Jake sunk into the recliner and thought about his high school reunion last week. Twenty years since graduation. It was great to gather with classmates for their alma mater's homecoming game even though the Cougars haven't had a winning streak in years. Like previous reunions, there was curiosity over whatever had become of Booger: had he moved South, changed his name, started a cult as some classmates rumored? It would not have surprised Jake and PJ because Booger was never the same after the summer of 1962.
Jake stared at the wall and recalled the crisp autumn days when he and his buddies watched football practices. They never missed a practice or a home game. Jake and his pals bicycled to the high school stadium, cutting through the culm dump section north of town. Jake had gotten more than one good walloping for coming home looking like a chimney sweep–a fair price to pay for doing wheelies off the sooty slopes. During the evening football games, they warmed their hands over cups of steaming chocolate.
When the football season ended, the boys amused themselves with board games: Monopoly, Clue, Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers; Jake forgot what was before Chinese Checkers.
The warped and worn games were in the attic. Jake’s wife wanted to toss them, “After all,” she said, “our boys don’t care about those games. Besides, most of the pieces are missing, and the Monopoly money is all crumpled.” All the same, Jake insisted they remain in the attic if only to collect dust with the other relics of his youth.
Shrills and blasts coming from the boys’ bedroom distracted Jake. He closed his eyes, and before long, the sounds from his house became distant, and he traveled back to the year he turned eleven, 1962—the year of the accident and the shadow.
Not Too Long Ago
The start of the new year had always marked the beginning of another season of board games. Nineteen-sixty-two was no exception. We were as serious as any pre-teens could be when we played Monopoly. We carefully considered which token would be the lucky token, but pretty much stayed with our favorites. My best friend, Howard J. Maxwell, III was the banker. He had to be the banker because his grandfather had been president of the First National Bank of Hawley for twenty years before his retirement and Howard's dad was the head teller at the branch office in town. Aside from that, Howard was honest and probably the smartest of us. Ho—that’s what we called him—usually felt obligated to tell the latest foreclosure stories during our monopoly games. When your dad works at a bank, I suppose interest rates and foreclosure stories were typical dinner-time conversation topics.
Ho was an only child. My mom told me that "an only child was a lonely child," but I didn't believe her. Ho was in the Gifted Class at Lily Lake School for Exceptional Children, and he had many friends there but opted to spend his free time with us. Ho lived down the street from me and served as the head altar boy at Saint Casimir's up on the hill. Going to a private school wasn't something Ho bragged about or even talked about. It was one of those situations that a kid had no control over; kind of like being an only child. His mom was one of those mothers who got involved with everything except her son. She was president of the Lily Lake PTA, she volunteered at the Lily Lake Library, and she worked with an agency that ran errands for shut-ins.
Then there was PJ. Philip White Jr., the firstborn of Philip and Paula White. Following Philip Jr. were Paula, Pricilla, Pamela, and Patricia. Their orange and white cat was named Princess. PJ was the most experienced babysitter of the group (actually, he was the only babysitter) and the only boy I ever knew who would admit to changing a diaper–long before disposable diapers. PJ was and would remain my best friend for life.
My third friend was Mark B. Reed. The "B" stood for Benjamin, but we all called him Booger because he always had a finger in his nose. It seemed that his life-long ambition was to find the perfect booger. We all worried about what he would do with it once he found it. Booger was the only person I knew whose parents had divorced. Booger never talked about his dad, but my mom had once said that Mr. Reed lived nearby. Booger had something that made each of us very jealous: he had an older brother. People referred to Booger as Joe's little brother ever since he was born. Being called someone’s little brother never bothered him because he idolized Joe. Thanks to Joe, the Cougars of Central High School were having a very successful football season for the third year in a row! Joe was the town hero. I remember how proud I felt when he once dated my sister. I had secretly hoped that they’d marry so we could all be family.
Unlike his scholarship winning brother, Booger didn’t have an athletic bone in his skinny body. His mom never encouraged him to try out for sports. Maybe she figured one hero in the family was enough. Booger's eyesight was poor; his glasses were as thick as soda bottles. I always thought he could overcome anything because he was a spunky kid. Joe and Booger were inseparable on Sunday afternoons. Following Mass and dinner, Joe had an outing planned for just the two of them. This was a special time for Booger. It never mattered where they went or what they did; it was the Reed brothers’ time together.
Compared to my pals, I was the most sexually experienced. I could describe how teenage breasts looked, mostly because of how the rooms in our house were laid out. My sister, Gina, was five years older and a shared bathroom separated our bedrooms. I would unlatch the door leading from my bedroom to the bathroom. Then, every once in awhile, I’d get an eyeful when the air suction from Gina’s opening door silently opened my door. I couldn’t help that her anatomy sparked my curiosity. I never shared how I knew about real breasts with the guys. After all, she was my sister.
My parents liked my friends. They allowed us to play at our house on the school holidays. I suppose they figured that if we were hanging around the house, our mischief would be limited to whatever could happen inside. Mom worked in town, and occasionally she brought a pizza when she did her noontime check to be sure we weren't destroying the furniture. It was at my house where we all had our first taste of cigarettes, too. Ho enjoyed them the most; I never could get the hang of inhaling without choking.
My dad took the time to talk to the guys about school or sports. He called PJ the most manure of the group. The word manure comically substituted for mature and so we all thought this was quite hilarious and repeated it whenever the opportunity arose.
I digress; back to the games.
Ho took it upon himself to keep the weathered Monopoly bills looking new by taping the torn bills and carefully working the creases out of the others. He would land his thimble dead center on every square, he was sort of a perfectionist, but no one ever made fun of him because that was just Ho. He showed no mercy or compassion when he played. His title deeds lined up alphabetically in front of him irritated Booger. Booger was usually the first to declare bankruptcy, and he played the game with a finger in his nose and his pastel-colored money heaped in one pile–all the while threatening to fling one of his nasal discoveries at Ho. I usually sat with Boardwalk and Park Place to my left, although Ho was the first to buy these properties and set up the houses and hotels.
One Saturday afternoon in late February, just as Booger landed his racecar on the Free Parking square, the phone rang. Booger was summoned home and we abandoned the game. Mom, teary-eyed and pale, gathered Ho, PJ, and me into the kitchen and told us the tragic news: Booger's brother, our hero, was killed in a car accident. Ho and PJ went home, and I retreated to the quietness of my room upstairs. I remember listening to muffled voices later in the afternoon as Mom retold the sad news to Gina, and I remember falling asleep while listening to her crying late into the night. I didn't cry; I just felt a little sick to my stomach, and I couldn't stop thinking about Booger and how upset his stomach must have felt.
When you're eleven, you don't think about death. Sure, you poke at dead birds and joke about the blood and guts of any unidentifiable roadkill, but you don't think about people that way. You are aware that people die, but you avoid talking about it, and you go on hoping it'll never happen to someone you know.
At the funeral parlor, I sat with my family and watched the backs of the Reed family. My friend was wedged between his sobbing mom and a grim, tall man, who was, I suppose, his father. Booger’s freshly cut head of hair was neatly combed and did not touch his white shirt collar. When the service was over, the line to the casket moved at a snail’s pace. Joe, eyes closed and lips tight, was wearing his varsity sweater, and next to him were flowers, his college acceptance letter, and an old pre-divorce photo of the whole Reed family. An eerie feeling overcame me. I watched as Gina’s touched Joe's hand; she was crying. I kept staring at Joe, waiting for him to wink and say, "Fooled ya!" but then my dad gave me a little shove, and I bumped my sister, and we moved away from the lifeless body.
It was quite a few days before we saw Booger again. Ho, PJ and I were munching popcorn and watching ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ when Dad answered the knock at the door with, "Come on in. Make yourself homely."
Booger greeted us with a smile and a flat box, "Wait till you guys see this.” He acted as if he had been vacationing at Coney Island for the past two weeks.
"What is it?"
"A Wee-Gee board."
"What kind of game is this?" PJ barely glanced at it as he picked at a scab on his elbow.
"Real cool–wait 'til you see what it does."
"Is there any money?" Leave it to Ho to ask that.
"Nah, it's nothin' like anything we ever played."
We turned the TV off, forgot the popcorn, and assumed positions around the board. At first, we were all very skeptical as to its powers as Booger described its potential. It seemed we spent most of the time accusing each other of moving the plastic triangle across the letters. And then something mysterious happened. PJ and I were controlling the board, asking the questions with Ho and Booger watching. The triangle moved. PJ and I looked accusingly into each other's eyes. Ho announced the letters: "C-R-A-S-H."
All eyes riveted onto Booger; he whispered, "Ask it what crash?"
The board answered: C-A-R-J-O-E.
"Cut it out, PJ, it's not funny."
"Didn't do it, you did."
“Crybaby. Did not."
"C'mon guys," Booger pleaded, his dark eyes wide and round. "Ask it something else–ask if it was day or night."
The plastic piece moved first to D and then to A-Y.
Ho very calmly whispered, "Ask it more."
Booger shoved PJ away from the board and took his place, "We'll see who's controlling it now."
He looked at me, and I addressed the board, "Did Joe suffer?"
The plastic moved to "NO."
I was afraid to look away from the board.
"Ask if Joe is really dead," Ho said.
"That's crazy!" Booger shouted.
"No, it's not, just ask!" Ho sounded angry.
"YOU ask." PJ said.
"Crybaby. I - - I’ll ask."
"Look, guys, let's just quit for now. I gotta think this over." And with that, Booger picked up the board and left. Ho and PJ began arguing about who was intentionally moving the game piece, and I just stared into the green shag carpeting and picked at a crushed Cheerio.
The next evening Booger came over to my house. He marched up the sidewalk, the box securely tucked under his arm. Booger looked like he was on some sort of mission. "I can't be sure those guys aren't foolin' with me. Let's just you and me do it, Jake."
We sat on the floor in my bedroom and swore in spit that we would not push the piece. Booger asked simple questions like "Does Susie love PJ" and "What time is it" and "Will it be a hot summer." The board gave the answers we expected, and in the safety of my room, it seemed harmless enough.
The following Friday after supper, PJ and Ho joined us. We played Monopoly and drank Kool-Aid in the den while Dad and Mom drank coffee in the kitchen. Without outrightly agreeing on it, we somehow knew that it would be best to continue the Ouija Board activities once my parents were asleep. So, much later in the evening, we went to the basement where we knew we wouldn't be interrupted. PJ and Ho took their turn at the board, and after a few minutes of questioning, Booger bravely asked, "Give us a sign that Joe is still alive."
"Don't take your fingers off."
The plastic triangle moved to yes.
"Was that the sign?"
"What do you think, crybaby."
We exchanged glances and listened to Booger's shaky voice. "Can we see Joe?"
What's THAT supposed to mean? I thought.
PJ looked puzzled. Ho exhaled deeply. I addressed the board in an attempt to break the silence, "We NEED to talk to Joe; it's important. Help us."
And with that, the furnace rattled, and the basement light went off, then on. Dad's voice bellowed from the top of the stairs, "WHAT IN GOD'S NAME ARE YOU BOYS DOING DOWN THERE? THAT BETTER NOT BE CIGARETTE SMOKE I SMELL. IT'S TWO O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING -- GET UP HERE AND GET TO BED RIGHT NOW!"
Stumbling over each other, we ran up the stairs, not because Dad yelled, but because we were scared out of our wits. We knew that we were in way over our heads with this new game. I didn’t like this secret. At breakfast, Dad lectured us about smoking and skin magazines and right versus wrong and respecting women. Then he told us that we were to remember this when we go to confession. Dad’s breakfast lecture made us want to laugh, but we pretended to be very sorry for the sins he thought we committed.
We decided to continue the Ouija activities at Booger's house, where Booger and Joe had separate bedrooms at the far end of the single-wide trailer. Since Joe's death, Mrs. Reed habitually fell asleep on the couch in front of the television after her supper of gin and tonic. She was oblivious to what was happening around her. We agreed the Ouija would give the best results from inside Joe’s room. But Booger had another idea.
Somewhere along the way, Booger learned about séances. We started slowly by lighting the candles and solemnly taking our places in a circle around Joe's football trophies and the Ouija board. We patiently waited for the sign—which came as water gurgling or the furnace thumping—and then we did everything imaginable to summon Joe's spirit.
Convinced Joe would either appear or speak, we started wearing Joe’s shirts, and during one session, we almost made contact, but, as the March wind howled, Ho sneezed and broke the concentration. We didn’t stop.
Over the next few gatherings, we added candles to the seance ambiance--candles we pocketed from the storage shelf behind the altar. We played the spookiest music we could create. Usually, this was music from Dad's country and western record collection played at a slower speed. As creepy as the country music sounded, we had the best responses from the spirits when we used a recording of Fr. Peter chanting in Latin during Mass.
We went to school every day and did our homework and chores from Monday to Friday. On Saturday nights, we locked ourselves away in Joe's bedroom, and on Sunday, we served at St. Casimir's. Life was going pretty much as we planned up until late April. We hardly noticed that the snow had melted. Boys in the neighborhood were testing their Christmas bicycles, and the girls played hopscotch on the sidewalks. But Ho, PJ, Booger, and I were occupied with the spirit world.
On the last Saturday in April, Booger, with an old Superman cape over his shoulders, asked for a sign that Joe's spirit was present. He must have asked ten times. Frustrated, we blew out the candles and turned on the lights. One by one, we froze as our eyes followed Booger's stare to the melted wax on the floor. Almost buried inside the resin was the race car token from the Monopoly game; it was upside down.
"That was the sign."
For hours we lay in our sleeping bags on the floor in Booger's room, convinced that Joe would appear. One by one, we drifted off to sleep. Sometime later, I felt chilled and, when I sat to zip my sleeping bag, I saw it. Bigger than life, against the far wall, was a shadow. The head was huge as if it had a hat on -- or a helmet, yes, that's it, a shadow with a football helmet! Keeping my eyes glued to the wall, with my left hand, I began shaking Ho, who was sleeping on the floor next to me. I kicked at PJ, who had practically rolled across the room. Booger's bed was too far away to reach. I couldn't speak although I think I was groaning. When PJ saw the shadow, he made a kind of whiny sound and crawled on all fours out the door and down the hallway. Ho got up, too, his legs stiff, he looked comical running without bending his knees. I moved toward the door. The shadow’s head looked like it was moving, and I felt a wet spot on my pajama bottoms before getting into the hallway.
We sat on cold linoleum, too scared to move from the dark kitchen, fearing that ghosts lurked around every corner. I listened to my heart pounding in my head. The tick-tock of the wall clock was the only sound until the chirping birds at dawn. We never thought to check on Booger. We just got up and went home without changing from our pajamas. Later, Booger had said that we must've been dreaming. Did we have a collective nightmare? There was something in Booger’s voice that made me uneasy. For the first time, I understood what it felt like not to trust someone.
The very next day, my parents decided to remodel the kitchen. This put a halt to gatherings because Dad kept me busy fetching tools and sweeping the floor and stuff like that every weekend till mid-summer. By the time the remodeling work was finished, PJ had gotten a paper route, and Ho had started hanging out with a kid from the private school. We saw each other at Mass on Sundays, except for Booger, who stopped coming to church.
The next football season, I learned that Ho's family moved to the city because of his dad getting a big promotion. Booger stopped coming to the football games. The Cougars were not doing well.
Life continued: junior high, then high school, college for PJ and me. At our first high school reunion, we heard that Ho was successful as a Financial Advisor in Chicago. PJ got married first, and then it was my turn, followed by having kids of our own. No one heard any news about Booger; the rumors circulating at our high school reunions were speculations which became more and more outrageous with every gathering.
The ringing phone woke Jake. “It’s for you, Dad, it’s Uncle PJ.”
As Jake picked up the extension, he could hear his buddy laughing and nearly shouting, “Jake, you gotta see this, put on 21.”
An infomercial. A well-dressed middle-aged man was talking about how he made his first million. Jake listened to the steady and convincing voice. This guy was a real salesman. The well-manicured fingers pitched a book guaranteeing success to anyone--anyone who sent in $29.95. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Jake muttered and set the phone back on the hook. The single recognizable feature on this self-made millionaire was his dark and magnified eyes behind the thick lenses. There was no mistake about it: Booger was alive and doing well.
Jake walked past his sons' bedroom, the familiar Mario Brothers' electronic tunes played. A few minutes later, he reappeared."Hey, boys, would you come out here for a minute?"
The house quieted.
"What is it, Dad?" Tommy appeared from around the corner, and Brian followed on the heels of his big brother.
"This is a game I used to play when I was a kid. Wanna learn how to play? It's called Monopoly."
word count: 3655