We, my extended family, lost our bungalows to a storm named Sandy, one knocked on its side off its cement blocks, one vanished, not a board, not a shingle left; it was raptured. We called them bungalows, the Big and the Little. My grandfather, an immigrant from Barbados, built the bungalows in the 1920s. The bungalows yawed, had rough floors, little electricity; my grandfather was no builder.
The Little Bungalow had two small bedrooms and a bathroom we put in when I was a child, the latter a luxury for us, as it had hot water. The other cottage had the galley kitchen that held one to two people at a time, a table to eat at, a toilet and more bedrooms. We heated water on the stove for washing dishes.
The bungalows sat across the street from Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, a body of water about as loveable as the bungalows, murky with inches of seaweed at the bottom hiding blue-claw crabs, which bubbled slowly from the shells beneath their eyes.
My family was haunted by a spirit named Simon. He spoke through a table that was painted gray-blue over layers of other colors—bumpy with my family’s decorating ideas—and I slept with the table next to me, in a back bedroom with two sets of bunk beds. Three younger cousins slept with me.
Simon had been raised decades before, by my mother and her mother and her sisters. They did not do this any longer, never in my lifetime, for reasons my mother would not explain. It may have been like my grandmother’s reading of tea leaves; she stopped, my mother told me: she saw too many deaths. Simon and his table had gone back to being furniture.
My grandmother called contacting the spirits table tipping, because the table tipped around, and it knocked. Simon knocked to answer questions, two knocks for no, one for yes. Simon, my mother told me, gave the cottages their name when she was a girl: Journey’s End. For that question they used a Ouija board, as they sometimes did. My grandmother called all of this being metaphysical. My grandfather’s mother, from Barbados, had also been metaphysical; she had prophetic dreams. My Portuguese Jewish ancestors, the women, appeared to her: they told her when she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, my grandfather; they told her what to name him, Louis. I don’t know what else they told her about him, maybe something, as she abandoned him when he was young.
My mother never said what they actually asked Simon, besides what to name the houses. Things, she said, you know, when I asked. What would children ask a spirit? Who will I love, how will we die? Maybe they knew the youngest would die first, maybe my mother knew how much of her life would consist of sad substitutions, starting with the man she loved who was killed in the Second World War, and then the man she married instead. Maybe, rather than the bruised and fearful woman she seems to be, she’s braver than I could imagine.
No one predicted the end of this place. The cottages had outlived their builders; they outlived two of the first four children to spend summers there—my aunts Kathleen and Mildred, my mother’s sisters. They outlived one grandchild—my little cousin Melinda, who slept in the bunk bed room with me—and one grandchild’s wife. My aunt Kathleen killed herself a decade ago. Melinda and then her mother Mildred died just a few months before Sandy. The cottages did not outlive my mother, but they outlived her mind.
Sandy took Simon, or she took the table, where he lived. It was a small side table, two foot square, and why my grandmother and her daughters chose it for their table tipping I don’t know, except that maybe my grandmother sensed Simon was in there. The bay lapped Simon from his place by my bed; he’s tipping now, no no no no no far out to sea, something resembling a boat, a prophet cursed to babble till the end of days.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s most recent book, Make Me a Mother, a memoir and study of adoption, was published by W.W. Norton. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, a Pushcart prize, and others. She is also coauthor of Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Orion, Seneca Review and many anthologies, including Short Takes and Lyric Postmodernisms. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband and son. Her website is www.suzannepaola.com.