Ghost in the Graveyard by Angel Sands Gunn
Brenda stood at the yellow stove and stirred spaghetti sauce. Rick Dees was singing “Disco Duck” on WHBQ. She always cooked dinner, even when the thermometer broke one hundred, making her lethargic, draining the energy that usually propelled her. But she was dedicated to tending her family, in their cookie-cutter home on the cul-de-sac, outside of town where the suburbs met the country.
She had grown up in the city. Although she wasn’t born in Memphis, her family had moved there when she was a child. Her parents had taken her and her sister away from West Virginia where their family lived. Brenda used to long to go back to the mountains, missed the comfort of grandparents and aunts, but her mother was looking for something and hoped she would find it in Memphis.
Brenda enjoyed having her children home for summer. Being a mom was everything she dreamed of, everything she hadn’t gotten as a child. Her mother had worked at a department store and always acted distracted or restless when she was home. Finally, one day, when Brenda was nine and her little sister only seven, their mother climbed out the window and never came back.
You’ll be better off without me. Her mother had written the words on white stationary with pink flowers printed around the edges. After her mother left, Brenda started sensing a darkness in the city, perched on the banks of the Mississippi River.
The statues commemorated the Civil War and Yellow Fever. She and her sister would see them downtown, as they wandered the cobblestone streets and played in parks while their father was working at Big Star grocery store. Brenda read about battles and losses on the bronze plaques and could see Memphis was a place still struggling with its past. The freight trains, which ran through town, told the story, too, dividing the neighborhoods by race. The baritone whistle made a deep harmonic chord and seemed to echo from the past.
Brenda had noticed the sound since childhood, when the tracks lay close to her house. But even in her yellow house, she heard the distant bellow, bleeding into the summer heat. Sometimes, she startled awake thinking she heard moaning, a dying accordion whimper.
At those moments, Brenda sensed the darkness pulling her under, taking hold in her brain. She couldn’t get back to sleep or remain in bed. She would get up and pace the house, checking each bedroom, every sleeping face, to make sure breath came in and out. Sometimes, she would sit in the bay window and cry for no reason she could name, until the sun rose and dappled the kitchen with pink light.
Brenda watched at the bay window, as the kids slipped out the back door. Lucy’s long hair swung as she ran. Her older brothers stomped along behind, on their way to the playground. All the houses backed up to it, with no fences, so parents could watch, though they rarely did. A creek ran alongside the park, and the kids came out with muddy feet, smelling like frogs.
She would cut satin in a triangle to lie flat at the bodice and string sequins to accentuate the lines. She pictured herself in the spotlight: dark hair teased on top and pinned back on the sides, frosted lipstick like Priscilla Presley. She imagined her white teeth shining as she performed.
Alone in the house, Brenda turned on the stereo and sang along to Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” She imagined performing it. Before she got married, she won a beauty contest singing “People” by Barbra Streisand. She could sing this one, too, and even imagined herself on stage in a long white dress and considered how to make it. She would cut satin in a triangle to lie flat at the bodice and string sequins to accentuate the lines. She pictured herself in the spotlight: dark hair teased on top and pinned back on the sides, frosted lipstick like Priscilla Presley. She imagined her white teeth shining as she performed. But the cockapoo Sam was her only audience. He watched from the black and white checkered sofa, as she sang her heart out in front of the hearth. His dark eyes percolated under fluffy brows, like he really enjoyed it.
Brenda was plating noodles and ladling pools of red sauce when Daniel got home from his new sales job. He slipped his hand around her back and kissed her, before taking off his paisley tie. He played along, as the kids checked to see if they got the “spinny plate” – the rotating serving plate they used, instead of buying an extra setting. It was a game, like the many Brenda taught them to play throughout the day. She invented reading games, cleaning games, traveling games, memory games and games to keep within their budget – though she never shared that one with the kids.
Peter looked out from under long lashes. A year older than Lucy, he was well-liked and often the link to social gatherings. He said the neighborhood kids were playing Ghost in the Graveyard after dark.
“Wanna go?” Peter asked his siblings. Lucy looked reluctant, her brows furrowing.
“It’ll be fun,” Brenda said, encouraging her to go along.
“I’ll be with you,” William, the oldest, said, patting her back.
Lucy shrugged, saying it was scary the last time she went.
“There were graves. I saw them.” Lucy clasped her fork.
William explained that there was an old cemetery in the woods behind the cul-de-sac. “But it’s just a couple of headstones,” he said, brushing away the gravity. “The ghosts are just kids wearing sheets.”
“It’s like Hide and Seek,” Peter said, patting his sister on the back, reminding her of the rules. “But we can hide together and run when it’s clear. Try to get to home base without getting caught.”
After the kids went out, Brenda and Daniel sat on their patio and listened to the radio. Her sundress strap slipped off her shoulder when they danced the bop, like they used to, in high school. She remembered the excitement of Memphis in the fifties, when Elvis was rising. Brenda was twirling under the stars when she heard the shot.
“The kids!” Brenda screamed, bolting across the grass.
“No!” Daniel grabbed her hand. “It came from the other direction.” He motioned toward the houses on the other side of the park. When the children came running home, Lucy was crying, vowing never to play the game again.
“Was it a gun?” William asked, once they were all inside. Daniel nodded, but Brenda said not to worry, trying not to let the kids see her concern. While they set up the Monopoly board, Brenda stood in the kitchen alone, listening to kernels explode in hot oil.
The next morning, Brenda saw the neighbor, the retired preacher’s wife, Mrs. Clark, getting the paper. They met at the curb to talk, as they often did. But Mrs. Clark clutched Brenda’s arm. “The boy found the pistol – in his father’s top drawer.” She drew out the last words, as if underlining the blame. She told how the boy, William’s friend, put the pistol to his temple. Sweat bubbled on Mrs. Clark’s forehead, her pale eyes meeting Brenda’s fear.
Walking back towards the house, Brenda thought she could still smell the sulfur from the gunshot in the humid air. Her heart pounded in her chest, like she would never escape it, the feeling coming back like it did the day Martin Luther King was shot, Kennedy, too. Later, she would hear interpretations. Maybe, the boy didn’t know it was loaded. Or, he was playing a game, something he saw in a movie. Or, unthinkable, it was suicide.
That Sunday, without thinking, Brenda drove her blue Pinto into town. The rain came down hard, making the hot air even thicker. She cracked her window to clear the windshield and wove in and out of the streets, searching.
Parking in front of a house with a “For Sale by Owner” sign, she lit a Salem light, an act she reserved for times when the kids weren’t around. The sound jolted through her body – the train’s whistle close, only a few blocks away. Metal wheels screamed against the track.