THE BOYS WENT BACK TO SCHOOL the Tuesday after President Kennedy was shot, and Marianne Binger set about her chores that morning in numb automation. There was a comforting efficiency to wiping down the gold-specked Formica countertop and setting just-rinsed breakfast dishes in the drainer to dry. The house was full of its smells: the earthy remnant of dirty boy smell, the hot smell of the television set lighting its phosphor-coated tubes in the living room, her own heavy-scented cigarettes, smoked down to the filter, and the stridently pine scent of Airwick, set out to mask the cigarettes. Marianne was absolutely addicted to Airwick. The president had been shot in broad daylight, and she listened now for the sound of Russian aircraft to descend. It might have been Castro.
The boys were nine years old, twins. They were active little boys, though Peter was more rambunctious than his brother. Luke was introspective and calm like their father, the Reverend Joe Binger. Joe was well-spoken and smart, slow-moving and purposeful in his actions. At times, Marianne was yet surprised to find herself married to a preacher.
She settled into a cup of coffee and a cigarette at the kitchen table, looking out the window at the autumn maple outside, its leaves lit gold by the sun. Everything seemed changed. Wrapping her fingers around the warm mug, Marianne thought about Jackie Kennedy, that stately woman in her blood-spattered designer suit. She thought of her beautiful face, smooth and pale, and how her beauty made her sadness all the painful. Yes, the country was in mourning, but it was Jackie Kennedy who had suffered such a personal loss, the loss of her handsome, youthful husband, gone before her eyes.
Marianne shuddered. What if some terrible tragedy should take her Joe away? Would her sadness be as poignant, as achingly beautiful as this woman’s grief?
But Joe spent most of his evenings at his workbench in the basement, baffling over the innards of the transistor radio and the telephone. He was captivated by the miracle of electricity—the idea that artificial illumination even existed yet amazed him—this man of God, awed by wonders of both supernatural workings and the mortal hand of mankind. One night last week, at dinner, he had ruminated over the inner mechanics of the atom and their parallel workings in the universe, the spinning of planets and electrons. It was all related, of course, to how the internal combustion engine worked—all of it trapped energy—that powered not only automobiles and tractors, but also roller-coasters and rocket ships. He added the last part as a means of drawing the boys into the conversation, but Luke’s thoughts were clearly elsewhere, and Peter had already made a fork-tine road in his mashed potatoes and left, himself a charged bit of matter bouncing off the confines of his environment. After a moment, Luke asked to be excused and Marianne was left with her husband who stared vacantly at his water glass. She waited to see if he would say anything else, then rose to clear the dishes while Joe escaped to the basement. There, he had explained to her, he was conducting an experiment using paper clips and a live wire, pulled from the cinderblock wall.
As she snubbed out her cigarette and rinsed her cup in the sink, Marianne thought, thirty-four. One of the television commentaries had mentioned Jackie Kennedy’s age and it was Marianne’s age exactly. She was in this way aligned with the grieving first lady: they had seen the very same days.
She moved into the boys’ room to gather dirty laundry, pausing to straighten their twin beds, to touch the river rock Luke kept on his nightstand, to pick up Peter’s scouts canteen off the floor. It was a clean blue autumn day, and Marianne paused at the top of the basement stairs, the laundry basket on her hip. On Sunday, Joe had preached to the grief-shocked congregation on patriotism and closing ranks, human fear and God’s protection. He closed with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and reassured the assembled Methodists that God was still greater than he that was against us. Marianne and the family went home, switched on the television, and watched the replays of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination. It had happened on live television while they were at church and it seemed to Marianne the world had changed once again. The image of Jack Ruby taking two quick steps then lifting the gun had stayed with Marianne, as had the church’s closing song, and that terrible ache on Jackie Kennedy’s pretty face. As she descended the basement stairs, her feet bare on the cool slat steps, feeling for the switch at the bottom of the stairs, Marianne saw Jack Ruby in his tidy suit, she heard the congregation singing the hymn. The basement, dark except for the small square of light from the high window, was still and quiet and musty-smelling, the floor still damp from Saturday’s rain. She wished she’d put her shoes on before coming down. His truth was marching on. Here was Jack Ruby’s fedora, the Dallas police in a jumble, the exquisite countenance of the first lady, ashen with grief. Marianne wanted another cigarette.
At the bottom of the stairs, she stepped into a cold rain puddle to her ankles and cursed Joe—problems with the house were full on his shoulders—before her fingers found the light switch on the wall. The light flashed, then sprang on, the radio coming to life with it, some old hymn that Marianne recognized in a distant sort of way. Joe had managed that, rewiring the outlet so that it came to power with the light switch, the electricity juicing up the two separate lines at once, now escaping through a frayed wire in the puddle. Instantly, a terrific buzz snapped along Marianne’s spine, her limbs, her fingertips. A blue band of cool light pressed against her eyes as she fell, the basket thudding onto the concrete floor beside her.
The second grade teacher had said his cursive S’s looked like lazy swans, and Peter was still sore about it that afternoon as he walked home from school. Miss Mackay had spent much of the day tearful over the president’s death, eliciting examples of patriotism from Peter’s classmates, but when the children grew restless, she passed out pulpy blue-lined paper and said they would practice their penmanship. Peter wished now, as he followed the sidewalk to the street his family lived on, that he had raised his hand and said he would join the army. His twin brother Luke walked in front of him, the line of his trimmed brown hair neat against the skinny pale of his neck, glaringly white in the sun.
Too much drooping, Miss Mackay had said, correcting Peter’s letters with her own tall, looping S’s. Luke had once said Miss Mackay was pretty, but Peter didn’t believe this was true. Luke had only said it because he could write perfect swans, necks tall and slender, neatly rounded bellies gliding along. Peter shuffled a few paces behind his brother and pictured himself and his mother at the kitchen table tonight after dinner, him practicing the letters until he got them just right, his mother sitting close to him and nodding, yes, that’s good. During the weekend, she had been small and quiet, sobbing soundlessly over the president’s funeral, but this morning, she had seemed better and Peter thought of her smoking her thin, white cigarettes and smiling at him over his letters. Very good, she would say. Maybe he would tell her of his plans to join the army.
“Miss Mackey looks like a duck,” Peter said.
“No,” Luke answered without turning around to look back at him, “Miss Mackey doesn’t waddle. She doesn’t quack.”
Their mother wasn’t in the kitchen when they arrived home, and Luke switched off the television to listen for her. The boys felt the house’s emptiness at once and looked at each other, wondering where she might be. Though it was not unusual for her to lose track of time while having coffee at a neighbor’s or to get caught up running errands downtown, Peter felt uneasy. He feared something awful had happened to her, but he knew better than to mention it to his brother who would only tease him and call him a baby. Though they were identical twins, dressed alike and with matching haircuts, most of the people in their neighborhood and at their church, at least their classmates and the handful or so of adults who knew them well, could distinguish them by the way they held their faces, their shoulders, by the volume of their voices. Luke spoke in low, measured tones while Peter was excitable, red-faced and perspiring. The world seemed to favor Luke, especially their father and Miss Mackay and an entire array of Sunday School teachers.
It usually fell on Luke to make the decisions, and Peter looked at him now, wondering what they would do with this unexpected freedom. The afternoon was still; the furnace clicked off and the house was full of quiet. Peter wanted to go outside and play cowboy and Indian. They had not been allowed to play outside all weekend for the rain and the somberness of the president’s death, and now he wanted very badly to escape. He would have to be the cowboy, who always got scalped in the end, or else Luke would refuse to play. The scalping was done with their mother’s old spatula, taken from the kitchen and stored in a tin barrel along with a dozen pine cone hand grenades, a few homemade sling shots, an arsenal of rocks, and an old hymnal Luke had swiped from the choir dressing room for no good reason that Peter could imagine. Sometimes, Luke was as much a mystery to Peter as their father was.
Peter suggested cowboy and Indian, even volunteering outright to be the cowboy, but Luke shook his head. He squinted at his brother, his thumbs hooked into his belt loops, and said, “We’ll have a séance for Jimmy Bowen.”
Jimmy Bowen was a boy who had disappeared years ago, when their mother was a girl. He went missing from Carson, Tennessee, hometown to both of their parents. Now they lived in Michigan. Their mother loved to tell the boys stories of her girlhood in the mountains and the tale of Jimmy Bowen was one of her favorites. On summer days, young people crowded around Brown Lake, which was actually just a smallish pool of water caught between two mountains. The boys swam while the girls sunned themselves on the cool rocks and muddy beaches. Their mother, only thirteen at the time, was propped up on her elbows and watching the water. One minute, there was Jimmy Bowen, splashing around with the other teenaged boys, throwing a football hard enough to make the other boys flinch, and then, he was gone. If he drowned, no one saw him slip beneath the water, no one saw him struggle. If he waded back out of the water and wandered away, no one saw him leave. One of the other boys started to throw the football to him, another called out, Bowen!, and then they saw that he wasn’t there. He simply, their mother snapped her fingers, vanished.
Peter didn’t want to have the séance. He had never seen his mother cry so much as she had the past few days. On Saturday, it had rained heavily all day and his mother had stared at the window and said they would need a boat to get out in weather like this. Even their father seemed shaken, his long thin fingers trembling a little as he searched his Bible for the scripture reading during Sunday service.
Peter said, “Mom won’t let us.”
Luke blinked back at him and wordlessly went for his river rock, the one he’d taken from Tennessee last summer when they’d gone to visit their grandparents and their mother had told them the story. He took a set of candles from the kitchen drawer and the crystal candlesticks from the china cabinet. They had always held their Jimmy Bowen séances in the hall bathroom because it was the smallest room in the house and because it was the only room where either of them was allowed any privacy. Even if it was the middle of the night, as it usually was when they lit the candles and sat on the cool tile, the river rock on the floor between them, their mother, if she woke, would knock on the other side of the door, and then pause before she pushed the door open. This alone made it the ideal place, though Luke said spirits from beyond the grave didn’t like mirrors.
“It won’t work in the daytime,” Peter said, but Luke pulled the curtains over the narrow window above the toilet and said they would try it anyway. “Ghosts,” Peter said, “don’t like to be seen.” Luke said the ghosts did like to be seen, that that was the point of holding a séance in the first place. It was dark enough, Luke decided, with the curtains pulled and the door closed.
They began. Luke rolled up the bathroom rug and set the stone on the floor with the candles on either side. He struck a match to light the candles then sat with his hands lifted, insisting Peter touch the tips of his fingers to his. They closed their eyes and sat silently for a long moment. Luke believed Jimmy would enter the bathroom without an actual spoken invitation. Peter had pointed out that they didn’t know for sure that Jimmy was dead, but Luke just shook his head impatiently. Of course the boy was dead. This had happened years ago.
“Sit still,” Luke instructed. “Listen.”
Peter had forgotten his misshapen swans from earlier in the day and concerned himself now with what the ghost of a boy from Tennessee, so long dead, would have to say. He thought the boy might not want to be called away from heaven. The flicker of the candles bothered Peter and he kept his eyes half-open, alert to the shadows in the room. He could hear the trees shake their dry leaves in the breeze outside the window. If the boy wasn’t in heaven, he was a demon from below and he would want to hurt them. Peter thought his fiery fingers could reach through his scalp, his skull, and melt his brain away.
Their father had said it was a sin to try to contact the dead. There had been a rash of Ouija boards among the neighborhood youth the year before and he had preached against such practices, claiming it was all party to the Occult. From the pulpit he asked, child’s play or Satan’s handiwork? Their mother said, “Jimmy Bowen was the first boy I ever took a liking to.”
If Jimmy Bowen did appear, Peter imagined he would come to them in something called radio vision, the link between radio and television. His father had told him about how this had been used long ago to broadcast the hazy image of President Hoover to an audience in New York City who couldn’t understand what was happening to them. To them, it seemed like a haunting, like Armageddon, their president coming to speak to them, nothing like technology. Peter didn’t know how his father knew such things.
He stole a glance at his brother, wanting to ask him if their father had ever told him about the first television. But Luke bore a look of concentration, his eyes clamped shut, his mouth slightly open, his fingertips trembling against Peter’s. Once, he claimed the rock had twitched there on the floor though Peter had not seen it happen. Also, he had once heard the dead boy’s voice though Peter had heard nothing, only the rain against the windows, the refrigerator humming, Bucky, the neighbor’s dog, barking. Luke had believed Jimmy Bowen was speaking to them, that he longed to tell them something.
“It won’t work,” Peter whispered now, but Luke only furrowed his brow in answer, as if straining to hear the ghost.
With the sound of his own voice, the spell had been broken and Peter was no longer afraid. He took his fingers away from his brother’s and began passing them over one of the candles, pinching his fingers closed just above the flame. He was bored and began to think again about playing cowboys and Indians. He thought he could insist on being the Indian now—no, the Indian chief—since he had endured the séance, and he became restless, thinking of the fine, clear day outside, his legs aching to stand up, to run. He passed his fingers over the flame once again, this time bringing his fingertips too low and searing the pads of his thumb and his forefinger. He cried out in pain, yanking his burned fingers to his mouth.
Luke’s eyes snapped open. “Did you see him?”
“It’s evil,” Peter said, recalling their father’s words. He sucked on his burned fingers and cried.
Luke blew out the candles and pulled himself up, standing now before the mirror. He stood looking there for a long moment and when nothing happened, he told Peter to stop crying. He knelt to hold the rock in his hands for a moment, then solemnly looked up at his brother and said, “It’s warm. There’s energy trapped here.” They gathered the candles and the crystal candlesticks and replaced the rug on the bathroom floor. Everything was put back in order and the boys looked around the house. Their mother had not yet returned home.
“Maybe she’s gone to the market,” Peter said. “Or, maybe, she’s having coffee with Mrs. Bailey.”
Luke moved to the hallway; the basement door was open. The boys hadn’t noticed it before and now they stood back, staring at it. Peter remembered that something bad might have happened to his mother. One of his classmates had whispered to him today in the lunchroom that the Communists would not stop at just killing the president. Their mother disliked being in the basement and only went there to do the wash. She insisted on keeping the door shut to keep the mice out of the house and she was always reminding their father, who went to his worktable in the basement most evenings after dinner, to close it.
“The wash,” Peter said, but Luke gestured for him to keep quiet. He stood peering down the stairs for a moment before he put his hand on the rail and stepped down, into the stairwell. He kept one hand behind him as he moved slowly down the steps, as if to hold his brother back. Peter whispered, “Is she down there?” but Luke shook his head, he was listening for something. The basement was dark. Truthfully, Peter didn’t like going down there any more than their mother did, though he sometimes went there to join their father, to look over the tangle of wires and telephone pieces, bits of plastic and metal. His father was only a Methodist preacher, but some day he would invent something like a robot that could drive cars or a television in a booth, images and sounds flashing all around. All of that was before the president had been shot and their mother had said everything was different now; the whole world was changed. Peter considered going back now, but he did not want to be alone, not even in the living room with its pinkish-gray late afternoon light coming through the windows. He wished Luke would say something, and Peter tried once again, “She went to the bank. She just forgot.” But Luke had seen something now and stopped on the steps.
There was just the one window in the basement, weak sunlight coming through, and the boys had to allow their eyes a moment to adjust before they could see her. She lay at the bottom, her skirt around her, her face almost completely covered by her hair. Peter wanted to go to her, but Luke held him back. He sensed some sort of danger, some lingering bad spirit called from the dead. Later, he would say it was Jimmy Bowen, come to take their mother even before the wordless invitation of the séance. Spirits from the other side, he would later explain, don’t like to be bothered by the living. He would take the spirit-warmed rock into the woods and leave it there, as an anchor to Jimmy Bowen’s wandering spirit. The boys’ father would rarely speak of his wife’s death and their neighbors would wonder at what had befallen them, first the president killed in Dallas and now, Marianne Binger in her own basement? There was no safe place after all.
But Peter knew from the first that he was the reason for this. It was the fact of his messy existence, the undeniable line of crumpled swans. His own insistent surge into the universe had crowded his mother out of being. He thought of the little boy in the powder blue jacket who saluted the fallen leader, how his mother had cried at the sight. There was no president, only Peter’s mother, her face pressed against the gritty basement floor.