At the All Souls Harvest Supper

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I am making buckeye bars–those rice krispie treats thick with corn syrup and peanut butter and iced with a layer of chocolate–when I hear the shloop of something substantial sliding through the mail slot.

How odd. It’s 3:30 on a September afternoon; our mail arrived at 10 AM. And the dog, who always goes into manic mode when the postal worker steps up to the door to slide the mail through, is snoring contently, curled into a corner of the couch.

What’s up with THAT, man? I think, and I spread warm, sticky rice krispie mix in a buttered pan, press it down firmly, and wash my hands. Then I go to see what’s just arrived.

I find, on the hardwood floor of the front hallway, a packet the size of a manila envelope. It is parchmenty, the golden-umber color of autumn leaves. My name and address is inscribed on the front in what looks like fountain pen, written in a bold, antique, and just slightly shaky script.

There’s a logo in the return address spot; it has the letters ‘SSCC’ intertwined in a stylized, spiky black script. I squint to see what they represent. Tiny print reads, Society for Super-Chronological Communication.

Huh.

Shades of Hogwarts, I think, curious. I leave the packet on the table while I go to quickly melt the chocolate and spread it on the bars. I soak the dishes .

Then I can get back to my mysterious message. I sit down at the table, slit the crisp, thick envelope open with a steak knife, and pull out a slim sheaf of parchment. The same antique scrawl covers it.

That  scrawl tells me I have been randomly selected to host this year’s All Souls Supper.

“Whom would you invite,” the unknown writer asks me, “if you could invite twelve people, living or dead, to a supper in their honor? Perhaps you’ve been posed that question in an English class or two.

“Now, the exercise becomes reality.”

A little shiver crawls up my right arm.

The missive goes on to explain in great detail. I am to pick twelve people to be guests of honor at a very special dinner on the Friday before Hallowe’en. Those guests may be living people, or they may be ones who have left this realm. Whoever they are, the writer and her mysterious colleagues will arrange for their attendance.

I must arrange for the venue, the dinner, and the rest of the guests–I may invite as many friends and family as I like to meet the Twelve. The dinner must start at 7:00 PM. It will end, promptly, at 9:30.

There are other rules–a long list of why’s and wherefores. I cannot invite immediate family or relatives by marriage who have passed on. There is to be no photography at the event. If people try to sneak pictures on their cell phones, the writer tells me primly, they will be unhappy with what happens to their phones as a consequence.

There can be a glass of celebratory wine at the onset of the meal; beyond that, there should be no alcohol. I should arrange to have meat-free dishes for those honored guests (and others) who need them. The twelve must be seated at a table of honor for the meal. They will not give speeches beyond brief greetings. However, they are happy to mix with the other attendees after dessert has been served.

There should be an appetizer, the entree course, and some dessert choices. Many guests from another realm, the writer informs me, do enjoy a steaming mug of caffeinated coffee.

I should use REAL dishes; there’s to be no paper-ware.

There is to be no mention of the special guests in the general invitation.

No press. No caterers: if I accept this honor, which is offered to only one person, selected at random, each year, I must undertake to provide all the food myself. I can enlist friends and family, but I must not pay for help.

I slide the parchment sheets back into order and slip them into their folder. I put the packet on the dining room table, and I go back into the kitchen to wash up the sticky spoons and bowls from putting the rice krispie treats together. I am being punked, I think.

Then I think, But why not? Why not host a harvest dinner that Friday night for friends and family? We’ll share a meal, we’ll gather in, as the autumn winds bare the trees and scud the clouds across the skies and push the cold weather relentlessly into the nooks and crannies of our little corner of Ohio.

And if twelve very special guests arrive to join us–well, there’ll be a table for them. And perhaps, a brief time of wonderful sharing.

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prompts
The invitation tells me I must write my twelve choices quickly, without over-thinking them. I can put them, the writer suggests coyly, in my lovely new notebook. My back prickles: how did someone know I’d just received a beautiful new notebook, a gift from a thoughtful friend?

Wait, I think, could that friend be punking me?

And then again I think: What would it hurt? What would be wrong with an autumn gathering?

So I take the notebook from the sideboard, and I pull a Pentel RSVP from my purse. I sit down, and I quickly write twelve names.

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I write Michelle Obama, because I wonder what that gifted woman will do after the White House.

I write Bernie Rimland because he was the autism parent and psychologist who dispelled the ‘refrigerator mother’ myth.

I write Scott Russell Sanders because I love his essays, the way he brings the 1960’s Ohio of his childhood to real, clear life, and the way he cares about the natural world.

I write Leonard Cohen because his music moves me.

I write Susan Wittig Albert because I admire her books, fiction and nonfiction, and I admire the fact that she left a highly-paid, high profile, academic job at a large university, trading it in for the life of a writer.

All of those people, as far as I know, are among the living.

I also write Laura Z. Hobson, who is not. Hobson wrote my favorite book, First Papers, about a girl from an eccentric Russian immigrant family growing up in World War I era New York. That wonderful book, I’ve learned, closely mirrored Hobson’s girlhood. She also wrote movingly about being a pregnant, unmarried woman in a judgmental society. She wrote about raising a gay son in a world that didn’t cry, Welcome! I’ve often wondered what Hobson would think of the changes she’d see in the world today.

The little believing imp in my soul leaps. Maybe I’ll actually be able to find out.

I write Victoria Woodhull, because she ought to be in on the build-up to the first presidential race in the United States of America  where a woman has a true shot at winning. And wouldn’t she have a story or two to share during the conversation course of a supper?

I write Dawn Powell, because she hailed from the same small Ohio town as Woodhull, and because she was a wonderful and under-appreciated writer. And yet she wrote, anyway. I want to ask her about that.

Thinking about writers brings Robert Jordan to mind. My son Jim would be over the moon if he had a chance to talk with Robert Jordan. I write his name.

And Mark, of course, would love to talk with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I write his name, too.

If I invite Franklin, I think, I’m darned well inviting Eleanor, also. I suspect that Eleanor and the team of people she used her influence to pull together fast-forwarded the civil rights agenda in the United States by fifty years, at least. Oh, I’d love to talk with her about that. I add Eleanor Roosevelt to the list.

There is one more space. I scrawl the name of another personal hero,  Albert Einstein.

I close the book.

*****************
I reserve one of the common rooms at the College. Marco tells me sure, I can use the culinary program’s kitchen, as long as I leave it sparkling for Monday morning’s classes.

Mark and Jim and I sit down and write up a guest list. I haven’t told them about the invitation; I have the parchment packet hidden under the big box of business envelopes in my desk drawer. I don’t want them to think I’m stark raving bonkers, or, at best, terminally gullible.

If it happens, I’ll pull out the parchment and explain it all then.

But I, am, somehow,–at least a firm little part of me is,–I am starting to believe.

We send off invitations to an ‘All Souls Harvest Supper.’

I talk to wonderful farming friends, to Dan and Kathie and to Randy, about a harvest menu. We simmer up ideas of baked squash, of rich, thick steaming vegetable soup. Slices of grass-fed roast beef for the carnivores. Baskets of bread from Giacomo’s.

I press Terry and Larisa into service to help me plan the dessert trays. (They, bless them, immediately offer to contribute. Terry even says she’ll bake up a double batch of Kevin Weaver’s Mom’s Cookies. Those cookies are a reason to party in themselves.)

That one glass of wine looms large in importance: what kind of wine should I offer? I turn to Susan, who has studied wines, for her expertise.

The responses begin to come in. I am sad that out-of-towners cannot get away. I wish I could TELL you, I think, and then I remind myself that I don’t know what will happen or who will actually arrive.

I shop.

The deadline inches closer.

I chop and peel and bake. I freeze whatever I can make ahead.

And then the day arrives.

*****************
I don’t sleep much the night before, my head full of what-ifs. But I am buzzed by anticipatory energy: even if this is just a wonderful gathering of folks, many of whom have never met,–well. What’s even remotely wrong with that?

I iron an outfit that can both work and play. I dig out the apron Cris made me.
I pack up the car with the help of the boyos. We meet Terry and Larisa at the College at 5 PM.

Randy brings a load of small pie pumpkins and pretty little gourds. As the soup simmers in what is darned near a cauldron and the beef roasts in the big convection oven, we set the tables. I pull a huge one–a round table that seats twelve,–into the room’s center. If They don’t show up, well–we’ll put all the people who helped so much at that center table.

Radiating around it are six smaller tables, eight chairs at each. I have made, following Pinterest instructions, round tablecloths from canvas drop cloths. They are nubby and  natural looking. Susan comes to see if she can help, and the seven of us–Mark, Jim, Randy, Larisa, Terry, Susan, and me–gather Randy’s lovely produce and arrange it prettily in the middle of each table.

Mark and I have haunted yard sales and junk shops and local pottery outlets. We have gathered a fun, eclectic mix of wine glasses and enough Fiesta ware, added to what was on our home shelves, for sixty. I have staggered the arrival time: They are expected to arrive at 7; the rest of the guests, I told 7:15. If the guests of honor don’t materialize, I will slightly change the seating plan. And if that’s the case, this banquet will darned well become a buffet.

I bustle back into the kitchen, stir soup, open baskets, lift out rainbow stacks of soup bowls. I open the ovens just, really, to smell the fragrant roasting beef, checking temperature, breathing in the rich aroma. I move desserts to one long counter. There are seven pedestaled dessert servers–the pedestals are actually big, upside-down, Fiestaware coffee mugs. They are topped with broad wooden platters, tightly glued on.

I look at the clock: 6:15. My heart does a jumpy little dance.

Everyone helps. We plate seven different kinds of cookies, cut luscious looking cheesecakes into small squares–those, we decide to keep in the walk-in cooler until serving time. We polish apples, separate grapes, put them in wooden bowls with bananas for those that prefer a healthier dessert.

Mark sharpens a carving knife. I pull out dessert sized plates for appetizers. We have a wonderful slaw with thinly sliced carrots, radish, onion, and cabbage (red and green) and a piquant sauce and sunflower seeds. We have baskets for whole wheat crackers and hearty cheddar cheeses that need to be sliced. We slide tiny yeast rolls into the oven.

We pull them out just before seven, and we begin transferring small plates to the table.

And then it is seven o’clock, and They arrive.

Michelle Obama appears first, extending a hand to shake, identifying me as the host, thanking me for the opportunity. Carrying a tray of appetizer plates, I usher her to the head table. Mark, looking a little shocked, rushes over to pull out a chair.

The Roosevelts arrive,  apparently separately, converging from different directions. They greet each other with warmth, then turn to Mrs. Obama. Mark looks faint. Jim, the whites showing all the way around his pupils, leads Robert Jordan to the table. Leonard Cohen is at the doorway, doffing a fedora. He is talking to an attractive, pugnacious looking woman—Woodhull, I wonder? A short, round woman with a serious mien joins them. Dawn Powell, I realize, my knees feeling weak.

Laura Z Hobson, whose face I recognize from her book jacket, slides in. She carries herself imperiously; she slips off a decidedly politically incorrect stole and looks around. Scott Sanders approaches her, and they are soon immersed in conversation.

And then I realize, too, that the food is waiting to be pulled from the oven, stirred on the stove top, plated, delivered. I sprint to the kitchen and finish the appetizer plates.

Other friends have arrived, and there are helping hands to deliver the first bites.  When I pull my head from the steam and poke it into the dining room, I see that all twelve seats are filled at the head table. Those occupants are engaged in lively conversation, heads bending close to each other, forks waving in the air.  Most of the other seats are filled too, and just a few people are sliding in, slipping off coats, joining a table.

Each table has a bottle of good wine; Mark pours for the guests of honor. Eleanor Roosevelt stands with the ease of one who has done this many times before and she thanks me for founding the feast. I nod, rendered thoroughly mute, and the former first lady then offers a toast to health and harvest and long, long life. Glasses are lifted. There’s a cry of “Here, here!” and then the conversation rises and thrums and people dig into their food.

I rush back to the kitchen and begin ladling soup into bowls on big trays, which we put onto two of Marco’s sparking silver carts.  Seven people rush in to help. We roll the soup out to the tables, place bowls in front of each guest without mishap, clear away the first course serving ware, scurry back for the roasts and the squash, to place pats of butter, to arrange serving spoons and forks and to tumble red potatoes into bowls, dousing them with butter, sprinkling them with parsley.  Another rush to serve, and then I slide into the one empty seat at the table closest to the kitchen. I eat two spoonsful of soup, a tiny roll, but mostly I am listening as each of the special guests rises, introduces himself or herself, and says something of particular meaning to the people gathered in this place, at this time.

And then I realize it is time to clear again. I hurry back to the kitchen, stow empty trays
onto carts and smile in appreciation as James comes rushing in to help. Others join him; we look like a team that has always worked together, that has done this before.

The main course paraphernalia gets cleared away, and we begin potting the coffee and carrying it around, putting cream and sugar and a fresh mugful of spoons on each table. And now people are starting to move.

I see Heather Shepherd and Terry Herman and Eva Bradshaw talking with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Einstein. That conversation, I am sure, is all about girls in STEMM fields.

Susan Wittig Albert and Larisa Harper are standing, laughing, gesturing: two former high-ranking college administrators who choose different ‘next paths,’ I can only imagine all they have to share.  Bernard Rimland is talking with a young mom I know whose autistic daughter has just started kindergarten, and FDR is holding court for a group that includes Mark and Kristina Hawk.

Kim Osborn is deep in conversation with Dawn Powell and Eleanor Roosevelt;  Jason  and Jenn, Kay and Brian, are talking with Leonard Cohen, and Kathie, Dan, Randy, and Scott Russell Sanders are deeply, animatedly, engaged. Marcie Moore is bent over, laughing, next to Victoria Woodhull.  Jim has opened his laptop where he is seated with Mr. Jordan on the rim of the party; their faces are illumined by the screen, and Jim is listening intently as the honored author talks.

And I need to get dessert out. The cheesecake squares are waiting to be put onto plates, and the plates need to be delivered. Coffee should be refilled–I’ll just put fresh pots on each table–and then I can join in, talk to the amazing people–both special guests and ‘regular’ ones–who are sharing this wonderful night. I want everyone to have a chance to talk, and so I do not ask anyone for help with this step of the banquet. There is not so much to do.

I begin delivering the sweets to each table; people smile and press my arm, and rich, hearty conversation swirls around me as groups change and hands are extended and warm new connections are forged.

I refill insulated pots with steaming Italian roast coffee; I head out one more time. As long as I am there, I gather several trays of used dinnerware, stack the cart full, and push it to the kitchen.

And I look at the clock, which says 9:30, and realize how badly I’ve misjudged the time. I run to the dining room just as there is a ping–a sound much like the announcement of an email on my smartphone. And just like that, they are gone, my special guests.  They are just not there.

The rest of the people ebb into the empty spaces; barriers broken, people who didn’t know each other before the evening began are sharing stories and laughing, nodding at points well made, sipping coffee, and thoughtfully adding their insights to the mix. I am glad, glad, glad that they are enjoying such good company.

But. The special ones are gone, and I spent the entire time in the kitchen. I never got to talk with Laura Z Hobson, to ask her what she thought about the way things have shaped up; I never had a chance to talk with ANY of them, really. My throat gets tight.

And then Jim comes in, and there is a glow in his eyes that I have not seen since he was seven and discovering dinosaurs.

“That was AMAZING,” he says, and I realize that, in the days to come, I will hear all about his long conversation with the Wheel of Time creator.

Mark will tell me about FDR, and I can’t wait to get Kim’s take on Dawn Powell and Laura Z.  In fact, it will take me a year, I bet, to learn about all the conversations that have taken place, the information shared, the understanding shaped and formed.

They may be gone, my Twelve, but I have days and weeks and months to discover just what they left behind. I look at the messy kitchen, and I look at my incandescently lit son, and I throw the towel on the stainless steel counter. We can clean up later.

“Come and tell me all about it,” I say to Jim, and we find two empty seats at a cluttered table, and he begins to talk.

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The Bell That Tolls Thrice in the Deep Dark of Night

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This Hallowe’en, may all your spirits be benign, and if any of the other sort threaten, may your phone ring thrice…

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Newly 18, newly graduated from high school, getting ready to take the great step into college–even though I’d be walking to the little private college where my dad worked, a college less than two miles from my parents’ home–I thought it was time to take some leaps in thought.  I was a timid soul: I knew this about myself, and I did not like it.

It was a summer for confronting fears, I thought, and one of my deepest fears was of that eerie spirit realm.  Catholic school bred until my junior year of high school–I’d had a tiny, successful rebellion then–, I had always avoided any hints of the supernatural.  Messing with that was a mortal sin, and it could only lead to trouble.

Tampering with that kind of power, the nuns assured us, was a way to give the Evil One traction in your life.

The thought of ghosts terrified me.

If someone pulled out a ouija board, I left the party.

But I had begun to see all this fearfulness as childish and reactionary, and so I set myself a reading list that included books like The Other and The Exorcist.  I went to see The Other in its film form with friends who teased me about my discomfort.  Just a story!  Just a story! they said.

I flat out refused to watch The Exorcist when it came to town–no head-spinning possessions for me.  I slept with my lamp on.  And I wondered–why do my friends–Dana, Deirdre Dawn,–get such enjoyment out of the creepy stuff?  Why aren’t they scared? Was something skewed about me?

Was I just, beneath a calm and sort of matronly exterior, a weak-kneed, whiny baby?

That summer, I dated Vincent, who was in my graduating class.  His best friend Joe had been my long-term steady; that was an ugly, spread out break-up, involving two or three definitive endings, then disastrous attempts at reconciliation which led to even greater angst,–the drama sucking up much of the joy of senior year.  Vincent had a similar up and down relationship with my bestie Deirdre Dawn; one or the other of them was always chasing a wandering eye.

Vincent worked during the school year as a DJ at a local radio station which gave him a sort of celebrity.  He had a beautiful bang of red-brown hair, shiny and straight, that he flipped out of his vision with a shake of his head.  He was well-read, kind, and funny.

At our friend Sal’s graduation party we were talking,—one further talk in a long, long series of talks, as we had helped and supported each other through rough relationships with our good, good friends,—we were talking, and we looked at each other, and it was like the curtain opened for us both at the same time.  That summer, we were an exclusive, devoted item.  I was working two jobs–a factory job at a vegetable cannery and a clerk’s job at a deli–and Vincent was a counselor at a residential summer camp.

Whatever time off we had, we spent together. And that became part of my summer’s learning curve.

Vincent’s family were practicing spiritualists, and we went, a time or two, to spiritualist gatherings at a sleepy, picturesque town a scant twenty miles from my home; it was an old gated village on a pretty little lake with gingerbread houses where mediums hung their shingles: invitations to get a reading, to connect with those on the other side.  I had friends who swore to the accuracy and veracity of many of those mediums’ reports; I, of course, had always been too terrified to explore.

So I was surprised by the calm and the reverence of the meetings we attended; his religion, Vincent explained, was not all that different from mine–it just had that added level of spirit communion. Was that different, really, than a belief in saints? Was some kind of intermediary necessary?

I pondered, skepticism and fear roiling.

We sat at a stump meeting where congregants stood as they were called by the spirit to deliver messages.  Touching was not allowed, we’d been told; Vincent and I hid our interlaced fingers between our chairs.

And then a medium stood up and said, “Someone is touching; my message is being blocked.”

We jumped and UN-laced our fingers, trying to look casual, trying to be cool.  A woman on one side of us grinned and winked (a romantic!); an old gent next to Vincent frowned disapprovingly. A grump, clearly.

The medium went on to deliver a message to a woman on a folding chair three rows ahead of us.

“I see a gray-haired man, holding a chicken,” he said.

“Poppy!” said the woman, and she began to cry softly.

“He says,” the medium, an average looking man in a golf shirt and stiffly creased jeans, said, “that you can rest easy.  It’s going to be all right.”

The woman slumped as if she was exhausted, as if all the air had been let out of her.  “THANK YOU,” she said.  “I know exactly what he means, and I’ve been so worried.”

She was convinced that her Poppy was reaching out to her, and I was not far off.  How could the medium have known about the gray-haired man with the chicken?  How could he have been so specific?  I began, reluctantly, to give the whole spirit world thing some credence.

But that didn’t make me any less terrified.

Vincent’s fellow Y camp counselors that summer were an interesting bunch of young people, patient, creative guys (“WHY camp in the woods??” was their unofficial moaning maxim) who lived too far away to get home when an occasional Saturday night off opened up.  On those weekends, Vincent would call and I would find some of our friends–Deirdre Dawn (in the light of our relationship, she and Vincent had reverted to warm friendly mode), Dana, maybe Terri, if she was ever free–willing and kind enough to brave a blind date.  It was fun, and the blind dates often turned into friendships and repeat outings.

And so, one cloudy Friday night late in July, a group of us went to an annual festival-fair called Brothweigh Gala Days up in the hills.  We ate fried dough, sipped beer (the drinking age, back then, was 18, so we were technically legal if not actually practiced), rode the Ferris wheel, played games of chance and skill with little good result, laughed and talked and people-watched. There was an interesting crowd, farm folks, some academics from the college, families with kids that whined and wheedled, and then regular people, we thought, like us.

Vincent was driving; when we piled into his van sometime after midnight, we were having such a good time, no one wanted to go home.

So we went to my house.  My parents always said they’d rather have me bring a crowd of people home than wonder where I was in the wee small hours.  We tumbled into my family room; I went upstairs to the other side of the house and poked my head in my parents’ bedroom to alert them.  My mother sleepily muttered about frozen pizzas. I went downstairs and turned the oven on, broke out beverages, perked some coffee. My dog, Bowtie, had woofed a few times, definitively, when we first came in, then curled up in her bed in the corner.  She was out, snoring, in moments.

We sat on the early American furniture–maple-framed, with tan upholstery, stitched with horse and buggy scenes; my older brother Jack, who was away at college, (Jack would probably would have been diagnosed with a touch of ADHD had he been a child today; he was both edgy and overly concentrated) carefully unpicked the stitching as he lay and watched TV.  To my mother’s great chagrin, whole sections of the scenic pattern had disappeared.  The furniture was fashionable but awkward; we threw the cushions on the floor, sprawled, watched the end of a movie, ate the pizza, talked.

When the movie wrapped up, we girls decided to play a silly game Dana’s mother had showed us once.  It was a riff on hypnotism; Dana prepped by holding a china plate over a candle.  The bottom got sooty; she’d let it cool, then hand it to an unsuspecting ‘victim.’  She held a matching, unsoiled china plate, and she would ask the victim to do everything she did, just as she did it. Gamely, that nice person would agree, just slightly tantalized by the thought that he or she might actually go into some sort of hypnotic trance.

They’d sit, eyes locked, left hands holding the plates, right hands resting beneath.  Dana would caress the bottom of her plate and intone, “Umm gaballa gonda way.”

“Umm gaballa gonda way,” the victim would parrot, straight faced, and then Dana would take her free hand and trace lines on her cheeks and forehead.  The victim would mimic her tracings…but theirs would leave sooty patterns.  We’d go on for as long as the market would bear, and then, laughing goofily, take the poor unhypnotized soul to the mirror in the lav, where wet wipes and “Sorry!!!” awaited.

Giddy, grade school-y stuff; Vincent’s friend Rob had cheerfully been victim.  When he came back, fresh-faced, from the bathroom, in the newly quiet of the night–TV off, everyone kind of settling into a pleasant, half-sleepy haze,the nattering snores of the dog a background singsong–Vincent said he’d like to try something.  Lay down, he directed Rob, and Rob stretched out on his back on the nubby beige-flecked nylon carpet. Vincent talked him into a serious mood; he was going to try, Vincent was, to connect to spirits who wanted to speak to Rob.

Rob grew very still; then he said his grandpa had died that spring.  There was a little catch in his voice.

Vincent nodded.  “Let’s just reach out,” he said.

It was the deep quiet of the night, way past the shrill of the crickets; we were tired, the beer buzz long faded.  We had lit a couple of candles; their light bounced and flickered on the paneled family room walls. I felt, suddenly, cold tendrils of fear.

Vincent must have felt my flinching; he looked up at me reassuringly.

“It’s safe, it’s all safe,” he said.  “I’ll draw us a circle of protection.”

I shivered.

Everyone was hushed; Rob lay very still.  And Vincent raised his right hand and scribed a large oval, large enough to surround and encompass Rob’s entire body.

“If there is any reason,” Vincent intoned –BowTie, in her sleep, began softly to growl–“any danger in continuing, spirits, please advise me. Stop me now.”

My sleeping dog jumped up, barking.

In the still, aging neighborhood, where no babies lived, an infant’s piercing wail screamed out and was silenced.

And my phone began to ring.  I was frozen.

It rang once.

It rang twice. I found my feet and dashed to the kitchen to get it before it woke the family.

The phone rang a third time.

“Hello?” I breathed into the receiver.

But there was no one there, just the buzzing of the dial tone.

We were all on our feet; the party was over.  Even Vincent looked shaken.  People scrambled for jackets and purses.

Vincent grabbed me by the forearms.  “Are you OK?” he asked.

I turned on the lights and blew out the candles, and I looked at him steadily.  “I guess you’d better get everyone home,” I said, trying to be strong and worldly, but my voice quavered.

He hugged me.  “It’s okay,” he whispered.  “The protection kept them out.  This is a very safe place.”

Why didn’t that feel better?  I took the dog upstairs with me, snuggled her in my bed, and tried to read as I waited for the sun to rise.

The next morning, as was part of the household rules, I got my butt out of bed despite a very limited sleep, and showered and dressed in time to make noon Mass.  Even if it had not been part of parental policy, I think I would have run to church anyway, trying to escape the whispers of spirits who call on the phone in the dark of the night.

I prayed…oh, how I prayed. I prayed to be forgiven for tampering with portals best left untouched, for inviting things into my home that had no place or reason to be there. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…

I emerged from the dim church, where candles reassured instead of inspiring flickering dread, to find Dana waiting for me.  She was sheepish.

“That phone call?” she said.  “That was my mother.  She rang three times to let us know it was 3 AM.”

Oh, we laughed at ourselves.  How gullible we were!  What a bunch of maroons! And we walked home together, laughing, trying on relief.  We passed the word among our friends–just Dana’s mom!  What a hoot!

It was only later, as the day began to gray into night that I thought, Was that timing coincidental? But what woke up the dog?  And where was that baby?

The summer faded. Vincent and I went on innocuous, light-hearted dates, had parties at the beach with our friends, crashed into each other, laughing, in bumper cars at the county fair. In August, he went off to college.  We wrote for a while, but, pulled in other directions, the thread loosed.  The summer became a hazy, warm memory.

But I never did answer those questions, never came to a comfortable resolve about the waking dog and the mysterious crying baby.

And you know what?  I still won’t touch a ouija board.