JICAMA by Laura J. Campbell
“I about had a heart attack checking my social media account this morning,” Meredith Stemple said, stirring her vodka-and-orange juice with a straw. “A friend posted ‘My sweet angel baby, Jul, this past weekend,’ but when I first scrolled past it I thought it read: ‘My sweet angel baby, Jul, passed this weekend.’ Can you imagine? Jul is only twenty years old. I thought she had died.”
“Not a ghost! Not a ghost!” Jicama, the parrot — a Blue-Fronted Amazon — squeaked energetically.
Meredith looked at the bird. “What is the deal with your parrot, Mark?”
Mark Grimm continued to wipe down his bar’s glassware. Mark’s bar was named after his infamous parrot – ‘Jicama’s Bar.’ Both bar-owner and bar-bird had amber colored eyes. But that was where the similarities in coloration ended. Mark had dark hair and an olive complexion. Jicama’s feathers were green; the feathers in the area around his eyes a bright yellow. The feathers around his beak were white, with a tuft of sky blue feathers at the base of his beak.
“Jicama can detect ghosts,” he replied. “You know his reputation.”
“I still say that you’ve been drinking too much of your own stock. You’ve told me the stories, but I find it difficult to believe that a bird can detect spirits. The ghost kind. I will concede that he can detect the alcoholic kind, living in a bar.”
“It’s true. About the ghosts.” Mark assured her. “You know, I have a gig at a wedding reception this Saturday. It’s being held in a supposedly haunted hotel. The hotel asked me to bring the bird. You want to tag along? You could see for yourself if Jicama detects any ghostly activity. Besides, I could use another pair of hands to walk around the room and get the guests their drinks. Pay is what it usually is. Minimum wage, plus an equal share of any tips, plus drinks on the house for a week after the party.”
“And entertainment by a ghost-busting bird,” Meredith said. “Let me check my schedule.” She sat in silence for a moment, swirling her drink. “Okay, looks like I’m clear. When and where, again?”
“This Saturday. Show up at around 4 pm, at the Argento Hotel. Not too far away. You can almost hear the Platinum Cards being swiped at their front desk from here.”
“Argento is a fancy place. And quite an expensive venue. Maybe there will actually be tips.”
“The rich got rich by not doling out decent tips,” he reminded her. “But the entertainment should be good. A friend’s band will be there playing covers. They call themselves Wildflower Pudding. Lots of seventies and eighties hits. Jicama is looking forward to it. He’s a big Grateful Dead fan, aren’t you, buddy?”
The parrot looked at Meredith and nodded its head repeatedly. “Not a ghost! Not a ghost!” it squawked.
“I think he likes you. Even if you do doubt his abilities.”
“Well, regardless of his abilities, I like him, too. After all, he’s cued in on my biggest personality highlight. Not being a ghost.”
“Meri Stemple!” a voice called out.
Meredith was headed back to the bar to gather a full complement of plastic flutes filled with expensive champagne. The wedding guests were dancing and getting tipsy, singing along with Wildflower Pudding’s sets. There were dollar bills – and even a few five-dollar bills – accumulating in the bar staff’s communal tip jar.
She turned around. A young man, about six feet tall with bright blue eyes and short brown hair had called to her. She recognized him instantly.
“Jason Walker,” she greeted, managing to exchange half-shoulder-hugs while balancing her tray. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m assistant night manager,” he said. “In charge of making sure our weekend social events go smoothly. What are you doing here – aside from the obvious?” He nodded to her tray, deftly taking a champagne-filled flute off of the tray and quaffing the bubbly drink. He replaced the empty glass and grabbed another.
“Earning a little extra cash,” she replied.
“I would have thought that Gerry brought in enough cash to cover your expenses.”
“Gerry and I are history.”
“I never liked him,” Jason remarked quickly. He had known Meredith since they were in high school together. “Did he cheat on you? Because he seemed like the type. He thought every woman wanted him.”
“Yep,” she said. “The final straw was finding out he was sending photographs of his genitals to other women. His little soldier peeping up above his designer drawers. Drawers I bought for him. Anyway, that’s history. I’m concentrating on me for now. You?”
“Being assistant night manager demolishes the date night opportunities,” Jason said. “Hey – did Mark bring that parrot with him?”
“The talking one? Jicama?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. The ghost seeing parrot.”
“Yeah, he did. It’s over there getting more attention from the ladies than the available men in the room.”
“Men send dick pics to other women, parrots don’t,” Jason reminded her. “I have a little adventure for that parrot. “
“Rumor has it that this hotel is haunted. I’d like to see if the bird senses anything.”
“Aren’t all expensive hotels rumored to be haunted?” she asked.
“This hotel supposedly housed a brothel and a speakeasy back in the 1920’s.”
“I’ve noticed that haunted places tend to be old prisons, asylums, hospitals, brothels, battlefields, or the sites of other tragic events. I think those places are just sad. Places where people suffered or were degraded. I can’t imagine anyone trapped in one of those types of places electing to stay.”
“There’s a haunted staircase here at the hotel, where people have reported hearing footsteps.”
“After how many drinks?”
“You’re such a skeptic,” Jason scoffed. “Anyway, have Mark and his bird join us. We can tour the place. I’ll throw in a little something from the petty cash account, to sweeten the deal for you and Mark.”
“Nothing like a little pay to encourage hearing footsteps on the staircase.”
“It’s not like that. I just value your time.”
“You just value being able to promote a ghost-hunting tour to your guests.”
“Such a bitter girl. Later? After this merry lot have finished their libations and wrapped it up for the night?”
“I’ll go convince Mark.”
“One more thing – how does the parrot know? What does it say when it encounters a spirit?”
“How am I supposed to know how a ghost-sensitive parrot thinks? As for the words – he squawks ‘Not a ghost’ or ‘Ghost.’ Mark picked the bird up from an animal shelter. Jicama used to belong to a fortune teller.”
“What happened to the fortune teller?”
“She was beheaded by a client who thought she had put a gypsy hex on him.”
“She was a fortune teller – she didn’t see that coming?”
“Like I said — fortune telling, ghosts? I think it is all very powerful sadness, creeping out of us, not surrounding us. Empathy is an underestimated force.”
“Come on, Meri, I need something to make the boss happy. Like a paying ghost-tour with some token of verification to the haunting. I’ve missed too many days at this gig due to scorching hangovers. My Dad is threatening to disinherit me if I lose another job.”
“I’ll convince Mark. You, Mark, the bird, and I will do the rounds.” She nodded towards Jicama, happily bopping around to the band’s cover of “A Touch of Grey.”
“Ghost!” Jason mock-squawked across the room at Jicama. The parrot stopped dancing and stared balefully back at him.
“Okay, that’s creepy,” he said. “I never knew that parrots could throw shade.”
Meredith shook her head and went to collect her next round of champagne.
“What was the fortune teller’s name?” Jason asked, as Meredith approached. The reception had ended and the group was meeting up to conduct their impromptu ghost-hunt.
“Susan Colling,” Meredith said. “But that didn’t sound gypsy-fortune-teller enough, so she went by the professional name Madame Rosemary Thyme.”
“It sounds like our master chef’s chicken recipe,” Jason replied.
“The place where she was murdered is still standing. It’s next to a doughnut shop. Nobody has bought the place, because she was killed there, and it looks creepy. But I would be more afraid of rotting floorboards and giant cockroaches than the ghost of Madame Rosemary stalking the place with her head tucked underneath her arm.”
“And the bird?”
“Apparently he was trying to warn her,” Meredith said. “The story has it that he doesn’t just see ghosts – he also sees those about to become ghosts. For about two days before her murder, other clients of the doomed fortune-teller report the bird looking at Madame Rosemary and cawing out “Ghost! Ghost!’”
“That sounds like witness testimony.”
“That sounds like people who wanted to get their names in the paper.”
“Meri, I hope we find ten thousand ghosts in this place,” Jason said. “And that they all throw candles at you or something. You’re such a drip.” He twisted open the bottle of beer in his hand. “You want a drink? It’s after hours?”
“No thanks,” she replied. “I’m already tired. Alcohol will put me at exhausted.”
Mark arrived with Jicama. The bird looked at Jason with an avian glare.
“Sorry about the bad imitation I did of you,” Jason apologized to Jicama. “I can be a jerk sometimes.”
“Apology accepted,” Jicama replied.
“That’s impressive,” Jason noted.
“Amazon Blue-Fronted’s can have a pretty sizeable vocabulary and imitate human speech fairly well. Jicama can actually mimic people’s voices. He is an exceptional bird.” Mark replied. “So, where do you want us to go first?”
“The staircase,” Jason grinned. “The site of haunting footsteps and strange shadows.”
Meredith shook her head. “I’ve got to get a life,” she uttered to herself.
The staircase was a side staircase, used for true convenience of accessing the hotel’s floors, as opposed to the dramatic grand staircase located at the front of the hotel, which was employed primarily for show. The supposedly haunted staircase was wooden, with a rich embroidered rug secured to its steps. The rug was rendered in deep emerald green, with patterns of burgundy and gold; the edges were an elaborate repeating pattern woven out of white, cream, and crimson threads. The walls around the staircase were painted a Tuscan terra cotta, decorated with gothic wrought iron sconces — now holding electric lights — and Renaissance-styled paintings.
“Very nice,” Meredith noted. “It has that old-rich-guy-bought-a-villa look.”
“Everything here is imported from Italy,” Jason reported. “See the silver thread in the carpet, and the silver in the picture frames? Argento is Italian for silver. The Hotel Argento, get it?”
“We should be safe from werewolves, then,” Meredith suggested.
“Don’t mind her,” Mark said. “The truth is that she can’t stand to be in a room with the lights off. She scares more easily than anybody else I know. Meredith believes, which is why she’s so hard on stories of purported hauntings. Like Houdini would be.”
“Houdini – the magician?”
“He had a side gig discrediting fake mystics,” Mark replied. “Okay, Jicama. What do we see? Any ghosts that dwell on the staircase?”
“The staircase – no ghost, no ghost dwells.” The bird squawked.
“That’s it?” Jason asked. “He has spent about three minutes here.”
“He picks up residual spectral signatures,” Mark said. “Or something like that. The spirit separated from the body or the spirit destined to soon separate from the body. I think it has something to do with the bird’s sight. Our retinas have three cones, which detect color. We can detect green, blue, and red wavelengths. Birds can detect those three plus violet – they have an additional cone in their retinas. And they can detect some ultraviolet wavelengths. And parrots are a prey species – they are hunted, so they have evolved exceptional peripheral vision. That gives them excellent depth perception and the ability to detect the speed and distance of surrounding objects with exceptional clarity. Did you know that parrots can see the oscillations of a fluorescent bulb, where we see only constant light? And that head bobbing thing the parrot does? It is actually looking at an object from many different angles in quick succession. I think that’s how Jicama may see spirit manifestations when we don’t.”
“Mark spends a lot of time surfing the Internet,” Meredith added. “But, it sounds plausible. And Mark says he has seen his bird work.”
“You said there was a haunted basement, too?” Mark asked. “Why can try there next.”
“Follow me,” Jason gestured.
They left the staircase, taking a service elevator to a lower floor. “How have you seen the bird work?” Jason asked, as the elevator began its descent.
“I was walking with Jicama through an old tuberculosis sanatorium,” Mark said, his amber eyes almost glowing with fear at the recollection. “The new owners of the building wanted to dispel the rumors that the property was haunted – they were looking to remodel it as a multi-family dwelling. They had heard about Jicama – he is infamous in the real estate circles, since he was rescued from a now un-sellable building, perched over Madame Rosemary’s corpse, squawking ‘Ghost! Ghost!’”
Jicama bobbed his head up and down, his eyes almost the exact same amber color as Mark’s.
“Anyway,” Mark continued, “As we’re walking, Jicama turns around on my shoulder, positioning himself so he can look directly behind me. He starts squawking ‘Ghost! Ghost!’ At that very moment, something grabbed my elbow from behind and hurled me backwards with such force that I was pummeled into the floor. My elbow felt freezing cold where whatever grabbed me had seized me. I got up to my feet. The owner, accompanying me on the walk, felt my elbow and quickly withdrew his hand. My elbow was freezing to the touch. Jicama just bobbed his head, saying ‘Ice cold, ice cold. One ghost, one ghost.’”
“Very creepy,” Jason shuddered.
“One ghost, one ghost,” Jicama echoed.
“So, we’re going downstairs to a very old part of the hotel,” Jason recounted. “About a century old. The basement was originally a brothel. They added a speak-easy and gambling room in the 1920’s during Prohibition,” Jason summoned a freight elevator. “Now we use the basement area for storage. It’s a little garish down there.”
The foursome took the elevator down three floors to a sub-basement.
“It’s this far below ground level?” Meredith asked.
“To be concealed from the constabulary,” Jason explained. “The elevator is new. The area used to be accessed by a stairway hidden behind a panel in the wall on the first floor. Like the song says…” Jason sung the lines to the song, finishing his beer. “I have that song stuck in my head now, courtesy of Wildflower Pudding. Who sings Gordon Lightfoot at a wedding reception? I was dreading hearing the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in their second set.”
“One ghost, one ghost,” Jicama squawked.
The elevator doors opened, and they alighted off of the elevator.
“Wow!” Meredith and Mark said in unison, seeing the hallway they exited into.
“I told ya,” Jason nodded. “Garish.”
The hallway was narrow, with a corrugated aluminum ceiling. Metal doors lined the length of the hallway; the doors and walls had been painted a surgical operating room white. The paint was chipping away, revealing dark metal underneath. There were no paintings or decorations. A series of naked blue bulbs lit the corridor. The hallway was frigidly cold. Meredith wrapped her arms around herself to attempt to stay just a little warmer.
“The doors are all original,” Jason told them. “Notice how all of them lock from the outside only. And there is sound-proofing between the rooms. Presumably to give the clients their privacy.”
“I do not like it down here,” Meredith stated. “This is not just creepy; it is very sad. I can’t imagine what went on here. I don’t want to. A world up there full of light, and down here it’s like a dungeon. Or a torture chamber. Those poor girls, forced to sell themselves down here. I can almost hear them crying.”
There was a mournful creak that reverberated through the aluminum ceiling, as if answering Meredith’s sympathy.
“Laugh in the sunshine, sing, cry in the dark, fly through the night; don’t cry now, don’t you cry, don’t you cry anymore.” Jicama sang in his parrot voice. It wasn’t clear who he was singing to.
“I told you,” Mark noted, “Jicama is a Grateful Dead fan.”
“Let’s move,” Meredith urged. She felt like she was being watched, not maliciously, but watched nonetheless.
“I’ll show you the gambling room,” Jason said, motioning for them to follow him.
He led them to an end of the hallway, unlocking a large door. Inside there was a long-abandoned roulette wheel and a number of card tables in various states of decay. Boxes of beer and wine were scattered between the tables.
“We use it as storage now,” Jason said, plucking out a bottle of beer and opening it. He took a gulp. “It’s perfect temperature. Mark – you want a brewski? Your bar is closed on Sundays. Surely you can imbibe this evening.”
“No thanks,” he replied. “I have church in the morning, followed by brunch, and then I work on the bar’s books and inventory. Then I go to the gym. All sober stuff.”
“Church?” Jason asked.
“Something about being thrown back ten feet by a malignant spirit inspired me to cultivate my own personal relationship with the Holy One.”
“Meri?” Jason plucked out another bottle, dangling it in front of her.
“Some other time,” she answered. “Gerry is coming by tomorrow to collect the last things he had left at my house. I don’t want to be hung over and accidentally agree to a reconciliation. By this time, he’s realized that he screwed up by screwing around on me. He’ll be all apologetic. I have to be alert.”
“Hey,” Jason said. “Speaking of which…” He pulled a card out from his pocket, and a pen. He wrote down his personal cell phone number and handed it to Meredith. “When you’re through that re-bound stage, give me a call. I’ll take you out to dinner or we can walk around the park.”
She put the card in her pocket.
“What about this floor?” Jason asked Jicama.
“This whole floor is steeped in sadness,” Meredith interjected. She looked at Jicama. “Anything?”
“Ice cold, ice cold. One ghost, one ghost.” The parrot replied.
“He senses something,” Mark noted. “You may be able to book those ghost hunting tours after all.”
“Too bad the bird can’t have a beer,” Jason beamed. “I’d pop a bottle open for him. The owners will be tickled pink. A real-life ghost. You are now officially my favorite Blue-Fronted Amazon parrot.” He ran his finger roughly against Jicama’s face. “You see it, don’t you?”
“Ghost, ghost,” the bird reiterated.
“Well, I had to see it to believe it,” Meredith said. “This floor freaked me out enough before I heard confirmation that a ghost was trapped this dismal basement. Between the horrors what those poor girls trapped down here must have gone through when the place was a brothel, and the quiet lingering desperation of gamblers who lost money in this room, I’ve seen and felt enough. I can imagine someone losing hope and becoming lost down here. Can we leave now?”
“The mission is accomplished,” Jason replied. “You can go home. To your exciting lives of bookkeeping and evicting dick-pic sending exes. I’ll knock back another and head on home. I don’t have to work tomorrow.”
Meredith was first in the elevator, pushing the button to the first floor as soon as Mark, Jicama, and Jason entered the car.
Jicama looked at Meredith with a comforting gaze. “Not a ghost, not a ghost,” he reassured her. “Thank you for caring. You sweet.”
Meredith smiled at Jicama. “You are definitely getting crackers when we get back to the bar. Crackers and fruit.”
“Yummy, yummy,” Jicama replied.
“Interesting guy, that Jason,” Mark said, as they arrived back at the bar. They began to unload a few supplies from the bar’s catering truck. Mark got Jicama settled into his oversized cage.
“Jason was born to money,” Meredith explained. “Lots of money. He lives with his family up in the Oaks. Not far from the hotel. Not too far from here, really.”
“The Oaks is a very exclusive neighborhood. I’m surprised he even has to work.”
“He doesn’t. His daddy is making him work. Jason was kicked out of every private school he was given the privilege of attending, thanks to his drunk and disorderly behavior. That’s how he ended up in public school with me. Sooner or later he’ll inherit a boatload of cash, and I give him five years before we hear that he has drunk it all away.”
“Ghost, ghost.” Jicama said, bobbing his head.
“There are no ghosts here, silly,” Meredith teased the bird. “I’ll go get you some fresh fruit.”
“One was there already. Then he said it, then he said it,” Jicama added. “Identified himself. Looked at me. Said ‘Ghost!’”
The bird stood still for a moment.
“He is right. He is ghost.”
Mark and Meredith exchanged quizzical glances. “The one ghost you saw at the hotel,” Mark asked. “What did you see?”
“Two ghosts,” Jicama stressed, as much as his parrot-voice could. “One ghost was already there. So sad. Miss Meredith was the first person to care about her. So she peeked out, to say thank you. But another ghost was there, too. A ghost to be. I tried to warm Madame. I tried to warn. Gypsy die! Jerk die!”
“That other ghost you sensed,” Mark asked. “You said ‘jerk die.’ Jason said he could be a jerk. Do you mean Jason?”
“He can be a jerk sometimes,” Jicama answered, mimicking Jason’s voice. “Ghost!” The parrot resumed his usual voice: “He said. Said it over himself.”
“Jason was drinking all evening.” Meredith said, concern creeping into her tone. “If he drove home after having a few more…” She fished around her pockets, finding the card Jason had handed her. The one with his personal cellular telephone number written on it.
She dialed the number.
Jason’s phone rang, and rang, and rang. Voicemail: “The person you are trying to reach is not available. Please dial the number again…”
“No answer,” she reported.
“I’m sure he’s alright,” Mark said.
In the distance, they could hear the sound of sirens. Ambulance. Police. Fire department.
“Jason is ghost, Jason is ghost.” Jicama squawked, agitated.
“Those emergency vehicles are going to an accident scene,” Mark noted. He turned to Jicama: “Did Jason have an accident?”
The bird remained silent. He had never indicated knowing how people became ghosts. He just knew if he was in the presence of a ghost, or a person about to become one.
Meredith offered Jicama some cantaloupe, cut up into manageable cubes. “How is Jason?” she asked apprehensively. “Tell us: How is Jason?”
Jicama looked at her and bobbed his head. Using Jason’s voice, he blurted out one word: “Ghost!”
Laura Campbell lives and writes in Houston, Texas. She is encouraged in her writing by her husband, Patrick, and children, Alexander & Samantha. Mrs. Campbell won the 2007 James B. Baker Award for short story for her science fiction tale, 416175. Three dozen of her short stories have appeared in Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3, Under the Full Moon’s Light, Liquid Imagination, Suspense Unimagined, Gods & Services, Page & Spine, Breath and Shadow, and other venues. Her two novels, “Blue Team One” and “Five Houses,” are currently available online. Many of Mrs. Campbell’s more recent works are available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Laura-J.-Campbell/e/B07K6SZJJ9