My mom used to make me visit this lady who lived across the street from us named Mrs. Dradey. I thought she honestly could have been 200-years-old, which would have made her a ghost, but if you said to me, “Okay, look, Beth, the sanctity of your mortal soul depends on getting this person’s age right”—allowing that I understood those words—it’s not like I would have said, “Um, okay, in that case, let’s say she’s eighty.” I still would have said 200.
I might have been ten, and I’d make Mrs. Dradey tea, which was one of the three things I knew how to cook, along with grilled cheese in the toaster and hot dogs in the microwave, and sit with her at her kitchen table. The skin at the top of her nose looked so hard—this pile of wrinkles that made for a kind of vertical skin mountain—that I thought you could have swung her, nose-first, as a door knocker. Or cracked some walnuts with her face.
“She’s lonely,” my mom said. “She doesn’t have anyone.”
“She had a husband,” I replied. Then I tried to sound very smart. “That’s where the Mrs. came from.”
My mother didn’t think it was smart. She’d have considered it “flip.” As in, “Don’t be flip,” a scold she’d use when I had been that manner of wiseass that is less of an annoyance and more someone who is letting someone else down. I thought of somersaults you’d turned when it wasn’t the time for somersaults at all. I didn’t know she meant flippant. Then she’d up the adult game, take matters beyond the realm of childhood, a sneak peak behind the veil to scare me some with what I knew was the truth.
“People need to be helped when they come to the end.”
That was bad enough, but then she added, “We all do,” and I actually pictured my mom dying, which I’d never done before. How it’d look. How I’d remember our last talk. If I’d remember what that talk had even been. Would I ever tell my own kid about it.
“I love you,” I said, and she told me to scoot, after she told me she loved me, too.
Mrs. Dradey would look at me like I was a fish that had crawled up on the land. A creature whose provenance was in some part doubtful to her, though she’d been that creature once herself. Maybe she didn’t remember. Maybe I wouldn’t remember either.
She drank the tea I made, and I drank water that always came out warm from her taps, and we stared at each other across the table. I didn’t give her fake smiles and I answered all of her questions as truthfully as I could, because I’d heard once that old people like it straight and it’s also bad luck to lie to ghosts who you can’t fool anyway.
“Hmmm,” she’d say, sort of sniffing the air, as if someone had just baked muffins and now she’d opine on what sort of muffins they were. “Hmmm, they feeding you over there?” Her tone had that ring of “back on the other side of the valley,” not just across the street where the boys played hockey.
I said yes, they fed me. In fact, the day before, at the ballgame, I’d had two whole hot dogs.
“Everything on them?” she asked.
I told her yes, of course, even as I wondered what could go on a hot dog besides ketchup, mustard, relish. Did she mean something from the olden days?
“Well, there was no sauerkraut,” I added.
It was the most ancient food I could think of, besides curds, but I wasn’t confident what curds were, only that they seemed to attract spiders back when spiders could be the size of girls.
“I used to love a hot dog at the ballpark,” she said, and that confused me some. I didn’t know how much hot dogs could have possibly changed. They seemed like they’d be a constant. Like the Big Dipper and people liking Mickey Mouse and golf being hard.