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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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Mother's Marbles

by Jono Walker

My mother Joy was a fearless body surfer and taught me to be one too. There wasn’t a wave we would hesitate to swim out to in any weather short of hurricane force winds at any point along the two miles of beach at Biddeford Pool. Stretching out in the clear hollow of a towering breaker and seeing your shadow appear for a split second on the sandy bottom just before everything crashes down in a pandemonium of sound and foam is such a rush. We’d fight through the icy undertows looking for the next great ride until our feet could no longer feel the sand and our lips were blue as crabs. But Joy wasn’t just about daring and speed. She had a contemplative side and was an inveterate explorer of tidal pools with a life-long collection of blue and green sea glass that will never be surpassed in terms of color and opaque purity. No raw edges in her collection. Nothing see-through. Every piece different. Each one perfect.

Her grandfather was an Episcopal Minister who built the church that now stands on the golf course in what was just a sleepy fishing village before President Taft decided to make Biddeford Pool the location of his summer White House. This turned the place into a kind of secluded resort for extremely wealthy people from Ohio…and us. When my mom and her brother and sisters were small and August rolled around they’d all pile into the car in Westport at the crack of dawn for the trip up the old Post Road to Biddeford. Driving to Maine was a grueling ordeal back then. There were traffic lights and an endless succession of small town Main Streets to get through so that by the time they got past the city of Biddeford and were pointed out the Shore Road, the sun would be getting ready to set and they’d be ready to kill one another. But once they made the hairpin turn at Fortune’s Rocks and managed to get the windows rolled down, that first wonderful whiff of sea air would fill the car and wash away all the road grit and any lingering thoughts of fratricide. Off they’d trundle down the Stretch Road with the Pool on their left and the ocean dunes on their right. At the end of the isthmus, just up the hill and around the corner from Crowley’s lobster pound and Goldswaithe’s general store, they’d pile out of the car stamping the numbness from their legs on the painted wooden porch where their grandparents would welcome them to the Rectory, a modest clapboard house wedged between grand summer homes out on Bay View Avenue.

In those days the big three-story hotel maintained a boardwalk that carved a mile-long loop around the point, which was where the Reverend took his morning constitutionals with grandchildren in tow. The first side of the loop took them through canyons of scruffy pines and bayberry bushes offering bright blue glimpses of the little islands dotting the bay of Maine. When the pathway spilled them into an open field, the ocean was spread before them on all three sides, walking now straight towards the spot Mom used to call “The End of the World”. On good days the pounding surf on the ocean side of the point sent up rainbow mists that hazed upon their hair and onto the shoulders of their sweaters. As they began their return to the Rectory, the sun would be just high enough to ripple the air above the slats of the boardwalk. Tracing through the tall grass, breezes from the sea bowed the shafts of Goldenrod and sent Queen Anne’s Lace genuflecting to their feet.

When I was a kid some things began to change, but Maine was still Maine. The hotel was converted into a Catholic retreat (locals dubbed it “The Nunnery”) and the boardwalk around the point was left to rot except for a few splintery sections that remained half buried in the clumps of sea grass along the inside arch of Little Beach. Gardeners working for the people living in the enormous mansions that were eventually built out on the point started dumping grass clippings and kitchen scraps onto mulch piles that were strategically placed where the boardwalk used to be on the far edges of the long sweeping lawns. It was a deliberate attempt to discourage recalcitrant point walkers like us, but that didn’t put an end to our ritual. We just skirted around the steaming piles of debris determined to keep the public right-of-way open until years later when my kids were small and the mulch piles had finally grown too big and the bayberry and the scratchy beach plum bushes around them had become completely impenetrable, forcing us, at last, onto the beach for our morning strolls.

I was around ten and my sister Mary Paul was seven and my older sister Joanie was fifteen when we all took a break from the beach one afternoon and drove out as a family to Fortunes Rocks. We wanted to do some sleuthing around a big abandoned stone mansion that was about to be bulldozed to make way for the dozens of seaside homes you see there today. When we got to the long driveway of the old estate there was a chain with a NO TRESPASSING sign blocking our way. We got out of the car and peered down the drive. Dad wouldn’t go any further, of course, but he knew there’d be no talking Mom out of it so after some weak protestations, he simply threw up his hands and drove himself back to the beach.

That left the four of us free to jump the chain and creep towards the run-down house. Nobody had mowed all summer so the sun-warmed grass directly around the place was up to our knees and tickly. Joy suspected the house was headquarters to a Russian spy ring, and sure enough, when we stepped onto the porch and pressed our faces up against the dusty windows something moved from behind the pieces of furniture covered in bed sheets. Or maybe we heard something, but whatever it was it scared the beach sand right out of our bathing suits and sent us scampering to the safety of the rocks out on the point.

The red seaweed made the going slippery but we managed to get to a place where we were hidden from the sniper hiding behind the curtain in the attic window. Taking cover among the heaves of sun-bleached granite we looked out across the long arc in the shoreline and could just make out the Biddeford Pool beach through the summer haze in the distance. The row of cottages nestled in the dunes along the Stretch looked like little pieces of ribbon tied to the tail of a kite trailing towards the grey, box-shaped Nunnery taking flight over the last thin shimmering line of white sand. Beyond the Nunnery the tree line sloped to the old Coast Guard Station tower where the rocks at the end of Fletcher’s Neck pointed like a ghost blue finger out into the ghost blue sea.

Meanwhile, we had a job to do. The seagulls stirred into flight by our earlier shrieks were settled back on the water riding the gentle swells along with the bright confetti of the lobster buoys, while somewhere just below we knew a Russian sub was silently circling. The sun was hot on our backs as we formulated a plan. It was my little sister Mary Paul who found the piece of sea glass that just might do the trick. Early that morning, when we were walking on the beach we passed a nun. We often saw nuns taking their morning strolls, but there was something a little different about this particular one. Maybe her habit was a bit askew, or maybe she winked at us, but in any event she looked like someone who could be relied upon, and sure enough when Joanie flashed our signal, the earnest sister with the tortoise shell glasses was at her post on the roof of the nunnery far across the water. She signaled back a message with her trusty compact mirror: “Coast Guard Alerted.”

Mom lived the last of her days sitting in a chair in a place called Maplewoods. It was nice there and for a while a remote part of her brain could be summoned upon to belt out Sinatra tunes at the Snowflake Teas, but the old girl–who cheerfully admitted in a rare moment of cognitive clarity that she had lost just about all her marbles–was soon running on nothing but the microdots of distant memories. Her eyes grew good and dulled by a life well spent. One time, even though she couldn’t have told me what she ate ten minutes ago for lunch or name any of her grandchildren in the photos hanging on her wall or even remotely comprehend the fact she now had four great grandchildren, I caught her looking over at her mason jar of sea glass sitting on the windowsill and could see something bright and clear flickering across her eyes. Some faint synapses deep inside her clouded brain were letting in gentle breezes from summers long since passed. She was walking again through tidal pools. Suddenly, an icy wave came sluicing between the rocks and splashed white and foamy around her ankles making them ache for a second before sucking back out to sea over a chattering bed of small glittery stones. Maybe that was what I saw and remembered too.

“No,” she said to Mary Paul who had proudly snatched up the piece of glass left behind by the retreated wave, “the edges on this one aren’t smooth enough yet. Don’t you see? It will work fine for our signal but we’ll need to throw it back.”

Let some other little girl come and find it later, when it’s good and ready…

Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs and his trusty fly rod. Visit his blog at