Friday, July 15, 2011

Laid To Rest

That spring Alan got a job on a harbor tugboat as a deckhand. Occasionally the boat went out of port for a towing job down the coast but for the most part it was like working in an office or a factory, starting at eight in the morning and back home by five. He loved it. He hated being penned up inside and this job meant being on deck all day, painting, cleaning, installing new equipment, working the lines, and other tasks assigned to him by the bo’sun.

Home was a small apartment in a building in the old downtown. Once it had been a single family dwelling, a very large one, but some years ago it had been broken up into apartments and rented out to people much like himself, workmen of various descriptions and women office workers. The place was owned by a woman in her seventies, a Mrs. Green, a widow. She lived in the apartment at the very front on the first floor, one which took up half of that floor and was thus much more spacious than any of the others.

Mrs. Green was a church going lady, an Anglican, and dead against late hours, drinking and fornication. She made her dislikes well known when Alan had first come to look at the apartment but they didn’t bother him for he was a nondrinker, kept hours as regular as clockwork and had a girlfriend with a house of her own where he slept every Friday and Saturday night. Mrs. Green didn’t mind fornication outside of her own premises; it was the inside kind that caused her distress. Alan appreciated the old lady’s strictness, for the house was a quiet one and he had to be up early in the morning five days a week. He had one of the smaller apartments sharing the first floor with Mrs. Green and was thus comfortably near the center of order, authority and proper living.

Alan knew some of the other tenants by sight, seeing them coming and going in the corridors or up the front steps but he never got to know any in a personal way. Most were middle aged, settled in their ways and not looking for new adventures, new acquaintances. This suited Alan fine. Although younger than most, he shared their quiet habits. The five nights a week he spent in the apartment, he showered, made and ate supper and read for some hours before going to bed early. Ocassionally he went over to his girlfriend’s during the week but his was unusual. She had a high powered, stressful job which didn’t leave her much energy for anyone else during the week.

The house was situated on a large lot next to a graveyard. Alan’s window looked out over the graveyard, something many might find discomforting but not Alan. He was not superstitious and the graveyard, with its well tended green grass, its aging, weathered stones and its yew trees was delightful to look out over, especially in the evenings when the sun was going down. It was an Anglican establishment and, since its history went back more than two centuries, mostly full. There were still a few empty spots, usually waiting for the widow or widower of an already deceased spouse. Mrs. Green’s husband was buried there and she would be joining him when she died. “I don’t have to go very far,” she joked when she told him this. Although on the outside, a strict and severe lady, Mrs, Green had a very good sense of humor, wry and self deprecating. Over the spring and summer months, spending fifteen minutes with her now and then, sometimes in the backyard where he went to read outside, sometimes in her apartment when he paid the rent, Alan developed an appreciation, even an affection for the old lady. She was a woman of character, intelligence and depth.

Things went along just fine through the spring and summer and into early fall until one night, in mid September, Alan was woken by a loud scream coming from inside Mrs. Green’s apartment, a long piercing scream which could only come from a mind and body gripped in a vice of pure terror. Alan leaped out of bed, threw on his bathrobe and rushed into the corridor. When he came to Mrs. Green’s door, some twenty feet down from his own, he knocked. No answer. He knocked again. He thought he heard the sound of movement through the door but couldn’t be sure. He knocked once more and when there was no answer went back to apartment. The scream didn’t seem to disturb any of the other tenants, although why was a mystery to Alan. His own phrase for the scream was one of his grandmother’s, that it would have woken the dead. No one else came out into the corridor and he could hear no sounds inside any of the other apartments. He began to think that the scream was from a nightmare of his own and he had confused it with outside reality. But he was a resilient young man and tired after working hard all day so he went back to sleep almost right away and slept soundly until his alarm clock woke him at his usual hour the next morning.

Alan had no intentions of bringing the scream up with Mrs. Green. He figured that she had a nightmare and hollered out in her distress and would be mortally embarrassed to have a tenant bring this up in conversation. She would no doubt think it a personal affair. He couldn’t have been more surprised when, two weeks later, in her apartment paying his rent, the old lady brought it up herself.

“I suppose it was you who knocked on the door,” she said.

“Well, yes, it was,” replied Alan.

“I must apologize. He was still there and he forbade me to go to the door.”

“Who was still there?”

“Albert. My husband.”

“I thought you told me he was dead and buried.”

“Well, yes he is. I call him Albert, out of habit, but it would be more accurate to call him Albert’s ghost.”

“His ghost?”

“Yes. But perhaps you don’t believe in ghosts?”

“I don’t believe or disbelieve in them. I have read some things about them but have never seen one.”

“One is supposed to be loyal to one’s husband, alive or dead, but there is a limit to all principles of conduct. After all they are meant to be guidelines, not absolutes. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr.Gill?”

“I suppose there is, yes.”

“Exactly. Albert died ten years ago, at the age of sixty-three. It was surprising to me and to anyone else who knew him, that he lasted that long. He drank. He took drugs. He was arrested many times for brawling in bars. He frequented houses of prostitution where he paid large sums of money for deviant pleasures. Often, on one of his sprees, he would be gone for months, and occasionally he disappeared for half a year. He worked as a lawyer until the age of forty when he found the practice of his profession interfered with his dissipations. From then on his source of income was browbeating money from me and the odd shady scheme he lent the ever dwindling authority of his legal reputation. Fortunately, I had some money of my own and when I saw the lay of the land clearly, I converted the house to apartments. What was left I put into an iron clad annuity which could not be broken. If it wasn’t for that, ten years after we married, I would have been destitute, on the street in fact. Even then, over the next twenty years or so, he succeeded in extorting money from me with tears, threats and promises of reform. He could be very charming if it was in his self interest. Thwarted he was a monster. Once he broke my arm, another time my wrist and jaw. Twice he battered down the door to my apartment and I was forced to call the police and have him taken away. These events were occasioned by my refusing to borrow money for him. The house was from my family and the deed was in my name. In the end, five years before he died, I had a court order issued against him. Then, several months before he died, the hospital phoned.”

Here, Mrs. Green lifted her cup from the table and had a drink of tea. She set down the cup, looked for a moment out the window where there was bright sunshine playing in the leaves of an oak which partially blocked the view, and then, bringing her eyes back to her cup, resumed.

“He was dying, of course. A ruined liver, kidney disease, a failing pancreas and a number of other problems, each one, if taken alone, enough to kill him. They wanted me to take him home, partly because he claimed the right to die at home but also, I think, because he was a very trying patient. As weak as he was his temper had not abated. He swore vehemently almost with every breath. He threw things. He shouted and screamed. It was as if he was possessed by a devil. Being the dutiful wife I took him in. What a mistake! From the day the attendants wheeled him in the door he never stopped his torrent of abuse. He claimed it was I who had ruined his life. I was a mean, selfish, coldhearted bitch. My coldness, my nastiness had driven him to drugs. My frigidity had driven him into the arms of other women. My meanness with money had destroyed his chances of redeeming and reforming himself. And so on and so on. It only stopped when I gave him an injection and he went off into the world of nod. Did you know that in some cases of palliative care they use heroin? He was a terrible mess and it was the only thing which gave him any relief. When they sent him home they told me he had six months but he lasted only three. At the end he couldn’t swallow, he couldn’t void his bowels, he was blind and he could barely breath.”

Again she paused, this time looking me directly in the eye. “I’m sorry Mr. Gill. I did not plan to unload all this on you but you have a sympathetic presence and it has triggered a great need to unburden myself. I have friends, mostly women my own age at the church. But I cannot talk to them about these things. They would be scandalized and made truly miserable if I spoke to them of these things.”

“Mrs. Green, it’s OK. If it is of use to you to tell me all this then go ahead.”

She took another drink of tea and began again.

“At the end it was horrible. He was either so sedated he was like a man already dead, or raging like a madman. Whenever he was awake he followed me around the room with his head, for although he was blind, he used his head as a sightless directional device. His eyelids were open and his corneas a pale yellow laced with the tiniest spiderweb traces of red. He told me that his death would not be the end. He told me he would be back to torment me just as I had tormented him. He would be buried only next door he said. He would come wrapped in linen cloths like Lazarus, stinking of the corruption of the grave. I would be forced to remember, forced to relive the injustices I had visited upon him, the coldness, the meanness, the humanity which I had held back from him. In a queer reversal, he told me, he, a dead man risen from his grave, would make me, a living woman, his incubus. All this was so horrible I sometimes wonder now where I found the strength to go on bathing him, changing his sheets, giving him his drugs. But somehow I did.”

“On the day he died, early in the morning, after giving him his shot, I went down the back stairs into the yard and sat on the lawnchair beside the big flowerbed. The sun had yet to climb above the trees in the east and the streets beyond the house and the yard were yet unburdened with the traffic carrying people to work. A few birds were singing in the leaves. There was a slight breeze coming from the west, a warm breeze, for it would be another hot day in a succession of hot days. Suddenly a decision which had been mulling about in my mind for some days, was made. I got up from the chair, went back up into the apartment and, filling the syringe with four times the usual dosage, injected the whole thing into a vein in his leg. He was dead in ten minutes.”

This was so stunning to Alan that he didn’t know what to say.

“The doctor came to pronounce him dead in the late morning and the funeral people picked him up early in the afternoon. Of course in a case like Albert’s there is no autopsy so there was no chance of the immediate cause of his death being discovered. Even if there had been I suppose they would have covered it up. What would be the point? Whether he died on Tuesday of an overdose or on Wednesday of heart failure would not have been a matter of real interest to anyone.”

“Probably you did the man a favor Mrs. Green. From what you say any extra time he might have had would have been spent in raging and beastliness. What would have been the point of that?”

“It’s not so much that, Mr. Gill. It’s the motivation which sometimes bothers me. I realize that Albert had blocked himself off from any possibility of redemption. Certainly in his last five years, while it may have been a theoretical possibility, it was not a practical one. What concerns me about my actions on that day is motivation. I am afraid I must admit that I wanted to kill him, that I enjoyed killing him and that when he was gone I was glad in a deep and enduring way. I am still glad that he is dead. And then, of course, there is this other thing, these visitations.”

“I am not a priest or an expert in ethics, Mrs. Green, but it seems to me that your wanting to kill this man after all the suffering and abuse he gave you would be quite natural. And, as well, I would say that your killing him was not the usual kind of killing. After all he would have been dead in a few days even if you had done nothing. It might be more accurate to say that you expedited his death rather than caused it. From what I know of Christian ethics, if there had been some possibility of his healing, of his delivering his soul to God, before his death, then taking away those last few hours would have been a great sin. But there was no possibility of that and therefore no sin.”

“And the motivation?”

“Was human weakness, perhaps, but surely the Christian God forgives human weakness if the sinner asks for forgiveness.”

“Yes. I have asked but so far I don’t feel I have been forgiven. But then they say one must continue asking, which I do. They also say that one does not necessarily feel the forgiveness in an emotional way, as if it were a purging or an epiphany.”

“Does the ghost know you gave him an overdose?”

“No, thank God.”

“What does he want?”

“For me to come to the grave with him.”


“He comes once or twice a month. I wake as soon as he comes up from the grave and I can hear him walking in that terrible, stumbling way, along the gravel path of the cemetery. His flesh is half eaten away and his bones literally rattle and grind against one another. His eye sockets are a swarm of worms and his skull mostly exposed. He brings with him a horrible stench and a cold so extreme that even in the midst of the summer it is as if a sudden stream of artic air had been released into the room. He must be incorporeal for he comes through the door as if it were merely a screen of molecules and yet he gives the impression of solid physical presence. He has about him the energy of a keen and abiding hatred, a hatred which began in life and now has gone beyond the grave.”

“Does he speak?”

“No and I thank God for that. If he spoke I would go out of my mind. But he gestures. He wants me to come with him back to his grave. He makes the same gestures over and over again like he was an automaton or a robot. Sometimes he reaches out to grasp my hand as if to drag me off with him. But I pull back out of the way to avoid him. This pulling back confuses him. He stumbles about and then retreats to the other side of the room. He stays sometimes an hour, sometimes two, but never longer. He raises his arms in a kind of rage and stumbles about violently before he goes. After this terrible dance he turns about suddenly and goes back through the door.”

“I am not experienced in these things, Mrs. Green, but if you wish I would be willing to come sit with you when he next comes. You say you wake when he rises from the grave. How long is there between then and when he comes through the door?”

“Perhaps five minutes.”

“If you put your phone on speed dial and push the button as soon as you hear him, then I should have time to come over and be there when he comes.”

“You are not afraid?”

“I might be afraid when he comes, Mrs. Green, but I’m not afraid now. After all I have no history with him. Some of the books say that the dead have no power unless we give it to them. I wonder if that is true?”

“It may be. If I move away from him it confuses and agitates him. So maybe it is true.”

“Do you want me to come then?”


“Fine.” Alan programmed his number into Mrs. Green’s phone so that when she pushed the number one his number automatically dialed. From that night on he slept with his own phone on the bedside table a few inches away from his ear.

There was no phone call for nearly three weeks and Alan began to wonder if the whole thing had not resolved itself. Perhaps Albert’s energy had run out in some way and he was now condemned to lie in his grave. During this time he didn’t meet Mrs. Green in the corridor or in the back yard so had no opportunity of speaking with her. He thought a few times of knocking on her door but decided against it. If she was comfortable simply waiting so was he.

In October his girlfriend wanted to take a long weekend holiday but he said no. Already he had cut down his sleepovers at her house to Saturday night and his refusal to go away with her for three days made her very angry. He told her a little of his reason why but she was not sympathetic. She thought him morbid and the ‘elderly lady’ whom he spoke about to be a deranged crackpot. She wondered aloud whether this ‘elderly lady’ might not in truth be much younger, in short a hot little number he was seeing on the side. She became so angry that she threw him out of the house which distressed him but not too much. She had an impulsive and fiery nature but would soon get over it. Meanwhile he could be at home, even weekend nights, ready for when and if Albert came.

It happened on a Friday night, almost a month after Albert had last come to visit. When the phone rang the illuminated clock on the bedside table said three thirty-six. Mrs. Green’s voice was very steady, very controlled, but beneath there was an undercurrent of tension. He said, “I’ll be there in two minutes.”

Alan pulled on a T shirt and a pair of jeans. He plunged his feet into an old pair of cowboy boots. This took a few seconds longer than donning his bathrobe but he wanted to meet Albert in clothes which gave him some freedom of movement. When he reached Mrs. Green’s door it was ajar. He walked into her apartment and closed the door behind him.

Mrs. Green was seated on a stuffed chair in the living room. There was another, of exactly the same design, beside her and she gestured her intention that he sit in it. He sat. They looked at one another directly in the eye but said nothing. They both stared off toward the door, waiting.

Mrs. Green’s guess about the timing was very accurate. Two minutes after Alan sat in the chair beside her he heard something come along the corridor. When it came through the door the hair on the back of his neck stood up like porcupine quills. His mouth opened in astonishment.

First came a skeletal hand almost devoid of flesh but not totally. There were still hanging from it a few shreds of rotted sinew and bits of gristle half covered two of the finger joints. Then came a ribcage carrying within it a mass of foul corruption spreading before it a stench so powerful it was like a chemical spray or mist. Along with it came a dropping of the temperature so extreme it was as if the room had suddenly been dropped into the depths of a polar sea. Then the rest of the figure stepped into the room and the full horror of a half rotted body risen from its grave stood before them. The corruption in its ribcage was a seething mass of worms. Shreds of flesh hung here and there as if it had been raked by a giant metal comb. Lank hair hung from a scalp which had slipped off its center and now was slumped onto the side of a bare skull. When it came fully through the door the figure stopped and moved its head around to get its bearings. After a few moments of this it brought its maggot filled eyes to a point between Mrs. Green and Alan, and slowly, stumbled toward them.

Alan was terrified. Never in his life had he ever imagined that he would see such a thing. It was only with a great effort that he stopped himself from voiding his bowels and bladder. His stomach was as if someone had pierced it with a giant icicle. He stopped the violent shaking of his hands by placing them on the arm of the chair and grasping with all his strength. Mrs. Green brought both hands up to her mouth and began to softly moan. In a surprisingly low, quiet voice Alan said to her, “No.’ and she stopped. Then he rose from his chair and moved toward the figure.

When he was almost in contact with it, the figure grew, or at least it seemed to Alan that it did, less substantial. Still he continued on not so much in the hope of grasping it physically and conquering it, but rather making an attempt to confront its unreality. He walked through it. There was a sensation of even more intense cold and then, thinking himself through, he turned around. His movement had broken the figure up into hundreds of parts. They swam in the air like shredded pieces of tissue might swim in water. Some were recognizable segments, a section of teeth here, a knee joint there; others were mere indistinguishable flotsam. He walked through again, then again and then again, not violently, not aggressively, but as calmly as he could muster in the circumstances. Soon there were only a few shreds of mist and then even these disappeared into nothingness. The room returned to its normal temperature. The stench turned suddenly, as if a magician had snapped his fingers to command it, into a faint smell of flowers - lilacs, roses, and even the slightest touch of the rich smell of blooming lilies.

Sunday morning Alan and Mrs.Green attended the eleven o’clock service at the Cathedral, a short walk away from the house. Here in the cool stone interior they listened to the drone of the liturgy and the clear crystal notes of a young people’s choir. Mrs. Green stepped forward to receive the Eucharist, but Alan, neither a Christian nor of the Anglican communion, remained in his seat. The congregation was mostly elderly but there was a sprinkling of the middle aged and even the odd person under thirty. After the Eucharist came more prayers and then the final hymn. Although not theologically inclined, Alan loved the old hymns, and he and Mrs. Green gave out a robust version of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, she in a quavering soprano, he in a stentorian Russian baritone. They shook the Vicar’s hand on the way out of the church and walked down the steps into the bright sunshine.

But Church was not the only place they went that morning. After walking the length of the tree lined street leading from the Cathedral, they turned left and walked two blocks until they came to a restaurant hidden behind a series of tall lilac bushes. When they entered the front door Alan spied his girlfriend at the very back, sitting in a booth. They joined her there.

Although suspicious and inclined toward conspiracy theories, Alan’s girlfriend had no choice but to accept the reality of Mrs. Green, a formidable lady who, accessing the situation in one quick, intuitive glance, was all charm, kindness and delightful conversation. The young woman was won over completely by this grandmotherly person who, before the meal was ended, invited her for morning tea and a tete a tete at her apartment the following Saturday. Mrs. Green left for home right after the meal by taxi, insisting there was no need for the young people to accompany her.

After several cups of coffee and conversation, Alan and his girlfriend left the restaurant and walked to her house, hand in hand.

Some blocks over, towered over by oaks and shaded by yew trees, the graves in the old cemetery lay quiet beneath their stone markers. In one corner, up against the wrought iron fence which keeps out the street and strolling pedestrians, was a granite stone bearing an inscription on only one half of its polished surface. Beneath it lie the bones of Albert Green, which, after much madness, violence, meanness, suffering and sorrow, have finally come to their eternal rest.

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