Alone in a North Woods cabin — or is she?
At three in the morning, Richard’s back flickered down the hallway outside our bedroom; he was wearing a red flannel shirt rolled up at the sleeves and was headed toward the kitchen.
I figured he was going to fix himself peanut butter toast. Then I remembered he was dead.
I was sure he didn’t intend for me to see him. The woman he had known was never up at three o’clock in the morning, not the woman who had slept through the night beside him for over ten years. He probably thought he could safely walk through the cabin and not disturb me, but I was no longer that woman.
• • •
My name is Wendy, but Richard called me Weed. He started calling me that after the second time we slept together. When we woke up in the morning, he said I was like a plant that had invaded his bed: foreign, taking hold wherever there was room. He called me Weed and kissed the hollow of my neck.
• • •
I called him Richard. Most everyone else called him Rich, which I liked better than Dick. Rich was how he had introduced himself to me, but once we had been together, I wanted to say his whole name, to own it.
• • •
When I found him that day, he was bent over his keyboard in the den, tipped to the side. I started laughing, but muffled the sound with my hand so as not to wake him.
Richard could fall asleep anywhere.
I loved to watch him try to read at night, the book propped up on his chest like a billboard. First I would hear his breath slow, then, if I turned to look at him, I would see his eyes flutter, the book waver. I would watch until the book fell and hit him on the nose and he jolted awake.
So I laughed to myself and snuck up on him. If I had stopped for a moment I might have noticed how quiet the room was, how unnaturally still, but I didn’t hesitate, just walked up and poked him in the ribs. He slumped down farther in his chair. His hand fell toward the floor, dangling. There was no life in it.
The laughter turned in my throat.
• • •
My favorite of Richard’s paintings hangs above the buffet in the cabin. The whole canvas is blue, but not a static blue. He painted the lake and the sky on a day when they melded into one another, both very much alive and filled with movement. Tones of blue lilt and fall like a melody in this work. He has caught the life that goes on in the deep of the water and the infinity of the sky.
When I look at that piece, I see Richard standing in front of it, raising his arm as if directing a symphony, still working away.
I see him everywhere.
We want to be haunted.
• • •
But ghost or not, I have stalled out. I’m stuck in a life that isn’t about living anymore.
I can’t leave the cabin, don’t want to talk to anyone. The bills are piling up. My friends and family live two hours away, in the Twin Cities, but I won’t go there. I’ve done no sewing commissions since the funeral. Richard left me in decent financial shape, I think. I don’t have the energy to work.
I haven’t been able to go into Richard’s studio. I stand outside the door and can’t bring myself to push it open. The thought of entering the studio without him there breaks me inside.
Without Richard, the real me would have never been alive in the world. We met when I was twenty-five and he was thirty-seven. He seemed much the older man. Now that I’m close to that age myself I know how young he really was. As I came to know him I became more myself — creating a good life for the two of us and doing my handwork. He gave me the room and the courage to come into my own.
• • •
Before, I was a waitress who hung around with the artistic crowd: writers, painters, musicians. I didn’t really do any art myself. Or I didn’t think I did. I waitressed and I hung out. I liked going to thrift stores and buying old tablecloths. I was good at arranging flowers. I dressed a bed like nobody’s business. My library was extensive, my mind filled with information. I remembered the words to songs easily, but I couldn’t sing. I could sew a straight seam and I loved to embroider flowers on pillowcases.
I went to college because my parents expected that of me. I received a degree in psychology and teaching. But I didn’t want to be a psychologist. I wasn’t ready to teach.
When Richard met me I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was happy with my life. I wished I was really good at something like everyone I knew, but I just didn’t care enough to get good.
I was, however, a more than decent waitress.
That was how I met Richard. I was working a slow afternoon shift at the New French. I had seen Richard around, but I didn’t really know him. When Dodie left I took over her section and acquired Richard, who was sitting by himself at a corner table, drawing on a piece of paper. From time to time, I would walk over and warm up his coffee. He would lift his head and smile at me, surfacing for a second, then he would re-submerge.
I liked the way he looked. His dark brown hair was cut tight to his head, which made his blue eyes seem larger. They were wide open and almost purple in color. His hands were knobby, fine veined, work hands. He wasn’t much taller than my five-seven, but his shoulders looked as if they could carry some weight.
He was drawing a series of dots.
The third time I went over to offer him more coffee, I nodded at his drawing. “Dot-to-dot?”
He looked up at me as if I had jarred something. He stared.
I started to walk away, but then I heard him say something. “Connect them.”
“What?” I asked.
“That’s it. I need to connect them.”
I walked away.
He left me a ten-dollar tip. A generous tip for a cup of coffee. I put it in my purse and decided I would buy something special with it. A present for myself.
• • •
He said I was an artist. An artist of living. He told me that I could brew a perfect cup of tea, that I knew how to make a stranger comfortable, that I put on just the right music at the right time. He said this was an art, this kind of knowing what was needed to make the moment complete.
• • •
I am no longer complete.
• • •
I had always hoped that if I saw a ghost I would be with someone else. I didn’t want to see a ghost while I was alone — I thought I would be afraid, and that no one would believe me.
This is why I’ve kept Richard’s ghost a secret. I’ve told no one, because I am sure they wouldn’t believe me. I’m not sure I believe me. All my friends are already worried about me. I don’t need to give them more fodder.
• • •
My favorite ghost story was told to me by a former boss, Janeen. We worked in this old mansion on Franklin Avenue. It had once been the home of a wealthy family, but at that time it was being used by a publishing company. I was a typist and worked the night shift.
The ghost was never seen at night. She showed up at nine o’clock in the morning.
Janeen had just started to work there. Her office was upstairs. There was a large formal staircase in the middle of the house. At the upper landing if you went straight ahead there was a smaller hallway with a bathroom and a bedroom off to the right.
One morning Janeen was coming out of the bathroom upstairs. A secretary walked up the stairs at that moment. Janeen looked into the bedroom, then back at the secretary with her mouth hanging open, her eyes wide.
“What?” the secretary asked.
“You won’t believe me,” Janeen said.
“There was a young woman. In a prom dress. She was leaning on the doorjamb.” Janeen looked back at the bedroom. “Now, she’s gone.”
Janeen asked, “You think I’m crazy?”
“No, I know who you mean.” The secretary nodded. “She came floating down the stairs one day a month or so ago. I saw her and so did Linda.”
Janeen, not one to let a ghost rest, did some research. A teenage girl who had once lived in the house had died there in the 1930s.
The detail of her wearing a prom dress always made this ghost very real to me.
• • •
Richard didn’t believe in ghosts. He said they were just an excuse for something we didn’t want to face.
• • •
Before, I neither believed nor disbelieved in ghosts. Before.
Tomorrow: Chapter 3 begins.