Sunday, July 4, 2021

The #Midwessay: Randy Osborne, Proof of Survival

Proof of Survival

Randy Osborne


“Oh McKay, did you see that write-up, ‘The Babysitter and the Slasher’?” From her tone, my grandmother Mad might have been asking if I noticed a newspaper item about the Christmas tree-lighting next Thursday in the main square of our northern Illinois town. But we never attended such things. 
     Mad flipped the June, 1963 True Detective open to the two-page photo spread that began the article. The babysitter’s body lay hunched in snow where the Minneapolis dog walker found it. Cops and newsmen huddled around, taking notes. 
     Her face, I read aloud, no longer resembled a human countenance. At eight years old, I needed help with longer words. Mad glanced up from her sewing. 
     “‘Countenance’ means the same as ‘face.’ He bashed her face in, after he cut her throat.” Mad positioned a sleeve under the machine’s needle. “Or he might have bashed her face in before. Most likely after.” She pumped the pedal and the Singer’s needle jumped, happily stabbing cloth. I turned the pages.
     The same issue offered “Poker, Call Girls and Murder.” I didn’t know what a call girl was, but I liked the name of the prosecutor in the case—Neil McKay—and the close-up police photo of the dead guy in a pool of blood. He looked like my father. 
     On the cover, a man with a shovel kept watch over his shoulder in the woods. His negligee-clad victim sprawled near the deepening hole. “Carole Annette Was Buried Alive”!  
     Also buried in the pulpy pages was a feature about San Francisco’s “social register thieves,” the husband/wife duo caught burgling furs and jewels from the city’s elite. A photo showed the female suspect in custody. She wore cat-eye glasses. “Patty was stunned to hear of another Mrs. Lewis, living under a different name.” It happens.
     After her husband left her for “that slut” he met at the power plant, Mad took in sewing. She didn’t mind accepting periodicals instead of cash, at least not from Mrs. Winter. The aptly named dowager first showed up at our front door with a stuffed paper bag hanging off the end of each arm, like the scales of justice in an overcoat. After introductions, Mad took the left-arm bag from her. A swatch of fabric peeped over its edge. 
     Mrs. Winter sat down with the second bag, which crackled, shifted and toppled over to deal a peacock’s tail of reading material across the floor: crime journals with lurid photos on the fronts, and scattered among them smaller, square-shaped Fate Magazines with bright orange, pink and blue covers.
     “Not for you!” Winter’s knob-jointed finger hooked the air near my face, like a crow’s beak picking meat. She smelled of talcum powder and rhubarb. Mad winked at me, her smile gone when Mrs. Winter turned to her. “I thought you might enjoy these, Madeline.” And we did enjoy them, together, after the harpy winged her way back to wherever she came from. 
     Fate, like True Detective, included a San Francisco article that month: “The Coming West Coast Disaster.” The piece dealt—uncommonly for Fate—with science, but with a clairvoyant angle. Seismologists and psychics agreed that the quake due “any time from the present to 1999” would cause “tremendous loss of life, the greatest in recorded history.”
     Other Fate features dealt with hauntings, UFOs, and mystic experiences. “My Proof of Survival” invited contributions and paid five dollars. H.L. Stalnaker, a lad of seven when his 23-year-old mother died from a blood clot, sighted her ghost under the oak tree where she had done her washings. “Son, don’t ever forget what I’ve tried to teach you,” she said. “Remember it, and remember that I love you.” Stalnaker ran toward her; she vanished. “I told my grandmother and others what had happened,” Stalnaker writes, “but I was laughed at for having too vivid an imagination.” 
     Mad would not have laughed. She took the paranormal seriously. The supernatural, she called it. She would stop sweeping the floor, fix me with her eyes, and whisper, “God will give you blood to drink.” She waited for it to sink in: Matthew Maule’s gallows curse, shouted at Judge Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables. 
     She told me the story many times. Pyncheon wrongly convicts his neighbor Maule of witchcraft so he can seize Maule’s property. On his way to the gallows, he vows that blood will quench the judge’s greed for eternity. Pyncheon builds his seven-gabled house on the land and hosts a grand housewarming dinner—where he’s found slumped in his chair, dead from a massive throat hemorrhage. 
     The Pyncheon family’s fortunes go bad after the judge dies. Phoebe, a distant relation, marries a descendant of Maule, so the property ends up in the proper hands again, along with the mansion. “Except now it’s haunted, McKay, don’t you see,” Mad said. The Hawthorne story might have inspired some of Mad’s own writing, such as her poem “The Greystone House”: 

It stands alone on top of the hill
Forlornly old though majestic still.
The greystone house through the many years
Felt the heartbeat of life, knew its laughter and tears.
The wind moans down the empty halls
On the creeping stairs a footstep falls
Is that a voice in some distant room?
Is that a face in the gathering gloom? 
Have the spirits of those long passed away
Reluctant to leave a life so gay 
Returned to relive a life so sweet
Or to finish some deed left incomplete?
Or is it appeasement or vengeance they seek?
Did death unexpectedly come at the peak,
And leave unfulfilled desires so deep
That even the dead know a restless sleep? 
No, those who have gone from this earthly life
Left much they have felt, whether joy or strife
Impressed on the dwelling they leave behind
Forever to challenge and baffle mankind.

Unfortunately, Fate didn’t publish verse. 
     When Peter wanted to conduct a séance so that we could speak with the spirit of C.V., Mad agreed right away, though I believe she saw through it from the start. C.V. had died of emphysema less than a year earlier, in the arms of Barbara. For us he was neither a voice in a distant room nor a face in the gathering gloom, quite, but maybe we could change that. 
     We joined hands around a card table in the dark. I was scared already. “This is stupid,” Kathleen said. 
     Peter told her to shut up. He waited a moment and said in a lower voice, “C.V., come to us. If you are able to sense our call, come to us.” Neither Peter nor Kathleen ever called him “Dad” or “Father,” and they called Mad by her first name.
     “How are we supposed to know if he’s around?” Kathleen said. “Is he going to light up a Tareyton?”
     Peter called her an idiot and told her to shut up. C.V. would drink the water, that’s how we would know. Peter demanded silence. Kathleen said her nose itched. Shut up. Shut up. 
     We waited. 
     “I feel him,” Peter said at last. “He is among us.” 
     I wanted to know what “among us” meant, exactly—above us, or in the general vicinity, or maybe between me and Mad, in whose bosom I suddenly wanted to hide? And why didn’t Peter just say, I think he’s here?
     “C.V.,” Peter said, “if you are among us, drink ye the water we offer you.” Now I was even more frightened. Why was Peter talking like a pirate, or Jesus? Was he turning into someone else as a result of contact with...the other side? We shouldn’t be doing this. 
     Then I heard the water glass slide across the table. One soft gulp. Two louder gulps. 
     “I declare,” Mad said. “That is one noisy ghost.”
     There was a choking and spluttering, then an explosion of spray. Kathleen jumped to flip the wall switch. Peter had me holding his right wrist, with Mad gripping his right hand, and the glass of water in his left hand. 
     Everybody laughed, but it was the quick-fading noise of a surprise party where the guest of honor knew all along. Kathleen clicked the switch on and off, on and off, on and off. In the strobe-like flash, Mad seemed distracted. She sank into herself—thinking, I suppose, of real-life witches, things unfairly taken and situations never made right.
     “Stupid,” Kathleen said, and walked out.

Randy Osborne's essay collection, Over the River and Stabbed to Death, won the international Beverly Prize for Literature and is forthcoming from Eyewear/Black Spring Press. His work has appeared in many small literary magazines as well as several print anthologies, and was listed in the Notables section of Best American Essays for 2015, 2016, and 2018. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Joyce and five-year-old girl, Leela.

The essay, as we all know, is an attempt. It’s a way of telling about, relating to, examining, delineating, and explaining things: big things and small; elephants and moths; individual human lives and families; a neighborhood, a whole city; a state or a whole damn, glacially-ironed region.   

The Illinois essay, and the essayists who call Illinois home, are concerned and consumed by delineations, with explaining themselves and the state(s) they now find themselves in: Northshore vs. South Side; Chicago vs. the ‘burbs; Chicagoland vs. Downstate; corn and soybean futures vs. the actual plants themselves; mile-long parcels of flatness vs. many-storeyed city blocks; staying vs. leaving.

The Illinois essays that follow are indebted to many that came before (Chief Blackhawk, Eliza Farnham, Honest Abe, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, John Hughes, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few) but are trying real hard not to live in the past. 

The essays that follow are curious about how many minutes it took you to get here. They are here to warn you that if a white boy in a Patagonia fleece tells you he’s from Chicago that he’s actually from Oak Brook or Highland Park. —David Griffith, Illinois #Midwessay Coordinator


What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

No comments:

Post a Comment