After all I’ve been through, I was a nervous wreck. I felt like I was a nervous wreck. Just to make sure I got a second opinion from my agent, Miss Lilywhite.
“You look like a nervous wreck”, she surveyed me with no shortage of severity. “Why, just look at the sight of you. Are those crow’s feet developing under those beautiful eyes of yours? Tsk!”
“Can you hold it down to a scream? We’re in public and I don’t want you –“ my voice lowering to a rasp, “-calling attention to my imperfections!” I looked around the room nervously, noting three dowagers finishing their teas, each one festooned I jewelry and wearing hats more fancy and plumed than the next one.
A tiny, thin, dare I call him petite Filipino man in a starchy housecoat and ducks stepped into the parlor we were all roosting in like a pigeons, and commanded, “The séance is about to begin, please follow me”. He curled his finger and led us in to the main room.
Miss Irene Lilywhite thought that acting like a second mother to me was part of her job as a modeling agent, so she came up with the brainstorm of taking me to a séance in the hopes it would be nifty for quick laughs.
Unfortunately, everything about the joint we were hanging out at gave me the creeps. It was like something out of an amusement park, like the penny arcade machines with the opium den jazz of jade statutes and stuffed animal heads and Chinese bric-a brac and even some Hindu hokum and enough jasmine incense burning to make your eyes tear. Brother! Some laughs!
Like a herd of black sheep we docilely followed him into a larger parlor with dimmer lights on to make it seem spookier and I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies.
We all took our places around the long table. Our host was already at the head of the table, some swarthy female dressed in red silk with a golden turban covering the black hair on her head.
“Good day, ladies”, the woman spoke, quiet and in measured tones, “I am Madame VeDanta, who knows all and sees all. I am your bridge to the afterlife and consider me your vessel to all your loved ones whom you are no longer able to converse”.
I nudged Lilywhite. “There’s more corn here than there is in Kansas!” I whispered in her heavily ringed ears.
“Ssh!” she shushed. I just pouted.
“We are all gathered here this late evening to seek audience with our recently lost loved ones”, Madame VeDanta folded her hands together from deep, long kimono sleeves. As I looked closer at her face in the dim lights I noticed she was not Hindu at all but more half-cast negroid, and in fact the slight hint of a shaved thin mustache even made an appearance above her lips. Perhaps her quiet tones denied a more masculine persuasion to her deception. I’ve heard of mediums being full of hooey but this was the limit. Madame VeDanta was as much a dame as Louis Armstrong.
“Before we begin with the journey may I ask if everyone present has made each others acquaintance? If not, please introduce yourselves. Madame, if you please?”
“My name is Irene Lilywhite and I furnish models to department stores across town”.
“I’m Lois, I model for artists and designers. I recently lost a friend of mine, well, not a close friend, but a swell guy I just met”. My mouth suddenly felt dry after revealing too much about myself. It was time for the three old buzzards to explain themselves.
“I’m Mrs. Edna Beecham, recently widow of the prominent Crocker National banker Mr. Beecham”, the heavy-set woman in the thick mink stole announced with haughty tones. If she was grieving over her loss it was probably over hearing that someone else got cut in as beneficiary of Big Daddy’s will. This woman probably had ice cubes pumping through her bladder.
The second woman was thin as a broom and had trouble getting the words out. “…Uh, well, let’s see, where do I begin?” her hands fiddled nervously in front of her, fingers festooned with glittery rings and wrists cased in bright, sparkly bracelets that almost lit up in the darkness. “My name is Violet Cranston, widow, well, uh, my dear husband Mister Jasper Cranston was head stock broker of Western Fidelity, got in right after The Crash, a good Christian, respected freemason, and um, what else?”
“That’ll do fine, Widow Cranston, yes”, Madame VeDanta shot quickly, a little bit o’ Southern country racing out of that Hindu mouth of hers.
The third woman dabbed at her eyes with a scented monogrammed hankie periodically since we came in, and continued with her dabbing. “I’m, uhh..so sorry, I’m the widow McCormack…sniff”, the woman’s face was red from all the tearing in spite of the beautiful head of silver hair she had piled up on her head. “My husband was murdered, and …sniff sniff, I want to get to the bottom of who did it. No one knows!!!” She broke down crying, prompting even Mrs. Cranston to give up the Nervous Nellie act and quietly console her.
“Well, yes, that’s why we’re all assembled here”, Madame VeDanta picked it up, “Yes, all our losses were unfortunately…untimely, so through the medium of séance our loved ones can pass on any information to bring their killers to justice”.
I looked hard at Mrs. Beecham who just looked down at it all, her mouth turned down. Her name sounded familiar but I just couldn’t place it anywhere, I knew I heard it somewhere before, but where?
Someone, probably the little houseboy dimmed the lights even more than before and the incense made more smelly smoke, the room looking smokier than a Saturday Night hotel fire. If it got any smokier then all of us would start dabbing our eyes!
In spite of the darkness and smoke a small globe placed in front of Madame VeDanta glowed. “Let us all join hands, EVERYONE! Close your eyes and visualize your lost one, reaching out to you, joining you for one more moment, I see them, they are coming closer, they are getting nearer, they are now entering the chamber, they are here with us!” I opened my eyes and saw Madame’s upper lip trembling.
“Husband Beecham, are you with us?” Mrs. Beecham had one eye open, peering at Madame VeDanta, her face suddenly turning gray when the sound of creaking and scratching loudly made itself heard. It was probably still the houseboy.
“Have you a message for us, Husband Beecham? What, pray, is your message?” Madame VeDanta then did the old transvestite trick of going from lady voice to the gruff Paul Robeson voice.
“Someone…someone here is somehow connected to my untimely exit”. Everyone, even Miss Lilywhite gasped. Mrs. Beecham stared at me with a pinched expression for not gasping along. Where did I hear her name before?
“Husband Cranston…arise and speak to your grieving bride…she is awaiting a word of hope, a sweet blessing to give her courage…what have you to say? “
Mrs. Cranston opened both her eyes, nervously closed them again, then looked around to make sure no one noticed her opening them again.
VeDanta went back into Emperor Jones voice. “I feel an odd presence among us and I must leave!”
“NO! Darling, p-p-p-please don’t go!” Mrs. Cranston let go of her neighbors’ hands and pounded her skinny fists against the table. “You come back, Jasper, right this instant!” Suddenly a crash of a serving tray, ice cubes and glasses came from the kitchen in the back, the houseboy cursing in his native language. Jeepers creepers, if he’s busy washing dishes in the back who’s making with the horror movie stuff in the parlor?
VeDanta went back into her woman voice. “No, my dear, you cannot command the departed. Perhaps they’ll return in the morrow, but for now…” she sadly smiled. “Let’s join hands once more, yes all of you…”
We all got back into the routine holding hands and all that jazz. “Husband McCormack, are you still with us, your dearest one wishes communication…”
Mrs. McCormack stopped bawling long enough to ask a question. “Elmer, just tell me one thing…in all our years of wedded bliss, before the eyes of Jesus Christ our Lord, were you ever unfaithful to me?”
Beecham, Beecham, Beecham…then my face turned white. That’s the name of the guy that got iced by the creepy straw men downtown a few weeks ago. These must be the wives of the fat cats that were executed by The Scarecrows. Wait’ll I get Miss Lilywhite outside, of all the nights, why if she was any smarter I’d say it almost feels like a set-up.
“Husband McCormack would you like me to repeat the question?” VeDanta asked quietly.
Then she went back into her Harlem basso profundo. “I must go. The room has gotten cold, why it’s freezing cold, I feel it towards the center of the table. Someone assembled here knows about my demise, she knows all about our deaths, and it is –“
VeDanta popped her eyes open and leaned across the table at me.
“-THIS WOMAN RIGHT HERE!!” She screamed, pointing right at me. Everyone jumped up in their chairs, startled, eyes wide open and staring at me. They all yelled at me at the same time.
“I KNEW IT, ELMER YOU WERE TWO-TIMIN ME WITH THIS CHEAP BLONDE-“
“YOU’RE NOT GETTING A CENT FROM MY HUSBAND’S BEQUEST BRAZEN-“
“I KNEW IT SHE’S TOO YOUNG AND PRETTY TO LOSE ANYONE SHE PROBABLY CATERED TO ALL OUR-“
“SHE PROBABLY TRIED TO SQUEEZE OUR MEN AND WHEN THEY WOULDN’T-“
“Ladies, ladies!” Madame VeDanta appealed for silence, clapping her thick, enormous hands together. I jumped out of my chair, trembling.
“Child!” Miss Lilywhite grabbed my shoulder, trying to make me sit down. “Surely there’s an explanation for all this!”
I reached for a nearby pot of tea and threw it at the bitches. They shrieked. Madame VeDanta went into her man voice. “YOU LITTLE BITCH! TOOONNNYYYY!!”
The houseboy ran into the room and clicked open a switchblade, slowly stepping towards me. “You go now but first you pay!”
I dashed over to the end table and picked up a thick jade jaguar statuette, swinging it madly in front of him. He shrieked like a little girl and sidled backwards.
“FUN AND GAMES, EH? LOTS OF LAUGHS, WELL LET ME TELL YOU…” I snarled at the lot of them, all judging me in their furs, jewelry and white obesity. “I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYBODY”S DEATH, SEE?
NOW I’M GOING TO WALK OUT THAT DOOR AND ANYBODY WHO TRIES TO STOP ME GETS CONKED IN THE PUSS WITH THE KITTY CAT, YOU HEAR?
TO HELL WITH THE LOT OF YOU, - AND MADAME - SHAVE YOUR CHIN A LITTLE CLOSER NEXT TIME, A LITTLE MORE BLUSH, TOO, YOU WOULDN’T FOOL A CHOIRBOY WITH YOUR LADY ACT!”
I swung the statuette a few more times to insure no one had any ideas, and knuckles white, turned the door knob and raced out into the moonlight. Shaky as hell, I gripped the jade jaguar another five blocks until I threw into a trash can by the Red Car stop.
Knowing Miss Lilywhite she was probably still in there apologizing for me and offering to pay for damages. I’d swear on it over a stack of Bibles, and in fact she told me so the very next day.
Photographs by Edward Steichen