The Lorelei Signal
Permit to Sell
Written by Leonora Lewis / Artwork by Marcia Borell
The instant Hope McKinzie walked into the office at 8:03 am, Assistant Supervisor Suzy Perkins pounced. “You think working this summer temp job at Motor Vehicle before you start classes at LSU is an easy ride and you can walk in late and make everyone else take up your slack?”
“No, Ma’am.” Hope wished she’d called in sick. She still hurt from the filing cabinets falling on her earlier in the week.
Idella had warned her about how Ms. Suzy hated college kids or anyone with an education and ran off the young temps. What Hope hated most about having to suck it up was the ghost story Ms. Suzy kept floating around the Motor Vehicle Dealer Support Section.
While Hope had filled out the paperwork about her accident in HR, rumors spread all over Motor Vehicle Headquarters that Livia’s ghost made the filing cabinets fall.
When Hope came home early that day, her half-sister, Tammy, made her tell her what happened while driving Hope to the doctor.
Hope didn’t intend to tell Tammy the rest, but it all came out. The ugly story about how Horatio Reynolds had killed his wife and got it declared suicide and now Livia’s ghost had been haunting Dealer Support for twenty years.
“They say that’s why it’s always freezing over the Permit to Sell desk. That had been her desk.” Hope had said.
“I know that was my Mom’s desk.” Tammy set her mouth in a hard thin line. “Quit! Nothing’s worth putting up with that.”
“No. It’s only a couple of months till classes start. Nobody knows I’m Horatio Reynold’s daughter.”
Hope thanked God her stepfather had adopted her and given her his name before she spoke up to Ms. Suzy. “I’ve made a dent in mailing the inspections stickers out, my extension is not backed up with phone calls and every customer who came in for stickers has been waited on.”
“Is there a problem?” Ms. Rose Doucette, the supervisor, walked up.
“I was reminding our temp we expect her to be on time.”
“No, sir, your speedometer is not malfunctioning when you’re on the speed limit and everyone is passing you. That’s normal here. Have a nice day.” Idella hung up her phone. “Ms. Suzy’s getting on Hope for being a couple of seconds late this one day, when Lorelei’s not here yet, sashays in half an hour late every day and spends all day calling her boyfriend while permit to sell work piles up and we all know why.”
Lorelei can’t be touched on account of being related to someone high up in the Louisiana State Legislature.
~ * ~
Hope smelled the old man: garbage mixed with swamp, sewage, and skunk, before she looked up from the inspection sticker desk. He hobbled toward her waving a faded pink slip.
The supervisors were not at their desks in front and her co-workers were moving as far away as possible. Idella said men from the homeless shelter two blocks away sometimes wandered in and the supervisors headed them off if possible.
“Miz, my name’s Raymond Earl and you’ve got to help me. My car’s been stolen, and the police won’t take the report cause I don’t have the license plate number or VIN number. Told me I had to go to Motor Vehicle. So I brought my pink slip to you.” He thrust the crumpled filthy paper at her.
“Sir, you need the Permit to Sell desk.” Hope twisted around to point him in the right direction. The desk was empty. Lorelei was nowhere in sight.
She had to take that scrap of paper with large brown stains she didn’t want to identify on it. There was no chance of reading the license or VIN numbers off it.
“Do you remember the numbers?”
He shook his head, fanning more of his odor towards her. “Naw. I bought that car used back in the seventies. Anyways, the fellow who stole it had a gun to my head and everything went black. When I woke up, my wallet and my car was gone. I don’t have my driver’s license neither.
“Car ran good even after the wreck. Its front end was bashed up running into a light pole. Couldn’t get it fixed on account of paying the electric company for the pole so I chained the hood down and spray painted ‘jaws’ across the front of it with some of that rust proof paint they paint battleships with.”
She cut him off. “When and where was the wreck, sir?”
“I don’t zactly know.”
Ms. Doucette showed up to rescue Hope with a brusque, “Then we can’t help you, sir. I’m sorry.”
“But I need the police to find my car. It was stolen. Let me give you my address and phone number.” Mr. Earl grabbed a pen off her desk before she could snatch it away. He scribbled something on the corner of her notepad before Ms. Doucette hurried him out.
The second he was gone, Hope jumped up and headed to the ladies’ room to scrub her hands. Ms. Suzy had her air freshener can out to spray deodorant around the room.
~ * ~
Hope reached into the box of today’s mail and saw that scrap of paper with Raymond Earl’s address and phone number. She was about to toss it when the address caught her eye. Florida Boulevard. Hope dialed the number and got a pre-recorded message that the number didn’t exist. Neither did the address she discovered a couple of phone calls later. Then she remembered Mr. Earl saying he’d hit a light pole.
“Do you know how many people hit light poles in the state of Louisiana?” The tired bored disembodied voice of a fellow harassed clerk told her over the line. “You don’t know what parish or city this was in. You’re guessing Baton Rouge. All you have is the name Raymond Earl.”
“He said it messed up the front end of his car and paying for the light pole meant he couldn’t have his car fixed.”
“Hitting light poles usually does that to people.”
“Hope, are you trying to look up Ole Stinky’s imaginary car?” Lorelei came breezing in twenty minutes late from break, snippy as always.
Hope ignored her and leaned over to show Idella the address. “You know Baton Rouge pretty well. It’s a long shot but Raymond Earl gave me his address. It says Florida Boulevard only there’s no such number.”
“Honey, you’ve got a good heart and feel sorry for Mr. Earl, but there isn’t anything you can do. That man is so confused. Most likely his kinfolks had to take his car away from him years ago. Do your eight and go straight. Do what you’re paid for.”
High decibel shrieks brought Hope and Idella to their feet. Lorelei’s rhinestone gladiator sandals were sticking up high above the Permit to Sell desk.
It took both of them to set Lorelei and her chair back upright. Hope was shivering with cold.
“Who took my chair? That’s Livia’s chair! Her ghost threw me out of it. She does that if anyone sits in her chair.”
Idella rolled her eyes, “An overweight state trooper who liked to sit way back and prop his boots on the desktop broke that chair years ago. Someone switched chairs while we were on break.” She pointed her chin at Ms Suzy who’d heard the commotion and was heading their way.
Hope had wondered why that chair sat in the corner not being used.
Lorelei wailed. “Livia’s ghost is picking on me. She haunts this office because her husband and her best friend murdered her cause they were having an affair.”
“I knew Livia too and I’m telling you she had far too much sense to spend her afterlife hanging around here.” Idella snorted.
“What’s going on?” Ms. Doucette had joined them.
Idella glared at Ms. Suzy, “Just cause you say Livia was murdered doesn’t make it so. The way you talk, folks would think you and Livia were best friends. You weren’t!”
Ms. Suzy snapped, “Livia and I got close after the cancer. She called me every night after the biopsy results because I had survived breast cancer. And I survived my husband taking off with another woman too.”
She took a breath, “We, Ms. Doucette and I, saw the bruises all over Livia at the funeral. Horatio Reynolds killed her and got her labeled a crazy suicide. Out in Tangipahoa Parish his old football buddy was coroner. I wrote letters to her daughter telling the truth about how her mama died.”
Hope leaned on a desk for support. She remembered Tammy getting letters. Then Tammy and Heather, her other half-sister, Mom’s daughter by her first marriage, started fighting.
“Your Mama’s a whore!” Tammy screamed. Hope couldn’t have been more than six. She didn’t even know what whore meant.
“Your Mama’s in hell!” Heather shouted back. Then they were kicking and punching each other, crashing into furniture. Hope had to crawl under the bed.
That’s what Suzy Perkins’ lies had done to them all, Mom, Dad, Tammy and Heather.
Idella said, “Ms. Suzy changed out Lorelei’s chair before everyone got back from break. That’s two college student temps have had accidents.”
Ms. Doucette looked at all of them. “Hope, I need you to work permit to sell. Lorelei, go to Personnel and fill out an accident report. Ms. Suzy, come with me.”
Ms. Suzy shut her mouth and followed Ms. Doucette out of the office.
Hope almost plopped down in the chair that had bucked Lorelei. Idella stopped her, redirecting her to a chair that was safe to sit in. She began sorting through the pileup of unprocessed paperwork.
Idella got up from her desk and handed Hope some paperwork. She leaned forward and whispered, “Ms. Doucette can’t do nothing much about Ms. Suzy or she would have years ago. You don’t think Ms. Suzy sending you to empty unstable filing cabinets wasn’t meant to end in an accident? Think about it, Honey.”
Ice cold air blasted out of the ceiling vent right over the permit to sell desk. It reminded Hope of when she’d stayed in a dorm for summer violin lessons. Students, who found their rooms too cold, stuffed towels in the vents. That turned the rooms with unblocked vents into meat freezers.
In the next big stack of paperwork from dealers, the required picture stapled to a wrecker yard’s request for a permit to sell caught Hope’s eye. It showed a grainy black and white picture of a rust bucket with a crunched up front hood that was chained down and held with a rusty old padlock, the word ‘Jaws’ in fading paint across its front.
The car had come from wooded property where the previous landowner said it had been sitting forever. The new landowner had paid the wrecker company to haul it off to be legally scavenged for parts.
Hope set the paperwork aside to show to one of their safety inspection officers who checked the dealerships and wrecker yards. As soon as Darryl Woods walked in, she shot out of her seat with the paperwork clutched in her hand. “This is a stolen car from way back. You know, the old man who keeps coming in here about his car?”
Then she excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. She sat down in the stall. I’m going to quit now that I’ve taken care of that old man.
Someone else came into the bathroom. Hope got up and flushed. She washed her hands while trying to not look at Ms. Suzy who was wiping her eyes.
The door opened and Tammy looked in. She was wearing a thirty-year-old hairstyle. She winked at Hope and was out the door.
Ms. Suzy grabbed Hope’s wrist and hauled her out of the ladies’ room, down the hall and around the corner after Tammy, calling, “Livia? Livia!”
Ms. Doucette put her head out of her office.
Ms. Suzy gasped. “I saw Livia. I saw her. She was walking past the ladies’ room. Hope saw her too.”
Ms. Doucette looked at Hope.
Hope pulled her wrist free. She couldn’t believe Tammy had done that. She prayed the cameras hadn’t caught her half-sister’s face. The CCTV like most of the department’s equipment was obsolete and wouldn’t get a clear picture. “I saw a woman.”
That was the truth. Hope headed back to Dealer Support passing the “Employees Only” entrance Tammy must have used to get in and out.
Behind her she heard Ms. Suzy. “It was Livia. I’m telling you I saw her.”
~ * ~
Ms. Suzy went on prolonged medical leave. Hope stuck with the job. After a couple of months, she’d almost forgotten about Raymond Earl in the press of catching up Lorelei’s backlog. The air circulation in the office had improved since Hope shared her suspicions about the vents with Ms. Doucette. When the maintenance workers checked it out, they found all the office vents partially blocked except the one over Permit to Sell.
Hope heard Ms. Doucette calling her name. The supervisor stood in the doorway beckoning Hope to follow her to her office. Oh no! Ms. Doucette’s found out about Tammy masquerading as Livia!
When Hope confronted Tammy about it she just shrugged. “After everything you told me, I’m not losing any sleep over this and you don’t either. My Mom told me how Ms. Suzy snooped in people’s desks during break. I figured I’d catch her going to the bathroom between breaks when no one else was in the halls.”
Hope found Inspection Officer, Darryl, staring down into a cup of coffee. He looked like he wished he had something stronger.
“Hope, you better sit down. What we tell you does not leave this room. There’s been more than enough gossip about ghosts in this office.” Ms. Doucette’s normally cool voice shook. “I thought you should know. Darryl.”
Darryl shifted in his seat. “You know that paperwork you gave me? When I got to the wrecker yard, I could barely read the rusty old license plate. Sure enough it came up under the name Raymond Earl. Then the trunk was stuck so I got a crowbar and opened it. There were bones inside. The skull had a bullet hole in it.”
Ms. Doucette answered Hope’s unspoken question. “Forensics identified Raymond Earl.”
Darryl shook his head. “It won’t do for it to get out that even the dead have to wait years for service at Motor Vehicle.”
Sarah Lewis now writes under the name Leonora Lewis. Her work has appeared in Thuggish Itch: Birds Have Teeth, Wyldblood, and COLP: Feet. She lives in Southeast Texas and is an active member of the Woodlands Writing Guild.