The Haunting, Inexorable Poltergeist Of Our Lives
By Tom Burkett
The skinnier girl shoots me a scowl, nose crinkled, forehead knotted. Her bony legs dangle over the stone wall, crossed tight at the knees. She’s obviously uncomfortable with the eyes of a middle-aged man on her, especially a specimen like me—bushy hair, tangled beard, drinking Coors on my cabin porch. They’re across the road, both these tiny, skin-and-bone girls, dressing their doll in a witch’s hat and cape. Halloween is in two days. A dry breeze slides off the peaks and into the canyon, moaning in the pines, pushing a lone cloud across the mountain range. It’s blowing from the desert, full of electricity, chapping my lips. Both girls have the palest faces and the darkest black hair that fans over their shoulders. They look like their little doll.
An idea comes to me, and if I were a superstitious man—and at one time I was—I’d venture this idea was not implanted by un-malevolent forces. I’m tempted to meander across the road and tell the girls they’re meddling with a bona fide, and therefore treacherous, instrument of voodoo. What do all those big words mean, hairy, mountain man? I’ll demonstrate how to apply the needles (I have nails—1 ¼-inch fasteners—in my shirt pocket). Then I’ll point out how closely the little darlings themselves resemble the doll. Do you feel a pain in your belly buttons, little ones, because that’s where you stuck the sharp pointy pins? That would give their Halloween a twist, coming from a creature like me who, not un-coincidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to Nostradamus.
I whistle to get their attention. They hear, pause, but choose to ignore. So that’s the way it’s going to be. They’ve got to be twins. Seven, eight, nine. Probably Clomid twins. One in ten chance of having twins if you use Clomid. Like it’s some kind of doubling potion. Sprinkle it in a barren womb—poof!—there are two where there were none. All these infertile families with their Clomid twins moving up here. Mirror images in cutsy-dutesy outfits. They’re all after the fresh air, fleeing the asthma that haunts LA like some smog-age incubus.
“Hey,” I shout. “Darlings.” The skinnier one has the daring to look my way. I catch her eye, hold it. “The doll. Bring it over here.” I wave, invite her across the road, but before I can complete the gesture, she turns her head. Did I see a roll of the eyes? Before this young family invasion, I would sit on my porch in the dusk, drink my beer and look across the road into a bank of Douglas firs and wind-twisted oaks. I’d see creatures staring back—a big-horned sheep, a buck, a doe and fawn, an occasional mountain lion and brown bear.
Now what do I gaze upon? Twins on the lawn—a green lawn for Christ’s sake and with porcelain statues of a doe and a buck. This lawn fronts a sprawling new house that’s not even an A-frame, but some suburban style thing with mock red-tile roofs, as if it fancies itself some kind of Italian villa. These are the San Gabriel Mountains—we’re at 6,000 feet—not some Tuscany hill town. And now instead of peering into the eyes of majestically antlered beasts, wondering what elemental notions swirl behind their widening pupils, I have to watch—I’m reduced to observing!— the trivialities of twins who mostly likely were delivered Cesarean from a womb that would have been a wind-swept summit if it weren’t for drugs only yuppie CPAs can afford.
If these girls are anything like the other snots in this village, they’ll soon be calling me “Sin” or “Curse.” They’ll throw pebbles at my door and flee when I peer out the window. They’ll say infants are buried under my porch. They’ll swear my gaze inflicts zits, boils, incurable itching. I do play my part—when I’ve had enough beers—and shout, for example, that they better check their shit for the worms I’ve infested them with. There’s always one who that night expels a parasite-ridden stool. It’s just the odds when you live in the forest, but suddenly, among the children, my words assume the dread of prophecy.
The skinnier Clomid product glares at me again, as if she’s been reading my thoughts and does not approve of my attitude. She leans toward her sister. Their jaws move rapidly. They snatch glances, point discreetly. I twist the cap off another beer, take a long swig. They’re saying I’m scary. I see their lips shape the word, eyes widening as they extend the “eeeee” of the long “y.” But what is “scary” in their pharmaceutical -generated minds? What behavior have I exhibited to represent “scary?” What can they imagine me doing?
A kitten crawls onto my thigh. I have five cats, the most fecund things you can imagine. One of them is always birthing a litter. Right now at least eleven newborns are slinking around my cabin. I don’t know whose womb this scrawny runt climbed from. I stroke the infant feline, wondering if it dreams it’s something majestic like a High Sierra Puma. I slide my palm along its spine, dipping into gorges between vertebrae. This one is black but for a thumb-sized white patch on its chest.
From the stone wall, across the road, the girls are still stealing looks. The skinnier one scowls directly at me, the brave one. She’ll be the first to hurl a rock at my cabin, her sister clinging to her wrist, saying not to do it, then bursting into giggles as they run.
I frown back. As I expect, the shy one turns away, but Little Brave Twin levels her eyes, furrows her brows, curls her lips into a snarl. What gumption. I caress the kitten’s head, fingers and thumb kneading its skull. Are they discussing why such a ferocious-looking beast like me is stroking this most delicate and innocent of creatures?
Another idea befalls me, but this one is unquestionably malevolent. I am astounded at my capability for producing such an insidious thought. Why would I even visualize such horror? But the real question is, am I capable of its execution? Execution? An interesting choice of nouns. Do multiple meaning words reveal more about our intentions than we realize? I should just push the kitten away, nudge it gently off the edge of my porch. Out of sight, out of mind. But look at that glowering face across the road. Is that a tongue protruding from her mouth? No creature annoys me more than a disrespectful, glowering Clomid twin. The only thing worse would be her infertile parents. In general, how can anyone stand parents? A more righteous group of fanatics hasn’t existed since the Puritans.
I grab the loose skin at the kitten’s nape, lift the infant runt off my thigh, hoist it at arm’s length. Both girls stare. What will the scary man do to kitty? Here’s what he’ll do: His free hand disappears behind him. When it reappears, behold the all-purpose carving knife glistening in his fist. (All genuine, non-yuppie mountain men carry an all-purpose carving knife in a leather sheath attached to their belts.) The glistening blade, reflecting the final rays of the sun, hovers before kitty’s throat. Hands cover the girls’ mouths. The scary mountain man leers. The girls stand, hold hands, lean forward, eyes round as communion wafers. The glistening, all-purpose steel vanishes into the black fur, slits open the throat, cracks the delicate, newborn brainstem and reemerges on the other side.
Kitty’s screech halts the blue jays’ squawking. To think such a wail could issue from an organism so tiny! Blood spurts, gushes, dribbles. The body flops onto the porch, twitches, writhes, goes limp. I hold the head between my forefinger and thumb.
The girls are running up their nicely manicured lawn, the rich green of well-fertilized soil, Little Brave Twin pulling Little Shy Twin, who’s looking over her shoulder, eyes magnetized to mine, mouth wide open, utterly silent. Cat got your tongue? I blow her a kiss. Now scary has an image. They will see it tonight when they close their eyes.
I lay the head by the body. I open another beer, take a long, long swig. My pulse, how it races! How hot I am and so suddenly. I know why I frighten children. I know why it feels so cathartic. But what possesses me to sacrifice a newborn kitten? At least I can give it the respect due a martyr. I gather the kitty, body and head, and bury it under the porch. (Wonder how rumors start?) Do I give it a grave marker? Of course I do. A slab of pine with its name and date of death carved into the wood. I christen it Sebastian.
The dark has arrived. I stumble on the door jam or is it a cat? The ghost of my martyr? Six beers and I’m tipsy. Feel my way down the hall and into the kitchen. Why turn on the lights and ruin the scary-man atmosphere? In the kitchen window, the round edge of the moon surfaces over the mountain peak, like it’s some bashful Peeping Tom, timidly eyeing the goings-on below—peering with amusement at the twin little girls sniveling in their beds. Did they really see the scary man do what they thought they did? I open the fridge for another Coors and see Sheila left her wine uncorked.
Did I mention I have a wife? I pick up the bottle. Chianti of course. Sheila drinks nothing but Chianti. Our honeymoon eleven years ago was in Italy, in Naples, the Mafia city, which we preferred over an institutional dullard like Rome, the keeper of the most wretched of institutions: the Vatican. In our criminal town, we drank Chianti until dawn and slept past noon. Proudly slept in our matrimonial sheets.
At our last dinner in Naples, just past 10 o’clock, in a neighborhood bistro, Sheila proclaimed she was limiting herself to one glass. She showed me the pink dot—indicating positive—on the home pregnancy kit she’d bought the day before. Just a whimsical lark as we passed an apothecary. In celebration I drank a whole bottle and made a grand fool of myself announcing to the entire restaurant—in English, standing on the table, arms spread like a preacher’s—that I possessed more joy than any man in Southern Italy, nay, than the whole of the Mediterranean, because my beautiful new wife was carrying my boy. His name, I sang out, was Sebastian. The truth was, I didn’t know its sex, and we’d never discussed names. I don’t even know where the name came from. I was lost in a glorious, wonderfully drunken moment. Our fellow diners brought me drinks, shook my hand in both of theirs, slapped me on the back. The men danced with Sheila. The women kissed her cheeks. No country adores children more than Italy. The miscarriage came three weeks later.
A mere dollop swishes in Sheila’s bottle. I swig it down. The Chianti tastes like it did in Naples. The best night of my life. I imagine Sheila’s good and sloshed if she drank the bottle herself. I grab a Coors, toe a kitten out of my path, step on a pile of dirty shirts and open the bedroom door. Sheila’s nude on the California King, supine, one leg under the sheet, the other on top. Jeans and a black tank top tangle on the floor. The reading light burns on the nightstand. An empty wine glass stands atop of a copy of Siddhartha. A Herman Hesse fan, Sheila railed against her middle class upbringing. How else could she marry me, a defrocked man of the cloth, who, yes, in an all-too-common scenario fell in love with one of his parishioners? (Sheila’s magnetism proved stronger than the Divine’s.) And how best to avoid our old lives than here up in the mountains?
She’s breathing deep. Some phlegm rattles her throat. A hair flutters on her lips. A wide mother cat sprawls on the windowsill. That’s not a white patch on the chest, is it? No, on closer inspection, I’m relieved to see it’s our tabby, Margaret. Pregnant again, Maggie? Shadows from the pines crook the bed. I sit on the edge, gently shake Sheila’s foot. The toenails, like her fingernails, are painted black. She enjoys playing the spooky mountain woman, especially around Halloween, upturning the kids’ imaginations with suggestions of necromancy. But she would be hard pressed to outdo my little kitten performance.
“Sheila,” I whisper. The deep, lazy breathing continues. I want to tell her about the twins. She’d get a kick out of it, though scold me for sacrificing the kitten. She hates Clomid. We spent ten thousand bucks on it trying to get her pregnant after the miscarriage. I scoot toward the pillows, lean over and kiss her mouth, warm, marshmallow lips. I run my hand along her thigh, over her calf. Her whole body’s slack and languid, like she’s some queen luxuriating on a balmy spice island. Lightly I tug each toe, then slide my hand up her leg, along the curve of her hip, over her stomach and palm her boobs. I give each nipple a gingerly pinch. We spent twelve thousand on in-vitro fertilization. “IVF,” the goddamn specialist called it. We embraced the terminology, the multitudes of acronyms, thinking the use of the argot, like some incantation, would charm the egg into fertilizing. Ten thousand of my sperm were injected into a dish containing what the specialist determined was Sheila’s most fecund egg.
The egg fertilized, but Sheila’s womb, despite being pumped with a brutal regimen of hormones, rejected it nine days later. Nine days? Three weeks? What’s the meaning of these trinities? Slowly, I peel away the sheet. Sheila’s in a deep reptilian trance, no conscious mind, only awareness enough to maintain the living organism, the involuntary nervous system. Now’s the time for implantation. Sheila’s 39, still capable. I’m 46. A child conceived tonight would put me at 56 when he’s playing soccer. I’m still young enough.
I’m hard, achingly so. My clothes pile on the carpet. I ease into her. Careful. She’s precious. Five years ago we paid a 22-year-old eighteen thousand to carry an egg the specialist had implanted with a single sperm chosen for its vigor. Gingerly, I probe. Her body’s limp and—I pray and God listen to me for once!—receptive. At eight months, the 22-year-old declared she was keeping the baby (a boy!) and vanished. I hired a detective who after a month traced her to Montreal, but by this time I had run out of money (credit, actually, which I still owe). I push deep, slip into the accumulating fluids, the slush of vaginal juices. Sometimes I imagine we have a kindergartner living in Canada. Maybe he speaks French. I call him Sebastian. Sometimes when I’m hiking and reach the barren, wind-swept 10,063-foot Mt. Baldy summit, I scream his name. Sometimes I scream his name over and over until I sob.
I’m going into her hard. Our bellies slap. Sheila’s flopping but still sleeps. It’s best this way. No consciousness to fuck around with the primordial drive for life. The headboard slams wall. We hate kids. They make our lives horrible. My grunting is fierce, elemental, rising from a place deeper than pleasure, deeper than desperation. It seeps from an exhilarating, joyous and nearly impossible wish. And nearly impossible means possibility! The specter of possibility. The haunting, inexorable poltergeist of our lives. I’m on the verge. Sheila wraps her arms around me and digs her fingernails into my back.
Tom Burkett lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son. He enjoys hiking in the local mountains. He has had work published in small-circulation lit-mags, such as Smalldoggies and the DWP Journal.
Photo "Huellitas 1" courtesy of Julian Barragan, Bogota, Columbia.
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