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Friday, November 23, 2012

The Ouija Board

by Dorothy M. Place


The spring of the year World War II ended my mother began to fantasize that our family would move to a farm.   She was inspired by my grandfather’s stories about farming in the “old country” and by the radio programs that featured celebrities who were moving to places like Bucks County, Pennsylvania or Darien, Connecticut, purchasing farm houses that dated back to the revolutionary war, and turning them into modern getaways from their hectic urban lives.  That dream became an honest-to-goodness decision in the most uncommon way.  My mother heard about Musa Jean’s Ouija Board and latched onto the notion that the board could foretell if a farm was in our family’s future.

“Dorothy,” my mother called out the window one afternoon.  She had a voice like a bull horn, perfected over the years of trying to get my father to listen to her.  “Go across the street and ask Musa Jean to bring her Ouija board over after dinner.”

She didn’t have to ask twice.  Musa Jean, several years older, was my only source of information about what life would be like when I became a teenager.  I was the oldest child.  What could I learn from my younger sister and brother?  I already knew more about life than the two of them put together.  But Musa Jean.  That was different.  She had a room of her own, a collection of pictures cut from movie magazines, and a vanity table with a mirror made in three sections so she could see the front and the back of her hair at the same time.

            I crossed Lafayette Avenue and raced up the hill toward Musa Jean’s house, careful not to step on any cracks. Mrs. Principio, a tiny, elderly woman clothed entirely in black was coming down the hill toward me.  Her swollen ankles bowed over the side of her shoes, the outside part where the heels had worn down almost to the sole.   The black veil that hung over her face waved in and out in time with her shallow, hasty breaths.  Rosary beads wound round and round her fingers like the chain wound around the sprocket on my bicycle, each bead helping to propel her forward in the same way the chain drove my bicycle.  I stepped back into the weedy patch of green that filled the space between the curb and the sidewalk.

            Grasshoppers bounced on and off my legs like ping pong balls tossed at the wall. A yellow dandelion flower snuggled in its spiky nest of leaves, waiting to spring upward into a long-stemmed ball of cotton.  Junior Shamsey’s dog, Prince, out for his late afternoon stroll, stopped and lifted his leg on the fence post. Slowly, Mrs. Principio passed.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Principio,” I said respectfully. 

She neither turned her head nor said anything, just leaned into her uneven walk.  Once, I asked my mother why Mrs. Principio always wore black.

“Somebody died,” my mother she said shortly.  “Go set the table for supper.”

            “But she always wears black,” I persisted.

            “Someone is always dying.  Now stop asking questions and do as I told you.”

            There was no reason to pursue the topic.  My mother was interested in cooking, cleaning, sewing, and raising children, the emphasis always on good for all of the above- mentioned.  Good children meant being seen and not heard, especially the not-heard part.  I rang the doorbell at Musa Jean’s house, hopping up and down on one foot as I waited for someone to answer.  One hundred and fifty-two times was my record.  A brown moth struggled to escape its imprisonment in the spider web that stretched from the light fixture to the door jam. A spring burst of leaves as green as mint-flavored chewing gum covered the elm tree in the front yard. From somewhere in the house, I could hear a radio playing.  Mrs. Stocking finally opened the door and motioned up the stairs before I could ask if Musa Jean was home. 

            I shouted as I took the stairs two at a time toward the attic bedroom, “Ma wants you to bring over your Ouija board after supper.”

            The door was closed; I entered without knocking.  Like dancers on stage, little bits of dust shuffled in and out of the spotlight that entered the room through a small dormer window near the roof.  The pungent smells of perfume and nail polish tickled my nose and made me want to sneeze a good one.  The vanity table wrapped in a pink organdy skirt looked like the midsection of a ballerina, and the black and white pictures of movie stars covered the walls right up to the peak of the slanted roof.

            Musa Jean was sitting on the edge of the bed, one leg tucked under her body, the other leg hung over the side, her bare foot swinging back and forth as she leafed through a movie magazine.  Her hair was combed in a style similar to the one Joan Crawford wore in her latest film:  pompadour on the top and sides, long and straight down her back.  Musa Jean’s jaws moved slowly and everyone once-in-awhile, a bubbled swelled out of her mouth and exploded with a satisfying pop.  Her finger and toe nails were polished and her playsuit was cinched tightly at the waist, making her breasts look round and large.  

At the time, I was not sure about breasts.  Whether I wanted them or not, I mean.  It seemed to me like they’d get in your way when I ran.  But they looked good on Musa Jean and she told me the boys liked them.  She was like that.  Told me important information that my parents never thought to tell me.  If it wasn’t for Musa Jean, I could have grown all the way up without knowing that stuff about breasts.

            I flopped down on the bed next to her and looked up at the photographs of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, and Clark Gable.  I couldn’t put pictures on the wall of my bedroom because my mother said the tape left black marks that were impossible to get off.  We never had scotch tape in the house anyway, so it wasn’t worth arguing about.  But if we ever did get some scotch tape, I would give a go at arguing.  It would have been nice to have a picture or two on the walls.  The only picture we had in the bedroom my sister and I shared was a sweet-faced woman with long hair softly falling about her shoulders, sitting on a chair, and holding a baby draped in blankets.  The woman was real pretty and looked at the baby like it was a little Jesus. I was pretty sure she never said shit like my mother did when she was mad. 

            “I like Clark Gable best,” I told Musa Jean.  “When I’m old enough to have a boy friend, how old will he be?”

            “Too old for you,” she said handing me a movie magazine opened to a page showing Sterling Hayden standing by the mast of a sailing sloop anchored off some island in the tropics.  His white shirt was unbuttoned to his waist, his pants rolled mid-calf, and his blonde hair was lifted slightly by an unseen ocean breeze.  He was a long way from my home where a concrete world snuggled up to the rotting ferry piers on the Hudson River. I wondered if I’d ever see a place like the one in the picture.  There had to be a real honest-to-goodness place in the world like that, right?  Or how could they get that picture?    

            “He’s going into the Navy,” Musa Jean said matter-of-factly.  She knew everything about movie star stuff.  “We won’t be seeing him in the movies until the war is over.”  She fell backward on the bed, holding the magazine high over her head.  “I think I’ll put his picture on the ceiling right over my pillow so he’s the last thing I see before I turn out the light.” 


            After supper, Musa Jean arrived with her Ouija board under her arm.  She laid it out on the kitchen table, and she and my mother sat across from each other, gingerly placing their fingers on the pointer.  Musa Jean reminded my mother that it was important to keep her touch light.

            “Let the pointer do the work,” she instructed.  “Otherwise, we’ll never know the truth.”

            I stood behind my mother, leaning on her shoulder and rocking back and forth. I was what you called fidgety when I was young.  My mother always said that I was the kind of kid that got on people’s nerves.  “Dorothy,” she’d yell, “you’re getting on my goat.”  Whatever that was.  As far as I knew, she didn’t have a goat.  Maybe goat was a secret code word for one of her body parts.  I edged up as close to the board as I thought was safe.

            Musa Jean leaned slightly backwards in her chair and half closed her eyes.  She began with what she called “the warm up questions.”

            “Will Sterling Hayden come back from the war safely?” 

The board responded affirmatively, without giving the question much thought, making it appear to be a pretty sure thing.  Musa Jean winked and gave me that “I told you so look.”  She returned her attention to the board.

“Will the Japanese bomb Jersey City?”

The pointer hesitated, started off the board and then careened toward the word “no.”  We breathed a sigh of relief.  Jersey City was pretty close to where we lived and right where my father worked in the shipyards.

Confident that the board had warmed up sufficiently and noting my mother’s growing impatience, Musa Jean asked the question of the evening.  “Will the Mullers move to a farm?”

We held our breath as the pointer slid to and then past the word “no”, skated across the letters of the alphabet without hesitation and lightly played with the tops of the numbers zero through nine.  At first, it looked as though the board didn’t know the answer but, as if suddenly coming upon our future, the pointer boldly headed for “yes” and stopped.

We were jubilant.  In her most dramatic voice, Musa Jean announced, “The Mullers are moving to the country.”

  I jumped off the chair, clapped my hands, let out a couple of howls, and danced about the kitchen.  My grandmother’s china cereal set on the shelf above the refrigerator rattled.  Our dog Bubbles came into the kitchen to see what was going on and joined in with a few prancing steps of her own.  My sister came out of my Grandfather’s room to see what was going on. 

“Bill, we’re moving to the country,” my mother called to my father who was in the living room, smoking his pipe, and listening to the latest war news on the radio. 

“Hah?” my father responded. 

“Quiet down Dorothy.”  My mother grabbed my arm and made me sit on the chair.  “Your father can’t hear me with you making all that noise.”  She raised her voice and yelled, “We’re moving to the country.”

My father mumbled and turned the radio louder.

“He never listens to me,” my mother said to no one in particular.  “All he cares about is that damn pipe of his.”

Musa Jean folded the Ouija board carefully, as though it was a living thing, and returned it to its box.  She rose to go.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Muller,” she said to my mother.  “It looks like you’re going to be a farmer.”

“Can I have a pig?” I asked.  I really wanted a horse but knew that wasn’t possible.  My grandfather said that horses ate too much and you couldn’t eat them.  A pig seemed a surer bet.

There was no answer.  My mother was too busy grumbling about my father’s inattention.  I walked Musa Jean out the front door and sat on the front steps as I watched her go through the gate.

 “Will you have time to polish my nails tomorrow?” I called after her.  She hurried across the street without answering.

 Stars had popped out in the sky and it wasn’t even dark.  No moon that I could see.  Soon school would be out and it would be time for us to go down to the meadows and collect punkies to light so we could smoke off the plague of mosquitoes that came with the summer heat.  I was tempted to swing on the gate but didn’t.  My mother said I could poke one of my eyes out on the iron pickets and I didn’t want to spoil my chances of moving to a farm by losing my eyesight.   I wondered if there were any ripe mulberries hidden under the weeping branches of the trees next to the steps.  Tomorrow morning I’d search for some for my breakfast cereal. 

I looked at my chewed-off finger nails, speculating whether or not there was enough left to polish.  I wondered if the Japanese would ever get as far as New Jersey and when we moved, if they could find our new home in the country and bomb the farm animals as well as us.  Pig guts would be all over the place.  I knew what pig guts looked like.  Vedder Metzner, the butcher piled them into a grinder and made sausages, but only for his best customers.  He said it was too much work to sell them to just anybody.  I went inside.

My mother and father were in the living room.  She was trying to convince him that a move to the country was imminent and he was trying to listen to the radio over her strident and insistent voice.  My mother was getting all worked up and I figured it was best to stay out of the way so I went to the bedroom I shared with my sister, hoping that Musa Jean would come over the next day and polish my nails.


Dorothy M. Place lives in Davis, California where she tends her bonsai trees and writes. She has published three short stories, one of which won first prize in the Mendocino Coast Writers short story contest as well as the Estelle Frank Fellowship.

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