Racking Focus by Adam Rodenberger

     When the same bad news travels to the same place three times, a man should sit up and take note, which is exactly what I did when her shadow darkened my doorway. I was on my way out of the office, having spent the majority of my afternoon tossing tiny balled up bits of post-it notes into the trash can across the room, each of them containing bad information leading to dead end after dead end on another case I had caught the weekend before. The corner of my office looked as if it were covered in a neon snowfall. 

     Ready to leave, my coat on halfway and my gun tucked away in the shoulder holster, I heard her throat clear from the hallway. It was a dainty sound, delicate like proper manners and thin porcelain. I paused and leaned around the door to get a better look. She was in her late forties, maybe early fifties (though I wouldn’t have said the latter out loud). She wore a white sweatshirt with a picture of two children screen-printed across the front, well-worn mom jeans and bright white sneakers bought from the bargain bin. Not really my type, but I couldn’t help giving her the once over twice anyway. Sue me; they can’t all be young damsels in tight fitting skirts. 

     “Ma’am,” I said, nodding and shrugging my coat up over my shoulders. 

     “Are you Mr. Donovan?” 

     I shook my head. “Mr. Donovan was my grandfather. Richard is fine. As is Rick, if you’d prefer that.”

     She stepped into the office, blocking my exit, and began digging into a cheap brown purse hung loose around her wrist. “I need to show you this,” she mumbled over the noise of the purse’s contents being jostled around. 

     I narrowed my eyes and sighed. I slipped off my coat and tossed it onto the back of my chair, motioning for her to sit across from my desk. The desktop itself was cluttered with paper clips bent out of shape, pens that barely worked, and a filing system that really wasn’t much of a system at all, even to me. It would be a stretch to call it organized chaos in the least of ways. 

     She didn’t bother taking the chair, so I remained standing too. Her arm shot out across the desk, a handful of pictures wavering between her fingers. A few polaroids, but mostly printouts of some of the new digital styles you could print up at nearly every pharmacy or on a good printer these days. Good quality, but I preferred to have those emailed directly so I could examine them better on my software. I took the pictures from her hand and shuffled through them, seeing no real clear pattern or repeating faces. Was I being played? I held the photos up and stared back at her with my eyebrows raised, hoping the issue wasn’t what I thought it was. 

     “You don’t see it?” she asked. 

     I spread the photos out across the messy desktop and viewed them all at once.

     Picture 1, digital printout: two silhouettes, a boy and a man, facing the ocean. I assumed them to be father and son, but they could’ve easily been uncle and nephew or completely unrelated. The man is leaning down towards the boy, hands out, helping him fly a kite as they stand on a beach. The sun is on its way to setting, an explosive orange that riddles the sky with color so deep you can taste it. Back and to the left, right where the tide touched the shore, a shimmery gray figure. 

     Picture 2, faded yellow Polaroid: a lone man sits on the steps of a porch. Both the house and the porch were once painted white, but the paint is flecked and peeling everywhere, the structure of both crumbling under the weight of time. The man rests his head on the arms that rest on his knees. If I were the type to get sad, this picture would probably do it. There is something in his pose - a kind of resignation - that I sympathize with. It’s a good picture and it’s surprising in its candidness. Hardly noticeable, between the trees on the side of the house stood a shimmery gray figure. 

     Picture 3, faded yellow Polaroid: a girl, a toddler, sitting in a high chair with cake smeared across her gleeful face. It strikes me as odd that the other chairs surrounding the table are empty. Off in the dark background to the left, a shimmery gray figure sits on a couch and seems to stare out a window into the dusky evening. 

     Picture 4, faded black and white: a wedding, outdoor locale. I didn’t recognize it at first, but something about it felt like a foreign place to me. The bride and groom, both fairly attractive with dark olive-colored complexions dance alone on a cemented area. Neither is smiling. Dim lights hang around the edge of the cement. Beyond that, tables full of wedding revelers look on in rapt silence. Near a speaker in the background, the same shimmery gray figure…

     I didn’t bother looking at the other pictures splayed out across the desktop. I knew what I’d find in each one and I hated it. Had I not tasted blood in my mouth, I wouldn’t have even realized I was chewing the inside of my cheek, a bad habit I’d picked up from a lover long ago. The woman hovered silently, waiting for my reaction. I sighed and shrugged, looked back up to meet her eyes. “The blurs,” I muttered. 

     She nodded and came around to my side of the desk, a thing I didn’t normally allow unless I was being paid in sexual favors and that hadn’t happened in awhile, nor was I about to allow it now. Her hip bumped into my chair, moving me slightly to the left as she let her purse drop to my desk. With a single, semi-wrinkled finger, she pointed at spots in every photo. I had seen them, but wanted to avoid their appearance like an ex-girlfriend at a dinner party. I knew I’d have to engage them at some point, but the longer I could put it off, the happier I’d be. 

*



     I should back up a little. The first time this was brought to my attention, I thought the woman was taking me for a ride, having a go at me. Just a bored housewife in need of distraction from her daily duties while her bread-winning husband worked early hours until late in the night. This isn’t really an uncommon occurrence in my line of work as sometimes the husband (and it’s almost always the husband, let’s be clear) was actually off putting his baby-maker in some new intern at the office or at some hotel on the outskirts of town. We men…we’re often easily distracted by shiny things that find themselves in our line of sight. We’re simple in that way. It will always be our downfall.

     It was a Tuesday and, like now, I was shown pictures and had the blurry images pointed out to me. I was dubious, the way you get when hearing the phrase “non-alcoholic beer” or “charm offensive.” It didn’t compute and her demeanor didn’t help. She was frazzled, her hair a mess and her outfit seemed slapdash, thrown on in the dark and left to chance. But I hadn’t had work in some time, so I took the case and 33% down payment for a week’s worth of work. I had no illusions of actually solving the case, and I said as much, but she was thankful for me taking her seriously. I hadn’t, but I’d let her think so. Sometimes you just have to say what they want to hear to get them to go away. It’s an asshole thing to say, but I don’t make the rules.

     By Thursday I’d made no real headway. I was able to track down the locations of a few of the pictures, but the people I’d left messages for (some of whom were in the pictures) either couldn’t remember the moments or weren’t getting back to me. I blamed wrong numbers or old email accounts, but really, I was going about it all pretty half-hearted, mostly just to pass the time until another case worth taking came my way.

     That afternoon, I sat at my desk pounding my chest, regretting the decision to eat two-day old Chinese from the joint across the street. They never warn you that the stuff gets spicier the longer it sits and here I was, wishing for a glass of milk to kill the burn. I reclined in my chair after the meal, hoping a nap might alleviate things. No idea how long I’d been out before the knock on the door startled me awake. I stood up, yawned, and opened the door. Another woman with a handful of photographs and the same problem; fuzzy figures finding their way into random photos. Once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence and I have come to loathe coincidence over the years.

     She explained the problem, having randomly gone through her family’s photo albums one afternoon after her father passed two weeks previous (I told her I was sorry for her loss, as one does and one tends to actually be). Like previous, I kept the photos for reference and promised to return them when the investigation was over. Another down payment and I was able to keep the lights and heat on for a little while longer. She thanked me and left.

     I broke out my white board and taped the pictures from both women up in their own separate areas. My white board had seen less action in the last few months than I had and I was thankful to put it back to use as it made a better organizational tool than a dart board. Woman A on the left, Woman B on the right. Both widows within the last several years, but neither seemed to fall into the “black” variety of widow. Couldn’t feel out a vindictive or sociopathic bone in either of their bodies.

     I taped the images up and made copious notes about theories and possibilities around them. The shimmery shadow kept showing up in other people’s pictures, this dark shadow of a figure off in the distance behind honeymooners and families on vacation, a soul caught in the background of every photograph I came across. No matter the locale or the era, whether in color or black and white, each photo I examined contained this fuzzy image somewhere in between the edges.

     At the bottom of the board, I tried to poke holes in my own ideas before turning back to the pictures. I threw both women out of my mind for awhile, tried working from a point of zero connection between the two and got nowhere. At first I thought I had stumbled across some kind of post-production trick, but couldn’t suss out the reason to play it on me. They’d be paying me to chase my own tail for awhile, which didn’t make any sense.

     I was completely scramble-brained by the time I realized the moon had been out for a few hours. I went down to the bar in the basement level of my building. I needed to move my legs, get some air in me, bounce an idea or two off some unsuspecting drunk. You’d be surprised how helpful the loose mind can be in the moment you need it to be. More than a few of my cases have caught good breaks because I chatted up the drunk who loved to talk more than they liked to drink or did both in equal amounts.

     “Hey, Donny,” she purred, leaning over the bar towards me. “Usual?”

     “Usual. Thanks, Marcy.”

     Don’t get me wrong, I like Marcy. I think she’s a great bartender and she’s listened to more of my nonsense than even I can believe, but…it ain’t gonna happen. She’s about a decade older than I am, but looks twice that, which itself makes her gaudy makeup jobs that much more stark and confusing. I keep trying to suggest the philosophy of ‘less is more’ in every conversation, hoping the idea worms its way inside her subconscious, but it’s obviously not sticking. The makeup is clownish, but if I ever heard another man vocalize it that way, I’d have him eating concrete in seconds. Loyalty still holds serious sway with me.

     The bar was pretty empty, even for eleven on a Thursday night. There was Marcy of course, a few straggling regulars I’d seen a few times over the last month, and a single woman at the bar not far from me. She wore a conservative-fit blue dress and sat cross-legged on a bar stool. Totally classing up the place, and knew it too, but she wasn’t standoffish. She stared at something behind the bar and I turned to see Marci bringing my drink down the bar well.

     The woman turned her head and watched with furrowed brow as the steam from my drink floated up and dissipated. Marcy set the cup and saucer down and the woman’s head cocked sideways in confusion. “Who orders tea…at a bar?” she asked. I could hear the humor in the question and relaxed a little, dunking the tea bag over and over into the water.

     “Name’s Donovan,” I said, waving two fingers at her. “And I don’t drink.”

     Marcy walked away, shaking her head.

     “Alcoholic?”

     “Never took to the taste, but I like plenty of people who do drink, so that’s something.”

     She laughed. “Yes, that’s something all right.”

     The stone on her ring sparkled in the bar-light as bright as her smile. Damn. Sometimes a good workout can break the creative block. Guess I’d just have to settle for pillow-talk tonight. “I guess you didn’t opt for tea this evening?” I asked, nodding at her martini glass. “Best tea in town, without question.”

     “That good?”

     “You’re missing out.” I took a sip to accentuate the point and burned my tongue, accidentally dribbled some of the tea all over my shirt. The woman covered her face with both hands and shook with laughter. I heard Marcy cackle from down at the other end of the bar. All I could do was shrug and give a sheepish grin. “You know, when it’s cooled down of course.”

     “But of course,” the woman laughed as she leaned over the bar like a pro. She grabbed some napkins and shuffled over to me before I could wave her off. I could feel her hands on my chest, patting the wet spots, drying them as best as possible. This close, she smelled like martini, but then her perfume arrived and I got lost in the moment like some dumb high school kid. My brain went to mush, I started thinking in bad poetry, rhyming couplets of tongue-tied nonsense. I didn’t even want to try to speak with her this close.

     “Does it burn? Are you burned?” she asked, snapping me out of my slowed state of mind as she continued to rub the napkins on me.

     “Uh. N-no. No, it doesn’t burn, thank you,” I replied, trying to take the napkins from her to clean up my own mess. She kept on until she was satisfied and tossed the balled up mess into the trash can in the corner.

     She took a seat back on her stool and looked at me, breaking out into laughter again. She looked familiar, like someone I’d known back during my younger days. Couldn’t place her though. Maybe she just reminded me of someone. Totally possible since I’d known a lot of brunettes. When she was close I thought I smelled something familiar, a memory I couldn’t rid myself of as much as I may have wanted to. The scent still tickled my nose, tickled my brain in the nicest of ways.

     “I’m Jamie,” she said, a smile spreading across her face.

     “Nice to meet you, Jamie. Sorry you’ve got to see me in this state. I don’t normally dribble tea all over myself.”

     “In a bar? Shocking.”

     Her smile hit me with so much weight I could feel my stomach tighten, felt myself forget how to breathe. Was I sweating or was it just the remnant moisture clinging to my shirt? I couldn’t tell, but it was dark, so maybe she couldn’t either and that was all to the good. Dumbfounded by a woman’s light like so many other rubes I’d come across over the years; guess I wasn’t as impervious as I once thought. Later, I’d blame it all on the dim light and my exhaustion from working all day.

     Her fingernail tapped the rim of her empty rocks glass as she glanced down the bar at Marcy and then leaned over to me conspiratorially. “Say…you know the bartender, right?”

     I nodded.

     “I’ve been trying to get a refill on my drink for awhile now. Could I trouble you to…?

     I waved her off. “Not a problem. What are you having?” I asked, gesturing towards her glass.

     “Bourbon. Neat. Three fingers.”

     Now, if I’d been a drinking man, I may have just found that elusive perfect woman every other average joe dreams about when he’s laying next to his old lady at night. Perfect curves like country highways built for fast cars and faster women, dark hair, a brainy, straight-up-with-no-bullshit kind of broad, and a smile that would linger in my memories well into old age. If nothing else, I could appreciate the moment for what it was and not what it might lead to if I were to play my hand right. I waved Marcy down and watched her jiggly mass shuffle down the bar alley, a wary look on her face.

     “Marcy, could I buy the lady a drink? It seems she’s run out and she’d like another bourbon. About,” I started, pinching my fingers together and then spreading them out, “three fingers tall?”

     Marcy glanced at me and then over to the woman, then back to me. “Lady?”

     I nodded. “Please?”

     She clucked her tongue and agreed, shuffling back down the bar to pour the drink.

     “Thank you,” the woman whispered in my direction, placing money out on the counter.

     I waved her off again. “Keep your money. I’ve got this round as long as you promise to get me for a tea next time.”

     “Thank you again,” she said, putting her money away. “I have to use the lady’s. Mind keeping an eye on my seat?” I told her I didn’t mind at all as she scooted off the chair and strolled to the bathroom. And I didn’t mind, which was weird for me. I’m not one for reliance. I don’t like relying on other people for much. Most can’t be trusted while others just end up sucking the life out of you. My father used to say: “If you can’t do it on your own, it ain’t worth doin.”

     Marcy arrived with the glass and placed it next to me at the bar. I slid it a seat farther down and thanked her.

     “Donny, you mind I ask you something?”

     “Sure, anything.”

     She rested a meaty arm on the bar and leaned towards me. “You okay? I mean, honest to God okay?”

     I thought about it for a minute, wondered how much I wanted to divulge tonight and how much time I had to do it in before the woman came back from the bathroom. Small window. “I’m fine. Just a long day of hustling is all.”

     She nodded, disbelieving. I could see it in the way her wrinkles seemed to frown. “It’s just that you’ve been down here talkin’ to yourself since you got here and, well, to be honest, you ordering booze is pretty weird too.”

     What?

     “I’m not sure I follow, Marcy. There’s been a woman here sitting beside me. We’ve been talking. I spilled tea on myself trying to impress her for whatever reason. She’s just gone to the women’s room.”

     I don’t know how to describe the look in Marcy’s eyes when I said this. It was worse than pity, worse than fear. It was like she was looking at the remnant of someone she once knew, a wraith of a person left sitting at her bar in some sad-sack state of affairs. I was the deflated version of a human man, all emptied out of air and sense. One could argue that most of us already were anyway.

     “Honey, ain’t no woman been at the bar all night, much less inside it. Jake and Darryl been playing pool since about an hour before you came. Otherwise, nothing. You were talking to yourself. Having a real serious conversation by the looks of it.”

     This made zero sense. I could feel my body heating up, probably from embarrassment. If she was wrong, the woman would emerge from the bathroom sooner than later. If she was right, then it wouldn’t do me any good to sit here any longer. I must’ve gone pale because soon Marcy was sliding a glass of water across the bar to me. I wanted to pick it up, fight the dry-mouth that was permeating itself across my tongue, but left it alone for fear of shaky hands.

     I pushed myself off the stool and hurried to the women’s restroom. It was dark, so naturally I flipped on the light and the smell of fresh cleaning supplies still lingering in the air hit me. I ran my fingers along the sink – dry - and the toilets unflushed from an earlier scrubbing.

     I ran out of the bar as Marcy yelled out after me. If you’d asked, I wouldn’t have been able to recall what she was saying. Not a word. I could feel my heart beating through my eardrums, muffling the sounds of the radio system already turned down low. The sound of pool cues breaking across the table came as if through thick walls of cottony gauze. The distance to the front door felt as far as heaven, and when I finally stepped out into the night air, I gasped for breath like I’d just been saved from drowning.

     I ran up the steps of my building, locked the office door behind me and then slumped to the floor. I stared at my hands, shaking of their own volition and wondered what the hell was going on with me?

     I woke up in the same slumped position against the door. Weary from the day before, I didn’t remember passing out, but I was in the same tea-stained dress shirt and slacks. The sun barreled through the slats of the blinds and illuminated the floor in bright mirror-ball reflections. The white board stood off to my left, remained slathered in pictures. I stood up, brushed off my pants and grabbed a bottle of water from the mini-fridge. Chugging it down, I made my way over to the board and stared at the snapshots again hoping the new day would bring some kind of revelation.

     Was there a pattern I was missing? The locales were all different. There was no rhyme or reason to the seasons in the photos; they were all different too. No pattern to the weather depicted, no noticeable link to the subjects of all the photos. I was baffled; stuck in a mental trap I couldn’t crawl my way out of…

     A knocking shattered my train of thought. I couldn’t deal with a visitor now, absolutely not. Within the space of a moment, I realized that there was a chance I was imagining the knocking, that when I opened the door I’d be imagining the person standing there. None of it would be real and I wouldn’t know how to tell. I wondered how much time I’d spent running cases that my subconscious had conjured up on my behalf, how much actual time I’d wasted chasing myself through dirty alleyways and having conversations over greasy dim sum tables. Maybe this was why my funds were all but diminished.

     The knock came again and I couldn’t resist it. Too loud, too…everything to ignore.

     The knob twisted and a head poked in. “Donny?” a voice seemed to bellow.

     Chris, my brother-in-law. Or had been at one point. “Hey, Chris,” I muttered, waving him in before taking a seat behind my desk.

     Held before him in both hands was a banker’s box. Simple cardboard thing, the kind of box you use to file papers or trinkets, mementos of things you shove up in the attic and forget about until that nostalgia hits you on a Friday night after a bottle of wine in an empty house. I was immediately uncomfortable.

     “So, hey, I know it’s been awhile. I haven’t checked up on you the way I said I would. I’m sorry about that.”

     It wasn’t so much the sentiment as it was the way he said it that made me want to slap some masculinity back into him. He wore his feelings in every facial pore. Great guy for poker games (if you wanted an easy read across the table), but he just seemed to ooze a kind of shameless lack of emotional reserve. “It’s all right,” I said. “Time passes, lives get lived, people adapt to change.”

     His fingers couldn’t stay still, silently drumming along the sides and top of the box. I pointed. “What have you got there that’s got you so jumpy?”

     The ways his eyes widened, you’d think he’d just been given an electric shock.

     “Jumpy, me? No. Definitely not jumpy,” he sputtered. “It’s just that Belinda is in the car and she’s in kind of a hurry. Which is actually why I’m here. We’ve been cleaning out the house, we’re selling it and moving. To Poughkeepsie.”

     I snorted. I tried like hell not to, but Poughkeepsie was like any other town with a funny name to me. Sheboygan. Kenosha. Milwaukee. Oshkosh…they all made me think of vanishing towns that only sprang to life when strangers drove through. Towns adept at creating town-like facades for those that passed by at thirty-five miles an hour. Chris appeared less amused than myself.

     “Anyway, we were cleaning out the attic. Found this box of some of Natalie’s stuff. We worried that some of it may have taken on some water damage or gotten moldy from the storms earlier this year, but Belinda thought you might want to sort through it before tossing anything out. So…yeah.” He lifted the box up off his lap and held it out towards me. I leaned forward and began cleaning off some of my desk so he could leave it there and then leave me alone.

     We both stood up and looked at each other. He sat the box down on my desktop and stuck out his hand, stiff and tin soldier-like. I didn’t really dislike the guy, we just never had anything to talk about when Natalie and I came around. I shook his hand and like that, my office was empty again, the door shutting quickly behind him.

     I took the lid off the box, sitting at the intersection of casual curiosity and burning need. Even through the top layer of ribbons and postcards and strange womanish tokens of an earlier life, I could see that the bulk of the box was a stack of loose photos. I saw no mold on anything and every object still seemed to be in nearly pristine shape even after all these years. But the photos…I could see immediately why he and Belinda thought the box had gone moldy. Anyone would’ve made the same mistake had they not known.

     I reached down and grabbed a stack of them, dropping them to the desk with a thud and spreading them out loosely. Every picture of us, of me and Natalie or either of us by ourselves, no matter the pose, no matter the weather or locale, a shadowy grey figure had inserted itself in every background.

     I realized then how long it’d been since I’d actively thought about our time together as husband and wife. It would be short-lived and we both knew it as she was sick when we married, but I didn’t care. I hadn’t fallen for anyone like I had for her. Straight goo-goo eyes with the cartoon hearts bursting out of them every time I saw her. Couldn’t help it. But that had been a few years back now and I had distanced myself from her family. I just couldn’t justify spending holidays around them after she passed. All the same questions about how I was doing or holding up, was I seeing anyone new, did I need anything, yada yada yada.

     I rummaged through the pile and found another picture of her at our engagement party before she got real sick and became bed-ridden. She was wearing the same conservative-fit blue dress, same sparkly ring on her finger (I splurged), same perfect curves like country highways built for fast cars and faster women. But I guess I had somehow forgotten her smile and that killed a little part of me. I had conjured up a conversation with my dead wife in the bar downstairs and that was unsettling. But in the background of that photo? You guessed it; a shimmery gray figure damn near outlining Natalie from behind.

     Now we had a pattern to work with. What that pattern was, however, I didn’t exactly know, but like any good private dick, I had a hunch and started making a list of questions to ask my previous two clients. With any luck, I’d have an answer by nightfall. And maybe, just maybe, I’d end up keeping conversations with imaginary people to a minimum.

*


     “What are they?” she asked. “It looks like you know what they are.”

     I nodded and ran my hand across the stubble on my cheek. “I don’t really know how best to explain it without making myself sound crazy,” I said. And I meant it. If I’d said this to anyone outside the situation, I would’ve been locked up and left to talk to padded walls, which I had no desire to do. Though I had a feeling Marcy the bartender was already inches away from making that call on my behalf.

     I gathered up the photos from the desk and handed them back to her. I couldn’t tell if her hands were trembling or mine. I don’t think she could tell either and I saw her body stiffen, like she’d allowed a little bit of terror to take over. I swiveled in my chair and faced her. “Here’s the thing…” I started, motioning for her to sit in the chair beside my desk. She kept the photos in her hand as she sat slowly, still clutching her purse.

     I told her about the two women who’d come in before her with the same problem, the same questions, the same worried expressions. I told her about the woman (my wife) in the bar, I told her as much as I could without getting too tangential as good stories have the potential to do. I had her complete attention and I could’ve lied to her. I could’ve spun a yarn so illogical that she would’ve bought it without question. Conversely, I could’ve told her it was simply a flaw in the camera or the film or something and leave it at that. She would leave unsatisfied and her story without an end. Seemed a cruel thing to do knowing what I knew.

     “On a whim, I got in touch with a buddy of mine at my old precinct. Turns out they’ve had a rash of these kinds of…stories…popping up over the last few months. That fuzzed out grey image is a thing they don’t really like to deal with. Or have the capacity to deal with, honestly. They’ll send that kind of case my way to avoid the paperwork and the headache. It’s hard for them to explain to the public.”

     She scooted closer. I could smell the unnamed perfume on her. Tart, strong. Completely out of character for her. She’d obviously worn it just for her meeting with me. Unfortunately, I would, years later, associate that perfume stink to this case and to my memories of Natalie. All would be tangled up in each other so intricately I’d never be able to separate them from each other. I would become bitter in my old age because of it.

     “Before I continue, I have to ask a couple questions.”

     She nodded wordlessly and I pulled a notepad out of my desk. It was already covered in questions and scribbled answers from the previous two clients. Despite being complete strangers to each other, most of their answers had been the same, so…I had a feeling this woman would answer accordingly.

     “Are you married?”

     “I was at one point.”

     “Divorced?”

     “Widowed.”

     Check.

     “And when did your spouse pass?” Though this was only the third time I’d asked it, I hated the question. I knew the kind of feelings it would stir up, the kind of emotional crap we try to suppress whenever possible. That kind of pain is forever, even though it diminishes or flat out hides over time.

     “2007. So, almost eight years ago now.”

     Hm. A lesbian. Hadn’t expected that. Check.

     “How often would you say you think about her?”

     The woman slumped back into the chair and stopped white-knuckling her purse. “Well gosh, I’d say most of the time? My house is filled with things we either bought together or made together. I never had the heart to change anything once she died. Sometimes the remembering is nice, you know?”

     I nodded and smiled. “I do.”

     Check.

     “Last question: do you believe in an afterlife? Doesn’t matter the specifics of what you believe, just that you believe in some kind of existence after this one.”

     She sighed and looked out the window. “I want to, but it’s a big idea. On the one hand, I hope there is. Maybe then I’d get to see Veronica again. That’d be nice. On the other hand, it’s not hard to believe that we just go to sleep forever, that this life is just a small jolt of electricity that’s awakened us for a finite amount of time and once we run out of juice, that’s it. Just toys in God’s playroom.”

     Damn. Lady was dropping some serious knowledge bombs in my direction and I almost lost my focus. Check.

     She swatted the air. “Sorry. That may have been more than you wanted.”

     I don’t know why I did it, but I reached out and put my hand on her knee, hoping to comfort her. “It’s okay. Really. One last question. It’s kind of strange.”

     “Go ahead.”

     “If I told you that you were being benevolently haunted by your wife through the photography in your home, would you believe that?”

     She chewed her lip. Whether from the lip-chewing or the possible truth of the question, her eyes watered up. “Maybe?”

     Close enough. Check.

     I let the room stay silent for a moment while she processed the idea. She’d start to say something, then stop and stare back out the window, make to speak again, stop again. It was a heavy thing to come to terms with. Luckily I was able to handle the other clients over the phone. Made it easier for me, but not for them. Hell, it took me a couple days on my own to come to grips with the reality of it.

     But in talking to the other widows, it became less muddy. The more they thought about their dead spouses, the more pictures they found with shimmery figures. Like their grief was manifesting itself into a kind of ethereal tether keeping the fallen from moving on. How much of a logical leap was it to think the figures in the pictures were a way to communicate to the living? Blighting the images, ruining them in the hopes of breaking that tether and forcing their living spouses to move on? A wisp of a life once lived still dancing in the winds of time, trying to say hello and goodbye at the same time.

     The woman stood up, clutching her purse in one hand and sticking the other out. I stood and shook her hand, pulled her into an embrace that didn’t normally come naturally to me, and she left my office without saying a word.

     I closed up shop early that night. I’d had enough and thought I’d go downstairs and try to chat up Marcy, confirm to her that I wasn’t losing my mind even though that might have very well been the case. Only the delusional try to convince you that they aren’t.

     It was the tail-end of happy hour and the bar was empty yet again. I wondered how much business they actually got that allowed them to stay open. I’m sure people wondered the same about me as I sat down at my usual place. Marcy saw me and didn’t hurry to come say hey. Guess I had sufficiently weirded her out the other night. Understandable.

     “Donny,” she said, nodding.

     “Marcy.”

     “Usual?”

     “Yes ma’am,” I replied, managing a smile.

     Marcy looked at me and then gave a sideways glance to the other side of the bar. “Your lady friend here tonight?”

     I turned to look and sure enough, there she was, stunning in that blue dress again, tapping her fingers on an empty rocks glass.

     “No ma’am. Doesn’t appear to be anyone here but you and me right now.”

     “Atta boy,” she said as she turned and made her way down the bar alley.

     I looked back at Natalie (no longer ‘Jamie’) and winked. She smiled back. Marcy arrived with the tea and I dunked the bag two or three times, looked back over and Natalie had disappeared.






About the Author: Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger is a 36 year old writer from Kansas City.

He has been published in Agua Magazine, Alors, Et Tois?, Aphelion, Bluestem Magazine, BrainBox Magazine, Cause & Effect Magazine, Cahoodaloodaling, Crack the Spine, Eunoia Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Glint Literary Journal, The Gloom Cupboard, L’allures des Mots, Lunch Box, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, Offbeatpulp, Penduline Press, Phoebe, The Santa Clara Review, Serving House Journal, Sheepshead Review, Slice Magazine, Up The Staircase, Fox Spirit's "Girl at the End of the World: Book 1" anthology, and has been shortlisted for the Almond Press “Broken Worlds” fiction contest.

He blogs at http://triphoprisy.blogspot.com