This story takes place in December, 2005
I don't believe in ghosts. Or to be more precise, I don't believe that the various phenomena that come under the heading of "ghosts" are the spirits of the dead, and I'm not at all sure that any of the phenomena are in fact objectively real. I'm precise here not just because Cecelia will gig me if I'm not, but because I want to be clear as to my meaning. For in a certain sense I did in fact see a ghost.
It was the 16th of December and I was sitting in my office wishing it hadn't snowed, and wishing all the snow were gone, and thinking, as I think every winter, that there is nothing so miserable as cold. While I was doing all this thinking with one part of my mind, I was using another part to research a case I'd taken on a couple of days before. It was the kind I like – not too difficult, not at all mucky, and requiring just enough mental activity to keep me from getting bored. Once I got independent means, after Tony and Anna died and left me a respectable sum, I didn't have to work full time and I quit doing it, but since I married Cecelia, and especially since Darlia was born, I've slacked off more and more. I don't need the money at all – if I never worked another day, between Cecelia and I there's enough money to keep us in a style far more lavish than we're accustomed to – and I find that more and more I want to be with my family, enjoying the world, rather than working. Even though I enjoy the work, after nearly 20 years it retains few surprises for me.
So I was sitting at the computer, thinking thoughts of snow and winter in one compartment of my mind, and doing searches online with the other. I needed to find, if possible, where a man's great grandfather had last lived. He had the genealogy, but he wanted to be able to visit the place and get some sort of emotional connection that way. It's not the kind of work I usually do, but by being different from the usual it piqued my interest. And I was finding that I was going to have to devise narrower search terms; every database I tried gave me about a zillion hits – or none at all.
I had reached that point, but kept trying on the principle of "don't give up until you're way behind," when the intercom went off. I reached behind me and hit the button by feel without taking my eyes from the screen. "Yeah," I said.
My part-time secretary's voice came over the speaker: "Darv, there's a lady here who would like to see you."
Marla was in that day, the first time that week. She's in college, at the University of New Mexico, and her schedule fits around classes and her own life. She's going to be a cop when she graduates, she says, and since I don't run a busy office her hit-or-miss workdays are just fine. As it is, she frequently runs out of things to do – and so she studies, or reads, or comes into my office and sits on the edge of my desk and talks my ear off, or I talk her ear off. Maybe it's mutual.
I said, loudly so that the intercom could pick it up, "If she's willing to watch me for a few minutes while I get to a stopping place, you can send her in."
I heard the click of the intercom going off, and then the door opening, and shutting again. Steps came across the floor, and a chair scraped just a bit as someone sat in it – no doubt the lady Marla had mentioned. I closed out browser screens as database after database proved itself resistant to generalities. Finally I was indeed at a stopping place, and turned around.
The visitor was a lady, perhaps 60, maybe a little more, but I didn't think so. She might very well be younger – in fact, as I looked at her I decided 60 was almost certainly too high. She appeared to be an Anglo, except for a slight brown coloring that seemed natural rather than a tan, and her dark hair was short and framed her face. Her coat looked like it had been expensive new, and still looked good. It was buttoned, and she was sitting, so I couldn't see what else she was wearing. At that, I wouldn't have thought at all of her clothing if I weren't married to Cecelia; until I met her the only reason I ever noticed women's clothes was when I needed to describe someone. Now I notice, and compare with my wife, and she always comes out ahead.
Before I could speak the lady did. "I knew there couldn't be two men in the world named Darvin Carpenter."
"I've certainly never met another one with my first name. But you say the name like you know it from somewhere else."
"I confess I don't know you. Where have you encountered my name?"
"But you do know me."
"I do?" I searched her face, and it did, now that I was looking for it, seem vaguely familiar. I couldn't, though, make any connection.
"You do – or at least you did a long time ago."
I was blank. I shrugged my shoulders; this conversation was taking a route that I didn't know how to follow. They say silence is golden, and if that's true I was coining bullion now.
"Darvin, you did know me, and you last saw me in Red Hawk." Her voice was low, unaccented – she wasn't an Okie, or if she was she'd trained herself out of the accent. But I hadn't known any natives of Oklahoma well enough for them to approach me like this. I hadn't known any women in Red Hawk that well.
But I had. I felt myself standing up; it wasn't something I knew I was going to do until I did it, and as I did it I felt like I was watching someone else. "Tina?" I said, and my voice sounded very far away.
"Yes, Darvin." I seemed to sway, and my appearance must have altered for suddenly there was alarm on her face. "Darvin, are you all right?"
I don't remember anything else until I saw the woman's face – Tina's face – above me, between me and the ceiling. I must be on the floor. Marla was there too, looking concerned. I had fainted, it seemed – though not having done it before, I had no basis for comparison.
The two ladies got me up, and back in my chair. I sat and looked at the visitor. Now that I knew, I could see Tina Morales in the features – features I hadn't seen in nearly 20 years. If an actual ghost had risen up out of the floor and spoken to me, it wouldn't have been more of a shock. Tina Morales...
Tina wasn't the first woman I went to bed with. That one was a high school student, when I was still in junior high. So were the next several. But Tina was the one who mattered. She was the one who was more than just a good time in bed. I met her when I was 15, and moved in with her after I graduated from high school. She was 12 years older than I was. She'd never been married, and though I wasn't her first, she'd never really been serious about anyone before. When I left California in 1986 it was with the understanding that when I got settled she'd come and join me – and she did. We were together for six years, counting the time when I was still in school, and were planning to get married, when I became a Christian. Realizing that I needed to get out of an un-Christian situation, I did an un-Christian thing – without even a note, I settled up my affairs and left her behind. I'd never seen her since, nor been able to find out what had happened to her.
And now she was here, in Albuquerque, sitting in my office.
"Are you okay, Darvin?" she asked me.
"Yeah, I guess. I didn't think I had that in me."
"If I had known you were going to react like that, believe me, I wouldn't have sprung it on you as I did."
"Shoot, Tina, how can you predict something like that? I couldn't have predicted it, and I'm the one who lives in this skull."
"But I know you, Darvin – or at least I did. And I don't think you've changed all that drastically. You never were a physical weakling."
"Nor was I Arnold Schwarzenegger."
"No – but then most people aren't."
We paused. After 17 years, what do you say to the one you left behind? What does she say to you? "I'm sorry" is about as useful as a pet rock; however true it may be, it is thoroughly inadequate. And what would she say? No matter how much she'd planned for the moment, when it came planning would fall apart in the face of reality.
It was Tina who broke the silence. "Who's the picture of?" she asked, pointing to the framed portrait on my desk, though from her angle she just saw the back of the frame. It had to be the prominent position that caught her attention.
I made my voice gentle when I answered. "That's my wife."
Tina reached across the desk and picked up the photo in its golden frame, and turned it around. "She's beautiful," she said after a moment.
That's not the reaction most people have. It wasn't my own initial reaction. Her face is narrow, with thin lips and a broad nose. Her skin is the color of broken milk chocolate, and smooth, with just the lines around the eyes and corners of the mouth that time and smiling create. She has character, but beauty isn't there – at least, not right on the surface. When I first saw her I'd thought of her as hatchet-faced.
Tina was still looking at the picture. Now she raised her eyes, and looked at the large photograph on the wall. It shows me, and Cecelia, and Darlia. "Is that your daughter?" Tina asked.
"Yeah. She's eight."
"She is an absolutely glorious child."
"I no doubt have a bias in her favor – but yeah, I agree with you."
"How long have you been married?"
The silence hung for a moment, heavy, and then she said it: "It could have been 16 years..."
I looked out the window at the mountains. I have the office mainly for the view, but just then I didn't see it. "It could have been 16 years..." In one incomplete sentence Tina had summed up a massive burden of pain and sorrow. And my eyes filled with tears, thinking of how I'd wronged her.
I turned to look at Tina. She was gazing at me, her gray eyes bright but nothing on her cheeks. I wondered now, in passing, how I could have not recognized her with those eyes. "I know that it isn't enough, Tina – not near enough. But I want to apologize for leaving you as I did. I could explain why, but an explanation wouldn't get at the root of things, and certainly wouldn't fix anything. I was a real live cast iron tin-plated jerk. I didn't treat you fair at all. If you got up and slapped me across the face it would be less than I deserve. I'm dreadfully sorry, Tina, for what I did. I just wish I could fix it."
"I won't deny that you hurt me, Darvin. I had no idea what had happened. I called the police, and because you'd been an officer they bent over backwards to find out. All they could learn was that you'd left town. When they told me they were embarrassed. They had to tell me that one of their own – someone who'd been one of them, anyway – had been, well, your own word is good. You'd been a jerk. They'd rather have had the dentist pull their teeth without Novocaine, I think." Now the tears were running down Tina's cheeks, but she ignored them. "I cried for days.
"But that's over," she continued. "I've never stopped missing you, and I've never gotten married because you were always in the back of my mind, but over the years I've learned to put aside the pain, and remember the good times we had and the good that I saw in you." She lifted the picture of Cecelia which she still held in her hand. "I envy your wife. And I envy you. She must be a special woman."
I made a quick decision. "Excuse me just a minute, Tina." I reached for the phone and hit the first speed dial button. "Yeah, C ... I got someone I wanna bring home ... I'll tell you then ... yeah, it is soon, but this is a unique situation ... okay, C, we'll be there in a tad bit."
As I hung up Tina laughed. "You still don't speak any better than you did sitting on the bleachers eating lunch."
I smiled back at her. "No, I've always been pretty casual with how I talk ... wait'll you hear how Cecelia handles it."
It was still morning when we pulled up in front of the house on Wisconsin. Cecelia had owned it when I met her, and I'd moved in on our wedding day. I always park in front while Cecelia puts her car in the garage; Tina pulled into the driveway. Cecelia came to the door, and then out to the front yard. She was wearing a white skirt that she'd embroidered with a pattern of roses, and a canary yellow blouse with the collar turned up. The collar framed her thin face, as a gold setting enhances but doesn't overpower the gem. As she stood on the grass waiting, she seemed far larger than she really is, a tower of strength and goodness. At least, that's how she seemed to me, but then she always seems to me to be the center of the universe.
Tina and I walked over together. After all the years we weren't terribly sure of how to handle ourselves with each other, and my being married was a complication too. When we'd been together we were intensely physical, much as Cecelia and I are – always holding hands, kissing, touching each other. Now we walked close together, but not touching.
I never have known, nor cared much about, the proper etiquette for introducing people to each other. I just fake it, and if it's right it's by accident. "Cecelia," I said, "this is someone I knew years ago, Tina – it's still Morales?" She'd said she'd never gotten married, but I wanted to be sure of the name.
"Tina Morales. And this is my wife, Cecelia."
Cecelia extended her hand. "It's good to meet you, Ms. Morales. Anyone who knew Darvin years ago, and looks him up again, must be someone special." And she smiled – not the brilliant smile she gives me, but certainly far above average.
Tina shook Cecelia's hand. "I can't say I'm extremely special, Mrs. Carpenter, just because I looked up Darvin today. The fact is that for some time I could have easily—" She stopped suddenly, then resumed. "But this isn't the time for that, and it may never be the time for that. Let me just say, before I commit a stupidity, that I'm very happy to meet you."
Cecelia raised her eyebrows at me, but said nothing as she led us inside. "If you don't mind," she said, "we can go into the dining room and sit at the table."
Neither Tina nor I minded. And Darlia was already there, which I didn't mind one little bit. After I'd picked her up and kissed her, an operation which she still turns into a slobbery one – as much to watch me wipe it off, I think, as anything else – she turned to Tina. "My name's Darlia," she said as I held her. "Are you a friend of my daddy's?"
Tina glanced at me. I knew her question: After all this time, were we friends? ex-lovers? old acquaintances? I wasn't sure how I'd answer, but she said, "Yes, Darlia – you could say we're friends."
"Then give me a kiss, please."
And Tina did, and Darlia didn't make it slobbery, which confirmed my theory.
We all sat down at the table, which is a massive oak thing that's far bigger than three people need. It comes in handy, though, when Cecelia sets out one of her home cooked meals; it's big enough that dishes don't jostle each other. Darlia and I each had a Coke, while Cecelia and Tina had coffee – Cecelia's was as black as midnight, but Tina put in cream and sugar. Cecelia keeps real cream, which she whips or sours as necessary for what she's doing; she cooks almost everything we eat, and she cooks from scratch. I've often wondered why she majored in business in college, instead of becoming a chef. She certainly makes delicious food, and she loves doing it.
"So," said Cecelia, "you knew Darvin years ago. My husband of course has never told me every detail of every day of his life before we met; if nothing else, no human mind can retain that sort of voluminous information. But as I watch you two, I get the sense that you were more important to him, Ms. Morales, than just a friend, and yet he's said nothing about you."
"Please, call me Tina. I'm not quite as informal as Darvin, but I feel uncomfortable with you speaking so formally, given that he connects us. For you're right – we were, when we knew each other before, more than friends."
I took a deep breath. "The fact is, C, that if I hadn't been a fool, I'd have married Tina."
Cecelia's eyebrows rose again. "I shan't pry, of course; my respect for privacy is considerable, as Darvin can attest." And she rested her hand on mine. "But I confess to astonishment. There has been nothing in our conversations over the past 11 years to indicate such a previous attachment."