We were over at Jimmy and Beth’s for Sunday night supper and cards and Jimmy and I had put back a few beers and I was feeling contented and smooth and that’s probably how I got the nerve up.
Beth and June had just finished the dishes and Beth had sent my wife back to sit while she wiped the counter one more time — I swear that woman always has a cloth in her hand, wiping down something — while Jimmy shuffled the cards, and I said, casual, ”Do you ever hear something tapping on the air?”
Everything stopped, like I’d hit them all with a freeze-ray gun, Beth in mid-wipe and Jimmy in mid-shuffle. June had been examining a spot on her blouse from where she’d spilled something at supper, gauging the possibility of being able to get the stain out, and she went all still too, looking a bit ridiculous, holding her shirt out from her chest and squinting.
Finally Jimmy moved, finished sliding the cards in between each other then put them down on the table in front of him, centred the pen on the scoring pad, picked his bottle up and took a swig of beer. Beth attacked a spot on the counter then folded the cloth neatly and laid it over the tap, keeping her back to the rest of us for the moment. ”For god’s sake, Pete,” June said, letting go of her blouse. ”Not that again.”
Now, I’d never mentioned this to a soul in the world but June, but she’d heard enough the first time I talked to her about it, thank you very much, and swore me to silence thereafter. She hasn’t been a church-going woman since our little boy died but refusing to believe in God is not the same thing, after all, as not believing, and after a lifetime of priestly exhortations against witches and spirits and things that go bump in the night, she’ll have no truck with those as want to discuss the possibility they might exist. And if you ask me, and I’ll take this thought with me to my grave, June’s main problem with talking about it was that she was convinced our boy Mikey was haunting us and she was half excited and mostly scared shitless at the thought.
Anyway, I was busting to talk about it, and Jimmy and Beth were our best friends — we’d stood for each other at our respective weddings and our families had grown up together — and if I couldn’t talk to them, who could I talk to?
”What was that?” Jimmy asked, carefully lining up the cards so the edges matched precisely, not looking up from the table. Beth had turned around and was looking at June and I couldn’t tell whether her raised eyebrow meant June had already hashed it over with her, or she was irritated that June hadn’t mentioned it.
Now I could have just said ”nothing, not important” and we’d have gotten on with 45s and had our normal Sunday evening and June and I would have gone home and she’d’ve given me the cold shoulder all night for embarrassing her in front of our friends, and next Sunday they’d’ve come to our place and we’d’ve gone on like I’d never brought it up, but like I said, I’d had a few and I was busting to talk about it, so I took a breath and said:
”I’ve been hearing noises. I hear tapping in the air in the middle of the living room, sometimes I hear dishes rattle in the kitchen when there’s nobody out there, and sometimes when June’s on the night shift and I’m in bed going to sleep I hear someone calling a name — not my name.”
”Jesus, buddy,” Jimmy said, trying to laugh but not quite managing it. He picked up the cards and started shuffling them again. ”I’m cutting you off. You’re drinking too much.”
I started to protest, but to my surprise Beth was there first. Surprised me because she wasn’t jumping in to give me a hard time, she was aiming her guns at Jimmy.
”Oh no you don’t, buster,” she said, hands on hips, looking straight at him while he looked everywhere but back.
”What?” he asked, innocent like a big dog standing next to an upturned flowerpot.
”You know good and well what. I’m not going to stand by while you make Pete feel foolish when you and I’ve been hearing the same damned things.”
Well that was news to me and to June both. ”You never said…” June sputtered, and that’s when I knew the girls had already had a chat and Beth had been less than forthcoming. Them and us were great friends, we did everything together, but some are always a little more equal than others and they did like to have the upper hand in all of it. Earned a little bit more, car was a little newer, TV a little bigger, and not in competition but just because that’s the way the cookie crumbled. You get used to the hierarchy — both of you do — and so it’s hard to admit to equal footing sometimes. Beth was no doubt holding her peace until she figured out the lay of the land and could give us the answer to the question. They couldn’t have known I’d bring it up tonight — I hadn’t known I’d bring it up tonight — but Beth wasn’t one to turn down an opportune moment, though it seemed Jimmy was willing enough to, if she’d’ve only let him.
No such luck.
Jimmy put the cards down again, making sure the deck was equidistant from all edges of the scoring pad before he pushed his chair back from the table and gave the boys some air. I’ve seen Jimmy’s balls and I know they’re no bigger than average but the way the man spreads his legs you’d think he had grapefruit swimming around in his shorts trying to make room. Hot grapefruit at that. The spreading ritual — often accompanied by a certain amount of rearranging — was his way of taking the time to think before he spoke.
”It’s like Beth says,” he said, finally. ”We’ve got noises too.”
Beth picked up the cloth and came and joined us at the table, wiped at some invisible stain and said, ” We’ve ruled out everything. In the kitchen we thought it might be a mouse or squirrel…”
”But there’s no droppings, and none of the boxes or bags has been chewed on,” Jimmy said.
”I thought it might be the house settling, when it got cold and the furnace started coming on,” I offered, and they shook their heads. We all knew what that sounded like and that wasn’t the sound. A furnace will tick and a house will creak but this was tapping. And dishes moving.
”And I know your mind plays tricks on you just before you go to sleep,” June added, ” but we hear the same name being called.” There — that was the first time to my knowledge she’d admitted that she’d heard any of it.
Our house was a couple streets away from Jimmy and Beth’s, so it was unlikely to be something geographical, and when it came down to it the possibility that we’d be haunted by a ghost at the same time was slim to none. June had relaxed in her chair and I’m pretty sure it’s because the same thought had occurred to her — Mikey might haunt us, but he had no reason to haunt Jimmy and Beth.
Jimmy gets a look on his face sometimes when he wants to say something but doesn’t think he should, and it was all over his face now.
”Jimmy, you look like you’re a baby shitting your diaper,” I said. ”Out with it man, before you explode.”
”I peeked,” he said, a little sheepish, looking up and out of the corner of his eye at Beth.
”Peeked at what?” she asked.
”At the noises.”
”You peeked at the noises? Who’s drinking too much now? Use your words, babe.”
”You saw what’s making the noises?” I asked.
”No. But … I saw where it lives.”
”Jesus,” I said, and ”What the…?” asked Beth, more angry that he didn’t mention it to her than curious about what he’d seen, and June kept looking around her, ready for trouble to pop up beside her.
”Where?” I asked. Jimmy got up from the table and we all stood with him. He led us into the middle of their living room, his eye on something only he could see.
”There’s a trick,” he said. ”You have to look without looking, look out of the side of your eye and around the corner…” and sure enough, he was doing some weird gymnastics with his eyes, skewing them into the side of his head while leaning forward and peering to his left like a driver in a neck brace trying to see if something was coming up on his blind side.
”Is it there?” whispered June.
”Yeah,” Jimmy said out of the right side of his mouth, beckoning with his right hand for us all to come closer. So there we were, Sunday night in October, near full dark out, the four of us lined up, looking out of the left corner of our eyes and peeking around a corner we couldn’t even see until … we saw. June near fainted on the spot, she grabbed my hand and squealed but she did NOT look away, and neither did Beth and neither did I.
And there they were. There WE were, only around the corner to the left the four of us were sitting at a card table in the living room (we’d stopped doing that years ago, and now just stayed in the kitchen for our Sunday night games). One of them — alt-Jimmy — looked up when June squealed, smiled and waved, alerting the others to our presence. They smiled and waved too, all except alt-Beth, who rolled her eyes, then the four of them went back to their cards as if people from another dimension peeked in at their card game every day.
We were in no way as calm about it. We kept staring. They talked amongst themselves for a bit, laughed at something alt-June said, but studiously ignored us for as long as they could. Finally alt-Pete looked up, and smiled, and then waved ”bye-bye” instead of hello. Pointedly, you know? Letting us know they had boundaries and we were being impolite.
Well, none of us was brought up in a barn so we all stepped back and let out our breath, but unlike when we first entered the room, we could see the corner Jimmy had looked around to see them in the first place. And we all knew we’d never be able to unsee it. And I knew June and I would be looking for the one in our living room as soon as we got home.
We stood there for a minute grinning at each other like idiots, half in shock and half excited, but it was like we didn’t want to talk about it in front of the visitors, so we tiptoed back out the kitchen and grinned at each other like idiots there. Then Beth put the kettle on and brought out a plate of squares, and June went to get the cups, and I took my place at the table again, wishing I still smoked, because that would be just the thing to cogitate over, a nice king-size cancer stick, inhaling impossibilities and exhaling disbelief. Jimmy sat down at the head of the table, gave the boys some air, picked up the cards and passed them to me for the cut.
”Really? We’re going to play cards after that?”
Jimmy shrugged. ”Everybody’s doin’ it.” I cut and he took the deck back and started dealing the cards for 45s. ”Except they were playing rummy.”