Nora is in the kitchen drinking her coffee and looking at the dead teachers at the elementary school. Mrs. Kittridge and Ms. Hofstetter are mingling among the other teachers, ushering the children in like little ducks, although Mrs. Kittridge and Mrs. Hofstetter are not actually doing the ushering of course, because the children can’t see either of them, and the other teachers—the living ones—can’t either. Yet in spite of that, Mrs. Hofstetter is bending down and whispering something in the ear of one of the little girls. Of course the child is still walking, eyes focused ahead on her friends, because she doesn’t know Mrs. Hofstetter is there, since Mrs. Hofstetter has been dead since about 2007, give or take a year or two. Gretchen, she told Nora to call her once. Short gray hair and a passion for jewel-toned windbreakers, and healthy as a horse until the morning she got up to get ready for work, retirement only two months away, and collapsed in her kitchen with NPR still playing. Maybe the part about NPR is a detail Nora made up. Most likely it is. Nora makes a lot of things up. Possibly she is even making up the dead teachers and the other dead people that have slipped in and out of her life for years. How many years exactly Nora isn’t sure, but certainly since her mother died. Possibly before that as well, but it’s hard to say since dead people resemble living people so closely that it’s hard to tell them apart, and vice-versa. But Nora doesn’t think she’s making them up. She believes in them.
Back when the dead teachers were alive and she used to talk to them like she talked to anyone else, Nora thought of Mrs. Hofstetter as old. Now she’s less than ten years younger than Mrs. Hofstetter was when she died.
Nora thinks about this often.
So much has changed, and so little. Like this kitchen for example. All those years ago when they moved in back when Debra and Jack were small, she and David had all those grand plans. They were going to open up the ceiling, put in a bay window, put in French doors. David had this thing for French doors, always pointing them out when they were driving through some neighborhood somewhere. Nora never understood it. Did David have an image of himself flinging them open, walking out onto a green lawn shining with dew…? Nora had no idea, because she never knew what was in his mind. She thought she did at one point, but then she realized she didn’t when he came home from work when the kids were already in college and not really kids anymore, and sat down with her in this very kitchen and said he was leaving her, that he was in love with someone else. Janet, from his office, who Nora remembered from the Christmas party with the red dress and the tiny gold earrings that gleamed like misplaced stars and the lovely laugh that Nora noticed even before David introduced them, she heard it from across the room while she was getting another glass of wine, and it hung there in the air, bright and careless like a red scarf caught in the wind. Nora was angry, sure, but also she couldn’t blame him in a way, because, well, she heard that laugh for herself. Nora never felt light enough to laugh that way—and face it, wasn’t really capable—she hadn’t had that sort of life, the kind that allows for brilliant laughter pouring out of it occasionally like light through a crack in a wall. There were the ghosts for one, which of course would drag one down with reminders of one’s mortality and that sort of thing, but also things had happened to her, things that didn’t seem to happen to other people. Including: how her mother went crazy and started scrawling strange messages on sticky notes in shaky handwriting all over the house and screamed at the neighbors and let the mail pile up in a bin on the front step and wore nothing but her dead father’s bathrobe for three months until she dropped dead, to everyone’s relief.
So David was in love with Janet with that laugh and the tiny gold earrings that gleamed like misplaced stars and he packed his things and left, leaving Nora everything, or mostly everything, he and Janet were starting from scratch, and Nora had this house. This house with its sighing and droning appliances, with the view of the elementary school, where she returned every day after work, the kids almost gone, and not really kids anymore, always at friends’ houses or working or at school or concerts, coming home and crackling with energy, all their discoveries about the world clinging to them with the fresh wetness of paint that had just been applied to a canvas. And then the light shifted across the kitchen floor and gold crept into it and they were actually gone, first one and then the next year the other. And Nora still went to work in the morning and the appliances still hummed and sighed when she got home, and occasionally she’d see the dead teachers when she was getting ready, and she knew for sure they were dead by that point, because she could remember when they died, Mrs. Hofstetter in her kitchen listening to NPR and Mrs. Kittridge a few years later in a hospice with some strange cancer that Nora had never heard of that had come on quickly and swept straight through her like a strong wind and then vanished, taking her with it for good.
She looks out the window and sees Mrs. Kittridge standing there, her fingers in her hair and looking distracted, not paying attention to the last child passing by, a little girl, wearing a pink backpack with an image of a smiling cat printed on the back. The wind picking up a little, the leaves bending over looking soft and vulnerable the way they always do in September as if they know what’s coming, their demise already in the air. And somehow at that moment Nora can tell that Mrs. Kittridge is at least somewhat aware—or as aware as ghosts can be—that something is wrong: it’s the way she lifts up her hand and seems to look at it for a moment as if it’s out of place, as if she knows that the time she’s standing in, the here and now, is not her time at all, but a time that belongs to other people, the living. The ones jogging by or driving, their car radios playing NPR or streaming hip hop or the ragged voices of angry podcast hosts, the sun brilliant on their windshields with the shadows of the tree leaves rippling across like fish through water. Out of the two of them—Mrs. Kittridge and Mrs. Hofstetter—Nora knew Mrs. Kittridge far better, they were close in age; Nora had volunteered at the school a couple of days a week when the kids were in middle school and she was between jobs and all of that had just happened with her mother. It was sort of a dark time to be honest, she was crying a lot and the days seemed blank and endless and David had no patience with her, he told her she needed to get out of the house, so she did. And before she knew it she was cutting up squares of construction paper and sitting on little rugs and reading stories and doling out chunks of clay that smelled like her backyard when she was a child and brought with it fragmented memories of the feel of the sand in her sandbox falling through her fingers, the creaking sound the metal chain made as she swung back and forth on the swing set, the flash of the sun against the windows of the house when the wind blew through the trees. When Nora got to know Mrs. Kittridge after a while she stopped being Mrs. Kittridge and became Corinne instead. They were almost friends, or maybe they were actually friends, Nora had lost the knack of having friends somehow—it was a skill she’d once had that had slipped away—so it wasn’t easy to tell. She’d been invited to a teacher’s happy hour, and they were all sitting outside at that little wine bar downtown, the sun bright on their wine glasses, and she and Corinne were talking about books, it turned out they’d both been English majors, they’d both thought they would be writers, but whenever either of them sat down to write the words just slipped out of their heads and evaporated as if they were no different than snowflakes on someone’s jacket that has just come inside from the cold. There was a moment when Corinne was talking about Faulkner, and Nora felt strangely drawn to her and imagined this whole other life where she left David—funny to think of it now, as this was several years before David left her—and she and Corinne were in love and they lived somewhere else, maybe near an ocean somewhere, but definitely with a wine bar, but certainly not a suburb, and they both wrote at last, having figured out together how to make the words stay in their heads and not evaporate after all, and maybe did something else that was entirely unselfish because—let’s face it—writing is a solitary and somewhat selfish act when looked at through a certain lens or maybe any lens at all—maybe they ran a nonprofit for abused women or disadvantaged children or immigrants who couldn’t get jobs or, well, someone who needed them. Because that was the problem, Nora has known this for a while, and it’s something she’s come to realize her mother understood for sure: that not being needed is the worst thing that can happen. It means that you’re untethered, that you’ve been snipped free like a balloon, and that you’re sailing away in danger of getting pierced by a tree branch or exploding from the heat or getting tangled in a wire and left to slowly wither away to hardly anything at all.
Now the buses are gone and Mrs. Hofstetter has evaporated the way she always does when the sun hits the front of the school, and Corinne is still standing there just at the edge of the shadow, the pale and brilliant sun coming closer and then closer still, and looking straight at her and her mouth is open and Nora can’t tell if the scream she is hearing is Corinne’s or her own or possibly even a scream that belongs to a Nora that doesn’t yet exist, one in the not-too-far-off future when even the ghosts have moved on to wherever ghosts move on to and Nora is finally, entirely, alone.
© Emily Zasada
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Emily’s interview]