The final chore disgusted Ellen. She had sold the car, donated furniture, clothes, dishes and a lawn tractor, and piled the aged TV and other useless gadgets in a corner for George, the cleanout man recommended by the real estate agent. But the task of investigating these dusty, saggy cardboard boxes, stacked four-high in the room her father had called his den, verged for her on the repulsive.
Dad had been a distasteful man—the stinky pipe that scattered ashes over the carpet, the ill-conceived toupee, the devotion to vodka martinis (two before dinner, more after), the string of dubious blonde companions—and Ellen took no interest in what he'd deemed worth saving. In fact, the layer of dirt suggested he hadn't bothered with this storage in years, so why shouldn't she leave it for George?
Besides, despite having her parka snapped tight, she was freezing. The power had gone out two hours ago, shortly after she'd arrived for what she hoped was her last visit. The temperature outside had skidded into the teens, and the den at the northwest corner of the second floor caught the January wind that pounded through this suburb, thrashing branches and roof gutters and whining through hedges.
Thinking of the warmth of her own living room, an hour away, she'd wanted to quit when her shivers started, but she had always possessed a strong sense of duty, and at age forty-nine this was her primary driving force. Today at least two obligations pushed her: She'd made a commitment to the agent that the house would be ready to show next week. Also, she'd promised to look for some information the accountant claimed was missing—purchase dates and cost bases for a few stocks and bonds Dad had owned. Hiring an accountant as well as a lawyer for such a tiny estate had seemed like overkill, but she was scared of filing an erroneous tax return. What form the missing data might take she didn't know, but dust-smudged boxes made a likely hiding place.
Action, then. Starting with the stack on the far left, she lugged the top carton into the one source of light, a weak beam of sun through the window. Dust floated up, and she ran downstairs for a roll of paper towels. She brushed and wiped and coughed and cleared her throat before removing the lid.
Inside she found layer upon layer of stapled tax returns, going back—she peeked at samples from various depths—at least two decades. Though she'd ask the accountant, she presumed these could be trashed. She'd already found more recent returns in a file cabinet downstairs.
Her annoyance flared. Dad had saved this outdated crap while ignoring his daily finances. For decades, as a middle manager for a chain of electronics stores, he'd spent almost every cent of his salary on booze and artificially colored women who fell for his bluster and open wallet. Then in eight years of retirement he'd blown through most of his corporate-sponsored pension account, and he'd even remortgaged the house for cash to spend. The last time Ellen had seen him alive, on his seventy-seventh birthday, he was drinking and smoking on his stained old couch, scarcely able to pretend an interest in the sweater she'd bought and wrapped for him. This was what she got for continuing to visit him half a dozen times a year. As for the blondes, none of the recent ones had shown up at his funeral last week. For that matter, neither had Ellen's mother, who'd moved to a senior complex in a suburb on the other side of the city. The small group at the funeral had consisted mostly of golfing buddies as well as former coworkers and employees, people who seemed to know more about Dad than Ellen did.
What Ellen knew best was his stupidity: The blondes, whom she tracked by way of snapshots enclosed in birthday and Christmas cards. The smoking, which he kept up despite two operations for oral cancer. The insistence on staying in this little house he'd bought after the divorce more than forty years ago. Mom had been smart enough to understand when she needed a modicum of support, but not Dad, who had gloried in his so-called independence right up to the moment when, the EMTs guessed, he blacked out and pitched headfirst down the stairs.
Looking back to the stack of boxes, Ellen counted—four high by five wide—and sighed, the exhale turning into another cough. If the top layer went back twenty years, what kind of junk would be festering at lower levels? The George option felt more and more attractive.
But guilt kicked in to reinforce her sense of duty. She'd long had a nagging belief that she ought to see Dad more often. The last time she'd visited, on the birthday about six weeks before his death, she'd heard him call as she went out the front door. It sounded like "See you soon" or some such standard phrase, and she paid it little mind, but now she wondered if he'd been asking for something. Might some people think she should have stopped in every week, as she did for her mother? Could she have prevented his fall? No, of course not, and she couldn't conceive who might level such a charge or why, but if she spent time with these boxes he'd saved—sort of visiting him after the fact—she might buttress herself against accusations.
Reluctantly, then, she took the top box from the next stack. Here were even older tax returns—shit. She shoved that carton aside with her foot. The next held a jumble of papers that seemed to relate to stocks and mutual funds and the like—maybe more relevant, but with her lack of experience in such matters she couldn't tell. Should she carry it all to the accountant? Was that placing an undue burden on him? Would he double his fee?
Worries like this, along with the exercise, warmed her a bit. She worked vigorously through sixteen more boxes—miscellaneous crap, only a couple of things of possible use to the accountant—until she came to the last carton, from the bottom right. She slid it into the patch of light on the cheap carpet and flicked off the top, which had split at the seams from the weight above. A layer of yellowed newspaper—ugh, the age stains looked like urine. An orange plastic serving tray with a garish paisley pattern that must date from the 1970s. How absurd to keep that! And here was—what? an old coloring book? Wait a minute, was that hers?
Digging deeper then, she came upon the ghost he'd saved.
At age five Ellen was insanely jealous of Margarethe Sorensen, for numerous reasons: (1) The tight blonde curls. (2) The long, dignified, unusual given name, which even to a novice speller seemed pretentious. (3) The self-important air that Margarethe ("don't call me Maggie, I hate that") always assumed because she was almost a year older. (4) Most of all, the Malibu Barbie doll with her sleek womanly shape, lavender sunglasses, aqua bathing suit, yellow beach towel, "surfer gold" hair and incredibly elegant, suntanned legs. And if you undressed her, she was tan all over—Barbie that is, not Margarethe, whose skin was paler than Ellen's.
Ellen's mother, opposed to anything that conveyed "an unrealistic body image," would not tolerate a Barbie, so Ellen had to make do with Baby Tender Love, chubby-cheeked with a permanently puckered mouth. Not only was Baby Tender Love ugly in comparison, she had none of Barbie's grownup sophistication. Whenever Ellen and Margarethe played together—which was often because they lived on the same cul-de-sac, their mothers were friendly and the women assumed the girls "got along nicely"—the difference between the dolls caused pain and crabbiness. To a large extent the girls engaged in what Ellen would later, as a mother herself, call parallel play, more characteristic of toddlers than school-age children, but Ellen was always looking over to see what Barbie was up to, and questions about it would lead to short conversations and occasionally to a skit in which both dolls participated. In joint activities Barbie always took charge, for instance in wedding preparations. Barbie was planning to marry a policeman doll, whereas Baby Tender Love had no boyfriend at all. Barbie understood a lot about the world that Ellen and Baby Tender Love had never imagined. It was good to learn these things but upsetting that Barbie was so snooty about other people's ignorance.
Several months after Barbie arrived on the scene, Margarethe's ghost made her presence known. When the older girl described a fight between her parents that took place downstairs after she'd gone to bed, Ellen, with a glow of triumphant logic, questioned how she knew about it. "Were they yelling?" No. "Did they come upstairs?" No. "Then you couldn't hear them!" Ellen was doing very well in kindergarten that year—the teacher said she had a "fine brain"—and she'd begun to think this might be her one advantage. She knew about arguments between parents because she heard many herself, but none unless the adults were yelling or she was nearby. You couldn't be far away and hear a quiet fight; that made no sense.
"Barbie was there," Margarethe explained. "I left her downstairs."
Ellen pondered that for a moment and then retorted, "But Barbie doesn't talk! She can't tell you what she heard!"
"It's my ghost that told me. She lives inside Barbie. She's secret, don't tell anybody."
A serious discussion ensued, perhaps the longest steady conversation the girls had enjoyed. Margarethe had learned about ghosts from a TV show, and in Sunday School she'd also heard of a Holy Ghost that came down from heaven. She thought her own ghost might be holy too. Ree Tee—that was the ghost's name—was invisible, never got cold or hot and never had to eat. Like Barbie, she never peed or pooped, but unlike the doll she could fly through walls and hang from the ceiling before returning at night to sleep in Barbie's tummy.
"Barbie's tummy is too little."
"A ghost can be really really small. Or really big. She changes."
"How does she get inside? Does Barbie swallow her?"
"I said she can go through walls and bricks and stuff. Barbie's just plastic."
"She's invizerble, so how do you know she's there?"
"I'm not telling. Be quiet! I wish I didn't tell you about her."
"I can keep a secret! I have a ghost too."
"Does she live in your baby?"
"I'm not telling neither!"
Though the tale about her own ghost was a lie, it prompted a lot of thought on Ellen's part, especially at night when she lay in bed. Was she supposed to have a ghost? Was this a vital piece she was missing? Did it mean she wasn't holy? Ellen's family didn't go to church, but she understood that holy was a special state that some important people had, like Mother Teresa who helped poor people in India.
It was impossible, of course, that her ghost would live in Baby Tender Love, who had none of Barbie's beauty or worldliness. At night the doll sat on the dresser staring blankly into the darkness, the curve of her infantile round head visible in the thin sheen of the nightlight. In an attempt to make the doll "less like a mass-produced piece of plastic out of a box," Mom had sewn her a homemade velvet dress, bright green with white ruffles, with a matching hair ribbon. Though Ellen tried to pretend this made her doll more special than Barbie, more a part of the family, she didn't fully believe it, and now she hated Baby Tender Love for being too dumb to house a ghost.
In any case, Ellen didn't need a spirit to spy on her parents, whose fights were loud and frequent. Alcohol was one thing they fought about. Money was another. Also the way to raise a child, as in, "Why'd you buy clementines? Neither of us can stand them." "Ellen wanted to try them, she thought they looked pretty." "Jesus, why do you let her have every damn thing she whines after in the supermarket? That's no way to raise a child." "I don't give her everything, I explain what's healthy and what's not." "Kids that age don't understand healthy, they just need clear, simple rules." "She knows more than you think—you'd realize if you paid attention to her instead of getting shitfaced in front of the TV every night." "Shut the fuck up! I've had enough of your asinine remarks. I work so fucking hard I deserve to relax! One or two martinis do not make me 'shitfaced'!"
A couple of times, when Ellen caught sight of Dad during a fight, his face was dark and twisted with rage, and Ellen worried about being the cause of such anger. It was not true, however, that Dad paid no "attention" to Ellen. He did pay attention, and she wasn't always sure she liked it. When he looked sad and droopy-eyed sitting on the couch with his second (or fourth) martini, he'd call her over. "Tell me about school," he'd say, which was difficult because she never knew how to answer. He'd put his arm around her, smelling sweet and sour like martini and pipe, and smile in a weird way, one corner of his mouth curled up. Sometimes he seemed almost ready to cry. Occasionally she invented tales just to have something to talk about, but that could be dangerous. When she said Les Horlacher had pushed her off the playground slide—an exaggeration, since it was only from the second step on the ladder—he went to the kitchen and started an argument with Mom about "proper supervision in the schoolyard."
For a while the quarrels stopped when Dad brought Gonzo home. Gonzo was a Labrador puppy whose waddly run took him everywhere he could poke his nose—under the kitchen counter, into the coat closet and toilet, down the heat registers. Ellen fell more instantly in love than ever before or after. "Can he sleep in my room, Dad?" she asked. "Wait till he's housetrained. We'll discuss it then." "But I'll watch him, I'll take him outside whenever he needs to go, I promise." "I said we'll wait. For now he stays in his crate."
Gonzo was the only friend Ellen could wrestle with, the only one she'd nuzzle. With her crayons she drew picture after picture of him: Gonzo chasing a squirrel in the backyard; Gonzo begging for a hamburger; Gonzo with a sock in his mouth and a huge fuzzball stuck to his nose. Gonzo didn't make her feel ignorant like Barbie, and he didn't have arguments with anybody.
Gleefully destructive, Gonzo chewed up a throw rug, tissues from the wastebasket, a pair of Mom's slippers and one of Dad's pipes. (Dad was surprisingly mellow about the loss.) But then Gonzo found Baby Tender Love alone on the couch and showed his fondness for her by tearing off her head, gnawing through her shoes and mangling her feet. Ellen was devastated.
"Hoo, he did a job on her, didn't he?" Mom whistled. "I'm sorry, honey, she can't be repaired, he's shredded some pieces. Swallowed some bits too, I think. But you're not especially fond of this doll, are you?"
Ellen couldn't explain how awful she felt. True, she'd never loved her baby, but did that justify leaving her where Gonzo could get his teeth in her? Would Barbie's police boyfriend lock Ellen in jail?—no, that was impossible because the dolls weren't real, but she was terrified just the same. As for the dog, he'd betrayed her, and that hurt so much she smacked him again and again until Mom told her to stop, puppies don't know any better.
"I don't understand why you're so mad about a doll you didn't care for, but I tell you what: I put a lot of time into her little outfit so let's save it, it has only one tear that I can sew up. We'll go shopping for another doll who can wear the same size, and then you'll have a new doll and a memento of the old one too. How's that?"
Mom didn't sense the treachery, the way the world was abruptly unsafe, full of malicious teeth and blame. Yet a pouting Ellen agreed to the plan, and that night, by way of appeasement, Mom laid the green dress on the sheet next to Ellen's pillow. "See, here's the dress, and maybe baby's spirit is still inside—kind of—to keep you company."
When Ellen woke a while later, to sounds of yelling downstairs, the piece of velvet, with its two holes for arms and two for legs and snaps to close it down the back, stood out dark against the white sheet. As she reached her fingers to touch it, there were more screams from downstairs, and she suddenly guessed that her ghost was here now. She could hear it breathing! It was inside the green dress.
It must have been hanging around in the room, maybe in the back of a dresser drawer, until it found the right place to live. Like the hermit crab she'd seen in a pet store, it couldn't make its own home so it needed to find one that somebody else had made. Mom had thought she was sewing a doll dress but all along it was meant to be a ghost hideout.
Her ghost's name was Jellin, she discovered, which started out like jelly but ended up rhyming with Ellen. They had a good conversation that night, lasting long after the downstairs argument stopped, and Jellin helped Ellen understand that adults fight a lot because that's just the way they are, and even if you hear your name that doesn't mean the argument's all about you. This insight reduced, though it couldn't eliminate, the lingering guilt.
Mom never got around to buying a new doll to fit the dress, and Ellen didn't remind her; the dress was Jellin's House now, and it stayed on the bed. She and Jellin had long talks about kids in school and the snottiness of people like Malibu Barbie. With Jellin supporting her, Ellen started to stick up for herself more, such as when Davey Nudelman broke her blue crayon. Jellin also helped her understand the teacher's complicated distinctions, such as "you have a right to be mad at Davey" versus "you can't punch him in the neck, we don't do that" and "there's no point in holding a grudge, is there?"
Further, it was Jellin who convinced Ellen to forgive Gonzo after a few days. Gonzo helped me find a house, the ghost noted, and Ellen had to admit that was true, and she was glad to be able to hug the puppy again instead of punishing him with coldness.
One night when a big argument started downstairs, the first words were followed by a crash. She then heard a snuffling, a whining and a bump as Gonzo nudged through her bedroom door. "You're not allowed here!" she scolded, but she knew he was running from the fight. Though it was still a big leap for him, he jumped up on her bed, scrambling with his back feet, and she let him wiggle under the covers so her parents wouldn't find him if they came to investigate. He lay with his back warm against her knee. "They always stop when they've had enough," Jellin whispered to her, and she repeated that to the puppy. She knew the phrase "had enough" because both parents used it a lot. With her ghost and puppy beside her, she managed to fall asleep despite the continued racket from the floor below.
Some minutes or hours later her arm was being yanked. "Hurry, wake up! Put your clothes on, we can't stay here! He's gone too far." It was Mom, her face a weird bunch of angles and hollows in the nightlight. Mom wrenched clothes over Ellen's head and up her legs, jammed shoes on her feet, then scooped her in both arms and barged through the door.
"Wait!" Ellen cried. "Gonzo! My ghost!"
"Shush, be quiet, we've got to hurry. We can't take the dog tonight."
Ellen never saw her bedroom, her house or her puppy again.
Her father, when she next encountered him a few months later in his temporary apartment, seemed smaller and older than she remembered. She never learned why her mother had suddenly decided to flee, but Dad was no longer so loud or dangerous. In fact, he became almost irrelevant except on the occasional weekends she was forced to spend with him, when he treated her like a guest. These were awkward times, and she didn't try very hard to help him smooth things over. Gonzo had gone to a new home, she was told, and it took her months to stop being angry about that. Then the first of Dad's blondes appeared on the scene, and she saw no reason to accept a Barbie lookalike in her mother's place. "She's just a friend," Dad would say, but Ellen sensed rather precisely the amount of truth and untruth in lines like that.
Though the real Barbie, and her owner Margarethe, had vanished like Gonzo, Ellen never shook off their influence. Not just in rounded body shape but in her general lack of sophistication, she grew to resemble Baby Tender Love rather than Barbie, and she knew it.
As for the ghost, she saw it was time to put that phase behind her, and she'd better do so fast. By third grade she drew a firm line between magic and reality, and even Disney movies didn't lead her to suppose they would ever intertwine.
Mom raised Ellen mostly alone. In their new neighborhood the girl had friends in the same parental situation, so in spite of her unworldliness she developed an understanding of that pattern. Changes were frequent: partners came and went, families blended and broke apart, people left town when a parent lost a job. In one case a mother shot a stepmother in the stomach and went to jail for it. (Ellen pictured a blonde with a bullet hole.) Another friend's older brother got in trouble for selling heroin. Nevertheless, this was a "good neighborhood" with "good schools." Ellen's mother kept her job as a mortgage loan specialist despite the menace from bank mergers, and Ellen remained free of a stepfather despite the menace of Mom's occasional boyfriends. By her teenage years, Ellen considered her life precarious yet not abnormal, and she found some smart, antisocial friends she could be social with.
In college, Ellen became known as a shy but companionable person who enjoyed mystery novels, Japanese food, wine, romantic movies and old-time blues. It turned out that some boys liked her despite her lack of Barbieness, and she had a couple of brief attachments. She was big but not fat, plain but not ugly—overall no worse than average, she supposed—and she had a quick wit. No one saw the separate personality that critiqued her at night, treating her with a sardonic air as if no one else could possibly have made such a stupid remark in class or slopped spaghetti sauce in such an embarrassing place on her jeans.
This harder, sarcastic self remained well hidden. The university didn't know about it when she was hired, after graduation, for a job in the Residential Services Department. Nor did the man who married her that year have much hint of it. When the battles began, however—sparked by his disloyalties, small and large—the secret Ellen made herself known, and she gave as good as she got. The night he slapped her, she punched back, much harder than she'd hit Davey Nudelman, and it was her backswing that caused her favorite lamp to crash. She didn't care. She had a sudden flash of her mother's odd face the night the two of them fled, and she wondered if Mom too had been hit. But no matter—it came to the same thing in the end. When her husband left shortly after their sixth anniversary, she told herself she hadn't ever expected him to stay; she knew better. Bitterly, triumphantly pessimistic, she made everyone miserable until the lawyers settled matters.
By then she had a five-year-old son, Zacharias, and she was well established at Residential Services. After the divorce she fell into the role she knew well, raising Zach as a single, working mother. Though her parents remained nearby, neither was deeply involved with her son, in part because Ellen didn't encourage them. This was the period when Ellen became obsessively driven and dutiful. The tiny house she managed to buy was for herself as much as for Zach, but the rituals involved in mothering were so detailed and demanding that at times it seemed she lived Zach's life more than her own.
Of course, with a growing boy, there were many opportunities to feel guilty for things she had or hadn't done or said, beginning with that broken lamp (had he heard the smash? did he blame her for the hostility in the house?). Over time, as he grew into and then out of the cohort she dealt with at work—the crazed and cranky undergraduates—she labored to learn about matters significant to him, including comic books, role-playing games, soccer, hip-hop music and current styles in male underwear, but more than once, after a passing incident with Zach, she worried that he wouldn't forgive her, and even at the sanest times she wasn't sure he understood how much she loved him.
Finally, when Zach went off to California for graduate school, she settled into an old-before-her-time Ellen, a person with many duties and little joy, wondering if life would have been different if she'd been more like that friend of hers who'd owned the Barbie—what was that girl's name? Now a manager in Residential Services, she often worked late, dealing not only with suppliers and contractors but with the worst complaints about suitemates and damages ("Um, how did your door get broken exactly?"). However annoying the students might be, and however little she saw them on a daily basis, she appreciated her tenuous connection with them.
This was the Ellen who, in cleaning out her dead father's place, found her missing ghost in a grubby cardboard box.
The recognition came instantly. "Jellin's House?" she said. "Oh… my… god."
Wrapped in tissue paper and cardboard, the velvet dress was wrinkled but clean, its green gleaming in the dim sunlight that canted across the carpet. Ellen plopped onto her butt, the little frock draped across her bent knees. Even the white ruffles looked as spotless as if they'd come from a vault rather than a ramshackle carton. Had Dad cleaned it before putting it away? What did it mean that he'd saved it?
At first she assumed he'd kept it for her, but why then had he never given it to her? Could it be that he'd kept it because—because Mom had made it?
After musing for ten minutes, she laid the dress carefully on a paper towel and, on her knees, dug through the rest of the box for clues. A few items seemed as inexplicable as the paisley serving tray: a deck of playing cards, for instance, or a fluted candy dish—was that the one Mom used to set out for company?
Two objects in the bottom of the box were more suggestive: a small jewelry case containing a man's gold ring and a manila folder with a dozen scribbled crayon drawings of a dog or horse or some such animal. Dad's wedding ring? Her own drawings of—what was that—Gonzo?
Oh… my… god, she thought again, and sat once more on the carpet, arms around her knees, caught up in fragmented, overlapping memories while the sunlight waned and the temperature in the house continued to drop.
She didn't realize how cold she was getting until the lights snapped on and she stood up, fingers numb, arms beating against her chest.
Over the following weeks, she went through several stages of interpretation. At first she was better disposed toward her father because he had so carefully preserved the memorabilia of his marriage and child. If he'd actually loved her, she wondered, could she forgive his many faults? Then she grew upset that he'd stashed the stuff in neglected boxes that for decades served no purpose but collecting dust: out of sight, out of mind, right? Fundamentally he hadn't cared at all. In the next phase, she thought his mementos typical of the absurd drunken sentimentality he'd shown those times when he called her over to the couch to talk. She pictured him sitting smirky-weepy with his martini in hand and one of her drawings of a long-departed Gonzo in his lap, his expression oozing self-pity and schmaltzy regret. Then she decided that one of the early blondes must have told him to put the ridiculous keepsakes away.
Though she tried discussing her finds with her mother, the old woman's memory was even less coherent than Ellen's, and besides, she still bore such a grudge against her ex-husband that any mention of him caused irritation and a refusal to eat lunch.
In a few months Dad's house was sold, the mortgage paid off, the legal paperwork and tax return filed. There was no immediate audit by the IRS—success? By this point the images of her father were melding together, and she was beginning to conceive that he might have been all of the people she imagined him to be.
She trashed the candy dish, paisley tray and coloring book. With a self-conscious twist of the mouth, she put the drawings in her own storage box with photos of Zach and other objects from his childhood. The old ring went into a dresser drawer. The doll's dress, however, required a special treatment, and she spent a long while pondering this.
Eventually, after steaming the wrinkles out, she took the dress to a picture framer to have it mounted on an off-white mat, surrounded by simple wooden molding and sealed with museum-quality glass—an expensive option but worth the cost for a permanent home. If Jellin still inhabited the dress, Ellen laughed to herself, she would have no trouble passing in and out through the glass, as a spirit would need to do.
She hung the framed dress in her living room. Though she couldn't recreate what the artifact had meant to her five-year-old self, it did feel sometimes as if the ghost seeped out and came to snuggle next to her as she sipped wine on the couch, kind of the way she had sat with her father's left arm draped over her as he imbibed his martinis. On occasion she talked to the ghost, calling her by name. Jellin's answers were never spoken out loud—thank god I'm not that loony, Ellen told herself—but the conversations were comforting nonetheless. At any rate, the dress's preservation suggested to her that things were not as impermanent as they often seemed. Something that was gone could unexpectedly return. A father who'd disappeared into a toadlike old man might in some portion be restored. It was Jellin, in fact, who helped her sort out her feelings about her father.
For her fiftieth birthday she celebrated with two women friends from the university, who took her to a cocktail lounge that featured a dozen specialty martinis. She'd never done that sort of thing before, and she had a grand time. Zach remembered to call her—that was nice too. She endured her hangover without a smidgen of guilt, though Jellin alternated between commiseration and gentle mockery. "You drank as much as your dad," Jellin smirked.
Not long after, Ellen was asked to lunch by an adjunct history instructor she'd met at a malfunctioning vending machine. Short, with a receding hairline, he seemed frazzled but cheerful, and she had a lively chat with him about whether today's college students were more distracted than in previous eras. She said no. He said she ought to try teaching them. During a couple of other lunches she learned more about him. Underpaid and loaded with classes no one else wanted to teach, he had a long-dead wife, no children, no stable position at the university—a sort of perfect nobody. A good match for herself, she thought, though it occurred to her that with a steady job and a son, she'd been luckier in life than he. Jellin suggested she stop analyzing so much.
For their fourth date (if that was what to call it), she asked him to her house for Tagliatelle Bolognese, her most reliable recipe. She was prepared to sleep with him for the first time, if the evening went that way, though she kept her expectations modest.
After she made him a martini, he stood gazing around her cramped living room until his eyes fixed on the framed dress on the wall. He walked over to study it.
"My ghost lives there," she blurted.
"Here? You mean in the little dress?"
"Yeah." She was surprised to hear herself talk about it, and more surprised that he took the information in stride.
"Hmm," he said, "a ghost on the wall. That's kind of cool, I guess."
She paused and thought about diverting the conversation, but then went on. "It's not just any ghost. It's mine."
"A ghost of you?"
"Uh-huh… It's a long story."
He turned to look at her, his lips pursed like Baby Tender Love's. He slurped the martini and smiled. "I think the best stories are long ones. That's why I became a historian, you know. Years, centuries, a good story can go on and on."
"This particular story has never been told."
"That's the most interesting kind!"
"It's pretty commonplace, I'm afraid. Typical, ugly childhood messes."
"Huh. Yeah, we all have those stories. Mine doesn't have any ghosts in it, though."
"Vampires then? Trolls? Goblins?"
He laughed. "Only if you count my stepmother. Seriously, I like talking to you about… whatever, and," he took a deep breath, "I'm a good listener, is what I mean to say." He gave another laugh, this one bashful, as he glanced away.
It was a wide-open invitation, however haltingly expressed, and she believed he meant it, for that moment at least. Her ghostly sense told her Jellin agreed.
Title image "Malibu Dream" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2023.