At night the moans of unfinished business with the living leak through my throat. Lost specters, tapping on my ear drum, whisper their desires for relief.
One has a familiar aura. It’s my lover Tom who drove his classic Chevrolet pickup off the bridge on the east side of town after a snowstorm. Black ice was the culprit, according to the police report.
“Stephanie, please. Please,” he says, in the same gluey voice he would get after a glass of bourbon, when we’d find ourselves all over each other, and he’d breathe passion into my ear in whispers of aching.
Now his voice curls over the edge of the winter wind, as it hisses through the pane of the window in my den where I’m watching old movies, movies he hated but watched with me to humor me.
“Tom,” I say. “It’s over. It should have been over before all this happened.”
“I want you to know the truth,” Tom says. “God, I still love you.”
Can I tell him, “What does it matter?” I feel—and I’ve told him this countless times—secrets should die with the dead.
But the more I argue or fight with him, the more he persists, which how it was between us before he died. I loved how we fought. It was sexy. I feel a spark around it now, a warming that almost makes me flush. Tom wouldn’t let any silence or flicker of emotion scoot by, unlike other men I’d been with, who got caught up in their own speeches, as if romance was having someone to hear their lectures on inane topics.
He was also married.
Tom’s willowy impression snakes around my collarbone, then my waist, then tugs at my earlobes with a cool breath so much like the warm one he had when he was living. “Yes. Yes, Tom,” I say.
The room turns warm in the glow of the television.
“One thing first,” he says. “I need you to get my pickup out of the river. It wasn’t the black ice,” he says.
“Alright, Tom. Alright,” I say. His voice merges with the other ghosts and for a moment I lose the distinct tenor fullness of his voice.
I know where he’s going with all this. He believes his wife Samantha had someone sabotage the steering in the pickup. Brakes—more to the point. But obvious. Pulling out of the alley from his house, he’d have known. He never would have made it to the bridge that crosses the river and the other side of the river from him is me—where I live and work. Where he would have to go to tell me we were through.
“You can come back, baby,” I say. “I’ll listen.”
He’s back with breath on the nape of my neck.
“Help me. Samantha did it,” he says.
“Your daughter needs her,” I say. “Let’s leave Samantha alone.”
Their daughter Megan, who always found the bad crowd. They’d switched teachers, activities, schools. No matter what, more weed and vodka. She couldn’t turn in an assignment to save her life unless it was copied.
Megan, who knew me before our affair. I’m a librarian—an attentive, good, sympathetic one. When Tom and I met—he brought her in to the library tutoring hour. I saw him near the poetry section and, like a cliché, fell for his muscled sensitivity. I recall the moment, and the musky pleasure of him.
But most of the time he perused the nonfiction section, obsessed with car repair with that loving attention to that pickup of his, the one that crashed through the ice and is now in the riverbed.
“They really need to put her away,” Tom says through the whistle of the wind.
“What if it was the black ice? Driving has been hell for everybody this winter.”
“No. I felt it as the car slipped—something else.”
He never mentions how I had parked in the driveway off his alley. He didn’t want the neighbors on his street to see me.
“Don’t let your anger about her cloud the truth,” I say. “Remember? You thought Samantha was who was cheating. You were imagining things. Like now. You get obsessed.”
“I can’t be sure.”
“You can. Tom—don’t ruminate.”
Staticky wind whips around the room, then rests on my lap.
“I guess I just needed that,” Tom says. “You’re so good at talking me down. Tell me how things will be alright.”
This is just how he asked that afternoon—we’d had sex on the bed he’d shared with Samantha. Megan—promising, bookish girl—arrived. She’d broken up with that boy, the one that was so much trouble he’d even made it into the papers and blotters. “You said you would stop. ‘Miss Marian the Librarian,’” Megan yelled as I opened the backyard door to the garage. “Bitch!”
Megan took all my math and English advice those afternoons in the library. She also hated me. Then to nickname me after some silly musical.
I used to want a daughter. I’ve learned what it means to be a woman—to own our lives, despite the fragile egos of men-children.
Tom has no idea—no idea that often when he snoozed—I read through his manuals, his pamphlets. I learned everything, starting at the library. I’d changed my oil—rotated my tires. A few simple twists of a wrench could ruin the steering column.
That last time we were together and he was alive he screamed, “I love you!” Then, while looking for his keys, he whispered, “God. I can’t do this.” He thought I couldn’t hear. I hear everything. And whispers are truer than screams.
“Stephanie, I do love you,” Tom says before fading. Then, with reassurance, loud film dialogue drowns out the noisy wind.
Joshua Wetjen is a high school English teacher living in Minneapolis and working in St. Paul. When not grading or chasing his two children, he likes to play jazz guitar and try new restaurants with his wife. His work has appeared in Opossum, Newfound and Yalobusha Review.