SUBURBAN WEIRD by J. R. LaGreca
Courtney Gold stirred in her sleep as the wind thrashed at her window. She could swear she felt a warm breath upon her cheek as she stumbled out of bed. Her golden-wheat hair was tousled around her shoulders while her high cheekbones deemed her suitable for silk and pearls. Dressed in an ecru nightgown, which reached to the top of her long drink of legs, Courtney was a svelte beauty at forty.
Her boyfriend Seth’s words reverberated in her head as she threw on a pair of jeans and a flimsy white blouse. “Courtney, your preoccupation with visiting your parents at the cemetery is over and above. Promise me you’ll limit your visits to once a month!”
Courtney convinced herself. “It’s not the morbid obsession Seth believes it to be. The fresh air is just what I need to clear my head. Besides, the twenty-minute walk is good exercise.”
The picturesque houses in her neighborhood of Bay Shore, Long Island, were flanked by ancient trees. Their gnarly branches led in the direction of the Oakwood cemetery. A spirit of melancholy lingered in the air as the winds wailed through the leaves, and a storm looked imminent. In the distance, the shrieking of a night bird sounded as the dawn struggled to frame the dusk.
Courtney walked down Birchwood Street and headed around the corner to Awica Avenue. She crossed over Main Street and passed Temple Beth El, hidden behind a fence with bushes barricading it from the street. Farther down on the right-hand side, the sign Oakdale 1878 greeted her—a large Catholic cemetery with a small Jewish section used by the Bay View Jewish Center.
A church bell tolled eight times as Courtney entered, and headed over to the Jewish section where the Star of David welcomed her. She walked through the earthen path and approached her parents’ dual plot. Courtney placed her fingers fondly upon the ground. The morning dew had seeped beneath the well-manicured landscape. Beautiful grass blanketed the graves of her parents. Courtney pulled in a tug-of-war with life while another force—surmounted by mortality— won the battle. Courtney wept as she followed the Jewish tradition and placed two rocks upon her parents’ headstones.
As Courtney left the cemetery, she noticed the silhouette of a woman walking toward her in the distance. The morning fog made the woman appear vaporous. In coming closer, Courtney cringed. It was she, the phantom woman Courtney had first seen at Temple Beth El in 1986. The woman had been a chilling sight back then, with a leathery tan and white hair parted in the center and pulled in a ratty ponytail.
Courtney could still hear the conversation she and her aunt Bessie had after they both noticed the woman, sitting alone and weeping in the pews after a solemn Yom Kippur service.
“You better be good, Courtney, or else you’ll wind up like her. What is she, the albino from hell with that hairdo? If she can afford designer clothes, she can afford to go to the beauty parlor.”
“Please, Aunt Bessie, don’t even insinuate I might end up like her in any way. Just look at those hoop earrings she’s wearing. They’re so enormous, a mouse can jump through them. I don’t know what it is about her, but she scares me.”
“She’s scary all right, but she’s not as timid as a mouse I’ll tell you that much, guaranteed her tears are only for herself. I’m curious, but not enough to befriend her. She gives me the feeling if I did, before long I’d be crying too.”
It surprised Courtney how the past two decades had an effect of barely one. In fact, the phantom woman looked nearly identical to the first time she had seen her.
Upon coming face-to-face, the woman peered at Courtney curiously, while her trademark white ponytail looked eerie, blowing in the wind. The woman’s face winced like a page from a yellowed book, crumbling at the edges as she greeted her.
“Good morning,” the woman offered in a breathy voice.
“Good morning,” Courtney echoed in spite of how spooked she felt to cross paths with her.
“You look so familiar.” The woman’s piercing blue eyes illuminated her sun-bronzed face.
“I guess we must have seen each other in the neighborhood.” Courtney recalled seeing her walking down Awica Avenue countless times, but she dared not to admit it.
“No, I know you from somewhere.” Fans of wrinkles spread like parchment, as the woman narrowed her eyes in scrutiny. “I’m Edith Stein, and you?”
“I’m Courtney Gold.”
“Of course, you’re Esther’s daughter. I remember seeing you and your mother years back at the Bay View Yacht Club. I was sorry to read about your mother’s passing in the South Shore Weekly last year. Years ago, I met your mother at a luncheon at the Bay Shore Country Club. She was a special lady.”
With Edith’s words, white lightning shot through the air as a warm breeze rushed past them and ruffled their hair. Within moments, the sky dimmed as rain besieged the atmosphere, and they were both quickly becoming drenched.
Edith opened the fold-up umbrella stashed inside her black designer handbag. “Hurry, come under my umbrella with me, otherwise you’ll get soaked.”
“That’s all right, I’m fine,” Courtney replied with hesitation.
“You’ll catch cold dressed like that,” insisted Edith. “Come, my house is down the block on Awica, we’ll have a cup of coffee … I can see my morning walk will have to wait until later, it’s starting to come down hard.”
Everything felt surrealistic to Courtney, walking side by side with this mysterious woman now christened Edith. The faint scent of Edith’s lilac perfume intermingled with the mixture of fresh rain, faded flower and earth.
“Here we are, my house is the rust one on the left,” Edith said as they hurried their steps.
Edith’s stately residence, circa 1889, was set on an acre behind tall, overgrown bushes with Victorian gingerbread and a wraparound porch. The rust house had accents of faded peach around the eaves, and a gray roof with a cylinder shaped dormer, which came to a point. A worn out brick walkway cut through an expanse of lush green grass. On the left side of the house, a forest-like grouping of tall pine trees had grown taller than the estate. The waters of the Great South Bay rippled behind the estate in brilliant blue, while the winds off the water ricocheted toward the front of the house and blew their hair relentlessly.
Edith grabbed Courtney’s arm as the storm unsteadied her step. “Let’s hurry up inside, it’s starting to lightning.”
Edith led Courtney inside the porch and tucked her umbrella in a wrought iron stand before opening the front door to her opulent estate. It was decorated with valuable antiques. A striking Persian rug covered the glossy oak floor of the living room. It was paired with twin brocade couches topped with fancy pillows. Courtney hesitantly sat on one of the couches facing the marble fireplace when a wedding album covered by tarnished plastic on the coffee table, caught her eye.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Courtney asked as the names Edith and Samuel Stein in Gothic script along with the date May 2, 1953 caught her attention.
“That’s what it’s there for. That was me when I was a bride.”
Courtney opened the album to see Edith had been a fine-featured beauty with dark hair and porcelain skin. Her blue eyes looked luminous, while a delicate blush, hand painted on the sepia photo by the fine hand of an artist, radiated upon her cheeks.
“It’s a blessing to have a father give his daughter away,” Courtney said wistfully, as she studied a photo of Edith posed with an older man.
Edith’s voice became husky. “Maybe, but not when your father is younger than your husband. That’s my husband Samuel.”
“Oh, so you married an older man,” Courtney said in embarrassment.
“We all make mistakes,” Edith whispered as the Tiffany lamp spotlighted her sorrow in a violet cast.
“I was twenty-two, and Samuel was fifty-two. What did I know about love back then? Sam was a rich plastic surgeon who had an eye for younger women. The only problem was he was very controlling, especially when it came to his money. Unfortunately, Sam became ill when our youngest son turned nine, and he wouldn’t even let me get a nurse.”
Edith’s voice became flat and dull. “My father was a poor grocer who thought Sam would spoil me with his money. You know what I ended up with? A full head of white hair by the time I was thirty-five.” White tendrils came loose from Edith’s ponytail. They appeared like incandescent clouds as she shook her head regretfully.
“Sam had willed most of his money to worthy causes long before I ever met him. Thankfully he left me this house and enough money to live in it if I’m as frugal as he was.” Edith sighed, “But I’ve always loved designer clothes. Versace is my passion, so it’s difficult to live on a budget, but I manage.”
Just then, thin rays of sunshine shed a dusty light through the curtains, while songbirds cheered the room. “It looks like the rain has finally stopped,” Courtney said happily as Edith’s face became sullen.
“Wait, we haven’t had our coffee yet, and it’s still very wet out,” Edith said insistently.
She disappeared into the kitchen, and soon returned with two steaming cups, along with a few muffins topped on a silver tray. Courtney helped herself to a bran muffin, and enjoyed its freshness as the sunshine lightened her thoughts.
“Courtney, do you have any children?” Edith asked pointedly.
“No, unfortunately I’m not even married. I live with my brother in the house we grew up in around the corner on Birchwood. It’s the one with the lions in the front. My father died two years ago, and ever since my mother passed away last year, it’s been just the two of us.”
“I know your parents’ house.” Edith frowned unkindly. “No offense, Courtney, but I suggest you and your brother hire a gardener unless you want your lawn overtaken by weeds. I also recommend you have the ivy removed from the front of the house, it will eventually loosen the bricks.”
Edith then gave her a penetrating stare. “So tell me, why hasn’t an attractive woman like you found yourself a husband yet?”
“Getting my boyfriend to commit isn’t easy. After seeing each other for a year, he still hasn’t even brought up marriage,” Courtney admitted despairingly.
“Then move on if you’re planning on having a family!” Edith blurted out testily. “Don’t wait until your eggs dry up because then you won’t merit descendants. There’s only one thing that’s worse than dying, it’s not leaving your mark on the world.” Edith’s expression changed to malevolence as the grandfather clock in the hallway chimed nine times.
“I better hurry back before my brother starts to worry. We have breakfast together every morning at nine.” Courtney blurted out in discomfiture.
“If you ask me, you had better spend less time having breakfast with your brother and more time finding yourself a husband.” Edith snickered unkindly before her face lit up. “Actually, Courtney, I think I might have the perfect man for you. If you’re interested, I’ll give him a call and stop by your house to set it up. I sometimes pass your house on my morning walks.
"Courtney shrugged her shoulders indifferently. “Thanks, but I think I’ll stay on my own for now and hope for the best.”
“Courtney, all I can say is never hope in vain, always prepare for the worst, and never let hope get the better of you,” Edith warned as her eyes filled with foreboding. Courtney gave her a reserved smile as she left, while Edith’s memory lingered like a phantasm.
The scent of scrambled eggs greeted Courtney as she entered into the foyer of her house. “Good morning, Courtney, can I get you some breakfast?”
“Thanks, Gwen, everything smells so good.” Courtney feigned a smile. She felt annoyed to make small talk with Gwen, her brother Taylor’s girlfriend of the month, an olive-skinned beauty with sleek black hair and a stunning figure.
“Taylor and I are going to see Phantom of the Opera tonight. What are your plans?” Gwen asked as she turned the dishwasher on.
“Well, tonight I’m going out to eat with Jewel, but tomorrow night, I’m finally meeting Seth’s mother. He invited her to have dinner with us at Villa Stella,” Courtney said dreamily before her breakfast plate.
“Well, have a great time and good luck. I have to run, I have a beauty parlor appointment. ” Gwen kissed Taylor on the lips before rushing out. She practically stumbled as one of her high heels got caught on the bottom of her jeans.
“I still say you’re wasting your time, Court,” Taylor chimed in smugly. “You’re naive to think just because you’re meeting Seth’s mother means he’s ready to settle down. Seth is just not the marrying kind.”
“Who are you to talk? Let’s face it, at thirty-four years old, Gwen is no more than another one of your twenty-something diversions. With the way you carry on, you’ll probably never get married,” Courtney sneered.
“Maybe I should reword that then. Seth is not the kind of man you should marry.”
“Why not, he’s a Jewish lawyer, what could be so bad about that?”
“Come on, Courtney, Seth is such a wimp. He’s far from a successful lawyer. It took him years to even pass the law board. He lives in a studio apartment, and it doesn’t seem like he has any plans to move out anytime soon. He’s six years younger than you, and it’s obvious. Come on, Seth is my age. Just tell me, when did you ever look at one of my friends as a prospect? You could do so much better, Courtney. I understand you’re panicking, and your biological clock is running overtime, but marriage is meant to last a lifetime. Is Seth what you really want?” Taylor asked with concern.
“I know one thing. I don’t want to be alone forever. At forty years old, I can’t be too picky, otherwise I’ll end up with no one. Seth might not be the most dynamic man, but he’s sweet, and he loves me. He’ll mature with time. I could do a lot worse.”
“And I could do a lot better,” Taylor chuckled mischievously. “I met the hottest lady last night at Dino’s. Her name is Lana, she just turned twenty-one, and I have a date with her for next Saturday night.”