This One Must Have Been an Interior Decorator

          “the way the past is actively recaptured: not a whiff of poppers
                    and halston z-14
          no brief encounter with a surviving negative. just a
                    soundtrack undergoing reconstruction”
          —“[he must have been a deejay this one. the pulse quickens at another ‘lost companion’ sale]” by D.A. Powell.

          Jeremy stood in front of a storefront on his block, a glass wall adorned with a neon sign in the shape of a hand and another one that said “Madame Serena.” There, visible through the lines traced by the powered-down lights sat Madame Serena herself, talking away at her cellphone and looking right at Jeremy through the glass. Because they were neighbors, Jeremy had gradually come to know Madame Serena’s schedule and to be known, in turn, by his own. On those rare nights he was out in the evening, when the trendy bars and restaurants overflowed into the streets, Jeremy had seen the fortuneteller wave to passersby, luring them inside for palmistry or Tarot readings with a ruthlessly simple sales technique: when a mark walked by, she rapped on the glass of the vitrine insistently, hypnotizing the tourist or drunkard with her superior will. The customer wandered back out laughing at the hokey reading, thinking he had paid to be in on the joke, but Jeremy suspected now that the joke might be more complex, that Madame Serena must sneak some truth in with her flimflam. Jeremy, in his practical nature, had become a believer out of necessity.

          By day, Madame Serena sat in throne-like rattan chair with a tall, spade-shaped back and watched the street, eating take-out from Styrofoam containers or watching movies on a portable DVD player delivered to her by one of the many relatives that lived behind her storefront, in what Jeremy imagined must be a crowded and rent-controlled apartment. She was friendly enough: she sometimes waved to Jeremy, or, more accurately, waved to Cleo,Jeremy’s daughter, and so Jeremy had taken to accompanying Cleo to the window to bounce her up and down in her harness, or, with Cleo’s recent accomplishment of walking, to pick her up for a peek inside. Madame Serena mimed her admiration and tried, almost always successfully, to get Cleo to smile. Kiki, Jeremy’s dog, had a favorite spot to relieve herself nearby and so Jeremy saw Madame Serena almost daily. Still, Jeremy had always felt that he himself was merely the conduit for Cleo and Madame Serena’s acquaintance, his own presence reduced to a function of the child’s needs and desires. Now, Jeremy had finally worked up the courage to seek Madame Serena’s counsel on his own, absent the excuse of Cleo’s entertainment, to actually speak to her for the first time, person-to-person. Up close and in daylight, he realized how old Madame Serena was, that only a combination of heavy makeup and a certain vivaciousness allowed her to give off the impression of middle age. Jeremy approached the window, self-conscious without the baby in his arms as an excuse. Madame Serena, mid-telephone call, held her index finger out to Jeremy. She did not cut her conversation short, but instead held Jeremy there with her long, bejeweled finger while she yakked away in Spanish.

          Finally, after an exorbitant peal of laughter and a round of air kisses into the receiver, Madame Serena hung up, then pressed a doorbell button that opened the door onto the street with a loud buzz. Madam Serena gestured to a folding chair near her throne and Jeremy sat down, taking his place in the scene in the window, in this public confessional. At first, they traded pleasantries about the baby and the cold snap, as if Madame Serena were a seasoned bank teller rather than a spirit medium. Jeremy could not help but imagine what poor Paul would have thought if he’d happened by and seen him, chatting away with some two-bit psychic for all to see. Not only would Paul never visit a storefront psychic, he would consider such behavior a sign of profligacy and weak- mindedness. Of Caucasian-ness, in short. Jeremy had sent Paul out to a diner with the baby and told him not to come home for two hours or as long he could manage, whichever was longer. Paul had bundled the baby up obediently and taken her out in the stroller without kissing Jeremy goodbye. At some point in their small talk, Jeremy saw that Madame Serena had extended her palm, waiting for Jeremy to put money in it as if it were natural for friends to barter for small talk this way. Jeremy gave her three twenty dollar bills, an amount he had decided on before going in because it was the same amount he paid the cleaning lady who came every week.

          Madame Serena, in a decidedly Dominican accent, said, “That’s your husband, the black guy, right? He’s so handsome in his doctor’s clothes. You lucky.” Madame Serena smiled at Paul, signaling both conspiratorial complicity and acceptance. Jeremy tried to smile, but found himself stuck on his words. He paused to respond to her question and then to broach the occasion of his visit precisely the way he had rehearsed it in his mind over the last few months, but to his surprise, found himself describing the ghost that lived in his condo. He’d only meant to drop hints, to test the limits of the fortuneteller’s clairvoyance as an opening gambit, but here he was, spilling his guts, each word running into the next in a fevered blur.

          The haunting had begun with small alterations about the condo: all the bottles in the liquor cabinet turned so that the labels faced outward, the books on the coffee table restacked into a perfect ziggurat, the jumble of Cleo’s letter-shaped magnets pushed aside to leave the words “NICE” and “HOME” evenly placed across the center of the refrigerator marquee-like, whether admonition or compliment Jeremy did not know. As weeks passed, it dawned on Jeremy that these tiny changes were not the product of disorganization or the disruption of moving to a new place, but the deliberate corrections of an anal-retentive spirit. As soon as Jeremy accepted the reality of this unusual situation, the ghost’s judgmental nature became clear: the overdone clusterings of home accessories, that priggish way of turning the satellite radio to the classical station, the constant unplugging of the television to discourage its use. Kiki seemed to love the spirit, and took to spending all her time in the office, the room where the phantom seemed most present. Once Jeremy entered the room to find Kiki standing on her hind legs, dancing in circles as if someone were holding out a treat. The spirit was not all home décor and aesthetics, Jeremy learned. It was only when the ghost pulled all of the caps off of the outlets in the office, bringing the live voltage inside within range of little Cleo’s inquisitive fingers, that Jeremy decided he had to rid his house of the previously innocuous phantasm. He never spoke of the ghost to Paul, how he feared it might be angry. He could not imagine how such a conversation might even begin, how he might make his fear intelligible. Did Paul not live in the same house? No point struggling to make him see what was so painfully, obviously present. Besides, Paul had a way of placing the importance of Jeremy’s feelings into the context of the constant, exuberant viciousness of the world, even if he never said that feelings were unimportant aloud. He did say it though, clearly enough, with his cutting side-eye and impregnable poker face.

          Madame Serena listened for several minutes, nodding as if adding figures mentally, then interrupted to ask if the ghost could open doors. Jeremy, momentarily brought out of the story he had been telling, asked if cabinets counted, but, as Madame Serena explained with a tone of relief, they did not. This was no poltergeist or demon, just an echo of some other life, long since departed from this world. Sad, really, but not so dangerous.

          Jeremy drew in a big breath to continue the story that seemed to be unfolding without his permission, but again Madame Serena stopped him with that finger, a witch’s digit for sure, with its gaudy rings and brightly painted nail. After a pause to take a few sips of a cup of tea she had been nursing, Madame Serena said, “The world, it moves too fast. Sometimes people get stuck.” She nodded a few times encouragingly. Jeremy, realizing that he should understand the significance of the comment, also nodded. Madame Serena dropped the bills she was still holding into her lap and took one of Jeremy’s hands in both of her own. She held Jeremy’s hand and sat there with her for what seemed to him at least thirty seconds, maybe a full minute. Then, she dropped Jeremy’s hand, looked at her watch, and said, “Now here’s what you do...”

          Forty minutes later, Jeremy was back at home. With his expert knowledge of local shopping, he had assembled the items from the fortune teller’s scavenger hunt in almost no time at all: white cider vinegar to clean the floors, a bundle of sage, a mason jar to fill with sweet water and flowers. He kicked off his shoes at the entryway and struggled through the narrow hall with his bags. In his socks, he walked through the hallway, a chill from outside following him, a micro cold front rolling through the condo. He called Kiki several times, but as had been the case lately, the dog stayed far back in the house, barking herself stupid. From the entry, he walked through the kitchen, past the bathroom and two bedrooms, and finally into the sunniest room in the house, what had been meant as a dining room but had become Jeremy’s study. Jeremy knew that this arrangement might not be the most equitable for a growing family, but he had steadfastly insisted on claiming that dining room as his office. He’d had shelves installed floor to ceiling for his books. Paul bought him a heavy, wood desk, a substantial piece that projected seriousness and modernity. Jeremy had carefully ordered the elements on this desk: the mouse pad, the pencil cup, the paperweight made of malachite. There was nothing for children in this room, nothing for any living person but Jeremy himself. He turned music on and was not surprised to see that the tuner had again been set by the ghost to a classical station, one that played cloying, old music, the kind from greeting card commercials and ads for diamonds. Jeremy hated classical music. Because of the music, he imagined the ghost as an old man, waving a pencil in the air as if he were conducting the orchestra. He thought this gentleman must have been a professor or a critic, a fussy type, but still handsome when he got lost in his music and his eyes became boyish again. As he prepared for his work, Jeremy wondered what the ghost wanted to tell him, why he had bothered to stick around rather than go on or perhaps even to cease to exist. Better to just wink out of existence than end up as a cold spot in someone else’s life, a tiny will-o'-the-wisp flaring pointlessly in the night.

          When Paul had suggested they look to buy a condo in this part of town, lured by the promise of a first home they could actually afford, Jeremy had taken the continued presence of the fortune tellers and sex shops as a badge of honor to proclaim the former seediness of the neighborhood, a charmingly stubborn holdover from the Bohemia the neighborhood had been in previous decades and a sign of his own cosmopolitan attitudes. Here and there, little clues of what once was: rainbow flags in the windows of vacant storefronts, a plaque in the park next to the CVS commemorating the former residence of some playwright Jeremy had never read, slickly anatomical advertisements for men’s underwear on the bus stops. Little pockets of the neighborhood refused to acknowledge the passage of time since its heyday, when young men just like Jeremy and Paul had come from all over the world to meet each other and fall in love amid the squalor. After only a few weeks of living here, Jeremy barely noticed these spots where the older incarnation of the village showed through, having already developed a quotidian itinerary of parks, coffee roasters, and artisanal grocers, a whole new neighborhood sitting atop the bones of the old. The building where they lived had once been the site of a hospital, the one that served the afflicted when the virus first hit, thirty years ago. Jeremy associated the neighborhood with handlebar mustachios and bellbottom pants, with everything that gay men had been forced to be before they were allowed to live like everyone else.

          The night they had moved in, Jeremy spent all day directing the movers where to leave which boxes, so that when Paul came home from his rounds uptown, there were neatly stacked islands of cardboard cubes in each room, every one clearly labeled in Jeremy’s hand. After checking in on Cleo, sleeping soundly in a big-girl bed for the first time, the two of them lay down on the bare mattress in their room, Jeremy’s heart reeling with some intense feeling, something like the giddy rush of passion he’d known early on in this romance, but a more comprehensive feeling directed not toward Paul or even Cleo, but toward the family that finally seemed to be emerging from the three of them. He felt in love with what was at last beginning to cohere.

          Paul, always so thoughtful, had brought take-out. Jeremy reached for Paul’s hand and held it in his, pulling it up to his chest. He squirmed onto his side so that he was facing Paul and he turned over too so that they stared at each other, Jeremy able to glimpse Paul’s eyes only as flashes in the darkest heart of the shadows on his face. Jeremy smiled flirtingly, signaling to Paul that he could touch. From what part of Paul’s face he could see, Jeremy thought he saw him smiling. He leaned in to kiss him, but before he could bring his open mouth to Paul’s, Paul leaned forward, pecked Jeremy on the lips, and rolled over, springing up from the bed.

          He said, “You need to eat something,” and went off to set out their meal. That night, Jeremy went to bed, mutely willing Paul to make love to him, straining from inside his body to reach toward Paul, unable to ask why he had not touched him, why he no longer did. Already, the time since last they had fucked stretched so far into the past that to speak of it would result in a double injury: the pain of missing Paul’s touch and the shame of their mutual speechlessness.

          Because he did not know for sure how long he would have to himself, Jeremy set to work on the first task while still wearing his coat, having already optimized the order of execution of Madame Serena’s instructions: floors first, then the water, finally the smoke. He opened the tall windows on the far wall fully, winter air blowing in to ruffle the few loose papers Jeremy had allowed to collect. A magazine clipping held in place on the corkboard by a colorful pushpin rippled in the draft. The effect of the blustery air flowing in was bracing, and Jeremy felt his head clear for the first time in what seemed like forever. There he was, in his hard fought for office, rolling his ergonomic office chair out of the way so he could sweep and mop the floor. The cleaning woman had been just the day before, so the floor did not need it, but Jeremy was fastidious and could not bring himself to mop without first sweeping. He gathered up the little bit of debris and dog hair from the floor into the dustpan and emptied it into the trash in the kitchen. He filled a bucket with hot water, enjoying the steam that curled out from the surface of the water. He measured out a cup of the vinegar and dumped it in the water, although he was fairly certain the amount used would not matter much: he was not baking a cake, after all. Kiki watched the whole scene impassively from the corner in the office, following Jeremy’s deliberate, speedy movements, his purposeful entrances and exits. When Jeremy got to the corner of the room where the dog was resting, he said, “Stay there, Kiki,” but the dog had made its intention to stay there clear already.

          He peeled off his socks and put them in his coat pockets. Jeremy enjoyed the feel of the freshly mopped floor under his toes, the faint residual heat of the water. He finally took off his coat, perspiring slightly from the vigorous mop strokes. He took the coat to the hall closet, walking as quickly as he could without running. On days when he was busy about the house—that is, every day—he felt as if he were a sprinter, running up and down the apartment in an endless series of warm-ups. By the time he did finally steal a minute or two from the seemingly infinite backlog of laundry, customer service lines, and all other imaginable form of soul-sucking administrivia, he felt exhausted. Times like these, the ghost wore him out by making small adjustments, hiding the vase filled with glass marbles in a cupboard or moving around the knickknacks on the bookshelves. Jeremy imagined the ghost as a hyperactive young man, a coltish youth in short shorts with luxuriously feathered hair, the kind of party boy that populated vintage photos of tea dances. He seemed energetic and selfish to Jeremy, a heartbreaker.

          In the kitchen again, Jeremy rinsed out a mason jar and scrubbed furiously to remove the gummy remains of a price sticker from the bottom of the jar. He filled it three- quarters full with filtered water and took it back to the office along with a stool from under the kitchen counter. The cold air and the vinegar bath had produced a tart aroma in the room. Jeremy felt sharp and lucid, despite the tingling in his fingertips from the chill. He placed the jar on the stool and set it in front of the window. The bright winter sky outside, cloudless and windy, showed through the large, open windows, sunlight bouncing off the concrete exterior of a neighboring building. Jeremy loved the ample light at this hour, late morning, when the world outside the windows felt alive and busy, but clean and peaceful at the same time. In the kitchen, he prepared the needed ingredients and added them to the water in turn: honey, orange slices, and finally, the delicate, tiny bulbs of a stalk of bluebells from the Farmer’s Market. He stood for a moment watching the offering he had prepared, enjoying the prisms that formed and dissolved in the water. Per Madame Serena’s instruction, Jeremy completed the offering by lighting a candle on the altar he had improvised. The flowers reminded Jeremy of the handsome florist he occasionally visited with his mother in his boyhood, how the light showed through the hairs on his arms, how his burly hands cupped the tulips so daintily. That man had died when Jeremy was a boy, he was sure. He remembered seeing him once, suddenly frail and covered in sores, as if overnight he had been stricken. Jeremy’s mother never took him near that store again. Jeremy imagined the ghost like this now, as a man with good hands in a flannel shirt, watching the flowers with him and trying to avoid the ugly marks on his face in reflection.

          Jeremy watched the flame of the candle for a moment, before returning for a final time to the kitchen to retrieve the last ingredient. He held a bundle of dried sage tied at its base with a white ribbon and took it into the office. He thought the sage would go up in one great flash, but it smoldered instead of flaming. He had to keep the matches at hand so that he could continually relight the stuff. It produced white smoke that smelled not of perfume or incense, but of burning dust. Jeremy fanned the smoke, hoping that it would not activate a smoke alarm, waving the makeshift censer. Kiki watched, her brow raised in a befuddled curiosity. Jeremy walked up and down the house a few times, trying to spread what little smoke the burning herbs made around evenly, as if he were repainting the walls. Madame Serena had instructed him to imagine that he was scrubbing down the house with white light, a pure, brilliant light made of every color of the rainbow and so now Jeremy was doing it, thinking hard about the color of light.

          “Go on,” Jeremy said. “It’s time for you to go.” He walked to the front door as if escorting someone out and he tried to see a man walking beside him, his mind alternating between the professor, the pretty boy, and the florist. He stood at the threshold and said, “Goodbye. It’s time for you to go.” He felt the cold wind blow from the office down the length of the house. He pictured the white light running all through the house, along the floorboards, over the coffered ceilings and arches, into the sink drain and down and out the pipes. With as much of the power of his full imagination as he could marshal, he cleaned house with that imagined light.

          Having reached the end of his ablutions before Paul’s return, Jeremy plopped down in his office chair, still holding the remains of the sage. Tired from his work, but relieved, Jeremy rested a moment, listening to the classical music that was still playing. Instinctively, he reached to change the station, but before he did so, he caught himself. “Give it a minute,” he thought. He let the room fill with the music and found himself pleased by it, brought into a peaceful and lively energy. Humming along with a tune he recognized and found himself enjoying, Jeremy scooted in his chair by kicking his bare feet on the floor. He moved up against one wall so that the windows were at his back. From this angle, he could easily imagine what the room looked like as a dinning room, how well suited its proportions were to a smallish table for eight, say, for an intimate dinner with friends. Jeremy, who despised the vapid chatter of dinner parties and had never paid the slightest attention to hospitality found himself enraptured by a vision of what his office had been in its past. He closed his eyes and it was as if she could finally see the room.

          Suddenly, it is night and a chandelier draped in crystal spikes, drops, and pendants hangs from the ceiling, raining a dim and muted light onto to the table below through its multitudinous facets. The walls, covered in dark, dramatic brocade, bring the room in tighter to the center, a profusion of silhouetted leaves and ornaments dancing across their surface. Candles burn in heavy, ecclesiastical sconces, giving the table setting an air of the bacchanal. Unframed paintings adorn the walls, sketchy slapdash figure studies of male bodies in attitudes of sport, beautifully rendered but incomplete, the work of a friend, no doubt. The guests gathered about the table, all men, seem to have little in common at first inspection, coming as they do from a variety of ages and races, except for their beauty, their wonderfully varied and astonishingly different beauty. The trio Jeremy imagined earlier are here, the party boy and the professor, the florist restored to his ruddy health. There are others, too, a man with lustrous dark hair and eyes so unrealistically, vibrantly blue that they nearly overshadow his perfect musculature (he must be a model, Jeremy thinks). A bearded redhead in a silk shirt smiles warmly, revealing an adorably imperfect set of teeth. There are a few others here too: a tall black man in crisp white oxford, proper and scholarly like Paul. An angelic young blonde who barely looks old enough to drink. The plates are stacked, scraped clean of all the courses. The dessert has come and gone; the whiskey bottle is on the table. Everyone is gathered in closely, a single lowered voice recounting a ribald story from the head of the table, this voice interrupted only by the caustic asides of another voice, a lover or friend or both. Together they are weaving this tale point by counterpoint with the practiced nonchalance and seeming spontaneity only years of intimacy can produce, and at the end, when they together hit the punch line, the table erupts into laughter, each man turning to watch the face of the man seated nearest him. A hand slipped under the table grabs a knee on one side, then another. They have drawn in together, slipping their hands together, sweaty palm to sweaty palm, every inch of flesh hungry for touch, their feet stacked atop one another underneath the leaves of the table. And then, at some slight signal, a pair at the head of the table start to kiss, deeply, smiling as they bring their mouths together. In pairs or the odd triple, they rise from the table and walk to one of the bedrooms, their mouths passing back and forth the taste of the wine they have been drinking, the whiskey, and the cigarettes. They strip on their way back to the bedrooms, littering the halls with their tight jeans and work boots. Just at that point, as these friends and lovers, so generous with their beauty and the strength of their bodies, come tangle together in the most expert pairings of muscles, and strong legs, and hairy chests, Jeremy returned to the present, to Kiki barking at the sound of the front door being opened, to Paul and Cleo.

          Jeremy came to and saw clearly the present: a desk, some chairs, and a jar full of vegetable matter. He felt a terrible grief come crashing down on him in that moment, as he awoke back to his life, back to a hunger for touch that might survive the death of the body. Paul called out to him a few times and Jeremy waited for him to make his way back to the office. Jeremy felt words welling up from his chest, threatening to burst forth in a torrent. He closed his eyes and hoped that he would find a way to speak, to tell Paul and Paul’s lovers and perhaps even Madame Serena herself that ghosts are real, but they have no advice for the living.

RODERIC CROOKS is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Eyeshot, and New Stories form the Midwest. He works as a technology researcher.