from The Late Gatsby

by David Schulman

Author’s Note: The Late Gatsby, a novel in progress, features Shaky Stein, a dishwasher at Asheville’s Flying Saucer diner. Shaky has a bevy of dead people as his closest friends as well as a group of colorful live friends who frequent the diner owned by recently retired Reverend William Serjak. After inheriting a small cabin from his grandfather, the former activity director at Highland Hospital where Zelda Fitzgerald perished in a 1948 fire, Shaky finds out that a flashy developer needs to buy his property as part of turning Highland into an upscale retirement resort. The scene opens with the sudden appearance of the ghosts of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at The Flying Saucer. They ask for Shaky’s assistance in stopping the destruction of Highland where Zelda and several other deceased patients and physicians have continued to reside.

Jay Westlake, IV, a reported scion of an affluent Midwest land baron, and recent buyer of the Highland Hospital property, showed up in Asheville and began purchasing all the property he could get his fat wallet around. I had never met him, but his people sent me a registered letter offering me a tidy price to sell my little place. It was easy to see why he wanted it. It sat strategically smack dab in the middle of the Highland campus. I never answered his offer.

“I am not interested in selling at any price,” I said to the Fitzgeralds.

“That might not stop Westlake from tearing our home down,” Zelda said. This time there was no laugh. It was less a smart remark, than a plea. “Just this morning before I left, they sent a parade of earth movers in.”

“Giant yellow dinosaurs ready to roam, hungry for demolition,” Scott said. “We overheard Westlake talking to an Asheville Citizen reporter. He said he might start work in a few weeks.”

“While he was shooting his mouth off about what he was going to do to make Asheville an even more beautiful destination,” Zelda said, “a bunch of us Highland residents shoved his damn Tesla down that steep bank beside your house. You should have seen the crown prince of progress babbling about how he was sure he had put the parking brake on.” Zelda handed her empty brown bottle back to Scott, who placed it back in his coat pocket.

The back screen door slammed closed, and Rev. Will muttered something.

“You’ve got to help us, Shaky,” Scott said, scooting out of the booth and standing to leave. “Zelda can’t rest in peace with all this going on.”

Then they were both gone. They disappeared like they were never there. The front door closed slowly.

“Has anybody come in while we were outside?” Rev. Will asked, seeing me wiping off the booth seats.

“Just a couple of old souls,” I said.

Chapter Three

Diners, like mental hospitals, are such democratic institutions, attracting the rich and the poor, the educated and the not, and those dressed for success and those barely dressed at all. As chief bottle washer, I was ringside to everything. Under a promising morning sun, our parking lot was filling up. A well-worn Ford 150 sitting next to a brand new Chevy Silverado with a temporary tag, a Toyota mini-van nestled comfortably next to a Beetle Bug convertible, a shiny BMWZ4 honeyed up to a weathered Honda Civic without hubcaps. On the vacant land next to our parking lot, an enormous billboard firmly planted into thinly spread gravel and heavy weeds seemed to come out of nowhere.

“When was that billboard erected?” Rev. Will asked those of us assembled at and behind the counter. Only a preacher, an engineer, or a porn director would use a word like erect.

“Those sign guys swooped down like DaNang recon,” Owl, the late-night cook answered. “Just popped up over night. They didn’t want any protests from those nature lovers, I suppose.”

“I thought the City Hall Commies outlawed them,” Toe Ellsworth said. “The billboards.” Toe’s occupation was to read feet like palm readers did hands. One slow afternoon she popped into the Saucer, lined up a few of us sans socks, and analyzed our extreme digits. She claimed my curved pinkie toe indicated a latent conservatism. “Spooky eyes up there on that sign,” Toe said. “They almost seem to follow you everywhere you go.”

“Gets your attention,” Owl piped in. “Makes me want to fix my eyesight, and I don’t even need glasses.”

Throw away those glasses and let us laser you to perfect sight, the giant poster, complete with a long flashing apple-green neon wand strategically placed along one side of the billboard, proclaimed. The artwork featured blue eyes painted maybe five feet high each, looking out, no face, but behind a pair of shiny gold-rimmed glasses that sat on an almost nonexistent nose. The offices of Dr. T.J. Schandler, Down the Valley in Asheville.

I dropped the cup I was drying and watched it do a backflip into the tub of water, causing an awkward sudsy splash. Onto my jeans, the floor, and spraying a few drops on the library copy of The Great Gatsby that sat on a low shelf. After the Fitzgeralds’ visit to the Saucer, I felt the need to reread Scott’s trophy novel. Same damn blue eyes on the book’s cover as up on the sign outside. Just like the descriptions in the book’s chapter two of an ominous billboard that loomed over the road between West Egg and New York City. There was no way to get my mind around how such a sign could be in front of me, and certainly no way a couple of deceased Fitzgeralds could have had anything to do with it, but one thing I was certain of, the Fitzgeralds were not your run-of-the-mill dead folk.

As Rev. Will walked behind me, he put his hand on my shoulder for just a moment. It was a good trait for a preacher, to sense what you felt almost before you felt it.

“Maybe I’ll put us up an advertisement on the back of that billboard,” he said. “Pull us in some tourists. Use that neon wand on the other side to point to a big heap of hashbrowns.”

Owl smiled as he adjusted the tiny television set he kept sitting to the side of the four waffle irons. “For a preacher, you are a damn good salesman.”

“God’s the hard sell,” Rev. Will said with a grin. “Everything else is easy.”

Then we all heard the screeching of tires as a red Porsche attempted to cut across three lanes of oncoming traffic. The car’s shiny chrome grill seemed to smirk at the other cars as they swerved to avoid a potentially fatal collision. The car came to a stop in our parking lot, using three spaces. Two large feet popped out, hoofed in beige-and-orange argyle socks tucked into spotless white bucks with reddish-pink soles. The man was tall, maybe mid-forties, with a full head of light brown hair slightly flapping in the light wind like Carolina tobacco ready to be harvested. I had come to envy thick hair, especially on cool dudes on their way to a polo match, a golf tournament, or even worse, about to post a large deposit in a small mountain bank. He was obviously a jet-set man, not a Flying Saucer male.

The man smiled at no one and everyone as he sat down on a stool between Toe and Homicide like he instantly knew everyone, all people, every last one. That wherever he appeared if all didn’t love him, or admire him, they must at least fear him. Toe was the only one of us big enough to toss him a slight smile in return. Homicide tightened his grip on the briefcase. I kept my head down and focused on a spot of grits determined to stay on the plate it had been abandoned on.

He announced his order as Rev. Will approached. “Black coffee, one piece of Canadian bacon, two poached eggs on dry whole wheat English muffin halves.”

Our bacon was from Lower Frog Pond Farms, nowhere near our northern hemisphere neighbor. We didn’t poach. And we certainly didn’t serve anything whole wheat. If you wanted something unusual, a sesame bagel once in a blue moon.

Rev. Will dutifully explained to the man what he couldn’t have. Surprisingly, the man accepted with grace.

“Just black coffee, will do, then,” he said, flashing another I am so beautiful smile. Who has perfect teeth like that? I thought.

Then the man looked directly toward me. As a defensive mechanism, we nervous ones have developed a wide range of peripheral vision so we can appear not to be looking anywhere near our target. This way we have a few milliseconds to figure out a way to respond. Usually, unfortunately, inappropriately.

“You, old sport, must be Shaky Stein? Am I correct?” He raised off the stool and stretched out his hand to shake.

Old sport my ass, I thought. My hands were in a vicious struggle to hold a side plate deep under the water as it buoyantly, even confidently, tried in vain to escape to the top and maybe even float to some kind of temporary safe harbor. Having such a distraction, thus avoiding shaking the man’s hand, felt like what Rev. Will defined as a blessing.

“Jay Westlake,” he said. “Call me Jay, please.” He talked like the two of us were about to have a real conversation. When he realized he was not going to get one, he slowly lowered his well-exercised buttocks back down on the stool like no one should notice his rejection. “I’m new to town, recently bought the Highland Hospital property. Going to turn that place into a swell resort when I’m done.”

“I know,” I said drying off my hands but still not offering one of them to him.

“Did you receive the letter, the offer, we sent? My company? Perhaps it was lost in the mail. We didn’t hear from you.”

“I did,” I said again trying hard not to let my voice tremble. I found years ago that if I did speak full sentences no longer than two or three words, I could sound halfway assured.

“We felt our offer was more than generous,” he said nicely but with a hint of annoyance and maybe even a little hurt.

“Not interested,” I said.

“You have seen the drawings?” Westlake said. “Of the development?” Where do men like him learn to put together just the right mixture of indignation and innocence? Their skill to fake so genuine.

“If you don’t want the money, we could trade you a penthouse condo right above the Olympic-sized pool. How’s that?”

Sure, I thought. Every dishwasher dreams of doing morning laps and getting an even tan. I was getting so upset it almost gave me the courage to toss a five-word or more sentence at him, but I managed to maintain my soapy Zen attitude.

“Well, I brought you a sales flyer that describes the whole project. I’ll leave it for you to look at if you don’t mind,” he said as he pulled a folded envelope out of his back pocket and placed it on the counter.

“I mind,” I said. “Not sellin’.” The Saucer regulars know when I’m getting angry. I start leaving my g’s off words. Homicide gave me a nervous look.

“I really think you are making a big mistake not to sell.” He didn’t motion Rev. Will for a check, but pulled out two five-dollar bills from his front pocket and placed them under the coffee cup. He gave another smile toward Toe, but this time, Toe did not reciprocate, and we watched him get back into his car and screech out of the parking lot, this time just ahead of a giant dump truck.

“Bullies suck,” Owl said.

Almost immediately my cell phone rang the blues. The ringtone I had set up just for texts. It rarely ever rang like that.

“Tender is the night, my new friend. Meet us for drinks and dinner? At six? Grove Park Inn? Zelda loves the spa!” From the iPhone of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Just wonderful! Now the dead used smart phones.

Rev. Will stuck a new tiny slip on the tiny stainless steel rim above the grill that held the orders. I watched Owl break open an egg with his unique one-handed technique, drop it on the hot griddle, and still intently focus on his favorite television rerun, Sex and the City. The Samantha character on the show had just given one of her familiar weekly shrieks from being in the throes of orgasmic joy.

“Owl, do you believe in life after death?” I asked. Yeah, it was out of the blue.

“Huh, yeah, I guess,” he said without taking his eyes off the television. “Why?”

“Luke 2:10,” Rev. Will said dumping the remains of Westlake’s coffee out and handing me the cup. “And the angels said unto them, ‘Fear not.’ Pretty sure, there are angels,” he said.

There had to be some kind of difference. Between angels and plain ole ghosts, spirits, haints. Some kind of social hierarchy even in death. I had the sudden fear that the Fitzgeralds weren’t going to fall into the angel category.

Chapter Four

As I entered what the hotel called The Big Room at the Grove Park Inn, known as a lobby anywhere else, I figured the nearest source of liquor had to be a good place to wait for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Natural light from the hotel’s massive floor-to-ceiling windows flooded the room. Local lore had it that when the Inn opened in 1913 apples were passed around every evening in The Big Room for patrons to take to their rooms for breakfast. A massive oak bar with baroque scrolling sat in the far corner. The mirror behind the bartenders reflected a perfectly manicured golf course meandering down the mountainside. I had to admit this was the perfect spot for a legendary Jazz era sot to hang out.

“What you having?” asked a young female bartender in a starched white tuxedo shirt and very tight black pants. She appeared hardly old enough to drive, but my skills at estimating age had steadily declined since I turned fifty.

“Waiting for a friend,” I said more curtly than I intended. Shy people don’t project themselves well. Always giving the wrong impressions.

She wiped off a spot at the bar for me anyway, and shot me back a grin familiar of late, more an indication of empathy for the approaching end of one’s life than a sign of any physical attraction.

“I’ve already had my limit,” a male voice behind me announced. “They cut me off so early in the day. Something about my shooting the ceiling out in my room after having a touch too much alcohol they say,” Scott Fitzgerald said, rolling his eyes devilishly.

I looked at the bartender to see if she saw him, but she didn’t act like she did. But management did see him? Sometimes? All the time? One day soon I had to get straight exactly what the protocol of seeing dead people was.

Fitzgerald wore a pair of navy striped wool dress pants hiked up above his waist with wide white suspenders hanging down by his sides, but he wore no shirt. A few strands of blond hair on his chest stuck out like those on a much younger live man might have. The hair on his head was no longer slicked down the middle like it had been at The Saucer, but looked more like a garden full of weeds sprouting in random directions. His black-and-white brogan shoes did seem appropriate for a man of a past era, but he wore them without socks.

“Let’s head on up to my room, Shaky,” he said. “The pedestrian traffic in here at this hour is just plain disgusting. Besides, my secretary just delivered a new shipment of my private stock. Homebrew. Made right here in Asheville she says. Legal, too.”

Secretary? Dead? Alive? Beer drinking after all the body’s systems have permanently shut down a half century or more ago? It had taken me so long to get just a tad comfortable with life’s simple mysteries, and now the Fitzgeralds showed up stirring everything back to confusing.

The old elevator at the Grove Park was just on the other side of a large boulder wall that backed the bar. When the heavy steel door opened, it revealed tarnished gold accordion doors behind it that were drawn open by a bellman in a heavy wool dark green uniform. Everything in the cage, inside the elevator, was aged knotty pine—the floor, the ceiling, the walls. Carved into the back wall were the words, All men cannot be heroes, but all men can be men, General John Pershing, Hotel Guest.

“They’ve got new elevators in the remodeled section, but I’m glad to see they kept some of the original stuff,” Fitzgerald said. “They do tend to use downtrodden Puerto Ricans now instead of Negroes, I see.”

I looked to see if the bellman heard anything, but he didn’t appear to. He also didn’t seem to notice the smell of consumed liquor that wafted among the three of us like a secondhand burp. The bellman only gave me a simple look that asked, “Where to?”

I fumbled in my pocket for a nonexistent key. “I always forget which floor I’m on,” I said.

“Room 411. Tell him the fourth floor,” Fitzgerald barked.

“Fourth floor, yeah, fourth floor,” I told the elevator operator.

“You’re on the floor where the famous writer used to live,” he answered. “I’ve just started here, but they tell me some funky shit goes down in that little room or museum or whatever it is they’ve made out of where he stayed while he was here.” He quickly looked over his shoulder at me, I guess to see if his language slip offended.

“What kind of things,” I said, looking at Fitzgerald.

“Well, they leave the door open all day, but they lock it up at night.”

“After ten,” Fitzgerald said to me.

“But there is lots of times people see lights come off and on after dark. Sometimes sounds, too.”

“Like I can write in the damn dark,” Fitzgerald said.

“I never read much of Hemingway’s stuff, have you?” he asked still facing the accordion doors.

“Another product of current historical literary ignorance,” Fitzgerald said.

“Killed himself, didn’t he, where was it? Wyoming or Oregon?” the bellman said.

“Idaho!” Fitzgerald screamed. “At least I died honorably. I didn’t take the coward’s way out like Ernest. Tell him he’s thinking the wrong writer. Tell him, Shaky.”

I was relieved to reach the fourth floor. The dueling conversations were getting tedious.

Room 411 was directly opposite the elevator opening. As the bellman pulled the accordion doors open again, I saw a tall oak pedestal outside the room with a small copper bust of Fitzgerald on it.

“Somebody did a decent job on that, don’t you think?” Fitzgerald said as we both passed it on the way into the room.

The door was open and inside a young couple, maybe late teens, held hands as they sat on the edge of a tiny metal frame bed with a heavy white-fringed chenille bedspread on it. Beside the bed, there was a small oak desk and chair with an Underwood.

“Schmaltzy decorator laid those balled up sheets of paper around the typewriter. Looks pretty good I have to admit,” Fitzgerald said.

The couple glanced at each other and giggled. She wore one of those new built-in bra tank tops that barely covered her breasts or reached to her navel that had several silver rings sticking out of it. In glitter, the tank top read ANGEL. Her legs were crossed and she flicked her ninety-nine-cent pink flip-flops back and forth against the bottom of her feet. The boy was fully dressed in completely unremarkable clothing.

“Zelda and I just can’t believe the attire these young folks wear these days,” Fitzgerald said as I took note of his bare chest and white suspenders.

The couple jumped down off the bed in one coordinated movement, hands remaining intertwined. They didn’t leave but headed into the tiny bathroom. To look at what I wasn’t sure.

“Just wait,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ll be back tonight, just before they lock up…to have sex. On this very same bed. I’ll be sitting here seriously writing, and they’ll rush in tearing each other’s shirts off as they go. The teeth on their zippers ripped asunder. Long live the allure and intoxication of love in early bloom!”

He looked out the tiny paned window of the room, and then said, “I’m not the only past life roaming this place, you do know that? The Pink Lady, she’s a pisser. Jumped to her death from a room just like this. Climbed out on the terracotta tiles and did a swan dive into the parking lot. On her honeymoon waiting for her man in a pink negligee, they say. When she looked out and saw him kissing the afternoon turn-down maid, she lost it, I suppose.”

“Poor woman,” I blurted out.

The young man in the bathroom poked his head out. The girl behind him nearly pushed him out the doorway while simultaneously flicking her nubile tongue in and out of his right ear.

“Such immature public behavior,” Fitzgerald said, plopping his whole body down on top of the bed. “God, I miss those days!”

“So why didn’t the Pink Lady leave this place after she died?”

“I have no earthly idea. She’s been here every time I come back. You’d think all this afterlife stuff would be made clearer after you die, by somebody—God, Jesus, somebody, but I tell you death is just about as confusing, as complex, as exasperating as life ever was. You just don’t have to pay for anything.”

“Sounds like fodder for one of your novels,” I said.

“Shaky, you have no idea how tiring it is living my novels. Over and over and over again.”

The couple emerged from the bathroom, both refusing to make the slightest eye contact with me. And I’m the nervous one.

“Have you ever read The Crack-Up,” the girl said, turning suddenly in my direction.

“For Heaven’s sake, of everything I have written she has to pick the one I wrote at one of the saddest, lowest points,” Fitzgerald said as he leaned over to the desk, picked up one of his famous novels, and threw it against the wall, narrowly missing the couple.

“You freak!” the boy shouted at me, pulling the girl behind him out the door.

Fitzgerald eyed the girl’s young, shapely butt as she left.

“There’s nothing like the fantasy of random intimate relations with a virginal beauty to make one forget his inevitable sense of irrelevance. Don’t you agree, Shaky?” He paused a moment in reflection and then said, “I’d better get cleaned up for supper. Zelda said she’d meet us on the veranda. You’ve never lived until you’ve seen the sunset from the Grove Park’s rock porch.”

Or died I thought.

Chapter Five

“Three for lunch,” I said without thinking as Scott and I walked up to the hostess stand. It was early for supper, but almost all the tables were full. The hostess looked behind me.

“The rest of the party?” she asked. “We don’t seat until everyone is here.” The young woman said this almost in despair, like it was at least the five hundredth time she had repeated it that day.

As in many vacation destinations, those serving have little desire to actually serve even though tourism has always been Western North Carolina’s main industry. Well, it used to be tuberculosis. Fresh mountain air was touted as the best cure for the rampant diseases of the early twentieth century as well as other respiratory ailments. Not to mention the little fact that we also have about every species of mold and allergy-producing irritants in the world in the Great Smoky Mountains. The hotel’s founder, Edwin Grove, was a savvy pharmacist from Tennessee and inventor of Grove’s Tonic, laced with opium and good for everything from malaria to fattening up your colicky baby. He, personally, had come to Asheville for another cure, hiccups. I guess his tonic didn’t take care of everything.

“Actually,” I said, “make that a party of one, but not too small a table, please.”

The girl slapped down two of the three menus she already had in her hand, and came from around the podium to lead me to the table. “Having a nice day?” she asked with the genuineness of a psychopath.

“It’s just Heaven,” Scott said in my ear. “You know, don’t you, this young woman’s aloofness is just a mating ritual. Trust me. All you have to do to get any woman is buy her a pasta meal, a piece of dark chocolate, and put a slight touch of baby powder behind one ear, and she’s yours. For the night, at least.”

I couldn’t help but try and push him away, but covered the maneuver by dusting off my shoulders.

Scott pointed to the distant mountains as we sat down. “Pretty soon there won’t be a naked, untouched mountain visible, all of them not draped with blue mist, but smothered with cabins and castles.” He snapped his cloth napkin and tucked it in his open, collarless, blue mattress-ticking shirt.

“When I was first here in ’35, this whole area was one big real estate bust,” he said.

“The nail girl downstairs told me it’s going to end badly again,” Zelda said, suddenly appearing in the chair between Scott and me. “Selling lots in North Carolina is as easy as setting out sugar cubes and watching for the ants to arrive.”

My mind drifted off to dimensional analysis. Exactly how did a spirit get their nails clipped?

Thankfully the waiter with his water pitcher jogged me back to reality. Or whatever this was.

“Wow, you must be thirsteeee!” he said filling all three of our water glasses back up.

I didn’t answer.

“Care to hear our specials?” he asked.

“Get kale salads,” Fitzgerald said. “Great for digestion.”

“I’m very hungry,” I managed to spit out. “Bring me three kale salads to start.”

The waiter looked up from his pad for a second as if he was going to question the order, and then went back to writing it down. “Right away,” he said. “One of my favorites. Kale salad.”

“The reason I wanted you to join us, Shaky, is that while we were tooling around in Jay Westlake’s wonderful automobile with him, he called the foreman on the job at Highland and told him he was going to talk to you in person about buying your cabin,” Scott said. “How did it go?”

“God, that man drives like a maniac,” Zelda said.

“Zelda kept rolling down his fancy windows to throw up. He’d roll them up and she’d roll them down,” Scott said shaking his head. “That’s the part about being dead that’s really fun.”

“Before I was dead, I used to think things like digestive issues among goners was something you didn’t have to worry about,” Zelda said shaking her head. “Well, I still get heartburn. Can you believe it? Maybe after we cross over?”

“If we ever do,” Scott said seriously. “If anybody ever does. Maybe Heaven and Hell are like those empty cities they’ve built in China recently.”

“Life cycle shit!” Zelda said, reaching for the bread bowl. “Endless.”

I was feeling exhausted just listening to the airy conversation.

“He came by The Saucer,” I said. “I told him I wasn’t interested.” I spoke in a low voice so not to draw attention, but the dark-toned Latino man in a Tommy Bahama shirt, loose shorts, and fat feet in sloppy leather sandals looked my way.

“I’m afraid men like Westlake never take no for an answer,” Scott said.

“Looks like someone is waving at us, or you, over there, at the hostess stand?” Zelda said.

I looked up to see Iris Fields. My cousin once removed, she had not removed herself enough for me, both of us continuing to live in the same town all these years. I did have fond memories of her and me as little kids, though. Our parents would visit each other’s homes, and early evening tuck us into bed together. Iris would wrestle my head under her armpit, slide her thumb in her mouth, and rub my crew cut hair with the other hand. One of my docs told me it was a sexual pacifying ritual. As an adult she had become just a plain pain in the ass. A much too thin, ambitious, Botoxed social climber to whom I would surely become a major embarrassment if our family connection was ever exposed in light conversation.

Her husband, Don Fields, accompanied Iris. Iris’s wealthy mate who made his money at what no one was sure also gave me an animated wave, full of motion, completely devoid of authenticity. People told me that when my name was mentioned he was likely to do his impersonation of his wife’s nervous relative and then laugh hysterically. This, of course, made me feel more hate than I cared to deal with, and in turn caused me to be even more nervous around his presence.

“I shouldn’t be surprised anymore,” Scott said.

“At what?” Zelda said, her eyelids closed to a dubious level.

“The same three,” Scott said. “Three people. The world is basically made up of three types of people.”

“Dodo, my eternal flame,” said Zelda. “To you the world is nothing more than the same never-ending story. Jay Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, and Daisy Buchanan. I guess I’ll never hear the end of it.”

David Schulman’s first novel, The Past Is Never Dead, was published by John Blair in 2004. After a twenty-year career as owner of five David’s Stores and Boo Boos Clothing and Shoes Outlets in Western North Carolina, David began a career as a feature columnist. He has been a frequent contributor to Our State magazine, and has won best short story awards given by Rapid River magazine and Creative Loafing of Greenville, South Carolina.