The Ghost in the Penthouse: Excerpt

THE DREAM

Sometimes Hiram dreams of his ghosts.

In these dreams they are not yet ghosts, they are merely people, the people they were in life, in his memories. An old man, the kind of man who considers himself master of his domain, who always stands tall and straight, and insists boys, even young boys, do the same. The kind of man who, when squeezing his grandson’s shoulder in greeting, will squeeze just a little too hard. Hiram never cries out—he knows better than that—but he does bite down on his tongue and edge away ever so slowly from that iron grip. The kind of man who smiles frequently, but whose smiles remain just a little cold, just a little reptilian.

The girl is different. She is never one thing, but all things. Poised in the shadow land between being a child and becoming a young woman, she is so much taller than Hiram, but never hesitates to bend over, to whisper secrets in his ear, to tell him stories about knights and princes and maidens with long dark hair. She is every superhero, every fairy queen, every conquering general riding to battle, and with her as his protector, Hiram never fears anything.

The dreams always start with longing. Hiram, not a man, but a child, watches Sarah with his grown-up eyes, sees all the edges he couldn’t have seen when she was real. The man in him wants to reach out, enfold her, keep her safe, but the boy is helpless.

“I’ll only be gone for a little while,” dream-Sarah tells him, kneeling down in the playroom. “Draw me a great big castle, Hiram. When I come back, you’ll give me a tour, okay?”

No, don’t go. Don’t go back there. Please don’t go. Dream-Hiram says, “Okay.” Then, after a pause, dream-Hiram adds, “You always help Grandfather. Do you want me to take a turn, too?”

(Did this really happen? Hiram has no idea. The dreams have long overwritten the memory of that night, the memories of all the nights before it.)

“No, no,” Sarah tells him, glancing over her shoulder, even though no one’s there. “Promise me you’ll stay here. Promise me, Hiram.”

He makes the promise again, even though he always stays in the playroom. He’s a good boy, and when Sarah tells him to hold her hand while crossing the street, or not to leave her side at FAO Schwarz, he does it. Everyone’s always said that about Hiram; Sarah was beautiful and so smart, and Hiram was sweet and so well-behaved.

Dream-Sarah kisses his forehead, grinning, though he can see how her face doesn’t want to grin. This grin is a mask she’s putting on for him, and it hurts his tummy to look at. “Stay right here and draw me a big castle with a hundred rooms, Hiram.”

“Okay.”

Okay. The last word he’d ever said to his sister, his protector, his minor god. Okay.

Sarah didn’t come back in a little while. In a flash of black, Grandfather looms unsteadily in the doorway of the playroom, demanding to know where she is. This must be a memory, because it is the most terrifying part of the dream. When Grandfather slams into the elevator, swearing, saying horrible things, Hiram hides behind the great doll house. He is supposed to stay in the playroom, and he should. But in the dream, as in life, little Hiram Sussman gathers himself, listening hard for the elevator’s return, and walks through the apartment.

He does not call out for her. Why? Adult-Hiram, in whose mind this nightmare runs like the endless encore of a film he never wanted to see, doesn’t know why he didn’t call out for his sister. He only knows that he walked down the hallway toward Grandfather’s bedroom as if drawn there by a scent, or a sound only dogs could hear.

The room is surprisingly bright. In the dream mere moments have passed since she kissed his forehead; he can still feel the warm imprint of her lips. But in real life he must have fallen asleep, because it had been morning when Grandfather tore out of the penthouse looking for Sarah, thinking she’d run away. Hiram could have told him she hadn’t. She was his dragon; she would have never abandoned him.

Bright and oh, it snowed! It snowed overnight, and dream-Hiram is delighted, momentarily forgetting Grandfather and Sarah and that he’s supposed to be in the playroom. It snowed on the roof-top patio, Grandfather’s patio, and Hiram lets himself out in it, just for a second, even though he has no boots and no coat. It’s snow, and the sun is so bright he’s fooled into thinking it will be warmer than it is.

Even with the creeping numbness in his toes, he can’t help taking a few more steps, feeling the crackle-crunch right against his skin. Dream-Hiram is laughing, holding out his arms to catch more sunlight, because the roof is like a hidden snow world he’s just discovered. This is where he’ll imagine his castle, in a snow world, all white and bright and shining just like this.

He sees her, but he doesn’t see her.

He sees her, but he can’t quite see her yet. It takes dream-Hiram, a little boy in a fantasy of dragons and evil kings, another moment or two to really see her there, in the corner, dusted with snow herself. But the man inside the little boy has been watching her the entire time, her stiff body, her gray skin, the way that a few hairs have escaped the crisp cap of ice on her head and blow with a breeze his younger self didn’t feel.

When dream-Hiram finds his sister, the vision twists, spirals darkly, and everything else is lost. This is a dream with no ending, no merciful climb into consciousness. Hiram chokes and gasps and coughs, but the black hole steals the breath from his body, compressing him, sucking him into a tiny pinhead of oblivion.

Adult-Hiram dies each time he has this dream, and wakes up still gasping.

* * *

CHAPTER ONE

James stood at the French doors, looking out into the snow. The lights were off, but between the city glow in the clouds and the snow in the garden, Hiram could see his face.

Pensive.

He’d taken the phone call in the kitchen. Hiram had decided it was a show of politeness, not secrecy, though with James one never knew. But he’d returned, after, even believing that Hiram was asleep.

If he did believe that, which he might not.

“You’re shivering,” Hiram said.

“I’m not actually cold. It’s just, standing here always gives me chills.” James turned all the way toward him now. “Do you ever get cold just looking at snow?”

“Not when I’m in bed.”

James sighed. “Hi—”

“It wasn’t a proposition, darling. Who was on the phone?” Because whomever it was, they’d disturbed James enough to venture back into the master suite when usually he’d be in the green bedroom by now, with the television running and the overhead light glaring down.

“Bette. Well, the kids.”

“And how is she?” Bette’s calls, alone of all calls originating in California, tended to delight James, not depress him.

“Actually, she said she has a cold. But that’s not— Apparently they’re coming here, Hiram. To New York.”

“Really?” Hiram sat up in bed, pulling the thick blankets up around his neck. (Perhaps not the most attractive look, but he was cold all the time; not exclusively when looking at snow.) “All four of them?”

“Dumbasses,” James muttered. “They think I have an apartment, and they can just show up, and move in.”

Hiram contemplated this strange, fascinating new development. “The kids” referred to James’s younger brother and his friends, all of whom, it seemed, initiated a sort of older-brotherly responsibility in James.

“Well,” he said, after quite possibly too long. “We certainly have the space.”

“You have the space, Hi. I’m renting a room.”

“All right. I have the space.”

James shook his head and crossed his arms. Ah. The stance. The stubborn, pig-headed, please-wear-me-down stance. Yes, Hiram was more than up for this particular challenge.

“They’ll have no money. No. I take that back. Bette will have some savings, and Bugs will have whatever he managed to make at the hardware store before it went under.” James’s tone shifted, considering. “Tommy will have nothing. Scott—I don’t know about Scott. I think he still gives his paychecks to Dad, but maybe not.”

Scott. The one true blood relation among “the kids”, and the one about whom Hiram knew the least.

“I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, James, but I am a gentleman of independent means.” He was unprepared for the flare of pain that polite untruth shot deep in his gut. “Well. At least, I have means at my disposal. And your children would not displace any of my other tenants, nor deprive me of other income.”

“Hiram, this isn’t a joke. The kids are coming here right now.”

“Are they?” Oh, the thrill of the unexpected. Hiram took a deep breath, trying to hold the moment, trying to capture the unpredictable crackle charging the air in his generally sedate bedroom.

“They’re at the Sacramento airport.” James shook his head. “Fucking idiots. What do they think, they can just show up at JFK and I’ll fucking pick them up?”

“No reason not to,” Hiram said, reaching for his phone. “Call a car service. I haven’t used this one in a while, but I assure you my parents will still have an account with them.”

“Stop it. The kids can fucking take the subway like everyone else.” Oh, that hurt, that sideways glance, that edged everyone but you.

“Send a car for them. It’s their first visit to the big city, James. How better to see it than to be whisked through the streets in a large, black, American-made automobile? Straight through the center of the best, and worst, of us. Give them a moment of grandeur before you tell them that all you have to offer is a measly penthouse with a park view.” Then he held up his first finger and thumb a quarter inch apart.

“Make that joke to Tommy, and I’ll bet you anything that he tells you it’s a pathetically small park.” But now the dire gloom of his expression had eased off. “Hiram, your parents would have simultaneous heart attacks if they found out the kids were here.”

“I’m not against that outcome.”

“Hi. Be serious.”

“I am.” And he allowed James to see, for a split second, the edge he usually hid. “Of course they wouldn’t have heart attacks. If they ask—and I can’t imagine why they would—I’ll tell them I have friends. They’ll be relieved. If you’re worried about what your children think of me, darling, I can always pretend I am not your pathetically unrequited lover, whiling away his days, housebound and devoted.”

“Like a Saint Bernard?”

“No dogs over twenty pounds, Jamie. Do read the regs before you make jokes like that.”

James smiled. “What do you call me, then?”

“Exceptions must be made.” Hiram woke up his phone. “I would love to meet your children, of course. When do they arrive? And to what airline?”

“Hi, you can’t pay for a damn car—your parents can’t pay for a car to pick up my idiot brother and his idiot friends. That’s completely ridiculous. They have to learn they can’t just fucking assume everything will work out.”

“Perhaps they assume only that things involving you will work out. Which hasn’t appeared to let them down yet, as far as I can tell. Hello? Yes, I’ll need car service from JFK to the city.” He muffled the receiver to say, “It is JFK, isn’t it? Yes, JFK. The name on the account is Helen Sussman.” He queried James with an eyebrow and murmured, “Time and airline?”

When the car was ordered, Hiram set aside his phone and held out a hand. “They were sick of Fresno?”

James sighed. “Bette and I were born sick of Fresno. The boys could have probably stuck it out. This will be her idea. Hell, all the ideas are Bette’s ideas. She’s the smart one.”

“And the boys?”

“Bugs is smart. Tommy’s a raging asshole. Scott is—honest to god, Hi, Scott’s a bit of a dunce, but I always figured maybe that was Dad’s doing. Maybe if he hadn’t batted Scotty around so much when he was little, he’d be smarter. You think I’m just making that up?”

“Only if your father batted Scott around more than he did you. Your intelligence is as sharp as mine, and I was never batted by anyone.” Except, naturally, by his peers. But one didn’t count one’s childhood scrapes and bruises against one’s IQ.

“Yeah, could be he was just born dumb. He takes after Mom, not that she’s dumb, but that she doesn’t want to fight about shit.” He smiled, but no pleasantness lurked in the corners of this smile. “I take after Dad, obviously. I’ll fight anyone for any reason.”

“Except me, alas. Perhaps I haven’t done enough to provoke you.”

“You provoke me plenty, Hi. Anyway, no. I mean, you didn’t really meet me until I stopped trying to get drunken assholes to throw the first punch. I’ve grown, Hiram. I’ve matured.”

“Oh, please, show me just how you grow, James. I am available to you for a private demonstration any day of the week. Or night.”

James rolled his eyes, cheeks tingeing pink. “God, I can’t believe the kids are coming here. I can’t believe they’ll be here, in this house. Apartment. Whatever.”

“Should I try to act straight, darling? Should I try to impress them with my brute strength, and my collection of manly musicals?”

“I guess I should be happy I half-ass came out to them already, or Tommy might die from the shock of being in the same room as a queer. Fuck, Hi, they’re country boys, okay? They’re fuckin’ hicks. Just—remember that, when they sound like ignorant asses. Fuck, this is a bad idea. I mean Jesus, what am I gonna do with them?”

“Mm, well, at present you’re planning to store them here in the penthouse, with the rest of the remainders.” Hiram studied him, contemplating what it must feel like to have siblings (or one-plus siblings), and to feel so responsible for them. Would Sarah have felt like this, had she lived to adulthood? Would he know that he could get on a plane to see her, no matter where she was? How strange to imagine.

“Bette and Bugs will get jobs,” James mused. “Christ. Bunch of fucking hicks in New York City. Shoot me now. Hell, I won’t even be here when they— I’ll tell them to go to a Starbucks or something and wait for me.”

“Why? And they’ll be getting in about when your shift begins, James. You want them to wait in a Starbucks for nine hours?”

“I’ll ask Bensey if I can take off a little early—”

“James. Have them come here. Oh! And they have that charming nickname for you! Manny.”

“It’s what pretty much everyone called me from when I started school.”

“I know. Like I said, charming. Don’t worry about the children, darling. We will add them to the list, and Lanie will let them in when they arrive.”

“It’s Wednesday. Lanie will be at the soup kitchen.”

“Then I’ll let them in. Please don’t fret about it, James.”

“I’m not fucking fretting. I don’t even know what fretting is.”

Hiram smiled. “Fine. You aren’t fretting, whatever it is, but do try to relax. Your brother and his closest friends are coming for a visit. This is where you live. Since nothing untoward is going on here, I fail to see how it’s a problem.”

“If it was only this week, maybe it wouldn’t be. But I don’t think they have round trip tickets, Hi. I think they’re moving in. Without asking.”

Hiram shrugged, enjoying the way James’s eyes tracked the movement. “Well. The more the merrier, I always say.”

“This isn’t an orgy, Hi.”

“I’m aware. This is family. In which case I also say: the more the merrier. Not that I have any personal experience, but family is something I always wanted to try. An experiment.”

“You’re batshit. They aren’t a damn Petri dish. And Tom’s going to be a huge pain in the ass. You have my permission to hit him with a frying pan.”

Hiram tsked, which was expected. “Surely not a frying pan. But I do have that paddle I’ve so far entirely failed at persuading you to use on me.”

And oh, that smile, that mischievous, this-shouldn’t-be-funny-but smile of his. “Please, please, if you take him over your knee, let me watch. That boy could use a paddling. Especially from—” He broke off.

“A mad recluse? A New Yorker?” Beat, while James’s blush deepened. “Oh, you meant a fag. Well, I will do my best to provoke Tom, in that case.”

“Well, technically I’m a fag, too.”

“A very manly fag,” Hiram said.

“Dammit, Hi. You know I didn’t mean—”

“That it would be doubly humiliating to a homophobic hick to be paddled by a queen like me? Of course you did. And it would be. In any case, the car has been arranged and our new housemates arrive in the morning. Will they experience culture shock, James? Did you?”

James leaned back in the armchair he’d dragged closer to the bed at some point—perhaps a year ago, perhaps two—when he’d finally decided that Hiram’s ghosts were dangerous, even if they were imaginary, and appointed himself knight in torn blue jeans.

Ah, yes, please, do sit. Stay all night. Protect me, even if you think it’s all in my head.

“Culture shock. Huh. I guess so. I mean, everything’s so much more here. My hometown is a pit, Hiram. You gotta drive to Fresno, which passes for civilization, and all of downtown could probably fit inside the Central Park Zoo.”

“Mm,” Hiram agreed, merely to keep him talking.

“But I don’t know. In Fresno you run into people. It’s not some little village or anything, but you know people. Here, I don’t know, maybe it’s the same if you grow up here. For the kids, though, it’ll be the first time they’ll be anonymous. Or invisible. Like you can be whatever you want here.”

“Would you ever go back?”

“To Fresno? Jesus, Hi, no. No, fuck no. I wouldn’t get within a hundred miles of Dad, not for anything. California, maybe. If I stayed on the coast and never went inland.” James, still frowning from the mention of his father, looked up. “You tryin’ to get rid of me, Hi?”

“Surely not. Then who would I have my pathetic, unrequited crush on?”

“Lanie?”

“Lanie is not my type, James. And even if she was, it would be no fun at all to have an unrequited crush on an asexual. No sport to it.”

“But there’s sport to me?”

Hiram held his gaze and reached out, resting only fingertips against James’s wrist. “I may yet seduce you. One never knows.”

James ground his teeth, making the muscles in his jaw twitch. “Yeah, ’cause I look like boyfriend material. Anyway, thanks for the thing about the car. I’ll get them out of here inside of two weeks, Hi. That should give me enough time to get an advance from Bensey.”

“Two weeks? Won’t that be just before Christmas? Don’t your people have some kind of thing about Christmas and”—Hiram waved his hands, watching James’s eyes—“homelessness?”

“My people? You mean, what, the thing about finding a room at the inn? I don’t know a damn thing about it. You might try Bugs. I think he and Bette used to go to church when they were kids. Oh my god, Hiram, you’re going to meet Bugs. And Bette. This is so unreal.” He smiled, suddenly, and an inky black cloud began to creep along the edges of Hiram’s vision.

No. No, go away.

“Hi, you’re going to meet the kids.”

“You love them.”

“Well, yeah. Assholes. I spent most of my life cleaning up after them, so yeah, I guess I must. I should sleep. Are you sure they can show up here without me? They’re gonna be a fucking handful. And Tom’s definitely gonna be a dick.”

“I’m relatively certain I can handle him.”

“Oh, I’m not worried about you. Just, when Tom’s as big a bastard as he’s bound to be when he gets here, it sets off this chain reaction where Bette tries to kill him and Bugs plays mediator and Scotty hides. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call in sick.”

“James, you’ve never called in sick.”

“Yeah. No. And I don’t want to lie to Ben. He’s been nothing but good to me.”

If “good to me” allowed for compensation that barely enabled him to rent a room and feed himself, to say nothing of the absence of anything that remotely looked like benefits.

“Guess I’ll go to bed,” James said, and pulled his hand away from Hiram’s in a gesture that Hiram assured his over-heated brain was not intended to be a caress, even if that’s how it felt. “Goodnight, Hi. See you in the morning.”

“You will, indeed.” If I’m still in possession of my wits. “I look forward to meeting your children, James.”

“They’re not my children, Hiram.”

Hiram smiled, and James, reluctantly, returned it.

“You need anything before I go?”

The temptation, every night, to beg, to plead, to say terrible things he’d regret (such as “How much can I pay you to stay here with me?”)—but he didn’t. “I’m lovely, darling. Goodnight.”

James waved and even as he was still closing the door, the blackness rolled closer.

“Begone, you,” Hiram hissed. “Leave me alone.”

But Grandfather wouldn’t leave him alone. Perhaps couldn’t. It was impossible to say what forces controlled ghosts and their actions. If they had actions.

Hiram pulled the blankets over his head and closed his eyes. He was getting weaker. He used to have good months; now he barely had a good day, except every now and then. Perhaps not coincidentally on nights James found an excuse to spend in the armchair, or on his sofa.

But thinking of James now would only give Grandfather more fuel.

“Go away, you bastard.”

The weight, cold, heavy, damp in some barely perceptible way, settled over the top of the blanket and Hiram gave up. He curled into a ball and waited for the sun to rise.


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December 3rd, 2014|Categories: blog|Tags: , |