TARA FLAHERTY GUY
I saw my brother Joey levitate when I was twelve years old. It happened during a séance we were conducting in the upper berth of beat-up old bunk beds at Becky’s lake cabin in northern Wisconsin. When I think of the stiffly choreographed play-dates that kids endure now, I wonder where our folks were when we got up to the stuff we did. I’m glad that they were wherever they were, not whirling overhead like today’s helicopter parents. It helped that our mother worked, which was unusual in the 60’s when most families were configured more like the Cleavers—at least from the outside looking in. It was also helpful that Becky’s mom, theoretically our custodial adult, had adopted a sublime laissez-faire attitude toward us and our summer machinations at the lake. Possessed of a remarkable maternal sang-froid, she mostly chain smoked, read trashy beach novels, and minded her own beeswax, leaving us to mind ours. Content with this happy symbiosis, Joey and I never revealed to our own folks how unsupervised we were up at the lake. We mostly amused ourselves playing cards, listening to the Cowsills on Becky’s crappy turntable, catching crawfish, and tipping over the little sailboat in the middle of the lake. It was blissful kid nirvana, those summers up at Webb Lake with our benevolently indifferent keeper. That’s how we escaped notice the day we set out to rip a hole in the veil between this world and the next.
The séance idea had been sparked by a funeral we’d just gone to. Our step-grandmother, “Grandma Mae”, had been buried a week earlier, and Joey and I, having been determined old enough, were dusted off, scrubbed up, and frog-marched to the O’Halloran & Murphy’s mortuary for the wake, to see our first dead person. Becky too, since we were inseparable in those days and came as a three-piece set. Our folks scarcely noticed the spare kid, partly because Becky and I wore matching clothes, declaring ourselves to be twin sisters of different mothers. Hardly. She was a tall, weedy blond and I was a short, chubby redhead; we looked more like Mutt and Jeff. We loftily considered 11-year-old Joey—when we considered him at all—a peripheral and mostly extraneous sidekick.
We walked through the front door at O’Halloran’s funeral parlor and slammed into the palpable wall of floral scent emanating from the banks of funeral sprays arranged artfully around the room. The smell was sickly sweet and cloying, but with undertones of something bitter, more astringent layered somewhere in the miasma.
“The smell of death,” I whispered to Joey and Becky, who looked hesitant and a little nervous as we hovered in the foyer. I realized that I felt a little jumpy myself. We were about to see our first dead body, after all. When our folks went off to greet the various strata of relatives who had begun showing up, we moved as a trio, approaching the casket cautiously. The three of us lowered ourselves onto the two padded kneelers in front of the coffin, as previously coached by Mom, and looked down at her. Over-rouged and resplendent in her Pepto-Bismol pink suit and blue-rinsed hair, Grandma Mae lay in her quilted silk-lined box, looking remote and disinterested. Since this was how she had always looked when she was around us, it caused no particular consternation. No grief either: Dad’s stepmother been a mean old biddy we’d hardly ever seen. She didn’t like us. The feeling was mutual. She didn’t like Mom either—family lore had it that Mae had told Dad years ago when he was courting Mom that she’d rather have a streetwalker in her house than our mother. Actually, Grandma Mae didn’t like any other women; she preferred the feminine limelight all to herself. A floozy who had bewitched our grandpa away from our grandma, she had then brazenly moved in across the street from our abandoned grandmother. What colossal nerve. In any case, shared family sorrow over the demise of the geriatric home-wrecking old tart played no part in this, our maiden funeral voyage. Thoroughly untraumatized by the sight of the dead octogenarian, our interest waxed clinical; once we had paid our respects, we made the sign of the cross, got up off the kneelers and went to the corner to speculate on the mystery of death.
“Okay, so, your heart is there, beating away, every day of your life, and then—it’s not,” Joey said. “You just stop breathing and die. It’s all over. Kaput. Right?”
Becky and I looked at each other, then she shrugged and said, “I guess.”
“So, what’s the big deal then?” he persisted. “You’re alive, then you’re dead. Happens to everybody. Pretty simple.” Looking at him condescendingly, with wisdom born of my superiority in the birth order, I explained.
“She has a soul, dumb ass,” I said. “It’s not like swatting a fly. Remember about souls? ‘How is the soul like to God? The soul is like to God because it is a spirit that will never die.’”
“Well, where’s her soul now then?” Joey demanded, clearly having absorbed none of the Baltimore Catechism the nuns had theoretically drilled into us at St. Agnes since the age of six.
“Floating around, waiting to be ‘at one with God,’” I replied impatiently. He looked around the room, then up at the ceiling above the casket, which was swathed in some kind of weird satin bunting. He turned back to me then, his blue eyes wider than usual.
“Like… here?” he whispered, his customary wisecracking suddenly muted by the possibility of spirits lurking nearby, especially hers, since she was mean. She might be really mad to find herself dead. I saw him shiver. “It’s here?” he repeated, his voice sliding up a note.
“Where else? O’Halloran’s is heaven’s waiting room,” I said flippantly. In an instant, quelling his jitters about hovering souls, he grinned.
“I’m thinkin’ hell. The old bat sure ain’t getting in through the pearlies,” he said, snickering. I elbowed him hard, judging this witticism to be potentially blasphemous. Though I was in public school now—out of the physical reach of the nuns—I was nonetheless pretty sure that joking about going to hell would be tempting fate. Or at least asking for trouble.
But our curiosity had been piqued, and the day after Grandma Mae’s wake we made it our mission to research the concept of the afterlife and hovering spirits and, well, just weird stuff in general. We rode our bikes to the Ramsey County Library and abandoned them outside to spend the entire day on our investigative inquiry, prowling the cool, shadowy bookshelves of the occult section. We read everything we could get our hands on, ranging from the spooky to the silly to the spectral. Our undertaking was successful: we left that day greatly edified on poltergeist, séances, mediums, ectoplasm, astral projection, yogis, levitation, and telekinesis—though we already had a leg up on the latter from watching Uri Geller bend spoons and move toothpicks with his mind on the Johnny Carson show. From the library we rode our bikes directly to Woolworth’s where we pooled our money for a Ouija board, the most affordable channel to the great beyond—we couldn’t afford a medium. Becky and I indulged Joey in this, letting him take the lead on these matters, as he was a self-proclaimed disciple of Harry Houdini, the famous magician and mystic. He had seen the Tony Curtis movie a couple of years earlier and consequently posited that he’d be the best spirit guide for our planned other-worldly contact.
“Houdini busted a bunch of fake mediums you know, looking for the real deal,” he said earnestly. “He went to a pile of séances and messed up their play,” he continued, “then he promised his wife he’d talk to her from the other side if he died first.” Years later, much to my amusement, I read that this was in fact true. Mrs. Houdini had kept a candle burning next to a photo of Harry for years after his death, awaiting contact from his ghost. She finally blew it out at the ten-year mark, famously saying, “Ten years is long enough for any woman to wait for a man.”
So it was that a week later up at the cabin we all squeezed up onto the top bunk—operating on the theory we’d be that much closer to Heaven—and set about communing with the faithful departed. We lit one of the patchouli candles Becky’s mom kept around to enhance her serenity, then laid the dime-store Ouija board on the blanket between us and began conjuring.
Grandma Mae was the only dead person we knew, but we didn’t want her back, so we started considering dead people we didn’t know. Abraham Lincoln was Becky’s choice, but Joey wanted Jimmy Durante. I quashed that idea by pointing out that Mr. Durante was still alive, then I suggested St. Lucy. I wanted to ask her why in pictures she always was holding a chalice full of eyeballs, but Joey said that was too nosy and besides, we shouldn’t pester the saints. In the end, after much debate, we decided to summon Bea Benadaret. She played Aunt Kate on Petticoat Junction, and we had heard on the news the week before that she had died. We were nominally sorry about her premature demise but prepared to make use of it in our quest to talk to the dead. We clasped hands and set about summoning her.
At about the half-hour mark, apart from some herky-jerky movements of the planchette (which prompted mutual, hissed accusations of fakery) no spirits had manifested themselves, let alone Bea Benadaret. The juvenile attention span being what it was, interest was waning, in addition to the fact that at this point in our cockeyed ritual our legs had begun cramping. We were surreptitiously trying to shift positions without disrupting any hovering spirits when Joey began to rise, slowly but unmistakably. Like the Flying Nun leaning into a stiff breeze. At first, I thought he was just stretching, lifting his shoulders and neck upward, but then everything went up and he began to rock gently from side to side, bobbing softly like a cork on the water. I watched, speechless, as he rose to hover a few inches above the bunk bed, legs still crossed. Gasping, I swiveled to Becky to see her gaping at my brother, who in turn was goggling back at us in stupefied terror. Reflexively, I yanked on his sweaty left hand like the Tin Man trying to retether the Wizard’s escaping hot air balloon, and he dropped gently back to the bunk with a soft whump. We stared at each other for what felt like a week, afraid to speak.
“No way that just happened,” Becky finally whispered.
“No shit,” I said, breaking our longstanding family rule on bad words; surely the situation merited it, gentility be damned.
“What did that feel like?” I whispered to Joey. Wordless and seemingly paralyzed, he was staring straight ahead with the whites of his eyes showing, like a terrified horse being ridden toward a burning barn. With a sudden surge of panic - everybody knew a person could die of shock - I let go of his hand, and snapped my fingers in front of his eyes, preparing to slap him if need be. At last he shook his head, like a dog coming out of the lake.
“Weeeeeeeeird,” he breathed, and shook his head again as though trying to clear it. “Like when you’re dangling up on top of the ferris wheel, kinda floaty, hanging in space,” he whispered. “Creepy.”
Cramped legs forgotten, we continued to sit in our circle around the Ouija board, staring at each other, darting nervous glances at the motionless planchette, and intermittently throwing out theories on what just happened.
“Maybe it was our imagination?” I finally offered, knowing even as I said it that it was impossible. One of us—maybe even two, given the candlelight and our suggestible frame of mind—could have been fooled. But certainly not all three of us. Especially he who had floated. There were the physics questions, such as: if some levity force existed that could counteract the gravity force, why didn’t more people just up and float? Say, while waiting to cross the street at a stoplight? Or up over the card table to get a peek at somebody’s Royal Rummy hand? So many mysteries to unravel, not the least of which was why Bea Benadaret would want to float Joey. We hadn’t requested it; we’d been hoping for a little ectoplasm, at best. This was confounding. Was she a yogi and an actress? Finally tiring of these speculative perambulations through the metaphysical, we concluded Bea must have just been trying out her new spirit powers, like a test drive. Once decided, with the peculiar equanimity of children who have to take the world as it comes, we stretched out our cramped legs, blew out the candle, and slid down off the top bunk to go swimming, where we could all float.
Years later, on a frigid winter evening—the night after Christmas, in fact—we were lined up outside the box office of the Riviera Theater in downtown St. Paul. For two hours, we stamped our freezing feet and hugged ourselves trying to stay warm as we waited to see William Friedkin’s long-awaited film, The Exorcist. It was a creepy privilege for which we had fought hard. Our mother had declared the movie to be “sacrilegious trash,” the viewing of which, so close to the holiest day of the year, was profane. We had prevailed. Though far away from Webb Lake, Wisconsin in both time and place, it was still the three of us, Joey, Becky, and me, accompanied now by a bunch of our teenaged friends. Once inside we found seats in the balcony, and in short order, we found ourselves watching the soon-to-be-possessed Regan MacNeil communicate with Captain Howdy via the Ouija board. Transfixed, the three of us stared at the giant screen, remembering, and more than a little fearful. Late in that long ago summer of the séance, by silent, mutual consent, we had slid the Ouija board into one of mom’s Goodwill donation bags, never having played with it again. The same tacit understanding had prohibited discussion on our single foray into the occult; we hadn’t once spoken of our séance in the intervening years. Up on the big screen the malevolent demon with the deceptively friendly name began to reveal its savage intent, and the three of us surreptitiously reached for each other’s hands under the cover of the winter coats in our laps. With cold and clammy fingers entwined, we watched a young girl follow a scooting planchette with her fingers, and in doing so, open a portal into a hellish, unimaginable darkness.
It was very late that night, with all three of us tucked into the hide-a-bed in our family room, unwilling to sleep alone after the terror of the movie, when Joey finally mentioned it.
“Did you feel it?” he asked in a whisper. Becky and I both said we had. As we had watched the planchette move around the polished board on the big cinema screen, a tiny, cold breeze had stirred the air around us, like a chill caress on the back of our necks. On the breeze was the faint, ghostly scent of patchouli. It had made us shiver. Then it was gone.