Conrad Aiken Demands a Gin and Tonic by Lisa Tankersley

The unmistakable sound was happening again. As I began rising up out of the bottom layer of sleep, the clinking of the ice cubes in a high ball glass was vague at first, then louder – it was being deliberately shaken at me. It was pitch black outside; I squinted as I reached for my cell phone on the bedside table, the one I took from my grandmother’s house two weeks after her death. I knew the time, but I still felt it necessary to look. Something about the glow from the cell phone upon tapping it always gave me some sense of false security.  As I rolled towards the phone, the high ball glass, held by old, weathered hands, caught my peripheral vision.  So did the ice.

          Where, exactly, did this apparition even get that glass? And ice? In spite of the past ten nights, sleep disturbed by the irritating sound of ice in glass, I was unable to conjure why he was here. And why he kept returning. Obviously, he wanted a drink.

          This night, the shaking of the glass in the old, tired hands led my mind to the summer I worked in the hospital, third shift, when I thought I was going to become a nurse. Three a.m. per the older nurses and orderlies was always the hour of Death. Usually. Other times, I was told it was the hour where the door to the spirit world was opened….or at least cracked and spirits would freely pass between the two worlds; eventually, by summer’s end, I came to believe it, after multiple conversations with patients as they neared their own demise. Once the minutes moved forward, closer to four and five a.m., the door shut….jut before the rays of the sun creeped into the valley that was Birmingham. Now, it was three a.m. in Savannah, GA – and the door between the living and the dead was indeed quite colorful. My mystery visitor seemed impatient with me. My problem was simple: I had to find out who he was, and what prompted this odd visitation during that Hour of Death.

          I laid awake for forty-five minutes, and the hands shaking the ice cubes in the glass eventually dissipated: was ‘cocktail hour’ over? However, sleep would not be coming back – I knew this already, since that first night in early October that this all began. Often, I had heard from old Southern women that we often invite these sorts of visitations. Old Southern Wives Tales seemed to be steeped in some sort of guilt, in my own opinion….consequences for bad or less than savory actions….I fished around in my mind trying to touch on what I had done to invite such an oddity: I could not reach a conclusion, probably because I could not figure out what the hands with the glass and ice really wanted. Nothing would be concluded without coffee, so I went to the kitchen and made a pot of my Gevalia Columbian Coffee. Gevalia and my new Mr. Coffee have always been my saviors, particularly at such an hour prior to the pink of the sun. The back yard faced the east, and drinking coffee while the sky went from black to purple to pink always helped wash away whatever idiosyncrasies occurred during the night. Those oddities always had a way of seeming ridiculous once the morning light truly pierced those dark hours just beforehand. Once the sun began its ascent on the eastern horizon, and the strange animal noises ceased in the woods behind the house I was able to laugh at myself: once again, I was turning a recurring dream into a reality – an old habit of mine since childhood.

          I turned my attentions to a less than thought out plan for the day: as a taphophile, hoping to put together a ‘coffee table’ book of historical cemeteries, I had become lackadaisical in my ‘work’.  Many photos and not so many words later, I began to feel self-conscious. The current head of the Savannah Historical Society and tour guide for Bonaventure Cemetery had recently asked me how my book was churning, and I did not have an answer for him; I was embarrassed to admit such.  I thought back over the early Spring Day that he’d graciously taken me around Bonaventure, and had given me a first-class historical lecture on the place, as well as Savannah at large. Yet, the words were not coming to me in an organized fashion, and frustration had led to little fruit. My mind turned to the some of the talent that were laid to rest here. The Johnny Mercer family plot was lovely – a bench with many of his titles of his hits etched in the seat was one of the most wonderful monuments I’d ever seen. The Conrad Aiken family plot also sprung to mind, and I wondered if the poet had the same level of difficulties in self-discipline? Conrad’s family plot also had a lovely bench, and my ‘tour guide’ had informed me on that lovely April morning that Conrad wanted people to sit on the bench and visit awhile…..as long as they shared an alcoholic beverage with him – was it gin and tonic that Conrad preferred, or was I attaching my father’s favorite drink to him? I could not recall how I came to the gin and tonic conclusion – I was a Whiskey Sour person, myself; gin and tonic, both alone and together, turned my stomach. Alas, I was straying. Again. I made up my mind to drive out to the Conrad Aiken Family Plot and pay a visit. Johnny Mercer could wait for another day – I needed to convene with an author – not a musician. Not today.  

          I charged my Nikon while showering and dressing, as I only had one battery to my digital camera, a habit formed after I had driven to the Catholic Cemetery, only to find the battery dead upon arrival. As I left the house, it occurred to me to go to Laurel Grove North before visiting with Conrad at Bonaventure; another well known burial was Julia Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. I wanted to stop there before taking time sitting with Conrad. Laurel Grove captured my attention for more hours than I had anticipated, and by the time I actually stopped at Ms. Low’s gravesite, the autumn sun was indicating to me that the afternoon was moving very quickly. As I got gingerly got out of my car and grabbed my Nikon, a beat-up Toyota pulled up beside of me. My new friend, Judy Landers, who’d I met only a month before at Laurel Grove South, hopped out. A fellow taphophile, she was a nurse at the Catholic hospital in the area, and was also a 2nd cousin to Flannery O’Connor. It had been several days since we’d spoken, but it was no surprise to see her here – she often walked the grounds of the different cemeteries after work to unwind.

          “Well, howdy, Stranger,” I called out to her.

          “Taking pictures again?” she asked.

          “Yup, but this one is going to have to be quick right here – I was going to go pay a visit to Conrad before they locked the gates. I’m having a mental block. Again.” Judy pat my left shoulder and assured me it would pass – blocks always do, or so she told me.

          “Come with me over to Bonaventure, if you like, “I told her, as I finished up with my multiple photos, both color and black and white, of Ms. Low’s plot, and turned off my camera.

          “Do you have any booze?” she queried.

          “Dammit, nope, I sure don’t…”

          “Well, I have some unopened Chardonnay in the cooler in my trunk – and some plastic cups. We’ll toast Aiken.” I grinned a devilish grin……chilled Chardonnay was always a good idea, in my book. We agreed I would just follow her in my own car, as she had an early day on the Neurology Ward the next morning; my own sleep patterns having been interrupted lately, I believed that one glass would be sufficient  – more than that might cause me to fall asleep at the wheel; besides, sunset would be on us soon, and the gates would be locked directly.    

          The layout of Bonaventure is such that there was no particular ‘place of prominence’ – thus, those families who had more money were obvious only in the size and elaborate design of the tombstones and statues placed at the various plots. The pathways leading into and around the burial ground are such that it is a maze to the newcomer. Judy and I knew exactly how to get to the Aiken Family Plot. We parked our cars and she opened her trunk to take the chilled wine out of the ice chest. A cork screw dangled from her key chain – a kind that one finds at the gas station, sold to tourists.

          “I promise, it will work just fine,” she said as we sat on the bench. Judy masterfully pulled the cork from the bottle without destroying it; I was not nearly as savvy – having used this sort of cork before, I had always successfully and utterly destroyed the cork, which caused issue with sealing the bottle back up if there were ever any wine left in it. With our Dixie Cups in hand, filled with the delicious French Chardonnay (Judy always had fabulous taste in wine!!), we first toasted Conrad’s parents, Anna and William. Don, the tour guide that I had spent time with earlier had asked me to examine closely their dates of death: both died on Feb. 27, 1901 to a murder-suicide. William Aiken, a prominent Savannah physician, had murdered Anna and turned the gun on himself, inexplicably – 11-year-old Conrad had heard the first gunshot, and ran into his parents bedroom to discover his mother dead on the floor, as his father turned the gun on himself.

          Judy and I sat in silence as we drank our wine out of our Dixie Cups. The October sun was fading…. we had not even bothered to check our watches. The orange sun, dropping behind the Live Oaks and shinning through the Spanish Moss was rather hypnotizing, and we were content to just sit and enjoy. A slight breeze blew from the east, and with it came a familiar sound that caused a chill down my spine: the sound of clinking ice in a high ball glass…Judy and I cut our eyes at each other – it was plain to me she heard the noise……but I had to ask, anyway: “Did you hear that??” I whispered between my clenched teeth.

          “Ice cubes in a glass?” she queried.

          I nodded. The situation was unfolding too quickly for me to explain to her that this was a recurring theme in my bedroom in the 3 a.m. hour for several nights in a row……maybe I should have at that moment, but I did not – because of the new, subtle sound of wind blowing the dirt and sand combination at our feet……suddenly, we saw letters forming in the dirt, seemingly by an invisible finger: “I need a drink. NOW.”

          “CONRAD!!” Judy whimpered. My eyes widened, my mouth fell open – but I was too stunned to make a noise…instead, I grabbed the bottle of Chardonnay and dumped the majority of it over Conrad’s burial space. The reprieve was temporary: the sound of shaking ice cubes in the high ball glass came louder and more furiously…Judy and I, out of self-preservation, jumped to our feet – her car keys fell out of her hand, and I yelled at her to just get in my car – there was no time to spend feeling around in the brush for them. She did not argue as we bolted into my car. The sun was down, and as I cranked the engine, my digital clock lit up, indicating it was well past closing time……….I gasped, wondering if we were locked in, as I threw the gear into drive and wildly drove to the gates. Upon our approach, it was obvious we were indeed locked in –

          Judy jumped out and ran to the office to the left of the front gates, pounding on the door. Frustrated, she turned and screamed to me that nobody was there. It was well past sunset at this time, and I grabbed the hair by my temples, wondering what the hell we were going to do. Judy came back to the car, defeated.

          “We need to call SOMEBODY,” I told her. This was not the time to collapse mentally. Action was needed. Immediate Action. Suddenly, it occurred to me I had Don’s phone number saved in my cell phone. We had not spoken in months, but God willing, he’d take my call………Don was well known by the staff at this cemetery, and as embarrassed as I was in even considering calling him, I really did not want to do 9-1-1….I had no interest in having to explain anything to the Savannah Police Department. I feared jail time for trespassing. As I pulled out my phone, Judy hissed at me to hurry…. the ice in the high ball glass sound was right behind us….and becoming more and more frantic. This was maddening.

          My hands shook as I went to my contact list and went to the B’s for Bonaventure Don. Nervously, I hit the contact, and the phone began to ring, as I tried to clear the lump out of my throat.

          “Hello, Lisa,” I heard Don say on the other end. Apparently, he’d saved me in his contacts, as well – which was something of  a relief, as I had several reasons to hate in regards to having to explain who I was – I had been insecure and uncertain as to whether he recalled me. Apparently, he did.

          “Please accept my humblest apologies for bothering you,” I started. The wavering in my voice was enough to indicate to Don that I was in some sort of dire straits. I explained the situation, but only to the point of explaining that Judy and I had inadvertently stayed in the cemetery, and lost track of time, and were locked inside the gates.

          “You were the first person I thought of, as we did not want any trouble with the local officials,” I explained.

          “What caused you to lose track of the time?” he asked, laughing. I suspected he knew what we were doing – that we were having drinks in the burial ground. The ice clinking sound was just outside of the passenger side window, and Judy jumped like an angry cat. The sound carried through the phone into Don’s ear.

          “Roll up your windows and lock your car doors,” he instructed with the authority of the police, or a 911 operator. “I’ll be there inside of 10 minutes.”  The call was disconnected, and I relayed the information to Judy.

          Ten minutes turned out to be 7.5 minutes, as Don pulled up in his SUV. He exited his van and waved at us through the gates. We waved back with an element of relief. He got back into his SUV after he opened the gates wide enough to fit through, then hopped out and locked them back.

          “WHAT IS HE DOING????” Judy cried, in a high pitched shrill. Don came to my side of the car, as I rolled my window down, feeling perplexed.             “Do you trust me?” he asked with an air of sincerity. I immediately nodded. “Follow me, then.”

          He led us back to the Conrad Aiken Family plot, and as he got out of his vehicle, he indicated we needed to join him. He went to his driver’s side and grabbed a paper bag.

          “Let’s sit down on the bench.” We followed Don’s instructions. The crackling of the paper bag pierced the silence, as he withdrew Bombay Sapphire Gin, and a bottle of Schweppes Tonic. There was no need  for ice at this particular moment, as he’d kept the Bombay Sapphire in his freezer. Don promptly revealed his own highball glass, and became a Bartender for the Dead, pouring what could be construed as a Double. He handed it to me, and instructed me to present it to Conrad, and pour it completely out on Mr. Aiken’s gravesite. My hands shaking, Don steadied my arm and warned me against spilling ANYTHING. “Okie dokie,” I responded, as I walked directly by the grave, and poured directly on top. The ritual was repeated with Judy pouring. Then Don himself poured a third and final drink.

          The environment subtly changed, as Don laughed.

          “You MUST bring him gin and tonic. He requires it,” our rescuer explained.

          “We shared my French Chardonnay with him….” Judy tried to explain, but trailed off as Don shook his head in the negative.

          “Gin and Tonic. And no cheap stuff. Bombay, preferably the Sapphire is the requirement.”

          “Well, I really need to locate my keys,” Judy said, abruptly changing the subject. Don handed her a flashlight out of the trunk of his car. As she graciously took it and searched for her keys, he turned to me, and noted the dark circles under my eyes.

          “Sleeping much?” he asked with a knowing look in his eye.

          “Nope. He’ s been in the house, shaking that damn high ball glass at all hours of the night.” Don grinned.

          “Yeah. He’s a persistent one, isn’t he?” This brought a laugh, as we heard Judy locating and jingling her keys.

          “I really need to get home. I’m on duty at 5 a.m. in the morning.”. She hugged me, cranked her old car, and pressed her gas pedal with no reserve. Don pat me on the back and reminded me to get to work on my book. I slapped his back and promised to get busy, as we parted ways. Being a gentleman, he allowed me to pull out first.

          Thirty minutes later, I was home. My bed never looked so good. I turned out the lights and crawled under the blanket. The silence in the dark was absolute gold. I drifted off quickly. I slept like a baby.

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