I don’t remember first meeting psychic medium Kae Schlisman of Fort Myers, Fla., but apparently I’d given her a tarot card reading at the little green table and chairs I set up for that purpose, on this occasion for Tivoli Day 2014. She got word to me that she’d love to grant me a reading in return, and that someone named Ellie from the spirit world was trying to contact me. Kae, you see, hears dead people. She doesn’t see them, like the little boy in “The Sixth Sense,” but the disembodied badger her with messages until she delivers.
Kae is in her mid-50s, tall, with curly brown hair and brown eyes that sometimes twinkle until they look blue (her seven older siblings all had blue eyes, and when she was a kid, people would stare at the others, then at her, and shout, “What the hell happened to you?!”). She herself admits she has a “cracker” Southern accent. She’s also funny and, in her contralto, sometimes gruff voice, she’s shockingly direct. That’s because she senses things none of the rest of us do.
Now some psychics say we’re all psychic, just undeveloped in that department. As someone who’s written a lot of true ghost stories (shameless commerce division: check out “Haunted Island” and “Vineyard Supernatural” at your local bookstore), I’ve discovered I’m a tad sensitive myself, but mostly because I’ve learned what to look for, as in, stop making “rational” excuses for those footsteps overhead, coming from the attic. Particularly when you have no attic.
After hearing about this unknown entity “Ellie,” I set up a date with Kae and her sidekick Bonnie Bonn, a nurse now living in Tennessee, also with a rich Southern dialect of her own, with perhaps a trace from the “hollers.” Bonnie has vacationed on the Vineyard every September for the past 32 years, and now she and Kae make an annual pilgrimage together.
Kae makes my own tarot readings look like a fortune teller’s booth that spits out one of two printed notices: “It’s in the cards” or “It’s not in the cards.” For one thing, she spends a good hour with you, in the process spreading out all 78 of her major and minor arcanas. But Kae’s tarot strikes you as more of a prop. She’s looking off into the middle distance and, on the afternoon she read my cards, she kept getting distracted by messages from “Ellie.”
“Ellie says you’ve got to turn out your lights before you leave the apartment.”
“Eilie wants you to eat more peanut butter. With that wretched vegetarian diet you’re on, you’re not getting enough protein.” She added, “That’s not me talking, that’s Ellie.”
I kept shrugging my shoulders. I knew who my guardian angels had to be: My dad who passed away 16 years ago, and my great-grandma Olga, whose portrait I keep close by, she in her Victorian wedding dress of ruffles, pearls, and a band of white flowers over her dark hair. But finally when Ellie told me to think of the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue,” I smacked my head.
“It’s my father!” I cried. “We always called him by his initials, L.E.M.! He even signed his letters to us that way!”
Okay, now here’s a still wilder story of how Kae introduced herself to Karen Coffey, owner of Pyewacket’s, the collectibles shop on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven; you know the place, with antique benches and a vintage tricycle spilling out to the curb. A few years back, on one of Kae and Bonnie’s autumnal visits, the two Southern gals passed Pyewacket’s, and Kae cried out in that timbre known as a rebel yell, “Turn around! We gotta visit that store!”
“Says who?” asked Bonnie.
“She’s in the back seat, and she’s pestering the stuffing out of me!”
Bonnie had known Kae too long to question how there could be a Penelope, or anyone else, including the ghost of Jefferson Davis, in the empty back seat. She hung a U-ey, and the ladies parked at Pyewacket’s. A young woman monitored the counter. Kae asked for the owner of the shop, and the girl said she was away. Kae scribbled a note to call her, at Penelope’s request, and shoved it across the counter.
Over the course of that year, the Fort Myers medium never heard from Karen Coffey, but she did receive an earful from Penelope, back in the car on the eve of the friends’ next trip to the Island. Kae called Bonnie without delay.
“She’s really bugging me, this Penelope! It’s nag-nag-nag, and all in an English accent! It’s driving me nuts! We’re gonna hafta make sure we get the message across this time!”
Bonnie reported that during this same phone call, Kae interrupted herself to holler over her shoulder, “And after I take care of this, I don’t ever want to hear from you again! You got that? We’re done here!”
On their subsequent visit to Pyewacket’s, Karen was there to greet them. Of course she wanted to hear from Penelope, a dear friend, a Brit expat, a designer of clothes, and a victim of breast cancer who’d succumbed to the disease the previous year. Kae finally disclosed the late friend’s urgent message: “Penelope wants you to know how grateful she was for the fundraiser you organized during her illness.”
Now Karen Coffey, also a tarot reader, has also encountered many personae of the Third Kind. When I first met her, back in ’93 when I was collecting stories for “Haunted Island,” she told me of her fateful summer renting the old Vanderhoop homestead in Aquinnah, known by some as “the most haunted house on Martha’s Vineyard.” Karen returned late one evening to behold a woman in black standing at the tippy-top of the steepled roof. So many other disturbances beset the seaside cottage that whenever Karen learned from her two roommates that they’d be away for the night, she made certain herself to avoid home, even if it meant hanging out until dawn at a pool hall.
So for the past several years, Karen and Kae and Bonnie and I have conducted coffee klatches based around tarot readings, goosebumpy ghost stories, and plenty of laughter — those Southern women are what they themselves would call “a kick in the pants!” For the latest visit, I asked Kae if she could pick up any spirits other than “Ellie” in my digs. I live in an adorable one-bedroom apartment, upstairs in what was once the Oak Bluffs library before it was left for a few years to sit in squalor and decay, perhaps to remind people that it wasn’t only in Beirut that buildings were left for opposing troops to shoot in and out of.
My front room was renovated with its elegant mansard-roof lines intact, with four windows overlooking gingerbread cottages and flower beds maintained by OCD gardeners. I’d painted the walls a pale green, and decorated it to within an inch of its shabby-chic life, but there’s something a little … off there, sometimes. I’ll feel a veil of melancholy slip over me. Here’s my Rorschach test for my mood: I have a giant sign on my wall from the inspirational gift shop Sanctuary, in Oak Bluffs, that says, in no uncertain terms, “THIS IS MY HAPPY PLACE.” Sometimes I look at that sign and affirm, “Yes it is!” On other occasions I go, “Enh.”
Blame it on a chronic mood disorder, but an opposing argument happens to be that I always feel fine — fine and dandy — in my bedroom.
I know a slightly haunted place when I live in it, and this front room is one of those. But what could ever have touched off a paranormal “ouchy!” in what for years had served as the head librarian’s office? Had an enraged reader charged up the stairs to roar, “I returned ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ seven weeks ago and you’re still charging me for it!” Bang! Bang! (Those are gunshots.) I doubt that anything so dramatic ever took place up here.
So on a recent weekend, Kae and Bonnie came over, and Karen Coffey joined us to contribute her own psychic two cents. Kae declared, the moment she sat down in my pink wicker rocker by the window, “It’s Joe! He was a custodian in this building. I can see him pushing a broom. He had a sad and miserable life.”
Karen added, “And a really bad marriage.”
Kae nodded: “His wife was a bitch. He hated his job and he hated his wife, and now he still returns from time to time to spread his negativity around.” Without any preamble or unnecessary detail, she told me to perform a cleansing ritual. “You know what to do, Holly. Next time you feel that sadness come over you, that means Joe’s back. Light a candle and send him to the Light.” She also recommended throwing into the mix the Lord’s Prayer: “That’s the most effective of all of them. It’ll get rid of him right away.”
I couldn’t resist telling a quick Lord’s Prayer anecdote about my Oak Bluffs friend Jaye Shelby, who grew up thinking God was named Harold because she heard, “Our Father who art in Heaven, Harold be Thy name.”
My company laughed. We talked some more shop about the supernatural. When it came time for Kae and Bonnie to leave, I handed the Fort Myers medium an earlier story I’d done for the paper about investigating a 100-year-old murder mystery. Remember? About the body of a woman found on the banks of Farm Pond? Scantily clad? Definitely dead? Fired as an au pair by a vacationing family?
I’d assembled local historian Chris Baer, my friend Sharon Kelly who loaned us her front parlor for reenacting an Agatha Christie reveal, and state trooper Dave Merkin, with whom we went over all the clippings from the original summer of 1916 about the tragic unsolved murder. Trooper Merkin gave us a thorough guide to the forensics that would have been deployed today, but he was under orders from his chain of command to point the finger at no one.
So what do you do when a cold case hits a wall? That’s right! You call in a psychic! Knowing now that Kae Schlisman, with Ellie and Penelope and Joe trailing behind her, is the real deal in mediumship, on a sudden impulse I handed her a copy of the article, asked her to read it on the ferry, and to contact me if anyone in particular popped out as the perp.
A few hours later, I picked up a voicemail on my Facebook message site. It was Kae sounding as if she spoke at the far end of a wind tunnel, like Kate Winslet on the prow of the Titanic. Her voice, almost incoherent and set to a bleak hill country burr, said, “Holly … [wind noise] it was the wife … the wife killed her.”
OK, now I gotta go get rid of Joe.
Holly Nadler will share her own stories about personal brushes with ghosts during her two decades of research into the paranormal, on Oct. 25, 6 pm, at the Oak Bluffs library.