The House of Long Sighs
Anecdotes on the Proper Use of Music in Emotional Alchemy
Coriander first heard about the House of Long Sighs while having a smoke between sets at a Bar Mitzvah. He’d needed a breather after his rockabilly rendition of Hava Nagila nearly brought the house down.
Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Benjamin Windmueller had purchased the House two months previously, due to their love of clowns. Not clowns in the three dimensional sense, mind you. Nathaniel had a debilitating fear of those. Rather, both he and his wife were die hard fans of a particular modern expressionist famous for painting clowns and nothing but clowns.
Mostly sad clowns.
Her self-described “Shit Period” took place in the House of Long Sighs, during which she didn’t actually paint any clowns. The only painting she completed during those dark times was a blank canvas on which she scrawled: You Suck. She stared at it for 67 days before selling it to a surly teenager nicknamed “Crossbones,” who delivered her groceries.
The non-painting painter was evicted due to foreclosure in the spring of 1996. Years later, she would describe it as the single best decision someone ever made for her. After moving into a Florida condo with a retired circus acrobat known as “Flamingo,” she produced no fewer than 273 paintings, all clowns. Mostly sad clowns.
Her style has been described as “aggressive.”
The house itself was sold to a palm reader, then an unlicensed chiropractor, and finally to a married couple who ran a daycare for children with food allergies. Neighbors referred to it as “The Vomitorium.” After that, it stood empty for several years, allowing the Windmuellers to pick it up for a steal.
Or so they thought.
“Furniture stacking, doors opening and closing, lights turning on and off, everything but ectoplasm!” Mrs. Windmeuller was telling Coriander around sips of her Shirley Temple.
“But I did find some suspicious pudding in the fridge, that one time,” her husband added.
“Yes,” she agreed. “There was that suspicious pudding.”
“Well,” Coriander told them upon concluding a long sigh of his own, “sounds like a legit haunted house. I can exorcise the shit outta that shit, but have you considered leasing it? You know, to alchemists? Can’t beat polarized sadness for spellbreaking. Lots of people need spells broken.”
“Oh, no. We couldn’t possibly,” Mr. Windmueller stammered.
His wife finished for him, “We don’t truck with any of that chicanery.”
“And yet, you seek out an exorcist for your haunted house.” Coriander took another puff as punctuation.
No one accuses Mrs. Windmueller of hypocrisy. Apparently. “We did no such thing! We simply happened to be here, supporting our second nephew on his special day, and you happened to be here, so — ”
“So we thought, ‘No harm in asking a fella a question,’” her husband finished for her.
Coriander threw up his hands. “No harm done and no offense intended, although… You could really cash in.”
“We have quite enough cash,” they said together.
And they did, too. Mr. Windmueller designed satirical postage stamps for philatelists with a sense of humor: Churchill with a waxed mustache, Teddy Bear Roosevelt, an even more phallic Zeppelin stamp, and so forth. Of course, they weren’t real stamps in the sense that they’d been issued by a government or could be used to send mail through the post, but that was beside the point. They derived their value from the genius of their conception and the impeccable quality of their craftsmanship.
True fame, however, belonged to Mrs. Windmueller. Her work in the field of canine cosplay was internationally renown. Underdog, Scooby Doo, Marmaduke, Zombie Old Yeller, these were simply the staple goods. She also crafted dog versions of human characters: Iron Mutt, Veterinarian Who, Black and Tan Widow, Wolferine, Poodle Hulk, Gandolf the Grayhound, Jack Russell Harkness, Captain Pomeranian, Mr. Bichon Freeze…
Point is, the Windmuellers were doing quite well for themselves, thank you very much. Plus, their families were rich.
“Alright, alright. Point taken.” Coriander’s traditional five minutes were already sixty seconds past their prime. “Yeah, I’ll do it. My assistant and I will stop by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Lots of people need spells broken.”
Coriander’s assistant was a drowned puppy of a man known as Paisley Dane, though he didn’t know it yet. He knew his name was Paisley Dane, obviously. What he didn’t know yet, but would soon learn, was that he’d be Coriander’s assistant for the day.
In point of fact, Paisley had never assisted anyone in anything. Once, during a high school basketball game, he thought he’d scored an assist, but the rest of the team got together and decided they would’ve scored those game-winning points without his help.
Didn’t seem fair to Paisley, but that’s democracy for ya.
“Art Critic” was his actual profession, to whatever extent it is a profession. He professed it, anyway. His opinions were regularly published in local papers like The Shopper’s Weekly and an anonymous, mimeographed newsletter distributed at New Age bookstores, possibly by Paisley himself.
At one point in his life, he felt a “professional” obligation to rail against a certain sub-genre of performance art, namely puppetry of the penis, which be believed set the entire art of puppetry back decades. Not to mention the penis. “We must always move forward, never backward!” he proclaimed amongst the other 4,820 words in a 4,827 word forum post on the topic. It was not taken well.
Someone, probably not the penile puppeteer himself, lured Paisley to a place of polarized fear using a cleverly-worded Craig’s List ad. When poor Paisley arrived at the abandoned amusement park, he found not a missed connection looking for love, but an emotional alchemist looking for ironic punishment. To mete out ironic punishment, that is.
Which is why, for the last thirty-two months and fourteen days, Paisley Dane had only ever traveled in reverse. He’d walked backwards, ridden the bus facing backwards, driven his car in reverse, and generally had a poor time trying to ride elevators.
He’d engineered all manner of excuses, from dragging heavy luggage around to wearing his clothes backwards and insisting that everyone else was crazy. He even learned how to moonwalk, so he could maneuver around the house in front of company without arousing their suspicion.
Their scorn, sure, but not their suspicion.
Which is why, when Paisley arrived at the House of Long Sighs, he looked like he was planning on moving in. Both his hands were lashed to a rolling suitcase as wide as the Rio Grande. During a brief period from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2008, it had been the flagship of Travelmaster’s now defunct “Monolithica” product line, whose value proposition had seemed to be, “Big enough for everything. Too big for your trunk.”
It was empty, of course, but he’d grown adept at pretending it wasn’t. He heaved and huffed, shuffling backwards down the sidewalk with his monolith rolling behind, until Coriander greeted him at the door.
“Let me help you with that,” he joked, patting Paisley on the back. “You know I wouldn’t dream of it. Come on. The Windmuellers are inside.”
Cursed to travel in reverse.
The House was a sagging two-story with uneven, creaking floors and layers of peeling wallpaper like the rings of a rotted redwood. Every curtain had been thrown open, but daylight could not penetrate the gloom. As Mrs. Windmueller liked to say, the sunbeams preferred to play outside.
The unhappy homeowners were standing in a sitting room, just to the left of the front door, because Mr. Windmueller had moved all the furniture into the basement, lest there be any breakage due to projectile vomiting or other poltergeist nonsense. Coriander held the door for Paisley, then joined them like he was walking on stage.
“There’s definitely a pall of polarized sadness up in here!” he proclaimed, slapping his hands together. “Do you have anything of the deceased’s?”
“What deceased? Who’s deceased?” They’d only been there twenty seconds and Mr. Windmueller was already fed up with this exorcism shit. “Nobody’s died here. Pogo’s still alive!”
“Pogo” was how the clown painter signed all her works. It was an odd nom de plume that she shared with another famous clown: John Wayne Gacy.
“It’s a figure of speech,” Coriander replied.
“No, it’s not.”
“People get a lot of things backwards,” the exorcist mused, causing Paisely to just about jump out of his skin. “Houses aren’t haunted because there are ghosts in them. They have ghosts in them because they’re haunted. When a place gets pushed too far toward sadness, it gets polarized, locked in, and certain psychic impressions get trapped in amber. People who suffered here, whether living or dead, their personalities turn up as ghosts. People like your favorite painter.”
“We do have something,” confessed Mrs. Windmueller. “It’s just upstairs. I’ll fetch it.”
Thus did poor Paisley end up standing in the empty sitting room of a haunted house dressed in purple clown pants, a red clown nose, and shoes the size of snow shovels. “Perfect,” Coriander claimed in defiance of all common sense and the word’s conventional definition. “Now, we’ve gotta get the ghost nice and riled up, generate a good charge. Mr. and Mrs. Windmueller, you might want to wait outside. Things can get… weird.”
“No thank you,” the man of the house declined. “No offense, but we’d like to see for ourselves where our money’s going.”
“Wow. I’m not used to all this adult supervision, but suit yourselves.”
The sunbeams preferred to play outside.
The exorcist picked up his fiddle. He pulled the bow slowly, teased a minor third, and the strings sobbed quietly. He hummed along until he found his melody, then began to sing. The lyrics told a story about a sad, sad man who suffered a sad, sad fate. A man who was cursed to travel only in reverse.
Now, Mrs. Windmueller was no fool, and she knew more about this occult bugaboo than she let on, and she was just starting to get suspicious when the ghost blew her socks off. Metaphorically, of course. The ghost literally pulled her socks off.
But first, all the doors in the house slammed closed at once. A wind whipped around the sitting room, blowing Paisley’s red nose off like the powerball in a lotto tumbler. Mr. Windmueller patted himself on the back for moving the furniture downstairs.
Second, the ghost of a not-dead clown painter materialized an inch from Coriander’s face, screaming like a banshee with a bull horn. The exorcist kept his eyes closed and played his song, getting around about to the part of the story were the cursed man met a sad woman who had the power to make things right. Shit got meta as fuck.
Third, the cellar door blew open and Mrs. Windmueller’s feet were yanked out from beneath her. She landed on her face, then clawed at the hardwood as an unseen force dragged her into the stairwell. She managed to wrap her panicked sausages around the doorframe and held herself against the spectral hands that whisked her handmade wool TARDIS socks down into the chilly depths.
She was already free when her husband bent down to help her up.
As Coriander let his last vibrato drift slowly into oblivion, the interior tornado died along with it. He gave Paisley the nod and the cursed man lifted one foot, hesitatingly placed it in front of the other, and yelped like an old timey prospector when it moved him a step in a forward-like direction. He took a few tours ‘round the sitting room before flying out the front door and running around the block for the rest of the afternoon.
“Mister Coriander!” The Windmuellers addressed him in stereo, then turned toward each other to negotiate who got the right to cuss him out first. The Misses, having suffered a bruise to her forehead, won the day.
“Mister Coriander, we told you that our house was NOT to be used for any… spellcasting or curse reversing or what have you!”
The exorcist picked up his fiddle.
“Yes, you’re completely right,” Coriander admitted. “My fault, entirely. Please, allow me to make it right.” He put the fiddle to his chin, switched to a major key, and quickened the tempo. His hum drifted up and down like a bicyclist over gentle, rolling hills.
This time, when the lyrics started, they were about a lonely, lonely woman living in a lonely, lonely house. Again, the ghost appeared, but now it paid no mind to the living. Instead, its Shit Period seemed to unwind around them in a carousel of depressing phantasmagoria…
… That time she threw herself a birthday party by pushing the dining room table up against the television and playing a VHS copy of Full House, season three. Sure, the birthday party was technically for Michelle, but the painter could pretend that Uncle Jesse and the gang were there for her.
… That time she passed out drunk on the couch and spilled all her vodka on the floor, and then mice came out and drank it all, and then they passed out drunk under the couch.
… That one Christmas when she wrapped household objects as presents and addressed them to imaginary people, but ran out of wrapping paper before getting to her own present, a non-stick frying pan, and had to just put it back in the cupboard.
… That Sunday when she ran out of vodka, so resorted to eating slices of raw potato with spoon-fulls of dietary yeast on top, hoping they’d ferment in her stomach.
… And, of course, the time she stuck her head in the oven, but didn’t turn the gas on high enough, so just fell asleep in there and woke up with grill marks on her face.
Coriander’s song crashed against these scenes like waves on a rising, cheerful tide until daylight suddenly and violently burst through the gloom, re-entering the house after decades in exile.
“That should do it,” Coriander assured the Windmuellers as he snapped his fiddle back in its case. They could already feel the difference. “You should have normal emotional range in here. Just try to keep things light for a few weeks.”
Somewhere in Florida, a woman who shared her name with a serial killer smiled a light-hearted smile and helped her roommate down off the trapeze.
Written by Daniel Bayn for Lauren DeSteno.