“Grant was a hottie, I grant you,” Laura said with a half-smile, “but he was addicted to acid. He was cra-azy.” She tapped cigarette ash on the sidewalk. Her zippered, teddy-bear backpack lay on its side on the metal mesh-top table looking at Joy, who took a drag off her own personal coffin nail and blew the smoke in a jet against the wind, courteously up and away from Laura.
Joy pointed at the bear with her cigarette.
“He’s looking at me.”
Laura picked the stuffed animal up and turned its snout to Joy.
“Judgey Bear is being judgey.”
“Fuck you, bear.”
“He accepts that.” Laura set it down on its side facing the black painted brick wall of the bar. Two pink neon beer signs buzzed in the window over Joy’s shoulder.
Behind Joy’s eyes, the warm, equatorial head-buzz climbed one rung higher within the series of ladders and tree-house levels that comprised her mental interior.
Keep it light. Keep it peppy. You are good luck. Yes, yes, yes. You are not bad luck. No, no, no. Who’s got spirit? Yes, you do.
Joy felt the ladder become more and more rickety. It would be easier to say that bats swooped at her to try and get her to come crashing down from the heights, but that wasn’t quite right. These were giant, slow balloon-fish. Nudging koi spirits these four: nicotine, weed, alcohol, and her own home-grown brain chemistry. Fish Number Four included antidepressants, birth control, workplace burn-out, um… environmental pollutants, probably. Chocolate/bacon food comas? The pheromones pumping off her (now-ex) boyfriend. (No longer to be had fresh, dammit! Downvoted.) Fish Four was a mutant sumbitch.
“Hey, Princess Plum. We’re here to celebrate your freedom.” Laura reached across the table, put a black-fingernailed hand on Joy’s purple jacket sleeve, and squeezed reassuringly.
“It’s still too early for the mumbly spins, right?”
Inside Joy’s head, all the fish bonked into her face at once with the sound of party balloons knocking together. “B-Bloomph.”
“You’re right.” Joy sat up straight, repositioned her hand on her beer, and brought her cigarette, wrist, and arm to attention. “I’ll get one of your energy swill/vodka drinks next.”
“There you go. So, I wanted to ask, before you went bye-bye there for a second, ‘Why is it you feel Mister Bear is judging you?’ Why the guilty feels?”
Joy twisted her face into a pucker, peeked at Laura over the rims of her over-large, round glasses, and then relaxed.
“I told myself his crazy was like a sprained muscle.’ It would heal. That’s what I told myself.”
“Grant would’ve made you crazy too. Like chemically brain-crazy. Tripping-balls was his normal default.”
“I know, but we only tripped together, like, five times.” Joy held up five fingers and wiggled them.
“I counted more than that.” Laura looked across the street to the movie theater.
“I was just counting acid. And I wouldn’t say he was addicted.”
“Mmm. Emotionally addicted, then... Dependent.”
The table they shared was the only one belonging to “The Night Before” – their favorite bar. A stack of ‘zines sat nearby upon a two-and-a-half-foot high brick planter that hadn’t ever held live plants – to Joy’s recollection. The ‘zines advertised local bands and farmer’s markets and were held in place by two painted, potato-sized rocks.
The phrases “watering hole” and “hole-in-the-wall” didn’t do “NB’s” justice. When Patty and the other employees at the Cheese Factory “the Elders” asked Joy why she and Laura liked to hang out at such a place, she could tick off dozens of reasons. Cheap drinks. Barely any windows. Fantastic punk selection on the custom-built jukebox. A lax enforcement as to what went on in the bathrooms. Drunk bartenders. The going complaint was that NB’s was a rectangle shaped black hole from which no light escaped. But Joy loved it. She relished pulling open the door, getting sucked inside, and experiencing the full-body smashing compaction that left only the ping-pong ball sized entity of her soul balancing on wobbly ladders behind her eyes. Inside though, somehow, the pounding thrash metal was all-encompassing and transcendent enough to keep her secure no matter where she went: up, down, right, or left on her internal jungle gym. It provided cushy armor to protect against... whatever giant floating “Whatevers,” Fuck you, metaphor.
Upon entering, the other patrons would usually give Joy the silent, “Hey,” then go back to playing on their phones and otherwise practicing nonverbal communication.
Joy and her lovely Goth bestie, Laura, proudly spent their factory-earned disposable income here. Joy tipped the bartenders generously; Laura followed her example. Joy and Grant supplied “recreationals” to a half-dozen bar regulars. And though she had to kiss the “Wild-Man Grant” era goodbye, Joy received kind, bleary, supportive looks of empathy from the NB’s staff; reassurances from others that her link in the contraband trade was still solid; two offers of rebound-sex from Bald Pete and Rebar (which, btw, “Yuck.”… for the most part); and confirmation from all that her VIP status at the painted-white-but-rusty patio table was secure. Of course, this included Laura as well. She was Joy’s permanent “Plus One.”
“Are you going to go see him?”
“Grant: The Mad Re-Upholsterer.”
Joy cracked a smile. ‘Good nickname. “Heh. No, the uh... the facility won’t allow visitors other than his parents.” Joy flicked ash and looked up above the theater – four stories up to a point above the roof in the sky. She squinted. “They think I enabled him to do the shit he did. I was his enabler.”
“Parents are like that,” Laura said with the tiniest of rueful sniffs, “protective.”
Awkward silence. Joy thought of three funerals: Her dad’s when she was too short to see into the coffin, unless she stood on her tip-toes; her mom’s when she bottled up everything so tight her jaw hurt from clenching her teeth; and Beth’s military send-off two years ago. Laura was by her side ugly-crying in a mascara mess. And Joy was, regrettably, wasted.
“Jesus, is there no way I can stop you from being depressed?”
This coming from Laura: Mistress of Wailing Fuzz-Guitar and Dirge Music; she of the black and purple lipstick; blonde, gray, and purple hair; black blouse peppered with cat hair, black skirt, black go-go boots, lip piercing, nose piercing, triple eyebrow piercing, double-triple ear piercings, white foundation, raccoon eyewear, and the dismembered bare legs of several plastic flesh-toned fashion dolls tied into her hair. An aura wafted away from her head. Joy could see the auratic steam curls while most others could not.
Joy slowly regained a smile as she took in Laura’s totality.
“You’re a ray of fucking sunshine.”
“And don’t you forget it,” Laura raised her glass, Joy tapped it with her beer can. Joy appreciated again, as always, that Laura’s hair matched Joy’s own Neider Cheese company jacket, purple and gray for purple and gray. Joy had very proudly (yet with a note of “my life is screwed” irony) accepted it from the company upon her one-year anniversary. She didn’t care if she beat it to shit. It had a wonderful graphic on the back of a cartoon cow about to take a bite out of a heart made of Swiss cheese.
“If you must mourn, mourn the loss of our furniture,” Laura continued. “I can’t believe he... I can’t believe Grant chewed up the couch with his bare... with his teeth. I mean, like a…”
“Like a very naughty puppy.” Joy play-pouted.
“I was going to say, ‘like a rabid animal.’“
“I know. I’m still in forgiveness mode.”
Patrons milled about inside the theater. Through the front double glass doors, Joy could see the girl at the ticket station totaling-out her drawer.
“The threads from the couch in his teeth, that’s what got him busted,” Joy said. Not to mention when he attacked the orthodontist. Tried to jump upon the top-loading water cooler. Crash! Blump-blump-blump. Joy could still hear the blue tank disgorging water into the dentist’s office waiting area. The old lady hissing at them like a cat. The cops. The cops that already knew their names.
Laura followed Joy’s eyeline to the theater. This was their spot; this janky table. Joy and Laura’s power spot. A place that unseen energy lines converged, between these two shrines, on this stretch of two-lane parking meter street. The theater’s cornerstone read 1916. A skateboarder rolled by, his wheels ka-chunking on the sidewalk. He passed an empty store front, then a nail salon. Joy watched as the blinking marquee lights reflected across her jacket sleeves. Cars stalked slowly before them, looking for the odd parking space. Joy kept a clutch/wallet with her. She placed it atop the ‘zines, buying the Laura and Joy rocks some vacation time from their usual gig. “Spa time.”
For two years and through every season, the two young women painted these rocks with each other’s names alternately in black nail polish, then white nail polish, then pink, then they scorched the rocks with cheap butane lighters, then black nail polish again, etc. They matched patterns. They variably complimented each other’s rocks and contrasted each other’s rocks. Other patrons joined in the fun, but kept the theme going. One night they found the rocks to read “Laura (blows)” and “Joy (can fuck off).” They were parenthetical like that. All good fun. Another time they found the rocks painted all over with lady bugs. That was sweet. Still another time it was flying wedges of Swiss cheese. Mmm, thematically relevant. Bartenders on break would sit outside and doodle in on the fun. Their names had built up a rough three-dimensional layer of glossy lacquered letters: The stalwart Laura Rock and the dutiful Joy Rock.
Laura reached across the table, her bracelets clacking metal on metal. She took Joy’s hand, careful not to upset their rocks and drinks (Laura’s double cranberry vodka/lemonade and Joy’s Blue Lake Lite Beer – on special! As a fan of Midwest Kitsch, she appreciated the fisherman hooking a bass within the can’s graphics. She liked the look more than the taste, to be honest.)
“So does your friend, Ethel the Ghost, know about the break-up?”
“I’ll ask her if she shows up. She won’t say anything if we’re being loud and obnoxious.”
“No problem with that tonight,” Laura snarked.
Here it was: some women could wiggle their ears, some women had extra-long second toes, Joy was a woman who could see other people’s auras when she was drunk or stoned. And she could see ghosts. Sometimes.
Joy believed that Laura believed in her “skill.” It wasn’t even really a skill, more like being able to solve magic-eye puzzles. At least Laura didn’t not believe. Joy was an astute observer of people but not a mind reader. She revealed to Beth and Laura a few weeks after living together way-back-when that she could maybe, possibly, yes, probably see ghosts. Joy soon thereafter admitted to identifying a shape above the theater. (Joy also claimed she could see a shape above the Cheese Factory for that matter, but Laura asked her politely not to talk about that one. She said she didn’t want to be skeeved-out at work. At least not when sober. Outside, on the street, in front of a black hole bar, and across from a classic art-deco movie theater… with a booze and vape-weed buzz… that’s where Laura could handle discussing Ethel the Friendly Ghost).
Joy’s secret remained secret, even though she could see and feel Laura wanting to bust out and tell everyone at the bar, or at work, that both places had ghosts in nearby residence. Laura once drove her all over town, for hours, begging her to identify all the local ghosts and their haunting spots. From the car window, on MDMA, with her head resting on her hands, Joy had identified an additional four local ghosts. Beyond that, and though Joy never considered she was controlling Laura or manipulating her behavior, she would occasionally touch her hand and remind her with a look: “Don’t out me.” Joy knew that such a skill would invite unpleasant attention.
Otherwise, when together, alone, (NB’s solo sidewalk table only had two chairs, after all) Joy could describe everything in detail. Laura was her one repository. Ethel usually appeared in the sky as an orange-sherbet-glowing-shoulders-and-head silhouette topped with a near-white corona, like a distant, dim streetlight. Other nights though, Laura would ask of Ethel’s status and Joy would answer, “No, she’s not over there tonight.”
Joy shrugged, “In the theater, I guess. Watching a movie, probably.”
Tonight though, with all the sympathy and all the well-wishers’ attention, Joy yearned to hear that little whisper from somewhere else. That was the true gift: knowing they were there. That they were interested in you, even if they themselves were punishingly sad and trapped, they brightened with the knowledge that someone could see them. You think you’re lonely now? Tonight? With no bedmate to press your forehead against? Talk to one of these poor fuckers.
Joy got what she hoped for. It made Laura a teeny bit jealous, but she stuck around. The quiet opening note was like the whale song she only knew from TV nature documentaries. A violin string faded in high and segued into an alien thought in the center of her head. Joy smiled warmly and laughed through her nose: an Ethel communique just arrived in her “in-box.”
“Well, Ethel only knows us from sitting out here on the street, and the couple times we’ve been in the theater,” Joy began with a preface.
Laura picked cat hair off her black long-sleeve blouse.
Joy listened for a moment more then continued. “Every guy she sees us with… almost all of them, she hopes you and I marry ‘em, settle down, and have kids. Except for Grant. She says he was a love-em and leave-em type.”
Laura pointed at the sky and said, “Yes! You see there? She gets it.”
“Yeah, you guys got me figured out.” Joy took a pull off her beer.
“That’s pretty progressive for a little girl ghost. You sure you’re not projecting, and all this is in your head?”
“Ethel may have died at age seven but she’s going on ninety-something now. She’s seen everything everybody does in the back rows of the theater.”
“Gross… poor kid.”
“And she still hopes all the girls get married to swell fellas and have babies.”
“Hmm. The Greatest Generation.”
Laura yawned, covered her mouth with the back of her hand, brought her cigarette to her lips, finished it, and flicked the butt into the street. She gave Joy’s hand a squeeze, released it, and then scooped up her drink, downing it with renewed fervor.
“She thinks you and I would have been scandalous Lindy Hoppers,” Joy said. “Whatever that means.”
“Hopping on some guy named Lindy, I suppose.”
The generalized vocal reception in Joy’s head came into tighter focus and formed a visual line. It was like a looking through a clear soda straw; a cold circular shielding, but then a warm energy spot wrapped inside. Ethel wasn’t high like a lantern in the sky tonight, the line led into the middle of the theater lobby. Ethel wore a yellow smock dress with white socks and buckle shoes. She had dark brown hair in a bob-cut circa 1930. She didn’t look “spooky” or undead, just roughed-up from playing with her friends in a dirt lot somewhere. A man and woman carrying popcorn and soda, trying not to spill, walked around her, avoiding her space, not realizing what they were doing. Ethel appeared bashful, almost apologetic, she looked down and turned her heel once forward and back. Visual connections didn’t usually come in this clear. But Joy asked, so here she was.
Ethel’s lips moved but the vocals still came in atonal violin yelps. Joy could feel the translation, but in her head, it was her own voice. Ethel hugged herself, pointed at Joy, then nodded in tight-lipped reassurance.
Aw, what a sweetie.
Ethel’s lips moved as she motioned to Laura. She mimed smoking cigarettes with two fingers up and holding her elbow. Joy heard the humming tone and chopped whisper in the center of her head turn plaintive.
“She says we shouldn’t smoke.”
Laura blinked as though misted with water. “Well, yeah.”
“You don’t want to hear the things she says about your whole... you.”
“Me? My what? What about you?” Laura turned to the theater and shouted, “Joy does acid trips, Ethel! Acid trips!”
“Not anymore!” Joy yelled across the street and laughed.
“Why pick on me?” Laura complained.
Ethel paced to and fro in the lobby, gesturing wildly while on some rant. Joy cocked her head, listening. She heard yips, yowls, and babble.
“Ha. Oh my God. Everything. Just everything.” Joy looked at Teddy on his side facing the wall: Laura’s pack of “Low-Tar Flavor Lights” nestled within the bear’s zipper opening.
“Oh! I get it.” Laura stuck out her chin defensively. “She’s right. I ain’t no elementary school teacher. Nope, nope.” Laura picked up Teddy and set him facing the movie theater. She made the bear’s arm wave. “Hey-wo, Ef-full,” she said in baby talk.
Ethel folded her arms and rolled her eyes. Joy grinned and bit her tongue. Interdimensional banter! Awesome.
“Be careful. Ethel’s liable to come over here and poltergeist your ass.”
They both laughed. Joy finished her beer. Laura finished her drink. Laura’s highball glass had dark, smudged lip prints on the rim. The stain on Joy’s beer can was a barely-there red. Joy considered asking for Laura’s nail polish to write something on the back of her rock. “So long, Grant,” maybe. She let the urge pass. Laura’s expression became one of troubled consideration.
Joy could tell she was reconsidering the thought of being poltergeist-ed.
“How does she like being a ghost?”
Joy’s smile faded. Sigh.
“She hates it.”
Joy considered Patty, her supervisor at Neider Cheese, as a tattoo scholar. She wore full tat sleeves, leggings, stamps, and dioramas. Joy, Laura, and Beth were all in the two-tats-or-less club. Laura had just turned 21. Beth was getting ready to quit. Patty recommended the shop: “Lou’s Blue Tattoos.”
Beth had a series of thorny vines and flowers that ran from her first and second knuckles back to the center of her hand. They covered up something she had self-inflicted upon herself when she was sixteen. Laura had a Celtic cross paired with a snowflake high on her right thigh that Joy saw running around the apartment frequently enough. Joy had two larger works. The first on her right flank was that of a cloaked Grim Reaper with glowing eyes, tattered robes, and a foregrounded outstretched hand. He hovered above her mom and dad’s graves. Their birth and death dates were etched in the headstones. A third stone and open grave awaited a third occupant. She instructed the artiste at the time to keep the work serious, but with a hint of “Metal!” She couldn’t not say the word “metal” in her head without singing it. Mission accomplished as far as this tat-patch was concerned.
An unfinished work adorned her back. She wanted a three-plate stack of a compass rose, a something, and a cross drilled brake rotor. The something could be a Belgian waffle, maybe. Or a dog collar. The top plate was the brake rotor, though. That was the prime image. Automobile, motorcycle, and bicycle brake rotors were her mandala, her Rosetta design. They were beautiful, functional, symmetrical, and “Steel!” (“Metal!” is sung in a high wail, arm held high. “Steel” is sung in a gravely low voice, hand clutched in a fist, and brought low. This shit should go without saying.)
“Name another part of a car where a necessary mechanical part is allowed artistic beauty? The hubcap? Please. The grill? Maybe a distant number two. You can’t name another because there isn’t,” Joy spat across the bar. “Well, maybe there’s a part or two on the crankshaft,” she mumbled.
“Say that again! I walked away for a minute, but I think you kept talking. Sorry about that!” Rebar the Bartender shouted over the music.
“I was saying motorcycles and bicycles are in a different category, because the simpler the mechanics, the more beautiful the… that the parts are!”
Joy looked in her hand and was surprised to find an empty glass that smelled like whiskey. Had she been crying?
“So, anyway. To celebrate Beth’s departure, we got tattoos. Beth wanted playing card suits and symbols. Like the Queen of Hearts and shit.”
I said no. I said, “Let’s get symbols that represented our elementals.”
They all agreed the tat would sit on the same bodily location of each of them, so they would share that bond. The heart seemed like a natural fit.
“But not directly on top of the heart,” Laura suggested. “That’s the place for your future true love.” Joy looked to Beth: a fellow cynic. They exchanged drunken eye-rolls. The trio had their wine-soaked, pre-buzz on. Joy whipped open the glass store-front door to Lou’s, causing the dangling doorbell to whack the glass uncomfortably hard.
“Gar-rin dere!” she growled at the other two.
“Yes ma’am,” Beth responded.
Joy and Laura both wanted to be rep’d by “Water.” Beth broke the tie and declared Joy was “Fire.” Laura agreed.
“But I’ve got this lifelong thing with water… Swimming in it… Drinking it.”
Laura and Joy simultaneously said, “Peeing in it!” and guffawed at their harmony.
“Just because you’re good at a thing, doesn’t mean that you are that thing,” wise old Beth intoned. They sat/crashed-out all over the tat shop’s sturdy vinyl sofa as square pictures of howling wolves and leering tigers looked down upon them. Laura scanned the walls and found a picture of a woman riding a missile. She showed it to Beth and Joy and made a silent hyena-laugh face.
Beth looked through a three-ring-binder picture book. Joy sat on the sofa and smelled her braids. Laura looked for images on her phone.
“Beth is Air. She’s about to fly away,” Laura said to both and no one.
Joy agreed. Beth shrugged.
Once their reservation came due and after a half hour of kibitzing with the artist, Joy went first. She pulled her t-shirt over her left side, over her head, and let it flop to the right – still worn on her shoulder. She dropped her left bra strap to clear the zone.
“Tube-toppin’ it for a few days, I suppose,” she said. Beth wrinkled her nose. Laura grimaced.
Joy got a tattoo of a devil woman in a flame habitat; either jumping out of, or, sitting back into said flames. Hard to tell, but motion both hither and yon was implied. It was rendered simply. The character held a trident. Joy’s eyes watered and her nose ran during the buzz. Beth got a tattoo of a woman taking flight with wings for arms. The works were scrawled-in northeast of the heart; “heart adjacent” as Laura put it. Laura went last. She got a mermaid tattoo.
Beth died in some randomized skirmish in South Asia. Ghost Beth? Not that Joy would ever know. Dad and Mom went out in hospitals like everybody, nearly a decade apart. Good luck sifting through that. Ghost mosh-pits s’what hospitals are. Why would her particular friends and family appear or haunt or whatever-the-fuck, though, right? Odds of any one dead person becoming a ghost were, what? Fifty thousand to one?
Joy had the spins. The balloon-fish were bonking her face repeatedly. She waved her hands in front of her face. “Psh! P-Thub-bt.” She spit imagined hair out of her mouth. The fish bonked her again. Bloomph. Everyone’s aura was popping all over the place. Rebar, the bartender, had flame-head. Joy pushed back from the bar and stood. Her barstool fell over.
“Sorry,” she said to the barstool. Joy staggered outside, intending to have a word with Ethel.
Joy took one last look at the point above the theater. Despite the light pollution, a small figure was now discernable and luminous: a young girl in a plain, golden-yellow dress, brighter than she had been four hours ago when they’d first arrived. Ethel glowed frosty white from a spot centrally in her chest and a spot above her head. Outwardly the light both filtered through the girl’s dress and shone out her sleeves. Her little brown shoes pointed down while her arms beckoned. It was 11:45 and the last movie was letting customers onto the sidewalk and into the street. “Where’s my light?” Joy thought. “I don’t think I have one.”
In a motion of pure fluidity, Joy lunged and grabbed the “Laura” rock from off the pile of newspapers and hurled it. The wind died and the rock curve-balled up, across the street, and smashed the x in “The Galaxy” marquee letters. The neighboring a and y went dark too. The pow! caused a dozen nearby pedestrians to flinch and duck their heads. After a glittery flash, the rock dropped in a shower of sparkles.
“You’re keeping her trapped in a glass cage!” Joy screamed.
She felt Laura’s hands on her shoulders. Rebar was there too.
“Oh, shit,” he said.
“She’s trapped in a glass cage!” she screamed at the theater’s face. Joy removed her glasses roughly and wiped away tears with her sleeve.
“Ninety years isn’t long enough? You... “ She swallowed with fresh, sober awareness as to what she was doing. “… cocksucker.”
The lights from a police car clicked on. A spotlight aimed its beam at the NB’s storefront. A gust of wind licked the ‘zine pile, the “Joy” rock rolled aside, the stack lifted, and blew everywhere.
Joy was wrestled to the sidewalk. All the air in her lungs expelled down to a tapered finish with lung rattle. Rebar was apologizing. Laura pulled on the bartender’s arm trying to get him to let Joy up. Squad car lights and marquee lights traced orange, red, and blue.
“Holy mackerel!” Ethel yelped in plain, little-girl, English.
Joy twisted to the side and looked up at the theater, now a skyscraper from the sidewalk vantage point. Ethel’s light was gone but a small object tumbled down from its location. Joy thought, at first, that either someone had tossed their cell phone off the roof, startled perhaps, by the busted marquee letter; or that a pigeon had suffered a heart attack and dropped from its nest. Whatever it was, was falling toward her face. Joy winced.
A little dark brown buckle shoe hit the curb next to her, popped into the air, did a triple-twist, and landed right-side-up twenty inches from Joy’s nose. What was it, a size two? It was scuffed and well worn. Joy pulled her arms in tight and rolled toward it. She stomped Rebar in the shin.
“Fuck you, Randy!” she said through clenched teeth. He hopped backwards, cursing.
As the officers with their jingling plastic and metal (decidedly not “Metal!”) gear reached to grab her, Joy snatched up the shoe and stuffed it in her jacket pocket.
In the back of the squad car, fighting the spins, Joy tried to feel the little shoe in her pocket. Feel its presence. She lifted her leg, put her own canvas high top on the seat, and tried to cradle the object in her pocket—between the fold in her torso and lap. Her hands were handcuffed behind her.
“Miss, please sit still. Okay?” one of the officers said.
“What is she doing back there?”
“Oh, just squirming around.”
Joy never was able to “feel the vibe” off objects like her mom could back in the day. The object felt normal. Not hot or cold. Not “vibrating” with voodoo or whatever. Hard tacking sounds began drumming against the squad car’s roof. Hail. Big sized hail by the sound of it. She knocked her head once against the window, sighed, and passed out.
Ethel Cramden was seven years old; forever seven years old—frozen in time and character for eighty-eight years. Her spirit had a perch in the air, suspended a hundred and fifty feet above the theater. She had it pretty good as far as spirits go. She could watch the movies, after all. Her story was sad and famous; probably more famous than any of the other of the two dozen ghosts hovering above her river valley locality. Her fame shone bright due to her proximity in orbit of the colossal tale involving the poor sap that killed her. Ethel was his first kill.
Ethel bailed on her mom and older brother as they watched news reels. The year was 1932. She hooked up with some other kids in her peer group; kids with a loose affiliation, namely, that the news reels were boring AF. They included Little Joe, Sneaky Pete, Dottie, and Slugger. The gaggle of moppets made it a weekend tradition to meet and search for pennies and nickels behind the seats in the balcony. Well sir, the back row of balcony seats were backed right up against the rear wall of the auditorium and made a tight fit for young ones on all fours. But Ethel was small, and she could see a trail of coins like tiny stars reflecting ever so slightly in the light of the silver screen.
Long story short: An overweight drunkard named Bart Dorfmann climbed the back steps into the balcony aiming to sleep through the next three programs. He sat down hard in his back-row seat with a “Flunff!” and broke little Ethel’s neck.
She was found five hours later. Mrs. Cramden did a cursory panicked search of the theater, went home and searched, asked the neighbors, and then came back to The Galaxy to double check. Ethel’s brother Scott eventually found one of the kids she had been palling around with earlier. Her posse hadn’t seen her in hours and were getting kinda worried too. Mom and Scott convinced the manager to raise the house lights. When a film breaks, people groan, but when the house lights just come up, people sit up, stretch a bit, and look to the manager for some concerning announcement. When no immediate announcement came, just the manager, a staffer, a woman, and a young boy charging worriedly into the upper deck, the audience and their curiosity quickly shifted to concern.
“She probably just fell asleep crawlin’ on the floor,” Scott tried reassuring his Ma. A wail of anguish, a pale bow-tied employee’s dash for the lobby, and a boy’s sobbing prefigured the reveal: Little Ethel’s body discovered wedged behind the seat and under the tuckus of the groggy pile that was ball-bearing salesman Bart Dorfmann. The girl’s arm and closed fist extended out, just barely touching her killer’s pant leg, clutching seventeen cents in dirty coins.
All of downtown, it should be mentioned, snuggled the riverbank like two popsicles in a package. The courthouse sat two blocks up the from the water’s edge and a railyard lay a stone’s throw away from the water between the two. Dorfmann was vilified in the Midwest press. On his way to sentencing, a lynch-mob intercepted him at the courthouse, punched, beat, and dragged him to the railyard. There, the mob split into two factions; one began the process of tar and feathering, and the other prepared to weigh down his legs with bricks in anticipation of tossing him in the drink. Neither job made it to completion as the hot tar from the railyard only made it as far as his arms. What was tarred did get feathered, however; someone found a throw pillow in the back of a nearby parked car. The city police and the National Guard redoubled their efforts to get control of the situation and a free-for-all melee ensued.
“He looks like a Goddamn chicken!”
“Kill the Chicken-man!” They cried and beat him repeatedly. Bart was tossed in the river and from there, escaped. He hopped a train somehow. Historians both local and national investigated and picked over his story ad nauseam.
“The reason for years of national curiosity?” you may ask, is that the train and the empty boxcar he stowed away in travelled east and took “The Chicken Man” to the Windy City where he became a serial killer.
It’s the town’s single most famous story. It’s in books and on bumper stickers. Dozens of TV docudramas, several major motion pictures, and several more direct-to-home-video releases produced one, ultimately, that premiered at her theater—the spot where it all began.”
Ethel didn’t like it at all. The film was called “Bloody Down” and the main character, Bart, had been reconceived as a dyed-in-the-wool-from-birth murderer who got off on killing young adults. Ethel’s character had been cast as a seventeen-year-old in a tight sweater. Some blond ingénue played “Ethel”, victim of strangulation. The real Ethel’s ghost found the experience so frustrating that she longed to go full poltergeist on the theater. She resisted the urge, after all, being permanently frozen at age seven, didn’t prevent her from developing empathy. She liked The Galaxy and its employees, after all, and honestly, she wouldn’t know how to poltergeist the theater even if she wanted to. (Well, she had a guess, but it involved summoning more rage than she ever possibly could. But that slasher movie! Ooh. After suffering months – it played for months – of seeing her own murder butchered on the screen, revenge was definitely considered.) But she could still project her consciousness down like a reverse periscope and observe movie theater life. She could haunt the chair where she died.
“But what can you do with a chair? It’s just a chair.” She complained aloud to herself. The stupid thing was bolted to the floor. She could flip the seat up and she could flip the seat down. The theater had painted it, removed its neighbor chairs, and put a commemorative plaque on the wall nearby. She could sit in it, but she didn’t need to. She tried a couple of times flipping the seat down while theater patrons were looking at it or sitting nearby. It freaked them out. She didn’t particularly enjoy freaking people out. A thick restrictive invisible fog closed in around her near the Kill Zone. A quick anecdote:
When she was in school, she found her desk likewise bolted down. Ethel’s feet--her white knee socks inside brown leather Mary Jane shoes--floated above the floor when she sat at her desk. She swung her legs, alternating left and right, but was unable to touch the floor unless she slouched way down. Ethel and her classmates often compared each other’s success in life using the metric as to who would be the first in class to touch their tippy-toes naturally to the floor. Slouching was cheating. The girls knew deep down that the height/growth rate era of equally-matched-physicality with the boys was soon to arrive, summit, and fade away. Well, not so much the “fade away” stage. That was too far out of sight. Ethel ranked as the most diminutive of her class. She just couldn’t wait for the growth spurt that her Mom and Grandma promised was soon to arrive. If for no other reason that she could shove boys and make them fall down. That would be a glorious time to be alive, she expected. The thought gave her “ants in the pants.”
During grammar studies, the teacher distributed stencils with capital and lower-case cursive letter shapes punched out. The stencils came in heavy card stock strips. The intent was to place the stencils atop sheets of paper and write out words like “Ethel” and “bucket” and “fish.” Then move on to sentences such as “Ethel has a bucket of fish.” Or “Jane and Spot run fast.” The upper case “B” didn’t have the normal double holes, so you were on your own crossing the middle divide of the letter with your pencil tip. The lower case “g” was inexplicably weird.
The point is, a few months later, after Ethel died, she thought of those details. She didn’t have to worry about touching her feet to the floor of anything anymore. That was bittersweet. She had no problem looking down on boys or grown men for that matter. Lots of men from the community and church, it turned out, had bald spots that she had no idea were there. But even though she received a few moments of travel to her friends and family in the wake of her bodily dislocation, and even though she got a peek at her own funeral, when it came time to leave the planet or stay, she chose to stay. She had plans. She had playdates scheduled with her friends; her crew; the gang at the movie theater. She wasn’t yet the group leader, but she was moving up the ranks. She was the dadgum treasury secretary! She couldn’t bear to leave behind her snot-faced compatriots: Little Joe, Sneaky Pete, Dottie, and Slugger. The boys wanted to save up and buy materials for a soapbox racer. The girls wanted to buy a wedding cake; just a generic wedding cake, take it out into the glade behind Our Savior’s, set it on the ground, dance around it singing hallelujah, and then at the count of ten, kneel and smash their faces into the cake simultaneously. Both sides agreed that each other’s plans had merit. The debate raged on, she didn’t want to miss it, and so she stayed.
She rose up on day four and plugged into her perch. She felt it happening. She didn’t fight it. It reassured her that something was happening besides just wandering around in an incorporeal state. It was like she was a lamp and here, finally, was a plug. Therein she found the Whispers, the Knowledge, and the Rules. Ethel had chosen to stay Earth-bound under the assumption that she could talk to her compadres every so often. But no, and here returned the metaphoric stencils: Two weeks post-mortem, Little Joe finally showed up at the theater with his parents. Before the picture started, they paid their respects to the chair. Ethel, overjoyed to see her buddy, dropped her eyeballs and voice down into the auditorium, got right in front of Ol’Joe, and “Whack!” there was the stencil. She wanted to say, “Hey Joseph, how you doing buddy?”
“It’s time to go looking for change,” is all that came out.
“It’s time to go looking for change.” It came out again. She knew it sounded creepy. Ethel read the reaction on Joe’s face and was saddened to see his complexion go greenish-white while. Tears and wails for “Mommy” caused the Little Joe family to leave The Galaxy in a hurry. Sadly, if you wanted to project your consciousness down and do some light haunting, you could only do or repeat things you said or did in the few moments before your death. You couldn’t comment on current events. This was a “Rule” and continued experimentation over the following months yielded similar results. Trying to make contact with anyone in the theater was like moving through a fog-zone tunnel walled with grammar stencils. Each stencil was a punched-out sentence — one of her own quotes:
“I found two pennies, a nickel, and a dime.”
“Get under those rich people in the third row.”
“My hand smells like melted licorice.”
The e’s, d’s, and p’s (among others) all had their center shapes in place. Pushing any other words through the veil proved nearly impossible. “Giving-up” on communication with theater patrons and employees eventually seemed to be the best course of action (or “inaction” in this case). Conversely there turned out to be some communication available with other spirits when she relaxed and kept her head plugged into her slot in the sky.
This left movie watching. She enjoyed all the genres, as long as the movie was good. Black and white vampire and gangster movies disappeared for a few years. Color film eventually led to the reveal of actual blood on screen. The crazed monsters and criminals came back in vogue and “Blood” was there waiting to join forces with them, like peanut butter and bread finally meeting up with jelly. She watched the newer horror movies, but usually only once. “Bloody Down” came along like a slap to the face. Definitely a “one star” review. Traffic patterns were more interesting. Boys and girls tongue wrestling in the balcony were less disgusting. The rabble outside the bar across the street was way more entertaining. When the movies stunk, Ethel’s attention turned toward street life.
The one called Laura was an inch taller than the other one; something in the neck and the legs. She looked to have blonde hair (the roots were showing) but it was dyed black with streaks of purple and pink. She had multiple facial piercings, which at first, broadly speaking (in the 80s and 90s), Ethel didn’t “get.” But, like those in the land of the living, over the last couple decades she found them novel. Laura’s went: Lip hoop, nose hoop, eyebrow hoop; bing, bing, bing—right in a row. Those were the mainstays. In the summer she wore t-shirts with cartoon characters displayed. In the cold she wore stretched out sweaters and sweatshirts with hoods; ratty, some... maybe hand-me-downs. Always darker colors. Dark lipstick. Crazy fingernail colors. She wore skirts seemingly from every decade possible and Boy-O, Ethel had seen them come and go. Then came the skirts with the leggings; solid black, white and black striped, and one pair of red and white barber pole striped leggings. She wore canvas shoes or black boots and walked with a bounce in her step. “She would have made a good flapper,” Ethel thought.
Laura oftentimes had a bag with her. Sometimes parents with children would scamper up the street, this way or that, within Ethel’s purview. Kids would visit The Galaxy to watch animated movies and Ethel would watch along and ache terribly. It delighted her a few decades ago when little children suddenly started wearing Teddy Bears and other cushy stuffed animals on their backs like backpacks. It was revelatory when these same packs were demonstrated to have zippers and indeed held secret pockets and chambers in which children could store their crayons, artwork, and school papers. Not to mention tiny portable boxes of apple juice and graham crackers. All items stored inside a chubby Teddy Bear. Genius! Laura, of the “Lindy Hoppers Duet” one night included a zippered Teddy Bear backpack with her ensemble. Ethel’s eyes widened at this, but hopeful curiosity faded when Laura sat down with Joy, unzipped the Bear, and produced cigarettes and a lighter.
“Of course,” Ethel thought. The little ghost made a sour face and stuck out her tongue in a “Yuk.”
The one called Joy had naturally dark chocolate hair that she twisted up behind her and stabbed through with knitting needles, chopsticks, pencils, etc. Her eyebrows were moderate in thickness centrally but tapered to rounded points each way. She too had piercings all over the place on her face, including the septum! But she wore them with no rhyme or reason. She wore glasses with thin metal frames. She wore t-shirts, some plain white, some plain black, and some — many — with printed photographs and matching exclamatory statements. Ethel didn’t eavesdrop on conversations so much as just gather information in a large pile and then ponder on it in the wee hours of the morning. Being dead gave one a sharpened memory. It took her a long while to puzzle out that these types of shirts were, yes, advertising and that sometimes they advertised music groups and performers. Furthermore, the text and image sometimes were mismatched for humorous, shocking, or artistic effect. Joy had one shirt with a wild looking fellow depicted hitting a police car’s windshield with a guitar. It said “The Goddamnits.” Joy had plenty of other shirts with swearing on them, but she wore this one the most. It had “Tour Dates” and cities listed on the back. For a time, Joy was accompanied by a young man who looked like the fellow on her t-shirt. Ethel wondered if they were the same guy.
Joy pretty much always wore jeans. She wore big clompy boots in the winter and canvas shoes in the summer. Sometimes she wore the big clompy boots in the summer as well. Eventually, Ethel rightly guessed Laura and Joy were roommates when they began wearing each other’s clothes. This happened infrequently, but it did happen. Plus, they always staggered around the corner and up the street together. This was after the “boyfriend” disappeared.
“These women could be fine attractive mommies,” Ethel bemoaned, “if not for all those pointy things in their faces. You might as well wear a sign that says, ‘Don’t Kiss Me!’” Ethel knew she sounded like an old lady in her thoughts, and after all, she was, basically. All her friends grew up to be old fogies. Anyway, plenty of men followed Joy and Laura in and out of the bar, sat with them at the café tables, flirted, gazed at, and (every so often) discretely made comment of their bodies when they were – and weren’t – looking. Some of the guys had pierced faces too. Ethel worked out that pierced-face people must like to kiss other pierced-face people and the clacking together of all those piercings must cause a tinkling stimulation to occur, like getting shocked all over the face with static electricity zaps. Which must be a pleasant sensation, or else why would people do it? Ethel wondered what it would feel like to kiss boys.
Ghost Ethel kept tabs on dozens and dozens of “regulars” within her zone of influence. Joy stood out from the others in that she was one-of-the-only-ones over the years that could see her. Then, after, the past two years most recent, Joy made direct eye contact and seemed to nod as though she understood what Ethel was saying; even thinking! Whole ideas and thoughts outside of the few restrictive phrases: “My hands smell like melted licorice,” etc.
Boom! Broken glass.
“Holy Mackerel!” Ethel said; her ghost heart jumped.
“You’re keeping her captive in a glass cage!”
The police lights clicked on. A spotlight from the car aimed its beam at the NB’s storefront. A gust of wind blew apart the pile of ‘zines and they went everywhere. Joy fell forward into the center of the street. A lightning flash in the clouds commenced the pouring of rain. One sheet followed another in a heavy downpour. A police officer exited his car, took three strides, and knelt next to Joy. The NB’s crowd scattered every which-a-way. Laura stood frozen and stunned, hypnotized by the blue and red flashing lights.
From Ethel’s point of view, the rock’s impact shock and Joy’s scream on her behalf caused a wave of electricity pass through Ethel’s body, toes to head.
“Oh my gosh!” she jumped. In that split second her shoe popped off and fell.
“To who or to whom was she screaming at... or appealing to?” Ethel wondered. “The theater’s physical structure? Ethel,” the little ghost, turned and looked behind her—wondering if she missed something. “No,” it dawned on her, “she was advocating on your behalf, stupid-head.” Amazing. Ethel turned her gaze heavenward. Bless this girl.
The rain stopped just as suddenly as it came. A second of silence was followed by a growing roar. It was enough to distract everyone into stopping whatever it was they were doing and listen. The roaring crescendoed.
Pennies, Nickels, and Dimes fell from the sky. Great sheets of coins dropped on the neighborhood; a hailstorm of money. They shimmered and plinked off windowsills, rooftops, and fire escapes. Their cascade made a deafening, extended “Shish!” sound. Everyone outside in that localized area became overjoyed. The traffic in the downtown cross-streets came to a screeching halt. Joy was stuffed into the back seat of the cop car. She had the shoe.
The Great Slot Machine in the Sky had paid out its fortune on a two by two block radius, centered on the spot of asphalt between The Night Before and The Galaxy. The deluge was directed with a sweep of the tiny hands belonging to Ethel Cramden: the little floating ghost in the sky wearing a yellow smock dress with a white collar and a ribbon bow.
“Could I have commanded this to happen at any moment in the last eighty-eight years?” she asked the sky.
“No, it took this long to collect all the coins. Maybe in another fifty years you could try it again,” the answer came from on high.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Pennies, Nickels, and Dimes fell on the downtown area like hail. All minted before 1930.