***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Ellen Meister
“She is a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth.”
— ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT
Death was like a bowl of soup.
At least that’s how it felt to Dorothy Parker. One minute she was aware of a terrible pain radiating from the middle of her chest, and the next she was floating in a warm, brothy bath, where everything around her hovered at the same temperature as her body. She couldn’t tell where she began and the world left off.
Then she saw it—the white light. For a moment, she felt the pull, but caught herself in time. No thank you. Eternal happiness was simply not what she was cut out for. She would stay right here, wherever that was, and let darkness overtake her.
As if awaking from a dream, she opened her eyes to discover she was in the dimly lit tavern of the Algonquin Hotel, alone except for a familiar silhouette at the bar . . . and that damned white light hovering overhead.
“Mr. Benchley?” she said, though she would have known that full-cheeked profile anywhere. As usual, his hair was well oiled and his mustache neatly trimmed.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
Dear, dear Mr. Benchley. She took a seat next to him, where a fresh gin and tonic—her drink—was on the bar before her.
“How I missed you,” she said. He was the most loyal friend she had ever known.
He looked at her, his eyes as tender and pained as ever. “I missed you, too,” he said.
“Am I dead?” she asked. Everything seemed so solid, so real.
“Afraid? I daresay it’s about time. Cheers.” She drank her cocktail and it felt exactly as it always did. How could this possibly be death? She had expected nothingness, a black eternal sleep. But perhaps this was the true heaven—sitting at a bar with her closest friend. She avoided looking into the light.
“Where’s Gertrude?” she asked, glancing around to see if his wife was lurking nearby.
He pointed upward.
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Parker said. “Where else would she be? St. Gertrude Aquinas. Lecturing the angels, no doubt.”
“She was a good woman, Dot. Better than I deserved.”
She took a quick glance upward. “I’ll take good care of him, Gertrude!”
“She’s been waiting patiently for me,” he said, placing a hand on her arm.
“You’re not serious.”
He stared at her, his expression fixed. “She’s my wife.”
“But think of it, Fred,” she pleaded, using her nickname for him. “Eternity is a long time.”
“That’s why I didn’t mind staying here until you arrived. I knew the years would seem like a moment.”
She waited for him to say something else. But then, she had always felt like she was waiting for Mr. Benchley to say something else. Finally, she asked him for a cigarette.
“Sorry,” he said, patting his chest, “I’m out.”
“So it is hell.”
He shrugged, a wistfulness passing over his face. “We had a lot of good times here.”
“Strange,” she said. “How did we wind up in the Algonquin?”
“Remember that book we signed for Percy?”
She did. When Percy Coates, the hotel manager, had asked them to sign the special guest book that was supposed to offer eternity, he’d been so earnest they’d laughed but humored him. “So it worked. I’ll be damned. Where are the others?”
“Everyone from our group is gone,” he said, nodding toward the white light.
“The little shits. They couldn’t wait for me?”
“It’s a powerful draw, Mrs. Parker.”
“Did you get to see them?”
“Woollcott and Broun were here when I arrived. Then Ross showed up and later Mr. Sherwood. We had fun for a time, but they all wanted to go.”
“Did they ask about me?”
He smiled as if he knew she would ask. “Of course, it wasn’t a real party without you. We all thought you’d be here any day. Who knew you’d outlive us all?”
“But surely I’m not the last.”
“There are other signatures in the book, and I suppose they’ll pass through. But they weren’t in our crowd.”
“My damned luck. Always late to the party.”
“Finish your drink,” he said, “and we’ll go together.”
“Go?” She tsked. “Over my dead body.”
“That’s more or less the idea.”
“Leave if you must,” she said. “But I’m staying right here.”
“Now, Mrs. Parker. Don’t tell me you’re rejecting eternal peace.”
“What’s in it for me?”
He looked up, his tight brow softening as if in a trance. When he looked back at her, his eyes were wet. “Love. Can’t you sense it?”
She waved away his comment. “Where did love ever get me?”
“This is different. Your parents will be there.”
“Never cared for them.”
He took her hand. “Alan is there.”
“Did you have a head injury? Why would I want to reunite with my husband?”
“You loved each other.”
“He left me.”
“He killed himself.”
Mr. Benchley massaged his forehead and thought. At last he nodded and looked back into her eyes. “He was in a lot of pain, Dot.”
“Guess what,” she said. “Me, too.”
“I’m awake, aren’t I?”
He stood, finished the last sip of his drink, and put down his glass. “I’ve been here a long while. It’s time for me to go.”
She shrugged. “Go, then. What are you waiting for?”
“You sure you won’t change your mind?”
“Good-bye, Mr. Benchley. Send my best to Gertrude.”
He shook his head. “You’ll be lonely.”
She held up her drink. “That’s what this is for.”
Mr. Benchley kissed her on the forehead. “See you around, pal,” he said.
Just then, she heard the high-pitched yip of a small dog and looked down to see a familiar poodle trotting toward her. “Cliché!” she cried, remembering he had been in her lap when she signed the book, and that when Percy wasn’t looking she had pressed his paw onto the last page. If she was going to hang around for eternity, she had reasoned, she would want his company. How perfect that it worked. She bent over to scoop him up.
“Look, Fred!” she cried, but it was too late. Mr. Benchley was gone.
It was late—well past closing—and the Algonquin Hotel’s tavern was shadowy and still. Angel Ruiz hesitated at the doorway, but only for a second. So what if there was a strange shimmer below the one dim light on the wall? And who cared if the Haitian guys in the kitchen had sworn they’d seen le fantôme sitting by the bar late at night? It was his first day on the job and he refused to be scared. Besides, the staff at these old hotels always believed the places were haunted.
He clicked on the soft neon bulb over the bar and unlocked the cabinet. The drunk in room 1207—some famous writer in hiding, they said—had ordered three martinis and the night kitchen manager instructed Angel to mix and deliver them. “The old man,” she had promised, “tips big.”
Angel stopped and listened to the deserted quiet, feeling the silence deep inside his ears. He went back to work, gently placing what he needed on the bar.
After pouring the carefully measured gin and vermouth into the metal shaker, he held the lid tight and turned it over and back, over and back. He gave it one last shake, then filled the three fancy glasses he had placed on the tray.
The darkness played tricks on his eyes. Was that a swarm of gnats hovering near the bar or just floating dust particles? He blew them away and focused on his task.
Las aceitunas, he thought. Olives. He looked around and saw a mini refrigerator under the bar. He had to kneel to see inside and found a large round jar in the back, the green orbs floating in liquid like detached eyeballs.
Angel hated olives and hoped he wouldn’t have to fish them out with his fingers. As he rose, he was thinking about finding a fork he could use to pluck the slimy orbs from their cold bath and how his grandfather used to pop them in his mouth like candy. Disgusting.
And then, he saw something. The tiny swarm had grown. It was now a mass of swirling dust particles floating over one of the barstools. As he stared, transfixed, they took on a recognizable shape, joining together until they weren’t separate specks but one solid image.
The jar fell from his hand and crashed, shattering the silence. It was her—the phantom. And right before his eyes, she became a real woman, with dark impish eyes and a small hat.
Angel jumped back, almost slipping on the wet floor. He grabbed on to the bar and froze, unable to do anything but blink at the space that had been empty only seconds ago.
“Just as well,” she said, peering over the bar at the olives rolling across the floor. “He likes his martinis with a twist.”
He rubbed his eyes. She couldn’t be real, could she?
The apparition picked up one of the drinks he had just made and took a sip. “Not bad . . . Angel. You may have a future here.”
“You . . . you know my name?” A chill danced down his spine.
She pointed a dainty finger at his name tag.
“What do you . . . want from me?” he asked.
She tipped back the martini and finished it. Then she picked up another. “You’ll need to make more of these. Cheers.”
Angel watched as she sipped the drink, closing her eyes in delight. “I hope you have cigarettes in that pocket,” she said. “I’m positively desperate.”
“If you tell me they’re bad for my health, I may scream.”
Angel pulled a pack of Marlboros from his jacket, placed it on the bar, and stood back. She looked down at the cigarettes as if she expected him to do something. Finally, she extracted one and put it between her lips.
“A light?” she said.
He swallowed hard and took a disposable lighter from his pocket, but his hands were so damp in fear he couldn’t get it to ignite. He tried again and again.
“I have all the time in the world,” she said. “Literally.”
Finally, a short flame rose and he carefully leaned forward to light her cigarette. She took a long drag.
“Delightful,” she said, exhaling. She took another puff and blew smoke rings. Angel stared as she continued smoking and drinking. What was she?
The ghost flicked ashes into the empty martini glass, then shot him a glance and sighed, as if bored by his awe. Still smoking with her right hand, she held her left hand toward him, palm down. He looked at it, wondering what she wanted him to do.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“You’re wondering if I’m real,” she said. “So touch me.”
Her hand was small and feminine, with fingernails filed into points. Angel lightly poked it, hoping she was nothing but air, light, and dreams. But she was solid—flesh and blood.
“Now that we have that out of the way,” she said, “my request. You see that book over there, inside the case?” She pointed to the dim wall light, and Angel noticed that the shelf it illuminated held some kind of antique book inside a glass display box. “Please bring it here.”
He did as he was told, stepping over the olives to approach the shelf and examine the case. It was a heavy piece, with a mahogany platform and frame. The glass panels afforded a clear view of the book inside, which was open to a page of old-fashioned signatures written with the thin ink of a fountain pen. He lifted the hinged top, removed the book, and carried it back to her, placing it carefully on the bar.
“This,” she said, pointing over the open page, “is me.”
Angel scanned the names. They were all men except for one.
“Dorothy Parker?” he said.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of me?”
He shook his head.
“Lucky you,” she said. “Now, when you deliver the drinks to Mr. Shriver you will bring him this as well.”
“You want me to bring the book to him?”
“Am I not being clear?”
“No. I mean, yes. But why?”
“My dear,” she said, “where this book goes, I go. And I need to have a little chat with Ted Shriver. We are old acquaintances.”
“I’ll get in trouble.”
“Nonsense. You’ll come back in an hour and return the book to the shelf. No one will ever know. But first, clean up this nasty spill; it’s never a good idea to leave a mess behind. Trust me on that.”