Lit by Lightning – free sample chapters
Read the start of a gripping, occasionally true adventure....
There is always a knock at the door about to happen. The night bends and trembles with the weight of words, the breath of feeling. Every ghost is only a story. You call up a ghost story, looking for its ear. Because even stories never spoken, only thought, are stories born, borne into us as code, unbroken, running like a dog across the snow…
Thomas is my last husband. You know how when you’re at a potluck and you go get a slice of pie? You really only intend to have one slice, so you try to pick out a good one. Sometimes there are real good reasons to go back for another slice. Like maybe that first one, the one you thought was homemade chocolate chess pie—turned out to be some store-bought fraud. Or, I don’t know, maybe you’re still hungry after eating the first one. But that third slice—and to be clear, Thomas is slice #3 for me—definitely has to be your last. So when I say he is my last husband, I don’t mean “latest,” I mean last. Past three, and there’s words for what you are, and ain’t none of them nice. I’m more certain about this part than I am about anything else. It’s important to know that from the beginning.
I’m pouring my second cup of coffee, just back inside the kitchen door from taking Nora to school at 6:30. Earlier, on the days she has to carry her cello. It’s so early for us to get up, we started getting up fifteen minutes earlier even, so we can run in circles in the driveway until we wake up. I don’t know if it counts as exercise, but she has math first period every other day so it’s a necessity.
So I’m starting the second phase of morning, making Edgar’s lunch and getting him ready for preschool. He’ll ride to work and stay with me until it’s time for his class. Unless it’s Monday. Or Friday. On the days he’s the helper, I have to bring snacks for everybody. It’s not his day today. That’s something at least. I might get to bathe before work.
I can tell Thomas is up by looking at the coffee level. Sometimes Thomas takes Edgar with him to the office, but this morning he’s got a meeting with a client. It helps that we work together. Otherwise, we’d have no food or clean clothes. Possibly the dog would have to watch Edgar on occasion. Or drive a car.
The dog stares up at me as if she’s worried about this possibility.
“I’ve been thinking for a few months about where I’d put my ashes. When I die. A long time from now.”
“I sincerely hope you’re talking to the dog.” It’s early, I realize, for this conversation. In all kinds of ways. I hadn’t even waited for Thomas to get all the way into the kitchen.
“It’s All Souls’ Day. Did you hear the knocking at the front door? Last night? About midnight?”
“Since you’re ahead of me on the caffeine, how about I catch up.”
It’s All Souls’ Day, the second of November. I just bet you know all about trick-or-treating, the Great Pumpkin, maybe some apple-bobbing in the haunted house. All that stuff, that’s All Hallows Eve, right. And a bunch of the really devout still celebrate All Saints Day, the first of November, the day for recognizing those folks who partook of the divine vision but maybe have no declared day of their own. Are there a lot of those? Do you wonder about that? I’ve kind of wondered. It’s pretty freaking hard to get access to the divine vision, but there’s only 365 days, so unless somebody shares a day here and there, somebody’s getting left out. Who wants to get hold of a divine vision and then have to share a day, really, with somebody like St. Theresa or St. Christopher? Or St. Nicholas? That’d be my luck. It’s St. Nicholas’s day, and some other person who saw some visions or something.
There’s no social failure quite like the ones related to the holidays. The obligations surrounding even the minor festivals are specific and numerous. Right at midnight on the first of November, I heard knocking at my door, like Poe’s visitor but with less feathers. I know, because I opened my eyes to look at the clock at 12:01, and by then it had stopped. Four knocks, maybe five. And it wasn’t the acorns on the roof. I thought it might be the acorns but they’re pretty insistent, and the knocking didn’t insist because it was calm and steady. It said we had business, it said, and you know what it is. You know you hear the knocking. You set out a plate for the knocking. You might be in bed doing crossword puzzles. That’s cool. We’ll come back later.
But back to my social failures for a minute. If you’re somebody with unfinished business with the dead, then All Souls’ Day ought to be on your calendar. It’s November 2nd. Write that down. Leave those skeletons up on your door after the candy’s gone and the pumpkin’s kicked. They’ve still got some doings.
How can you tell whether or not you have unfinished business with the dead? Say you have accumulated some human remains, for instance. In your possession. Well, it’s not respectful. Or practical. Here’s where I’ve found myself, and knowing full well that All Hallows Eve was coming, I completed a whole series of errands, work projects, returned phone calls and emails without baking a pound cake or even making a half-assed altar. I didn’t even call Francis. I always call Francis on All Hallows. Francis is my occult expert and a dear friend, removed by many miles from my presence but not from my daily affection. His chief areas of expertise are Food, Death and Art. There’s no better friend to have. Thanks to technology, I still get to benefit from his wisdom regularly.
But I haven’t called him yet this year, and now this knocking after midnight, it’s already late in this short season. So I’m talking to Thomas about my own ashes, getting it all out of order, making a mess.
“I’m just thinking, you know, where I’d want somebody to put them, I guess I should say. I wouldn’t be putting them. Mine, I mean. Anyplace.”
Thomas checks his email on his phone. Or so he’d have me believe.
“There’s a company in Japan that can make them into pencils. That’s my first choice, so far.”
I can see his eyebrows moving a little. He’ll say something here in a minute.
“I see a drawback to this plan of yours, in that no living member of your family is going to have the slightest interest in owning or using your ash-pencils.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“I’m not making a grocery list with your kneecaps.”
“Thomas, if I die, you will be too grieved to eat again.”
It’s true. I think he’s a terror junkie. I think he’s become addicted to the chaos.
I’m checking my action list. Post office: check. Clothes in the dryer: check. Orange juice at the store—I’ll get that later. I’ve put a question mark next to “Call Francis.” Helpful Heloise would be proud of me on this one: I may not know what to do with the two sets of human remains I’m stuck with at present, but I knew exactly who to call about the Santeria spell in my front yard when that happened, and I knew who to call when the spirits paid me a visit this morning. Come to think of it, Heloise would not be anywhere near this shit.
“Francis. I’ve got troubles… not of this world. Please call when you can. It’s kind of urgent.”
Francis isn’t home yet. It’s not the sort of question you’d leave in a message, but seeing as a time constraint likely applies here, I’m going to do the best I can.
Here’s why Francis is the best: one time I had a Santeria spell on my front lawn, and he totally knew how to get rid of it. It threw me at first, and for a few hours I just paced around like a madwoman wondering if I should just hose everything down and forget it, but I figured that acting abruptly and in ignorance could be a mistake. And then I realized that Francis would know exactly what to do.
“So, there’s like, a bunch of sugar in my yard. No, in a circle. It’s a lot. Like maybe a couple of bags’ worth.”
It didn’t take long, and Francis’s instructions were specific. When I told him about the carefully situated pair of ladies’ sandals, he rankled: “These people,” he sniffed, “have absolutely no idea what they are doing.”
“They may not know what they’re doing, but I’m going to need some peace of mind here. What do you suggest?”
Some fascinating side notes to this incident: it turns out you have to go up to the counter at the Mexican grocery and ask for Agua Florida, a key element in overturning what Francis called the “sweetening spell” that may or may not be working on me. In fact, the cashier may disappear for a moment, but he’ll be back. Buy a candle or a sweet biscuit or something if you want to feel less weird about the whole transaction.
“The point is,” Francis warned me, “you don’t even want anyone thinking they’re working you. Even if they’re doing it wrong.” I did like the smell of the stuff, and I also came very close to remembering the Lord’s Prayer without having to look it up on my phone. But since you don’t want to screw up the antidote to a half-assed Santeria spell out of bravado, I looked that shit up, and I got it right. Then I used the kitchen matches to light the Agua Florida and set my front stoop stones on fire.
“Watch the flames. There will be some blue ones in the center, and that’s normal. You just don’t want any spirals. If the flames spiral, I’m going to give you some further instructions. Don’t worry.” No spirals. So I think we’re clear of that, whatever it was.
Wallace Stevens said one time that life is an affair of people, not places, but for him life was an affair of places and that was the trouble. That’s trouble, yes it is. My life is an affair of places who are like people.
“If the afterlife is the most peaceful thing you can imagine, I guess I think maybe it’s a dogsled. Do you think scattering ashes from a dogsled would be a good thing? Would that be sufficiently respectful?”
“Did you have a particularly difficult therapy session yesterday?” Thomas takes a long sip of coffee, staring at me. “It’s a hard decision—I don’t know what I’d do if I had the same problem. And I didn’t know your grandmother, so it’s hard for me to say what she’d want. I know she’s not, well, bothering you like she was before, but having her sitting there in the dining room—it may be okay for her, but it seems like it’s not okay for you.”
Francis knew right what to do about the Santeria spell. I’m going to ask him about the ashes. As soon as I can get in touch, but there’s a lot to get done today.
“And you know me. I don’t care. She can stay. I’m just saying. Seems like it’s wearing you out a little bit.”
Dogsledding may sound like a strange image of the afterlife to you, but let me explain. The most non-personally exhilarated I have ever been was the one time I got to be on a dogsled. Staring at the stars. Hearing nothing but the dogs’ panting. Their feet crushing the snow, soft little crackles.
I’d miss the dogs’ panting, after they dumped me and left. I don’t really want to be left on a glacier, come to think of it. How often would the dogs run by? Getting out to a glacier would be impractical, too.
What’s more impractical than death? Man, when I moved from Seattle, I found out just how impractical it could be when I had to ship that urnful of my closest relative back to North Carolina.
“Contents of package…”
I’m at my friendly neighborhood Pack and Ship, trying to ship Granny’s ashes back to North Carolina. I was moving home, so she was, too. Post 9/11, and you can’t just take a sealed metal box on the plane and sit with it in your lap. So I’m talking to the same nice man who helped me get my dissertation printed and shipped a few months back. He wants to know, naturally, what’s in the box.
“Well, see… contents. The contents are, this box is the… the contents. Ashes. Remains. IS technically what… that’s… Granny.”
My babbling began to make some kind of sense to him, because he put his pencil down and ran his hand quickly back and forth through his curly hair. Kind of like he was looking for the source of a diffuse itch. Then he turned around really fast, walked away and into the back room for a second, then came back out to the counter and picked up his pencil and clipboard.
“Okay. We’re going to start again, and here’s how it’s going to go. I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear what you just told me. Name, yes, contact phone number, delivery zip and yes, check, yes, and contents. Contents: Yes. All right. Contents: one art object.”
He glanced up at me sidelong.
“Value of contents—”
Now he really shot me a look, and went back to scrawling in a kind of cramped, perturbed fashion as he pronounced each syllable and scrawled one word onto the form.
“I can’t take her on the plane,” I offered.
He just glanced up again and sighed.
“No, I guess you can’t. This is disrespectful.” He shook his head again, slower this time.
“Yeah. I fully expect to pay. And I don’t just mean for the shipping.”
Remembering it all there in my kitchen, I’m staring down into Edgar’s lunchbox I’ve been absent-mindedly packing. Edgar stands at the bottom of the stairs in his baggy Star Wars pajamas, disheveled from heavy sleep. I realize that I’m still paying, and that’s part of all of this. There is a debt I have. We all have to do our best with these things. Some are more complicated than others.
“Hey there, little man. Did you have nice dreams?” Thomas walks over and sweeps Edgar into his arms. Edgar giggles.
What if it’s all just out there, in the air?
“What if what’s all out there? In the air.” I guess I asked that question out loud.
“All of the stuff. The things they didn’t finish. All of the things we didn’t finish with them. Everybody’s stories. The air could be full of them, you know. Like invisible tumbleweeds, catching on real live people sometimes, following them around like ghost clouds. Word ghosts. Ghost parables. What if we’re stuck all over with stories that flew out of people when they died?”
“Oh, it’s all out there. That’s exactly where it is.” He rubs noses with Edgar.
“I think about things,” said Edgar.
If I only had one ash problem, that would be one thing. It’s never one thing.
“What you’re talking about is conservation of energy—if you’re interested in an explanation.” And this is why I ask Thomas stuff. Listening to Thomas’s explanations gives me the same feeling as dumping out the necklaces in my jewelry box and untangling them with the tweezers.
“You mean if something’s not right on this side…”
“It’s got to balance. It’s an irrefutable rule of nature.” I wonder if I’d be that calm and confident if I smoked.
You’ll dream about my damp hair against your cheek tonight, and you will think of someone in your world. But it’s really me. I’ve always been here. I’m going to start running tonight, and I won’t stop until I reach you. I will have to forget everything and remember all over again, and so will you. But I won’t stop. I don’t know what this place is, but I won’t stop. Here comes the snow.
The most impractical thing, besides death, would be ex-husbands. I have to call Brad, because the other set of ashes I’m worried about is another story. I don’t even know exactly where they are. There. I said it. I don’t know. That was the first thing I had to admit, before I could even start to put this whole thing in order. I don’t know who has my son’s ashes. If anybody does. I do know one place they are not, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten. It’s hard. That part you probably believe.
In the car, I’m practicing the speech I would make. And by practicing, I mean I’m saying it to him, because he’s there, my son who died. It’s going to be really hard to believe, this next part, but just hang in there with me. It’s going to be kind of like at the beginning of the movie Evita, when Antonio Banderas opens his mouth to sing, and you’ve got to decide right then whether you’re going to take this trip with him. You’ve got to think: Antonio Banderas is singing, and I kind of don’t believe it, but he’s probably going to sing again in the next two hours, so let’s just go along and see what happens. I’m going to tell you more than once that when you have some business with somebody on the other side, they are around. So if I’m wrong and you’re right, then maybe I am only rehearsing, or I’m repeating myself for consolation. Like a nursery rhyme. Or a prayer. And that’s not hurting anybody, is it?
“I am pretty sure your ashes are in a filing cabinet, and I am just chagrined about that. I can’t tell you how much I am. I am trying to get this mess worked out. The truth is, until recently I thought they were under a monkey puzzle tree in a remote area near the Canadian border, so this is better, potentially. I know the next series of decisions needs to be carefully considered. Sorry it’s taking so long. I know you must have been wondering what was up with me.”
Here’s how the first conversation with Brad went. “I hear you’re selling the house in Darien.” That’s how I started, because his house was the last place I knew where they were.
“Yes. Yes, that’s happening. The paperwork’s going through and everything. I have to go out there and get the stuff out next month—the people seem nice and it’s a second home—”
“You selling it with the dead guy’s towels? Gonna include those?” The dead guy was the guy who owned the house before Brad’s family. I always called him “the dead guy.” That’s another story I’ll get to in a minute.
“You should throw those out. But that’s not why I called.”
I don’t know why I offer suggestions for normal behavior now, when he never took any of them when we were married. Or when we were kids.
“Brad, I really just have a short question, and I’m sorry to bring this up, but I need to know. If I can just get this answer today. Then we can discuss it further later.”
And so it turned out that nobody ever put those ashes under the monkey puzzle tree, even though that’s what Brad’s mother had said. The whole story about scattering my son’s ashes in Darien had just come out of the old lady’s imagination.
I won’t miss the house itself. It was pretty regular, on the scale of things. Sad. Kind of flat and sad. With some Southwest-inspired design choices that I guess somebody thought made it look rustic. Maybe they just conflated Northwest and Southwest. That’s kind of sad, because they are totally different things. It’s like building a Swiss chalet in Portugal. Who am I kidding. Somebody’s probably done that. People are not places, and places don’t get their feelings hurt.
Anyway, that place was freaking lonely, and not just because driving down that road at night made you feel like you were doing a historical re-enactment of In Cold Blood. I know it never bothered Brad’s family, living in a house a guy died in. The Henrys cheerfully used the dead guy’s towels, slept soundly on his mattress. That’s some real shit, right there. Sleeping on the mattress. I have to give it to them on that one. If you’re going to live in a death house, sleep on the death mattress. I think whatever was left of that guy watched Brad’s father Victor open up his can of pork and beans and set it up there on top of the pilot light to warm while he went out with his stick and bells to talk to the bears on Mt. Higgins, with that dead guy thinking the whole time, Man, fucking congratulations. You’re the full realization of the modern, dude. You are the now.
We had to stay in the house when we first moved out to the Pacific Northwest, before we bought a place in Seattle. One day, just out of the shower, I was staring at an Yves St. Laurent stripey number circa 1978, asking myself if Brad’s mother would have moved these things across the country to her summer cottage.
“This the dead guy’s towel?”
Brad just sighed.
“You brought me out here to the middle of nowhere to dry off with dead people’s towels? Where your parents sleep on a dead guy’s mattress? What are we eating with? How old are the light bulbs? The canned goods? We’re one clown away from Stephen King out here. I’m looking for CROATAN carved underneath the fucking kitchen table!”
For years, they laughed at me for insisting there was a Sasquatch out in those woods. Then they found him. An ancient hippie dude—living, mind you, in case all the woo-woo stuff doesn’t freak you out like it does me—who was living in a cave, breaking into houses, stealing food from people’s pantries and rearranging the furniture. Like the Bigfoot branch of the Manson clan. I mean, I think the light bulbs were a valid question. They were the only things between me and the dark.
But this particular dead guy seemed amenable enough. Only the living people in that house were seriously out to hurt anything. The Henrys on their summer sojourn. I imagined they had been given some guidelines or instructions—at least, they all did know what had just happened, so I expected things to be… I guess I expected maybe some level of sensitivity that didn’t exactly emerge. Brad left me alone with them for a few weeks right after our son died. He later confessed that the whole thing had been an experiment to see if I could withstand extended periods of time with them.
“I’m calling from outside the Earl Scheib auto shop. In Arlington, yes. We came into town to get something on the truck fixed. I don’t know where they all are. I’m here with Victor and the truck. They went someplace on foot. I turned around and they were all gone. Yes, I’m alone here. Well, with Victor.”
Victor was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel. He looked pretty pissed. He did just have to pay for a car repair, though, and nothing put the man in a worse humor than picking up the check. Brad was in LA making a movie about pornography. He thought it would be good for me to spend time with his family, since they mostly knew me as “Brad’s new girlfriend who showed up pregnant.” With a round piece of vintage luggage that seemed to indicate to them a character flaw I never was able to identify. Prissy, they said. I also think a couple of them lost money on betting whether Brad was gay. To say their imaginations were limited gives them credit for resources far outside their available scope.
“I’m not fucking kidding. I need you to get me out. Can’t you send somebody out here with a plane ticket?”
It was going to be another week before a break in shooting. He was coming up to get me then. I was heading to spend the rest of the summer in a production office full of porn stars. Our son had died two weeks before.
“Your sister burst into my room last night and asked me what the hell was wrong with me.”
I ran out of quarters. I couldn’t get Victor’s attention away from the arresting Mr. Diamond.
I wheeled back around to the phone. “Happy Motherfucking Fourth of July, fuckstick. Your family fucking sucks, and I hate you,” I whispered hard into the receiver and slammed it down.
But the rest of them were wandering back, in pieces. The teenager, the old woman, the sister/daughter and the Imp. There weren’t enough seats in the truck for everyone, so they put me sideways in the cargo area. The Imp had to ride in the front seat, for reasons neither medical, legal or, as it seemed, negotiable.
“Um, hello. Can someone tell me what the liquid is back here? Because there’s liquid spilling from under the tarps, and I can’t see what it is.”
Victor usually kept some extra gas in the truck, but I was hoping maybe somebody had chucked a water bottle back here. Or a Coke, or something.
“I’m not upset, but if you could just maybe let me know if whatever it is might be flammable.”
The sister/daughter and the teenager laughed really hard. It wasn’t until later that I found out that it was a jar of the Imp’s pee she was carrying home to measure. She kept a journal of weights and volumes.
After more errands than seemed possible on a national holiday in the Northwest equivalent of Dogpatch, Victor and I were left alone again at the Armory, waiting for the fireworks. The others had gone off looking for food. Or human sacrifice candidates. Or containers for bodily fluids.
Victor was talking about the navy. Maybe it was a patriotism thing, bunting and flags everywhere, kids running around with stars on their shirts. “On the aircraft carrier, you couldn’t sit up in bed,” he kept saying. About how the bunks were stacked, three maybe four guys stacked up. “Like we were in graves,” he said. “You couldn’t sit up—you’d hit the guy on top of you. Guy pissed his bed once. Pee started raining on me. Gaahhhd! Stacked up three maybe four guys. You didn’t have any room. No privacy.”
“Did you ever get scared?” The truth was, I liked Victor. I can’t tell you how many men I’ve judged based on their fathers who actually turned out to be more like their mothers. Lord have mercy on anyone making this common mistake.
“Whaddaya mean? Huh. Yeah.” Like it was obvious. But not like I was stupid. Like it was a relief.
The fireworks started before they got back, which was good, because then nobody talked.
After our beautiful, healthy daughter Nora was born Brad quit leaving the house for anything but hardware. There were a lot of trips to Lowes for extension cords and lightbulbs, but he never worked again, which sucked on the money front and on the sanity front. In one attempt to hit some kind of reset button, our couples therapist asked Brad what he had seen in me, in the beginning. What the most important thing about me was. What he most appreciated about me. And he said I was a brat, that he liked that I was a brat. That was all he had, bratdom. And that was the end of discussion. The case closed.
“The two things I don’t want to hear about this Christmas: your play, and your hair.” That was the last thing he said to me as a husband. On a plane. At the beginning of our long flight home to our families. I think I might have been able to win him over if I’d had the wherewithal to turn around, look him in the eye and say, “Where exactly are our baby’s ashes, you sentimental goat?” But from that moment on, in my mind, it was over.
My life is an affair of places. Of people-places.
I think the very last time I was in the dead guy’s house, the Henrys were squabbling over who would be forced to take Victor to Riverdance. “He says he wants to go. He says it’s the last form of art he can appreciate.” Gladys was pushing, but nobody in that selfish tribe would suck it up and volunteer.
“It’s the last art form left I can appreciate,” he complained, and while I didn’t understand what the fuck he meant exactly, it sure sounded serious.
“I SAID THAT ALREADY. He can’t hear,” Gladys shouted at him over the electric can opener. She was working her way through multiple cans of fishy cat food.
The man warmed beans on a pilot light to save power and still remembered getting peed on in an aircraft carrier barracks. The only things I had ever heard him express much affection toward were velour shirts and Riverdance.
“Hell, I’ll take him,” I heard myself say.
“Thanks. Ahem-erm,” Victor said, clearing his throat snidely and turning back to the newspaper. He can hear, I thought. What do you know. But he’s got a hairball.
I dressed up; he wore a cardigan that still had elbows. The production was a spectacle, and the bullhorn, jackhammer clackity-clackity-clack of shoes assaulted even my Black Flag-trained ears, but Victor, sans hearing aid, sat back and smiled contentedly. Later, in the narrative bridge scene, when the patented Riverdance clackity-clackity dance-step sound had dissipated for some romantic Spanish guitar, Victor turned to me and said confidentially, “They’ve got the quiet shoes on now.”
It was years later, Victor long gone from my life, that I stood outside that same theater, the Paramount on lower Capitol Hill in Seattle, remembering the pathos of quiet shoes as I stood witnessing what for me became my lasting symbol of pointless and ignominious death: a man run down in the street while leaving the theater after the Friday evening performance of Mamma Mia.
I myself was skittering home after a performance of something I’d written for a cabaret theater down the street. This was nothing to handle alone. I did as I often do when the darkness peers into me: I took out my phone and called Francis.
“I have to tell you what I’m seeing here.”
“I hear sirens! Are you okay?”
I gave a brief overview.
“Oh, dear. That’s positively one of the most awful deaths I can imagine for anyone. Was it after the first or second act?”
“That’s a good question. I can’t tell much from here—I’m trying to keep my distance.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve got any holy water in your bag.”
“No. I have lipstick and Advil and three bucks and a driver’s license. And Altoids. And a paperclip.”
I stood on the street corner and watched the ambulances and fire trucks, the police, the crowds on the sidewalk who also had just attended Mamma Mia but for whom additional life experiences lay in wait to temper whatever way that two hours had affected them, plus or minus.
“People should not die with images of multicolor bellbottom pants and feather boas lingering on their retinas.” Francis was firm on this.
“This kind of makes my heart hurt, but do you think he might have been running from the theater in distress and horror, à la Rites of Spring?” Where were his loved ones? No one at this scene was acting like loved ones. What would I be doing if this man belonged to me?
Blinded by the neon, disoriented by earsplitting pop harmonies and Rachmaninoff runs, the poor man must have looked across the street and seen The Cloud Room atop the decaying Camlin Hotel and bolted thither for safety. I was considering The Cloud Room myself, standing alone opposite the most concentrated shameful sorrow I could imagine. A few floors up, there were cheap Old Fashioneds and a man playing hits of the ’70s on an electric piano. From the balcony, you could see the whole city in a much more detached, manageable form than it ever seemed to be from street level.
“You should definitely go on up to The Cloud Room, honey. Have one for me. I’d meet you there, but I’m in for the evening.”
“Francis, don’t hang up. What should I do? His whole life is probably out here, floating down Pine Street. That’s no way to end. I feel like I need to go catch it in a net.”
“You have to let that go for now. It’s not yours. You know that gypsy saying: not my circus, not my monkeys.”
“Francis, the Paramount’s got some lights out in the marquee. Underneath ‘Mamma Mia! Ends Tonight!’ it just says ‘Tick, Tick’ instead of ‘Ticket Ticket.’”
“Oh, honey. Erase all of this from your memory.”
This place is cold, and it’s moving so fast. It’s freezing me from the inside out when I try to breathe—but my face feels warm and my arms feel warm—I can’t exactly feel my arms and legs, but everything else is warm. Except the cold coming in. And I can hear these things chasing me. Big things. They must be close because I can hear them breathing now, breathing in that cold cold air. Are they getting closer?
It’s not that the presence of disembodied spirits in or around the house is any kind of deal-breaker. There’s just not enough instructional material available for handling this shit.
Francis has now left me a message in response to my current message. It’s a short one. I’ll get to it in a minute.
The man in our new house is sad, but he’s harmless. He comes up behind me in the kitchen, especially when I’m standing over in the corner between the stove and the wall oven, often when I’m at the blender. Maybe there was something else there in the first house, the little one that got expanded into the lovely rambling Frankenstein floor plan of the current house. The electrics are funky in that corner; the lights flicker at me. He comes over though when I’m there. He just wants me to remember that it was his house. He built it, that main part. It was his. There was dark paneling, but one of the later owners took it out—maybe like a knotty pine or something, but he liked it. He liked boats. I’m not sure if he had one, but I think maybe. We’re pretty close to Lake Wheeler. I think he had a boat, like a sport one, for waterskiing.
I waterskied once. Lake Geneva, Florida, lumpy with its nubby alligators—we went every summer, and that especial summer my dad determined I would put down my book and learn to ski. After a couple of hours of wrestling, swearing, fearful fake alligator or snake sightings, and mighty complaints, I made it one time around the lake without falling. As I saw the little beach by our cabin roll into view, I let go. It was worth all the struggle for those few seconds, sailing forward over the water standing up, no boat, no line, barely hearing my father’s stupid disbelieving insults over the motor WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING as I flew like fucking Winged Victory to the shore. Like a fat Winged Victory in a Bicentennial bathing suit. But the wind blew my wet hair straight back and up, like a fire, and my wooden feet slid with a satisfied crunch into the sand. I walked out of the rubber shoes and off, back to the clap of the screen door.
This man in the new house, he’s all right. He never hurt anybody. He just wants you to remember that it was his house. He was proud of it.
There was a man in the old house, too. He used to try to scare me when I did the laundry, but that was just because nobody was allowed in the basement when he was there. DON’T come down here, he’d say. My TOOLS are down here. Let me KNOW if you have to come down here. He really didn’t mean any harm either, he just had stuff, you know, stuff he didn’t want anyone to see. I didn’t want to see it either, and I told him so one night.
“Look,” I said at the bottom of the crappy carpeted stairs, “Whatever it is, I don’t care. I’ve got laundry. I don’t care what you’re doing. You do your business and I’ll do mine—but don’t move shit and don’t show me anything. I know you’re here. Just go about it.”
When we built Thomas’s recording studio, it was right in the middle of the tool man’s domain. I guess I kind of lied to him. But he didn’t get angry—I don’t know. He turned away. He got confused about where he was. And then one day, I didn’t feel him at all anymore.
“You didn’t think to mention it in the, what, four years we lived there?” Thomas asked me.
“Hey, new husband, the invisible cranky old man in the basement is sad because your rock and roll music crap is all up in his tools.”
We talked about the old man in the basement one day—the day my, let’s say, observations first really became a conversational topic. We were watching some kind of freaky haunted house show, and the gadget-toting ghost hunters called some woman who “read” spaces—she comes in and sniffs around and starts talking about the feelings in the house.
“Zuleika Hobstobble is a sentient medium,” the ghost hunters say. I don’t think “sentient medium” is even a term. Some kind of medium, whatever it was they said, meant she could pick up on feelings in places.
“Pfth. Everybody can do that.” I snorted at the TV, wondering what the point was going to be if she couldn’t come up with some times and dates. I was also wondering if she was managing some fiscal remunerations out of this little endeavor.
“Can do... ah, no. No, I don’t sense shit when I walk into an old house. Not unless something stinks.”
“Come on. You know if something really fucked-up happened. That’s why you have to walk around in a place before you move in. I usually lie down on the floor of the bedroom. Better safe than sorry.”
“Let me get this straight: previously, rental and real estate agents have watched you without comment while you lie down on the floor in the bedroom?”
“I would imagine they respect my forethought. What are you going to do if you get into a place and there’s static and fizzling in the bedroom? And you can’t sleep?”
“You don’t sleep!”
“That’s why it’s so important that nothing interrupts it when I do! That crackle crackle—I hate that.”
“I have no fucking idea. None.”
“You do, you just don’t think about it.”
“No. Categorically. This might explain a lot. Your giant antenna—it’s not just picking up people.”
For a straight-up facts kinda guy, Thomas has been all over this. It’s simple, for him. I’ve got details I couldn’t have any other way, and I’m crazy, like, pushy and unpleasant—but not delusional-crazy. So we’re open to options. He took me to a place he knew from childhood, a doctor’s house. When I told him about the doctor’s daughter standing under the scuppernong grape arbor—and her little cat—it’s been easier since then, really. This case is not closed.
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