As I lock up the salon, I tuck my ghost into my tote bag. Or rather, I tuck the music box she haunts there. It rests gently against the case holding the Turkish coffee set. Silver filigree nestles against burnished wood like old friends brushing cheeks, familiar and cozy.
I do not pray the coffee will work. When it comes to ghosts, how do you even know the right thing to pray? If they show up, maybe it means they’re damned or in limbo. If they don’t, the person who needs that last glimpse or word is going home disappointed. Usually still holding my payment and tossing some unkind words my way.
Such is the life of Melody True, part-time medium, part-time hair stylist.
I just pray Bobby shows up with the coffee and it’s the real thing, not some French roast beans he picked up at the grocery. Gracie is quiet for once in the music box. Usually she’s talking my ear off the minute we’re alone.
Ghosts don’t know what they are. Maybe an echo, like the scent of coffee hanging in a room after the pot is drained. Maybe trapped souls, stuck between here and hereafter, like a traveler who missed his connection in Atlanta and is stuck in some fleabag motel til the next flight. Maybe they’re demons built to beguile the grieving. Maybe they mirror the lost loved one so well, even the demon doesn’t know what it is.
Believe me, I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve asked a lot of ghosts, or I used to ask. But ghosts can’t tell you what they are, because they don’t really know themselves.
When you boil it down, a ghost is a mind without a body. First day of freshman psychology, they tell you the study of the mind is a losing battle, because the mind wasn’t built to understand itself. So how’s a mind without even a living brain to call home going to understand what it is, other than a collection of thoughts, feelings, and memories, which might or might not belong to some dead person or other?
And some collections are more complete than others, let me tell you.
I was telling Gracie about the Turing test on the way to the coffee shop. I’d been surfing the ‘net on my phone, looking for a little distraction while my last client sat under the dryer. I read a story about Alan Turing, and how the British government finally got around to pardoning him for being gay. Like an afterthought. Like, “Oh, hey, it hasn’t been illegal in years, and this fellow sort of invented artificial intelligence, perhaps we should pardon him?”
I tried to say it in a funny British accent, but my British accent is awful, even when I’m not a nervous wreck. Gracie mainly wanted to know how he invented artificial intelligence fifty years ago, since she didn’t think we had that yet.
Gracie gets confused a lot. I try not to contribute.
So anyway, I explained the Turing test. Which is basically, if a computer could give somebody answers good enough to fool them into thinking it was human, or at least good enough that they couldn’t tell one way or the other, it passed the test. It was intelligent.
Gracie snorted. “Well, if it only has to act like most people, I don’t know if you could call that intelligent.”
But the idea entered my head then, it was the same for ghosts. Maybe what they are doesn’t matter. If they can fool those who knew that person, maybe they’re as real as they need to be. Then again, I should know as well as anybody how much grieving folks want to be fooled. So it’s not quite a fair test now, is it?
I tap my glossy nails on the steering wheel of the Trans-Am and remind myself that fooling people, tickling their ears with what they want to hear, is not what I do. I pursue the truth. Even when the truth sucks.
Dean’s Trans-Am has started acting weird lately. Of course, I talk to the dead for a living, along with cutting hair and reading tea leaves and coffee grounds, so weird is a relative thing. I asked Deejay about it. He said it sounded like the turbo was going out. I have no idea what a turbo is, but I’m sure it’s expensive to fix. Like everything on that damn car. Not to mention it slurps up gas like a great dane at a water bowl after a long summer walk.
So I drive it like somebody’s grandma up to the coffee shop. I probably should have taken the bus, but it might matter, whether the car is there or not. It was Dean’s car. I recognize I am skating on thin ice here, on the merest wisp of a theory. But my gut says I should bring the car, so I do.
Ghosts are not scientific, but they do have physics of a sort. They need a tether, something to anchor them. Otherwise, they become like a balloon, and just go up, up, up and away, never to be seen again. Most of the time, the tether is a physical place, either the place they lived or the place they died. Most of the time, but not always.
Like Gracie, she haunts the music box. We don’t know why. Like I said, ghosts weren’t built with the knowledge of their true nature. I opened it up in the Goodwill and she popped out like a jack-in-the-box, as scared as I was. I dropped the box, she screamed, and I’m pretty sure the wide-eyed kid sitting in a shopping cart three feet away peed his pants.
Sometimes it’s jewelry. You gotta be careful buying second-hand wedding sets. Might just end up with more than a bargain.
I talked with Dean about it once, when we were talking about the wedding. He asked if the haunted objects were like the things in Harry Potter, the stuff Voldemort used to hold pieces of his soul. He wondered if those ghosts were murderers. I said I doubted it, unless the little old lady I’d found attached to a locket one time was a murderer. I said they probably just hung onto those places or things till the end, and accidently left a piece of themselves behind stuck to it. Maybe the rest of them didn’t even notice that piece missing. Could be just people who had trouble letting go.
He grabbed me and whispered in my ear in a high, breathy voice “I won’t let go! I promise I’ll never let go!” mocking my favorite sappy romantic movie. I laughed at him, silly man, and then I told him again, like I tell everybody. Ghosts don’t know what they are, and neither do we. Probably, they’re just a piece or a copy of the person left behind.
“Would you want me to leave a piece of myself behind?” He looked serious for a second. I didn’t give him an answer.
“Because if so, I know which piece I’d want to leave you.” He wiggled his eyebrows, and I cracked up, and then we kissed and forgot all about it.
The bell tinkles as I walk into the coffee shop, my big quilted bag tucked under my arm. Gracie is in her music box for moral support inside, along with the beautiful cezve and cups. They don’t actually serve Turkish coffee here, but they let me pay them to make it anyway. I read for the owner now and then.
The rich aroma of coffee fills my nose, tickling with the acidic bite of caffeine and the warm ruddy glow of beans crushed, broken and brewed. I exhale, imagine blowing out my fears and worries. I sit at my usual table, which used to be our usual table, and remember the day he left on deployment.
I remember the day he sent me the coffee set, all the way from Turkey. All glowing copper and rich, jewel-toned enameled porcelain, it looked like it had tumbled out of Aladdin’s cave. It looked like the cheap stainless cezve I’d been using like burlap resembles Brussels lace. He sent a note.
“Just don’t use it to sneak a peek at our future. Let’s discover that together. – Love, Dean.”
A letter came a few weeks later, talking about the people, the desert heat, the coffee beans he was bringing back in person. When he came back, he’d let me read our future. He’d never let me do a reading for him before. Then a month later came the other letter. The one you get when you’re not the wife, just the girlfriend. The one that says the Department of the Military is sorry to inform you that the future you had planned, the one you saw as clearly as a dark bell on the inside of a white cup, is gone.
By the time Bobby’s crew-cut silhouette darkens the door of the coffee shop, holding a battered can of coffee beans from Dean’s foot locker, I am ready as I can be. I have pushed the memories of Dean back into a cool dark canister on a back shelf of my mind. I don’t want to fool myself, any more than I want to fool others. I have wiped my spirit down, carefully, lovingly, like Grammy used to wipe down the ceramic coffee and tea sets in her old maple curio.
I am empty of expectation and full of possibility.
I am ready. And Gracie, bless her intangible heart, is quiet still. Her music box sits open on a chair, silent because I never wind it. Her transparent form hovers from the torso-up above it. If I relax enough, let my eyes go blurry, I can pretend she’s just a human friend. We’re just sitting here, having some coffee and a chat. She places her ice-cold hand over mine and the chill settles me, comforts me.
I tell myself I’m waiting for Dean. I am waiting for Dean. Or something close enough.
Did you like “Uncommon Grounds”? Snag yerself some more free fantasy stories