The Camel Diner had been open on the corner of Garden and Anapamu Streets since before most of its patrons were born. I could never remember its real name, and I was sure most people didn’t know it had ever been called anything else. At some point the sign over the front door had been taken down, maybe to freshen the paint, and they had never gotten around to putting it back up. The only identifier it had was the Camel cigarettes advertisement nailed beside the entrance. The painted tin was mostly rust, but it was enough to give the place a name.
The restaurant didn’t fit the neighborhood, but the neighborhood probably didn’t notice it was there any more. It was well off the main drag, a run-down little place in an area of nice, respectable homes, shaded by a lot of monkeypod and shower trees that carpeted the sidewalks with their flowers in the fall. The monkeypods didn’t belong here any more than the restaurant did. They had been brought here from the South Pacific and planted; somehow they had survived and gotten old. I knew how they must feel, so I usually patted a trunk or two as I passed by.
The diner served decent food, better-than-decent coffee, and I could almost always get a booth where I could watch the door. I saw enough strange things and strange people in my life to make me allergic to any craving for change or excitement. On nights when I couldn’t find anything in the icebox, or was just tired of the sound of my own voice, I walked the couple blocks for an hour of familiar company that didn’t speak to me.
I had a late, solitary dinner of meatloaf, peas, and mashed potatoes, washed it down with a couple of cups of coffee and then I walked myself home through the puddles of streetlight on the sidewalk. The houses on either side of mine were dark. The Gardiners were probably in bed. There was no telling where Annie was. I picked up the newspaper off the mat as I fumbled out my keys.
I spread the paper out on the kitchen sideboard and glanced at the headlines while I made a drink out of Four Roses and a splash of water from the faucet. When it was ready, I picked up the sports page to take with me to the living room. The house was too quiet, and I thought about breaking the silence by putting something on the phonograph. Someone beat me to it.
The opening saxophone notes of ‘I Love You Madly’ floated down the hall.
Beatrice Stone was sitting in my usual chair, looking out the front window. Something outside the dark glass had her complete attention. Her face was composed and lovely. She wore blue pumps, and her navy dress was set off with a strand of pearls. The skin on her cheeks was slightly discolored and her bare arms showed faint scrapes and bruising, but her hair was clean and arranged becomingly. All in all, she looked a lot less dead than the last time I had seen her.
Her hands were closed into small fists in her lap. Without looking at me, she brought the right one up and opened it. A small glass orb sat in the middle of her palm. While I watched, she let it slide off onto the floor. It hit the wood and bounced once, then clattered as it rolled to a stop at my feet.
“You’re dead,” I said, and felt stupid for saying it.
The room was silent then. I had it on good authority she wasn’t breathing any more, since I had seen the coroner’s certificate. I suspected I wasn’t either.
“What do you want?” I asked. The voice in my ears sounded like someone else.
She didn’t look away from the window. I set my drink carefully on an end table, careful not to spill any, and left the room. I went up the hall to my bedroom. Without undressing, I got into bed and pulled the sheet over me. The shadows moving on the dark ceiling didn’t tell me a thing. After a few minutes, I knew that the idea of sleep was absurd, so I got back up to confront my imagination.
The ghost was still sitting in my living room. From the hall, I could see her crossed ankles and blue shoes in the pool of lamplight on the rug. She hadn’t moved. I walked past the entry and let myself out the front door. I could feel her eyes from the front window, all the way down the steps and across my yard.
The house next door was completely dark, but Annie pulled the front door open moments after my first knock. Her long hair was loose, down on the shoulders of her striped cotton pajamas. She watched my face as she shrugged into a robe.
“Beatrice Stone is sitting in my living room,” I said. “She’s in my chair, listening to a phonograph record. I don’t know what to do.”
Annie thought about it and nodded, as if it all made perfect sense. “You probably don’t need to do anything, unless she’s careless and scratches your record.”
“Well, she’s dead,” I said. “We went to her funeral, remember? Either I’m crazy, or she must be a ghost.”
She watched the sidewalk. Even in the dim streetlight, her eyes were luminous. Her smile broke slowly and took my breath, just like it always did. She tightened the belt on her robe.
“Of course she’s a ghost,” she said. “That has nothing to do with your being crazy. I’ll go talk to her.”