Elizabeth Roberts-Hamel


The Ghost Tour

 

Ron steps out of his little car with wide-open arms, his hands full of keys, Altoids, lighter. A cigarette protrudes rakishly from the corner of his mouth.

"Allo, sweetie dahling!"

"Dahling!" He hugs Lily briefly, then turns back to rummage in his car. "I brought something for you!" She hears his briefcase thumping into the backseat, the clatter of tapes and CDs as he digs for her present.

"Oh, sugar, you shouldn't have."

Lily stands next to the car in her petticoats and little colonial shoes. A few months ago he had given her a bottle of perfume he'd bought at the Palatka Dollar Store--"Vincent Van Gogh" the label read. She imagined the ad campaign: 'For the impoverished schizophrenic in every woman.' It had smelled like something a thirteen-year-old girl might wear to a racetrack. They had laughed until tears ran down their cheeks.

"Here!" He pulls out a little heart shaped Christmas ornament. The glass is scratched in one spot, and some of the lace is starting to pull away and droop, making it look more like a metaphor than a holiday ornament.

"You can just put on a spot of hot glue!"

Lily nods.

"Dumpster diving?"

"But of course!" he replies in a silly, stuffy French accent. "Do you like it?"

"Love it!" she lies. "I brought something for you, too."

"Oh, you didn't have to do that!"

He is stuffing the pockets of his waistcoat and greatcoat with keys, cigarettes, mints, eye drops, lighter, wallet, lip gloss. Lily fishes around in the ladies pocket that hangs at her waist. "Here . . ." It is a small button that reads "My Wife Thinks I'm at Promise Keepers."

Ron howls. "I love it--should I wear it tonight?" He holds it up to his lapel like a boutonniere.

"Hmmm . . ." Lily grins. "Maybe not."

He pats himself down, going through a mental checklist. "Have I got everything?"

"I think you've got everything"

He nods and holds out a crooked arm for her to take.

"Shall we do this?"

* * *

They begin the evening's march at the city gates, a pair of twin coquina towers that had once been a Rubicon between a tiny pocket of civilization and a great mystery of wilderness. As they pass under the shadow of the east gate, a horse and carriage rounds the corner, announced by the hollow 'clop, clop, clop' of the animal's hooves. A friend who had worked for the horse and carriages (there were actually three competing companies who lined Saint Augustine's waterfront every night, barkering to passersby) had told her once that the horses, walking these same paths day and night, knew the routes by heart. She notices that the reins, held by an elderly black man in a dirty shirt and black top hat, lay slack through his fingers.

"Now, back when the Spanish fust cayme here . . ."

'Ok', Lily thought, 'come on now . . .'

She had noticed that the black drivers had an odd habit of becoming really folksy, old time 'Gone With the Wind' black during office hours. She supposed it helped with the tips.

". . . they built theyse hear gates to protect theyselves from bein under attack!"

Truthfully, these hadn't been built until the late 1800's: it said so on the bronze plaque next to the gates, which Lily ruefully noted, no one read.

Crossing the street last week to go to the post office, she overheard a driver tell a group of tourists that Zorayda Castle, the garish villa across from Flagler College, was an antique Moorish castle, brought over from Spain and painstakingly reconstructed stone by stone. In truth, it had been built at the turn of the century to be a swinging bachelor pad for its owner, a friend of Henry Flagler's. It only added insult to injury that it was poured concrete.

They walk past "Hot Dogs of the World!" (which plays German oompah band music at full volume from dusk till dawn on small, tinny speakers), the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse (which isn't), and the Milltop Tavern. The Milltop is two stories, its first floor a tourist shop that sells billy-bob teeth and flamingo back scratchers, it's top floor a beer soaked hole in the wall. It took it's name from a giant mill wheel that almost never worked--which would have been a pity if it ever had a purpose in the first place--but which on good days splashed in a blue concrete pool at the wheel's base.

"How's Miss Vera?" Lily asks

Ron's father died last year, (so suddenly his secretary thought he was 'just taking a little nap at his desk'), leaving his mother, Miss Vera, to tear through a half a dozen romances, several smaller affairs and a very impressive pile of cash.

"Oh! Don't get me started!"

"Last one you mentioned was some banker . . ."

"As if! Possum boy has had three replacements already."

"Possum Boy?"

Ron relates how Miss Vera, bored, and lonely in her hollow little house on Mulberry, had discovered the wonders of the Internet. Six months after their father's death, Ron and his sister Leah hacked into their mom's account and discovered a very impressive stable of male possibilities she had been working. (They had also discovered that she was 43 and a natural blonde). The banker, sweet, devoted, loving and desperate after two passionate weeks of online chatting, had met Miss Vera out at Corky Bells on the river in his best suit. With a rather large ring.

"Oh, Ronnie, I just couldn't marry him,", she had told her son a few nights later as she made an Elvis sandwich. "Well, I still miss your father so much, and well….you know his nose was just huge and he had just no chin to speak of, and his face was all red" (here she rubbed the air over her cheeks like she was applying blush with a vengeance) "and he looked just like that possum that lived under our front porch on Lemon Street!"

Ron rolls his eyes as he finishes the tale. "Oh!" he says. "Do not let me commence!"

Behind them, the schoolhouse's recording (a bell, then "Children! It's time for your lessons! Children!", then the bell again) echoes faintly down the street.

* * *

A pair of tourists approach, big and pale and swaddled in Disney gear.

"Can we take a picture with you?" they chime.

"Sure!" Automatic smiles.

Ron and Lily pose and give their best photo album grins.

"Thank you!"

"Mm-hmm! No trouble."

"Is this a special occasion? Is there something going on?"

They are looking at Ron and Lilly's attire.

"Oh, no--we're just window dressing."

"Oh, you all look so cute. We just love Saint Augustine. We'd never been here before!"

"Oh yes" Lily sighed. "Isn't it lovely? Enjoy your visit!"

"Thank you!"

They watch as the couple lumbers back down the street, laden with camera equipment and shopping bags. When they arrive back in Ohio next week, Lily imagines them pondering this picture among their vacation debris and wondering (as they will wonder over most everything they dragged three hundred miles home) why exactly they had wanted it in the first place.

"Yikes" Lily whispers. "Think she could have gotten those pants on any tighter?"

"Mmm- hmmm" Ron mumbled. "Like two pigs fightin' under a blanket."

* * *

The crowd, which had been spotty in twos and threes at the beginning of their trek, begins to get thicker. The Monks Vineyard (it's foyer hung with dozens of autographed eight by ten glossies of famous people who have never eaten there), the Columbia, and a half a dozen other restaurants line the street. For the next hour, their progress comes in grinning, posing, baby holding, flashbulb increments.

"Hi! Ya'll enjoying your stay? Sure! We don't mind a bit! Where ya'll here from? Oh! Lovely! Mmm'hmmm… oh yes. Oh, you're welcome! Restrooms? Oh, yes, just head down the street, it's the first door after the Spanish Bakery. Bye now! Oh hi! Why sure, sugar, where you all from?"

* * *

It's a little over an hour before they finally break free of the last family, vacationers from Minnesota. The family's faces are red and their eyes a little glazed, as though they have been drinking cheap wine.

"Is it always this hot down here?" they chime. This is exactly the twenty- third time Lily and Ron have been asked this question.

"Jesus people, its Florida in August," Lily says. "What were you expecting?"

Ron nudges her, then smiles for the family. "Oh, ignore her," he says. "It should be cooler by tomorrow. It's just the humidity."

They escape the family's sweaty trap, Lilly walking with tiny, ladylike steps. Her colonial shoes, half a size too small, will permit little else.

"This is starting to suck."

"Oh yeah. Let's go back to the house. Perhaps a little refreshment?"

He offers his arm.

"Divine."

Before they next wave of tourists can overtake them, they hook down an alley and disappear down Cuna Street.

* * *

The house is actually Edie and Geoff's house, a gigantic Victorian edifice which sits on south Saint George Street like a great reminder of the past. It was built by a famous general who had fought in the Indian Wars, and supposedly Henry James had stayed there once. It is the crown jewel of the historic district; tour trains roll slowly by at all hours to allow the suburb dwellers a glimpse through the magnolia trees.

Sitting two feet up from street level, it seems to sink its perfect claws into the earth and stare down with candlelit eyes at the Catholic boy's school across the street. More than a house, this place was Geoff's domain, whose favorite shirt, which he only wears for yard work, reads, "Every time a Republican dies, a Queer Angel gets it's wings."

They walk up the brick driveway and into the house's courtyard ("A stylish example of Moorish revival," according to Southern Accents. "Super Arabian Nights," according to Lily). As they mount the stairs to Ron's apartment, she looks down into the backyard of Edie and Geoff's next-door neighbors. There is a middle-aged man, pudgy and silent, staring out a downstairs window. He isn't wearing a stitch of clothes.

Lily claps her hand over her mouth and giggles. She tugs at Ron's coat.

"Oh my God! Is that your naked neighbor?"

She had already heard tales.

He glances over his shoulder. "Oh, god--yes. That's Bill."

"You know 'Bill'?"

"Oh--just let me tell you that little story. Didn't I tell you about that?"

"Missed that one. Can he see us?"

Ron waves. Bill waves back.

This town, Lily thinks, is just so fucking weird.

* * *

"Ere" Ron offers Lily a sweet, smoking treat. They are sitting in the living room, shoes off, feet propped up on the table.

"Oh", she waves her hand. "Can't. I've got to do a ghost tour at eight."

"You'll be fine by eight", he protests, his breath a plume of pungent gray smoke.

"Un-huh. The last time I did a tour in that condition, part of my petticoat came undone and I mooned my tour group for about half a block before I noticed."

"You didn't!" Ron throws his head back and howls with laughter.

Lily nods, cheeks and ears red at the memory. She had been halfway between the ghost of the Casablanca hotel and the tale of the pirate, Andrew Ransom, when she had become aware of a distinct draft. Balancing her lantern in one hand and wrangling with a safety pin in the other, she remembers telling her group "We do try to share everything about our little town, but believe you me, it had not been my intention to share quite so much!" The tourists had laughed, she had laughed, she finished her tour (under a keenly felt scarlet mantle). The tips that night (especially from the men on the tour) were a bit painful.

"Oh, come on…" He waves it again like a little incense stick.

"All right…" She gives a big sigh, not meaning a bit of it. They trade back and forth for a few minutes, looking down into the green, twilight courtyard. Ron's cat, Max, is buried down there, under one of the bougainvillea. Chimney swifts are coming out to feed, turning and diving like stunt pilots, chittering like Chinese firecrackers.

"Tea?"

"Mmmm. Love some."

The sun is setting by the time they begin to wander back uptown to finish their shift. Ron is telling one of his long, Byzantine stories. Lily is trying to follow, with appropriate nods and exclamations. Every flower seems so vivid though, every shadow filled with meaning. (As they walk past the convent, she entertains a sneaking suspicion that both Jesus and the lamb, gazing down from their high alcove, have cast their hot, disapproving gazes on her back.) The convent's parking lot on the other side of the fence is filled with little white economy cars--"Nun-mobiles," she mutters a block later, but by then the context is gone and Ron has no idea what she is talking about.

* * *

During Lily's junior year, Dr Bond, the city's chief archaeologist, had told her class about a colonial cemetery here, extending east and north under the lot, the street, and several houses. When she had interned with him later, he had showed her the old maps, all the places in the city, on streets and paths and yards, where modern structures overlapped onto historic cemeteries and burial grounds.

Lily vividly remembers working in the Preservation Board's archive; boxes stacked along one wall marked 'Human Remains' in black magic marker. She had felt sorry for them, whoever they were, laid to rest by friends and family, only to be dug up by a graduate student and stuffed in a cardboard box, their new epitaph reading 'COR-115862'. Twice occasion had demanded she work in that part of the archive, and both times she had found herself standing in that large gray space, musty and silent, whispering quiet apologies to a pile of cardboard boxes.

But out here in town she didn't mind; she had a sense that, because of her secular beliefs and their spiritual awareness, there was some kind of mutual acknowledgement. Out here it was like they were strangers who belonged to the same secret club.

* * *

They round the corner and wander towards the Lightner Museum. Ron is halfway through a tale about a recent imbroglio with a young man he met. "He works construction, you know, so he is like, so tan and lean and just so Brad Pitt, but just dumber than a mud fence…"

"So of course, you had your way with him…"

"Of course, but we're getting to that."

But before he can get to it, a loud bell rings on the street behind them. Lily jumps visibly. It is one of the red tour trains, which are in hot competition with the green tour trains. Someone is yelling "Ronnie!"

Ron and Lily turn, and the train pulls up to the curb at their feet.

"Shelly!"

"Ronnie!"

Ron exchanges kisses and greetings with a lady wearing big hair and green eye shadow.

"How are you darlin?"

"Oh, fine, all things considered. I ain't seen you in an age!"

"Brian! How you doing, bubbee?"

Lily stands on the sidewalk with her head slightly tilted to one side, wearing an unconscious, patient smile.

"Oh, hey, you know Lily--these are my dear friends. Shelly, meet Lily… Oh, ya'll know each other!"

"Oh, hey, how are you?" They wave to one another and smile. Neither knows the other from Adam's housecat, but this is a minor detail. As Ron chats, Lily notices the moon has come up, peeking half her face over the rooftop across the street. The other half is still dark, retiring in shadow.

* * *

The train is ready to continue, and Ron steps back onto the sidewalk.

Lilly smiles and waves goodbye.

"What was that all about?"

"Oh, that was James's wake."

"'James who?"

"Gardner."

"James Gardner is dead?"

Ron stops. "Oh my god--you didn't know?"

"No. I didn't even know he was sick!"

Lily had worked with James for almost a year at the museum. He had always been nice to her, friendly but not friends. In a moment she remembers everything about him, even the uncharitable things like the dirtiness of his hands and that he smelled sort of boozy some mornings. She hears Ron telling her it was something freak. An infection. He uses the words "found him." James had not been an old man.

Ron nods in the train's direction. "They're scattering his ashes."

They watch as it creaks and bounces along over the bricks, growing smaller. A woman on board shrieks with laughter, someone shouts something unintelligible, the train's bell rings again. As it turns towards the bay, Lily sees a hand fling a bit of dust towards one of the gardens. Final confetti.

Neither speaks for a moment. In the gathering darkness, their costumes make them look like pieces of abandoned Limoge. Lily's hand floats unconsciously to lie at her throat.

"Poor James. He was a nice man. It's good his friends are giving him such a happy sendoff." It seems extra important to say something proper and kind; she is superstitious that the newly dead have sharper ears.

"Mmm-hmmm," Ron says, still staring after the train, now gone. "There but for the grace of God, dahling."

Lily sighs.

"What time is it?"

He looks down at his watch. "Seven-thirty."

"Crap. I've got to be up to the Spanish Gardens in half an hour to do a tour."

"Want me to walk you?"

"Yeah, would you?"

They start down the street again, arm in arm, past the museum's high towers and the bright Tiffany windows of the college, the plume in Ron's hat and the scratched heart in Lily's pocket keeping time with their step.

* * *

Elizabeth Roberts-Hamel is a third generation Floridian. She graduated from Flagler College in 1994 with a degree in English, and lived in Saint Augustine for over ten years. She currently works for the National Park Service on Florida's west coast, where she lives with her husband Ray and a cat named Potato.