The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 1.3: The Haunter and the Haunted

Book One — The Hereafter

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June 5, 9:16 pm

Originally known as “The Dry Bench,” because of the lack of water (some houses didn’t get municipal water until well into the 20th century) the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City was one of its first residential areas, and the first area to deviate from the city’s rigidly defined grid street plan. Unlike the rest of the city, the blocks in The Avenues were only half the length of those found on the other side of South Temple, and the streets were narrow and modest.

Right from the beginning, the Avenues was a popular place to live, and it only became more so as young professionals moved in during the middle decades of the 20th century. Its proximity to downtown (just to the west) and the University (to the east), as well as numerous recreational areas in the foothills, made it a great place to raise a family. The simple one- and two-story homes and bungalows gave it the feeling of a small town rather than a suburb of a bustling city.

Richard and Keith lived their ten years together in a house on J Street, just up from 3rd Avenue. Theirs was a modest two-story home, with two bedrooms, an office for Richard, and a back porch and fenced-in back yard they both loved.

Richard had grown up in this house. And it was always a shock to him that he ended up back in not only Utah, but in the very house and neighborhood he had been so desperate to flee as a teenager.

Richard Pratt’s father was a welder and carpenter who did various work as he was able to find it. But when Richard was just four years old, his father took a promising position with the company building the ski resort up in Park City. Just two months after starting his job, his father fell from a ski lift tower he was welding. The fall wouldn’t have killed him, but he landed on one of the four bolts at the base of the tower that were still exposed. The bolt pierced the back of his head, causing a traumatic brain injury. They rushed him from the mountain, but there was never any hope.

Richard had no memory of his father, except one vague image of riding with him on a motorcycle, clinging to his leather-clad back. And he was never sure if that was an actual memory or just a story he had been told so many times that his brain filled in the visuals and the emotional details.

Richard was close with his mother, who worked at a propane distribution firm, but not with his brother Nick, who was two years older. Throughout his growing up Richard was the Momma’s Boy, and his brother was aloof, troubled, and rebellious. Both he and his mother always attributed Nick’s problems to how hard he took the death of his father, whereas Richard was really too young to fully understand. Richard graduated near the top of his class in high school. His brother had barely squeaked by two years earlier.

Getting out of high school meant freedom for Richard, who was just coming to terms with his sexuality, and was feeling crushed by the social weight of living in Salt Lake City. After his graduation, Richard left for College immediately, assisted by a full-ride scholarship to NYU. He had always said the only thing he really wanted was to get out of Salt Lake, and he was thrilled at the chance to live in the big city of New York. He thrived there, feeling like New York had everything Salt Lake City had lacked: The energy, the art, the culture, the academics, the social activism; all of it thrilled Richard, and he felt like he had come home.

But in the course of Richard being back east, and his brother staying in Salt Lake City, they found that their roles in life switched.

His brother became much closer to their mother and got his life together. Richard came out as gay to his mom while he was in college, and she didn’t take it well. He felt he was never really close to her after that, and he felt that loss deeply.

When he had the chance to attend graduate school at Columbia, and get his degree in classical languages, he decided that he’d probably never go back to Salt Lake City again.

But then his mother got sick. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while Richard was in his mid-twenties, still in College back east, and now working on his Ph.D. And although he traveled back and forth to Salt Lake City frequently in the year of his mother’s illness, he never felt the closeness they once had. Richard often said it felt like she was treating him like he was the one that was dying, and she was getting a head start on mourning him.

His brother Nick and his wife stepped up to the plate and took care of her as the illness progressed, spending more time at her home in the Avenues than at their own home in Heber (where his brother now had a small construction firm).

Richard was both in awe, and felt immensely inadequate, watching from afar as his brother took charge, showing a level of maturity and responsibility that seemed out of character. But Nick was very content to do it, and Richard was touched to see how close his mother and brother had become. It was very warming to his heart, but also left him feeling alone and apart, like he had lost something very important in his life—something he had said he never really wanted, but obviously had.

At the same time, his years away had made Richard grow into an immensely proud and defiant man. Being out of the closet and fighting for social justice had become an important part of Richard’s life, as he became involved in various causes. He could never really share what his life had become with his mother, and so the two lived very much apart. His visits with her became more and more shallow, each trip he made back to Salt Lake City.

His mother’s final health crisis came when he was deep into the defense of his Ph.D. thesis on “The Decline of Spoken Sanskrit After Panini.” He talked with his brother, and they agreed he would fly back later in the week. They all believed she had some time, and he needed to get through his thesis defense. He went through it all extremely distracted, but it was enough, and as soon as it was done, he was on a plane back to Utah.

Unfortunately, by the time he had arrived, his mother had slipped into a coma. She never regained consciousness, and so he wasn’t able to say goodbye. It was something he was not sure he was grateful for or regretted.

 Both his brother and his wife were also there at the end and talking quietly around her bedside in those last moments, they realized that they really had no other family to speak of. A few distant aunts and uncles came by, and some of his mother’s friends from when she had worked at the propane delivery company. But looking at each other, he and his brother realized they were pretty much all the family that was left.

Richard’s mother died in the Oncology ward of the University Medical Center. Richard was twenty-six years old.

After his mother’s death, they had her house to contend with. It was vacant for a year, and Richard was back in New York, trying to decide what to do with his life. He discovered that getting his doctorate in Linguistics was not exactly a golden career path, and he had no intention of working in corporate America, or (god-forbid) lending his talents to the military. So he looked for teaching positions.

He could not have been more surprised when the first serious tenure track interview he was offered was at the University of Utah. At one point (in the late 1970s) they had a Sanskrit scholar on staff, but he had passed away, and since then no classes in the language had been offered. The job would be to teach entry-level linguistics courses, but also to teach a small series of Sanskrit seminars through the University’s World Languages and Cultures department.

At first, he rejected the idea almost out of hand. The thought of returning to Salt Lake City was something he never expected and had no desire to do. He had fought desperately to get out of the city less than a decade before, and he still saw the city as a backward and oppressive place to be. He associated too much pain with the city to think he could ever live there again.

But his options were limited, and so he took the interview. He knew little about the University of Utah, but the faculty and the quality of the search committee impressed him. He felt an immediate rapport with the head of the department, and it was clear that they wanted him.

But more importantly, he felt a strange affection and sense of comfort, being back in Salt Lake City. He had left with a great degree of resentment and a need to be anywhere in the world but Utah. But being back for the extensive interview process, he’d found himself becoming strangely emotional and sentimental; so much so that he’d often found himself filled with tears at the sight of old, familiar landmarks: Liberty Park, where he’d hung out with his friends as a kid. The cemetery near his home. The mountains above the University, where he’d spent a great deal of time just looking at the city. It was all very nostalgic and comforting.

While he was going through the University’s interview process, he stayed at the house he grew up in, which had been vacant since his mother’s death. The house was still largely furnished. His brother had done a good job of cleaning out most of his mother’s possessions, but there was still artwork on the wall, and the bunk beds he’d shared with his brother were still in their old room.

In the end, he got the job offer, and he took it. He and his brother mortgaged the house so that he could buy Nick out of his share, and Richard became the owner, with a twenty-year mortgage to pay off from his new University post. His brother appreciated the money that came in from selling the house to Richard, and within a year, he and his wife had moved to Vermont, where his brother bought into a mountain bike business with a high school friend.

After Nick left, Richard was shocked to realize that he, the only one he thought would ever get out of Salt Lake City and never come back, was now the only one who remained. Something about the city just wanted him back, and although it confused him it had all worked out this way, it also felt more like home now than it did when he was growing up.

Over the almost thirty years since, he and his brother had drifted apart. They typically still called each other on holidays, and on the anniversary of their mother’s death. But three or four phone calls a year was usually the extent of their interaction. Richard had only seen Nick a half dozen times in those three decades, and only twice since he and Keith had been together. At this point in their lives, Richard knew that both he and his brother were maintaining contact more for the memory of their mother than any family connection they actually shared.

At first, it was strange, living alone in the house where he had grown up. Richard had many misgivings about whether he had done the right thing in coming back, and he even experienced what he later learned to identify as panic attacks, alone, late at night in the house. But fortunately, the job was all-consuming, and he was quickly the golden boy of the Linguistics department.

Richard built a reputation as a hard and demanding professor—but a fair one—and his love of linguistics communicated to every class he taught. He’d done a lot of research and published several books over the years, and there was always pressure to do more. But over the years his research dwindled. Once he had made tenure, it fell off almost completely. His love of teaching defined his academic life.

Thirty-five years after arriving at the University, Richard was still teaching. But much had changed for him. Sometimes it felt like a lifetime ago, but it was just ten years before his death that he met the shy, chubby, bookish young man who would change his life, and perhaps even redeem his soul. Keith had just graduated from the University with an English degree and had stayed on to work at the Marriott Library, in the circulation department. Just six months after they met, Richard would ask Keith to move out of his studio apartment on 6th East and into the house in the Avenues.

When Keith said yes, it changed everything.

Or, at least, Richard wanted to think that it did.

He wanted desperately to believe that his love for Keith could heal him of the pain and regret of what had happened to him in those dark, early years as a young professor. Those years when he had made horrible mistakes, and when those mistakes threatened to destroy everything.

He focused on his love for Keith and hoped that it would help him to forget. And for days and sometimes weeks at a time, he almost did.

But never, really…

Newly minted ghosts are often slow to react to the world around them. Sounds seem so much louder and colors so much more vibrant, that it is almost like adjusting to a whole new set of senses.

When Richard heard the key turning in the lock, it was a harsh, ratcheting sound that frightened him. But there was also something about it that was familiar—like he’d been in this room many times, waiting for that sound. And like a sense memory, his heart leaped, and a face formed in his mind.

“Keith…” he said, trying out the name on his tongue. It tasted sweet.

He heard the door swing open but stayed rooted in the living room, unable to move. He fixed his eyes on the open archway that led into the hall, but for long moments, there was nothing but silence.

No, not silence. He could hear… breathing.

He brought his hands up to his ears and squeezed his eyes shut, but the sound wasn’t coming through his ears. It was something he sensed, deep in his mind. A familiar and much-loved breath…

When he opened his eyes, there was a man standing in the archway. He was a short Asian man with glasses as round as his belly, a long-sleeve button-down shirt, and well-worn Levi’s. There was an expression on his face somewhere between dread and longing. His stocky-fingered hands hung at his side, trembling. Richard gazed at him longingly across the gore-spattered wall and bloody carpet, as emotion washed through him like a flash flood.

That’s Keith, he thought as his lover took a step into the room.

Richard rushed to secure that name in his mind before the universe could rip it away. And as his partner of ten years walked slowly into the room, and stood gazing at the carpet, he felt the past decade of their life together crash over him in a wave.

Every fiber of his being wanted to rush into Keith’s arms, and he was moving across the living room, skirting the pool of blood, before he could even decide if doing so was a good idea. But he was brought up short, inches from his lost lover.

I know I’m dead, he thought. What if I throw my arms around him and I scatter like smoke? What if there is nothing there for him to touch?

“Keith…” he said, reaching a hand toward his lover’s face. But the younger man’s gaze didn’t waver. He was staring at the place where Richard had died. Staring right through Richard himself at the gore that still shined in the room like a crimson beacon.

Richard withdrew his hand, terrified to actually touch this man who he had loved for more than a decade.

Slowly, his trembling fingers reached out to Keith’s hip. It was the place he had first touched him, beneath the churning water and the foam of the hot tub in Park City the evening after they had first met. He expected his hand to pass through Keith’s hip like a shadow, and he was surprised when his fingers found something solid and even felt the rough denim against his fingertips. But the denim felt… odd. It was rough and unyielding, much like the carpet and the couch he had touched earlier. There was no hint of life or warmth in the touch. Keith’s jeans felt more like a plaster cast of denim than soft cotton. But still, it was solid, and it was Keith! Richard could see his lover standing next to him, as real as he had ever looked. He raised his hands to Keith’s face and cradled it. But it felt like cradling the face of a marble statue. There was no warmth radiating from his cheeks, no softness, and no recognition of the touch.

There were tears in Keith’s eyes. The younger man turned his head away from the mess on the floor, and away from Richard’s hand. For a moment Richard felt Keith could see him standing there like he might reach out his arms, and pull him into a warm embrace.

“They did a good job, I think. The carpet looks fine,” Keith said.

Richard glanced down at the bloodstained mess at their feet. He wanted to respond, but he didn’t know what to say. To his eyes, the carpet looked anything but fine. He was about to speak when he became aware that they were not alone in the room. He jumped back, startled when a woman’s long thin arms folded themselves around Keith’s waist.

“Michelle,” he said, naming her. “You’re… Keith’s friend, Michelle.”

Yes, it had to be her. She was taller, and as she spoke, she laid her cheek atop Keith’s head.

“Yeah, it looks good. I’m glad,” she said.

She lifted her chin to gaze at the living room carpet, and Richard allowed his eyes to follow hers. They landed on the huge, red, angry bloodstain there in the middle of the floor. And suddenly the tableau of it all was more than he could take. His knees failed, and he found himself on the floor at Keith’s feet, his forehead on the younger man’s cold, hard Chuck Taylor sneakers. The reality of what he was sank deeper and chilled his soul.

I’m dead, he thought. My body isn’t here. I was killed.

There was a gunshot.

And yet here he was, in the hallway of their home, watching the tears run down Keith’s face, with a bloodstained rug that only he could see.

“I think I need to sleep,” he heard Keith say, but the words barely penetrated Richard’s mind, which was racing into spirals that he felt could devolve into madness if he let them. He remembered the old panic attacks that he had fought his entire life. They had been caused by the same feeling then that he was fighting against now: A sense that he was totally alone, totally lost, and totally isolated in the world.

His vision narrowed, and he became vaguely aware that Michelle was talking. Something about him not spending the night here. But when Keith spoke again, Richard was sure his heart would break.

“No, I need to stay. And I need to stay here alone. I love you, Pod, but this is something I need to do. This was our home. Me and Richard. And now that he’s gone, it’s still my home. I’m not going to sell it. I plan to live here for a very long time. I need to get past tonight, so each day… can start to get easier.”

He can’t see me, Richard realized. He can’t touch me. I’m dead, and I’m gone. Oh god, I wasn’t the only one to lose everything. I’ve left Keith alone…

A name came to him, and a memory that evoked another deep moan.

Justin. This is like Justin. But this is worse. What I’ve done to Keith is even worse than what I did to Justin.

Richard felt that if he didn’t get out of the house, he would definitely lose his mind. He stumbled to his feet and backed up all the way to the far wall of the living room, sure that he could walk through it as any self-respecting ghost should be able to do. But the wall was just as firm and solid as the rest of his world, and the room had become a terror, not a comfort. What if I am locked in here forever? he thought. Isn’t that what happens to ghosts? They have to haunt the place in which they died?

In terror, Richard rushed past Keith and Michelle, making a wide arc around them as if they were on fire. He stumbled out of the room and into the corridor, remembering the layout of the house in a rush. He ran to the door, intending to throw it open and flee. But as he tried to twist the handle, he realized his hands had no effect on this world at all. He banged at the window near the door, and nothing even shimmered. The voices of Keith and Michelle were still drifting to him from the living room.

Oh, dear God, I’m trapped!

Richard sank down to the floor, his back to the door.

Numb and in shock, he watched as Michelle led Keith out of the living room, and then to the foot of the stairs. As they passed him, Michelle’s foot struck his outstretched hand and kicked it aside as if it weighed no more than an empty tin can. His wrist ached from the impact.

Pain! I feel pain…

Holding his hand against his chest, Richard watched Michelle lead Keith up the stairs to their bedroom. The bedroom they had shared through more than ten years together. The room where he had held and loved and laughed and tickled and teased his young lover, delighting in the round softness of his belly, and the smooth, hairless chest under his bearded cheek. The room where the two had made love countless times over the last decade, each time collapsing together in joy atop sweaty sheets.

I will never feel Keith’s touch again. I’ll never taste his lips. I’ll never hold him warm and naked against me. Oh god, I’ve lost everything, and all that’s left is this… loneliness. This sadness. And this pain.

At the top of the stairs, the two turned the corner and were gone.

Richard was alone. From where he lay, he could see into the corner of the living room. The wall was still splattered with blood and gore. It pulsed with life as if he had left what was vital and animate in himself there, sprayed across the wall.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. As a poet, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre; and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He enjoys hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop me a line, and consider supporting my work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. More than half of the the trilogy's over 200 chapters are already available there for subscribers.

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