I sat up in bed and peered blearily into the darkness. “Mary? Is that you? What are you doing here?”
“Oooooooo. I told you that if you divorced me I would haunt you. Ooooooooooo.” I could just about make out her silhouette in the doorway. She had her arms raised, her hands flapping.
“Yeah, but I thought you meant after you were dead.”
“I couldn’t wait. Oooooooo.”
“Well, you can’t haunt people while you’re alive. That’s not haunting, it’s harassment. There are laws against harassment.”
“Yes, but not against haunting. And that’s what I’m doing. Oooooooo.”
She lowered her arms. “Okay. It’s almost dawn anyway. But I’ll be back.” I heard a thud. “Ow.” Then I heard her blundering down the hall.
“Ghosts don’t say ow,” I called after her. “And they don’t run into things.”
“Sure they do,” she called back. “Didn’t you ever hear of things that go bump in the night?”
Lisa came out of the bathroom. “Alfie, wake up. You’re talking in your sleep.”
“I am awake. And I’m not talking in my sleep. I was talking to Mary.”
“Mary? Mary’s not here, honey. I’m Lisa, remember?”
“Of course I remember. But she was here. While you were in the bathroom. She haunted me.”
“She’s dead?” She whispered it. As if she were afraid of waking Mary from the eternal sleep of the grave.
“No, she’s not dead. And she wasn’t really haunting me, that’s just what she called it. She was harassing me. Didn’t you hear her?”
“Uh-uh.” I could feel her shaking her head and pictured her blonde curls waving. “Just you.”
“Well take my word for it. She was here. She’s still trying to make me crazy.”
It was the sort of thing that drove me to divorce her. She always made me feel that it was wrong to be normal. Like being normal made me guilty of something. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Being normal should be comfortable.
She didn’t agree. If it was ninety-eight degrees out, she wore a winter coat because it made her think she was cold. She wouldn’t watch TV without standing on her head, or listening to Ornette Coleman records, or turning off the sound and making up her own dialogue. And playing any sort of game was an adventure because she had her own, constantly changing, rules for each one, not necessarily designed to let her win.
Of course, that was also why I married her, so I only had myself to blame. I used to think I didn’t want to be normal. But some people just aren’t cut out to be anything else.
So I was uncomfortable again and couldn’t go back to sleep, which made me snap at Lisa over breakfast, which made her tell me tearfully that maybe she ought to spend a few nights sleeping at her own apartment, which made me even grouchier.
It was dark by the time I got home after work after trying to get Lisa to let me in to her place. Her feelings were still hurt, and I probably wasn’t as understanding as I might have been. It was entirely possible that we had broken up.
I was looking forward to a drink, sports of some kind on TV, and bed. Maybe even more than “a” drink.
“BOO!” Mary leaped out of the dark at me as I opened the door to the apartment.
“Jesus Christ!” I said, staggering back against the jamb. “Are you trying to kill me?”
She considered the question. “I’m not sure. I think sometimes that’s what haunting is for, although sometimes it’s just to drive the person out of the place being haunted. Mostly though, I think a soul is driven to haunting for its own sake, whatever the consequences, and neither the haunter nor the hauntee has much say in the matter.”
“Well, you aren’t being forced to do this by anything except your own warped brain. And I have plenty to say about it.” I turned on the light and pushed past her. “Like, if you don’t stop bothering me I’m going to call the cops.”
She shook her head. “I told you, cops can’t do anything about hauntings. What you want is an exorcist.”
“No, what you want is a psychiatrist. What I want is for you to leave me alone. It’s really not a lot to ask. I gave you the house and the car and everything else in the divorce. All I wanted in return was to be left alone. Please.”
“I don’t think so. You need to be haunted. It’s practically my duty to haunt you.”
“Because of who you would be if I didn’t.” She waved her hands at me and said, “Oooooooo,” then left.
Apparently Lisa and I hadn’t broken up. After she deemed I had suffered enough, she called me and let me know we were going to the movies, and then we’d see what happened.
The movie was one of the ones that absolutely everybody has to see. Big names, big budget. No writing. Direction by the numbers. Mary would have hated it. Lisa loved it. I… Well, I tried to like it.
Lisa was in a good mood after the movie and we went back to my place for something to eat, a couple of drinks and bed. About one o’clock in the morning, there was a crash. Then there was a clatter. Then more crashes. Lisa sat up and grabbed me around the neck. “What’s that?” she whispered.
“Uck… Uck…” I removed her hands from my throat. “It’s got to be my lunatic ex-wife. Stay here. I’ll go look.”
I went to the kitchen and, sure enough, there she was, happily flinging around pots, pans, dishes, whatever was handy. I flicked on the light and said, “Why?”
She grinned. “I’m a poltergeist.”
“Of course.” I rubbed my jaw. “You’re kind of freaking out my girl friend, you know.”
“That’s what she gets for fooling around with a married man.”
“I’m not married. I’m divorced.”
“I’m not.” She went back to crashing and clattering.
“I…” I gave up. There was no point arguing with her. There never was. Logic, facts, evidence meant nothing to her. I turned off the light. “Just lock the door on your way out, okay?”
“It’s Mary,” I told Lisa when I got back to the bedroom. “She’s a poltergeist.”
“Oh my god!” She held the sheet up to her mouth with both hands and started biting it.
“Stop it. She’s not really a poltergeist. She’s just crazy.”
“Is she… dangerous?”
I thought about it. “Well, I’ve never known her to hurt anyone, but if you’re at all concerned about your sanity, I would hide it in a safe place somewhere until she gets tired of haunting me.”
She stared at me for a minute, then got up and started getting dressed.
“What are you doing?” I asked, even though it was obvious.
“I’m going home. I’m sorry, Alfie, I really don’t like ghosts. There used to be one at my grandmother’s house when I was a little girl and it really scared me.”
I suppressed my first response and said instead, “Regardless of what you think you saw at your grandmother’s, and sometime we’ll have to talk about that, there is no such thing as a ghost. Mary is not a ghost. She’s only pretending to haunt me.” There was another crash. It sounded like she had moved on to the living room.
“That doesn’t sound pretend to me.”
“Okay, she’s really haunting me. But she’s only pretending to be a ghost, and it’s not actually haunting. It’s harassment.”
“Well, whatever it is, I don’t like it.” She stood in the doorway. “Aren’t you going to get dressed?”
She tilted her head and looked at me, exasperated. “You have to take me home. You drove me here, remember?”
“Ah, jeez. Can’t you just…”
Her look told me that no, she couldn’t.
I got dressed. She took my hand and closed her eyes, refusing to take the chance that she might see the “ghost” in the living room. Mary saw her, though. She smiled and said, “Oooooooo.” Lisa made a squeak and jumped, fumbling for the doorknob. I shot Mary a few eye-daggers before I got yanked out of the apartment.
I stayed at Lisa’s, sneaking home in the middle of the day to get some clothes and so on. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for thwarting Mary’s plan to haunt me.
But Lisa listened to pop radio, which I never liked even before I met Mary. And, unlike Mary, she did watch TV with the sound on, which, as it turns out, was not the best way to watch almost all of the programs we watched.
She got rid of some of my ties, including the one with the dancing hippos, and got me new ones; red, and blue, and red and blue striped power ties. She shamed me into ironing my shirts.
We went to “parties” where people talked about the weather, and today’s youth and the TV shows I didn’t want to watch.
I never thought I loved Lisa, but, after a few days, I knew that if I continued to stay with her, I wouldn’t even like her much.
So I went home. And Mary wasn’t there. She didn’t come that night, either. Or the next. So I thought I’d finally gotten rid of her, and I wondered why that didn’t make me completely happy. Maybe because I wasn’t convinced she was never coming back. Or did thinking she would come back eventually somehow make me feel better? As usual, the damned woman made a mess of my mind, which wasn’t in the greatest shape anyway, because I couldn’t sleep at night, waiting for her.
I must have drifted off. I sat up in bed. “Mary?”
“Ooooooo. Who did you think? Have you been letting someone else haunt you? Ooooooo.”
“Where have you been?”
“This.” She turned and walked into the wall. “Ow.”
“What the hell are you doing?”
She bounced off the wall again. Then again. “Ghosts often disappear by melting into, or walking through, walls.” She eyed the wall, her tongue between her teeth, then walked into it again.
I ran my hand through my hair. “You’re not a ghost.”
She looked at the wall, then at me quizzically. “You think that’s the problem?”
“The problem?” I shook my head. “Sweetheart, you have so many problems I can’t even narrow it down to the top ten.”
She looked thoughtful, as if trying to figure out where she’d gone wrong, biting her bottom lip like she always did. Then she smiled. “You called me sweetheart.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose. It slipped out. And, besides, it’s just a figure of speech. It doesn’t mean anything. And whatever I called you is not the point.”
“Oh, I think it is.” She smiled, as if she’d done something to be proud of. “Anyway, I’ve got to go and do some more research. But I’ll be back.” She flapped her hands a little. “Bye-bye. I love you. Ooooooo.” She considered another go at the wall, then stepped sideways and went through the doorway.
“I love you, too,” I said, quietly.
“I heard that,” she called from the hallway.
“I didn’t say anything!” She didn’t even bother to respond.
The next night, I thought about trying to spend a few hours with Lisa. I thought about going out for dinner and maybe to a bar for a few drinks, just because I knew Mary would be waiting for me at home. A part of me thought it would be funny to keep her waiting. Another part of me wanted to get home as soon as possible to see her. Not really to see her, I told myself, just to see what crazy stunt she was going to pull.
I went home.
I opened the door slowly, carefully, braced for her to leap out at me.
I shrugged and pretended to myself that I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. I dropped my briefcase off in the hallway, threw my coat over a chair, loosened my tie and headed to the living room for a drink.
Mary’s body lurched toward me out of a corner. Her head was nowhere to be seen. “Ooooooo,”
“Oh my god! Mary!” I said. “What have you done?”
She bumped into the arm of the couch and did an accidental somersault, landed on the cushions, bounced off, and ended up on the floor. Her head popped up out of her turtleneck sweater. “Oops,” she said.
I collapsed onto the chair that was, fortunately, behind me at the time. My heart was beating wildly and I had to fight to get a breath. “That’s it!” I said when I could. “Get out! I mean it. Get the hell out of my house and stay out and if you come back I’ll call the cops. I’ll have you thrown in jail. This isn’t funny anymore.”
She cocked her head at me. “Did you think it was funny before? ‘Cause it didn’t seem like you did.”
I grit my teeth. “No, it wasn’t funny before. But it’s even less funny now. You could have given me a heart attack. You’re a menace. Now get out!”
She seemed to think it over. “You really ought to be haunted. You need to be haunted. It will give you depth of character.”
“Well,” I said. “Can’t I just be haunted by the memory of what we once had? By your beautiful brown eyes?”
“Hmm,” she said, nodding. “That’s really not a bad idea.” Still thoughtful, she wandered out, not even bothering to ooooooo me.
I didn’t want to think about whatever idea it was germinating in her strange little mind. And I refused to accept any responsibility for planting it there. And I was damned sure I wanted to be elsewhere when it was harvested.
I was macho enough to decide I didn’t want to be run out of my apartment, but freaked out enough that I didn’t want to be alone. I convinced Lisa to come over.
“I told you, I don’t like ghosts,” she said.
“And I told you, she’s not a ghost. She’s… uh… jealous! Yeah. She can’t stand the fact that I’m with somebody else. I don’t think she believes that you’re my girlfriend. She thinks you’re just some casual fling and she can scare you away and get me back by haunting me.”
“I’ll be there at seven.”
I made dinner for us. Afterwards, we sat in the living room, sipping brandy and listening to Count Basie.
“Why do you listen to this stuff? Can’t we watch Wheel of Fortune?”
She made a face and fidgeted for a while.
“I love you, Alfie.”
I choked on my brandy. “Oh,” I said eventually. I nodded at her and tried to smile. “That’s… great.”
She looked at me expectantly, like a teacher waiting for her star pupil to answer a softball question she’d just lobbed to him. The silence dragged on, for about as long as it would take a glacier to get from Anchorage to Los Angeles. Finally she said, “We should get married.”
I opened my mouth, but she stopped me. “If we get married, Mary will see there’s no use bothering you anymore because you’ll be married to somebody else and she can’t have you.”
I opened my mouth again, but this time I stopped myself. She had a point. Or she would have, if Mary could be swayed by logic. Still, it might be worth a shot…
“I can’t, Leese. I really appreciate the offer, but it just wouldn’t be fair to you.”
“Don’t you love me?”
I grimaced. “Love is such a tricky word.”
“You still love her, don’t you?”
Her lips quivered. Her eyes filled with tears. “I hate you, Alfie,” she said. She stood up and threw her drink in my face. “You should be haunted. You deserve to be haunted. In fact, I’m going to haunt you, too.”
Two glowing orbs bounced into the room. They looked like eyes. Brown eyes. Lisa shrieked.
“Cut it out. It’s only Mary,” I said to her. “Very funny, Mary,” I called. “I get it. I’m haunted by your beautiful brown eyes. Very clever.” I reached over and picked up the phone. “I’m calling the cops, now.”
She came in the living room. She was waving her arms around, stumbling into the doorway, walls, furniture. Blood was flowing from the holes where her eyes had been. “Ooooooo.”
Lisa’s shriek increased in pitch and volume, aided and abetted by my own.
As Mary got closer, Lisa backed up.
“Ooooooo,” said Mary.
“Eeeeeeee,” said Lisa.
“Aaaaaaaa,” I said.
Lisa backed up as far as she could go against the wall of the apartment. Mary kept coming. Lisa looked at me. I don’t know how a look can say so many things. Like, “How could you let this happen to me?” and “Help!” and “I love you,” and “Good bye.”
Lisa jumped through the window.
Mary felt the wall with her fingers until she reached the window. She stopped and turned in my general direction. She smiled. She had trails of blood streaking her face, like the tracks of crimson tears, and she smiled!
“You need to be haunted,” she said. She put one leg over the window sill.
“Mary! Don’t!” I said.
“Oooooo,” she said. She jumped, mid-ooooo. I didn’t move. I could hear her long after I knew she’d reached the sidewalk.
Now there are no ghosts in my apartment, corporeal or otherwise. I have to admit I was worried for a while that one or both of them would come back to haunt me, but there really are no such things as ghosts. I shudder to think what my life would be like if the two of them teamed up to drive me crazy.
But there are no ghosts.
Unless memories are ghosts.