Part II: The Ghost Walk
Her shift done and with throbbing feet to show for it, Bethany splurged on a Lyft to avoid being late for her set at Gotham Comedy Club. From the backseat of a Honda Accord in traffic in Midtown, Bethany texted her friend Ashley:
I served your aunt and uncle tonight. Your aunt called it a “cosmic event.”
Ashley’s response was quick and accurate:
Let me apologize right now for their shitty tip.
LOL! What happened between you and your aunt?
I’ll buy you a drink and tell you some other time.
Your uncle’s a piece of work.
Yes, he’s an asshat. Coffee tomorrow a.m.?
See you at Starbucks at 10.
Nothing good could come out of reconnecting with Ashley’s estranged aunt and her father’s sister would be considered by many to be strange, even by New York City standards. Considering they lived on adjoining islands with the same unusual surname, Ashley figured it was bound to happen. Whenever Ashley schlepped to the Upper West Side to meet friends for dinner, she half-expected to run into her odd relatives.
Standing in line for coffee at Starbucks the next morning, Ashley caught her reflection in the storefront glass. She searched for any resemblance to her aunt and found none. While Ashley felt content with her fair coloring and TV-ad worthy wheat-colored hair, she envied her aunt’s curvy figure. Stupid genetics dealt the girl her father’s linebacker square frame.
“Hey Beautiful!” Bethany said as a way of greeting.
They exchanged hugs and Bethany gave her order to Ashley — vanilla latte grande with almond milk — before bolting to the best corner table, just vacated by a couple who seemed to be communicating with each other via texts.
Once the two settled into the wooden seats, Bethany spilled the details about waiting on Ashley’s relatives.
“I’m not surprised by any of it. My uncle would bring wine to holiday dinners and whatever wasn’t finished he would bring home. One year, after he bragged about some Bordeaux he brought, I asked, ‘Can we keep it?’ My father kicked me under the table but hugged me hard after they left.”
Bethany flashed her rectangle smile that earned her tips and laughs. “Obviously, they’re something else. But there’s got to be, well, something else, if you’re not talking to them anymore.”
Ashley squirmed, uncomfortable with the memories and turn in the conversation. She clutched her paper cup with both hands now, seeking warmth and strength.
“My aunt’s a taker,” she sighed. “She’s the type of person who always wants something from you. Like, when I got my first apartment, she took me out to ‘celebrate’ but what she really wanted was to persuade me to babysit my baby cousin for free once a weekend. I couldn’t because I was performing with the improv group back then.
“One year, as a belated birthday treat, she dragged me to one of those jewelry parties at someone’s house where the cheapest piece was fifty dollars. I was living on bagels and beer at the time, so I didn’t have any money. I explained that to her and she told me I was rude for not buying anything, that the right thing to do would be to ‘treat yourself.’”
Bethany shook her head, sipped her latte, and waited for the real reason Ashley cut this woman out of her life. Her friend inhaled deeply.
“When Mom died, my aunt didn’t come to the wake or funeral. She didn’t send a sympathy card or flowers, not even a call, text or email to say ‘sorry for your loss.’ Instead, about a month after we buried her, she sent me a nasty letter about how wrong it was to bury Mom in the family cemetery. She wanted the burial plot for herself and my uncle. Which is a moot point because it’s a Catholic cemetery and she converted to Judaism to marry my uncle.”
“The church won’t let Jews be buried there?”
Ashley nodded. “Yes, the Catholic church is all about protecting the dead. And my aunt’s dying to get in there, it seems. Who wouldn’t want to be buried in St. Augustus? My parents are buried across from a guy named … “
She pulled a pen out of her ancient black leather Coach bag and wrote in block print on a napkin:
Bethany read it, then burst into laughter. “Tony Baloney!”
Both giggled uncontrollably, with tears streaming down their cheeks, the way you do when something funny happens in a library or during a solemn lecture.
“But seriously,” Bethany gasped as they regained their composure. “Your dad was buried there so why wouldn’t the plot go to your mother?”
“Because my mother filed for divorce right before Dad died,” Ashley sighed. “And my aunt blames my father’s suicide on my mother. She thinks Dad was a saint and if Mom hadn’t given up on him they could have ‘worked it out.’”
“Didn’t your father abuse your mom?”
Ashley nodded and tapped the paper cup on the table. Those final months before her mother fled had been terrifying, never knowing when her father’s temper would explode. It didn’t take much: the stock market, the baked chicken for dinner that only he found fault with, or the wrong response to a question about the day.
“Mom showed up at the law firm where she worked with a black eye. Her boss intervened and provided the help she needed to leave him.”
Ashley gulped the last sip of her coffee. “At Dad’s wake, my aunt cornered my mother. She berated Mom for killing him. That was the last time I saw her.”
They sat in silence and watched a woman on the sidewalk retrieve a set of plastic toy keys from the ground thrown by her baby in the stroller. The baby stuck the keys in his mouth as they rolled away, prompting the two friends to shudder in their seats. Bethany performs a stand-up bit on why everyone in Park Slope walks with their head down: To avoid the dog poop.
“Well, I can see why your aunt cried. She should feel shitty for what she’s done to you and your family. Maybe she wants to apologize?”
Ashley gave a skeptical shrug.
“Well, even if she does, I don’t blame you for not wanting to see her again.”
Home from her coffee talk with Bethany, Ashley felt the pangs of curiosity that come when you hear about an ex you dated many years ago. Sitting in her Park Slope loft, hair pulled back in a ponytail for pilates class later, Ashley surfed around on her Mac. She found her aunt on Facebook, where she posted numerous photos of Manhattan and vacation photos. To Ashley’s surprise, her loco tia’s name popped up in an alternative magazine: Apparently, the loon led ghost tours around the city.
Ashley reached for her iPhone and texted Bethany.
Just discovered my crazy aunt leads ghost tours.
OMG! If you want to go and want a wingman, I’d go!
Only if there was no way she’d know it was me.
Good thing we both know a master of disguises!
Their mutual friend worked on Broadway as a makeup artist who turned her studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen into a massive walk-in closet.
A month later, Ashley found herself standing in front of The Dakota on West 72nd St. with a dozen tourists on a windy Saturday afternoon wearing a wig under a ski hat, lifts in her new pair of hiking boots to make her taller, and oversized sunglasses. The wig-hat combination made Ashley’s head feel like a sauna.
You are no longer Ashley, you are Liz from Danbury, Connecticut, Coach Carmen said. No one from New York would find the town particularly interesting but Ashley could speak to if needed because an old boyfriend lived there.
She spotted her aunt in the middle of the group making small talk and cackling. The doorman seemed unfazed by the group. Despite her manic energy, the older woman’s wrinkles betrayed her age. As instructed by Carmen, Ashley intentionally walked slower than her regular pace up to the woman she hadn’t seen since her father’s funeral twelve years ago.
The tour guide flashed a smile. “You here for the ghost tour?" Welcome, welcome!”
Ashley nodded and, with a gloved hand, flashed her ticket on her iPhone. She had checked and re-checked it to make sure her name didn’t appear anywhere on the screen.
“Is it just you doing the tour? No boyfriend or friends joining you?”
There’s the old aunt tact, Ashley thought to herself. The other tourists turned and gazed at Ash Solo. So much for not standing out. After a debate that involved large quantities of Cabernet with friends, Ashley had decided to go by herself rather than having a conspicuous entourage.
Ash shook her sweltering head, feeling the crinkle of her skin where Carmen applied wig glue.
“Alright, we got eleven people here, that’s everybody. Let’s get this show on the road! I’m Dani, your tour guide, a born and bred New Yorker who’s lived on the Upper West Side for fifty years! Now, turn to someone you don’t know in the group, introduce yourself, tell them where you’re from, and why you’re taking this tour!”
Ashley audibly cursed under her breath as her aunt turned to her and said loudly, “Single girl! What’s your name and where you from?”
“Ah, did you take Metro North or did you drive here?”
“Took the train.”
Aunt Dani nodded politely. If Connecticut was a cracker, it’d be a Saltine, as far as most New Yorkers like Aunt Dani were concerned.
“So why are you taking the tour today? And what’s your name?”
“Liz Lemon.” she said hoarsely, as if she were losing her voice. Ashley’s stomach unleashed a flood of churning acid. Her aunt disdained television so Ashley hoped she had never heard of the character Tiny Fey played on “30 Rock.” She felt like this was something her favorite sitcom character would do.
“I’m here out of curiosity,” Ashley added with a shrug. “Why are you here? I mean, why do you do this tour?”
Aunt Dani returned the shrug. “I’m retired. All I do now is walk and talk. Might as well get paid to do it!”
“OK, who says we’re not friendly in New York?” Dani bellowed over the chatty group. “Let me begin by telling you about the building we’re standing in front of, The Dakota. Its most famous resident, John Lennon, was murdered right here on December 8, 1980, by Mark David Chapman. Earlier that day, Lennon had autographed a record album for Chapman. As John and his wife, Yoko, got out of a limo, Chapman approached the rock star again. Only this time, he shot him! Despite getting hit with four bullets to the back and chest, John made it into the vestibule before collapsing. For a few years after the shooting, people spotted his ghost in the front doorway. Some described him as having an eerie light around him and anytime someone tried to approach John he would give them a look that said ‘don’t.’”
Dani paused, scanning the group to make sure she had everyone’s attention with a 'don’t’ look on her face. A gray-haired tourist in his mid-fifties with a potbelly and squat wife leered at Aunt Dani. Ashley could have sworn her aunt responded with a wink.
“Anyone know what was John Lennon’s final hit?” Aunt Dani asked. Before anyone could answer, she cackled.
A couple turned to each other in disbelief at the awful joke.
“Too soon,” Ashley muttered under her breath. That got a genuine laugh from the Millennial couple standing next to her.
“We got a lot to cover so keep up as we head to our next stop!”
The old pervert and his waddling wife fell nearly a block behind. Ashley felt a twinge of sympathy towards the tourists, as she had been in that same position years ago during a rare visit with her aunt. Dani ran Ashley around town one exhausting afternoon, from the Library on Fifth and 42nd (“You like books! Look at the lions out front, they’re iconic!”) all the way down to the Brooklyn Bridge (“Great exercise! What a view!”). Dani dragged her niece to every tourist site in the city that didn’t charge a fee. The blistering Manhattan marathon kept Ashley away from the city for years after that.
Knowing her aunt, Ashley showed up prepared for the ghost tour. Still, her feet ached as did her head from the rapid fire of facts shooting from her aunt. The stress of wondering whether Aunt Dani would recognize her kept Ashley’s heart racing. Never close to begin with, Dani and Ashley hadn’t seen each other for nearly a decade. Their relationship had been one where they were thrown together for the big holidays and occasional family get togethers, the kind where Aunt Dani would kiss both of Ashley’s cheeks as if they were in Europe and exclaim how much Ashley had changed since they last saw each other. Ashley would smile, nod, and head to the upstairs bathroom to wipe off the red lipstick smudges on her face.
Ashley cursed herself for not spending more time thinking about what she would say if her aunt recognized her. Focusing on the faux hair peeking out of her hat and other detail disguises, Ashley neglected to think through what she wanted to accomplish on this undercover mission. As the group speed-walked to 55 Central Park West, “Also known as ‘Spook Central’ from the movie Ghostbusters!” Aunt Dani yelled over her shoulder to the crowd that lagged behind her, Ashley stared at her aunt’s distant slim figure in the black leather jacket. Nothing good could come out of welcoming Aunt Dani back into her life, that she knew for sure. This would not be a tearful, bittersweet sitcom reunion that led to a montage of sharing holidays, coffee talks, and the milestones of life.
Maybe it would feel good to stiff her aunt on a tip?
“Fifty-five Central Park West was used for the exterior shots only. In the movie, Dana Barrett and Louis Tully live on the 22nd floor but those scenes were shot in L.A. The building has seen a lot of characters. A famous opera singer lived here in the 1930s for several years with her pet jaguar until she finally donated Ita—that was the big cat’s name—to the Bronx Zoo,” Aunt Dani said. “And there was a wealthy businessman who lived on the 17th floor who fell out of his window and landed in the courtyard in August 1932. This was during the Depression, when there were a lot of businessmen falling out of windows.”
Ashley blinked. How could she speak of people committing suicide so nonchalantly?
“On that happy note, that’s the end of our tour! What questions can I answer for you?”
If Aunt Dani had simply said, “Any questions?” or phrased it in any other way, Ashley would have speed-walked away as planned. Instead, she blurted, “What do you want from your niece?”
The older woman squinted at Ashley for a long moment as heads swiveled back and forth, taking in this bonus part of the tour.
“Ashley? Oh my Gawd!” Aunt Dani sprang forward, with arms flung out for a big embrace. Ashley stepped back, startled by her own question and her aunt’s threatening hug.
“Please,” Ashley put up her hands in protest. Her eyes darted behind the shades, willing the tourists to disperse with mixed success. The younger couple stood and surfed on their phones while the older couple blatantly stared at Ashley and Dani, taking in the show.
“Just tell me. What do you want from me?”
“I haven’t seen you in years! When I met your waitress friend it felt like—”
“—A cosmic event. Yes, I heard.”
She winced at her own bitchiness. She let silence and a police car silence fill the air.
Dani “Your Dad inherited Grandpa’s watch. I would really love to have it.”
And there it was. Ashley had braced herself for the punch but it still stung.
“That Hamilton was given to Grandpa from his father. It’s a family heirloom,” her Aunt went on, the words punctuated by the blare of another cop horn trying to weave through traffic.
Even if her brother passed along the antique to Dani, which he wouldn’t, none of the options for its fate seemed acceptable. The thought of her uncle wearing the piece made her shudder. It would be too big for Dani’s bony wrist but worth enough to sell for an island vacation.
“I can’t give it to you.”
“Because it’s not mine to give.”
“If you could—”
“—And I’m not asking my brother. I know I speak for both of us when I say the answer is no.”
“But that was my father’s!”
“And your father gave it to my father who gave it my brother. That’s how it goes.”
Without seeing or thinking, Ashley zipped towards midtown, barely noticing the scaffolding and swarms around her until she spotted a man smoking a
cigarette. Wearing a gray three-piece suit and wing-tips, he stared across Fifth Avenue through outdated square-framed glasses. The soft paunchy stomach
along with the polka-dot tie and matching suspenders screamed banker, the kind who collected in a three-ring binder office cartoons from the The New Yorker .
Ashley’s pace slowed as she came closer to him. His slate-colored eyes met hers and he smirked.
“You should have said, ‘Time’s up’!”
Before Ashley could respond, the older man vanished into the rotating door. She looked up and recognized the black marble facade: The name had changed
but it was the investment firm where her father worked for most of his career.
Ashley’s only regret that day: Not responding to the Dad joke with a sitcom-ending line. She smiled most of the way to the 42nd Street Subway station thinking
of what she should have said. She decided that “I should clock you” would have been the best response.