Mysteries of the Occult

by Mary Murphy

Hudson Valley Mature Life, October 2000

Last summer I stopped at a McDonald’s in downtown Troy on my way home from a storytelling gig and there was a man in there seated at a piano playing “Blue Moon.” You know that old popular song from the Thirties — “Blue Moon”?

Well, I thought that was kind of unusual and as I stood there listening to the music I began to remember the last time I heard that song played on the piano. It was in Syracuse a long time ago, when my friend Robin Franey held a pajama party to celebrate her thirteenth birthday. Everyone who was invited was in the same class at school and we all took piano lessons from Sister Jerome: there was me and Robin, Janet Beecher, Carolyn Smith, Mary Alice Tynan (who was Robin’s cousin), and Marion Wu. Marion had only been with us for a year. She and her family had moved to Syracuse from Hong Kong so that her father could take a job with Syracuse China. The kind you eat off of.

Robin held her party in the family room in the basement, where we all laid out our sleeping bags and blankets. We ate spaghetti and meatballs cooked by Mrs. Franey and a Carvel Ice Cream Cake in honor of Robin’s birthday. Later, while Robin opened up her presents, we ate popcorn, potato chips, bugles, and onion dip. After that we called up Pizza Hut and ordered a double-cheese pizza with the works, and for dessert we went upstairs to the kitchen and made chocolate sundaes, and after that we came back downstairs and opened up Robin’s box of Fanny Farmer chocolates that her aunt had given her for her birthday, and we polished that off.

So along about midnight nobody was really all that hungry anymore, and we had to find something else to do. Robin suggested we hold a séance, which everybody — except me — thought was a great idea.

A séance is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a spiritualist meeting to receive spirit communications.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been leery if not downright scared silly of spirit communications. My mother used to tease me about my fear of meeting up with a ghost. One time I was going to spend a week in England, and I was very excited. I went to my mother.

“Mom, can I look up our relatives when I get to London?”

“Mary, if you want to look up our relatives when you get to London, you’d better bring a shovel.”

I was hoping no one in our group knew any spirits to communicate with, but Mary Alice Tynan volunteered to contact her grandmother because she wanted to ask her a question.

For a long time after she died, Mary Alice’s grandfather carried her grandmother’s ashes around with him in a big metal urn, which he put near his bedside wherever he went. He traveled a lot and one time when he was staying at a hotel a maid who was cleaning his room and who was apparently under the impression that he was a very heavy smoker — threw out the ashes! I mean, he should have labeled them or something. Mary Alice wanted to ask her grandmother what it felt like to be flushed down the toilet at a Holiday Inn.

Well, I couldn’t let on what a wimp I was about séances, but I couldn’t go through with calling on dead spirits either. Everybody else was laughing and talking about the séance until finally Robin said, “Shh! Keep the noise down. If my mom finds out we’re holding a séance she won’t let us do it!” Un huh. That was all I need to hear. Eddy Haskell-like, I went upstairs, found Mrs. Franey, complimented her on the lovely dinner she’d prepared, and told her we needed candles because we were going to hold a séance. Then I went to the bathroom. Mrs. Franey went right downstairs, and I heard her say, “No candles, no séance, no ouija board. I want you girls to sleep tonight!”

Everybody (well, almost everybody) was disappointed. And everybody (well, almost everybody) wondered how Mrs. Franey had found out about our séance. I mean, did she have ESP or what? But they didn’t wonder for long, because just when I thought it was safe to come out of the bathroom Carolyn Smith said, “Well, if we can’t hold a séance let’s levitate someone! Your mom didn’t say we couldn’t levitate someone, did she?” Nope, she didn’t.

Levitation is “the illusion of raising and keeping a heavy body in the air with little or no physical support.” It’s considered the height of entertainment at a pajama party.

One person lies on the floor and everybody else kneels around her placing their index and middle fingers under the heavy body, who in this case happened to be me. I got chosen because at the time I appeared to be the lightest heavy body available. As usual, I was scared to do anything even remotely weird, but I had to agree because Mrs. Franey had just come downstairs with a Monopoly game, walked right up to me, and said, “Here, Mary, here’s a game you can play without candles.” Which got everybody looking at me very suspiciously. So I lay down on the floor.

Robin turned out all the lights and everybody who’d brought flashlights turned them on and shined them in my direction, casting weird shadows on the wall. All the kids were kneeling around me, with Robin above my head. As she started to rotate my temples, first in one direction and then in the other, she began to make up a story about who I was and how I had died. Don’t ask me why I had to be dead. Dead people just seem to fit in at a pajama party.

Robin decided that I was the ghost of the famous Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and that I’d died for love of Marc Antony by placing an asp on my breast. I know now that an asp is a poisonous snake, but at the time I had no idea what she was talking about and I could have sworn she said I had died by placing an ass on my breast and I got this image of my life being snuffed out by being sat on by someone with a pair of giant buns like Orson Welles or Santa Claus. And I began to laugh. Hard. Which is the worst thing a levitatee can do. You’ve got to concentrate and be serious in order to get any lift.

Well, all the kids were getting mad at me because I was ruining the levitation and I was trying to get serious but only got sillier, when Robin somehow got us all concentrating very hard and chanting.

“Lift, lift, lift.”

I was concentrating very hard and chanting, “Don’t, don’t don’t” — because I still wasn’t sure whether or not levitation was a sin — when all of a sudden I heard someone start to cry. We all heard it. Everyone stopped chanting and looked around, and we saw that it was Marion Wu. She’d covered her face with her hands and was sobbing as if her heart would break.

We all rushed over to comfort her and when she was finally able to talk she told us that when she and her family were still living in Hong Kong, she went to the beach one day with her older brother Raymond. While they were there a child went out too far in the water and was being dragged down by the current. Raymond saw what was happening and swam out to save her but was drowned in the attempt. When he was pulled from the water he was lying on the sand with people kneeling all around him trying to revive him, all seeming to talk at once. I guess we were kind of reenacting that scene with our levitation.

After Marion told us why she was crying we all just sat there in silence for a long time. None of us even knew she had an older brother. She’d never mentioned him before. Nobody knew what to say to make her feel better.

Suddenly, Carolyn Smith got up, walked over to Robin’s old, beat-up piano, sat down, and started to play her recital piece for that year — which was “Blue Moon.” She played it straight through without a mistake. It was beautiful. And when she finished, she stood up and announced that she’d played her piece for Raymond Wu. Trust Carolyn to think up the perfect thing to do. Then, as we usually did, we followed her lead and we all played our recital pieces, including Marion. My piece that year was “A Giddy Girl” by Jacques Ibert. Sister Jerome, remarking on the appropriateness of its title, had picked it out for me herself.

On the Monday following our pajama party, Marion told us she’d dreamt about Raymond for the first time since the accident. He was at our recital, and as we played our pieces he was smiling and applauding. When Marion played her piece Raymond came up on stage with a big bouquet of flowers, which he presented to her as he kissed her cheek and told her how much he missed her playing the piano. Then Marion started to cry and woke up.

That’s the occasion I was reminded of that day in Troy when the McDonald’s piano man started playing “Blue Moon.” I hadn’t thought about it in years. As I left to catch my bus to Albany, I put two dollars in his Ronald McDonald tips cup on top of the piano and asked him if by any chance he knew “A Giddy Girl.” He looked up at me and said, “I used to, but she left me for Liberace!” And after that he kept right on playing.