Posthumous Café Short Fiction
The bed roiled and heaved. A white hand emerged, flailing, groping. Eventually the noise stopped. A tinny “hello?” emitted from the mountainous formation of pillows. Tangled red curls emerged from satin coverlet, and the hand reappeared, re-groping. Pulling a telephone receiver to her sleep-puffed face, Gillian sank again into her mounded nest. “’Lo?”
“Ah, er, is this…Is this Gillian?”
“Gillian DeMise, better off dead.”
A long pause.
“Just a little joke.” Gillian sighed, sat up. “Because of my name.”
“Oh. I see. Under the circumstances, that’s….never mind. I’m calling to…this is awkward… .I’m not sure… that is, are you a friend of Arthur Weisland?”
“Yes, Arthur and I are, uh, close.”
“Mmm. This is Arthur’s sister, Hannah.”
“Hannah, I’ve heard so much about-“
“No, I haven’t called to chit chat. Don’t make this more difficult than-“
Gillian pulled the phone away from her ear and frowned at it. This was not how she’d imagined a conversation with Arthur’s family. She’d thought she’d hear, ‘lovely to meet you,’ and ‘heard so many nice things’ and maybe even ‘welcome to the family.’ Something was not right.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make things difficult. Why did you call?”
“There was a note in his calendar, Call Gillian, and this number, so I did.”
“Thank you. Why didn’t Arthur call? Is he all right?”
“Well, no. He died.” Sound of tears.
He died. He died. He died. The phone receiver fell into Gillian’s lap. She stared through the glass balcony doors at the grey line where sky met sea, mouthing those words over and over. Finally, she picked the receiver up, listened.
“Are you still there, Gillian?”
He hadn’t come to the bar mitzvah. His sister eventually called. No answer. No answer. No answer. Finally, Maurice, Hannah’s husband, had driven over to Arthur’s Paramus apartment, where his car was parked in its usual spot. When Arthur failed to answer his knock, Maurice called police, paramedics, the building superintendent. Arthur had gone into insulin shock and died alone, in a lawn chair that he’d inexplicably set up next to the refrigerator, facing the stove.
“He was probably delirious before he died. It used to happen when he’d forget to eat, but we thought he’d gotten better about that.”
“He had.” Gillian slid numb feet from beneath the puffy satin, swung numb legs floorwards, turned numb head to look for something appropriate for a funeral. Something appropriate and clean for a funeral. Perhaps just something clean. Pen. Paper. Write this down somewhere, on some scrap of envelope, or the back of a returned check. “Where is the, the, the…”
“It’s called sitting shiva, and we’re keeping it private, only for family.”
“So I can’t…”
“It wouldn’t be appropriate. But I thought you should know. Since he’d written your number down.”
Gillian let the receiver fall into the cradle.
“I know what it’s called,” she said into her emptiness.
“You’re not going?” Herb asked. “Why?”
“I was specifically not invited. But listen: I want you to get on the horn with Benny…”
“He’s not working-“
“Okay, so whoever replaced Benny, and order up a bunch. An assortment, okay? You know, the usual.”
“Done. I’ll call now? Or do you need more brotherly comfort?”
Gillian’s chest heaved, and Herb reached for her, pulled her awkwardly against his bony shoulder. Balling bunches of his shirt in her fists, she shook and snuffled.
“I just wish I could tell him goodbye, that I love him.”
“I think he knew.” Herb patted Gillian’s back.
“I KNOW he knew, moron,” Gillian retorted. “I want to tell him anyway.” She pushed away from Herb’s chest. “When will those books be in?”
“Couple days after I order them, like always.”
“Well, get to it.” Her huffy retreat was marred by tears dripping from her pointed nose.
“That’s what she said, which, I didn’t say, but I thought was the nuttiest thing.”
“Of course you wouldn’t, even if you are an insensitive dork of a brother. No offense.” Shaynah pushed a lock of hair, which was purple today, over one ear.
“Mmm,” agreed Herb, focused on Shaynah’s ear. All those cute little earrings. That cute little ear. What was she saying?
“You think she’s nutty? For wanting to have said goodbye to Arthur?”
“No, what bothered me was the WAY Gillian said it, the verb tense.”
“Try to keep up. Short naps help. Usually, people say, like you did, ‘I wish I could have told him.’ Gillian used present tense: ‘I want to tell him.’ I just thought that was weird.”
“Ah. Gotcha.” Shaynah looked thoughtful. “I may… No. You’ll think it’s stupid.”
Herb smiled. “So? That never stopped you before.”
“Wiseass. Look. I know this guy…”
“You know lots of THOSE.”
“Do NOT interrupt me when I am forming an idea, or this could take all day.”
Herb settled into the chair behind the desk, propped his chin on his fist to watch her machinate. “Sorry. So, this guy?”
“Right, his sister died and he kept getting this weird feeling, as though, I don’t know exactly, he didn’t get too specific, but sort of like he was being watched. He heard something on late night TV or radio, I don’t remember the details…”
“That’s you, Ms. Detail Oriented.”
Shaynah glared. “I have asked you-“
Herb held up his hands against her mock wrath. Mock? Mostly. He hoped.
“So he calls this woman who’s a psychic, but she specializes in dead people, there’s a word, what’s the word, Herb?”
Herb lifted his shoulders mutely.
Shaynah narrowed her eyes. “It’s not interrupting if I ask you a question. Wiseass.”
“Right, that’s it, she’s a medium, except she’s really tiny, a little bitty thing…”
“A small medium? Does body size matter?”
“I knew you’d make fun of me.”
Herb unfolded arms and legs, absently rubbed the point of an elbow. “Actually, I think it’s a good idea.”
Shaynah’s jaw dropped.
“I mean, I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I think Gillian will think it’s a great idea, so then it’s a good idea.”
“If it makes Gillian happy.”
“If it makes Gillian happy,” he agreed.
Shaynah tilted her head to one side, chewed her bottom lip. Herb wished she wouldn’t do that.
“You are such a sap, you know? If it makes Gillian happy.” She shook her head, setting her earrings bouncing. Herb wished she wouldn’t do that, too. He shifted in his chair, rearranging his lower body. “You’re gonna make some lucky woman really happy one of these days.”
Oh, if only.
She arrived, scoped out the bookstore, turning around and around, purple shoulder bag nearly overbalancing her, banging into shelves, displays, and the Freshly Dead table’s tall vase of silk gladiolus. Shaynah rushed to the rescue. Peering through flamboyantly decorated horn-rimmed glasses, the bony little woman drawled, “Ah like the energy heayah, you know? The energy? It’s very, weyull, sedate, you know?”
Shaynah adjusted the floral arrangement. “Sedate?”
“Weyull, Ah suppose Ah mean quiet, as though ev’ryone heayuh is daid?”
“Right. Well, the Posthumous Café carries only deceased authors. It’s a gimmick.”
“Weyull, that explains ev’ruhthing, don’t it? Ah suppose Ah should intr’aduce mahseyulf? Ah’m Dixie?”
Shaynah pressed her lips together and held her eyes steady, to avoid rolling them. “Your accent is charming. You’re not from around here.”
“Ah SAID Ah was from the Sayouth when y’all phoned me for this shindig.”
“Yes, you did. I guess I assumed you meant South Jersey. My mistake.”
“Ah need a few minutes to prepayuh? If yuh don’t mahnd?”
“Sure, I’ll make mahself scayuce?” Shaynah minced toward the stockroom. Herb unfolded himself from the armchair and followed. “ ‘Make yourself scarce?’ ” he repeated.
“She needs, I don’t know, to meditate or something.”
“Or something. Hi, Gillian.”
Gillian tugged at her wild hair, scowling at the mirror on the back of the door. “I don’t want him to see me like this.”
Herb asked, “Want who?” which was ungrammatical AND insensitive, as a swift kick from Shaynah’s pointy pink pump reminded him.
The session- no one referred to it as a séance- began at eight. Gillian had invited students from the acting studio, all her friends who had met Arthur, and some of the bookstore regulars. Arthur’s agent, Murray. She’d found his card on her bedside table. Well, beside her bedside table. It was good she’d knocked over that nearly empty coffee cup, or she’d never have found it.
Dixie was herding people “Us’ally, Ah have my assistant do this foh me? But he’s at a wedding?” Chairs were brought over from the café, since the sofa and chairs that were adequate for book signings failed to provide enough seating for this extended group. Dixie sat behind the desk, gazing benevolently at the expectant half circle of faces gazing back.
“As you may know, Ah don’t cayuh to know ann’thin about mah subject. So Ah don’t know who will be visitin’ with us this evenin’ just that—“ she broke off and looked startled. “Theyuhs somebody heayuh who’s mad about- what’s he mad about? I heayuh words—Yankee. Arthur.”
The assembled intake of breath pulled at the flickering candles.
Dixie went on. “Connecticut. King. Book signing. This don’t make no sense to me, a’tall. Anybody know?”
Frank tentatively put his hand up. “Yeayus! It’s you! Oh, he ain’t happy with you a’tall, because you—you get it wrong? You ain’t doin’ it right? Th’ signature? I’d be much obliged if you’d explain to me what Ah’m talking about, because Ah’m so confused raht now.” Frank stood.
Dixie raised her eyebrows.
“I do book signings here, as Mark Twain. Sometimes I’m other people, but Mark Twain’s my favorite. If he’s mad because I’m not getting his signature right, tell him I’m sorry and I’ll practice.”
Gillian sighed and puffed away a sticky lock of hair. She hadn’t imagined that any dead authors would be coming through to have a word with the actors who impersonated them at the bookstore.
“He says it’s all right, and—no, he’s gone. And now Ah’m getting’-- oh, this is an old story. Someone who didn’t have a chance to say goodbye? And he’s sorry? Now, come on,” she scolded a presence no one else could discern. “You could be an’abody. That ain’t much of a description. Oh, that’s not much bettah. Books. Huh. Lawn chair? In the kitchen? In front of the stove.”
Gillian sobbed. “I know- that’s—Tell, tell Arthur I love him.”
Dixie nodded. “He knows, honey. He’s sorry he didn’t tell his family about you. He didn’t want to fight.”
“Why did he--?”
“He forgot to eat. He got busy? Finished the book? Check his computer? He says Alice? Don’t know what he means.”
“Is ‘Alice’ his password?” Gillian turned; it was Murry, Arthur’s agent, who’d asked.
But Dixie was done. It was enough.
Gillian was surprised to see tears on Murray’s face as she wiped away her own. He shook her hand and thanked her as the other guests filtered out.
“Those books came in this afternoon,” Herb told her, handing her another tissue.
“Thanks.” Gillian blew her nose. She tried to do it quietly, really she did.
“Did you want to, uh…”
“You know, for a jerky baby brother, you’re okay. Yes, please.” Gillian moved a pile of books to a nearby shelf to make room.
Herb brought several books to Gillian, and backed away. Shaynah smiled approval, and gestured with her fluffy pink head towards the stockroom. Her many earrings bounced. Herb tripped over his feet, narrowly avoided braining himself on the ‘Employees Only’ sign.
“I’ll miss you, Arthur,” Gillian said into air that still hummed with otherworldly energies. She traced his name with her finger on a book cover, arranged it tenderly on the table, readjusting the gladiolus and the angle of the sign that read ‘Freshly Dead.’
-Cybele Pomeroy 2004