A LATE-SUMMER EVENING
In a town house at a fashionable address on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, every lamp blazes. There’s a party going on—the last of the summer. Out on the terrace overlooking Manhattan’s incandescent skyline, the orchestra takes a much-needed break. It’s ten thirty. The party has been on since eight o’clock, and already the guests are bored. Fashionable debutantes in pastel chiffon party dresses wilt into leather club chairs like frosted petits fours melting under the July sun. A cocky Princeton sophomore wants his friends to head down to Greenwich Village with him, to a speakeasy he heard about from a friend of a friend.
The hostess, a pretty and spoiled young thing, notes her guests’ restlessness with a sense of alarm. It is her eighteenth birthday, and if she doesn’t do something to raise this party from the dead, it will be the talk for days to come that her gathering was as dull as a church social.
Raising from the dead.
The weekend before, she’d been forced to go antiquing upstate with her mother—an absolutely hideous chore, until they came upon an old Ouija board. Ouija boards are all the rage; psychics have claimed to receive messages and warnings from the other side using Mr. Fuld’s “talking board.” The antiques dealer fed her mother a line about how it had come to him under mysterious circumstances.
“They say it’s still haunted by restless spirits. But perhaps you and your sister could tame it?” he’d said with over-the-top flattery; naturally, her mother lapped it up, which resulted in her paying too much for the thing. Well, she’d make her mother’s mistake pay off for her now.
The hostess races for the hall closet and signals to the maid. “Do be a darling and get that down for me.”
The maid retrieves the board with a shake of her head. “You oughtn’t to be messing with this board, Miss.”
“Don’t be silly. That’s primitive.”
With a zippy twirl worthy of Clara Bow, the hostess bursts into the formal living room holding the Ouija board. “Who wants to commune with the spirits?” She giggles to show that she doesn’t take it seriously in the least. After all, she’s a thoroughly modern girl—a flapper, through and through.
The wilted girls spring up from their club chairs. “What’ve you got there? Is that a wee-gee board?” one of them asks.
“Isn’t it darling? Mother bought it for me. It’s supposed to be haunted,” the hostess says and laughs. “Well, I don’t believe that, naturally.” The hostess places the heart-shaped planchette in the middle of the board. “Let’s conjure up some fun, shall we?”
Everyone gathers ’round. George angles himself into the spot beside her. He’s a Yale man and a junior. Many nights, she’s lain awake in her bedroom, imagining her future with him. “Who wants to start?” she asks, positioning her fingers close to his.
“I will,” a boy in a ridiculous fez announces. She can’t remember his name, but she’s heard he has a habit of inviting girls into his rumble seat for a petting party. He closes his eyes and places his fingers on the scryer. “A question for the ages: Is the lady to my right madly in love with me?”
The girls squeal and the boys laugh as the planchette slowly spells out Y-E-S.
“Liar!” the lady in question scolds the heart-shaped scrying piece with its clear glass oracle.
“Don’t fight it, darling. I could be yours on the cheap,” the boy says.
Now spirits are high; the questions grow bolder. They’re drunk on gin and good times and the silly distraction of the fortune-telling. Every mornin’, every evenin’, ain’t we got fun?
“Say, let’s summon a real spirit,” George challenges.
A knot of excitement and unease twists in the hostess’s gut. The antiques dealer had cautioned against doing just this. He warned that spirits called forth must also be put back to rest by breaking the connection, saying good-bye. But he was out to make a buck with a story, and besides, it’s 1926—who believes in haunts and hobgoblins when there are motorcars and aeroplanes and the Cotton Club and men like Jake Marlowe making America first through industry?
“Don’t tell me you’re scared.” George smirks. He has a cruel mouth. It makes him all the more desirable.
“Scared of what?”
“That we’ll run out of gin!” the boy in the fez jokes, and everyone laughs.
George whispers low in her ear, “I’ll keep you safe.” His hand is on her back.
Oh, surely this is the most glorious night in existence!