The following story is by guest author Matthew Rickart. Matthew is a future dog owner and lives in Chicago.
My office director and I are having sex. Two or three times a day in a motel room. Slippery, air-conditioner’s broke sex, with strange conversations spilling out after. She tells me she spoke with God as a child, like some before-They-were-famous pen pal.
We’re in Burlington, VT for a Health IT conference. Banquet and lecture halls rented from the University, filled with dark ties and grey summer suits. The men in the Post-Baccalaureate don’t shave their faces, even in the summer.
She is between 30 and 35 years old. She loves but avoids refined sugar, which she says clogs the third eye like sleep, or a swollen lid. She has risen rapidly in the company because she asks for promotions, she says. She is always revising and updating her professional goals—two copies, one to put on her fridge the other on her boss’s desk. She reads the fridge copies every morning eating her muesli. They become like prayers, but not actual prayers, because she has those too and they are distinct.
How do we start? It was my fault. Our first night in Burlington, we went out for drinks after eight hours standing at our conference booth. She knew of a bar with liquor distilled from pure Vermont maple syrup. It was in a back alley off a back alley off a back alley of Church Street. You needed a membership card to get in, but my director just gave the man at the door fifty dollars. They didn’t play music. When we talked I felt like everyone could hear us. My director finished her glass and looked into the ice like tea leaves. “Tastes Canadian,” she said. My phone buzzed.
My older sister just bought a house with her husband and two kids. It’s in West Hartford, CT, which is a closed book to me. They like it, except strange things keep happening. Lamps move from one table to another while the house is empty. The kids say they hear people talking in strange languages. Sometimes shadows seem to pop up where they shouldn’t. And there’s something wrong with the fireplace.
A lot of this she keeps relaying to me in text messages and emails. My director was curious. She asked me what’s up. I told her everything. She was enthralled. She dictated questions she wants me to ask my sis. I typed them into my phone but didn’t send them.
We drank a lot more of the maple syrup rum. “Isn’t this refined sugar?” I asked her. “It’s distilled sugar,” she said. “Good for plants, good for us.” I almost puked on the way home, but we stopped to eat poutine. “Tastes like Vermont,” she said skeptically of the curds.
Our rooms connect at the motel, linked by a door someone thought might be useful. She knocked at it while I brushed my teeth. I opened it and that’s that.
“Have you heard more from your sister?” she asks me during lunch the next day.
I tell her the news from West Hartford. My brother-in-law, an English professor, took the kids to the university to speak with a linguist colleague, having them phonetically repeat some of the words they hear. The linguist said it sounds like Jamaican Patois. Meanwhile, a 26 oz container of Morton Salt hovered on its own and spelled out GO GO ! in spilled granules on the floor of the kitchen. My sister watched the whole thing while making tea.
“Maybe it meant go-go,” says my director. “Like the dancers. Or the exclamation point could be a lower case L and it could say Gogol, like the 19th century Russian writer.” I show her the photo of the salted message on my phone. “Oh no, that definitely says GO GO !,” she agrees.
We don’t get drunk that night but watch a made-for-TV movie about teen Wiccans and order pizza. The sex that follows is less intense than the night before, but it’s then that the AC breaks with a loud CRACK-SHZZZZzzzz, like fireworks bursting and burning. Seems to invigorate things.
That night, my director looks into my eyes and says, “What are your career ambitions?” I yawn and pretend to fall asleep.
I leave her at the booth alone most of the next day. She tells me to explore the conference, gain a greater understanding for Health Information Technology, get some business cards, expand my professional horizons. I eat lunch alone, staring out over Lake Champlain through a window. The air conditioning wilts the lettuce on my sandwich.
Because I miss her, we go out for dinner together again. We don’t talk about the sex we are having. Instead she tells me about her brother the Marine. Tall, broad and handsome. She says he used to beat up the kids on the playground who made fun of her. I cannot imagine anyone making fun of her. “I had braces,” she says. “I had funny knees.”
She asks about my sister and the haunted house. The presence is definitely centralized around two locations: The fireplace and the kitchen. The fireplace has begun weeping as of that morning at about 10am. At lunch, a shadow-figure helped my nephew make a peanut butter sandwich he was too scared to eat.
“Do they have names?” my director asks. “My niece and nephew?” I say. “No,” she says, “The presences.”
More sex, again in my room where the AC is broken. We burn up. Our skin get slick and we take a break to towel off, then continue. At one point she says, “Here, back, it’s back, I feel it, I feel it, it’s in the room, do you see it, do you feel it?”
I don’t say anything, but it works for her, all this talking, she goes on and on like a scroll of automatic writing spilling out over the bed, the floor. She falls asleep immediately after. I watch her breathing, turn out the lights, eat half a slice of leftover pizza.
How can I tell her I admire her? I want to be more like her? But I don’t want her to talk about ghosts during sex?
We go to a Russian restaurant decorated like Christmas. The only drinks on the menu are different kinds of vodka, served on ice. BYOMixer. A table near us requests lemon wedges and gets shot down. My director orders a whole fish, breaded and baked. When it arrives, it looks like an enormous Goldfish cracker. “It’s followed us here,” she says. “What?” I ask. “Our presence,” she says.
She tells me she is close friends with the recruiter who brought me to her. They go to the same dog park. “You have a dog?” I say. “No,” she says. The recruiter is in her mid-50s. They drink wine together, sometimes at the dog park.
“People say you need to advocate for yourself to get ahead,” my director says, eating the crusty eyeball of the fish. Later, she splits the skull and scoops out the brain with her index finger, grey matter like Pâté. “I don’t think that’s true. You can be silent so long as you have a presence.”
“Presents?” I mishear her. “Those help,” she says.
She asks about my sister. I cannot paraphrase, so I read her the latest texts. “Drums in the chimney” and “Shadow man named Jeremy” and “Blood in sink” and “Turned out Lizzy lost a tooth”. . . We go back to my motel room and sweat.
It’s the last day of the conference. I show up at the booth with coffee and maple donuts. She takes a bite, nods and says “Vermont.” During lunch, she disappears for nearly two hours. When she comes back, people have started breaking down their booths. We work on ours together, folding and compacting until the whole thing fits on a pallet wagon. I ask her where she wants to go for our final meal. “I have plans,” she says. “Sorry.”
I end up eating at a bar. I order a hamburger then order another because the first is so insubstantial. This Vermont beer is so sweet, so malty, I ask for a Molson. The sun is almost set. On the way back, I see my director. She’s at the Russian restaurant again, in a seat by the window. She has a glass of vodka and a bowl of borscht. Across from her is a balding man, ten or fifteen years her senior, in a corduroy jacket. His skin is the color of dirty snow. As I watch him, his hair seems to turn white and then to curls of smoke. She laughs and talks animatedly, but when he speaks to her he leans forward, over the basket of coarse black bread, and whispers in her ear.
I keep walking. My hotel room smells like sex, so I open the windows. Someone has made the bed but not changed the sheets. My director’s bodily imprint on the sheets like a ring at the bottom of the tub.
She knocks on the adjoining door an hour before midnight. I am watching the same TV movie about Wiccans. She comes in and sits with me on the bed, kisses me on the cheek and says, “I’m sorry, I was lonely.” As if she were the only one. I put a hand on her leg and kiss the side of her neck. “Oh,” she says, “But not anymore.”
I offer her some leftover pizza, but she suggests ordering a new one. Our flight is in five hours, so we might as well stay up. The movie ends, then starts again. It turns out it’s a Canadian production. My director and I put it on mute and watch it while we talk. She tells me about the love of her life, a man older than her, a tweedy professor, who was crushed by his own steering wheel in a car accident. “It was his fault,” she says, but the line of her mouth quivers after.
One of the Wiccan girls has a familiar, a black cat named Nancy. I ask my director why she goes to the dog park if she doesn’t have a dog. She’s had dogs in the past, she says. She clutches to dog parks the way people hold family heirlooms. Look deep enough and they’re all there, all the old dogs.
She asks after my sister. I tell her about the exorcist who came to the West Hartford house, how my sister feels a little guilty because the kids actually like Jeremy and he’s become a part of the family. But she worries they see him like a cat, which he isn’t, he’s the leftovers of a man. The priest said they should be fine, just keep the house clean, burn some sage under the flue, in the kitchen sink . . .
“It’s so sad, isn’t it,” she says. “The haunting, and then the letting go.” I tell her I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had a ghost. “Not even growing up? In college?” No. “That’s tough,” she says. “I’m sorry to hear that.”