A big green wreath with a red bow hung on the side of the locomotive. The train had cleared the roadway, but as soon as the mechanical arm began to lift, the train started backing up and blocked the road again.
A voice that was vaguely familiar said, "God! Don't you just hate it when they start to back up?"
I looked toward the passenger seat and there he was, big as life.
"Oh, Lord!" he said, "You don't look too good. Are you alright?"
I propped my elbows on the steering wheel, put my face in my hands, and groaned, "I am losing my mind."
"No, you're not," he said with a hint of exasperation. "It's just because you think I'm dead."
"Precisely," I muttered. I felt sick and wondered if I was going to faint.
"Now don't start doubting your sanity," he added. "You're right. I am dead."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" I moaned.
Finally the road was clear, and the cars in front of me were beginning to move.
"I've got to get out of this traffic," I said. I turned onto the service road, parked on the shoulder, and turned the engine off. I stared straight ahead, telling myself that he wasn't really there and that when I looked again, I would see an empty passenger seat.
"Damn!" he said as he took a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, "that's what I hate about these new cars - no cigarette lighter! Would you look at that! A plug for a dang cell phone where a cigarette lighter ought to be."
I stared at the plug, trying desperately to focus. When I looked back at him, he was lighting his cigarette with a match.
"I may not have been a boy scout," he said with a grin, "but I'm always prepared."
I put my head back on the head rest, closed my eyes, and said, "I had no idea a ghost could smoke."
"Well, I like to go through the motions, but let me tell you - it's not as satisfying as it used to be," he said, dropping the match on the floor. "Actually though, I feel pretty good - better than I did right before I checked out."
"That makes sense. You had a massive heart attack."
"Yeah, well, I'm glad that's over," he said with his usual cavalier attitude. "You know, I feel pretty solid. Do I look solid?"
For the first time, I did more than just glance at him. I took him in from head to feet. He looked just like he did the last time I saw him. Wavy gray hair, straight even teeth, average build, the usual clothes - plaid shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots - and the warm brown eyes that usually spoke kindness even when his mouth didn't.
"Yes," I said with a sigh, "you look solid."
"Yeah, but looks can be deceiving." He winked at me. "Touch me." he said.
"What?" I croaked, shrinking as far away from him as I could.
"You heard me. Touch me. Let's see if I'm solid."
Morbid curiosity got the best of me. I leaned over to touch him and immediately let out a shriek. My hand had passed right through his arm!
"Oh, dear God!" I cried. "You are a ghost! I'm sitting here in my car, in the broad daylight, talking to a ghost!"
"Oh, geez! For crying out loud - calm down, would you! You know how I hate drama."
"Why are you here, James?" I asked, "Here - in my car? You know, I'm just your cousin - and we haven't been close since we were young. Why aren't you in Adele's car, talking to her?"
"I tried that, but it didn't work. There's some rule against it." He paused to take a drag on his cigarette. "Look, I don't understand it all. I don't know much about being a ghost. I've just had one orientation meeting."
"You're telling me there are rules?" I asked, but I didn't give him time to answer. "Since when were you ever worried about rules.?"
"Never. Never worried much about rules," he said as smoke poured out of his nostrils. "I mean, what are rules anyway? Rules are just the ideas of other human beings. I always figured my ideas were as good as anybody else's."
"Ok - whatever. But you're telling me there's some rule against appearing to your wife?"
"Well, if I understand right, what it amounts to is that you can't appear to people who didn't care about you."
"So now you're telling me Adele didn't care about you?"
"Read my lips, Joan. Apparently she didn't." He said it slowly and carefully like he was trying to teach something to a toddler. "If she had cared about me, I would be able to appear to her."
I took a long breath. "All this is very interesting, James, but Christmas is just a few days away. I've got a lot of shopping to do."
"Well, crank up the engine, woman, and let's go! It wasn't my idea to park on the side of the road and chat."
I started the car and moved back into the traffic.
"You've got three grown kids, James. Why don't you go see Roger?"
"I tried. It didn't work."
"Oh, no!" I said with a catch in my voice. "I always thought you and Roger were close. I'm so sorry, James."
"Oh, don't be. Don't get all sappy. I guess I can't blame Roger. I wasn't always the perfect dad. Besides, I'm sure the girls care about me, and two out of three ain't bad."
"That's true," I nodded. "You could visit Carol or Linda."
"I thought of that. But they're young - barely grown. It would freak 'em out." He put his cigarette out in my empty coffee mug.
Then he took a long breath and said, "Joan, let me give you a tip. When we're talking, don't look over here at me."
I defiantly looked directly at him and said, "Why?"
"Geez! Because other people can't see me! Just look straight ahead - and cut out the hand gestures. I don't want some cop to pull you over and put you in a straight jacket."
"Ok. Ok. I'm looking straight ahead, but I still don't understand why you're here."
"Damn, Joan!" He threw his hands up in the air the way he always did when he was really exasperated. "I hate following these car transport rigs! Makes me nervous. You never know when a car's gonna come rolling off that thing. For God's sake, would you please get around him!"
I couldn't help laughing as I passed the big rig.
"Why are you nervous, James? You're already dead."
"Yeah, but you're not. And I need you to do something for me."
I looked straight ahead and didn't say a word. What in the world could James want me to do for him?
As if he had read my mind, he said, "I want you to see to it that Adele splits what I left her with the kids - even-steven."
It took a minute for his request to register in my head. When it did, I was mad.
"Well, you're asking too darn much! You left a will. Why didn't you leave your kids something?"
"Oh, hell! I was mad at all three of them when I made that will." He lit another cigarette. "Roger was in jail at the time, Carol was throwing her life away on that worthless jerk of a boyfriend, and Linda was threatening to drop out of school."
"Well, Adele's not going to give them a dime. In case you didn't notice, Adele couldn't stand your kids." I glared at him, forgetting I was supposed to look straight ahead. "She was never the loving step-mother, James. You knew that."
"Forget all that. One little phone call from you, and I think she'll volunteer to split with the kids." The smoke from his cigarette didn't hide the smug look on his face.
We waited in silence for the traffic light to turn green while James puffed on his cigarette. I wondered what I could possibly say to Adele that would make her want to share anything with James's kids.
"I don't have time for this, James," I said out loud, not even trying to hide my impatience.
"It won't take long," he said.
"Explain," I demanded.
"Adele's got a little scheme going at her job. It involves collusion, embezzlement, fraud. Stuff like that. If you threaten to expose her, she'll come around."
"Ha!" My mouth dropped open. "You've got a lot of nerve, James! I don't want to get involved in this! Get out!" Now I was screaming. "Get out of my car!"
"Aw, Joannie - please don't let me down." He was pleading. "This is my only chance to set things right."
"If you knew Adele was doing something illegal, why didn't you stop her?"
"Stop her?" He looked incredulous. "For crying out loud, she was going to make a bundle! We were planning to retire to one of those resorts in Florida."
I was speechless. The traffic light had turned green, and the car behind me was blowing. As I accelerated, I found my voice.
"It's gonna be damned hot where you're going," I said through clenched teeth.
"Hot?" He looked puzzled. Then it dawned on him. "Oh. Oh, that. You mean hot - like in hell. Yeah, that's what I thought it would be, too, but they took me on a little tour. It seems that hell is different things for different people. It ain't heat I'm gonna have to deal with. It's cold wet weather. Rain, never-ending rain and cold. Thunder - lightning - wind. Twenty-four seven, three-hundred and sixty-five. For eternity. God, Joannie, you know how I hate that kind of weather!"
"Well, that's just too bad, James," I said with mock sympathy, "but I'm not getting involved in Adele's shady business."
"I'm surprised, Joan," he said quietly. His sudden composure was unnerving. "You always believed in doing the right thing. And it really ain't right for Adele to get everything."
"No, It's not," I sighed. "But what can I do about it?"
"Call Adele. Tell her you know about her shady scheme, and you can prove it. I've got copies of incriminating records in a safe deposit box - a box she doesn't know about. Tell her that. Tell her you can get your hands on copies of "Operation Retirement." That's what she calls her little scheme. She'll know exactly what you're talking about."
"Well, that's just dandy, James, but I don't have a legal right to get in that safe deposit box."
"You probably won't have to. I think she'll cave in. But if she calls your bluff, get in touch with my lawyer - Roddy McCall."
I couldn't believe my ears.
"Adele's ex-husband is your lawyer?"
"Yeah. He hates her guts - and he's authorized to get in the safe deposit box."
"I don't understand you, James. You were going to retire with Adele on her stolen money. Why would you want her ex for your lawyer?"
"I always did like to hedge my bets," he said with a grin and a wink. Then he got serious. "Thanks, Joannie - and Merry Christmas!"
He was gone as suddenly as he had appeared. I looked at my watch. It was almost noon, but I was too upset to think about food. I turned in at a shopping center and parked the car. I don't know how long I rested my aching head on the steering wheel, but when I finally sat up I knew what I was going to do. I felt a little shaky as I reached for my cell phone to place a call. A feminine voice answered.
"Adele?" I said, "This is Joan."
Notes from the Author
Occasionally a story will almost write itself, and Just a Shade of Christmas is one of those stories. It began one day when I set out on a Christmas shopping trip and had to stop at a railroad crossing and wait for a train. Something reflected in the window on the passenger side of the car - probably the sun reflecting off the train. It made me think about ghosts and what it would be like if one materialized in my car. The train - switching tracks, moving back and forth - gave me plenty of time to imagine, and James materialized in my mind. James, like a lot of characters in stories, is a composite of several people the author has known. Anyway, from that point Just a Shade of Christmas was off and running and took on a life of its own.
No serious theological statements are intended in this story. I don't know if ghosts are a reality or if they have any opportunity to set anything right after they've passed out of this world. I doubt it, but who really knows?
I suppose we all have our internal contradictions. James is certainly a bundle of contradictions. And would any sane person like Joan actually follow directions given to them by a somewhat whacky ghost like James? I don't know. Would you?