Susanne heard a knock at the screen door. It sounded like another hurricane, thwack thwack ruin your life thwack thwack. As if Pensacola needed any more hot air blowing through.
“I’m coming! Keep your damn pants on,” she said. The bastard was half an hour late, anyway. She thought maybe she’d have time to get a quick Jazzercise session under her belt. She had her yoga pants and tube top on and everything. She’d even moved back the coffee table, a feat that wasn’t as easy as it used to be—her damn arthritis kicking up again. Not to mention she was damned near starving. Needless to say, she wasn’t exactly in the best of moods when she opened the door to greet the portly young man wearing a green jumpsuit and holding a briefcase, who looked at her outfit like it was broken.
“You know the term is ex-OR-cise, right?” he said.
“You’re far.” He walked in and she could swear the floor buckled. She closed and locked the door behind him, looked out the peephole to make sure no one had seen him come in. She turned to him. He was examining her doublewide trailer with disdain. At least, she figured it was disdain. “Nice place.”
“Can we get this over with?” she asked. She was still bitter about losing that game of canasta to Ruth at the lodge. Normally, she’d simply pay up a few dollars and be done with it. But this time she was low on cash: her last social security check had been less than she’d anticipated, and damned if that cable bill didn’t come with hidden fees.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” Ruth had said after her victory. She took a drag of her menthol cigarette and coughed up four lungs. “You let my nephew come by and work on your house. He runs his own company. I tell you, he’s sure got that entrepreneurial spirit. But he ain’t been getting much business lately.”
Susanne smirked. “Fine, whatever. What’s he specialize in?”
Ruth had taken another heavy drag of smoke, breathed it out, waved it away with her hand and smiled. “The beyond.”
Back in the trailer, Susanne was still staring at the portly young fellow, wondering just how much she’d really lost in that game of canasta. He looked unsure of himself, like he was holding in a fart. He had a patchy neck beard that tried—and failed—to hide his extra chins. He looked sweaty and swampy. Then again, a man his size in Florida was practically two-thirds sweat as it was. He looked at her like a puppy awaiting a command. Her arms crossed, she shrugged her shoulders.
“So?” she asked. He snapped to.
“Sorry. So. Where have you had the most occurrences?”
“The hell does that mean?”
“Sightings, events, weird stuff.” He placed his briefcase down on her glass coffee table and sank into the couch. She silently groaned. She’d just taken the plastic off and didn’t feel like having to take a blowtorch to the thing.
“The kitchen,” she said matter-of-factly. He stared at her as if to whine but I just sat down, then exhaled melodramatically, stood up, and grabbed his briefcase. He sauntered over to the kitchen, which was only three feet away—surely he could manage—and had a look around.
“Have you lost anyone you’ve loved recently?” he asked. He seemed awfully interested in the photos hanging on the wall over the kitchen table.
“Was this trailer built on an ancient Indian burial ground?”
“Nathan. I don’t really believe in all of this hokey-pokey stuff.”
“Have you ever seen a ghost?” he asked a little too condescendingly for her liking.
“I don’t believe in them.”
“But they’re real,” he said like a toddler defending the existence of Santa Claus.
She shook her head. “Look, just do what you have to do, okay?”
“Well…” He took a long time to say something else. “I just don’t know how valuable my expertise will be if you haven’t had any encounters.” He flashed what were almost puppy-dog eyes at her. She knew if Nathan came back to Ruth with his tail between his legs that she’d never hear the end of it. Or, worse: she’d have to admit to the fact that Ruth was better than her at canasta, senility and all.
She wasn’t willing to do that.
“Well, okay,” she said, putting those high-school play techniques to good use. “I didn’t want to say anything because…”
“…look, you’re going to think I’m crazy.”
He readjusted himself, leaned in toward her, nearly panting for the juicy bit. She went full Hepburn on him.
“I’ve been hearing things.”
His eyes lit up. “What kind of things?”
He sat down at the table. “Like, sounds?”
“Yes. I heard sounds.”
“Where did they come from, exactly?” he asked. He pulled his briefcase close to him and opened it. He procured what looked like a curling iron attached to a walkie-talkie, a tape recorder, and something close to a graphing calculator.
“The fridge. The microwave. The toaster,” she said, trying to think of all of the appliances that made noise while they were plugged in. She thought about mentioning the Dutch cuckoo clock hanging above his head, but that would have been too obvious, right?
“Which one would you say you’ve had the most trouble with?” he asked.
Her stomach gurgled. “The toaster.”
He grabbed the curling iron and walkie-talkie. “Let’s check it out,” he said. He walked around the breakfast bar with each instrument in hand. He pushed a button and the walkie-talkie started clicking and squelching.
“What is that?”
“It’s an EMP monitor. It measures electromagnetic activity, which is a blatant indicator of a spiritual presence.”
Or of electricity, she thought. It’d been fifty years since she’d been at the University, but she still retained some of that BS in Engineering. She wondered what he got a BS in. He waved the curling iron wand over the toaster. The walkie-talkie burped and squelched and whirred more than it had a few seconds before.
“Hmm,” he said. “This is quite the reading. Let’s test this thing out.” He unplugged the toaster and placed it in the center of the round kitchen table. He waved the wand again, just to make sure it still picked up EMP or whatever, but the talkie was quiet. “Hmm. Got any bread?”
“I should warn you the thing’s not been working right,” she said. She’d tried to make toast the other day, but it burnt it up real fast, left these weird marks across it. She reached into a cabinet and brought a loaf of bread over to the table. He removed a slice and ran the wand over it. The walkie-talkie was still quiet.
“Strange… no activity there,” he said.
“How about that,” she said with a sigh. She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, just waiting for him to do his dog-and-pony show so she could get on with her morning routine. She really didn’t like her routine being interrupted. At her age, it was about all she had left to keep her sane. Change was not something she was very fond of. Not anymore. He plunked the sliced bread into the toaster and pushed the lever down. He raised his arms up into the air and closed his eyes.
“Spirit, if you are here, please give us a sign,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
His eyes remained closed. “I’m summoning the spirit.”
She felt like summoning a spirit into a highball glass right about now. She rolled her eyes and sat back. The toaster started to work, the smell of warm bread making her hungrier. She paused, bent under the table and saw the electrical cord dangling freely above the ground. She sprung back up.
“Spirit, why are you here? Why do you haunt this piece of machinery?”
She looked at the toaster suspiciously, nervously, and her heart skipped a beat when she noticed it was… shaking.
“Spirit,” he said, unable to see the dancing toaster due to his closed eyes, “what is it that you want?” The toaster shook even more now, rocking back and forth on its tiny plastic legs. She leaned back in her chair.
“Spirit, tell us what you want.” The toaster bounced wildly now, loudly. How could he not hear?
“Nathan,” she yelled, the fear of the dancing toaster finally overcoming her. Nathan opened his eyes and finally saw the toaster, volatile and alive, and his voice cracked.
“Spirit?” And then the toast popped up with a metallic ding, and the both of them jumped back in their seats and shielded their eyes. The toaster sat calmly on the table, the piece of toast protruding from the top, steaming. Susanne peaked through the cracks in her fingers.
“What the hell?”
It took Nathan a moment longer to open his eyes, and he looked surprised as well by what he could see.
“Holy crap,” he said. The browned piece of toast looked relatively normal, except in the center where it had been burned, the words ADMIT IT clearly forged into the grains in curly black, scorched lettering. Nathan turned slowly to Susanne, stared at her as if to accuse her of something.
“Nothing,” he said. He seemed to cower away from her a bit, like he was looking for an escape route.
“I have no idea what that means,” she said, and she really didn’t. She didn’t have anything to hide. He could see her damn voting records for all she cared, hanging chads and all. “Shouldn’t you have an idea?”
“Why would I have an idea?” he asked.
“Um, because it’s your job,” she said. “Why the hell is my toaster telling me to admit something?”
“It’s haunted,” he said, as if he didn’t believe his own words.
“Okay, great,” she said, shaken. “Now what do we do about it?”
A nervous but excited smile emerged from his face. “The EPASE 3000.”
* * *
He took longer than she’d hoped to set everything up. He had to make sure his calibrations were correct, he said. He plugged a lot of numbers or whatever into the graphing calculator thing. He made sure the tape was rewound in the tape recorder. He asked if she had any candles that he could light. All she had were a couple of scented, flameless candles Charles had bought her. The room started to smell like Tahitian Vanilla and Sea Breeze. Why her son had bought her a sea breeze candle when she lived on the goddamn gulf was beyond her. Then again, he’d never been too bright, but at least he’d sent her something to prove he hadn’t forgotten about her. Nathan drew the blinds shut, rendering the room dark, the morning light unable to peek through. He placed his hands out over the table like he was about to do a magic trick.
“Can we hurry this up?” she asked. Her impatience was rooted in fear, but she didn’t want to let him know that.
“I think we’re ready,” he said. “Are you ready?”
“Are you sure?”
“Just exorcise the damn toaster,” she said.
He pressed record on the tape recorder. “Testing, one two. Okay. Today is April 13th, I’m here with Susanne…” She didn’t answer him. “Susanne. And we have a class-four haunting, in the form of a spectral expression through leavened bread. We’re going to try and remove the spirit from the toaster, and hopefully altogether from the trailer… house.” He looked at her like he was apologizing, but then quickly turned back to the table. “I am now going to turn on the EPASE 3000.” He flipped a switch on a small circular object and it started to hum.
“The what?” she asked.
“The electromagnetic pulse amplifying spirit extractor,” he whispered.
“Where the hell did you get that?”
“You’re interrupting the process,” he said, “and I made it myself.” The thing sounded like a blow dryer. It probably was. She sat back and just let him get on with it. She didn’t want to let on that she was a bit curious by the message. Maybe the ghost of some drug kingpin was haunting her trailer. Or maybe some Native American who’d been wronged by white settlers. Or, likely, it was all just part of an act that he was putting on. Maybe he’d fucked with the toast somehow, so it would say that. That was probably the easiest explanation. That, or the kingpin thing. This was Pensacola.
“We will now close our eyes to begin the summoning,” he said loudly. She begrudgingly did so. Maybe she could sneak in a quick nap while he worked his magic. She closed her eyes and for some reason she pictured her dead husband. If only he could see her now, sitting at their kitchen table with some fat bastard, a blow dryer, and a burnt piece of toast. Oh, the life she was living without him.
“Spirit,” he said, “we command that you leave this place, that you discontinue haunting this poor old woman’s toaster, and relieve yourself of this mortal coil.” Nothing. He continued. “Spirit, we command you, leave this place. Cease your ghostly business and leave.”
She opened her eyes to see him breathing heavily, the toaster remaining in its toasterly place. She sighed. This was stupid. The table shook. She jumped back.
“Spirit, leave this place, leave this metal home,” he said, the little round machine whirring wildly, the fan spinning like a pinwheel. The table shook again, this time with more force. Nathan seemed to not notice the activity, caught up in his spiel.
“Leave this place,” he yelled. A ghostly wail came from the speaker of the tape recorder. The blow dryer started to whir higher and faster. The table shook like there was an earthquake. “Spirit! We command you!”
She gripped the table with her hands and could feel it vibrate through her. She tried to calm herself down, find a way to explain it all, but even cynical Susanne couldn’t come up with a plausible explanation. She was scared.
“Spirit!” he yelled, and the toaster glowed bright red, like the coils had migrated to the outside. The table shook harder. The dryer whirred faster. The wailing in the tape recorder grew louder. The toaster shone brighter as the glowing red light started to take a small round shape. “Leave us!”
She closed her eyes and put her hands to her ears. “Damnit, spirit, would you get the hell out of here,” she yelled as loudly as she could. The table suddenly ceased moving, and the blow dryer stopped whirring, and the wailing stopped, and an eerie quiet came over the room. But the toaster still glowed, and like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the red light of the heated metal formed into an orb that suddenly disconnected and became separate from the toaster.
It lingered in the air like a tiny, glowing ball. Susanne saw Nathan open his eyes, and the two of them watched as it hovered, raised itself over the table for a moment, and then dropped suddenly into the tape recorder and dissolved into it. The only sounds in the room were the slight hiss of the tape spinning in the player and the labored, frightened breaths of the paranormal witnesses.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere!” said a hoarse, thick voice from the tape recorder. She recognized it immediately.
“Frank?” She looked over at Nathan, who was nearly paralyzed with fear.
“What the hell am I doing in this thing?” Frank’s voice asked from the recorder. Susanne banged her hands on the table. “Damnit, Frank, you nearly gave me a damned heart attack, you dumb son of a bitch!” She jumped up from her chair and grabbed the tape recorder.
“Frank?” Nathan asked, to no one in particular.
“Now just hold on a minute,” the voice said, just before Susanne lifted the machine over her head and threw it to the ground. It smashed into pieces of plastic and metal that cascaded all over the pink and green floor tiles. Nathan flipped the light switch on to reveal Susanne huffing and grinding her teeth, her skin a million degrees.
He looked down at the broken tape recorder scattered on the floor. “I got that for my birthday,” he softly whined. Suddenly, a burst of bright red light exploded from the recorder and formed the same floating ball as before, but now it hovered just in front of Susanne’s face. It shot past her and bounced around the room, knocking a picture frame off the wall and spilling her office supplies and utensils.
She chased after the orb. “Damnit, Frank, you get back here!” It clanged and clunked against the pots and pans she had hanging from hooks above the sink before it bounced and then landed and assimilated into the answering machine. The machine beeped.
“Hi, this is Susanne,” started the tape, “I can’t come to the phone—” the words distorted and trailed off and suddenly shifted back to Frank’s gruff voice.
“Hey! What happened to our message? Why’d you go changing our mess—” but his voice was cut off when Susanne ripped the machine out of the wall and tossed it across the room, just above Nathan’s head, who ducked just in time to let it smash against the wall behind him.
“Damnit, Frank, you leave me the hell alone,” Susanne yelled at the ceiling and all around her, her fists clenched and her eyes wide with rage. The orb flew out of the machine’s wreckage and bounced around the room some more, ping, pong, clunk. Nathan finally grabbed his bearings, what little he had left of them, and shook his head clear.
“Who the hell is Frank? What the hell is going on?” he asked. But then, he knew. “Uh-oh.”
Before he could formulate another word, he saw the glowing orb fling itself against the sliding glass door, and then against the cuckoo clock with a chime before it soared into the gaping hole that was Nathan’s mouth and he swallowed it. He gulped, and snapped upright in his seat. Susanne stared at him with a cocktail of anxious surprise.
“Uh-oh,” she said. She watched as his eyes rolled back into his head, then sprung forward again like a slot machine. His eyes took on a strange shape, and his brow furrowed into an angry, older look. His mouth slid itself to one side and formed a scowl. His head tilted forward and his back hunched, and he leaned onto the table to support himself. He looked entirely different, yet familiar.
“Frank,” Susanne said in frustrated recognition.
“Who’d you think it would be, Ed Sullivan?” he asked.
She plunked down in her chair. “What the hell do you want?”
“I want you to stop breaking all of our stuff, for starters.”
She wanted to fight back, just like she always did, but all she could muster was a frustrated sigh. “Frank, what the hell are you doing here?”
“I want you to admit it,” he said. His voice took on an inflection that Nathan’s hadn’t yet. Earnestness, maybe.
She raised an eyebrow. “Admit what?”
“That you miss me.”
She laughed heartily, then waited for his response. But he just sat there in his newfound body, and said nothing. “That’s why you burned up my good bread? That’s why you’re making those weird sounds on this poor kid’s stuff?”
“I haven’t heard you say it once since I died.”
“That’s because you’re dead, Frank,” she said. “You can’t hear shit, now. Not that you ever could.”
“Do I look dead to you?” He puffed his chest out and jutted his chin.
She smirked. “You look like you need a shower.”
“You ain’t said it once, not once, I know it.”
“So, what, you’ve been spying on me? Have you been living in the microwave too, burning up my Lean Cuisines?” She crossed her arms and looked away from him, an old trick of hers when she wasn’t willing to back down from one of their numerous arguments.
He sighed and leaned forward onto the table. “Come on, Susie.”
“Don’t call me that. Especially not while you’re in… there,” she said, motioning toward the corporeal body her very un-corporeal husband was currently wearing.
“You know how long I’ve been waiting to hear you say it?”
“Two years,” she said under her breath.
“Two years,” he said at the same time. “I can’t wait no more.”
“What do you want me to say, Frank? Ever since you left I’ve had to fend for myself. It’s just been me, here.”
“I didn’t leave,” he said. “I died.”
“I didn’t tell you to get those teeth taken out, did I? Not with your heart I wouldn’t,” she said. She remembered the day he came home from the dentist. It went well, he’d said. I just need a quick nap, he’d said. He never woke up, though. And now here he was, in the body of a high-school dropout ghost hunter asking if she missed him. Which, she most certainly did not. Not one bit.
“It ain’t easy being without you,” he said.
“I’m doing just fine here,” she said with a wave around the room. “Hell, I just got digital cable. Close to two hundred channels.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I don’t have much time,” he said. “His body is starting to reject me.”
Maybe his body should start rejecting Big Macs, she thought. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Tell me how you really feel, for Christ’s sake!”
“I already did.”
“No, Susie. How you really feel?” He looked at her with pleading eyes. They weren’t his own, sure, but she recognized the glint. He always tried to get her to open up and tell him how she really felt. It never worked, though. Not because she didn’t want to, but because she never knew how to.
“No,” she said with finality, and she crossed her arms and spun away from him again to try and put an end to all of this.
When he sighed deeply, she knew it had worked: she’d won. When she turned back around, she half-expected to see her husband sitting there in his bathrobe like he always did, cup of coffee and a newspaper, his glasses sliding down his pointy nose, the sunlight glistening off his bald, white head. But it was just Nathan sitting there, his head sunk into his chest.
“Frank?” she asked. No response. She reached across the table and shook the boy by the shoulder. “Frank, are you in there still?”
The body was heavy, like deadweight. The breathing had stopped. She shook it harder, pins and needles in her wrist.
“Frank, please. Frank, come back. Don’t leave.” She felt a weird dryness in her throat and a strange wetness in her eyes: she was crying. It was hard to even remember the last time she’d cried; even at Frank’s funeral she’d been stoic, composed. Keep your mouth shut and move on, her mother had told her. But she hadn’t moved on, not even a little bit, and she knew that now. She slid across the table and wrapped her arms around the large boy and held him close. She imagined it was Frank, with his bony frame and hard shoulders. His old, wrinkled neck. His ever-long ear hairs. The way he always smelled like new shoes.
“I miss you, okay? I miss you, you son of a bitch.” She pressed her face into his chest and let eighty-five years of emotion drain out of her eyes and nose and into his soft bosom. “Goddamnit, Frank, I miss the hell out of you.”
Suddenly, Nathan sucked in a large gust of air, startling her. She pulled away from him and hid behind the table. Nathan shot upright in his chair and she guarded herself. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back slowly. His mouth opened and a bright red beam of light exploded out of it with a metallic hum. She shielded her eyes as his body started to shake violently, rattling the chairs and table. It felt like the world was coming to an end, and for a split-second she wished it would, so she could see her husband again.
But then things started to calm down. She peeked through her fingers to see his body thrusting about, but slower now, as the red light coming out of his mouth grew weaker, duller, and then finally, dissipated. His body stopped shaking, his mouth closed, and his head dropped into his chest. Nathan’s eyes fluttered open and his heavy body slid down the chair. He looked at his hands and legs like he was making sure they were still attached, then looked at Susanne.
“Frank?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Where am I?” It was Nathan again, confused and sickly looking. Somehow, she felt comforted knowing he was back.
“You okay there, big fella?”
He nodded. “I think so,” he said.
Then he vomited.
* * *
Susanne cleaned up the mess and helped the man gather his things. He tried to thank her, but had trouble. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It’s the least I could do.”
“But… your toaster,” he said.
She stopped him. “It’s okay. You fixed it.”
“I did? How did I… I mean, what did I…”
“You did good, young man,” she said. She smiled and placed a hand on his cheek, and he smiled unsurely back at her. Then she pulled him forward and kissed him on the mouth, deep into his lips, and she could swear that she tasted the faint bitterness of Miller High Life and Skoal chewing tobacco she knew so well amidst the burning acids of his upheaved stomach lining. She pulled away from him.
“Tell your aunt I’ll come by Thursday for canasta. She owes me a rematch.” He nodded awkwardly. She closed the screen door behind him, and the confused man walked down the steps and back to his car.
Susanne surveyed her small, empty home and her stomach gurgled. The cuckoo clock chimed that it was ten o’clock. She walked back into the kitchen and plopped down at the table. The shades drawn, the room was still dark. She picked up the piece of burnt toast. It was cold now. The words were no longer there. She threw it into the trash. She got up, plugged the toaster back in, and grabbed a fresh slice of bread from the loaf. She plunked it into the slot. She pushed the lever down. She waited.
The toaster’s coils started to glow red.
Warren Buchanan is a Bay Area writer with a So Cal bent. He is a writer/editor and part-time lecturer of Screenplay at the college level who writes short fiction, flash, novels and screenplays. He got his MFA from Saint Mary’s College and a BA in Screenwriting from Loyola Marymount. His mother is very proud of him.
His work has been featured in Eclectica Magazine, Hobart Pulp and Stanley the Whale. He is currently working on editing his first novel, Mr. Kamikaze.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Pensacola Poltergeist”
Story titles can be interesting things. Sometimes they pose questions and draw you in, and other times, they just sit there, making no special promises. “The Pensacola Poltergeist” was one of the latter—an unassuming title (suggesting it had something to do with a haunting) and an equally unassuming location like Pensacola, Florida. It didn’t exactly grab us. Maybe you felt the same way when you saw it.
Well, we hope you didn’t stop there, just as we’re glad we didn’t either. Author Warren Buchanan weaves a superb and unexpected tale from that title. His delightful storytelling brings us interesting and believable characters amid a resonant storyline that we can almost be convinced could really happen. The result is fun and entertaining fiction, nothing deep—not every piece of fiction needs to be deep—but something you might reflect on the next time you burn a piece of toast.
[…] “The Pensacola Poltergeist” – Fabula Argentea, Jul 2015 […]
Warren’s, Grandma Madeline is very proud of him too, a very interesting story.
When I say this reminds me a lot of Stephen King, I mean that as a great compliment – and not to suggest that it’s at all derivative. Perhaps though it’s a more general way of looking at things that is the tradition being drawn on to such excellent effect.