On that cursed day when we ruined Wallace Cotts, the Ouija board inspector, we’d gathered near the sanding station to watch him press his ear to the glossy box top. Each box he inspected began this way, by listening to cardboard hollows for the spirits within. Next, he used his pinky fingers to gentle the top free. He fanned the new box aroma toward his nose, filled his lungs, closed his eyes, and balanced on one leg. Then, with eyes still closed, he grazed fingertips against the planchette’s point. He kissed the talking board’s right corner to sample the tang of fresh lacquer.

We, the women of the Ouija board assembly line, have always been the true heart behind production—the ink renderers, wood finishers, lacquer perfectionists. But Wallace claimed only he could unleash the everlasting entanglement. “Even simple assembly labor,” he told us while clutching Fiona’s calloused hands between his silk gloves, “can achieve the ethereal realms of greatness thanks to my talents.”

Maybe we wouldn’t have minded his arrogance so much if Marge hadn’t asked his hourly wage, and if he hadn’t told us, without hesitation, $29.50 next to our $9.35. We expect our seventy-eight cents on the dollar. We plan lives around the injustices that roll down every assembly line across this nation—forced to work on Christmas Eves, the foreman eyeing our legs during Shorts Fridays in summer, zip for childcare, zilch for healthcare, and Fiona hasn’t seen a doctor in ten years since that one time when she had no choice. Wallace’s $29.50 just tasted too bitter, worse than the burnt breakroom coffee.

Maybe we could’ve even dealt with the pay if the foreman hadn’t bellowed about low productivity levels. We pointed toward the logjam at Wallace’s station. His quality control dictated our rate of production, and he had twenty-six boxes stacked around him. The foreman said he’d dock our pay a quarter for every box under quota and then walked right by Wallace, who was chanting on one leg.

Wallace noticed us watching, his eyes meeting ours as his tongue flicked at a freshly lacquered moon on the talking board. He winked.

He was supposed to check for the planchette’s glide against the board, that it was smooth as ice, that we’d lacquered evenly and generously, that we sanded away any burrs on the wooden planchette. But quality control of earthly materials hardly concerned him, and we never missed a burr anyway. How disappointing to travel the ethereal planes to land on a maple slab. The least we could do was keep a brave voyager from getting a sliver. Wallace cared only about access. He’d lectured us in the break room while we downed our second burnt coffees and he swirled his Formosa red tea. “Give it your best, girls, and I’ll make the spirits sing.”

Board after board, he was reaching into the void. He preached it was like dredging a pond to test its depth before diving. Some he found too shallow, the planchette stubborn, the talking board short on words, and what joy could be had wading in a kiddie pool? Others opened up like oceans, endless eddies tugging his soul as the planchette zagged from letter to letter. These boards he marked for devolumizing. Three extra coats of lacquer usually muffled the roar—something about the lacquer layers, a direct relationship between sheen and spirit. The muted boards, though, those useless kiddie pools, he tossed directly into the trash. We’d keep the box, sneak the planchettes into our pockets. Our foreman monitored the trash bin with regular skepticism, but never complained to Wallace, only tallied up our pay docking. It was the inspector’s spiritual finesse, Wallace claimed, that kept our small-fish company from being swallowed by Hasbro. Anyone could spread ink. Anyone could carve a planchette. Only he, Grand Sorcerer of $29.50 Bullshit, was irreplaceable.

Maybe our revenge had something to do with the ridiculous boxes featuring Wallace’s picture on the front. The Ouija circuit and séance nuts knew him well. He donned the same getup at work that was featured on the box: black bowler cap, purple cape, pinstriped button-down. We wore the same navy blue polos and pale jeans. While we stowed our hair in nets, our eyes behind safety glasses, he sported a monocle on a pink-gold chain to peer through the planchette’s window.

Our pictures would never show up on a box. But sometimes, while we waited for Wallace, all of us penned our initials on a box’s inside. We hid our letters in a tiny corner. Wallace never noticed, but some kid would someday think she’d received a secret code from the beyond. It’s us, kids, the women from the line who truly make the spirits sing.

On the day of his ruin, his head tipped back to expose his vein-strained neck. His eyes rolled to whiteness as he channeled the dead. Nothing new, of course. He hummed something minor key and melodic. Marge guessed either “House of the Rising Sun” or Bach’s Fifth. Then Wallace initiated communing. His mom was his usual go-to first contact. We take solace knowing that when we someday die, we’ll finally have some time with our kids, though we pitied Wallace’s pestered mother. He called to her in a nagging chant, mothermothermothermother. He asked her who she watched Jeopardy with last night, her favorite post-mortem leisure activity. He asked if she was fighting with Agnes, who was apparently her roommate in death, which disappointed us since we all hoped to be unburdened by leases and cohabitation. He communicated with the maternal afterlife loud enough for our benefit: “Oh, dear Mother, of course I know you’re proud. I miss you, too, but take heart in knowing your son’s budding legacy.”

Next, he tuned to Javier. This rarely happened, only on good boards, on good days. Javier had died on the factory line when they used to make jeans here. Javier was always aggressive in his possession. Wallace’s spine contorted in sporadic seizures. Javier shouted for someone to wrench him from the riveter, and then he screamed for his wife. To tell her what, Wallace didn’t bother to reveal.

But on the last day, Wallace dove deeper, past Javier, into undiscovered loss. The foreman even entered the floor to watch when Wallace fell silent and dropped to his knees. He dragged his pinstriped belly across the floor. He slithered and writhed and babbled, overtaken by a spirit too strong for him. Fiona lurched to lift him from the floor, to soothe his crying, but we held her back.

Maybe we hadn’t really expected anything to happen. We’d just grown tired of Wallace’s breakroom lectures and sloth-paced production levels, tired of the foreman taking out on us women what was a fault of the single man on the assembly floor. Really, it was more like an experiment than malicious intent. The day prior, while waiting for Wallace to inspect two dozen boxes at his bottleneck, we pricked our fingers and bled one drop each into the ink, then printed the letters with pressed palms and prayers. We each spit into the lacquer and then whispered the name of our most beloved befallen—grandmothers and daddies and lovers and best dogs. We rubbed the box against our throats for good luck. The planchette we held against our hearts for our full, five-minute smoke break. We applied the lacquer thin as air, almost nothing to guard Wallace from our crafting.

Wallace lost the ability to walk that day, to talk, to hold his bowels. His eyes bulged wide as he seemed to discover his hands for the first time, his feet, the lights, the walls, the conveyor belt—all of it seemed a nightmarish wonder to him. He gurgled and tottered on his back, tried to escape his immobility. They say he gave up on the Ouija circuit after that. Sold his monocle and cape on eBay. He works at a call center now selling medical braces, making minimum wage plus commission.

And we subsist on the line. The same Ouija boards crank out, but now without hindrance. The foreman hides in his office, terrified to touch our boards. He can’t dock our pay any longer, and he gave us each a fifteen cent raise to keep our mouths shut about Wallace. But what would we say when we know too much?

On Wallace Cotts’s last day, we became more powerful than a corporate necromancer. The spirit we’d welcomed plunged deeper than ocean floor. We carried suspicions but couldn’t confirm until we picked the lock and studied the security camera footage. There, in grainy detail, we could just make out the planchette’s choreography atop the board where we knew the placement of every letter better than our own skin. He spelled out “B-A-B” and then his jaw opened to “Y.” Next the letters “Q” and then “U” and then “I” and then “N” and a final “N,” and that’s where he stopped. We knew the name that had almost been given by the one of us who’d almost given it. Fiona had taken the experiment too seriously, had clutched the planchette too tightly, had poured her beloved into this labor, and no man could handle a spirit heavy as that.

 

© Dustin M. Hoffman
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb, a part of his story collection No Good for Digging, printed with permission from Word West Press. Read Dustin’s interview]