A month after his death, my father arrives in the middle of the night. When I open my door in response to his insistent two a.m. knocking, and he stands there whole, smiling.
I’ve been sitting up for hours, trying to read and losing concentration, expecting something without knowing what, and then he’s there, much younger than when I saw him last—about my age, with more hair, less paunch. His hairline has flowed back in like a returning tide, his broad shoulders straightened; he leans casually against the porch railing, as if he’d just bounded easily up the steps, not even winded. My heart jumps, but I only say, “I’ve been expecting you,” because I suddenly realize I have.
“I didn’t hear you unlock the door,” he says.
“I forgot to lock it.”
“You should lock your door,” his brows furrow with worry. “It’s important. You’re leaving yourself completely unprotected. Anyone could just wander in. It didn’t have to be me, you know.”
But it did have to be him.
“This isn’t real, is it?” I ask him, “I mean you aren’t really here?”
“That depends on what you mean by real,” he answers. “Some things are more real than reality. You get a different perspective when you’re dead. Think of this as a visit from beyond. Your fantasy or mine—it doesn’t really matter. I’m here. That’s real enough.” His smile spreads, as it always did, across the whole of his face.
My heart hurts. I hold my breath, not wanting to break whatever spell brought him here. I concentrate on remembering him into whatever kind of real this is. “So you’re still dead?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says impatiently, then adds, “You forgot the most important part.”
“Of what?” I ask. He would often do this, begin a conversation in the middle.
“The story, of course. Now listen, because this is important. Are you listening?”
“You wrote you didn’t remember what I said.”
“When?” I can’t imagine what he means.
“In that thing you were writing,” he continues impatiently. “You said you couldn’t remember what I said the last time we talked. That was important, Meggy.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. I notice he is still standing on the porch in the dark, exposed to the night air. “Come in,” I tell him. “Let’s come in the living room where there is more light.”
He moves with ease, with large strides. I’m taken aback—I’d grown accustomed to the awkward shuffling gait of his old age. I remember he was an athlete, playing basketball into his sixties. He folds his height into the largest chair, leans back and stretches out his long legs. He seems comfortable, at ease in the messy room, ignoring the socks my son left curled in tiny balls on the carpet in front of him.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I ask.
“Meggy, I’m dead. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”
He smiles indulgently, acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation, then remembering his purpose, continues, “But let’s get back to that story, because it was important. It was the last thing I said to you, and you forgot? Really?”
“There were so many things to remember. It was hard, you know—your dying.” I pause, then add, “I know we should have expected it.”
“I wasn’t ready either, and hell, if I wasn’t expecting it, I can certainly forgive you,” he sighs. “To be honest, I was scared. I couldn’t conceive of being dead. Failure of the imagination, I suppose. You were always better at that than I was. Dying shouldn’t have surprised me—most people my age are dead.” He flashes another winning smile, as if the joke were on him.
“It’s okay,” I tell him.
“But about the story—it was important—especially for you, being a teacher, so listen this time.” He checks to see he has my full attention before continuing. “It’s about a teacher, this story. I was never much of a student—second from the bottom of my class. I got mostly Ds—just enough to pass, at least most of the time.”
He chuckles, remembering the crazier escapades of his youth, then catches himself and continues. “But I had this teacher, Miss McQueeney—teachers couldn’t be married in those days, so they were all Miss. She’s long dead now, but I never forgot her. I wasn’t any better in her class than any other, but she saw something in me nobody else saw. She called me in after school. I came into her classroom and sat at one of the desks.” He stares off past me into the kitchen, as if into that faraway classroom.
“‘Now Peterson,’ she said, (we used last names back then) ‘Most people don’t think you’re a very good student, but I know you can do a lot better.’ She had this crafty grin like she saw right through me. ‘Well, I guess you might be right,’ I told her—that was the way to get teachers to just let me go about my business. After I agreed with them, I’d promise to do better.” He pauses and adds, smiling, “Never would though.”
I return his smile, as if sharing the joke.
“But she was different,” he says. “‘No’, she told me, ‘I’m serious. You could do great things in your life.’ Those were her exact words: ‘You could do great things in your life’—not just I could do better in school (I knew that) but I could do great things. No one had ever said that to me before. I stopped and thought about it. I didn’t believe her, but since she was being so nice, I thought the least I could do was try. So I started to work in her class and I started getting Bs (You didn’t get As in those days). I still got Ds everywhere else, but others started to notice and expect more of me. I started doing better in other classes too, and slowly moving up in the ranks—not to the top—I’d started out too low for that, but into the top half—barely, but I made it.” He pauses, checks to see he still has my attention.
“I don’t know where I would have been if it weren’t for her.” His voice cracks with emotion, and he gazes beyond the picture window out to some distant streetlight, as if gathering the strength to continue. In this moment, nothing seems to move.
“Of course she’s dead now, but I saw her at a couple high school reunions, and once she came to a rally in Nashua where I was campaigning. I was glad she could see I was still trying to do something with my life. I wish I could thank her.” His voice chokes again, then he smiles. “By the way, it isn’t true about all us dead folks getting together, having a good time and talking to each other.” He seems to be finished, but adds, “I can’t believe you didn’t remember the story.”
“I do remember,” I tell him. I remember how his voice broke the first time he told me.
We sit in the absolute stillness of the early morning dark. I breathe it in. He is beyond breathing. I let his story fill the space, probing it for clues to why he told me this with such urgency, why he had to come back to tell it again.
“You know,” I tell him. “I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to hang out with you, if we were the same age. I mean, would we have things in common?”
“What do you think?” he asks me.
“I don’t know. We might talk about baseball, or politics, or education. We have some common interests. We might get along.” I say, watching his face for reaction. Something I see there saddens me. “But, it’s impossible, isn’t it?” I say, and I notice he’s already fading, his outline a bit blurry. I desperately want to keep him here.
“Hey,” I tell him. “This isn’t fair. Maybe I have something urgent to tell you too.”
He seems to hover in the air, waiting, shimmering.
I try to come up with a perfect question: “Why did you have to die?” or “Did you love me?” After rejecting those, all I can think of are trivial queries about the finer points of baseball rules. I’m afraid he’ll be gone again before I can speak at all.
“How did you know what to do with your life?” I ask, the question surprising even me.
He starts to answer, but then stops and says, “Weren’t you listening to that story this time?”
His outline begins to flicker, and I reach out to grab hold of him. He eludes my grasp as deftly as a wisp of smoke hovering in the air.
“Wait!” I say. “What if I have more questions? There are things I want to tell you too. Will you come back?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” he says, dimming before my eyes.
MEG PETERSEN is currently a Fulbright scholar working with the Ministry of Education in the Dominican Republic on teaching writing. She is the Director of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire and a professor of English at Plymouth State University. Her poems have won prizes with the New England Association of Teachers of English and the Seacoast Writers Association. She was named as a feature poet by the New Hampshire Arts Council. Her poems have appeared in Concrete Wolf, Entelechy International: A Journal of Contemporary Ideas, Garden Lane, English Journal, The Leaflet, The International Journal for Teaching Writing and other publications. She is a founding editor of the Plymouth Writers Group Anthologies of Teachers’ Writing.