The river winds through salt marshes in an unnervingly mild December that lets me walk the dog several times a day. The dog resents the multiple trips, but I don’t want to look like a crazy woman stalking the neighborhood. Let people believe I’m that outdoorsy person whose lucky dog will never be found lying on the linoleum licking its paw orange with boredom.
Bella and I like to look out at the salt marsh. Aside from a railroad trestle, no bridge arcs, but, always, I search for that shape.
“Look, Bella,” I say. “The end of the world.”
But she stares at the empty lot where, months from now, boaters will park their trailers. A woman stands there, a cloud of black hair. Eyeliner. Tattoos visible at her neck. Sometimes I dream of water. Often I do. A still surface like this river’s. Maybe I am dreaming now. Because I know this woman and her presence here is not possible.
I believe in ghosts. Well, not ghosts, but imaginary companions. Listeners.
This woman who shouldn’t be here says, “I thought the train went to Boston.”
She glances north towards the station, chewing gum, mouth open. No eye contact. Bella whines.
This woman (though she looks so much like a girl close up) wonders if there’s a motel in town. I tell her no because if she goes to a hotel, then everybody’s going to know she’s here. Here and here on earth. Then what?
When Elvis Costello was here filming a video, the whole town showed up outside the Agawam Diner to see him. Imagine what would happen with her. This woman who has been dead for several years.
I want her to come home with me. Me who was never allowed strays.
I say, “My house is down the street, but I wasn’t expecting company, so—” and she says, “I’m not fussy.”
We don’t speak on the way. As soon as you say something, something more, the dream ends.
But she speaks first, because, as soon as we are home, the dog howls. Howls until our guest howls with her.
“She likes me,” she says. Glassy-eyed, unfazed.
I think: How to prepare my family for this?
The image comes of this woman in her old life, her life-life, hustled from her apartment into a waiting car. Paparazzi swarming: Bonepickers. This is what they do. I know what happens when. Everyone is desperate for your trauma.
I drag the dog outside and show my guest where the bathroom is, but she stays seated at the island so I ask if she’s hungry.
She wants coffee, thinks about calling someone. Doesn’t.
I slice cheese, set out crackers, cut a cucumber, then wonder if I should have peeled it. She picks up a slice and wheels it around the counter.
On any other night, Steve would be coming home from track practice with our kids, would walk in and say: What the fuck? Amy Winehouse? That would be the worst thing to say. But Steve will be at dinner with the other coaches after dropping Audra off at work. Someone’s mother will drive Cameron and a pack of fifteen-year-old girls to the mall so the girls can buy thongs and he can spend his birthday money on crepes at a kiosk and a real leather wristlet.
My children don’t know Amy. I have not been that kind of mother. Now, if Rihanna walked in, or Taylor Swift? But then, those women are alive.
Amy and I have to fill up some hours here on earth and then she’ll need a room, right? I mean, if she sleeps.
She says, “Maybe you could drive me to the city.”
Am I dying? I wonder. Has she come for me? And then my throat closes: Has she come for someone else?
I spoon grounds into Steve’s French press. Steve. Who passes off my nightmares as manifestations of my daily stressors: a forgotten credit card bill and the ensuing interest, another infestation of pantry moths, a looming mammogram—I stop him from listing because it makes me feel worse. What a world! I say in those moments, trying to make a joke, to have only these worries!
I tell Amy I have to text my husband, remind him to pick some things up on his way home. Is there anything she wants?
“Me? I don’t need nothing,” she says, snorts. Then she changes her mind: Cigarettes. She asks if it’s okay if she smokes.
I say, “Outside would be good.”
“So, like, what do you do for fun here?”
What I don’t say: Nothing. Isn’t that why you’re here? Why any ghost would haunt me? To ask what the hell is my purpose on earth? What am I waiting for? I also don’t say: There’s the Chili Cook Off, but that’s September. There was the tercentennial parade and you got squirted with firehouses and the Jewel Mill had a float. Sometimes in Newburyport on Friday nights, they open up all the shops and serve wine, even shots of tequila, but I can’t say that. And sometimes, when you least expect it? You look out the window and it’s snowing. Snowing. And even though last year we had 101 inches, it’s still amazing to see.
“We don’t do much,” I say, and the relief surprises me. Isn’t this the good opposite of her old world? Isn’t this the world she doesn’t know she needs? But she totters on these ridiculous heels to spit her gum out in the trash. Her hairdo threatens to topple like a marshmallow tower. So I suggest live music at the Grog in Newburyport. Or the new restaurant that just opened. Burgers only. And I’ve wanted to take the kids into the MFA for the Golden Age of Dutch painting exhibit.
She nods. “Yeah,” she says. “Vermeer’s cool.”
“Whatever you want to do,” I say to Amy, who licks her bottom lip.
“Err,” she says. “I can’t stay really.”
“Well,” I say. “Just until we can figure out the train schedule.”
You’re stalling. That’s what you would have said to me, Andrew. That is something you said to tease me, because you didn’t mind me stalling. You want me to stay, you would say.
Most times, Steve doesn’t have his phone handy but I’m hoping that, since he fell at practice last week and fractured a rib, he’s standing there watching the kids do repeat 400’s and that he has his hand in his pocket.
I’m not crazy, I text. Amy Winehouse here. Not lookalike. Real person.
Lately, my migraines cause me to put food in the oven and never turn it on. I leave Bella in the car. An hour later, when Steve comes in from work, he says, “Forget something?” and the dog bounds in.
My phone vibrates: Great, Steve texts. Because Steve Prefontaine just showed up to help coach the distance runners and wonders if there are any single women in the area.
I text back: No joke. Just asked for cigarettes.
What I am now is fretful and bad at hiding it. This is the wife Steve has. His son is his most reluctant, resistant team member. A kid who takes shortcuts or disappears regularly into the school’s empty corridors with a pack of girls because one or another of his friends is in crisis. His daughter refuses to work out with the sprinters, although she’s blazingly fast, because she doesn’t like to be too far away from him. His abdominal muscles spasm all night long. He ignores the rest of my texts.
“I once lit a house on fire,” I said to him recently. He was trying to watch the Bruins. “It was dilapidated. No one lived there. And maybe, if he was telling the truth, my friend’s family owned it.”
Steve poured the rest of his beer into a pilsner and said, grimly, “Are you asking if I’ve checked the smoke alarm batteries recently? Is this some lesson about karma?”
It wasn’t. Remember how the rats ran out? How you clamped your cigarette in your mouth (We were laughing. We were stoned.)? How you whipped your jacket off to bat the flames at first, how that jacket went up like a flag and we let it go and then you grabbed my hand and we ran? We reeked of smoke for days. Your mother knew. She always knew. Fuck it, you said, I’m in love, and she let us get away with it. We were fourteen.
Amy gets up, turns on the radio that hangs beneath the counter. An ancient thing I refuse to move. “Alexa is nosy,” I say when my kids suggest I use her instead. Alexa is not the listener I crave.
Static. Amy doesn’t give up until she hears something acoustic from the end of the dial.
“Do you know who that is?” I ask.
“Naw,” she says. “Been gone awhile. Know what I mean?”
“You have,” I say. “You have been gone a long time.”
I don’t ask where. Instead, I say, “Please. I have no plans for tonight. The house is empty. Maybe you’d find it kind of, I don’t know, relaxing?”
She rubs the back of her neck. From the radio: a cello solo. Amy closes her eyes.
“I guess we could shoot some pool,” she says. “Maybe get some alcohol.”
I have never known what to say to people like Amy. People who know about music. Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses—that was background music when I myself was young and high. I snap it off when it plays now.
“We can shoot pool,” I say.
“Sober, is it?” she says. “That you? Sober?”
And I hear: Is that why you’re alone here on a Friday night? Thirty years later: Why you’ve lost your best friend?
She picks at a tooth with a ridiculously long nail, says, “We can cook some supper. Later we’ll shoot some pool. But then, I’ve really got to go.”
Amy Winehouse opens my cabinets, the counter strewn with fresh garlic, scapes still attached, a jar of black olives, some onions.
From the freezer, I retrieve last year’s tomatoes, basil.
Amy hoists a can of Steve’s anchovies.
“Puttanesca,” she says. “You fabulous mamamia. Put some real music on.”
I hold up Alexa and Amy stares at me. “You just ask her to play something.”
“Shangri Las!” she yells.
“You have to use her name.”
“Fuck off. What do you mean she’s got a name?”
When a song plays, we do a little dancing, chopping, sauteing.
I find a few rolls in the freezer and make garlic toast. Amy hums away slicing onions; sauce simmers, pasta water boils way before we’re ready for it.
“Sing,” Amy says when the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” comes on. “You know the words, yeah?”
I do. But sing? Dancing has embarrassed me enough. Dancing with someone who has been on stage with the Rolling Stones.
Amy says, “You got to start someplace.”
I have been working on that in small ways. I hate black olives, for example, but I am prepared to eat them, and, with Amy Winehouse in my kitchen, I sing.
“Bloody awful,” she says.
Later, we sit at the table, dirty dishes before us, candles flickering.
She says, “You could hear the crickets if it wasn’t fucking winter.” Flicks her finger through the flame. “You’ve heard the stories, like: Wow, she’s naughty. She likes her Jack and Cokes, her crack. Some people, maybe they’re saying I got what was coming to me, you know?”
“I don’t think that,” I say.
“Not anymore you don’t.”
“No,” I say. “Not ever. This is important. I never thought that about you.”
She stares at me for so long, I want to look away, but that’s what I did before. For what felt like only a few beats. What can one person know from one world to the next?
“Alright then,” she says. “Two questions: Will there be a crowd?”
I shake my head.
“And will you get your feelings all like hurt when I kick your ass?”
In the VFW: A few men who might be members of the local militia and the bartender whose teenaged son rides one of those impossibly small bikes around town no matter the weather. They stare at us as we come in. I order ginger ales.
As Amy leans over to break, a man comes out of the bathroom and says, “Hold on there, girls.” He’s shaped like a shepherd’s staff. “Got to win the table.”
From the bar comes a kid with a neatly buzzed haircut, sparkling clean construction clothes. He smells of aftershave and doesn’t look old enough to be here.
Amy: “Right. This won’t take long.”
The kid says, “You think you can beat us?”
Good natured, indulgent. The way he might speak to a teacher who’s his mom’s age.
“Fuck yeah,” Amy says. “Do you have any idea who we are?”
Even if someone suspects, is he going to risk sounding like a nutball by asking? The kid breaks, sinks nothing. Amy calls high, sinks two.
When it’s my turn, I muff the shot.
Amy orders a shot of Wild Turkey, hands it to me. “See if this helps,” she says.
I sink the next ball, another Christmas miracle, and Amy keeps the shots coming, though it turns out, I’m worthless to her sober and less valuable drunk.
Even though we win, she hip checks the young kid and tells him he’s her new partner. I lean against the bar. Shepherd Staff waves goodnight to everyone. Meanwhile, Amy and the kid take on the bartender and some old guy who looks like Abe Lincoln with an Agway hat on. The jukebox plays George Strait, Elvis, the oogachaka song. The old men waltz Amy around the room some. Her hair wobbles. She kisses the bartender on the lips after his stirring rendition of “Love Me Tender.” From where he leans beneath the dartboard waiting for his turn, the buzzcut boy stares at her. Finally, a few beers in him, he steps forward. Amy’s sharing a cigarette with the bartender, has had a couple drinks herself and has told me to fuck off, which cracks the men up. I’m not tough. Not anymore. I haven’t figured it out again: friendship.
“You know who you look like?” The kid points his beer bottle at her.
“Let’s go,” I say.
Amy waves me off: “What else you got going on? The Grange supper?”
“You say that,” Abe Lincoln says. “But those ladies can cook. Big servings, too.”
The kid: “That fucking drug addict singer. What’s her name? Drank herself to death?”
Smoke plumes out of Amy’s nose.
“Piss off,” I say. “Where’s your fucking ID, anyway?”
I go to grab her hand. Miss. Wonder if it’s the ghost thing, but next try, I get her: she’s solid enough.
The bartender says he hopes Amy’s driving.
This is what I came for. Her hand in mine. This, I want to say to all those people who used to be in her life, is what it takes. How easy it might have been. Someone acts like a pissy little brat or someone gets in her face, and what do you do? Say: Fuck off. Say: Everything is capable of ending in a variety of ways. A million ways that don’t end with someone killing themselves.
Amy drives home on the wrong side of the road.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she says. “You shouldn’t have.”
“This is exactly what should have been done,” I say.
One car beeps, pulls over. I’m trying not to scold, trying to pretend this is fun. She won’t stay if I annoy her.
“People live out here?” she asks. She sits forward on the seat.
“You’re more likely to see a fisher cat than another driver at this hour,” I say.
If only, I think. If only one of those creatures would appear. On Bradford Ave, we stop to let a few geese cross.
“Bloody hell,” she says. “That is one big duck.”
The goose in the lead hisses into the headlights. Not exactly what I asked for, but I am a godless creature and this, I suppose, is what results.
Amy flops back against the seat. “Where the fuck am I? I don’t know how you do it.” Before I can ask what she means, she says: “Live here.”
When we finally get home, Bella goes crazy barking. Amy stays outside smoking a cigarette she must’ve bummed. Inside, my son Cameron sits at the island, his face illuminated by his phone screen. He is the age you were when the house burned, when I thought we were so grown up.
“Thanks for ignoring my texts,” he says.
“I didn’t have my phone. Also, I already told you no sleepover at Sarah’s. Not after those girls snuck out and her parents slept through it.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “You think you know everything.”
I do know that twice, girls have left Sarah’s house and called a taxi to take them to parties thrown by senior boys. You would have laughed about the taxi part. Smart fucks, you would’ve said. If it was me who’d gotten caught calling a taxi, we would have laughed after my mother grounded me for a month. You would have kissed me til my lips hurt.
But instead here I am, Andrew: drunk after playing pool with Amy Winehouse.
“You know I love you,” I say, hoping Cameron can’t smell the booze.
He says. “That’s what you always say.”
Not always, I think.
That summer your mother made you work at the farm next door, selling vegetables at the stand. We walked out to the cow pastures at night to pat the resting animals. You did love your mother. You did agree to do things for her that surprised me. You did love those cows, too.
Lay here, you said, patting the grass beside where you reclined against the beast’s belly.
I’m afraid, I said.
I would never let anything happen to you, you said. I love you. Now you say it.
Outside my house, a plume of smoke rises. I put Bella into her crate with a biscuit.
When my son is out of the house, I search his room for razor blades. His sheets for bloodstained tissues. It’s been a year since I’ve found anything, but that doesn’t mean that, when he steps out of the shower wrapped in a towel, I don’t scan his body.
He gets up, jerks out of my attempt at a hug as the door opens and Amy steps in. Amy who, I read, has scars up and down her left arm. A place I haven’t looked.
“Here’s a sly one,” Amy says. “Up all hours of the night.”
Cameron stares at her eyes. He wants to touch whatever Amy has painted on. Also the tattoos. The lip piercing.
“This is my friend Amy,” I say.
Cameron raises an eyebrow.
Emboldened, I ask if Amy can stay in his room.
She offers to crash on the couch, but Cameron says, “No. Have my bed.” Something he never says without extorting some concession from us. Four hour mall trip. Vineyard Vines quarter zip. Panera for dinner.
Upstairs, Audra is coming out of the bathroom, hair dripping onto her back, face shiny from astringent.
“You scared me,” she says, rolls her eyes, but then she sees Amy.
Steve calls from our bedroom, “Turn the hall light out already. Jesus.”
“Sorry, babe,” Amy says. “Didn’t mean to wake the dead.”
“My god,” I say, and she tells me to take a joke. To Audra she says, “Hello, Lovely.”
We are all going to be alright, I say in my head. Or maybe out loud. This is something that has happened since my migraines returned. Can’t remember what I’ve articulated.
“Everyone,” I say, “this is Amy,” just as Steve comes into the crowded hallway, his cracked rib announcing itself as he steps over the threshold and freezes.
Amy holds out her hand. I’ve seen this hand playing guitar, playing with her own hair during interviews, hiding her face, holding other hands. Steve and I watched the documentary. We owned her CDs when people owned CDs.
He touches her as if she’s real.
“It’s very late,” I say. “And Amy has had a long trip.”
Then Amy and I laugh. The way I used to laugh, Andrew. The kind of laughter that pisses people off because they’re not in on the joke. Or they’re sober.
Cameron shows Amy his room, describing who’s who in the photographs he’s pasted onto a mirror he dragged home from the curb, drawers opening while he offers Amy t-shirts, pajama bottoms.
“Those,” Amy says. “I like penguins.”
I hug Audra. She resists, but I hold on.
“Okay, Mom,” she says. “Goodnight.”
In my bedroom, Steve rubs his face. “What the hell is going on, Teresa?”
“Maybe it was a publicity ploy,” I say. “You know, like some people believe Jim Morrison is still alive? The lifestyle got to her. We saw that. So she disappeared for a while. So what?”
“And reappears in Rowley? This woman is a fraud. A really fucked up imposter. I don’t want her sleeping in this house.”
“She isn’t,” I say. “She isn’t a fraud.”
“So what then? She’s a ghost? People don’t come back from the dead and borrow pajamas.”
“But what if they did?” I say, my eyes stinging.
Steve has taken heavy painkillers. His words slur. Into the darkness, I say, “However she got here, whatever the reason, she needs us. She isn’t here to hurt us.”
But I get up and tell Cameron to sleep on the futon in Audra’s room, call Bella upstairs, which thrills her. I leave our door open, and, finally, I’m not the only one sleeping in a haunted house.
When the phone rings early, I hear Amy say hello. Landline, so it can only be my mother.
My mother’s is a voice that has never needed sleep. A voice that roused me at daybreak to help with laundry or to find my father’s keys. So loud, Amy holds the phone away from her ear. I wander down, sit on the bottom step, head against the wall.
My mother asks, “Is this one of Steve’s Irish cousins,” and Amy says, “No. This is Amy.”
My mother says, “What do you do?”
Amy: “Err, I’m a singer.”
“In the choir? Are you in the school play?”
“I’m a jazz singer. You like jazz?”
“Well, “Amy says, “what kind of music do you like?”
My mother likes Eddie Arnold, says, “Once, after his concert at the Warwick Musical Tent, I banged on his trailer and he came out. I like Harry Belafonte. I listened to his biography on my talking books.”
“People think if you’re Italian, you got to like Sinatra. I like Tony Bennett better.”
Amy says, “Tony Bennett. Yeah, that’s it.”
My mother will tell her what’s on sale at Shaw’s and ask how much butter costs at Market Basket this week. She doesn’t live by a Market Basket but if the butter is on sale, she will ask Amy Winehouse to buy her a few pounds and bring it down when she visits.
When my son wants satin sheets, my mother buys them. She insists Audra call her weekly and respond in detail to questions. She attacked her father with a garden hoe when he threatened her mother, slashed the tires on her boyfriend’s car while he was in a diner with another woman. After my father died, she bullied her doctor into prescribing her whatever she wanted and then, after she ended up in the emergency room on the Fourth of July, left a basket with unmarked bottles of pills with the police dispatcher. Don’t be fooled by her white hair and her chenille bathrobe and her total obsession with Family Feud. She gets shit, and, at last, she has learned how to help people heal.
Amy promises to visit and my mother tells her I can call her back when I’m not hungover.
“Teresa’s grandfather was a drunk,” my mother says. She detests preambles. “Teresa’s father used to worry about her drinking. Because of the bad genes in my family. Of course it was my family.”
“I’ll tell her to watch herself,” Amy says.
“She should have learned a lesson,” my mother says. She is not talking about my grandfather who I never met.
I hold out my hand for the receiver.
“I didn’t know you had a friend over. She sounds like a very nice person. I didn’t understand some things she said, but it’s nice.”
“What’s nice?” I say.
“That you have a new friend.”
This is what she wanted, Andrew. What she insisted upon. And, finally, why I left.
Rain. Amy peers into my refrigerator and pulls out a dozen eggs. Opens them and shrieks.
“What’s with all the sawdust and chickenshit?” she says.
“They’re from a farm down the street.”
“Straight from the chicken’s ass?” She studies them a moment longer, sniffs them. “They smell like eggs,” she says.
I take down the mixing bowl, find the whisk, a box of waffle mix.
Amy cracks an egg into the bowl and shrieks again. “Bloody fucking hell,” she says. “That is some kind of yellow, isn’t it?”
Cameron pads down the stairs.
“Come here and have a look,” Amy says. “Ever seen anything like it?”
Cameron has never eaten an egg in his life. Refused most things we cut up and left on his highchair tray. Clamped his mouth shut when we offered him anything off a spoon. Here’s what I wish, Andrew: I wish I’d let him refuse instead of prying open his lips. Why not give him that one thing to control? I grew up refusing everything but chocolate milk and bologna. But that’s it, isn’t it? We want them to be better than we are and in order for that to happen, they have to listen to us. Well, not you. You were a self-proclaimed fuck-up with an all-star mother. This is what I heard: That after you drove her car onto the beach and toppled the lifeguard stand, she laughed. After you fell skateboarding on an on-ramp and knocked four teeth out, after you broke into the neighbor’s garage and stole powertools to resell for cocaine, she made other mothers crazy with her indulgence.
“That kid,” my mother said, “is trouble. With a mother like that, he’ll end up killing someone before he’s through.”
When I emerge from the shower, my family is eating eggs scrambled with red pepper flakes, boursin cheese, and toasted Italian bread stacked high, dripping with butter. Cameron is pretending he likes coffee, scooping sugar into it by the tablespoonful. Audra is explaining the theme of hegemony (!!) in some novel (The Poisonwood Bible?) that I had no idea she was reading.
Slurping his coffee off a spoon, Cameron studies the tattoo of “Cynthia” on Amy’s right arm.
“This is my favorite,” he says.
“That’s my nan. But you haven’t seen them all yet, babe.” Winks.
Even Steve has put down the paper, though he’s quiet, a man who usually has a hundred questions, who keeps the line at the grocery store snaking behind him as he chats up the bagger.
“What we’re doing today is, we’re going to see some paintings,” Amy says.
I brace myself for the protest, but they are draining glasses of orange juice, sneaking Bella bread crusts.
Amy shoves some of her hair underneath a baseball cap. More has come loose from whatever holds it together (backcombing and hairspray, I’ve heard her tell interviewers). She wears the same black jeans she arrived in but Audra has loaned her an oversized sweater.
“It’s not me, really, is it?” Amy says, checking herself out in the side mirror. “Did you hear that, Teresa? It’s not really me. It’s just you and your bloody wishing.”
My children turn to me. One beat where I wonder: Will they ask me what she’s talking about? Or do they see me as an object of pity and feel a terrifying hatred rise? I hated my mother for a long time, that’s true. But pitiful she was not.
Amy wears makeup, of course (Cameron’s got some liner on, too), but who would recognize someone they would never be looking for?
The gallery is crowded for the exhibit on how Dutch painters captured class. We begin with nobles, worm our way into the crowd that stands before Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing.”
“It’s funny,” Amy says. She’s so close to the painting, a security guard warns her back. “When I look at paintings, I can’t think of anything but the day it all got put down. The days, I mean. The weeks, maybe. I don’t know how this all works. But there was a day it all started, and then,” she glances around at the crowds, “all these people come out hundreds of years later to see what you were doing that one day you saw this girl, with her crazy hairdo and her writing and you thought: I’m going to make a picture of that. And they think they know something important about you.”
In the next room, we pause before a life-sized portrait of a Dutch merchant.
“Why would anyone want that kind of picture of himself?” Cameron asks, holding one arm tightly across his body with the other.
Amy says, “Some people want to just pass over. Like, no fanfare. Quiet. They want to burn out. Like a star about a billion zillion light years away. Invisible, right?”
“I’m dumb,” Cameron says. “I thought stars burned, like, forever.”
“Well,” Amy says, “now you know. But this guy here? He wants us to know: I was here! And when I was, I was a big prick of a man.”
A white-haired couple beside her stares. She flicks her enormous eyes at them. “I’m not telling you anything he isn’t,” she says.
The perfumes and breath mints, the crowds, the way every now and again, someone turns to us, mouth open before they remember that it makes no sense, and the migraine comes. I spend the next half hour looking down at people’s shoes, trying to imagine blood flowing through the veins and capillaries mapping my brain.
Steve is several paintings behind, reading labels. Amy is far ahead, Cameron and Audra flanking her, laughing.
Before an enormous canvas of a winter scene, ice skaters holding hands, pushing sleds, I find a bench. Voices swirl around me. The heat and stink of bodies. The fucking overhead lights. I’m at the center of a nautilus and I can’t climb out. Not in these shoes. Not with all this skin around me. I don’t expect to vomit but there it is, all over my lap, floor tiles. Strangers seated next to me jump up.
Good, I say, maybe aloud. Go.
When Steve finds me, he will take care of everything. Despite how he resents being woken up by our comings and goings, despite his life of quiet measure, despite the effort it takes him to draw a breath, he will get me home. This is a good enough reason to stay with anyone. A security, really, that is something like love.
“It’s all that damn water,” Amy says as we reenter the glorious cold. “Those poor fuckers with their air filter collars. They must have thought that when the dike finally blew, they’d float away to fucking London or wherever the hell people knew how to dress.”
I lay my head back and listen to their voices, let the Zomig work. As we pass through the tunnel towards the Tobin Bridge, I doze and someone runs a thumb over my eyebrows, smooths the furrows on my forehead the way my mother used to do when the school nurse sent me home with these. “You’re killing yourself,” she’d say. But she never said, I’m sorry.
“The trouble with you,” Amy says, “is you don’t know how to let the pain go.”
When I am finally in my own bed, shades drawn, Steve sits beside me.
“Teresa,” he says. “I know I’m not thinking clearly, but what the fuck is going on here?”
“Steve,” I say. “How can she be dead and be here?”
I come downstairs and pull things out of the refrigerator for soup: kale, white beans, tomatoes. If my family ate a late lunch, they did so as I napped. I don’t want to think about Amy eating. About her not eating the way she should eat.
When Steve comes in from a slow walk, I say, “Maybe you should go get a fresh loaf of bread, some whipped butter.” Then I add: “Cannolis.”
“Where the hell am I supposed to get cannolis?”
Upstairs: guitar. We haven’t heard this since we had to cancel lessons. Soccer and track meets. Jobs at the local bagel place. I’m hoping the kids don’t ask her to play Adele.
But it’s Amy’s voice talking, not singing. Guitar notes, yes, but hesitant.
“That’s it, love, you’re getting it. Stop trying so hard. It’s like your boyfriend, you know what I mean? You don’t learn how to kiss him by opening your mouth right off. And even when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, you figure it out. It’s mad, really. It’s unbelievable.”
Cameron: “He’s not a boyfriend.”
“Is that right? Well, what are you waiting for? Listen to the song there: Let it be. Let it be. Play it, little girl. Play it you absolutely fabulous woman.”
When I step inside the room, Audra is on the edge of her bed, strumming, trying to sing a little, too. Bella is perched on the comforter, rules be damned. Cameron’s head is in Amy’s lap. They’re on the rug. She’s plucking his eyebrows.
“Back from the crypt,” she says. “Just when we’re starting to have a little fun, the old lady gets a bad one and all the little piggies go wee, wee, wee, all the way home.”
“She threw up outside Zion, too,” Cameron offers.
“The National Park,” Audra says.
Amy says: “Ah. Thought you meant Jerusalem.”
Cameron asks what’s for dinner.
Kale soup? No way can that leave my lips.
“Oh!” I say. In my sore head, a twinge. “We’ll go to Woodman’s. Lobsters. Chowder. The next town over is the home of the fried clam. If you like that sort of thing.”
“Like a real tourist, yeah?” Amy says, but she smiles, one tooth missing on the right side of her mouth.
Winters, the clam shacks that dot the North Shore of Boston are empty. Drafty places largely unprepared for the wind off the water outside them.
Amy orders chowder, a lobster roll. “We’ll share them,” she says to Cameron who has ordered French fries. “Also,” Amy says, “the fried clam plate.”
The kid taking her order, sleek, dark ponytail, the perfect teeth trademark of her generation, raises her eyebrows but doesn’t warn her how much food it is. The only disguise Amy wears is my puffy down that fits like a sleeping bag.
“You really go out in this?” she had said as we left the house. “Well, when in fucking Rome.”
We take seats in the farthest corner. A partly obscured moon glints on the river. Amy sucks on a tall soda, asks Audra about her boyfriend.
“Boyfriend?” Steve says, and I pretend I knew all along.
“Your baby’s cute, right? A real— how do you say it, Cam? A hottie?”
“He looks like one of the Weasley twins,” Cameron offers. “And he’s only her crush.”
Steve and I shuffle up to retrieve the food when our number is called.
Steve says, “What do you think she’s doing here?”
Twenty years ago, we sat in a realtor’s office while the agent handed Steve the spec sheet and expounded on a property: 1800’s farmhouse on twenty-eight acres, seven working fireplaces, attached barn; a price far below anything we’d seen. When we walked back out into the sunlight of an idyllic town center, I said, “This is the house.”
Steve said, “No way,” and showed me where, on the bottom of the spec sheet, was typed: Female ghost has been experienced on a number of occasions, but not recently. “It was the town poor farm,” he said. “No telling what kind of sadness the place has seen.”
“Why do any of them come back?” I say to him now. “When they were so unhappy here to begin with. But this isn’t Camden. There’s no paparazzi with anything more impressive than a camera on their iPhone. No Blake. Nothing to drink. She’s come back to a place where there can be no trouble for her. So we can help her.”
He stops beneath a beam covered in one of those decorative fishnets. “She’s an addict, Teresa. Was. Is. She killed herself with alcohol. I don’t know how the hell to say it except, as if addiction isn’t hopeless enough, you can’t save someone who is already dead from it.”
“You know nothing,” I say. “You have no fucking idea. This is why I can’t love you, really. Your lack of imagination. Your refusal to hope.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he says. “Maybe it’s you who are on something.”
But I cleaned up a long time ago, Andrew. And drunk or not occasionally, the rest of my life I’ve been terribly sober.
A line cook comes out to refill his Pepsi and stops. In my hands, the tray feels heavy, unbalanced.
“Dude,” the cook says. “That is some weird shit.”
I say: “She’s in a show. Firehouse Theater in Newburyport? She’s good. Sounds just like her.”
The cook, unshaven red stubble on his cheeks, same stubble on the scalp visible along the edges of a white paper cap, moves toward Amy.
“I gotta say,” he says. “You look totally like her.”
My children shift in their seats. Audra looks for us. Beside me, Steve clears his throat. “Here we go,” he says.
Cameron asks the boy who he’s talking about.
“Amy Winehouse,” he says, incredulous. “Best fucking—” He stops himself when he sees the kids and excuses himself. “I mean, that girl was amazing. No one else like her. For real. I mean, no one who sings like her. Until now, I thought no one would look like her, either. Shit. You even got her tattoos.”
He reaches out as if to touch the feather tattooed on the inside of Amy’s wrist and she shrinks back.
“Look,” she says. “Thanks for the compliments and all, but we’re just about to eat.”
“Maybe I’ll come to the show,” the boy says.
“Yeah, you do that and, like, maybe we can hook up later.”
He’s beaming now, Steve and I beside him.
“You have no idea. I have been grieving that poor girl for a long, long time. Sucks, man. Sucks that shit like that happens.”
Amy turns to the window. Audra looks away, too, and then I realize: She’s looking at her phone. Before I can stop her, she stares at Amy, the screen, and then at me.
“What’s going on?” She shoves Cameron out of the way to get out of the booth.
“What’s your problem?” he says.
“You’re some kind of freak,” Audra says. “Some kind of weird double.”
Amy focuses on the window.
“Mom!” Audra cries. “What is going on here? Please. Say something.”
By now, everyone is looking at us. The manager appears.
“Why would you bring her into our house?” Audra says. “Whoever she is. Whatever she is.”
“It’s okay,” Cameron says. “It’s okay, right Mom? Audra’s just throwing some stupid fit. She’s crazy sometimes.”
“You think I’m crazy?” Audra shoves the phone at him before Steve can set down the food and grab it from her. He cries out in pain, grabs his side.
Audra has run out the front, past the manager whose employees focus on our well lit space.
“I’m going to have to call the cops,” he says.
“And say what?” Steve says, teeth gritted. “That you have a dead celebrity in your restaurant?”
The few customers gawp. Everyone has phones out.
I remember the coat and Steve rallies, holds it up, so that Amy can huddle beneath it as we escort her out, past people calling to her, lifting their phones to take shots.
“Bonepickers,” I scream at them. “Fucking jackals.” Then I slide open the van door and face my stricken children.
“Listen,” I say. “Amy is here because she needs us. Because maybe we can help her. She is not here to hurt us. That much I can say for sure. Everything else? Well, everything else, we’re just going to have to figure out.”
Cameron grips my hand where it rests on the seatback, presses his wet face against it.
“You did the right thing letting her come to us,” he says.
I could have been the girl in that car, dear one. Dear one is something I called you because we mocked pet names. Valentines. TD + LC scribbled onto high school cafeteria tables. Your mother said, Everybody drinks and drives. Whose kid hasn’t? That road is poorly lit. Narrow. My boy could’ve been maimed, too, even killed. No one thinks of that.
She had been a beautiful girl, but in those days, surgeons couldn’t do much without leaving scars. I saw her once, her eyes still alert and sparkling the way they had in high school when I’d been so jealous of her, but they were unevenly placed in her poor face now. She couldn’t quite manage a smile.
At home Amy says, “I’ve got to get going,” traces a gryphon on Cameron’s shoulder where he swears, one of these days, he will get his own tattoo.
Audra is upstairs.
“Tell your sister: Keep practicing, like. Keep thinking: Damn, I’m good. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
“Say I didn’t mean to upset her. It’s maybe not the worst thing I’ve done. I’m just disruptive, I suppose. But I’m sorry for everything.”
We leave her downstairs drinking a tall glass of gin and, for the first time in several years, Steve and I enter Audra’s room to tuck our children in.
“I’ve changed my mind about the gryphon,” Cameron says. “I’m thinking of getting a bird that actually exists.”
Audra lays on her side, back to us.
“Audra,” Steve says. “There are some things we ourselves don’t understand.”
“Right,” she says to the wall, though Bella watches us, spine to spine with our girl. “So you just invite those things to sleep in your house. To have dinner with your children.”
As we are leaving the room, Cameron says, “They’re going to come looking for her. Please, Mom. I know you can help her.”
How can I explain to him how powerless some mothers are?
I didn’t grow up with siblings. Neither did you, Andrew. Perhaps if we had, things would have worked out differently. Perhaps is a word I’m not going to say again. Also dear one. But I am relieved to leave my children to one another. To hear their voices through the door as we leave, just after they show us how fast the word is spreading. Amy Winehouse ALIVE at clam shack. #ghostgirl#publicitystunt. Instagram. Snapchat. Facebook.
Downstairs, Amy has poured me a glass of gin into which she has dropped an olive. “Very dry,” she says. “Especially without the what-do-you-call-it?”
“Vermouth?” I say.
“So what I was thinking was that you could drop me back off at the train finally.”
“It’s too late for trains,” I say. “Nothing will run until the morning.”
“It isn’t like anything’s going to happen to me.”
“You should stay a little longer.” The gin tastes sweeter than I imagined it would.
“You know what your problem is, Teresa? It’s unnameable, you said.”
“What are you talking about? Look who’s talking.”
“I’m a messed up person, too, is that what you’re saying? That’s fair, but, like, I had people who, you know, stuck around me. People I needed in some fucked up way.”
“Oh, yes, I say. Fat lot of good they did.”
“And now what? You think there’s something you’re going to teach me? Something different? You think there’s time for that?”
“I think I could help you,” I say. “Because, you know, we know what happens if I don’t.”
“What happened,” Amy says. “Past tense. As in done with. Done for. Over. So we can agree: this isn’t about me. Impossibly. Really fucking unbelievably. This can’t be about me.”
I look out the window at the dark and think: I’d starve to death out there, unequipped as I am for everything.
Amy says, “It’s not about him, either.”
I say, “I heard about it from some stupid girl who had no idea who he was. I had a job at this specialty farm shop that summer, trying to distinguish between romaine lettuce and green leaf so I didn’t overcharge customers who spent six weeks a year in fifteen-bedroom mansions on the water. And this ridiculous girl whose father was an EMT or maybe a fucking toll taker, said, Did you hear that Andrew Persson jumped off the Newport Bridge? No surprise, she said. Kid was so messed up. Remember that time he pissed all over himself in gym class?
“I told her to shut her fucking mouth, screamed it, really, and my boss asked me what the hell was wrong with me. Told me to go home. I didn’t, though. Go home. I don’t remember where I went, only that eventually, I ended up in my driveway, my mother wiping my face with a cool facecloth and how impossible it was to think I could love her the way I did when she had made me leave him.
“For years after, I went down the wrong path, as my mother predicted I would. For a very long time, Amy. I went down the wrong path.”
“And ended up here. Where you couldn’t possibly fuck it up.”
We laugh and then she hums something I can’t make out and it occurs to me that if things were different, she might have written me into a song.
It’s after three a.m. when we finally finish the gin.
Amy says, “You never asked me to sing. I thank you for that.”
“You have a beautiful voice. Had. The last time you were in Boston, I went to see you.” She stares at the table where our sweating glasses have left pools of water. “God, you were amazing. I should’ve waited for you at the stage door.”
“And then what? Brought me back here for the big flea market?” She leaves me sitting there and rummages around in a drawer.
“Look, Teresa, there are lots of reasons to love someone, eh? To think you love someone? And to miss the girl you think you should have been. But you and all your sorry love would not have mattered enough. You must know that. You aren’t stronger than poison. Your one little voice in the world ain’t it, darling. But look, Mama. Your own boy? He’s going to be just fine.”
Then she finds the car keys hanging on a peg and shakes them. “Time to go,” she says. “I’m driving.”
No geese tonight but just as we pass the pond, a cow appears in the road. At least I think it’s a cow. Perhaps it’s just my fried cerebellum or whatever part of my brain these headaches and drinking episodes must be destroying.
“Fuck all!” Amy says, braking so hard she nearly propels herself through the windshield. “Is there nothing but farm animals out all hours of the day and night?”
I say, “I got this,” and open the door.
Amy tells me I’m mad. To get back in the car and let her beep the horn. I don’t explain the days I spent so close to those enormous beasts thinking, he can’t do this with anyone but me. Surely this is something to keep him here.
I hold my breath so I don’t scare the animal: a yearling steer who doesn’t move when I take hold of his frayed collar of baling twine. Instead of pulling away, he shifts his weight forward as if he’ll go wherever I want to lead him, but I stand there, the smell of gooseshit travelling from the pond and Amy Winehouse peering at me from behind the windshield of my minivan which is in the wrong lane. The laughter bursts in one breath that startles the poor thing, but I hold tight and sing a little bit of “Who’s Sorry Now” until he settles, walk him to the car window that Amy refuses to roll down and tell her to dial 911.
“This is some serious fucked up shit!” she says. Her lip piercing blinks in the streetlight.
When the police officer comes, he has no more idea what to do with the animal than Amy does.
“Knock on a few doors,” I say. “See who owns him. He’s obviously used to people.”
As the officer moves off, I lean against the car with the steer who’s chewing his cud, eyes half-lidded. Amy rolls down the window and sticks one long-fingered nail out to push at his muzzle.
“Didn’t think it would feel so rubbery,” she says. “He’s sweet. Do you know what I mean?”
“Try this,” I say, scratching under his neck. She gets up on her knees in the front seat and reaches towards him. When he exhales, she squeals and pulls back but tries again. He stretches out his neck and grunts.
“Could I give him a little kiss do you think?”
I nod and she plants one just below his eye.
“Christ what I wouldn’t give for those lashes.” She puts her face close to his and inhales. “I expected him to smell bad,” she says. “But he just smells warm.”
When the police officer returns, a man in untied sneakers, pajama bottoms, and a hooded sweatshirt is with him.
“I don’t know how the hell he got out,” the man says.
When I let go of the rope, he yanks it tight and the steer’s eyes pop open.
“Watch it!” Amy says. It’s the first time either man has noticed her. Now they stare at this tower of hair sticking out of the driver’s side window in the wrong lane.
“He’s just a baby, right? He’s not breaking any laws or nothing. Be gentle is all I’m saying.”
When the man walks away, the cop looks torn. Should he see that the animal is secured or should he breathalyze the driver on the wrong side of the road? The animal moos and moos into the night and, eventually, the police officer hurries after it.
I feel Amy’s arms around me. She’s still leaning out the car window.
“That was amazing,” she says. “Really, really beautiful, you singing to him and everything.”
“Stay here,” I say.
“You know I can’t do that. They’ll be coming for me now. You won’t like what happens next.”
“I wouldn’t abandon you.”
“I know that,” she says. “Now that you have a choice in the matter.”
At the train station, she asks me to sit for a minute on one of the benches. My children used to ask me this. To sit beside them and rub their backs. How thin their pajamas were, how ready their bones.
“You hear the birds here, is that it?” she says. “Is that the reason you stay?”
It’s closer to dawn than I thought.
“It’s nice,” Amy says. She hums along with them a little bit. Makes a song of their notes. Sings herself to sleep.
Have you ever seen a pasture of horses where one is lying down? Maybe you haven’t. Because it doesn’t happen often, these animals of flight willing to be off the strong legs they might need to save themselves. There’s something to them, isn’t there, Andrew, those impulses we think are so odd?
“I’ll go now,” I say to Amy. “I will get up from here and leave you and you will be okay.”
But I stay one more moment to make sure that her chest rises. Falls.