I am taking time away from the blog during the holiday season. Please check through my archives for old stories and novels you might have missed. I’ll be back after New York’s with more stories about Abe and Mary, David, Wallis and the mercenary and the Man in the Red Underwear. Enjoy your festivities and I hope your home at Christmas is filled with giggles!
I was in the sixth grade when I celebrated my last Halloween. That is to say, the last Halloween as a child who enjoyed the Halloween Festival at school and trick-or-treating.
Each classroom was transformed into a special treat. One was a haunted house, another a cake walk, a fishing pond, white elephant sale and many more, each costing a dime or quarter to participate. At the end of the evening was a variety show put on by the parents who all acted very silly. The kids loved it. All the proceeds went to the PTA.
When I was selected as one of five boys to be the “spook” in a Hit the Spook with a Marshmallow game I was thrilled. My mother drove me downtown to a five-and-dime to buy a mask. She stayed in the car while I went in to get something to protect my face from all the marshmallows that were going to be thrown at me. When I reached the big table in the middle of the store with the Halloween masks, I froze.
My mother had a way of criticizing every purchase I ever made. I picked up a mask that I liked but put it back because it cost too much. I looked for something really cheap but they looked like something a first grader would wear. Finally I picked out a face paint kit that cost very little. Pleased that I was going to escape my mother’s wrath for wasting money, I ran out to the car where my mother had been waiting.
“Where have you been?” Her tone was withering. “I thought I was about to die in this heat. (author’s note: we lived in Texas which is still very hot even in the last week of October) I thought you were going to just run in, grab something and be right back out! How long does it take to buy a silly Halloween mask anyway?”
I showed her the makeup kit and tried to explain how cheap it was when she interrupted me.
“Now how is that going to protect your face from those marshmallows? I thought the whole idea of getting a mask was to protect yourself.”
Back home I sewed together some old sheets into what I thought looked like a ghost costume. I use the term sewing very loosely. I used an old treadle machine which my mother and threaded for me. At Halloween sunset my mother told me she was too tired to drive me back to school and I would have to walk. It wasn’t that far so I didn’t mind.
Halfway there, however, I remembered I had not brought my money which I had carefully put aside for the past month just for spending at the festival. It was too late to go back home to get it and be at the school on time.
When I did arrive I found out none of the other boys had shown up so I had to be the only “spook” getting pelted by marshmallows. It was that night that I realized I really wasn’t that popular at school. Too many of the boys were way too thrilled in throwing marshmallows at me. This went on for an hour.
Finally the teacher closed down the attraction and said I could go enjoy the rest of the festival. Only I couldn’t. I didn’t have any money to pay to play. I couldn’t even see the variety show.
One woman—I can’t remember if it were a teacher or a parent—who asked me what I was dressed up as. “Are you supposed to be a little girl.”
“No,” I responded weakly. “A ghost.”
“Well, you look more like a little girl.”
When I walked home I didn’t even feel like trick-or-tricking at the neighbors’ houses. The bloom was off the pumpkin, so to speak.
The next time I remember having a good time at Halloween was when I had small children and chaperoned them around trick-or-treating. We decorated the house with fake cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns. Now the kids are grown and the local parents sent out emails asking if everyone was participating in trick or treating. I’m old and tired so I replied no.
Ah, but in the early years, that was fun, before the last Halloween came along.
It was a dark and stormy Halloween night, and the trick-or-treaters stopped their visits early because it was about to rain. At first I was pleased that I was going to have all those bite-sized Snickers and Three Musketeer bars to myself. Then, after a particularly loud clap of thunder, my eighty-pound Labrador retriever jumped into my lap, causing me to scream in agony. She jumped and spun around to stare at me which meant her huge paws dug down deeper into my crotch.
“Arghh! Get off me!”
Before the dog could move, another clap of thunder shook the house. Whimpering she shuffled her feet in the exact same plan and spun around to gawk out the window.
She whipped her head when I yelled at her again. Her large head crashed into my nose. Anytime I had ever been hit in the nose, my eyes filled with tears. This was especially embarrassing because the last thing a little boy wanted to do in front of the other guys was cry.
My dog forgot about the storm when she saw the tears roll down my cheeks and leaned forward to lick them away. Crack! Another thunder eruption made her lunge forward, bumping into my nose again.
She backed up, her paws unfortunately pushed down into my crotch another time. I did not know which hurt more—my nose or my crotch. I started whimpering which, I think, confused my dog because I sounded just like her. When she got confused she lifted her left paw to high five me. It was a trick I taught her when she was a puppy, and whenever she began to feel unloved she high fived me for reassurance. I was so obsessed with not crying that I did not see her big paw coming right at my nose.
The fourth round of thunder was too much. She lost control of her bladder and wet herself. Because she sat on my lap she wet me too. Blubbering, I tried to push her away but she pushed back and put her paw up for another high five. I hadn’t been this frustrated since I found out I couldn’t climb out of the crib. Or maybe I just dreamed I wasn’t able to get out of the crib; anyway, I knew I was frustrated and started stomping my feet. What I didn’t realize was that the movement of my legs under the dog scared her even more. She peed on me again. I thought she wouldn’t have had any more urine after the first gusher. I was wrong.
Neither of us needed a fifth clap of thunder, but it burst out on the scene nevertheless. I would have shrieked again when her paws dug in deeper, but I was distracted by the sudden warm droppings on my pants. Oh crap. When the dog started howling, I thought my eardrums were about to burst. Right at that moment my wife walked into the room.
“Will you please stop screaming? You’re scaring the dog!”
Heather was a very precocious little five-year-old girl. She knew how to smile and giggle and always get exactly what she wanted. She and her family, mom, dad and brother, recently moved into a nice house with a swimming pool in a new town. She heard how her parents were very excited about the good price they got for the house, much lower than they expected. Heather’s bedroom and her brother’s bedroom were across the house from the master bedroom, so she thought she was going to be able to get away with a lot of naughty things after her family had gone to sleep.
That was before the first night she slipped out of bed after midnight to turn on the television to watch the shows her mom and dad didn’t want her to see. After she punched the on button and turned to sit on her bean bag chair, the television promptly turned itself off. Hmph, she thought to herself. That never happened before. So she stood and went back to punch the on button again but it went off even faster than it did before.
Frowning, Heather decided that wasn’t any fun so she went back to bed. A few days later a nice lady from next door came to welcome the new family to the neighborhood.
“Of course, you know about the Andersons,” she said.
“The couple who lived here before us,” Heather’s mom said.
“Yes,” the neighbor lady said.
“All we know is that their children seemed eager to sell the house,” Heather’s dad said. “They lowered the price very fast.”
“That’s because they both died in the house.”
Heather wasn’t really paying attention. She really wanted to go out to play but she knew she had to make a good impression on the neighbor. She might be giving out freshly baked cookies one day and Heather wanted to get one.
“Oh,” her parents said in unison.
“He died in his sleep in the master bedroom,” the neighbor said. “His wife died a year earlier.” She paused. “In the swimming pool.”
“Mrs. Anderson was a sweet lady but she had a drinking problem. Went to AA meetings but it didn’t seem to do much good. When she went on a bender her husband could not stand to be around her. One night she was particularly out of control, so Mr. Anderson left the house and just sat in the car, waiting for her to pass out on the floor so he could go to bed. An hour later he heard no more banging about inside so he figured it was safe to come back in. It was then he saw her floating face down in the swimming pool. Evidently she had staggered out to the patio and fallen into the pool and was too drunk to get out. I don’t think he ever forgave himself. For the next year he just sat in a lawn chair, staring at the pool and smoking a cigar, until he finally died.”
“So that’s why we got the house cheap,” Heather’s dad said.
Heather was only vaguely aware of what all that really meant to her. After all, she was only a five year old girl. That night she got up after midnight to turn on the television again, and again it promptly turned itself off.
“Mrs. Anderson, is that you?” she whispered.
She could swear she felt a dripping wet hand firmly but gently pushed her toward her bedroom. Heather never tried to watch television again after midnight. As she grew up, however, Heather seemed to forget about Mrs. Anderson from time to time, until the dripping wet ghost decided to become her nanny.
When her girl friends came for a sleep over, Heather was never able to get the refrigerator door open so they could sneak ice cream. No matter how hard the girls tried, the door was stuck, until morning, that is, when her mom easily opened it to get out milk for the girls.
By the time Heather turned thirteen, all the boys in the neighborhood knew the way to her house. She had parties all the time but when she and one of the boys wanted private time in her room, the door would never shut. Each time they tried to close it, the door would swing open and stay open.
By the time she was eighteen, Heather had started going steady with one boy after another. She was always the one to call it off and always had another boy willing to be her plaything for awhile. One night, on the front porch when Heather was saying good night to her latest boyfriend, he decided to get a little closer than she wanted.
Suddenly he felt a hard slap, right between his shoulder blades.
“How did you do that?” he asked, wincing in pain.
“Do what?” Heather asked.
“Slap me on the back,” he said.
Heather told him to turn around and, sure enough, there was a wet hand print on his shirt.
“Oh that’s my ghost, Mrs. Anderson. She thinks she’s my nanny.”
Needless to say, she never saw him again. A couple of years passed and finally Heather met a nice young man. One night he shyly started talking about marriage. He jumped and Heather asked what happened.
“I could swear I felt someone kiss me.” He felt his cheek. It was wet.
“My nanny ghost, Mrs. Anderson, must like you very much.”
By the next spring, Heather married her nice young man and had the wedding reception by the swimming pool. When the pictures were developed, there stood the beautiful bride and her groom, and standing behind them, very clear in the photograph, was an elderly woman, drenching wet and chugging on a bottle of gin.
Everything was looking up on our farm just outside Cumby, Texas, during the Great Depression. Pa, Ma, me and my brother Bill worked hard to keep the homestead going. Finally, that fall a big crop of cotton was about to pop open. On top of that, Ma had just had a baby, a little girl just like she always wanted.
For the first time in a couple of years Pa had to hire a family to help bring in the cotton bolls before they rotten in the fields. The Jones family had worked for us before. The father was a big strapping man, somebody you wouldn’t want to sass. The mother was short, kinda rolly polly with a big bosom and a big heart. And, boy, did she love to talk. She could practically talk the cotton bolls off the stalks. Which was good because it made the day go by faster under the hot Texas sun and it made you forget how much your back ached from dragging that long cotton bag all day.
The Joneses had two boys that we used to play with but they were almost grown up now and didn’t look like they’d care to bother with a couple of li’l ol’ boys like Bill and me.
Anyway, one day, halfway through the cotton fields Miz Jones finished one long story about the sickness her boys had been through but they were just fine now ‘cause they was big strong healthy boys and she worked hard to keep them that way. Fed them good food, made sure they got plenty of milk, meat and greens.
“And, of course,” she added in a low, secret-like voice, “you got to keep them away from the magic.”
“The magic?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s all kinds of magic in the world,” Miz Jones said. “And all of it is bad. Some folks says there’s good magic out there to protect the babies but I says all magic is bad. If it ain’t come from the Lord it’s bad.”
“Is that so?” Bill said. I could tell he was busting a gut trying not to laugh out loud. “Like witches and such? Potions and voodoo?”
“Well, there’s bad folks out there. I don’t say that. They can do some mighty hurt with them poultice bags, but the worst magic comes from old Mother Nature herself. She’s done got tricks up her sleeve, ooh. You gotta be on your guard day and night.”
“Like what?” Bill hung his head low so she wouldn’t see his smile.
“There’s a lotta bad magic out there but I say just about the worst has to be from the turtledove.”
“The turtledove?” I asked.
“Now I tell you, if you ever have a turtledove get in the house, nestling in the rafters going, ‘Coo…coo,’ you done had it. There’s going to be a death in the family for sure. No doubt about it. Once you hear a turtledove cooing in the house, boy, it’s all over. Somebody’s gonna die.”
Bill and me, we thought we done real good in not guffawing at Miz Jones. Ma had always said it wasn’t nice to laugh at somebody to their face. Besides, those Jones boys looked like they could beat the tar out of us if we made fun of their ma.
The next day Pa pulled us aside. “You boys been working so hard in the fields that you deserved a day off to go hunting.”
So Ma packed us a lunch, we oiled and polished our .22 rifles, and off we went through the woods. We got us some squirrels and rabbits. Mostly we just lollygagged about, joking and laughing about anything and everything. The day was just about over when we heard it:
Bill and me looked at each other and smiled. The best joke of all. We stalked lightly through the brush until we spotted the nest. Mama turtledove had just flowed off, looking for food. There they were, three babies cooing their heads off. We gently stuck out our hands into the nest and scooped up one of the chicks. We hurried back home before the others came out of the cotton fields. We snuck into the field hands’ cabin and placed the baby turtledove up in the rafters.
We grinned during supper.
“Well, you boys must have had a good time hunting,” Ma said as she ladled out the squirrel and rabbit stew made from our catch.
“Yes, Ma,” we mumbled.
“That’s good.” She cuddled our baby sister on her lap as she settled in to eat. “Good times. We’re having good times right now.”
Just then there was a loud rapping at the door.
“Mr. Cowling! Mr. Cowling!” It was Mr. Jones. “Come quick! Miz Jones is terrible upset!”
“What on earth…” Pa muttered as he pushed away from the kitchen table.
“Can we come too, Pa?” Bill asked.
“I guess.” He looked at Ma. “Is that okay with you?”
“Sure. They done finished their supper.” She stood holding the baby close to her. “I’m putting the baby down to bed.”
So Bill and me scampered behind Pa to the Jones’ cabin. When we walked in Miz Jones was waving her arms, her eyes wide with fright.
“Oh, Mr. Cowling! Somebody’s going to die!”
We tried not to smile because those Jones boys was watching us mighty hard. Mr. Jones was trying to put his arms around his wife but she wouldn’t have none of it.
“There’s a turtledove in the rafters just cooing away. I swear somebody’s going to die, Mr. Cowling, I just know it.”
Pa stood tall and held up his hand. Miz Jones got quiet right away.
“If someone who is not a member of the family takes the turtledove out of the house, the curse is broken.” Pa then climbed up in the rafters and retrieved the little turtledove.
“Oh, praise the Lord!” Miz Jones said, her hands going to her cheeks. “Thank you, Mr. Cowling, thank you, sir. You done saved our lives.”
With much pomp and ceremony Pa held the turtledove, which was still cooing, in his hands high above his head.
“Hallelujah, Mr. Cowling. Thank you, Mr. Cowling,” we heard Miz Jones say we closed the door behind us.
When we got back to the house Pa placed the cooing baby turtledove in the kitchen sink. The bird began cooing again. He turned to stare hard at Bill and me.
“Are you boys behind all this?” he asked. His jaw was tied up in a knot.
“It was just a joke,” Bill mumbled.
“These are good, hard-working people,” Pa lectured us. “We’re lucky to have them working for us. They can’t help it if they’re superstitious. If you pull anything like this again I’ll—“
Ma came running into the kitchen from their bedroom. “Pa! Come quick! The baby’s not breathing!”
He ran into the room and leaned over the crib. As he put his mouth over the baby’s mouth trying to breathe life into her, Ma fell to her knees sobbing.
Then Bill and me, we heard something behind us.
We looked at each other.
Pa glared at us and shouted, “Get that turtledove out of this house right now!”
Bill and me grabbed the turtledove and just as we crossed the threshold of the front door, our baby sister sucked in a lot of air and started crying loud. Ma and Pa cried too, picking her up, kissing all over her little face. Bill and me didn’t say nothing, just stared at each other.
Maybe Miz Jones knew more than we did about the magic of Mother Nature.
The cooing of the turtledove.
Previously: Man in the Red Underwear is a pastiche of prose and poetry with hints of parody and a dash of social satire on gender roles and class mores. Cecelia throws her annual society ball, where former lovers Andy and Bedelia meet. Andy and friends try to stop villain Malcolm Tent. Bedelia vows to capture the Man in the Red Underwear.
“Oh good. The orchestra has arrived,” Cecelia announced to her guests in the ballroom.
“Do you have anything decent to eat around here?” a lone voice echoed through the crowd. I’m starving.”
Cecelia decided to ignore it. “It’s a wonderful new group. It can play any music in the world.” She entered the library beaming. “Come, everyone, the orchestra has arrived. To the ballroom.”
She circled the room herding Andy, Millicent and Eddie out to the ballroom. Tent, however, closed the door and turned to focus on Cecelia.
“Lady Snob-Johnson,” he announced menacingly.
“I wish to talk to your daughter.”
“What about?” She arched her brows which, by the way, sported perfectly applied eye liner.
“You ask too many questions,” he growled.
“And you will ask my daughter none at all,” she snapped back.
“You seem to forget I have ways to bend you to my will.” Tent took a couple of steps toward her.
Cecelia turned away, going nowhere in particular. “You can’t intimidate me with my canapés. My guests have already refused to eat them.”
“I have other, even more powerful, ways to persuade you.”
This threat intrigued her. She looked over her shoulder. “You do?”
“You seem to have taken a special indecorous interest in Mr. Billy Doggerel.”
“I don’t care if you tell the world I think I love that sexual animal. I don’t care.”
“Ah, you miss my meaning.” He walked near enough to whisper in her ear. “I don’t intend to blackmail you. I intend to bribe you.”
“Simply this. If you send your daughter in here, alone, to be interrogated about her knowledge of the Man in the Red Underwear, I will order Billy Doggerel to spend the evening with you, to do anything you wish.”
Cecelia stepped away again. “Do you think I’d sacrifice the safety of my daughter for the chance of only one night of animal passion with that glorious male creature? Never!”
“Very well. The whole weekend.” Tent displayed a snide, crooked smile.
“Beginning Friday night at dusk?”
“If that is your wish.” He nodded in agreement.
Cecelia tried to hold her labored breathing in check. “And he won’t bathe until I have a chance to cleanse him?”
“It goes without saying,” he replied smugly.
Cecelia went to the door, opened it and whistled. “Millicent! Get in here!” She smiled and curtsied. “Chief inspector.”
Millicent passed her mother, giving her a quizzical look. When no explanation was forthcoming she entered the library, very miffed because the orchestra was playing a new music from America which involved a crystal globe twirling above the dancers.
“Did you want to see me, chief inspector?”
“Yes, I did. Close the door.”
She did not think much of the inspector’s request because the music was rather loud, and she imagined the twinkling from the mirrored ball was probably giving the old geezer a headache. “What about?”
“The Man in the Red Underwear.”
“The Man in the Red Underwear!” Her hand went impulsively to her lips. Slowly she let it drop as she stared straight ahead. “I never even heard the name before.”
“I think otherwise. And I will make you tell me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I have the means.” Tent pulled a letter from his pocket.
“How could you be so mean?”
“It’s quite easy, actually.” He smiled and shrugged.
Pointing at the letter, Millicent asked, “How did you get a hold of that?”
“When you hand Prince Edward a love letter on the streets of Soho and tell him to put it in his shirt pocket so he can read it later, you must remember he forgets to wear a shirt. The letter then drops to the street where it can be picked up by anyone.”
“Yes, Billy Doggerel.” Tent slapped his trousers with the letter. “My associate has many duties, one of them is to watch the streets of Soho for any unusual occurrences.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the contents of that letter.” She tried valiantly to dismiss the significance of her correspondence with Prince Eddie.
“Oh, you think not? Let me read a bit of it to you.” He opened the letter with a flourish, cleared his voice and began to quote. “See Millicent. See, see, see. See Millicent take her clothes off. Strip. Strip. Strip. See Millicent—“
“All right. All right. It isn’t Shakespeare, but I had to make it simple enough for Eddie to get the idea!” She paused to compose herself. “What do you plan to do with it?”
Tent took three steps forward. “Why, nothing at all—if you tell me who the Man in the Red Underwear is!”
Millicent took three steps backwards. “I know nothing!”
“We’ll discover how much you know when Queen Victoria reads this letter.” There. He placed all the details of his blackmail scheme on the table. Figuratively, of course, because there was no table in the library.
“The Queen won’t mind. She approves of me.” Again she tried to bluff her way out of a sticky wicket.
Tent laughed in derision. “I disagree. They don’t call this the Victorian Age for nothing!”
“Back in the old days,” my father used to say to me, “we didn’t git no candy on Halloween. Warn’t no such thing as tricker-treatin’ or whatever you darned kids call it. Puttin’ on some fool costume and prancin’ around the streets, why that’s just plain sissy.”
I got that lecture every year when the air turned crisp and the kids at school chirped about what they were going to wear for Halloween and what candy they wanted in their trick or treat bags. I suspected my father held his high falutin’ principles against childish behavior on October 31st because he didn’t want to spend money on a costume or candy.
“So there wasn’t Halloween at all?” I asked.
“Sure there was Halloween, but we didn’t go hog wild over it like they do today. Folks would have barn parties, and all the neighbor kids would come over. We’d play games right up to midnight.”
“What kind of games?”
“Oh, bobbin’ for apples. Nothin’ fancy.”
My face perked up. “Bobbing for apples? That sounds like fun.”
I saw my father’s eyes widened as he thought about the price of apples.
“Oh, you wouldn’t like it. It warn’t no fun at all. You got your face wet and choked on the water. No fun at all.”
“Then what did you do for fun?”
“Well, some boys used to knock over outhouses Halloween night.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun to me.” I imagined the stench of human excrement spewing from the overturned outhouse, and I gagged. “Did you do that?”
“I got caught.”
“Well, pa came up to me the next day and started talkin’ about how George Washington told his pappy the truth about choppin’ down the cherry tree. Then I asked me if I had knocked over the outhouse. I owned up to it, and he turned me over his knee and started wallopin’ my behind. I says, ‘Pa, George Washington’s pappy didn’t spank him when he told the truth about choppin’ down the cherry tree.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but George Washington’s pappy warn’t up in that cherry tree when he chopped it down.’”
Halloween of 1890 surprised Arthur Conan Doyle with a mixture of happiness and mysticism.
He was the guest of honor at a party hosted by Ward Locke, the publisher of his first Sherlock Holmes book, A Study in Scarlett. Ladies, all of them in black evening gowns highlighted with orange flowers or brooches and necklaces, were particularly attentive, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles on Doyle’s dinner jacket.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Doyle,” Ward Locke’s wife cooed, “when you become the most famous writer in London? You won’t have a moment’s peace.” Her eyes, an uneventful shade of brown, fluttered without producing their intended purpose of luring the single gentlemen with her non-existent wiles.
“I am certain I shall find a suitable safe harbor in the storm of public attention.”
Mrs. Locke practically swooned over the more sensual meanings of Doyles’ metaphor.
“Among my many new-found friends and acquaintances, such as your husband and yourself, indeed all the fine people who are here tonight.”
“Oh. Of course.” She stood erect in the middle of her collapse into the romance of her thoughts. Recovering, she smiled with due temperance. “And I’m sure your friends from the hospital will be a great comfort to you.”
A woman wearing too much rouge made good use of her ample hips to force Mrs. Locke from the inner sphere of Doyle’s immediate company. “You mustn’t ignore your other guests, dear. I shall entertain our wonderful young gentlemen for now. I am Mrs. Wickham, a dear friend of the Lockes. They tell me you are a doctor.” She paused a moment to admire his physical appearance. “My, you must have an impressive bedside manner.”
At that moment Doyle caught the gaze of his publisher and turned the corners of his lips into a smile that expressed mild desperation. Locke smiled in return, lifted his glass and clinked it with a dessert spoon.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a toast to the man of the hour, Arthur Conan Doyle!” Locke announced. After an appropriate pause for all the guests to murmur their approval, he continued, “We wish him continued success so suddenly found at the young age of thirty-one.” Everyone took turns commenting upon his promising career unfolding in front of him, remarkable for a young man of thirty-one years.”
“Oh, yes. I remember being thirty-one,” a voice boomed from the shadows. “Great expectations can wither on the vine as time passes, leaving you with sad dreams of what might have been.”
Holiday chatter died as all heads turned to watch a tall, swarthy man step toward Doyle, who suspected the man to be in his middle forties and under the influence of liquid spirits. A shrill giggle shattered the silence.
“You must forgive my friend, Mr. Doyle,” Mrs. Wickham said with forced cheer as she left his side to join the handsome stranger and grab the man’s arm, pulling him back. “His attempts at humor are an acquired taste. He’s Nathan Ladderly, my neighbor at the Nickleby Arms Hotels. The dear man has no family so I thought I would invite him to our soiree–“
“Mrs. Wickham finds me attractive and creates excuses to be in my company,” Ladderly interjected.
“Oh, Nathan, you’re so wicked,” Mrs. Wickham said with a laugh.
A second giggle erupted, this time from Mrs. Locke. “Ward, darling, what is a Halloween party without parlor games appropriate for this evening of ghouls and goblins?” She pushed her way through the crowd holding a small square table on which sat a mysterious wooden board. “This game has just been invented. They call it a Ouija board. It’s a way to communicate with the dead,” Mrs. Locke chirped. “Mr. Ladderly, Mr. Doyle, Mrs. Wickham, please pull up chairs, and we shall see what spirits we may conjure.”
“This will be droll,” Ladderly muttered as he sat at the table.
“I am open to spiritualism, though I am not completely convinced,” Doyle announced with a tight smile. He sat opposite Ladderly.
Tittering, the two women filled in the gaps and Mrs. Locke placed a wooden disk on three small balls in the middle of the board. On one side was a pointer and in the middle a hole.
“Ward, darling, lower the gas lamps,” she said. “We must have the proper atmosphere. Now, everyone place your fingertips lightly on this little wooden pointer. It’s called a planchette.”
As the lights dimmed, Ladderly leaned his head, almost touching his cheek to the board. “Ouija, Ouija, Ouija, is anyone there?”
All the guests gathered around the table gasped as the planchette moved suddenly to Yes.
Ladderly pulled his hands away. “This is ridiculous. I want nothing to do with this.”
The planchette jerked over to No.
“Please, Nathan, dear,” Mrs. Wickham pleaded. “Open your mind. Participate. For my sake.”
“Why should I do anything for your sake?” Ladderly’s tone boarded on insolence.
Doyle leaned forward. “You seem nervous, Mr. Ladderly. Do you have anything to fear?”
“Of course not,” he replied in a huff. He placed his fingers back on the wooden pointer.
“I’m so flustered,” Mrs. Lock admitted. “I don’t know what to ask.”
“Are you trying to communicate with a specific person?” Doyle asked.
The planchette moved to Yes.
“Is it me?”
“Why?” Doyle continued.
The wooden disk quickly moved around the board stopping to reveal specific letters in the hole. It spelled murder.
“Oh, Mr. Doyle,” Ladderly sneered. “How obvious. I insult you, and you accuse me of murder.”
“My fingers are barely on this device. Those standing over my shoulder can attest that. And why do you assume the board is speaking specifically about you out of all the people in this room?”
The pointer again moved to Yes.
“Oh, this is impossible!” Ladderly said with a hiss. “I refuse to continue with this charade.”
“No, I think we should continue,” Locke announced as many of his male guests moved to stand around Ladderly’s chair.
Again the planchette floated over the letters. I am Dickens.
Gasps and twitters spread through the room.
Someone murdered Drood.
“How foolish,” Ladderly said. “That was a work of fiction.”
“Then who did kill Edwin Drood?” Doyle asked.
“He was the young man from India who was enthralled with Drood’s fiancé Rosa Bud,” Doyle clarified. “Dickens was writing the novel and publishing each chapter in the newspaper as he finished it. Before he could complete his work, he died. Literary circles still discuss who the murderer might have been.”
“Everyone knows Drood’s uncle did it,” Ladderly added nervously.
The pointer moved to No.
“Is Neville Landless in this room?” Doyle asked, staring at Ladderly.
“N.L. Neville Landless. N.L. Nathan Ladderly,” Mrs. Wickham said as though the entire plot had been revealed to her.
“These parlor games have gone too far!” Ladderly tried to stand, but several hands pushed him back down.
“Put your fingers back on the planchette, Mr. Ladderly,” Mrs. Locke said in a flat tone. “Perhaps you can handle your destiny.”
“Is Nathan Ladderly actually Neville Landless?” Doyle asked.
“So he killed Edwin Drood?”
Yes. The disk’s hole highlighted other letters. Me too.
“No!” Ladderly screamed.
“Mr. Dickens, did Mr. Ladderly know you were about to incriminate him?” Doyle said.
“Nonsense! Why didn’t he go directly to Scotland Yard?” Ladderly demanded. “Why write it as a novel?”
“Obviously he had no evidence that would hold up in court. Once he published his novel, the public outcry would be deafening. Of course, he had to change names,” Doyle explained. “Nathan Ladderly became Neville Landless. Edwin Drood… Anyone remember the disappearance of a man with the initials E.D. around the time of Dickens’ death? No matter. Scotland Yard will know.”
Yes, the Ouija board responded.
We were home from the baby shower only a couple of weeks we received a phone call from my proud and happy son-in-law. It seems all those kicks in the womb meant Liam Anthony wanted to come out—right now. So on Sunday September 16, he came out, all seven pounds thirteen ounces, twenty inches of him, including, 10 fingers and 10 toes.
Both mom and the baby were in good condition, and I could tell dad was ecstatic. They were home within a couple of days, and then the real work began, all those nightly feedings. My wife chose to bottle feed our children so I was able to take my turn. But with breastfeeding, my daughter has to handle it on her own. And he’s a very hungry little boy.
At the two-week checkup he was already over eight pounds and had grown another inch. My daughter, on the other hand, was worn out, just all all mothers. That’s why they get a special day every day. Sometimes I wonder why fathers get a day. The moms do all the work. But I better shut up because I enjoy my Father’s Day presents too much to lose them.
My granddaughter is a very helpful big sister, and I knew she would be. But I’m a biased grandpa so what do you expect?
As for the baby shower delivery day pool, everyone missed it because he decided to arrive early. My daughter checked the chart to see who came closest and it turned out to be a dear friend and coworker. Her friend she’s going to spend the money on Liam’s first Christmas present, so all turned out well.
Speaking of Christmas, my son and I already have our plane tickets to go up to New York in December. Liam will be three months by then and who knows how big he will be. Now all we have to do is pay off the credit card bills before we plan any trips to see the grandchildren in the new year.
The four-hour wait in the Charlotte airport was over, and we boarded, on our way home from the best baby shower ever. What I had forgotten was that there was this tropical depression which had delayed our departure by a day. It was now a hurricane slowly moving toward Louisiana, but the outer bands were still sweeping across central Florida.
“There’s no reason to cancel the flight, but we do want to apologize ahead of time for any possible turbulence you may experience in the next couple of hours. Enjoy your flight.”
All sorts of thoughts flooded my mind. During a half a century of flying I had never encountered any major degree of turbulence so I suppose I couldn’t complain much. Then again, it only takes one bad storm to bring an airplane down. What a way to ruin a perfectly good baby shower weekend. What if I didn’t die in a crash but the constant dipping and shaking made me sick to my stomach? I checked the pocket in front of me and found the air sickness bag. It didn’t look very big. I could fill that thing up with one really good whoop-whoop.
It was then my eye caught the airline magazine—you know the ones with articles about exotic locales you could visit for next to nothing with your frequent flyer miles, except I didn’t travel that frequently. After I read all the articles I saw three Sudoku puzzles. Now if they couldn’t keep my mind off crashing then nothing could.
I made it through the easy puzzle fairly fast. The medium one took a little more time. However, once we crossed the border from Georgia into Florida the plane started to jiggle some. When I started on the third puzzle, the most difficult one, the flight was getting bumpier. I found it hard to write the numbers in the little boxes without my fingers looking like they were drunk and slurring badly.
“We will be entering Tampa International Airport airspace within the next half hour. Reports say the storm is slowly moving west. However, turbulence is expected to increase before we land. Have a nice day.”
Then we experienced our first major drop. We could hear the baggage in the overhead compartment jumping around.
“Whee!” One child clearly did not understand the implications involved here. This was not a roller coast at Busch Gardens. However, perhaps it was better that the child thought it was fun. If they become hysterical and cried, my stomach might started grumbling and I didn’t want that.
In the amount of time it would take to ride a giant wooden roller coast three times, the turbulence settled and we began our descent, and I still had my lunch. And I was going to live for the next flight to my daughter’s house at Christmas.
What more could I ask for?