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The Hermit Crab and the Phoenix | 2009 | How Far One Can Go

11.08.09 2:41 p.m.

Ghosts, like ladies, never speak till spoke to.  

-Richard Harris Barham


Rick Ghastly

Tigerlily, blooming

I confess to having my mood slightly soured before Melanie sent me out to retrieve marshmallow ghosts for her delectation, instead of the peanut butter cups I had purchased for her as her supposed "favorite candy" (until having tasted one foisted on her by a campus politico and thereby reminded that the chocolate has been replaced by semi-edible wax). Our two main guests, Daniel and Jinx, were already fifteen minutes late and we couldn't be sure if our most recent additions, Dan Kessler and Stephanie, had yet boarded a train.

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Yes, Christmas allows me all sorts of gadgets I can only imagine the rest of the year and the annual Easter egg hunt holds a special place in my heart, but Halloween is something rarer. The point is not to be cozy and warm. The core message is that there are dark things out there to be appeased. More crucially, one can give into the sanitized, latex version of one's dark side and pretend for twenty-four hours. One can conquer one's fear by wearing its face. I spent years in service of a volunteer haunted house, horrifying paying customers and feeding off the overflowing emotions. October days vanished in a blink, in honor to leaf-crunching nights personifying those parts of existence we least want to acknowledge the rest of the year. Once I became a more active Pagan, I had the additional charge of Samhain, an eve on the threshold, when the Veil is thinnest between this world and that of the dead.

As such, I have certain expectations for my Halloween. I want the night to be something special, something I will remember with a shiver the rest of the year, an orange and black stone I hold in my pocket. I am years past trick-or-treating (though I will decline to mention how few), especially as I do not especially like candy anymore, but that does not mean that I can let the night slip past unacknowledged.
Jinx with some foul witch's brew

Daniel and Jinx had been our de facto guest since we learned how well the two got on. Last Halloween, Melanie and I snuggled up with Hannah in New Paltz, enjoying pumpkin bread, cider, and the informal parade of receding hemlines and expanding bustlines this night afforded us. With Hannah in the Navy, there was simply no one with whom we would rather be than these two. Dan Kessler contacted me only days before Halloween, asking what I was doing. I told him my low key plans and he asked if he could impose himself. As I saw no conflict between any of the couples, I told him he was welcome (something I had neglected to mention to several others who hinted that they wanted to be included), he just needed to let me know when he would be here.

The plan was to cozy up in my apartment and watch horror movies, as well as eat whatever we four endeavored to bake until night fell. Then, we would go to a costume dance in Beacon. Melanie was excited and terrified by the concept of the dance. I had asked her if she never enjoyed dancing, as I had grown to quickly love it over the summer. She said, and I quote, "It's hard to like dancing when the only ones who did it with you were jerks in middle school, grinding because you are the fat girl and they think it's funny." If for that alone, I wanted to redeem the dance floor for her. Plus, one cannot discount how eager I am to coerce my lover into something appropriately revealing and get her gliding against me.

Jinx calls, already half an hour late and lost, as I am picking up the last package of Ghost Peeps in the store (which I had to grab before a ravenous looking woman with a basket full of candy could seize them). I try to give what directions I can while standing in the line, but finally give up and tell Jinx to try Melanie's phone, as she is in front of the computer.

"I did. She didn't answer."

I rush home and try to set things right, so our day can get started before nightfall.

"You did say they would get here at four, since they said they would be here between two thirty and three," Melanie reminds me.
"Mother! Stop haranguing me!"

"Yes, but I say a lot of things. Why is that the one the Universe listens to?"

They arrive and have their designated candies foisted upon them (semi-sweet chocolate for Jinx, Rollos for Daniel). Then we settled in to watch the original Nosferatu with soundtrack by Type O Negative, as it would not be needless torture porn (like Saw) or likely to wake Melanie (and everyone in my building) with her night terrors while still, technically, being a horror movie.

Jinx points out that the sofa is not commodious enough to accommodate us all. I rush to get a folding chair out of me closet and proffer it at Daniel.

"No," Jinx says. "I'll have to sit on Daniel. It's the only way we can watch a movie." She would be the expert, given how often they watch movies together of late.

While they watch and mock the movie, things start to feel right again and I begin to relax. I make everyone pasta primavera, both the easiest and tastiest dish I have mastered, even though it lacks the requisite creepiness of the holiday. Maybe I will sneak some crickets into my entrees next year.

Melanie mopes because my cooking takes me away from the sofa and she is envious of the cuddles Jinx and Daniel are sharing, so I pause in my chopping and seasoning to arrange Melanie's pink, stuffed octopus next to her for optimal surrogate cuddling. She huffs, so Jinx extends her affection until I am returned.

Once fed, we dress for the costume dance. I am arrayed as Rick Astley, though I see nothing I can do with my hair or face to get people to understand this. Instead, I tweak my Pocket PC so it will play "Never Gonna Give You Up". Melanie fears this means I will have to sing and dance like an awkward eighties crooner all night. Jinx and I understand that is the point.

Jinx and Melanie are respectively dressed as Queenie and Tigerlily, characters they devised while playing dress up one evening. The former is dressed to suit a music video from the 1980s and the latter simply wearing a sequined prom dress her babysitter gave her thirteen years ago.

As they are not technically dressed up as anyone recognizable, and as I'm Rick Astley and thus an internet meme, I offer, "I will buy you two girls Mudslides all night if you share one cup." They can somehow decline my generosity.

(Daniel, incidentally, was wearing no costume. We figured we could just tell people he was dressed as a vampire - possibly by throwing glitter at him - and he would win a prize anyway.)

Neither woman is the type to wear make-up usually. As such, I grossly underestimate the time it will take for them to apply their unguents and for us to be on our way. Daniel and I pace and huff about being reduced to stereotypes of impatient boyfriends, waiting for their womenfolk to finish applying their faces. The make-up became a toy and, after Melanie had sufficiently glammed herself, she used the eyeliner to draw herself a monobrow.

"I bet you were looking forward to having a hot girlfriend tonight," Melanie says.

"I always have a hot girlfriend," I reply. "Even if she is trying to look like Frida Kahlo."

At this, Melanie decides she had had enough of the monobrow and tries with moderate success her hardest to divide it back.

We drive through the drizzle to the venue. My younger brother had been there for an hour and had been texting me updates, largely pertaining to his being the youngest person there and that no one was dancing because there were only a few attendees. We ascend the staircase and look in before committing our ten dollars each. Inside are elderly people, shuffling awkwardly and wearing cowboy hats, to music that was scorned in the seventies.

"There is no way we are going in there," Melanie says for the group.

"Agreed," I say. I call my brother to inform him that we are abandoning him to the geriatric, though he leaves shortly after of his own volition and has his admission refunded. The organizers should have been much clearer that this is not a costume dance for anyone who doesn't have grandkids.

"Where'd you even hear about this dance?" Melanie asks.

"From the site that told me about the zombie walk."

"There is the problem. That site is never to be trusted again."
"I am getting a transmission from the mother ship..."

All is not lost. I offer that there is a party in Hyde Park that I had declined because of this dance. I call Ilana, who I knew to be attending, and we are on our way to her within second.

"I... um. I would not like to go," Melanie says when I hang up.

"But I just called Ilana! You'll love it. Promise."

"No, I would like to go home," Melanie says.

"Or to a diner," Daniel suggests.

"I could be good with a diner," adds Jinx.

"But... you'll like the party. Parties are fun."

"We'll put it to a vote," Melanie says. "Who wants to forget about the party?"

All three of them raise their hands.

"Introverts win," Melanie announces. "But aren't you glad I said something early this time?"

It is Halloween and I have been down voted for a costume party with a crowd of people I know they would like. It is Halloween, the most sacred and unusual night on my calendar, and I am about to spend it in a truck stop diner with three self-diagnosed introverts. I call Ilana back to inform her of our immediate flakiness. She urges me to persuade them, but I know they will be unmoved.

Once we get to the diner, Dan Kessler finally calls and leaves a message saying he is in no mood for a dance, even though I've already called and texted him that we aren't going to be at the dance any longer. Why is this night so steadily being skunked?

Seeing that I am quietly fuming, Melanie says, "I thought this would be fine with you. You had been talking about us four being like a family and I didn't want anyone else around, interfering with that."

I purse my lips and then smile. There is a point in many Zen stories where the subject of some apparent harm or humiliation will say, "I am rightly served," else the narrator will intone, "At this, he was enlightened." I am aware, on one level, that Melanie is playfully putting me in check (her satisfied grin betrays this) but she is also reiterating a truth I had managed to overlook. This night constituted the inaugural outing of our foursome and my plans had no business dictating its course. Only frustration and pain can come from guiding the Way where it doesn't wish to be.
"I think I can see a spirit!"

After alcoholic drinks (for Daniel and Jinx) and pancakes (for Melanie and me), we return to my apartment. They may have gotten their way so far, but I do have certain requirements for my entertainment, so I insist that we play with my Ouija board.

"But we don't believe in ghosts," Melanie points out.

"Doesn't matter, you don't need to. I think we are all on the same page that this is just a product of the unconscious mind, when it works at all." I had once read about an experiment done by the Toronto Society of Psychical Research wherein the people involved wholly creates a "ghost" out of collective storytelling which then communicated with him; I don't need it to be real to be fun.

I get out my table and board, as well as lighting several candles for effect. Then, it is decided that it is too dark to transcribe our findings in a spiral notebook, so we add a lamp. I didn't imagine that the spirits would mind overly.

We get the predictable gibberish and the mutual accusations that the other person is moving the planchette.

"I'm channeling your mom, Daniel," Melanie says, scribbling in all caps as though captured by automatic writing.

"My mother is still alive," Daniel says. The "unfortunately" is unstated but understood.

"I know!" Melanie proclaims, "That's what she is writing about!"

Daniel then asks if we wouldn't mind helping him practice for a personal business he is starting, reading tarot cards. He clarifies that this is not about telling the future and suggests that these are just bits of cardboard, but his tone implies that such divinatory tools work whether or not he happens to believe in them. (Hm, familiar.) The cards, he says, show one the path one is on and it all depends on one's personal interpretation; the future is not a static point. I am the selected guinea pig for this experiment, where he basically said I would be happier were I teaching, but took twenty minutes of intense explanation to do it.

Somehow - I blame Melanie's wiles and my weakness in the presence of girlflesh - the party then evolves in both women getting backrubs, which may be as close to witchcraft as the night will provide. I am especially rough in massaging Melanie as a constructive way to work out my residual frustration from the evening, though she welcomes the fierceness in unknotting her scholastic fretting made (much too) solid.

"Do you mind if we take off our shirts?" Melanie asks.

I say this is kosher, adding, "This party turned into an orgy so gradually."

"Sorry we don't have massage oil," she says to Jinx and Daniel a few minutes later. "You could use KY."

"This party turned into an orgy so gradually!"

Melanie looks up at me and asks, "What are you referencing?"

"Nothing," Daniel says. "I think he is being original."

"I do that from time to time."

Our gathering dissolves shortly after, as Daniel needs to drive Jinx and himself respectively home without mowing down trick-or-treaters who are skirting the curfew. The night was far from what I had anticipated but, aside from not getting to dance with Melanie, I harbor few regrets for my Halloween.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job, parties, Ilana, Tom, Melissa.

last watched: Stardust
reading: Fates Worse Than Death
listening: Regina Spektor

The Hermit Crab and the Phoenix | 2009 | How Far One Can Go

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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