by Seth Augenstein
The figures invaded my home. They touched things. Their dirty fingers clawed the smooth dust on my mantel and my candelabra. A few of the biddies rifled through the dresses in my closet. A kid picked his nose and wiped it on the plush chair at the head of the dining room table. They smelled. I could feel their wheezing breaths, their heavy footsteps straining my floorboards. They swept through the house like those Hessians my great-great grandmother still babbles about from her place in the attic.
The wind whipped a light rain against the east windows. A moonless October night. They whispered to one another in the dark corners, thinking no one would hear. I heard. I whispered to them.
“You hear that?” one said.
“No. Ghosts don’t exist,” said the other.
A familiar shape led them. Lance carried a candle at the front, just as he did every October. Lance, that charlatan, led them from the side entrance to the pantry, through the servants’ stairwell, and up to the bedrooms. He told them about intrigues and crimes unsolved within these walls, other nonsense stories.
The horde inspected Jacob’s favorite chair, the corner where we held hands after we’d lost Nathan. The shadows where Sarah cried as a girl.
Lance had gained even more weight, his steps were heavier on the floorboards. His fat neck jiggled, sending sweat and spit flying as his voice electrified the intruders.
“Tell me what you feel,” he said. “Tell me if you feel a presence, something cold or warm, close or far.”
The biddies, clad in black, heavy makeup and momentous crosses looped around spindly necks, touched their chests and gasped. They pointed way over to the darkest corner, mouths hung open.
“It’s there,” one of them said. “A male presence, something evil.”
I stood over her shoulder, shaking my head. Then I drifted behind Lance, who had his arms folded, one finger at his lip.
“Yes, I’m sensing that, too,” he said.
I pinched his ass. But he couldn’t sense that.
None of them ever heard or felt me. These sensitive souls were simply the best impostors.
I did not number among them. In life I was a pragmatic woman, running a household for a demanding man, five children, and ne’er-do-well cousins and uncles. Throughout my days there was always something to fix, something to scrub or fold, a visitor at the door, or a crying child. In all my 74 years, these things occupied moment after moment, for a lifetime.
The Reverend at church never said anything about my eternal reward being… more of the same. Sure, I have my solitude in the spring and winter and summer. But my peace is broken every autumn by crowds kicking up dust, taking out my china, as Lance waits at the front door of my house with a wicker basket, charging these idiots admission.
This year I had plans, however.
As the herd continued through the dining room, leaving their dirt and stink everywhere, I moved between them, among them to the parlor. I tickled their necks, I pulled at their shoelaces. The wide window shows the stormy sky, and the dead trees on the lawn. The wallpaper here is dramatic. It was always my favorite room. Of course Lance held the sham séance here every year.
I positioned myself at the back. The gawkers sat in row after row facing Lance, who reclined on the loveseat, elbow propped theatrically on the armrest.
The séance began. Lance instructed them to hold hands, and I felt their hearts beat faster. They sweat and stink. Lance’s act is comical: all beseeching, imploring and commanding. I snorted.
At this one little boy raised his head. It was the nosepicker. He turned to me. I gasped. The first intuitive among the hundreds to come through my door. Looking into that young shadow-crossed face, inspiration struck me.
“Anyone feel anything?” said Lance.
The boy raised a hand.
“The lady tells me you’re a fraud.”
Lance sat bolt upright.
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t say it. The lady told me. She said, ‘You’re a fraud, Lance.’”
Lance breathes, deep and slow.
“She wants you to know,” the boy said, “you’re full of shit.”
The crowd hushed. The boy’s mother smacked his arm. The biddies in black and crosses gasped, hands at their throats.
“That must be the old crone, an unclean spirit…”
“She says you’ve gotten fat. You stink. She says you should leave.”
Lance smiled, but sweat on his brow glinted in a flash of lightning.
“Folks, folks. Settle down.”
But the biddies crowded around the boy, touching him, questioning him.
A chair flipped over. A vase tumbled off the mantel, smashing on the floor. The shrieks and panicked footsteps nearly trampled the boy, Lance could hold none back as they fled through the house and out into the rain, some leaving coats behind.
The grandfather clock ticks in the new silence. Just me and Lance left.
Lance stands there. Then he sinks wearily into a chair. A lamp flicks on.
“You didn’t have to go that far,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “They’ll expect that every year.”
I yank the cigarette out of his mouth, and toss it toward the broken vase.
“Jesus,” he says, standing. “Can’t I get a break? It’s hard work.”
But I kick at the shards of the vase, and shake the wicker basket full of crumpled bills. He still can’t hear me, but he knows me well enough to know what I mean.
“Alright. Fine,” he says, standing. “I’ll get the dustpan. But I’m taking half of the cut this year. Don’t mess with me, Mom. Your will says I can tear this all down and subdivide anytime I want.”
He leaves the room. I watch him go. I sit, and Jacob drifts into the chair next to me. We laugh. No one hears us in the silence.