“The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’”
By the time the bath towel hit the floor, it was too late. My stepcousin Aaron had already sprung from the family circle that had gathered around the Ouija board and disappeared downstairs. We’d been sitting in this candlelit bathroom for nearly an hour trying to make contact with someone from the other side—Aaron’s father, my aunt, a young neighbor boy who had drowned last summer—and ask about heaven or hell or wherever it was they were from. It wasn’t until we summoned the spirit of Aaron’s father that things went a little wonky. A towel slipped loose from its shiny brass post and two candles flickered into puffs of smoke, which my cousin Dorothy insisted were the spirits trying to communicate with us.
I was lit with panic while fear drove its narrow heel into the small of my back. From our spot in the circle, we all looked at one another to see if there was even the slightest chance our neighbor could have given the little towel a tug, or leaned in just far enough to blow out the candles with their nose breath. That’s when little Aaron bolted, throwing open the bathroom door and letting in the first of the brittle evening light.
“Sit down, everybody. He’s fine,” Dorothy reassured us. “Shut the door, Evan,” she instructed, before leading us further into our spirit session. “David. Are you here with us? In this room?” she whispered looking around the ceiling as if she were tracking a fly, “Is this the spirit…of David…Case?”
We fidgeted nervously, searching for signs, anticipating something that was completely out of our control. The furnace belched warm air into our faces. Nothing moved or talked to us or reached out from beyond the grave to say anything at all. We were just five cousins huddled around a game while downstairs our parents were drinking beer and playing their own games.
“You know Aaron’s gonna tell,” someone whispered.
“See if I care.”
“C’mon! Did someone blow the candles out?!?”
“What happens when you die?”
“Your face turns dark purple and you shit yourself,” one of the older cousins whispered.”
“Yeah. All the vessels in your head explode at the same time and fill your face with blood.”
“What if you kill yourself? Like Aaron’s dad.”
“Depends — did he hang himself?”
All eyes landed on Dorothy figuring she’d have the answer since she’d been living with Aaron and his older brother Nick as a stepfamily for more than a year.
“It was a shotgun. Neighbors found him in an empty lot behind their cottage.”
“How old was Aaron?”
“Four or five.”
The conversation turned in circles, making giant hoops of words that filled the bathroom until there wasn’t room for any more talk and our little spirit quest was forced to a dead end. The older kids headed downstairs to catch a replay of the much-anticipated Super Bowl Shuffle, while Dorothy and I retreated to Nick’s bedroom so she could smoke cigarettes.
“He’d kill me if he knew we were in here,” Dorothy whispered, rifling through his drawers for a pack of Salem Lights.
Nick’s room smelled like a Trans Am: all leather, cologne, and mint.
“How’s come you guys don’t go to church anymore?” I asked.
There was a long pause between my question and Dorothy’s answer in which I tried to disappear by not moving a muscle, as though—if I stood still long enough—I might change color, blending in with the bedspread, the shaggy carpet, the poster of Bo Derek running along a beach like some exotic Egyptian cat.
This could be my life, I thought, looking at all my newly acquired possessions: a handful of gold chains, a class ring, a collection of airbrushed shot glasses. And for a second I let myself get swept up in a world of speed skating, mustaches and bottle-opening key chains. I imagined striking a match and burning down everything in my past so I could see clearly, far into the future. My mind rolled over the biggest obstacles like rocks. High school. Hayrides. Back seats. I wondered what girls tasted like. I’m ready, I thought, and believed anything was still possible.
“Have you heard this?” Dorothy said, dodging the question with a cassette case she popped into Nick’s Pioneer stereo.
“It’s The Smiths,” she continued, cracking the window.
It’s time the tale were told
about how you took a child
and you made him old
reel around the fountain
slap me on the patio
I’ll take it now
“Want one?” Dorothy extended a lit cigarette.
“Sure.” I took the smoke deep into my lungs, then commenced to coughing my eyeballs right out of their sockets.
“First time, huh?” she giggled. “Virgin!”
Backlit by the evening light that slanted in through the blinds of the open window, Dorothy glowed like a saint. The flat slope of her forehead disappeared under a wedge of feathered, frosted bangs and she appeared perfectly put together, right down to her tight-rolled jeans.
“Come here. Sit down. I wanna show you something.”
“Okay,” I said a little too quickly, then tried to recover by dawdling past Nick’s vast beer can collection. “Labatt’s?” I mused. “My grandpa brought my dad a case of Labatt’s from Montana on one of his hunting trips when—”
“Jesus, I can’t stop thinking about it,” Dorothy whispered.
“About what?” I asked?
“About what? About the thing in the bathroom, that’s what. Weren’t you scared?”
“Nah. I knew it was one of us who moved the towel,” I lied.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s hmmmm?” she asked with an edge of irritation. “How can you be so sure it wasn’t someone…out there? Hmmmm?”
“You tell me,” I said. “You’re the one who doesn’t believe in this stuff. God and demons and crap.” I could feel the distance between us and sensed the weight of my own body shifting under the mattress like an ice cube dissolving into a puddle of water.
“Well, I definitely don’t believe in, you know, God, but I do think we’re surrounded by ghosts.”
“How can you have ghosts without a God?
“Well, you don’t have to believe to believe, squirt. It’s like a river.” I hated that she called me squirt; it made me feel even smaller. “We’re all floatin’ through this water world, and occasionally we get caught up in the trees and rocks. If you stop long enough, it just feels permanent, this being stuck. Until whoosh, you’re back in the current. Know what I mean?” She didn’t wait for me to answer before she continued. “My mom was married three times before she met my dad. Three times! Three times she tried to pretend she was in control, fighting against life as if she had a choice. Eventually, she broke loose and headed downstream again to something new, which is why I’m here. Now she’s dead. So what’s the point, right? We’re all gonna do what we’re gonna do eventually. No use struggling. To me, it makes it easier to understand the stuff that happens to us. Because there’s really nothing to understand. At least it beats church and Sunday school.”
She smelled so damn good. I imagined myself moving in closer to touch her, thinking she had told me that silly story about the river as if to say, “It’s okay, Evan, we’re all gonna do what we’re gonna do eventually, anyway. Go ahead. I’m not gonna bite.”
fifteen minutes with you
well, I wouldn’t say no
people said that you were virtually dead
and they were so wrong
“I told ya. He’ll kill me,” Dorothy huffed as I emerged from Nick’s closet with a pair of black and gold speed skates.
I plopped down on the edge of the bed and tugged at the glow-in-the-dark yellow laces. Inside each skate, Nick had left a topographical map of his strange life. My toes explored every ridge and valley for clues about where to go next. Finding my groove in this new terrain, I stood up, tipped my right skate onto its wide nose, placed my left hand on my hip, arched my back and raised a pointed finger high above my head.
“Oh, fuck the future!” I barked in my best John Travolta.
“No, Tony! You can’t fuck the future. The future fucks you!” Dorothy replied without missing a beat. We burst into laughter as I collapsed next to her under the window, looking at her face through a halo of smoke rings. Everything shimmered with a mysterious electricity, which I made the mistake of saying out loud.
“Nerd!” Dorothy chirped, smothering my face with the palm of her hand. She was giving me a chubby that I could feel pressing into the brass teeth of my zipper; I was sure she could see it, too. The pressure of it seemed to change the color of the paint on the wall as the room spun slowly around us. I grabbed her hands and pushed them away. Looking at my crotch, Dorothy pressed herself deep into the pillow and stretched out her legs as I lay frozen to the bedspread, my mind racing for some distraction.
“Do you remember last Fourth of July?” I said pulling aside my collar so Dorothy could see my scar. She leaned in and ran her fingers over it a few times.
“Does it still hurt?”
“A little,” I lied as she pulled up my collar and smoothed it out with her fingers. Her hair smelled even sweeter than her hands, but I resisted the urge to scoop up a handful, not knowing what I’d do with it anyway.
“Gross,” she sighed.
Staring directly at my stiff prick, she lofted that final word into the golden haze like a squashed spider you toss into a toilet.
I dreamt about you last night
and I fell out of bed twice
you can pin and mount me like a butterfly
take me to the haven of your bed
was something that you never said
two lumps please
you’re the bees knees
but so am I
As Dorothy and I sat in silence, I shrunk in humiliation and started to drift a little, thinking about all the things we wouldn’t talk about. I came across each thought and turned it over carefully, as if it wasn’t a shocking surprise at all but more like a box in an attic I’d simply forgotten was there. I opened them all, one by one. There was a trunk filled with the remains of my parent’s marriage. A package of white lies inside a little pair of snow boots. And under a set of women’s golf clubs, a dusty crate containing the truth about what happened that Easter weekend years ago at a lake cottage.
I thought about how the details of today were, at present, being carefully packed away for safekeeping. It would become just another story that never gets told. Another thing we learn not to talk about. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe we need to put things away into boxes in order to move on, which is exactly what Dorothy and I would do the very next day. Move on.