She lived for these Sunday afternoon teas, in the spring or early summer especially when it wasn’t quite muggy or quite cold and the breeze would catch the garden in the shade exactly right for the spring rituals of genteel women. The boisterous hummingbirds among the roses, the dignity of conversation away form the reaches of men or children. Still Marion could see her sister Anna wasn’t right. Bloodless, wordless, disturbed.
“Are you well, dear?”
Anna looked up and offered a small smile. “I’m fine.”
“Clearly you’re not.”
Anna looked away, picked up a Madeleine cake and mouthed it with exaggerated enthusiasm. “These are very fresh,” she said. She touched a china tea cup to her lips, raising her little finger. “They say President Teddy Roosevelt will be passing through town tomorrow to give a speech from the back of a train. As is his wont.”
Marion set the tea cup down and waited in silence for her aura of Elder Sister Authority to gather around her like a cloud. She waited until Anna felt it. Anna set down her tea cup. She lost interest in the Madeleine cakes and finally folded her hands.
“What are we really talking about, little sister?”
“Are you not enjoying your honeymoon?”
“Arlon is a decent chap. Good family and all that.”
“I’m a little tired that’s all.”
“I’ve seen you tired,” said Marion. “You are not tired.”
“I’m fine,” said Anna. “Do not press me so. Perhaps I’m not hungry.”
“I’ve seen you not hungry,” said Marion. You’re not ‘not hungry’. You are disturbed. Inwardly. Clearly. You cannot hide it, because you’re a cheerful person. When you’re not disturbed. Something has deeply shaken your peace.” She leaned forward intimately, glanced around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “Is it the marital bed?”
Anna’s eyes narrowed.
Marion reached out her hand and took her sisters fingers and gave them a friendly squeeze. “Does it upset him? Your lack of maidenhead?”
“You would bring that up. And still throw it at me.”
“And Arlon is angry with you?”
“No, Arlon is a man of the world,” said Anna. “Its not that. He’s from out west. They’re very - progressive - about these things. ‘Why can’t a woman do as a man does’ he says. That’s partly why I agreed to marry him. He’s not rich. But he’s a progressive man. He thinks women should be able to vote someday. He even thinks the coloreds should vote. He doesn’t need his women to be virgins.”
Anna turned her eyes away. Her lips parted, closed, parted, like a fish contemplating a worm on a hook. “. . I . . .”
Marion, a skillful fisher, knew to keep still.
“. . . I . . . had a kind of affair.”
Marion sat still, not breathing.
“Yes, I think I have been unfaithful.”
“And you confessed this to Arlon?”
She shook her head. “He’s not yet liberal enough to tolerate that. But it wasn’t exactly an affair. Not with a man.”
Now Marion was beyond shocked. But she was intrigued. “Not a man. Anna. Have you had a relation with a woman?”
“Performed an unnatural act with a woman?”
“I didn’t know you could be so interesting.”
“It’s not like that.”
Marion felt herself getting angry. “Well, what? Common barn yard animals?”
“What are we talking about Anna? Just tell me. I swear to god Arlon will not know.”
Marion was speechless. She swamped her younger sister with a look that wrapped her in an atmosphere of self doubt.
“A man’s ghost,” said Anna, almost too softly to hear.
“There are no ghosts.”
“There is at least one. And I assure you he is quite capable as a man.”
Marion felt her thoughts go still. She took her gentle cup of tea and sipped. The tea had gone cold. She took the pot and poured herself some more. Anna held out her cup, a good sign, and Marion refreshed it. “A capable male ghost?” said Marion, giving the subject an encouraging poke. “The best kind I suppose. If you must have a ghost about.”
“Capable and . . . Skillful. Satisfying actually.”
“I think I would like to meet this ghost.”
Anna snorted tea through her nose and cackled. Both women giggled, shook silently and sighed together. The air around them felt fresher and clean. “Invite him to come see me,” said Marion and they both laughed again. Anna grabbed a Madeleine and stuffed it happily in her mouth.
“Its not a bad thing having an affair with a ghost, I think,” said Marion. “You won’t likely get caught or pregnant and if Arlon shoots him with a pistol in your bed he’ll be none the worse for it.”
“No,” said Anna, with a little sigh of relief. “You don’t think I’m crazy?”
“I’ve seen you crazy,” declared Marion. “You don’t seem crazy today. Only confused. But I say - what is it like to have a little romp with a ghost? Is it like a dream?”
“I’m not sure its a proper ghost.”
“He’s all covered with little snakes.”
“He came to me in the afternoon, after I had come out of my bath. I was toweling off in the room and I was unclothed, enjoying a bit of an air bath and thinking of taking up a quill and ink and scratching off a note to Papa. When I turned he was standing between me the big wall mirror as though he had just stepped out of it into our own world. I thought I should be expected to scream or stand on a table or something but really, Marion. He just seemed so lost and blameless. Like a big puppy, not dangerous at all. As though he didn’t ask to be there but had only arrived. He looked and looked at me, as confused as myself. And I realized - I liked having him look at me. I felt as though I should know him, as though I had known him forever and always and we had only bumped into each other in passing and because we were supposed to. Do you see?”
“He was covered with snakes? Doesn’t sound like a proper ghost at all, no.”
“I’m not sure he was a ghost. I wouldn’t know. There is no word for him. But it felt safe. He was strange. He was not like men we know. He was a tall and athletic man, and yet almost more Papa’s age. He had a picture inked onto his arms of strange oriental characters, but he was not a yellow man. His chest had five robin blue circles like little candy wafers and there were thin snakes or possibly string dangling from each. I thought I heard anxious voices far away around him. His words were odd. He said I was ‘hot’ though I felt quite cool from my bath. He came over to me, kissed my breasts and pushed me onto the bed. Onto my back.”
“And you performed the marital act?”
“With abandonment,” said Anna. “I felt quite safe in his arms.”
“I don’t know if I should be ashamed of you or envy you.”
“It was sweetness itself. Not as with a man, it didn't seem at the moment like an unfaithful act at all, only an adventure, a lark, a sweet dream without consequences. As sweet a dream as you could ever have and no one harmed.” said Anna. "I did think so at the time."
"Now I don't know. If Arlon had done such a thing and enjoyed it so much I think I would be angry. Wouldn't you?"
"Odd," said Marion. "I don't think I would. I think the rules would different."
"Do you think?"
"It was good enough for Mother Mary. Though I imagine Joseph took some convincing."
Anna lifted her tea cup and held it out. “Let’s just say - to capable ghosts.”
“And improper ghosts.” Marion tapped her tea cup to Anna’s. “And may the most improper one come to me.”
He opened his eyes to flashing red lights that spun around the bushes and grass and side paneling of the old Victorian house. A young woman with blue latex gloves and a white uniform hovered over him anxiously peering into his eyes. “Can you hear me?” she shouted.
He mouth was dry. His chest, fingers and toes felt as if they were on fire. His left hand was covered with angry red burn blisters. She slapped his face lightly and firmly, batting at him like a kitten with a ball. “Can you hear me, sir?”
He couldn’t speak but nodded furiously.
She held up her hand, spread her fingers. “How many fingers?”
He looked at her fingers but didn't know. Shook his head.
A young man appeared and ripped the sticky blue disks and electric wires from his chest. He saw the glistening jellied paddles and the control box as the man whisked them away. He tried to raise his head, but it was enormously heavy and dizzy and he flopped back in the grass disoriented. Over head birds flew past in formation singing.
“Three,” he said.
“Sir, we’re bringing you to emergency. You received a shock that stopped your heart. The foreman gave you CPR and we’re going to bring you in to intensive care. Do you feel any pain?”
He nodded, croaked “Shit,” and then “It was Wednesday.” He was relieved to hear the sound of his own voice coming back. He held up three fingers.
As they lifted him onto the fold up gurney and began to wheel him over the lawn to the back of the ambulance he glanced at the old Victorian house with its tea garden filled with rose bushes. Near the house a tall wooden pole with the dangling black high power cable he’d let go of it as he limply plummeted forty feet.
He remembered something. There had been a woman. An angel of some kind. An angel of mercy waiting for him.
A man slapped him, said something, slapped him again and he opened his eyes resentfully, gurgling. The ambulance doors slammed and they drove off howling. The nice young man gave him an injection and listened with his ear pressed to his chest as they raced down the highway.