A Dead Man’s Gum

“So,” Viola says. “You know those carnival rides with the swings? The ones that spin and spin and raise up, and you’re going forty miles an hour in a stomach-churning circle that’s supposed to be fun, but really just make you want to vomit on everyone that’s standing down on the ground in line to ride the thing next?”

“Oh sure,” I say. “I know what you’re talking about.”

“So that’s the thing my Uncle Harry died on.”

“Well, shit,” I say.

She nods. “Shit indeed. Chains broke on it when he was up in the air. Seatbelt stayed buckled though, so I guess you take the good with the bad. He went about seventy feet in the air, landed in the fried dough stand. I haven’t been able to eat any of it since, honestly.”

“Completely understandable.”

She shrugs. “It’s fine, really. It’s been five years since he flew off. At least he didn’t hit the corn dog booth. I love corn dogs. Like, really love them. If I had PTSD for corn dogs, that would be a serious problem.”

We are in her back yard, sitting at the table on her deck. There’s a small box on the table, and Viola is poking her fingers inside of it, rooting at things I can’t see from my angle. “My mother sent me this,” she says. “She’s cleaning out her garage. Place is a raging inferno waiting to happen.” She pulls something from the box, and puts it on the table between us: three links of steel chain.

“Don’t tell me,” I say.

“Not the part that broke,” she explains. “The police took that bit. This is from a couple of inches down from there. Thanks, Mom.”

“That’s a little gruesome.”

“Right? No blood on it. I checked, obviously. Thing’s definitely haunted though, no question. I had it in my bedroom the first night. Fucker started rattling too much, so I stuck it in the kitchen pantry. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is, you know?”

“Sure, in with the crackers and canned corn is a much better place to keep haunted artifacts,” I say. “Ed and Lorraine Warren would be proud of you.”

Viola makes a pfft sound. “Frauds and hacks,” she says. “Ed and Lorraine wouldn’t know a haunted swing ride chain if Harry’s ghost beat them about the face and neck with one.”

“Ed and Lorraine are ghosts themselves, I think.”

“Beside the point,” she says. “Still frauds and hacks.” She reaches back into the box and takes out a photo, putting it on the table beside the chain, turned so that I am looking at it right side up.

“Are you serious?” I say.

“Dead serious,” she says. “Or at least Harry is. That’s his coffin, anyway.”

I lean in for a closer look, but don’t touch the photo. “He looks pretty good for someone who crashed into a fried dough stand.”

“Mortuary science is an art. Somebody earned their fee on ol’ Harry.”

“Why do you have a photo of your dead uncle in his open casket?” I ask. “Is your family from Appalachia?”

“Don’t insult my hillbilly ancestry, buddy.”

“I’m not, seriously. My grandmother used to take photos of our dead relatives to send back home to the family in Missouri. Freaked me out a little bit when I was seven, but I like to think I’ve matured some over the years.”

“We could be related, Sebastian,” she says. “The blood pool is wide and deep out in the back woods.”

I look at the photo again. “I guess that woman standing next to the coffin is your aunt. She looks just like your mother.”

“Sure,” Viola says.

“Who’s that man standing next to her?”

“Oh, that’s my uncle’s ghost,” she says.

“The fuck out,” I say.

“Listen, it’s not my fault my family’s got the touch, thank you very much.”

“You are sincerely full of at least sixteen tons of shit.”

She taps her finger against the photo. “Can’t do a double exposure on a Polaroid Instamatic, Sebastian.”

“Come on. Get serious. How does your mother even have any Instamatic film at this point? Didn’t they stop making that stuff a thousand years ago?”

“She’s got a whole closet full of cartridges. She bought out the K-Mart when they discontinued it.”

I finally pick up the photo and hold it up closely to my eyes. “Seventeen tons of shit. He’s got a twin brother.”

Viola shrugs. “First I’ve heard of it if he did.”

I put the photo down beside the chain. “You should have told me you were part of the Addams Family. What else have you got in that box?”

She reaches in again and puts a small, white object on the table.

“Of course,” I say. “A tooth.”

“Don’t ask,” she says.

“I won’t,” I assure her.

Her hand goes into the box once more: a scrawny and worn rabbit’s foot, on a key fob with no keys.

“Wasn’t very good luck for Harry,” she says.


Again, from the box: two pink Sweet’N Low packets.

“Harry was diabetic,” she explains.

“Well, he survived that, anyway.”

Next: seventy-eight cents in change. Two quarters, two dimes, a nickel, and three pennies.

“I’m not saying that mom rifled his pockets or anything,” Viola says. “But I’m not saying that she didn’t.”

“Wait. One of those is a Canadian quarter.”

“Huh,” she says. “Don’t know what the exchange rate is these days. This might be worth more than I thought.”

“You’ll finally be able to afford that Canadian codeine cough syrup you’ve been saving up for. I mean, depending on what the exchange rate ends up being.”

She reached in the box one more time. “Last thing,” she says, and sets down a pack of Big Red gum, with two sticks left in it. “Uncle Harry was fond of his chewing gum. Ex-smoker, you know. Bad for your health.”

“So is crashing into a fried dough stand.”

“True. Guess he should have kept on smoking. Live fast, die in fried dough.” She picks up the photo and takes another look at it. “I have no idea what to do with this stuff. I don’t really want it, but I don’t really want to throw it away, either.”

“You aren’t required to maintain a museum of your ancestry if you don’t want to,” I say. “Especially if it’s full of haunted chains and human teeth.”

She puts the photo back into the box and begins to gather up the coins. “I know I’m not required, but it sort of feels like my responsibility. Nobody else is going to do it.”

“Don’t look at me. I draw the line at ghosts in my pantry.”

She drops the coins into the box, then adds the Sweet’N Low, rabbit’s foot, links of chain, and the tooth. “I’ll think of something,” she says. She picks up the Big Red and starts to put it into the box as well, but then pauses, shrugs, and pulls out one of the remaining sticks of gum. She offers the remaining stick to me.

I hesitate a moment, and then take it. “I draw the lines at ghosts, but I guess I’ll chew a dead man’s gum.”

“Uncle Harry would have wanted it this way,” she says. She unwraps her stick while I unwrap mine, and then holds hers out to me. I tap my stick of gum against hers, then pop mine into my mouth, and she does the same with hers. We chew in contemplative silence for a minute or two.

“So,” Viola says.

“Yeah,” I say, chewing. “Tastes like fried dough.”

From inside the box, there’s the slightest sound of metallic rattling, stopping nearly as soon as it stars.

Just things settling, I’m sure.

Totally sure.


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