A dead woman walked into a bar.
As was typical of him, Charles McManus was too busy smoking his Camels and thinking useless, recursive thoughts to have noticed. Slumped into one of the bar’s narrow booths, he drank Manhattans and shrugged free from another day as an assistant baker and sole delivery driver for a small, artisan bakery. McManus found camaraderie with his coworkers, the other refugees from the daylight world like him who preferred to labor under the stillness of early morning. Others like him who could finish their workdays with plenty of time remaining to indulge other interests—which were, in McManus’ case, pot, alcohol, 70s punk, foreign films, comic books, the occasional classic novel or Nietzschean text, and tattoos—while sharing a passion for well-made food, even though Portland wasn’t (yet) known as a foodie paradise.
He had the lifestyle he wanted. Simple work, simple play, simple days. Finally. He only needed to take care of himself, which was, he had come to accept, how he preferred things. So, of course, everything was about to change.
His ex-wife, Carmella Faye Nighthouse, slid into his booth with such familiarity, it was as if their acrimonious split and years living separate existences had never happened. As ever, he was drawn to her eyes. Her best feature, well the best feature on her face, was the enchanting hue that drifted along a unique color spectrum: some days a coffee and cream with dashes of glittering copper, and other days a resplendent amber with notes of emerald, her eyes were always sparkling with a self-sustaining light no matter how dark the surrounding environs might be. He had never seen eyes like hers, and he never would again.
“I died, Charles,” Carmella told him. “Every time I manifest myself enough to speak with you, you will lose one memory of me.”
“Hold up. You’re dead?”
She did not respond. She did not gesture. Her face betrayed nothing. The complete absence of her meandering, endlessly processing, perennially pondering utterances told him she was in fact dead, because that was the only rational explanation for her not running her mouth in her usual fashion.
“How? Where?” He asked, intrigued by her delusion, and not believing her. “When?”
She ignored his questions and said, “Pay attention. Ghosts burn energy just like everything else, and we must consume memories in order to appear in the present with the living. Now speak, nod or otherwise indicate that you understand my words.”
Ah. There was the familiar brand of Carmella condescension.
McManus said, “By all means take my memories. They’re just annoying me anyway.”
“That is not the sum of it, Charles. You must do something for me,” the dead woman said as if she still had the right.
Figures. Then McManus noticed her hands and forearms, which were stained with either dried mud or blood; he couldn’t tell which in the bar’s low light. This struck him as strange. Drawn into their usual labyrinthine conversations of point/counterpoint, he was already forgetting that she was attempting to make a point. A point about her being dead.
“I’m sure your husband can handle whatever it is.” he said. “You’re his problem now. I’m retired. Or, you could say, I was fired.”
“No one else can help. Only you.”
McManus liked this line of thought not at all and ordered another Manhattan with extra cherries. The waitress did not acknowledge Carmella, and Carmella’s attention was focused solely on him; it was as if she didn’t perceive the bar and the growing crowd, which would soon force McManus back to the solitude of his studio apartment. She was paying the kind of attention to him that she hadn’t surrendered since they fell in love during Carmella’s grad school days. Some part of him, some part of him that he thought he had drowned dead with drink and years, still responded to her in spite of himself.
“What do you need? If I remember correctly, you were convinced I couldn’t do jack shit.”
“My body is buried in the wrong place.”
“The farm. My parents’ farm.”
Odd. McManus swirled his glass, pretending to study his Manhattan in the bar’s semi-darkness as he bought himself a moment to think this through. He knew that Carmella hated her parents. Well, she had hated them when McManus and Carmella were together, when she had been a different person entirely, when she had been one of the many different versions of Carmella that was no longer available. Back when she and McManus shared a bed, Carmella had celebrated her many differences with her parents and siblings by adopting a last name that she created, and she had let her auburn hair grow wild about her shoulders. God, the sex during those years had been unhinged and life-altering as she tapped into a nascent wildness and rebellion. Then, a couple years into their relationship, she found religion, cut her hair short like a man’s, like it was right now in the bar, and she left him. By all accounts, her parents had celebrated when McManus and Carmella split up, and she had soaked in their approval like the overachieving child she had always been, and always yearned to be. Like the prodigal daughter returned home from a voyage across a treacherous sea. Now, Carmella’s parents had her body.
“I am destined to rest elsewhere,” she said. “My spirit demands it.”
McManus drank and then asked, “What the hell am I supposed to do about that? It already sounds like I’m under-qualified.”
“I once told you where I wished to be buried. Unfortunately for me, what I told you was true. I didn’t know that my demands would be taken so literally. I didn’t realize what I was binding myself to. You learn how things really work when you’re dead, Charles, you learn how important words and wishes are. I won’t be free until you, and only you, remember where I want to be buried.”
McManus set down his glass.
“All I have to do is remember a thing you said? That shouldn’t be too hard. I have so many nuggets of your wisdom ground into the back of my skull.”
Carmella turned her attention elsewhere. For all he knew, she was cataloguing the bottles of alcohol organized by type behind the bar. He wondered: Was she solid? Could he touch her?
“My body has to be moved. Moved to the place I told you about years ago. I need to be laid to rest in that place. Then my soul will be free. Then I will leave you alone for good.”
McManus rubbed his whiskers. “And what if no one remembers and no one moves you? More specifically, what if I don’t remember, and I can’t move you. Or, more likely, what if I do remember, and I decide not to do jack shit about it.”
“The funny thing about being dead is that ghosts are allowed to haunt without having to use memories as fuel,” she said, “Haunting is just moving energy around. As long as I don’t manifest myself and speak to you like we’re speaking now, I can haunt you as much as I’d like. That is one of the perks.”
“Are you threatening me?”
McManus’ mind spun. He liked being the victim until he was actually a victim, then he didn’t like it so much.
“Why me?” He said more to himself than to her.
“You don’t listen. You never did. I already told you. You’re the only one who knows.”
“I’ve spent the better part of a decade forgetting you. How the hell am I supposed to remember a single thing you told me years ago?”
“I will give you a clue,” she said.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
She shook her head, all seriousness.
“It was where I told you I loved you and actually meant it,” she said. “I have to go. I’ve already used up one of your memories of me. It wasn’t a very good one. I checked.” And go she did, slipping out of the booth and gliding out the door as if neither gravity nor space-time held sway over her.