Introduction by Rachel Yoder
As a writer, and as a reader, I am always looking for better stories. Mothers who desire deeply and messily. Wives who make me feel ways I can’t yet name. Most of all, I want to read female characters who exist counter to the scripts we’ve been given about how women should be. I am looking for sentences that chisel away, word by word, at the concepts of Woman as Property, Woman as Pristine Art Object, Woman as Untouchable Saint, Woman as Copulation Device.
The stories in Shit Cassandra Saw take me, word by word and line by line, into stories that undo how a woman should be and instead articulate how women are, in all their greedy, horny, callous, messy, exuberant glory. In this wonderfully inventive and funny debut, Gwen Kirby plays to great effect and great delight in the face of history, of patriarchy, of propriety, of all those Daunting Entrenched Powers That Can Seem Impossible to Ever Overcome.
Her titular story, fully entitled “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway,” is already a triumph with the title alone, but it then goes on to frame the mythic Cassandra, in the moments before her capture and rape (both of which she foresees with her prophetic power), as a world-weary, relatable Cassandra, a woman who any of us could be in the boardroom or kitchen, in Congress or on the Internet, a woman “tired of speaking to listening ears. The listening ears of men who think her mad drive her to madness. She wishes she could move far away to an island and own a bird.”
“Here Preached His Last” features a middle-aged narrator caught up in a loveless affair, who finds she is “doing a bad thing for no other reason than it feels good.” Thank you. I’m interested in hearing more. This story asks, with psychological seriousness as well as a deep commitment to play (see: the ghost preacher that haunts the narrator as she bangs and drinks), what if a woman is bad and, even more, doesn’t care that she’s bad? What then? “I’m here, a body, just a body, and it’s not promised to anyone, it’s mine, only mine…” Kirby’s narrator says at the end of the story. No regret. No shame. Here, a better story.
– Rachel Yoder
Author of Nightbitch
My Slut-Shaming Ghost Can Go to Hell
Here Preached His Last by Gwen E. Kirby
The first time I see the ghost of George Whitefield, I’m fucking my neighbor Karl. We’re going at it with more enthusiasm than finesse, the way you do when things are new. I lift my head, I’m going to kiss or perhaps bite Karl’s neck, and that’s when I see him: George, sitting at the end of the bed in knickers, vest, and long coat, hair tied back in a cue. Whore, the ghost whispers, and damn, he knows what gets me off. Whore whore whore. I come so hard I get a foot cramp and Karl says fuck yeah. He can’t see George. Karl lacks imagination. It’s one of his best qualities.
I’ve never seen a ghost before, but then I’ve never had an affair before either. Karl and I have known each other for a few years— I teach English at the Academy, he teaches physics. Karl’s handsome of course and we’d drunkenly made out once, ages ago, after a faculty party, stupid and sloppy like the teenagers we teach. Neither of us ever brought it up again. When we finally have sex, it’s because I ask him to come up to my apartment. I’m going to lend him a book. I stand by the bookshelf, he stands by the bed, and then I move to him and we’re on each other. Now, Karl is lying on my breast, breathing hard, while George Whitefield looks slightly up and away from our tangle, reminding us that though we’ve forgotten our modesty, he has not. Outside, the academy kids are hurrying down the sidewalks to their dorms, hunched into the cold wind. I run a finger down Karl’s belly. I’m less lonely than I’ve been in a long time, warm inside with a lover, a ghost, and a secret to keep me company. And I don’t mean the affair, though that’s a secret too. No, the secret I’ve just learned is that I can fuck without caring for the other person at all.
The fucking seems momentous, the beginning of an adventure, and at first I’m in a bit of a fog: horny, guilty, and proud. Whore, George says every day when I leave and again when I come home. He’s perched atop his stone marker in the strip of grass between the road and the sidewalk outside my house. It reads: George Whitefield Here Preached His Last Sermon, September 29, 1770. Moss grows in the letters and the snow almost buries it. I like to blow George a kiss, which makes him scowl. For a few glorious months, I feel like I’m getting away with something, fucking Karl and still living my boring life. Do you have to call it fucking? Karl will sometimes ask and I say, Isn’t the fact that it’s fucking what makes it fun? Sometimes he laughs. Every so often, though, he rolls his eyes and looks away instead, like I’ve hurt his feelings, and I have to coax him into feeling better, which I hate. Are you okay? What’s wrong? Karl says nothing’s wrong, but do I have to be so crass?
Karl, I think, doesn’t like to be reminded that we’re doing a bad thing for no other reason than it feels good.
“I’m sorry,” I say to him even though I’m not, and before he distracts me with a kiss, I wonder why I’m risking so much just to have another person to apologize to.
When I’m not teaching, coaching the varsity soccer team, or having an affair, I am busy worrying about my daughter Emmy. She is six, and so happy I think it can only be a bad sign. She loves pink and princesses, which I was prepared for, but she also makes friends easily and never seems to bully or be bullied. I don’t see myself in her, which is good, but now I fear that a happy, well-adjusted child will be even more wounded by the world than an anxious, angry child with a large gap between her two front teeth. My daughter does not know what it is to hesitate. When she comes home from school, she throws herself into my arms. When she gets out of the car in the morning, she throws herself into the playground, scattering her classmates like crows. At swimming lessons, she doesn’t notice that the water is different than the air— she leaps. My husband tells me that I am literally making trouble out of happiness. I tell him he’s a man and doesn’t know any better and then we fight. My best friend, Suze, agrees with me, of course. She knows the world is hard for girls who haven’t learned to be cautious.
The varsity soccer team is the opposite of my daughter. They seem to do nothing but hesitate. You’re never going to win a header by asking permission, I tell them. But they refuse to attack the ball. They’d rather lose than look like they’re trying to win. It’s a feeling I remember, though as a teenager I preempted failure in different ways. Baggy shirts, scuffed sneakers, thick black eyeliner, a belly-button piercing. I didn’t know if I wanted boys to look at me— men had already been looking for a while—and so I made sure if they did look they’d see a girl who didn’t give a shit. The belly-button piercing got so infected after a month that I had to tell my mother, who instead of being furious with me was just exasperated. Ten days of antibiotics and a scar that, when I was pregnant with Emmy, stretched in an angry twist away from my navel. I liked to trace it with my finger and wonder what scars my baby would get someday. Ones, I hoped, with better stories behind them.
I yell at the girls on the field that they better start hustling or we’ll be doing extra sprints at the end of practice. I loved playing soccer in high school, running until I was about to collapse, letting the work of it hollow me out.
“Shoot the ball!” I yell as the center forward passes to her teammate even with a clear shot on the open net. The center forward kicks the grass with her cleat and looks at her watch. We’re running over, she’s telling me.
Practice goes long. Then I meet with three students about their papers. Then I answer a series of emails all from the same parent. Emmy and I eat macaroni and cheese with chopped up hotdog. Emmy takes forever to go to sleep, excited that tomorrow her class gets to visit Mr. Lettuce, the school guinea pig. I get in bed beside her and read her favorite book, about a little girl mouse who writes all her wishes on pieces of paper and plants them in the garden. When the little girl mouse wakes up the next day, the garden is bursting with strange plants: polka dot flowers, a tree that reaches to the clouds, a fly trap so big it could eat little girl mouse in one bite. Noomf! I say, and my hand bites Emmy’s arm. One day, the little girl mouse plants a wish for a best friend and the next morning she finds an egg. When she breaks it open, a bright red bird cries out and flies away, to the top of a hill, then a mountain. The little girl mouse plants wishes on her journey, so that when she finds the bird, they can both go home. I read the book to Emmy twice before she admits that she’s sleepy. Before she drifts off she asks if tomorrow we can plant some of her wishes.
My husband is not here to help with this. He’s gone a lot, helping companies whose workflows aren’t flowing. Right now he’s in Japan. At least I have George, who sits with me in the kitchen. He’s decent company. A little doom and gloom, but he likes to laugh.
“We’re going to get creamed by Valley City High on Saturday,” I tell George. I pour a glass of wine and pull out a stack of papers to grade, the gesture entirely symbolic. I take a deep drink.
You are an adulteress who is destined for hellfire, George responds. But fear not. I reside in heaven and, for all its beauties, its holy ecstasies, it is not everything which man has promised.
“Is that right?” I ask. He laughs and laughs.
No, he says. Do not be absurd. And Hell is not the way you imagine it. The ways of Satan are more subtle, more inventive.
“Really?” I ask.
No. He does not laugh. There is no need for subtlety. Only foolish sinners like you imagine there is some thing worse than pain.
I pour myself another glass of wine.
“It’s a big game,” I say. “We need to win it if we want a chance at the playoffs.”
George doesn’t respond. He seems to have lost steam and reverts to the tried and true. Whore whore whore, he whispers, and I keep drinking, more than I should on a Wednesday night, or any night, and eventually he switches to glutton glutton glutton.
Next afternoon, I’m in a hurry, late to get Emmy from afterschool care. Spring is mud season in New Hampshire, and I pick my away across campus, avoiding the puddles that have formed in the sidewalk’s depressions. It surprises me every year, how the melted snow discovers this hidden topography, everything flat revealed to be craggy. I’m almost there when I get a text from Karl. you free for a faculty meeting tonight? Karl’s wife is not in Japan and he worries a lot about his wife seeing our messages. busy with emmy, I reply, and usually I’d send a little something else, a sorry or a let’s reschedule the meeting, with an emoji that is friendly without being obviously sexual, an ear of corn or a fireman, but in the brief moment that my typing distracts me I step ankle deep into a small lake. The water is so cold I feel the bite before I realize I’m wet through my shoes and my socks. My first impulse is to swear but I laugh instead and put my phone away. I am a woman who lacks the sense to watch where she’s going. When I pick up Emmy, I tell her I’ve been playing in puddles and I offer to carry her on my back while I do it again. I tell her that since my shoes are already wet, it doesn’t matter if I get them a bit wetter, but we have to make sure her feet stay warm. We splash and splash until my jeans are soaked too and shiver our way home.
Thursday night is Spring Fling! at Emmy’s elementary school and I am in charge of making her costume. Her grade is performing “Twist and Shout” and I’ve sewn together a pink poodle skirt, the kind I would have killed for when I was six. Emmy stands on a box for fitting. The hem is crooked and the poodle’s eye is weeping with dried super glue like it’s infected.
“You look great,” I say. Emmy does a twirl. I wonder if she is too young to see the flaws. The other mothers will certainly notice. The other little girls will too.
My pocket vibrates. Karl has texted me again. we need to talk, he says.
having some thoughts on faculty meeting
I tell him I’ll see him tomorrow after his class. Emmy is twisting hard in her skirt, jumping up and down, and then she’s fallen over and she’s crying. A pin holding the hem of the skirt has stabbed her leg.
“Look, baby,” I say, and I hold up the skirt to show her the smallest dot of blood on her skin. “You’re okay.” The poodle gazes at me, sick and hateful.
My pocket vibrates again, Emmy has stopped crying and is inspecting the blood now, blotting it with the tip of her finger, about to get it on the skirt, which is the last thing that skirt needs, and I am done with Karl, I swear, I am already writing him the message that ends everything when I see that the text is from my husband instead. It’s very early in the morning, too early for him to be awake, but he can’t sleep. He says he misses me. He says the cherry blossoms will bloom soon, but he’ll be home just before they do. Figures, he texts, and adds a smiley face, as if to say, oh this wild dance we call life, what can you do, and right about now, as I try to remember if Emmy has white tights with no holes, as she yanks on the hem of the dress and I wait for the howl that says she’s stabbed herself again, I hate him.
When I get to the kitchen, George is there. My eyes are red and I’ve stabbed my own fingers on the skirt’s pins too many times to count, too many times for what is still an ugly, hopeless thing. George shakes his head and says, These are the wages of sin, and I throw my wine into his face and it passes right through him, stains my perfectly nice kitchen chair, surprises us both.
“Shit,” I say, and grab a roll of paper towels, yanking off sheets and pressing them through George’s body, and though of course we can’t touch and he tries to pretend he cannot see me (oh George, I know your looks now, how you gaze into the middle distance when you aren’t comfortable with what’s happening right before your eyes), I can sense him squirm. I slow down just a little, patting the seat dry gently and thoroughly. The wine has stained the cheap wicker. I’m kneeling in front of George, the mess absorbed into a dripping clot of paper towels. I wonder, whore that I am, if he ever had a woman on her knees in front of him. I want to ask but, I admit, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’d ask and when he said no, offer to suck his cock. I get up, throw the paper towels away, and pour myself another glass of wine. I sit primly and say, “I forgive you.”
And the best thing happens. George smiles, which I’ve never seen before. It’s short lived and after he calls me whore with such enthusiasm that I know he means it but I also know he wishes he didn’t like me.
“Have you ever been in love?” I ask, which is not the question I had wanted to ask, but maybe in George’s time love and a blowjob had been one and the same. George does not answer.
“I have,” I say, which is obvious. I’m married, aren’t I? But I think married people aren’t given enough credit for being in love. For being in love with each other— which everyone treats as a given, as mandatory, which is the hardest way to love— but also for remembering what it’s like to be in love with someone else, for knowing that every love is different and sticking with the love you have. Of course I’ve loved other men. That boy in Introduction to Astronomy who had sex with me in my dorm room— we’d been studying the names of star clusters— and then told me he had a long-distance girlfriend. A man who restored furniture and cooked elaborate meals for me. I could think of no greater sign of devotion. I moved to New Mexico with him for three months and for the last month he refused to touch me, called it a religious practice, but eventually confessed he had gotten chlamydia from another woman. Eventually my husband, who I do love, even though some days that love is hard to find.
I don’t say all of this to George. Good old George, who sits on his stone and watches the academy kids walk by, the small dogs in sweaters, the old couples who lean close but still can’t hear each other. George feels Jesus’ love for all of them, but no sympathy for me. At this point I’m a little drunk and edging dangerously close to self-pity.
It is love which brings man closest to God, George says.
“Thank you, George,” I say, and I’m so surprised by his kindness that I almost cry.
Love and sincere repentance.
“Okay, George,” I say. “I get it.”
When I get to his class, Karl is at the whiteboard, spraying then rubbing at the traces of past lessons. He looks good, better looking and a little younger than me. His wife is better looking than me too. The two of them go hiking and cross-country skiing on the weekends. Though we’ve had sex many times, I am often struck with the improbability of it. Why bother with fucking me? I shut the classroom door behind me, ready for him to break up with me, assuming he will and hoping for it. I’d break up with him but I don’t have the energy. I’m thinking about whether I put Emmy’s dance shoes in her bag for the show tonight.
“I have to tell my wife about us,” Karl says. He puts down the whiteboard eraser, runs his hand through his hair.
“What’s happened?” I ask, but I already know. “I have to tell her how I feel,” he says.
“You don’t have to do anything,” I say.
“She deserves to know.”
“We can stop seeing each other.”
“It isn’t fair to her.”
“We have to stop seeing each other.”
“I know you feel the same way I do.” Karl takes my hand in his and presses a tender kiss to my knuckles, something he has never done before. I yank my hand away. This is absurd, I want to say. We don’t feel anything. And as I clutch my hand to my chest, I imagine my mother in the audience, shaking her head at this mess, saying, sweetie, you always did make life harder for yourself.
George Whitefield sits beside her. Good madam, he says, this is why I turned away from the passions of the stage to become a preacher. Your daughter is already a fornicator and a sinner. All this pageantry will not save her immortal soul.
“She knows about us,” I say.
“No,” he says. “She suspects.”
He backs me up against the desk, angry, a little scary. I’m afraid but also turned on and confused, because I’ve never had the kind of sex we’re about to have. He lifts me up onto the desk, pulls my underwear down, and then we’re fucking and he’s not even trying to get me off. I look over his shoulder at the periodic table. Karl is a good teacher. He knows a lot about baseball and loves football but doesn’t watch anymore because he thinks it’s morally wrong. He has a scar on his arm from where a small tumor was removed and sometimes I feel an urge to touch it, as if scars are where we’re most vulnerable and not the thickened skin where we feel the least.
After he comes, he holds me, murmurs in my ear that he’s sorry, that he loves me. He’s confused me, what we just did, for someone and something else.
“I don’t love you,” I say. He flinches. “Don’t do something you can’t take back.”
“We’ve already done that,” he says.
“You don’t love me,” I say, but he insists he does. As I said, he lacks imagination, and so he imagines that love is the only excuse for what we’ve done.
Oh, Karl, I think. You’re an idiot.
I want to go home and pass out and forget that I’m a wife and a mother and a lover and a teacher but it’s Spring Fling! so I put on fresh deodorant and get my daughter into her costume. She wiggles with so much excitement while I put it on her that the zipper breaks again and Jesus fucking Christ I feel my cell phone vibrate and I bet it’s fucking Karl and I have one of those moments where I think I’m going to lose it. But I don’t lose it because I can’t. I safety pin my daughter into her skirt and say, “Hope that holds, munchkin.”
I brush her fine hair into a pony tail. Other mothers will have made better skirts and done fancier hairdos.
Other mothers aren’t fucking the science teacher either, I think, and sigh. George Whitefield leans against the wall as I work, no help at all, and when my daughter is out of the room I tell him to not even start with me. A horn honks outside and there’s Suze, who has a son in the same grade. We choose seats in the back of the auditorium like delinquents and watch the kids perform. My daughter’s poodle skirt stays on and she’s front and center and happy to be there. Suze’s son is in the back row of kids and his hair is gelled into a helmet. He doesn’t twist much but boy, oh, boy the kid can shout.
Suze knows about Karl but not about the ghost of George Whitefield.
After the show, while the teachers are talking to their classes, I show Suze Karl’s latest texts:
still thinking about what happened
don’t think you meant to be hurtful
i have to do what i think is right
Suze has never approved of me fucking Karl, but she doesn’t say I told you so.
“If I were you,” she says, “I’d say you were lying, that you do love him too. That way, he’ll say it’s too much pressure and realize he doesn’t love you after all.”
Suze says that this has worked on countless of her past boyfriends.
I wonder what I can do to hurt Karl so badly he’ll never think of loving me again. I try to remember who I’ve alienated and how. A girl in fourth grade was my friend until I realized that no one else liked her. So I told the girl she smelled weird and stopped eating lunch with her. I had a boyfriend who said I never opened up to him, which wasn’t true. I’d told him everything there was to know about me; it just turned out that there wasn’t much to know. So I started to make up things to confess until he left me because I was too much of a burden. My childhood cat never liked me. She pissed in my room.
“Maybe I can wait him out,” I say, and Suze shakes her head. “He’s a man,” she says and leaves it at that.
I take my daughter for ice cream as a special treat for doing such a great job twisting and shouting. Mint chip for me, bubble gum with chunks of real blue bubble gum for her. We sit outside even though it’s a little too cold, our sweaters pushed up our arms because our cones are dripping. She sees a spider and she tries to feed it ice cream. She dabs the melted drips in the spider’s path. The spider walks around the ice cream. I tell her that some spiders are picky. “For that spider,” I say, “ice cream could be like pickles.” My daughter hates pickles. “Pickle ice cream!” she giggles and she wipes her hand against the poodle skirt and the poodle’s eye comes away on her sticky finger. She gazes at the eye, jiggles it to watch the pupil dance.
“I’m going to plant this,” she says. “It’s a wish.” Emmy screws her eyes shut and thinks hard. I want to ask what she’s wished for, but I don’t. I know wishes are sacred and secret. I’ve taught her that. And I think for the first time that that’s a mistake. Why, of everything we think, should our wishes be unspoken?
“Now you too,” she says, and hands me a piece of bubble gum from her melted ice cream.
I would like to plant a wish and watch it grow, but right now I don’t know what to ask for. I suppose I should wish that I’d never had sex with Karl. I would like to wish that, but I can’t. I don’t regret cheating on my husband, even now. Instead I regret other things. I regret that it took me this long to learn to use my body for its own sake, to let my only emotion during sex be lust, be greed. I don’t know what to do with this information, wasted as it seemed on my forties, on my marriage. I did not expect my affair to make me so angry. I regret that my husband is a good man but far away.
Sometimes, I wish I could tell my daughter about all this. Not now, of course, but when she’s older. I want to tell her, sweetheart, before you get married, have casual sex and remember: nothing matters.
I suppose that sounds bleak. I suppose that’s not what I mean.
And remember: be selfish.
I plant the bubble gum as deep as I can and pat the dirt down over it.
Emmy smiles and I lick my finger and dab her cheeks as she tries to wriggle away. Her ponytail is half fallen out, the poodle skirt filthy. My phone buzzes in my pocket. She sees a friend of hers and runs over to her, and the other mom waves at me like we’re confirming a prisoner transfer.
Karl texts again. Each buzz is aggressive.
meet me tmr at soccer practice, I text to him, just to make it stop.
“Maybe I’ll become a nun,” I say to George.
After this, George says, no man will cleave to you. Including God. He laughs and laughs. Whore, he chuckles.
“Whore,” I agree.
George has never asked me why I fuck Karl. To him, there are no degrees of wrong, there is simply the wrong itself. There are no degrees of repentance, only absolute abasement, and I have failed. I think George likes that I never try to explain my actions to him. But I’ve explained them to myself. Justified them, I suppose. Here is what I think. Every day I wake up. I shower but I don’t pay much attention to how it feels. I eat what I always eat and I chew my bite of toast as I chase my daughter around, and button her up, and feed her too, and I couldn’t tell you what the bread tastes like. Half the time I’ve burned it. I go to work and I use my mind and sometimes my students use my mind and other times they let their minds wander and it is just my mind and their bodies in the room. I would love for them to see the beautiful poem or passage I’m showing them, I’m straining at them with love for it, but they aren’t there. I go home and take care of my daughter, who is all body, and I strain with love for her and talk to her father on the phone and miss him some but not enough because I am so angry that he has left me here all alone and at night I am finally, finally, truly alone and I drink a glass of wine or three, anything to put my mind to sleep, to knock myself unconscious for as long as I can before it starts all over again.
Why would I not fuck Karl?
Soccer practice isn’t going well. It’s cold for late March and though it’s above freezing, the sky is somehow spitting flecks of snow. The game is tomorrow and the girls are scrimmaging, ten on ten, no goalies. They’re supposed to be taking it easy but also focusing on keeping wide, keeping the field open, creating space for opportunities.
“Amanda,” I shout, “You are the left wing, left!” I wave my arm and she moves slowly back toward the far side. “Do you not see Rachel open at the post?” I yell, when, instead of crossing the ball, my midfielder dribbles straight into a clump of defenders.
I blow my whistle. The girls jog over, gather up. I tell them that since they don’t seem interested in playing, we’re going to run sprints instead. I shouldn’t do this. They need their legs fresh for tomorrow. Karl hasn’t arrived yet.
I send them to the goal post and back. Fence and back. The tall bush at the end of the field and back and every girl has to bring me a leaf or, if there aren’t enough new leaves, a twig. When one doesn’t hand over anything, I make them run it again. I know how they are feeling, I remember it— legs limp, mind empty, pushed to the edge of what I could endure. It had felt good when I was young, to be run like an animal. The leaf trick— my own high school coach used that. I think it was meant to show us that we were all in it together, that if one of us tried to cheat we would all be let down. But that wasn’t the lesson I’d learned from it. I’d learned that people cheated even when they knew they’d be caught. That sometimes getting caught is a form of defiance.
“Again,” I say, and on the run back one girl falls to her knees and throws up. Number twelve kneels next to her, holds her ponytail out of the way, pats her back until the girl is done. These girls who don’t play as a team all look at me with the same expression of loathing and I realize that I hate them too, a little, for not loving the same thing I did.
I say, “Okay, girls.” Practice is over.
I turn to start putting the equipment back in the bag and there is Karl. I don’t know how long he’s been watching but it’s long enough. It is easy to read his face. Disgust at first, at the vomit, at me turning away instead of moving toward the girl on the ground, as I should. Disbelief, briefly, and then every other emotion is chased away by anger, like I’ve tricked him, made him believe I was someone else.
He holds my gaze for a few moments and then turns and walks away. No need for me to say anything more. I am bad enough, exactly as I am, and I wish George were there to simply say it aloud, to comfort me with his honesty.
That night, George isn’t at my kitchen table, though I sit and wait for him. Eventually, I go upstairs and fall asleep atop the covers, still dressed, and when I wake, it’s a little after two in the morning. My phone says I have eighteen text messages from an unknown number and after seeing the first one, you fucked my husband— straight to the point— I turn my phone off. The street light is shining in my window and when I go to close the curtain, I see George, standing beside his stone as if waiting for something. In the kitchen he usually looks solid, though he seems to hover rather than sit. Right now, though, he looks spectral, emitting an almost pagan blue glow. I put on my coat and go out into the street.
It is snowing in earnest now, drifting sideways across the streetlights, landing in my hair, sticking to the flower stalks that have misjudged the arrival of spring. George doesn’t notice me. There is no trace of contempt on his face, only anticipation. He paces a little, directs unseen spectators to give him more room and I realize I know what he’s preparing for. I’ve researched George, of course. Went to the library and read about the ghost who sat outside my house, who kept me company. He came to this town to preach in the town hall but when he got here there were far too many people, thousands too many, and so even though he was very sick, he decided to preach outside. George loved to preach outside. Outside there was room for everyone. Room even for me. He placed a wooden board across two barrels, right at this spot where the granite marker is, so that people could see him. It is cold and my toes are getting numb in my slippers but I have to stay. George is about to preach his last sermon.
I can’t see the hand that George takes to help him up onto the stone. Every time he coughs, his body shakes like his soul is trying to rip free. He raises his hands for silence and waits several beats, his face fierce. When he begins to speak, I can’t hear him. I clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. His right hand slices wide, his eyes flash. He coughs. At times, he pauses, as if unsure he’ll go on, but then he does, more frantically than before, gesticulating, serious one moment, then smiling the next as if he can see the Lord before him, is conjuring him here for the assembled to see. He is so sure of himself. Oh, George. You know, don’t you, that those thousands of ears are like cracked bowls, like the ears of my students, my daughter. You fill them, yes, George, but most of what you say leaks out onto the wet earth and disappears. Not everything, though, I suppose. Someone remembered to plant this stone.
I know that when George is done, the story will change. I will go upstairs and read those text messages. I will face my colleagues, who will all know what I’ve done. My husband will come home, just before those cherry blossoms bloom. Everything will become messy. But right now, the story isn’t about him. The story is about me, and I watch George preach until he can barely stand, until I can’t feel my fingers. When he finally gets down from the stone, he turns to a man I cannot see and shakes his hand. He turns to another and claps him on the back, puts a hand to his own powdered wig to steady it. His step is slow and tired through the invisible crowd. He has a word for everyone, and though I can’t hear what he says to the others, though he leaves me farther behind every moment, in my ear I can still hear him whisper joyfully whore whore whore.
And I say yes yes yes. Yes, I’m here, I’m here, a body, just a body, and it’s not promised to anyone, it’s mine, only mine, and I miss that, God, oh God, oh George, I miss it.