Are you ready for the Year of the Tiger? Rumor has it the Roaring Twenties are truly coming back in 2022, once we’ve all plowed our way through the somewhat tedious Year of the Ox. To celebrate, I’m looking forward to releasing my jazz age mystery novel, Galveston 1922, on February 5th 2022. You can now preorder it! And you can read the beginning right here in this blog post:
Galveston, TX, February 1922
“So you came over in the middle of the night and you brought along a friend who happens to be dead?”
I hold my finger to my lips. “Don’t mention that. She’s sensitive about it.”
“So what’s the protocol? Would your friend like a drink? Would you?”
James’s dog circles the spot where June stands. Her glow outshining her sparkly flapper dress, June doesn’t seem bothered. Au contraire, she’s egging the dog on, trying to pet it with her immaterial hand. The dog, of course, can’t feel her touch but can sense her presence. June herself cannot truly touch the dog, so the exercise is futile and bound to make her sad. But she seems all right for now. And the animal’s agitation lends some credibility to my words.
“Oh, I’ve had plenty, I’m afraid. And June can’t drink,” I say, grateful that she’s distracted by the dog. “I’m sorry to impose on you, James. I didn’t know where I could go. If you would be so kind to let me stay, I’d be ever so grateful.”
He smiles a wry little smile.
“Alice Weaver in my bed. Dreams do come true.”
“Is that so?” I whisper, surprising myself by the warm tingle his words elicit. Being desirable is something long forgotten. But I did not come here for that. I came because I was desperate, and because I’m trailed by a dead flapper who holds the key to deadly secrets. If only she would talk. “I am not alone. You will have to behave.”
Another man might make a joke about two girls instead of one in his bed. But I hope that James won’t. In fact, I say a silent prayer that he won’t. The hollow in my stomach that forms at the very idea of prayer reminds me that we might have more company than just June. But I don’t tell him that. Those other ghosts are none of his concern.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a toothbrush for you,” he says instead. “Or for your friend.”
We both look at the dog that’s now calmed down and settled for sniffing out the spot at June’s feet, wagging its tail contentedly. Never one to give up, June is still attempting to pet it. It breaks my heart a little. And yet it gives me hope. If June is as stubborn about everything else as well, she will probably succeed in her impossible quest. Perhaps I can learn from her. Perhaps I myself can become more stubborn.
“She doesn’t need a toothbrush,” I whisper, assured that June is still not paying attention. “One of the perks of being dead. I, on the other hand…” I give a shy little laugh, consider him, feel the proximity of him deep in my body, feel desire awakening me from what now seems like a life-long slumber. “Why, I might be tempted to steal yours.” I feel color rise to my cheeks. I must be as crimson as my sinful dress. I’m aware suddenly of the warmth of the whiskey still in my veins, of my impertinence and intoxication. “Is that very forward?” I ask. “We haven’t even kissed.” But drunk or not, I must get a grip. I’m here for a reason that’s urgent and important. And I’m scared.
He draws closer. “We can remedy that.”
I steal a glance at June. She is now watching us.
“We’re not alone,” I remind him, my finger grazing his lips.
“Prude,” June mouths.
He laughs. The dog is still clearly taken with my ghostly companion, and I am grateful. Would he believe me otherwise? Besides the fortune teller he’s the only one I dared talk to about June. He must think I’m drunk. And I am. But not drunk enough to invent a ghostly presence.
“Daisy seems to like her,” he says. His eyes crinkle in a kind smile. Could it be that for once in my life I have formed an attachment of sorts to a kind man? Though, really, a fleeting glimmer of lust and a common interest in an investigation is hardly an attachment to speak of.
“Daisy,” I repeat, and the dog looks up, then returns her attention to June. “I never knew her name. I like the name Daisy.”
“And what’s your friend’s name?” James asks.
“June.” Though actually he’d know her as Summer. But that revelation can wait until later. I must tell him who she is, but I must do so gently, cautiously. I don’t want her to get angry and vanish. I don’t want him to think I’m making it all up. I cannot think how to proceed, not with the whiskey I drank, the fright I just had, and the long day and evening weighing me down. Would it be wrong to sleep for now and leave the heavy conversation for the morning? Will it be too late then?
I met June at a party at my own house. It was a small party, as a party should be when one isn’t merely serving punch. Still, when this girl I didn’t know wandered into the kitchen, where I was washing glasses in the hope that Oliver’s friends would get the hint and go home or to a speakeasy, I wasn’t shocked by the presence of a stranger. She was obviously someone’s date and they had either forgotten to introduce her, or I had forgotten that they had. Which was remarkable because she stood out. Redheads generally do. But this one was also wearing a mighty bedazzled dress, all sequins and shimmy, slightly scuffed but still lovely patent leather shoes, and a little too much makeup. She was a pretty girl who didn’t need much enhancement, and it didn’t favor her at the moment as she looked mighty pale, her skin almost translucent, delicate blue veins pulsing at her temples. The paleness struck me as odd for a girl who appeared as intoxicated as the rest of them. The others, by now, were flushed, red-faced, and sweaty.
Our tiny house, a scrappy storm survivor like myself, raised to prevent further tragedy, with squeaking floorboards once washed clean by the salty flood waters of the epic deluge, got stifling hot even in February, stifling hot and humid, the perpetual reminder that we were partying on the brink of disaster. I loved and hated this all at once. Yet I could not imagine living somewhere else, could not imagine fully forgetting, and was committed in my own way to sticking around. Galveston and I had not settled accounts. She owed me and I stubbornly held on to the notion that if I waited long enough, she would pay up. Oliver said a new age was dawning, music and liquor flowing freely, washing away the memory of howling winds and sweeping devastation. He embraced the jazz age, gave up his beat as a reporter, played piano in bars, played late into the night, came home smelling of liquor. And since I wasn’t swayed, he brought the party here, into my quiet house where the only music keeping me company had been the sounds of an old wooden structure determined to stand tall. I was not charmed.
The window above my kitchen sink looked into the narrow alley between our house and the neighbors’ and aligned just right with another window above another sink. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner time, if I opened my window and Glenda in the next house over would too, we could visit. Our houses raised to the same level, it seemed like we were both waiting here on our sandbank for better days to come. But Glenda wasn’t like me. She had a family. A happy life. And currently dark windows closed shut, no jazz and liquor in her quiet rooms. Oh, how I envied her, not for the children sleeping safely in their tiny beds, but for the peace beyond those dark windowpanes.
The flowers I had lovingly cut to display in the corners of our otherwise shabby parlor with its rented furniture, the season’s last white camellias, drooped as if in solidarity with the sweaty partiers and my world-weary soul, the petals turning rusty, flushed as my drunken guests and just as unpalatable. But this pale girl stood in a corner of the kitchen, looking so alabaster white, so immaculately porcelain, it spooked me a little. She stood there observing me unabashed. She must be three sheets to the wind, I thought, despite her pallor. Perhaps she’d just applied some powder so expensive it could turn a hog into a pearl. Perhaps she’d passed the point of ruddy good-humored intoxication and was about to keel over and die.
I should offer her a glass of water. It was only kind. Besides, I didn’t mind the girl as much as Oliver’s loud friends in the other room. The girl was quiet. And despite her intoxication, her overdone makeup, and ridiculous flapper attire, there was something refined about her, something gentle and sweet that even the brash new fashions couldn’t drown out. I turned off the hot water and let the faucet run. I scanned the countertop for ice, knowing full well we’d used it all up. Soda water was dear, and besides, I was pretty sure they’d mixed it all with gin and whiskey and drank it down to the last drop. I took one of the glasses I’d just washed, poured it full of lukewarm Galveston water, and all this time the drunk girl watched me without saying a word.
I knew, of course, not to take offense. Perhaps she was about to be sick. Perhaps she wasn’t used to drinking. Though her dress, shoes, and makeup looked like those of a girl who spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, something about the sweetness I could sense beneath, something about her dazed air, made me think she didn’t fit in with bawdy raucous people. I worried about her. Where was she planning to go after this? A motherly instinct I didn’t know I had prompted me to hope she’d be going home, but it was not my place to offer advice. No, all I, Alice Weaver, had to offer was a lukewarm glass of tap water.
“You’ll feel better if you drink this,” I said. Her eyes widened as if my very presence startled her, though she’d been watching me the whole time. I briefly considered the possibility that this girl might have dabbled in a vice more dangerous than alcohol. Well, water couldn’t hurt, whatever it was that ailed her. I handed her the glass, and then something odd happened. She reached for it, but through some clumsiness, of mine or of hers, I couldn’t tell, it fell to the floor and shattered.
She stood there as if transfixed. She looked into my eyes – a questioning gaze, as if my very presence in my own kitchen surprised her.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said, her voice raspy and tentative.
“It’s fine, doll,” I said. I grabbed the dustpan, cleaned up the shards. There was still a puddle of water at her feet. I wanted to dab at her shoes with a dishrag, but she stepped swiftly away.
“Your shoes are wet,” I said. “Come here!”
“No, don’t,” she protested.
“Who’re you talking to, Alice?” Oliver asked. I’d missed him coming in.
I gestured toward the girl.
“You talkin’ to yourself now? We got a room full of people and you’re here by yourself in the kitchen talkin’ to yourself? The boys are gonna think my wife’s a nutter.”
I saw the girl grimace, her face turning slightly golden, a surreal effect that made me wonder if perhaps I was the intoxicated one. Then she smiled at me, bit her lip, turned that pretty smile into a brazen smirk, and said, “He can’t see me. Can’t hear me either. I’m amazed that you can.”
“Did one of your friends come with a redhead in a beaded dress?” I asked Oliver. “Very pretty, totally blotto?”
“You know I don’t notice the dames,” my husband said defensively. “Are we really out of ice and soda water?” He seemed irritated. I knew he wanted to impress our guests tonight. Not just his band and Amanda, an occasional singer who latched on in more ways than one, but Charlie, too, who owned the club where they most often performed. He was the one my husband most wished to have a good relationship with. Then there was Mr. Albert, a man who owned another bar and who swore up and down that when you run an undercover operation you don’t need musicians. And yet my husband would not stop courting him.
“You coming, sugar?” Amanda, the singer, coaxed from the doorway. She served as living proof that Oliver more than noticed dames and the dames certainly noticed him.
“Say, Amanda,” I asked, my curiosity outweighing my irritation. “Have you met…” I nodded toward the girl.
“June,” the girl whispered. “She can’t see me either.”
“Have I met who?” Amanda asked.
“June,” I said. “She came with one of the boys. Totally blotto, very pale. I’m worried about her.”
“We’re all blotto.” Amanda’s voice was impatient. “But we intend to keep on drinking. You coming, Oliver? We’re going to Charlie’s. But there’s only one seat left in the car. Maybe you can stay here, Alice, and take care of this June, whoever she is?”
“Have you seen her?”
“What’s she look like?”
“Redhead. Very lovely. Prettiest girl here, in fact. Nicest dress too. All beads.”
A striking blonde with an impressive voice, Amanda was so used to her uncontested role as the most beautiful woman anywhere she went, I could see this piqued her.
“Younger than all of us, very slender. New patent leather shoes.”
June laughed, examining the cracks on the side of her clearly beloved but well-worn footwear. Our eyes met. “Tell her I’m wearing a silver fox too. Go on, she can’t see me anyway.”
“Silver fox stole,” I said, and Amanda clutched her ratty fur to her chest. “Monogrammed silver flask. Looked expensive. Came from Chicago. She was a singer there and she’ll take Galveston by storm.”
Amanda flicked her short blond curls. “You coming, Oliver?”
My husband kissed my cheek in a perfunctory gesture. “I’ll be home before you finish cleaning up and go to bed. Just one more drink with the boys,” he assured me, then followed Amanda out of the kitchen. I could hear her shrill laugh, hear voices, doors slamming, engines firing up. I was left with dirty glasses, crumpled napkins, melted ice, my sad wilted flowers, and a beautiful redhead only I could see.
“Good riddance,” June said, surveying the mess. “Wish I could help you, but I’m no good.” She bent down to pick up the rag I had dropped at her feet, and her fingers slipped right through it as if they had no substance.
“Are you all right?” I asked, not knowing what to say.
She shook her head. “I’m pretty sure I’m dead. At first I thought I was drunk, or perhaps having a nightmare, but no, I don’t think it’s that. I think I must have died and come back.”
It all sounded like nonsense, the kind of stuff a very young drunk girl with too much imagination might come up with. But something flickered inside me, something long dead, something I thought I’d lost in the flood. Could this be? And if it were, would I care? Would I finally care about something?
“How long have you been like this?”
“Not sure, really. Maybe weeks? Maybe months? It’s hard to truly keep track. And you’re the first person who can see me . Though I must say, you seem pretty blasé about it, which is a little disappointing.”
That earned her a snicker. Perhaps she was funny. More than that, perhaps she was really a ghost, a dead girl here in my living room, a dead girl only I could see. Who would have thought after all these years something interesting could still happen to me? Of course, there was also the possibility that I’d finally lost my mind and was imagining things. But a stubborn vestige of hope in my heart thawed its colorful wings ready to take flight. I wanted to believe this ghost was real.
“Who are you? I mean, if you’re truly dead, who were you before?”
“That’s the thing,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t remember anything. Sometimes I wonder if I came back to find out.”
“How did you…? You don’t remember, do you?”
“I don’t. I don’t remember anything at all.”
“How do you know your name was June?”
“I don’t. I just picked it because I like it.”
“It is a nice name.”
“Alice is average. Like everything else about me.”
“Not true,” she said. “You can see me when nobody else can. That’s not average. And you’re pretty. And smart. And apparently cool as a cucumber. What’s average is that man. And that blonde lady.”
“She’s got him eating out of the palm of her hand.”
“Birds of a feather,” she said. “Everyone here was the same. Boring people enjoying cheap thrills. Weren’t you bored with them?”
“Always.” I laughed.
“And you probably think it’s because you’re no fun, but frankly, it’s them who are no fun at all. Have you considered that?”
“You’re awful kind,” I said.
“I mean it. Though naturally I’m biased. You’re my only friendly acquaintance. My only acquaintance period.”
“I’m sorry. Must be lonely.”
“Everyone’s lonely. We all do what we can.”
“How do you deal with it?”
“I wander from house to house to see how other people live. So far you’re the first one to see me. Do I look a fright? I must not, judging by your reaction. Do you think there’s a reason you can see me when no one else can?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anyone before who was…”
“Odd,” she said. “The Island’s full of us!”
A ripple of sadness went through me. I chased it away. I was having a nice time talking to her. Me, Alice Weaver having a nice time for once! Why ruin it?
“You can talk to the others?” Her golden glow faded when I asked this, as if such unpleasantness cast a shadow over her being of light. I regretted asking it, not just for her sake, but for mine too. If the island was haunted, then so was I, and sometimes ignoring ghosts is better than confronting them.
“I try not to. The people from the Storm give me the willies. And they stick to themselves. The thing is, most of us who stick around… We’re odd and we have a chip on our shoulder. I’m apparently the only one who doesn’t remember why.”
“It makes sense,” I said. “Not that you wouldn’t remember, but that there are others here. That they all have a chip on their shoulder, as you say. What I was told is that people come back or stick around if there’s something keeping them here, something unresolved. Or maybe trauma?”
Sadness filled the kitchen, dripping like the melted ice left on the counters. I would not allow it to flood everything. I had to stop it. Like the old house that was raised to protect it, I had my own ways to keep the floodwaters at bay. The Island had its new Seawall, though I suppose it wasn’t that new anymore. I too had my own walls.
“Would you like to sit down?” I asked, remembering my manners. Politeness is a good buffer against melancholy and dread. Social conventions were created to keep us from falling into the abyss.
“It’s all the same to me,” she said. “I can’t feel things in my body. But yes, let’s go into the other room.”
“I can offer you tea,” I said, lamenting the sorry state of my wilted camellias, the chaos in the room. I picked up a full ashtray, resolved to at least do away with this unsavory relic of the boring party.
“Noodle juice!” She laughed. “Unfortunately I cannot eat or drink. Or perhaps it’s lucky, as you’re the first one to offer me anything. I cannot smoke either. I never was good at economizing, but as a dead person I’ve yet to spend a penny.”
She sat next to me on the love seat, but her presence was such that I couldn’t feel the warmth of a body near me, nor the give of the springs of the old piece of furniture.
“Do the others remember?” I asked, unable to help myself.
“I think so. Like I said, I don’t like talking to the storm people, and they don’t like talking to me. You should see the faces those women make when they see my dress.” She snickered, covering her mouth with her hand. Though her dress was a bit much for me too, I laughed with her, the complicity being too much to resist. “But they seem to have a clear sense of what happened, a clear sense of belonging.”
“Anyone more recent you could compare notes with?”
“No one,” she said, averting her eyes. Why did she feel the need to look away? Was she perhaps withholding something? “Besides, I feel like I won’t find out what happened to me from them. I feel like it’s the living who have the answers I’m after. But so far you’re the only one I can talk to.”
“I wonder why.”
“It’s obvious that you are meant to help me,” she said. Alight with hope, her face seemed less pale. She was so dreadfully young. I hated to disappoint her, hated to be the one to teach her that life most often doesn’t offer what we need, that things are not arranged by some mysterious force as if to gratify us. More often than not, occurrences are random and cruel. But she was too young to know this yet, died too young to learn it. Was it a blessing or a curse? I caught myself, for the thought was overly dramatic and ungrateful. I’d wanted with every fiber of my being to survive the storm. I’d wanted to survive the ravenous gruesome months after, the devastation, the mourning, the shortages of civilized amenities. Decades of small or larger disappointments hadn’t dulled those instincts. And now, in the presence of this beautiful almost translucent girl, I felt the old stirrings of curiosity – more vital than hope or lust or even hunger. Sometimes I thought we were all hanging on, waiting to turn the page and learn some great unspoken secret as if we were reading a novel, not living our own lives.
“Help you find out who you were and what happened to you?” I said, and her light grew a little brighter as if my proposition did indeed bring comfort. “I suppose there are a few things I could do. Have you thought of looking through back issues of the paper? There probably was an obituary.”
“I can’t manipulate the paper. For me to read it, it needs to be left open right in front of my nose. I can’t turn pages. It’s so frustrating! Besides, I don’t know when I died or what my name was.”
“A girl as young as you… It’s bound to have been quite a tragedy. The obituary was probably remarkable. There might even have been news stories. Especially if something traumatic happened.”
“Like a murder?” she asked, now fully aglow, almost golden.
She was a brave girl, for if it were me, I’d be terrified to learn of having met a violent end, terrified that learning the truth would cause me to relive it. But what I saw in her eyes was the glee of a girl getting closer to solving the mystery in a novel. Perhaps she was similar to a girl I used to know, a girl I used to be, the inquisitive young woman of a long buried past. Perhaps it was why I could see June when others couldn’t. Perhaps I was meant to help her find out who she was, and she was meant to haunt me, a specter of my former self, come back to remind me of who I could have been. A bittersweet sort of symmetry.
“You think it’s been a few months since you’ve been dead?” I looked at her dress again. It had not yet fallen out of style. Must have been all the rage when she bought it.
“I think so. It was all so confusing, but I’d say it was around Christmas when I started wandering around.”
“The dress makes sense, then. Perhaps you’d been invited to a New Year’s party?”
“That or a fancy jazz club. Or any nicer speakeasy. I can see myself wearing this any number of places really.”
“I wonder where you got it. The shoes too. Those could be clues. And judging by the quality and style, you either were wealthy, or had someone wealthy looking after you. More reason for it to have been in the papers. I used to work at the newspaper when I was young. I can go there tomorrow, go to the morgue, and look through back issues. The morgue is what they call…”
She waved that explanation away. Her light flickered, then dimmed. For some reason she found the prospect of the paper unsatisfying, or maybe I was not adept at reading her level of brightness. Perhaps it had more to do with currents of air or other unrelated phenomena than with her êtats d’ame.
“That would be wonderful,” she said politely, and she infused her voice with so much enthusiasm, that if her dimming brightness truly conveyed a lack of excitement, she surely was an excellent actress. “Thank you. May I come with you? What I mean, actually, is may I stay with you? I won’t bother you, especially when others are around, but would you mind if I stick around? I’ve been so starved for friendly company.” I laughed. Because, frankly, I’d been starved for friendly company as well. I did have friends, but they had families, and their husbands didn’t stay out as late as mine. Also, if my past had taught me anything, it was that in a small respectable community, friendships were conditional, circumstantial, and ruled by convention rather than honesty. “I could do things for you too,” she offered, now shining golden again. “I can go places and watch people without them seeing me. I can follow your husband and that woman if you’d like.”
“No, no,” I said. “I don’t really care what he does with her. I don’t really care at all.”
She cocked her head and twisted her lips in a small smile that wasn’t quite a smile. I supposed she found me odd but interesting. And that thought warmed me, because it had been a long time since anyone had found me interesting at all, myself included.
Later, much later, when Oliver fumbled with his key in the lock, then staggered to our bedroom drunk, ready to pass out next to me in the bed, the house was still littered with dirty glasses. I had washed my face, combed my hair, brushed my teeth, put on my favorite nightgown, thrown out the unfortunate dead camellias, and was reading out loud to June. Drunk as he was, Oliver still gave me a puzzled look. “You can just turn the pages,” June said. Her voice was barely a whisper, and she was so translucent now I could barely make out her contours. She appeared not to like my husband and I couldn’t blame her. “I’ll read over your shoulder.”
Oliver collapsed on top of her, but she was immaterial, untouched. He snored. The bed creaked under his weight. And yet it was as if he wasn’t there. Next to me was no longer the husband I had grown indifferent to, but my new friend, who just so happened to be dead.
“I love this book,” she said, growing a little brighter, a shimmering aura around Oliver’s sleeping form. It was almost comical. “I really missed reading.”
I wondered briefly how she knew she missed something when she couldn’t remember anything about her life. But a hidden hopeful part of me wondered if perhaps the memories were stored somewhere inside her soul, ready to spark with sudden realization in moments when she wasn’t trying to recall anything, but rather letting her instincts guide her. Perhaps the memories were as unpredictable as her shimmering light, and they would flood her when she least expected them.
That was the night of my acquaintance with June. That’s how I came to have a friend only I can see, a friend who is as much a riddle as she is quite possibly an unreliable source.