The Ghost Between Us

By Amber Burke

At your rehearsal dinner tonight, you stood up next to your bride and the two of you made a speech. You thanked the people who taught you how to love. Your bride thanked her parents, and you thanked me. I stuck around for an hour, then I had to leave. I’m not coming to your wedding. I can’t be your best man, little brother. Your gratitude is misplaced and I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you a story about devotion.

*   *   *

It was spring. We were eating pancakes at the shiny white table in the kitchen of our Pittsburgh house, a kitchen I remember being golden-yellow, pancake-colored. I was seven and you were five. You sat by me because you liked to sit by me. Dad was home on his lunchbreak from the school where he worked, teaching Social Studies and Phys. Ed. He was a short, tan-faced man, with sandy hair parted deep to one side and gelled flat. The impression he has left on my memory is one of tightness: clumps of taut muscles and snug pants belted high.

“Pancakes are not lunch,” our dad said to our mom. He ate them anyway, with disdain. He believed in protein.

When Dad finished, before anyone else, he cleared his plate, adding it to a tilting stack already filling the sink. He shook his head at the dishes.

“You’re a fat slob,” he said to Mom.

“I’ll do them. It’s just my knees,” Mom said.

It was true that she was fat. You don’t remember this, but she was as big as three of our friends’ moms put together.  I looked at her and thought, why do you have to be a fat slob, if you would not be a fat slob, Dad would not yell. I am sorry I thought this but I thought this.

Dad cleared our plates off the table roughly. Mom moved to get up, but Dad said, “No, no, don’t get up. Just sit on your ass, while I take care of everything around here.”

He cleared my plate, even though my fork was still in my hand. He started to pivot toward the counter, then stopped himself and looked at me as though I had just materialized. “Louis. Why aren’t you at school?”

“No one took me,” I said, which he must have taken as criticism–since dropping me off at school was his job–or as me being a smartass, I don’t know, but his tight mouth tightened, his thick neck reddened, and he threw a metal spatula at me. I ducked, and the spatula hit you in the head. You began to cry, just as Dad screamed. He’d put his hand down on the stovetop burner, which was on and hot.

Mom went to help you. Dad said, “You can’t do a damn thing.” Dad was mad that she left the burner on, or that she went to help you and not him, or both: he grabbed a hunk of long brown hair at the top of her head.  He dragged her up the stairs to their room. On the way up, she grabbed his hands with her hands and kicked, trying to find the steps with her bare feet. The loose dress she was wearing rode up.

I didn’t do anything. I just sat there, alert, in the vibration of Dad’s anger. I was squeezing my fork, which was sticky with syrup; my other hand was a tight fist holding nothing. Through the ceiling, I heard Dad say, “Go ahead, cry.” Nothing made Dad mad like crying. But I could not hear if Mom was crying; I could only hear you, next to me–you were almost screaming—and footsteps through the floor, a heavy body hitting bed springs. Thumps, I heard thumps, and Dad’s footsteps down the front staircase, the slam of the front door, the spurtle of the engine.

Then, there was a pause when were alone in the kitchen. You quieted down–not all the way, but halfway. I got up, cutting through the stillness in the room. I clanged my fork into the sink and washed my hands. My fingers tingled under the water, and the ruts my nails had dug into my palms smarted. I wet a paper towel so I could wipe off your head, which was bleeding, because I knew how to do that. That’s what that scar is from, the one that Mrs. Simmons told you was from falling on the playground. It didn’t heal like it should have. It got bigger when you got bigger.

After a while, I heard bedsprings, and steps, and water running. When Mom came down, she moved slowly and spoke slowly. She said to me, “You did the right thing.” I didn’t know if she meant ducking–even though I ducked and you got hurt—or, if she meant not following them up the stairs, not trying to make Dad stop. Either way, I knew I didn’t do the right thing.

*   *   *

Mom didn’t come down for breakfast the next day, and Dad didn’t say a word. He cooked us hotdogs, his movements impatient. I looked at him for a sign that I should worry, or a sign that he was sorry, but his face did not move easily into expression.  Even his hair was immobile. Between bites, Dad tilted the end of his fork at your bandaged forehead. He said, “That’s the only way people learn anything.”

I ate my hotdog that was burned on the outside and cold on the inside and wondered what you were supposed to have learned, or what I was.

*   *   *

You don’t remember any of this. I’ve asked you. Sometimes I think you’re lying and sometimes I think you’re lucky. Our mother died not long after that. I know she had a heart condition. But I was a child then, and to me it seemed that being dragged up the stairs by her hair was what killed her.

I will tell you how I felt when Mom died: relieved. I was glad I didn’t have to worry about her anymore. I only had to worry about me. And you. I worried about you.

I was big for my age, loud and tough. But you were skinny and shy, easy to feel sorry for: you could have played an orphan in a movie. And you missed Mom. You looked for pictures of her in the albums under the coffee table. But Dad hadn’t taken any pictures of her, in the recent years of her expansion. In the pictures you saw, she was unrecognizable to you.

“That’s her,” I pointed. “That one.” I could tell you, because once she’d told me.

Our mother’s face before we knew it: smiling and thin. Even beautiful. Later, I learned that, in your memory, this face took the place of face you had known.

Part Two

Outside, our house was like millions of houses: boxy, with a pointed roof and gray siding, an aluminum awning over the front door, a scrap of yard. But inside, our house, never neat, began to fall apart. Doors splintered off hinges, drawers fell off gliders, rugs turned up at corners. Paint peeled.  Dad took to repairing things with duct tape: the pipes below the kitchen sink, the bathroom mirror, the couch. Our shoes. He was satisfied with these fixes and viewed them as permanent.

So when the ceiling in our room began to crack, and plaster crumbled down onto the blue carpeting between your twin bed and mine, Dad brought up the duct tape and a chair from the dining room.

“Watch this,” he told me. “Watch and learn.”

I don’t know if you were there or not. I can’t remember. I was only looking at him. He climbed onto the chair, and reached up to the ceiling with an armslength of tape. He stuck a large silver X over the worst of the cracks. I was amazed that he could touch the ceiling; he seemed impossibly tall.

He climbed down and looked up, standing with his hands on his narrow hips.

“Better,” he said.

I don’t know why I am telling you this. No. I know why: it was a moment when I believed that fixing things was easy, that my father was a giant, that everything was going to be okay.

*   *   *

I was sure we would be better off without Mom there to make Dad angry. When Dad did one nice thing the summer after she died, and got us a dog named Pittsburgh, I thought I was right.

Pitts was a pit bull from the pound. Mom hated dogs, and she would have hated Pitts, with his eyebrowless red eyes and ears in points. He didn’t look like a good dog, but he was. You don’t remember Pitts. I’ve said, “How can you not remember Pitts? You loved Pitts!”  But I don’t push the issue. I don’t tell you about the sweet things Pitts did. We didn’t have Pitts for long.

*   *   *

We wore clothes that didn’t fit right. We always needed haircuts. We were never clean. We ate a lot of canned nuts and processed meats and cheese slices, because that was what Dad bought. I believe now that we were close to scurvy. But we had each other, and then, we had a dog.

We spent our days outside with Pitts that summer, patrolling the long, concretized blocks of our neighborhood. We tried to take care of him. We didn’t train him; we didn’t know how. But we fed him. We hosed him down. When we threw bottles in the street for the sounds they made, crashing into splinters, we held him back by his collar. And when school started in the fall—I entered third grade, you first—and Pitts peed all over the house during the day, we cleaned up after him before Dad got back from coaching. We even took Pitts to our room when we went to bed. But we couldn’t stop Pitts from barking at night. Dad would come down, fling open our door, stand in his underwear and say, “What the hell do you think you see?” Then Pitts would, or wouldn’t, shut up.

I heard Dad roar in the middle of one night: “Goddammit, I can’t sleep in this house.”  He came into our room. “Pitts!”

Your eyes were open: big and scared. I could feel you willing me to protect our dog.

“Don’t, Dad!” I said. I was up now, standing in the doorframe as Dad chased Pitts toward the basement.

“He’s gotta learn.”

I heard Dad slam a door in the basement, then I heard him coming back up. I ducked into bed, under the covers, removing myself from the wheeling periphery of his attention. Removing myself too from all the urging in your eyes.

Dad, in his room on the second floor, would not have heard Pitts after that, whimpering in the basement, but we did. In the morning we went down there. We didn’t see Pitts at first, but then we heard him: he was inside the closet, scratching at the door, and squeaking a wheezing squeak.

“Get him out,” you said. You were almost crying.

“No,” I said.  I was being tough like Dad. If Dad put him in the closet, Dad put him in the closet for a reason.

*   *   *

Our walk to school was somber. Dad had decided at the beginning of the year that I was big enough to walk the two of us there and back. Dad taught at St.Vincent’s, on the other side of town, but we went to the public school near us. Each class took its recess at different times, so you and I didn’t see each other until school let out.  That day, I was glad I didn’t have to see you, because of the way you looked at me.

When we got home, Pitts was still in the closet, and I told you to leave him there. We waited for Dad. But when he came home that evening, his face was closed off, as uninviting as a bolt.

I couldn’t eat dinner.

“Eat your hamburger,” Dad said.

I asked, “Dad, can we let Pitts out?”

You looked at me in gratitude because it turned out I was on your side.

“Gotta teach that dog a lesson,” Dad said, chewing. He settled his gray eyes on me, and I did not say another thing.

*   *   *

That night, I told you to put your fingers in your ears, so you wouldn’t hear the sounds Pitts was making. You did, and I did, but you kept looking at me in expectation. It is unbearable, being an older brother.

I gave in. I went down to the basement and let Pitts out. Pitts licked me all over. The closet smelled like shit and piss. So did he. I took him upstairs, and gave him food, and wiped him off with my towel. I did that, but he wanted to sleep in your bed, on top of your stomach. I watched the two of you. You looked happy in your sleep.

We woke up in the morning when Dad threw our door open. Dad grabbed Pitts by the collar, and dragged him out of our room. Pitts was a good dog: he didn’t bite Dad. He just whined. I followed, at a distance, as Dad punted him down the basement stairs, back in the closet. I went as far as three steps down. I could see Dad rummaging in the drawer where he kept his tools and duct tape, I could see him bring out a hammer and a handful of metal and walk back to the closet. I was thankful when he just nailed metal from door to doorjamb, sealing the door shut.

“Stay!” he said to the dog, who seemed to be tossing his whole body against the door. “Stay out!” he said to me.

*   *   *

I tried to forget our dog was in the closet. But I was continually aware of him. Wherever I went, he came with me, as though he were inside me, as though he were my heart throwing itself against my ribs.

At one morning recess, during the time of Pitts’ incarceration, I wandered away from the other kids on the blacktop, toward the playground, which was lined by tires half-submerged in sand. The playground consisted of stacks of larger tires on their sides, two tire swings, and for tunnels, the big, concrete cylinders they use to make sewers.

I saw a kid named B.J. hiding in one of the tunnels. He was the kind of kid other kids would pelt with rubber balls. It was easy to make him my prisoner.  I found a long stick and I poked it at him if he moved. I commanded him to stay right where he was, even after recess ended and I went inside with everybody else.

About an hour later, in the middle of math, B.J. came back into the classroom. He was crying and I was in trouble.

Mrs. Olson pushed my desk into the corner. I didn’t know the right answers to any questions that day. Mrs. Olson shook her head at me and said things like, “Louis, pay attention. Louis, you don’t do your work. Louis, you’re not even trying.”  I wanted to be big enough to pull her swinging hair. She didn’t know anything.

*   *   *

Several days later, when we came home, the closet was empty and open and smelled like bleach, but also piss, and there was no Pitts. You cried, but I didn’t cry, because there was nothing inside me anymore to let out. I didn’t have to keep thinking I should do something: now there was nothing to do.

At dinner, I was mad at you for crying. You knew how much it irritated Dad. I was even beginning to understand why it irritated him: you looked swollen and dirty, your eyes ratlike; you looked like BJ coming out of the tunnel I put him in, an accusation for a face.

I hated you. I was alone and you were alone.

Dad told you to shut up about Pitts, and when you didn’t, he spanked you and stomped our toy trucks into debris, to teach us to listen to him, or perhaps to teach us not to be sad. You cried more. You sniffled during the night. It seemed to me that your sadness was the beginning of your sickness. You didn’t stop sniffling, not for a long time, and you developed a cough that got worse when you lay down.  It annoyed me when you coughed at night. I told you to shut up. You were becoming a kid it was easy to be mean to.

I skipped school sometimes, that fall. I didn’t go to the movies, or to the mini-mall that had an arcade; I took the bus to St. Vincent’s. I would watch Dad through the squares in the wire fence. He stood in yellowing grass at the edge of the field, usually wearing an open windbreaker over a striped shirt tucked into his tightly-belted pants, a stopwatch around his neck. Boys bigger than me ran laps around him. He whistled. He gave high-fives. Once, I saw him laugh. He was turning around, toward me; I almost didn’t recognize him. His face looked like a different face; it split into angles and teeth. He laughed and I felt like crying.

I didn’t, though. I ran.

Part Three

Christmas, that year, was you and me and Dad. It was the only Christmas that was ever just the three of us.  No tree, no lights, no wrapping paper, but Dad turned the TV to the Christmas music station, and gave us toy cement-mixer trucks to replace the ones he had broken. He poured us milk in wine glasses and made us cheese sandwiches without the bread, which he had forgotten to buy. We ate our slices of cheese between slices of cheese and told him they were good. We told him bread was boring. When you coughed, he slapped you on the back. We could tell he wanted us to be happy. We tried. You tried not to cough, but I could see you holding it in, like you were being kicked from the inside.

In our room that night, I gave you my truck. Not to be nice: I just didn’t want it. I wasn’t nice: I wouldn’t play with you. I had a bed, and you had a bed, and between them was the dining room chair that Dad had stood on once. There was a bureau that was yours and a closet that was mine. What I am saying is we each had a side, and from my side, I ignored you. I lay in my bed and stared up at Dad’s X of duct tape on the ceiling. One arm of the X was drooping down.

You coughed that night in your sleep.  I thought I would never be able to fall asleep, but I did. I don’t know if I woke up because you had stopped coughing, or because my stomach hurt, but I woke up and both things were true.

The room felt different, crackling and silent. You were awake, lying on your side, looking at a woman who was sitting on the chair between us. She glowed from the inside with a light that was like the light of the moon. She was leaning over you, not saying anything, with her back to me. She seemed to be made of fizz. And she was fat.

“Who is she?” you asked me, when you saw that my eyes were open. We could see each other through her phosphorescence.

“Who?” I said.

“The fat lady. You don’t see the fat lady?” you said.

“Where?” I asked. I was playing dumb, because I was jealous at how she looked at you, and not me.

“On the chair, where she always sits.”

The word “always” did it. I sprang up and I sat on the chair, I plopped right down on top of the woman you didn’t know was our mother, and you said, “Don’t, Louis!”

It felt like I was sitting in cold soda, and my hands and legs felt tingly, like they’d fallen asleep. But you were getting upset, and this time you said, “Stop it!” and because you were too loud, and Dad was going to wake up for sure, I jumped back into bed.

Dad opened the door, and you and I both pretended to be asleep.

I remember how our room looked when he closed the door, and I opened my eyes: the woman had disappeared, but there was a mist on everything, a glimmer of dew.

By morning there was nothing. When you tried to talk to me about your visitor, I rolled my eyes. I asked how long she had been coming. Since the dog died, you thought. I asked you why you hadn’t say anything before, if someone was really coming into your room all the time. You said because you forgot by the time you woke up.

I asked you why you didn’t forget this time, and you said because I sat on her. You said you would never forget that.

*   *   *

Our mother came to you every night. I would watch the two of you. You didn’t even know I was awake, I held so still and looked at you from under my eyelashes. I watched you through her luminous body. I watched you bask in her light like a kitten. Your whole body softened, even your cough smoothed out, under the attention of a ghost you took for a stranger.

I believe that you would have known her if she had spoken, but she never seemed to speak, she just leaned in close, as though she were going to sing you a lullaby or tell you a secret. You would have remembered her if she had been able to embrace you in her warm folds and rolls– being hugged by our mother in the flesh was always a little like being eaten–but she was untouchable. You would have known her, too, if she smelled like she used to smell, salty and thick, but she didn’t–she smelled like pavement in the rain.

More than once, after you were asleep, but before our mother came, I turned the chair that faced you to face me. But when I woke up, she was always in it, and the chair was again facing you. She belonged to you. Our mother was your ghost. She never turned to look at me.

I didn’t wonder why. Now that she was dead, I was sure she knew about the times I thought, fat slob. I was sure she knew about the hateful thoughts I had all the time, about her and about you.

I was mad at you for deserving her. You had been devoted to her, and now she was devoted to you. She watched over you for hours. Close to morning, she would stand up and walk toward the foot of your bed, then disappear as if ducking behind a dark curtain of air.

I never told you who she was. But that is not my only crime. That is not what I’m writing to tell you.

Part Four

It was late in the winter; the snow outside was brown and hard. This was the time when our father began recede from the house. I don’t know where he went. Often, we wouldn’t have dinner until nine or ten at night.

One night, he didn’t come home, and we went to bed without dinner. After you’d fallen asleep, I went to the kitchen to make a peanut butter sandwich. I didn’t make you one. I came back into our room and ate quietly. When our mother’s ghost appeared near the foot of your bed, she startled me: I had never before seen the moment of her appearance, and now I did, the flash of it, quick and bright, like an eye opening. I dropped my sandwich on the floor.

She went to her chair, and leaned over you. You must have seen her on your closed eyelids, the cool blue light of her, because you opened your eyes. You stared at her for a while, then fell back asleep. When she tried to walk away, much later, she walked over my peanut butter sandwich. She paused. She seemed to be stuck; she had to bend down and use her hands to free her foot. She was a big ghost, as round as the moon, and she bent over with difficulty. When she was gone, I looked at the peanut butter, and it wasn’t like peanut butter anymore, it was coated with a down that glowed, a powder off her: it had grabbed onto and held the cottony skin of a ghost.

*   *   *

I had an idea. I took glue from school and covered the chair with it after you were asleep. I sat up and waited. But by the time she sat down, it was dry, and nothing happened. In the morning the chair peeled and flaked.

It had become my job to keep you clean. I did this job poorly. But the next evening, I ran a bath and put you in it. While you were soaking, I got duct tape from Dad’s cabinet in the basement. I wrapped tape all the way around the chair already covered in dried glue. I wrapped it around the arms, and the legs, and even the bar between the legs, so the sticky side was up. Around and around: I used the whole roll. Once I had tucked the chair in my closet, I took another dining room chair—no one ever went into the dining room, Dad wouldn’t even notice– and bumped it up the stairs. I set it between our beds.

I pretended I was a good brother. I got you out of the bathtub. I wrapped a towel around and around you. I even made dinner: ham on crackers. You were clean and full and happy.

*   *   *

When you fell asleep, I got up to switch chairs. Every time you coughed, I was sure you had awakened. But you hadn’t. I set the duct-taped chair in the spot our mother preferred, close to you.

Before long, our mother’s ghost appeared in the way I had become accustomed to, and sat down in the chair I had ready for her. You woke, stared your dreamy stare, then fell asleep, calmed by her watchful presence. Sometimes it seemed to me that a hazy light poured out of her into you, but it is possible that my tired eyes blurred the two of you together.

I kept myself awake for hours by digging my fingernails into my palms. I wanted to see what would happen when she tried to get up. I saw: she couldn’t stand up. Her skin stretched as she leaned forward, but the tape held her. Her heels stuck to the bar between chair legs. She put her hands on the arms of the chair, to push herself up, but I’d wound those with duct tape too, and now her hands were stuck. I didn’t know that this would work, but it did. I tell you, this is how you catch a ghost: tape it down.

Now she turned her head as far as she could to look at me. I saw one of her eyes; that eye was startled and disappointed.

I rose and dragged her toward my closet. It wasn’t hard. The chair with her on it didn’t weigh any more than the chair by itself. I took the other—empty– chair out, put it back between us, and squeezed our mother’s ghost into my closet. She didn’t say anything because she never said anything. I closed the door and backed away. But I could see her knees through the door, two low humps. I opened the door and re-angled the chair. I closed the door again. No knees.

You know what I told myself? I told myself, I can’t sleep with this ghost coming in here every night. Sometimes I told myself, I want to keep her for my own. But the truth was I just didn’t want you to have her.

*   *   *

During the day, I could hardly make out the orb of her; she was made of something like cobwebs, only visible from certain angles. But at night, I could see her clearly. I looked in on her often, when you were asleep. Her light flickered and pulsed, as if dark clouds were blowing across her surface.  After two weeks or so, she was much thinner. She looked beautiful. You would have recognized her.

She looked past me. She looked at you. And when the door was open, and she looked at you from across the room, you did not cough. So you see, she did not want to desert you.

Part Five

“Where did the fat lady go?” you asked me, after a month of not seeing her. By then, you were hard up to ask me anything. I was in a bad mood most of the time. I said I didn’t know. I said how should I know?

She was looking bad. I had been trying to pull my school clothes off their hangers without looking at her. I had stopped checking on her at night.

Then, there was a night when your cough was a rattle that didn’t stop. You sounded like an old man. You sounded bad enough to alarm my hardening heart. I got up. I opened the closet door, and there she was: gaunt, and wilting bluely, looking down.

“Mom,” I said.

With what seemed like great effort, she looked at up me. She looked at me the way she’d looked at Dad, hopeless like that. Then her gaze slid back down, as if her eyeballs were weighted toward the earth. Your cough behind me was thick and desperate. In that moment, I knew that because of me, you were both dying. What I had done scared me. I wanted to undo it. I reached in: I tried to grab her arm, to peel it up, but there was nothing to grab. My hands went through her. I tried to peel off a piece of duct tape; I began to unwind it from the arm of the chair, under her left hand, but as I yanked the tape up, her hand moved with it–her wrist bent at an impossible angle. She winced. I shut the door fast.

After that, I put my fingers in my ears when you coughed in the night. I wouldn’t open my closet. I wore the same clothes for a week, at least. And when Dad opened my closet to grab me clothes that weren’t filthy, he said, “What is this? What did you do? Why did you waste all my duct tape? You know better!”

I remember falling to the floor. I was grateful to be punished. I thought, then, that punishment could make up for a crime, that I was doing some good by lying there on the carpet.

Dad yanked you off to school and left me in our room that morning. I didn’t move for a long time. From my position on the floor, I looked up into the closet, at the chair inside it, and there was no one there, just a few fine, drifting strands like spiderwebs, and an icy dust that floated.

*   *   *

I’m telling you I ruined your ghost and I am sorry. I was sorry right away and I’ve been sorry ever since. I started being nice to you again. Guilt was why.

We stuck together: it was just you and me after that. There was nothing at home: no mother, no ghost of a mother, no dog, no father to speak of. I pulled hair, anybody’s, I became a kicker. Mrs. Olson tied my ankles to my chair with jumpropes. I did not want to be tied; there was something I had to get out.

You got worse. It was spring, but you sounded like winter, like clanking radiators, like your bones were cold. Dad didn’t notice because he wasn’t there. By the time the school nurse took us to the hospital, the doctors were upset that no one had brought you to the hospital sooner.

When you didn’t die, we were taken to a carpeted room with colorful walls. A woman with a round face gave us crayons and paper, and told us to draw pictures of home. The crayons she gave us were waxy, and hard to draw with, but we drew, and we explained what we drew to the woman when she sat down on the floor between us. She didn’t believe everything, but she believed enough things.

By the following fall, we were in foster care. There was Mrs. Simmons first, and then everyone else.  There were so many mothers to remember, that of course you don’t remember the one that was your real mother, the one that was a ghost.

*   *   *

I have moved from city to city, and in all of them, the moon has followed me–blatant, a bad spy—incriminating me with its silent watchfulness. I wasn’t a good son. I haven’t been a good brother. I know that, and I don’t expect forgiveness. I don’t want the indebtedness that comes with being forgiven. And I will tell you something else, while I’m being introspective, little brother: I don’t want to have to come to your wedding tomorrow, and stand there while another woman devotes herself to you.

I feel better now that the truth is out, now that our brotherhood is over, as it is bound to be, now that you are no longer mine to worry about. You were mine for so long. Yes, I will miss you, but seems to me that there is relief in every ending; in the endings you want, and the endings you don’t.

Dad didn’t come to court on the day he was supposed to. He never came for us. That was not was not the ending we wanted, but even in our abandonment, there was a kind of relief, for in it, we discovered other kinds of love.

I often imagine how our dad must have felt, after he disappeared from us. If he settled into peace we kept him from, in his house held together with tape. I keep waiting for him to fade from my memory, but he’s still there behind its doors, unweakened, thick-necked, ready to lift his head.