19 October 2013

Ghoulies and Ghosties and Hard-Frosted Chocolate and Notes that Go Bump in the Night


Given this month's theme, “Digging up Bones: Releasing our Ghosts through Writing,” I bet you expected me to write something scary.  The thing is, most ghosts aren’t.  Half the time we don’t even know they’re there.  We might not even recognize them as ghosts at all, yet they haunt us just the same.

Long-time readers have heard about the horror that was my mom’s cooking. Long story short: terrific mother, terrifying cook. She imploded turkeys and vaporized whole rib racks.  So you can imagine the panic which overtook me the first time my first grade teacher Sister Mary Josephine sent me home with a note demanding Mom propitiate the God of Bake Sales with a homemade offering. 

“No commercial substitutes.  No making it on your own and passing it off as your mother’s, either.”  Sister Mary Josephine’s gimlet gaze drilled through me like something out of the Black and Decker catalogue.  “HE will know—and so.  Will.  I.”

With the greatest misgivings, I gave the note to Mom.  In response, she produced what many consider her (ahem) masterpiece: an entire lunar landscape composed of chocolate cake product.  It’s a pity the camera broke when I tried to take a picture.  I’m pretty sure it was a scale model of the Sea of Tranquility, down to the chalky ridges, cracks and impact craters, but lacking a photo I have no proof. 

Then she frosted it.  Sort of.  She called it “a glaze”.  I think she invented a new kind of polymer, because it proved impervious to any and all knives available to the nuns and their bake sale customers.  Bullets would've bounced off that thing. 

But not off me.

Sister Mary Josephine went after me with a ruler.  She called me a liar and a cheat, and wrote an outraged note to my parents about my heinous deceit—a note which caused no end of confusion back home, because my dad had driven me to school that day and personally witnessed the hand-off to Sister Mary Josephine. 

Ultimately, though, my parents shrugged off the incident, ascribing it to the arcane mental processes of people who dress in wimples and kirtles for a living.  They expected me to do likewise.  I didn’t have that luxury.  We’d been warned to expect a bake sale every quarter, and the days to the next one were growing short.

By the time I got that second bake sale order, I knew I couldn’t be the honest, truthful, upstanding daughter my parents tried to raise.  I had to save myself.  So I hid the note and told Mom I volunteered to bake a birthday cake for a friend in class.  Mom was a little surprised Sister Mary Josephine would indulge in something as ordinary as a classmate’s birthday.  But Dad sometimes bought cake for the office, so she didn’t question me too closely.

I got out the cake mix, followed the instructions, allowed Mom (under strict supervision) to place it into the oven and retrieve it at the designated time.  Then I watched the clock until I could turn it out of the pan and apply the frosting I’d likewise made from a box with instructions on the side.

Sister Mary Josephine’s reaction?  “Isn’t it so much better when you do what you’re told and don’t lie?”

The truth?  I consider it a miracle I ever do anything I’m told and tell the truth more often than not. 

That’s probably my parents’ influence.  Eighteen years (fourteen, actually—I started cooking early in self-defense) of intermittent food poisoning is a small price to pay for parents who always played fair.  I’d hate to disappoint them, even now.

But that incident haunts me.  I learned that day that people see and believe what they expect.  Too often, they’re not interested in the truth.  That goes double for truths which challenge their world view—“truths” like all women cook and all men are good with tools. 

Yeah.  Right.  My dad, albeit a great father and stand-up military officer, was to home repair what my mother was to cooking: an apocalypse on legs.  He once broke a wall trying to hang a picture.  He called the base quartermaster (the military officer in charge of base housing, furnishings and supplies) to change the light bulb on his desk lamp—and the quartermaster sent someone immediately!  Everybody agreed it was safer that way.  The toaster meltdowns and deep fryer incident were not to be spoken of in polite company.

The other eye opener was that nobody has any special gifts with respect to any truth.  Sister Mary Josephine thought she had a direct line to a higher power, but that didn’t mean squat when it came to perceiving reality on the material plane.  I also realized age was no guarantee of understanding.  None of the grown-ups in this tale had a clue about what was really happening on either side of the bake sale divide.

I’m convinced that’s why I ultimately made my way to a career in public relations.  Thanks to two very different homemade cakes, I learned at age six that it’s all about the spin.

That knowledge permeates everything I write.  You can see it in the way I present my facts in my nonfiction.  In my fiction, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.  Power and agency are fluid, and the person who appears the most inconsequential is probably the one you need to worry about.  It’s all about masks, disguises, veils, shrouds, secret identities and sleight of hand.  Still waters may run deep, but you’ve got to watch out for what’s under the rapids, too.

It’s a very noir sensibility, which probably explains why some editors consider my fiction dark.  To me it isn’t dark without severed body parts.  But hey, if it earns me a place in Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” showcase, I’ll take it.  And it did.  My flash fiction, “District Confidential”, will be published some Monday early next year.

There’s no baking involved.  But there is a lime, a knife, and the people who think they know what’s going on don’t.  That’s my thing.

Thank you, Sister Mary Josephine.

Speaking of haunts, later this month Beyond the Veil will have a treat for you.  Gail Z. Martin, bestselling author of the Chronicles of the Necromancer and Ascendant Kingdoms, will be giving you her take on writing haunts on October 29.  You want to mark your calendars.  You really do.  See you then!
 
Jean Marie Ward
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