Baggage from Rustling Pines
“Funny thing is, ghosts need an audience, an inner circle of admirers so to say, people who will vouch for them. Take them out of their comfort zone, and voila, they have an identity crisis.” I twirled my fingers happily over my belly, and slid my toes out of the slippers to feel the cool sand in Daniel’s backyard as he opened another beer for me.
We liked the new neighborhood already – a lot younger, but livelier, with the happy patter of baby feet and trike bells all day. Not the gloomy abode of sullen pensioners our previous one had. Nancy, my wife, was on the porch giggling with her new friends, helping add rosemary and garlic seasoning to the rib racks and briskets on the Weber water smoker. We men sat under the starlit sky drinking beer. This was a little welcome dinner organized for us by the neighbors.
“So, were the spooks for real,” asked Danny, the banker guy staying across from us in the house with the blue roof with a corsage of houseleeks – brilliant yellow-green rosettes with amber colored tips.
“No one can say for sure, these are discarnate residuals, probably don’t even know they’ve passed on. It all started when…” I waited for Brian to unpeel the oily wrapper on his Del Mundo cigar – he stayed to our left, in the house with the Ferrari in the drive.
“Started when?” he asked finally, puffing out thick clouds of rich cedar wood scented smoke.
“When the windows and doors on Mrs. Jankovic’s house began banging all of a sudden one night.”
“A wild animal?”
“One that can slide rusty bolts and turn door knobs? – Quite unlikely. A prankster maybe – but who would think of upsetting a lady with the husband out on combat duty in the Middle-East?”
“What was it then?”
“First she thought it was someone stalking her – it’s so scary reading the papers these days. So she and her kids sprinkled talcum powder on the porch before turning in for the night. But the rattling and hullabaloo continued, with no footsteps on the powder on the floor.
Then she began to feel eyes upon her as she slept – burning ones – like red-hot coals. She was soon having chills and nightmares, and funny odors began to come from the house.”
“Oh my,” someone gasped as the ladies too joined us and sat around in a little agog circle.
“Yeah,” I licked my mustache clean and waved the empty can. Someone quickly fetched another one. “So she calls over the local priest. He mumbo-jumbos some prayers, sprinkles holy water around the house and finds nothing. Telling her to find a better detergent and be more regular at Church, he promises to be back in a week.”
“Did it help?”
“For a couple of days, yeah. And then it returned, much louder – she said she felt she was in the front row in a sledge metal rock concert.”
“What’d she do then?”
“She called me in.” I cleared my throat and puffed out my chest. “She called Nancy actually, and asked her for my help.”
“Why you…” some doubter in the circle asked.
“Because I was a clerk with the Mayor’s office, that’s why.” I searched the gathering for that cynical aspect but found only innocent curiosity. “And I happened to be the only man around.”
“You see,” Nancy quickly cut into the politely stifled titters, “there were only four houses on that row: Mrs. Jankovic’s husband was away in Kuwait; Mrs. Wruck was a divorcee; Mrs. Algafari, a widow, was a Syrian refugee; and then ours. The houses across our road had been burnt down in a fire some twenty years ago.”
“What did you do then, Max?”
“Well, I tipped the cops. Had them set up a vigil around her house for a couple of days – night visits … surprise checks – just to make the lady feel comforted. Nancy told me how thankful Mrs. Jankovic was.
I thought things had been well taken care of, but when I reached home for lunch-break one afternoon, I found my own house locked up!”
“I‘d heard some movement outside the house,” Nancy chipped in. “So I thought it must be Max – he comes home most days for hot lunch you see – he hates carrying tiffin and microwaving it. Food tastes so damn rubbery he always says. So I come to the door and find I’m locked in – I think it’s Max playing pranks on me – he does it all the time,” she said, smiling coyly and patting down her bun of auburn hair.
“Yeah,” I butted in, just in case Nancy got carried away. “We got only each other to fool around with. The kids are abroad – working with multinationals. I told her I would never scare her like that. Maybe it was a plumber, or an electrician, a Good Samaritan who might have rung the bell, and finding the door ajar – we let it stay open in the day mostly – closed it.”
“But I got scared,” Nancy added. “I’d just got over the phone call with Mrs. Jankovic – I knew how terrible it’d been for her. So I asked Max to check with people – just to make sure.”
“I did check. A Good Samaritan is about as hard to come by as a square basketball. No one owned up to coming to my house – I think more out of embarrassment,” I said.
“But I really got scared – in fact I began to check my door every now and then to make sure it wasn’t bolted,” Nancy added.
“It began to freak me out,” I confessed. “Things really came to a head when somebody destroyed Mrs. Wruck’s organic kitchen garden. She loved her veggies and made it a point to share her super foods with all of us.
We tried to tell her it must be some wild animal, but she wasn’t convinced. She claimed animals would eat the plants, but in her case row upon row of kale, goji berries and kiwis had been systematically uprooted, as if the garden had been put to rest for winter.”
“Yeah, she was inconsolable; her plants were all she had for company – she sang to them and loved them like her own children.
Then one day, Nancy called me up when I was in a meeting with the school committee – she said it was urgent and I must rush home.”
“What was it,” asked Janice, the real estate agent who’d found us our new house at Bourbon, after we’d moved over from Rustling Pines.
“That was exactly my question when I found the ladies huddled in my house. Mrs. Algafari was beating her breast and wailing like a banshee – she’d found her clothes neatly packed into suitcases when she returned home after grocery shopping. She thought some evil man wanted to return her to her country!”
“Not so funny when you realize that she found the house locked exactly the way she’d left it – no tampering of the locks.”
“Did you call in the cops,” someone from the group asked – I didn’t remember all the names as yet.
“That of course. But then we decided to do a little bit of introspection ourselves. Mrs. Jankovic became convinced that maleficent spirits haunted the place – she asked me to check the municipal records if any unnatural deaths had taken place in the area, or if any old burial grounds existed below our houses.”
“Bad for property valuations,” Janice said.
“True. I asked Herbert from Revenue to check – he came up with nothing. The houses across the road had been burnt after a forest fire, but they had been evacuated well in time. The property owners decided to move out rather than rebuild in the middle of the wilderness. And the terrain was too rocky to bury anything.”
“The idea of a haunting was still far-fetched for me – a man of scientific temperament. Normally, we tend to give undue credit to paranormal phenomenon when none is deserved – I guess we just try to make sense of irrational things. I had another hunch though; with women there are always a lot of undercurrents – and when you have many of them who have never had to work a day in their lives bunched together, there are bound to be elves playing quietly under the surface.”
There was light laughter and a clackety clack of tongues from our small group.
“That’s not fair,” somebody piped.
“Pardon me – I meant in a way that women are a complicated lot – they’re deep, like still waters. So I asked this set if any inter-personal dynamics had changed of late… I mean if there was no other explanation, then it had to be a handiwork from within.”
“You mean the girls were spiting each other for nothing better to do?”
“I dare not hold the worthy women of Rustling Pines, my loving wife included, in such poor esteem. No madam – I meant if anyone had moved in or out lately from our tiny, secluded community.”
“And was there?”
I could see Nancy nodding, and about to speak up. I silenced her by holding up a hand. “Yes, apparently an old maid, a Filipino, who worked all the four houses, had recently been replaced. A good worker but had a mind of her own, and fond of talking back to the mistress of the house, which was not highly appreciated. The new maid was a Vietnamese, not so good, but a silent worker who’d replaced the Filipino.”
“So what are you saying – the maid had something to do with it?”
“The Filipino had enjoyed absolute monopoly over the small colony. These Asian women always carry some old baggage – never see eye to eye – slit to slit with each other, I should perhaps say. Naturally some bitterness had to be there at losing lucrative employment.”
“So it was the Filipino disturbing the peace!” There was a general sense of disappointment at the anti-climax of my story – some sighed and some made to rise, to add water and wood to the grill.
“That would be a rather simplistic explanation of the whole thing,” I declared, sweeping my arm and bidding the gathering to remain seated. “We called the Filipino to our little council – naturally she acted very offended, and refused to own up to any mischief that had been plaguing us.”
“Then you went back to the ghost?”
“Not so fast. Some of the ladies were unhappy with the new maid, and there’d been some murmurs about bringing the old one back; hints that were sometimes indiscreetly dropped within earshot of the new maid in the hope it would spur her to improve.”
“So now it’s the other maid?”
“She was also summoned, and she too went into denial. The general mood was in favor of holding the previous maid as the culprit. So to nab her, I suggested we keep a close watch on her movements.”
“Did you catch her then?”
“Regrettably no. Meanwhile, Mrs. Jankovic nearly had a breakdown – her front gate had been torn down from its iron bolts, and there was shattered glass everywhere in her house. Enough was enough. I suggested we plant a CCTV near the entrance to the Filipino’s servant quarters. You see, Mrs. Algafari out of kindness had allowed her to stay put till she found new work. Throwing out a network of cameras in all the houses was impractical, and would have become obvious. But a single camera could always be installed quietly.”
“And the camera nailed her?”
The ribs seemed done with taking a luxurious bath in vapors. A delicious smoky smell wafted in from the grill, evoking strong atavistic memories. Daniel, our host, scratched the crusty grill with a fraying wire brush so that the black flecks sprayed on his baggy khaki shorts. “Smoke,” he declared, “is the sixth taste of food: after salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami.”
He picked up a slab with tongs and bounced it slightly till it bowed to the point of breaking. “It’s done, here, try,” he said. I could pull the ribs clean off the bones with my teeth. Daniel reached for another slab, but his wife, Debbie, slapped away his hand with an oven mitt. “Leave something for the guests.” She laughed, her pearly teeth catching the glint of fair moonlight. She put sauce on the meat and let it sizzle some. “Go on, finish the story, I’ll hear it from Daniel tonight,” she said. We grabbed some more beers from the icebox and passed them around in the group.
“Where was I,” I asked when people had clicked open the cans. Some ladies got up to help Debbie with the servings.
“You put up a camera…”
“Oh yes. Nothing changed though. The Syrian woman receives a call from the train station one day, that two of her suitcases, with nameplates, packed, were found by the Station Master with an outbound ticket pasted on! She was terror-stricken and refused to step out of her house.
Mrs. Wruck found slabs of wild boar meat, still bloodied, in her fridge. A sworn vegetarian – it was like blasphemy to her. And let me tell you – it’s not easy to kill wild boar.”
“And what about you Nancy…nothing went on in your house,” asked Janice.
“Well,” Nancy replied, “ I found the new maid’s three-month old baby in my living room one morning – how it got there, nobody knows. The maid was hysterical, and I was too. I screamed at Max to get me out of that place.”
“I felt I had a responsibility to make the women feel secure.” I added. “ I felt they were on my watch. And I had failed. The cops assembled everyone in my house and checked the footage on the CCTV. Alas, the Filipino maid had never stirred from her quarters – she was laid low with the chills and malaise. They called in the new maid then – who would believe a woman would dump her own baby in someone’s house just to spite the competition?
But after sustained interrogation – the cops have their methods; they managed to extract a confession from the woman that she’d probably forgotten the child after working our house! She still denied any wrongdoings in the other houses though.”
“What did you do then?”
“Obviously it was a very convenient explanation, too feeble a defense even to imagine. She was lying; she was sacked, expunged from the neighborhood post haste.”
“Thank God! Surely it was all calm thereafter…why did everyone leave then, Max?”
“True, it was calm—the rattlings ceased. Mrs. Wruck’s green leafy salads topped with juicy red tomatoes flourished again. No one made any more moves to evacuate the Syrian. Nancy, my darling here,” I said, ruffling her mop of unruly hair, “was no longer immured within four walls of the house against her wishes.”
“What women will not do to have their way?” Daniel chuckled, poking Brian in the ribs with a rib licked clean.
“Nothing, I think,” I replied. “A month later, Herbert – you remember him from the Revenue records – called. He said one servant family was still sleeping in when the forest fires started. They couldn’t make their escape – they fell unconscious with the CO2 fumes. The couple perished in the flames.”
“But you said he’d checked the records – and there had been no deaths recorded?”
“Exactly what I asked him. He said they had a daughter with a domicile at Minnesota. She applied for the death certificates in that state because of some insurance issues, and had the municipal records transferred there. He happened to notice it only when the blanks were thrown up during an audit when town archives were being transcribed into automated records. He remembered I’d been making inquiries and how anxious Nancy had been. Nice of him to have told us.”
“Are we back to ghosts now,” Debbie asked, and suddenly shivered. Daniel wrapped her in close embrace.
“Utter baloney, I assure you, friends. I told Herbert to rest easy because we’d found peace after the deportation of the new maid – the matter had been settled.”
“That’s a relief to know.”
“Mrs. Jankovic though, on learning of the new development, managed to convince the others to fence the plot and give some kind of a decent burial service to the departed souls – just in case.”
“What about the property valuations?” Janice pointed out.
“Smart people think alike,” I replied. She made a small bow and spread her arms in acknowledgment.
“That’s what I told the other folks. You see; we were done with that place. My retirement was coming up in a few months, and the others seemed fed up too. Mrs. Jankovic was the least affected because she would have moved out once her husband returned from his tour of duty. Mrs. Wruck found only rock below the topsoil and was finding it harder to rejuvenate her garden with each passing season. Mrs. Algafari was the hardest to convince. But I knew once singled out, she too would go along with the others.”
“Still you managed to sell the property?”
“I told the others if we fenced off the land or did anything emotional, it would sink the market rates. And I won’t be lying if I told you that this developer had been hounding me on the quiet to have the complete plot vacated so that he could take it over. He wanted to build warehouses and a solar power plant on the property.”
“Was there an incentive involved?”
I cleared my throat. “Let us say there was good in it for everybody – in proportion to the efforts involved. With the power transformers toasting overhead – I assured the others the dear departed souls, if there were any, would get a lifelong last rites service – a proper cremation free on the house. And that was it – we kept quiet, we all sold off to this developer, and moved to different places – listening to the jingle of spare change in our pockets. We made a great deal.” Looking around the tony locale, where I now belonged, I smacked my lips in satisfaction.
“Not bad – you saved the day for the others – old women by themselves wouldn’t have been able to salvage such a good value from a bad deal,” said the banker.
I chuckled and patted Danny warmly on his back, “I felt like Moses who’d led his people across the sea.”
With that we rose. The night was still, the wind had died, and the stars had dimmed in the deepening twilight. Suddenly the quietness was disturbed with rising, anxious voices. I stepped over to the small circle gathered around Debbie who was trying to wrench open the porch door so that she could fetch cutlery from the kitchen.
“I swear I left this door open,” she was repeating hysterically. Others peered through the window into the house. “Damn! The house is locked from inside!”
Slowly the people turned towards me. The look of admiration and envy of a few moments ago seemed to have been swept aside by plain loathing, fear.
Toast the ghost, will you, smartass Max? Ghosts need people to vouch for them – didn’t you say so yourself? You’ve hauled in unwanted baggage from Rustling Pines and heaped it upon us – their seething eyes seemed to crackle and spit.
I wondered if someone would be ready to build an expensive shopping arcade here. This land was too precious to be wasted on street parks and urban farmhouses.