It's my task, a daunting one, to help the college close and to do the best we can for the students and alumni.
This assignment coincides with my last term in the MFA program - I am working on my thesis and will graduate in January 2020. I think that being back to work will only help my writing!
In June 2019 I entered the "spooky story" contest held each term of the MFA, and I won! The story is pasted below. Thanks for reading!
It’s a beautiful building. The striking Moorish architecture is visible for miles. The ground floor is a showplace. An ornate lobby, with sculptures and chandeliers. An antique music room with a fine old Steinway piano. Offices discreetly off to the side, behind frosted glass.
The grand staircase has a banister of dark wood featuring two carved horses’ heads. I start climbing and my left hip starts hurting. I remind myself that I am not disabled.
I hurl myself over the last stair step. These risers must be much larger than is the standard now, or maybe the building has settled since 1899, when it began life as a hotel.
I can’t do this climb for the ten days of the writing residency. Soon I will be slinking off to the elevator entrance, where I will encounter the withering glance of the real disabled people.
Pain is relative.
The classrooms are on the first two floors. On the third floor are the places nobody talks much about. Financial Aid, Veterans’ Affairs. Bursar. Registrar. Students come up here with sometimes secret business but being in the MFA program together tends to reduce privacy. It’s not intentional, it just happens.
The teachers sit together at lunch, tolerating the presence of a bold student or two. At parties the extroverts occasionally reach out to the introverts. The teachers limit themselves to soda with lime until the end of the evening, when they allow themselves one beer before escaping to a place they think will be devoid of students.
And on the top floor of this building, there is a dorm for freshman girls.
It turns out that the nearest women’s lavatory up here is about a mile away. This one is closed for unspecified reasons. That one is under repair. I am welcomed to the museum wing, where there is one ladies’ room, as it’s quaintly labeled, open. And that is where I see her.
On an embroidered settee sits my mother, or a woman who looks exactly like her.
Restrooms, like central heating and air conditioning, have been retrofitted to this place. The plumbing is in a small adjacent chamber. This room might have been used for, well, rest. The settee looks uncomfortable, but it could serve as a Victorian fainting couch. There is a fireplace with a mirror over it. A dry sink with a marble washbowl. There is water in the bowl and, floating on top, a rose-shaped pink candle with a tealight burning inside it.
I stare at the woman and she stares back. She is wearing one of Mom’s favorite suits, Anne Klein, with a pattern of tiny black and white checks. Black velvet collar. White blouse with black buttons. Legs in panty hose, feet in black open-toed heels. Even the jewelry is there although I know we took it off. Big diamond in a worn setting. Pewter lapel pin shaped like a vase of flowers.
“Mom?” I whisper.
“Hello, Anita. Isn’t this the nicest place?” she says in my mother’s voice.
I force myself to look at her face. Flawless make-up, red lipstick. Grayed at the temples in the exact way I am, and the same unruly curl on the left side.
It must be a hallucination, although I’ve never had one that I know of.
“It’s me, Anita,” the apparition says. “Come sit.” And she pats the embroidered cushion beside her.
“I have to pee, Mom,” I tell her, as if I were 6 years old.
She smiles. My mother’s smile is legendary. I’d know it anywhere.
“I’ll be right here,” she says.
In the lavatory I turn on the water first, so that she won’t hear me pissing.
That last year, my sister and I sometimes addressed our mother in babyish language, tried to tempt her with ice cream and mashed bananas. But eventually she forgot it all: how to eat and drink, how to use a toilet, how to walk and talk.
My sister grieved harder than I did. I felt guilty, but what I mostly felt was relief.
I wash my hands and run cold water in the sink. I cup my hands and swallow a Xanax. It will help with the pain in my hip and the shock of seeing her. I splash my face with cold water. Maybe when I come out, she won’t be there.
She is there.
“You’re not wearing make-up, Anita. You always used to,” Mom says.
“Ah, I can’t be bothered with it anymore. And it just melts off in this heat.”
“You’re still single?”
“Oh, yes. It suits me.”
“But you must be lonely?”
“Not really, Mom. No. I’m not.”
“Tell me about your grandchildren. Show me their pictures, Anita.”
I’m aware that I am already late to workshop. The teacher will not like it. But I take out my phone and show her the pictures. Five grandchildren now, kids my mother never got to meet.
The attendant comes in to replace the floating candle. She looks at me and says,
“You are all right, Senora?”
“Yes…thank you, I’m just resting a minute.”
My mother holds the shiny object in her hand and says, “How marvelous!”
“Yes and no. It can be distracting.” She hands the phone back and says, “I know you have to go.”
I am known for being a dispassionate, analytical, even cold person. But I’m seized with panic at the thought of leaving her again. She smiles.
“I like it here, Anita.” She points upward and says, “Sometimes I visit them. They might be brave freshmen and all that. But they cry at night and I’m the one who hears them.”
The young students’ schedules are timed so that they don’t coincide with ours. But I am late. The girls come clattering down the ancient staircase and spill out into the bright day and the more modern campus buildings. They are deferential, but I gesture to them to go on past me, a lovely herd chaperoned by a beautiful ghost.