Tuesday afternoons between three and four o’clock are the slowest time at Wings of Isis New Age Gifts, so that’s when my sister Lula goes into the backroom to conjure the dead. After the chanting and drumming stop, I abandon my place at the cash register, tiptoe past the shelves of votive candles and goddess statues, and press my ear against the office door.
My sister speaks in two voices. One is her own, calm as a 911 operator and sunny as a tour guide. The second is the voice of the dead, nasal and throaty, like she’s recovering from the world’s worst sinus infection. The conversations with the dead have become predictable. Their complaints are numerous. It is cold on the other side and they can’t find their sweater. Only their dogs pay attention to them. They report extreme muscle weakness and a loss of fine motor skills. Today a man laments, I can’t even pick up a saltine cracker! He’s been haunting his daughter’s house, blowing out the fuses and giving his grandchildren nightmares. In life he’d been an Evangelical Baptist and now he fears eternal damnation because of a homosexual experience in a gym locker room. Ok, he admits. More than one. He is sharper than most. Most of the dead don’t even know they’re dead. They fail to notice that they can walk through walls or that their proximity makes the living turn up the thermostat.
Sometimes Lula has to convince the dead that they’re actually dead. “Try singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” she instructs. Although they can remember the lyrics, they can never sing the tune. What comes out in place of a melody is guttural cough. This usually convinces them. They’ll cry a little, for their lives. And then they’ll notice a column of white light that’s always been there. They feel foolish for not seeing it before. Lula tells them to go into the light, and up they go.
She closes the séance with a blessing. I hurry back to the storefront and try to look busy by wiping away the foggy handprints along the glass case displaying ritual daggers and Nepalese prayer beads. Lula pours herself a cup of coffee and props her wide bottom, cheek by cheek, onto the stool behind the cash register. She is twenty-eight years old but already shaped like our late grandmother, a woman who could hide three cans of Sprite in her bra and pass by the movie concierge without getting so much as a glance. When the lights of the theater dimmed and the previews flickered, Mimi would reach into her blouse and retrieve the cans, which by then were warm as freshly laid eggs. She died two months ago. That’s when I started eavesdropping on the séances.
Lula unwraps a kazoo-shaped nicotine dispenser and inhales deeply. I keep my eyes down and lower the volume of my thoughts just in case she can hear them.
I don’t believe the dead speak to us, but each week, I listen. I listen because Lula reviews the computer’s browsing history to make sure I’m not checking my email. I listen because this isn’t a real job. Lula only hired me after our mom asked her to. Lula only said yes when Mom finally admitted that I shouldn’t have majored in sociology and really, it would’ve been wiser if I had avoided college entirely and opened my own business, like Lula. Since I started a month ago, I’ve almost been fired twice. The first time for studying for the GRE. The second time for working on my résumé. So now all I do during the slow days is listen. I listen because my sister’s presence transforms me into an eight year old. But mostly I listen because I want to believe.
She says my name, Ruth, so flatly that I know I’ve been caught eavesdropping. Honestly, I’m almost glad that I’ve been caught. Lula will tell me all my secrets, the deepest ones, unknown even to myself. She will lead me into the office and together we’ll conjure our grandmother, Mimi, just to say hello. Just to make sure she’s doing okay and isn’t like that one poor soul who stayed in her car for a month after her death, failing again and again to start the ignition.
But Lula does none of these things because people cannot reads thoughts or speak to the dead. She hands me her coffee mug. “Ruthie? Would you mind putting sweetener in this?” She doesn’t bother to say thank you even when I bring back the mug with two Splenda packets and a paper napkin. She reaches into her purse and starts checking her text messages.
People should really take their things with them when they die. Or else we should bury their possessions with them. Since Mimi passed away, we’ve spent every weekend rummaging through her closets and making trips to Goodwill. She left us a three-bedroom farmhouse containing seventy-eight years of accumulated stuff, along with an arthritic golden retriever, a diabetic tabby cat, a swayed-back quarter horse, and ten acres of land grown thick with juniper scrub and live oak. At this point it’d be easier to build a pyramid and throw everything inside rather than sorting through each item, piece by piece.
Communicating through Post-It notes, Mimi instructs us on how to best dispose of her belongings. Cleaning her house has been an Easter egg hunt. We found a green Post-It taped behind the fridge, which should go to the Salvation Army, a pink one underneath a set of terracotta pots, which should go to our cousin Mark, an orange one buried inside a crate of leather sandals, which should go the women’s shelter. So far, I’ve been bequeathed the contents of her utensil drawer, a cast-iron skillet, an amber necklace, a bread maker, and an orange tea kettle. Pretty humdrum compared to Lula, who received a jewelry box that plays “Greensleeves,” along with a tangle of necklaces and silver earrings. But Mimi always admired me for liking practical things, and Lula doesn’t cook, so it’s hard to be jealous.
One night after a long session of cleaning, I go to the sink to fill up the orange kettle with water when a plastic bag floats to the top. Inside is a handwritten note:
Dear Baby Ruth, If you find this, I must have died. I hope
everyone isn’t making too much of a fuss. In this kettle you’ll find
something which I need to you keep secret. Hide it well and DO NOT
TELL ANYONE. You’ll understand why. Love you so much and let’s hope
we don’t meet again anytime soon! Your grandmother, Mimi
Something is fastened to the bottom of the kettle with so much duct tape I have to scrape the layers off with a knife. When it finally comes loose, I shake the kettle upside down. Mimi’s engagement ring spills into my hand. She grew up on a cattle ranch in a small town in West Texas, near Alpine. Our grandfather was passing through, getting his start as a farm insurance salesman. He couldn’t afford a diamond, and if he could have, the closest jewelry store was an eight-hour drive away. Mimi swore that she wouldn’t run off with him till he could put a ring on her finger. So he bought a box of Cracker Jacks from the only store in town, and gave her the prize ring, with a rose colored glass stone the size of a trout’s eye. It was enough for her to take his word. The metal eventually gave out and Poppy set the glass in a 14 karat gold band engraved with their wedding date. Every night she placed the ring inside a Macy’s velvet box in the drawer of her nightstand.
I hold up the milky pink glass to my eye and look for the small hairline crack that runs down the middle. When my throat tightens, I lie to myself. Mimi is on vacation. She’s on a beach in Padre Island, fishing with her pants rolled above her freckled knees and wearing Poppy’s aviator sunglasses. The ring grows warm in the palm of my hand. Mimi could be here with me. She could be watching me from the ceiling or hovering above my shoulder. Instead of feeling reassured, a nervous bristle rolls up my spine, and all at once I understand that this ring is not for me. It’s for Lula. Our grandmother is conducting an experiment. She taught high school biology and was always testing things—from icing recipes to garden fertilizer—to find what works best, to find out what is most true.
Death, she told me, would be like the time she had gallbladder surgery only she’d never wake up. When I told her this was an awful thought, she shrugged and slapped my knee. “Could be worse, honey. Could be an eternity of organ music and Sunday school.” She believed Lula should go to college and get a degree in something that helps people. Nursing, she suggested, or psychology. Mimi didn’t believe in psychics or séances, but like me, a part of her wanted to.
I read the note a second time. You’ll understand why.If Mimi can tell Lula where the ring is hidden, that means that we continue to exist after we die and Lula is on the right path. If Lula can’t find the ring, then she needs to seriously consider a career in nursing.
I leave the note in my desk drawer and slip the ring on my middle finger. Mimi’s farmhouse is a forty-five minute drive outside of San Antonio and on the way there I get the sense that she is riding along beside me, sitting in the passenger’s seat and smiling at the empty cattle fields outside the window. The feeling is more creepy than reassuring.
When I arrive, I put the ring inside a coffee can, seal it with some duct tape, and bury it near Mimi’s tomato garden four paces east of the rusted swing set. Then I mark the spot with a rock. As I walk back to the car a weight settles at the bottom of my heart. Mimi isn’t here, or anywhere. We spread her ashes across the field where the bluebonnets flower each April. She lives only in the metaphorical sense, in the helixes of my DNA, in sudden bursts of memory. Heat rises to my ears and I sit down on the cold ground. A breathless sob knives the space between my ribs. Mimi is gone. She’s really gone.
At that moment, I want so badly to believe. I pray that Lula finds the hidden ring. I pray she’ll prove us all wrong.
Lula has enlisted her assistant manager, Amber, to help channel during séances.
Amber makes the magical and medicinal teas we sell in bulk, although hardly anyone ever buys them. I can always tell when Amber is in the shop before I see her—she wears a deodorant that makes her smell like the frankincense Lula sometimes burns at the goddess shrine. You could guess what she looks like based on that aroma: red-clay dreadlocks knotted into a crown, a tattoo of the moon phases wrapped around her bicep. She once told me she and Lula were sisters in a past life, which I think is crossing a line. “Funny I don’t remember you,” she cocked her head and smiled. “But some people, they’re only born once as a human.”
Amber’s dead people all sound like they have laryngitis. After the session ends, I bring her hot lemon water because channeling takes a toll on her vocal chords. Amber drinks the tea in the storeroom and plays computer solitaire for half an hour. Lately she’s taken to wearing a charm of saint medals around her neck. “Since your grandmother died,” she tells Lula, “This space has had an edgy vibe.”
This is true. Lula no longer plays the tribal belly dance mix or the Indian tabla drums. It’s all Tibetan throat singing and Celtic harps. The other day she ordered a dozen specialty urns for the ashes of deceased pets, blessed by an animal psychic in Denver. She’s gained weight too, her eyes and lips receding into the plumpness of her face.
Many Tuesdays have come and gone and there is still no word from Mimi. I do my best to help. I try sending clues. Every half hour, I stop what I’m doing and visualize where I buried the ring. My thoughts are so loud that I sometimes feel a physical pressure rising against my skull. Only twice has Lula looked up with a question on her face. “Did you say something?” I shake my head no, but feel hopeful. When Lula and Amber close the office door, I lean my head against the wall, but instead of eavesdropping I imagine the ring: the pink stone as large as the moon, the gold band a halo around the sun. I’m concentrating so hard that I barely notice that there are no drums today, just whispers.
I almost don’t hear the footsteps approaching the door.
I run to the Eastern Spirituality section and sweep up the fiber beads that spilled from a tear in a meditation cushion.
“Hi there,” Amber smiles at me, but she looks too excited, her smile too much like grimace. “We need to talk to you.” Amber turns on her heel and I follow her into the office.
A prickle raises the hairs on my arms. My whole life is about to change—Lula has heard my thoughts. This is it! I’m a wire coat hanger on her antenna to the spirit world. Lula will want me to join her team. She’ll send me off for training with a real telepath so I can hone my psychic powers.
In the office, two Himalayan salt lamps cast a pink glow. Lula sits behind a round birch wood table, empty except for a box of Kleenex. These are for the living, paying clients whose sobbing sometimes rises above the drone of the white noise machine that plays in the corner. Above the table hangs a framed photograph of our great-grandmother, Matilda Simmons, an Oklahoma Cherokee, as stern and humorless in real life as her tight lips and starched collar suggest. She once beat our grandfather with a belt after she caught him drinking Coca-Cola, a beverage she considered on par with corn liquor. I once read that around seventy-three percent of all psychics claim Native American ancestry. Lula tells her clients that our great-grandmother is her spirit guide, and they believe her, even though Matilda wields a Bible over her heart and surveys the room with disapproval.
I take a seat across from Lula. She folds her hands over the table. “I’m sure you know why you’re here.”
I’m still not sure why I’m here. Unlike Lula, the queen of hunches and gut feelings, my intuition has always been a dark, shapeless thing. So I just nod in agreement. Lula’s face is pinched with worry.
“Sometimes I think you think we’re stupid.” She looks at Amber who has taken a seat next to her. “And that’s what really bothers me. That you don’t think we don’t notice what you’re doing.” They both sit so straight in their chairs it looks painful. “We’re not dumb, Ruthie.”
She’s not talking about the ring. I slump in the chair. Out of nowhere I start to cry.
Lula sighs. “I’m glad you are so self-aware.” She pushes the box of Kleenex towards me.
“I know it’s been hard on you since Mimi died. But really you have no excuse for this.” She reaches into her pocket and takes out notes that have been scrawled on the back of receipt paper.
They must have heard me last week when I ate that granola bar outside the office door — I’d grown very bold. I try and calm myself by thinking about all the sociology conference papers I’ll write during my unemployment. I try to shut off my interior monologue in the remote possibility that Lula and Amber could be reading my mind, but my thoughts only grow louder and more belligerent, a rush of insults I’ve only heard in mafia movies.
“We’re not mad at you.” Lula leans over and pats the back of my hand.
I blow my nose. “Thanks.”
“We can help you deal with all your negative energy.”
Just like that my tears dry up.
“It’s important to realize the impact you have on the world.” Lula’s voice is gentle and sweet, like I’m a lost ghost hiding in an attic. “We think your presence might be lowering our sales.”
“It’s your body language,” explains Amber, touching her heart and then holding out her hands like she’s presenting a gift. “It’s the way you take up space.”
“You roll your eyes. A lot,” says Lula. “Like right now. You are totally doing it right now.”
I mutter an apology.
Lula sits back in her chair and looks at her notes. It’s an exceptionally long piece of receipt paper. It seems that she and Amber have been taking inventory of all my mistakes for the past few weeks. Lula reads from her list. “The other day you told a customer that the love and money soaps would make him smell bad.”
“They are a little on the musky side,” I say.
“You said,” Amber raises her hand, “One soap will make you smell like mothballs, the other will make you smell like cheap perfume.” Amber lowers her chin and looks at Lula. “Then Ruthie told him he could buy the soaps for cheaper at a botánica on the East Side.” Amber does this more and more lately, talking about me in the third person like I’m not even in the room.
I ball up the Kleenex in my fist and tell them it’s unthinkable to charge forty dollars for a bar of soap.
“But it’s been blessed,” says Lula.
“And then you do that thing you do. Like this.” Amber scrunches up her face the way a cat does when it smells another cat’s pee.
I am silent as I wait for Lula’s sisterly protective instincts to kick in. She once stabbed a boy with a mechanical pencil because he knocked me off the carousel in the park. She once cut off a girl’s ponytail for stealing my lunch box thermos. But right now, Lula does nothing but sit there with a concerned face. I hope she knows what I’m thinking. I am never making her another Christmas gift. From now on, it’s all cards from the dollar store and Walmart gift certificates.
“Have you ever thought about how the economy isn’t the only reason you can’t find a job? That maybe your body language is part of it?” asks Amber.
“Would you please stay out of this,” I say. I may or may not have also rolled my eyes. I may or may not have said shut up under my breath.
They shoot each other looks as though this confirms something they’ve long suspected. I should not be working here. They’re probably right. My work days are laced with a mild nausea, the feeling a vegetarian must get when she walks into a butcher shop. I feel morally disappointed that anyone could buy an encyclopedia on astrological love signs, or a bumper sticker that says I’d rather be riding my broomstick.
“Ruth-Marie,” Lula says, and I can’t believe she just called me by my whole name, like mom does whenever she’s angry. “You have two weeks to change your attitude or find another job.”
I used to conduct my own experiments, back when Lula first told everyone that she was a psychic and no one in the family believed her. Late at night, lying in bed, I said her name three times. Lula. Lula. Lula. I spelled out each letter in the air. I whispered it like she was on the other side of the bed, I called it like she was in the other room. In my head I think: Lula, I have been in a car accident and am now in a coma. Lula, I have gone swimming late at night and am now floating face down in the pool. My life is slipping away, and only you, my sister with your special powers, can possibly know that I’m in peril. I imagined Lula hearing my voice in a whip of cold air, her eyes wide with alarm. She’d call me to see if I was okay. “I had a funny feeling something was the matter.” Oh really? Everything is fine.
I kept my cell phone charging on my dresser. I checked its glowing screen with the hour and date, and waited for Lula’s name to appear. But it never did. She never heard me. Not once.
My sister is a liar or a fool or both.
Since my little outburst I’ve been demoted to the storeroom. I try to redeem myself by putting my sociological research methods to task. On an Excel spreadsheet, I’ve made a pie chart of the most popular gift items. It will come as no surprise that the average Wings of Isis customer—median age thirty-seven, sixty-percent white females—also describes herself as a “cat-lover.” Our best-selling item is not Amber’s magical and medicinal teas, but a stone cat holding a crystal ball and wearing a witch’s pointy hat. I plan a formal report on our store’s demographics and most popular items, along with recommendations for feline related products like turkey feathers.
Whenever Lula conjures the dead, I put on headphones.
Today, though, I hear something different echo through the air-conditioning vent above the computer desk, so I stand up and press my ear against the cold metal grate. She’s talking to Mimi. Lula’s voice is thin and lonely. She says it’s not normal to work like this. Lula needs a clue. A dream. A warm feeling—or a cold feeling. Any kind of sign. Gone is the perky confidence in her voice. After ten minutes of silence she taps a slow rhythm on a drum.
Lula says that we make our own paradise when we die and can choose to live there forever. We just have to believe in order for it to come true. Mimi died exactly like she wanted, without being a bother to anyone. Aunt Cindy is the one who found her, face down on the kitchen floor next to a fallen radio playing country music. She said it was a curious thing, to see her mother’s body on the floor, like an empty feed sack spilled of its grain. If what Lula says is true, has Mimi been erased by her own lack of belief? Is she now in a dreamless sleep we can’t wake her from?
The drumming sounds like a heartbeat, like life coming back to itself. Above it is another noise, either laughter or choking. Lula is crying. At Mimi’s service, Mom and I cried till our eyes swelled into pink bruises, but Lula only dabbed her eyelashes with a handkerchief, as if Mimi wasn’t our grandmother but a distant cousin. Now she’s crying the way people do when no one else is listening.
Something happens. A premonition dives past me. I don’t see it, but I somehow know. Lula sells her shop. She gains another fifty pounds, develops type II diabetes, starts smoking again. She goes back to school and gets her associates in accounting. A dull misery takes over her life. Everyone survives the loss of magic when childhood ends, but Lula never went through that. Only now does she suspect what the rest of us believe, that the world is empty of signs and meanings. That she’s been talking to herself all these years. That the dead speak to no one.
I sit back in the chair and turn off the computer. Then I place my hands on my lap with upturned palms, the way Lula does. When my mind becomes very still I take a deep breath and whisper, “Mimi? Are you there?” I wait. I try to hear her. An idea begins to form, rolling up into itself until it hardens. I feel like someone has passed a note through a slot in my head. Who is to say that Mimi has not whispered a secret in my ear?
After work, I drive to Mimi’s old house. We’ve set the lights on a timer and those flicker on as my watch clocks over to nine pm. It is dark and chilly outside, and the ground is soft beneath my feet. The wet-rope smell of early spring hangs in the air. The sky is bright with a hundred stars, and dark space veils millions more. I find the rock that marks the place where the ring is buried, and I start to dig. When I hit the coffee can I open the lid. The ring is still there. It’s a little wet from a leak in the can. I wipe it off on my shirt before placing it inside a velvet Macy’s jewelry box.
We are almost finished sorting Mimi’s possessions. Mom and Aunt Cindy could make a lot of money selling the property, and everyone says a dozen houses can fit onto ten acres these days. They sit around the kitchen table, talking about what they could do with the money. A road trip for the whole family, investment for retirement. I don’t say anything as I sort the jars of canned food in the pantry. Lula organizes the closet underneath the staircase with its lifetime supply of old coats and sleeping bags. We find another Post-It stuck to a plastic box with wool blankets, reminding us to air them out on the clothesline.
The grass in Mimi’s backyard is still winter-brown. It’s a warm late-February day. Moss grows in clumps on the branches of the live oaks. I peer behind the curtains of the kitchen window and watch Lula walk in and out of the house three times before she spots the jewelry box beneath the clothesline. She stands there for a moment, figuring out that it must have been wrapped inside one of the blankets she’s airing. She opens the box. Then she sits down on a patio chair and takes out her nicotine dispenser.
I don’t know what I expected. Lula doesn’t look so much happy as she does relieved. At first I’m disappointed. I want to see joy brighten her face, but she looks as if she might cry. And then I realize this is the best thing. That it’s the nicest thing I could possibly give her.
Lula walks into the kitchen. I don’t stop wrapping dishes into newspaper and placing them in boxes until I hear my name. She stands in the doorway a few feet away from where Mimi died. Her face is red streaked and feverish. My sister holds out her fist and tells me that there’s something Mimi wants me to have. I know what it is of course, but I feel surprised all the same.
Sarah Kokernot was born and raised in Kentucky. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, decomP, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and West Branch. She currently lives in Chicago.