A short tale for Halloween.
I happened across my cousin, Jimmy David Cubison, near the corner of the old graveyard that my grandmother’s house overlooks. Nobody gets buried there much anymore. It’s mostly pioneers and old babies. John Gabriel Smith, born 1878, died 1879 of fever. There’s so many of those little grave stones just like that. It’s not creepy, just kind of sad. Jimmy sat near a very old statue of an angel, with her face mostly worn away. The grave she guarded had a date closer to the Civil War than the one with the Nazis. Fredrick Gimmel, read the name in what had once been very grand letters. Now it looked like dogs had been chewing on the marble. I tried to recall if there were any Gimmels still here in Council. Maybe they had moved down the road to Weiser.
“Don’t bother me, Park,” Jimmy did not take his eyes from the grave or the shorn grass around it. He held a Mason jar in his right hand, with some gunk at the bottom. “I’m busy.” A lid he could grab if he had to. The air seemed full of snow. Some of that cottonwood fluff sparkled as if dipped in pale glitter.
“What are you trying to catch?” I scratched at my cheek, getting a sunburn. The sky remained clear, the big storm the lying weather rats promised never showing up. The cottonwood fluff floating by.
“A ghost,” he said, huddling his long body up into more of a ball, eyes flicking toward me a bit. “He shows up near every day, sits here, then disappears. As if he’s waiting for something.”
I admit, a sick little thrill went through me. This seemed more fun than trying to get someone to drive me up to Mann Creek to look for the Mann Creek Ape. It’s like a snipe hunt but fun, my Uncle Chris had said. I had forgotten to ask what a snipe was. “There’s no ghosts,” I ventured and Jimmy gave me a look. A look that said just try asking for a ride into the trees. “But you never know. Hey, what’s a snipe?”
“You don’t know,” he said, almost under his breath. “ It’s a bird. You’re so dumb. Look. Go away. I’m busy. Or help me out. Some ghost lure, a jar, maybe it doesn’t matter who holds it.”
I sat nearby, because I had heard the Council Cubisons were batshit crazy. My mother’s words. Crazy seemed more interesting than Grandma Barb’s speeches on how prices at the grocery store were due to globalists who all worked for the Clintons. Otherwise, she made almond roca for my visit and last night, made meatballs with pork sausage and Spam in them. Mom had been entirely right. You just ignore what you can and eat her food. “Sure. I can hold a jar. What’s ghost lure?”
Jimmy handed me his jar. I got a whiff of dill pickles, dirt, something like horses. “Don’t sniff it. It doesn’t work as well if you sniff it. I don’t know why.” With that in my ears and my nose now not sniffing whatever mixture that was at the bottom of the jar, he slouched off toward his bicycle. An actual bicycle, not one of the motorbikes they had around here or even the famous Gator, that looked like a big golf cart. Maybe it was. The mixture had an odd, oily sheen now and then. A thickness like spit or runny snot. I watched the grave of Fredrick Gimmel but I just saw sunshine and old leaves from the years before, the fluff from the cottonwoods that were all around. Seeds, I guess. Ghosts liked the smell? Jimmy slouched back, with a lidded Mason jar and a small covered container. His jeans barely clung to his hips, his t-shirt proclaimed him a fan of John Deere, his haircut had been done with a bowl and very dull scissors, but he also looked like a movie star. Which one I was not sure, maybe the ones from the black and white movies? My mother and Aunt Perri discussed the rest of the family in our north Boise apartment kitchen, when they were not planning on how to make it big. My mother would tell me to go along now, Park, if she caught me listening. He looks a bit like if Tyrell Powers had a baby with Ermine Flynn, I had overheard my mom say. At least I think those were the names.
It was why I was here with Grandma Barb for a bit. So mom and Aunt Perri could travel to cities to play their music. They were opening for a band that pretended it was some other band. Confusing to me, but they both seemed over the moon about their real shot to get a foot in the door.
The same smell when I took off the lid. Dill pickles and dirt gone bad. Jimmy sat again, after making me take the second jar. Why not just sit there with the jar he went to get but Jimmy seemed to be an expert in jars full of gunky smelly stuff. He set the container close to his hip, his black curly hair tangled and uneven about that face where his whiskers could now be seen if you looked real hard at his cheeks and upper lip. “Stop watching me. Watch the grave. He musta thought no one would care if he showed up to take a look around.”
“Sorry. You know they all say you look like a movie star? The baby of Tyrell Powers and something Flynn? I’m not sure of the names.”
“Jesus, that shit again?” He made a huffy sound, leaned forward. “He’s late today. Who says that? I do not look like Tyrone Powers. Do I look like freaking Robin Hood? Jesus!”
“No. You look like you.” I heard things, I passed them on. Mom knew this. It’s why she made sure I was elsewhere when she and her sister held one of their intense it’s gonna happen sessions. “What’s the smelly stuff?”
“Mostly dirt.” He tilted his head, turned it, as if listening. “Shh.”
“Sure,” I said, waving my jar a bit. I looked over my shoulder at the decaying lines of gravestones, statues and markers for the dead. A big field full of dead people, rimmed with pine, locust, and cottonwood trees. Little paths that led to the dirt road that gave way to pavement. Grandma Barb’s small house behind the big wall of locust trees. “There’s just nothing to do here. Grandma doesn’t have internet, says she doesn’t need it.”
“Read a book,” he actually said. “Don’t wave that about. Hold it steady. You can walk up the road there, there’s a creek. Don’t kids like creeks?”
I perked up at once. I actually did like creeks. “Is it far? Maybe we can go on the Gator. Look for that ape. Or was it Bigfoot?”
“Just walk there. You got feet. They’re pulling your leg, Park. Little kids are sure dumb.” The black of his eyes reminded me of wet poster paint. “Now be quiet. I gotta concentrate. Just hold the jar on the ground if your arm’s tired. It has to come to the jar and go in by itself. Then you slam the lid on.”
“I don’t have a lid. So it’s like a mousetrap? Except for ghosts? How many do you have?”
“Eighteen jars of em.” He then put a finger to his lips, and I swear on my mother’s old Casio keyboard, I saw, for just a second, the outline of a big fat man sitting on the rounded top of the Gimmel gravestone. Not the jiggly fat, but a solid fat man who could rip your arms off. Like a wrestler except fat. Then just air and birds fighting over something in the far corner of the place. Jimmy leaned close, his breath cinnamon farts. “He’s been here the whole time. Just be still. I’ll take you for a ride in the Gator. Just sit here, be quiet, be still.”
For just a long moment, it seemed long but it probably was not, I saw other outlines in that graveyard. Not very many, like ten or so. Ten was the number my brain insisted on. An old lady who put her finger to her lips. A little girl who turned into sparkling sunlight and back again. A tall man who lifted his hat at me very politely. A ghost in a hat. A ghost in a hat! My head hurt, my eyes closed, the smell of that ghost lure offensive. I was offended by that smell. It made me want to sniff flowers and candy bars just so I’d remember there were good smells left. The big fat man faded. What looked like the fluff that comes off the cottonwood trees floated toward me and Jimmy, who did not even blink. That fluff caught at the edge of Jimmy’s jar, then fell downward. Jimmy slammed the lid on and oh, then threw that jar as the other outlines drew near and nearer still. The jar seemed to ripple. The grass beneath the jar turned brown, as if the glass had gone very hot. “It’s never done that,” he clutched at my arm and I patted at him. Skinny. His shoulder had so many bones. “Go get it.”
“No,” I very sensibly said. The inside of that Mason jar had turned weird. Like it was stuffed full of a tutu. I had always wanted to dance about with one of those on but my mom said ballet was for rich people. Are we rich people? No, I had to admit. You can practice in your room, she had added. Trying to stand on my toes had hurt but I still wanted one of those tutu outfits. “You get it. It’s your jar.”
“Just go get it,” Jimmy shoved at me. I shoved back. He might be made of lots of bones but he was awful strong. Still, I was not about to put up with that from some no-account Council Cubinson, as my Aunt Perri had said once on her third glass of cheap box wine. Cheap box wine for cheap boxes, which had made my mom and aunt laugh. “You agreed to help me. So help me! Go get that damn jar.”
“Fine!” I slapped the top of his black head, he pinched me before I could get out of reach. Fair was fair. The jar moved and shifted without me touching it. The lid bulged a bit. That fluff glowed in there. I looked back at Jimmy, who gaped at the jar. “What the hell did you catch in there?” A sliver of a crack grew up the side of that jar. Jimmy stood by my side now, both of staring down at the possessed Mason jar full of Mr. Gimmel. I had chills and thrills. I heard breathing just over my shoulder. Maybe the other ghosts were curious as well. A hand crept into mine. The little girl or one of the dead babies that were buried here. A dead baby held my hand. But I could not let go of the cool hand fitted into mine. Jimmy jerked his head at me, then stepped back, stepped back and my feet stumbled backward as well, though my aching eyeballs stared at that jar, which now had a river of cracks, a delta of cracks. I had learned about deltas, the end of the rivers. That’s what that cracking of the glass looked like.
Jimmy gripped my arms, yanked me back just as the jar exploded.
It went like someone had chucked a big firework inside. Glass went everywhere. Glass pieces hit me even as Jimmy tossed us both to the mowed grass. Glass rained on my back. A smell of old flowerpot dirt, the mold I had once smelled on bread, something else that was just foul and rank. Jimmy shivering, his arm holding my head down. Then nothing.
Just the birds calling back and forth, the barking of the big dog that had to live chained up guarding a falling down trailer house. The burr of someone’s chainsaw. “You okay?” Jimmy sat up, glass bits falling from him, from me as well. What remained of the jar could have fit in a mouse’s ear. The ground where it had been thrown was burned brown-black, as if someone had tried to light a fire there. Jimmy’s bike now lay on the ground, his backpack torn to shreds. His finger traced along my cheek and came away dark with my blood. I felt the press of that little girl’s hand in mine, then just my hand and my blood on my cousin’s finger, his black eyes shocked and very wide. ‘I didn’t know it would do that. The others just sort of sat at the bottom.”
“You should probably let them all go,” someone whispered in my ear, a very low man’s voice, sounding like my Uncle Chris when he had a cold. He had a cold now. “You do as I tell you, girl”
“You should let them go, too,” I said, very obedient for once in my life. Jimmy stared over my shoulder and I just knew the man who had been sitting on the Gimmel gravestone stood right behind me.
“And if I don’t” Jimmy asked. My cheek stung now.
Nothing at all said back, just the wind now, that lonely sound of branches rubbing against each other. Jimmy stared at the ground, his sunburned face almost white it was so angry and scared. “Maybe they don’t like being caught.”
“I’ll have to try something else. Something stronger. Grandma’s gonna shit herself. Your face got cut up.”
“I’ll blame the Clintons,” I said very wisely and he laughed and laughed, then we picked up his bike, then had to leave it as it was twisted into a pretzel. His backpack was a total loss, his ghost lure dumped out and oozing into the ground.
“You can’t tell none of this, Park.”
What could I tell? Had I really seen a Mason jar explode like a bomb? I had the cut on my face, though. Had a little ghost held my hand as the big ghost went after my cousin for jailing them? My dad would be coming home soon from Los Angeles. He’d been hauling freight down that way. Otherwise, I’d still be in Boise, playing Pet Mountain and drinking from a juice box. Mango melon was my favorite. I had no wish to tell any of this to anyone just yet. “Sure,” I promised and almost meant it.