After His Passing
After her husband dies, and the children have helped reshuffle the house, moved out his worn cardigans, his weathered golf bag, his collection of bird skulls, she feels acutely alone. Mornings now, she reads thrillers in the shade of an elm as light dapples the grass. Sometimes his ghost putters around the yard, bending slowly, tracing the ground for signs of tulips. The ghost is a marginal gardener, perhaps something in the afterlife impairs your spatial reasoning.
Got to get the bulbs, he says.
We don’t have any.
Think I buried them in the dog, he says, looking perplexed.
She goes back to her book.
Why can’t the ghost have come back as a younger version of you? She asks, but the ghost is busy planting imaginary bulbs. She remembers the younger version of him, confidently sitting behind a rental car in Rome, black hair swept across his forehead, a smug smile. Had she been happy then, wandering the bowels of the Colosseum with him, thinking of the history—blood and guts and crowds shouting? Even in Rome, she had dreamt of being elsewhere, tucked in her lover’s bed, naked and warm. She remembers her husband telling her something he’d read in a book about the history of Rome, about Trajan maybe, his column, shading his eyes as he talked.
She thinks of calling her friends but finds them mostly bores now. She wants the ghost to talk to her about the afterlife or hell, maybe fuck her, just to see. The ghost is reading a book about the Civil War in the living room. She can tell he’s looking for an audience.
Everything all right, she asks.
Fine. Fine, he answers. In general, all the generals are good generals. Except that one, which is generally the case in war.
She doesn’t know if ghosts have a sense of humor or if he’s just insane.
She feels these eruptions of anger now, as though a part of her had lain concealed, Mount Vesuvius exploding. They’d been there too, walking the broad avenues of Pompeii where pillars and arches now framed bits of blue sky.
She listens to NPR while the ghost turns pages in the book, looks pensive. The story is about the endless war in Afghanistan, accidental bombings of civilians. America is a strange farce, she says to the ghost, who looks up briefly but doesn’t answer. He was always a bit of a nationalist.
At the funeral, she’d felt a strange sense of elation at the coming freedom. As a series of people said over and over, I’m so sorry, she found herself thinking, for what?
In the morning, the intermittent ee-oh-lay of a wood thrush calling from the bracken reaches her on the patio, where she’s half-reading an erotic thriller. The wind lightly shakes the crowns of distant trees. She didn’t know being alone would be so peaceful, so full of undefined yearning. The children scattered across the country like dandelion spores, her dead husband puttering in the yard.
He is excited today, mutters things to her. Do you remember anything about our life together?
I liked all the good parts, he answered.
The wood thrush sings its flute-like song and morning dew glistens on the grass.
I can’t remember most parts though, he says.
What about Rome?
Was that the cat’s name?
We never had a cat.
She holds her book aloft, blotting him out.
Back inside, light makes rainbows on a jug of water; she thinks of the man she’d loved her whole life. They had worked together for three years at an elementary school. He’d had such an agile mind, such a wickedly quick laugh. He had been so open to the world, so capable of making it seem like magic, not such a need to categorize, historicize, control. They’d fucked in the janitorial closet at the school, quickly, harshly. Sometimes he bit her neck lightly, terrifying and exhilarating her, the thought of whether she’d need to hide it.
She still has his email. At night, lonely, she writes to him. She includes the wood thrush’s song, her husband’s passing, how all her dreams had been buried by routines—laundry, dishes, an evening quietly reading books. I’d like to see you, she almost says, but doesn’t. She leaves the thing unspoken but knows it’s there. An opening.
She hits send and sits in the dark for five minutes, waiting. Who was she, an old woman, to sit in the dark giving a damn about an email? Her heart still burns. She closes the computer, sleeps, and dreams of—lakes, water, mines, the feel of his lips climbing her inner thigh.
In the morning, he’s responded. She opens the e-mail with a fluttering heart. His words are quick and kind. He’s been married a second time, fifteen years now. The two of them are taking a trip to the Lakes District this summer, in search of great wine. They are both, he writes, enthusiasts for full-bodied reds and expensive food, something to keep them busy in their declining years. His words do something different than hers, foreclosing as opposed to open.
She closes the computer and drives to a nearby nature preserve she and her husband had always loved walking through in winter. On the drive, she thinks of the quiet corner of her heart, where she’d stored her dreams of another life, mourns the loss of this too.
On the walk, paths covered in pine bark, squirrels skittering, she thinks of her husband, his raucous laugh at some of her well-worn stories. And even the way they’d been together as young parents, like a pair of zombies, very much in love with someone else. She understood now that they’d enjoyed many good years together, through peaks and valleys. The light falls heavily on a field of flowers, and the birds are soaring over them, roosting in nearby trees, the sun, a warm cloth around her whole body, has she ever been this happy?
Andrew Bertaina’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness, Redivider, Orion, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC.