Depression Séance by Bruce Boston
Bruce is this month’s winner of $320.00 for his story about the wonder of magic in the world of a child.
Bruce Boston’s fiction has received a Pushcart Prize and twice been a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award. His poetry has received numerous awards, including the Bram Stoker Award, the Asimov’s Readers Award, and the Rhysling and Grand Master Awards of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. His latest fiction collection, Gallimaufry, along with other works can be found here.
Without further ado, “Depression Séance” by Bruce Boston.
Autumn of the Great Depression, 1938:
I remember the year well because it contained the only truly supernatural experiences of my life. I was in the third grade at the time, eight years old, and my family had just moved from the rectilinear confines of Manhattan to the then relatively wide-open spaces of Queens.
My grandmother on my father’s side had died the year before, leaving us her house: an old two-story white frame stuffed full of unwieldy furniture, musty rugs, a fine china service for eight on display in the glassed-in dining room cupboards, and an ill-tuned upright piano that wouldn’t close all the way, so that the chipped edges of its ivory teeth were always grinning out at you. Behind the house -- what I took to be a giant backyard, large enough to swallow an eight-year-old’s football game, a peach tree, and a collapsing, uninhabited chicken coop in one lazy gulp. It was practically like farm life for a kid who had thus far grown up in a flat on the Lower East Side.
At first, it seemed that move would be good for all of us. Since there were just two children, myself and my older sister, we had an extra upstairs bedroom to rent out. My father managed to hustle up a part-time job driving a delivery truck for Figg’s, the neighborhood grocery store, and mother found more sewing and mending to take in than she ever had in Manhattan. Come spring, we planted a vegetable garden in the back. All in all, it looked like we’d be able, as they said, to keep the wolf from the door.
The main problem, the growing problem throughout that fall of ‘38, was “the box.” You see, my father was convinced that somewhere in that house his mother had hidden away a cache of valuables. He told me about it the first night we were there.
We had spent the entire day moving and then eaten dinner, one of my mother’s plenty-of-gravy-good-luck-if-you-can-find-the-meat stews. Father had succored himself afterward with several glasses of red wine. In the midst of my playing, he hoisted me from the ranks of my lead soldiers onto his lap and against the swell of his belly. The sweat of the day’s work was still upon him, mingling with the rich, dark odor of the wine. I was so close to his face that I could see the tips of black hairs curling from his nostrils, and at that distance, his rough cheeks and the pepper grizzle of his beard took on the dimensions of some sprouting alien landscape to my child’s eyes.
“I want you to promise me something, son,” he began, in a tone that let you know a promise was a promise, no nonsense. “I want you to promise me that if you ever . . . anywhere in this house . .. come upon a wooden box with three drawers and three metal handles, you’ll find your father double-quick and take him right to it. Can you promise me that?”
I nodded mutely as my eyes wandered back to the floor where scattered armies awaited my commands.
“You know what’s in that box, son? I’ll tell you what. Our salvation is in that box!” As my father paused for dramatic effect, I was struck with a Sunday school picture of myself, my dowdy sister, my mother and father, the four of our family, rising to heaven ankle-deep in a soupy gray cloud while angel trumpets boomed out all about us in gloria te deum. Father, however, had a more earthly kind of salvation in mind.
“In the top drawer of that box,” he went on, his voice quickening as lost fires of boyhood enthusiasm rekindled in his eyes, “there are two more boxes, silver music boxes inlaid with sailing ships in mother-of-pearl. In the middle drawer, there are rings, more rings than you can count, your grandmother’s rings and her grandmother’s before her, diamond rings, and jade and ivory, and one with a ruby as big as your thumb!”
My father hoisted his own grainy thumb next to my nose as illustration.
“And the bottom drawer of that box, the third drawer, the best drawer of all . . . why, it’s full with coins, silver and gold coins, old coins, some from before even the Civil War, some I warrant that any collector worth his salt would pay a mint for! When we find that box, son, our troubles will be over. There’ll be no more pinching pennies. Why, when we find that box, I’ll buy you enough toys to last you until you’re a grown man!”
In the wine-wrought emotionalism of his vision, my father clasped me to him.
Across the room, I could hear my mother clearing her throat roughly. She was a disbeliever when it came to “the box,” as she was about so many things beyond the daily round of her life. I’d already heard her and father arguing about it even before we moved.
My father had only seen the box once, when he was a child not much older than myself. That memory had stayed with him, but it wasn’t his only evidence. All throughout his youth, his mother had talked about falling back on the box if things ever got too rough.
My mother maintained that the old lady had been referring to The Bible on the mantle, which was also kept in a wooden box. Father insisted to the point of open anger that this wasn’t the case. Then the two of them would go round and round about it, the lines of my mother’s thin Protestant face hardening as she retreated into the kitchen, her territory, while my father yelled at her from the living room, his; both of them dredging up a host of other differences and resentments to hurl at one another.
Like most couples mated for years, there were points at which they could never come together, points on which they hated each other and neither would give an inch.
My mother was in direct opposition. My sister, a teenager, was no help. Thus, except for the play-searching I did, father was pretty much on his own in hunting for the box.
In those first weeks of our new tenancy, I would hear him late at night after I’d gone to bed. He’d be on the stairs, or rummaging around in the debris of the attic, or descending into the cellar with the heavy door that rose out of the floor clapping shut behind him, searching and searching to find our salvation.
Outside, the chilling storms of September-October would beat against the house, causing its old joints to crack sporadically in protest. Here and there, Old Man Wind would find an open cranny in its decaying facade and send his voice wailing through its structure.
I’d lie in bed cracking my knuckles in answer, pretending my own personal Morse Code communication with its inanimate walls and windows; until I fell asleep, and if I were lucky dreamt of rings and gold and mellow silver music boxes and more toys than I could ever manage.
Actually, if it hadn’t been for Mrs. O’Rourke, my regular third-grade teacher, there never would have been any supernatural experiences. Later, after I went off to college, I was to discover how many professors were hung on the bottle. At the elementary levels of education it remains more of an anomaly, but Mrs. O’Rourke made the grade.
Our school day would begin. Dingy classroom. Scarred wooden desks rowed together by metal rails. The empty plane of the blackboard glinting in reflection of the single overhead light, awaiting the hen tracks of our juvenile scrawlings.
Enter Mrs. O’Rourke, a tall and horsy woman, about fifty, striding in with what had no doubt once been an enviable pair of legs. Prim and proper, pale, hair in a tight, swelling bun. Attention students! Lesson one: A-RITH-ME-TIC.
She’d usually make it through that first hour before tripping to the classroom closet for her “carrot juice.” We learned our addition and subtraction pretty well.
After that, it was all downhill.
As the day progressed, our teacher’s cheeks grew rosy with something other than the bloom of health. Her pointer began to waver in its trek across the board. Primness vanished as her posture melted to a lazy “S”; when pupils gave an incorrect answer, she’d as often giggle brokenly as reprimand.
By noon, although she wasn’t teaching us much, Mrs. O’Rourke had become about the easiest adult to get along with that any of us had ever known.
Sometimes she managed to hold onto this affable level of intoxication for the rest of the day. Other times, lunch was when she really got snockered up. We could always tell as soon as we came back from the playground because her clothes would be rumpled as if she’d been rolling around on the floor, and the bun of hair, tuning in on the condition of its owner, would be shooting out loose strands and locks at fourteen different angles. All she needed was a swizzle stick and one shoe off to complete the picture of midtown barfly.
On the afternoons of such days, it was chaos that reigned in the classroom rather than Mrs. O’Rourke. She’d assign us a lesson -- one that we soon learned she never remembered to collect -- and then collapse into her chair, numbly staring out the window, eyes glacé, at the increasingly leafless trees and passing autos.
A low murmuring would soon begin throughout the room, shortly condensing to laughter and exclamations of childish indignation as hair was pulled and ribs were jabbed. Next, wadded paper scraps flew in mock snow fights; rubber bands slapped home with deadly accuracy. The more rambunctious of our third-grade crew even turned the room’s perimeter into a chase track for an ongoing, ruleless game of tag.
Once this degeneration had proceeded to a point, Mrs. O’Rourke would either send us home early, or folding her lanky arms into an angular nest, bury her head with bun awry to sleep it off until the afternoon bell rang.
On the days following such upheavals, our hungover teacher seldom made it back to school. And as the winter winds began to blow colder and she needed more juice to stoke up the fires in her aging carcass, Mrs. O’Rourke’s rate of absence took a noticeable jump.
Thus enter our regular third-grade substitute: Mrs. Alejandro.
How Mrs. Alejandro managed to get a job substituting third grade in the middle of the Great Depression when most Ph.D.s were out of work is beyond me. Her English, hampered by an unsullied Castilian drawl, managed intelligibility but seldom grammar. At mathematics she was little better than myself, (my third grade self!) and her only higher degree was from the University of Cadiz, wherever that might be.
Maybe her dark bird-like eyes had enchanted the principal, Mr. Stanleyton, and she had a liaison going. Perhaps the spirits that she always claimed to be consulting had loaded the dice for her. Regardless, here she stood, a pleasingly plump woman on the downside of forty who wore immaculate long sleeve dresses, always sported a thin gold crucifix on a thinner gold chain about her neck, and by her side carted the black battleship of a kitbag-purse containing everything from violet pastilles to band-aids to instant spelling dictionaries.
Despite her apparent handicaps, she did manage to stay sober, stick to the lesson plan, and fill us up with a far heavier curriculum than Mrs. O’Rourke. Of course, why they kept stuffing all this “knowledge” down our throats and giving us little choice in the matter was one of the major puzzles of my existence at the time.
At a school assembly, Mr. Stanleyton had stressed that it was to prepare us for the adult world - and with that, both of my parents readily concurred. Yet looking at the state of the world, it seemed to me that they might have been able to come up with a few more practical adult skills than reading and writing.
Though The Depression was all I had ever known in my brief eight years, I could still sense its presence. Sometimes it felt like we were all entrapped in the belly of a great malevolent snake inching its way toward nothingness. The men on the city streets with nowhere to go, our relatives, the temporary roomers who wandered in and out of our house: so many photographs of faces in clay, set unsmiling, locked into disuse and awaiting the surcease of death or cataclysm to change the order of things irreparably.
In a few years they would have the cataclysm with death ad nauseam to accompany it. Meanwhile, their world had been drained down of its color like some faded tintype.
All except Mrs. Alejandro: she was still alive. Alive! Alive! It was the first great revelation of my youth. She sparkled with it; she shimmered, beneath her dark pompadour of hair and tender olive complexion the energy pulsed unmistakably. She was alive all of the time the way my father was when he talked about “the box.” And overcoming the grayness all around, each day at two Mrs. Alejandro would return the color to our world.
Two o’clock, story time: if we got anything from Mrs. O’Rourke, it was either Rudyard Kipling or a watered-down Horatio Alger success story to imbue our faith in the limping remnants of American free enterprise.
With Mrs. Alejandro, the books went out the window. She conjured up tales for us out of thin air with all of history as a backdrop. She was a born story-weaver and her craft proved sufficient to ensnare a room full of eight-year-olds into silence for an entire hour -- no mean task even for a woman claiming to have “especial powers.”
The centuries rolled back and we rolled with them. We watched as a blind seer gave the word of death to Caesar. We followed fleeing Christians in the catacombs beneath Rome; we faced charging lions, shed vainglorious tears and spat in The Emperor’s mustache. We were there at Delphi, at Lascaux, at Constantinople. We saw the sun go black with plague and, for weeks afterwards, waited for signs of the telltale pustules to appear on our own bodies. We trailed the Crusades into the mysterious East, where demons raced the moon and dervishes spun upon the sand. The Pope blessed us and sent us on our way across the tiled patios of The Vatican. We joined a Gypsy caravan and knocked about through the forests of Southern France. Knock, knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s the Grand Inquisitor gone made with power and burning everything in sight - gold crucifix or not, Mrs. Alejandro was no whitewasher. Swinging with Quasimodo from the bell ropes of Notre Dame, we heard the heavens peel out in sympathy for his misbegotten plight. We called upon the Czar, with the wave of a hand stoppered the flow of blood from his ailing son’s body. And through it all there was always-always the magic of the spirits bending the shape of all that was wrought.
With her strange blend of Catholicism-mysticism-spiritualism it was an interwoven, consubstantial universe that Mrs. Alejandro portrayed: the cause and effect were ever present, even when they fled invisibly into the supernatural before the onslaught of man’s prying senses. She delivered up both the good and the bad to us, and it was all there for our childish imaginations to wonder at and grapple with.
The fare was more than a bit heavy for an eight-year-old’s conceptual framework, which explains the state we usually emerged in at three after one of these sessions: stumbling out into the sun-flashing brightness of the snow-covered lawns and walks and making our ways home in another world.
We were at the age when we were just beginning to grasp the meaning of abstractions, and with the addition of Mrs. A’s stories, such concepts took on physical-metaphoric form within our own lives.
A dog running in the street or a blackbird seen flying in shadow against the sky marked the loss of a man’s courage. And our breaths condensing in the winter air became the ghostly emissions and reflections of that strange, unlocatable organ we were all said to possess, known as the soul.
By December, Mrs. O’Rourke was in a full tailspin and ensconced against the cold with a steady flow of brew. Mrs. Alejandro was not only teaching us more, but spending more time with us.
Yet it was not until the second-to-last day before Xmas vacation, a Thursday, that she held the séance. Winter colds had reduced our class to about half its normal size. Outside, the thermometer had inched its way well below freezing so recesses were spent indoors – quietly(!) coloring.
Mrs. Alejandro had given us no clue that something “especial” was about to happen that day, and it seemed as if the tedium would never release us. Two o’clock, story time.
Instead of launching into her usual dramatics, Mrs. Alejandro had us all rise from our seats, about twelve of us, and come to the front of the room. Something was obviously up, but what? None of us managed to guess until she told us to sit in a circle on the floor.
By this time, we all knew what a séance was. As an adult, I was to learn that they were exclusively a nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon. Mrs. Alejandro, however, had sprinkled them liberally throughout her histories, from the fall of Babel through the rise of capitalism.
“All right, children,” she announced, joining our circle. “Today we try to speak with the spirits. Does anyone know a person who has to the other world departed, and then we can try and reach to them?”
Now an eight-year-old’s repertoire of the deceased is generally no great listing. We all sat there racking our brains for several minutes. Then this one little girl, Peggy something-or-other, chirped out: “Let’s talk to the President.”
“No, Peggy,” Mrs. Alejandro patiently explained. “Mr. Roosevelt is not dead, and we can all write letters to him and hear him on the radio.”
Silence again. And more of the same. It was finally one of my best friends, Rudy Latimore (curly black hair and thick glasses over slightly crossed eyes), who came to the rescue. “Why don’t we try to reach Willoughby,” he suggested matter-of-factly.
“Yes! Willoughby!” we all agreed shouting together, “Wil-loughby! Willoughby!”
Our grammar school was progressive in one area, that of science. It was Mr. Stanleyton’s sole passion, except perhaps for Mrs. Alejandro. If he’d had the goods upstairs he’d have probably gone into theoretical physics and been in the running nip and tuck with Einstein and Bohr. Since he didn’t even have a close approximation of the goods, he had to settle for being a grammar school science dilettante.
He had converted the office of our no-longer-existent vice principal into a “science room” replete with exhibits and living plants and animals from which he delivered lectures to chosen classes on various subjects as the whim struck him.
One week it would be “Who Are the Dinosaurs?” and the next, “What is Fog?” Willoughby had been Mr. Stanleyton’s pet raccoon, and I mean “pet” literally. I know raccoons are supposed to be dangerous, that they have razor-sharp teeth and claws and have been known to demolish the toughest alley cat in two seconds flat.
But nobody had told Willoughby that, and he was docile as a hamster. We used to take him out of his cage to feel, fondle and examine at will. I suspect the truth of the matter was that Willoughby was so old and enfeebled since he died in mid-November that he didn’t have the energy left to protest such treatment.
“All right! Willoughby . . . it shall be,” Mrs. Alejandro rhymed. “Join hands, children, and concentrate your minds with Willoughby.”
We all took one another’s hands and Mrs. Alejandro closed her eyes. Several of the class followed suit, but not me. I didn’t want to miss out on anything that was about to happen.
“Willoughby,” Mrs. Alejandro crooned softly - and then twice more. “Willoughby. Will . . . ooo . . . bee.”
Let me stress that the room remained brightly lit, the blinds were up and the overhead light was burning. We were all seated on the bare wooden floor. There were no screens, no curtains, no tables. In short, there was no room for chicanery or fraud.
“Will . . . ooo . . . bee. Will . . . oooo . . . beeee.” She was really getting into it, her eyes still closed, her head swaying back and forth, her body beginning to sway, too, as it picked up on the motion.
Then suddenly it happened. Suddenly the world changed. Everything seemed different, as if the magnetic poles had shifted ever so slightly. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was the kind of thing you can’t pinpoint because something other than your five senses has detected it. And I wasn’t the only one who felt it either because most of the children who had closed their eyes now opened them all at once. Mrs. Alejandro stopped her crooning and swaying and merely sat motionless with eyes still shut. She looked so relaxed and at one with herself that she could have been the Virgin Mary, waiting for Christmas and about to doze off.
I looked up. Over our heads, a nearly diaphanous pink-gray cloud was beginning to form. It thickened and billowed. Settling down its outlines began to coalesce, solidify, evolve color and form, until what one instant had been a long pocket of smoke the next instant became . . . Willoughby!
He hung suspended in midair at the center of our circle, perhaps six feet above our heads, eight or nine feet above the scuffed floorboards. Other than that, he looked the same as he always had in his cage. The fluffy gray-brown fur slightly lackluster with age. The black and white bands across his face. The wrinkled, black wetness of his nose that wriggled as he sampled the chalk-dusted air of our classroom. This was no shadow or chimera. This was Willoughby beyond a doubt: living, breathing . . . and without apparent concern, defying gravity!
We were all staring now, transfixed by this apparition from the animal beyond, all that is except Mrs. Alejandro whose “sleeping” face continued to beam translucently. I’m convinced that she knew Willoughby was there without ever looking up. As for Willoughby himself, his paws soon began to tread the empty air; and this swimming motion propelled him in a small circle, limited by the human circle below. He craned his head and neck about as he moved, examining the walls and ceilings. His nose, his whiskers, kept wriggling away. All in all, he seemed overwhelmingly at home - until with a slight pop, like a burner catching on a gas stove, and a puff of smoke, like the expellation from a cigar, Willoughby disappeared. In total, he couldn’t have floated there for more than a minute and a half, time enough to make a believer of me once and for ever more.
“Holy mackerel!” That’s what Rudy said to me after Mrs. Alejandro dismissed us early without further comment. Since Rudy and I lived on the same block, we usually made our way home together. Few of our walks had been as dream-like as this one: Mrs. A’s most spellbinding stories had never zapped us so. We were oblivious to the cold and the cars and the softly tumbling flakes. The possibility of stopping for a sled ride in the vacant lot never occurred to us. Passing snowball fights left us, miraculously, unscathed. Our steps wandered and dragged; we took on the aimless gait of shock victims. Our minds were like tents collapsing again and again on the fleeting form of Willoughby and coming up empty.
“Holy mackerel!” He kept repeating it about once a block, and since I couldn’t improve on that I just kept my mouth shut.
Now childhood is a time of greater familiarity with wonder, and nearly any child can be fooled and set to wondering with the cheapest carnival trick. Still, I think both Rudy and I realized full well, at the age of eight, that here we were dealing not with a trick but with bona fide . . . A-number-one . . . real . . . MAGIC!
“Holy mackerel,” Rudy threw at me as a parting shot, and headed on to his house, shaking his small head as the comprehension of what we had beheld was still settling into him.
At home, I found my mother working in the kitchen. I knew I had to spill my story out to somebody before I popped and she was not the likely candidate. “Where’s Daddy?” I asked. Mother’s eyes rolled skyward with disdain so I knew what was up. I ran to the stairway, to the second floor. I found the ladder leading to the attic in place and clambered along its length.
Amidst the accumulated memorabilia-debris of his parents’ lives, I found my father. He sat upon a crate in the dimness, in a posture reminiscent of that most famous Rodin: bent forward as if with the weight of the ages, hand against chin, eyes lost in cloud-cover and brooding inwardly. “Daddy,” I ventured tentatively.
“Daddy,” I squeaked.
He didn’t answer; he took no notice of me. This house and this search for “the box” were doing peculiar things to my father, turning him into a person I didn’t know and could no longer understand. Or was it merely that the Depression years, sinking into him one atop the next, had begun a process of fossilization that only “salvation” could reverse? I was about to turn and leave when he suddenly looked up absently and spoke: “Hello, son. How was school today?”
My father’s innocent, everyday question found the lever that tripped the gate that opened the dam - it all came pouring out of me in a flood of breath-stammering confusion: “Mrs. Alejandro . . . she brought Willoughby back to life . . . all of us sat on the floor and she did a séance . . . he floated in the air . . . he was Mr. Stanleyton’s raccoon . . . we all saw him . . . but he died last month . . . in his cage, only we saw him today and he was floating in the air . . . he was flying but not really . . . really he was only floating . . . but we all saw him . . . we were sitting on the floor . . . and there was all this smoke at first . . . but when he disappeared there was hardly any . . . and. . . .” Having finally run out of gas, I stood there panting.
My father screwed up his face and looked at me hard. He was never a very religious man, not formal religion anyway, that was my mother’s domain. At the same time, he considered himself a highly moral man and if there was a single key to unlock the nature of his character, that key was honesty. Truth was as good as gold coinage to my father - and by the age of eight, I had been thoroughly imbued with the same philosophy. Normally calm and good-humored in his relations with me, whenever I had been caught in a lie, his fury exploded and his belt came crashing down. Now I suddenly found myself facing that same dread catastrophe as I realized that my father didn’t believe what I had told him - not a word of it - and little wonder he didn’t.
His giant hand closed upon my upper arm, and he pulled me to him. “What have I told you about making up crazy stories, son?”
“But, Daddy, it’s not a story, it. . . .”
“Haven’t I told you that lying is about the worst thing a man can do to another man? Haven’t I told you that the world wouldn’t be in the rotten shape it’s in now if it weren’t for all the lies men have told one another?” He tightened his grip and shook me hard as he fumed away.
“But, Daddy, Daddy, it did happen just like I said,” I squealed and squirmed and persisted. “It’s not a story, it’s not, Mrs. Alejandro brought Willoughby back to life, she did, she really did!”
My father shook me into stillness and our eyes locked head on, his dark with menace, my own brimming with fear yet full and unblinking with all the stubbornness a child can summon. I was determined not to retreat from the truth of what I had seen. And for a moment, as we looked into one another, one of the few moments in both of our lives together, man and boy touched as fellows and my father saw me as his son and knew that he had raised me in his own image with his own values and that I could never willfully lie to him like this.
His grip loosened and he drew away, far away, frowning in concentration. His face stormed over again. The hands that had held me now tightened on themselves. I could almost see the thoughts percolating through his overworked brain, behind the wrinkled forehead, behind the bumps of sweat. Then, as if a great understanding had come upon him, the lines of stress that had been etching themselves across his countenance for the past few months melted. He looked years younger and years surer of himself. As he spoke to me, an almost-smile played about his lips.
“Let’s go downstairs and see what’s for dinner, son.” He looked around the cluttered attic. “I’ve had enough of this for today.”
“Oh, no,” my mother proclaimed, “there’s not going to be any ghosting around here!”
We were all seated at the dining room table right after dinner and my father had just presented his plan, which had been fully hatched after further consultation with me and ran something as follows - If Mrs. Alejandro were a genuine medium and could bring back the spirit of a raccoon in living and breathing form, she could probably do the same with a person. If she could bring back the spirit of a person, then why not my father’s mother, my grandmother. If we could reach my grandmother’s spirit and speak with it, then we could ask where the box was hidden. A simple train of “if”s fulfilled and we were home free, our fortune made. Only my mother was already straddling the tracks, dead set on derailing this particular train.
As she and my sister began clearing the table, my father eyed her up and down coolly. After a moment’s hesitation he decided to try the soft touch first.
“It’s not really ghosting, my dear,” he began. “It’s known as spiritualism and there’s ...” - he paused as my mother swept through the swinging kitchen door with a load of dishes and began again as she reemerged - “... there’s many a well-respected man, men of learning, who’ll swear by it. There’s nothing in your Bible that says it’s wrong, and if it doesn’t work and we can’t reach Grandma we haven’t lost a thing. On the other hand . . .” - pause again - “. . . we’ve got everything to gain. Why don’t you just let me try it my way, dear, and maybe we can settle this question of the box once and for all.”
“Call it what you want,” my mother stood firm. “It’s still ghosting and I’ll have none of it in my house. The dead have their right to rest in peace.”
My father gulped down the remainder of his wine and stood up. Here was a man who had compromised himself more than once too often. As a youth, he had given in to the support of his family and dropped out of school to take a full-time laboring job.
As a young man, he had given in to an early marriage rather than no marriage when he’d just wished to stay single “a little bit” longer. As a father, he had consented to church for the whole family every Sunday and a suit and tie, which he never otherwise wore, for himself. If he compromised much more, there would be nothing left of him whatsoever. My father raised his fist and brought it crashing down on the dining room table: the uncleared plates jumped; the china in the cupboards rattled; my mother and sister froze in their tracks.
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life sewing and mending, woman?” His voice was cold as steel, hard as iron. “Do you want to live in a house that’s falling apart and feel the wind in your bones every winter? Do you want to have to rent out rooms to strangers to make both ends meet? Do you want your children to grow up weak in the head and sickly because they don’t have enough of the right kind of food to eat?” The fist rose up and came flying down again: crash, thump, rattle. “It’s settled,” my father roared. “We’re going to invite Mrs. Alejandro to this house and we’re going to hold a séance.”
He sat back down. Mother fled to the kitchen in tears. I looked on with dumb approval. It was going to happen after all.
The night of the “ghosting” arrived, the first Monday of Christmas vacation. Father had sent me to school on Friday with a sealed note of invitation for Mrs. Alejandro. Whatever it was he wrote, it made her beam with satisfaction, and she scribbled off a response posthaste. Over the intervening weekend, my parents had failed to negotiate a rapprochement, and by dinner time of the appointed day, a peculiar atmosphere had settled across our hearth. There was the usual conversation at the table, a little strained, yet at the same time it was so quiet you could hear the clink of every dish, the clear bell note of every spoon. The anticipation of something so very different about to happen in our lives had affected us all, heightening our senses. Outwardly Mother remained in opposition, though inwardly she must have felt that excitement, too.
After the meal, I helped with the clearing and the washing. Then we all repaired to the living room with mixed feelings to await our guest.
At eight o’clock sharp, on schedule, the doorbell rang. My father motioned for us all to stay where we were - this was to be his show - as he hopped to and hustled into the hallway. Next, I heard the front door opening. I heard him introducing himself to Mrs. Alejandro, offering to take her coat, her scarf, her rubbers. Obviously he could be the perfect gentleman when he wanted, but this was news to me since I’d never seen my mother get treatment like this.
Then Mrs. Alejandro entered the living room and even my sister did a double-take. For behold! This was not my substitute third-grade teacher, but a Gypsy-soothsayer-witch in full regalia. She had let her hair down and it flowed beyond her shoulders in luxuriant blackness, as black as her blouse and her full-length sweeping skirt. A loose purple fringe shawl failed to hide the cut of that blouse: the gold crucifix was still there all right, only now it rested against bare flesh at the incipience of her not inconsiderable cleavage. Fat golden rings dangled from her ears; others adorned her fingers at random. Above her dark eyes, a touch of blue flamed upon each lid. What had been vitality in the classroom was now clearly and heavily laced with sexuality, a bit overripe but nevertheless potent. Next to Mrs. Alejandro, my mother seemed about as lively as a three-day-old lamb chop.
I could see my father hovering behind Mrs. A., face askew and brow crinkled. This was indeed a new element he hadn’t reckoned on. Things were rocky enough as it was without having to cope with jealousy and flirtation. He glanced heavenward for an instant: an afflicted Job, he was rapidly becoming convinced that the barbs of his travail would never cease falling.
Introductions were made all around. Mrs. Alejandro was blithely cordial. “He is a good boy, your young son,” she informed my mother.
My mother, with arms crossed, was Old Stony. Having retreated with her mending to a straight-backed corner chair, she made it plain from start to finish that she was participating here only under duress. I don’t think she got within six feet of Mrs. Alejandro the entire evening, and she never did address her directly. My sister, who no doubt had been coached, fell in line with the same brand of ill behavior and spent most of the time counting her warts.
Once seated on the couch next to my father, Mrs. Alejandro crossed her legs revealing dark mesh stockings. Later my mother was to maintain that only chorus girls wore “that kind.”
“Well, you’re certainly our son’s favorite teacher,” my father began. “We’ve heard so many good things about you. He’s particularly fond of your stories.” He was giving it the old family try, even if he wasn’t going to get much support.
“Thank you. You’re so kind,” Mrs. Alejandro answered. She leaned forward to touch my father’s wrist, and he didn’t know whether to pull his hand away or just try to pretend nothing was happening. “I do my best, but sometimes the English is very hard for me.”
“Would you like some sherry?” father ventured, searching frantically for an excuse to get up.
“Oh, yes, that would be so . . . beau-ti-ful,” Mrs. Alejandro laughed.
The good sherry! I am convinced that it was only my mother’s granite-bound Protestant will that kept her from bolting to the kitchen right then. Instead, she buried herself in her sewing and laid the needle with a new vengeance, as if each stroke were stitching up my father’s scoundrel’s hide.
Father shot into the hallway again and headed for the dining room where our small liquor supply was kept. Once more the silence closed in like a sphincter. Mrs. Alejandro looked around. Since I was the only one looking back, she decided to address me.
“Are you ready for a big . . . Christmas-time . . . celebration!?”
Never a very loquacious child, I was hardly brimming over with small talk at this juncture. I nodded as vigorously as I possibly could to make up for it. The way Mrs. A. eyed me she must have thought my head was about to wobble off.
Lickety-split: my father sailed back in with three glasses of sherry. One, he handed to Mrs. Alejandro. Two, he tried to hand to my mother but she refused to look up at him and he was forced to deposit it on a table a good three feet beyond her reach - he gave her a glance that could have boiled glaciers. Three, he took for himself and settled down in an easy chair opposite Mrs. Alejandro, with a solid, oak coffee table between. Breathing heavily, he plucked a cigarette from his shirt pocket.
Mrs. Alejandro brightened. “Oh, may I have one?”
There was nothing for him to do but get up, give one to her, and light it for her. As she leaned forward to catch the fire her heavy bosom leaned with her, the gold cross swung freely. My father’s gaze wandered and he fumbled through three matches before he got both cigarettes going. Alcohol, tobacco, a “painted” woman - we were certainly headed someplace different tonight, but whether or not it was towards a conversation with the spirit world was no longer clear. This time when he sat back down it was more in the nature of a collapse.
My mother spoke up for the first time. “We may not have a big Christmas,” she announced to no one in particular, “but it will be one in keeping with the spirit of the Lord.”
Mrs. Alejandro smiled weakly and took another sip of sherry. Father, who didn’t know what was going on, decided to let it pass. My sister remained miles away. After a respectful pause, Mrs. Alejandro tried to get things rolling again. “Who is it that you want to reach to?” she asked my father.
“. . . what. . . ?” Behind the thickening smoke of his cigarette, he shook his head in slow puzzlement.
“In the spirit world . . . to whom do we try to talk with . . . tonight?”
“Oh . . . oh,” my father nodded. He leaned forward with elbows on his knees, at last to the meat of the matter. “It’s my mother. She only passed away last winter. This used to be her house and I grew up here and . . . well . . . uh, I thought I’d like to speak with her again.”
“Is there an especial question you wish to ask?” Mrs. Alejandro exhaled loudly and another shaft of smoke shot up to dissipate in the growing haze surrounding her, father, and the coffee table. They were both puffing away nervously and rapidly.
My father was so paranoid about the possibility of someone else finding the box before him and absconding with his family treasure that he hesitated momentarily in the face of Mrs. Alejandro’s query. If I hadn’t been there staring up at him, he might have attempted one of the few fabrications of his life. “Well . . . I think that she left . . . uh . . . a box somewhere in the house . . . and I think there might be something of value in it . . . we haven’t been able to find it . . . and I thought maybe if we could speak with her spirit . . . well . . . we might be able to ask where it is . . . and . . . uh . . . get it?” If this little speech had been any more elusive, he could have considered running for Congress.
“Ah, a hidden treasure chest!” Mrs. Alejandro exclaimed. Reaching across the coffee table in her enthusiasm she managed to nab my father’s wrist again as he was stubbing out his cigarette. “Perhaps if we find, you will favor me with a small reward.” With her free hand she measured out a good inch and a half’s worth between thumb and forefinger. Her gypsy blood was on the rise.
“Why . . . yes . . . yes, of course,” my father nodded weakly. His next statement came more as a plea than a question. “Do you think we could begin soon?”
Mrs. Alejandro reproached him like an old friend. “Yes, yes, very soon. But please allow me to finish with your very delicious sherry, first.”
Across the room, my mother was clearing her throat.