A Shade of Grey
by Lorie Calkins
Owen squatted in the dusty street, the heat of the morning sun stinging the back of his neck as he watched the bug scuttle along in a brave attempt to cross the enormous, for a bug, distance between the raised wood-slatted walkway in front of Wylie's General Store and the dirt-level door of the Saloon. He glanced up at the pounding hoofbeats and rattle of creaking wood, and understood at once that the heavy freight wagon, hauled by two huge mud-grey Percherons had no driver to stop the team or veer around him, as folks usually did. Too late.
"Ettie, don't take on so."
"It's my fault," the young woman sobbed, her brazenly gaudy dress clashing wildly with her grief. "I shoulda been watching him!"
"You had to sleep some time. An' he was surely old enough to know better than to sit in the street, for Heaven's sake. Don't blame yourself."
Ettie lifted her face. Damp curls of fine hair framed a face that would have been pretty, had it not been grief-swollen. A few soft chestnut strands remained tear-glued to the old metal strong box, clutched between her arms where she half-lay on the bed, obscuring the promising paintings of horses, eagles, cottonwood trees, snakes, and owls, that decorated its dull grey exterior. "You don't understand, Clara Mae," she said, the pain in her voice so powerful Clara could feel it rasping through her, like barbed wire being pulled through her grasp. "He was all I had."
"You got us, honey." She said the words gently, genuinely, but Ettie dropped her head again to the box, weeping, her anguish still fresh.
"I'm sorry, Mama," the freckled boy said, patting her shoulder softly. "I didn't mean to, Mama. I'll be good from now on, Mama." He stopped, then, realizing that she couldn't hear him, as well as the fact that he wouldn't have another chance to be good.
He knew he must be a ghost, since no one could see or hear him, and he could pass through walls, horses, even people. It was plain to him that if he was now a ghost, he must have died. But what was most obvious to him was that he had caused his Mama pain. Again. He ran from the room, so distracted that he forgot his new abilities and fled through the open bedroom door, down the long hallway, past the other ladies' rooms, some with their doors closed as they "entertained customers." He dashed down the steep stairway to the main parlor, filled with men eager to console the `ladies' for their loss. He darted quickly to the kitchen, knowing he was not allowed in the parlor when customers were there, and escaped out the back door. Reaching his favorite place, the base of an immense cottonwood, he curled between two massive roots exposed by wind and flash flood, that stretched toward a trickle of stream.
"I didn't mean to be bad," he moaned, capable of the motions of crying, but not the salve of tears. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Why am I always bad?! Mama told me to stay out of the street, and now I've gone and got killed, and she thinks it's her fault." Owen cried, berated himself, and felt generally miserable until, worn out, he lay quietly in his hollow, listening to the susurration of leaves above. In that quiet moment, he felt a tug. It had been there for some time, he realized, but his misery had kept its awareness from him. Something called him, pulled him, toward ... what? He didn't know.
Owen got up, floated up, really. He hadn't got the hang of ghostly movement yet. In search of the reason for the tug, he wandered into town again. Behind the big house where his mother lived with all the other women, his little cat, Grey Baby, scampered up to him, her body arched and turned sideways. Her fluffed tail straight up, she playfully batted him with her paw. It went right through.
Baby sat down immediately and washed her paw, then a spot on her left shoulder, before looking at Owen again. She took another swipe at him, less sure than before, with the same result. Owen crouched down to pet her. He felt sorry for her confusion. But his hand couldn't touch her soft, silvery fur. He tried to hug her, for whatever solace he could derive, but found he could not.
Peeking out from inside the foggy form of her favorite human confused Baby to the point of voicing her displeasure, a high-pitched cry, so human-sounding that it had earned her part of her name. Owen wanted to cry again, because he was hurting yet another loved one, but he had no energy left for it. Instead, he walked on, Baby at his heels, as she so often had been before.
A woman with a painted face stared from an open ground floor window as they passed the side of the sun-greyed clapboard building. "Mara, look! It's the cat! Be darned if that cat ain't trotting along, just as if she's following the boy like always!" Owen glanced up to his and Mama's window, in time to see his mother turn away from the window, crying.
He crossed the dusty street, still heedless of the cantering horses, hurrying stagecoach, and jockeying wagons. The strange tugging feeling led him to the open door of the Saloon, a door he had never passed through. He hesitated. But why not? Nobody could see him now. He went in, leaving the little cat to bask in the patch of dusty sunshine outside the swinging doors.
Wondering at the noise and the activity around the bar, and what sort of things might happen in here that he had been forbidden to see, Owen threaded between the chairs, around the cow-smelling ranch hands, toward the tinny old piano, played off-key. He stopped there, and stared at the woman playing it. Her gaudy, feathered, red dress looked to him more like a fancy lamp shade than a dress, and certainly its ability to preserve her modesty shared more with unmentionables than outer clothing. He stared at her bare arms moving up and down the length of the piano.
"You! Hey, you there!" Owen started at the first shout. Then he ignored it. They couldn't mean him. Nobody could see him. He was a ghost. His eyes never left the piano player.
"Hey, Boy! What're you doin in here!" The voice sounded from directly behind him, as his arm was roughly seized. "I'm talkin to you, Boy."
"What!" Owen screamed, more out of shock that he had been seen than fear of punishment. "Let me go!"
"You don't belong in here, kid." Owen whirled to look at the man, who was dragging him out of the Saloon, and saw the foggy outline of a gaunt, weather-aged cowboy, with a two-day growth of beard over a deeply creased face, topped by a grey Stetson hat.
"How ... How can you see me?" he finally got out. "How can you touch me?"
"Ain't it obvious, Boy? I'm a ghost, too." The man released his arm. They had passed out of the Saloon. "Now don't you be goin back in that Saloon no more, Boy. That's no place for a youngster." With those words and a stern look, he turned to go on his way.
Because Owen felt so bewildered by his encounter with another ghost, (on top of the shock of the strange world inside the Saloon), it took him a few minutes to rediscover the tugging feeling, and then to recognize that part of it was pulling him toward the other ghost.
"Wait," he cried out in his childish voice. "Don't leave me!" He ran after the ghost of the cowboy in the grey hat, his little, silvery cat loping along behind him, as always. But the horse and wagon traffic didn't stop for ghosts the riders couldn't see, nor for small, grey cats that trustingly followed their masters.
A squeal and a gut-churning crunch made Owen aware for the first time that the cat had been following him. He screamed and flew to the cat's side in the blowing dust of the road. The driver stopped his hay wagon and climbed down to see if he could help the poor creature. It was too late even to put her out of her misery. Grey Baby was dead, consigned to the same terrible fate as her young master.
"No! Oh, no, Grey Baby. Not you, too. Oh, Baby. I'm sorry." Owen cried and railed, trying to hug the crushed furry body. He couldn't. His touch went right through. The driver paid the dead cat the courtesy of dragging it to the side of the road before he remounted the wagon and drove on.
"Baby, I didn't know you were following me. I didn't think. I should have watched out for you, and now you're dead. I'm real sorry, Baby. And I just told Mama I'd be good from now on." Instinctively, he tried again to gather the cat into his arms. This time, he came away with an armful of purring grey ghost. Baby rubbed her chin on him and bumped him ecstatically with her head. With a single high-pitched, "Meaow!" the ghost-cat squirmed out of Owen's arms and rubbed herself back and forth across his shins, overjoyed to be back with her beloved master.
But Owen only gathered her up again and trudged miserably after the cowboy's ghost. The older spirit had more experience with the form, so the boy and cat didn't catch up to him until they reached the top of Boot Hill, where they found the cowboy's ghost stretched out on an old, grassy grave. Daunted by the sight of so many graves, Owen hesitated. But the tugging felt strong here. He needed to know what it was.
"Excuse me, Mister."
"What do you want now, Boy? Can't you see I've got things to do?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bother you, Mister."
"The name's Quincy. What is it you want, kid?"
"Quick-Finger Quincy? The famous gunfighter?" Quincy scowled, but the grey hat tilted slightly in reply. "I have this feeling that there's something I forgot to do, or someplace I'm supposed to go. It's like something's tugging at me, or calling me. Can you tell me what it means?"
"Sure can. You got to pass over."
This made no sense to Owen. "Over what?"
The ghostly cowboy thought a bit. "Not over nothing, really. Just the way we say it. You got to cross over to the other side. You're a spirit now. You don't belong on this side, with the living folks." Quincy could tell from the child's face that he didn't understand. "You got to go on up to Heaven, Boy."
"My name's Owen, Mister. How come you're here? Did you come to fetch me?"
"Nope. Been here for near twenty years now. You'd better run along. Git yourself to Heaven, where you belong. Myself, I didn't cross over, as I didn't figure I was likely to go to Heaven, and I didn't want to go to the other place."
Owen sat down, the little cat curled on his lap. "I guess I better stay here, too," he said quietly.
"Boy, if you know what's good for you, you'll take off now for the other side. Once they bury your body in the grave, it's too late. You're stuck here forever." Quincy looked around him at the gravestones, the dead, brown grass, and the slaty, peeling, buildings of the town below. "You don't want to stay here, kid."
"Well, I'd like to go. But I just can't. I don't want to burn. Preacher said bad people burn in Hell for Ternity," the boy answered solemnly. "I been real bad."
The old ghost threw his head back and guffawed with laughter until he would have choked with tears, had he been able to spill any. "BOY!" he roared, then more kindly, "Child. You ain't done nothin bad enough to get sent to Hell for. What're you worried about? Sassing the schoolmarm? Snitching cookies?"
"No, sir," he said. "I'm bad. I hurt my Mama."
"Oh, come now, young man. Can't be all that bad. What'd you do, tell her you didn't like her new dress?”
Owen's small freckled face looked sadly down. "I ruined her life. It's my fault she has to live in that house with all the other women and people call her bad names."
"How do you figure that, Boy?"
"Owen," he said firmly. Then, remembering, he went on softly. "I once heard Mama yelling at a man. He told her I was nothin but a sissy, that no self-respecting boy would be sitting in the parlor playing with paints and colors, drawing pretty pitchers. He said I should be out riding a horse and learning how to be a cowboy. Then Mama asked him, "Are you offering to marry me and help me raise this child, then?'
"And he said, `You must be kidding. Marry a whore? My mother would turn over in her grave!'
"Mama got really angry then. She talked in a voice that scared me. `You know full well your bastard child is the reason I have to live like a whore to survive.' That was me, Mister."
The long-dead spirit was silent for a moment, unsure what to say. "My name's Quincy, Boy."
"And my name's Owen."
"She say any more?"
"He did. He said, `I don't know no such thing. You could've been with a hundred men.' And she said, `Then you got no reason to be telling me how you think the boy should be raised. Get out.' After he left Mama cried and cried. That's how I know I'm bad. It's bad for a boy to draw pretty things, and I didn't stop. I like to draw. I didn't want to stop, even after I knew it was bad. Besides, I'm a bastard child."
"Do you know what that means, Owen?"
"No. But it's bad, ain't it?"
"Yeah, I guess. But not the way you think. It ain't none of it your fault."
They were both quiet for a long time, thinking over the good and bad deeds of their lives.
"Quincy, are you a good man or a bad man?"
"Why do you ask me that?"
"I can't tell by your hat. Good guys wear white hats, and bad guys wear black hats, right? But yours is grey. I can't tell!"
"Boy, ... Owen. White hats get dirty; black hats fade. Nobody's all good or all bad, no matter what color hat they got."
"What're all those people coming up here for, Quincy?"
"Looks like a burial, Owen, probably yours. You'd better cross over, while you still can. You can't get through after the body's buried. I know! I wish I had gone."
"But you said you'd have gone down to Hell!"
"Most likely. Still, it couldn't be any worse than sitting here, day after day for twenty years, watching the living go about their lives, and not being able to talk to anyone, touch anyone, even be seen by anyone. If that ain't a kind of Hell, I don't know what is."
"That's my Mama!" Owen said suddenly, as the parade of black and grey clad mourners climbed the hill. "She looks real sad. I'm sorry, Mama. I'm sorry I was bad." Owen looked down at the cat perched on his bony knees. "Quincy, I killed my cat, too."
"This cat here?" Quincy asked. The boy nodded. "Well, she don't seem too angry with you now." The little cat, noticing that she was under discussion, began to purr and nudge Owen's knee.
"I guess not." He looked over at the funeral procession, his Mama, the other ladies, the men carrying the pine box that seemed, even to him, very small and light. "Mama shouldn't wear black. It doesn't look right on her. She should wear grey for mourning." He took the cat into his arms again and stood up, walking over to peer into the narrow, but deep, hole.
"Owen, go now. Please. Cross over while you can." Quincy had been pacing back and forth, and now he threw his ghostly arms into the air. "They're lowering the coffin into the grave, Boy! You got to go!" He strode over to take the boy's shoulders and shake him. "Listen to me, Owen!" He turned the boy to face him, and saw that he was crying.
"I'm afraid, Quincy."
"Owen, I'm sure you'll go to Heaven. You're a good boy. You ain't even got a hat, and I can tell. You got your cat. She can go with you."
"She's scared, too. You come with me, Quincy. If you come and hold my hand, I won't be so afraid."
"I can't come, Owen. I told you. I waited too long. And besides, I'm a bad man. I wouldn't be able to go where you're going."
"You're wrong, Quincy. Maybe you were bad before, but you're good now. I can tell without the hat." He paused, then stuck out his chin in childish stubbornness. "And I won't go without you."
The prayers finished, women put their arms around Ettie and led her away, as the men picked up shovels. Quincy couldn't stand it. He just couldn't let this innocent child make the same tragic mistake he had.
"Owen, I'll never be able to get through, but I'll take you as far as I can. Take my hand, Boy! Come on, run!" He took the boy's small freckled, ghostly-grey hand in his big, calloused one, and turned away, toward the tugging feeling that had never ceased in him, despite twenty years of knowing the doorway was closed to him forever. He began to run.
For a brief moment, Owen continued to watch the departing mourners. "Goodbye, Mama. I love you, Mama!" he cried at last.
As he turned, pulled by Quincy toward the light, the pretty woman in the black dress turned back, almost as if she had heard. "Goodbye, Owen," she said through her tears. "You were always such a good boy. You were my treasure."
As the first scoops of dirt thudded onto pine, Owen, his little grey cat in his arms, disappeared into the light, pulled in by an old grey ghost in a white hat.