image:  @ellenbhansen

I WISH i had your ghost

(currently unpublished and looking for a home)

I am thinking about how alone you must be. The sun is setting across the desert at the edge of Arizona, painting a glow on the few trailers that litter this side of the 10. Wind turbines like giants rise on hills behind me. I am thinking about how being dead must be the most alone we can ever get.

            The radio goes in and out. The air conditioning is broken, windows rolled down, and the late day sun burns the tops of my thighs. I’m driving to Sedona to sell the last of your paintings. The money ran out, an art dealer wants them. You sent him your portfolio weeks before the accident. He called looking for you.

            I am all sweat-soaked and so hot I can’t get hungry. And cannot remember the last time I was hungry for anything besides you. I left Los Angeles late in the day, an impossible place to leave on time. Your old station wagon wouldn’t start for a while. You would have laughed at all of this – me in your car, the new haircut I gave myself last week, a collection of your paintings in the trunk. 

            I owned nothing without your memory stamped into it. I kept things I couldn’t sell, the ordinary pieces of you – your coffee grinder, your paintbrushes, our salad bowl. Your paintings are last. I need physical things to know you were here. People keep saying to me over and over again, he’s with you. But I don’t sense you here in the car. You don’t visit while I sleep. I don’t feel you, anywhere. 

The heat makes my joints swell. My wrist aches. The one you tore. The tendons, sewn and sutured back together, roll and tug over the bone. I am only an onlooker into our memories – the two of us that night in the emergency room, sitting close, you cradling my arm, us lying that it was a horseback riding accident, and me, all folded up and saying it doesn’t hurt, wanting for you to kiss me as soon as anyone leaves the room. 

I loosen my grip on the wheel, and slowly pull the car to the side of the road. I want to throw up. I think about citrus fruit and cleaning toilet bowls – think about the small white tiles in the bathroom of our apartment in Echo Park. A truck passes and the driver honks, a noise like a bull. 

Los Angeles already feels like a faraway place. As I drive I repeat to myself, You were here. You were here.

            When the sun goes down the Joshua trees stand like soldiers spread across the desert floor. I let the stale air and heat pet my face. The radio is playing Hey Judeand I sing along though I don’t mean to. Sometimes I cannot get close enough to the way I feel with words. Our language fails me. If I tried I would say things like space, drag, heat, sick, stranger. I feel like a sick stranger. A blue kind of darkness has settled over the desert. 

            For the last nine weeks I slept in a friends spare bedroom. I would drive to our apartment every day, get a drink at the Bodega on the corner, pretend like you were waiting for me at home. Sometimes I’d stand on the curb and stare at the door. Sometimes I went inside. I’d drink papaya juice on our brown tweed couch and wander around like an intruder – your sheet music open on the piano, a to-do list on a pink piece of paper near the key dish. 

            One afternoon, I took off all my clothes, climbed in our single stall shower, washed my hair three times. Without you, I hardly ever rubbed up against the cold white tiled walls. I got lost in memories of you untangling my hair and me scrubbing paint from places on your body only I could see. When we first moved in you kissed me and said, maybe we’ll be able to see all the way to Catalina. We never could. 

            I pull off the 10 into a small truck stop town called Brenda. There is one motel. A red neon vacant sign lights the office window. Each door is painted a different color like its own entrance to a private fun house. It’s all lit by intense floodlights, and I’m wondering how the hell anyone sleeps around here. A semi-truck gets off the highway and goes rumbling by as I climb from your car. 

            The office smells like curry and cigarette smoke. The old woman behind the counter asks if I am alone. I hear her, but I do not hearher. Eventually she hands me the key tied. 

            I think about your hands, on my hips and in my hair, how quick your fingers moved while you painted, while you cooked, when you grabbed me. How hands are a thousand things. How hands are everything. 

            The inside of the room is muted. Everything shades of brown like burnt toast. I remove the bedspread and leave it in the corner. I lie down with my hands behind my head and think about what Sedona might look like, and about what I might look like in Sedona.  

            I remember the last nine weeks the way one remembers a book they read casually. I could retell what’s happened but the weight of the events are angled, misplaced, or absent entirely. Your funeral, like our wedding, was a brief affair with just the two of us. Afterwards I ate chicken salad because I thought you’d think it was funny. You once said, chicken salad is a food for funerals

            I’m lying on the bed beneath the afghan from the backseat of your station wagon and I cannot sleep. I put on your old university sweatshirt and have to roll up the sleeves because I’ve been chewing on the cuffs lately and they’re still a little wet. Outside the air is still – thin and metallic on my tongue. It feels like an afternoon before the Santa Anas roll down from the San Gabriels– still and electric, a little off. I can hear a slow roar of trucks pass on the highway in the distance, and between them there is nothing but a dull aching silence, a desert kind of silence. 

            The last time the Santa Anas came through you turned our living room into your studio. You pushed the furniture against the walls and spread drop cloths across our scratched wood floors. In all those years I’d never watched you work like this before, always private, always separate. I stayed silent and still so you wouldn’t want to leave. I listened from the other room while you whispered lyrics to music I’d never heard you listen to before. It was this entire space of you I didn’t know I hadn’t yet visited. You’d told me before, no one can ever truly know another person, and this was the first time I understood it. In the evening, covered in paint, you played the piano while I made stir-fry. And you told me, the Santa Anas carried everything out to sea. 

Next to the office is a glowing vending machine. I dig through my purse, tilting it to shine light into the pockets. I want a Baby Ruth because eating one I can get instantly back to the time we met. I’d wait outside the art studio for you on campus. We were poor and you all but survived on them that semester. Your lips salted from the peanuts, your tongue sweet from the caramel. There is a voice somewhere but when I try to listen it falls away. And I wonder how far my screams would carry before the cactus and power lines swallow it. I hear the voice again, and I follow it. 

Behind the squat cinderblock office are two men. I see them for a moment before they see me. They look more confused by my sudden appearance than I feel by their presence. I am the strange thing in this scene. 

            “Do one of you have a dime?” I ask. 

            “A what?” The shorter one says. He has a wide stance, a potbelly. He is wearing a T-shirt that says, fuck me once, shame on you. The other man, a taller man with a wide set jaw like a brick and a brow line hidden beneath a cap, is seated in a broken lawn chair and holding a brown-stained bong. They are drinking bottles of Miller High Life from a case on the ground. 

            “A dime, like for the vending machine. I’m short for a Baby Ruth.”

            “Thought you meant something else, sweetheart,” says the short one and snorts. His face is lit from above by a dirty bulb on the side of the building, and he’s rocking on his heels like it might give him an idea. 

            The larger one pulls a quarter from his pocket and holds it up in the dull light. I take it from him. 

            “Thank you,” I say. 

            “It’s Babe,” says the shorter one. 

            “What?” I ask. 

            Again he says, “It’s Babe. As in Babe. It’s not a fucking Baby Ruth.” He laughs again, louder this time, and nudges the larger one. 

            “Oh right.” I can tell it’s time for me to leave. I know I should leave, but I don’t. 

            “You haven’t told us your name. That’s awfully rude. Don’t you think that’s rude of her?” the shorter one says. He is coming toward me and still I don’t leave. 

            “Devin, my name is Devin.”

            “Well, nice to meet you Dev-in. Why don’t you relax and stay awhile, have a beer. That would be the nice thing to do,” he says. 

            The larger one gets up and grabs a beer. He covers the space between him and me with two strides. The bottle is miniature in his hand, a prop or something from a dollhouse. 

            I open the beer, sit in the dirt, and lean against the building. The little one is eye fucking me, practically peeling the skin from my legs with how hard he stares. We drink the entire case quick. They load me a bong rip and are impressed when I clear it. The words coming out of my mouth feel made of rubber and I wonder if my legs will hold when I stand. I tell them a lot of things about myself that aren’t true. I say you killed yourself, and that I’m the one who found you. And that since then I’ve been driving aimlessly around the country in search of experiences that will reaffirm I am alive. I won’t stop talking. Making up all these details is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. 

            I tell them, “It was a threesome in San Antonio that really started to change my tune. I swear these women showed me God right there in their adobe. Drunk on Sambuca and talking in tongues if you know what I mean.”

            

            “Oh I know what you mean.” The shorter one is rubbing his hand across his belly and I think he looks like a cartoon version of someone like himself. “I could do some reaffirming for you if you’d like. Show you my god.”

The larger one stands, he towers over me like the wind turbines. “Well, we’re probably done here for the night,” he says and he helps me up by the elbows. I can taste his sour breath in my mouth. He presses the last beer into my hands.  

            “You can take this one to go,” he says. 

            “That’s no fun,” says the smaller one, and he tries to move toward me again. 

I am slow to take it from him, offended for a moment that I am being asked to leave. But when I do he looks me in the eye, steady and serious, and he says, “You take care of yourself out here.” And I swear to God or whomever, for the briefest of instances I see you somewhere in there. I mean, I really see you in this guys eyes behind a motel in Brenda, Arizona in the middle of the night. 

            I take the beer and lug myself back across the parking lot to my room. I can hear the shorter one laughing. It carries farther than I would’ve imagined. There are no echoes out here. 

            I lock the door and get back on the bed – pull my arms inside the sweatshirt. Pull my head down through the neck hole so I’m inside it like a turtle, clutching the Miller High Life to my chest like a talisman. I saw you. I really saw you. 

 

In the mornings I’d wake to the sound of you grinding coffee with the hand crank that used to be your father’s when he was alive. I always imagined it was your way of spending a small part of the day with him. I never asked and I wish I had. With the early soft light spilling over your thin shoulders, and your sea glass green eyes, you’d stand in the doorjamb to our impossibly small bedroom and say, “Wake up, it’s already daytime.” And then you’d kiss my shins and bite my butt cheeks. Everyday. I could count on this every day. 

            The desert sun is coming through the torn blinds. My limbs are filled with uranium– weighed, tied, and tethered to this mattress. If I am lucky, when I wake I have brief moment of forgetfulness. Why aren’t you in bed?Then it comes shoving its way through everything else to sit on my chest. 

            The heat is unforgiving today. I sweat through my t-shirt while carrying my bag to the car. I forgot to set an alarm and slept until noon. The sun is turning my hair hot to the touch. I look toward the office and think about last night.

            When I try to start the car I get nothing, not even a flicker or a whisper. I get nothing. I ask for your help out loud but you aren’t here again. The front office is empty. I buy a can of Coke at the vending machine with change I find beneath the floor mats of the station wagon. I walk toward the rest of Brenda in search of some help. 

            The hot air rises in mirage waves from the asphalt and few cars roll by. I try to hitchhike but no one stops – keep on pressing the can of Coke to my chest and neck. The rest of Brenda is not so much a town as it is a random sprawl of necessities. There is a gas station and a diner. There is a store with T-shirts and souvenirs in the window all referencing towns other than this one– Sedona, Fresno, Flagstaff.

Everything else is closed and covered in yellowing newspaper. At the end of the main drag sits a trailer with a sign outside that says Drink. Whenever it was hot like this you drank Campari and soda with no lemon. Do they have Campari where you are? Do they have lemons?

            At the gas station I stand beneath the overhang and wait for an older man named Remy to come out. He is tall and so crooked I suspect he was once twice as tall. He regards me in a way that makes me feel lost. I tell him about your car, and the motel, and I even begin to tell the story of last night but I stop myself. 

            “Probably overheated dear. I’ll go get her, take a look at her, tell you what I can do. Why don’t you go wait over there in the diner? They got air conditioning and pie if you like that sort of thing. The pie that is. Tell Georgia I sent you in.”

            I give him your keys, remnants of Remy watches me cross the street as if to make sure there is no confusion about his instructions. He gives me a curt wave and I return the gesture before going inside. 

            At the diner, I nestle into a booth near the window. The air conditioning turns the sweat on my body to chills. I gather quickly who Georgia is – a large waitress whose breasts sag and hang over the top of her apron around her waist. She has her hair pinned into a bun and is wearing a button on her shirt that says, Kiss ME I’m IrishShe doesn’t ask me what I want but brings water and coffee. She is running the whole operation. There are only two items on the menu: flapjacks, or eggs & meat.

            I’ve developed a habit that might be more of a compulsion. I don’t know if there is a difference but if there is it feels important. I continually try to picture where we would be otherwise; it is like trying to remember a language no one speaks anymore– it is wearing thin as time passes, fades like old photographs. Today is a Friday, it’s morning, you would be at your studio painting and I would be at the Bodega buying produce for the weekend. It’s July, we’d be making guacamole, you would have asked me to get beer and limes too. 

Georgia comes by and tries to take my order but I tell her I only came in for coffee because my car is in the shop. I point. I can smell fresh bacon and my stomach twists in hunger. 

            I like watching Georgia. She commands this room of old men and truckers. She pours coffee at one table and takes an order from across the room. She calls everyone sweet pea. My sweating thighs stick to the vinyl booth. Every once and awhile she goes over to the far corner and opens this rotating pie case, removes a pie, cuts a slice, and delivers it to a table. Whenever she does this everyone watches.  

            I look out the window as your station wagon gets towed into the gas station parking lot like a piece of road kill. Two men come in and sit in the booth behind me. I listen to them talk, mostly about the state of the roads and the dust kicking up this time of year. A flu tore through his brother’s cattle farther back west. 

            Georgia comes up to their table and sets down waters and coffee. “Dan, Frank, the usual?” 

            “Say Georgia, you heard anything from my wife lately?” The one farther from me says. I can hardly hear him. His voice sounds like someone stretching to grab something out of reach. 

            “Not since our last chat, sweet pea, time tends to cloud the lines. I told you that,” she says.  

“Well, you think I could come by and maybe we could try? There’s something I want to ask her. I been thinking about it. Can’t stop thinking about it,” he says. 

            “Sure, sure, sweet pea, you can come by.” She leaves the table and the two men are quiet for a moment until I turn around. I’m looking over the backside of the booth at the man who spoke. The wrinkles in his forehead are deep and cavernous like he’s spent his whole life thinking on one thing. His skin is tanned and leathered. He wears his shirt buttoned up tight around his neck. One of his eyes is filled with a cataract and I keep staring at it. 

            “What you say girl, you need something? Syrup?” He says to me. 

            “No, I’m sorry. I just…” 

             “She talks to his dead wife for him,” says the other man whose face I cannot see. The depth of his voice startles me. I hadn’t realized how close I was to him. I turn back around in my booth. 

Your accident was a bomb. It had a blast radius. 

Three weeks before you died is the last crystalized memory I have of us being together, a memory which isn’t somehow marred by the accident or doesn’t somehow serve as the foretelling of what would take place. We were going out for drinks in Elysian Heights, some swanky new bar serving cocktails we could hardly afford but your friend Levi was the chef and you insisted. Leaving the house I was angry with you over something. I cannot remember now what it was, only that I felt spent, and I stayed silent the entire car ride as you sped and wound up through the hills, the homes and the view getting larger every second. 

When you parked the car I got out and walked ahead of you toward the restaurant.  I was wearing that navy blue dress with the long sleeves I’d bought on consignment. You came up behind me and grabbed my arm, your hand like a claw curling around my thin bicep. And you spoke to me in a voice that both scared me and turned me on. You were so close to my face anyone else watching might have thought it was sweet. You said, “What you bring to the table is half of what we’ve got between us.” Then you let go and I followed you inside leaving my grudge behind in the crowded parking lot. 

It’s late afternoon now and most of the diner has emptied out. I can see the man across the street still beneath the hood of your car. Even if he can fix it, I can’t pay him, not yet anyway. 

Georgia comes by and I ask her how much I owe her for the coffee.

“On the house.” 

            “Thank you,” I say. “My husband is dead.” And as I say this it sounds like a question coming from my lips. 

“Listen sweet pea, the only thing free around here is that cup of coffee. I charge a hundred bucks an hour at my place to medium.” She turns away from me.  

            “I don’t have a hundred bucks,” I say, “All I have are his paintings.” 

She turns to look at me again. 

 

Remy tells me I need a new battery and there is a crack in my radiator, and he cannot believe I made it here from LA without dying on the 10. He says he’ll get to it tomorrow but it’s going to run me near five-hundred dollars to get back on the road. He apologizes for my dumb luck of getting stuck in such a place and I tell him it’s not all that bad. I carefully choose one of your paintings from the trunk of the car and head back into the diner.

Georgia’s hands are thick and patient. She wears one ring, a band, on her wedding finger and the fat has risen around it. I imagine she hasn’t been able to take it off in years. I imagine she will die with this ring on her finger. I twist my own wedding band, and then I trace my scar up the other wrist. She sets the painting on the counter.

“It’s lovely,” she says. 

It is the view of Los Angeles from our apartment in Echo Park. 

“Yes, yes it was,” I tell her.     

She leads me into the back of the diner, to the kitchen where pie crusts are cut out and drying in the pan on every surface, bowls of soupy cherries and cinnamon covered apples wait with flies hovering nearby. She turns over a bucket and motions for me to sit, she lowers herself onto a milk crate that bends beneath her weight. She stares at me like I’m supposed to be the one who speaks. And for a while I regret telling her you died and I regret giving her the painting and I regret leaving Los Angeles.

“I gather this was all very sudden, maybe you didn’t see it coming,” she says. 

I nod my head but stay quiet. 

“I see water,” she says. Now her eyes are closed and fat hands resting on either thigh. “Did he drown?”

“No he didn’t drown. He was a wonderful swimmer.”

“Even wonderful swimmers drown sweetheart.”

“He didn’t drown.”

“You know it’s all like tuning a radio, sometimes what’s coming through ain’t at all what you’re looking to hear.”

“I just want to know if he’s alone,” I say. 

“Right. Right.”

I hear a car pull up out back. Her eyes open. They are bloodshot but the iris a cornflower blue and there is something distant and familiar about them like I’ve been here before. 

“You know we are never alone, not here and not there,” she says. “Even when you think you’re alone, might go stumbling around late at night and find yourself in the strangest of company. You know I bet you’re awfully hard to keep up with.”

And as she says this I feel the marrow drain from my bones. Georgia’s words, your words, ring in my ear: You’re hard to keep up with. I can see your lips move when I close my eyes, the scar on the left side, how I’d trace is with my tongue. I feel like a child, raw and exposed to things I didn’t even know were out there to be exposed to. And instead of being thankful I get to feeling something else entirely. 

“That’s it?” I ask. 

“That’s it for now. Why don’t we get ourselves some drinks? I’m going to lock this place up and I’ll meet you down at the Drink in about thirty. Tell Big Jim I sent you. Dollar beers on me,” she says and lifts herself from the milk crate and waddles out of the kitchen. I leave through the back door, the heat swallows me whole and the screen door bounces shut. 

I’m impressed by the inside of the Drink. It’s actually three trailers, lopped off and frankenstiened together to make one fair sized bar. The whole inside is paneled with the wood from a suburban basement. It gives this illusion that if you were drunk enough you really wouldn’t know which way is up or down. I sit at the bar top and wait for someone. I can’t tell whose working and whose drinking and I don’t really think there is a difference. I think about going back to the car to get your sweatshirt; I feel exposed even though it’s hot out.  

            “Beer?” Says a voice from behind the bar, steady but damaged. It is the large man from the night before, the one with the eyes and good sense to tell me to get. His hands are large as pancakes; two of his knuckles look like they’ve been broken and healed back together wrong. He towers over the bar top. 

            “Beer,” I say. He cracks open two and keeps one for himself. 

            “That your wagon at Pete’s?”

            “Yeah. I’m trying to get to Sedona. You Big Jim?”

            “What do you think?”

            “Georgia told me to come over here. She’s coming too.” I try to catch his eye while we talk but he looks down at the bar top. He seems embarrassed for me about last night. When the conversation stalls out I order a shot of well whiskey. He joins me for it. I reach into my backpack and pull your leather wallet from the pocket and press it between my hands beneath the bar top. You were here. You were here.

            The night you died I was wearing your university sweatshirt and no pants and I was making stuffed bell peppers in the kitchen and drinking a PBR. Joan Didion said, Life changes in an instant, the ordinary instant.It’s the kind of quote people like and then like to repeat until it happens to them. A policeman with a surfer’s build came to the door. I thought it was a joke. He was young and tan. He looked like a child, his uniform like a costume. He followed me inside and I went back into the kitchen. I sat on the floor and drew my legs up inside the sweatshirt. He turned off the burners on the stove and sat with me for a while. I remember feeling like it was this kid’s fault, like his presence in our kitchen made it true. 

            He said you were on your bike and got clipped by a drunk driver up in the hills. And the way he spoke, it made the event sound like a movie he’d seen once, something removed and unreal. It was assumed the driver was drunk because there were no marks on the road. Whoever it was, they didn’t even try to stop. The young police officer drove me downtown to the LA County General building, and then led me down into the bowels through endless concrete hallways to the Department of Coroner to identify your body. It all felt very fast. He let me bring a drink with me in the car. I was startled by how perfect you looked, how undead other than the frozen grey complexion of your perfect skin. Everything besides your hands was perfectly intact. The skin on your hands had been peeled away from the road, fingertip to wrist, swollen pieces of meat.  

            The officer drove me home, back up the winding hills to our empty apartment. He asked if I had anyone to call. If I was going to be all right alone. These words would take on more weight as the days passed. I called my mother. I hadn’t spoken to her in years and the two of you met only once over lunch at the Beverly Wilshire. She said to me, you’re young. You’ll be all right. I wonder how many years it will take her to learn I’ve left Los Angeles. 

            Georgia never shows up at the Drink. I stay until near midnight nursing the few beers I can afford. Big Jim talks to me between collecting empty beer bottles and drying glasses. He is a brief man but I’m no good at small talk so it feels all right. 

            “You’re awfully young,” he says. 

            “I don’t feel so young,” I say. It’s meant to be a joke but as I hear the words they are stale and flat and neither of us laugh. 

            I twist my wedding band. I trace the scar on my wrist. You were here. Big Jim asks if I’m married. 

            “Yes,” I say, “we married young. It was that kind of love. I was good at being married. I’m not so good at being alone.” I raise my hands to emphasize my current state; cheap beer buzzed in a chopped up trailer in the vast expanse. “It’s all a lot harder.”

            “Sedona huh? Sedona is something else,” he says. He stares off for awhile before picking up the conversation like it was something we’d left behind and he starts telling me about his wife.

            “You know you remind me of her, how small you are. I could carry her around under the crook of my arm. And I suspect if the good lord hadn’t taken her she’d be inclined to feed you, or chat with you, or care for you in some way for whatever it is that ails you. She was that kind of woman. Even in the end.” 

            The two of us sit with a certain kind of silence between us, an understanding, a recognition of how it feels to be the one left behind. I think to tell him something of you, something to let him know I get it too, but this moment feels more like his than mine. 

            Eventually I thank Big Jim and leave Drink, walk along the main drag looking at everything closed up and silent. It doesn’t feel all that different from the day light. I find your car in the parking lot of the gas station, unlock it, and climb in the backseat. I pull the afghan over me though I hardly need it. The night air is a muted and still temperature. Across the street I can see into the diner. Your painting is hanging on the wall lit by the rotating pie case. It’s a perfect view. 

            I wait for a while, for the tidal wave of pain to knock the wind from me, but it never comes. And I fall asleep with an image of you painting behind my eyes. 

            I wake to the sound of someone knocking on the car window– it’s hardly sunrise. Everything is wearing a hushed pink swath of color. I see Big Jim’s hand like a mallet. I open the door of the car. 

            “I happen to be going to Sedona if you want a ride.” His truck is running in the parking lot, grey exhaust clouds rise behind him. He holds out a mug of coffee. “I’m in the mood for a drive.” He looks at the ground before he finishes his statement. 

            I load my things into the back of his truck; the one box I have, a trash bag of clothing. I lay your paintings down in the bed and cover them with the afghan. I take the prayer beads from the rearview mirror and put them in my backpack, your passport from the glove box. I kiss the headrest where you used to sit. I kiss the hood of the car and I apologize for leaving it behind. I climb onto the bench seat of Big Jim’s old truck. 

            We don’t get back on the 10. We get on the 60 and head north. We’re on the road for well over an hour before either one of us speaks. My throat aches, the desert wind tangles my hair. The inside of his truck is littered with random books, pages yellowed and torn out, and a few empty cartons of cigarettes. 

            “Thank you,” I finally say and he nods his head. 

            As we near Sedona the ground begins to rise– high peaks and plateaus of rock wearing colors I’ve only seen on postcards cut the horizon. Green becomes something real again. The temperature dips to a breathable climate and the sky feels close to the ground. I rest my head against the car door. It is a Saturday morning and I am in Sedona, Arizona.