Rock salt crunched underfoot as I approached the door, which was odd seeing as how it was only fall. The weather had definitely turned chilly but not nearly enough for a freeze. It wasn’t until I had my hand on the handle that I realized the salt hadn’t been sprinkled on the walk so much as painted across it. There was a fat line, as if some lazy janitor had simply circled the building with his push dispenser and called it a day.
I opened the door marked “Enter” and the scent hit me before I even crossed the threshold—that tart, sour aroma of old people. The place reeked of it. Not even the heavy dose of deodorizing disinfectant could mask it. Beyond was a short hall sealed by a glass inner door, over which hung a few heads of garlic tied to a bunch of dried wildflowers. I recognized them as adderwort, although I had no idea why such a thing would be there, let alone why it hung in front of a small round reflective mosaic made from the irregular pieces of a shattered mirror. I tried the handle, but the door was locked. I had to be buzzed into the lobby from the nurses’ station, which was thankfully in clear view of the glass. I must have looked harmless because a thin nurse with bags under her eyes hit the button. Inside, fluorescent tubes hung from the ceiling in rectangular plastic casings. The walls were block concrete painted piss yellow. A waist-high rim of scuff marks dotted the hall ahead of me, made by the gurneys and wheelchairs the staff and residents had left sitting about. The floor was speckled linoleum tile buffed to such a shine that it made my shoes squeak.
I walked to the nurses’ desk and waited for one of the women to acknowledge me. Synthesized bossa nova played over the ceiling speakers. A pair of double-sided filing shelves stuffed with color-tabbed folders filled a nook behind the desk. I glanced to the women, but they ignored me.
To my left, across from the exit door, was a waiting area with a handful of sullen and silent occupants. A cork bulletin board on the wall was stuffed with community odds and ends. Brochures and announcements hung off it at every angle. To my right was some kind of common room. The door was only cracked open. A white-shirted orderly, who looked like the middle linebacker for an inner city high school, stood dead-eyed in front of a locked glass case, like he was guarding the Resident of the Month display: Mrs. Bodkin was too sick to smile for the picture of her hanging on the other side of the glass. She had an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose and her eyes were half closed.
The guard caught me looking. There was something terribly wrong with his eyes.
“Can I help you?”
The nurse had no expression. She was dead-eyed with heavy bags under her sockets. A machine would’ve had more charisma.
“Yes, I’m here to see—” I paused. Suddenly it seemed dumb to say her name out loud.
“She already has a visitor,” the woman said, turning to multi-task on her computer. “Are you buying or selling?”
The question took me aback. “Selling.”
“You can wait over there.” She pointed to the rows of white plastic seats with chrome legs.
I sat in one. I looked around. The staff were busy with paperwork. Occasionally the phones rang. A few seats down from me, a woman with a lisp tried to calm whatever wheezing beast was inside the collapsible pet carrier on her lap. When she saw me looking, she pulled the drape over the front. On the other side of the chairs, a goth girl all of sixteen sat biting her nails, which were already torn. She was engrossed in her phone. I wished I had mine.
I took out my instructions and read them again—not because I’d forgotten, or even that I was worried, so much as I just didn’t have anything else to do. I read them seven times.
Accept no bargain.
I folded the paper and put it back in my pocket. I sat. I read every sign visible from my seat and discovered that the John D. was proudly Medicare- and HIPAA-compliant. It was an hour or so before a nurse in blue scrubs and a short white coat came to get me.
“Selling?” she asked, as if that were my name.
I nodded. I’d been half-asleep. In my stupor, I hadn’t noticed the young girl leave.
“She’ll see you now.”
I followed the nurse down the hall to a T-intersection. Ahead was the rear exit, facing what looked like the staff parking lot. To my right and left were identical halls filled with patient rooms. There was a dark round knob above each door with the room number painted on both sides. It wasn’t until we turned left that I noticed one of the knobs was darkly lit, like a black light, indicating the patient in that room required attention. I peeked in as I passed and saw a shriveled man in an oxygen mask reaching out to me with his eyes as he panted for breath.
They were all like that, every one in every room, motionless and dying. That’s what the John D. Bailey Center was for: palliative care—attending to the pain and symptoms but not the disease, which I guessed in every case was terminal.
As we neared to the end of the hall, the piss-yellow block walls sprouted a constellation of butterfly shapes, each a different size and color—probably someone’s earnest attempt to “liven up the place.” A couple businessmen in drab suits walked past the butterflies, heading toward the front. They seemed so out of place. The taller one was visibly distraught. His companion was more resigned, like he’d gotten the same devastating news but would wait until later to deal. Whatever it was, it consumed them. They didn’t even notice me.
I was shown to a room opposite another enclosed staircase and was asked to wait inside. I saw an overstuffed bookshelf, a side table, and a rolling kitchen stand, all covered in bric-a-brac. There was a love seat in front of a glass oval coffee table topped only by a Mason jar sprouting half-dead flowers. Vintage Americana adorned the walls in red, white, and blue. There was a bronze statue of a ballet dancer, about a foot high, on the ledge of the bookshelf next to a treasure chest—shaped box, no more than five inches across. The lid was open. Inside was a pile of jagged, irregular stones. They were lobed and pocked like old coral. But they weren’t coral. They weren’t rock either.
My hand froze.
An old woman with gnarled skin and wild hair rolled into the room in a wheelchair. There was a green oxygen tank fixed to the back and a plastic mask trapped in a tangle of tubes. She wore a simple white apron over a calico dress. Her feet were covered in scuffed leather work boots too heavy for her sticklike legs, one of which dragged on the ground like a rudder as she rolled. I smelled tobacco and anise.
“Nettlestones,” she explained. Her face was gaunt and wrinkled like elephant hide.
“Nettlestones?” I’d never heard of such a thing.
“Where d’ya think gargoyles come from?” she asked. She pointed a shaky, bony finger. “Get one of those under you and you’ll spend the next few years watching horns and callouses grow outta every patch of skin.”
I turned back to the box. The irregularly shaped contents looked more like tree bark than anything, but denser and sharp. Easy to cut yourself.
“They was like lepers in the old days. Didn’t have nowhere to go, so the churches took ’em. In return, the miserable sots sat the night watch and kept an eye on things while the old vicars slept. Them carvings on the cathedrals were a just warning. Beware of Dog so to speak.”
Without so much as a pause for breath, she barked the words “Ground rules!” She held up three gnarled, arthritic fingers attached to a visibly trembling hand. “Rule number one, mind your manners.” She closed one finger. “Rule number two, speak when you’re spoken to. Don’t make me guess. I’m not a mind reader.” She closed another finger. “And number three, keep your seat and don’t make any sudden moves. I’m old and jumpy.” She motioned to the love seat with flower-print fabric. “Manage those and we’ll get on just fine.”
With her terms set, Granny Tuesday paddled with her foot to the messy work table at the back of the space. I didn’t see a bed. Old-timey lace curtains covered windows on two sides.
“Now, what can I do for you?” she asked.
“It’s the other way around, actually. I’m told I have something you might want.”
“Alright,” she said without a hitch. “Let’s see it.” She situated herself facing me and locked one of the wheels of her chair. Her osteoporosis was bad enough that her spine curled forward a little, which meant she hunched slightly in the chair. But her eyes twinkled like she was about to tell you a joke.
I took out the coin and held it up between my thumb and forefinger, unsure what to expect.
The old woman popped the wheel lock immediately and made like she was going to move toward it, which surprised me. I took the chef’s advice and slipped it back into my pocket.
She sat back. “Well, now . . . That is something. That is something indeed.” There was a long pause. “I don’t suppose you wanna tell me where you acquired that silver?”
“It was given to me.”
“Ahtt!” She shook a finger at the floor in front of the doorway. She paddled forward with her foot and leaned over so far she had to hold her breath. She came up with something pinched between her thumb and forefinger. She held it up for me to see.
I squinted without moving for a closer look. It looked like a stray hair from my beard, which I immediately rubbed to make sure it was clean.
“Lookit that,” she said. “And the staff here do such a good job keepin’ things tidy.”
It was true. The place was freakily spotless.
She threw me the briefest of disapproving glances before rolling toward the waste bin under the table. “Have we met?” she asked with her back turned.
“I don’t think so.”
She contemplated her next question. “You were asked to keep your seat,” she said.
“Ah,” I said apologetically. I was still standing. I sat on the love seat in front of the coffee table.
Granny noticed the wilted flowers in the screw-top Mason jar. “Where’re you from, sonny?”
She paddled forward with her rudder foot and removed the dripping plants. “Bah! Your roots, boy,” she said brandishing the stems. “You can cut them all you like but you never grow new ones. Where’re your roots?” She dumped the water on the floor, spat, and replaced the jar on the coffee table.
I looked at the puddle on the flat carpet. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me boy,” I said before adding the word “Ma’am.”
“I ain’t mean nuthin’ by it.” She turned about and tossed the flowers in the trash. Half of them made it. “Just a word.”
“Not where I’m from.” I tried to sound polite. Nonconfrontational. Like you do in those situations.
“Fair enough. So what do I call ya?”
“Most people call me Dr. Alexander,” I explained.
“I see. And how many letters you got after your name, Doc?”
“Does it matter?”
“How many?” she insisted.
“And what are they?”
“MA and PhD.”
She leaned toward me. “Know how many letters I got after my name?”
“All of ’em.” Her short laugh was half cackle, half shriek.
Granny Tuesday leaned over in her chair, straining to reach the screw-top jar without having to roll herself closer to the coffee table.
“Can I help?”
“I got it,” she insisted. She lunged once, then twice, just managing to hook two fingers over the lip. She pulled it toward her. “There!” She moved the empty jar to the work table and wiped her fingers on her smock. “You were born in the hills, weren’tcha?”
I nodded. “Asheville. Why do you ask?”
“Well, ain’t that grand!” she exclaimed. “We’re practically kin! I’m from just up the road. Little house in the woods outside a’ Johnson City, Tennessee. Weren’t but a hour between us as the crow flies. Ain’t that something.”
“We’re a long way from home,” I said, making polite conversation.
“Yes, sir.” She nodded. “Have to go where we’re needed though, don’t we?”
The white-shirted orderly, the one I’d seen up front, stepped into the room with fresh flowers in a clean, water-filled Mason jar. His eyes were frosted. He didn’t say anything. He set the flowers on the coffee table in front of me and left. It was a full bunch, and the unusually large, striped blossoms completely blocked my view of my host.
“About that silver,” she said.
I shifted sideways in my seat so I could get up without knocking over the coffee table.
Granny lifted a piece of hard candy from a dish and put it in her mouth. She offered me the dish, which shook with her hands. I remembered my instructions.
Let nothing pass your lips. Accept neither food nor drink.
I declined with a wave. I stood and walked around the love seat.
“You were asked to keep your seat,” she said, knocking that candy around her teeth.
“I’d prefer to stand. If it’s alright with you.”
“You don’t want to parlay with me, Doc? And here I thought we was becomin’ friends.”
“I hope so,” I said with mock earnestness. “I wouldn’t want to think you were trying to take advantage of me, Granny.”
“Now, now,” she said calmly. “You were asked kindly to keep your manners.” She bit the candy. I heard it crack. “And your seat.”
“Why?” I asked. “So I can get giddy off the scent of the flowers and end up agreeing to something I shouldn’t?” I pointed. “Hyoscyamus niger. Commonly known as black henbane. Wouldn’t have remembered it if not for those distinctive striations. But then, poisonous flowers are a little like poisonous snakes.” I was looking squarely at her. “A deterrent does no good if you don’t advertise.”
Granny Tuesday smiled. She sat back in her wheelchair and relaxed for the first time. She even lifted her heavy rudder boot onto the footplate. But her hands were still shaking and she crossed them in her lap.
“You know what, Doc? I think I like you. A good Southern boy ain’t no fool. Excuse me. Southern man.” She waved a hand at the coffee table. “Go ahead and move those flowers outta there and no hard feelings.”
“I’m alright,” I said without moving. I looked very closely at my host. She sat patiently as if for a portrait. “You a hustler, Granny?”
“That’s a rude word and I don’t like it. I ain’t gonna warn you again to mind your manners.”
I leaned back against the bookcase and crossed my arms. “It’s just a word,” I said, copying my host. “I didn’t mean nothing by it. I’m kinda impressed, actually. Woman of your age and all.”
Granny squeezed her hands together as if she was frustrated with them. She turned her chair and paddled with her foot to a floor basket on her right. “And how old do you think I am?”
I shrugged and she put the smile back on her face as she reached into the basket and pulled out a short strip of twine from a bunch. It was brown and fuzzy.
“Do you mind?” She raised a hand to advertise her tremors. “I know it’s rude but it helps if they have something to keep them occupied.”
I motioned for her to proceed.
“Thankya.” With hands shaking like an unbalanced washing machine, Granny Tuesday tucked one end of the twine under the other and pulled a knot tight. She tugged the ends a couple times to test it, which seemed to satisfy her.
“All that’s just business,” she said, nodding to the henbane. “That’s what I am, a businesswoman. So how about you and me get down to business? How much for the penny?”
“How much are you offering?” I said, playing the chef’s game, as instructed.
“Well . . .” She ruminated as she tied a second knot, “Seein’ as how we’re just passin’ by the bye and don’t know each other right well, I imagine you’ll have to tell me what you want.”
I had the sense that if I suggested something in trade, anything at all, no matter how fanciful—a pot of gold, the method for cold fusion, the Empire State Building—Granny Tuesday would’ve immediately spat in her hand, slapped her knee, and shouted the word “Deal!” and I would have blundered right into whatever trap the chef had warned me to avoid.
I contemplated my response as she kept her shaking hands busy with the string.
“Oh, poo,” she breathed. “I used to be able to tie one a’ these in a hot second. Now look at me. Shakin’ like a pastor in a whore house.”
“Can I help?” I asked, buying myself a little time.
“No, no,” she said with a sigh. “It don’t help my hands none if yours do all the work.” She tugged another knot tight, this time with a grimace. “So?” she asked. “What can Granny do for you? Seems to me it has to be a mighty fine thing in trade.” She nodded to the coin in my pocket.
I went to shift my weight, as you do after you realize you’ve been leaning in the same spot for a while, but instead of obeying my command, my right foot sat like a cannon ball and I lost my balance and fell sideways to the carpet. My cheek fell in the puddle of henbane water she’d dumped earlier. I could smell the sap—sticky and sweet.
I tried to get up, but I couldn’t move. I had such a bad Charlie horse in my back that I couldn’t do anything but lie on the ground and hold myself as stiff as a board, breathing in shallow gasps. It hurt.
“By knot of one,” Granny Tuesday chuckled as she turned the twine between her fingers like a rosary. “The spell’s begun.”
She stood from her wheelchair, shakily. “By knot of two, it cometh true.” She walked toward me slowly, singing the words. “By knot of three, so mote it be.”
I watched her spindly legs lift those heavy boots in awkward shuffling steps. She still had the twine in her hand. “By knot of four, my powers roar. By knot of five, the spell’s alive.”
When finally she was over me, I could see a series of irregularly-spaced knots in the cord. She dangled the line in front of my eyes for a better look. The first knot bound my beard hair, black and curly.
“By knot of six,” she cackled, “it’s you I fix. By knot of seven, you pray to heaven. By knot of eight, comes your fate.”
I babbled in protest as Granny leaned against the nearby love seat and she tied the final knot, hands still shaking like running motors. Then, with a single hand to brace her, she bent down with a grunt.
“By knot of nine, what’s yours”—she reached into my pocket with fumbling fingers—“is mine.” She took the coin.
Granny Tuesday flipped the tarnished silver and caught it in the air with surprisingly steady hands.
She stood over me and held her prize between her thumb and forefinger. “I’ve been after this penny for nigh on seventy years,” she said. She slipped it into the pocket of her apron and tapped it. “And here you just waltz in with it, like you found it on the street. It’s fishy, mister. Now hows about you tell ol’ Granny the truth?”
I could barely move, and that included my throat.
“Righty.” She stood straight. “Guess’n you’ll hafta be my guest for a spell. Some time in the garden, I think, will straighten you out.”
She turned to a pair of white-shirted orderlies, including the linebacker-looking kid who had brought the henbane. Neither of them spoke.
“Virgil. Horace. Take this fella out to the garden and see that he gets all fixed up.”
snippet from the first course of my forthcoming five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
Each of the five courses is a separate mystery, although together they tell the story of the protagonist, a shaman-chef, who is never the narrator.
cover image by Yuliya Litvinov