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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ghost Story

by Rick Bailey

She follows me back to my office. Her name is Donna.
She wears jeans like all the other girls. Only hers are the baggy kind, the comfortable fit for a woman in her thirties. She sits in the front row, one leg crossed over the other. It bounces, this leg, like she's a piece of machinery that's idling. It's the sixth week of class, and I know this about her: She hasn't been to college in fourteen years. She has two boys. She has a husband whom she has left but who refuses to leave her. Whatever we read in class she reads as if her life depended on it. This week it's Ibsen. To most students, reading “Ghosts” is like swallowing a horse tranquillizer. To her, the play is like liquid light, and she chugs it. Sitting there in class, two students over from my desk, she is a presence.  
I unlock my office door and let myself in. "What's up?" I say, dropping my books on the desk.
"I just wanted to tell you I may have to miss class." She leans against the door frame and tells me what I was afraid of. It's the husband. He's hanging around. She's fears he is going to take her kids. She's afraid.
"It shouldn't be a problem," I say, "if you have to miss." I tell her I can work with her.
"It's just that I'm enjoying this so much."
I tell her we're glad to have her in class. "That Paster Manders," she says, referring to the Ibsen. "When he tells Mrs. Alving: "'We're not put on this earth to be happy.' How can he say that to her?" She shakes her head. "Those people are so miserable."
"Just wait," I say.
She laughs. "I saw ‘Ghosts’ on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?"
It's my turn to laugh. "Patrick Swayze?"
"In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation." She gives me an embarrassed look. "Did you ever levitate?"
Did I ever.


My first time was tenth grade. I was at Sandra Bremer's house. I guess it was a party, boys and girls together on a Saturday night, not couples, just six or seven unattached kids together, and someone said we should play "Let's pick him up." 
"You lie on the floor," Sandra said, "and everyone gathers around the person. You say these words together, and then, using just your fingertips, you can pick the person up."
We moved furniture out of the way. Someone shut off the lights. Then we took turns volunteering to lie on the floor, pretending we were dead, while the others gathered around, looking down at the dark form on the floor. It was a very solemn ceremony.
The first person said, He is dead. One after another, going around the circle, we took turns repeating that line and those that followed.
        Gone from the earth.
        Stiff as a board.
         Light as a feather. At this point we bent down and slipped two fingers of each hand under the person's body.
        The leader said, Let's pick him up.
        And we did.
        It worked every time. The dead person, no matter how big, would practically fly up to the ceiling, where we held him for a split second, before lowering him back down to the floor. We would gasp and scream for a minute or two, terrified and amazed by this mystery in the dark, then ask for another volunteer. No one tried to understand what was happening. We didn't want to understand it. It pure joy. It was like direct contact with the supernatural.
        When there were no more volunteers, we switched the lights back on, put the furniture back in place, and turned on Cat Stevens. If there was a scary movie on TV, we'd watch that.      


There's a reference to levitation as a party trick in The Magician's Own Book, or the Whole Art of Conjuring by Arnold George & Frank Cahill, published in 1862. The authors describe it as "one of the most remarkable and inexplicable experiments relative to the strength of the human frame." In their description, they emphasize that it is a "heavy man" who is lifted when his lungs and the lungs of those lifting are fully inflated with air. The authors trace this magic back to an American Navy captain doing a demonstration in Venice. The critical detail, according to George and Cahill, is the breathing: "On several occasions [we] have observed that when one of the bearers performs his part ill, by making the inhalation out of time, the part of the body which he tries to raise is left, as it were, behind."
        Two centuries earlier, Samuel Pepys refers to levitation in his diary entry on July 31, 1665. He provides an account of leaving London to attend a wedding, noting in that week alone, some 1700 or 1800 people had died of plague (one tenth of the London population died that year). Pepys and his party arrive too late for the ceremony, but in time for dinner, cards, talk, and prayers. After helping put the newlyweds to bed ("I kissed the bride in bed, and so the curtaines drawne with the greatest gravity that could be, and so good night..."), he goes to a bed which, consistent with customs of the time, he shares with another guest.
Before sleep, the two men have a chat. "We did here all get good beds, and I lay in the same I did before with Mr. Brisband, who is a good scholler and sober man; and we lay in bed, getting him to give me an account of home, which is the most delightfull talke a man can have of any traveller." In the course of their conversation, Mr. Brisband speaks of "enchantments and spells" he has recently witnessed in Bourdeaux, France: "He saw four little girles," Pepys writes, "very young ones, all kneeling, each of them, upon one knee; and one begun the first line, whispering in the eare of the next, and the second to the third, and the third to the fourth, and she to the first." They whisper these words:

Voyci un Corps mort (Behold, a dead body)
Roy comme un Baston (Still as a stone)
Froid comme Marbre (Cold as marble)
Leger comme un esprit (Light as a spirit)
Levons te au nom de Jesus Christ (We lift you in the name of     Jesus Christ).

With one finger each, they raise the boy as high as they can reach. Brisband is "afeard to see it," and disbelieving, calls for the cook to come, "a very lusty fellow," meaning large, and, in like manner, they lift him as well.


For a while, every time that group of friends got together, at Sandra Bremer's or wherever, we shut off the lights and played dead, picking each other up. We reveled in the mystery of levitation. Like those little French girls, what we were enjoying was essentially child's play, like telling ghost stories, though, in our case, we didn't have bubonic plague adding spice to the experience. Looking back now, I marvel at the fact that we never dropped anyone. What were the chances? But no one banged his head on an end table. No one fell and broke an arm. I'm pretty sure my preferred role in the game was the dead guy. Lying on the floor, eyes closed, listening to the chant, then feeling myself lifted into the air was a rush, not so much out of body as an in-the-body experience. Some nights, along with levitation, there was talk of séances and hypnosis. I remember seeing kids bent over a Ouija board. Wouldn't it be freaky, someone said, to see into the future?
        Sure, but what if you had to see all of it?
        If there's any wisdom in becoming an adult, it's knowing that you don't want to know. We grow up. We marry and have children. We divorce and find ourselves alone again. In search of ourselves we fly off to faraway places and then come back home, still searching. Our parents, spouses, and friends, sometimes even our children, sicken and die. Between these events, there are the levitations, moments of genuine sweetness and mystery you share with other people. Lying in bed with Mr. Brisband, Pepys observes, "I have spent the greatest part of my life with abundance of joy, and honour, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments," thinking of the wedding, the time with friends, as "greatest glut of content that ever I had; only under some difficulty because of the plague."  


Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.
        A week passed before I heard from her. She called me to apologize for missing class. She was in a shelter. She said she couldn't talk long.  She said he didn't know where she was and that her safety, and the safety of her children, depended on keeping her whereabouts a secret. I told her to take care of herself, we were just finishing “Ghosts”, she could come back anytime, write the paper, pick up where she left off. 
        When we hung up, I knew I would never see her again. A week passed, then another. Nothing. That was it.

Rick Bailey's essays have appeared in The Writer's Workshop Review, Drunk Monkeys,, and Defenestration. He lives in Detroit and teaches writing at a local community college.

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