Two Ghost Variations

Visual art of a man's half- face. There's a puddle of water to the left of the face.

Original Art by Nick Perry

The Man She Is Trying to Forget

That woman with the long neck and the narrow shoulders is searching for a man to forget another one. She began her search nearly a year ago at the basement bar half a block from her apartment building, before moving on to other bars in other neighborhoods, then to museums and yoga studios, political rallies and supermarkets. Each night she leaves home ceremonially, in a hush of deliberation. She feels like an acolyte proceeding toward the altar. In her skirt and her heels she steps carefully, pauses, steps again. Listens to her clothing rustle. Waits patiently by the crosswalk. The brake lights of cars flicker. Store signs tick and buzz. The city has a different cologne after the sun falls. She breathes it in. Maybe this, she thinks, will be the night she finds him, at the bar or the art gallery, the health club or the cooking class. He will fix her with a smile and a tilt of the head, then enfold her in conversation, the man whose company will outshine or obliterate the man who has broken her heart. But it never happens. Oh, she meets men, of course she does—whole casts of them, whole orchestras—but they always remind her of the man she is trying to forget, at least tenuously, and sometimes uncannily. This one has his build; this one, his posture. This one wears his expression of slightly crossgrained amusement, visible mainly across the lips and the eyes, as if he has never stopped expecting a teacher to chastise him for letting his attention wander. This man likes the same movies he does; this one, the same music. This man sneezes once, then sneezes again: two times without fail. This one has neglected to shave his Adam’s apple, too prominent to be considered shapely or beautiful, yet alluring for all that, though its troughs and escarpments must be a hazard to his razor. This one shares his focused, almost gladiatorial, approach to card games and pool. This one expresses the same skepticism toward what he calls the supernatural, by which he means ghosts, angels, astrology, reincarnation—but also fate, karma, “vibes.” A dozen men might buy her a drink, a dozen more might offer her their number, but the result is always the same. The effort aggravates and depletes her. She feels as if something that once quivered before her almost visibly, shining from the tips of her fingers, has been extinguished. Increasingly she suspects that the man she is trying to forget is literally, definitionally, unforgettable. It is not that his characteristics are universal. He simply has too many of them. Her only hope, she thinks, is to find a man with no characteristics at all, or else with one characteristic and one alone: the vision to see her as the woman who will overshadow the woman who once broke his heart.

Every House Key, Every Fire Hydrant, Every Electrical Outlet

She was a difficult child to manage. Not difficult in the way of most two-year-olds: she slept soundly enough, enjoyed her baths, was careful with her toys, and kept her socks on her feet—and as for her appetite, it was almost indiscriminate. Even the meals she initially rebuffed she could be persuaded to reconsider. However, she cried inconsolably when she saw the headlights of certain cars approaching, refused to toddle past the tree in the yard without kissing the bare spot on its trunk, and seemed personally affronted by electrical outlets, swatting at them with her palm and demanding “No! Stop!” before backing distrustfully away. And about those rejected meals: sometimes she would clamp her lips closed when offered a plate of food, tucking her chin disdainfully into her bib, but if you stirred the ingredients, or even just rearranged them a little, she would wolf them down. What she was thinking it was hard to know, since she lacked the vocabulary to explain herself. No color was so bright and no noise so conspicuous as the submerged reality her senses seemed to present to her. The problem she perceived, but was incapable of expressing, was that, arranged just so, a hot dog, a lump of peas, and a dollop of creamed carrots made a face, and she couldn’t see a face without imagining it was inhabited. And, of course, she was right. The objects of the world pressed up against the barriers of their faces, staring out of them in dumb captivation. Every chest of drawers, every sneaker tread, every cigarette lighter—everything with the suggestion of two eyes and a mouth—hosted a secret visitor. Those visitors were the ghosts of the dead, who had no features of their own and therefore borrowed the faces of pot lids and wood knots to peer out at the living. They watched them argue and kiss, cook and bathe, read and exercise and sleep side by side. If only people understood how tedious the afterlife could be, the ghosts thought, how starved a spirit could become for motion, activity, fizz, transformation, maybe they would do something better with their lives. The faces never spoke to the child, never even varied their expressions, but she understood that they were there, awake, watching, and responsive. Some of them she tried to comfort, while others she hid from or spurned. How was she able to guess what lay inside that mute host of haunted objects? you might wonder. But that isn’t really the mystery. The mystery is how she decided which of them she was going to love.

Related: Karen Russell interviews Kevin Brockmeier about his forthcoming collection, The Ghost Variations, out March 2021 from Penguin Random House.

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