There are, perhaps, few phrases in English as enigmatic and succinct as “truth or dare.” At once, a dizzying array of possible meanings come to mind, many of which involve actions and/or secrets of dubious value that are acted upon/uttered during drunken revelries best left behind in the heydays of youth. There is often (though not always) an unspoken rule that what happens in a game of “Truth or Dare,” stays in “Truth or Dare,” similar to “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” For the most part, this is sound advice; how many of us genuinely gained solace from sharing our personal truths to mere acquaintances at a party? How much regret was had the next day on the dares we acted upon, however innocuous in the present? At best, both truths stated and dares completed are long forgotten by all involved, both fading with time. However, I would wager an alternate view: it is the truths and dares we offer ourselves, as personal challenges, that should be remembered, as signposts of how far we have journeyed in our lives. One such “truth and dare” in my own life is what I call “the Money Ghost.”
Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone
-Edgar Allan Poe, “Spirits of the Dead”
It was the summer of 1995, and I was with my middle school class on a field trip in downtown Baltimore. We walked the Burial Grounds of Westminster Hall in the sweltering heat of early June. It was nearly the end of the school year, and I, like the rest of my class, was looking forward to the summer break, weary of the mental toil of grade school. Unlike my classmates, however, who were bored with our location and couldn’t wait to visit the Baltimore Zoo afterwards, I was shaking with barely contained excitement as I crossed the threshold of the cemetery gates into the Burial Grounds, for here one of my idols was buried: the unparalleled writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe.
After my best friend Colin had disappeared suddenly the previous summer, along with his family, I was despondent with loneliness for several months. By chance, after his disappearance that summer, I also discovered a book of the entire collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, and was inspired by the sorrow and loneliness of Poe’s prose, which so closely mirrored my own at the time (Poe’s “The Raven” needs no introduction). The raw terror of his short stories, captured in classics like “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” fascinated me. I read my favorites, including “Mask of the Red Death” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” several times, intrigued by Poe’s visual narratives and the emotional intensity imbued in his work. Thus vivified, I began writing in earnest, daring myself to write as much as I could every day, to match the art of my idol’s profession.
The truth of Colin’s absence continued to hang like a cloud over my neighborhood, and I could no longer enjoy biking or rollerblading past his house without the shadows of grief lancing through me, the moment of seeing his empty house, and along with it the finality of his disappearance, flashing again in my mind each time I passed it on the street. Like a truth shared with strangers, I could not take back the fact that my best friend was gone, nor could I stop missing him.
I felt in Poe’s own grief, through his poems like “Annabelle Lee,” a kindred spirit, knowing that he likely would have understood. So I followed through my dares, writing my own bad poetry, filling entire spiral notebooks with short stories and essays. They weren’t good, and I knew I could barely get close to Poe’s level of skill, but I clung to his works like a lifeline. They reminded me I had an entire life ahead of me.
Walking through the Burial Grounds, I looked around with rapt attention, seeking out the object of my fascination: Poe’s headstone in the corner of the cemetery grounds, where elegant marble wrapped about a terse, thoughtful likeness of his face. Originally unveiled in 1875, his name was scrawled in large letters across the front of the headstone.
I noticed a curious sight: pennies lined the edges of the lower columns of the headstone, and more pennies had been placed face upon the edges of the marble above Poe’s face. I made a note to ask the caretaker later as I walked with the rest of the class into the entrance to the Catacombs, reluctantly walking farther away from the headstone, feeling pulled back towards it by some sort of invisible current. I pushed down a sense of growing unease, made all the stronger by the darkness of the Catacombs as I funneled into the coolness of the chamber behind the other kids.
The caretaker was a tall man with a kindly face, lined with a white beard, and he smiled brightly. He talked about the history of Westminster Hall and the Burial Grounds, and his stories conveyed his enthusiasm for his work. All of us kids listened in rapt attention, and the red stonework of the abbey seemed suddenly imbued with years of history. Towards the end of the discussion, I dared to raise my hand, fighting my own painful shyness and the gazes of my classmates, whose attention I normally couldn’t stand. However, I had to know about the pennies on Poe’s grave. The caretaker smiled at my question.
“Many people believe leaving pennies on Edgar Allan Poe’s gravestone will bring good luck,” He said.
“Some people say they even grant wishes. But whatever you believe, or not, approach the headstone with respect. This is a resting place of many famous and well-respected people.”
Thus cautioned, we were herded out to explore the Burial Grounds before going to the zoo. I walked straight to Poe’s headstone, my hand closing around a few coins in my pocket that I had brought for spending money. Standing before the monument, I paused to gather my thoughts while fishing three pennies out of my pocket.
I was scared to place the coins on the gravestone, fearing the possibility of offending my idol’s memory in a vague selfish desire for “good luck,” and yet desperately wanting to mark this connection I felt that I had to him in some way. My mind racing, I knew if I didn’t dare to do this now I would regret it. So I lifted the coins and gently placed them one by one on the marble ridge above the carving of Poe’s likeness. As I did so, I thanked him silently for the genius and beauty of his works, thanking him for leading me to writing and to my own creativity.
Afterwards, I stood back, expecting some sort of reaction, but all I felt was the peace of the cemetery and the grace of the elegant chapel rising above it like a stone guardian. I felt sheepish then, foolish for believing the superstitions of others, though I also wondered if there were mysterious things to be discovered out in the world, like the secrets in Poe’s stories, and that wonder gave me hope for the future.
Taking one last look at the headstone, I headed to the school bus and the zoo.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish
-Edgar Allan Poe, “Spirits of the Dead”
Amidst the company of my peers and the incredible animals of the Baltimore Zoo, I managed to forget about Edgar Allan Poe and the emotional weight of visiting the cemetery. It was after I had lunch and was thinking of visiting the gift shop that I realized I had spent all the money my parents had given me for the trip. Shrugging, I resigned myself to just looking in the shop when, in that heat of early summer, I felt a peculiar chill envelop me.
For half a minute, I was cold like I stood in freezing snow, and I couldn’t move. There was a ringing in my left ear like a distant chime, strange but clear, and my feet felt heavy like a great weight had been placed on them. Just as suddenly, the feeling lifted, and the heat rushed back around me like nothing had happened.
I looked down: at my feet sat a crisp, brand new 20 dollar bill. I reached down to pick up the note with a shaking hand. I called out, asking if anyone had dropped it; a few people turned their heads, staring at me in puzzlement. I stared at the bill; no one had claimed it, so therefore it was mine.
I immediately thought of the pennies I had placed on the gravestone at the Burial Grounds. Was this what the caretaker had meant by “good luck”?
I tried to explain it away with reason: there were thousands of people at the zoo, and anyone could have dropped the money if it hadn’t been secured. Secretly, however, I hoped it was all connected in some benevolent fashion. I thought of all the feelings of wonder that Poe attempted to convey in his works, at witnessing or experiencing something entirely unknown and beyond human experience. I could not possibly explain to myself what had just happened to me, the utter strangeness of it all, and yet I was not troubled. I decided to keep an open mind, and not to label it. So I bought an ice cream with the 20 dollars, and pocketed the rest.
I wandered the rest of the zoo grounds smiling, resolving not to worry about it anymore. Walking towards the elephant enclosure, I patted my pocket to make sure the bills were still there, and once again I felt cold all over. Unable to move for a few moments, the same ringing in my left ear, and a pressure on my feet. I looked down: at my feet there was a 1 dollar bill, also brand new. As the pressure and ringing evaporated suddenly, I picked up the dollar bill and didn’t even bother calling out. I felt like this was confirmation I was meant to have this experience, for whatever reason.
I continued with my day, enjoying the sights. Finally as my classmates and I made ready to leave, we made one last stop at the giraffes enclosure, and I fished for a quarter to use the viewfinder to see the giraffes up close. At that moment, again I heard the distant chime, the pressure on my feet, though strangely there was no sense of cold. Immediately I looked at my feet, where there was a brand new 5 dollar bill. I picked it up and stared. The money had appeared so fast, and I wasn’t close to anyone, so if someone had dropped it, I surely would have seen it happen. I figured it all had to be connected. It had happened three times; three times for three pennies!
The whole thing was so weird, and at first I didn’t tell anyone. I figured no one would believe me. Even now, I am reluctant to tell this story at all. And yet, at the time I was comforted that it happened. I felt that I was somehow acknowledged. Like the weighing of the heart by Osiris in the mythology of ancient Egypt, the intent of my heart had been judged and I had not been found wanting; I had not selfishly sought my own luck without thought of whose lives were honored at the Burial Grounds. It all seemed epic and captured my imagination. I eventually spent the bills, but the memory of what happened that day has inspired me all the years after. More importantly, my love for writing has never diminished.
In everyone’s life, there are truths to acknowledge, and dares to be done. The ones we provide ourselves are no less valuable, no less epic, even though they come from within. Perhaps life is composed of a tapestry that conveys its own mysteries in unconventional ways. As Poe wrote in his poem “Spirits of the Dead”:
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!