New Medium

Gordon isn’t haunting the house so much as he’s haunting the realtors trying to sell it.

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The medium hadn’t offered Lee a first name.

She was only listed as Madam Livingstone on both her business card and website, and she had jumped into the séance almost as soon as she sat down. So now, it felt too late to ask.

Lee and the madam sat across from each other at a large, round wooden table in the breakfast nook of his childhood home — his house, now — in New Jersey.

The outcome of today’s meeting would determine whether he could sell it for millions or if he’d have to tear it down and sell the land.

Lee looked at the wooden archway that led to the room, noting a deep scratch in the wood that had been covered, with less than considerable skill, with wood stain. Damned realtors. Lee fought the urge to get up and inspect the damage. They go moving through the house like a herd of elephants without any consideration for —

Lee peered closer at the scratch, noting the writing beneath it. “Lee Sachs. Aged 9.”

Lee smiled at the memory of his mother taking measure of his height. He looked up at the arch and saw more familiar scratches, also stained over, with his height at 10, 11, and 12 — the last time he was willing to submit to an activity he saw as juvenile.

Lee turned back to the medium, who had taken a deep, theatrical inhalation of breath.

“I sense a spirit with us today,” she spoke in a sing-song voice that was, Lee thought, the sole domain of mediums in black-and-white movies and ’80s sitcoms. “Please spirit … please …” she continued, then broke character as she turned toward Lee. “What was your father’s name again?”

“Gordon.”

“Please, Gordon,” she said, back to her mystical undulating tone, “if you are with us, move this cup, using it as a … huh.”

She sat transfixed as the upside-down coffee cup sitting on the table moved slowly, as if by its own volition, past her left hand and away from the tablet of letters and symbols that lay before her on the table.

“Oh, well, would you look at that,” she said. “It’s moving all on its own.”

“Hey,” Lee said, pointing at the cup now out of his reach. “Hey. Hey! Stop that.”

Madam Livingstone looked up in surprise. “Are you talking to — ?”

At that moment, the coffee cup made its way off the side of the table and onto the floor, shattering.

“Sorry,” she said.

“What are you?” Lee spoke to the ceiling in annoyance. “A housecat?”

“That was … extraordinary.”

Lee met her seemingly shocked expression with a cocked eyebrow. This is the last time I order a medium off the internet.

“So, you say he’s been haunting this house — ”

“Since he died two months ago, yes.”

“ — and exerting an evil influence on the general …” She made a non-specific gesture around the room. “… environment?”

“Uh. Well, no. Not evil, exactly. Not even so much as negative, most of the time,” Lee said. “It’s just creepy — things moving from where I left them.”

“Of course.”

“ — and there’s an issue of privacy if there’s an invisible ghost walking around.”

“Yes. Yes. I see.” The medium nodded slowly. “But nothing overtly negative?”

“He is not stepping out of TV screens or tearing the heads off dolls, no,” Lee said. “Not for me, anyway. Now, the realtor — that’s a different story.”

Lee loved the house, but he wasn’t ready to move away from Brooklyn with his family, and he simply couldn’t turn down the money. The proceeds of a sale would probably eliminate the outstanding mortgage on the small Park Slope two-bedroom he and his wife Jean were living in with their three children, fund their retirement, and cover the college education of their kids.

Unfortunately, the sale wasn’t a foregone conclusion; he had lost two separate realtors since he’d begun the process.

Lee had taken the day off to meet with the medium at the house. He had a feeling that the property would be tainted if he lost a third realtor or if the ghost scared away potential buyers intrepid enough to enter the premises on their own.

“Hmm.” The medium nodded as if she had heard this story before.

“The rotating cameras for the three-dimensional walkthroughs kept getting knocked off their tripods. Then, the first realtor had repeated hallucinations — ”

“Visions,” she said.

“Hallucinations of a fire — ”

“A witch,” Livingstone said gravely. “Burned at the stake.”

“No. It was the ceiling of the living room that was burning,” Lee said. “And, before he quit, the second realtor saw a river of — ”

“A river of blood?” she covered her mouth.

“A river of paint thinner, filling up the basement and causing all the paint to come off the walls.”

“Hmm. Strange,” the medium said, unfazed. “Well, you came to the right place. Now, just so I know what we’re dealing with, have you already attempted to purify the house?”

“Yes. I did the whole sage thing — ” Lee raised his hand and rotated it in tight circles, dispersing imaginary smoke.

“Yourself, eh?” The medium chuckled. “Used a YouTube video for that, did you?”

“Yeah,” Lee said, embarrassed. “Then, I brought in a Wiccan — ”

“They’re phonies, you know,” she said, creating a steeple with her fingers. “All of them.”

“Really!” Lee said, unsure if he had successfully tamped the sarcasm in his voice.

“And that’s when you called me?”

“Then, an exorcist,” Lee said.

“Catholic, Jewish, or — ”

“Well, we’re Jewish, so — ”

“It’s fine,” she said. “Those rabbis are heavy hitters. Nothing a demon hates more than someone who doesn’t believe in them. Still, for a ghost — your father — perhaps not as effective. He’s still here, I take it?”

“He wasn’t able to make direct contact, but the rabbi informed me that my father is dealing with some unresolved issues.”

They looked at each other for a moment and then chuckled.

“A dead Jewish parent with unresolved issues. Well, that’s helpful,” she said. “How much did that cost you?”

“Right? If every Jewish parent with unresolved issues ended up haunting their children …”

Lee stopped suddenly. Christ… Lee brought his hand to his mouth as he made a terrible surmise. Maybe they do!

“I suppose you would bring in those Buddhist exorcists for when you have really tranquil, well-adjusted ghosts,” Livingstone continued, not noticing the change that had come over her client. “They’re like the Maytag Repair Men of the exorcism world.”

The medium smacked the tabletop lightly, all business now. “Anyway, the big question here is, did he have any final requests or directives for you before he died?”

Lee nodded. “Yes. On his deathbed, he asked me to repair my relationship with his sister.”

“Ahh,” she shook a finger. “Okay. So, that’s good. Now we know what is keeping him here. So, what’s the problem? You go visit her, and then — ”

“I already visit her,” Lee said. “He wanted me to spend time with her every day.”

“Ouch.”

“She lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side.”

“That’s a tough commute.” The medium nodded.

“And, worst of all, she’s terrible.”

“Surely — ” Madame Livingstone paused. “I mean, if your father wanted you to repair a relationship — ”

“When I first moved back to New York after college, I used to take her out for lunch every two weeks,” Lee said. “My parents warned me if I got too close, she would ruin my life.”

“Ah, so you were the good nephew, and you built a strong relationship there, and it sounds like your father is feeling guilt that he himself — ”

What is she? A psychologist now?

“They were right. She ruined my life,” Lee said. “She got into a fight with me because she would call and want to talk for two hours every day. And when I asked her to stop, she called up my boss to tell him to fire me … which he did not, but he assumed that I was crazy or that I was abusing her or something. Anyway, that whole incident set my career back years.”

The medium said nothing.

“Well, clearly, your father realized that she doesn’t have much time left. Maybe if you made one final effort — ”

“She never exercises, but she’s perfectly healthy,” Lee said. “She’s twelve years younger than my father, and he lived to be 95.”

“Hmm.” she rubbed her chin. “Well, if you really feel like you can’t fulfill his wishes, it sounds like you need to communicate with your father and see if you can convince him to change his mind.”

“Yeah, I was thinking about hiring a medium,” Lee said, drumming his fingers on the table. He gave Madam Livingstone a meaningful glance.

“Oh. Yes.” She smiled. “Of course.”

“So, what do you recommend?”

The medium was silent for a moment, then looked up at Lee with what seemed to be a questioning look. “Well, normally I use the board and the cup, but his presence is so strong in this place, I could try to channel him directly …”

Lee said nothing, waiting for her to finish her thought.

“Yes,” she said, with certainty now. “I will channel him directly.”

She extended her hands and started to flutter them in the air. “Gordon … I reach out to you — ”

The medium’s voice was cut off by a sudden, choking sound. Her head snapped back, and her body became rigid. Then she gasped, taking a series of shallow breaths.

Finally, she seemed to calm herself and relax.

“Where did you find this one?” She spoke now in a voice that seemed more brusque and masculine. “You didn’t hire her off the internet, did you?”

The voice of Gordon Sachs.

Former attorney. Scratch golfer well into his 80s.

Dad.

“Well, I had worked through my entire bench of spiritualists and mediums on the last few seances,” Lee said. “Anyway, she’s doing a pretty good job of channeling you right now.”

“Any idiot off the street can channel a ghost who wants to be channeled,” Gordon said in a tone that suggested this was common knowledge. “You should thank your lucky stars that I’m a really kind spirit, or where would you be?”

“In Brooklyn,” Lee said quietly.

“Now, what you should have done was reach out to my friend Max,” Gordon’s voice came freely now and, if Lee squinted, he could almost see his father’s ready smile and slightly disapproving expression playing across her face.

“Max Lieberman or Max Chernov?”

“Max Chernov,” Gordon said. “Don’t get me started on Lieberman. He’s a crook.”

“Chernov is dead, Dad,” Lee said. “He died four years ago. I went to his funeral.”

“Yes!” Gordon said, clapping Livingstone’s hands together to emphasize this point. “That is why you should have asked him. He’s a difficult, exacting entity. But he always liked talking to you. And who better than a dead person to recommend a good medium?”

“And how was … how was I supposed to reach him …?” Lee threw his hands up in exasperation. “Look, you know what? Forget it. Let’s talk about why you’re haunting me.”

“I’m not … haunting you,” Gordon said. “It’s not like I’m dragging around chains and moaning like Jacob Marley, am I?”

Lee said nothing.

“From Dickens’ Christmas Carol.”

“Yes, I got the reference, Dad. But what about the real estate agents? Those poor agents.”

Did you see what they did to the living room?” Gordon’s voice emanating from Madam Livingstone was so loud and so angry, Lee involuntarily moved his chair back from the table a few inches.

“Do you mean the brochures?” Lee asked. “The sales brochures from the real estate agent?”

“They have pictures. They painted over the ceiling beams in the dining room,” Gordon brought Livingstone’s hand down on the table, hard. “That is solid hardwood that is hundreds of years old. Why on Earth would you paint that over?”

He has a point. Lee had also been put off by the A.I.-generated re-rendering of this stately home, which had digitally painted over the real-world accents with garish colors.

“Dad — ”

“And the basement,” Gordon huffed, via the medium. “They’ve painted it black and yellow! It’s revolting.”

“Dad!” Lee raised his voice now. “Those are just computer-generated pictures to show what the new owners could do with the property. Those aren’t real.”

The medium, channeling Gordon, looked thoughtful for a moment, then assumed a look of righteous indignation once more.

“Do you want someone living in the house you grew up in who was enticed into the purchase by a realtor selling painted-over hardwood and a cellar with a black-and-yellow color scheme?” Gordon asked. “Those realtors were lucky I didn’t throw them down the stairs.”

Okay, so this is about the house?” Lee looked around at the house, with its wooden floors made of broad beams of real chestnut and the precision stonework of the floor in the room beyond. The house seemed strange when devoid of people and most of the furnishings, like a beautiful mouth missing most of its teeth.

“I can understand that, Dad,” Lee said. “This is a beautiful home. There was lots of love that went into the house. And lots of love that’s happened in it, too.”

“No,” Gordon said, calming himself down. “I’m dead. What do I care what happens to the house? Keep it. Sell it. I don’t need it.”

Lee’s mouth dropped open, and he paused for a few moments to collect himself. “Well, I’m going to have to tear it down if you keep terrifying the realtors.”

“That seems extreme,” Gordon said. “Although, it’s probably better to burn the place down than paint over …”

Lee covered his eyes and sighed.

“Metaphorically speaking, of course,” Gordon finished.

“Hmm,” Lee looked up. “So, what are you doing here?”

Now, it was Gordon — that is, Madam Livingstone — who said nothing.

“Look, I’m glad to, uh,” Lee wasn’t sure what the correct word was to describe this interaction. “I’m glad to see you. To have a chance to talk to you. I miss you. But, you know this is not right.”

Lee waited for a reply, but the Gordon-possessed Livingstone remained silent.

“Is this about your sister? I mean, where does this deathbed request with your sister come from anyway?” Lee let go of an exasperated breath. “You never wanted me to have a relationship with her when you were well enough to see her, but now, suddenly …”

“My sister?” said Gordon. “Oh — she’s crazy.”

“What?”

“Yes. She’s an awful, awful woman,” Gordon said.

“Wait … what?”

“So, part of me really wants you to do what I asked.” Livingstone brought up a clenched fist and extended a finger, pointing hard at Lee to emphasize this point. Then, she lowered her hand slowly to the table, all the tension in her arm relaxing as she exhaled. “But it seems a bit unreasonable. So, I understand if you don’t want to.”

Lee started shaking his head, but the shakes were so quick and shallow that it was more like he was vibrating.

“Then … then … why would you — ”

“I gave you a dying request that was functionally possible but extremely unpleasant to fulfill,” said Gordon. “And, yes, I would have loved for you to have worked things out with her. To assuage my own guilt.”

“So, you knew it wasn’t a fair ask, even when you were dying?”

“Ah, but that’s the beauty of it,” Livingstone leaned back in her chair, grinning the way Gordon did when he was feeling very clever. “You see, I figured that there was a good chance that, one, you would not do it, and, ergo, two, I would still be tied to the Earth and have a chance to — ”

“But why would you want to do that?”

“When you die, you don’t know what comes next,” Gordon said, shrugging Livingstone’s shoulders. “Not really. Even now. Even for me. I know I have to move on. But, I mean, maybe I wake up, and I’m a 12-year-old Hindu boy — ”

“Well, you would probably be a Hindu baby — ”

“Or, maybe…” Gordon continued. “Perhaps there’s nothing. Perhaps what comes next is just nothing.”

Lee considered reaching out and putting a hand on Livingstone’s shoulder. The risk of losing friends, family, identity… everything. Of course, that’s terrifying. For him and me. For everyone.

“And you have … ” Lee struggled with the right words, “… ghost friends, here? People like Max Chernov?”

“Eh, I wouldn’t say we were friends.”

“You actually said he was your friend earlier,” Lee said.

“We used to play squash together 30 years ago, but it was mostly because your mother was friends with his wife,” Gordon said. “Like I said, he’s a difficult entity — ”

“And what about Mom,” Lee asked. “Is she still here?”

“No,” Gordon said firmly. “She’s gone to whatever comes next.”

“And don’t you want to …?” Lee was uncertain about whether to continue, so he let the question trail off. The relationship between his parents had been strained in the years before his mother died. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

“Yeah,” Gordon said, stretching out the word and adopting an upward inflection that made the response sound more like a question. Then, more firmly, “Yes, of course I want the chance to be reunited with her.”

“Okay then,” Lee said. “But you’re scared, is that it?”

“Not just about what comes next,” Gordon said. “I’m also scared about you.”

“What do you have to be scared about, Dad?” Lee said. “I’m fine. Wait … am I fine?”

“You’re going to die,” Gordon said. “In about 50 or 60 years. You’ve got my genes. I mean, what do I know? I’m a ghost, not a doctor.”

“Well, that’s depressing,” Lee quipped. “And it will be difficult to tell Jean. I suppose she’ll just have to find a way to make me as comfortable as possible in the short time I have left.”

“A father always worries about his son, but I figure I taught you some sense before I died. You have what you need to navigate this world without me,” he said. “But keep in mind that I’m only half of this equation. You need to want to connect with the spirits for me to be here. You need to want to connect with me.”

“Wait,” Lee said. “What?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to come back here unless you had some business with me also.”

“Maybe you’re not the one with unresolved issues around selling the house,” Lee felt growing disgust about the prospect of some well-heeled corporate lawyer or pharma executive pulling up the chestnut floors and painting over beams in his parents’ … his home. “Maybe it’s me.”

“Now, that is an interesting thought,” Gordon said. “I suppose it’s possible. I don’t really know how this transitional afterlife works. You should really speak to a good medium. Anyway, what I will say is that talking to you has clarified things for me. Like, maybe I’m ready to move on.”

“Move on …”

“To whatever comes next.”

Lee and his father — Madam Livingstone — looked into each other’s eyes, smiling.

“Well, since this might be your last time in a human body here on Earth, we should celebrate. Let’s have a drink together,” Lee said. “One last time. I saw that there was still half a bottle of the Van Winkle I bought you for your 90th.”

“You always used to joke that I drank away the family fortune, but then I made the mistake of looking up the price of that bottle on the internet.”

“I think it’s up to $3,000 now,” Lee said.

“You should save it for a special occasion,” Gordon said.

“Special occasion?” Lee coughed. “Wouldn’t you say that coming back from the dead is — ?”

“You know, as long as I don’t have to worry about my blood pressure, I’d like some coffee,” Gordon said. “From that wonderful espresso maker you bought me.”

“The one you never used.”

“Eh — it’s too complicated. And your mother said the caffeine wasn’t good for me.”

“That’s fine.” Lee got up from the breakfast table. “It’s a little early in the day for bourbon anyway.”

Lee went into the kitchen and powered up the coffee machine. He then pushed the portafilter into the grinder to dispense a perfectly measured, fresh shot. “Do you want cappuccino or espresso, Dad?”

There was no response.

“Dad?” Lee headed back into the breakfast room and saw the medium, looking confused and scratching her head.

“What happened,” she asked. “Were you able to resolve your issues with your father?”

Lee looked at her and saw that there was no trace of his father’s smile. He felt a moment of relief. Then surprise when he started to cry.

“He’s gone,” Lee said, hot tears running down his cheeks. “I think he’s gone.”

The medium looked at him for a moment in sympathy. Then she got up and — after awkwardly extending her arm to its full length — half-patted, half-swatted him on the arm.

“There, there,” she said.

Lee embraced her suddenly, weeping into her shoulder. “I’ve lost him forever, Madam Livingstone.”

“There … uh … there,” she said, less emphatically this time. After a moment, she pushed him firmly away. “Please, call me Barbara. And you haven’t lost him. All of the lessons, all of the values, all of those memories. They are always with you.”

Maybe she’s not a terrible psychologist.

“Anyway, listen. We should wrap things up here, and then, you need to get out of this house as soon as possible and never come back.”

“Why?”

“Once a spirit makes a connection with a person in a set location, like a house, the three are linked. When the spirit moves on, it creates a vacuum, and if you stick around, another spirit can come and fill it. To put it in real estate terms, it’s like an open house for ghosts. Some ghosts are good, but a lot of them are bad. It’s not a big deal since you were planning on selling the place anyway …”

“Actually,” Lee said, nodding slowly, “I was thinking that maybe I would keep it and bring my family here. Is that still possible?”

Barbara Livingstone exhaled heavily. “You can exorcise whatever spirit comes next if you decide to stay. But it will take an extremely skilled medium,” she said, her voice taking on what sounded like an excited tone. “But, in that case, it is a very complicated ritual. One that takes great skill … and great care. And, obviously —” she chuckled “ — it’s much more expensive.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” said Lee, wiping away the tears.

“So, if we’re all done for today, I’d suggest that we — ”

“Before we wrap up, there’s one more person I need you to connect me with,” said Lee. “A troubled, difficult entity named Max Chernov.”

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Comments

  1. A really well written, enjoyable story, David! I love how you blended humor with the serious here. It seemed Lee had actually channeled his father through Barbara. Some people would say it was b.s. nonsense even if they had been there also to witness it. Oh well. Remember, Lee was understandably skeptical at first himself.

    Gordon’s comments were very entertaining. I pictured Carl Reiner as Gordon while reading it. Not immediately, but fairly early on. I think Lee’s going to stay in the house after all, and keep Barbara on retainer as needed. Definitely.

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