By Emily Zasada
I was walking back from the grocery store on a windy day in late September when I heard it behind me: a car that sounded exactly like Greg’s, my dead ex-fiancé. The exact sort of sound the engine used to make: a kind of half purr, half growl. It was impossible, of course. Not just because he’s dead but because it sounded like his first car: a Volkswagen Thing. There were hardly any around back then, and now I think they’re pretty much extinct, like passenger pigeons or Tasmanian tigers. And sure enough, when it passed me it wasn’t a Thing or even a Volkswagen at all. I don’t even think it was even German. Just an ordinary green car, maybe ten years old. Driven slowly and conscientiously by Sandy, one of the neighborhood moms. She’s the kind to organize neighborhood petitions for speed bumps and plan seminars to educate the neighborhood about human trafficking. She clips coupons and sells skincare products out of her home. I always pretend to like her even though I can’t stand her, so I waved.
She waved back.
Pretty soon I couldn’t see the car anymore, or hear it. It vanished around the corner. Leaves fluttering in its wake.
Then I remembered a time that Greg and I were walking back from the store on Thanksgiving, back when everyone was still alive. He was talking about how his plan to open a sandwich shop, and name all his sandwiches after famous artists. For example, the Monet would be cut into little squares, just like an impressionist painting. The Picasso would have an abstract face painted on the top in mustard and ketchup. And the Magritte would have a green apple appear to hover over of the top of the bread, although of course it would have to be held up with something like toothpicks.
He was really proud of that one.
Of course, he never started a business like that. Or any other business, for that matter. He never had any kind of career to speak of, unless you count his drawing, which didn’t pay. Mostly he worked odd jobs: bartending, waiting tables, that kind of thing. He usually had about forty bucks in his checking account. In all the time we were together, he owned two pairs of shoes, three pairs of jeans, five t-shirts—all of them in various shades of blue, like his eyes—and one leather jacket. I used to love that leather jacket. It was black, with thick silver zippers and a soft flannel lining. I used to love the way it smelled when he’d walk in the front door and give me a hug. It smelled like the woods in the middle of winter: rotting leaves, emptiness, memories, cold.
He gave the best hugs.
Sometimes I still wake up and realize I’d just been dreaming that I was hugging him. My face pressed into that cold leather, breathing it in.
My parents hated him, but in a civil sort of way. They were big believers in civility. Whenever he wasn’t around they kept telling me I could do better. I knew they were right, sort of. Not that it really mattered. I wasn’t in love with whoever that marvelous abstract man was that was supposedly wandering around in the world. I was in love with him.
Once he asked me to move to California with him. He made it all sound so marvelous. We would live surrounded by golden light so thick and rich you could practically pick it up with a spoon. We would raise half a dozen dogs in a shimmering little house by the sea. But I said no. I had my reasons—or thought I did. At the time I believed they were reasons that belonged to me and no one else. But now that I look back, who knows? Maybe our thoughts don’t belong to us as much as we think they do.
Oh I know he wasn’t perfect. I was pissed at him a lot of the time. He borrowed money from me all the time and never paid it back. He left dirty dishes—usually bowls of ramen noodle soup, a few dried noodles clinging to the edges—on the coffee table, the shelves, the hall closet. Sometimes he got depressed and wouldn’t answer my phone calls for days. Once or twice he even cheated on me.
But I loved him anyway.
Love! What good does it do, in the end? Now they’re all dead, all three of them. Greg. My mother. My father.
As for me? I’m still alive.
Later that afternoon while I was working, the light shifted in the office the way it does sometimes that brings back memories I’ve forgotten. This one was a brief flash, nothing more. But I remembered every detail. I was probably six years old, sitting on my parents’ bed and playing with the jewelry in my mother’s jewelry box. Laying it out on the lavender bedspread they had for years and watching it sparkle, while outside the wind blew and the sun shifted through the trees.
But it’s gone, all of it: The bedspread, the jewelry box, the bed. Vanished as if they were never there in the first place.
When I decided to use my parents’ old bedroom for my office I hadn’t anticipated any of this. Instead, moving into it seemed like a relief. The familiar sound of the heat clicking on. The way the air hissed through the vents. Not to mention that it was the closest room to the router. It wasn’t until I’d set everything up and started using the office for a while that the ghosts swept in. I know I should pack everything up and pick another room in the house for an office. In fact, I think about it often.
Yet, for some reason, I stay.
That night I went to the monthly meeting at the community center. I’d missed the last one because the cybersecurity people in St. Paul had flown me out for a few days to talk to them about their organic landing pages. Now I was going to have to figure out what I’d missed. As usual the moms arrived in whispery clumps. The men shook one another’s hands.
I sat in the second row and smiled and waved at everyone who was coming in. But for whatever reason people don’t notice me. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I don’t have a family. I don’t have kids, or a dog. I don’t go to the pool. I don’t even garden. I can’t be placed into any context, in other words.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t try to fit in anyway.
I inherited my parents’ house five years ago but have only recently started working on trying to find a neighborhood friend. I want one for a number of reasons. All the articles I’ve read recently, for example, that tell me it’s good for my health. And it’s nice to have someone to go to Ikea with.
But it’s also because I’m lonely. So there’s that.
First Stacia talked for a while about the importance of volunteering to become a block captain and how important it was everyone join the community association. After that, Andy Stewart droned on for a while about the construction on Ridgeview Road, and Kelly McConaughey got up and told us it wasn’t too early to start thinking about the ornament fundraiser, and passed around the order sheet. I took it and pretended to study it seriously as if I were mentally mapping out my plan to sell the annual Windermere Community Association ornament to the masses, but it’s all an act. I knew that once I got home I’d toss the order form on the buffet, along with all the other handouts from previous meetings and several months’ worth of junk mail.
Then it was Ariana’s turn. So I started to pay more attention.
When I’d first started coming to these gatherings it didn’t take me long to identify Ariana as one of the most interesting people in the neighborhood. I guessed she was about my age—so, early to mid forties or so. She exuded a vaguely artistic aura, usually wearing things like shoes with clunky heels, flowy skirts, beaded necklaces, Radiohead t-shirts. She occasionally dropped song references into her conversations—quotes, references to bands—and didn’t seem to care whether or not anyone knew what she was talking about. She brought vegan dishes with odd ingredients like eggplant and tempeh to potlucks. She snorted when she laughed.
She was divorced. I didn’t know anything about her ex-husband. But I knew she had a couple of kids, a boy and a girl. I often saw them milling around the neighborhood, headphones plastered to their ears.
I Googled her, of course. I Google everyone. Who doesn’t, these days?
She was easy to find. Originally from Chicago, she used to be a journalist specializing in international conflicts. I found pictures of her on a mountaintop in Bosnia, a dusty street in Baghdad, a shimmering field in Croatia. But now that she had kids she was just doing freelance work, still writing articles, ghost writing blog posts, that sort of thing. She was going to be a great friend. I was sure of it. I’d already begun to imagine what our friendship would be like. We’d walk over to one another’s houses for lunch, meet up on her back porch for happy hour. Start a book club together. People in the neighborhood would start referring to us as one unit. What are Ariana and Annie up to this weekend, they would ask. Or: Have you invited Ariana and Annie over for the holiday party yet?
Not that I knew how this friendship was going to happen, exactly. But I figured eventually I’d come up with a plan.
Ariana tucked her hair behind her ears and told us that plans were underway for the first community Halloween event in Windermere. It would be a safe alternative to trick-or-treating, she told us. No more fears about having children roam around in close proximity to the adults driving around drunk on zombie punch. A committee had been formed. There would be a spooky mystery bowl station where kids could reach in bowls while wearing blindfolds and touch eyeballs made out of grapes and intestines made out of spaghetti. A paper pumpkin craft station and a scary jewelry station. A fortune teller would tell fortunes. Fog drinks would be served.
Hearing all of this was humbling. She had skills I could never dream of.
While the committee was working tirelessly to achieve all of this, she told us, they still needed help. Donations were needed. She read off a list: a gallon of paste, a dozen pairs of kids scissors, glitter, beads, cupcake sleeves, plastic spiders, dry ice, black paper plates, pipe cleaners.
“And a crystal ball.” She sighed. “I really have my heart set on a crystal ball. That won’t be a donation, of course. Just a loan. Does anyone here have one, by any chance? I promise we’ll take good care of it.”
Without even thinking about it, my hand shot up in the air.
For the first time Ariana noticed I was there. “Annie, that’s so great. You’re so kind. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
All the heads in the room swiveled to look at me.
“I’ll drop it off this weekend,” I assured her.
There was only one problem with this plan.
I didn’t own a crystal ball.
Fortunately, however, many people on the Internet did.
Which was how I found myself in the car the next afternoon, driving to a neighborhood thirty miles away to buy a used crystal ball from a woman named Mindy. Stand and polishing cloth included.
Mindy lived on the third floor of one of those woeful apartment complexes where paint is peeling on the trim and rusty cars are parked in the parking lot and the children are running around the scraggly bushes without coats.
“Well, here it is. It looks great in the light, doesn’t it?” Mindy was about my age, with grey streaked hair and light colored eyes. She was wearing a blue sweatshirt and jeans. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, but she looked more normal than I thought she would.
“Yeah,” I said. “Wow.” The crystal ball was perfectly clear and round, like a soap bubble. It was on a decorative pewter stand that was designed to look as if a trio of dragons were holding up the crystal ball with their tails. No doubt there were real crystal ball enthusiasts in the world who would go wild for something like this.
“Oh, I’m so glad you like it,” Mindy said, beaming. “I didn’t think the photographs I posted online did it justice. I’m one of those people who can’t take pictures. Just recently I took a picture of my sister’s baby, but instead it looks like a picture of a plastic doll. You know, kind of flat looking and hard.”
“It’s just what I needed,” I told her.
I guess I could have paid for it right then and there, and gone on my merry way. But there was something in her expression that made me feel I should take a moment to be friendly. Maybe it was the ghostly remains of my parents’ civility still wafting around deep within me, the last evidence that they were ever on this earth. Over the mantle there was a framed print of an electric green guitar with orange and yellow flames coming out of it. A surprising choice in artwork, to say the least. I asked if she played the guitar.
“What? Oh, no—that’s not mine. I don’t even live here, to tell you the truth. The owner is dead.” She paused. “I guess that sounds weird. I rented this place off of one of those online rental sites. From the guy’s brother—not the dead guy.” She looked around. “It was a good deal. Fully furnished. Cheap. Although some of his things were left behind—little things I mean. A package of Mallomars in a kitchen cabinet. A package of Christmas cards he never sent.”
“I’ve been sort of between—well, everything.” She looked away, towards the window. Nothing was out there but more woeful apartments and a lonely strip of grey sky. “I keep telling myself that life is this grand adventure.”
“Well. Sure. Sure it is,” I said, trying to sound convincing.
It occurred to me that I knew nothing about crystal balls. Not that it mattered, but I wondered if Ariana might ask me about it. If I was trying to pass myself off as a crystal ball aficionado then maybe I should at least learn the basics. I asked Mindy if she knew how they were supposed to work.
“Well, yes. I actually used to do a lot of readings. For friends I mean. Not professionally. Here, I’ll show you.” She told me to take a seat at her kitchen table. She explained that usually people stared into their crystal balls for a while, until they saw a mist. “Then when it clears you might have a vision. It’s not necessarily your future, like some people think. It could be a symbol of something you’re not acknowledging in your life, or something you need to know. It could be your past.” She rested her fingertips on her temples, like they do on TV. “Let me see if I get anything.”
I waited patiently for whatever was about to happen next.
Mindy frowned. “Okay, something is coming into focus now. It’s not usually so fast, to tell you the truth. I see a man…” She moved closer to the crystal ball. “He’s slicing a tomato, I think. And I’m pretty sure he’s wearing a leather jacket.”
In that moment I could have sworn that Greg was standing behind me. I even thought I could smell him. The cold smell of that jacket. The brand of soap he used up until the day he died.
For a moment, I stopped breathing. Certain that he was about to put his hand on my shoulder the way he used to.
That at any moment he would say my name.
Annie, he would say. Annie, it’s time to go.
I jumped up. The apartment felt dark and small. What was I doing there, I wondered. How have I gotten to this particular moment in my life. The crystal ball looked like an old chunk of ice that had fallen out of a gutter.
“I don’t know if I want this after all,” I said.
Mindy stared at me. “I don’t know what you mean.”
I didn’t either. Somehow this had all grown more complicated than I expected. I felt terribly guilty, as if I were in the middle of a betrayal and not just turning down a financial transaction. I should have taken care of this in a parking lot somewhere, I thought. Some bright shopping center stuffed with commerce and devoid of ghosts. “I’m so sorry—”
Then Mindy sighed. “I can take fifty, but not any less. Sorry.”
That was how I wound up with my very own crystal ball.
Once I was home I tried to call Ariana, but it just went to voicemail. But I knew from working with her on various committees and whatnot that she rarely answered her phone.
I decided to walk over there. It was late in the afternoon.
Maybe she would invite me in for a glass of wine, I thought. My day would turn around. We would sit in her sunroom, chatting, just the two of us. We would pretend to see one another’s futures.
We would laugh merrily.
Ariana answered her door. She was wearing a headset. The sort of laughter that is only emitted by studio audiences drifted lightly in the air. She held up a finger in my direction and pressed her other hand against one side of the headset and said “My God, the giraffes cannot live in a suburb. The giant tortoise too. Especially the tortoise. Anyone can tell that it’s suffering.”
She hit the mute button on the cord and leaned against her doorframe and sighed. “It’s been one of those days.”
I nodded sympathetically, and held out the crystal ball.
She stared at it. “Wait a moment,” she said. Touched her hand to her headset again, listening to whatever was going on.
There was a long pause, maybe thirty seconds, maybe a minute, during which I was just standing there, the crystal ball in my hands.
Finally she focused on me again. “Oh, from the other night,” she said finally. “Annie. You raised your hand.” She smiled. “How interesting, that you’re into the supernatural. I didn’t know that about you.” She reached out a finger and touched the stand. “Look at the little dragons!” she laughed.
“I’m not—” I started, and then stopped. I didn’t know how to tell her that the crystal ball had nothing to do with me. And anyway she was listening to her headset again. Her thumb jabbing at the controls on the cord.
“For God’s sakes. They don’t know who they’re dealing with,” she said into the headset. “I crossed the Iraqi desert in a caravan. Of course, I’m at a stage in my life where I have certain limitations. Like taking my daughter to volleyball practice every night at five, for example.” She took the crystal ball from my arms and mouthed thank you. Inside the house everything was warm and shimmery and golden, like light from a faraway sun. “But I’m usually free during the day,” she said.
Then she waved at me.
And shut the door.
On my way home it was growing dark. Leaves fluttered across the pavement. Fat drops of rain began to fall.
In the neighborhood, the Halloween decorations were out in earnest. Somehow they had appeared everywhere and all at once, the way dandelions do in the spring. Bushes glowed with tiny orange bulbs. A faceless straw witch stood with outstretched arms, its long black skirt blowing in the wind. A plastic hand reached out of a lawn.
I turned down the corner to the house that I was still struggling to think of as my own, but of course it had been for years. A tall plastic skeleton was leaning against a light post. Tiny bright blue bulbs glowed in the middle of empty eye sockets. I thought I could feel it watching me as I walked up my driveway and put the key in the door. Even when I was inside, doing the dishes and watching as the backyard got swallowed up by the dark, I thought I could feel it watching me still.