poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

September 19, 2011

Ghost Stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — poemless @ 5:33 PM

“Toscha, I think we have a child ghost,” my brother confided in me after a recent move to St. Charles, MO. I have the kind of family that has ghosts…

I’m not trying to convince anyone that ghosts do or do not exist. I don’t believe in God. Or angels. Or monsters. I do believe in ghosts. I was raised by a crazy Irish woman. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of idiocy, but I think there is enough evidence to the contrary. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of an overactive imagination and romanticism, but you don’t need a ghost story to know that about me. It seems a pretty harmless belief to have. No ideological agenda. No evangelizing, no political lobbying. Ghosts neither confirm nor undermine my worldview, no more than bunny rabbits or paintings hung on a wall. They are part of the deal. Bad teeth and ghosts.

Of course it is natural for you to want to challenge such beliefs and offer up alternative explanations for the events I am about to recount. In general I support the scientific method and rational, objective attempts to understand the world around us. But the following stories need not be true or untrue. The point is, I have them. Largely against my will.

The Intersection

Growing up, my mother and brother were quite fond of recounting stories of ghosts, esp, etc. and felt a combination of annoyance at my rigid intellect and pity that it limited my repertoire of experiences. Whole other worlds I was cut off from, out of sheer stubbornness. Apparently part of their special “gift” included the “knowledge” that I was secretly like them, just less self-aware. I was dragged to psychic readers who nodded in agreement. Oh I had it. It. I was just too busy hating the world and sticking my nose in books. This was all discussed in the way old women might sit around a bridge table mewing on about how Pearl’s granddaughter who works at the soup kitchen could be a real catch if she just put some effort into her looks. Full of unrealized potential, but too myopic to realize it. Well, I pitied them in my own way too. I spent my childhood agnostic and became a professed atheist at the age of 9. And they were still praying. As if that is how things got done. Pathetic.

One night, dark, a bit wet, I sat in the front seat of my father’s truck as he drove me home from a friend’s house. We came to a stoplight and sat chatting. It wasn’t a rural road. It wasn’t the city. It was one of those depressing arteries that run through what we might now call the exurbs, lined sometimes by undeveloped land, sometimes by fast food joints, the occasional mall or church. Not enough traffic to create lively atmosphere, but enough so that if a person walked out into the middle of the highway someone would notice. I turned my eyes away from our discussion and back to the intersection to find a man standing right in front of the truck. The moment I realized someone was standing in the street, looking me in the eyes, the light turned green, and before I could scream for my father to stop, he hit the gas and … we didn’t hit anyone. My father continued talking while I sat there in shock. What had just happened? Traffic had moved normally, no thud, no horns, no screams, no sirens. Maybe I’d imagined it. Obviously I’d imagined it! No one dresses like that nowadays. A floppy wide-brimmed hat. Overalls? Maybe it was just the traffic lights and rain playing tricks with my eyes. No. This was not a figure, not a a shape. I can still see the expression on his face, feel our eye contact. Soon my father noticed I’d stopped talking. “What’s wrong? Hey, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. [For real he said that.] What’s going on?” I began to cry inconsolably but couldn’t form any words. We got home and walked in the door. “Toscha’s upset about something and won’t talk to me about it. Maybe you can find out what’s going on with her. Cried the whole way home…” my father pronounced to my mother. For hours I could not speak. I could barely breathe. I could only nod “no” during the following interrogation. No, nothing happened at my friend’s. No, no one had done anything to me. No, it wasn’t school. No, it wasn’t a boy. Eventually I gathered myself. “But it’s stupid. … There was a man in the intersection. … And we drove through him. … I mean, you know, through him.” I sat on the ottoman opposite my mother’s chair, collapsed into her lap and resumed sobbing.

“Well, these things happen,” my mother consoled me.

Try as I might, I was unable get the image of the mysterious man out of my head. I believe the word “haunted” is appropriate here. So this professed atheist began to pray – to whom or what I cannot say. For him. Whoever, whatever he was, he’d seemed sad and scared and imploring. I prayed for peace for his soul. Again and again.

What else was there to do?

The Farmhouse Fire

My father’s German ancestors had come to America in the 19th Century and set up shop on some land outside of St. Louis. I wasn’t too close to his family. An aunt and uncle lived about 30 minutes away on this ancestral land, but we visited them maybe 7 times in 18 years. The farm was still operational and, I suspect, still a significant source of income, despite the occasional flooding from the Mississippi River. In fact, several of those 7 trips involved all night sandbagging operations. To this day I remember my aunt and uncle as incredibly charming, polite, educated and cosmopolitan – uncommon traits in his family. They lived in a tasteful modern home. Not much of what you’d think of when you think of farms, apart from the surrounding swaths of soybeans and corn, and my great grandmother Hildegard’s house.

My great grandmother lived on the farm, within view of my aunt and uncle’s home, and we would walk over to see her during our visits. I never knew her well as she’d become senile even before I was born. She must have been nearly 100, and everything in the farmhouse seemed to out date even her. Both she and the house were tiny, so with the decor, it was like a doll house. A musty dollhouse. A musty dark dollhouse. There was electricity, but I never saw it used. Between the claustrophobia-inducing scale, the heavy fabrics laden with a century of smells and the struggle to converse with someone who has no concept of what decade it is, our visits sucked the air out of me, making me lightheaded and gasping for oxygen when we left. I never understood how anyone could live there. The tasteful modern home of my aunt and uncle was only a few yards away, and I secretly imagined my great grandmother normally lived there, with them, and just sat in this dollhouse-farmhouse when we visited. Like for historical reenactment. But I knew that wasn’t true.

After my great grandmother died, my uncle, who ran the volunteer fire department, offered up her house to trainees. I guess I wasn’t the only one unnerved by the place. We came over that day to ooh and awe, but also I suspect for moral support. We were after all, destroying a bit of family history. I don’t know if it was the German immigrants who built the tiny farmhouse, but if not, it had to have been their children.

It was an overcast autumn day and the orange flames against the steel sky were captivating and somber. The women sat in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen watching the blaze across the way and drinking coffee while the men supervised outside. The volunteer firefighters seemed not terribly concerned about putting out the fire in a swift manner and the dollhouse-farmhouse was quickly engulfed. My uncle took Polaroids and came inside and handed them to us. We politely thumbed through them. Dollhouse-farmhouse being prepped for fire. Dollhouse-farmhouse set on fire. Dollhouse-farmhouse on fire. Young woman in a turn of the century dress coming out of the front door of the burning dollhouse-farmhouse. Dollhouse-farmhouse burnt down… Wait. What? “Hey, hand me back that picture,” my mother requested. Apparently she had been the only one looking at them with interest, not just politely shuffling them and passing them on. “Who is that?” she asked my aunt. “What?” I demanded. She handed me the photo and cocked her head in that, “Can you believe that shit?” way she always did.

A young woman, maybe 20, stood in the frame of the front door of the burning house. She was transparent and her face was a blur, but otherwise, it was clearly a fucking woman on the fucking porch where no women were, let alone a woman with a mass of curly hair and a full length, high neck dress cinched at the waist. There was a collective gulp, a shooting about of looks, a raising of eyebrows. And then, as if the person in the picture were, you know, a normal person, not a “person who can’t be seen with the naked eye and has probably been dead for a century while this here photo was taken an hour ago” person, a discussion commenced in which attempts were made to identify this beautiful creature who may have occupied the house we just destroyed. If anyone questioned the idea that it was a ghost, they kept the fact to themselves. Perhaps they were too polite. Perhaps you’d need to be mad to look at a photograph of a woman and declare it to be anything otherwise. We poured more coffee. The charred remains of the dollhouse-farmhouse stood ominous in the cold autumn evening.

They gave my mother the Polaroid. At some point I got it, after she died, probably, when I went through her belongings. My brother recently asked me for it. I don’t know where it is and I am sure as hell not going to look for it. I can go the rest of my life never seeing a photo of a god damned (possibly literally) ghost again. I don’t even want it in my home. I may have destroyed it. How awful. Imagine, you are just sitting at home, already existentially cut off from the world by death, and then someone sets fire to your home. No one you know is alive. You have nowhere to go now.

Where did she go?

The Seated Woman

“How did you like it?”
“I really prefer Moscow. I could never live in St. Petersburg.”
“Moscow is a city of the living. Petersburg is a mausoleum.”
“You have no idea.”

St. Petersburg, Russia. Halloween. We’d raided the Maly Theatre’s costume shop and went gallivanting around nightclubs dressed like Pushkin characters.

For our excursion, we’d been set up in a hotel/dormitory steps from a magical little bridge guarded by golden griffins. Late one night I left my chaperon-approved lodging and skittered through the dark, winding snow-filled side-streets, passing countless cats lurking in door- and alleyways and the occasional drunk falling out of a dimly lit cafe, to my friend’s apartment by the Fontanka. I felt like a Dickens character. The city, cleaner, safer, more civilized and attractive than Moscow by miles, gave me the creeps. I’d wanted to leave from the moment I arrived. I was thankful to at least have someone to stay with. A home with a family and a heavily occupied kitchen table. Because I had to get out of that hotel.

My first night in town, during a fitful sleep, I sensed someone enter our room of the hotel/dormitory. Having had my share of experiences fending off the thieves who preyed upon American travelers in Russian dormitories, I sat up ready to pummel my unwelcome guest with the first object I could grab. There was no one there to pummel when I opened my eyes. I returned to a not-quite sleep/not-quite awake state. I thought my roommate opened the door, left, and came back in. She did this several times throughout the night. She wasn’t having much luck sleeping either, judging by the frequency with which the door opened and closed, each time letting in a blade of the light from the hall … though each time I’d look, she was back in bed. Trying to combat disorientation and exhaustion, I closed my eyes tightly and begged sleep to come. Each time I did this I saw the same image: a woman was sitting on the chair by the dressing table at the foot of our beds. What horrible dreams now, I muttered, pulled the covers over my head and waited for the long night to end. Dawn could not come soon enough. 4am. 5am. 6am. … 7am. … 8am … That’s when I truly began to appreciate how far north of the equator we were.

Sometime around 9am we both sat up and discussed the possibility of just getting on with our day. The sun had not come up, per se, but the sky had lightened to a dreary overcast grey.

“You had trouble sleeping too?” I grumbled.
“Yeah, I finally gave up trying,” my roommate lamented.
“Where were you going all night? The lounge? Anything exciting happen?”
“I didn’t go anywhere.”
“Oh? I must have dreamt it…”
“Yeah…”
We both looked at that chair by the dresser at the foot of our beds, and back at each other.
“Look. Can we get that fucking chair out of here?” she said. We couldn’t haul it into the hallway fast enough, even knowing we’d risk the wrath of the stern, potoatoesque woman whose singular purpose in life was to make certain all house rules were obeyed at all times. We got a lecture.

The following day the chair reappeared in the room

The following night I began my trek to the apartment on the Fontanka.

The House on State Street

Many of the residents of my hometown of Alton, Illinois will tell you that they live in the most haunted small town in America. Even as a believer in ghosts, I find this difficult to digest. What about, oh, all of New England? Still, more often than not, you can find an out-of-towner trolling our streets in search of paranormal activity. Underground railroad, Civil War cemetery, birthplace of assassins and jazzmen … we’ve had our share of difficult history. Throw in the Victorian mansions, steep cobblestone streets, antique shops and riverboats and if ghosts didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

When my mother remarried, she moved into a large old brick house on State Street, one of the main avenues in the historical district which begins up near the old orphanage, winds its way down the bluffs past Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church and ends at the Mississippi River. I came to stay with them for a bit during a hiatus from college. For some reason, I was given a room on the first floor, despite a number of unoccupied bedrooms on the second floor, as well as a converted attic. “So is this place haunted?” I flippantly asked my mother as I unpacked. Seemed to fit the bill. “Nope.” I was kind of bummed. Living in the most haunted place in America and I never get a ghost? I felt reassured though. The idea of a ghost was exciting, but the possibility of having a whole floor to myself at night with undead roaming about was not.

That night I awoke several times to the sound of someone moving up and down the back stairwell which led from the attic to the basement. (The front stairs led from the foyer to the upstairs rooms.) The head of my bed abutted the stairwell wall, and the rhythmic creaking was impossible to ignore. I waited for a glimpse of kitchen light to appear under my bedroom door, for the sound of running water, for the tv in the living room to come softly on. And waited. Maybe it was the dog or one of the cats. Maybe it was just the house settling. Maybe it wasn’t. The procession up and down the stairs continued like clockwork every night. Too slow, heavy and deliberate to be a pet. Too pointless to be human. “Mom, are you sure this house isn’t haunted.” “These old houses make noises, Toscha.”

I’d been there a few weeks before my wide-eyed and mischievous step-sister pounced. “So have you heard her yet?! You know this place has ghosts? Oh yeah, we went to the historical society and did the research and everything. It’s a Judge, he’s the mean one, and his sister, who never married. She’s harmless. Surprised you haven’t noticed them yet. She’s in the attic and walks down the back stairs at night. He’s in the front stairway. It’s why no one uses the front one.”

“You lied.”
“I didn’t want to unnecessarily upset you.”

Unlike my previous experiences, I never actually saw our supernatural housemates on State Street. The front staircase was the type you wanted to run up or down without looking behind you. As for the spinster, once I accepted her presence as a fact, life went on as normal. A door would open and you’d say, “Please close the door,” and the door would close. Same with the lights. It was quite something. Often, when standing at the kitchen sink, a window in front of me and the stairwell behind me, I’d sense someone at my back. I could not look up for fear of seeing a second party in the window’s reflection. ” Please go,” I’d whisper, and the feeling would pass. The attic noises were difficult to ignore, even for my step-father, who vehemently does not believe in ghosts. He would routinely awake to the sounds above him, get his shotgun (yes, shotgun) and take it up to the attic, ready to assail a thuggish intruder. “Get ‘em?” we’d tease. “Shut up.”

On holiday break one year, a group of us students piled into a car and drove home from Northwestern. According to the plan, I was the first to be dropped off, and the others would stay with me for the night before continuing their cross-country trek back to their respective parents. With five visitors in the house, someone had to sleep in the attic. “There’s a whole bedroom up there, you’ll have the space to yourself,” my mother assured a young man travelling with us. “Or you can sleep on the couch if you want,” I said, flashing a look at my mom. The young man opted for the attic. The next morning we all wandered bleary-eyed into the kitchen for coffee and home-made breakfast. “Sleep well?” I asked, nervously, doing my best fake nonchalance act. The responses ranged from exuberant exclamations of gratitude to the polite nods of people unable to converse before coffee. The young man remained silent. “You don’t look like you slept well…” I fished. His voice cracked, “No.” He was a solid shade paler than the previous night and visibly shaken. I sat up and proclaimed, “The attic’s haunted! Oh yes, there’s a ghost and…” As I eagerly explained the whole story to my captive breakfast audience, the young man shot me a harsh accusatory look, as if to suggest he’d been subjected to an evil experiment against his will. I apologized. Sincerely. I never asked what happened to him that night. The look on his face alone was enough to sate my curiosity.

Years later the old house was sold. It became unreasonable to maintain a 6 bedroom home with ancient wiring and incurable drafts once all the children had grown and left. On moving day, the last thing to be removed from the home were the pets, who’d gone missing. We called, we searched, we offered treats and made threats. I knew the one place I hadn’t looked yet. I gathered all my nerve, and walked up the back stairs all the way to the attic to find the most remarkable of scenes: The pets, gathered round in a semi-circle, sitting at attention, eyes fixated on the same point in space. They looked at me, and then back at … well … It broke my heart. “I’m sorry. They can’t stay. They have to go now. A new family is going to move in, with children, and pets. You will not be alone. Say goodbye, you guys, we have to go.” I scooped up the cats. One made a break for it and headed back up the stairs, as if some force were drawing them to that room. I went back for her. Pets in tow, everyone waved goodbye to the old house on State Street as we all drove away for the last time.

Well. Not everyone.

Who knows if ghosts are real or not. Like love and inspiration and art and dreams, they fall into a category of phenomena that need not be explained to send our hearts racing and heads spinning, to make us reassess the nature and limitations of our own existence, to encourage humility and wonderment and courage. Which is pretty cool. For all my intellectual rigidity and stubbornness, I can get behind all that.

All that and a good story.

September 2, 2011

The Seasons of September

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:47 PM

As a young girl, I was a shy and awkward and only capable of approximating happiness when left alone in my room with my books open and my door locked. For some inexplicable reason, or most likely lack of reason, my parents never sent me to camp or distant relatives’ homes during the summer. So I spent three months each year alone in my room, books open and door locked. I was not so much anti-social as anti-sports, -hot weather, -playing in the dirt, -bugs, -lack of structure and -the other kids in my neighborhood. I had friends. But they mostly read too. I grew up in a nowhere Midwestern town that provided limited opportunities for non-outdoorsy summer recreation. I’d spend three months agitatedly waiting for September to arrive on my doorstep, proclaiming the end of my miserable summer. I’d sense her approach in advance, like that of an aging diva who replaces lost bone density with equal quantities of expensive perfume. Spring arrives like an unexpected gift, summer’s arrival is only appreciated once it begins to annoy and winter appears in a single magical event. Autumn arrives like the guest of honor whose presence in the room is felt long before an official introduction. The the dry, crisp earthy aromas of autumn would come crashing into the pungent odors of overripe late summer gardens, making me delirious. Leaves began the dance that would eventually tear them from their limbs. Life reemerged from its summer stupor. Almanacs be damned, September signified for me renewal.

September. A new school year, new teachers, new books, new friends, new dramas, new clothes. A return to the routine of the intellectual stimulation, direction and structure provided by education. I could thrive again after three months of forced stagnation.

September. The Expo, the local town carnival. I fucking LOVE carnivals. I know… what’s a classy girl like me see in such low-brow dreck? I could go off making references to David Lynch or Fellini at this point, but the truth is, as a kid, I just thought they were mad fun. Oh sure, I was still a disaffected kid who judged everyone else having a fine time, their cliques, their cheep thrills, their mirrored Def Leopard pictures. But put me on fast ride and I no longer worried about the exploitation of goldfishes or the ethics of shooting toys for sport. Smart girls need stupid fun too.

September. Most and least importantly, my birthday. This was usually celebrated at the local Italian joint across the street from the fair. I was never fond of being the center of attention. Yet I was pleased to have one day each year when people were expected be nice to me and give me cake. So that my birthday was listed comfortably on a larger menu of events anticipated by the general public suited me perfectly. I wasn’t passed over like those born around the winter holidays, but neither was I a spectacle of my own. Ideal.

As I grew up, carnival rides were replaced by strolls down leafy city streets, the thrill of shopping for the newest fashions was replaced by that of unpacking favorite old sweaters and boots, textbooks were replaced by the fall issue of Vogue. Birthdays came to have less import. Maybe a friend or lover takes you to dinner. Maybe a family member sends a card. With age, there is far less pressure for everyone to pay you attention, and it is perfectly acceptable to be miserable even when they do. As an adult far from home, I used to stress out about if I should even tell people about my birthday, and how to do that. But facebook has solved that problem for us all. Like a good wine, both September and I improved with age. Until the age of 25.

In the wee morning hours of September 7th, 2000, I awoke to a phone call from my father. My mother had been in and out of the hospital with cancer for months, so when the phone rang at 4 am I knew to answer it. So when I was told I needed to come home now, my bags were already packed. “She isn’t going to make it,” my step-father struggled to get the words out of his throat. “Give her the goddamned phone, Paul. Hold it to her ear, understand?” … “Mom, I am on my way right now, going to the airport right now, I will be there by 8. And you WILL BE ALIVE when I get there. You will wait for me, understand? You are not allowed to die before 8am!!! Do you understand?!” “I love you,” a shallow whisper responded. As the setting for September tragedies are want to be, the morning sky in St. Louis that day was a perfect blue accented with fluffy white clouds and gossamer sunshine, as if heaven had agreed to meet its new resident halfway along her trip… My step-brother drove me from the airport to Barnes Jewish Hospital. She’d moved. No longer in the patients’ hall but the dying people’s hall on the other side of the ward. She was still alive and communicative. I promised her we’d be ok. Last rights were given. It was noon and no one had eaten since yesterday. The boys went down to the cafeteria. My sister and I sat chatting. When no one was looking my mother took her last breath.

My brother and I were whisked into the office of a staff social worker. “How are you doing?” she asked. My jaw dropped, and my brother screamed at her, “My fucking mother just died how do you think I am doing bitch!”

My brother and I went to the Expo after my mom died. Just the two of us. Now adults. In grief, in shock, in hell. We rode the fast rides. And rode them again. And again. We were singing at the top of our voices and laughing hysterically as we spun around and tilted about and were jerked to and fro at violent speeds. The carnie must have thought we were high. I’ve done enough drugs and can tell you nothing in the universe ever felt better or more right than riding those carnival rides with my brother that day. I’ve always appreciated the cathartic effect of a good carnival ride. But it was more this time. It had always, always been the three of us: My mom, me, my brother. Like the Three Musketeers. Like the Holy Trinity. It would never be the three of us again. Only the two of us were on this scary ride of life now. Holding on for dear life. Scared girls need stupid fun too.

A few days later, during one of the endlessly repeated conversations that take place when someone dies, leaving behind their stuff and their people, I got up the nerve to eek out, “…um. today’s my birthday. i’m so sorry…” For the next 10 years, I went through every September 12th feeling exactly as I did that day. “…um. today’s my birthday. i’m so sorry…” It was enough guilt to expect someone to bake me a cake just because I had made the journey out of the womb through no effort or ambition of my own. It was more than enough guilt to expect someone to bake me a cake while they were in the midst of a personal tragedy. To expect someone to bake me a cake in the midst of a national tragedy… Best to pretend birthdays don’t exist. Such a contrived and ridiculous rite cannot compete with the reality and gravity of Tragic Death.

And that’s what this month came to signify for me. Death. My old dependable friend September had turned on me like a dog. The last weeks of August had me bracing for emotional disaster, and when it came time to turn the page of the calendar I was nauseous with dread. Two weeks. Get through these two weeks and you are home free. Until Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. For a while. The worst will be over anyway. For a while. I was given and I took every form of advice about how to deal with my annual grief. But no plan of attack for acknowledging or not acknowledging these anniversaries made a bit of difference. There was absolutely no avoiding the pain and misery I felt for the first two weeks of September. Even a bad tooth can be pulled. There is no remedy for grief. There is no way to opt out of a month. I just had to sit and take it. Suffering. Loss. Resentment. At my mother. At my country’s foreign policy. At being born. At September.

On September 1st 2011, I awoke with a massive headache and a nosebleed but conspicuously little resentment or existential suffering.

When the year began I was contemplating offing myself because of circumstances largely out of my control. Nine months later, I am content, centered and enjoying life because of circumstances I’ve created myself. I did what I knew had to do to pull myself out of melancholia, even if it meant resorting to unorthodox measures. I made new and dear friends. I took scary risks, knowing I’d survive and have no regrets regardless their outcome. I’ve even begun to entertain the possibility of good outcomes. I’ve been wounded and I’ve learned how to treat my wounds. I do yoga every fucking day. I look in the mirror and quite like this smart vulnerable beautiful fucked up raw wise courageous curious charming person I see. I had promised my mother I would be ok. The only thing I resent right now is that she can’t see that I am. I miss her with a pain that is unearthly. But I don’t dread the pain, fight the pain, resent the pain. It just is. I don’t dread, fight or resent being born. I just was. No one deserves a cake just because they made the journey out of the womb, and no one deserves remembering just because they’ve long since taken their last breath. But damn it all I do deserve one after what I accomplished this year. And so does my mother. She must have done something quite right after all.

If I have learned anything from my Septembers, it is that nothing lasts forever. The day will come when I am not feeling so fearless and fabulous. When I hate my mother again. When a birthday will be another reminder of everything I have yet to do. The past, the future, birth, death… This time I am more interested in the present, in living life, in the cultivating and gathering of ideas and relationships and experiences, in the fruits of my labor, in the feast of gratitude. Harvesting the bounty. I’m 37 years late to the party, but the almanac and I are finally in sync.

So, who wants to go to the carnival? Grown up girls need stupid fun too.

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

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