Excerpt from Strong Spirits

   
     It all started with my aunt Viola's Ouija Board. It was an old one, and sort of shabby. I guess Mrs. Kincaid had been using it ever since she bought it in '03 when they first came out, but she claimed it still worked.
     Whether it worked or not, Mrs. Kincaid gave it to Aunt Vi after her own custom-made one with a large emerald in the center arrived from overseas. Mrs. Kincaid declared it had been made by a Gypsy woman in Rumania but I had my doubts then, and I have my doubts now. After all, Mrs. Kincaid was rich, and we all know how gullible some rich people are. I suppose I should amend that to read that I know how gullible some rich people are. Lord knows, I've had plenty of experience in gulling them.
     On the other hand, my aunt Viola Gumm, like the rest of my Gumm kin, wasn't at all gullible. Or rich. In fact, Aunt Vi worked as a cook at Mrs. Kincaid's mansion on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, which is how she came to be involved with the Ouija Board to begin with.
     Aunt Vi claimed to be a little scared of the thing, but I think she was only teasing. Everybody knew Ouija Boards were just pieces of wood some smart guy painted and patented to swindle people with money out of it—money, that is to say. You didn't have to look any farther than Mrs. Kincaid if you doubted it.
     So that's what started it. What kept it going was Aunt Vi taking the thing out on Christmas Eve to show the relations. Everybody laughed at it, but nobody wanted to touch it. I thought that was strange, since if Ouija Boards weren't truly conduits to a Great Beyond somewhere past death, what harm were they?
     I decided to take a crack at it. Why not? I had no morals to speak of, being only ten years old at the time. Back then my main concern was in not making the adults in my life so mad they'd spank me. Since they seemed crazy for this silly board, I decided to have some fun on my own.
     You could have heard a pin drop when I sat down across from my cousin Eula and we settled our fingers lightly on a triangular shaped piece of wood Aunt Vi told me was a planchette which, I assumed, was a French word for a triangular piece of wood. Eula, who was sixteen and showing it in every detail, wanted to know if there would be any beaux in her future. I didn't much like Eula, since she wouldn't let me beautify myself with her new eyelash curler, so I made the planchette tell her she'd have three boyfriends, turn Catholic, and enter a nunnery.
     Needless to say, my spelling wasn't great, but I invented a spirit control named Rolly, who'd lived in 1055, and who'd never been to school. Therefore, since nobody expected Rolly to spell well, it worked out all right.
     I was quite proud of Rolly. I'd listened hard when Aunt Vi explained the Ouija Board to Ma. She'd said that people conjured up some sort of spirit control from the Other Side, whatever that was, with which they communicated through the Ouija Board. That's how I came up with Rolly when I felt a need to explain my rotten spelling. Nobody else in the family could spell worth beans anyhow, so I probably could have dispensed with the control altogether, but Rolly added a touch of panache to an otherwise childish exercise.
     To my utter astonishment and her absolute horror, Eula believed me. Everyone joined in communicating with the Ouija Board and Rolly through me after that, except Uncle Ernie, who'd already drunk most of the punch and had taken to snoring in his big easy chair. Uncle Ernie, Aunt Vi's husband and my father's younger brother, snored through most of our family get-togethers.
     The thing you've got to understand is that back then, in 1910, Pasadena was a rich man's town. Wealthy folks from back East would build winter homes in Pasadena, or stay at the Green Hotel during the winter months, or even, if they were rich enough, spend the whole year there except when they were jauntering off to Europe or Egypt or somewhere else exotic.
     What's more, Pasadena was a sophisticated place. We had 24-hour telephone service before the turn of the century, electrical lighting on our streets shortly thereafter, and several electrical car lines. Daphne, some of our friends, and I would ride the cars from Pasadena to the beach at Santa Monica for picnics sometimes, although most of the time we were too busy trying to make money.
     And then there was the Tournament of Roses. There's nothing like a parade, and ours was (and still is) spectacular. People from back East are astonished to see so many flowers abloom in January. Believe me, the city fathers knew it, too, and did everything in their power to promote Pasadena's friendly weather conditions.
     Consumptive people, too, came to Pasadena, if they had money enough. There were two or three sanatoria in the area. I suppose that was a good selling point for our fair city, but knowing about those sick people, even if they were rich, struggling for the breath of life itself always made me sad.
     And several presidents have made trips here, too. Theodore Roosevelt, my personal favorite, stayed in Pasadena in 1903, so I don't remember his visit. Harrison, Taft, and Wilson also sojourned in the lovely city of roses.
     My family would have had no business being in Pasadena at all except that all those rich people needed poor people like us to work for them. Aunt Vi was Mrs. Kincaid's cook, my pa was a chauffeur to several rich millionaires in the moving pictures, Uncle Ernie ran the concession stand at the Annandale Golf Club, my mother was head bookkeeper at the Hotel Marengo, and Eula and my brother Walter worked at the Raymond Hotel.
     My sister Daphne and I went to school. Daphne cleaned houses for a couple of rich families in Altadena after school. I helped Daphne with that unpleasant task until Christmas Eve, 1910. After that seemingly trivial but eventually momentous date, I worked the Ouija Board and tried to learn everything I could about other forms of spiritualism.
     Even with the success of Christmas Eve, 1910, I guess I would have continued cleaning houses with Daphne and maintained the poor but proud Gumm tradition, except that Aunt Vi told Mrs. Kincaid about my so-called "gift." The "gift," according to her, was my ability to work the Ouija Board through a spiritual control. Mrs. Kincaid asked Aunt Vi to ask me to work at one of her big society parties, entertaining her rich society friends. She even offered to pay me. Sure as shooting, I wasn't going to turn down money for doing something as easy as manipulating the Ouija Board.
     The only problem was my name. As well as my appearance, come to think of it. A red-headed, blue-eyed, freckle-faced kid named Daisy Gumm didn't convey, to me, the appropriate image of a Gypsy fortune teller. At the time I thought all fortune tellers were Gypsies. So I had Aunt Vi tell Mrs. Kincaid my real name was Desdemona. When I was ten, I only thought the name sounded mystical and dramatic. I didn't know Desdemona was a world-famous murderer, or I might have adopted someone else's cognomen.
 
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