She was late. She had cut it too close again. Someday, she told herself, she was going to arrive at her classroom early – refreshed, relaxed and grounded. But someday was not today. The ancient elevator in her apartment building chugged its way slowly toward the lobby. Anna tapped an impatient foot. When the elevator door slid open, she found her exit squarely blocked. A gargantuan beetle-black grand piano was wedged sideways into the minuscule lobby. Short of crawling on her hands and knees, she could not get past it.
‘Hey! Some people need to get out of here,’ she called out. ‘Please! Somebody!’
Alec, the superintendent, who was supervising the moving of the piano, saw her plight. ‘Ride back up,’ he suggested. ‘Take the stairs back down.’
‘But I’m late!’
That’s when the tall, redheaded stranger spoke up. He had been standing just to one side with two uniformed moving men.
‘We tried to wait until everybody had gone to work,’ he said. ‘This won’t take much longer.’
‘Well, it’s taking too long for me. Oh never mind!’ Anna stabbed at the elevator buttons. As the door slid shut, she caught one last glimpse of the redhead. He smiled apologetically. Was it her imagination? Despite his frizz of red hair and his Buddy Holly glasses, he looked quite attractive.
The elevator door slid shut and that is when she heard the voice, scolding her in heavily accented English. ‘You could have been more civil to him. You could have made him feel welcome.’
‘Well, he’s not welcome,’ Anna explained, aware that she was arguing mentally with a ghost. ‘This building is lovely and quiet, which is necessary for my work. The last thing I need is someone pounding on a grand piano at all hours of the day and night.’ A quick glance around the elevator told her the ghost was settling for an auditory experience only.
‘Pounding?’ The ghost sounded outraged. ‘His music is sub-time – and I should know.’
‘Well, it’s not welcome,’ Anna persisted. ‘And neither are you!’
‘You could have pretended,’ the ghost pressed on. ‘What’s wrong with a little feminine grace?’
‘I’m late,’ Anna announced the obvious. ‘And he’s making me even later. And besides, what business is it of yours? You’re a ghost.’
‘Don’t remind me,’ the ghost sighed. ‘His happiness is my business. His comfort. His ease. I want the best for him, you see – and I intend to see that he gets it.’
‘Well, count me out of your plans,’ Anna retorted as the elevator stopped. ‘And if you’re going to visit me, do it when I am working.’
‘Let me get this straight,’ the ghost sputtered. ‘Kings vied for my attention. The pope himself knighted me. With you, I need to make an appointment?’ Clearly, the ghost was used to getting its way.
‘That’s absolutely right. I’ll speak to you during business hours.’ With that, the elevator door opened and Anna hurled herself toward the stairs, leaving the ghost behind me.
Was it her midwestern imagination or where New Yorkers’ faces inherently more interesting, perhaps more craggy or clearly etched than the vaguely Scandanavian ovals of her Michigan childhood? It was in part to escape a fate wed to a Scandinavian oval that Anna had come to New York. In Ann Arbor, she would have ended up as someone’s eccentric, misfit wife. New York offered a chance to be loved for her entire self, or, since the city was filled with single women, a chance to be loveless without shame. In Ann Arbor, she was a spinster. In New York, she was single.
At age thirty-two; Anna lived in a one-room apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Her studio was on the fifth floor of a prewar building erected in the twenties. From here two north-facing windows, she enjoyed a view across rooftops where her neighbours, slightly miniaturized, held barbecues and sunned themselves on tiny rooftop decks.
If Anna leaned out of her fire escape window, she could catch a leafy sliver of Central Park – that was as close to the trees of Ann Arbor as she ever wanted to get again.
Like so many other New York transplants, Anna had been a misfit where she came from. With its welcoming anonymity, New York was a mecca for oddballs longing to blend in. Back home in Ann Arbor, she had not blended in. There, in the conventional and conservative Midwest, her interest in the paranormal had branded her an outcast, although her peers regarded her with a wary fascination.
Under the careful guidance of a spiritualist teacher, Bernice Murphy, she had honed her skills – but also acheived an unwelcome notoriety. ‘Teen Ghostbuster Helps Police,’ one unfortunate headline had trumpeted. Anna was torn between the thrill of practicing her gifts and her longing to be a teenager amid teenagers. To add to her woes, her twin brother, Alan, seemed to dine out on her escapades. He would initiate conversations with remarks like, ‘Let me tell you about my weird sister.’ Indeed, as the ‘weird sister,’ Anna had been only too glad to escape to New York.
If Alan, back in Michigan, asked her about her work, Anna kept it vague. She knew he pictured crystal balls and tilting tables, and envisioned her wearing a turban – as many of the storefront psychics along lower Broadway in fact did. She had long since tired of trying to make her brother understand that to her, ghosts were simply a fact of life.
The first time it had happened, Anna was five years old. She was staying at her grandmother’s house and she had been tucked into bed early. ‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite,’ her grandma said, kissing her forehead, smoothing her covers, shutting the door.
What bed bugs? Anna wondered, staring at the ceiling where something hazy and bluish seemed to be floating. She squinted and the shape took on form. It was a woman, with her hair in ringlets around her face, wearing a high-collared dress that was clearly etched, although after the bodice, the dress trailed into nothingness.
Anna oberved the ghost with astonishment. Handkerchief pressed to its lips, it appeared to be viewing her the same way. She should have been scared, but what she felt was curiosity. She watched with fascination to see what would happen next. She know enough to know it was a ghost, but it didn’t seem threatening in any way. It coughed into its lace laden handkerchief.
Anna reached a hand from beneath the covers and extended it over to the night table where her grandmother had left a small bell – ‘A sick bell, for emergencies or if you need me.’ Anna rang the bell. The apparition smiled regretfully and started to fade. By the time her grandmother opened the door, it had vanished.
As an introduction to the paranormal, it had felt, well, normal, but how would her brother feel if he knew that most Sunday afternoons, as a thirty-something adult, she attended a tiny spiritualist church where a diehard band of six to eight worshippers gathered together and tried to receive messages from the other side? this prospect was made problematic since the ‘church’ was actually a tiny rented rehearsal hall, mirrored along one wall, with a rickety stand-up piano on which the minister, with her minimal piano skills, pecked and pounded out nineteenth century hymns. The ragged congregation raised its communal voice in scraggly song, but rarely succeeded in drowing out the opera singer who rented a rehearsal space two doors down.
Anna attended out of affection for Miss Carolina, the wizened Jamaican woman with her crooked walk and more crooked wig who presided over her dwindling flock. Despite herself, sometimes Anna felt foolish, riding up to the fourth floor in a tiny jammed elevator prone to distressing lurches, often in the company of Zoreida the Magnificent who taught a belly dancing class just down the hall.
‘Pretty girld like you, you should learn to belly dance,’ Zoreida often urged her.
‘No, no. I’m here for church.’ Anna always answered.
Once, under the shepherding of its late charismatic founder, Doctor Lucian, the church had been robust and healthy. Now, a decade after Dr. Lucian’s death, a mere handful of followers remained. Anna worried that the lamp of their faith would flicker out entirely without Miss Carolina’s sad and lilting sermons, without her cryptic but often astoundingly precise messages from the other side.
‘You have the gift,’ Miss Carolina had confronted Anna after her initial service.
‘Yes.’ Anna saw no point in denial.
‘But you fight it.’ Miss Carolina went on, sounding gently dismayed.
‘I try to cooperate,’ Anna protested. ‘I do cooperate.’
‘Exactly. You ‘cooperate’ instead of celebrate. It’s a gift. A rare and wonderful gift, but you don’t like being ‘different.’ Ah, well, it’s hard when you’re young.’
‘I’m thirty-two. No so young.’ Anna argued. But Miss Carolina had correctly nailed her private conflict. As much as she loved her contacts with the other side – and she did love them – normal had always seemed eminently desirable to her, just impossibly out of reach.
‘Well, it feels good to be around others, doesn’t it?’ Miss Carolina clucked sympathetically. Anna had to admit that it did and so for the admitted pleasure of ‘being around others,’ she became a regular at the tiny, ailing church.
No, Anna did not share this aspect of her life with Alan. Of course, Alan had his own weirdnesses, but Anna was loath to point them out. They were, after all, fraternal twins, two very different beings who had once swum together peaceably in their mother’s womb. Twins had to count for something, Anna felt.
‘Let Alan be weird,’ she often lectured herself. Let him live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, building handcrafted violins in his garage, poring over his obscure mathematical calculations, certain that he would eventually rival Stradivarius. Who was she to disabuse him – or anyone – of an obscure obsession, an eccentric ruling passion? No, Anna held her tongue.