The Empty Chair, photograph by Bianca Dorso
Sarah could not have been a more unlikely medium. She reminded me of one of those brave ladies you passed in the aisles of thrift stores, the kind of woman who shopped for her grandkids, who picked over the picked-over after-Christmas sales and didn’t spend money on herself and believed in comfortable shoes and easy-to-care-for hairstyles, who volunteered at the local animal rescue shelter, who helped with the setup and cleanup at the Firemen’s Pancake Breakfast, who looked you in the eye and refused to be judged or pitied, who looked for the good in all folks and situations, who carried the burdens Life gave her with a proud determined grasp, whatever the occasion, whether newborn kittens or a stack of dirty dishes or a toddler in one arm with the other hand free to stir Sunday supper. Small but not delicate or dainty, tough without being unkind, in her fifties, I guessed, but it was hard to tell and I felt younger in her presence, the way you sometimes do around nuns or teachers of small children, as though her ‘profession’ gave her authority, an air of unassuming seniority aged her. We shook hands. “You’ve come a long way,” she observed when Rose explained we’d driven that day from Rochester. “A real long way,” she added when Rose told her I lived in L.A. Conscious not to give away any more information that could skew my reading, I smiled and nodded. We agreed that Rose would go first and I said I’d take a walk down by the Lake to wait for my turn.
Would you understand Dick?” Sarah asks and gets my attention. “Dick – someone in or around you, He is mentioning Dick. Dick is helping you, Dick is a part of this. You’re the one who’s being more serious, the other one is having more fun, he’s mentioning Dick he’s seeing Dick, Dick is getting a lot more …”
I need her to stop saying Dick. It feels like a cruel trick on more than one level. On the CD listening later it is even more pronounced, like a hiccup on the recording every time she says the name, the word Dick jumping out of the sound track out of sync with the rest. Suddenly a ringing in my ears drowns out the rest, static interference but in real time, and on the CD too, later, a gap, a skipping –
I am fascinated and ashamed at the same time, like a prank played on another child, getting her to say a dirty word without knowing it, that kind of shame.
“… train tracks, I’m seeing a train track, but neither of you is on the right track…
“So you’re free now,” said Rose with an obvious tone of relief as we walked to the car. Dusk in Lily Dale, the early summer light angled through the trees, turning the bright green to a fuzzy deep violet in the shadows.
“I don’t know, Rose,” I replied.
“But that was the point of coming here.”
“Perhaps not the whole point,” she continued, “I did have a lovely reading with Sarah, thank you for asking” (I had not asked) “and I’ve always been curious about this place, but I did think you’d be able to exorcise a ghost or two if I managed to get you here.”
“If you what?”
We were standing on opposite sides of the Subaru, facing each other across the top and I watched as she froze at my question. Then slowly, carefully, methodically taking her time, fingering the keys in her hand without looking at them, without taking her eyes off mine she let herself appear to hesitate between an expression that said, “Have I forgotten my line, is that my cue?” and “Oh my, you’re an imbecile, I see that now, I must try and be kind but it won’t be easy.”
“Get in,” she replied instead, unlocking the doors.
We left Lily Dale and drove back to our B&B on Lake Erie in silence, even missing a turn or two for lack of GPS reception or possibly our mutual refusal to consult the mapping apps on our phones, Rose’s hands gripping the wheel as if willing the car forward as we wound up and down empty country roads lit by nothing but our headlights, the darkness looming up on either side of the vehicle, black sky, black fields and blacker woods.
No one around to greet us, we let ourselves in the farmhouse turned country bed and breakfast, a plate of home-made cookies on the battered farm table in the country kitchen – every bit of décor in fact suitably described by the prefix ‘country’ or ‘country-style’ – and after a mumbled exchange of courtesies we retired to our separate rooms for the night.
“That was well done,” observed Dick when I turned on the light. He looked less substantial than usual, a James Franco with no motivation.
“Get out,” I ordered. A paperback book on remote viewing (“Psyops Warrior for the CIA”) was lying on the bed where I’d left it earlier.
“That’s because of me, isn’t it,” he observed, meaning the book.
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“That’s only part of the story, you know,” he said dismissively. “We didn’t all sit around in the desert staring at goats. We don’t all look like George Clooney.”
“No kidding,” I said, and almost immediately a stabbing pain pierced my ears and buckled my knees. I sank to the floor gasping.
“Enough of the light and pleasant banter,” Dick hissed inside my head. The throbbing passed over me like a wave and I slowly sat up, my legs tucked under me, my arms crossed against my chest.
“Better?” he asked. I nodded mutely. “You see,” he continued, “we don’t waste our time inducing heart attacks in dumb animals and we don’t waste our time talking to dead people. I thought that was clear by now. So what did you think you were doing, making that poor woman talk about Dick? Were you trying to be funny?”
“I thought that was you,” I said, and felt the pressure, like a vice, begin to tighten on either side of my head. “Don’t, please,” I whispered. The grip released.
“Me? Why would you say that? Have you not been paying any attention? We. Don’t. Talk. To the Dead.”
“But you said, the Lady on Long Island, the – ”
“We fuck with them, ok? I told you. And we fuck with the people who think they’re communicating with ‘The Beyond’ and with ‘Spirit’ and throw a little gasoline on the whole exorcism/possession fire once in a while and for god’s sake get with the program, man. We locate hostages in cellars in Islamabad and plutonium enrichment facilities in the Gobi Desert, we get terrorists in Abu Ghraib to think they’re talking to the ghosts of their mothers, I’m talking to you and sitting in a breakroom in Langley waiting for my burrito to warm up in the microwave, trust me, I don’t have time to waste dicking around with mediums in fucking Lily Dale, so I need to know how the fuck did you do it? It was clever, don’t get me wrong, but don’t try to play games with me, I am not the patient or forgiving type and I will make you feel from the inside out what happens when I crush your skull like a watermelon.”
“I put it there,” I said and gulped air as the clamp on my temples released.
“The word,” I replied. “Just the word. Dick. Put it there, so you’d hear it. To see if you’d hear. I wasn’t sure you would but I thought she might so I held it in my mind and she picked it up, I thought she might and she did, it was just to see, just a test.”
I could feel my interrogator relax.
“Like the book says – ” I waved at the book on remote viewing on the bed. I was seriously improvising at this point but it felt inspired and it was all I could think of and so not exactly like I had much choice but to run with it. “I mean, you know, how he says things get in the way, that memory and analysis and imagination get in the way – ”
“Guy is such an amateur,” Dick interrupted. “I hope you know that. But continue.”
“So okay, so I thought if, what if I just focused on one word, what would happen, you know, forget everything else, let everything else go, and if I could do that, concentrate on you know, one thing, one word, then maybe I could…”
“Then maybe you could what?” Dick asked. “Find a way to block interference?”
I thought of my Dad, have I mentioned him? That he was a ham radio amateur of the old times, taught Morse Code to Boy Scouts, his father, my grandfather having been an AT&T telegraph operator, runs in the family, before the Internet, before the telephone, fascinated with communicating with the world as a disembodied entity, clicks and dashes on wires, then wireless, Dad had a whole operation set up in the barn we weren’t allowed to touch, his private place where he could go and signal and sign and reach out to other lonely men in the middle of the night on the CB radio bandwidth, truckers, farmers, small town guys in the prosperous post WWII years, fine tuning, dialing in clarity, oh I was rolling with this now, interference indeed. I shrug. Maybe?
I feel/see Dick being thoughtful. It’s a strange sensation.
“So it was a test?” he asks.
“Not a test,” I begin and wince. “Okay, maybe a test. To see what would happen.”
Dick sighs. “You could have asked me, you know.” The tone is almost petulant, disappointed. “I’ve been trying to work with you.”
“I didn’t realize,” I said. “It didn’t feel like that.”
“Agency training,” Dick scoffed in a dismissive tone. “We can come off a little heavy-handed, I admit. But then most of our subjects aren’t worth the time we spend on them, as you can imagine.”
I felt it wise to refrain from saying what I might or might not imagine.
“But I’m not sure,” he continued, “what you thought would happen. That you’d be able to throw me off? Or was it to get my attention? Was that the point?”
“I didn’t have a point, I was just experimenting.”
“Maybe,” he replied, more inside my head than outside of it, muffled, and then outside again, shifting the way sound does when you hold your breath and your ears pop in a descent from high altitude. This thoughtful mood sensation was new and not pleasant but preferable to the physical pain he could inflict. “Whatever you were trying to do, though,” he went on, “you won’t find it in books. Or from your new little friend Sarah either.”
“Please don’t hurt her, she didn’t know, she didn’t do anything.”
“Relax, we’re not interested in folks like Sarah.”
“She had no idea what I was trying to do.”
“I mean it, she’s just a sweet – ”
“Hello? I said we’re not interested. Lily Dale does us a favor, provides effective cover when we need it, draws out potential candidates, helps weed out the jokers and the amateurs. Like Halloween all year long, and trust me, it beats monitoring Lilith festivals and Wiccan groups. Patchouli gives me a headache.”
An aroma so pungent and earthy it took me back to my tie-dyed t-shirt and Jethro Tull days suddenly filled my nostrils. I sneezed.
“See?” he said and a sound like a laugh, muffled with a cotton swab, swirled in my ears.
“May I ask you something?” I was feeling bold.
“My name is not Rumpelstiltskin,” he answered. Another soft laugh.
“Is anything in the books I’m reading true?”
“Ah yes,” he said as if he’d won a bet. “I thought that’s what you wanted to know. Sure. It’s all true.”
“Really. And also misleading.”
“In the words used. Words are woefully inadequate, you know. Language is misleading by definition. Language defines what you can see and experience in the three dimensions, but there’s the problem. You are defined by what you know, by those dimensions. Then you define what you know with the words you know. Because you can’t define something you don’t know. You can’t see what you don’t know so how can you define it? And round and round you go.”
“Memory, analysis, imagination – ”
“– are words, man. Just words. Memory of what? The Past? But you know yourself, memory is notoriously unreliable and subject to whim, mood, the weather, whatever. And analysis – what’s that? Talking your way out of the illogical so you don’t scare yourself with your imagination and voila! What does that get you? Nothing. Nada. Nyet. Nicht. Zilch. Rrrrrrrrien,” he added, rolling his ‘r’ for an unnaturally long echoing effect, as if we were sitting together on the dirt ground in a dark cave instead of on a colorful ‘country style’ rag rug on a painted farm house floor within a thousand feet of a rocky beach where I once played as a small child. On a rocky beach on Lake Erie in the middle of an early summer night.
Talking to an empty chair.