Oftentimes, the dead leave town. Olga thinks the dead leave because they find there is no place for them.
Olga had been on the waitlist for three years, and a resident for one year, when her dead husband showed up at her door. His chin was tucked to his chest. Was it nerves? Stringy hair ran thin at his crown. Nobody washed him? An oxygen tank hugged doglike to his leg, wheeled on a little chrome dolly, air tubes tethering to his nostril.
free to take it or leave it,
authorizes the following: video recording in designated areas, limited-term specimen banking ofLearned to hoard money from your side
The mass on the floor was two feet from Olga’s patent sandals, which were heeled, meant for night, but she wore them during the day; her favorite pair. She enjoyed dressing for circle. Dressing to be seen. The mass was slowing its roil, calcifying to a porous texture. From this and the mesh tickling her at the nape, Olga could sense that the women were distracted by Belinda’s question. Because she was. The therapist noticed, and called for them to pause a moment and concentrate together on a series of images and sounds played on the wall-screen, in order to bring their minds back into alignment. They must remember and re-experience together if they are to have any hope of success. This is their labor.
Their eggs continued their pulse. While the group watched the neural-reset images, the body on the floor unspooled. Then the therapist, satisfied that the group was realigned, asked Olga to continue when she was ready.
Oftentimes, the dead leave town. Olga thinks the dead leave because they find there is no place for them, that the space has been filled.
Her son has always been very smart, attentive to others. He hid his wants from her at an early age. She told him: You are not alone. She bent down on his level. He was seven or eight but had a man’s hairstyle, swooped and neat. She took his chin, bunched-up from sobbing, and said, “how can you say, ‘bored,’ ‘lonely?’ You have me.”
The dead cannot tell us about death itself. They cannot say if there is a God or angels spangled with a hundred eyes. How could they, being mere memories? And yet they do have their own sort of knowledge. Many will pick up hobbies out of the blue, and they are quite good. It’s like they always should have played chess, or studied that subject at the local community college (now overtaxed with students). They don’t all become artists and experts, and a fair amount pick up a few different things and remain average at each and don’t put in so much effort. But oh, did they seem to enjoy themselves. Terrifying. Perhaps she could have been incredible at something. After moving to Placentia, she decided to try everything she could think of, everything her bad back would let her try, to see if she showed promise. No luck. She did make a fruit bowl that, while it is ugly, she rather likes.
That night, Olga fed this man, her husband, bathed him, and got him to take a piss.
When she leaned close she could not help it. She lifted his clothes from him, and she could smell him. It was like he smelled when he was young and spent too much on cologne, and also like he smelled towards the end—like milk that had turned. In the bathroom, the sourness pressed on all sides. She breathed through her mouth and thought of how her son described the smell of frying oil seeping into his clothes at work, how it was released when he ran a hand through his hair, how it’d stalk him out of the shower. And he’s so fastidious, her beautiful boy. Always has been.
“Say ‘ah,’” she said. Her husband stuck out his tongue. She slid the dentures from his mouth and dropped them in a cup of cleaning solution with a hiss. Her tasks would be easier if he weren’t lugging around the oxygen everywhere, and he didn’t need it now. So she thought she’d take the tank and store it.
He snapped the dolly away with a grunt, his first sound. His face turned to flint.
Olga wasn’t thinking about the tank, exactly. She wanted it, that’s all. Or she wanted him not to have it. She tried to ease the tank out of his grip, but he was too strong, like before his lungs filled with phlegm. His knuckles went white tugging on the dolly and he huffed from the strain. His whole head reddened, lips parted and toothless, voicing nonsense. Gumming the air, he yanked on the handle and he really was stronger, too strong, and his eyes—they made her take a step back. He mistook the action. He wrenched the handle again, roughly, and Olga fell right along with it.
Her forehead was pressed against his chest. His hands clung to the dolly’s handle. “O-kay,” Olga said into his sweaty undershirt. “O-kay, o-kay,” she cooed, nose full of his smell. “O-kay.”
His teeth grinned from the toilet bowl, knocked from the sink in their scuffle. She fished his dentures out and threw them in the trash. Once he seemed to have calmed, she put him to bed. To the futon. She’d planned to lock her bedroom door, but the act and the click of it were too definitive, so instead she placed a chair in front of the jamb, not barricading the way but adding an extra step, feeling silly. Nothing so much had happened, after all. Would he speak tomorrow, she wondered. What language might he greet her with? English, like he drilled her to use—like she’d used today? To think he was at last American-born, as he’d wanted so badly.
She attempted sleep for a long time. Then the need for release and the fact of the unlocked door worked on her, so she let her hand slip across her loose stomach, grip her panties and cord them, and she moved against the Lycra and then her unfamiliar hand until she came.
In her other circles, Olga had talked about safe things—like his skill as a cook, like how he played poker even though he was no good at it, like how he loved to host, to believe he held the interest of a crowd. But on this day, she talked to the twitch of the red-brown mass and the rhythm of the egg in her hands, and she did not know what she was going to say until the words were already in the air.
She told them how the first thing that happened in this country was a dentist (from their part of town, who spoke like them) claimed that his mouth was rotten when it wasn’t, and pulled out all of his teeth.
It was at their house. Her husband wouldn’t allow her to be in the room, so she cleaned on the other side of the pocket door. In memory, the smell of the Lysol slips into the generalized smell of a doctor or a school office, conjures the feelings of being underdressed, of waiting, of not having the right word ready. Memory laps over itself this way. To think her husband was at one point a respected businessman. His mistake was that he thought he could, he should, be more successful. That’s why he took them to America. Then he retired too early. No savings, no nothing.
She sent her boy to go play outside,but only after the yowling had started. Not enough Novocain, or whatever it was.
Olga almost crossed herself at the memory. She’d taken pleasure in announcing she’d been Jewish all along to her son and his wife, took pleasure in their deep surprise. They seemed mostly surprised about the idea that she could surprise. (The Virgin Mary she kept because she liked her alabaster face—a face that has a secret to it. The Virgin knew how she’d suffered, how she deserved a house that didn’t used to have wheels.)
“To think,” she told them, “every single one of his teeth, one by one. Dentures at the age of thirty-three.” This dentist was known in the community for what he was. But her husband had kept her isolated at first. No speaking to women at the laundromat or the specialty grocer down the block. He was looking for danger in the wrong places, as was his way.
He became obsessed with making sure they received what they were entitled to—that they weren’t cheated because of their accents, that they got superior service. It was a mission their son took up when he was grown.
The circle didn’t interrupt. They were with her, immersed in memory, feeling and seeing what she felt and saw. The clay mass bubbled and limbed and sprouted a head.
“We didn’t ever know what to expect when he got off work. What mood he’d be in. The car pulls up, you don’t know! When he was angry, he followed me around the house.”
The mesh webbing breathed with the women, up and down, their shoulders lifting and falling together.
Olga had never before told the circle, but she’d long suspected people assumed. Sometimes you get the wrong peoples’ memories, in circle—you share when it’s not your turn. And people gossip. Maybe that was what they’d discuss if they tried to return her from the dead: Olga’s husband used to hit her sometimes, and she couldn’t talk about it. Still they came to circle, and still they listened and nodded and mhmm’d and tried to bring her husband to Placentia, to be their neighbor. Life is long, especially now. And it was Olga’s business.
All the years she’d known him, her husband believed life had made promises, and that there were things he deserved and wasn’t getting. He would have wanted to return, if he’d known it was possible.
The mass had formed into something of a man’s shape and size, in sort of a crouch, but as if the parts had congealed. Then it rolled onto its side in the fetal position. It was quivering. It had no features. “He didn’t want to die,” Olga said. She bent at the waist reaching towards it, and the women around her did the same, and then—although she knew she wasn’t supposed to talk about his last days—Olga laid the freckled back of her hand on it as if taking its temperature, and said, “I feel so guilty. I’m sorry. I was the wrong one.”
This was what the mass wanted to hear. It shed its universality—its blankness. Its features specified as it turned over and splayed its limbs and finally it settled. It looked like him, like he did right before he died. And then it undid: it puddled on the floor, splashing her shoe.
It looked like him, like he did right before he died. And then it undid: it puddled on the floor, splashing her shoe.
When the women had gone back into themselves, had retreated into experiencing the here-and-now as individuals, they clapped and cheered. The therapist bobbed her head encouragingly. She said that the readings were good, “This might be a serviceable rendering, we should know within the week.” Childless Belinda looked about to cry.
Olga had done it. She’d known at once that she’d done it. Oh, how she sobbed that night, for her unwanted success. Two days later, her dead husband showed up at her door with flowers. Baby’s breath, her favorite.
Olga woke and yet her husband remained alive. And he was where she’d left him. Everything was in its place. The house had not burned down. He was asleep with the overhead light on, snoring his snore. Hearing it made Olga want to go back in time and do things differently.
Despite last night’s bath, his hair was terribly oily. Perhaps she’d remembered him that way, and it was going to keep reverting to what she’d remembered back in the community circle all those times. People who come back can change, she’s seen them change—but could this man change? He used to comb his hair just so. When he’d looked at her she felt girlish, vulnerable, small, sexy. He stirred. “We’re going for a ride,” she told him. She put shoes on his feet and guided him to the carport. She got him into the sedan with the frosty oxygen tank cradled between his knees, and stretched the seatbelt across his body, then tucked him in with a blanket—pastel fleece with satiny trim—and he squeezed and mouthed it. She almost lost her nerve. Last night with the oxygen fitted to his nostrils, he’d looked like a penned bull.
It was a Monday, so the restaurant was closed, but her son would be there, checking the freezer, ordering stock, adding up numbers while spread out in a booth.
“Mama,” he said as he let her in, “You’ve gotta let me know when you’re coming. I’m glad to see you, but I was actually about to go and get—”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry.”
“It’s just. Anyway. Is it taxes? The plan was I’d lend you a hand next week.”
“That’s o-kay,” she said, “next week.”
He scratched the back of his head. The shades were drawn, letting in a sliver of midday sun, and the main lights were off. He was illuminated only by a violet glow from above, from the grapevine-shaped string lights. They blanketed the ceiling, woven through with leaves. The murals on the wall were of places her son had never been. Cedar trees, sparkling sea. He said, “I heard your circle went well?”
She’d seen two of the sites in the murals with her husband, when they went back on a trip to visit family. She remembers the long, airy skirt she wore. She remembers the sunglasses that made him look so good, that he slid into his breast pocket so even indoors he could show them off.
“They wouldn’t,” Olga started. “They wouldn’t let me. You didn’t tell me you had me down as partial sponsor only.”
“Partial sponsor. Not full. No privileges over big decisions. I was so embarrassed at the office, you don’t know, you don’t know, oh!Yesterday afternoon he returned, but I can’t do this . . . I took him to the recall center. But they won’t accept with no your cosign—”
He put two and two together: “Where is he?”
She motioned to the parking lot. He hurried ahead while she babbled—about how she was actually relieved she needed his OK, that it was all too much, that in truth she’d never believed it would work—but her son seemed not to hear.
“Dad?” He said, ducking to peer into the lowered passenger-side window. His father turned and coughed and half-extended a trembling hand to his son. The blanket was darkened where it had been sucked on. Olga thought she should say something; Olga thought her son should say something, to make her feel better. He hadn’t been able to do this on his own—he’d tried. For years, he’d tried. He couldn’t remember his father back into being. So he’d pulled strings, moved her up the waitlist, bought her the mobile home. Now her son could not speak or look at her. Tenderly, he helped his father from her car to his, and took him home.
His father improved quickly in his care. He was speaking simple sentences in a few days. It could have been sooner, but he refused to do so until they found him a new set of dentures.
They stood in the nursing home hallway; it smelled of citrus cleaner and rubber. “It was what I was supposed to do, wasn’t it?” Her son said. He’d had to return her calls once his father’s health began to decline again. There are no funerals the second time around, and the urns are weighted with something else—perhaps clay, sand, cigarette ashes. “Don’t you want to, you know, come back?”
“If you need me to,” she answered. She reached up to pet his hair and he nuzzled into her shoulder, wetting her collar with his tears. Then the thought that he wouldn’t need her became too much to bear:
Amanda Kallis is a writer from Los Angeles living in Brooklyn. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, her writing appears in Catapult, the Bare Life Review, the Black Warrior Review (2018 nonfiction contest winner), McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She's been awarded fellowships from the Edward Albee Foundation and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Currently she's working on a speculative novel.