Savannah’s hot breath held me like a mother as I stumbled home from Pinkie Master’s dim light and cheap beer. Probably drank too much again. Probably best not to think about it. Despite the streetlights, shadows pooled in Lafayette Square. I fought an urge to clamber up its live oaks as tree frogs sang down the full moon.
Lost in those thrumming chirps, I tripped on uneven brick, teetered, and tumbled into an ivy bed. Dammit. A crushed-green smell rose around me. I shook myself off and sat.
I blinked again, sure she’d disappear.
She didn’t disappear.
A transparent Flannery O’Connor was staring me down.
Horse-toothed and narrow-eyed and beautiful, she stood before her small house on Abercorn street. Cat-eye glasses did her no favors. A lump rose in my throat: love or drink or awe. I scrambled up and managed, “Miz O’Connor.”
She snorted. “You know who I am. Most don’t.”
“How—I mean—” I’d glimpsed ghosts, every Savannahian had glimpsed ghosts, but I’d never spoken to one. “A good man remains hard to find,” I finally said.
Her eyebrows shot up. “And why would you be looking for a good man?”
Above us loomed the cathedral of a god who should’ve taken her. That god didn’t look kindly on guys like me. “We don’t go in for that thinking anymore,” I told her.
She waved me away. “You’re too good-looking to waste on another man.”
A compliment from a ghost. Huh. But she sounded like my mother. “Tough tits. I like men. And I wouldn’t be ‘wasted’ on one. He’d be as happy to have me as I would to have him.”
I swiped a dirty palm on my jeans. “You suppose right.”
We faced off in the Savannah dark, my jaw set, her narrow eyes slitted.
“You know, I had friends who were—like that. Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Flannery crossed her arms. “They were dear friends.”
“Of course. You had this one gay friend, so anything goes.” I crossed my own arms: anger and mimicry together.
“I did!” she flared. “I once said to a sapphic, ‘I can’t tell you fast enough that it doesn’t make the slightest difference in my opinion of you.’”
I almost cracked up. “Sapphic? For real?” If I’d called one of my friends “sapphic” that night, she’d’ve have laughed me out of Pinkie Master’s.
“Well, that’s what—”
I pointed to myself. “I’m gay. Women who like other women are lesbians.” I paused, then grinned. “People who like both men and women are bisexual. People attracted to others regardless of their gender or sex are pan—”
The ghost’s lips pursed with confusion, but I steamrolled on. “Lots of different sexualities fall under the umbrella of queer. Then there’s intersex, which means someone’s genitalia doesn’t conform to—”
Flannery clapped her hands over her ears. “Holy Mary, you’ve made this complicated!”
I sniffed. “It was always complicated. We just named it.”
She drew her hands down. “I guess it was, child.”
That familiar pain bit deep, and my chest tightened. “You people think it’s made up. But we were born like this. It’s normal.”
“Don’t lump me in with those Bible-thumpers.”
I pointed to the cathedral. “Hello, Catholic.”
She shot me her most poisonous glare yet. “Like I said, young man, don’t lump me in with those Bible-thumpers. My Church obeyed the chair of St. Peter. And purgatory comes to most.”
Tree frogs filled our silence. Hers may have been contemplative. I groped for words. “You know where you are,” I said tentatively, “right?”
“Don’t ask foolish questions.”
“Then you know you’re—I sort of just have to say this—a ghost?”
“I’m not a ghost!” Her voice rose. “I’m a shade!”
“The principle’s the same?” I focused on her sensible shoes.
“‘Ghost’ presumes a wandering spirit. ‘Shade’ pertains to a state in the afterlife.”
“You want to be a shade?” I asked. “You’re a shade. I’m not imposing my belief system on you.”
“Thank you.” She huffed. “You don’t know a damn thing about being dead.”
“Well, you don’t know a damn thing about being gay.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “I know a good man is hard to find.”
I sighed, suddenly exhausted. “That’s God’s honest truth. You think they’re good, then they turn into ass—jerks. It’s always something. He takes you for granted, or he’s super-clingy, or he only wants sex…”
Sympathy etched Flannery’s sharp features. “There’s a reason I kept to my peacocks.” She glanced around, as if assuring we were alone. “Do you want to tell me about the last one?”
I’d pretended at Pinkie Master’s: Raise a glass, I ditched the bitch, he’s finally gone. But far from the familiar, without my friends’ echoing laughter, loneliness dropped down again. “Really?” I whispered.
She nodded. “Really.” A smile crooked her thin lips. “You can’t tell stories without listening to them.”
I dropped to the brick and hugged my knees. Flannery perched gracefully on her stoop. I waited until she smoothed her dress, then began. She nodded along, asking questions gentled into kindness. Maybe she didn’t agree with me. Maybe I shouldn’t have been spilling my guts to a ghost—a shade—in Lafayette Square. It didn’t matter.
We both knew a good man is hard to find, and that was enough.