Friday, October 29, 2010

 

An October Moment...

October 14, 1992


I don’t care how rational and level-headed you are, once you get a crazy thought in your head, it’s hard to keep it to yourself. So it was only a matter of time before Tammy shared with her best friend at work her growing concern that she, or possibly her apartment, or possibly both, were possessed. The voices, the smells, the disappearing objects—heck, even the vomiting of blood that everyone attributed to the ulcer that hospitalized her—it all pointed in her mind to this one crazy idea.

I think if she’d been sleeping better, had not been so loopy on whatever medication the doctors had given her, Tammy might have thought it through a bit more. Or might at least have remembered that her work pal, while a genuinely sweet person, also had a big mouth. So it was that by the time Tam returned to work half-days, everyone in our office knew Tammy’s secret. Most folks did what most folks do, chalked it up to confusion and fatigue and illness and let it go. But more than a few had a lot of fun at her expense.

“So I hear your apartment is the Amityville Horror now,” brayed Z, our boss. And then he laughed his terrible “Hyuh-hyuh-hyuhhhhh” laugh. “Should we call a priest and get an exorcism going? Or will that work, since you’re Jewish? Hyuh-hyuhhhhh!”

Still others were overly fascinated, trying to pump Tammy for specifics, which she had been silent about. She had really only gotten as far as telling her friend that she was seeing and hearing and smelling strange things in her apartment. She hadn’t gone into the details of what she’d seen or heard or smelled. Her big-mouthed friend hadn’t given her the chance before she told Tammy she needed to go back to the doctor and get tests, that maybe this was some multi-sensory side effect of her medication, or the result of blood loss to her brain from when she passed out. Oh, and then she blabbed to everyone else that Tammy was under the delusion that she was in the grip of demonic possession.

“I’m not saying another word about it!” she said shrilly to me, late her first morning back to work, when I poked my head into her office during a quiet moment. “I’m not telling anyone anything else!”

“Okay,” I said, turning to go. “But I just wanted to apologize.”

She looked sharply at me. “For what?”

“For not asking you about the old lady. The one I saw in your living room when I stopped by that day.”

Weak though she was, Tam’s grip was viselike when she caught my sleeve. “You saw her!”

I nodded. “Smelled her too.” Tam motioned for me to kick her door shut, and we had a little catch-up.

---

It was a little after 12 when I arrived at Tam’s apartment, a second-floor walk-up over a hairdresser’s establishment. I rang the bell and, after a long moment, she buzzed me in. I walked up the stairs to her apartment door on the second floor.

“It’s open,” a voice called from deep within her apartment. So I opened the door.

My eyes immediately began watering as I was hit by an amazingly strong perfume-y smell. It smelled like Tammy had broken a gallon jug of lilac toilet water just inside her front door. Tammy’s apartment door opened on a main room that contained a few bookshelves, a TV, and a sofa, sitting directly across the room, facing the door. Next to the sofa was the open doorway to the kitchen. And behind that sofa, I could see someone. Not clearly—my eyes really were streaming, I’ve always been ridiculously sensitive to fragrance—but I could definitely make out a woman in a dress, one hand held up in a kind of tentative wave. As my eyes began to clear, I realized pretty quickly that this wasn’t my ailing workmate Tammy, but another woman altogether, an older woman, it seemed. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see that she had white hair, not the long black hair my friend had. I pulled off my glasses and mopped my eyes on my sleeve.

“Hi,” I spluttered, still choking on the lilac fumes. “Are you—?”

I was about to ask the old woman if she was a relative, possibly Tammy’s mother or grandmother or something. But when I looked up, I noticed a funny thing about the woman I was addressing.

She was gone.

I set the container of soup down on the floor, put my glasses back on, blinked, looked around, turned a full circle to see where the old lady went. Not a sign.

“Hello?” I whispered tentatively. Nothing. Feeling a little foolish, I stepped over to the couch and peered behind it to make sure the old woman hadn’t ducked down behind the furniture. She hadn’t. I was completely alone in that room, except for the overwhelming scent of lilacs, although now I realized that even that was dissipating.

I looked around furtively again, in the manner of one afraid of being caught doing something childish. Tam was a practical, level-headed sort—what would she have made of me if she saw me now? All the same, I was just 23, still a kid, and not so far removed from the weirdness of my childhood in New Jersey. Whatever compass needle that had become attuned to things unseen when I was a teenager was still spinning somewhere in my head. I took a deep breath and extended my hand into the empty air behind the couch, tensed in the manner of one expecting to dip his hand into ice water.

Nothing happened.

I relaxed after a moment, confused, then waved my hand around some more, feeling for something, but not finding it. Beginning to doubt what I’d just seen (although my eyes were still smarting a little from the lilac smell) I went back, grabbed the soup, set it on the counter in the kitchen, then made my way down the hall to a closed door I assumed was Tammy’s room.

I tapped on the door. Tammy screamed in surprise. “Who’s there?” she yelled.

“It’s MM!” I answered. “Who were you expecting?”

Tammy got up and opened the door.

“Are you okay?” I asked, wiping my eyes one more time to clear them. Tammy gave me a funny look before she turned and shuffled back to her bed.

“Sure!” she said, in a forced way that suggested she was anything but. “Sure. I’m just not sleeping well. Must be a side effect of the meds they’ve given me.”

“Well, are you hungry? I can find my way around the kitchen and find a bowl for the soup I brought,” I offered, and began stepping out the door.

Tammy sat up again. “O-okay. But, do you mind if I eat in here?” she asked, her face showing the slightest pink as she blushed. “I don’t usually entertain in my bedroom, but I’d rather—well, I’m just so tired--"

“Sure,” I said, as I backed into the hall and turned to head back toward the kitchen. “I’ll see if I can find a tray or—" As I turned fully down the hall, I saw a head peeking around the corner at the far end, near the kitchen. But the moment I was turned fully to face it, the head ducked away.

“What?!?” Tam asked as I hopped back into the room.

Okay, now you’re just freaking her out. Get a grip! I thought. “Never mind,” I said. “Be right back.”

I walked, quietly, gingerly, almost on tip-toe, down the hall, bracing myself to see something around the corner. Again, nothing and no one was in sight. I thought I could smell the lilacs again, but I may have been kidding myself. I peered around into the galley kitchen. The soup was sitting there where I’d left it, in a Styrofoam container on the counter. Right next to a large bowl. Was that bowl there before? I wondered.

I looked around, now feeling somewhat peeved, more at myself than anything else. I had forgotten some of the tips I’d learned as a teenager from Ruth, the daughter of the Witch Man, my name for the local psychic/crazy guy who had freaked me out when I went looking for him one summer to try and get to the bottom of the weird shit that had been going on at my own house. He had been of no help in the end, but Ruth turned out to be awesome. She had been a font of all manner of tips and strategies for dealing with this stuff. And one of her tips had been Don’t be afraid to talk to them. As a corollary to this, she probably should have added Don’t be afraid to feel stupid when you do it either because I did feel stupid, especially with my sensible, level-headed colleague just down the hall.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“Anyone there?” I asked, then kicked myself. Ruth had often said you shouldn’t ask a question unless you want to get an answer, and in this situation, that answer was likely to get me suffocating on that overwhelming lilac smell again. I tried a different tack. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just a friend bringing some food.” Oddly, just talking like this almost immediately put me at ease, made me feel less stupid. I might have been talking to my plants, or a dog, or just muttering to myself. Okay, yes, that still felt stupid, but on another level, it felt right, too.

I jabbered on. “Just gonna heat this soup up—thanks if you put the bowl out, although I really don’t know if you did or not—and bring it to her. She needs to keep up her strength and get her rest and I’m running out of things to say. Please don’t jump out at me as I carry this hot bowl of soup on this tray down the hall. I like to hum “Pomp and Circumstance” when I carry hot liquids. I don’t know why, it’s just my way. Dahhh dah-dah-dah dahhhhh-duhhhh, dahhh dah-dah-dah duhhhhh-duhhhhh...”

---

“Oh, my God!” Tammy cried as I related this (even, God help me, humming "Pomp and Circumstance") in her office. “Why didn’t you say something? I thought I was going crazy!”

“Well,” I said, “you’re no crazier than me, if that’s any comfort.”

“You really saw her?” she asked, practically giddy with relief. “I’ve been freaked out for days. It’s like a horror movie. I’m gone for a week and come back and my apartment is possessed! I told my boyfriend—he said he could smell the perfume, but I think he was humoring me because then he wanted me to call the doctor and see if I had brain damage or something. Oh my God! I’m always hearing someone puttering around out there in the living room and I’m too scared even to go to the bathroom. This is just not something that really happens, you know? What am I going to do, MM? Is Z right? Am I going to have to call a priest? I’m Jewish! I don’t think my mother’s rabbi would go in for that sort of thing. I’m totally talking a lot, aren’t I? You really saw her?”

“Saw her, smelled her, the works,” I said. “It’s not something I talk about much, but I have a little experience with this stuff. I mean, not exactly like this. It’s weird that there’s no cold spot. That’s usually how I know—well, never mind. But I don’t think your apartment is possessed. Not the way you think it is. So nothing like this happened before you were sick?”

Tam shook her head. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me in my life! First night by myself and I could smell that lilac stuff everywhere. Then in the morning, I went to the kitchen to get some water and heard someone say, ‘Well, hello!’ Like they were right there in the living room. I almost called the cops until I saw no one was there! I really thought I was losing my marbles. I had my boyfriend sleep out there until he got fed up and left.” She grabbed my sleeve again. “You really saw her.” It wasn’t a question, but a hopeful statement of confirmation.

“Oh yeah,” I said, nodding. “And it’s not the devil. You don’t need an exorcism, I don’t think.” I paused a minute, wondering how much of a discussion the level-headed Tammy was willing to entertain on this subject. “Have you ever gotten a good look at her? I mean, does she seem familiar to you?”

Tam just stared blankly. “I don’t understand. I told you nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I don’t believe in this stuff! So no, I’ve never seen or heard anything—"

“No, no,” I said, a bit sheepishly. “I meant, did she remind you of anyone you’ve ever known in your life, like a grandmother or—"

Tam was shaking her head. “No, no, no. My grandmothers both died before I was born,” she said, a little irritably now. “You’re not trying to tell me some dead grandmother came back from the grave to take care of me, are you? Because that is just crazy!”

“Tam, having some strange old lady stinking up your living room with lilac perfume is crazy too, but it’s happening, right? So let’s just try to embrace this for a minute.”

“Ok. Sorry. No, I guess I get what you’re asking. She doesn’t seem familiar. At all.”

I thought about this. “Maybe...maybe she latched onto you at the hospital. I had a friend, Ruth, who used to say that sometimes people—you know, spirits—get confused. They don’t quite get that they’re dead. I’ve read cases where sometimes they see a person who reminds them of someone they knew and they latch onto them. Maybe she thinks you’re her daughter or granddaughter or something—"

Tammy threw her hands up. “Great! So I AM possessed!” I could sense that I was fast exhausting my coworker’s patience.

“No! Believe me, that’s a whole other thing. And if that were the case, I think you’d know it. I don’t think you’d have spent one night in your place, no matter how sick you felt. Look...you said you could hear her talking. Maybe you should try talking back.”

“What? No! I should go back there tonight and talk to thin air and tell her she’s in the wrong apartment and is freaking me out and needs to beat it? Are you serious?” And she gave me a guarded look that I had seen once or twice, the look I got when somebody began to wonder if maybe I was the one who wasn’t getting so much blood to his brain. The look that made me stay quiet about this stuff for years—until I met all of you, in fact.

“Well, I’d be a little nicer than that, but basically, yes,” I said, perhaps a bit stiffly. Then I left pretty quickly.

The next day, Tammy was back at work. She looked better, more rested anyway. But when she poked her head into my cubicle, she had that guarded look about her. “I just wanted to say thanks. I know you’re trying to help me, but I think maybe we’re both a little crazy, and I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Okay,” I said. And that was that. I felt a little sad, closed off, I guess. And I itched to know what happened, but could never bring myself to ask her. I really liked and respected Tammy, and I wanted us to get along and work well together, so I shoved the whole thing aside.

Within a few months, I left that job anyway, and lost touch with Tammy, so it became a moot point. Sure, I sometimes wondered how she was doing, if she ever resolved the situation with her unwanted roommate, but I figured I’d never find out.

And then, this past spring, out of nowhere, completely unlooked for, this message popped into my work email inbox:

Dear MM,

I just saw the press release—a few months old—about your new job as editor-in-chief. Congratulations! I was so happy to find you—I’ve been out of magazines for years, but I think of you often and am so glad to see you’re doing well.


[redacted boring paragraphs about life, love, marriage, moving around, finding new careers, etc.]

While I would love to hear from you and catch up on everything, I feel as though I should take a few lines now to thank you for your advice way back when I was sick, and had that little “problem” I refused to talk about. It really weirded me out, and I was mortified that people at work were talking about it. But you were really trying to help me and I shut you down and I’m sorry about that.

So...I thought you’d like to know that I really did take your advice and started talking to my unexpected "friend." It took a long time, but I did it. I mean, we never had a conversation or anything. I just talked out loud in the apartment and acknowledged that "Grammy"—that’s what I started calling her—was there. All the weird stuff stopped mostly (things stopped disappearing, anyway, which was a relief because that was the thing that bothered me the most) and it actually became kind of nice to have her around, if that makes sense.

I lived in that apartment for a long time, but when I was getting ready to get married, and preparing to move out of that place, one of my bridesmaids came over to help pack. She'd never been to my place before. She was like you—she’d grown up in an old house where all sorts of stuff happened—and she knew right away that Grammy was lurking around. She’s really into parapsychology and she called up a friend whose mother is a psychic and she insisted on coming over. I hadn’t talked to anyone about this in years—and never told anyone about our conversation.

So, the psychic came in and immediately said that whoever was in my apartment had been sick in the hospital for a long time, years and years ago, and just stayed there. When she saw me (when I was in the hospital), I reminded her of her daughter and she followed me home. I got chills down my spine when she said this. Do you remember how you said pretty much the same thing?!?

Anyway, the psychic did a “cleansing” right there in my living room. Can you picture me sitting in my apartment with lit candles (lilac scented candles!) while this psychic lady talked to my little “problem”? It sounds hokey—the whole guiding a lost spirit toward the light—but it was kind of cool. Afterward, the psychic said that Grammy had moved on, and I should feel blessed that I helped her do that.

Well, I just thought you should know. Please call or write when you have a chance (but I’ll understand if you don’t. I must sound crazy to you now, but who cares?) I’d love to catch up.

PS: You should feel blessed too.


I do, Tammy. I really do.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Comments:
So did you guys really never mention the word "ghost"? It's like the episode of Seinfeld where they never say the word "masturbation".

A good story as always, MM. And I bet it was nice to get a follow-up 18 years later!

Thanks for another October Moment.
 
And it looks like someone deleted a post about a giant (man-eating?) spider and a leg-humping dog. Hmmmm.
 
My son is at my house right now because he has a test to study for and can't sleep at his dad's house in the attic bedroom because he thinks it is haunted.

There's more to this world than what we can prove. :)
 
Great story MM, thanks for not leaving us hanging too long! :) Amazing that Tammy got back to you, and what a relief!
 
Cool October moment, MM! It's nice when those kind of things have some closure, because I imagine in real life they often don't...
 
A wonderful chill-worthy read. (And hitting uncomfortably close to home: Our 3-year-old keeps screaming out in the middle of the night because silver, floaty things are visiting her. Eeek.)

Would it seem ungrateful to chant, "More, More, More!"?
 
Excellent post.

I 'specially loved *how* you told it.

I hope that you and Tammy got caught up, and that she is still doing well. How nice to get "closure" on that little chapter.

Don't forget - we want to see pictures of the kids all dressed up this year when they go out for Halloween! :)
 
Yeah.
What happend to the dog spider thingy?

:)

Your october moments are one of the most awaited postings ever.

Thank you.
 
All's well that ends well. Great story MM.
 
as ever, nicely done!

i don't blame you for misplacing the spider post. if i were you, i'd visit wikipedia and remove the link by your name at the island's page.

happy halloween!
 
I don't think a psychic "cleansing" was necessary. This happens more and more as you get older. The thing is, the older you get, the less freaked-out you get about it. We should just talk to the spirits and do all we can for them. I actually reach out to them on my own. It's more convenient for them. You can learn a lot from them. But if you can't do it, I suppose a "cleansing" is the best thing.


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