Monday, December 7, 2015
artist rita koehler “Xenia”
writer amy giacalone “Submission”
ll I know is, I ain’t gonna shoot myself in the mouth with nothing, ‘cept maybe tequila if the mood’s right. Probably that’s why I’m in this mess anyway, because I’m no good at being what I’m supposed to be, which is perfect. The perfect pastor’s wife to my perfect pastor husband. His name’s David. That means the Lord loves him most. Nice to know right away in the name; mine’s Leah. Which doesn’t mean much except that my mother liked it, and that Leah was the mother of ten out of twelve tribes of Israel, and that nobody ever loved her but God. But I figure since I’m so bad at being what I am, maybe that’ll keep the old bitch that’s haunting Springwood Baptist off my back. Fingers crossed. Springwood Baptist’s a nice size church and they keep it out in the middle of nowhere, right between one corn field and another, in Iowa. We’ve relocated. Used to be we lived in Vandalia, which is Illinois. Iowa seems mostly the same, which is a disappointment. Me and David live in the parsonage, which is across the road and down aways. Nothing but sky all around. When we first came, we met with the elders right off the bat, all six of them. David’s tall and thin, with a nosey kinda face that you get used to after awhile. He sticks out his hand to shake every one of theirs. They have chairs they move around to make a circle, and they ask him questions about his theology and then they all bend their heads to their laps to pray. Their praying takes forever, and they keep it organized, taking turns. I never pray like that. I just pray one thing or another and I never worry about whose turn it is. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we got kicked out of our old church. Pastor’s wife who doesn’t want to pray the way we pray. Says whatever she wants. That, and if I hadn’t gotten caught skinny-dipping. They said that was the issue—“beyond reproach” is what they said. But what it really was, was a thousand things like how I don’t pray right. So at Springwood Baptist we get to move into the nice parish, settle our things. They’re friendly to us right away, the new church. They stop over with their casserole dishes and pie plates, they press the bell and stand on the front stoop to wait. “Any kids?” they ask with their eyebrows raised, “No kids?” I point to my belly. “Broken,” I joke. “Tank’s empty.” “Oh!” They’re polite. Wish they hadn’t asked, fumble for another kind of question but truth is they’re all the same, all the questions are some kinda version of this one: “So what do you do all day?”
I do a lot of things. I suppose I can’t answer with tequila shots and skinny-dipping so I say, “This and that,” by which I guess I mean that if you can’t follow the rules you may as well break them, it’s one or the other for me, no in-between. “It’s irony is what it is,” I explain, “that I’m named for the one woman in the bible with so many kids.” “It is,” they nod. “You can pray we have a miracle baby,” I say, “David always does,” and I give them a good big laugh to let them know it’s supposed to be funny. Well, they’re always nice about it. And then after the smiles and the hand shakes, after they’ve handed off their Tupperware full of whipcreamed Jello, the good folks of Springwood Baptist stop a minute like they’ve got things to say. Which is not what I was expecting. And then it’s “be careful” to me, like they mean it, or “look out.” And after a couple of those, someone finally sticks around to tell me who to look out for: Laura. And after that, it’s all anyone can talk about, Laura, Laura, Laura. Springwood Baptist’s got a sweet old man that does their handywork and cleaning. He’s George. Old as sin, looks like a troll. I like him. Makes himself a big pot of coffee Monday and Wednesday mornings, and does his work. So one Monday I walk on over. Pour myself some coffee and creamer in a Styrofoam cup. And I say, “Hey, do you mind if I ask you about who this Laura ghost is?” “Yep. It’s better you know. Let’s sit down.” So we sit in the empty sanctuary, me in one pew, him in the row ahead, turned with his knee on the bench so he can face me. Laura was this little slip of a girl, he tells me, barely 21 years old, who played piano at the church. Played more than that, turns out. Had a little hanky panky with the pastor on the side. “I like this ghost already,” I say, raising my coffee like it’s a toast. George goes on. When it came time to paint the sanctuary, Laura wanted blue walls. Pastor’s wife wanted white. Says it’s a holier color. Woman’s group splits up over it: blue, white, blue, white. None of the men care much, till it gets ugly. Pastor’s wife starts dragging out the dirty laundry. Apparently, she’s known the whole time about the affair. Everybody starts talking their heads off. And Laura just can’t take it anymore. She breaks into the church one night, sits down at the piano. Sticks a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger. “Alright.” I nod into my coffee. “So that’s
Laura. What a mess.” “You’re telling me,” George says, “I’m the one that found the—” He motions his hand in a circle. “Body?” “Yep. But that’s not the end of the story.” George looks at me, sad, and here’s more: People see Laura’s ghost all over the church. Sometimes she just appears as herself, like a person. Talks and everything. Other times she’s a cold mist. Almost always, they say, she smells like lilacs. “Well,” he says, “it isn’t long before the pastor’s wife, the one who wanted white walls, starts going kinda nuts. Says Laura won’t leave her alone. Comes to her house at night. Meets her on the road. And I guess she was right, because after a few weeks, I find the pastor’s wife. Sitting at the piano, gun in her mouth, brains all over that wall there.” George points. “Pastor left town,” he says, “He had me paint the sanctuary blue before he went.” “So he preferred Laura?” “It doesn’t matter. That’s not the end of the story.” George says. He tells me how a few months later, they call into the denomination and a new pastor and his wife come to town. This pastor’s wife is a stocky woman, stern. Knits a lot, and doesn’t talk about anything to anyone. “We thought she was safe from it,” George says. “Well, of course. She had nothing to do with it.” “Six months later,” George shakes his head, “I find her on that bench there, with her head blown out.” “I think you people need to get rid of that piano,” I say. “Maybe.” George shrugs, and that’s all I get. That’s the end of the story. So I get up and I take a look at that piano. It’s just a piano. “Bullshit,” I say out loud. I run my hand over the back wall, it’s clean as you could want. Painted over, blue. Here’s what I think, two suicides does not equal a third. Those two women were locked into something crazy, and I’ve never been much for crazy. Very rational. The third woman… well. Who can say what really happened? She’s jealous, is what people say. Laura hangs out in this old church, jealous of every lady who gets to lay a pastor proper, no sin in it. I imagine an old ghost watching me and David at night; it gives me a good laugh. And even though I don’t believe a word of it, I can’t help thinking how there’s plenty of sin in me. Me and Laura, we’re on the same side of scripture. Like I said. I’m not gonna shoot myself in the mouth with nothing. But I do run into her. Wednesday night, after the prayer meeting, David stays late to pray some more with a young couple and their baby. I head home alone. Wind picks up my hair a little, I kick rocks on the way. It’s a short walk. It’s a nice day. And then the breeze brings me a whiff of lilacs. “Leah,” she says, and I turn. She’s tiny and pale, like you’d expect a ghost to be. Doesn’t look like a mist, just like a little pale person. Face like a mouse. Hair pulled back in a
yellow ponytail at the nape of her neck. “How do you like Springwood Baptist?” she asks. “I’d like it fine, if it wasn’t haunted,” is what I say, “Look, you’ve got it all wrong. David doesn’t like me at all. I’m a disappointing wife and I get into my own trouble. Maybe I’m more like you than you think.” But then she’s gone. That night, I have David hide the church keys, just in case. Next time I see her is in the coffee room on a Sunday before church. She’s silent, but she passes right through me, and the rest of the day I smell like lilacs. Later that week, I wake up to see her standing across the bedroom, watching me sleep. She screams, loud, and then just bursts, disappears. “Did you see that?” I say, shaking David awake, “Did you? Did you?” “Don’t worry about it,” David says, kissing me on the forehead, holding both of my shoulders in his strong hands. “We don’t even have a gun. The church is locked.” I have to laugh—can you imagine a guy like David worried about some little church ghost? He doesn’t believe a word of it, and he doesn’t like anything interfering with his church work. So me neither. “I’ve started to see her,” I whisper to George, during the service. He looks at me like I’m the ghost, like I’m a dead woman walking, and he hisses, “Your husband never should’ve brought you here. We tried to find someone without a wife.” “Without a wife,” I say, nodding, and we both know it but we don’t want to say it, that I might as well be no wife at all. “He said he didn’t believe in the curse,” George explains, probably guessing what I’m thinking. “He doesn’t.” “He’d never put you in danger. I’m sure of it.” No, he wouldn’t. David’s a good man. It’s his job to look out for his wife, whether she’s a proper one or not, and he does it. He’s been saving me for years. But he’s never had to save me from something like this. I can hear her singing in the house, most days. Her voice is high already and she strains at the notes that are highest. It hurts my head. “Shut up!” I shout, “This doesn’t scare me! Not even a little!” I plant a lilac bush. “See this?” I say to the air around me, “This lilac bush is what smells like lilacs. You hear me? The only thing that smells like lilacs anymore is these lilacs!” But I run into her when I go back inside. She gets closer and closer to me, talks right into my face. “They thought I was bad,” she says, “But look at you!” Which just goes to show that if you point your finger at someone for long enough all they can do anymore is point back, until their whole life is just pointing and no one even knows how it started. “Yeah, look at me,” I say, “What’s so bad about me?” She laughs, “There’s something bad about everyone.”
When I tell David later, he says, “Well. That’s a very scary story. But I’m not sure I can believe it.” And then one night, I’m in my bed, far away from David as I can get, you have one job, Leah, I hear, one job and you can’t even do that. But I can’t tell who’s saying it anymore, me or Laura? Am I even dreaming? So I wake up. And what I hear is, Laura playing piano. Doxology. I think, she’s gonna ruin another night of sleep for me, and I don’t care. I tuck under the covers. But again, it starts over: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” Again. And again. And even though she isn’t singing, I can hear her voice in my mind. It’s driving me nuts. And the next thing I know is, I’m at my front door, barefoot, about to walk outside. No fool ghost haunts me at all hours of the day and night like this. I am going to pound on that church door until she comes out to talk to me herself. Outside, there are a thousand stars. The air is cool. The pavement is cold. My hair’s whipping around, and I take a hairtie from around my wrist to pull it back. It’s locked. The church door’s locked, like I knew it would be. I pound on the door, “Get your ghost ass out here and talk to me like a woman!” I shout. I kick the door. “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…” she finishes playing. And then she starts again. “Laura!” I shout. And then I do something, without really knowing what I’m doing. I walk around the back side of the church. Where am I going? There’s a window, a tight squeeze, down on the ground. And here’s what’s scary about it: I didn’t know there was any window. I kick it in easily, slide into the musty church basement. It smells damp, and the place is full of old folding tables, chairs, kitchen supplies. I feel around for the stairs, and go up them. Door opens into the coffee room. “Praise Him, all creatures here below…” she plays. Before I know it, I’m in the sanctuary. It smells like lilacs, of course, and there she is, at the piano, calm as can be. “Sit by me,” she says. And I go, “I will not. I will not go sit at that piano.
You can not just haunt my church, my house, this road and tell me what to do.” But I walk over and sit down. “Listen,” I say, and I’m not sure if I’m talking aloud or thinking to myself anymore. Can Laura read my thoughts? She must be able to, because I feel like she’s also making me think them. She’s making me do what I don’t want to do. “I’m a bad wife,” I say. “And a bad woman. And I break all the rules, okay? Is that what you want to hear? Is that such a big deal?” She nods her head toward the top of the piano, showing me the gun. Laura brought the gun. I don’t even know how to use a gun, but it occurs to me I might be able to figure it out if I tried. “Laura!” I say, “I’m a sinner, you don’t want me.” And she stops playing piano, hard, she bangs all the keys. She puts her face in mine and I see that she’s blue, all blue, blue skin and hair and eyes, blue eyelashes, like the blue walls around us. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” she says, and I see she’s laughing, she’s cracking up about it. And then she kisses me, full on the mouth, and her kiss is, well. It’s a ghost kiss, ice cold. Don’t quote scripture to me, you bitch, I think, spitting her out and then I see I’m holding the gun, I don’t even remember picking it up. It’s the gun that’s in my mouth now, not Laura. I spit that out, too. “David!” I call, like I’m expecting him to pop around the corner and help out. I imagine George in the morning, shaking his head. Painting again. I imagine him warning the next little wife that comes to town. “David!” I shout, “David!” There’s nothing here but cold and pews and shadows. White’s a holier color, I think. But the blue is so pretty. I have the gun in my mouth again, am I holding the gun? I’m holding the gun. “David,” I say, through the gun, not even loud anymore, or angry, or anything. Laura kissed me, she played Doxology and she brought me here. I’m done for. So I stop calling out for my husband. And for the first time in a long time, I do what I’m told. I shoot.
Rita Koehler completed her MFA at Lesley University College of Art and Design (formerly the Art Institute of Boston). Her work is multi-disciplinary addressing the world of mass media and political hegemony through the psychological and theological worlds of inquiry. Koehler situates herself as artist in the debate of what constitutes an intelligible life-one that is speakable, has meaning, and is valued-by focusing on an ethics of non-violent representation. Koehler’s work has been exhibited throughout the country, notably Albuquerque, NM; Chicago, IL; Boston, MA; Orange County, CA; Long Island, NY; Fort Collins, CO; Indianapolis, Bloomington, and South Bend, IN as well as featured in Fraction Magazine and Focal Point. The body of work Rite of Ordinary: Interior Indiana is in the permanent collection of the Kinsey Institute Gallery, The Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, IN. http://www.ritakoehler.com Amy Giacalone is a fiction writer and playwright living in Chicago. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia College. Her play “Better” was staged by Bartleby Productions in 2012. You can read her work in Hair Trigger 36, 37, Bird’s Thumb, Goreyesque and Ghostly: An Anthology of Ghost Stories compiled by Audrey Niffenegger. LDOC is a free photography and creative writing publication distributed every first and third Monday at the following Red Line stops: Howard St., Belmont Ave, Lake St, 69th St, and 95th St. LDOC features a new local artist and writer each month, creating an accessible installment-based art experience for the Chicago commuter.
LDOC is currently fully funded by the 2015 Crusade Engagement Grant from Crusade for Art. www.crusadeforart.org
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