HOW A GHOST IS MADE
by Sean Jackson
This is the part that gets to Shelly every time: running past the Horner’s fence with a big, bright smile on her face. It can’t be the sour pucker that she wants to display. It has to be a buoyant expression, otherwise Mingyu will talk about it in the clubhouse.
So she sprints along the freshly painted pickets (Mingyu Horner isn’t one to forgo spring improvements) and bares her teeth, chin high, shoulders back, and a proper curl to her lips. The Shih Tzu scrambles through the flowers behind the fence and leaps at the wheeling legs, yapping and clawing at the wood.
“Fuck off, Roxy,” Shelly says through her teeth. The sprinklers click on and the Belknap’s maid appears down the sidewalk, searching for the morning paper. Shelly flies past her, doesn’t even nod hello, her mind locked in on the fact that Dave’s car will be rolling by soon. She can practically hear the thump of his music, that awful heavy metal he still listens to, and the whine of the rear brakes he won’t take in to get looked at.
She leans into the next turn, bursting up Spindale Street like they taught her at Oberlin: run till you can’t think straight, then back off one gear. But only one. Too much and the pace erodes so that you won’t find it again. She imagines she is sprinting to Mingyu’s murder scene—cops and medics and white chalk outline, the whole bit. Dave will be there, peering out of the perfectly tinted Audi windows, his face wracked with grief and shame.
Shelly stumbles at the Brier Lake intersection as a dude on a bike hops the curb and blows past her the other way, a shitty look on his face as he yells something rude about her having an alleged cocaine habit, being a whore, and needing to look where the fuck she is going. This is the Walser kid, back from prep school (booted for partying) and on a rampage through the neighborhood. Mingyu got him barred from the clubhouse and the pool after catching him rifling through lockers. Nancy what’s-her-name got him blacklisted from the tennis courts because he (allegedly) stuffed a dead cat inside the Lobster practice machine.
Dave plays tennis with James Horner, who said it wasn’t a big thing and we all make mistakes and maybe we should try to be more lenient with the Walser kid when it comes to banning him from proactive activities like tennis, swimming and working out.
Shelly digs into the rise up Bowman Hill and, though her head is lowered, she can feel the old Claremont Castle staring down at her. All thirty rooms of it. Granite and iron, the high gaping windows (“arched maws,” per Dave), and the woeful willows bent around the center statue of Garland Claremont atop a muscled steed. Shelly’s face warps into a wry smile as she pumps her way around the estate. Claremont sits in federal prison due to years of tax fraud. Millions of it. His wife “entertains” a host of “tennis pros” who come and go like pigeons on the turrets—there one minute, gone the next.
The whole neighborhood is on an Old Testament whoring binge: omnisinfidelitas.
Shelly reaches the greenway trail head, which is a fence-covered foot bridge over the Durham Freeway. She pauses, counts along with her stopwatch, till she sees Dave ease into a relaxed line of RTP-bound nerds and immoralists. Then she pops in her earbuds and descends along the bridge into a canopy-covered swath of nature so green it makes her sick.
Radisson v. Marklitz, et al. is what they’ve given her at work, a six-figure payday for the firm and likely an eight-figure payout for the hotel which claims the City of Raleigh cockblocked its efforts to build a luxury high-rise near the train depot. Marklitz is the city planner who led the cockblocking. He’s also a manic depressive who Shelly knows will lose his job, kill himself, then become a martyr along the lines of John the Baptist or…who was that guy from Joy Division?
She’s trying to remember Ian Curtis just as Sambo goes by her door. He leans back, hand on the jamb, and grins in that manner he does which stops all negative thoughts. He is maybe fifty, with a mane of silver and immaculate pompadour hair, and is two uncles removed from the governor’s mansion. There’s already a fellowship at Wake Forest University Law School named after him: the Samuel J.K. Lammartine II Fellow of English Literature & Shakespearean Studies. Or, as he calls it, “the Sam-Lam sub chair.”
“How goes Radisson?” he says, smiling as his eyes dart around her walls. Every time it’s like he’s never seen her degrees and certifications. He always seems to be in awe.
“No chance we lose,” she tells him. (Ian Curtis! Love, love will tear us apart again.) “Not a question of win or lose. The question is: How much do we win?”
Sam’s eyes roll around and he laughs. He actually claps. Then he points at her:
“I knew you were my guy! First time I saw your CV, I told Kane—or maybe it was Julius—that you would kick ass here. Just totally kick ass.”
“There’s no ass too big or small to get kicked all down the courthouse hall. Isn’t that from a play or something?”
Sam makes a comic face.
“No it isn’t,” he says. “I think you made it up.”
Then he grins some more.
“No such thing as too much,” he adds. “Make sure you touch base with me the first time you hear anybody even think the word settle. Okay?”
She gives him the thumb, sideways, then jerked straight up. It’s like a ball team around here sometimes. Victory is joyous and defeat is fucking wretched. But they win way more than they lose.
“Oh, what’s the sitch with Dave?” he says, back at the doorway again. “You guys, you know…is he, you know, still…?”
She gives him the other thumb, sideways, then jerked down. She makes the YOU LOSE! videogame sound effect.
After a couple hours drafting emails for the hoped-for Radisson victory party (the invite list includes the widow Claremont), she plops into her car for the post-rush hour drive home. Twilight is in full bloom, a misty purple and gold that obscures the horror show of wires and billboards flanking the route she takes home. She listens to the radio and daydreams, those visions of Mingyu on a capsized boat or at the bottom of a well.
At home, Dave sits out back, surrounded by Tiki torches, whispering into his phone and watching her through the sliding-glass doors. He gives a tepid two-finger wave and looks away, probably telling Mingyu to steer clear of sailfish boats and open wells. She has stopped checking his outgoing calls. He claims he gets James and Mingyu’s numbers mixed up. But he never has an answer for why he’ll talk to the wife for an hour when he meant to ring the hubbie.
“Did I get any mail?” she calls through the glass. He points to the basket on the coffee table (god she loves Ikea). He has that irritated furrow, a fold in his face she never saw till he met Mingyu at the clubhouse bar (Love Forty) and came back saying there was this Chinese girl (even though she was at least thirty) who reminded him of somebody from an old Ang Lee film. Shelly didn’t quiz him, didn’t really even listen as he went on and on about this stunning, graceful Asian girl (married, a daughter, early thirties) who’d played on the women’s pro tour when she was just sixteen.
Shelly stops when the powder-blue envelope appears. Her fingers tremble as she tears the gold seal on the back and removes the registration card. She’s been accepted to the Montana Blue Sky Writer’s Retreat. In fact, her application was the best in years, the Texan, Bobby Short, tells her in the space at the bottom of her acceptance card. Just fill out the registration (a formality) and get it back to the Blue Sky Ranch within two weeks. She looks out at Dave, who cradles his phone between his cheek and shoulder so he can dig at something on the bottom of his foot. Finish off Radisson, have the victory bash, tell Sam she needs a break, drop poison tablets in Mingyu’s water bottle (haha!), and then head for Blue Sky. Easy peasy.
Lemon squeezy. It’s racist, but there’s a name for Mingyu. She wants to offer it to Dave, tell him it’s okay to fuck James Horner’s wife, so long as James never finds out. Horner is a big guy, a software programmer, but he works out and played lacrosse in college. Or maybe he rowed. Either way, the guy is huge compared to Dave.
“Something’s wrong with my foot,” he says as she comes out to check her tea roses. It cost a hundred bucks to get a guy to come spray them with organic something or other. The guy guaranteed it would keep the mites away, or else her money back. Sure.
“You should soak it in salt or whatnot,” she says, seeing that the bushes are strong, enjoying the humid summer.
“I don’t know,” he says, frowning. That furrow. Like a disappointed father. “I hear Mingyu does a homeopathic thing for feet, for athlete’s foot or whatever this is. Some kind of tennis secret, you know?”
Shelly stands behind him as he digs at the flaky soles of his feet.
“Lemon squeezy,” she says.
“Get her to squeeze lemons on your feet.”
What an idiot. She lies in bed (her side, nearest the master bath), has some wine, and uses her laptop to research Blue Sky and Bobby Short, et al. She’s written a memoir that traces her mother’s rise and fall in the literary world—a 1960s confessional poet with pieces in The New Yorker, followed by accusations of plagiarism, a descent into alcoholism, the divorce, four years institutionalized (the entire Carter Administration), and finally the breast cancer that ate her away till she was nothing but a cobweb in a Fripp Island bedroom.
Shelly writes angrily about ugly truths and feels she has to get this me-and-mother memoir into print because a scathing account of adultery in a miserable and childless marriage is forthcoming. And also she has a lazy, clichéd notion that maybe, just maybe, she’ll come across some cowboy poet at the dude ranch (is that just a TV term?) and, you know, things will happen.
There’s got to be somebody somewhere who will be her lemon squeezy.
Dave wowed her because he fucked her with arrogance—not with hostility or aggression nor a lusty bravura, just a confidence in his abilities. And he was so calm in the face of adversity, a stoic captain in the Ahab sense. When her mother died and the funeral home in Savannah tried to say the burial insurance was lapsed, Dave swooped in and smacked them across the face with the policy, saying honor it or face the wrath of the federal government. Some kind of Medicare issue, but he was a goddamned genius and the funeral went on, though Shelly was wrecked and the family turnout sparse. He was all that she needed: stability, confidence, and a fair share of good looks.
He still works in insurance, but he no longer fights for the little guys. He’s what Sam calls a douche. Along the lines of, “That douchebag at First Rock National Coverage is going to make us file a tort.” Or even specifically: “Dave is a fucking douche, Shelly.”
It’s something she’s watched before, when her father crept away over the course of a year.
There were times when Shelly thought she could actually hear her mother’s heart breaking. Like a creaky wall in an antebellum house that yawns during storms. Only worse. It was like watching a ghost being made. Piece by dreadful piece. Having seen this, Shelly doesn’t fear divorce or estrangement or loneliness or any of that shit that brought her poet-mom down. She’s put up walls, kinda like an old fucking castle on a hill that uses ramparts and hedges and murder stories to keep trespassers away.
All the fucking immoralists. Shelly hates them all. Soup to nuts, stem to stern—a gigantic waste of her time. A bag of dicks and all that shit.
She realizes she’s had one glass of wine too many about the time Dave pops his head in the room and asks her who is she talking to? Is she Skyping?
She goes back to her screens and reads about the workshops at Blue Sky. Daylong musings over core characters’ motives (why did she kill that little whore bitch?) and possibly delving into magical realism during the evening sessions with some Guillermo dude. There’s a reading by an Oglala Lakota poet who lost a hand at Wounded Knee. (Give him your card, no statute of limitations on malicious wounding.)
Nightly jam sessions are scheduled and everybody is encouraged to bring an instrument of his or her choice. Shelly goes to Amazon to look at acoustic guitars. She played one years ago. Was in some indie band while at Oberlin who did forty minutes of R.E.M. covers. “Swan Swan H,” remember that? Nobody ever figured out what that song was about. She fucked a stranger one night after a shitty gig at a frat party and thinks his name was Johnny Reb. Some guy with a dick shaped like a sweet potato.
She checks a box to attend a midweek gala on Tumble Mountain, a couple hours’ drive in a well-worn Jeep, or an all-day journey atop horses with “the wolfpack,” Bobby Short’s own group of cow punchers (ex-rodeo friends and Bighorn poets) and roughnecks (rumor is that these are a retired prizefighter, maybe that guy from Bon Jovi who nobody remembers, and Matt fucking Damon). It costs $500.
Then she gets an instant message via the site, a short bio and a headshot of her bunkmate. It’s a California woman, with dyed blonde hair, about sixty, who goes by “Carol of Palo Alto.” Carol has crow’s feet, a gold charm necklace (seagulls and starfish), and large, luminous eyes that radiate a forced happiness. That’s the face Shelly sees in the mirror, only younger. The strain of a complicated relationship with a lover is written everywhere. Like a man (or maybe it’s a woman?) has wiped his crappy boots all over it, from hairline to chin, ear to ear, on his way in and out of lies about whether he still loves Carol. Poor Carol. There’ll be two of them at Blue Sky. At least two. Who knows? They could all be jilted hearts turning over stones to find that page that will cry out to a publisher.
Shelly replies through the moderator: “Love Carol! Future BFFs for sure! ♥♥”
Then one last page to RSVP to. The BRING SOMEONE ELSE’S WRITING page. Has to be the unpublished writing of somebody you’ve known personally who means something to you. DON’T JUST BRING US YOUR HUSBAND’S/WIFE’S LOVE LETTERS TO YOU! MAKE IT COUNT.
Ha! If only. Dave’s not the type. He can write a grocery list and a sorry-excuse-for-why-he’s-not-home on a Post-it, but romantic stuff? You may as well ask him to stop fucking Mingyu.
Shelly knows what she’ll bring. There’s a notebook in her closet, in a box with things from high school and corresponding summers, a journal, a nice Moleskine that her mother got in Italy during her only trip abroad. There are four or five rhyming poems in there, a couple of never-ending sonnets, and a little travel piece she wrote for her sister. It tells all about Milan and Rome and the young man (her fiancé George) who was whirling her from destination to destination, an absolute love affair with life, sex, art, and experience.
It’s the only thing her mother ever wrote that uses the word “justification” in relation to her own life. It was the happiest she ever was. Shelly will bring that. That and, sure, one of the notes Dave dropped in her nightstand dish. About a year ago. A curlicue-laden piece about his having to meet a client’s lawyer at a golf course in Raleigh, how sorry he was that this came up last minute. Happy birthday. Save some cake for me.
Sean Jackson’s latest stories have been published in Main Street Rag, The Potomac Review, Niche, Sliver of Stone, and Conte Online, among other literary magazines. He was a 2011 Million Writers Award nominee. He wrote for more than a decade for newspapers across eastern North Carolina. Jackson lives in Cary, North Carolina.