The problem was not that I believed in ghosts. I did not believe in ghosts, but I was visited by one. I could not deny it. When I least expected to, I would see my father, solid of body, curly of hair, in true corporeal splendor, even though he had died months earlier. Once I saw him across the floor at the Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel. I spotted him from behind. He was dining with two other men, and his graying golden-brown hair looked as springy as ever. I made no attempt to speak to him. I sat in my seat, not eating my chef's salad, watching his familiar movements: the way he drank his martini, smoked his cigarette, gestured expansively. I guessed that he was trying to sell some land to his table companions. I had no doubt that he would pick up the tab.
The next time I saw him was at the apartment I shared with my sisters in Newport. It was a small, dingy, second-floor walkup, made cool by a breeze off the harbor. One close August morning Lily and Margaret had left for the boatyard where they worked, and I had just finished another cup of coffee. I grabbed an old Redbook and headed for the bathroom. There I found my father, seated on the toilet, reading the New York Daily News.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, backing out and slamming the door behind me.
"Hang on a sec, I'm almost through," he called. My heart was racing, but from embarrassment, not shock. I did not ask myself how my father, a man who had died wearing two colostomy bags, could be taking a normal shit. Nor did I wonder why he was reading the Daily News, a tabloid he had considered vulgar in life, and which, besides, was not readily available in Newport. I just sat at the kitchen table and waited.
Presently he flushed the toilet and opened the door. He wore a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of faded madras shorts. Now that detail shocked me: he had pale, bony, freckled legs covered with curly reddish hair, and I had never seen him wear shorts.
"Sweetheart," he said, opening his arms to embrace me.
I raced toward him and gave him a huge hug. "Dad, are you real?" I asked, feeling queer for asking: he felt solid and sweaty.
"Yes, sweetheart, I am. Unfortunately, I can't stay long." He checked his watch, a cheap Bulova, the one he had worn ever since I could remember.
"Tell me everything. What has it been like?"
We sat opposite each other at the kitchen table. Lily's plastic birth-control Pilpac was open beside the pepper shaker, and I tried to surreptitiously glide it under a napkin. My father waved his hand.
"Don't bother doing that," he said. "I've seen it already. That's the sheer hell of it. I can see everything, the good along with the bad, and I can't tell you a damn thing about what to do."
Instantly my mind was flooded with images of things, the good along with the bad, that I had done since he had died. Alastair "Boom-Boom" Brady's face kept swimming to the forefront, and I kept blinking my eyes to push it away.
"That puke you're thinking of now, for instance. What is he, Australian?"
"Yes, he's a sailor. He's the bowman on a famous racer."
"I don't give a goddamn if he won the America's Cup, for godsakes. He's no good. You're a fine actress, even if it is for a soap opera. If you aren't going to have respect for yourself . . ." He patted his breast pocket and removed a pack of L&Ms. He glanced around, and I handed him a matchbox from the Candy Store. Examining the logo, one gilded mermaid with two graceful tails, he lit his cigarette and handed the matchbox back to me. "And you should stay away from that place. The Candy Store. A bunch of guys with their hands in the cookie jar."
I fought to keep my mind blank. "Mom's good," I said.
"I know. I like the way she finished the living room. Tell her the beam's sagging, though. She'd better get a brace. In fact, have her call Creighton Albemarle--he owes me money. He'll do a good job."
"What do you mean, the beam's sagging? Is there any danger?" Just before my father died, he and my mother began renovating our summer cottage on Long Island Sound, converting the old screen porch into part of the living room, replacing the screens with huge Thermopane windows, removing the wall that had separated the porch from the living room, leaving one beam to bear the weight of the house. My mother lived alone there, year-round now, painting watercolors. My father's words frightened me; I thought I had noticed a slight bow myself.
"Nothing immediate, my angel. But have her take care of it before winter. I don't like the thought of snow on the roof."
"Dad, can I tell her I've seen you?"
He grinned then, a wide, easy grin that lifted his hazel eyes and made creases in his pale cheeks. He had a lean face and a long, straight nose. The Cavan nose. I had it myself. When I was young I once looked in a mirror and called my nose long. "Aristocratic," my father had corrected, only partly pretending to be angry.
"Telling people could be a problem, couldn't it?" he said now. "They'll wonder why I don't stay."
"Why don't you stay?" I asked.
His face went sad. My father's expression could run through emotions the way a flutist plays scales. "I just can't, Una," he said.
"But you'll come back?"
"If I can."
I stared at him, thinking that he needed another haircut. The day before he died, I had given him a bad haircut. He was lying in his hospital bed, weak and shrunken from cancer, and his thick, curly hair made his head itch. "They won't get me a barber," he had said. So I had picked up a pair of scissors, the crooked kind used by nurses to cut bandages, and chopped off all his hair. The remaining tufts sticking out on his skull, combined with his wide, darting eyes, had made him look like an owl.
"Whooo!" he said to me now. Then he rose, hugged me hard, and left through the front door.
I ran down Brewer Street to The Yard. Lily was making fast a long white ketch to a floating dock. Boom-Boom stood at the bow, a line in his heavy hands. He called my name, making it sound like "Ina" in his Australian accent, but I ignored him. "You have got to come with me," I said to Lily. "Where's Margo?"
She looked at me as if I were crazy. "I'm in the middle of something here."
"You've got to come now."
Lily gauged the situation. She knew I didn't often make demands unless they were urgent. Throwing the remaining untied line to Boom-Boom, she walked along the dock with me. We found Margaret driving the Travelift, a huge apparatus used for moving huge boats. "Margo!" Lily called. "Come on down."
Lily was our middle sister, two years younger than I, but she had seniority over Margaret at the boatyard as well as in our family. Margaret hurried across the hot asphalt parking lot, and we went into a ramshackle shed at the far end of The Yard.
"Una has big business," Lily explained.
"You won't believe this," I said. I remember twisting my hands, trying to find a clear way to tell them what had happened. I settled on directness. "I saw Dad."
"When?" Lily asked, her voice giving nothing away.
"Today--ten minutes ago. He looks great. He misses us all." I looked into both my sisters' faces. Lily's eyebrows were arched, her mouth thin and set. Margo ducked her head, patting the pockets of her khaki shorts for cigarettes. They both had wild yellow hair, unlike mine, which was reddish. The sun shined through the open windows behind them, lighting their heads like halos. I tried to breathe more steadily. "He was in the bathroom, reading the paper. I didn't buy the Daily News, and I know you two didn't, so how else would it be there? It's right on the floor, soaking wet because he dropped it on the bathmat." I gave Margo a dirty look because she was notorious for forgetting to hang up her wet bath things.
"Dad hates scandal sheets," Margo said.
"He used to, but apparently he likes them now."
"What did he say?" Lily asked.
"Okay. He said--" I laughed. "Typical. Guess what he said about Boom-Boom?"
" 'Stay away from that no-good punk,' " Lily said.
" 'Puke.' He said 'no-good puke.' "
"That is typical," Margo agreed.
"He also said that the Candy Store is bad, and also that Mom should get the beam fixed."
"No kidding. The house is ready to collapse," Lily said.
"What else?" Margo asked.
"That's about it. We just sat and talked."
I noticed, of course, the looks my sisters exchanged. I couldn't blame them for not truly believing me, no matter how badly I wanted them to; I hadn't told them about the time at the Algonquin for that precise reason. But this time seemed more compelling. Our father had appeared to me in their apartment.
"Listen," Lily said. "We'd better get back to work. You can finish telling us about it later."
I walked back up Brewer Street's small hill, disappointed that they hadn't felt more inclined to keep open minds. My day stretched emptily ahead, until five that evening, when they would come home.
All three of us were on leaves of sorts. They from Brown University, where they were both graduate students in the Art History Department, and I from my role as Delilah Grant on Beyond the Bridge, a soap opera that filmed five days a week, with occasional weeks off during which we were supposed to make public appearances at shopping malls and guest spots on game shows. But my character had disappeared for the summer. In September she would reappear, fleeing to Lake Huron, to an isolated cabin where she could forget a painful episode with her long-term lover, and where a psychopathic fur trapper would eventually corner her.
It had seemed like a perfect time to reunite with Lily and Margo. Our father had died in January; except for the two weeks surrounding his death when we had converged on our mother's house in Connecticut, we hadn't lived together for eight years. Presence is everything.
I used to say texture is everything, while Lily and Margo would say color is everything. We would have fantastic debates. Driving past the marsh at Black Hall, I would say the texture of the cattails and grasses, spiky and tubular, was the most beautiful. Margo and Lily would argue for the color: the shades of blue, green, and gold. (Although they preferred wilder colors with evocative names: apricot, persimmon, tea rose, vermilion, emerald, azure.) We invented names for our preferences.
The color school was Karsky (named for a boy Margo had known in high school) and the texture school was Schlumberger (pronounced shlum-bear-zhay, an extremely textural name).
Then we invented Vuarnet. Once when I went to Providence to visit them, we walked down Angell Street to the Rhode Island School of Design. The students there dressed like anarchists in black leather, skinny cotton shifts over black tights, white oxford-cloth shirts worn as dresses with studded leather belts, tight pedal pushers worn over plastic flip-flops. They had razor haircuts. They wanted to keep their skin pure white, so they wore sunscreen and walked on the shady side of the street. Margo and Lily told me the sunglasses they favored were Vuarnets and Ray-Bans, so we started calling that cool, new look "Vuarnet."
I remembered that day perfectly. They took me to the graduate student show at the RISD Museum. There were mammoth geometric paintings that resembled daggers on one wall; narrow, meticulously drawn architectural-type renderings which, when carefully regarded, showed men in lewd positions with each other; a video segment in which a TV screen was set into a doghouse and, when the viewer pressed the button, an image of feet pacing a room would appear on the screen and a whiny voice berating its father for neglect and mistreatment would blare out. One student had hired a crane to hoist a brand-new white Lincoln Continental into an interior courtyard, and that was his project. There were ceramic vases, enameled jewelry, furniture including a teak bed suspended from the ceiling in the midst of matching dining room table and chairs. Its title: Dining with the Invalid.
One student was walking through the show with his parents. Margo whispered to Lily and me that the father reminded her of a coal miner from West Virginia: he was brown and wizened, as if he spent much time underground, and he wore a thin, short-sleeved, green nylon shirt with a pack of Camels showing through the pocket. His posture was stooped. He walked around the gallery scowling while his wife, a proud fat woman, walked ahead with her son. "How do you like it, Willard?" she asked the man, and he said, "Too many doodads."
That cracked Margo up. She wanted to think of a school we could call "Doodad." We tried to connect it with Dada, but nothing sprang to mind. It seemed to overlap Vuarnet too much. On the way to their apartment, I stepped on a wad of gum. By the time I noticed it, it had stones, hair, and grass pressed into it. "My RISD thesis," I said. "Very Doodad."
"Vuarnet," Lily and Margo said at once.
Crossing the Brown Green, students recognized me from Beyond the Bridge. "Hey, Delilah," some of them called. Some of them just stared, but many asked whether I was planning to marry Beck Vandeweghe, my star-crossed lover and editor of the Mooreland Tribune. One girl asked for my autograph and said she had planned her entire spring semester around the show. I was used to such attention. I signed the autograph, secretly pleased that my sisters should see me adulated, but one thought nagged at my mind.
As Delilah, I had another family: my father, Paul Grant, and his scheming new wife Selena, my sisters Nicola, Stephanie, and Bianca, my half-brother Scott, and my illegitimate baby, Jennifer. But walking across the green that day, listening to people ask me about the Grants, I thought of my own father who had died two months earlier, and whose ghost I had seen the week before at the Algonquin. I was walking between my two real sisters, but that meant nothing to my fans.
At five-thirty, Lily and Margo came quietly into the apartment. They looked tired from working on the docks all day for the wages they stretched to cover their summer expenses. The sun, an orange ball over Newport Harbor, blazed through our west-facing windows. I was lying on the couch, with a smooth cotton sheet between me and the upholstery. Itchy wool upholstery.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Angels All Over Town by Luanne Rice. Copyright © 2006 by Luanne Rice. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.