Ghosts — AM Ringwalt

We made a down payment on a home, which we could only do because Will’s father isn’t alive. There are ghosts everywhere. On Father’s Day, we visited his mother in Kentucky for food that made me sick. There was gluten in the salad dressing, the waitress later said. It seemed unnecessary to me—even in the salad dressing? I was sick for a month because of it. My memory waned like warped glass, boulders of bloat in my gut. We drove to a house show somewhere in Nashville in a stranger’s yard. Swimming pool in the backyard. Wine served in boxes on a metal table. Sparkling water. Potato chips. Lush green trees swaying in the wind. The wind could barely reach us, melting under hundred-degree sun. The wind: resting somewhere on the lowest branches of the trees. Deep in the heat, held in its grip, Will told me Karen Dalton, my favorite musician, died when she was 55 of AIDS. I never knew this. I had imagined her with grandchildren. I had imagined her voice, forever, through the trees. I had imagined her in a home of stained glass. For the rest of the stranger’s performance in the stranger’s yard, I looked to the trees, imagining Karen Dalton’s voice in the leaves instead of listening to the woman we didn’t know. I was favoring a ghost. I was projecting ghosts upon the living, my love by my side. Once, when I was infatuated in the spring, listening to Karen Dalton, my father told me—it’s wonderful to be a young girl in the springtime—pretending with a smile that he wore my mask, that he knew me because he once was me. It’s wonderful. Pink fingernail polish, orange juice, honey in glass jars. When I was a toddler, I once told him—when I grow up, I want to be a daddy just like you. I walked through fields. I walked to the lake. I kept a journal, my panic documented in private. I wrote on my bedroom walls with invisible ink. I touched the surface of the lake with my fingertips. How cool, how still. How cool, how still. I thought no one would ever love me. I thought, oh—it’s wonderful. I thought, oh—sacred panic. What did I dream of, then? What—willow trees, constancy? What—dagger through the leaves? Now, I dream over and over that my dead dog and my dead friend are still alive, that we’re all together on a hillside, and Will’s with us too, and the sun is rising above us—slowly. We stay all day. We’re smiling, walking through the trees. I don’t know what this means. My friend Anne has similar dreams, of our friend who committed suicide. Once we all baked cakes in her kitchen, toxic vanilla and lake-water. One morning, Anne texts me from a coffee shop in New York—I keep having dreams—and I say—me too—and she quickly follows up to say she swears she sees our dead friend’s best friend, the man who spoke at their funeral. I couldn’t go to the funeral, a fortress of snow towering high around the small white house I used to rent, panic fixing me in place, so I sent the best friend a message on Facebook and he wrote back to me—I remember how happy and excited they were when you were together. Another song enters my head—how sad, how lovely. Connie Converse. Another song, it stays, a ghost. And we walked through the green trees. And we pressed our palms to the water. I think of a Karen Dalton song—If I listen long enough to you, I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true. The green trees swaying in the heat. Anne texts me from Bushwick to Nashville to say that a man in the coffee shop is researching KFC and sighing heavily. What does he need to know? The man who looks like our dead friend’s best friend is talking to the KFC guy. She’s shaking. Is she having visions? She goes up to the KFC guy to ask what the name of our dead friend’s best friend was—who were you just talking to?—and it was our dead friend’s best friend after all, transposed from the funeral to Bushwick, drinking coffee at Molasses. I’ll find a way to believe that it’s all true. Anne calls me when I’m on the treadmill, climbing up an imaginary mountain, and I keep saying—wow—over and over again. I don’t know what else to say. You don’t have to say everything at once, my mother tells me, but I want to write this in incoherence. What, then, happens? What do the dead have to do with the trees wherein I imagined Karen Dalton’s voice? What does a coffee shop called Molasses have to do with my father? Where is my dead dog: in the swimming pool in the stranger’s backyard? Can Anne be one of Karen Dalton’ grandchildren, and can our dead friend be one too? What does Will’s father think of mine? Are they together, laughing, holding up masks of themselves as young girls, dancing in the sunlight? It’s wonderful to be a voice in the leaves. In the lush green trees.

AM Ringwalt is a writer and musician. The recipient of the 2019 Sparks Prize as a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s MFA in Poetry, her words most recently appeared or are forthcoming in the Bennington Review, Entropy, Interim and the Kenyon Review. Her manuscript What Floods was a finalist for Essay Press’ 2018 book prize and was long-listed for Tarpaulin Sky’s 2019 book prize. She has taught creative writing at the University of Notre Dame and Interlochen Arts Camp, and has performed her music at the Watermill Center and the New Yorker Festival.