The Exorcism

Issue 27 by Willow Barnosky

The Exorcism

So there was a man named Ed, and I really liked him at first. I thought he had an interesting life story, although I didn’t know all the details. I knew all that I cared to know, all of the essentials, but when I tried to tell other people about Ed, they had the tiresome tendency to ask for more information: “Oh, but how’d he meet his wife?” or “Why doesn’t he have any children?” or, even more exasperatingly, “What kind of car does he drive?” So I tried to get to know him better to fill in the blanks because one does succumb to peer pressure, no? And it must be true that familiarity breeds contempt, because after a while I started to hate Ed.

Ed was a good man. In a good man, the flaws are easy to see and difficult to tolerate. Because we are so argumentative, we humans, we always jump to point out that one contradictory bit of evidence. Even a relatively minor flaw can make us forget a lifetime of good intentions, just as when we know someone is bad, truly bad, we scramble to find one redeeming quality. We say, “He cuts the crusts off his daughter’s sandwiches; therefore, he can’t be bad,” or some other similarly ridiculous statement. That was my problem with Ed: I grew impatient with his earnestness and his unflagging loyalty, and I saw his weaknesses in sharper relief against the background of such consistent goodness. But all that came later, because at first, I found him fascinating. Before I knew too much.

So as I spent time with Ed, this is what I learned: he came from a hard family. His mother, silent and stern-mouthed, worked day and night doing the neighborhood’s laundry, while his father drank on the couch, reeking of urine, flinging curses at Ed and his older brothers when they ran past him.

But Ed’s real story started when his sister, Helen, was born. Ed was only seven, but he knew from the books he read at school that his family was not how families were supposed to be. When he looked down at baby Helen’s smooth unbruised skin and perfect tiny hands, he knew that she was a gift to the family, a new chance for the family to redeem themselves. He knew, though, when his father shouted, “It’s not mine!” when he saw the baby, that his family would not change and that it was up to him to look out for Helen and make sure that dark family didn’t ruin her. He promised himself that he would help her. No, more than that: he promised her that he would save her.

I saw Ed’s desk—he’s a literature professor—and there are two photos on it: one of his wife and one of him and Helen. Of the two, the larger and more ornate frame belongs to the picture of him and his sister, so you can see how much Ed cared about her. In the picture, he looks about fourteen, staring at the camera with a teenager’s false bravado, and Helen is standing behind him, clinging to his leg, only her head peeking out, like he is protecting her from something or someone.

As Helen grew up, Ed got her away from the house whenever he could. In the forest at the end of the street, he showed her the spot where the dark trees opened to a secret glade. He taught her how to whistle with a piece of grass, how to catch a grasshopper without hurting it, and how to identify which berries were safe to eat. Alone in the woods, far from their father’s shouts, they could pretend to be happy children enjoying a normal rural childhood.

When their brothers made her cry, he comforted her and distracted her by talking about the future, when they would live far away in a city with friendly people, with their own happy families, and their careers: he as a professor and she as a dancer.

Ed and Helen grew up, and he got a job in a lumber yard, saved money and bought his mother a modern washing machine. He did so well in school that he got a full scholarship to college and became one of those successful people held up as an example by those who don’t want to give more money to poor schools (“Well look at Ed Glova—he went to a school without teacher’s aides or computers and look at him now”). Ed studied literature and thrived at college, a clean and bright environment just like he’d dreamt of, but he worried about his sister, alone in the house with their family. So he wrote to her about college life, the unlimited supply of books, the manicured lawns, a civilized place where no one fought and where she’d have nothing to be afraid of. He included literary quotations in his letters to inspire her, because surely she’d feel the same thrill he felt when he read them, those paeans to individualism like Thoreau’s “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” It was un-American to believe that they were, by accident of birth, destined to be poor, unhappy, unloved and unfulfilled. So he sent those letters off to her, hoping to invigorate her, to remind her of her potential.

But every summer that he went home, he noticed Helen slowly changing. By the summer after his junior year, she seemed like a different person. Her head was lower, her shoulders sloped. She seemed embarrassed by any evidence of his fondness for her and grimaced when he called her by her childhood nickname. When he spoke to her, she responded in monosyllables and seemed to have affected a cool façade. Worst of all, she, who’d always shared his opinion of their brothers (he’d thought of them as a team, a united front against the delinquency of the rest of the family), now seemed to get along with them, sitting with them on the front porch and even accepting cigarettes from them. She didn’t seem to mind that they were always around, high school dropouts with no plans to leave home or get jobs. On the rare occasions that he could, after a prolonged attempt, coax her into revealing the real Helen, the one who listened to his stories of college with interest and was excited about her own future studies, one of their brothers would interrupt with a crass, but admittedly humorous, comment, and the earnestness would be defeated. He returned to college, deflated and helpless, blaming himself for not visiting her more often, feeling responsible for the loss of something precious.

He continued to write her, although he’d learned to stop expecting a response. He still believed in the power of literature to elevate, and he searched his books for examples of strong women, role models for her. Without his sister, he probably never would have realized how few books in the canon had admirable female characters. Who could he send Helen as role models and inspiration? Irresponsible Daisy? Austen’s women with their obsession with social events and weddings? Even books with promising heroines had disappointing endings. Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel was perfect, until Henry James returned her to Osmond. He sent her the book anyway, just tore out the ending and taped in his own rewrite. He hoped that at least one book he sent her would animate her, or that one quote would sink in and she would be rejuvenated, and burn with that hard, gemlike flame. It worried him that she didn’t seem to have, anymore, that belief in her own potential that he’d always had. Didn’t each person have, in his mind’s eye, a future self, a reminder of what one aims for?

And so we come to Ed a few years later. He kept up his summer visits, even though it drained him. The town looked more depressing every summer, peeling paint and broken shutters on the houses, the overgrown lawns used as car graveyards. Helen didn’t spend much time with him anymore, and told him, flatly, as if neither mattered, that some boys had burned down most of the old forest, and that she’d left high school. She wasn’t interested in talking about either news. No, she didn’t know which boys. No, she wasn’t going back. That summer he was too disheartened to even finish his visit, and he left the next day, took a slow detour past the burnt forest before driving home.

That winter he received a postcard from her. She’d gotten married to Tito, one of their brother’s friends from juvenile hall. Ed sent a wedding gift that she never acknowledged and pushed down his sadness to get through his final semester of graduate school. Then he got a job offer as an assistant professor, moved out of state and married Michelle. And every summer he called Helen and said, “I’ll be in town next week” and she would give a vague “oh” and he would say, “I’d really like to see the twins,” because he couldn’t bear, with that apathy in her voice, to say, “I’d really like to see you.” And after she gave a lukewarm response, he drove the five hours to see her, her boys, and her husband.

Ed’s wife, Michelle, hated when he visited his sister, and couldn’t understand why someone so apparently rational, so highly intelligent, would waste years on a one-sided relationship. “She always disappoints you, honey. You’ve done so much for her, and she never thanks you or acknowledges it. She doesn’t even call you. I can see how much she upsets you. Why do you keep visiting her?” On and on, the same argument every summer. Michelle, an only child of affectionate and well-off parents, couldn’t understand what seemed to her to be unhealthy devotion. She had never felt the need to save someone. She had never been poor or had a younger sibling to look after. He tried to explain it to her without letting her know exactly how bad it had been for him, for them, because he didn’t want Michelle to pity him. People from normal families never understood the ties that bound people to bad families anyway. How could he enjoy his career, tenure, teaching “The Consolations of Literature,” when he knew that his sister was not living out her life the way she should be? When his sister was not studying or dancing, but was living in the same sad neighborhood they’d always said they would leave? How could he be happy with his escape when his sister was still stuck there?

But then, something happened. There was a phone call. His sister called him for the first time since he was in college. Her voice was animated. She had something that she wanted to show him. Her exact words were, “I’m so happy and I want you to come see it.” No, she didn’t want to wait until his summer visit to show him.

So he drove to her house, after hurriedly preparing while only half-listening to Michelle, and he didn’t usually ignore his wife, he loved her and had experienced none of that dulling of appreciation that his married friends talked about, but he was too excited to pay attention to her. “I know you think it’s significant, the fact that she’s called you for the first time in what? Fifteen years? I know you think that means something. But I’m telling you, that woman has cashed in her humanity for a satellite dish. She spends all day doing nothing, just sitting in front of the TV. She doesn’t ever contact you; she doesn’t want a relationship. There’s nothing you can do for her! She’ll just disappoint you again!”

But something had happened. And he drove to see her, his mind working, his face twitching with his thoughts, his eyebrows jumping in anticipation of his happy surprise when she told him that she had gotten her GED and was going to start college. Or maybe she’d gotten a job, or a hobby, and this time she wouldn’t be sitting in her recliner but would be working outside in the new garden she’d created. He envisioned her house flanked by rhododendrons like she’d admired as a child, or a tidy vegetable garden in the backyard. Or, he hoped but was afraid to hope so much, she was taking dancing lessons? Picking up the old dream that she’d had? Maybe she’d read Isadora Duncan’s autobiography that he’d sent so many years ago, and she would tell him it had inspired her, that one day after her soap opera had ended, she had picked it up and read it and—voila! It had inspired her, shaken her out of her malaise. He imagined telling her how proud he was, could see himself sitting in the audience while she danced, applauding her, his little sister, finally happy! She’d say, arms full of flowers, “I want to thank my brother Ed for always believing in me.”

And he thought of the house for sale near his own, the one with the big yard. Maybe she could buy the house and spend Sundays with him and Michelle, sitting on the back deck, making future plans while they watched the boys play soccer. Suddenly nothing else in life seemed to matter more than his sister and their relationship. Now that his sister was herself again, it redeemed everything. All of those years in that miserable house, all of the pressure to resign themselves to their paltry lot in life, to accept that they were nothing, all of the loneliness and despair, all of it was gone, now that his sister was saved. They’d done it. They’d both gotten out. They’d survived; they’d flourished; they’d triumphed.

But then he arrived at Helen’s house, and it looked the same as it always had. Garbage was piled up on the sidewalk and porch, the high grass was littered with rusty car parts. And Helen looked the same, the same flat eyes barely meeting his. All of the enthusiasm of her voice from the phone call was gone, and she’d forgotten that she’d even called him until he reminded her. She was wearing the same kind of ill-fitting clothes she always wore, her hair unwashed, her shoulders drooping in a way that made him unconsciously straighten his own posture. He thought of Isadora Duncan’s words: “The dancer’s body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.” And when he followed her into the living room, he finally saw that what she had been so excited about, what had brought him here, was a new TV. “They said it’s the biggest screen you can buy. It’s like the ones rich people have,” she said.

A TV.

He heard Michelle’s voice in his head. “Ed, honey, she’s not interested in the life that you want for her.” He saw his sister’s future, and it wasn’t full of Sunday dinners at his house, or a satisfying career, or the pursuit of a passion. It was a life of television, soap operas, and a dark living room that she never left.

He thought again about their childhood. Perhaps he’d only imagined that he’d been there for her. What about all the time he’d spent alone reading? Had he really looked out for her? Had he shown her that he cared and that she mattered and that there was a better life waiting for her? Maybe he’d never expressed that to her. He thought of the promise he’d made to her as a baby and realized that he had failed.

Before he left her house, he stopped to ask her one question. Had he been a bad brother to her? She looked directly at him and said, “You were the only one who cared.” He felt his body sag in relief to get that confirmation, to know that he had tried to help her, that she had been aware of his love and support for her. He thought of Michelle again. “You did what you could, but you were only a child. You weren’t responsible for her.” He had tried. He had done his best.

But he couldn’t understand how she had turned out so differently from him. They’d had the same family, the same school, and he’d had no one to shelter him, no one to show him that he wasn’t just an unwanted, unloved kid who was going to end up with nothing, but she had had him. Thanks to him, she’d had a better environment, she’d had someone who cared about her. She should have turned out even better than him, more successful, happier.

There was no explanation left, but…she must have been born that way. Hadn’t she always been a bit lethargic, even as a baby? Hadn’t she always had a sleepy-eyed look, a foreshadowing of future idleness perhaps? Hadn’t she always been less interested in school than he was? Maybe she and their brothers were alike, and he had only imagined that she was like him, that she was different from their family, that she had any aspirations to get away from them. The way she’d turned out, it wasn’t his fault. She didn’t want to be like him, she chose to be this way, and nothing he could do would change that.

So finally he was able to walk out of her house and leave behind his guilt.

And that’s why I found Ed so interesting. A good man, a sensitive and caring man, eaten up by an irrational sense of responsibility and guilt, and the story of his epiphany. But all that came later. At first, all I knew of Ed was born of a sentence uttered by my father after a visit to his sister:

“She cares more about that TV than she does about her children.”

And thus Ed was born. He followed me around, but not too closely, an elusive and intriguing ghost. I loved the early days of being haunted, the joy of getting acquainted with him, spending time culling details from him. While I sat eating my lunch, I wondered, “What’s Ed’s career?” and “What’s his motivation?” I read more literature to be able to understand him better. I dreamt about him and woke up thinking, “Hmm... I bet Ed likes Thoreau.”

When I’d learned everything that I wanted to know about him, I started introducing Ed to other people. Like me, they found him fascinating, but unlike me, they weren’t satisfied with knowing only the more salient bits of his story, and I encountered that annoying zeal for details from people who had a thirst for specific ages, years, and colors. So I spent more time with Ed and pried into his life, attempting to satisfy everyone’s curiosity about him. The problem was, the more I worked, the more my own curiosity waned. I knew all that I wanted to know about Ed and was ready to say goodbye, but he didn’t seem eager to leave and continued to follow me, more closely than before. He was everywhere, at my elbow when I tried to write something else, floating into my peripheral vision when my thoughts wandered to another story.

I’d read enough and seen enough movies to know the time-tested way to get rid of ghosts. I merely needed to tell more of Ed’s story, so that with the exposure of truth, he could finally move on to the next realm.

So I put aside other projects and dedicated myself to fleshing out his story. I expected Ed to start fading away slowly, like good ghosts should, but instead he grew more corporeal and, to my great consternation, started to complain. He corrected me when I used the word meadow instead of glade and was indignant that I didn’t understand the significance. He thought I didn’t talk enough about his childhood and the specific things he’d done for his sister. He warned me that I’d lose readers with such a slow beginning and that the first line should be more attention-getting: perhaps add a car crash? He said I didn’t capture the essence of his story. That I needed to read more literature so that I could write more about his career. He even quibbled with me over the title. I was going to call his story “Nature Vs. Nurture,” but he said I completely misunderstood him.

By this point, Ed was taking up all of my time, forcing me to read and write more, and then complaining about the story’s details and quality. You can see how detestable Ed was becoming. I told him to look for another writer, a more malleable one without a day job. He kept hounding me until I confronted him with the cruel truth: I knew other characters with better stories to tell. I was tired of him and his arrogance—yes, arrogance—in assuming he had the right to control his sister’s life and force her to accept his unoriginal middle-class version of the American dream.

I suppose I went too far, because Ed went ominously quiet. He continued to follow me, but mournfully, silently, just like Prudencio Aguilar in 100 Years of Solitude, only without the hole in his throat. I knew how that story ended, so although I liked my apartment and didn’t want to leave, in the end I had to move.

About the Author

Willow Barnosky

Willow Barnosky teaches English as a Second Language and Adult Literacy to Spanish speakers in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives in San Jose, California.