Mary. What’s this I hear’a your house is haunted?”  Enrico had an incredibly fine tuned ear for dish, so it was not surprising that he already had a line on this.

“It’s something, ‘Rico. My clothes are crowded in the closet by ghost outfits.  I am helping wash dishes I don’t own.  I overhear conversations.  It’s not scary. It’s like having roommates. Except these people don’t help with the  bills.”

“Cara, it’s for a reason. Don’t ‘a worry. Pay attention.  Maybe they’ll give you recipes.” That’s Enrico, always work first. “You have’a the gift, the second sight. Use it.”

We discussed the upcoming issue and I left to cover the pretentious bistro on the Strand, Café de Mauvais Nourriture.

Arriving, I was looked down upon by the maitre d’ and then seated in the corner, in case the sight of me might class down the venue. Obviously they were clue free as to my identity, but that was good: I could do my job with no interference. 

The menu was typical: lots of items in bad French or Italian, extortionate pricing, dripping with condescension.  This kind of thing is done by those who wish to lure socially insecure clientele with money. 

The real entree here was the putdown.  The wait staff would be trained to cock the eyebrow if a customer asked a question like ‘What is this ?’  The ludicrous pricing implied that if you don’t know, you didn’t belong.  I hated places like this. I decided to say so in my upcoming column.

As for the food: good thing I always carried snacks. The service was laggardly, the soup cold, the salad warm.  The entree, which translated from wikipedia French meant ‘grilled salmon,’ was like a frozen dinner, but not so good, and less of it. The dessert (they plugged these heavily, as desserts and beverages are where profits lie), was disappointing, too.  Cannolis, but more like cannons.  Heavy, soggy and lethal.

The bill, well, they should be ashamed of themselves.  The only exceptional element in this cuisine was the price tag.  Here, they went where no local eatery had gone before :  lunch specials like the above for $150.  If that was special, I’d hate to know what was considered the norm.

***

Maybe I’d got a touch of food poisoning, because it’s hard to explain otherwise.  I went home, and walking through the living room I heard

“Who does she think she is, strolling in here like she lives here?”

“And those clothes, God save them if that’s the way they dress in the future.  That girl wouldn’t know a corset if it fell on her head.” 

“The hair.  Is it male?  And those shoes. They look like boats with laces.”

“She helped with the dishes, though,” put in another voice.

For just a moment I saw a room full of people.  It looked like a Victorian family and their servants, shaking their heads. They were reviewing what looked like the lease agreement. 

“What kind of signature is this?  Did she even use an ink pen?”

“I hear she writes a food column for PLU”

“How would you know, that’s a hundred fifty years after our time.”

“I keep up.”

Then they looked up, saw me, stared, and rippled, like water, before vanishing from sight.  Not from sound though. I heard a door slam and what sounded like a loud fart, followed by “Freddie, really!”

***

A week or so later, I invited my new boyfriend, Jock, to come by for drinks before the benefit we were to attend. I hadn’t been seeing him all that long. He was handsome, if not brilliant or especially well-mannered. You can’t have everything. Enrico had taken an instant dislike to Jock for reasons which were as yet unclear to me. My friend Eve said “He’s good on the surface but something doesn’t ring true.  Just my impression.”  I wrote that off as envy.  Then.

Jock sat in the wing chair by the fireplace as I mixed drinks.  He was yapping about some athletic event in which I had zee-ro interest, but I put on my Look Pleasantly Interested face and pretended to care.

I almost didn’t notice when he stopped, mid-drone. 

“Mary, wha’??”  I looked over. One of my ghostly joint lessees, who could not be seen at this time, was smoking a highly visible cigar, and dropping the ashes on Jock’s head.  

“I told you I had ghosts,” I replied, sounding perhaps a shade too smug.

“But I didn’t . . .” at that point, the fireplace was once again prodded by what looked like self-animated andirons.  A drinks tray came floating in, and a glass of red was handed to me. I sniffed and swirled.  “A nice claret, thank you.”  Jock got some too.  Dumped in his lap.

“Uh, I, ah,” he said.  For once, he was speechless. This was new.  I liked it. 

“Nothing to be afraid of,” I said. 

“Mary, I’m out of here. I’m done.  This isn’t working for me.  I don’t do the Unknown.” 

“We don’t do assholes,” said a sonorous, deep voice, followed by “Bentley!”

With that, Jock, wet lap and all, dashed out the door. It was the last I ever saw of him, except when he got written up in the papers later as a con artist who ripped off women.  Gotta hand it to the ghosts.

***

 I came home from the benefit (dateless) and smelled something delicious, kitchenward.  I looked in to see a bowl of bouillabaisse and fresh hot bread, with butter.  I was starving.  Breaking up saps one’s blood sugar.  And benefit food:  rubber chicken cordon bleu (more like cordon pee-yu. I abstained).  No question, I was hungry.  But even so, the bouillabaisse was the best I’d ever had and believe me, I’ve had lots foisted on me over the years.  The bread was delectable, too.  I said out loud:

“Thank you! This is to die for. Ah, let me rephrase that.  Delicious!” I didn’t see, but heard the chef whose name I learned was Alice say

“I’m so glad you like it.”

“Like it?  I love it! If you were only alive, I’d write it up in my column. But wait.  How would you feel about that? I don’t have to say you’re, uh, deceased.”

“That would be nice, I love the magazine (Maggie gets it sent to the house, she adores it).”

“May I ask your name?” 

“I’m Alice.”

“Alice who?”

“Alice Cleary.  I work for the family here.”

“Still?”  I had to ask.

“Surely. Things are not so different, at least for us.  We found ourselves here and just went on as before.”

“What happened? Did you arrive one by one or all at once?”

“That is hard to say.  We felt as if it was spontaneous. We still don’t know how we, ah, came to be like this.” 

“Would you and your people mind if I do some research? Perhaps I can dig up something (oh, sorry, bad choice of words).”

“No. We’d like to know.”  Then another voice could be heard.

“We would. I’m Azaelea, it’s my home. We Alexanders have been here in town since the 1700’s and we built this house after the War Between the States.”

“What is going on?” I asked.  “How is it that we’re talking to and sometimes seeing or listening to each other (and I heard that about the hair and the corset, just saying).”

“From what we’ve observed, we are in our own time, as are you; but they somehow run together.  It has happened a couple of times before.  Who were those people, Alice, the loud ones?”

“Oh, I think you mean the Fitzgeralds. Zelda and whatshhisname. They drank a lot and their guests were a sight.  And then that Windsor couple, the Duke and Duchess?  They were always on the telephone to Mr. Hitler, and her pugs left spots on the Aubusson, Maggie worked on those for weeks.  That Duchess: such a common woman.”

“Why me?  Any theories?”  I asked, as Alice cleared my plate and brought me dessert: plain cheesecake, like a bite of heaven. She’d star in my next column, no question.

A male voice joined us.

“Gerald, darling, said Azaelea.

“Hello,” he said. “I sense something brought us together for a purpose.  I can’t discern what.”

“Alice, what a delicious cheesecake.  I’ve eaten them all and this is the best.  I am definitely featuring you in the magazine.  We’ll just have to work around the dead part.”

“She’s blushing,” said Gerald. 

***

The next day, true to my word, I spoke with Enrico about Alice.  I’d brought some cheesecake in case he had questions. 

“I’m going to tell the truth, that she’s a local chef with a history of fine cuisine.”

“I suppose’a we don’t have to reveal that she’s dead.  It’s not’a like it’s an ethics issue.  You have her consent.  And she’s alive to you.  What will you do when people want to interview her?”

“Tell them she’s shy.”

***

The new issue of PLU went out to a crowd hungry to out-build, out-decorate and out-cuisine their neighbors.  One reason for our success was the enormous business generated bilaterally for the restaurant industry, the very high end grocers, the wine merchants, the florists, the clothiers.  

The crowd read my review of Café de Mauvais Nourriture, although a few die-hards who were convinced that nouvelle cuisine was still nouvelle, and still put up with miniature servings at Brobdingnagian prices.  The wise reader selected other eateries. 

Meanwhile, the Cafe closed its doors.  Partly because of the above, also due to the chef’s having been caught putting Purina Dog Chow into the soup. This was not made much of at the time, pet food being considered a step up from his usual fare. I heard later he had gone to prison for this. Cooking out his term in the big house upstate, when, after but one meal, the prisoners rioted. For once the warden was on their side. Nouvelle, schmouvelle. 

Of course readers were agog to know more about Chef Alice. 

“Where has she been all this time?”  “In the kitchen,” I could reply truthfully.

“Where has she worked?”  “She’s been with Alexander’s forever,” (also true).  “What, you don’t know Alexander’s?”  I’d ask in a surprised tone.  (Not a one of our readers would admit to not knowing en nee thing, so nothing more needed to be said). 

So you see, it wasn’t really a problem.  Before long, Alice was the most famous invisible chef in town.  Her recipes were requested and sometimes, graciously shared.  It was odd, people thought, that she seemed to use no temperature settings for her baking, nor was there any mention of microwaves, mixer speeds, or food processors. But great chef that she was, no one questioned it. 

***

I had promised the Alexanders I would see if I could learn anything about what might have befallen them.  True to my word, I opened my laptop and looked up old news stories, social pages, obituaries.  And sure enough, there it was.

“Disappearance: The Gerald Alexander household including all family and staff mysteriously vanished last week from their new residence at Elysium Row.  None have been seen since, although the carriage and horses are home, as are their personal effects.  If anyone has information, please contact the police commissioner’s office.”

I would share this.  It seemed most peculiar.

One night I ran into Gerald. Literally. He was there, in front of me.  He was a middle aged, tall man whose affect was both pleasant and in a nice way, genteel. Dressed in what was probably perfect taste in 1870, he looked impressive.

“Mary!” He looked surprised, but no more than I.

“What brings you here, Gerald?”  I asked, understanding it was a relative question.

“The ladies are having a séance in the parlor,” he said.  “The medium sensed a spirit’s presence, and here you are.”

“I’ve been here all along, as have you.” I said.   But it seems odd that we’re intersecting.” 

At that point I heard an odd moaning from the room I called a study; they, a parlor.  I followed Gerald, and this time, not only heard but saw Azaelea, Mary, and some others sitting round the table, which was bouncing up and down. (I could see that the medium and a man with her were moving it with their hands). Azaelea looked quite amazed. 

Also in the room was a “spirit” but it was obviously some kind of fake, set up by the medium. It emanated from her “spirit cabinet” a wardrobe full of what today we call special effects:  items covered in luminous paint, sheets, etc. This was so patently false! I couldn’t resist elbowing Gerald and pointing quietly to what I’d observed.  I could contain myself no longer. I walked up to the group at table and said

‘Madam, I don’t know who you think you’re fooling with all this equipment.”

The woman looked up, saw me, blanched and pointed, stammering:  “A ggggghhhost!”  She looked terrified, as well she might: I had had a bad hair day.  Her confederates both inside and outside her cabinet screamed, dropped their masks and ran out the door.  Their paraphernalia was left behind.

We sat taking each other in, putting voices with faces. 

“Little did she know,” remarked Gerald.  “I hope we didn’t pay them much.” 

“They left it here on the table in their haste to leave,” replied Azaelea, with a smile. “It was old Confederate scrip from the war, anyway.”

“She does seem to have somehow altered our situation, though,” I put in.  And speaking of that, I did look you up and you all seem to have mysteriously disappeared in October of 1870.”

“Mmm.  We’d not lived here at the house all that long. Here are the papers from the sale of the land,” said Gerald, rummaging through his desk.  He found the contract and  held it out for me to see.

“Rivers, Lethe & Mortson’s!” I exclaimed. “I rented from them!”

“Yes, and Char Rivers sold us the property.”

We all silently digested that.  As we could do nothing  at the time, we each moved along to our usual day, except when I got back to the kitchen, my electrical appliances were gone. It was their kitchen now.  My computer, my cel, all my things: gone.  Like that movie about the Rapture: it was all left behind.

I was with them, if not one of them, now.  Downstairs and into the room came another party I didn’t know. She stopped short.

“Why, you’re that girl with no hair and big shoes.”

“Barbara!  Manners!” This from Azaelea.

“Well, they’re very nice shoes, I’m sure.” 

***

There is the sound of a key in the front door of my house.  Being back in 1870, I heard it, but saw nothing.  A realtor is showing the place to a couple. It’s Char Rivers. 

“Yes, I think you’ll find it meets your needs.  As you can see, it’s in excellent condition.  And we take care of all maintenance and landscaping at no additional cost.”

My jaw dropped a mile. 

***

Char, it seemed, had made a boatload (literally!  He owned a Blohm & Voss yacht that was the envy of the marina) by renting and re-renting the Elysium Row house, knowing that people could be sent backwards in time, on what was probably a permanent basis.  (In the unlikely event anyone slipped back to the now, what would she do, sue?  The real story would be too wild to credit).  It was the perfect grift. No complaints from anyone: it would have been quite impossible to communicate them. 

So, there I was, stuck in time.  The Alexanders seemed pleasant enough, but wait:  who was this unattractive woman in a Chanel suit and too much jewelry?  She held one pug dog in her arms while another wet the rug.  A man in a kilt stood beside her.   There was also flapper couple with bottles of booze, and cigarette holders a mile long. His hair was parted down the center. 

***

From the front porch:  “We’ll take it!” said the young woman.  “It’s perfect!  Our forever home.”

***

Copyright © 2019 Bookemjano – All rights reserved
To learn more about real ghosts, please see About Ghosts: A Useful Handbook.  For some great ghost stories, please see Death Be Not Loud, Rest In Fleece, and Sepia Seepage.  To learn about ghosts in modern fiction, please see Infectious Ghosts. And so much more, at: Jan’s Amazon Page
 
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Ghosts: What’s Cookin’? (A short story)

Readers, here’s something just for you: a story from my book, Rest In Fleece: Ghosts, Tall Tales & Horror Stories. If you like your horror stories with a touch of oregano, this has your name on it! Mob Haiku fans as well as Ghosts readers should get a kick out of this one!  Enjoy … and bon appetit! 😁👻👻

What’s Cookin’?

By Jan Olandese 
(Copyright 2019 Bookemjano, All Rights Reserved)

It smelled like gravy. Good, Italian red gravy (known as sauce to others).  The lady downstairs, Mrs. Stregazza, was always cooking something in her big soup kettle on the back burner.  All of us on the upper landing noticed this, day and night:  she was a constant chef. 

What? No, no, she lived alone.  She looked like a babushka, a little old lady in a scarf. She never exchanged a word with any of us.  Just opened the door for her mail, her grocery delivery, her group. 

You see, she was by no means a recluse.  She had this little club, I didn’t know if they played canasta, or traded gravy recipes. But they came over one night a week, like clockwork. They too wore the scarves and the old black dresses.  Like peasant women from Sicily. We never heard a thing, whatever they did was quiet. The gravy smelled stronger those nights, though. 

Odd things began to happen. Mr. Absynthe upstairs from me swears this is true.  His maid dropped his Blessed Virgin Mary while cleaning the mantel, and it shattered into a hundred small segments.  She swept them up, all apologies.   A couple of days later, he came in and there it was, back in its old place.  (No, he didn’t buy a new one. He thought maybe the maid had, but when he examined it closely,  was his, all right: it had that little flaw in the paint on the robe, and there was a tiny chip on the bottom.  Also it had an old sticker from the store he could never manage to remove:  Eartha’s Specialties, it read, the price itself long faded.

My rosary, the blue crystal one from my nonna, began to glow in the dark.  It woke me up, it was so bright.  What on earth, I wondered.  I said extra Hail Marys, I can assure you. 

Tammy, the girl across the hall, whose apartment was directly over Mrs. Stregazza’s, said that she heard banging sounds at times.  She noticed it only happened on the women’s meeting nights.  She got the worst of the gravy smell of course, being right overhead. (It’s a good thing she liked pasta). 

Marcus, the man next door, said he’d seen Mrs. Stregazza by her window one day, scattering something around her living room and mumbling.  We thought carpet freshener, God knows the gravy factor must have been pretty strong here.  But she’d looked up then:  she shook her finger at him and scowled.  He ducked away.  We didn’t see much of Marcus after that.  He didn’t come out for a week, and even then he looked sickly. 

We actually had a psychic in our building.  Her name was Vera and she did readings over the phone and by email.  Several of us were chatting one night by the banister and we decided to get Vera’s take on the strange happenings in the building, since she might have an inside track, so to speak.

We all met at my place one evening.  The hallway smelled like an Italian bistro whose specialty was garlic. We had all invested heavily in air freshening products.

Vera asked that we all be silent for a few moments while she concentrated on the apartment downstairs.  It wasn’t too long before she said:

“Can you smell it? Under the spaghetti sauce, (the gravy, you call it?)”

We concentrated, but were overpowered by the usual.  That was all we got.

“There’s something else.” Vera added. “They’re covering something up, those women.  I notice there are always twelve who come to see Mrs. Stregazza downstairs. Like a coven, they are.”

We’d have laughed it off, but too many weird things had taken place. 

“I sense something very dark,” Vera continued. “I’m getting a lot of names. Gilmore.  Jacobs.  Sanders.  Peretti.  DiAngelo. Do these mean anything to you?”

We shook our heads.  None of us knew them. 

“There are more,” she said. “Bianci, Ricci,  Moretti.  And Stregazza, but of course that’s her name, isn’t it. But it feels like someone else, a relative?  Bruno, Capelli, Colombo.  There’s another.  Amato, I’m getting.”

None of us knew anything.  Vera shook her head and said she felt something quite dark had happened downstairs, but she could do no more now, she was tired.  We thanked her and each quietly went home.

And each week, Mrs. Stregazza had her twelve friends over, and each week the gravy continued to grow in strength and, frankly, in added garlic. Maybe she thought it was a cure-all.  These old ladies, they put everything in the gravy. The men kept it simple always:   tomatoes, tomato sauce, red wine, garlic, oregano, onions (not too many) mushrooms, then of course the meatballs, the sausage.  Cook it for hours.  But the women were always slipping something in.  My nonna used to add some olives, may she rest in peace and sleep with the angels.

***

One day a couple of us had just come home, doors open, arms full of mail and groceries.  We heard a banging from Mrs. Stregazza’s.  It was loud, and persistent as a process server. Then there was a clang! and then it stopped.   This happened from time to time during the next weeks.   Always a pounding, followed by the other sound, then silence:  except, if you listened closely, for the bubbling of gravy on the stove. 

You must always stir the gravy, so it doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn. All of us from Italian families grew up hearing this, from the time our parents stuck us on footstools so we’d be tall enough to learn to stir.   So, we figured Mrs. Stregazza had to be home when the thudding happened.  After all, she seemed to always have gravy cooking. Was she deaf, did she not hear it?  Or, did it come from elsewhere?  Could have been the cellar, sometimes sounds were known travel up the elevator shaft or stairwell.

***

It was around this time we noticed the St. Vincent de Paul truck coming by every week or so. Always to pick up bundles from Mrs. Stregazza.  We figured she was spring cleaning, emptying closets. One day, the St. Vincent’s man left the Thank You For Your Donation card on my door instead of Mrs. S.’s.  She had donated, it said, men’s clothing.  I thought to myself ‘Poor dear, her husband’s been gone lo these many years, and only now is she able to part with his things.”  My heart went out to her, really it did. I told the others and we sighed for her.

Mr. Stregazza must have been quite the clothes horse.  The St. Vincent man kept lugging away vast quantities of what appeared to be menswear.  We thought perhaps she had been a hoarder.

***

The pounding continued at odd hours.  Vera thought she heard a man yelling but she had second sight, so maybe it was a spirit she heard. We gradually became used to the smell of gravy (many of us had grown up with big Italian families and Sunday dinners, so even those of us on diets found it comforting and nostalgic. 

***

One afternoon there was quite a commotion out front.  Some gang kids from the streets had had a shootout right across the street. Some of Mrs. Stregazza’s friends had come by early, with bags of groceries and, it looked like, more clothing for St. Vincent de Paul.  It did my heart good to see that kind of compassion for the poor, among those who were not themselves all that much better off.   You could see the ladies in the hallway, looking out at the gangstas, shaking their heads. 

“He’s ‘a no good, that boy,” said one of the women, pointing at the ringleader. “That Paulie, his mother, bless her heart, nothin’ she wouldn’t do for that boy.  She has rosaries said for him.  He goes to a counselor!” (She spat out that word.  Counseling and the police were not go-to’s among old school Italians in our neighborhood). “For all the good it does. Look at him. Cattivone!” 

Her friends nodded in empathy.  One took out a little gold pencil and notepad and wrote something down.  They went inside then, and the homey smell of gravy permeated the building once again. 

We noticed it got quieter outside after that.  The kids found some other place for target practice.  Maybe Mrs. Stregazza had spoken to Paulie’s mother.  Word of mouth: so effective. 

***

The landlord came by one day and got after Mrs. Stregazza for the cooking smells.  Someone, he said, had complained.  Now, trust me, none of us would beef out Mrs. Stregazza, and she knew it.  We weren’t that kind of building.  We just weren’t.  If things got bad, we might speak to her. But we had become accustomed to the spicy aroma of her gravy.

 The landlord was simply a sleazy rat who made up the story so he could lean on her for more rent, or a fee, or something. Mr. Struhnze went on and on, we heard him upstairs.  Mrs. Stregazza must have said something to appease him, though, because he stopped yelling. 

***

Late one day, it was sometime in August, and hot as could be. The power had (predictably) gone out, so we all opened our windows. The fragrance of Mrs. Stregazza’s gravy wafted up.  It smelled especially rich that day. 

It was because the windows were open that we could hear them.  It was the night her friends came over. 

“Hello, Maria, come in,” said Mrs. Stregazza.  One by one she greeted her friends as they arrived. “Concetta, you look wonderful.”  “Rosemary, what have you brought?  Wine? You shouldn’t have!” And so on. 

We heard the ladies clattering about in the kitchen. Someone must have dropped something; we heard quite the thud.  Then scurrying about.  It sounded as if dinner was soon to be served. 

“Renee, here, have some gravy. Meatballs?”

The sounds of dining could be heard.

“Angie (that was Mrs. Stregazza), this meat! It’s the best yet.  You should be a chef on tv.”

“Here, have a thigh,” said one of them. 

It sounded like a nice social evening for the ladies. How pleasant for them.

***

We’d have known nothing more if it were not for the unexpected demise of Mrs. Stregazza. She choked to death on a small bone.  Such a shame, we felt so bad. We’d have never known, but the St. Vincent man came and his clothing pickup wasn’t outside the door as usual. We called Mr.  Absynthe, who had an extra key in case she lost hers, or needed help.  He found her there, head down in a bowl full of gravy and linguini. 

As a result, the police came.  And while they were there, they noticed a smell even stronger than that of the gravy.  For the freezer had been off since the power outage the night before.  Fortunately, so had the stove. The gravy had not burned. 

The cops followed their noses to the freezer and then there was quite the hubbub, let me tell you.  Sirens and more cops all night.  It was certainly hopping around here, for hours.  They questioned us but we didn’t let on. That would be ratting.

***

It was all in the news the next day.  The ladies, who had met at an abused women’s group, started to meet for support.  They found they had mutual interests:  knitting.  Dancing with the Stars.  Cooking.  So they gathered each Friday night to share dinner. 

The ladies would each bring something.  Mrs. Bruno bought wine.  Mrs. Ricci brought bread.  And Mrs. Moretti brought Mr. Moretti.  She wore black.  He was clad in Tupperware: several containers full.  He had been converted to chops, hamburger, and sausage links.  They put him in the freezer.  There was room on the shelf next to Mr. Stregazza, Mr. Capelli, Mr. diAngelo, Mr. Gilmore, and the others.

The ladies didn’t like disruption.   Paulie and Mr. Struhnze were in there, too.  Each plastic tub was neatly labeled, so the police knew exactly what had been who.

As the police picked up the women, they could be heard discussing aspects of gravy preparation.

***


To learn more about real ghosts, please see About Ghosts: A Useful Handbook.  For some great ghost stories, please see Death Be Not Loud, Rest In Fleece, and Sepia Seepage.  To learn about ghosts in modern fiction, please see Infectious Ghosts. And so much more, at: Jan’s Amazon Page
 
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Ghosts! Ghost Books On Sale!

We all love a bargain! The following titles are now just 99¢ !!  Get yours now! Tell your friends!  🙂 

About Ghosts: A Useful Handbook (nonfiction), Rest in Fleece (deliciously creepy ghost stories!), Death Be Not Loud (more chilling tales!), Sepia Seepage (haunted antique photos – brrr!), Infectious Ghosts: Contagious Magic in F. G. Cottam’s Dark Echo and The House of Lost Souls,   and It’s Your Funeral:  Dead Funny Haiku (irreverent, but you’ll laugh anyway!).

Available here:  https://www.amazon.com/Jan-Olandese/e/B071FK9L75

If you enjoyed reading any of my books, please take a moment to leave stars and happy words in a review at Amazon – it would be most appreciated! Thanks in advance 🙂 

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