Apology To Those of You With Whom I Communed at the Ouija Board: A Nocturne
~For John W. and Wendell M.
I confess I pushed the planchette across the board, leading the spirits to spell out the names darkening your bedrooms and basements. This was in the 80s when ouija boards were in every kid’s closet, beneath the clothes that were supposed to be hung up or under a bed tucked with the other illicit contraband. It was never just a game to some of you, though I’m sure I am not the only planchette pusher amongst us. But when I pushed the planchette I loved to insert a 3 for an E, a 1 for an I. Even then I was playing word games to amuse myself.
One time I spoke in the voice of my dead cat at the ouija board. The basement was cold and the slits of windows at the tops of the walls had spiderwebs in them. It was a perfect place for a game of spirits.
Trappy, I said in a stage whisper, can you hear us?
M3OW, I spelled out on the board.
Someone in the crowd made a haunting meooowww sound, and the room full of kids laughed. But the girl who was on the other end of the planchette ended the game without going to the GOOD BYE. She went to another room by herself. How cavalier we all were with death then.
The GOOD BYE was the most haunting part of the board for me. That distance between the two words contained the night and the darkness. There seemed to be in that space between GOOD and BYE a crevasse wide enough to hold all my lies within it.
I never witnessed light as a feather stiff as a board or chanted Candyman over and over or stood in a corner of a room in the dark waiting for a bluish spirit to seep from the ceiling, but I felt the tug and push of the ouija board a few times. I loved the fingertip pressure, how the resistance came to me as a challenge of electricity. It was like pushing heavy furniture on felt feet across tile or wood. Something big gliding effortlessly like a car on ice, or life fading from a face. The nudge so intimate, especially at night when the sliding was accompanied by the high rumble of crickets outside the window.
What was it about the night that made cardboard and plastic feel like a porthole? I took advantage of that, too. I’d look out a dark window to distract the others, just a subtle glance. I was a good liar. I had instincts to lie about my past, about my background and how much money I had. How many times did I lie about who I was, about what I had done? I lied about not being scared even on those nights, about seeing the Blue Light Lady out in the Kansas countryside, about hauntings and apparitions and the fear of fear itself.
Mostly I lied about death. I’m sure I left you all with the impression I didn’t fear it. I know I said more than once I had a good friend who died. But he was just a boy who lived a few blocks from me, went to the same school. John W. He was slightly older and he committed suicide and I walked by their house a few times to see what death looked like, and it looked like a FOR SALE sign on the lawn and no cars in the driveway. Otherwise it looked like white siding and shingles missing like gaps in teeth. What I mean to say is it looked like absence and neglect. John wasn’t my friend. I’d never been inside, but I still knew inside me that this corner-lot two-story house was haunted. I’m a parent now, and I understand why that house gave me the fright it did.
This is a confession and a nocturne, a late-night apologia, a rationalization in the hours closest to daybreak when I’ve risen from bed for no good reason and considered my wrongs. I use these dark hours for reflection more than conjuring nowadays. I remember John’s straight greasy hair, his cheek bones dragged down like putty and his eyes that always seemed to be on the verge of tears when I claimed to contact him while we were at the ouija board. He would be a spirit we could count on. He was my go-to spirit, and since so few other of you had lost friends when we were kids, he became a sort of ambassador to the underworld. And when John would answer, I pushed the planchette and spoke for him. But what I really know about him was as flimsy as the cardboard and plastic the message was carried upon.
And here I am using him again, using his spirit and his voice. Using his name and his fateful end. Every apology contains within it the hurt that generated it. In this way we are the contradictions as well. I’ve used John so many times I’ve made a new John, a scary John, a benevolent John, a John that even might be more me than John. And only in the briefest of moments, in the minutes I’m lying in bed waiting for the alarm to go off, do I regret all the times I’ve taken his name and his experience. Could the voice I’ve taken again and again ever help me understand why he killed himself?
Call it a spirit board or a talking board or a witch board, but ouija is such a strange word. Invented for a spectacle that happens outside the realm of the human, more than one source says that ouija was a portmanteau of various foreign words for ‘yes.’ We are all of us looking for the affirmative. Yes, I pushed the planchette around the board, seeking to entertain myself and you all. Yes, 1’m still doing it, all these years later, pushing words across a surface, a sort of truth emerging from the madness. And now that a mentor has died, and grandparents, and more friends, I don’t apologize for pushing the piec3s across the board. 1 do apologize for the lies, though, because our dead deserve better. Planchette-pushers like me were the force speaking from the beyond in the night. The d3ad remain with us, hidden along the dark ditches of our memories, the scratch of the limbs in the night wind of our fingers, and the long shadows cast by the regretful moon. All I had to do was open my eyes a little wider.
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