W hen my wife died, I thought that would be the last I saw of her. I was sad of course. That won’t be worth going into here. You’ve seen the movies: staring out the window, wintery vistas, the quiet house, a ticking clock, that pink angora sweater hanging on the chair like she’d be back any moment. Finally, taking the sweater and the rest of her clothes to the Goodwill box down on Broadway—a solitary ritual done without ceremony. Everything you’d expect, and nothing you wouldn’t. After eight years, there were still no kids. Not that we didn’t try. But we were still in our late twenties, so there was time. Until there wasn’t. Anyway, there was a finality to her death. I lost all contact with the life I led with her. I even lost touch with her only sister Jane, but that’s another story I’d rather not tell now. But that finality—I found—was oversold.
Not that she’ll need that sweater or the rest of it. Maybe I should say by way of preface, that my wife and I enjoyed old movies like Topper, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Blithe Spirit, Ghost or Truly, Madly, Deeply. When there was a movie like that, we’d put it on the old Netflix queue and snuggle up. We had a special fondness for the whole loved ones coming back from the great beyond genre. She’d say things like “That’ll be me: you’ll never get rid of me.” It was funny of course at the time. Because, frankly, I didn’t want to get rid of her. I looked forward to the protoplasmic edition of Ellen. I thought we might even
do it elegant Topper style, and come back together to annoy our friends. It’d be a goof. A madcap escapade.
I’m not going to bore you with a lot of bump-in-the night stuff either. I don’t want to be the grieving husband haunted by his dead wife. Because then, we wouldn’t be in the lighthearted Topper, but the somber Laura or Rebecca.
This is just to say there is a history here that preceded Ellen’s return. And when she got here, I wasn’t sure what she was up to or what she knew. Right off, though, Ellen scared off a couple of women. It was playful at first. Let me set the scene. Ellen had been gone for eight months. I’m over the worst of it. And it’s not like I rushed into anything. Maria is a woman at the newspaper. She’s in graphics: not a writer like me. She was on my radar, I’ll admit it. Not that anything happened. She was curvy, and would wear these wool knit dresses, the kind that hugged the curves, and spiked high heels: the kind with the red soles—Christian Louboutins. But I didn’t know what they were called. I’m sitting on the couch in my underwear. I ask my wife about them. She’s dead at this point.
“Ellen, what are those pumps called with the red soles?”
“Christian Louboutins,” she said without missing a beat. The voice comes from behind me. You’d think that kind of shoe knowledge would get fuzzy or even lost in the shuffle in the afterlife. Like the old “vanity, vanity, all’s vanity” business. No sir. She was right on top of it.
I go on watching the soccer game on TV. It was like that. I could sometimes just ask a question out loud and I’d discover that she was hanging out with me—not necessarily materialized. Just around. When she was alive, she wouldn’t be caught dead doing this. I mean she married a sportswriter, so she knew what she was getting into. And she handled it pretty well, and was knowledgeable for a girl. But she made herself scarce when I had an afternoon’s worth of sports DVRed. She’d never have been in the room while I was watching the Premiere League. But now that she’s dead, there she is. It’s kind of sweet. Maybe your tolerance for time-wasting increases when it’s infinite.
“Why do you ask? Some slut at work wearing them?”
I’m shocked on a number of levels. First, at her intuition. Although for all I know at this point, from her vantage, she can see everything—into the future even. Can read my thoughts. Who the hell knows?
“Maria’s not a slut!” This was a tactical error on my part, knowing what I know now. Having the name at the ready like that. As it turns out, the dead can’t read minds or see into the future, but pinpointing Maria at work like that tipped Ellen off on where to be looking. Because she was not confined to
“Don’t you want me to be happy?” I said. We had had this discussion before—a few times before she died.
I know that she’s angry and sure enough I turn around and she’s sitting curled up in the corner chair with a scowl on her face. It’s a brown leather loveseat that we picked out together. We liked to sit in that chair together. We bought it for that purpose.
So, she’s curled up—real cute in her sweats, holding her knees. She can apparently wear whatever she wants in the afterlife. In the movies, they are always in shimmering gowns and tuxedos. But she’s mostly in sweats. Goes to show you something. I don’t know what. Maybe something about being able to have whatever you want, and choosing the same thing you always had. Those old hockey socks that she used to wear. Her hair in a ponytail.
But I have to say, it works for her better than a tight dress and Louboutins. She couldn’t be cuter if she tried.
“You go ahead,” she said. “You’re right. I’m selfish. No use waiting the two years like you’re supposed to.”
She had a way of conceding a point and winning an argument at the same time.
“She’s just a girl at work. I was curious about the shoes
“I’ve seen Maria Ortiz at the Christmas parties, and I know who she is and where your interest lies.”
She had seen Maria over the years at the Bergen Record holiday blowouts. Maria would salsa at those, so Ellen had me dead to rights, and was clearly working off some leftover life-time jealousy.
“Forget it,” I said.
“No. I want you to go out with her. You ask her out. And here’s something I’m going to give you for free. You can use me,” she said.
“Oh, come on. Like you haven’t thought about it. You can use the fact that I’m dead. Go to the lunch room, and stare off. Wait ‘til she notices you, and asks what’s wrong.”
As Ellen’s saying this, I’m focused on a fourth-place Arsenal in a meaningless EPL game against Blackburn, as if I was engrossed. As she well knows, I hate Arsenal; I’m a Man U. fan. I begged her to pick a team so we could root against each other, and her team was Tottenham—she liked the striped socks, and she liked that “Hotspur” was a literary allusion. Adorable, right? So, she knows there’s no way I care about this game.
“I’m not going to use you! That’s disgusting,” I said.
The phone rang, and I thought this was going to give me a respite. My sister-in-law Jane’s name appeared on the
“You going to get that?” Ellen asked. “It’s Jane.”
“Not during the game,” I said.
“You know you should check in on her.”
“She’s twenty-seven,” I said.
“Exactly. All’s she got is those cats…”
“And a roommate….” I said.
“A useless roommate,” she said. “She works at Forever 21 and she’s twenty-eight.”
After three rings, there was a click. Jane didn’t leave a message. By now, I knew she wouldn’t.
“Anyway—using me to pick up Maria. You only regret not having thought of it before,” she said.
“Can ghosts fix sandwiches?” I said.
She turned off the TV for this. She didn’t need the remote. It’s one of those things they can do. It’s not amazing, as she explained it to me. It’s more like static electricity. She could make my computer go crazy too: electromagnetic stuff. But no, she can’t or won’t! (ha, ha) make a sandwich or do laundry, or really anything constructive. I knew that. I was just yanking her chain.
I reached for the remote and turned the TV back on. And it was off again before the sound came back. We did this for the next five minutes, and finally I left. Ghost or not, this was not Paranormal Activity stuff. She always had the ability to drive me out of the house when I was on the verge of losing an argument.
The next day, I’m in the cafeteria at work. And sure, enough, I’m staring off into the distance. This is what had me thinking for a while there that she could see the future. But it turns out that I’m just predictable. Maria’s screwing around at the coffee maker—one of those fancy Keurig cartridge-based systems: where the water shoots like a jet. I’m not sure whether I thought of what Ellen had said, or whether it’s autosuggestion. But Maria walks in and my hand’s on my chin, and I’ve got a faraway dreamy look on my face.
I resolve to myself, if Maria says nothing, I’ll say nothing. But Maria is stirring her cup and bumping her hip against the counter edge, and her rear has got my full attention, despite the dreamy look I’m putting on. She turns with a People magazine tucked under her arm.
“Oh, Roger,” Maria said, like she didn’t see me there. “How’s it going?”
I stare off for maybe a second too long. That extra second was, I’ll admit, probably a false note my wife couldn’t bear.
“I can’t stand it! Ellen said. “Answer her already!”
I jacked around to look at where the voice was coming from. This was Ellen’s first out-of-house visit. But she hadn’t “materialized.” All I saw was a microwave and a travel poster: Romantic Italy!
Maria startled at my quick jerk around. Some coffee slipped over the edge of her cup, and she was reaching for napkins on the counter. I have to admit there was a pretty stark contrast between my dreamy pose and the quick whip-around that I just did. She couldn’t hear my wife. No one can, if you’re wondering. I must have looked crazy.
But it took more than a little odd behavior to dissuade Maria. It took a moderate amount of odd behavior.
I’ll admit it: I did use my wife. And with her standing right there behind me. I apologized and mumbled something about being “out of sorts” since my wife died. The whole staff knew about it, of course. She took it exactly as my wife predicted. She sighed and sat down. She talked about losing her mother a year before, and that though she was divorced and not widowed, the empty apartment sometimes got to her too. It was pretty incredible, how just gesturing toward my wife made me such a sympathetic figure, and a kind of father confessor to women. My wife was right about this, as she was with so many other things. It must have gotten her goat. Because Maria was deep into a story about her dog’s dental problems, when the microwave turned on, and the coffee maker started spewing a stream of coffee. The flat screen television on the wall turned off and then back on and went to a deafening white noise static. Maria and I got up and moved away from the jetting coffee. I realized she was clinging to my arm. Which is to say, from my wife’s point of view, maybe her antics kind of backfired. It’s hard to say.
Maria and I started seeing each other pretty regularly. She was the opposite of my wife in every way. My wife was a tart blonde full of ironic asides at everything she observed. Maria was a warm brunette who was never critical of anything. Ellen would make snarky comments at feel-good movies about social injustice. Maria enjoyed The Blindside and The Help—found them deeply moving. She said The Help was “awesome.”
“She’d cry at a Muppets movie,” Ellen said. I defended Maria even when I kind of agreed. I was finding my time with Maria refreshing. Of course, Maria was hot. Ellen was thin and lithe—a runner, and I find that very attractive. I’m the kind of guy who subscribes to Runner’s World magazine for the pictures of the girls. Maria was all curves. The change was everything for me. I’m no saint, but before you judge me, keep in mind my wife was gone for a year at this point. Nearly.
Maria would let me talk about Ellen. Talking about Ellen was the one way to shut Ellen up. It couldn’t have been a picnic for Maria. She was so generous and understanding that she probably let it go on longer than she should have. From Ellen’s point of
view, maybe talking with Maria about her meant I wasn’t making out with Maria.
My wife almost never made a physical appearance—she called it a “manifestation” just to make it sound mysterious. Almost never in public. Most of the time, she just used her voice. And, in true-to-Hollywood form, I was the only one who could hear it. She’d interrupt conversations I had with my mother or my sister, and neither heard her. I’d say, “Do you hear that?” And they’d say “Hear what?” The voice was usually pretty faint: like a radio in another room. So, you could forgive people for not hearing it.
A few weeks in, when Maria and I went out to dinner, Ellen manifested. She stood over Maria’s left shoulder. Maria liked this popular Italian chain restaurant that you find in a lot of strip malls. She preferred it to genuine Italian restaurants on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. I think it was the bread sticks and garlic bread, which Maria pronounced “Awesome,” that finally did it.
“I bet she’d prefer the Las Vegas Eiffel Tower to the original,” she said. “Take her to the Small World ride at Disney, and she’ll think she’s seen the world.”
“What are you laughing at?” Maria said.
“Oh, nothing. Something on the menu,” I said.
Now, I had to search the menu for something plausibly funny. In this way, having dinner with Maria was like having dinner with Ellen and Maria.
“That they bother with these fancy Italian names for things, like ‘Pasta Ripiena’ for ravioli,” I said.
“Well, honey, it is an Italian restaurant,” Maria said.
“Yes, honey, it is an Italian restaurant. Maybe you missed all of their hundreds of commercials,” Ellen said, walking to my side of the table. “Maybe the fact that you’re sitting in a storefront window, staring at asphalt made you think you were in a
“Will you please?” I said, looking behind me.
Maria looked up, puzzled.
I shook my head.
I don’t want to paint Ellen as a mastermind, but this undeniably deflated the mood for me. Ellen pushed me towards my old self, and Maria didn’t seem to like that version of me.
Barking non sequitur rebukes and turning around to give dirty looks to thin air is funny in the movies when Cary Grant is confusing the hotel clerks as the frazzled Mr. Topper yells at him, but it’s not that way in real life. Movies make it seem like wacky hijinks that no one can quite affix a name to, like everyone is reserving judgment until they get to the bottom of it. But in real life, people get angry. Now, I was trying to be careful with the way I’d put things so as not to give Ellen openings. It was hopeless.
“How about dessert,” Maria asked.
“Of course the fat cow is going to go for dessert,”
“Oh come on! Fat cow.” I had tried to hold my tongue throughout the dinner, but this was too much. The bus boy turned and looked at Maria, and then at me. The table next to us—a young couple—made a strenuous show of looking at their iPhones. Maria started to tear up.
“I meant me!” I said. “I really shouldn’t have dessert.”
Maria looked in her purse, and then dabbed her eyes and said she had to go to “the ladies.”
“The ‘ladies’” Ellen said with a snort.
I ignored her.
“I meant me,” I said to Maria’s back as she walked away.
Maria ended it with a talk after work as we walked to our cars. I don’t think Ellen was present. She was certainly happy when I came home without Maria. She had me back again. We reverted to our old ways. I’d put the movies she’d like on the Netflix queue—romantic comedies and old films. She took an interest in the BBC series Being Human because it had a ghost in it who was struggling with some of the same things she was: what mechanical things she could and couldn’t do in this world. Unlike the Being Human ghost, she couldn’t make herself coffee or use the microwave. In fact, other than that electric interference I mentioned, she couldn’t have much impact on the real world. She didn’t, for instance, depress cushions when she sat down, or create footsteps in sand or snow. She didn’t appear as an outline in the shower. I did have the sense that she was in the bathroom as I showered. The water got colder. And I might as well address this head on: there was no sensual pottery-making. She hated that movie. In fact, there was no sensual anything.
Besides that, we went on as if nothing had happened. In fact, in some ways it was even better. She didn’t have to work anymore. She had been a freelance television editor who did shift work, and that meant that she was always negotiating how many 12-hour shifts were worth taking, when the work might dry up. In the old days, she might be out of the house for two weeks straight. I’d miss her in the mornings and only see her for an hour before she went to sleep. You’d never think about this when you are living your life, but you know another thing that death takes care of? Ambition. There is no more question of making your mark, getting ahead, hustling for more work, leaving a legacy. That meant that our time wasn’t bracketed by her worry that she should be doing something more: sending out sizzle reels, going to industry parties to hook up with show producers, being ‘out there,’ checking her emails. She could relax, and so could I.
I was never that ambitious myself. Ellen would point this out as I screwed around with fantasy leagues. She said I wouldn’t still be covering high school sports and the Newark Bears if I were. Now, even she didn’t care. Having Ellen around was pretty engrossing—like a post-game analysis. We’d talk about things we hadn’t when she was alive—like the missed chance of having kids. We were unusually honest. At least she was with me. With these all-night talks, my work suffered. I took all my personal days, worked a lot from home. Covering high school sports these days means watching Varsity on cable television, going on school websites, and keeping in touch with the kid stringers at the local schools. A lot of the games are streamed live now. And the stringers would email or text me the scores of the games that weren’t. I was essentially re-write. But even this limited commitment was proving too much for me. My editors noticed that I was getting things wrong, missing games. When you couple this with my new odd habit of glancing over my shoulder or cocking my ear towards a distant voice, it would be fair to say they thought I was suffering grief-induced PTSD.
I became interested in the occult. The way Houdini did when his mother died. I tried to find ways of getting Ellen to manifest more completely, to give her greater control over her environment. I read a lot of books and my co-workers noticed. I could see the shakes of their heads, heard the “poor Rogers.” They thought I was trying to reach Ellen! I was interested in what kind of space Ellen was in. She hinted that it was gray, desolate, and without hard edges—a place you didn’t want to linger. I pictured a foggy Greyhound bus station in Camden, New Jersey at 3 a.m. She wouldn’t elaborate. I was raised Catholic, so I couldn’t shake images of purgatory, which was only slightly better than Hell. It was just like Ellen not to complain. She was stoic, a marathoner. I wanted to know whether she had an omniscient view of the past. I mean, like I’ve said, she couldn’t see the future. But could she see the past more completely? This worried me.
Meanwhile, my mother, who was ferociously Catholic, kept telling me she was praying for Ellen, and asking me if I was too. My mother’s basic assumption was that everyone went to purgatory and only the living could get them out through prayer.
“My mother came to me after she died. ‘Pray for me, Irene,” she said. “I did pray for her. A novena every week. The rosary every night. And you know what?”
“Yeah, yeah, Mom,” I’d say. “I know what. Because you’ve told me a hundred times.”
She said she knew precisely when she had successfully prayed my grandmother out of purgatory because she got a feeling of peace when she thought about her mother. She was responsible, she said, for praying my dad out of purgatory too. Though that took 15 years of steady praying and mass intentions. This is the kind of thing I used to chuckle at. I don’t any more. But my worry was a different one: what if she somehow managed to deliver Ellen from purgatory? Would Ellen disappear from my life again? I couldn’t say to my mother: “stop praying, I like her where she is.”
Ellen’s sister Jane left her first message on the machine soon after the wake. It was a simple “Hey Rog, call me. We should talk about things.”
I let it sit there. Over the next few weeks and then months the readout showed 8 more messages. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them. For one thing, her voice sounded just like Ellen’s. I just scanned through the call log, and most of the numbers were Jane’s. I didn’t delete them either. Recently, they were hang-ups and dial-tones.
My next girlfriend was Stacy. She was pretty sharp, and less easy to make fun of than Maria. I sensed a change in Ellen. Stacy was a PR person for the local MLS soccer team, the Red Bulls, and so we had been talking on the phone for years before we finally met. She was savvy and clued-in.
“What a bitch,” Ellen said. “No really—she is a nasty piece of work.”
What had Stacy done to rate this? Well, she made herself at home. She kicked off her shoes at the door, and snuggled up on the couch, feet tucked under her. She even grabbed Ellen’s favorite pillow and hugged it. That was the first night Stacy had ever come over to watch some old horror movies, and I was already glancing behind me to see if Ellen was around.
On our second date, also at my apartment, Stacy asked for some tea. She’s on the couch watching a Star Trek marathon. Stacy’s a science fiction fan, with a special fondness for all versions of Star Trek. So was Ellen. I’m not a big fan myself. So I’ve got a couple of reasons to pick up the remote to put on
“Hey, grabby, give that back. I was watching Star Trek,” Stacy said. “Where’s my tea?”
The direct, bossy tone could have been Ellen.
“Sorry. I forgot,” I said. I handed her the remote, and Stacy changed back to the marathon.
“Don’t be a little girl,” Ellen said. “If you don’t want to watch Star Trek. There are reasons you wouldn’t . . . Speak up!”
“I’m going to get the tea,” I said.
“You do that,” Stacy said. She raised the volume.
“Pussy,” Ellen said.
“In the kitchen!” I said.
“Where else?” Stacy said and smiled.
Now, Ellen and I were in the kitchen, and this time she was standing in front of me.
“Get rid of her,” she said.
“You don’t get to do that,” I said. “You should like her: she watches your shows. She orders me around.”
“She doesn’t get to order you around. That’s my job. She’s making herself too comfortable. I bet she brought a toothbrush,” Ellen said.
She was standing near the stove, trying to get her hand around the knob, without much success. You’d think this would be spooky, but it just looked like someone working a brand new appliance. She was now acting like I had hurt her feelings.
“What happened to Maria?” Ellen said. “I liked her.”
“You liked making fun of her,” I said.
“Who are you talking to?” Stacy yelled from the other room.
“I’m on the phone,” I said.
“She was polite at least. She never acted like she lived here,” Ellen said.
I stood near the tea cup, getting the tea bag ready: chamomile.
“She’s drinking my tea, too?” Ellen said.
“Well you can’t drink it!” I said.
“Not if you don’t bring it to me!” Stacy called. “Where is it?”
“Coming!” I said.
“Oh, you don’t want to keep the princess waiting. Doormat,” she said.
“I’m not a doormat! And I deserve this. You chased away Maria,” I said.
“Maria,” Ellen said, “who thought everything
“And Stacy’s a Bitch! I can’t win,” I said.
Stacy was at the door, looking around the kitchen.
“Who are you telling I’m a bitch?” Stacy said.
“Um,” I began. I looked back at the stove, and Ellen was gone. Even now, I think I was rescued a little by the fact that I was not on the phone. In that case, who might have I been talking to? My mother? My sister? Neither would be good. Instead, what Stacy saw was me screaming into thin air, with a tone that was clearly an answer to an accusation by someone. I’m not saying this was reassuring to Stacy, but at least I wasn’t talking behind her back.
Stacy and I sat down and had a talk. I had to say it a couple of times to get her to understand I was serious.
“You see her?” Stacy said.
“Sometimes,” I said. “Just now, I did. She was in the kitchen.”
“Is she here now?” Stacy asked.
I made a show of looking around, but I didn’t sense her. And I usually sensed her before I saw her. “No. Usually when we have a fight, she disappears.”
Stacy did not freak out. She too was a fan of Being Human and ghost movies. She wanted to know the specifics: how long Ellen was gone, when she came back. I reassured her that Ellen was not a vengeful type ghost. Rather, she was more a lounge-about and carp kind of ghost.
Stacy wasn’t at all frightened. “Are you sure you aren’t imagining it? Like is it guilt or something?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I thought of Jane for a moment. There was stuff I wasn’t prepared to discuss with Stacy.
“You don’t know?” Stacy said.
Stacy had a way of glancing at the television at the Star Trek still playing in the background that give me space to answer. Ellen was giving me space too.
“Well, seeing women again. That’s made me feel guilty. But Ellen was the first one to suggest that I start dating.”
“Now she’s not so keen on the idea,” Stacy said. “Thinks I’m a bitch.”
“Yes. But that’s only because you are a lot like her,” I said.
“Was she a bitch?” Stacy asked.
“She was adorable,” I said. And maybe that was not the right answer. But right answer for whom was the question. No matter what the movies say, women don’t find a dead-wife-haunted man all that attractive.
There was, for instance, the question of when Ellen might enter a room. We might be on the couch kissing, when I would feel that chill, and I’d stiffen up and pull back.
“Is she here?” Stacy said.
“I think so,” I said.
“I’m here alright. And I’m not liking what I’m seeing. This one is legit trouble. And, I don’t even want to say this because you’ll just dig in your heels,” Ellen said.
“Say it,” I said.
“What’s she saying?”
“This one is not going to wear well,” she said.
“You did,” I said.
“She did what,” Stacy said.
“We don’t even know that, as things turned out,” Ellen said.
I told Stacy that Ellen was worried and warning me to
“Does she get more specific? Does she know something bad is going to happen?”
“No. Look, I think she’s giving me the same advice she’d give me if I had broken up with her, and I had a new girlfriend. It’s not any better informed, and it’s jealousy.”
“Says you,” Ellen said.
“That’s right,” I said.
“What’s right? Oh, right. You’re talking to her,” Stacy said.
It was hard on Stacy to have an ex-wife capable of materializing at literally any moment, even the most embarrassing, and talking about her without being heard. Really, who needs it? As it turned out, not Stacy. She broke up with me over the phone at work. She was as apologetic as she could be, but her feeling was she had not yet gotten in that deep yet, and this was only going to get more complicated. I was still uncertain as to whether Stacy believed Ellen was real. Ellen’s continual presence was starting to be hard on me, too. She kept seeing Jane’s name and phone number on the TV screen and the call log. She asked me when I was going to return all those calls.
I went to the Bergen Record yesterday to put in some expense vouchers. It was unavoidable, or I would have avoided it. When I was on my way out to get coffee, I saw Jane going into the Starbucks on Essex Street. I ducked behind a mailbox across the street. I leaned way in to the postbox slot, like I had just dropped something in that I really regretted mailing and was trying to get back. With the glare coming off the window, she looked so much like Ellen, I felt a flutter in my chest.
I stayed hunched over like that until I saw Jane exit the Starbucks and walk in the other direction toward Prospect. I just hoped that Ellen wasn’t around to see it.
I wish Ellen would ask me—ask me if I were hiding anything. I think I’d tell her. Sometimes, I wonder if Ellen knows and is just hanging around until I admit it. There are moments when we’re sitting in the living room that I think I will confess. Her presence exerting a kind of pressure.
It’s not like Ellen will ever do anything that will even the score. She’s never going to betray me. She’ll forever have the upper hand. The relationship is frozen. It is one long, snow day—no work to get to, or very little. We’ve entered a permanent middle ground. It’s fine with me. No plans for a house, no kids, no retirement. The only problem is I will get old and she won’t. I wish there were something, some “door” to open like on the Ghost Whisperer. Ellen tells me CBS has gotten this wrong. She said the unresolved stuff is almost never as easy as a simple “Move on dear, I forgive you.” So, I’m not even sure a confession would do the trick, although I was tempted.
“Is there something you’d like me to do?” I said.
“I’m good,” she said.
“I don’t mean a blanket,” I said. “I mean some issue you need me to resolve.”
Ellen was on the couch hugging a pillow—the same spot Stacy briefly claimed. She looked around, as if the problem might be vacuuming or throwing out the recycling.
“Not that I know of,” she said.
“Maybe talk to your sister,” I said. I didn’t know why I suggested this even as I was saying it. “That’s why I’ve been waiting to call her back.”
“Really,” she said. “Why should I talk to my sister?” She arched an eyebrow.
Did she know?
“You might have some unfinished business,” I said.
“Or you might have some unfinished business,” she said.
I felt like I blundered into this without thinking it out. So I changed the subject. But once I had brought it up, Ellen pursued it. She didn’t finish all those marathons with sub-three times by lacking patience. Two nights later, she asked if had spoken to
“No. If you don’t need me to, it’s too painful,” I said.
Jane looked a lot like Ellen: small, blonde. She was a year younger than Ellen. Like her sister, she was a jock, and to her a sports writer was glamorous. “You have a byline: Roger Jordan!” she’d say. It’d make me feel big time. I’d tease her about her softball team—which was about the worst I had ever seen. She’d come along with me to all of Ellen’s races. Ellen had told me they were competitive as kids. But Ellen was competitive with everyone, so that was no surprise. I have a sister too, so I know sibling rivalry. And I can’t deny I liked having Jane around. That glow of admiration is nice. We were a happy threesome. You always hear about battling in-laws. We were proud of how well we got along.
But I didn’t feel like talking to Jane. It brought back too many memories, not all good.
“We know she’d like to hear from you. She’s called here a lot.” Ellen said. “When is the last time you talked to her?”
“Don’t you know all this? The funeral. When did you start hovering around anyway?”
“It’s just not right. I feel terrible if you don’t call because
“What are you saying? It’s why I talked to her in the
“You know what I mean,” she said.
“You leave a party. You can’t keep worrying about whether people are mingling and having a good time.”
“It’s different, asshole,” she said.
“Just don’t get all Ghost Whisperer on me. Telling me what I should be doing.” I knew Ellen—dead or alive—hated being compared to second-rate television shows. “Why don’t you fly over there and keep her company.”
“It’s not like that: not an all-access pass,” she said.
“I need to close that door off. What do they call that,” I said
“You need closure,” she said.
“Yes, and for me this is closure,” I said.
“Cutting someone off is not closure.”
I have to give her credit. She knew about pace, and when to ease off. She didn’t pursue it. And didn’t mention her sister for another month. But it worked. It planted a seed, and I started feeling guiltier about cutting Jane off. Now I had two shades haunting me.
The question for me was whether Ellen knew I had cheated on her. I’m sure she didn’t know before she died. When you cheat, you don’t think of the harm. If you do, you don’t imagine it’ll be fixed in amber like a crime for the ages. An indiscretion with your wife’s sister, at Thanksgiving. Sure, it’s bad. But there were extenuating circumstances. A morning fight with Ellen, early arrival of a sister-in-law, who was sad over a recent break-up, a momentarily absent wife—picking up that damn jellied cranberry sauce her sister loves. And crucially: lots of mimosas. Like I said, Jane’s a nice girl, and nearly Ellen’s twin. She was softer than Ellen, in some way. Rounder, less focused, and fewer edges. She adored me and it didn’t occur to her, like it did to Ellen, that maybe I lacked ambition. Anyway, you sit on the couch before the parade, you’re half in the bag, and before you know it, you’re pulling off each other’s clothes. It was all over in ten minutes, before the last float, long before Santa arrived, and before Ellen got home.
It would have been subsumed in the slipstream of years, I’m sure. It never would have happened again. We both realized it was a mistake as soon as it was over. This isn’t a Woody
But then Ellen died—a heart attack a few weeks after the New Year—only seven weeks after that terrible Thanksgiving. It didn’t make sense. A five-time marathon finisher, she collapsed at the finish line of a half-marathon. I was waiting for her to text me about where to meet after the race, after she had picked up her stuff. I had been tracking the real-time New York Road Runner text updates of her progress on the course. She wasn’t going to score a personal best, but it was biting cold and she was making decent interval times. In fact, Jane and I were waiting together. And believe me when I tell you there was no thought of repeating what we both regretted. It was as if we had witnessed the other doing something embarrassing like throwing up at a party, and silently agreed to never mention it again. If anything, we were uncomfortable being alone together. And I was looking forward to Ellen, wrapped in her mylar blanket, to help mediate.
Instead, when no text came, we went to the finish line to find her, and saw an ambulance. The rest was a blur. No last words, no dramatic promises. The paramedics had done all they could, they said, but she didn’t regain consciousness. Jane was incoherent. The ER doctor had to sedate her. We stared at each other on those plastic chairs in the corridor, alive to what this meant.
So, is it any wonder I don’t talk to Jane anymore? I know I should but I’m afraid that any conversation would lead to the inevitable subject, and then Ellen would know.
Central Park was freezing. Don’t believe the guidebooks: skating outdoors at Wollman Rink in January is miserable. We used to go, and this year, dead Ellen nagged me until I gave in. It was the second anniversary of her death, and I knew she felt bad. I saw Jane almost immediately as I stepped onto the ice. I should have suspected something. I recognized her orange Uniqlo ski jacket. Jane was an excellent skater—a pairs figure skater as a kid. I was strictly second string pee wee hockey. I knew she hated
skating outside because of the couple of times she’d come with Ellen and me.
“What are you doing here,” I said, when I caught up with her on the far end of the ring. The tinny music blared a relentlessly perky Katy Perry song about partying. The hotel towers wheeled by in the night.
“I don’t know! I felt compelled,” she yelled. “The TV kept turning to skating competitions. I thought it was something with the cable. I hate this rink!”
You had to yell to make yourself heard.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” I said.
“Ellen,” she said.
“How did you know?” We were skating past the outdoor café where the music was loudest, so I had to wait for an answer.
“It’s the kind of thing she’d do. I think she’s shutting off the heat in my apartment.”
“Electric baseboard heating? Yeah. She can do that,” I said.
“Is she here?”
I looked around for Ellen. She was at the boards. “She is,”
Jane looked around but, of course, couldn’t see her.
“Bitch,” she said.
We kept skating. My blades made a slushy scrape, hers a silent glide. Ellen was standing off the ice on the rubber matting near the café.
“You don’t seem surprised at all. It is kind of amazing,”
“It’s the kind of thing she’d do. She knows right? Fuck. That was the only good thing. That she’d never have to know. And now this. It really blows.”
I nodded. “I’m not sure she knows.”
Jane rolled her eyes. “You can see her and everything I suppose,” Jane said.
Two boys with drooping jeans and puffer coats cut by, nearly knocking me over. They made hockey stops, spraying ice in front of us. I pointed to a spot off the ice.
When we got over to the boards, Ellen said “I’m glad I got you two together.”
“By tricking us,” I said
Jane knew I was talking to Ellen, but she said “Yeah. You’d think it’d be more . . . I don’t know . . . supernatural, less deceitful.”
“She says there aren’t hard and fast rules,” I said. “She says, ‘what do you want? You’re talking to a ghost,’”
“Not really. I’m talking to Roger. You’re about the kind of ghost I’d get,” Jane said.
“She says that’s from It’s a Wonderful Life,” I said.
“Congratulations,” Jane said to the blank space in front
“Get on with it,” Ellen said, to me I think.
It was amazing to see sibling rivalry persist beyond the grave.
It was clear that Ellen knew about Thanksgiving. They had it out—through me, which I guess was appropriate. Jane and I continued to stand on the ice, talking to Ellen on the black rubber matting, the hockey railing between us. Every few minutes a yellow-jacketed skate guard would slow and look at us.
In the middle of the fight, I have to say I was surprised at words like “whore” and “asshole” even though I was the one saying them.
“Tell her she is a bitch,” Jane said.
I’d said she’d gotten that already, so I didn’t repeat it. .
Jane looked at me. Well? I think in that look there was also a “Can you believe this chick?” kind of thing. And that wasn’t lost on Ellen.
Near the end of the two-sided three-way conversation, I had to say to Jane, “She says I’m an asshole.”
“You are an asshole,” Jane said.
And the sisters could begin to agree.
One thing about discovering that death is a permeable barrier is that once you get over the awe, you have none of that profound regret of “if only I had told them while they were living.” All of the resentments come flooding back. You realize that the ghost is beyond change, so you had better adjust your own attitude. I know I said to myself more than once, “She’s never going to change” in a way that was different than when there was hope that she might.
Ellen turned on me and asked, as she would have when she was living, how I could stand there in front of her having done this to her.
“Do I have a choice?” I said.
“You’re goddamn right you don’t,” she said.
A mist had started to rise off the ice; the skaters who had been zipping by slowed, because it was becoming hard to see. The music stopped and a blaring voice was making some announcement. It was hard to hear what it was through the tin-can crackle and static.
“What’s she saying?” Jane asked after I had gone quiet. Ellen was crying but I didn’t want to tell Jane that.
Wiping away tears, Ellen insisted that I see Jane once a month. The only thing worse than what we had done was avoiding each other because of what we had done. “Nothing could be stupider than to avoid each other, when I want you two to be friends.”
The wind was picking up, and it turned sharply colder. A dog was barking somewhere nearby in the park.
“You seem more concerned about that than the other thing,” I said.
Ellen said something but I was having a hard time hearing her, like her voice was vibrating at a higher frequency. She was stepping away from the boards. The mist was now a dense fog and the skate guards were ushering people off the ice. The wind was whipping now—almost howling. But the mist wasn’t being driven off: it seemed to be steadily rising off the ice despite the wind. A rush of people pushed at the rink’s gate. Jane and I were being squeezed and jostled as the competing streams converged on the door. Ellen started drifting back into the fog until I couldn’t see her any more.
Ellen and I first met at a movie—the Film Forum. It was a Thin Man retrospective. I had come in for the first feature, and was staying for the second. When that second feature crowd came in searching for seats, I had my coat on the open seat next to me. I fended off one “Is that seat free?” request after another. I was burrowing down beside the red pillar trying to disappear. I liked elbow room, and I had said “no” too many times to say yes now. When Ellen came striding in, I watched her slim figure walk down the aisle and back up it. Even in the flickering light of the coming attractions, I knew. I was moving my coat before she had reached my row. I wanted her to know the seat next to me would always be free, for her.
She squeezed into the aisle, and smiled when she sat down. She was so vibrant, so beautiful, that I didn’t think she’d speak to me.
“I love William Powell,” she said, turning to me.
I turned to face her, and nodded, stupidly. After an awkward minute, I said, “And Myrna Loy.”
She nodded back. “I want to live in these movies.”
What was a girl like this doing talking to me? That was my thought at the time. It’s still my thought now.
Since that time at the skating rink, Jane comes over to watch old movies, sometimes. She hasn’t seen a lot of them, and the other night, she actually jumped when ghostly Harry Lime showed up in The Third Man—picked out by that beam of light from an upper window. I had to turn to her to make sure she wasn’t joking. She had never seen this movie? She didn’t even like My Man Godfrey or it seems, William Powell. She thinks he’s creepy. And Topper is right out. So, though we are friends now, she’ll never be Ellen.
My mother was right about what happened when you helped someone out of purgatory. I haven’t seen Ellen in a while, and when I think of her now, I have a warm feeling of well-being. I think she’s over that uncomfortable interval in the Camden Greyhound station. I believe she moved on to the next stage, whatever it is. It wasn’t so much that she had unfinished business as all the ghost stories would have it. But that I had unfinished business with her. Sometimes at night, I can still feel her move about the room. As long as I’m confessing, I stole that last bit from a poem I remember from college. But I can.