The wraiths appeared for Ida as they had nightly for almost two weeks, in five second increments, between the hours of seven and ten p.m., against the weeping glass of her ancient living room window—the one that used to knock out careless starlings when she was a girl.
She resolved they would not bother her, these wraiths: the wizened octogenarian, the intubated lymphoma patient, the hysterical child with bomb blast glinting in his tears. She would try to watch her nightly stories and go to bed once the dying faces were quite through, at ten p.m. She would not even close her curtains, as they, so thin, merely gauzed the flickering light anyway, and the forms would then appear like migraine worms at the periphery of her vision. She enjoyed migraines even less than the dead.
On the first evening of her fantastic torment she searched for a source of light, unbelieving in spirits save for those spoken of in the Old and New Testaments. There had to be a natural source or a technological explanation. The appearance of a projection meant there must be a projector. She did not call the police. She scanned her ceiling meticulously looking for the hidden device or microscopic thaumatrope, eventually taking a broom to the entire surface, disturbing nothing but a few spider webs.
She went outside and combed the yard lawnmower row by lawnmower row, never once eclipsing the light or casting a silhouette upon the window. Her wrinkled hands caught only splinters and pollen dust as she felt along the white fence at her property’s border. With no conclusive evidence of a projector, she turned in the corner of her yard and shivered for almost twenty seconds. The bloodied dwarf. The plump transvestite with head trauma. The factory worker who spasmed mid-fall. The hoary grandmother kippering in her tent.
Ida went inside to stopple a cut in her hand and mend a snag in her gown. At ten p.m., when the wraith projections flickered and dimmed, she held her breath and unpacked a drawer in her laundry room, finding there a carton of her dead husband’s Dorals. She smoked beneath a swinging bulb in her empty garage until calm enough to boil evening tea water and search for a comforting Bible passage. The next day she slept until noon.
She told no one, consulted no pastor or guide. Two trembling weeks after she paced her lawn she resolved to remain in her home, as she had remained, and inure herself. She would mentally prepare, summon the requisite courage an hour before, then a half hour, then five minutes, and finally no time at all. She grew used to them. The shivering vagrant. The pleading abductee. The snarling murder-suicide with a gun to his temple. All came as only so much fuss, a favorite phrase of her husband’s. She thought of his death. How like an eternity it took, she reflected. The months of fading away. The memory loss. The doting sense of humor turned miserly and loathsome, his speech failing, abrupt, inadvertent, then gone. The nights at the hospital, too, her crisp reflection staring back at her unwarped in immaculate glass looking over Billings, a city they endeavored in their youth not to spend any significant time in. Yet there they were. She and her reflection sat bedside, watching their husband go, and go, and go. And in the end she remembered she did not see him die. She had used the restroom.
Finally, the funeral. That corpulent planner and his pock-faced driver were all too kind to her, so she decided to be short with them. When she asked to be excused for her behavior they called it part of the grieving process and said it was all okay. Grieving. At the church she wrote a brief eulogy and gave it to her pastor to read. It was received well by all in attendance. Then, after speeches, fellowship, and ham buns, with the body finally interred, she slept off and on for nearly eighteen hours. If only that process, from dying in the hospital to set in the ground, had lasted but from seven to ten p.m., or even better, for five seconds. It’s what her husband would have wanted. How easy it could have been on everyone he loved. Dying, dead. All that fuss. For what?
The intoxicated manic-depressive. The sleeping baby. The lethargic pedestrian pinned against a concrete bollard. The regicidal paranoiac charging a gate. The heart attack crescendo into dim rictus. The sweating hermit. The eviscerated child warrior. All this fuss.
When Ida entered the dining and living room they were again there, the dead, on time.
Yet only she could see the fuss. She tested, at first only passively, noting that no one had knocked on her door to ask why there were images of the dying projected on her living room window. Then after two weeks she invited Dorothy for a light dinner before theatre. They hadn’t gone to theatre since they’d each been widowed. Dorothy missed it most and told Ida.
Two options Ida rehearsed to explain away the wraith phenomenon should Dorothy see it: an art project of a university student who’d chosen her house at random, or a seraph, a six-winged angel of light appearing to her nightly with a message. She was not prepared to answer what message. But that was no matter, as messages from heaven take time to decipher, a task that would positively galvanize Dorothy. Still, Ida leaned toward option one as her explanation.
“We haven’t seen Joel Jahnke since A Christmas Carol,” Dorothy rued at 6:45.
“Has it been that long?”
“I wonder if we ought to leave soon since our seats are in the middle. I hate crawling over all those knees.”
“And I should use the restroom first.”
Ida scratched her fork and knife on her plate loud enough for Dorothy to notice she was still eating.
“I should be ready in fourteen minutes.”
“Fourteen? You’re specific at your age.”
“You’re pushy at yours.”
They paused for laughter as if in a play. They always played at acting prior to and after theatre, and were highly risible. Ida cackled like a drunken beldam and nearly spit a bite of steak onto the table. When Dorothy joined in, the cacophony nearly caused Ida to forget her purpose.
“I’ll finish in a minute and we can leave.”
“When did you get such a healthy appetite?”
“Is it healthy?”
“You’re rail thin. How can you eat so much steak and stay rail thin?”
“I hardly even eat meat anymore. Just mushy vegetables.”
Ida shoveled three bites into her mouth and rose to gather and wash dishes. Stacking Dorothy’s empty plate on top of hers she said, chewing, “Use the restroom here and don’t,” she swallowed, “drink any wine before. Then you won’t have to pee.”
“I’ve drunk wine every night since my husband died, and I don’t plan to change that just to sit through a play. Not even Joel Jahnke’s worth giving up my evening buzz!”
Dorothy went to the restroom while Ida rinsed the dishes, whistling and chuckling. Company was not usual of late, not since the wraiths, not since her husband’s death, not even ever before. Was company so unusual for everyone? She had seen in her television stories couples and singles who regularly entertained visitors. Surely there were people in reality, off-screen, who did the same. How did they? How were they not constantly out of breath from laughing like idiots at themselves?
“Now we have to go. There’s no wine in me!” came Dorothy’s voice from the throat of the hall.
“Coming, coming. I just need my coat.”
When Ida entered the dining and living room they were again there, the dead, on time. Seven p.m. The soldier bleeding out over a sandy cot. She grabbed her coat. The tonsured monk seizing a firm pillow. She’d forgotten about them. The teen spuming mucus onto linoleum.
Ida faced Dorothy, who stood with her back to the window.
“I need my coat.”
“You have it.”
The towheaded girl clutching at water.
“Have you seen it?”
The granite-colored woman dangling from a seatbelt.
“It’s in your hands, Ida.”
Ida remembered she was no good at pretexts to get others to do things, even small things like turn around. But she didn’t want to just say turn around. Or look at the window. Do you see the dead? Do you see the man with a neck tattoo reaching for his driver’s license? So instead she spoke of a memory. It seemed her only faculty.
“That window used to catch birds.”
“The big one?”
“Yes, behind you.”
Dorothy did not turn, but looked at Ida, head aslant and blushing purple.
“My mother cleaned it with rags and that would leave little bits of lint on it. Starlings didn’t fly into it then. But my father used newspaper and an industrial cleaner that smelled like a metal orange if there is such a thing. When he cleaned, the birds would try to fly right through. I’d sit here reading and bonk! Like a soft rock.”
The resolute juvenile kicking over a chair.
“A little thud. A splat but not quite. Sometimes they would die there and we’d have to take them out to the field with a wood stove scoop. They would bounce and roll,” she sang, “in that little tray. I tossed them as far as I could into the hay. I’d catapult away and be done with them.”
“Then back to my book!”
“That glass is too saggy to catch birds anymore.”
“You don’t take company enough, Ida. I’ll visit more.”
“It’s a lot of fuss.”
“Ida! We’re late.”
“I have to stay.”
The infant on hot coals just out of reach of his bound, bawling mother.
“We bought tickets!”
Dead, in a chorus of screams, before the knowledge of life.
“I can’t leave.”
“What’s the point of this? You’re being incredibly impolite.”
“Please try and understand. It’s changed so much.”
“What has? The window?”
Ida watched Dorothy gulp as if swallowing an insult and turn to go. She did not acknowledge the deaths in the window. It was only Ida who saw, could see. Yet she thought of how little they knew, she and Dorothy, and everyone else probably, about the world they would not soon enough depart from.
For eight more weeks she smoked Dorals and watched the dead, until one day they stopped coming and never came back. She remembered most of them without fear or pity, only curiosity, fealty, love, until two years later driving over black ice she too died. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported she was survived by a son in Pony and daughter in Manhattan. For this and only this was Ida remembered.