“There’s a ghost in this house,” says Monica.
“Stop it,” says Nell, holding her palm up flat.
Just outside the window, beside a low, bare hemlock branch, a ghost is listening.
Most people imagine ghosts as the leftovers of cancelled lives, but, in fact, they are only possible lives that never happened. That doesn’t mean ghosts exist, however. They don’t. Possibilities exist. And life is dense with possibility. But as long as something is only possible, it is nothing. Ghosts sorrow. They are haunted by the lives they might have lived. Their longing has no end.
“I’m serious,” says Monica.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” says Nell.
“The first wife of the man who built this house,” says Monica, “had only one name: Mercy. She is buried in the Methodist cemetery, not far from the grave of the man, his second wife, and their children. On Mercy’s gravestone there is only her one name and an inscription, ‘Consort of Ezra West, as discrete in death as she was in life.’ On the census records she is Ezra West’s wife, but on her gravestone she is only a consort. That’s because she was a slave. They fell in love in Connecticut when they were teenagers. They ran off together. This was the frontier in those days, and they thought that here they could live together as they pleased. But they were wrong. More white people came, and Mercy had no place among them. She was discrete. She was unfailingly polite, and kind. When she died, Ezra West believed she had died of heartbreak, but what she really died of was outrage. That’s why she is still here. That’s why she will haunt this land even after the house is gone.”
It is bedtime. All the lights are off. Nell and Monica are standing at the bottom of the stairs, moonlight shining through the window.
“Why are you telling me this?” says Nell.
Nell and Monica, each alone in her bed, hear footsteps downstairs. Monica is sure a ghost is pacing around the dining room table. Nell doesn’t believe in ghosts, but even so she hears what seems to be a ghost pacing the hall at the bottom of the stairs, and is terrified. She can’t help herself. At the moment, her terror has yet to escalate to panic, and so is manageable. But she doesn’t know what she will do if she should hear footsteps on the stairs. Her room is at the top of the stairs, first door on the right. Nell knows many things. She knows that the footsteps are matters of tension and release. Like earthquakes. This is what she tells herself, lying flat on her back in her bed, staring into the dark. At night the thin floorboards cool faster than the beams supporting them, and thus contract more rapidly. The tension between floorboard and beam builds and builds until the force of the contraction exceeds the resistance of the friction, and then, ever so slightly, with an audible crack, the board pulls back. Tension released, the cycle begins again. And because the board cools at a steady rate, the audible cracks come at regular intervals—tonight, like footsteps; other nights, like the straining of ship’s timbers. Nell has transformed the ghost into basic physics and pieces of wood, but her fear is undiminished. If the footsteps should mount the stairs, and if the knob of her door should start to turn, she does not know what she will do. And she does not know which prospect frightens her more: the ghost itself, or what the undeniable reality of the ghost would tell her about everything she has ever believed. Eventually it is morning, and Monica says, “Mercy paces in the dining room because she couldn’t sit at the table with the white guests, and so had to behave as if she was the servant.”
“How do you know that?” says Nell. “You can’t possibly know that!”
Nell is a zoologist. She is wearing hiking boots, shorts and a tank top, and has binoculars, a digital recorder, and a camera with a massive telephoto lens hanging by straps from her neck. She is up to her shins in fiddlehead ferns, and the ghost is hovering slightly behind her. The ghost doesn’t have a name, but had she existed, she would have been Nelly—so Nelly will do. Nelly envies Nell’s physical reality. She watches Nell’s chest rise and fall as she breathes. She notices the faint sheen of perspiration on Nell’s honey-and-buttermilk skin. She notices how the droplets of perspiration on Nell’s upper lip are warped by the pale filaments of the all-but-invisible down amidst which they emerged. Nelly has absolutely no relationship with the physical world. The breeze does not eddy around her. She cannot draw air into her lungs. She cannot sweat—not merely because she has no body, but because she can be neither hot, nor cold, nor anything between. Nell, by contrast, is a thing among things. Her feet press the earth and the earth presses back. All around her, sunbeams drop between the branches of trees and burst into ragged agglutinations of emerald brilliance. One sunbeam touches her leg at her knee, imparting to it, not just brilliance, but clarity. The corrugations of the rough skin at that place where her shin becomes her kneecap stand out like sand dunes at sunset. Another beam touches the back of her head, making her coffee-black dreads glisten, turning a droplet of moisture, just fallen from a leaf tip, into an iridescent gleam, ringed by radiant needles. Nelly doesn’t only envy Nell’s physicality, she wishes that she could be Nell—but Nell with a difference. Nelly would like to be a Nell who would relish without restraint every glorious instance of her being. Nelly would like to be the Nell who Nell would be if she were Nelly.
“Roger called while you were out this afternoon,” says Monica. “He asked if it would be okay to come for a visit. I said sure.”
“What!” says Nell. “Are you fucking kidding me! Are you out of your fucking mind!” Nell drops into a chair, and flings her chest, arms and head onto the kitchen table. Her voice has gone wobbly. “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you did that!”
“Oh, come on, Nells-Bells! You know this is just what the doctor ordered.”
There are different kinds of possible lives, some so close to the actual that their not having come to pass seems almost an accident: I am a mammalogist, but I could have been an entomologist. Others are so distant from the actual that they seem little more than thought experiments: I am a mammalogist but I could have been a luna moth. The most disturbing ghosts, however, are not usually those closest to reality. After all: I am a mammalogist, but I could have been an entomologist—Who cares? Whereas: I chose respectability, but, had I stayed with you, I might have lived in bliss—That’s a wail at midnight. It cannot be ignored.
Nell and Monica were roommates for two years in college. Then Monica dropped out to sing with a rock band and do heroin. The band got signed and toured the world for seventeen months. One night in Buenos Aires, Monica shot up, vomited and inhaled her vomit. She only survived because, while waiting for the ambulance, the bassist performed the Heimlich maneuver on her repeatedly, and with such force he broke her ribs. Now she lives in her great grandmother’s house on the edge of a forest and teaches yoga to senior citizens. When Nell told her she wanted to study the vocal communication of foxes, Monica said, “Then come here! There are foxes everywhere. You go out at night and you can hear them shrieking to each other up and down the mountain, especially in June.” That was in September. One of the main reasons Nell wanted to take Monica up on her offer was that she and Monica had hardly seen each other over the last decade, and she missed their old friendship. Monica was full of fun. Monica was more alive than anyone Nell knew. Then it was June, and Nell hardly cared about Monica or the vocal communication of foxes. All she wanted was to get away from Roger. Roger, who once asked, as they crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, “If I jumped off, would you follow me?” Who, after they were well into a bottle of Knob Creek, liked to say to her, “What if this was our last day on earth? What if we agreed that we were going to kill ourselves tomorrow, and right now was all we had left?” She didn’t like him when he talked that way. It was all a sort of joke, she told herself. A thought experiment. He was a drama king. Then there was the night he placed a pistol on the top of his dresser and said, “Tomorrow we’re each going to put this to our heads and pull the trigger.” He was smiling, so she thought he was just being an asshole. “You don’t believe me, do you?” he said. Then he laughed. “But first we’re going to fuck,” he said. “And it will be the last fuck of our lives. And it will be like the first fuck of our lives, only better. We’re going to fuck like we’ve never fucked before.” She was so drunk that at first she hardly knew what she was doing, except that it was horrible. But then, suddenly, it was wonderful. Or it was wonderful because it was horrible. It was wonderful because they were both so fucking sick and so bad for each other, and who knew: maybe this really would be the first and last fuck of her life, and would that really matter anyway? Then it was all over, and she had to go to the bathroom. As she passed the dresser, she lifted the gun straight into the air—no thunk, no click, no cuff of metal against wood. She placed the bullets one by one on the mold- and rust-mottled bottom of the toilet tank, and threw the gun out the window. If Roger noticed in the morning that his gun had vanished, he didn’t say a word. Nell walked out his front door, got into her car, and promised herself she would never see him again. Never ever. Not ever.
With every passing instant a human life comes to a pair of doors. As it is impossible for anything to exist in two places at once, the human life can only enter one door and not the other. And it is impossible not to choose. In this way we have no freedom. We must choose and reject. Every single instant. And so the lives that might have been lived beyond the rejected doors never come to pass. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes the choice we desperately want to make is the wrong choice. And when that happens, no matter which choice we actually do make—the right or the wrong—the choice we didn’t make will shimmer brilliantly with something like the life it never became. For years, perhaps. For a whole lifetime. But it is not life. It is nothing.
“He said you never pick up when he calls,” says Monica, “or answer his texts. He says you’ve defriended him, and you’re even blocking his e-mails.”
“He tells you all that,” says Nell, “and you say, ‘Sure, why don’t you come on over?’ Did it ever occur to you that I might have a reason for wanting him out of my life?”
Monica twelve-stepped for years. But that’s all over. She doesn’t need it any more. Now she likes to drink. She is only thirty-four, but she has broken capillaries on her cheeks and on her nose. She is standing at the stove, white onions sautéing greenly in olive oil. Nell is sitting at the table, thin-slicing sausages so that they look like rows of fat nickels. Filleted chicken breasts wait in a bowl. Monica is the best cook Nell has ever known. Every meal since Nell arrived has been a surprise, and every bite a delightful delirium spreading from tongue to throat to belly. Fistfulls of tarragon, basil, oregano, and thyme in a row on the cutting board. Salad bowl heaped with arugula, spinach, and red-leaf lettuce that Nell gathered in the garden with her own hands.
“Roger says being a lawyer is making him hate humanity,” says Monica, as she tops off Nell’s wineglass and refills her own.
“I don’t care,” says Nell.
“He says family practice is worse than being public defender. It’s all children trying to cheat their parents, and husbands stealing from their wives. Nobody cares about anything but money.”
“He’s so solipsistic!”
“No he isn’t.”
“He’s a narcissist. All he cares about is how things affect him. He’s incapable of thinking about the big picture, about the effects of his own actions, about the people who need him.”
Monica tilts a colander over the skillet, distributing chanterelles with a wooden spoon, then stirs them into the onions, and sprinkles the mixture with sea salt and tarragon leaves. “So how come you hate him all of a sudden?” she says.
“I don’t hate him. I just don’t like him. I’ve never liked him.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is. I never liked him. Even in college.”
“That’s not how I remember it.”
“What went on between us was only chemistry,” says Nell, “and that’s not the same as liking. When he moved to Oakland, I didn’t want to see him. I said okay to coffee just to be polite. But then, you know, he walked in and there it was: that chemistry. I wish I’d never met him.”
“You’re crazy,” says Monica.
“Maybe,” says Nell.
Outside the window the backs of a dozen sheep rise out of the high grass like yellow moons. The field belongs to Monica’s neighbor. And so do the sheep. They have dull-tinkling bells around their necks. Every now and then one of them makes a low bah, and three or four others answer. A breeze blows through the window. Nell feels it coolly in her armpits and softly against her ribs inside her shirt. The low sun through the wine bottle casts frayed loops of gold across the table and onto the cream-colored wall. There is a gleam-spiked nest of gold at the bottom of her glass. The sheep are there also. And the grass. Nell lifts her glass and takes a sip. The wine is cool, sour, delicious. Everything is so beautiful here. Is it possible that Monica has the perfect life?
Roger is catching a morning plane. Tomorrow he will be here. He will arrive in time for dinner.
Nell is in her room, and Nelly is there too. There are moments when the distance between them lessens. Just now, for example, Nell catches sight of herself in the mirror and, for an instant, sees herself as someone she would be happy to be, as someone who might be desired, well-loved. Her skin: butter soft and sunset pink. Her dreads: an obsidian fountain atop her head. Her eyes: merry, kind. And in this instant, Nell is seeing herself as Nelly sees her. It is as if Nell is on one side of the mirror and Nelly on the other, and they relish one another with identical satisfaction. Or it is as if, in this instant, there is no distinction between the actual and the possible; they are one and the same. But only for this instant. Then the instant is over.
“Did you hear her?” says Monica.
“Who?” says Nell.
It is morning. Monica is sitting at the table with an empty coffee cup in front of her, a cigarette in her hand. Nell is standing in the doorway, barefoot, in her nightie.
“Mercy,” says Monica.
Nell says nothing.
Monica says, “I spoke to her. Last night. I was wondering if you heard her.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“It was so loud. I was sure you would have heard.”
Nell comes into the room, sits down heavily on the chair across from Monica. But she is not looking at Monica. She is looking at the coffee thermos on the stove beside the kettle. She wishes she had poured herself some coffee.
“I don’t know what time it was,” says Monica. “Late. Long after we went to bed. I woke up because I heard this sound. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it might be the sheep bells. But then I realized it was coming from the radiator. It’s hard to describe.”
“Radiator?” says Nell.
“It was like someone was brushing the radiator with—what do you call them? Those wire brushes jazz drummers use.”
“I don’t know what they’re called.”
“Anyway, you know what I mean.”
“Brushes, I think.”
“Yeah. Like brushes,” says Monica. “But also like it was a voice. I could just tell someone was speaking to me. So I said, ‘Mercy, is that you?’ And as soon as I said that, it happened again. Just this one stroke over the radiator bars. Like when they sprinkle fairy dust on TV. So I said, ‘Mercy, if you mean yes, do that again, right now.’ And she did, just exactly as I said that. So I said, ‘Do you have something to tell me?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ ‘About something that’s going to happen?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Something good?’ She didn’t answer, so I asked, ‘Something bad?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Very bad?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Evil?’”
“Monica!” says Nell. “That was a radiator! Do you realize you were talking to a radiator?”
“Let me finish,” says Monica.
“A radiator, for Christsakes!”
“This is important.”
Nell doesn’t say anything.
Monica says, “I said, ‘Evil?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ Something evil is going to happen. So then I asked, ‘Is it going to happen to me?’ and she didn’t answer. So then I said, ‘Is it going to happen to Nell?’ ‘Yes,’ she said.”
“Jesus fucking Christ!” says Nell. “A haunted radiator! Are you crazy?”
“Let me finish!”
“This doesn’t make any sense!”
“This is important!”
“They didn’t even have radiators in slavery days! Do you realize how completely moronic you sound? Why would a slave ghost haunt a radiator?”
“Listen! You have to listen! This is the most important part!”
“I need some coffee.” Nell gets up from her seat, picks up the coffee thermos, but it’s empty. “You drank all the coffee.”
“Listen! This is about you!”
Nell brings the kettle to the sink, turns on the faucet.
“I said,” says Monica, “’Is Nell going to die?’”
“Oh, fuck!” Nell flings the kettle into the sink. “Are you intentionally trying to scare me with this fucking stupid story!”
“No! Of course not!”
“Talking radiators! What do you think this is?—Peewee’s fucking Playhouse!”
“Listen! I’m almost done. When I asked that question Mercy didn’t answer. So that means, ‘No.’”
“I’m outta here! I can’t take this anymore! I tell you I never want to see Roger again as long as I live and you invite him to stay with us! You stupid fucking bitch! How could you do that? I can’t believe I ever thought you were my friend!”
Nell knocks Monica’s coffee cup off the table as she strides from the room. The cup is empty. It bounces on the floorboards. But the handle breaks off. The handle skitters under the stove.
Monica shouts, “I wasn’t trying to scare you! Mercy said, ‘No’! I thought you would be relieved to hear that she said no.”
“I’m leaving!” says Nell, her feet banging on the stairs. “I’m packing my bags. Ten minutes and I’m in my car and I’m never coming back!” Her feet stop banging. A door slams.
Nell is driving. And Nelly is on the seat beside her. Sometimes Nelly is in the driver’s seat too. But she weighs nothing, displaces no air, and her hands on the wheel cannot shift it a micron. So Nell never notices. The car is on an incline, nose down. The forest is rushing uphill, back to where they used to be. Nelly notices that there are tranquil places in the forest—behind the trees that move so fast they can hardly be seen, behind the other trees that move more slowly, and seem to rotate as they pass. These tranquil places are where the sunlight comes down to touch the leaves or grass. Places where deer might like to take their careful, stiff-legged steps, or perk up their big-eyed heads. Nelly thinks these places are beautiful. She thinks driving is beautiful too, the way it transforms the world into constant transformation. Nell also knows that the world shooting past her windshield is beautiful. As she flees Monica and a life so love-sore and turned against itself that she fears it will only bring her pain, shame and bleak solitude, what she wants most is to feel the beauty all around her. What she wants is for that beauty to fill her completely. In this way she is nearly united with Nelly, because, in this instant, Nelly is completely beauty-filled.
Nell is standing in the forest at night. She is taking notes in the dark, her flashlight off and dangling from her belt. To her right, on the trunk of a fallen tree, the green light of her digital recorder glows like a plump star fallen to earth. And in the darkness all around her, amidst the stirring of insects and leaves, there are foxes crying. To Nell, these cries are tapered and moon-white. They rise like pale flames, first here, then there, then farther away—then so close they set the hair on her arms upright. And they are human. Like the voiced despair of women and children at the instant of some swift, silent death. So many—every second or two for the last half hour, in so many parts of the forest. The cries are a language. Nell is certain of that. But a language so foreign, human ears don’t know how to sort its meaningful parts from its noise. This is her first good recording. When she has more, she will play them through her computer, slowed down, broken into their constituent elements. She will turn them into graphs, into sheets of numbers. And she will compare them to her notes about temperatures, noises, breezes and time, to see if such factors correlate in any way to the cries. But her expectations are low. She knows that to really understand what the foxes are saying, she would have to watch them in their dens, or as they brush snouts, or pick their ways between bushes, over desiccated leaves. She would have to enter fox eyes, fox noses, fox ears, fox hearts.
Ghosts are only potential, so they can never fail. Not Nell. Nell can fail and fail. There are moments—this is one—when she feels she is only failure. She is in the car again. Returning after having already returned. “I knew it!” Monica said that afternoon, as Nell drove back into the driveway. “I don’t believe in running away,” said Nell. And later she said, “I won’t be home for dinner.” Failure. All of it. And now she is following a yellow line back through the black. She clicks off the radio because the songs make her sad. Nelly, too, is sad. Sad because she knows that Nell can be beauty-filled. Sad because she knows that there is no reason why Nell should not be beauty-filled. But Nell has failed. And Nell will fail and fail. Nelly knows that failure is part of being real. But that is all she knows. To Nelly, failure is just another thing among things—a thing she can know only from the outside. Like skin. Nelly is fascinated by skin—that boundary between everything she knows about being Nell and everything she doesn’t. Oh, if she could only live a single instant inside that skin! Oh, if she could only comprehend the complexities of being female in female skin in a world so full of men! Nelly knows that failure is nothing like being female in female skin. But her tendency to see it that way confuses her. Makes her wonder if failure isn’t, in fact, a secret form of joy. Deeply secret. She is wrong. She knows she is wrong. But she can’t make the thought go away. Nell drives back though the black. But the thought stays.
“Hey! Hey!” shouts Monica, lifting her arm over her head.
Roger doesn’t move, except to sip from his glass. Only when Monica says, “Here she is at last! Our prodigal friend!” does he turn his head to look at Nell. And then Nell sees it: that gaunt, stern face being taken over by a boy’s smile. There is a stirring in her chest and an answering stirring between her legs.
“Nelly!” he says.
She lets the screen door close behind her. She puts down her backpack and her flashlight. She walks around the couch, to the plump, wing-backed chair next to Monica’s, across the coffee table from Roger. He is sitting on the couch.
“Hey,” she says softly.
“Hey,” he says. Then he looks at her. He is so happy to see her. It is all over his face. But then she sees the sadness begin to creep in. He is still smiling, still looking straight into her eyes, but he is getting sadder every instant.
“You must be starving,” says Monica.
“I’m okay,” says Nell.
“Dinner was delicious,” says Roger.
“I had to work,” says Nell.
Monica splashes wine into Roger’s glass and dumps the remainder of the bottle into her own. “Time for replenishment!” she says. She pats Nell on the back. “I’m bringing you a glass!”
“Thanks,” says Nell.
Then she looks back at Roger. She cannot help but look into his eyes, as he looks into hers. Those green eyes with the chestnut freckles around the pupils. His sadness is mostly gone, replaced by something fierce, something she cannot help but return in her own gaze.
“I’ve been hearing about your ghost,” he says.
Nell rolls her eyes. “Oh, please!”
“Monica’s a trip,” Roger says.
“She’s fucking insane!”
Roger smiles again, and his happiness is back, his happiness to see her. “She’s fun. She’s completely herself. I don’t know anyone else like her.”
Nell doesn’t want to talk about Monica. She looks down at the twisting smoke-ribbon rising from Monica’s cigarette in the ashtray. Then she looks at Roger, but doesn’t speak. The happiness fades in Roger’s eyes, but the fierceness does not return. She feels that, for the first time in all the years she’s known him, she’s the one with the advantage.
“Did she tell you how I ran away?” she asks.
“I didn’t want to see you.”
“I know that.”
“You shouldn’t have come.”
“I know that too, I guess.”
“I’m not going back with you, Roger.”
He sighs and looks up at her with sad eyes. She feels herself going all loose inside, but not because of his sadness. Because of his fierceness, which is there after all. That implacable determination which never leaves him.
“I mean it,” she says. “I’m not changing my mind.”
“I’m not asking you to,” he says.
Monica has returned with an open bottle and an empty glass.
“I know a ghost story,” says Roger. His face is the red of a skinned knee. His eyes watery, alive, reflecting candlelight. “This old guy comes to see me. Wants to set up a trust for the kids from his first marriage. ‘Did you have any kids from the second marriage?’ I ask. ‘They don’t talk to me,’ he says. ‘Anyway, they can take care of themselves.’ I ask if his first wife is to be a party to this trust? ‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘She’s gone now. It’s been years and years.’ Then I see his eyes are watery. These old yellow eyes warped by his glasses. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. He wipes his eyes and says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Then he tells me this story. He and his first wife got married when they were fifteen. This was in Oklahoma. After World War II. She was pregnant already. They had their second child on her seventeenth birthday. They were too young, of course. They felt like they’d been locked in cages. There was lots of fighting. Drinking. She started flirting with this old boyfriend. Maybe more than flirting. So he beats her up—the old guy does. He was mad at her, of course. But mainly he beats her up because he was mad at the world, and she gave him the excuse. That’s exactly how he told it. So his uncle moves to California, and he goes with him. Says he’ll send for his wife and kids, but really what he wants is a whole new life. He gets a job at a printing shop in Vallejo. Gets himself a new woman—the one who will become his second wife. But before that happens, his mother calls him up. His first wife burned the house down, and herself with it. The kids are okay. She chased them out before she started spreading kerosene everywhere. But then she spent three days in the hospital with most of her skin burned off her. In horrible pain. Then she died. So he marries the second wife, and raises the kids of the first wife in Vallejo. The second wife doesn’t like them. They don’t like her either. And when he starts having children with the second wife, the old kids hate the new kids too, and vice versa. His life is hell all over again. But still, he does pretty well for himself. When the printer retires, he takes over the shop. Then he sells the shop and goes into real estate. By the 1960s, he’s bought and sold half the East Bay and has this big house in the Oakland hills. Then one night the house burns down. Everybody gets out okay. His wife, all the kids. No one knows how the fire started, or how it spread so quickly. The firemen have never seen anything like it. But then the old guy’s standing out on the street, watching his house burn, and, in the shadows behind a crowd of his neighbors, he sees his first wife. She’s looking right at him. Then she’s gone. So everything burns, except the garage. A couple of days later, he’s in the garage getting stuff for the house they rented. He looks around, and there’s his first wife again, standing in the shadows. This time, she speaks to him. ‘We’re still married,’ she says. Then she disappears. The next day, he goes back to the garage, mainly to see if she’s there, and she is. This time she tells him, ‘Our love was a true love. There was never anything wrong with it. It’s only that we met too young.’ And he realizes that that’s true. He never loved anyone the way he loved his first wife. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, but she’s already gone. So he builds himself a new house, right where the old one was. And he keeps the old garage, even though his second wife thinks it’s an eyesore. Every night he goes out there, and first wife is waiting for him. They talk and they talk. They’re more in love than ever. Also, she tells him things—like his second wife is cheating on him, she’s stealing his money. And it turns out that those things are true. He divorces his second wife, and thinks he can just be with his first wife until it’s time—you know: to join her. But the day he signs the divorce papers, his first wife appears to him in his office downtown. ‘My work is done,’ she tells him. Then she disappears and he never sees her again.” Roger takes a deep sip from his wine. He smiles.
“That is so sad!” says Monica. She is sitting on the couch with Roger. She jabs the inside of his thigh with her fingertips. “Look at me, my eyes are full of tears!”
“It’s just sick,” says Nell.
“You’re such a cynic!” says Monica.
Monica has been sitting next to Roger ever since she came back with the second bottle of wine. Nell has been all alone on the far side of the coffee table, watching Monica laughing too hard at Roger’s jokes. Watching how she can’t stop touching him. How every time she touches him, she looks over to be sure Nell notices. Nell drank most of the second bottle of wine herself. Then Monica brought out a third. Now a fourth is standing on the table, almost done.
“The guy’s an abusive control freak!” Nell says. “He beats his first wife because he thinks she’s cheating on him, then he divorces his second wife for the same thing.”
“But it was true!” says Monica.
“How do you know?” says Nell.
“He got the divorce, didn’t he? He wouldn’t have gotten the divorce if it wasn’t true.”
“Maybe she divorced him!” says Nell. “Maybe she got sick and tired of a man who went out to the garage every night to talk to himself!”
Monica puts her fingertips on Roger’s thigh again, just above his knee. She jiggles them back and forth. “You tell us, Roger! Was it true or not?”
Roger laughs. “I have no idea! All I know is what he told me.”
“It’s all a crock of shit!” says Nell. “All that about going out to the garage every night—that never happened. That just doesn’t make sense.”
“You are so closed-minded!” says Monica.
“Closed-minded has nothing to do with it,” says Nell. “Even if there were such things as ghosts, I just don’t believe he could be going out to the garage every night. How would he explain that?”
“Who cares?” says Monica. “That’s no big deal. That’s nothing.” She turns to Roger. “What do you think? Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I haven’t studied the matter,” says Roger.
“Don’t weasel out of it!” says Nell.
“I’m not weaseling out of it. I just don’t have an opinion.”
“It makes no sense at all!” says Nell. “If ghosts are just bodiless spirits, they’ve got no vocal chords, so how can they speak? And if they don’t weigh anything, how can they make the floorboards creak?”
“Maybe we only think the floorboards creak,” says Roger.
Nell looks at him. So does Monica.
“Maybe ghosts actually do exist,” he says, “but only in our minds. If ghosts are disembodied spirits, it would make sense that they would manifest themselves in our minds. We could even be hallucinating, but the hallucinations would be real.”
“Absolutely!” says Monica. “I’ve never thought of it that way before! But I bet that’s absolutely right!” Monica looks Nell straight in the eye. Her chin is up. Her smile closed-lipped and wide.
Nell is so angry that if Monica says another word, she’ll punch her right in that smug smile. “Goodnight!” Nell says. “I can’t talk about this stuff any more. It’s ridiculous.”
She weaves as she walks toward the door. She slams her shin on the coffee table and her shoulder on the doorjamb. How did she get so drunk? A minute ago she was fine. Now she’s so drunk she might vomit.
“Sweet dreams!” says Monica.
“Goodnight!” says Roger.
Nell wants to punch them both. Instead she climbs the stairs.
Ghosts walk through our homes in ragged nightgowns and worn-out sheets. We hear them moaning in other rooms. We hear them whispering crazily on the pillows beside our heads. Ghosts haunt and are haunted. They cannot sleep. Nightly they walk the same floors, suffering the same agonies, longing without relief. Look into their gaping eyes—sight-filled and black. Look at their mouths—‘O’s of grief, aghast, bereft. The grief of ghosts is pure. It is children’s grief. Ghosts know nothing until we teach them, and so they weep. They weep for whom they think we are, and who we cannot help but be. Their love for us is a perfect love, and so they weep.
There are footsteps on the stairs. The footsteps grow closer and closer. Nell has been asleep, but now she is awake. She is looking up into blackness. The floorboards outside her door creak under a shifting of weight. Her heartbeat sounds loudly inside her head. She holds her breath. Her breath is like a hard package clutched inside her chest. The doorknob turns, but so slowly she can hear the altering torque on the spring, the click of the lock tongue, the mouse sigh of the door turning on its hinges. Open and closed. Now the floorboards inside the room creak. Nell can’t see a thing, but she recognizes Roger’s breathing. She thinks he is still standing by the door, but then his hand is touching the blanket beside her arm. “Nell?” he says, his voice soft but thickly male. Now his hand grazes the blanket between her bellybutton and pelvis. Now the bottom of her ribcage. His hand rests half a second over her breast before gripping the edge of her blanket and pulling it aside. “Nelly,” he says. He kisses her shoulder. “Move over,” he says. Then he says it again. She doesn’t move at first, pretending she is asleep. But then she does.
* * *
Stephen O’Connor is the author, most recently of Here Comes Another Lesson, a collection of short fiction, as well as Rescue. He has also written two works of nonfiction: Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, a memoir; and Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, a biography/history. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, Poetry Magazine, Electric Literature, and Black Clock, among many other places. His essays and journalism have been published in The New York Times, The Nation, AGNI, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.
“Ghost” was originally published in Invisible Cities (TLR, Winter 2013)