Monthly Archives: October 2013

Vintage Trick-or-Treating, circa 1961: A Ghost Story

Tess Trueheart

Tess Trueheart

I’d been waiting at the door for the bell to ring, but I heard the scuffle of their shoes on the porch first and opened the door. Cindy and Judy, the big girls who lived next door, were taking me trick-or-treating. I recognized them because their costumes only slightly altered their everyday appearance.

“Oh don’t you look cute! I’m going to a hootenanny,” Cindy said, adjusting the bandana around her neck.

“What a cute gypsy outfit,” Judy tugged on my gold hoop earring. “I’m Tess Trueheart.” She loved comic book characters and could draw comic strip girls with curvy silhouettes just like a professional. “Are you ready? Let’s go.”

Mom kissed me goodbye. “Be careful, girls.”

“We’ll take good care of her, don’t worry!” Cindy smiled reassuringly at my mother. I wondered if Mom had paid the girls to babysit me. That took a little shine off the night. My hand moved to the scarf tied gypsy style on top of my head as if to make sure it was still there.

On our small front porch–a 4×4 foot cement block–we scanned the neighborhood, debating which route to take. The sky gleamed black as a witch’s cape and glittered its spangle of stars. I figured there would be a full moon grinning above us, but the stars and the porch lamps were the only light which broke up the vast blackness.

“Let’s go to Mark’s first and up and around Gull Road and then back into the neighborhood.” Cindy decided because she was the oldest.

As we began to walk, the black chow which patrolled the boundaries of the yard across the street ran along his property line, yapping and growling, until the man called him into the house.

In the dark, the houses looked like jack-o-lanterns with their dark opaque walls and windows lit up like cut-out eyes and noses. The ripe smell of decaying leaves hung in the crisp air.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Mark’s front door had a cardboard black cat silhouette taped up, and his mother gave us each a Tootsie roll. Their house looked like mine, with a front living room window and one bedroom window facing street side, and a one car garage set back at the end of the driveway.

The Smiths’ house was next. Mr. Smith let us choose hard candy from a bowl because Pam’s mom was busy with the baby. We each grabbed two pieces, not daring to take three. Mrs. Smith would have handed us one piece each.

At the top of the street, the only two-story house in our neighborhood sat waiting for us. Last year a fire had destroyed the furniture and some of the interior walls. One of the kids had set the fire by playing with matches, or so Mom had explained to me. “That’s why you NEVER play with matches!”

The rumor I heard was that a child had died in the fire, but I wasn’t sure if it was true. Nobody seemed to know the family. Now the house sat vacant and was said to be haunted.

When we got near the house, the girls stopped and Cindy said, “Who’s going to ring the doorbell?”

“Not me,” said Judy.

At six, I was too young to question why we were trick-or-treating at an abandoned house.

Cindy looked at me. “I’m not going to either because I have to be in charge. But we have to see if the spirits answer the bell. Maybe Luanne should do it.” At a tall eleven, Cindy’s form threatened from the shadows.

I glanced at the high, skinny house. Unlike our houses, this one was from before the war. The once-white paint glowed in the dark a smoky ghostlike color. The porch slanted down on one side. It gave the appearance of a building about to fall down to the ground.

Mainly I scanned the dark windows. Then I glanced behind me. Across the street, the only house I could see was the one bedroom bungalow rented by the divorced beautician who wore a big Madge ‘do and had a toy poodle that smelled of perm chemicals. Her porch light was not on. No backup support from over there.

As I looked back up at the second story of the haunted house, I saw a flash of movement. I didn’t wait to see what it was; I took off running.

Within moments, I heard a loud crash and the tinkling sound of glass breaking, then two sets of feet running behind and then alongside me. I held my long skirt tautly to the side so it didn’t wrap around my legs and trip me.

We didn’t stop until we reached Gull Road. Judy and Cindy panted on both sides of me as we leaned over and caught our breaths. I thought Judy was starting to throw up as she revved up her breathing, but then she coughed and spit up some phlegm.

“What in the heck was that?” Judy said.

“I don’t know, but we are going to be killed,” Cindy answered. “Did you see it, Luanne? Is that why you ran?”

“I did! I saw something.” My insides started twittering in fear that Cindy thought we would be killed.

“What was it?” Cindy said. I started to tell her that it looked like a kid that flickered like a candle, but she turned to Judy and grabbed her arm, shaking her. “You’re in so much trouble, you idiot! I can’t believe you did that.”

We walked into the lighted National parking lot. “I want a monster charm!” Judy said.

She put a nickel into the fancy gumball machine and pulled out a monster ring with glowing eyes which she promptly stuck on her finger. She shoved her hand in my face so I could see its smug face.

I had no money and didn’t understand wasting a nickel when it was Halloween. However, Cindy and Judy were my elders, so I held my tongue and watched in jealousy while they compared shiny charms. Sighing, I ripped open my tootsie roll and popped it into my mouth.

Eventually I realized that Cindy said we were going to be killed because Judy had broken the window and we would be punished, but that epiphany came many years later. Until then I lived in terror of the house up the street.

Have you ever lived by a haunted house? I’d love to read your story about it!

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt

The Historical Factor of Dolls

I wasn’t going to post until next week because I’m trying to concentrate on my manuscripts.  But I just got a notification from WordPress that it’s the one year anniversary of this blog. So I thought I’d pop on here for a moment to say Happy Anniversary to me, um, Writer Site.

While I’m on here, I thought I’d make a few more points about dolls. This time it’s history, not creepiness.

  • The word doll may come from the Greek word for idol: eidolon. This reminds us that one of the purposes of early dolls was in religion.
  • Most ancient and modern cultures have had dolls, although they were not always children’s toys.
  • Dolls have been made from every material you can imagine.
  • No dolls have survived from prehistoric times, but there are museum examples from the major ancient cultures, such as Egyptian, Greek, etc.
  • Any model of a human being can be viewed as a doll of sorts.
  • Technically, stuffed animals are not dolls, but when I realized that Koko the Gorilla views stuffed gorillas as dolls, I saw how human-centric our thinking is.
  • Dolls look as different from each other as people do from each other.
  • Here’s a link to a basic history of dolls.

Ming Ming by the Quan Quan Company

Mattel’s Ken and wardrobe in Ken doll case

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The Creep Factor of Dolls

Since I was very young, dolls have fascinated me. And I don’t mean that in a creepy I’ll-rip-your-head-off-pretty-dolly kind of way. I was one of those good kids who put clothes on their dolls. I felt uncomfortable if my doll wore a dress and had no underpants underneath.

I have a very large and fairly traditional doll collection, and I store them in my guest room. Many guests are completely creeped out by dolls.  You should see the looks they give me when I show them the bed they have to sleep on–with a big wall of dolls staring at them all night long!  For me, though, most of them are beautiful and not so very creepy.

But as an adult I realize that dolls have a lot more potential than I had credited them with before. They can mean all kinds of things to us: good, bad, creative, destructive.

My poetry manuscript contains a surprising amount of poems about dolls. I wrote one and then I wrote another and then the doll voices and stories kept coming at me. Through writing the poems I’ve uncovered a lot I didn’t know about dolls. As I wrote the poems, I began to realize the creep factor of dolls, as well as all the different ways dolls speak to me.  It’s impossible, though, to sum up here what is shown with more vividness in the poems.

Since I’m working on the manuscript now and in honor of Halloween, I’ll share a few creepy doll images with you.

***

A few years ago I found this wonderful doll art on the internet. They apparently were created by Kelley Richardson. Her out-of-date blog is found here.

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One of those doll dioramas is the subject of a poem I am including in my manuscript. Can you guess which doll/shadowbox I wrote about?

The other day, one of my Facebook friends shared a collection of creepy doll photos which spoke volumes about how dolls can get under your skin.creepydolls8_0 (1)

Here is the link or just click the photo above.

As a nod to tradition, here is a photo taken by my grandfather’s uncle over 100 years ago of some children, presumed to be relatives. The two girls are clutching their dolls.

I guess it’s a little creepy to realize the dolls might have outlasted the girls.

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Pay Attention: What Makes a Good Poem

Have you ever felt so totally alive and present in that one particular moment that you realized how rare a feeling it was?

According to Donald Revell in his book The Art of Attention, this moment comes to us through paying “attention.” He says that “Attention is a question of entirety, of being wholly present.”

On noting how a good poem can cause the reader to feel concern for an injured bird, though the poem was written years before (and the bird, if it existed, has long since died), Revell says, “it’s wonderful to be drawn to attend what I am reading so entirely that even the most ephemeral presents are Present to me and matters of concern.”

As I read Revell’s thoughts, I knew what he meant about poems that are so attentive that they make me attentive as a reader.

Here is an example of a poem (part of a longer poem, really), which was written between 1759 and 1763, and shows such attention to a pet cat that I sense Jeoffry the cat is still alive today.  And he is, in my own four cats. I do watch them attentively :).

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]

by Christopher Smart

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.

For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.

For he rolls upon prank to work it in.

For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.

For this he performs in ten degrees.

For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.

For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.

For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.

For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.

For fifthly he washes himself.

For sixthly he rolls upon wash.

For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.

For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.

For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.

For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.

For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.

For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.

For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.

For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.

For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.

For he is of the tribe of Tiger.

For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.

For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.

For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.

For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.

For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.

For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.

For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel

from Egypt.

For every family had one cat at least in the bag.

For the English Cats are the best in Europe.

For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.

For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.

For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.

For he is tenacious of his point.

For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.

For he knows that God is his Saviour.

For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.

For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.

For he is of the Lord’s poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry!

poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.

For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.

For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.

For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.

For he is docile and can learn certain things.

For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.

For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.

For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.

For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.

For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.

For he can catch the cork and toss it again.

For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.

For the former is afraid of detection.

For the latter refuses the charge.

For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.

For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.

For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.

For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.

For his ears are so acute that they sting again.

For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.

For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.

For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.

For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the

bodies both of man and beast.

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.

For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.

For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.

For he can swim for life.

For he can creep.

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.

###

Source of the poem

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Mary Oliver on Free Verse

Now that the writing contest is over and Fall is upon us (or we’re smack in the middle of it, whichever makes more sense), I am hitting the computer for work on my poetry manuscript and my memoir and won’t be spending as much time blogging.

Since I’ve been working with my poetry manuscript, I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry, and I like what Mary Oliver says about “free verse” in A Poetry Handbook:

Free verse is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design. Is poetry language that is spontaneous, impulsive? Yes, it is. Is it also language that is composed, considered, appropriate, and effective, though you read the poem a hundred times? Yes, it is. And this is as true of free verse as it is of metrical verse.

Merely hacking sentences into short lines because they look pretty and allow the reader to consider the words more carefully isn’t creating “composed, considered” free verse.

Deciding how to break up lines in poetry is the most difficult part.

For all of us buckling down to writing this fall:

Get to work and have fun!!

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Honorable Mention: “The Story of the Water Droplets”

The Story of the Water Droplets

by Enrique Guerra-Pujol

Whenever my wife and I return to Jamaica to visit our family and friends, we like to begin our day by waking up early to see the sunrise and walking on the beach. As the soft sun appears above the horizon, I will wade into the warm tropical waters and perform a peculiar and private ritual. In brief, I lunge into the gentle waves, clasp together the palms of my hands, and splash the ocean waters as high as I possibly can.

This motion produces hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of tiny water droplets, flying every which way. Each airborne droplet sparkles under the rising Caribbean sun, yet the duration of this chaotic ballet of droplets is but short- lived. This transitory constellation of water droplets falls back into ocean in the blink of an eye.

I confess that I never tired of performing this strange aquatic sacrament. But why?

Perhaps the ephemeral droplets are a poetic reminder of my mortality, for on a geological time scale, the life of one man is like the lifespan of a single, fleeting droplet.

In the alternative, maybe I am attracted to the unruly geometry of the airborne droplets, for with each splash of the waters, I produce a unique and inimitable choreography of dancing droplets.

Or perhaps the flying droplets are a collective symbol of the inherent limitations of our knowledge, for just as I am unable to take a precise census of the innumerable droplets, we may never be able to fully understand the unceasing dynamics of human conflict and the role of law in promoting cooperation.

But, often times, knowing our limitations is a good place to start. I may not be able to count the entire constellation of droplets at any one time, but perhaps, by narrowing my gaze to one droplet, I could develop a simple and testable model to find an approximate measure of her trajectory and lifespan.

There is no moral to this story. It’s just about one man’s sense wonderment amid the beauty of the water droplets.

 

 

Enrique Guerra-Pujol is a law professor, an indiscriminate reader, and a struggling writer. His main areas of research are the evolution of conflict and cooperation and the application of Bayes’ Rule and other mathematical ideas to law. In addition, his extracurricular interests include bird-watching, rafting, star-gazing, and the arts, especially literature and the cinema.

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Honorable Mention: “The Relaxation Group”

The Relaxation Group

by Jackie Dinnis   

My arrival at the group will be a minor miracle. Venturing out of my four walls into unfamiliar territory is like asking me to fly to the moon. The past few days have been spent rehearsing in my mind as an actor would walk through a forthcoming scene in a play. Being a glass half-empty type of person I spend my life constantly expecting the worst, but it still came as a slap in the face when the worst actually happened. I won’t bore you with the details because I no longer feel the need to tell everyone about my catastrophic life. Finally things all caught up with me and I am receiving treatment for anxiety. I hope the relaxation group will play a major part.

I am on the number 5 bus, after many hours of pondering, poring over bus timetables, taking practice rides in the car, and walking to the hospital. So many decisions to be made, and I feel incapable of even deciding whether to drink tea or coffee at the moment. My mind tries to think logically; if I walk, I am more in control of things. I know how long it takes me to make the journey, so there is no doubt what time I need to leave the house. The bus trip needs to be taken in two parts and will take just as long as walking, but I will be able to sit on the buses and not get hot. I could drive. I know where to park when I get there and it is only a ten minute drive on major roads with no tricky right hand turns into busy traffic.  Everything is such a worry; there’s no rest for my mind at all. Who would have thought the treatment for anxiety would be so scary? In the end my decision is made for me. Since I find my car boxed in by visitors to the local park, there’s not enough time to walk and the bus is my only option.

I rush to the bus stop and sit by the window, then mentally count off the number of stops as we progress along the tree-lined avenue. No one sits beside me, so I can ignore the worry of having to ask them to move as I get off the bus by the town hall. That was the shorter journey, and I change to the number 5 bus to complete it. There are fewer people on this bus, the sun shines through the windows and I try to remember to keep breathing. As the bus slowly progresses through the town centre to the outskirts, I take the official looking letter out of my handbag, noting again the time of the appointment and where I am to enter the building. Somehow the actual going in is on my mind more than anything else, as once I am inside there will be no turning back. All the time I am still outside, I can decide to turn around and go back to the safety of my home. I have control.

I recognise the road we are on; it leads into the hospital grounds. I prepare to leave the comparative safety of the bus.

Going into the hospital is, in the end, no problem at all. Everywhere is clearly labelled and signposted. I am gently shown into the relaxation room and told where to sit. Did I really think they would make it difficult to gain entrance to a group designed for people suffering from anxiety?

On entering the relaxation room a quiet, steady background sound permeates the interior–the constant low sounds of water flowing and birds gently singing. It comes from a CD player on a shelf by the window. Panic rises along with my temperature. This sound of water might make me need the loo, and I have no idea where it is. I sit there, unsure whether or not to remove my coat, and if I do, where should I put it?

Welcome to my mind, the place of constant turmoil, one decision after another, worry piled on worry until it all topples over like a pile of laundry constantly overfilling the basket.

The sweat trickles down my top lip, and casually my tongue pops out from the corner of my mouth, mopping up the salty liquid. It’s no good, my coat will have to be removed, and I can feel everyone’s eyes on me as I struggle to get my arms out of the sleeves while remaining seated. Standing up would be one step too far at this stage; it would make me fill more space in the room and draw even more attention to myself.

Suddenly I notice a bubbling sound coming from the corner of the room, a kettle is having its own little panic attack on the table as it reaches boiling point. I want to rush over and switch it off, allowing it to calm down, but it automatically stops itself after a while. I wish I had one of those switches inside me.

I risk lifting my eyes, noting with some relief that the other occupants of the room all seem as mad as me. We’re all wearing clothes that could have come from a dressing up box at a nursery or the reject pile at a charity shop.

Worry, worry, worry. When will this group start? Looking around the room out of the corner of my eye, I see: twitching limbs; fingers scratching naked arms; tapping feet; crossed legs flapping uncontrollable; a horrible sense of loss of control.

‘Hello everyone, here we are then, and first it would be good to introduce ourselves–just our first names. I’m Tom.’

I don’t hear anyone else’s name, struggling to remember my own, saying it under my breath again and again until it comes to be my turn to speak. What is my name anyway, and who am I?

Jackie lives with her son in Brighton, England. After leaving school at 16 in 1974, she continued her education recently, studying at the University of Sussex and gaining a degree in Community Development. She now does what she wants to do which includes writing, researching her family history, watching Brighton & Hove Albion and enjoying her life.

Watch for another Honorable Mention story on Friday!

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