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Rules for the Contest
Words and Image by J. Ray Paradiso
Before I bare my soul, it’s important for me to disclose, UP front, that I'm not easily scared, don't believe in ghosts and pray I had enough hair on my head to raise. But don't.
A lover of Arctic haute couture, I might be haunted by my favorite penguin-nun, if I didn't confess, however, that waddling 1, 2, 3…25 steps across the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River, like metronoming to a telling Grateful Dead CD, leaves me really breathless, and fretting about Social Security always leaves me trembling and aghast.
Will kids be telling my story around campfires for years to come? How do I know? What I can tell you is that the rules for "The Great Chicago Ghost Story Contest" may, I said may, have put to rest a haunting question for at least this aging kid.
My tale begins and ends with my Mother and our curious relationship. You see, she was sometimes mistaken for my older sister, and we often challenged each other like dueling banjoes. After her untimely marriage and Stephen King divorce, she competed, perhaps contested, for my affection with her parents, who raised me.
Mentioned by name in the title of Eric Clapton's favorite love song, Lala, she attended Chicago’s Santa Lucia Grammar School on South Wells and Englewood High School at 62nd and Stewart. Although she worked at the Lill Coal Company in administrative posts, she most enjoyed her hobbies: puzzles, astrology and word games. She died on her 60th birthday, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery on North Clark Street.
An accomplished piano player and published song writer, my Mother performed in and around the Chicago area, and "Stardust" Greene recorded one of her songs, The Hard Way. She also subscribed to Dell's Horoscope magazine and belonged to the American Association of Astrologers. Most of her free time, however, was consumed by word games including Jumble, Scrabble and Crytoquote.
On the day she died, we talked through her last breath. She told me stories about growing up in Chicago, surviving my Father, enjoying her work and why she didn't raise me, breathlessly, like a spent can of air freshener. Most of all, she talked about her beloved hobbies especially playing word games, while alluding heartbreakingly to a competition with her parents for my love and her trembling submission to their unpublished rules for the contest.
Something else she said, spontaneously, like the alarm of a carbon monoxide detector, kinda scared me: "Jimmie, after I die, I'll haunt you." I didn't question her at the time. I thought I misunderstood. But, for years to come, I often wondered what she meant, especially after Googling her scary verb’s definition - HAUNT Function: verb 1 a : to visit often : frequent b : to continually seek the company of 2 a : to have a disquieting or harmful effect on : trouble <problems we ignore now will come back to haunt us> b :
to recur constantly and spontaneously to <the tune haunted her> c : to reappear continually in <a sense of tension that haunts his writing> 3 : to visit or inhabit as a ghost.
As if a freshly lit campfire, my curiosity was inflamed by the impact of “haunt’s” language, especially when read aloud, totally. Did she mean she'd often visit me, have a harmful or disquieting effect on me, visit or inhabit me as a ghost, continually seek my company, recur constantly and spontaneously, reappear continually?
Sunday, October 18, 2009, my 60th birthday, broke drearily. About 6 a.m., I made coffee, fed my cat and trudged down the drive way toward the Chicago Tribune. On page 12 in the ARTS and Entertainment section to the right of my horoscope (Libra - "You know exactly what you want."), I found the rules for "The Great Chicago Ghost Story Contest." Demonically, a midnight downpour soaked through the wrap around the newspaper. Some words were broken, and others were missing. Eerily.
Tell us a scary story
Breaking news: Rod _____________has _____________ the __________ office!
OK, now ________you're really scared. Talk ghost story. The best ghost story in Chicago. A ________story that leaves you breathless ______ trembling ____ aghast. A _____ story that kids __________________ around campfires FoR years tO coMe. A real hair RAISER!
Who's Going to wRite it? You Are.
The rules for "The Great Chicago Ghost Story Contest" are simplE.
Your originaL, previously _________________ must:
o Be _____________ Around ______Chicago _______.
o Mention ________________ Chicago-area locale or ___________. (____ example: "The Witches of "________" or "___ DemoN From Damen Avenue" or "The Ghost From the " _______or "From _______________ to ____ Tribune.")
o Be no longer than _____ words. (Story _______________count toward your Word total.)
o Be _______ to prInt in __ family newspaper. (____ demons musT watcH their Language.)
o Reach __ by midnight ChicagO time, _________2009.
Only e-mail ______________ will be accepted. E-mail ______________ to________. No attachments, ________; paste ______________story into the body of your ___________________ are not eligible; howeVer, anybody Else ________ .
The ghostly L-E-T-T-E-R-S satisfied my curiosity like handful of Lay’s potato chips. Temporarily. But, in time, my puzzled and puzzling question remained.
And, a new question arose like a stubborn pimple after a failed two-finger squish. Was she trying to win my love by gaming her parents’ unwelcomed rules for their contest?
I think I know. But, do I? Really?