Ghosts

The Unborn (1941) by Clarence John Laughlin © The Historic New Orleans Collection

The ghosts came riding in on the wind. It was a long time before they left. I’m talking years. Even then, one stayed behind. So I guess you could say our house stayed haunted. Technically.

 

I don’t have any clear memories of that day. Mama says Becca and I had been playing in the creek. The wind kicked up, and she came running out of the house to tell us to get out of the water. By the time we got back inside, there was a ghost sitting on every chair and three napping on Mama’s bed.

 

My earliest memory from that time is about Joanna. Mama and Becca had gone off somewhere. I was outside talking to the chickens. Joanna wafted over and hovered over my right shoulder. When I glanced back at her, she said something like, “Sooner or later, you all are going to be eating those chickens. The least you can do is let them preserve a shred of their former dignity.” At the time, I thought “preserve a shred of their former dignity” had something to do with what we were feeding them. “Preserve” and “shred,” you see. Anyway, I pestered Mama about it until she threatened to make me spend an entire day with Mr. Pembleton, if I didn’t leave her alone.

 

As you might expect, having a house full of ghosts didn’t make Becca and me popular at school. Speaking of Mr. Pembleton, he would sometimes tag along. He said his daddy had taken him out of school after fifth grade, and now that he had all this time on his hands, he saw no reason not to improve himself. Miss Brown was the only teacher to put up with him, though. She said it was because he knew so much about history, what with all those long (BORING) stories he told. Becca and I were pretty sure it was because she had a crush on him. Anyway, as soon as the principal found out that Mr. Pembleton was hanging around, scaring the other children, he’d call Mama and tell her to come get him.

 

I will say this for Mr. Pembleton, though. He and Joanna were the only ones who didn’t get in a tizzy when Becca and I started talking in our secret language. The rest of them would flap their hands and go zooming through the walls. Naturally, we’d switch over to our secret language whenever we got bored, no matter how many times Mama scolded and begged us. She said that in the end, it was Becca and me who were going to drive her crazy and put her in the state hospital, not all the ghosts asking her what she was going to cook for dinner.

 

Mr. Pembleton couldn’t tell us apart, though. Only Mama and Joanna could do that. The rest of them would just say “child,” no matter which of us they were talking to. Of course, with our little pranks, we made sure they stayed confused. One summer, we convinced old Mrs. Danforth that we were actually triplets. We told her Mama knew she couldn’t feed a family of four, so she’d sent our sister to live with Aunt Esther. Now Phoebe — that’s what we called her — had come to spend the summer with us. Becca and I took turns playing the part of Phoebe. When Mrs. Danforth finally caught on, she got so mad that she harassed our dog Zeke until he finally gave up and moved into town to live with the Grabowskis.

 

For our twelfth birthday, they begged Mama to put colored ribbons in our hair, yellow and pink, so they could relax and enjoy the party. She agreed to do it, but it didn’t help much. Most of them couldn’t remember who had which color, no matter how many times Mama reminded them. You’d think that with so little to worry about, a ghost would find it easy to pay attention and keep things straight. That’s not how it is, though. It’s the opposite, really. They fret a lot, and they have very little patience.

 

Not Joanna, though. She was different.

 

It wasn’t a bad way to live, to be honest. We liked listening to Mama and Joanna talking in the kitchen, while they played double solitaire. Joanna had lived in New York, San Francisco, and several other faraway places. She’d known Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, but eventually she married a man who worked in the mining business, and he took her with him to South America for a while. After he died — a python slipped into his tent one night, and it was still there the next morning, Joanna was told afterward, with this big old lump in the middle — she moved here to live with her sister and write romance novels under the name Tallulah Cavendish. Mama read them and said they were pretty good, but she told us we’d have to wait until we were older if we wanted to see them.

 

The trouble started when boys started showing interest in Becca and me. We had this idea that they would come to the house, knock on the screen door, and sit in the parlor until Becca and I decided that we’d kept them waiting long enough. We wanted them to be able to have Sunday dinner with us, too, so that they could ask Mama for third helpings of her casseroles and pies. We wanted to volunteer them to do chores around the house and in the garden.

 

We stayed after Mama, but she just kept saying, “Why are you talking to me? What do you expect me to do? You need to take this up with them.” And so in the end, that’s what we did. We got Mama to tell Joanna that the twins wanted a family meeting. Joanna got it organized, though in the end, Edgar refused to come down from the top of the cottonwood tree, so we had to have the meeting without him.

 

Teenagers being teenagers, we took turns explaining just how much they were ruining our lives and how utterly miserable we were. Nobody spoke after we finished. The meeting just sort of broke up, as first one and then another drifted off to their favorite spots in the house or yard. The next morning, they were all gone, even Edgar.

 

Teenagers being teenagers, it took us a while to realize how lonely and sad Mama had become, after the ghosts cleared out. When we did notice, we had no idea what to do. Joanna did, though. It turned out she’d never actually left. So one night when Becca and I were talking about Mama, worrying and feeling guilty, Joanna scared the dickens out of us by sneaking up and whispering, in our own secret language, “Meemee gimme wowee,” which means, “I have an idea.”

 

Whenever Becca and I are together these days, after the kids have been put to bed and our husbands are off somewhere comparing notes on bird dogs and discussing football, we reminisce about our years living with ghosts. We wonder where Mr. Pembleton is now; whether Edgar is still so painfully shy; what Lucy ever did with that locket of hers. Mostly, though, we talk about Mama and Joanna. We hope they got their ghostly hands on two decks of cards. We hope they found a nice spot near a river, where they can listen to the sound of water flowing. We hope that Mama is happy.

One thought on “Ghosts

  1. What a fantastic story. I loved your choice of words and your imagination. So glad to have come across this 🙂

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