Hoffman, the Spiritualist

[img_assist|nid=912|title=Freaky Deaky by Clifford Ward ©2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=225]Hoffman’s wife, Tookie, died last week. She used to collect loose hair from her brush and comb then burn them in a glass ashtray: this isn’t related to her death, Tookie just had a ritual. She kept the glass ashtray on the porcelain toilet tank under a small Monet.

The bathroom still has a burnt hair stink. Hoffman is touching the ashes; he rubs them between his thumb and forefinger. They feel talcumy.

He once asked his wife why she did it, why she burned her hair. Tookie said she didn’t want people to steal her soul. Indians burned their hair, she said. They didn’t like people snapping their pictures, either. He told her she wasn’t an Indian.

Hoffman is holding a cardboard box filled with Tookie’s things. Her silver brush and comb set. Her plastic shower cap. Her pills and face creams and makeup. It’s her bathroom box. Hoffman also has a bedroom box and a hall closet box.

He killed his wife a week ago Thursday, or it feels like he killed her. They were married only four months. What can you do? He drove his new Jaguar XK into the iron gate of their Bensalem home at 78 m.p.h. They had been drinking martinis with a lemon twist. Tookie broke her neck. Her head plunged forward then snapped backward. Hoffman got a cut on his forehead and a cracked windshield.

Tookie had real looks, black hair, huge brown eyes. A sweetheart, too. He should have seen it coming. She would have been thirty-nine next week, two years younger than him.

What if I make the same promise as Houdini? She had said. When I die, I’ll come back. But instead of Halloween, it’ll be my birthday. She promised this on their honeymoon.

Hoffman first met his bride the night she came to his home with the Vanderlings from Bucks County and the Averys from Connecticut. She was there as a client, one of the hungry babies. This is what Hoffman calls his clients, hungry babies. They have that hungry baby desperation. They salivate to his every word. They hunger for someone or something on the other side to show him-her-it-self.

Clarice Vanderling wanted to know if her departed mother was finally at peace. If so, would she reveal the hiding place of her gold broach with the diamonds? Randolph Vanderling wanted his dead father to give him the okay to buy a new stock. The Averys had similar questions. Estelle Avery’s dead brother hadn’t divulged his Grand Cayman account number. Her husband, Sonny, needed to remind his Aunt Jillian how excluding him from her will was un-Christian and hurtful.

Then Hoffman turned to Tookie. What about you? he said.

I don’t remember my family, Tookie said. I’m not sure who’s dead or alive. I just want to know if there are other things to do after this. It doesn’t have to get better, only different.

On the afternoon of her thirty-ninth birthday, Hoffman goes to his library. It’s mostly brown leather and wood. Books fill the wall shelves. They have a faint mildew odor. Books are also stacked on the oak floor and the coffee table. A dozen track lamps mark the edges of the room in warm yellow light.

Hoffman is now seated at a large round table off to the left, his fingers tapping its green felt top. He is tall and slim and wears a dark suit and tie. Hoffman has the look of a concerned mortician.

His clients are the hungry babies, not him, never him. But tonight he may join the multitude. This thought brings a flush to his neck and cheeks. Wife or no, is he really waiting for a dead person?

Tookie is gone. Tookie is sealed in an 18 gauge A-line steel casket with swing bar hardware and premium white crepe interior. Hoffman paid $1,500.00 extra to have a lighthouse and an ocean airbrushed on the glossy pearl sides and top. Goldstein’s Funeral glued Tookie’s eyes shut and powdered her dead gray skin. Nobody is home. Everything inside the 18 gauge A-line steel casket is going to rot, even her bones. Good-bye and so long, my Tookie. Houdini won’t be stopping in to say hello. Dear Tookie won’t be doing that, either.

This isn’t what the hungry babies want to hear. This isn’t what Hoffman says to them. He didn’t buy his 9,000 square foot home in Bensalem and his Jaguar XK based on the truth as he sees it. His hungry babies aren’t paying top dollar to take a grim peek at Life and Death 101. They want life to have a purpose and suffering to have an end and a reward. Hoffman will always listen to the client’s question to understand how the client wants that question answered.

Is Auntie Polly there with Uncle Joe?

His arm is around her shoulder, Hoffman says. Auntie Polly has her head resting on Joe’s chest. She’s smiling at you and waving, Hoffman says. Can you see her? Close your eyes and see her. They talk about you constantly, did you know that? True as I’m here, Hoffman says. They are impressed with your generosity, your kindness. They like to discuss the sensitive way you treated them during their last days. At the convalescent center. At the hospice. At your house.

What is it like on the other side? Are there trees? Birds? Flowers?

That and more, Hoffman says.

Do they have pets? Dogs? Cats? Fish?

You can bet on it, Hoffman says. Dogs with big watery eyes and cats that curl up on your lap and stay there.

Are there individual homes? Condos? Semi-detached?

More choices than you can imagine, Hoffman says. Something for everyone.

Is there a wooded area with a stream? Uncle Joe loved to fish, they say. Are there bass in the stream? Salmon? Cod? Perch?

Let’s hope you put a fishing rod in Uncle Joe’s casket, Hoffman says.

Everybody laughs. Some of his clients are so relieved they weep.

But what about social activities? Auntie Polly was always a very social person, they say. Are there discussion groups?

Hoffman shuts his eyes.

No groups. No.

They’re dead. Joe and Polly and Tookie, all of them are dead.

His poor Tookie. What is he, a drunken animal? Hoffman’s elbows rest on the large round table. His fingertips press against his forehead. He begins sobbing. Then he uses a white handkerchief to blot the tears from the green felt.

Hoffman should have seen it coming. He is supposed to have a sixth sense about these things. It’s what he does for a living.

Hoffman’s father is a retired orthodontist who lives in West Philadelphia. The grandfather was David Douglas Hoffman. David Douglas was born in Cardiff, Wales.

His parents shipped him off to the mother’s sister in Philadelphia at the age of nine. The mother said her boy’s cradle would rock by itself. She said when David Douglas was four; he accurately predicted the death of a cousin.

The retired orthodontist didn’t understand his father. He can’t understand his son. This doesn’t stop Hoffman from visiting him on Tookie’s birthday.

You’re too thin, the father says. His name is Marv. He is inspecting his son over the rims of his tortoise shell reading glasses. When you’re mother died, may God rest her, I ate like a horse, Marv says. Cherry cheesecake. I ate half a cherry cheesecake a day.

Too much sugar, says Hoffman and makes a face.

What can you do? says the father.

Marv Hoffman has that refugee look. His brown and white striped flannel bathrobe is open at the neck and stops at the knee. It shows a white bony chest and thin white legs. A few long and obstinate strands of graying hair are combed over his freckled head.

Before Hoffman entered the living room, his father was reading the leisure section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper is now folded on his lap. Corked-tip cigarette butts fill the ashtray on the end table beside his chair. Along with stale cigarette smoke, the room has a bacon odor, maybe from breakfast, maybe a B.L.T. A brass floor lamp shines its light over the old man’s left shoulder.

I didn’t see it coming, Hoffman says. He slumps onto the beige feather-cushioned sofa across from his father. More stupid tears are coming, he can feel it. Hoffman says, we’d been drinking, Tookie and me. I was tipsy. I admit that, I take full blame. But we’d been tipsy before and nothing happened.

You had bad luck, says his father.

I want to hear her voice one more time, says Hoffman. I sound like my clients. But I want to know everything is all right.

She’s all right, says Marv. She’s dead. You and your grandfather, unbelievable.

What sort of business is dead people? It would be different if you buried them, that’s a nice dollar.

You don’t understand, Hoffman says. You never understood me. You don’t have a clue. For years I’ve wanted to tell my clients how it’s all crap. Everything. Heaven, hell, all of it.

[img_assist|nid=913|title=Yellow ‘Fro Dancer by Clifford Ward.|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=200]People want to feel someone powerful is watching out for their interest, his father says. They want protection. They’d also like to avoid the box.

That’s it, exactly, says Hoffman. But now I don’t know. I don’t want to think that way. About it being crap, I mean.

You don’t want Tookie to just rot in the box, the father says.

"I can’t bear the thought, Hoffman says. “ Especially today. It’s her birthday, for God-sake.

Marv is nodding and smiling and going uh-huh uh-huh under his breath. He drops the folded Inquirer on the pine wood floor. Marv re-crosses his thin white legs, tucking the hem of the brown and white striped bathrobe under his thigh. He lights himself a king-sized Kool. Smoke and the bacon odor mingle. His long fingers angle the cigarette pack and a yellow Bic lighter next to the ashtray.

You’re like me, says his father. He turns his head and exhales a line of smoke near his left shoulder. It becomes luminous gold under the glow of the floor lamp. His father says, The synagogue was for old farts and kids, that’s what I thought. You couldn’t pay me to go to synagogue. Marv stops and looks down at his cigarette. His fingers have a tremor. He says, Then my Ruthie passes. What can I do? I can’t shut her in a box and walk away. Who can do such a thing?

You got that right, says Hoffman.

His father taps the cigarette on the edge of the amber ashtray. I started going to Shul. Friday night services, his father tells Hoffman. I say a few prayers. I say, how you doing, Ruthie? How’s my sweet girl? I’m good. I hope you’re doing good. Marv’s voice becomes tight. He has to wait a second or two. Then he tells his son, I don’t say these things out loud, of course. I say them to myself. To her. Me and her, talking. Like it’s a phone conversation.

That’s a good idea, Hoffman says.

Not that good, his father says.

What can you do?

It’s late afternoon. Hoffman is on his way home. Even with the top down on the XK, he smells like cigarettes. Overhanging trees along the Schuylkill Expressway run shadows across the XK’s silver hood. The river is to his right, the sun low and reflecting an orange light on the water. A shell boat with a single oarsman keeps a smooth and even pace.

He will give Tookie’s clothes to the D.A.V., maybe the Salvation Army. Tookie has expensive taste. Had. She had expensive taste. Prada bags, some nice Versaces, a Rianne De Witte, nothing cheap. Somebody will be happy. Then Hoffman remembers the ashes from Tookie’s hair. The glass ashtray is still on the porcelain toilet tank. What’s he supposed to do? Does he flush her ashes down the toilet? Does he trap her soul if he stores the ashes in a baggie? He wishes he had Tookie’s advice.

He stops the XK for a red light. The car on his left is a maroon Dodge Caravan. The car to the right is a tan station wagon, maybe a Volvo, maybe a Mercury Sable. He isn’t that familiar with these types of cars. A phone has started ringing. Hoffman hears it but can’t grasp its exact direction. It’s a distant, muted ring. He glances at the woman in the Caravan. She’s thin with thick black glasses. She is staring straight ahead. An older man to his right has an unlighted cigar at the corner of his mouth. He is also watching the red light. Hoffman’s right hand sweeps the glove compartment then beneath his seat. What phone keeps ringing? An unexplainable panic is working him. Did he bring his cell phone? He must answer the phone now. Hoffman knows this better than he knows anything else. He must answer it this moment, or it will never ring again. Ron Savage lived in the Chestnut Hill area of Philly and went to Leeds Junior High and Germantown. He has worked for 27 years as a Senior Psychologist at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia. His work has appeared in numerous journals.

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