MARCH 15, 2020
This short story is in Mary South’s new collection You Will Never Be Forgotten, as well as the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25
Before relatives could ruin our fun with anecdotes, my wife and I made a game of guessing the histories of the dead. There was Greg, who was convinced that when he wore his bifocals with owls on the rims that he could decode messages from outer space in his crossword puzzle. And Beth became bored with knitting scarves, so her many amorphous blobs of yarn were chastity belts for retirees with arthritic hips. Dan was aroused by the sight and smell of cocktail olives, but the effectiveness of old jars wore off eventually, which was why he had so many jars of cocktail olives. Yolanda crafted those paper cranes out of the obituaries she recognized.
What pathos we inflicted upon the deceased’s potted plants. Once, we discovered a closet filled with golf balls. Upon their inadvertent release, the golf balls sprang around the foyer like giant popcorn kernels that refused to bloom.
“He was a sportswriter,” I said. “He kept a golf ball for every tournament he was assigned to cover for his paper.”
“He had that disorder that compels you to eat objects,” she replied. “This is his food.”
The owner had been a woman who hunted for golf balls while she took long walks to think about God. Her son explained this to us while sobbing, so we kindly inquired whether we should dispose of the golf balls for him, and he whimpered, “No, thanks, I’ll take them to the range.”
“His mom’s going to be mad he got rid of those balls by working on his swing,” I said after he was out of hearing range at the golf range. “What if that means she can’t move on?” I can recommend a reputable moving company, but not one prepared to move the incorporeal.
“Where are my Titleists?” my wife spooky-joked. “Where are they, Gary?”
It was me who ruined our fun by debating the ethics of reaping a profit from haunted properties. Did we have an obligation to list ghosts on the condition assessment?
“Even the dead need a qualified professional,” she reasoned.
Her practical wisdom was why I married my wife. Thus, when I was touring a listing to take inventory — black mold, alas, but crown molding, hallelujah — and there was a dachshund in the refrigerator, I immediately texted my wife to get her opinion: Hey, honey, found a dachshund in the refrigerator. A ghostly ellipsis surprisingly indicated she indeed had an opinion about this development, and after an eternity, she texted back: Dick pic? I complied, from astonishment, and snapped a photo down my pants. But I wasn’t expecting a text because, like those whose houses we sold, my wife is also dead.
Now send me the dachshund, she texted.
I sent her the dachshund.
Since I am a professional, I should confess that I have never seen a ghost. The closest I have come to a ghost is a sonogram, which is the opposite of a ghost, the presaging of a life, unless the life is never born. With my wife’s miscarriages, my sales slipped until I was ranked last. When you’re last, you get what no one wants; in the case of Florida real estate, that was the weird homes of the elderly, recently dear and departed. To pass the time, my wife, herself a trained realtor on leave, read ghost stories aloud, and we had a lot of time to pass in no-show showings where a ghost would have been a welcome relief from the drudgery — a good name for an evil spirit, Drudgery. “One should accept ghosts very much as one accepts fire,” my wife read from a book by Robert von Ranke Graves, his actual name. “It is not really an element, not a principle of motion, not a living creature — though a house can catch it from its neighbors. It is an event.”
Fair enough, Rob, but if ghosts are events, then each instant counts as a ghost. The car accident that killed my wife is a ghost. Rumor has it that there’s an astronomer ghost who occupies the derelict telescope at the Ritter Planetarium at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Celestial light is what’s left of stars long extinguished, so the stargazer ghost is a ghost observing ghosts. And when a comet cuts its wake through the black, it’s called an apparition. Science, too, it seems, supports the notion that everything is ghostly.
If you are my wife, I texted, what advice did you give to women who were desperate to become pregnant?
When I first got pregnant, she texted back, I thought I was turning into a werewolf.
Do you think werewolves get premenstrual syndrome but for becoming a werewolf in addition to regular premenstrual syndrome?
I think female werewolves go into heat. They don’t have periods. So they don’t experience premenstrual syndrome. But the general werewolf population gets premenstrual syndrome for changing into a werewolf and that’s why werewolves are a matriarchal society.
Maybe you are my wife.
You are not my husband.
The deceased with a grand piano in perfect tune and without a trace of dust was easy — concert pianist, I concluded. But he didn’t fulfill his dream of playing Carnegie Hall, therefore he returns as a ghost night after night to practice his Rachmaninoff. I was so lazy, unlike that pianist ghost I invented. My wife could be a harsh ghost critic. Where was my imagination? Clearly, this owner had been devoured by the piano.
Look at it, she insisted, doesn’t it look hungry? Speaking of imagination, I said, you always go for the meals!
Tinkly piano music kept coming from a place that was and wasn’t the piano. My wife and I started to fear the piano truly was possessed, but then the niece of the deceased informed us that there was a school for gifted children down the street. Sometimes we forgot there were children in Sarasota County, despite trying to have our own. We strolled to the school for gifted children, and outside there were boys fishing in a construction hole, though we didn’t know if they were gifted boys. Gators sunned themselves in the hole, and my wife told me it was a shame the gators weren’t wearing those yellow construction hats. But alligators are so tough already, I argued, they’re like a big construction hat.
The youngest boy caught a fish that resembled garbage. Unfortunately, after the fish had swallowed the hook, the pointy end punctured through its eye. This made the boy sad, so an older, freckled boy muscled the fish from him, yanked out the hook, and punctured it through the fish’s other eye. Pliny the Elder attested in his Natural History that ghosts despise people with freckles, so I whispered to my wife, “Pliny the Elder.” She demanded the freckled kid hand over the fish, and she tossed it into the water after removing the hook. My wife was always performing small kindnesses, such as saving fish. As we left, I tried to make her feel better by saying, “We will never have a son who is a bully.” And she replied, “I don’t care if he’s a murderer.”
According to the Saxons, the woman who routinely miscarries may be visited by the ghosts of the children she has lost. In the Lacnunga, a book of their folk remedies, a charm is suggested: let the woman who cannot nourish her child take part of her own child’s grave, wrap it in black wool, and trade it to merchants, then say, “I sell it, you buy it, this black wool and this seed of grief.” The child’s grave is the miscarried child.
If you are not my wife, I texted, then who are you?
Were you aware that you can make enough money to pay your mortgage, she texted back, by searching the internet for rich assholes who are too busy to procrastinate? I keep the best results for myself.
What are some of your searches?
How to avoid rectal prolapse. Names for fruit in foreign languages. Words in which the word “wild” is contained. How to hire a clown. Trauma and brain chemistry. The most famous great ape. Guilt from lying to a dementia patient. If you are in an airplane and it crashes, will you feel pain at impact?
Famous great apes, please.
You’ll have to pay.
Happy to pay for premium great ape information.
Or you could tell me who you are. I am a realtor to the damned.
When we beheld the oil paintings of teeth with sexy ladies — models leaning on fillings as on the hoods of cars, chanteuses in sequined gowns draped on the lunar landscapes of crowns — I asked my wife, “What the fuck?”
“This was a psychopath,” she replied.
“Should we check under the floor for bodies?”
“Knock yourself out, but you know how I feel about mouths. Dentists should be forbidden from putting illustrations of smiling teeth holding toothbrushes on their awnings. Everybody acts like it’s normal, but it would be like if you went to the bathroom in a restaurant and the sign was an overjoyed bladder pissing in a toilet. I have questions. Do the teeth have teeth? Do they floss?”
The paintings were donated to charity, except for the one we kept — our favorite redhead in a red bikini. She hung over our sectional and made an excellent conversation piece for guests. We proposed names: Leonora, Gertrude, Remedios, Sylvia, Eileen. Nothing stuck, so we ended up referring to her as Portrait of a Woman with Second Molar.
In the pantheon of ghosts, there is a veritable pageant of unearthly ladies. Should they be categorized by region? By era? By age? (It is indecorous to query a lady, especially a spectral lady, how old she is.) As the attendant pulled down the white sheet over my wife’s face in the hospital morgue and I confirmed, “Yes, that is her,” I remembered those many brides filled with rage behind their ephemeral veils. But they shouldn’t be summed up merely by the hue of their muslin and lace.
Let’s not be coy, I texted. I’d like to take you out on a date.
How about the Denny’s in Siesta Key?
Denny’s it is. I will treat you to a Denver omelet.
I don’t want to be committed to Denver.
Please, feel free to choose any metropolitan-area omelet that you crave. But before we meet, can you confirm whether or not you are my wife?
Guy, I got a new plan, and my carrier randomly assigned me this number.
As I conducted my test of the taps to determine whether the plumbing was functional in the Reluctant Gambler’s condo, we learned we were in the direct path of the hurricane. The Reluctant Gambler was dubbed the Reluctant Gambler on account of his stacks and stacks of scratch-off lottery tickets that weren’t scratched off. Hurricane Frida had altered course almost impossibly — or quite possibly, in keeping with the capricious habits of hurricanes. My wife and I hid in a walk-in closet with a dialysis machine that was also in hiding. We hoped to wait out the storm the way we endured our open houses: with ghost stories.
Saint Louis of France, my wife read, was a very religious king. Due to his piety or simply because he was nice, he donated a manor near Paris to monks from the Order of Saint Bruno. The monks were not resentful in the slightest that right next door was the Palace of Vauvert, a residence of superior majesty. Vauvert didn’t have a reputation for ghosts, yet after the monks arrived, reports circulated that it was home to the ghost of a bearded man in robes who shrieked obscenities. When word of these goings-on reached the king, he was appalled and inquired if the monks had heard about the phantom neckbeard. The monks expressed their sympathetic shock and disgust and promised the king that, in exchange for taking up residence, they would exorcise the ghost. Relieved, Louis had a deed drawn up that designated the Palace of Vauvert the official abode of the monks of Saint Bruno. The devoted monks, if they ever did encounter the ghost, at least did not complain.
“Pretending to be ghosts could be our side hustle,” I said to my wife.
“I’m not sure anyone will believe we’re a couple of 13th-century monks,” she replied.
Hurricane Frida made landfall while my wife continued to read, and I offered her my senses if not my interest. The tides were rising and rising — I was convinced that we would drown in that condo, though in my mind the dialysis machine floated peacefully out the front door and into the canals. Ultimately, the storm spared the condo of the Reluctant Gambler, but the rest of the block was the picture of a haunting. I kept quiet and didn’t mention again how it was lucky we didn’t have children, how the world was getting worse, the floods hotter, the summers higher. My wife was a cheerful person until confronted with the suffering of the vulnerable or crushing desire, at which point she became cheerful beyond comfort. She would probably bring up Lewes Lavater’s lament, in 1572, in Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght: “The world waxeth worse and worse. Men are now more impudent, more dould, more couetous, and more wicked, than euer they were in times past, and their ghostes doe but followe in deede.”
At Denny’s in Siesta Key, I wore a rose in my lapel like an idiot, requested a booth, and drank a cup of coffee. I drank another cup of coffee, and I got the jitters. The woman who had my dead wife’s phone number didn’t appear, and I wished my wife were there to read me ghost stories while I waited for the woman who had her number.
I’m in a booth at Denny’s, and I’m wearing a rose in my lapel like an idiot, I texted.
I’m sorry, she texted back. I’ve been gathering up my courage to leave my bed and come to Denny’s. The truth is that I moved here to get away from someone, someone who hurt me very badly. I just can’t meet a strange man right now, I’m sorry.
I understood, I told her. Don’t be sorry.
The ancient Greeks divided ghosts into several types: idolon, aoroi, ataphoi, umbra, larva, lemure, imago, plasma, effigy, mane,muliebris. Canadians have their windigos and the Inuit their angiaks. The Japanese, their voluptuous, vulpine kokitenos. As long as there is space and time and real estate, there will be ghosts. There are ghosts who distress, ghosts who simply wish to impress, and ghosts here to redress their crimes; there are poltergeist ghosts who play pranks, housekeeper ghosts who clean without thanks, avaricious ghosts who rob banks; there are ghosts of the theater, ghosts of the opera, ghosts of the cinema; there are ghostly miners digging in coal-stained overalls; there are ghostly bakers preparing ectoplasmic croissants; there are ghostly surgeons performing ghostly operations; there are ghosts inhabiting ghost towns in the American West; there are ghostly traveling circuses and ghosts on skates circling roller rinks, and gleeful ghosts sledding down wintry slopes; there are ghosts dancing across the floors of the Ozone Disco in the Philippines who were dancing in the club when it collapsed; there are ghostly hotel guests and ghostly bellhops; there are ghosts in tennis matches, the ghost of a jockey galloping on top his horse at Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong, and the ghost of Andrew Irvine, who perished ascending Everest in 1924 and has stayed to assist struggling mountaineers; there are ghostly deep-sea divers who succumbed to the bends, strapped onto ghostly oxygen tanks; there are ghosts who operate ghostly ships, dirigibles, and trains; there is my text-message ghost; then there is the ghost of my wife.
We didn’t discuss what we would be like as ghosts ourselves, or, when one of us died, if we would return to haunt the bereaved spouse. I imagine I would be a rather bumbling spirit, unsure whether to stay or leave, and in the interim I’d try to be helpful by organizing the pantry or tossing junk mail. My wife, however, would not have opted to become a ghost — she was — the decider in our relationship — but by refusing to let go of our ghost hobby I was turning her into one, an entity in my mind that was and was not my wife. A memory is altered each time it is recollected, so whenever I long for my wife I lose her more and more. That’s another fact in support of the existence of ghosts: for what could be more ghostly than missing someone so intensely that you can no longer remember her as she was?