Delta Ghosts

Delta Ghosts

I can't see my reflection in the water. It seems like it's been months--or maybe years--since I

last saw the sight of my own nose and eyes and lips, but time, it means nothing here in the Delta. The

days are slow with heat and the nights are humid and lonely, and if the sun didn't show its face every

now and then I'd have no comprehension of time passing.

The last thing I really remember is the roar, the sonic rush of noise against my eardrums as I

fought to keep that weight off my chest. Now I can't remember what caused that weight, that bucket of

bricks that made its home on my lungs. I stopped breathing and every memory I had seemed to fly out

of my mind as the last exhalation I would ever make slipped between my parted lips.

But that's not entirely true. Some memories won't go away, no matter how hard I try to forget:

memory of my mother the last time I saw her, the day I broke her heart. Her faded housedress with its

pattern of rosebuds, auburn hair streaked through with gray, laugh lines around her eyes and stress lines

around her mouth. The way she looked when I was leaving, standing in our dooryard with shoulders

rounded as though with defeat. My baby sister Emily as she was when she was little; curls the rich

color of honey and eyes full of mischief and tiny hands reaching for me to pick her up. All these things

have burned themselves upon my eyes and printed their image on my heart.

And it's not as though these are bad memories, far from it. They are simply too full of the

people and things I love. The people I had to leave behind.

I think of Joel suddenly and wonder if he's distraught that I'm gone. I wonder if he's written a

song about me yet. His voice was always so beautiful, so full of sorrow when he sang. It is what drew

me to him, made me want to take care of him. But in the end I couldn't do much more than love him in

my way and that wasn't enough. He needed something I couldn't give. A songwriting man can't write

songs if his heart is at ease. I suppose now he's able to write all the songs he wants.

Here is something else I cannot forget: the way his skin smelled and tasted first thing in the

morning, sleep-warm and soft, softer than any man's skin has a right to be. I would be sure to wake up

before him just so I could roll over and kiss the tender flesh of his shoulder, wrap my arm around his

waist and pull myself into the curve of his back. Smell the clean scent of him and taste the salt of his

skin. I never tired of the taste/scent of him; I couldn't get enough. On the nights we were apart I

couldn't sleep unless I had one of his old t-shirts in the bed with me. I'd put it up to my face and inhale

him. Smoke and soap and something indefinable, something that was simply Joel.

He used to say I had the prettiest legs of any girl he'd ever met. It could be my naivete, but I

heard a ring of truth in those words. I guess in those days he could have told me just about anything

and I would have believed him. He's the kind of guy, you'll take his word for gospel even when it's

ridiculous. Even when it's the word love.

We met in a bar. I know, it's almost too cliché for words, but it's not what you think. I wasn't there to pick myself up a husband. I was only nineteen, keep in mind, and it was summer. The smell of freshly cut grass drew everyone out of their homes, pulled as if by magnetic force to the sweet night air and the lightning bugs that filled it. I, like almost everyone else in town, was in the mood to celebrate life.

At any rate, he was the dark, brooding guy at the end of the bar with the melancholy eyes and pouty lips that girls like me die for. I stood and watched him for a little bit; the way he nursed his beer, as though he'd had too much to drink the night before, the way the sleeves on his plaid shirt were rolled up to the elbows so they wouldn't get in the way when he played guitar. I hadn't seen him on stage, but I knew his type: the wounded man with the haunting voice who played guitar the way most men touch a woman. With love and reverence. I stood in the shadows and watched a scene play out in my head. He would get up any minute and play his set and I would introduce myself after, the polite girl who never did things like this, never chatted up strange men in bars. In fact, to this day I have no idea what brought me to that place--McKinley's on Rose Street--on that specific night. Oh, I had been there many times before, but that night was different.

I was alone, for one thing, which was unusual. My best friend Julia was tending to her sick mama and all of my other girlfriends were out on dates. I thought of what my own mama would say if she knew where I was and smiled just to spite her, as though she could see me. I'd had a fake ID since I was seventeen and I was always careful to go to the bars in the bigger--more anonymous--surrounding towns of Bartlett or Collierville, where I wouldn't be recognized.
I suppose I had just wanted to get out of the house for a bit, to revel in the freedom that came with going to a bar alone and in the feeling that I wasn't out to impress. I'd gone with the notion that I didn't need anyone, yet by the time the night was through I had found the only man I would ever need, the man I would at times physically yearn for.
I sipped my beer and watched the muscles jump in his forearms as he flexed his hands to prepare for the set. I wondered what it would be like to kiss those arms, feel those muscles tremble beneath my lips.

He looked at me suddenly, as though he had heard my thoughts, and I turned away before he could see how flushed my cheeks were. I had never had thoughts like those before, not even about Gray Burgess, and we'd dated for two years in high school. With him it was easy to forget about romance. Everything was his way, what he wanted, and if I was lucky my pleasure would come as an afterthought. Toward the end when I looked at him all I could see was the man he would become, beaten down by this little town and by his inability to be all the things his parents wanted him to be. He would be a heavy drinker, a big man with football muscles turned to fat, beer gut straining the waistband of his pants, knuckles grimed with motor oil and fists quick to lash out at the woman unfortunate enough to marry him. And perhaps the saddest thing would be the way you could look at his face and see the handsome boy who used to be there, buried beneath the years and the disappointment.

But this man, this guitar-playing heartbreaker, he was different. I could see it in the way he raised the beer bottle to his lips and in the slow smile that spread across his face when I dared to peek at him again from behind the curtain of my long dark hair. He was not a man who would hurt a woman, at least not on purpose. He was not a man who would drink his life away when it didn't go the way he'd planned it. He was a man who would kiss the woman he loved for hours, until her lips were bruised and used-looking. He was a man who would play his guitar on the front porch after sunset and sing a lullaby to the Evening Primrose plants blooming around him.

I listened to him play that night and I knew from the first song that I was in love. His voice was deep and resonated with a sadness I'd thought was only in my heart until then. I watched his fingers move on the guitar neck and closed my eyes, wishing they were on me instead. When he switched his acoustic guitar for a slide, I moved from my spot at the bar to a table near the front and listened with my whole heart as my beer grew first warm and then flat. I didn't care. I was in love.

After his set was over he went backstage for a while and emerged with damp hair and a different shirt. I figured the other one was soaked with sweat; the stage lights were hot and bright and he had played for almost two hours. The crowd kept wanting more, and every time he tried to play the “last song” someone would request something else. He seemed unable to turn them down, as though ignoring their love for his music would make it go away. The patrons at the bar seemed to know him well, and there wasn't a song title they shouted out that wasn't in his repertoire.

He played Elvis. He played The Allman Brothers. He played Johnny Cash. He played beautiful, haunting melodies that I understood to be his own. Each song seemed to come from someplace deep inside him, some well that held memories and music notes all tangled up together.

When he took a seat at the end of the bar once more I waited for his fans to come congratulate him on the good set. I watched as he received claps on the back from the men and kisses on the cheek from the women, one of whom had a halo of soft red curls and was probably a grandmother; although she could have passed for thirty from afar, her hands gave her away. They were lined with delicate blue veins and small spots of age that were visible even in the dim lighting of the bar. Her mini skirt rode up a full two inches when she bent to kiss him, a good hard smack on the mouth that caught her husband's attention. He actually half-rose from his seat to pull her away but was stopped by a drunken friend who had a story to tell. I watched him for a moment as he kept a wary eye on his wife and felt a slight pang of embarrassment for his friend, who was so involved in his story he didn't even notice that no one was paying attention to him.

Everyone in a bar past midnight has a story, have you ever noticed that? Funny, sad, disgusting, romantic, they all roll into one after a while. Not that I am a seasoned bar-fly, not at all. It's just that I am a people-watcher and I notice these things. It doesn't matter how disinterested the other person is, the storyteller will keep going even when he knows it could turn out bad for him. Why is that? Why do we do that to ourselves? Is it out of some base need to connect with someone else, even if it's just for five minutes in a dimly lit pub? Drunken words slur together until they are unintelligible over the sounds of the juke or the band or the cries of the waitress for another round on her tray and still we go on, trying like hell to tell the one story or joke that might bring us closer to another person for the night.

I didn't have a story. I bought a beer and sent it over to him and waited. And when he moved to sit beside me I kept my eyes on the bar, traced the rings on the wood made by many, many beer bottles over the years as though I could discover how old it was by those rings.

“Bartender says you sent this over,” he said, and I dared to look up at him through my bangs.

“Yes,” I said softly. “I wanted to thank you.”

“Thank me?” His dark eyes regarded me thoughtfully, a small smile playing at his lips.

“For the music. I feel like now I've heard it I can die a happy girl.”

The smile fell away so quickly I was afraid I'd upset him, but he only patted my hand like I was his niece or a family member he was trying to console.

“Come with me,” he said, and I was happy enough to follow him out the back door. We took our beers with us. No one seemed to mind.

Outside the night was hot but bright with moonlight and the stars were winking at us as though they knew secrets mere mortals did not. We sat on the back stoop and his knee grazed mine and I found that I didn't even mind that the dumpsters were nearby.

“I'm Joel, by the way,” he said softly. His voice was much the same as it had been onstage, deep and melodic with a touch of sadness. I wondered if he carried that sadness with him all the time or if something had happened to him earlier in the night.

“I know,” I said, smiling a little. “I'm Charly.”

He looked a bit surprised at that and I rolled my eyes. “My dad was a big Charlie Daniels fan. You can imagine his disappointment when I was born without a penis.”

He laughed and it was one of those good, whole-body laughs that let me know he wasn't laughing at me or my situation but rather with me.

“He couldn't have been all that disappointed, he still named you after his favorite musician.”

“Well I can't play the fiddle to save my life and that used to irritate him some. He could play just about any instrument he picked up, but mostly he played banjo with a band called The Pickers and The Grinners. They toured around the south for a while when I was a girl, playing little dives, but they could pack a house. He would have done it for free if it hadn't been for me and my mama at home, needin' an income. He loved it that much.”

“And he wanted you to be a part of the band?” he asked, partially joking.

“I guess he thought when I got to be old enough we'd be like some crazy country version of The Partridge Family.”

He smiled at that and looked up toward the sky, as if waiting for something to appear there.

“Listen, I asked you to come out here because I wanted to actually get to know you,” he said finally.

“You can't get to know me inside?”

He turned to me and the look in his eyes was serious and I felt the smile that had been on my lips falter. I knew then that I could love him, very easily.

“No,” he said simply. “Too loud, too many drunk assholes, too much. I just want to talk to you like a person instead of yelling in your ear.”

“And what makes me different from those drunk assholes?” I asked seriously, tilting my head toward the back door.

He shifted then and I felt the warmth of his arm against my bare thigh and shivered. It was a hot night and I was wearing a denim skirt and the gooseflesh that appeared when we touched seemed to amuse him.

“You looked into my eyes when you told me you liked my music,” he replied. “You were telling the truth.”

“What, you think they're lying to you?” I asked in disbelief. “I saw the way they all look at you, Joel, and let me tell you, it ain't fake. You brought the house down tonight.”

He shook his head sadly. “It's not that. They like my music, they like that it's in the background for them to dry hump on the dance floor to and they like the idea that it's a soundtrack to their pickup lines. But they don't understand. They hear it but they don't listen.”

“What if I told you I understand?” I asked. I looked at him closely and saw everything; the amber flecks in his green eyes, the small cut on his neck from where he'd nicked himself shaving, and the tiny scar on his forehead--just above his right eye--almost hidden by that shock of wild black hair. I saw all these things and more. I saw that he was hurting and alone. I saw that the idea that no one understood his songs broke his heart. And I saw that he was going to fall for me just as hard as I would for him, because we were two sides of the same coin: the singer and the listener, the one who is lost and the one who finds, the wounded and the caregiver.

“I'd say I believe you,” he said, and it would have been a perfect moment for him to kiss me but he didn't. He looked into my eyes the way a drowning man does his savior and I felt a piece of my heart being taken right then. It would never be whole again and I was alright with that, because it was his to keep.

That was the beginning.


We met in the dog days of July, when the air was so hot that after a thunderstorm the rain rose up from the streets in spirals of steam, shimmering like a mirage. By October of that year we were living together in his house, a rambling old Gothic mansion on the outskirts of Memphis that stood on a hill the way a guard stands sentry. It seemed not to have been built but rather to have thrust up from the ground the way something living grows. Cotton fields spread out as far as the eye could see on every side of the house, and some days when the weather was hot enough it seemed I could imagine the ghosts of the generations of workers in those fields, backs bent from labor, sweat dripping into the earth as though to fertilize it.

He had inherited the house from his grandmother when she died of cancer in '99, so the decor was predictably old lady-ish: overstuffed couches draped with afghans, pale lace curtains in every room, dark antique wood for the furniture and the floors. As old fashioned as it was, I actually liked it. The furnishings seemed to fit the house better than anything modern could. Perhaps it was only because I knew that the house had been built in 1801 and had been home to a generation of slaves, but it was almost as though bringing new appliances into the kitchen to replace the original woodstove and 1950's Frigidaire would have been sacrilege, tarnishing the history of the home.

Along with the house, Joel had received a large amount of money from his grandmother's estate, which is what he lived on while working on his music. Of course, he made pretty good money at the bars on weekends, playing to the lonelyhearts nursing their beers and the lovers doing what they do best on the dance floor. Added to the modest income I earned as a teller at the Farmer's Bank, that money was more than enough to keep us afloat.

The summers were always my favorite, even though the days were so hot we could scarcely breathe in the upstairs bedroom and the bedsheets always seemed damp at night. Summer mornings meant waking up before Joel and cooking breakfast, eating together at the big oak kitchen table, me with my feet in his lap or him with his eyes on mine as we devoured sweet pieces of tangerine. Sometimes he would take my hand, still sticky from the fruit, and lead me upstairs. He would kiss my eyelids and brush my hair away from my face and I would feel him against me, the heat of him, and know that in that moment he belonged only to me; not to the fans, or to the lonely housewives with their too-short skirts, but to me. And afterward we would lie on our stomachs in bed and he would trace patterns on the bare skin of my back with his fingers, making me shiver, and it's those moments I keep coming back to. The in-between moments. Not all the times he told me he loved me, or the fights, or even the countless times we made love, although some days those memories are all I can cling to.

Mostly, I just miss him.

During that first fall that we were together, I often wondered if it had been fate that brought me to the bar that night. I'd never given much thought to such things in my youth; I was much too self-centered to believe that some higher power held control of my life and the course it took.

But suddenly my life was split into two halves: Before Joel and After Joel. Before we met I had never hoped to find a man so good, so it never seemed to matter whether or not my life was on track, or whether my actions dictated how things turned out as opposed to having them pre-planned by some great, invisible force. But having him in my life made me wonder about the possibility of things I can't explain, about the existence of true love. Could there really be a great unseen hand plucking at the strings that tether us here like a puppeteer with his marionette? Does each string represent every move we make, or only the big ones? I imagined a wizened old man with a long robe and beard keeping track of each human life in a ledger, printing a checkmark beside the most important events: the man I would marry, the baby I would conceive, the house I would someday buy.

After Joel, I was happy to believe that certain things were already planned out for me. Fate had pointed me in his direction and I was certain that's where I was meant to stay.

As it turned out, Fate had other plans for me.

A plan who wore a tight mini-skirt.

A plan with a jealous heart and a bad marriage.

Things are coming back to me now. But still, I can't really remember her face, isn't that funny?

I remember reaching up towards the end and touching her red hair with the last bit of my strength; she

was strong and the weight of the water above my head was heavy. I remember thinking how soft that

hair was, even softer than it had looked under the lights of the bar where I'd first seen her. And I

remember feeling sorry for her, because after I was gone she still wouldn't have Joel.

I picture him as I sit on the bank of the Mississippi, wishing I had a cigarette. I watch the

muddy water rush past me as though it has someplace to be and think of all the things I wanted to do

and be when I was just a girl growing up in Memphis. I think of my father, my mother, my sister. And

I think of the man I still love, even through the boundaries of time and space. The boundaries of life.

The boundaries of death.

I'm dead.

My name is Charly Owens and I am dead.

It's the first time I've allowed that word to form itself in my mind. I turn it over and roll it

across my tongue, as though tasting it. Dead. Death. Such small words for what they mean.

I really wish I had a cigarette.


lindsay   lindsay wrote
on 5/7/2008 10:13:18 PM
This is a great short story. It grabs your attention from the beginning. Really good character development. Fabulous ending!

Short Story
writing mandycrum
Vita brevis, ars longa.
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Rating: 10.0/10