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The yggyssey how iggy wo.., p.5
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       The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, p.5

           Daniel Pinkwater
 
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  "He was world famous," Melvin said. "He drew huge crowds whenever he performed. Audiences would sit still for an hour, or two hours, while he worked his way out of ropes and handcuffs and a canvas mailbag placed inside a trunk, which was then bound up in chains and padlocks and placed behind a screen. Hundreds of kids worldwide suffocated to death, or at least got nasty rope burns trying to imitate his tricks."

  "And people would just sit there waiting for him to get out?" I asked.

  "Well, there would be a band playing," Melvin said.

  "For two hours?" Neddie asked.

  "Sometimes."

  "It must have been some good band," I said.

  "He would also do things like hang upside down by his feet, and get out of a straitjacket and chains. Or he would be tied and chained up and put into a giant milk can full of water, and have to get out before he drowned."

  "At least that would take less than two hours," I said.

  "People had a different idea of what was entertaining back then," Melvin said.

  "I guess."

  "And he had a great and abiding interest in the afterlife. When his mother died, he wanted to contact her—in those days mediums and spiritualists were popular, and people would hold séances, trying to talk to the dead. Houdini went to a few of those, but being a professional magician, he easily saw through the tricks the mediums used to convince people they were getting messages from their dead relatives.

  "So, Houdini started exposing mediums. He would arrive in a city and go in disguise to the most popular medium, and then he would do a big exposé in the newspaper showing how they used research and confederates to find out things about people who were coming the séance, and all kinds of magician's illusions to make it seem like there were spirits talking. The funny thing is that after he had done this for a while, the mediums would beg him to expose them, because after he left town their business would quadruple because they had been in the newspaper. Never mind that the story told how they were frauds—people would go to them anyway."

  "That's the most interesting thing you've told us yet," Neddie said.

  "Isn't it? Anyway, the whole time Houdini was exposing mediums, he was hoping to meet a legitimate one so he could really contact his mother, or just anybody actually dead. He never found one.

  "Before he himself died, he had made all kinds of arrangements with his wife and his friends. He was going to try to get a signal to them from the other side. They had code words worked out so no fake medium could claim to have gotten in touch with him, and to this day they hold a séance every Halloween, which is the day he died, and try to get in touch with him.

  "Now here's the part I like. He has been a fairly popular ghost around Hollywood for years, and done some quite good haunting—I've seen him myself any number of times in the ghostly parade, always escaping from something or other—but he has yet to show up at one of those séances they hold in his honor."

  "And now he's gone missing," Neddie said.

  "Yep."

  "And this story you just told us has something to do with how ghosts have been disappearing, and Halloween coming up?" I asked.

  "Well, no, not necessarily," Melvin said. "I just think it's interesting."

  "So, what is it you started out to tell us before you went off into the life and death of Houdini?"

  "Oh! Right! Día de los Muertos," Melvin said.

  "Beg pardon?"

  "Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead," Melvin said.

  "It's Saturday."

  "Isn't that just Mexican Halloween?" I asked.

  "No. It's better," Melvin said. "I suggest you go down to Olvera Street and find out all about it."

  CHAPTER 24

  Ghostly Halloween

  Before we could go down to Olvera Street and find out about Día de los Muertos, we had to get through regular American Halloween. Neddie, and Seamus Finn, and I were past the age for trick-or-treat, so Halloween would have been a fairly minor holiday for us. We might have gone to a costume party, with the usual bats and witches decorations, and bobbed for apples—reasonably entertaining, but mostly silly—but we knew about ghostly Halloween.

  Now, obviously ghosts are going to take Halloween pretty seriously, wherever they may be, but Halloween in Hollywood—well, the departed just go over the top with it. They make a big effort to outdo the living people. The thing you want to see on ghostly Halloween is the parade. This is not held on some major thoroughfare, like Hollywood Boulevard or Vine Street. It's on Lafcadio Hearn Avenue, which is quiet, and fairly deserted after all the shops are closed.

  This is the one night of the year when there's an exception to the stay-in-one-haunting-place rule. The ghosts are out in force, and in a very playful mood. We'd seen all this before, and wouldn't have missed it for anything.

  Lafcadio Hearn Avenue is where you go for Oriental antiques, old and rare books, dried roots and herbs. The shops are in the front parlors of old houses that have been fitted with plate-glass display windows. They have little front yards and gardens—they're not up against the sidewalk. It looks more like an old village than a commercial street.

  Seamus and I had corned beef and cabbage at Neddie Wentworthstein's apartment before walking over to Lafcadio Hearn Avenue. Neddie's mother is a good cook. We had corn fritters too. On the way out, we found my father sitting in the lobby of the Hermione, tossing playing cards into an upturned hat.

  "Heading for the ghostly parade, daughter?" he asked.

  "Yep. Want to come with us?"

  "Been lots of times," my father said. "I'm waiting for a friend of mine from the old days, Fat Antelope. We're going to talk sign language. You have fun, children."

  "We will."

  "If you should get into conversation with any of the spirits, remember to ask about Prairie Dog."

  CHAPTER 25

  The Big Parade

  We got to Lafcadio Hearn Avenue just in time—it was just getting really dark. There was a pretty good crowd lining both sides of the street, waiting for the parade to begin. Everyone was quiet, whispering if they talked at all. One of the ways the ghostly Halloween parade is different from other parades is there isn't shouting and noise from the audience. And the ghosts in the parade are silent—there are bands that come marching along, playing their instruments, but silently. Even ghosts who typically moan, or scream, or make ghostly laughter in the course of their regular haunting are quiet in the parade. We found a good spot, right at the edge of the sidewalk, and craned our necks, looking down the street, waiting to see the first ghosts in the parade. The streetlights went out. We saw a dull glow at the dark end of the street.

  "Here they come!" I whispered.

  "Shhh!"

  The glow got brighter, and closer. It was the ghosts, glowing ectoplasmically. Then we could make out figures. It was exciting. It was hard not to jump up and down, and we had to clap our hands over our mouths to keep from cheering.

  First, as always, was the color guard. It was those three guys you always see in reproductions of the painting The Spirit of '76 by Archibald M. Willard. There is a kid in a three-cornered hat playing a drum, in the middle an old white-haired guy, also with a drum, and next to him a guy with a bandage on his head, playing a fife. It was just like the picture, only these were the actual guys. We couldn't hear them, but they were drumming and fifing. Just behind them was an American flag, only for the occasion there were little skulls instead of stars. The people on the sidelines took their hats off, or put their hand over their heart as the ghostly colors went by. Neddie and Seamus saluted—it's a school rule that they have to wear their uniforms at parades, and if you're in uniform you have to give a military salute.

  Next there was the guard of honor, a Confederate officer with his sword out, and six sharp-looking soldiers who had been killed in the Spanish-American War. Behind them came the grand marshal and after him various dignitaries. Usually the grand marshal of the Hollywood Ghostly Halloween Parade is Harry Houdini, but he wasn't there
—so we guessed he really had disappeared. In his place was another favorite of the crowd, former president Theodore Roosevelt. This explained why the honor guard was composed of Rough Riders. Teddy was mounted on a magnificent ghostly horse and was doffing his hat to the spectators. The spectators waved wildly and silently to the presidential spectre.

  Next in the parade was the crowd of dignitaries, ghosts like former mayors of Los Angeles, including Don Fernando Rivera y Moncada, lieutenant governor of the Californias, who founded the place in 1781, and various Alcaldes, military governors, and city executives since. A popular ghostly citizen is Benjamin Franklin, who moved to L.A. from Philadelphia a hundred years after he died. Also among the distinguished marchers were Eng and Chang the Siamese twins, Jesse James, Sitting Bull, Rex the Wonder Horse, and the original Lassie. This crowd of bigwigs just walked along, waving to friends in the crowd and looking pleased with themselves.

  Next came the United States Marine Corps band of 1891, led by John Philip Sousa, playing silently but showing a lot of style. Then there were assorted haunts, headless ghosts, dancing ghosts, levitating ghosts, amorphous balls of light ghosts, and invisible ghosts that aren't seen but give off a distinct chill, or an odd and eerie feeling as they pass. Two full-rigged ghostly sailing ships were in the parade—the Flying Dutchman's ship and the Half-Moon. They floated about ten feet above our heads. We also enjoyed the extinct animals from the La Brea Tar Pits: giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, and dire wolves. And there were tourist ghosts among the regulars, wearing shorts and walking along snapping pictures.

  A lot of things one usually looks for in the parade were not present. The ghostly swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts, which is always extremely impressive, was not in the parade this time. The ghosts of circus clowns were far fewer in number than we remembered from previous Halloweens. Billy the Phanton Bellboy was supposed to be in the parade, driving Aaron Finn's Packard convertible with Edgar Allen Poe in the back—but they weren't there. And, we saw only one Conestoga wagon full of pioneer ghosts—there were usually five or six.

  And then ... it was over. We watched the ghostly procession make its way up Lafcadio Hearn Avenue and then disappear. The streetlights came back on. This is not to say it wasn't a great parade. If you had never seen one before, you'd have been impressed. But for those of us who had turned out for it regularly, it was a little disappointing.

  "I think I got some great shots," someone said. It was Ken Ahara, the ghostology student. He had various cameras and instruments in little leather cases hanging from his neck on leather straps. "I'm trying out a new film called Ectochrome."

  "Hey, we heard there is no Ghostology Department at Cal Tech," Seamus Finn said.

  Ahara said, "I only recently found that out. My professor is just a loony who hangs around the library. I wonder if they'll still give me a degree."

  "We also heard that a lot of ghosts have been turning up missing," Neddie Wentworthstein said.

  "It's true!" Ken Ahara said. "That's one of the reasons I came here tonight. I haven't seen Mr. Billy for a couple of weeks and was hoping he'd be in the parade."

  "So you know something about the disappearances?" I asked.

  "It's serious," Ken Ahara said. "The ghosts appear to be fading away like ... ghosts."

  CHAPTER 26

  Pumpkin Pie and an Apparition

  "Hello, kids. Parade was a little light this year, don't you think?" It was Melvin the shaman. With him was Aaron Finn, the movie actor and Seamus's father.

  "Hello, Father," Seamus said. "What did you think of the parade?"

  "Well, I am a Teddy Roosevelt fan, so I'm satisfied," Aaron Finn said. "I wish the studio would let me play him in a movie."

  We introduced Ken Ahara.

  "That must be interesting work," Melvin said.

  "I'm just a graduate student," Ken Ahara said.

  "I say, who's for a slice of pumpkin pie at Albert Allen's Rite Spot?" Aaron Finn asked. "I bet we can fit everyone into the Packard."

  In a little while, we were all jammed into a large booth at the restaurant. "Pumpkin pie, all around, and keep it coming," Aaron Finn told the waitress. "Best pumpkin pie in the city," he said to the rest of us. "And they don't skimp on the whipped cream."

  "So, have you seen Billy the Phantom Bellboy lately?" Seamus Finn asked his father.

  "No, he seems to have taken off somewhere," Aaron Finn said. "He does that, you know."

  "We're worried that ghosts have been disappearing," Ken Ahara said. "It might be something very serious."

  "Or then again, it might not be," Melvin said.

  "What if it is like rats deserting a sinking ship?" Ken Ahara asked. "What if some inconceivable catastrophe is about to happen, so the ghosts are leaving?"

  "Didn't something like that almost happen a year or two ago?" Aaron Finn asked. "It was a rainy night, as I recall—the dark powers were going to come back. I can't quite remember the details, but you must know, Sergeant Caleb, being a shaman and all that."

  "I wasn't there," Melvin said. "I was at the bowling tournament that night."

  "I think I was there," Neddie said. "But I forget the details."

  "I hope you find that notebook, Neddie," Melvin said. "I'd like to read what happened."

  "My mother threw out a huge stack of my comic books, without asking," Neddie said. "She claimed they were a fire hazard. It's possible the notebook was with them."

  "That's a pity," Melvin said. "But, never mind."

  "I'm worried that the ghosts disappearing has some serious meaning," Ken Ahara said.

  "Who wants more pumpkin pie?" Aaron Finn said. "Don't be shy. Eat lots—it's good for you."

  "Say, do they serve spirits in this place?" a voice said. We looked around. The booths on both sides of ours were empty. "You know what ghosts eat for breakfast? Ghost Toasties!" the voice said.

  "Billy!" Neddie Wentworthstein said. "Is that you?"

  "Nobody else but," Billy the Phantom Bellboy said, becoming slightly visible.

  "We all thought you'd disappeared," Ken Ahara said.

  "You mean like this?" Billy asked, becoming invisible again.

  "He means, where have you been?" Seamus said.

  "Can't tell you that," Billy said. "Top secret."

  "A lot of ghosts have been missing lately," I said. "Do you know anything about that?"

  "I know all about it," Billy said.

  "Can you tell us?"

  "Nope. I'm sworn to secrecy."

  "Can you at least tell us if it's something bad?" Ken Ahara asked.

  "I can't tell you anything," Billy the Phantom Bellboy said. "Does anyone feel like having a hamburger with grilled onions? I'm in the mood for a sniff." Aaron Finn ordered a hamburger for Billy to inhale over.

  CHAPTER 27

  The Day of the Dead

  Gente, voy a cantar

  un pequeño corridor

  de la ciudad de Los Angeles

  donde se hacen las peliculas,

  y un muchacho, Neddie.

  Él era honesto y valiente.

  People, I'm going to sing

  a little corrido

  of the town of Los Angeles,

  where movies are made,

  and of a boy, Neddie.

  He was honest and brave.

  A big magician told him to take this turtle,

  sacred to the Indians.

  When the time would come

  when dark and evil powers

  came to subjugate the people,

  the guy with the turtle

  would save the day.

  And Neddie did it!

  We don't know how he did it.

  Neddie is a hero.

  He saved the town.

  We salute this brave boy

  and also I salute you all

  and take my leave.

  —"Corrido" by street singer on Olvera Street

  Olvera Street is in the middle of the crummy downtown section of Los Angeles. It's the oldest part,
dating back to the Spanish colonial days. It's a tourist attraction, with Mexican restaurants and little stands where you can buy a piñata, or a sombrero, or Mexican pottery. It smells good, with all the Mexican cooking, and a couple of the old houses have been restored to the way they were in the 1800s, and you can go in and see how the people lived back then. We'd all been there, on school trips, or with our parents to have dinner—but we had never been there during Día de los Muertos.

  Neddie, Seamus, and I took the bus downtown, and when we arrived things were in full swing. There were lots of people wandering around, and the shops and stalls were selling skulls made of candy, and toy skeletons. There were decorations, tombstones with funny epitaphs, and more skeletons dressed up in fancy costumes, and strolling musicians. There were signboards in Spanish and English, explaining what the Day of the Dead was all about.

  It turned out the holiday goes back to the Aztecs. It started in Mexico and is still a big deal there, but it has spread to some other Latin American countries—also the Philippines and parts of the United States.

  It happens at about the same time as Halloween, All Saint's Day, and All Soul's Day, but the mood is happy rather than spooky. The living people celebrate the lives of the dead and decorate their graves with orange marigolds, also known as flor de muerto, or "flower of the dead." The whole thing is upbeat and happy, and there are toys for dead children, aka los angelitos, or "little angels," bottles of tequila for dead adults, candy left for the dead, and little trinkets. At home, the people make shrines and offer candied pumpkin, and pan de muerto, or "bread of the dead," and make those sugar skulls with the names of dead friends and relatives decorating them. The idea is to invite the dead into the homes so they can enjoy the "spiritual essence" of the food—I suppose they sniff it, like Billy the Phantom Bellboy does. They also put out pillows and and blankets so the dead can have a rest. And they write funny epitaphs, and make funny dressed-up skeletons, and draw funny cartoons of funny dressed-up skeletons.

 
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