They say there’s a gal in Goodlettsville who can speak to the dead as easily as I might pick up the phone and speak to you. She is young, maybe 19 or 20, and lives out in a hollow along Brick Church Pike. They say everything in her house must be brand new, because anything even remotely associated with a dead person will bring her into communication with the dearly departed, like a radio you can’t turn off.
They say she helps police from around the country solve crimes.
Almost none of this is true. I, by now, talked to enough police officers that I felt like I could press them about whether Metro had ever worked with the Goodlettsville Gal.
Finally, one of them shook his head and asked me, “You know what it means when a police department admits to working with a psychic?'”
“Instant loss of credibility?” I guessed.
She laughed and explained, “No, it means we either have a good idea but can’t prove it, so we’re tossing the ‘psychic’ information out there as a way of shaking the bushes or it means we’ve got something through less than legal means and we need a way to ‘discover’ it again in a way that will stand up in court.” She paused and her face turned more serious. “Think of some of the high profile cases that we have not solved. You think if we had a workable psychic, those families wouldn’t have some answers?”
“So, you think the Goodlettsville Gal is just a myth?”
“Oh, no. I did not say that,” she said, stretching out every word just a little more than usual.
The officer wrote down an address on a napkin, slid it across the table to me, and looked at me as if I had no idea what I was asking.
“Why don’t you go see? I heard she’s up to something this afternoon, in fact.”
So, off I went, with nothing more than that address. No name, no phone number, just a sense that there was something strange worth seeing and, if I hurried, I could catch it.
She was waiting at the end of the driveway when I got there. She was small and had hair in that no-color state between the toe-head of childhood and the dark brown of adult, which she wore pulled back in a pony tail.
“If you want to hang out a little bit,” she said, pointing me to where I could park in the front yard, “some Skagges are on their way and I’m going to do my thing for them. You’re welcome to watch.”
The Skaggs family claims to have been here since their ancestor, Henry Skaggs, came into the area with Kasper Mansker in 1771. Interestingly enough, some Skaggses believe they are cursed, following from an incident in which they believe Henry witnessed Mansker killing an Indian, the first such incident in Middle Tennessee, though, certainly not the last.
There’s much contention about both of these facts. Skaggs, many say, was back in Virginia when the incident occurred, thus meaning Skaggses have not been here continuously since then (though folks will concede Skaggses certainly returned at some point shortly after) and that Henry Skaggs could not have been cursed for his witnessing a murder he did not prevent since he wasn’t there to witness it.
And don’t even get the Skaggses started on whether there is a curse. The fact is that some believe it and some don’t and they all have made themselves somewhat amateur historians and geneologists in an effort to bolster their particular claims.
It was this tendency for historical sleuthing that has brought this branch of the Skaggs family to the Goodlettsville gal this particular afternoon. Their grandfather, a man in his late 80s, was preparing to die. Not right away, but just wanting to settle things on earth before stepping off into whatever comes next.
Not normally an affectionate man, he had taken to making a point of telling his son that he loved him and making sure that his daughters knew how proud he was of them. And he wanted to know what had happened to his sister, Maggie, who had taken off for school one day when she was 16 and never come home.
Some family members thought she’d probably just run off, but Big Daddy Skaggs refused to believe she would have left without telling him. He believed she was dead, that she had been all this time. But he just wanted to know for sure and to have the family record set straight before he died. The family conceded it was probably far too late to have the police look into it. After seventy years, what could there be to find?
But they thought the Goodlettsville gal could help.
And so, here they were, Big Daddy, his son, called, of course, Little Daddy, and Bill and Sharon, who, though also parents, were just called ‘Bill and Sharon.’ If Big Daddy or Little Daddy were called anything else, I didn’t hear it. They sat around the Goodlettsville Gal’s parents’ dining room table. The Goodlettsville gal sat at the head. I stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room.
Though it was sunny out, when I turned out the lights, the room felt like late evening.
The gal asked Big Daddy as she lit the candle in the center of the table, “Is there a song she liked? Or a song that you liked from back then? Something you could sing for me?”
Little Daddy said, “He’s not much of a singer.”
“That’s all right,” the gal said, reaching out and patting Big Daddy on the arm. “That’s just fine.”
Big Daddy gave an embarrassed smile, but he began to sing “Sweet Leilani.” Either nobody else knew it or they were reluctant to sing along, but Big Daddy had a fine voice, soft and low, cracking a little, but he took the song slow and sweet.
As he sang, the gal shut her eyes and began to rock with the rhythm of Big Daddy’s voice. And, then, as she got a sense of the words, she, too, began to sing, “you are my dream come true.” Something in the room shifted, as if we were all suddenly drunk or dizzy. Everyone reached to steady themselves. The door behind me slowly swung shut. Then the door from the dining room to the front room. The chandelier over the table, started to swing back and forth.
The gal stood up and climbed onto the table. She grabbed hold of the swinging light fixture and reached for Bid Daddy’s hand. “Keep singing,” she directed.
And she slowly turned towards the window, so that her back was to us. And she said, in a loud voice, “Here we are! Open that gate. Come on out and tell me what I want to know.” A cloud crossed the sun and the whole room seemed to shrink. Suddenly, she twirled on her knees, almost knocking the candles over and she looked right at Bill.
“You could die, you know. If you don’t get a handle on your drinking, your grandfather will outlive you.”
She then turned to Little Daddy, which meant that I could more clearly see her face. Somehow it looked as if someone older was behind her face. I don’t know how to explain it better than that. It was as if an old woman was wearing a young girl as a mask. She studied him intently and finally said, “Yes, yes, you did.”
He bolted up from the table and paced in front of me, running his hands through his hair.
“Okay, okay,” he whispered to himself. “I thought so.”
Finally, she turned to Big Daddy. She looked him up and down and then she looked out into the sunny yard.
She said, “Your sister is at home. She says to tell you that you did kill her killer.”
And then it was almost as if someone let the air out of the room. The gal from Goodlettsville sank to the table, her face resembling herself once again. The doors popped back open, as if a breeze had come rushing out of the room. And the room flooded with light as the sun came out from behind the cloud.
Most of the Skaggses were visibly shaken. Big Daddy, though, slumped like he’d just set down a heavy load. He opened up his wallet and counted out twenty-five twenty dollar bills.
“All right then,” he said. “All right.”
But…. I want the rest of the story! Who’d he kill and what did Bill do?
Creepy and riveting. Wow. Just wow.
This story was twice as long in its first draft. They all went over to Big Daddy’s childhood home and dug around in the basement and found a bone belonging to his sister and her ghostly voice told Big Daddy she’d been killed by their mother.
But it just didn’t work. In that version, Big Daddy had not killed who he thought was his sister’s killer (in that case his mom) though he suspected her, but I thought, damn, if your family is fucked up enough that you suspect your mom killed your sister, it’s probably not going to be the kind of family in which you and your son and grandson are all close and share a love of history and genealogy.
But once I had that realization, I thought, “How perfect would it be if this family full of people who sit around fighting over every minute piece of information they can get about their ancestors, trying to know everything about them, had these secrets they kept even from the people they most loved?”
And that’s when I cut that whole part and went back and wrote it this way.
On my wish list for next Halloween, I’m hoping to see an expanded series of interlocking stories about this family…seems like they’d sustain some explorations without getting you too far into Faulknerland.
Or, now that I think about it, Sam Shepardland. They remind me of the family in Buried Child.
I can see how the long version would not work…sigh.
This just reminds me of my favorite authors who can make minor characters/acts so riveting that you want more of ‘that’ story too.