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...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hej Hope! This is Christina -- I'm busy now but will email soon. You can use the photos of me from last Christmas. Kram!

1:25 PM  
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