Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Book of Hope 9: The Creature Wakes

We ate at a seafood restaurant across the street from Lingo's (which wasn't very good), then walked home on the boardwalk. A swing-era novelty big band was on the bandstand playing singalong numbers like 'Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes' and 'On the Way to Cape May (I Fell in Love With You)'--you know, the kind of corny old songs the 'rents used to sing on long car drives. I can still remember my dad loudly belting out his fave:

"The rose of youth was dew empearl'd
But now it wiiiiiiithers in the blast!"

I can never hear that word 'blast' without shuddering, because he died from a glioblastoma. I guess that's the kind of weird word game the mind plays with you. After the band did a nice tribute to the armed forces, we went and got double-chocolate ice-cream (which was very good) at the 'Royal Treat'. The weather had finally improved, and it was a lovely night with a full moon high in the sky--as Kerry said, you half expected to see the silhouette of a werewolf against the glittering waves, stalking the screaming kids on the darkened sand dunes running around in their glow-worm necklaces and bracelets. There was, as she put it, "magic in the air."

It sure was in the air when we got home--or at least the stink of the little burning man still was, anyway. Luckily, it was cool enough to leave all the windows open, and the wind blew through them, rattling all the blinds and smelling of ocean. I can't remember what we did next, watched TV, finished off the wine from the night before, argued about something maybe, but I do remember that the three of them were still acting kind of strange. Tired and still hungover, they said when I asked, so we all decided to go to bed a little early so we could hit the beach the next morning just in case the sun actually came out. My bedroom was the only one on the second floor (you can see the door of it behind me down a little hall in the photo of the fireplace in Chapter 1), but you know how it is, when you're sleeping in a strange place everything stays unfamiliar to you for awhile. So while I was fumbling around on the wall for a lightswitch that wasn't there, my eyes adjusted to the bright moonlight that was flooding the room. And I saw there was a man in my bed. Just sitting there propped up against the pillows, wearing a bathrobe...

So after I screamed the house down, Kerry, Jo, and Chris suddenly showed up laughing their asses off at me, and finally one of them turned on the bedside lamp. The 'man' in my bed was a life-sized dummy. His name was 'Safe-T-Man' (here's where you can buy one, if you're interested: and they had bought him that afternoon at a local yard sale, then blown him up with a little air compressor, dressed him in Kerry's robe and socks and arranged him in my bed as part of the 'occult ceremony' gag. See, he was supposed to be the 'Frankenstein's monster' they had brought to life. And really, except for the inflatable parts, his head and hands were actually amazingly lifelike--Kerry had even peroxided the sides of his hair to make him look like he was greying. Here's a picture of what he looks like dressed up in castoff clothes:

So why am I making such a big deal about Safe-T-Man? Well, it's embarrassing, but after I got over the shock, I sort of found him comforting to have around. Not in any sexual way or whatever--though there are tons of versions of inflatable men you can buy online with correct anatomical parts and stuff for parties or if you're gay or just a perv--but just because it felt so, I dunno, safe to have him sitting there when I came home at night. Or in the car with us when we drove back later that week. And I'm not the only woman who feels this way, either, apparently there's a kind of cult that's built up around him, sort of like Barbie dolls when I was a kid. I'm serious. Just run some searches online and you'll find articles written about him, fiction ( poetry (!!! I guess it makes me sound pretty lonely and pathetic that I would take an inflatable dummy seriously enough even to Google him. OK, I guess I was. But I'd sort of reached the point in my life when I was beginning to wonder if Safe-T-Man was gonna be the most compatible guy I'd ever meet. He was already the lowest-maintenance.

The rest of that week went by way too fast, like it almost always does at the beach, even when the weather sucks. Though not for Jo, poor thing, who got food poisoning from the seafood we'd had that night and was humping the toilet for the next 24 hours. I had even warned her to stick to the mussels, because they smelled fresh to me (I have this embarrassingly acute sense of smell), but for some reason, people never believe a word I say. I bet you don't, either. But I'm compulsively honest--which means everybody usually assumes the opposite of what I say is the truth. Dad called it the 'Cassandra complex', and used to tease me that I was born that way, prophesying from the womb. Which I guess would make him King Priam--I can see the Mothership's resemblance to Hecuba, for sure! The next morning was still cool and overcast--I'll try to upload some pix of it now that Kerry has given me permission to display her photos (that only leaves Jo. Come on girl, get your butt online!) Because really for a few days it looked like the end of the world outside. But gradually it brightened and warmed up--pretty much just in time for us to leave. On Thursday night, we baked a cake and celebrated Jo's birthday--the photo at the very top was taken as Chris and Kerry brought it to her 'sick-couch' (luckily she was well enough to eat some). On Friday night the other three went down to Dewey Beach to 'get wasted and hook up with some man candy', but I stayed home with Safe-T-Man and started to seriously write my book. I know, pathetic. However, in my defense, Kerry ended up spending the night at some guy's place, which she discovered is referred to by them as a 'drag-back', and the next morning because it was a group house rental he tried to charge her for taking a shower! I am so not kidding! Safe-T-Man starting to look good to you, too?

Sunday morning, after we had all gone for one last sad walk along the beach and said our goodbyes (naturally the weather was now perfect!), I installed Christina and Safe-T-Man in the Sentra and we took off. "I think I'll name him 'Leminkainen'," I told her. "After the Finnish god of love."

"You and your Finnish mythology," she said. "At least he is silent like a Finn. Finnish men only speak when they are drunk."

"What about Swedish guys? You're always complaining about them."

"Yes, that's true for the older ones--like my father. But the modern generation are as emotional as Italians compared to the Finns."

So I was like, "Well, the Mothership is part-Finnish, like Jessica Lange. I guess that explains my obsession with the Kalevala."

But then Chris was like, "Nobody in Finland cares about the Kalevala anymore, except on role-playing MUDs. They learn about it in high school still, I think, but to them it is boring. Besides it isn't really so authentic as the Estonian version, you know, because that one wasn't just made up from old songs and stories--so it has more structure, like a fairy-tale."

"Thanks!" I said. I was impressed. I guess I thought she'd lost interest in all that stuff. "I'll check it out at the Library of Congress next week."

We did a drive-by back to DC through Delaware, which, I explained to Christina, had originally been settled by Swedes (that's why there are Swedish flags all over Rehoboth). In high school, I always used to get lost taking Route 404 and inevitably would end up taking some long crazy tour of spooky rural ghettoes, but now the highway is much better marked, and everything's been gentrified anyway. So instead of little roadside markets selling fresh peaches and corn, all you pass now are Burger Kings and huge farmlands growing sod-grass for all the local housing construction. Chris had brought along some CDs to play and hooked me up with Rammstein and Melotron (which I liked, since I speak fluent German) and Covenant and Nightwing (which I didn't so much.)

The Mothership didn't much take to Leminkainen, either, in spite of his Finnish name. A few days after Chris flew back home, she bitched me out because I had him sitting in the old wooden rocking-chair in my bedroom. She was all like, "'I let out a little yelp every time I walk in this room, Hope. I keep thinking a strange man is sitting here, and it's about to give me some kind of heart attack. Besides, it's not normal for you to keep a big doll in your bedroom who resembles your father. It's disturbing.'

"Huh? What are you talking about, Mom? He doesn't look like Dad!"

"Oh for Heaven's sake--you've even dressed him in some of your father's old clothes! And while you're at it, do something about your hair." The Mothership was obsessed with my hair--sometimes she would start trimming it or messing around with it in front of company (though that wasn't as bad as poking at my zits!). But where the dummy was concerned, she was just projecting--which to be fair, seems to be what most women do with Safe-T-Man, judging from the websites. You know, inventing an imaginary set of qualities and assuming they're there inside a man's suit of clothes--or his black T-shirt-- just because you want them to be. I'd sort of been doing it myself, I guess. And when you think about it, we do that a lot with real guys, too. I certainly did with William. So I deflated poor Leminkainen and put him in the closet. Which is pretty much the fate the Mothership would wish on any man living in her house. How she raised two fairly normal sons is beyond me.

But just a few days after that something happened that made me forget all about William and Safe-T-Man and even my trip to Finland for awhile. I met a guy. And he was cute--he looked kind of like Leo DiCaprio but with black hair and big brown eyes--and he was nice, and most important of all, he was like my age.

Actually, I'd kinda sorta been seeing him around ever since I'd moved back from Chicago, because he went to my gym. He never seemed to swim or do crunches--or take off the big black 'Danger Mouse' T-shirt he always wore, but he spent a lot of time on the running machines and looked pretty fit. Plus he always had a really sweet look on his face. That's what I noticed most about him. Then the day after the convo with the Mothership and the banishment of Leminkainen (in the myth he is banished from Finland, so goes off and lives for years on a magical island across the ocean where he has sex with hundreds of women, which beats a closet), I ran into him at Magruder's. Literally, because I actually hit him with my shopping cart, like in a French comedy where the two lovers 'meet cute'.

"Oh, you shop here too?" I said, turning my usual fire hydrant red. Doh!

"Uh, no, actually, I work here," he said, with that sweet smile of his. "Part-time. Sometimes."

I decided to go all witty and charming on him. "Oh," I said, showing him no mercy. Devastating, huh? This is why men drink champagne from my slippers.

"I'm Daniel."

"Hi, I'm Hope," I said. (Hey, give me some credit--at least I got that right!)

Then he was like, "Actually, this is just a day gig for me--I really play drums in a band: 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. And vocals." I guess I looked pretty blank (to be honest I thought he was talking about some kind of store promotion), because he said it again. "'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. That's the name of my band? You should come hear us sometime." And so, of course, that gave him the perfect excuse to come up to me at the gym that Friday and ask me to be his guest at some set they were playing downtown that night. Which I did. Then the next night we went clubbing on U Street with his almost totally silent friends (maybe they were Finns--if so, they didn't drink enough beer), then the following weekend he asked me out on something that was almost like a real date which featured a real meal at an actual restaurant ('Thaiphoon'). And for all that week in between it felt so utterly, deliciously, wishfully thinkingly cool to feel like I had a chance at a real actual relationship, that I started to think maybe I was crazy to go off to Finland for six weeks (two to be spent with Chris in Sweden). I mean, if anything was gonna kill the natural progression of things, that would certainly be it. Maybe I should cancel. Maybe this whole Finnish mythology thing was just an infantile fixation. This at least was what was going through what I laughingly call my brain when we were on our way from Thaiphoon to his place near Logan Circle. When I say 'his', of course, I mean his group house.

'Group house' should have been my first warning signal.

And then came the second. We were sitting on his sofa (OK, duvet, it probably folded out to be his bed, like Quagmire's on Family Guy) and suddenly he was like, "Wanna see my tattoos?" And, still smiling, he took off his 'Danger Mouse' T-shirt. Underneath, he was completely covered in elaborate scrolling depictions of dragons and warriors and elfin script and stuff--it was pretty much like an ink and flesh-colored illustration from The Lord of the Rings. It made my eyes water to look at it. I guess he must have noticed the glazed look, because he said, "Don't worry, it was a joke. I'm into ironism."


"You know, like retro fashions, old TV shows. Even the name of our band is ironic. It's a quote--you think we'd be serious about something as huge as that?"

So I was like, "Oh, I see. So you were being ironic when you asked me if I wanted to see your tattoos..." Then I tried to explain--as unpedantically and non-harshly as I possibly could, I swear!--the principle of Occam's Razor to him. "So the only way you could have been being ironic is either A. if you hadn't taken your shirt off, or B. if you had actually had no tattoos."

"Whatever," Daniel said. "I use a Norelco." So now was he being ironic? I couldn't tell. But hey, he was still really lovely (even with his shirt off, though he was kind of pudgy) and still looked like DiCaprio, so I decided to forget all about logic--and razors. I realize that I'm usually, as Jo kindly puts it, a 'boring, silly twit', but I was determined that tonight there was truly gonna be a new Hope. Unfortunately, the third warning signal chose that moment to go off--in the form of a piercing Nirvana ringtone riff from his pocket. He pulled his cell-phone out, flipped it open, and then the smile that had remained plastered to his face all evening disappeared at last. "Hey, I gotta take this," he said and put his shirt back on. So I figured, OK, ex-girlfriend. Or maybe not so ex, who knew? But I wasn't gonna freak about it. After all, he'd put his shirt back on to talk to her. And I certainly wasn't gonna follow him around and eavesdrop or anything, either.

But as it turned out, I didn't need to. Because he didn't actually leave the room, he just walked over the dining alcove, which was furnished with stacks of dusty electronic equipment and an expensive-looking set of drums, and stood sort of hunched over with his back to me, as if I were deaf or something and therefore couldn't read his lips. His voice sounded pretty strange, too, like he was choking with anger but like trying to keep it down so I wouldn't overhear him--but since I obviously could, this made no sense at all either. And I can only describe his tone as 'intimate'--it was obviously someone he was comfortable enough with to be really p-ssed off at. Because he was all like, "I can't believe you're doing this--you know how important it is to me. You said you'd support me!"

Then a moment later: "We agreed you'd help me take a year off to pursue my dream!" Who was he talking to? His wife? "Because it happened again, that's why! Look you said you'd help me out by getting me on a really good plan--then last night I find out I'm like totally blocked! We had an agreement!" Was this about health insurance? Was he talking about COBRA payments after a divorce or something? Because by now he was having an eye-bulging, purple-faced fit like a cartoon character, actually screaming into his cell. However, his next words revealed all: "Look, Mom, I am basically phoneless here! Is that what you want? Because the calling plan you bought for me sucks! Sure I can call you, but I have basically zero long-distance minutes left over for any of my friends! So actually I have no phone at all in real terms! I have no phone! Is that what you want???"

While I listened to all this--like it was possible not to, even if I'd run out of his house with my hands over my ears--a number of thoughts crossed my mind. First, here was a guy who was actually a few years older than me--at the restaurant he'd told me he'd just had his 30th birthday a few weeks before--but was still a total mama's boy. Second, it was high time I started apartment-hunting for September so I could get the hell out of the Mothership's house and start acting my own age. Because there's such a thing as a 'mama's girl', too, and I didn't want to turn into one. And third, I was so going to Finland! After all, what could be more pathetic than hanging around DC just on the off-chance of drifting into some kind of undefined on again-off again relationship with a whiney, passive-aggressive big baby like Daniel?

Which was pretty ironic, too, as things turned out...

Continued here...

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Book of Hope 8: Faith, Hope, and Chanting

When I told Kerry Will had dumped me, she was like, "That's great news, hon--we all hated his guts. Plus he was lousy in bed anyway, you said." And it was true, sex or whatever with him always sucked. but that didn't seem to matter somehow at that particular moment. Weird, isn't? It should of mattered a lot, but sometimes it just doesn't. So then Kerry got out her laptop and calculated the length of my 'Heartbreak-a-Thon." This is a formula we all worked out one night together when we were really drunk: it's like how hot the guy who dumped you was multiplied by the number of times you had sex plus a week for each time you have to see him after the dumping added to one-half the length of time you were together. "Wow," she said when she was done, "Just a couple months. Almost painless! You are going to be so over him so fast, bitch!"

And I shoulda been, because the formula always works. And yet...I wasn't. The Heartbreak-a-Thon just seemed to drag on and on all spring. Maybe Kerry hadn't done the math. Or maybe it was me who hadn't. I was beginning to reluctantly face some highly unpleasant facts about myself. Number one: I might say I wanted a certain type of guy--kind, loving, sensitive, etc etc, but the evidence was starting to seem pretty persuasive that I was actually attracted to a totally different type. Like the exact opposite, in fact. Instead of getting over Will I found myself moping around the campus, making excuses to myself to walk past the business school building just in case I ran into him. And I actually tried to dig up more gossip from people about his wife and his serial seductions. Why? Was I some kind of masochist--secretly a 'sub' like purple-haired Krystal? Though frankly the thought of sexually sharing any guy with someone with that much cellulite made me feel nauseous. I couldn't even comfort myself that he had good taste. Or, after I found out about him and Sharon, any taste. Basically, he was just confirming all my worst prejudices about guys that I'd like formed in junior high school watching my brothers' sorry sexual careers--you know, the knowledge that men will shag anything that moves or bleats (one is now divorced, the other in pastoral marriage counseling). But, if I'm honest, for a period of several months back then I still would have taken him back in a heartbeat.

So, unpleasant fact number two: I'm an emotional weakling. A wuss. A wimp. A pushover. But not for anyone else but geezers like William apparently--several younger normal guys tried their luck with me that year, and I behaved really badly, sort of leading them on just a little bit and then seizing on a minor deal-breaker and then picking some weird kind of passive-aggressive fight over it, then not taking their calls or answering their texts. What was up with that? I couldn't believe myself! So then I started to wonder--was I actually meant to just be alone the rest of my life? Or did I need some guy who was too thick to notice when he was being chilled? Or too feeble to run when i was chasing him? Was my ideal man even older and more decrepit than William? A geriatric invalid maybe--in addition to being sly, greedy, manipulative, mean, selfish and sexually predatory (but basically indifferent at the same time)? The Mothership had gone out with one or two men like that, however, and I had felt no great thrill of attraction when I'd met them (quite the opposite!), so I clung to that thought for comfort.

But that's why, when the subject of the perfect man came up that night at the beach a year later, I blurted out, "I want to be f-cked by a god!' Because I suddenly realized that was what I actually did really want, literally--if I was gonna get hurt anyway, I might as well get hurt by the Homeric hubris of some sort of larger-than-life figure. I wanted Leda's or Europa's fate, I didn't just want another pathetic college thing with some pathetic aging loser professor. I wanted to star in an epic. I mean, I was like, "OK, I admit there's something all gross and Freudian going with older guys and my feelings about my dad and whatever--so what? I guess I've gone over to the Dark Side..." Maybe I wasn't so different than the Satan-worshipping Sharon and Krystal after all (well, hopefully except for the cellulite!).

Because that's the weirdest thing about surviving a really bad 'haunt', as Mrs Grandy called it. Suddenly you gotta admit that the supernatural is, you know, like for real. And sometimes that totally reaffirms your belief in religion, too. I've had this debate both with liberal Christians (who believe in god but not the paranormal) and with physics grad students (who believe in the paranormal and even reincarnation, but not in god). But ghosts are clearly mentioned in the Bible, like the one conjured up by the Witch of Endor, as well as devils, giants, nephilim, and even the succubi that tempted Adam. And clearly if ghosts exist, that also implies some kind of life after death, right? Even if it's pretty nasty. The fact is, you never seriously believe in something like the supernatural, I mean really believe it, until it happens to you. And then you pretty much want to forget all about until you feel distant enough to it in time to sorta look back and, you know, mull it over. And when I finally did, I realized that Will was actually sort of right--I do believe in just about anything, like even demons and vampires and gods. As well as God, I mean. Because when you think about it, the Blessed Saints in the Catholic Church serve exactly the same function as the lesser gods once did. I mean, my grandma used to pray to St Anthony to help her find her glasses--and to St Bridget to help her move her bowels regularly. I'm not kidding. You could even argue that gods or saints are simply Jo's 'tulpas', created out of a mass need or adulation, like celebrities or rock stars. For example, the reason I so totally worship Madonna is because she symbolizes all the things I want to be but aren't, like brash and assertive and unafraid to live life on her own terms. And able to dance really well. Millions of people like me 'worship' her--and probably if she didn't exist, we'd have to invent her. Just like we were inventing 'the perfect man' that night at the beach.

And at least Madonna is based on someone real. Most of the saints were, to be perfectly honest, not real people anyway, but just stolen over the centuries from local gods and divinities. This process is called 'syncretism', and it's pretty much the subject of my PhD dissertation, which I promise not to bore you with. Well, not too much anyway. Just remember two things: syncretism and Finland, OK? Because they are way important to the story later on. You will be quizzed!

"Did I tell you guys my big news?" I asked, after I'd said all that silly stuff about my perfect man (remember, we were getting drunk in front of the fire, so dumb talk was allowed. Even compulsory). "I'm going to Finland next month! I got a grant to research my dissertation there." A Mothership and tax return grant, but they didn't have to know all the sordid details.

Chris gave a loud sniff and was like, "Why would you want to go there? It's a boring country full of drunks who carry knives." The Swedes don't like the Finns very much, I guess, but in fairness the whole time I was in Finland I never saw a single knife. Lots of guns--even housewives go out and hunt elk--but no knives.

So I was like, "But that's why I'm going. Because the Finns are so culturally isolated that the first Christian missionaries there had to give up trying to spread the Gospel literally and just adapted it to Finnish legends. For example, in Finnish, even God and Jesus were given names out of local mythology. And since the Finnish pantheon originally came from the Lapps, that means even to this day weird hybrid divinities worshipped in Neolithic times are still being fed 'tulpa' power." The rest of them stifled yawns, so I went back to talking about men. By the way, Chris finally got back to me--she actually bothered to come look at my blog, which is more than I can say for Kerry or Jo--so I'll be uploading some pictures of us at Christmas together. The top one I took with my usual genius for shaking the camera, the other one I used the timer for--then decided it wasn't working and walked toward it just before the flash went off. Typical!

"OK, let's review," Jo said, picking up a pen and pad like she was writing my answers down on a checklist. Then she handed them to me. "Here, Hopey, you do it. Number one, your perfect guy is old, right? Really old?"

But I was like, "He doesn't have to be old! Just knowledgeable about the world. And sophisticated. He could be any age."

"Just write it down. Number two, military service?" asked Kerry. Since she was from Savannah, she and I shared a thing for guys in uniform.

"Sure, it might be nice if he's served," I said. "I'd be comfortable with that."

"Three, what does he do for a living?" I didn't care. Just not an academic, I said. But he had to love reading books like I do. And be, you know, attractive. Did he have to be successful in business? Rich?

"Actually, I'd prefer that he used to be rich but gives away all his money for me. Just like I want him to be, you know, a total Casanova, but give up all other women because I'm his perfect soul-mate. I want him to give up everything because he's so crazy about me. Just like in that Jack Nicholson movie--I want him to want to be a better man because of me!"

So Jo was like, "You want him to leave his wife for you?"

"No wife, no kids," I said firmly. "No way! And there's just one more thing. I seriously really want him to be a god. Why settle for mere mortals when you're indulging in wishful thinking?"

After they stopped groaning and hooting at me, Chris said, "What sort of god? You mean like Zeus or Thor or something?" I gave the question some thought.

"More like Eros or Baldur," I told them. "A love god." OK, sounds crazy, huh? But after I listened to them talking and talking about their dream guys, I realized that I stood about the same statistical chance of meeting a 'love god' as they did of meeting the same kind of nice, sweet, decent, sensitive, good-looking, ordinary, everyday guys they were describing. And what's more, I can prove it, though this happened later in the story. A few weeks later, actually. But what happened next was, after I'd been out shopping on my own the day after, a bleak, overcast, blustery kind of day, I came home at a dark and dismal sunset to find the three of them dressed in nighties (well, Kerry was in a bathrobe) standing around the dining room table looking really weird. At first I thought they had bought seafood for supper and were trying to kill a lobster or something, but then I realized from the way they were chanting and from the spooky stuff on the table that they were preparing some sort of magic ritual...

So as soon as I realized what was going on, I was totally like WTF??? I mean, I had assumed that after Hell House, all three of them felt exactly like I did about the occult: In other words, basically, don't do it, girl! But as I said before, it was Jo who had put them up to it. She was the only one who sort of 'wanted to believe' I guess. And, sure enough, it was Jo who turned around at that moment and said, "Shhhh! We're bringing your love-god to life for you." Then I got it--it was a joke. So what could I do except go along with it? What they had done was turn the dining table into a kind of altar out of an old Hammer horror film. From somewhere they had found a black velvety bed-cover and were using that for a table-cloth--on top of it were a ring of candles and a pentagram that looked like it had been squeezed out of a tube of instant cake frosting. Inside the pentagram lay a crude little figurine of a man. So obviously they were playing with me. Great.

"So what book are we using?" I asked, trying to get into the spirit of the thing. "Our old buddy Cornelius Agrippa?"

Jo frowned at me but was like, "And the Book of Raphael. That's why we reckoned we needed notes in your handwriting."

"You baked my notes into that...thing?" I said.

"Soaked in wine. And your blood," whispered Chris dramatically. Blood, I thought? And then I was suddenly like omigod, I remembered I was having a really heavy period. Eek! "We were supposed to use spermacelli but we couldn't find any." (Well, I wasn't surprised to hear that--they didn't sell sperm whale secretions at Superfresh.) And I wasn't even gonna think about what they'd used instead. But naturally, Kerry told me anyway. "So we had to use human sperm," she said.

I was so surprised that I actually fell for it--and was like, "Shut up, really? Where did you get that??"

And she was like, "Know that really fit blonde lifeguard in the red jersey? I convinced him to come in a jar. Of course, I made it fun for him." Ewwww! Then I saw her and Chris exchanging glances like they were trying really hard not to lose it, so at that point I knew for sure they weren't serious. They'd probably just used melted candle-wax for the whole thing. And honestly, I think they sort of lost interest in the joke after that, in spite of Jo's best efforts to shush us and keep the so-called ceremony half-serious. She read some stuff aloud in Hebrew from the book, an invocation for a divine spirit to come to life, then threw the little mannequin into a crock-pot where he started to smoke up the place so badly that we had to open all the windows and toss him out into the back parking lot. But we were all pretty much used to Jo's cooking by now. And by the time we all went off to supper, I'd forgotten about the whole thing. It seemed like such a total anti-climax after Father Mac's exorcism that it was easy to believe that nothing at all had happened because of it. Well, all that happened was that I'd just been punked.

But as usual, I was wrong...

Continued here...

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Monday, November 13, 2006

The Book of Hope 7: Burning Boyfriends

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that sort of falls between the cracks. I mean, my attitude toward it growing up was totally like, "What's up with that? Thanks for what? Indigestible food? Dysfunctional families?" But that year was the greatest Thanksgiving ever--because finally I had something to actually be thankful about. I was officially out of Hell House! The day before, all four of us had gone over to the rental agency's offices and signed a waiver terminating the lease. I couldn't believe how nice they suddenly were to us--they even returned our deposit and November rent. All we had to do was sign a legal agreement never to give out any details about the place to anyone (and technically I'm not, right? I mean, I'm not giving you the address or anything). So that's how it all ended, not with a fiery explosion or a vomiting devil or a whole bunch of deaths like in a horror flick, though when we went to pick up the last of our junk from the house (we left all our furniture behind because we knew we'd never get the fleas out), the front door slammed really hard on Christina on her way out and gave her a nasty gash on her shin. And also when I went next door to say goodbye to Mrs Grandy, her neighbor on the other side told me she had died the week before. So I guess there was a death in the story, after all. And I felt really bad I'd missed her funeral. There was something else I didn't know, too, and if I had I might not have been dumb enough to go out again with Will in order to thank him for getting us out of the lease. Or maybe I would have anyway. Whatever.

After that, our 'dates' followed sort of a pattern. He would AIM or text me at night and then sometimes I would drive someplace and meet him. He was living in the top of a big house he was having rehabbed, and most of the time, pretty much, we would end up there doing whatever. "Me, I'm leading a double life," he told me once when I asked him about this lifestyle. "See, the sabbatical arrangement with the university is definitely unethical, even if it isn't technically illegal. But I can make more money at my brokerage business here in a year than I will at my regular job in twenty. So this semester I pretend to go over to Dublin and make sure I keep my head down and not be seen about campus. In return, they pretend to pay me. They actually save money anyway when I'm not there teaching classes."

I was like, "So you have to sneak around all year and live like you're in a witness protection program or something? Or a spy?"

"Or a ghost," he said, winking. The amazing thing was, in spite of the business he was moonlighting in--and his degree in parapsychology--Will didn't actually believe in ghosts! That's right, he'd never even seen one. Or heard one. What's more, he didn't believe I had either. To him, Billy Draper was just a myth, like Sasquatch or UFOs. And here's the really weird thing--over the next few months I discovered that he was majorly into the occult, in fact he hung with the same kind of 'Thelemites' and 'OTO' types as our ex-housemate, the dread Sharon (he had even shagged Sharon during 'sex magic' rituals, I found out much later--and how gross is that!) But to him, magic was just a 'shorthand to the expression of the will' and a way of focusing and projecting mass delusions. He used many of the same techniques in his real estate sales, he told me, even performing fake exorcisms in front of clients in order to convince them that murder victims or ghosts or poltergeists wouldn't be hanging around. He actually bragged about this. Incidentally, if you're interested in the stigmatized property toolkit or in tips for unloading a problem home, here's a good link. At least Billy Draper never threw orange peel at us.

That's how William de Burgh became my personal 'ghost' and haunted my love life for the next few months instead of my having a real living flesh and blood boyfriend. So why did I put with it? Well eventually, I gotta admit, it was because I kinda sorta fell in love with him. But at first (and you aren't gonna believe this, I know) it was mostly because I was so amazingly happy. It was so awesome just to be out of that place and living a normal life again that I actually felt high from it all the time, especially after we moved into the new apartment on 67th Street. Instead of waking up to dozens of fresh inflamed little bites under my itchy long johns every morning, I woke up to the feel of soft sheets against my skin. Every day was like Christmas. Instead of seeing my breath when I used the bathroom, I could take long, hot baths. Instead of lying awake in bed every night too scared to fall asleep, I could relax, grade papers, watch TV, live normally. Even money and school pressures seemed like luxuries for the next few weeks--it was hard to take anything too seriously after what we'd all been through. And instead of driving us apart, the whole ordeal only made the four of us even closer. For one thing, we felt like we couldn't talk about it to anyone else. Kerry being such a bigmouth, she tried to at a couple of parties and just got laughed at. Chaz wasn't interested--no matter what you told him he was like, "Yeah? Bummer." "Chaz, World War III has broken out and we're about to get nuked!" "Yeah? Bummer." So basically, we only had each other.

Ever heard of a 'boyfriend burning'--you know, where you gather up all the stuff that reminds you of an ex and burn it? Well, that's what we ended up doing with most of our stuff from the house. Obviously, clothes could be washed and stuff like CDs or iPods and kitchen utensils didn't count. But anything that could carry fleas--any furniture we hadn't left behind already, pillows,vacuum cleaners, et, etc--and especially anything that Billy Draper could cling to, like he had to the postman's ankles, had to go. So we had a 'house burning'. And it was really expensive replacing all that stuff, too. Luckily the Mothership was in a (for her) pretty generous mood when I went home that Christmas. For one thing, I brought Christina back with me, because she had noplace else to spend it (unlike Jo, whose family was wealthy and had flown her back to Oz for the holidays), and the Mothership adored her. She actually even referred to her in front of me as "the daughter I never had" (!!) For another, she was fascinated by the whole story of Billy Draper. She quizzed me about it for days, and would go to the library and check out books on the subject to show me. I was like, "Mom, I don't need to be convinced that ghosts exist for real. I know they exist! I just want to forget about the whole thing, OK?" And that was pretty much the attitude of the others, too. But afterwards. I realized why she was so into it. Like a lot of formerly religious people, she really wanted to believe that some sort of life existed after death--you know, because of my father dying and all. So maybe I should have been like a little nicer about the whole thing.

Now, when I say 'the others', I mean all except Jo. Of the four of us, she had been the least affected by the ghost. In fact, except for the door opening in front of her, she hadn't personally witnessed anything supernatural herself, except for the blood, fleas, etc, etc. So after her success with the lines of salt, she became sort of interested in the subject and did a lot of research and stuff--though thankfully, she never got into it like Sharon or Will did. Speaking of Will, have you ever noticed how when somebody breaks up with you, they always do it at the worst possible time? In my case, that was traditionally during mid-terms or finals. And sure enough, right in the middle of mid-terms that winter was when he dropped the bomb. What he did was this: he sent me to his office to pick up some papers and books for him "because I can't be seen there. But don't worry, I'll tell Krystal you're coming." Oh and by the way, that graphic below is from a cute article called 'WritersMap' ( of UChi that lists all the books set on the campus, like Saul Bellow's or Philip Roth's Letting Go. So I'm not the only one who associates that place with heartache.

'Krystal' (and I'm totally not making her name up!) was, of course, the skanky office chick with the purple hair, who apparently was in on the secret that he wasn't really overseas and was helping to cover for him. That wasn't all she was doing for him, either, as I quickly found out. Which was why he really sent me there in the first place--I'm not that dumb! Obviously, it was her job to get the dumping process underway for him, a job she seemed to enjoy, pretty much. First she took me to lunch at the union, then she started mocking him to me, relating little anecdotes and certain affectionate phrases of his that made it plain he'd slept with her at some point, too. I got that message loud and clear. Next she started a thing about what a liar he was--he'd never even told her he was married. His wife's name was Emily. Well, what had I thought the 'E' in 'WEdeBunker' stood for? I guess I'd hoped it was a middle name, you know, like 'Edward' or 'Edgar' or something. But deep down, his secretiveness had always made me a little suspicious.

"I thought they were separated," I lied bravely.

She was like, "Oh, he says that to anyone who finds out about her. But he'll never leave her, he just pretends he's going to. She's like a really rich lawyer downtown--it's her money that started his dinky little company. And he's way too into their kid."

"Their kid?" I said.

"His son, William. He's like nine months old. When she was pregnant, he even asked me if I wanted to move in with them and be their 'slave'. Like I would ever do that, even if I am a sub!"

So after that convo, I had a choice: I could confront him--basically totally ending the relationship--or I could say nothing and just be miserable. Which, to be honest, I've had some practice at. So I decided, hey, why not? Go with what you're good at. And besides, it would have almost been fun, if only I hadn't been quite so hurt, to watch him squirm. It almost was anyway:

Him: So, did you say anything to Krystal?
Me: No, not really
Him: What exactly did she say to you?
Me: Nothing, really. She seemed really nice. (Ha ha!)

But of course that tactic didn't work for long. A few days later he gave me this little speech about how 'different' the two of us were. He was a serious person, I preferred to stay childlike. He lived in the real world, I still believed in fairy tales.

"But if you didn't believe what I told you about the house then why did you even help us?" I asked him. My voice sounded sort of pitiful, even to me. I made a quick mental note to myself: maybe he was just a little bit right about the childlike thing. I was so gonna get get over that! After about a month of eating really expensive Belgian chocolate, I mean.

"Me? I never lifted a finger. It was that defrocked priest of yours, McKenna. He phoned the agency and threatened to tell the whole story to local TV--he's worked in the film industry and has contacts there, apparently. I'd love to know what that old sod does with all his money." This really hit me hard. For months I'd felt like I'd somehow, you know, prostituted myself with William or whatever in return for getting out of our lease. Now it seemed I wasn't even interesting enough for him to have paid me! Plus, I'd have called Father Mac and thanked him if I'd known. Meanwhile Will was blabbing on: 'If I could offer you a bit of advice for the future, Hope, it's this: you need to stop living in that little dreamworld of yours, all those gods and ghosties and wee monsters you believe in. Give real life half a chance. Be more practical. Meet some nice fellow your own age."

So I said, "Great, I'm getting dumped and counseled at the same time."

"If you're serious about needing counseling, I can refer you to someone." I just stared at him with my mouth hanging open. It wasn't the most dignified last impression I could have left him with, but it was the most honest one, for sure. The saddest thing of all was this: a few weeks before we'd had a boyfriend burning for Chaz--but when I got home I realized I didn't even have a single thing of William's to burn. I guess for the guy, that pretty much equals a perfect relationship.

Continued here...

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Book of Hope 6: The Incubus

Father Mac showed up on Tuesday in a really great mood. He was all like, "Hot diggity damn!" when he came in the front door carrying a brown wooden box with a stack of papers on top. "We got a name for your ghost, toots! William Draper--Billy." He bustled into the kitchen and spread some papers on the dining table. Chris and Jo and I followed him in and looked at them--Kerry, predictably, had chickened out and unofficially moved in with Chaz for the time being. Well, you couldn't blame her--the rest of us would of done the same thing if we'd had anybody to move in with.

"First I went to the Trib, then I tried the old Daily News records--they're housed in a special collection," he was saying, "That's where I found these"-- and he waved a bunch of Xeroxes around. "Problem is, none of them had the name of the subject, just the house address. So then I thought of going to the Archdiocese archives on West Monroe. They know me there, you see. And sure enough," Farther Mac said, chomping on his cigar proudly, "Jackpot!" We all sort of shuffled through the papers like retards until he got impatient and told us the story himself.

William (Billy) Draper (he said) was a sales clerk in a big department store on State Street. He was living with his wife and two small children in our house in 1903, when Bronzeville was still a blue-collar white neighborhood. According to the Daily News story, (though it didn't name him), he and his wife had been at a Halloween party when he suddenly got sick and started choking to death. What happened next was his neighbors carried him back home and sent for a surgeon. Father Mac said that back in those days most people couldn't afford to go to a hospital, which would usually be closed after dark anyway, so unlicensed surgeons and dentists would make house calls. That's what happened to Billy Draper--the surgeon arrived, the patient was lain out on the kitchen table, where it was discovered that his tonsils had swollen up and were blocking his throat. The surgeon gave him laudanum or opium most likely--ether was only used by the most advanced doctors back then--and then cut his tonsils out. But afterwards he didn't stop bleeding. His neighbors carried him upstairs to the big bedroom--"Just above the bathroom with the bloodstain," said Jo--where he bled to death over the next few hours, screaming and moaning.

"What I still don't get is the buckskins," I said when Father Mac had finished. "What's that about?"

"It was his Halloween costume. Billy went to the party dressed as Buffalo Bill."

OK, cool. But it's one thing to solve a mystery--and a whole other thing to like, you know, do anything about it. That was the problem, said Father Mac. We might know why Billy Draper was haunting us, but that didn't necessarily mean we could talk the poor soul into giving it up. After all, he'd a whole lot of practice. A hundred years of it, in fact. But Father Mac was willing to try. Under his raincoat he was wearing his surplice and hassock, which I guess was still OK as long as he didn't wear them in church. But he didn't want us around while he actually performed the exorcism, so, sort of like with the Black Flag pesticide bombs, we had to put our coats on and go wait outside: "Across the street!" he insisted. "I don't want any accidents." It had warmed up a bit since Sunday, so the snow had turned into a miserable soaking cold rain. We huddled under a pair of umbrellas in front of the lesbian librarian's house and tried to guess what was going on inside ours.

"He's probably going from room to room swinging a censer and praying," Jo said.

"They use something called a 'passing bell'," I told her.

"I'm sure he's spraying holy water," Chris said,

"'Sprinkling', not 'spraying'," said Jo, who was always correcting Christina's English. Well, and my and Kerry's too, to be fair.

Around two o'clock, after we'd been standing there about an hour, the postman walked up the front stoop to our house. We all three started screaming at him from across the road, but he didn't seem to hear us. He was reaching for the box with a handful of junk mail, when our front door suddenly exploded open with a noise exactly like a vacuum cleaner bag bursting, a sort of whooshing thump. For a moment it looked like he was standing in a heavy wind--his hat blew off, and his sleeves and pants-legs whipped around him like clothes on a line. Then he turned and walked off quickly, almost running, just like the Orkin man did, leaving his hat behind. After a few minutes, Father Mac came out and just stood on the stoop. He was covered in soot and his cigar had gone out again. One or two of the Xeroxes fluttered out through the doorway behind him, I kid you not. I plucked up my courage and crossed the street to talk to him.

"What happened?" He relit his cigar and shrugged.

"Billy must have been a good Catholic in life, bless his heart," he said. "The mass blew him right out the front door."

"So he's gone for good?" Jo asked from behind me.

"Oh no. He's back inside again now. That goddamn mailman showed up just at the wrong moment--Billy saved himself by hanging onto the guy's ankles. Sorry about that, kiddo--you win some, you lose some."

Well, after that you can easily imagine that none of us wanted to spend another night in that place. So we didn't. We dashed back in and packed as much of our stuff as we could and crammed it into our cars and drove over to Chaz's where we spent the next few nights camping on his living room floor while we apartment-hunted. Chaz was pretty OK with that, but he wasn't exactly the nicest guy in the world, either (well, I'm sorry, Kerry, but he wasn't--you said so yourself after you dumped him.) However, he was way easier to live with than Billy Draper! Incidentally, just to give you an idea of what Chaz was like, here's a convo I had with him once when we were alone in the apartment:

Him: I can't decide if I want a rail or a goatee next.
Me: What about ear-rings?
Him: So I'm thinking of maybe doing each side of my head different.
Me: You could get a piercing.
Him: I already had my tragus pierced. And I have a pretty large tattoo on my shoulder. Wanna see?
Me: No thanks.

Next to fantasy literature, murder mysteries are my favorite reading. Did you know there was even a Victorian detective called 'Carnacki the Ghost-Catcher'? (we could have used him at Hell House for sure!) I especially love writers like Dorothy Sayers and Elizabeth Peters--in fact, when I was at St Mary's, I started my own detective series, which I'm still way too embarrassed to show to anybody. Point is, I'm pretty good at research--which is just the academic term for 'snooping'. I decided that the only way we'd ever get our money back or avoid being sued was to track down the owner of the house and confront him. Surely he knew about the ghost, I mean everybody else did. Yet he had knowingly rented his house to a bunch of college women anyway. What kind of person would do that? The only thing I knew about him was what Mrs Grandy had told me, that his name was 'Professor Darcy'. But naturally when I searched the faculty register online there was no search person, ditto with Loyola and UIC. Did I really just type 'search person'? Wow. 'Such person.' You can see how this topic upsets me. Anyway, I was stuck at Regenstein for like an hour between tutorials so I decided to play--I just typed any name I could think of from Jane Austen into the search fields: Knightley, Bingley, Dashwood, Bertram. etc etc. I figured Mrs Grandy might have been confused and remembered the wrong character. I even typed in Mr Palmer from Sense & Sensibility, who is my fave, mostly because he's played in the movie by the actor Hugh Laurie, who, I gotta confess to you, I would happily marry tomorrow if he asked me! I'm a huge fan of the TV show House, as you might be able to guess. But whatever, it wasn't him either. So, just when I was about to give up, I thought of Lady Katherine de Burgh--and bingo! Or "Jackpot!" as Father Mac would say. Here's what I found, along with a little black and white pic:
William de Burgh

Associate Professor of Behavioral Science in Creative Marketing

Ph.D., (psychology), University of Chicago, 1982; B.A., (parapsychology/ philosophy), Trinity College, Dublin, 1976.

Research Activities
Experimental study of social cognition and the paranormal; perspective taking; and intuitive human judgment.

Selected Publications
De Burgh, W., & Chartoff, T. (2002). The dollars and sense heuristic: Why sensibility is insufficient. Psychological Science, 27, 311-318. Kruger, J., de Burgh, W., Connors, J., & Engh, Z. (2001). Persuasion by email: Can we sell as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 925- 936. Roberts, J., & de Burgh, W. (2000). Pride versus prejudice: The sales power of irrational beliefs. Psychological Science, 46, 826-832. de Burgh, W., Reyes, B., Van den Bold, L., & Chartoff, T. (1994). Occult ritual in egocentric anchoring and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. de Burgh, W., Bell, K., & Chartoff, T. (1990). Empathy Neglect: Reconciling the spotlight effect and the correspondence bias in Blogging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 300-312.

Other Interests
Bicycling, dog breeding, new technologies.

Two things were immediately obvious from his CV: one, that he was into the occult, and two, that he was even more into his imaginary connection with Jane Austen. Either should have warned me off. But, hey, I never said I was smart, right? So the moment I'd finished teaching my next class, I ran over to the Business School building on South Woodlawn to see if he was in. "He's in Ireland for the rest of the year on sabbatical," the purple-haired grad student-secretary slut in the department's front office told me rudely, so I waited until she was distracted by her cell phone or a thorn in her paw or something and snuck down the hall past her. Sure enough, his office was locked and looked totally deserted. So I was back to square one. But at least I knew who to look for now.

The university's motto is: “UChicago: Where Fun Goes to Die.” The upside of this is there's so little do on campus that a trip downtown to the County Clerk's office can actually seem like fun, for the first hour or two anyway, if you aren't worrying too much about your parking space. I think you're supposed to bribe the recording clerk for title searches, but luckily the guy on duty was into me and kept doing lots of extra stuff just so he could flirt. The owner of our house was listed as a property development company called 'WEdeBunker, LLC.' There was a business address for it just a few blocks away. "They've been buying up single residences all over town," my admirer told me, "But there's something kind of weird about them. I'll go check it out for you." In appearance he was sort like a cross between Ugly Betty's boyfriend Walter and Kerry's boyfriend Chaz but slightly older and overweight and sounding like a Soprano, so I was busy thinking up excuses when he came back.

"I thought something was just wrong," he said triumphantly. "They're a 'stigmatized property' firm. They specialize in buying and selling houses where there's been like ghosts or mass murders and stuff. Right now they're trying to unload the property where Judge Lefkow's family got whacked." When he handed me the list of all 'WEdeBunker's' transactions in the past year, he asked me out--and I panicked. So I committed what has gotta be the absolutely stupidest moral crime there is: the unnecessary lie. Because it always comes right back to bite you in the a--, usually by instantly coming true.

What I said was, "I'm sort of seeing someone." So sure enough, I paid for it right away. Because when I found the WEdeBunker offices two blocks from the Sears Tower (they were just a suite inside one of those generic rent-a-space office deals where everybody shares a secretary and a server), the only person in the whole place was Professor de Burgh who I immediately recognized from his photo, right down to his thinning grey hair and little ponytail. The irritating thing was that he sort of smirked at me like he recognized me, too. I hate that. I also hated how icy-blue and bright his blue eyes were when they stared at me. I could feel a really bad blush coming on. So I said the nastiest thing I could think of: "I thought you were supposed to be in Ireland."

"Oh, my heart is always there," he said, his smile not missing a beat. And I gotta tell you, that quirky smile and the sound of his voice turned my knees to jelly, because he had this really thick sort of Anglo-Irish Ulstery accent. And I'm a total ho' for an accent.

So I was like, "You have a heart?" which on reflection maybe wasn't the smartest thing to say, either, because after I'd bitched him out about the house and he'd agreed to look into it, he asked me out for a drink. So I said yes, you know, just so I wouldn't have that lie to the recording clerk on my conscience. And that's how our thing started. You know, the thing that went on for the next few months on and off. The thing Kerry was teasing me about at the beach.

Continued here...

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Monday, November 06, 2006

The Book of Hope 5: "Don't Do It, Girl!"

One time I was in a car that was hit by another one from the side. Both cars weren't going very fast (this was on an icy road), and both drivers were slamming on their brakes the whole time, so it all happened sort of like a ballet in slow motion. Well, as if Swan Lake ended with a big crash and whiplash, I guess. But my point here is there was plenty of time before that for lots of thoughts to race through my head, like "Omigod, am I gonna die?" and "OK, if I do have I left anything really embarrassing on my computer?" You know, that kind of thought. But that night up in Kerry's room while we watched that door slowly open, everything happened much faster--yet even more thoughts raced through my mind then, sort of like a freight train with a lot of connected cars racing at a really high speed.

My first thought was the craziest--and at the same time the most sensible, really, when you think about it: I just assumed that one of us had gone down the hall to, you know, the bathroom or something, and was just now coming back. So I expected to see Jo or Kerry popping her head in, even though obviously both of them were sitting next to me on Kerry's bed. This was my brain trying to make things 'normal' again. But of course that thought was rejected. Next, I decided Kerry's boyfriend Chaz had somehow snuck into the house and had tiptoed up the stairs--which were pretty loud and creaky--to surprise her. The problem with that theory was that we were all pretty paranoid about locking the doors and windows and stuff now with all this craziness going on in the house, in fact, I had locked the door behind Jo myself when she had come in. So it had to be an intruder. Maybe it was just a kid, maybe even the same ones who had broken into our cars. Or maybe it was a real burglar or even a rapist or something. Would he be armed? Would he be carrying a knife or gun? Was it a whole gang of them? Or was it the headless guy in the buckskins? So this is pretty much what was running through my head as the door swung slowly open. But all we could see was the dimly lit hallway--the doorway was empty. There was nobody there.

For a few seconds, maybe a minute, we all just sat there. Then Christina got up and marched over to the door and slammed it shut, so hard it sounded like a pistol shot. Then she just stood there with her back to us and her shoulders sort of hunched. "He comes into my room sometimes when Hope's asleep," she said. "I just lie there too scared to move or think."

"What does he want?" one of us asked her.

"Sex, I think," Chris said. "It's hard to say."

Then Kerry was like, "Don't do it, girl!" and something about the way she said made it us all laugh, sort of, like she was talking about a bad date. What you would call nervous laughter. Because now we were all seriously, I mean really seriously scared. All except Jo, maybe, because even though she had just seen the thing with the door, she was the only one of us who hadn't had a 'visit' from the ghost or whatever. So after Chris and I told the story about the walking book, it was Jo who suddenly got all practical and took charge of the situation.

"So where's this book?" she said. "Maybe it has a formula or a magic spell or something in it to protect us." Well, she was right--it was worth a try. It hadn't even occurred to me. So that night she poured a line of salt around Kerry's bed forming the shape of a big Star of David, and we all four dozed off inside it, not that any of us got much sleep all cramped together and uncomfortable like that in our clothes. But at least there was no more opening or closing of doors, and we didn't see any headless ghosts. The next morning was bright and sunny, and on the way out to class, the whole thing even started to seem kind of silly. I mean, come on, a 'headless ghost'--it was like something out of an old movie on Turner or the character John Cleese played in the Harry Potter movies. It was such a cliche! And somehow that made it a lot harder to believe in. Maybe it was all just some trick or movie special effects that someone had rigged up to torture us, we thought. Maybe our mysterious landlord wanted us out of there for some reason. This is what people mean by the phrase 'the light of day,' I guess, because it really does affect your way of looking at things. We actually felt stupid!

That lasted until we had to go home again. Chris and I were straggling back at dusk, literally dragging our feet (the closest parking space we could find that night was like two blocks away), when we saw our next-door neighbor sitting slumped on the brick curtain wall at the corner with a bag of groceries in her arms, looking like she'd had a fainting fit or something. She was a tiny, ancient little African-American lady who had never actually said a word to any of us, but we knew who she was because we'd seen her slanging groups of kids out of her way whenever they blocked the sidewalk. So we were all like, "Are you OK? Do you need some help?" and she was like, "I'm all right, I just have angina. Maybe you'll carry my bag for me." When she spoke she didn't sound, you know, black at all but like some really cultured old English actress or something.

"Would you two like to come in for a cup of tea?" she said when we got her inside her front door. So we said sure because we were curious to see her house and whether it had fleas and stuff too. And because we'd pretty much do anything to stall going home.

Mrs. Grandy's house (that was her name) was sort of a surprise. I'm not sure what we were expecting, maybe a Victorian parlor, since she looked like she was a hundred years old, or maybe a dark hell-hole like ours full of bugs and cobwebs and dank rooms, but instead it was totally spotless and clean, very bright, even a little too warm, and furnished totally in 1950s 'Danish Modern'. In fact all her stuff was so campy and well-preserved she probably could have sold it to collectors on eBay and moved into a penthouse in Florida. Instead she hobbled around in her spotless stainless-steel 1950s kitchen and made us tea with a plate of little Pepperidge Farm pastries and cookies. "I live on Pepperidge Farm," she told us when we all sat down. It was like being in a time machine.

"You haven't noticed any, you know, like weird things happening on your side of the wall," I asked her, after she'd spent a few minutes telling us how pretty our hair was. It's a strange thing but even though I'm sort of shy, even bashful with people, I never seem to have any problem blurting out awkward and embarrassing questions to them. I guess I believe if you want to know something, the only way to find out the answer is by asking.

"What do you mean, 'weird things?'," said Mrs Grandy, looking at me sharply.

"Well, fleas, for example."

She acted like I'd insulted her. "I won't have bugs in my house!" she snapped.

"We seem to have a...a ghost in ours," said Chris.

"Well, of course you do, dear," Mrs Grandy said, biting cautiously into a Milano. "That's because it's haunted. Everybody around here knows about it, and that's why they keep clear of you. It's been haunted as long as I've lived here--but whatever goes on next door stops right there!" she said, pointing at the wall. "That's what I told that fellow when he first moved in, that professor fellow from the university, what was his name. He never spent a single night in that house, just kept his dogs locked up inside it. They used to howl and howl night and day. That's where your fleas come from."

"But there is a ghost. right? Do you know what we can do about it?" I asked her. I was rewarded with an even angrier scowl.

"Just because I'm an old colored lady, you assume I'm some kind of voodoo queen," she said. "I wish I was sometimes living in this neighborhood, but I'm not. I'm a schoolteacher--I taught Shakespeare to high school children for over forty years before I retired. And what's more, I'm a good Catholic. Talk to Father Eugene at the Archdiocese, he'll help you with your haunt." On our way out, she said, "Professor Darcy, that was his name. I remember because it was straight out of Jane Austen."

In the end, we compromised. Kerry had spent the morning on the phone with the rental agency getting nowhere--they had even threatened to sue us for a full year's rent if we broke the lease--so she volunteered to find us a lawyer. I was elected to go to Holy Name Cathedral and find us an exorcist. Which made sense, since I was the only Catholic in the group. In fact, I'm probably the only person my age I know who's even read the Bible. Well, you have to, if you're into mythology. The only problem with this plan was that the Catholic Church doesn't actually do exorcisms any more, at least not in this country. It took me most of the next day spent waiting for people to talk to me or wandering lost around office hallways to find this out. They do divorces and marriage or sexual molestation counseling (well, they'd have to, wouldn't they?)--they even do sex counseling for teenagers--but if your house is haunted, you're royally screwed, pardon my French. They didn't even know where to send me--Divine Worship, Assistance in Spanish and Polish, Family Ministry, I spent almost an hour in each department. Finally I was allowed to see Father Eugene, who was a young guy in casual slacks and a sports jacket (though with a crucifix and dog collar) who told me to call him 'Gene'. He looked exactly like a former football player and appeared to have the same blend of ox-like stupidity mixed with arrogance that I notice in lots of male doctors and dentists. My heart sank.

But to be fair, I totally misjudged 'Gene'. In fact, I couldn't have been more wrong about him. As Chicagoans say, he actually thought way 'outside the loop'. After he heard my story and that Mrs Grandy had sent me to him, he dug though his desk drawer and found a little card, which he crossed something out and then wrote something new on. "I'm not supposed to even give you this," he told me. "So if anyone asks, you've never heard of me, and I've never seen you. OK? Doctrinally, the Church no longer believes in demons and ghosts, though I think that's going to change back again sometime soon. But here's the number of a man in Evanston you might be able to turn to--he's a former priest who left the priesthood but is still ordained to handle cases like this. We all call him 'Father Mac'. He's a good man. No promises, mind you." Just goes to show you can never tell about people, right? (And, by the way, I've changed Father Gene's and Father Mac's names so they won't get in trouble. And thanks again to both of them.)

The weather clouded over a few days later, and we got our first dusting of snow of the year. Father Mac arrived along with it one dark afternoon in a swirl of flakes, wearing a an oldfashioned hat with a feather in it and a trenchcoat like a detective in an old film noir. He was a dapper, sweet-faced little man with brilliantined white hair and thick black-rimmed glasses. "Headless, huh?" were his first words to me when I answered the front door. "Mind if I smoke?" he asked next, and he kept a cigar in his mouth pretty much from then on, though he rarely bothered to actually light it. He didn't have a bag or an attache case or anything with him, so I figured he wasn't planning an exorcism right then and there on his first visit. Which was just as well, since we hadn't vacuumed.

So I was all like, "We didn't know you were coming." He just raised his bushy eyebrows at me and rolled his eyes.

"Exactly. And neither did your ghost. Mind if I look around?" So he spent about half an hour wandering around, even going down to the basement, which always looked like it should have a body buried in it, maybe even a whole family of them, but as far as I ever could tell contained only dust and bugs and old paint cans. He was a whole lot braver than the Orkin man. Finally he came back upstairs again and said, "Let's go for a walk." After we'd gone halfway round the block, he took his cigar out of his mouth and said, "Know that movie where the kid sees dead people?" I was like, yeah, OK...

"Well, I'm a little like that myself. I don't exactly see them--I guess you could say I'm comfortable with them, the way you are with your dad or your mom when they walk into a room while you're reading. You know, you just feel them there, you don't actually stop reading and look up at them. Know what I mean?" After I said I did, he went on again: "Makes sense, because dead people really are our dads and moms and grandparents, not monsters or demons like in movies. I've had this kind of thing happen to me ever since I was a little kid myself--nowadays I fly all over the country dealing with cases like this, so I'm no novice. Normally I can strike up a conversation with them. Or sometimes use church ritual to remind them of their faith. With me so far?" I nodded.

"The basic problem here," he went on, "Is that your ghost isn't talking. And for some reason I don't get he's not very nice, either. Know what the best way to calm a restless spirit is? Get pregnant--I'm not kidding, they love babies. But I wouldn't advise it in this case. I'm parked over here." His car was a really rusty old lemon-colored Nissan Sentra. "Know anything of a personal nature about your ghost?" he asked me while he unlocked its door. I shook my head. "Then I'll go downtown tomorrow and spend some time digging through the newspaper morgue. It helps a lot if you can put names to the dead. Today's Sunday--I'll plan to be back Tuesday lunchtime with the robes and the holy water, the whole dog and pony show, and we'll see how it goes. That OK with you?" Well, sure it would have to be, even if it meant blowing off more classes. I mean, he was doing all this for free, out of the goodness of his heart. As he lowered himself slowly into the driver's seat I blurted out another of my embarrassing questions.

"Why did you leave the priesthood?" I said before I could stop myself.

"Well, whaddya think? To get married," Father Mac toId me. "I may have spent thirty years being a man of God, but I'm still a man." He smiled at the look on my face. "I doubt there was a single morning during all those years I didn't wake up thinking, 'Will today be the day I meet the love of my life?' And one day, it was! It'll happen to you, too, kiddo--you'll see. And when you fall in love for real, that's when you start to really believe in God. Maybe we'll get lucky, and your ghost will turn out to be a believer at heart, too. But I gotta tell you the truth--I don't have a very good feeling about this one." He closed the car door firmly, stuck his cigar back between his teeth and then drove off looking like Mr Magoo.

Continued here...

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Book of Hope 4: Headless in Chicago

Maybe I've sort of made it sound like we were totally passive about the fleas in the house. Well, we weren't--I guess you could say we were passive-aggressive, technically. Because we tried really hard to get rid of them, we just couldn't. First we bought a bunch of those Black Flag bomb canister thingies and set them all off. This meant packing up all the kitchen and bathroom stuff, all the food in the house, etc etc, and sitting outside on the sidewalk with piles of our junk for a couple of hours while the neighborhood kids went through it like at a yard sale. Then, because it totally had no effect, we tried it again a week later with some more professional stuff that Jo's boyfriend bought at Home Depot for us. You're supposed to wear a mask while you set these off, one in each room, and after he finished the second floor, he suddenly came tumbling down the stairs with the mask wrapped around his head like a dork. "Somebody pushed me!" he said, writhing around on the front landing clutching his leg and moaning. Luckily it was carpeted.

So we were all like, "But there's nobody else in the house."

And he was like, "I don't care--I felt it. somebody pushed me in the back right at the top of the stairs!"

"Oh, stop moaning and acting like a baby," Jo told him (you're gonna make a great doctor, girl!) But of course, that didn't get rid of the fleas either. Next, about a week before Thanksgiving the doorbell rings, and it's the Orkin man. The rental agency had actually paid some attention to our complaints and sent him round at last. I couldn't believe it. I just stood there staring at him like he was the Second Coming or whatever. Finally I got it together to invite him in. But he wouldn't come inside very far--he just stood in the hall and looked around nervously. Chris came down to see what what was going on (by then we sort of monitored everything that happened there together. OK, we were scared out of our minds half the time.)

"You need to get rid of your dogs," was the first thing he said. I told him we didn't have any dogs. "People always tell me that. They all claim they don't have pets in the house. Then it turns out they really do."

"Yeah but we really don't!" I said.

"You don't get fleas like this without some kind of animal, sweetheart," he said, looking around nervously. "And you got them bad. Sh-t, I can actually see them in the air." At first I thought it was my imagination, but then I realized he was sweating because his face was all pink and shiny. And it was cold in there (as per usual). He was a big, heavy-set guy in his late thirties, but I could see he was literally trembling with fear.

"Don't you want to come in and check out the rest of the house?" Chris asked him.

He swallowed hard, so hard he started hacking and coughing. "Don't need to. I can tell you're in big trouble here. Here's what we're gonna do--you two ever seen the movie E.T.? Well we're gonna have to encase the whole house in plastic and inject chemicals into each wall, one at a time. You gals will have to pack up and vacate the premises for a few months. Excuse me for just a minute, willya?" Suddenly he bolted out the front door and down the steps. I followed him out and watched him run down the sidewalk. He jumped into his truck and drove off in a big screeching hurry--and that was the last we ever heard from him. All I can say on the subject is maybe Terminix is more reliable, but I wouldn't want to bet on it. Maybe the Orkin man was totally useless for dealing with the fleas, but he did do one good thing. He put it into our heads that we might be able to just pack up and vacate the premises. Honestly, it somehow hadn't quite occurred to us yet.

Later that afternoon, the first of the really weird things happened to me and Christina. We were sitting on the living room couch researching a paper on medieval pig trials (if you're really interested in what those were, I think there's a French flick, called L'Avocat, that refers to this practice), and we had several huge stacks of library books crowded under the coffee table on the floor in front of us. Suddenly there was a strange dry rustling noise from the floor, kind of like a bird rustling its wings. Then all the books under the table started to tremble and shake. My first thought was that a huge truck was passing by outside, my second was that we were having some kind of earthquake. But only the stacks of books were moving--and one by one, the top ones began to topple off.

"Fafan!" Chris screamed (that's some kind of Swedish curse-word, so I don't think I need to hyphenate it), "Do you see that, Hope?" I sure did. The thought had entered my mind that now we had some kind of terrible new bug infestation under the floorboards, and that millions of flies or cockroaches or something were suddenly about to hatch under the coffee table and run out everywhere, just like in a nightmare or whatever. But what actually happened instead was sort of a gigantic anti-climax, though when I think about it objectively, I guess it was even weirder than more bugs would have been. I know you totally aren't going to believe this, but even so, you'll have to admit it was way too bizarro for anyone to just, you know, make it up. So here goes: after the library books all toppled over in different directions, we could clearly see that one of them, one on the very bottom of the stack, was rocking from side to side and knocking off the others that were on top of it. As soon as the last one slid off, this book started moving in one direction, just like the floor was tilted or something, and as it did this, it sort of expanded and contracted like a beating heart. Then it suddenly opened and rolled over, with its spine on top, and with both covers functioning a little like a pair of legs, and started crudely walking across the carpet. After about two feet, it came to a sudden stop--just like it had had a heart attack--and toppled over. Obviously, Chris and I were totally freaked. We stared at each other. Then we stared at the book or whatever it now was, like we were waiting for it to start moving again. But it didn't. So next, and this is the sad way the human mind works, we both started wondering what was really up. Had we actually really seen anything happen? Was it a hallucination? A mass hallucination, like seeing the Holy Virgin in a window or something? After a few minutes, somebody's cell rang, we started cleaning up the books, life returned to normal. What you can you say after something like that happens? If you're an average person like us, you just pretend it didn't really happen at all. So that's what we did.

But we both waited till last to go anywhere near the 'walking book'. Finally Chris got her courage together and picked it up. It was Henri Cornelius Agrippa's Philosophy of Magic, and it was opened to a page describing an incubus...

At that point, all we wanted was to move out. But we were still dumb enough to want to leave legally and maybe even get our security deposit back. What happened next was that Kerry came home unexpectedly to "hang with her peeps", as she put it, and went to use the bathroom on the ground floor. Chris and I heard a loud yelp (I'd have screamed the place down), and Kerry came out a moment later with a strange look on her face and looking white as a sheet. "Did you guys know the bathroom ceiling is dripping blood?" she said.

OK, i guess you've read enough of this story by now to realize that Kerry's pretty dramatic. I mean, there was no way to prove it was blood--or human blood, anyway--a big rat or something could have just died in the ceiling, and we never would have smelled it, because we basically couldn't smell anything any more with all that pesticide spray in the air. Or it could have just been a big rust stain. Maybe there were leaky pipes up there above the bathroom. And technically it wasn't dripping either, just sort of oozing out of the plaster. But still, not good. About an hour later, Jo showed up, too, dragging her backpacks behind her. Her boyfriend had dumped her. She was like totally incredulous.

"Nobody's ever dumped me before! How dare he?"

Kerry gave her a big hug and was like, "Never mind, honey. There will be another along any minute--men are like--"

"Trains?" Chris said.

"Buses?" I said. Kerry giggled. Those were her usual cliches.

"I was gonna say 'fleas'. OK, you bitches, this has gone far enough. I don't mind losing my sleep or even my sanity in this stinking hell-hole, but when it starts costing us our men, then I've had it. Tomorrow I'll call CRI [that was the name of the rental agency], and tear them a new a--hole. But tonight I'm calling a house meeting!"

Now, you gotta understand that in all the months the four of us had lived together, we had never actually had an official 'house meeting'. It just seemed totally lame. Christina made endless lists of everything that needed to be done anyway, chores, shopping, bill-paying, etc etc, and the rest of us followed them, more or less, according to our school schedules and level of actually caring at any given moment. But nobody ever complained about anyone else or stole anyone else's yoghurt or borrowed their laptops or anything. I guess our previous housemates had given us way too much perspective. But tonight, a meeting seemed really called for, so we were all like, yes. We held it up in Kerry's bedroom, on her bed, which was the only queen-sized one in the house. First she made us switch off all our cellphones and toss them in a little pile in the middle, which felt really weird, like I was suddenly naked or something.

"OK, I'll go first," she said. "The real reason I moved out of here and started sleeping at Chaz's wasn't because of the fleas or the furnace. It's because a couple of weeks ago I was sitting at the dining table when I heard a weird kind of thumping noise coming down the stairs, it was way early and the rest of you were still asleep. I just naturally assumed it was one of you, but when I looked up--it wasn't. It was a man. Sort of all dressed in buckskins, like an Indian or whatever. So I'm thinking 'OK, Hope finally got lucky with a hippy, great, now I'll have to give him breakfast'...only as he came down the stairs, I saw he didn't have a head. Instead, he was dragging a sort of sack down the stairs behind him, and that was what was going 'Thump! Thump! Thump!' And I just knew his head was in it."

Then Jo and I were all like, "So what did you do then?"

And she said, "Well, at first I started to scream--then I decided to try to run out the front door. But the moment I glanced toward it and then back at the...guy or whatever, he was gone. One moment he was there, the next moment he wasn't. And you know how it is, as soon as it was all over, I started thinking well maybe I'd fallen asleep or something, or maybe I'd had some kind of weird stroke. I didn't want to tell anyone, but by the same token I didn't want to sleep here any more either. Then tonight I pluck up my courage to come back--and there's blood on the ceiling."

"I've seen him, too," I said (very, very reluctantly). "Well, not exactly 'seen' him. But I keep dreaming that he's standing next to me holding his head up next to mine, kind of like it's a mask. And, yeah, he's wearing buckskins in my dreams, too--only more like a cowboy than an Indian, I guess."

"What does he look like?" said Jo.

"I would say he is handsome. In fact, he is really quite attractive," Chris said, and we all turned to stare at her like "WTF?!" And at just that same instant, the brass knob to Kerry's closed bedroom door began to turn. I swear to god, THAT was the scariest few seconds of my life. We all four watched like we were literally hypnotized while it turned and turned seemingly forever, making a tiny little creaking noise, and then, very very slowly, the door started to swing open.

Continued here...

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