Pushcart XLIII: Victor LaValle, “Spectral Evidence” from Ploughshares #43:2

“They think I’m a fraud.”
“They think I’m a fraud.”
I like to repeat this to myself in the mirror before I go out and do my job. It might seem weird to say something cruel right before I perform, but I thrive on self-doubt. If I go out there feeling too confident, then I don’t work as hard. It’s easy to get lazy in this trade but I take the job seriously. For instance, the word psychic does not appear anywhere in the window of my storefront. I never say it to my visitors. I call what I do “communication.”

Homer’s Odyssey, written several hundred years before the Golden Age we associate with classical Athens, gives us a glimpse into the beliefs about the Underworld at that time: although a few were selected for particular punishment or honor, most departed souls went to a grey place of little activity or interest, just a bunch of shades milling around. Then again, some people don’t have to wait for the afterlife to experience this kind of meaninglessness.

Our narrator is a middle-aged psychic, or, as she prefers it, communicator with the dead, in New York City. She views her job as performance, which gives us the impression she doesn’t take it seriously. But as we get to know her better, we realize she now takes it very seriously: her own daughter Sonia committed suicide a year ago, and regularly calls to her across the divide with a single sentence: “It’s too dark in here.”

When a group of teenaged girls shows up at her shop, she’s a bit surprised, since most of her clients are far older. They ask silly questions. But it turns out Abby lost her mom six years earlier, and has a serious question: “Is there something… after all this?”, the question people have been asking since there were people. Our psychic isn’t really prepared for heavy-duty stuff like this; she’s all about the scarf and the delayed entrance and putting on a show, but she manages a little reassurance as Abby and her friends leave.

When, a week later, her father shows up, the psychic first thinks he’s trying to get her arrested for fraud. Turns out he, too, has something a lot more serious on his mind: Abby killed herself, and he’s trying to figure out why.

The parallels between the grieving parents are striking. They both fixate on a trinket left behind, some sentimental object that seems to symbolize the love that failed. For our psychic, it’s a broken wristwatch, the hands now lost (“time didn’t stop, it shattered”). For Dad, it’s a tiny keychain flashlight (“there’s a bit of fog on the inside of the protective glass, where the bulb is”). Both were gifts from parent to child. Both embody elements missing from the afterlife: time, and, if we believe Sonia’s voice, light.

My work changed after Sonia died. There is an afterlife and it’s worse than the world we live in. That’s what I know. I don’t understand why I kept the news to myself.
“It’s too dark in here.”
The kettle whistles in the other room but I can still hear my daughter. I suppose that will never stop. I make my tea, then I sit at the table and wait for visitors. From now on whoever comes to see me is going to hear the truth.

The turn of the story comes from the psychic’s recognition of the responsibility, rather than the entertainment value, of her occupation. Did her reassurance encourage Abby to join her mother? If she says the wrong thing, will Dad also die? Suddenly she’s no longer an entertainer; she’s got people’s lives in her hands. Now her scarf becomes another object that embodies emotion as she throws it in the trash.

In his post on the story, Jake Weber has a somewhat different view of the sentence the psychic keeps hearing, and of her plan to let people “hear the truth”.

But let’s change perspective on the story a bit. When I read a story where a dream, or a ghost, or a premonition, or any kind of supernatural force, I consider that it isn’t supernatural at all; all those things are generated by our neurons in our heads, or, in the case of fiction, the heads of the characters. They may be hallucinations, imaginings, subconscious perceptions of buried emotions, things of that nature. On both levels, it’s a story about the role of grief, but by making the voice calling “It’s too dark in here” part of the psychic’s natural mind, rather than something heard, it becomes something else. The afterlife becomes the life after for the survivors, and it is indeed different. The life after is indeed darker, a worse place, a place of self-recrimination and guilt and the constant “Why?”

And, since we’re dealing with fiction, we can step back a little further: it’s the mind of the writer, after all, who generated all of this.

I wonder if the Greek concept of the grey underworld of shades developed from the grey and aimless mourning of the bereaved in the wake of the death of loved ones, captured by tellers of tales and singers of mythical stories. Or perhaps from the grievings of the bards themselves.

2 responses to “Pushcart XLIII: Victor LaValle, “Spectral Evidence” from Ploughshares #43:2

  1. Interesting that you bring in the underworld of the Greeks. I guess it is pretty bleak, And the occasional hero when he visits goes in search of wisdom but he does not get all that much. I guess it is pretty dark in there. So I have been grieving both my brother and especially my mom, have written a whole series of stories dealing with the grief, where the mother is always actively involved in the life of the son on this side, being interested and interfering in the affairs of this world. I never even considered the possibility of aimless wandering in a dark place. If my mother were to say “it’s dark in here,” she would also say, “turn on some damn lights, and get a move on.” So I guess in my created world the dead are almost comic characters,keenly interested in the goings on here. They have remained very much themselves, just happen to be dead. I wonder how I came up with that. A more Jewish worldview perhaps, than this Greek one? Made me think anyway, so thanks again, Karen.

    • Interesting take – that’s why I like seeing different views of the same thing, we all see it a little differently, especially with something like the afterlife. I turned the afterlife into an invention of the living!

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