R.I.P.: The Time Is Near

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In my neighborhood a hearse is parked outside of a regular home on a regular, pot-holed street. It does not belong to a funeral director, or I can only presume that it doesn’t belong to anyone involved with the funeral industry. Like any Cadillac, her grill is a mean grin of metal, teeth glaring at traffic as she ushers bodies to their rest.

But this is not your average hearse. On the windshield, someone has placed a decal that reads “Creep’n up on Ya,” while the rear bumper says “The Time Is Near” in a spooky, Adams Family font. Fleur-de-lis embellishments adorn the two rear windows where one could look in and see a coffin.

Biking by the hearse one afternoon, I discover that it’s for sale. The owner has taped a sign to the inside of the driver’s window, a local phone number scrawled in red ink on a piece of white computer paper. As it turns out, my car is in the shop with repairs that may render our relationship defunct. I think of leaving a note on the windshield. Who are you, and where did you get this thing? Do you ever sleep in the back? Have you been intimate with someone back there, with its velvet curtains pulled shut to shield your ruddy bodies? It could be great for camping trips.

Over the street, a neighbor has hung a single strand of colorful lights between the telephone poles. Even Mona, the waifish, sandy-skinned woman known in the Bywater for walking barefoot on the neighborhood’s glass-littered sidewalks, has decorated for the holidays. On her shotgun house’s stoop, she has perched a red wooden skeleton on top of a green rocking chair. Around the skeleton’s torso she has tied a white apron embroidered with a Christmas wreath, affixed a matching bowtie to his neck, and topped him off with a Santa hat. His body is tattooed with the markings of a calavera, or sugar skull—that now-ubiquitous symbol of Dia de Los Muertos. He may have been sitting there since October, as decor for another holiday season.

Here in New Orleans, death is a part of everyday life. It’s not unusual for someone to suggest an afternoon walk through one of the city’s cemeteries—St. Louis numbers 1, 2 and 3, St. Roch, Lafayette—stopping now and then to take a photo of a friend posing in front of a statuesque tomb. I have attended a voodoo ceremony in which we laid offerings of food for ancestral spirits at a temple located down a nondescript alley, just a few blocks from a 24-hour daiquiri shop. Conversations here fixate on the cycle of murders, armed robberies, home invasions, and assaults that plague the city’s neighborhoods—uptown, downtown, Mid-City, New Orleans East. Sitting on your front porch, you hear echoes of a sousaphonist and trumpeter commemorating the end of someone’s life.

A few days later, I text the number. “I saw a sign in your hearse and was curious about it,” I type. “I’ve been admiring it since I first moved into the neighborhood. I’d love to know more about how you got your hands on it, its history, etc.”

A name would help.

Right: One must be on her best manners when dealing with a person who chooses a machine that once transported dead bodies as their recreational vehicle.

 

All Saints’ Day

It’s been raining since Halloween morning, yesterday, but by five o’clock it has dissipated enough to draw a line of people outside a warehouse on Port Street. We are here to listen to the weather.

Although the poster clearly reads “Dia de Los Muertos” and features a man with a sugar skull head lying in a supine position with a sombrero—a debatably offensive caricature that instigated a bilingual row on the Facebook event page—the decor and general ambience of the place, including the jellyfish hanging from the ceiling and the dunk tank that just a few days earlier held live mermaids, leave me wondering how this event is at all related to the Mexican holiday.

I guess it doesn’t matter. Any excuse to gather in an ambiently decrepit place, listen to loud music, and put on a costume is good enough. The warehouse slowly accumulates people, mostly young, mostly dressed in ripped t-shirts and skinny jeans, while the air inside the warehouse grows moister and more pungent. “You’ll get used to it,” my friend assures me, as I remove my jacket and slide it over my arm. On the stage in front of us, an electronic box begins to hum.

That electronic box is the Weather Warlock, a creation of local musician Quintron. To describe it more accurately, I borrow copy from the same Facebook event page, which explains that this machine is in fact a large analog synthesizer that “employs sun, rain, wind, temperature, moon, and lightning to affect an E major drone chord with special sonic events occurring at sunrise and sunset.” So, we are to gather at sunset in a warehouse in the 7th Ward to witness a “live improvised weather jam.”

Quintron turns knobs on the machine, his head rolling back and around like a mad scientist. After an indeterminate amount of time, he picks up a guitar and accompanies the droning sunset.

On the Facebook page, someone had posted a photo of a girl in traditional Mexican dress overlaid with the words, “Nosotros una cultura, No un disfraz.” A few comments below, someone wrote, “Anyone know where I can find a meme that says ‘it’s artwork, get over yourself?”

No one here seems offended, but it doesn’t appear that anyone came here thinking this was an authentic Dia de Los Muertos celebration. Was anyone looking for spirits? Were people trying to remember their loved ones who had passed amid the guitar noise and dangling jellyfish? Had the upright bassist carved the name of a deceased loved one onto the back of his instrument, or were those just aimless scratchings?

The second band hadn’t started playing when we left.

 

All Souls’ Day

Via text message, I receive the séance host’s instructions: “Bring an item—a stone, a dried flower, a necklace—anything that holds some significance for you, to be among our centerpiece of energy tonight.”

This wasn’t my first attempt to commune with the dead. I remember middle school girls and boys gathering in basements to hover over ouija boards in the dark, shuddering at the sound of a smack against the sliding glass doors or a dog yelping. But we did not know what we were doing. We were kids messing with a Hasbro game, using the board as an excuse to sit knee-to-knee with the opposite sex, to place our sweaty hands on top of one another’s as we slid the planchette across a piece of glow-in-the-dark cardboard.

“I’m somewhat of a Spiritualist,” our host Ryan says in a measured voice, seating ten of us at a round Mahogany table. He is wearing all black, a Mandarin collar closing off his body from his face. “But I don’t consider myself a medium. I won’t even go there. And this is not what you have probably seen in movies where the table levitates off the floor and things shake. That is not the goal here tonight.”

Looking around the table, I can’t tell if people are disappointed by this. But I also can’t think of a better place to attend a séance than this 19th-century house with its exquisite crown molding and velvet-upholstered period furniture. The owner of the house wears a black, off-the-shoulder dress with a long train that drips along the floor behind her as she pours us our tea, which is supposed to heighten our sense of taste. The table is set with $10 matchbooks, goblets, white candles burned to their most aesthetically pleasing heights, and tea cups that the Mad Hatter would fancy.

“I’m going to start by drawing a circle of protection,” he says, walking around the table pouring salt on the floor. “This will ensure this experience stays positive.”

A Five-Star Amazon Review of the “Classic Ouija Board Game”: Helped me ace my midterm. Thank you Satan.

I don’t believe in any of this. I believe dreams are the spontaneous firings of the brain. I believe all psychic phenomena can be explained in the same way. But I do believe that there’s something to this idea of a group of strangers coming together in silent meditation, that there is something to a circle of people entering a tranquil, reflective present together, to this communing, even if it’s not with spirits.

The man beside me passes me the chalk to continue building the circle, though I soon forget this circle’s significance. We place our objects in a basket in the center of the table. We open our senses with tea and then wine, with incense, with the haze of candlelight, with the tactility of the chalk. We place our hands on the table so that our pinkies cross over one another’s. A third circle. There is something undeniably comforting about ritual.

“Spiritualists believe that death is not an end. It’s just a transition.” He tells us that he will sound a chime, which will open the portal to communication with the other side. We are to ask questions, if we like. We can open our eyes or we can close them. The eyes can be a channel too.

I meditate, as any yogi would in savasanah. I wait to be proven wrong. I wait for spiritual contact.

We are led through four separate silent meditations. At the beginning of each, he picks up a Tibetan-looking bell that he rings before placing on a small pelt of fur.

“If anyone feels like sharing what they’ve experienced, please do. If you’ve talked with Einstein, I’d be interested in hearing about it.” He laughs lightly, so we know he’s kidding, sort of.

No one shares. We keep our conversations to ourselves.

A friend told me that I should ask the spirits whether or not I should become a vegetarian. He thinks omnivorism is at the root of my problems.

A One-Star Amazon Review of the “Classic Ouija Board Game”: Fake

After the second meditation, Ryan lets his neck out of his collar slightly, undoing the top button of his shirt. His ring finger has a faded tattoo of something, though I can’t see what it is. I wonder who he is, a young man, thirty-two, a New Yorker, and how he became a Spiritualist living in this mansion in New Orleans with a woman ten to fifteen years his senior. Next to me, the man with the elegant jaw and groomed hair is the first person to set his hands on the table at the start of each meditation. At the beginning of the séance, he contributed a box wrapped in brightly patterned cloth to the centerpiece. I am more interested in the living than the dead.

A Five-Star Amazon Review of the “Classic Ouija Board Game”: The only “demon” you are going to find is in your own subconscious mind. Once you know who YOU are, you’ll know where your “spirits” come from. This board is for the fearless, not the foolish. It should NOT be used by those prone to firing a loaded weapon at their own shadows.

In the parlor after the reading we gather with the remainder of our wine. The window to the street is open. People walk out through it onto the porch, which overlooks the quiet weekday street. The neighborhood sleeps after a long weekend of parties.

“During the second meditation I felt like I was floating in water,” one of the participants admits. “I had this overwhelming feeling of sadness.”

Ryan and Stacy exchange looks.

“The owner of the house died in the bathtub upstairs,” she says. “He was very sad. Very sad.”

We make small talk. The house feels bigger and emptier now. The small talk feels more obvious than usual. We all want to go home.

 

“I think they’re still in here,” Andi says, opening one of the hearse’s many compartments. She removes a plastic package containing white scrubs and instructions that read AIDS Precautions. “They used to wear these suits. In the beginning.”

Andi, the hearse’s owner, is a cafeteria supervisor at an elementary school, a Lutheran academy that her son also attends. “He’s getting so big and he doesn’t want to talk to his mom anymore.” The blonde-haired boy flies down the stairs of the house and hands me a water bottle before hurrying off. Andi is petite with black hair, pale pockmarked skin carefully covered with alabaster foundation, and plastic-rimmed glasses that give her a youthful quality, though I’d guess she is in her early forties.

If the body is being viewed, the family should avoid having physical contact with it.

The back of the hearse contains remains from a Halloween event at her son’s school. A string of jack-o-lantern lights hangs from the rear window. Skittles, a stethoscope, and a Siracha bottle litter the floor.

“In ’73 they still had the pallbearer seat in the back.” Andi’s partner’s name is Jera. She also wears glasses, though the bridge of hers are taped with a butterfly clip affixed close to her left eye, which she does not seem to notice as she talks in an unctuous accent that could only come from some muddy corner of the deep south. “They don’t make them with those anymore.” Her family once owned a florist business, which means she also knows a few things about the funeral business.

Up until the ’70s, these Cadillacs served double-duty as ambulances. Suffer a mild heart attack, and you’d be loaded onto a gurney and rolled into the Cadillac, where just an hour before a dead body rested in a sealed coffin.

The interior is upholstered in a retro blue leather complemented by faux wood paneling. There is nothing like this anymore.

I ask if they would be willing to take me for a drive. No one can find the keys.

“I hate to part with it,” Andi says. “But it’s just not—”

“Practical,” I say.

“Yeah. It’s not practical at all.”

Jera appears with the keys. She goes to start the engine. Andi and I stand on the sidewalk. It is an unseasonably balmy December afternoon. The breeze is warm and damp, so you can feel the skin of your cheeks against the air.

“It’s dead.” Jera walks back towards us. “I don’t know what happened. Someone must have opened the door and not shut it.”

“We don’t start it much,” Andi says. “I’m sorry. It runs just fine,” she assures me.

Jera says she’ll charge it, and we agree that I can come back in a day or two to give it a drive.

Later that afternoon, Andi texts me. “Jera is all ready charging the battery!!”

I give the hearse, Andi, Jera, a day to regroup. “Is it up and running?”

I receive no response. Maybe she’s dead for good.

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Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.

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Lee Matalone writes a monthly column for The Rumpus on death, loss, and mourning. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, VICE, and elsewhere. She lives in New Orleans. More from this author →