Never Ask A Ouija Board For Directions
Pretty sure I haven’t shared this long-form version of the story here yet, but it’s quite a long one, so feel free to scroll on past the tl;dr. If I have shared it already, then Tumblr’s search function sucks. We all know that to be true anyway.
What I know of Robby, who is gone:
My family lived in the upstairs of his family’s Victorian farmhouse on Edson St. in Brockton, MA, until I was six, when we moved into our own home in another town. Nearly every day, I slid down the smooth wooden banister to the entryway and knocked on the mahogany double door to his family’s living quarters, where the air smelled of ancient and fresh cat piss, cooked onions, coffee, beer, and cigarettes. Two too many humans squeezed into that apartment, the chaos driven by their father’s madness and their mother’s bottomless, all-forgiving love. Schizophrenia runs in the male blood. There is so much to forgive.
When we played in the yard, his family’s terrible geese made a meal of my kneecaps, and I still see him, striped shirt, so 70s, mud-splattered polyester pants, bowl-cut hair, a stick in his hand, chasing the geese away from my orbit. We crawled under the massive forsythia circle that felt like a faerie ring, to get away from them, ruining my white tights again. I would be spanked. The cost of disregarding adult concerns in favor of magic.
I have no memory of who the neighbors were, the ones that owned the rusted out antique pickup truck up on blocks – but Robby and I pilfered a box of Fruity Pebbles and a bottle of Flintstone’s multi-vitamin chews, and sat in the front seat, shoving our hands – Bam! Bam! – into the box, chasing each fistful with the chalky tablets, savoring the sour, almost-candy bite, and the possibility that we might get caught. We did. The spanking was well deserved.
In winter, he pulled me around on the ice rink that all of the fathers built with odds and ends of lumber and sheets of plastic. He let me hold onto the end of his scarf and we sang Hey, Jude and I thought about the hot cocoa mom would make us, the pool of Marshmallow Fluff melting on top. Our un-kissed mouths sticky, sweet.
He planted the first seeds of love for lips on mine, a kiss delivered over the edge of his upper bunk in his bedroom, which was my family’s kitchen just two years before, his hair a gold-streaked curtain hanging down in front of flecked brown eyes, his hand outstretched, pointing to the baseball card and the marble, clear blue with a yellow and red swirl, that he had tucked into the springs above my head where I lay on the bottom bunk. A gift for his first girl on the occasion of an overnight stay when my mother was in the hospital.
He spent twelve more years on Earth, but he never kissed me again.
He turned our old pantry into his laboratory, and filled it with bird’s nests, dead bugs, feathers, sticks, stones, bones, and a few living things. I pressed my nose to the glass terrarium and watched the slow-blooded lizard gaze through me on the shelf where my mother once kept neat stacks of Jello pudding boxes. Butterscotch was my favorite. I did not ask if any of the bird bones belonged to Itchy, my Parakeet that dad buried at the edge of their vegetable garden.
Out in the yard one afternoon when we were visiting, he dropped a boulder from his father’s ongoing back porch reconstruction project onto my toes, crushing them so that the nail beds never properly grew back. Every time I apply polish to those deformed nails, I think of the way he was both sorry he hurt me and angry at me for getting in the way, and of that kiss, and always of the sweet stench of rotting flesh that filled the humid air in the neighborhood the summer he killed himself.
Once, my mother overheard him say fuck, and pulled him by the arm into the kitchen to make him confess to his own mother. It was suggested by mine that Robby should hold a bar of Irish Spring soap in his mouth for ten minutes, and then have his tongue dusted with black pepper. When it was over, he pressed his face into a filthy couch cushion and said fuck and fucking bitch softly until he didn’t seem to need to say it any more. I sat next to him and vowed silently to never tell.
His family came to a reunion BBQ at our house, and he hauled his newly muscular body up onto the clothesline to do flips around the thick metal bar. His pride in his own strength and agility shone on him, as if the sun made extra light to highlight how beautiful he had become. I wondered if I walked with him out to Camp Titicuit behind out house, out on the fork of the Taunton River – took his hand and led him through the tall alfalfa stalks, into the dense woods with the sandy path, if he would kiss me again. If I might choose instead to lean close and press my own lips to his. If it would feel different all these years later. But, the motion of his flip, flip around the pole disturbed a wasp nest inside the hollow end, and one enraged blue flicker flew into his nose and stung repeatedly. He spent the rest of the day sulking under the crabapple tree with a bag of ice pressed to his swollen face. Leave me alone, he said.
When we were in high school, our mothers decided we should reconnect, and he drove to my town to pick me up and take me to the movies with his older sister and her boyfriend. We saw Hitchcock’s Rear Window, sharing a large, buttered popcorn, a Coke and a box of Sno-caps. I stole glances at him and watched his plump lips mouth the lines, and liked that he was more interested in the film than in me, but in a way that felt like comfort, not indifference. After, we went back to that Edson St. living room that used to be a bedroom for three boys, and played Clue while listening to The White Album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. He didn’t kiss me and I didn’t kiss him. The whole night felt retro in a way that made me forget why I loved HüskerDü and Scarface and a boy named Hans who wore a trench coat and loved Black Flag and Camel cigarettes and Big Red gum and an occasionally suicidal girl named Laurie and maybe me, but he wasn’t sure.
When I am 21 and he’s 23, I live in California, in the Sacramento Valley, with a man who is in the Air Force. My mom lets me know that Robby has moved to Sacramento to finish school, and is struggling with his medication and his life. I should reach out, invite him to dinner, or at least get together with him for coffee. Something. Our telephone conversations are awkward and circular, the kind of orbiting I now understand is associated with unbalanced brain chemistry. He’s been diagnosed with his father’s same schizophrenia, and he doesn’t like what the meds are doing to his ability to think and feel, but he is terrified of what the voices tell him to do. I listen, but I’m immature and inexperienced, I don’t know what to say to him, because I’ve never known someone like this before. I think he was not like this before, but maybe he just didn’t have the vocabulary to express all of this turmoil when we were children. There is nobody to show me how to be a friend to someone who is in so much pain. I’m sure my best isn’t even close to good enough. Walls go up. We don’t get together. When I hear from mom again, she says he moved home, isn’t well at all, refusing to take the medication, unable to work. I vow to visit him when I am home the following month.
Instead, when I arrive home, I am told that he has gone missing. There’s a note, addressed to me, or perhaps to some other Kelly nobody knows. It says the voices are too much. They’re coming for him. He can’t trust anyone. It’s all too much. Goodbye.
My best friend Kara and I sit with a Ouija board seeking answers. The planchette spells out details for hours, and her mother writes it all down on a sheet of lined paper. I don’t understand what any of it means, coordinates and routes and locations. When I share it with my mother, she immediately calls his mother. It’s directions to their family’s cabin in New Hampshire. The following day I am riding in the back of their conversion van with all of the kids, six hours on the road. The cabin is empty, untouched since the last time they were all there the summer previous. No sign of entry. We walk out to the shelter on the lake and it, too, stands silent. We tack a note inside, Robby, please come home, we love you. I sit on a rotting log with my feet in the water, let minnows nip at my toes and cry. Now I feel a cold malevolence in that Ouija board – whoever it was led us to nothing. I wonder if it was him moving it, and promise myself that I will never touch one again. The apology has lived in me all this time, I’m sorry it wasn’t true. I’m sorry he was not there.
A month and a half later, mid-summer, the heat oppressive with that wet weight of humidity pressing down day and night. I’ve come back to my family’s house again for a weekend and we are called to come back to that house where I began. A neighbor running with his dog decided to investigate the terrible dead animal smell that has overpowered the neighborhood for weeks, and pushed through the overgrowth at the road edge directly across from the house on Edson St.
There he is, about 20’ in, a bed pillow over his head, the barrel of a handgun in his mouth, Earth having taken much of him back to soil in this oppressive heat. I can smell it now. My friend. The boy who made me chase kisses all this time. The boy who didn’t even know that he would show me how love and death are tightly woven. Always. After the funeral service, we gather at the house on Edson St. to gulp red wine from paper cups and stab limp celery and carrot sticks into dip, and try to hold one another upright. His sister tells me that she can’t stop crossing the street into the woods to lie down in the spot. There are bugs. When she comes back in, she pulls the maggots off of her clothes and flushes them down the toilet. I tell her that I dreamed the night before that I was pregnant. That it was Robby’s child, but it was also Robby’s soul. He wanted to come back and try again.
It was Robby. Beautiful Robby whose house we lived in – in the upstairs apartment in their Victorian farmhouse in the city. Robby whose family raised geese. Terribly mean, knee-biting geese. Robby who was at times as mean as that one goose, particularly that time he herded the goose towards me so that when I began to run away, the chased me across the yard. Robby laughing at me running in my patent leather church shoes, screaming in terror of this giant white creature whose wing span was wider than my stride, who stood almost as tall as me at five years old. Robby who dropped the boulder from the back step reconstruction right on my bare foot, permanently disfiguring three of my toes so that the nails really don’t like to take polish even now, thirty-eight years later, Robby so long dead it seems a dream remembering any of this.
I think he was my first kiss. That’s the narrative I’ve told myself – I think I’ve told it all my life, but maybe I started telling it after Robby wrote his note to me about the voices in his head the day he took his bed pillow and a gun and walked into the patch of woods across the street from his house. Maybe it was after I found out about how he stretched out in the dry leaves and put the barrel in his mouth and the pillow over his face and pulled the trigger.
Maybe I blocked out any other potential first kiss for this kiss, the one that he set down on my lips that time his mom was babysitting me, long after we had moved into our own house in another town. His bunk bed was tucked in the corner of our old kitchen, the paint the same yellow, and the pantry turned into some sort of laboratory where he kept his bugs, and frogs, and feathers, and stones, and lists of things he knew, and things he wanted to know.
He slept on the top bunk and I slept on the bottom. He had tucked a baseball card and a marble into the springs of the top mattress, just above my pillow. I was nine or ten, he eleven or twelve. Did he kiss me then? Or was it earlier in the evening? I think it was then, when I saw the tokens in the springs and I asked are these for me and he swung his torso over the edge of the mattress, his blonde hair flipping across his forehead then popping straight down towards the floor, and he gave me a quick kiss that I think I can still feel, then disappeared again.