An essay by Gwendolyn Burke, as provided by Shelly Jasperson
Art by Scarlett O’Hairdye
She had promised me she’d visit. But I hadn’t seen her since she died, and that was weeks ago.
I’d expected a rattling doorknob, a creaking rocking chair. Maybe a translucent, flowing dress with a chilly whisper. But I got bupkis.
Meditation hadn’t worked, and Ouija boards were unproductive. It looked like Gran was taking the safe’s combination to the afterlife, where it would never help anyone.
In a last-ditch effort, I scheduled a séance.
The medium had asked for Grandma’s closest friends and family to attend. But I’d had trouble convincing them to come. The expansive convention center room contained only five people: Sabine, her physical therapist; Gretta, her cycling coach; Yvonne, the girl who took her order every morning at Jo’s Java; the medium; and me. It looked like a last-minute bridal shower without the gifts.
The medium, a middle-aged blonde woman whose tan highlighted her wrinkles, surveyed the room and raised a sculpted eyebrow. “Well, I’ve worked with less.”
Gran would have laughed. Age is an accomplishment! She would have said. This woman is hanging on to youth so hard her fake nails might pop off.
I stifled a giggle. Gran could be so inappropriate.
“It isn’t funny. This might not work. Spirits are fickle. Has your grandmother even been to this hotel?”
I nodded. I’d worked the front desk for the past four years, and she’d visited me every Friday with a bag of crumbly cookies and a soda. Fresh from the oven! She’d say as she plopped the bag in front of me, so I could clearly read the grocery store label.
Her house would have been ideal, with the huge picture of a cactus and southwest cowboy figurines. Her ancient corduroy recliner had smelled of dusty soap. When I closed my eyes, I could picture her there, leaning on her heirloom safe. In my mind’s eye, she tapped the top of it and raised an eyebrow.
But my father owned the house now, and he was remodeling to sell it, the jagweed. Gran would be less welcome there than behind a kissing booth.
I sighed. This would have to do.
Harriet, the medium, flipped off the light switch. Soft light filtered through the translucent curtains in an otherwise dark room.
We sat in cushioned metal chairs around a small, circular table. Candles sat on the plastic surface, flickering underneath an air vent, and a glass of water shivered next to them. I tucked my legs underneath and adjusted my skirt. Gretta and the barista stared at me, expectantly. Sabine grinned at the medium. Were we supposed to hold hands or something?
“Do we all have our questions? Close your eyes. Let’s begin.” Harriet tucked a blonde hair in place before reaching for my clammy hand. I grasped Sabine’s with my other. Her wiry palm, thin and cold, trembled in mine.
Gran’s face flashed in my memory. Dusty blue eyes sparkling, thin lips turned upward in a mischievous smile. I grinned. I might really get to see her face soon. And more importantly, get that combination.
Ten million dollars from an old train robbery sat in that safe, passed on from generation to generation. Every time I sat on Gran’s wooden futon, I stared at it and pictured the loot inside, shaking my head in wonder. Why hadn’t she opened it and used the money? What was she waiting for?
“Grandmother Margaret, we gather tonight with the hope that we’ll receive a sign of your presence. Please feel welcome in our circle.”
I peeked open my right eye. A candle puffed out.
Harriet continued in an even, soothing voice. “Grandmother Margaret, please let us know you’re here by spilling some of the water.”
Grandmother Margaret? I didn’t know a soul who called her that. Still, chills ran up my spine. The glass tipped over, a deluge splashing onto the table and dousing the candles.
Gretta screamed and stood, but I sighed. I wanted to believe, but the cynic inside me ached to roll my eyes. It seemed fake. This Harriet woman had good reviews, but maybe no one had thought to look under the table for magnets or strings.
“Sit! Do not break the circle!” Harriet’s eyes went round and wide.
Gretta cautiously sat back down, her breathing labored.
“If you have questions for Margaret, now is the time to ask. Keep them simple, with only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.”
Fudge. I didn’t know the parameters for ghost questions. I had so much to say and I hadn’t been expecting such pomp and circumstance just to talk to my grandmother.
“Uh, Margaret?” Gretta cleared her throat, but her voice remained timorous. “Did you steal my green lipstick?”
I giggled. I could imagine Gran’s voice. The girl had green on her lips, Gwen! What is she, a swamp creature?
“Margaret, please splash the water for ‘yes’ and do nothing for ‘no’.”
We searched each other’s eyes. No one worried about closing them anymore. Water splashed onto Gretta’s face.
That would have been harder to fake. I sat up straight. Was Gran really here?
“Your turn, Yvonne.”
The barista faintly smiled. “Margaret was a great customer. She’d order the same thing and always left me a pile of quarters as a tip.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It’s not a funeral. Ask her a question.”
Yvonne cleared her throat. “Margaret, um, are you happy?”
The water was unexpressive. It appeared she wasn’t happy. The woman had had millions within her reach in life, but she’d never been satisfied. She hadn’t changed at all.
Sabine licked her lips. “Margaret, I’m sorry to hear you’re unhappy. Are you not reunited with your husband?”
I jostled her hand. “You can’t ask questions like that. It’s misleading.”
Besides, Grandfather never made her happy. She was always telling me men were only a means to an end. If the government would just let us clone people, they’d be completely unnecessary. Needless to say, she’d never approved of any of my boyfriends, not even my fiancé.
“Oh.” Sabine coughed. “Well, is there food in the afterlife?”
Stagnant water. Not even the faintest ripple. I pursed my lips. That was disappointing. Better eat more tacos while I still could.
Harriet turned to me and nodded.
It was finally my turn. I took a deep breath, not sure how to frame my question. She’d promised to visit. I’d expected an apparition floating through my window or visions in my sleep. This seemed so clinical and impersonal. But it was my only option. I winced and dove right in.
“I broke up with Johnathan.” I sighed and pictured Gran in her striped button-down shirt and suspenders, looking like a turn-of-the-century bandit. “Like you told me to. Men only bring disappointment. I get it. So what’s the combination?”
Harriet squinted. “Only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, please. And could everyone close their eyes?”
A cold breeze drifted across my bare arms, and goosebumps popped on my skin like tiny polka dots.
The water swelled and rushed together to form Gran’s head. It flowed around her sharp nose, her under-eye wrinkles. Her hair was more blue and translucent than it had been in life.
I gasped and gripped Sabine and Harriet’s hands tighter. They’d better not get scared away now. I was so close.
“Gwen, jeez.” Her voice gurgled, like someone speaking underwater. My heart raced. This was it. She’d tell me the combination, and I’d sneak in and open it when Dad was gone. “Why would you do that? You love Johnathan.”
“Gran, you told me to! You said I had to if I wanted the combination!”
“Gwennie, I lied about the safe. It’s just an old family heirloom. You were supposed to defy your Gran and run off with Johnathan.”
I nearly slapped her watery face. The way I’d ended things with Johnathan … there was no going back. I’d thought I needed to show Gran I was committed.
It couldn’t be for nothing. Johnathan and I had been dating for five years. Our hilltop wedding was nearly all planned. Plane tickets were bought. Reservations were made. I couldn’t afford to lose all those deposits.
“But the safe …”
“There’s nothing in there but recycled recipes. Gwennie, if I had ten million in a safe, would I crochet my own underwear?”
I cringed, my dreams dripping down to the table with my grandmother’s melting head. The remaining water splashed against the plastic tabletop, dousing us like Shamu at SeaWorld.
I’d slapped Johnathan. Told him I couldn’t stand him.
“Recipes?” I whispered to no one at all. My grandmother was gone.
Harriet cleared her throat. “That was invigorating!” She dropped my hand and stood up. “I can honestly say I’ve never had that happen before. You’ve got an interesting grandmother, Gwen.”
“No, wait!” I grabbed her hand. That couldn’t be it. Gran didn’t tell me anything! “Can we try again?”
Sabine and Gretta sat, blinking. Yvonne’s jaw nearly reached her knees. I walked around them to Harriet, who flipped the lights on.
She shook her head. “I’m afraid not. That was a definitive answer if ever I saw one.”
“How was I supposed to know Gran was lying? Who would defy a sixty-five-year old woman on her deathbed?”
Harriet shrugged. “Maybe she expected her disapproval would make you defiant. Or that offering you money in exchange for love would disgust you, make you forge your own path, not follow hers.”
I fell into the nearest chair. It was pure metal. No cushion. I gripped the sides of the seat with white knuckles, my whole body shivering.
“Speaking of money, I believe we agreed on one-fifty.”
Gwendolyn Burke lives in the outskirts of the windiest city in America: Reno, Nevada. For the past four years, she’s worked at the Reno Marriott, doling out plastic key cards and silently judging items on room receipts. In her free time, she watches old westerns and may or may not forge bank statements. You can’t prove anything.
Shelly Jasperson has an inexplicable love for dead things. This is unrelated to her being a wife, mother of three little terrors, and author. Her short stories can be seen at Timeless Tales Magazine and Bewildering Stories.
Scarlett O’Hairdye is a burlesque performer, producer and artist. To learn more, visit her site at www.scarlettohairdye.com.
“Grandma Visits” is © 2018 Shelly Jasperson
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Scarlett O’Hairdye