The Boomer had chosen well; the place was everything that a Hollywood graveyard should be. Surrounded by a wrought iron fence that was leaning in a spot right of the gate. Thick weeds flourished outside, threatening to take over inside as well if the caretaker ever relaxed his vigilance. Large oaks spread their branches low over the graves. Fresh flowers struggled here and there against the general sense of decay.
Apparently the yellow Samsonite was filled with sheet metal or old bricks or had a woman’s purse inside or something, because for all his size The Boomer struggled a little manhandling it out of the trunk. “Houston doesn’t have any really old cemeteries. Not like the East coast,” he lectured as we walked toward the center of the plot. “Not that old is necessarily better, but it feels like it should be better. This graveyard, one of the earliest ones, hasn’t had a burial in more than twenty years. Plus I was betting on it not being locked at night, like some of the fancier places are.”
While he was talking I was looking around, getting the lay of the land so to speak. Not that I was buying any of this, you understand. I had implicit faith in The Boomer’s judgment except for the one huge area where ghosts inhabit, but he was incapable of being rational where his hobby and lifelong love was concerned. I granted him that eccentricity without reservation, of course—there were a number of things that I was incapable of being logical about, one of which was holding my hand a little too tightly at the moment. But just in case he might actually be onto something here, I took time to check out the exits. The fence was high enough that, although I was sure I could scramble over it if I needed to, I wasn’t optimistic that Anne could get out that way. The sagging place was an iffy possibility, better than the rest of the fence perhaps but decidedly for emergencies only. That left the gate as the only good way out. People have died because there was only one way out of somewhere. It made me glad I didn’t buy any of it.
Finally he found a spot that looked like all of the other spots to me but was more suitable according some secret criteria. Far be it from me to tell him differently. You may not understand why your normally pliable basset hound insists on peeing on the fourth azalea, never the third or the fifth, but trying to get him to change his mind is a sure-fire waste of time. Putting on the earphones he knelt down and began flipping switches and adjusting dials, a look of rapt concentration on his face. We stood there and listened too, although obviously without the earphones we weren’t going to hear anything.
After a few minutes, divided between short periods of listening and long intervals of fiddling and adjusting, he picked up the suitcase and began to walk around slowly. I shrugged at Layl’Annie and we followed, staying a little back so that our footsteps wouldn’t disturb his intense concentration.
This went on for some time. Just your everyday nighttime stroll in an abandoned cemetery for us—we didn’t have several hundred hours of work, not to mention a philosophy of life, at stake here. Having recently had my own philosophy of life shattered, I felt for him. Layl’Annie and I had gone from holding hands to my arm around her and her head on my shoulder by the time The Boomer gave it up.
He doesn’t display emotions often. Actually, he displays joy and enthusiasm virtually all of the time, and strictly speaking I guess those are emotions. But like the rest of adult males in the United States—well, except for those scattered dozen and a half who aren’t embarrassed to say what they feel even when it makes them look weak and foolish (and who the rest of us universally detest, I might add)—he doesn’t readily express sadness or disappointment. But when he turned back to us, defeat was evident from the sag of his shoulders and the bewildered expression on his face.
“Boomer, I’m sorry,” Anne said immediately, moving to comfort him—and saving me the discomfort of having to do so, because The Boomer is a good enough friend that I would have had to try, and see the preceding paragraph. But he held up his hand to stop her.
“Brad, could I possibly speak with The Grail again?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied, taking her out and handing her over with no more than a modest twinge.
He immediately went into their trance thing, so I picked up the machine, draped the earphones around my neck, and began walking toward the car with it, a little awkwardly from the weight. Anne gave me an “Is he alright by himself?” look to which I whispered, “He’ll be fine,” so she came too.
We’d gone back out the gate and were passing under an ancient oak between the fence and the car when a voice, soft but clear as could be, came from the headphones.
“. . . have been so bad if the miserable bastards knew how to tie a knot properly.”
I jumped about fifteen feet, a remarkable feat considering that I also took both the suitcase full of scrap iron and the less dense and considerably shapelier but no lighter Anne along with me. (Unfortunately, the doubly-burdened long jump isn’t an Olympic event, or I would have been a new world record holder and had my face plastered all over boxes of Wheaties.) The next thing I knew, we were standing up against the car, looking at each other.
“What in the world was that?” Anne asked, which meant that either it was real or a mass hallucination.
“Beats the shit out of me,” I replied way too loudly, forgetting all of my efforts to clean up my language around Anne.
Then I turned around and yelled, “Boomer! Get over here!”
The edge in my voice cut through his reverie and he came running. I handed him the machine (taking back The Grail in the bargain, getting the lighter end of that exchange) as I said in my best false bravado voice, “Clear words came out of the headphones. Right over there under that big tree. Both of us heard them.”
“All right!” he shouted, hooking himself up as he headed for the tree.
We watched from a distance this time. After a few minutes, during which we saw nothing more exciting than The Boomer standing without moving, Anne leaned toward me and whispered, “Did we really hear a real live ghost?”
“I can’t vouch that it was live, and I don’t really want to speculate whether it was an actual ghost. But whatever it was, I’m convinced it was real.”
As I said this, an unkind memory crept into my psyche, those confused moments back when I had first met The Grail as I’d tromped around brandishing a pistol and was convinced that The Boomer had put his Barbie-receiver-amplifier-speaker-system into the cup. You don’t suppose . . . The Marquis began. But I discarded the thought as quickly as it had come to me. It would have been no great feat for The Boomer to put a cassette player in the suitcase and rig it to come on while I was carrying it. But if he had been acting the entire time, he was in the wrong profession. The movie public would have thrown rocks at Grant and Hepburn had they seen the performance I’d just witnessed if it all turned out to be a practical joke. Still . . . the quiet, nagging voice insisted.
Refusing to entertain this pointless discussion any longer, I employed a failsafe method of ending it. Tucking the Grail back into her pouch I said, “Layl’Annie, without coercion and entirely of your own volition . . .” That was as far as I got. She must have been having thoughts of her own that she didn’t want to entertain, because she launched into a demonstrative if wordless yes.
Although what we were doing was strictly to prevent certain undesirable thoughts, and not in the least for entertainment purposes, we must have gotten a little wrapped up in it because when I next opened my eyes, The Boomer was standing there beside us waiting patiently. “Guys, that was a real ghost you just heard.” He was being so smug and cool, but then he dropped all pretenses. “Eureka! The great experiment is a success!”
As we packed the gadget back into the trunk, Anne and I bombarded him with questions. “Just wait,” is all he would answer, “and I’ll tell you everything. Or if you’re so hot to hear it for yourself, just put the headphones on and walk back over there. If I didn’t know better, I might think that poor creature frightened you.”
“I can’t speak for my girlfriend, but as for me, that so-called poor creature scared me shitless. Which is a damned good thing, if you value the state of your car seats. All such gains will be strictly temporary, however, because if you don’t start telling us what you found out, we’re going to beat the crap out of you.”
Not my Layl’Annie. She made The Boomer take the suitcase back out of the trunk and, declining offers of assistance, lugged it over to listen for herself. But I wasn’t tempted. So The Boomer and I waited silently while she proved her manhood, or whatever.
Actually, once we were all back in the car, he didn’t have many facts or theories and it didn’t even take the short trip home to share them. The Grail had been no help. They’d just about concluded that maybe ghosts didn’t reside where their bodies had been buried but rather where their owners had died when he had heard our call. From the vague and mostly incoherent monologue they’d overheard via the machine, he and Anne surmised that the ghost had been hanged from the oak tree. Neither had gotten any indication about when or why. Since there had been no protestation of innocence, they speculated that the person had probably done whatever he’d gotten strung up for, although he appeared to have been moaning about it for some time now.
“You should outfit The Machine with a microphone so you can ask questions,” I opined.
“Don’t think that will work, but you can bet I’m going to try. The full-service Ghost Communicator, Mark II, will be so advanced that beside it the Mark I will look like Wilbur and Orville’s plane parked next to an F-4 Phantom.”
“Hope you can make it lighter,” Layl’Annie piped up from the back seat.”And maybe not so . . . what’s the word . . . ugly?”
The Boomer laughed.”I don’t have any more yellow suitcases, so that should help some.”
“Does this mean that you’re going right back to the basement and we won’t see you again for another seven years?”
“Well, maybe I can make time to spring for ice cream.”