I am untangling the string lights from the boughs of the artificial tree in the living room of the house we shared, and my dead husband is sitting on the couch, watching me the way he used to when I would decorate yearly the day after Thanksgiving. I had remarked that the parallel between the dismantling of the tree and the horrific dissolution of our life together was almost too much to bear. This, my last year having a tree, is as if I am laying each ornament to rest, as if it is a funeral for the very tradition of erecting a tree, which it is in many ways. Unbeknownst to my dead husband, I am moving out of this house next week. He doesn’t seem to notice that most everything is packed into cardboard boxes and stacked in rooms throughout the home. Perhaps ghosts aren’t as perceptive as their living counterparts. Perhaps his strength as an apparition is being exhausted. “Everything fades,” I say aloud. “A tragic enigma.”
“That’s called entropy. It’s not mysterious, it’s science,” he says.
Still cocky, even in death.
“You know, it’s February. This tree should have been down ages ago,” he remarks.
“I guess I hold on to things too long because I know how quickly they can slip through my fingers,” I say. He knows that the tree will be broken down into segments and taken out with the trash, but he does not know that I have sold this house already, unable to live amid the memories anymore. My husband was an atheist and didn’t celebrate the holiday, but found it cute that I was so enamored with lighted trees, so he allowed me to adorn it: jeweled bibelots—no religious imagery of any kind—every year until his death in a car accident. After his December funeral, I was too mournful to celebrate. I contemplated taking my own life, having withdrawn from his family and my own.
And then my dead husband appeared in my bedroom and suggested I put up the tree.
He’s been a regular visitor now for three years. He comes so often that I don’t feel the need to visit him in the mausoleum.
I have not yet told him about the man I’ve been seeing, whose truck smells like incense, whose musclebound body is the first flesh I’ve come into contact with since the death. Though I wonder if my dead husband snoops around invisibly. If he does, he hasn’t mentioned anything to me about it.
I have not yet told him that I’m moving in with this new man, into his restored Victorian home with the bay window and the breakfast nook, where this new man served me homemade pasta and gave me his grandmother’s diamond engagement ring. I slip it off my finger and into my pocket when my dead husband shows up for a visit.
I am guarded around my dead husband. No one could ever fill the lacuna where his love used to live in my heart, but this new man has taken over, moving first into my mind with his dusty poetry books and tattered idealism, then stealthily unlocking my ribcage and taking asylum beneath my sternum, where his pulsing took the place of my loneliness. Before long I leapt into his arms like diving off a cliff into the ocean.
I’m nowhere near finished packing. Part of me is procrastinating because I fear that this will signal the end of my communication with my dead husband. But the other part of me that wishes to be free—a part riddled with guilt—is anxious to escape his ethereal presence, the ubiquitous reminders of his physical absence. I know that his lingering around the house is preventing me from facing his loss head-on, from beginning to heal the wound. I feel his spirit is a residue of the house, that once I vacate the premises he will no longer feel the need to manifest, might actually rest in peace. I don’t ask him to go away because even though I know his ghost is not the man I married, I can’t bear to think that I might hurt him by turning him away.
I drag the naked tree down my driveway to the curb, leave it next to the garbage bins. My dead husband joins me.
“You know, the carbon footprint of those things is enormous,” he says.
“I do know that, but you know I could never bear to have a real tree cut down,” I say.
“You always did let your emotions govern you,” he says.
I walk back inside and the room looks extra stark without the hulking greenery in the corner. I expect my dead husband to remark on the emptiness of the house at any moment, to put two and two together, but I look around and don’t see him. There is no impression on the couch from where he sat, and it is not warm. I peer out the window at the end of my driveway. I see the vaguest shimmery blur beside the garbage bins, and then even that is gone. I wonder where he needed to run off to, and I fall asleep pondering the responsibilities of the afterlife.
The next morning I sit straight up in bed, panicked. I suddenly realize that it’s not the house his spirit was attached to. It was his memory of the tree. I throw aside the covers and race downstairs to my front door and throw it open. The garbage men have already come; the tree is gone. I close the door and stand motionless in the stark living room, straining my ears for the tiniest peep. The house is as still as death. I feel the tendrils of panic curling around me, squeezing the air out of my lungs. What will happen to him? Where will his spirit go? What have I done?
I realize that I am not over him, that I cannot move on, I cannot marry this new man. I know what I must do. I fetch a length of rope from the garage, tie a noose from the dining room chandelier. I step down from our dining table into a chair, slip the noose around my neck and tighten it.
“Hold on,” I say aloud, and kick the chair out from under me.
My neck breaks. I can’t get air, can’t see well through the tears, but as my vision is fading to black, I see him, my dead husband, standing at the door to the dining room, watching curiously.
I’m coming, I think towards him, willing him to hear me.
He shakes his head. “I am not where you’re going, my love.”
Tamara Burross Grisanti’s poetry and fiction appear or are forthcoming in New World Writing, Chicago Literati, Corvus Review, formercactus, and Eunoia Review. She is the editor of Coffin Bell Journal and the associate editor of Elm Leaves Journal (ELJ).