The Ghosts that We Knew – Chapter 5, Class of 2004

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Chapter 5: Stewart

Class of 2004

People in Stewart’s quiet Chicago neighborhood had always gossiped about the Jameson girl. Annie and her behavior had been a long running source of chatter, but after her death, most felt sympathy for Stewart and his grandparents. The Jameson’s were a sweet old couple who never ceased to wave at their neighbors. Stewart’s grandfather would mow his neighbors’ yards and collect their papers when they went away on vacation. Stewart’s grandmother always prepared and hand delivered a dish and dessert for her neighbor’s special occasions – babies born, graduations, a move-in or a going away party. The sympathy that the neighbors felt after Annie’s death transcended to the neighborhood kids as well; before Stewart’s mother died he was an outcast – the kid whose mom was a drug addict…the “weirdo” who had to live with his grandparents. The uncontrolled bladder and emotional outbursts hadn’t helped his popularity either. Stewart had always been a bit socially awkward and suffered from anxiety and anger issues. After Annie’s death, he became the cool kid who had watched his mom kill herself. Many of the kids had questions, and suddenly, everyone wanted to sit next to him at the lunch table and hear about what happened.

Stewart didn’t talk about it, but he became fixated with death. He obsessed about who I am and how he could come to know me. When he was still a small child, he drew pictures of me and explained to his grandmother, “This is the man that saved me from my mom. He came when she died and took her away because she was bad and it made me feel better.” His grandmother believed it was a phase and encouraged him to not think of me. He would call out to me while sleeping and fantasize about the two of us forging a friendship, rescuing the world from bad mothers I suppose.

As he grew older, he would watch news stories and imagine me at the site of tragedies. If a plane crashed or a pile-up on the interstate occurred, he’d lay in bed at night asking me questions about the people that died. He wanted to know what it felt like when their heart stopped beating and they ceased to exist.

Things were relatively normal in the oncoming years. Stewart was smart. His grandmother had taught him to love reading and he was athletically inclined so he was never the last one chosen for kickball on the school playground. Once he hit puberty girls started to notice him. He was tall and had dark floppy hair that he constantly brushed out of his intense blue eyes. Like his mother, he never went through that awkward ugly stage but sailed into high school as one of the best looking kids his age. He had an attractive athletic build and an uncanny ability to convince people to do things they normally would not. Girls were constantly clamoring for him to ask them out, but Stewart secretly found it disgusting. The first time a girl tried to come on to him was in the eighth grade. Stewart had attended a boy/girl swim party and then all the kids hung out in the basement afterwards. Someone had suggested a game of Seven Minutes in Heaven. He’d never heard of it but selected girls and boys had to spend seven minutes in a dark closet together. When Stewart and Chrissy Calvert were selected he wasn’t sure what to expect. He figured they’d spend seven minutes talking but as soon as the door shut she told him “You can kiss me if you want.”

“That’s okay” he said.

“But you’re supposed to.” Her face was dangerously close to his. He couldn’t see it well in the dark but he could feel her breath (that smelled like Cheetos and grape soda) on his face.

Thinking he could get it over quickly he closed his eyes and moved his face toward her and she pushed her mouth against his. He could feel her braces scratching his lips and when she tried to put her tongue in his mouth he backed away, “I think our time is up. Open the door!” he said to the other kids that were standing just outside with the timer. They both came out red-faced and Stewart felt sick but Chrissy Calvert giggled and told everyone he was the best kisser ever.

Something about the way girls would try to get him alone and kiss him and touch him reminded him of his mother. He knew what they wanted though, so he would usually go along with it. Women are so easy to manipulate he thought. Their minds are simple; just give them a few compliments. He imagined that’s how his mother was – opening her legs up to any guy that would show her some attention. How could she not even know who his father was? Stewart did what he was good at; he would flirt with the girls. He’d tell them how beautiful and smart they were. He would pretend to listen as they’d drone on and on about nothing of any significance because that’s what they liked. Then he’d have them do whatever he wanted them to. And he was never surprised how easy they could be.

As Stewart progressed through the high school years, he didn’t necessarily have to answer to anyone. His grandparents didn’t want to make the same mistakes they had with Annie so they were much more lenient. Stewart, however, never wanted to disappoint so they had very little to worry about. His grandfather had been in the furniture repair business for almost fifty years and Stewart would even help him on the weekends with his business. They listened to games on the radio in the garage as his grandfather taught him the ins and outs of staining, polishing and upholsteries. His grandfather taught him wood crafting and how to use the tools of the trade. The only time Stewart would feel guilty is when he and his friends would sneak into the garage after his grandparents had gone to bed. His grandfather kept all sorts of chemicals for staining wood and repairing glass and Stewart and his friends had discovered they worked exceptionally well at getting them high. A little too much of some of them would knock you out in a matter of seconds though, they’d learned that the hard way.

One Saturday night Stewart and three other friends found themselves bored again because Stewart’s grandparents refused to get cable TV. The four of them decided to sneak out to the garage. Stewart’s grandfather’s garage was less garage and more workshop. Long workbenches lined two of the walls. Shelves over the workbenches housed at least two hundred bottles of chemicals. One of the other walls was covered in peg board and every woodworking tool imaginable hung there. Another shelf was stocked with power tools like saws, miters, and drills. There was a window unit that kept the space cool in the summer and a specialized space heater that Stewart’s grandfather had purchased to keep the area warm in the winter. The heater was specifically ordered for the garage, it didn’t have an open flame because of all the chemicals stored there. His grandfather was a stickler for safety, which is why all of his chemicals were safely stored and labeled and he’d done his best to educate Stewart on their dangers. Ordinarily Stewart and his friends would take a few hits off one of the staining chemicals his grandfather used, but on this night his buddy Carter decided to try a different one. Stewart knew the one Carter grabbed off the shelf was for sealing glass and his grandfather had always cautioned him against opening it when he wasn’t around, but he didn’t say anything. Carter took the bottle from the shelf, sat it on the work bench and inhaled deeply at the top. He wobbled for a second and then passed out on the garage floor.

“Damn! What happened to Carter!?” one friend said.

“Shit, we’re gonna get in so much trouble” another friend said, looking around like he might run. “Is he dead?!”

For a moment, Stewart stopped and looked around, waiting. His heart raced with excitement and the corners of his mouth turned up in a slight smile. He was looking for me, but I wasn’t there. It obviously was not Carter’s time. Stewart casually bent over Carter and could see his chest rise and fall. “Nah, he’s fine. He’s breathing. My Grandpa said if you breathe too much of that junk in it will knock you out cold. He always opens the doors and windows and wears a mask. Let’s carry him outside so he can get some fresh air. Close that bottle and put it back!”

Although they laughed about that incident for weeks, after that night, Stewart and his friends didn’t spend time in the garage huffing furniture stain anymore.

________

Stewart graduated from high school with respectable grades, but wasn’t interested in any particular career or college. He enrolled part time at the state university and helped his grandfather run his business when he wasn’t in class. Stewart was playing on a recreational basketball team and dating different girls off and on. He was out with one of his “usuals” when he got a call from his grandmother one evening. He and his date had finished dinner and were about to go see a movie when she had gotten that “I want to make out” look in her eyes and Stewart felt obligated to give her what she wanted, besides, this girl had told her friends that he was weird because he “hadn’t even tried to sleep with her and they’d gone out a bunch of times”. Stewart didn’t really like this girl – he couldn’t even remember her last name. She was too skinny and wore too much perfume and makeup. She had her hands up his shirt rubbing his back (which made Stewart’s stomach turn), when his phone rang. Happy to have some reprieve from her tongue and needy fingers, he dug his phone out of his pocket.

She looked over his shoulder to read the caller ID that said “Grams” on the screen. “I can’t believe your grandparents call you so much. I mean it’s sweet but they seem like they really baby you.” She said with annoyance in her voice. She straightened her shirt and ran her finger around the outside of her lips to wipe off the excess spit.

Stewart was a little taken aback by the comment because he didn’t feel like his grandparents called much at all. They’d call now and then to ask him to pick something up at the store or let him know they’d be out when he got home or to tell him his dinner was on the stove, but that wasn’t all the time and he certainly didn’t feel “babied”. He had a weird feeling the girl thought he was somehow weak though, so he hit end on his cell phone without answering it and turned the volume to silent. He went back to kissing and groping the girl at a heavier and faster pace, he wanted to get this over quick so they didn’t miss the movie he wanted to see. He decided to check in with his grandmother after the movie, she probably just wanted to say goodnight.

After the movie, a glance at his phone showed a blinking light to indicate several missed calls and voicemails. His grandmother never called him multiple times and had never left multiple voicemails. He ignored the messages and immediately called her back.

“Hey Grams – I saw that you called a few times. Is everything okay?” he asked as they exited the theater. He could tell the girl he was with was a little annoyed again. He had tolerated her all evening – even when she had run her fingers up and down the inside of his thigh through the whole movie – but now he could hardly concentrate because he smelled her on his hands and clothes.

“Stewart” his grandmother could barely speak. “Your grandfather collapsed in the garage today. They think it was a stroke. I found him out there Stew.” She sobbed. “He’s gone; they could never get him breathing again. I’m still at the hospital with some of the ladies from church. Please come quickly, I was going to ride home with them but I’d rather you come pick me up.”

“What? I don’t understand. Grandpa had a stroke and he’s not going to be ok?”

“No Stew, he’s gone. Please just come here. We’re at the hospital downtown; the one Grandpa was in last year. Do you remember how to get here?”

“I’ll be right there.” Stewart answered and hung up. He wrenched his hands and then ran both of them through his hair, pausing at the top of his head to yank his hair in both directions and squeeze his eyes shut.

“Um, is everything okay?” his date asked, momentarily looking up from her own cell phone.

“No. I should have answered my phone earlier but you were being so whiny about my grandparents calling so much and now my grandfather is dead.” He looked at her in a disgusted way. He couldn’t think straight. He must have heard his grandmother wrong. His grandfather would be okay. No, he thought, this isn’t happening.

“Stewart, I’m sorry, there is no way we could have known…” she said before he cut her off.

“Get the hell out of my way. I need to be at the hospital.” He shoved her out of the way and headed towards his car.

“Are you just going to leave me here?” she asked wide eyed. “I’m standing in a parking lot for God’s sake!”

“Find your own way home and don’t call me.” He hurried to his car and as he drove away he saw her crying and clicking away on her phone. What is she so upset about? She’s stupid, she’s a bitch, and she’s a whore. This is her fault. He repeated over and over again. She’s just like my mother. Why are they all like my mother?

Stewart picked up his grandmother from the hospital and got her home safely. The funeral was held a few days later at the church his grandparents had attended since they married. Stewart’s only experience of death had been when his mother killed herself. That time had been a relief, this time made him feel anxious and full of worry for his grandmother. She was not doing well; she couldn’t seem to move on. He would walk into a room and see her staring off into space. The look on her face filled with sorrow.

“Stew, can I fix you something to eat dear?” she asked on one of those occasions. She eased herself out of the chair and away from the table that had been in the same place for nearly fifty years. She grabbed her old ceramic coffee mug that was nearly just as old and took it to the sink to rinse. The entire house was old, but Stewart’s grandfather had taken exceptional care of it, updating things when they needed and staying on top of repairs. She dried the cup with an old dishtowel hanging on a hook in the kitchen window and placed the cup on the counter next to the new coffeemaker. An identical cup sat on the counter next to hers; she hadn’t had the strength to put it away even though weeks had passed since its last use. The coffeemaker had been a gift from her husband the previous Christmas. They had laughed and giggled at their new “contraption” and after figuring out how to use it (with a little help from Stew), they both agreed it was the best coffee they had ever tasted. For fifty years they had sat at that table together each morning, talking over their coffee and planning the upcoming day.

“No Grandma, I’m fine. I’ve got to go to class. Are you okay? Want me to bring you anything?” he asked, but she was staring out the window at nothing. She barely even noticed when he left.

When Stewart came home that night his grandmother had already gone to bed. He worked in the garage for a while before deciding it was time to call it a day. He knocked at his grandmother’s door but she didn’t hear so he quietly walked in. She was asleep and looked so serene – more so than she had in a long time. Stewart remembered how sad his mother had seemed just before she died. And then he remembered how peaceful it felt when she was gone. Before he could rationally think about what he was doing, he picked up the pillow from his grandfather’s side of the bed and covered his grandmother’s face. He knew he was doing what was best for her. In a few minutes she wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore. She struggled a bit, but a frail woman in her seventies was no match for Stewart. He watched the minutes click by on the old fashioned wind-up alarm clock his grandparents had used for as long as he could remember. When she stopped moving, Stewart took the pillow off her face and watched her. He stared at her for a long time, just as he remembered staring at his mother all those years ago.

I arrived at Stewart’s grandmother’s appointed time. Her heart was heavy and her soul weary in the moments before her death. She was struggling to find her new place in the world without her husband, a man I had spoken with just a few months before. I first met Stewart’s grandfather long ago in a war far away from the place he called home. I was there when several of the members of his squad were killed after an explosion. He survived that calamity but his heart was left scarred by the deaths of his fellow soldiers. On that field on that day, he felt my presence and the feeling of death seized his heart with despair. He travelled to the place where those men are memorialized many years later. He kneeled at that wall and wept. I am often at that wall and cemetery, not for appointments, but for observation. He wasn’t able to feel the peace that comes with death on the field when he lost his soldier friends, but I allowed him to sense it then.

Now years later, he was gone and now his bride was as well. Stewart knew I was there in the room. He also remembered me from all those years ago in the bathroom with his mother. Although he spent much of his childhood thinking about me and talking to me, Stewart and I had not occupied the same space since Annie’s death. He seemed nervous, yet excited that I was back.

“You’re here. You’re back. Who are you? What are you?” the room was silent. “Are you God or an angel? Are you the devil?” several silent minutes passed. “Answer me! I know you’re here!” he screamed and backed away from the bed where his grandmother’s body lay.

I never spoke to him or even looked in his direction. When I first met Stewart I knew the next time we met wouldn’t be his death. There would be many meetings before then. When he ended his grandmother’s life, I can only speculate that on some level he thought he was doing the right thing. In the years before his grandfather passed, Stewart began to become anxious again. The same anxiety he felt as a child would return from time to time. Even though he knew his mother was gone and he was becoming a man himself, there were instances that he felt out of control. When he felt this way, he would think back to the time of our encounter in that bathroom years and years ago. He wanted to recapture that peace he had felt, but it doesn’t work that way.

I did my job and left as quickly as I had come. I took his grandmother’s aged hand as she looked at her grandson and realized what he had done. “He has had a hard life” she wanted me to understand. I nodded and prompted her to join me. She smiled and then closed her eyes as she raised a hand and began to sing an old hymn.

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

 

We walked away together and I listened as she sang and dealt with death in her own way.

Even though I was gone, Stewart was still excited and felt the rush from the adrenaline as it pulsed through his body. He stayed in the room until he felt calm and was sure he was alone again. He later went to bed as if nothing had happened. The next day he called 911 in the morning to report that his grandmother wasn’t breathing and that she must have died in her sleep.

People said Stewart’s grandmother died from a broken heart. She couldn’t get over the death of her husband whom she’d loved and adored for so many years.

Stewart was left to live alone in the house his grandparents had built and paid for many years ago. He also gained a significant inheritance; his grandfather had invested well and was always smart with his money. He lived in the place where he had watched his mother die in the bathroom and killed his grandmother in the bedroom. Stewart’s mother was an addict; her addictions eventually lead to her death. Stewart had inherited his mother’s good looks, but also his mother’s addictive tendencies – except he’d never be addicted to drugs. He was becoming addicted to death.

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