Last Call

HELEN CHAPPELL

February 10, 1993|By HELEN CHAPPELL

Oysterback, Maryland. -- If you're looking for someone with whom to ponder the imponderable, you'd better find someone else. I, Desiree Grinch, proprietor of the Blue Crab Tavern, have not had a metaphysical thought since I dropped out of Bennington and gave up black tights.

Which is why I was surprised when, real late the other night, I looked up and saw the ghost of Haney Sparks walk into the Blue Crab. I knew it was Haney Sparks' ghost because for one thing, he was dressed like he had been hitting John Travolta's yard sales, and for another you could sort of see through him. I, Desiree Grinch, am not afraid of ghosts like some people I know. If you can survive one of those Jello Mold Suppers down to the Fire Hall, then nothing else will ever scare you again.

Well, Haney pulled up a barstool and sat down, or rather, he sort of drifted across the seat. ''I'd like a draft,'' he says, very polite.

So I pulled him a draft. All the sign over the bar says is that we do not serve unpleasant people, not dead ones. Since Haney had been unpleasant in life, however, I reserved the right to toss him out should he start up in death.

He sort of sat there and inhaled the beer, which obviously he could not drink, since his hand went through the mug every time he tried to pick it up.

''I always thought souls in Hell cried out for ice water, not Bud Lite,'' I remarked. Like I said, Haney had not been the most pleasant person in Oysterback, so that was a safe bet.

He settled his features into a real hurt look. ''It took me a long time to get here,'' he said. ''The least you could do is be polite to me. Jeez, Des, you would not believe what Hell is like.''

''I do not smell any sulphur or brimstone on you.'' I said. ''Therefore I assume you will tell me that Hell is not as I have always pictured it.''

Haney looked longingly at a slice of black walnut pie on the counter. I gave it to him, and he sniffed at it. When he was done, he sort of sighed. ''In Hell, there's cable TV, but there's never anything on but re-runs of 'McHale's Navy' dubbed into Uhuru, which I do not understand a word of. And the food is terrible -- tuna noodle casserole with Tater Tot topping.''

I shuddered in spite of myself. For a man who enjoyed his TV and food as much as the late Haney, this was indeed a punishing eternity. I cut him a slice of my orange meringue pie and watched him sort of sniggle up the essence of it.

''And everyone has to wear polyester/acrylic blend Da-Glo lime green leisure suits.'' He leaned so close to me that I could smell the graveyard on his breath. ''The Devil wears white patent-leather shoes and a matching belt with his,'' Haney whispered.

''Ugh,'' says I, who never lets an unnatural fiber touch my body. I served him up a couple of my chocolate logs, I felt that bad. He enjoyed them as best he could, snorting and sniffing.

''But the worst thing, Des, is the decor. It's like a big, not-too-clean bus station restroom that always smells like vomit and cheap disinfectant. And, and -- '' he choked, a ghostly, ghastly sound as he tried to wrap his cold fingers around my wrist for emphasis. ''You're always in there, waiting for a bus that never comes!''

It took all I had not to scream in terror. Just then the clock over the pool table struck midnight. ''That's last call,'' Haney sobbed. ''I got to git my bill and pay up and get back.''

He reached into his pocket and brought out his spectral wallet. Of course, they have money in Hell. As I gave him his change, I said ''I don't get many ghosts in here.''

Haney looked at the coins in his hand. Before he could leave me a tip, he started to fade away, his voice getting faint.

''And at these prices, you're not likely to get any more, either.''

Hell's too good for Haney Sparks, if you ask me.

Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.

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