They were occurrences so trivial that he almost didn’t pay them attention: water running in the bathtub; a photo turned face to the wall; a drawer in the bedroom open, its contents disheveled. It was curious how quickly he latched onto the idea of a ghost, specifically the ghost of his wife Harriet. Curious because Henry was a sensible man, not a man who believed in ghosts. When you’re dead you’re dead, he was sure of that.
A reasonable man when confronted by the inexplicable seeks help, so Henry consulted a shrink who didn’t say it outright but pointed her questions in this direction: his unresolved anger was keeping his deceased wife alive to him.
The shrink had hit on something, but not in the way she thought. Harriet had always bitched about the bathtub, wanting a bigger one. Harriet hated his mother: his parents’ wedding picture was turned to the wall. The disheveled drawer was where she kept her jewelry. At the end of her life Harriet accused him of pawning her jewelry, though she never had a piece of jewelry worth pawning.
People on the outside who knew Harriet would have been shocked to discover the bitterness inside her. It was like she had a switch that activated when she passed through the front door. There was the outside Harriet, all smiles and mumbles and oatmeal cookies and the inside Harriet, all sharp words and aggression. Harriet may have died but nothing so ordinary as death would put an end to her anger.
Henry also considered the idea he was angry with himself for wasting his life placating her.
These perspectives shielded Henry from dismay when the odd things happened but eroded his core belief in himself as a rational being. This would have been tolerable if, as he hoped, the happenings dwindled but they did not. One night he found all the burners on the stove flaming and the Dutch oven glowing red. Another night he came home from the movies and found the police about to break down his front door. They said they had gotten a 911 call from his residence; a woman pleading for help, saying her husband was trying to strangle her.
Henry told the cops his wife had been deceased for six months. He was careful to mention she had died in her bed after a long illness. They flashed their lights into every closet and hamper. He could read their minds: where’s he got her hidden? After they left he started imagining it too, that she was in the house, that when he sat on his bed and took off his shoes she was a breath away, watching.
The shrink, hearing about the police and the Dutch oven, steered a new course, intent on getting him to understand that his suppressed feelings were so deeply unsettling that unconsciously he was trying to harm himself. What was it about a Dutch oven? the shrink asked. Henry laughed at this absurdity, but later he put it together, that during their first separation Harriet had an affair with a man from Holland. The Dutchman dumped her, and she came back to Henry. He should have duck-marched her away.
By the way the shrink tried to tamp down her alarm Henry knew she was not faking it, and he began to worry that what happened to a lot of people was happening to him; get caught in an undertow and all the power you think you have vanishes into nothing. The harder you struggle, the faster you sink. It was old age.
He filled the prescriptions the shrink gave him but he wasn’t regular in taking the pills. His instinct told him that the pills would only mask the problem, which, if he lived long enough, would manifest in other ways. It was going to take a radical approach, a painstaking watchfulness. If he was going unconscious and trying to harm himself, there had to be a borderland, a frontier he crossed where he could make the conscious choice to turn back.
This rational approach gave him comfort but every time he eased himself into a calm state of heightened awareness a light bulb exploded over his head or a robotic voice came through the computer with instructions on how to write a murder mystery.
He started to fear bedtime, the vulnerability he felt as she watched him take off his shoes. She always had an opinion about his socks. She had an opinion about his digestion. She demanded, what have you done with my jewelry? When he managed to fall asleep, he dreamed the same dream every night: he and Harriet had moved into a new house, a Queen Anne Victorian, unfurnished, a little run down. He explored the eerie and unfamiliar rooms. Something ghastly was in the house. Dream by dream he proceeded further, with deeper dread.
I first got the picture that my neighbor Henry had loose lug nuts when he got going about genealogy. You know how some people go ape-shit about past lives. How they discovered they were related to John Wilkes Booth and Queen Hatshepsut, and all that crap. I’ll say this for Henry, his fantasies were a little more reality-based. He was obsessed about his great-great grandfather who served in the czar’s personal army. What czar I can’t remember. Why it was such an honor I don’t remember either.
Despite his obsession with his military ancestor he was a good neighbor. He fixed the fence that fell down between our yards. He didn’t ask us to pay half. He was a nut about his garden. He had all kinds of obscure herbs. His bushes were given military haircuts. He could get a little over-zealous. I caught him pruning the maple in the curb strip. Our maple. Turning it into a good little soldier. I told him to leave the tree alone. Then he did it again. My first reaction was to fume, but Andy my partner pointed out that since his wife Harriet died, Henry was behaving more and more off kilter. Andy said I should not take it personally.
Poor Harriet. I liked her. She was the kind of woman who said “dearie” and always had home-baked cookies in the cookie jar. Last February she began complaining about bone pain and having trouble breathing, and by June she was gone. You would have expected that when someone dies in a mysterious way an autopsy would be performed, but as far as I know there wasn’t one. We live among citizens that abhor taxes, and autopsies cost money, especially of 75-year old housewives. At minimum there should have been a toxicology report.
There I said it. I think Harriet was poisoned.
It’s an odd way to live your life, with a next-door neighbor you think killed his wife.
There were times Henry seemed truly bereaved the way he talked about Harriet like she was in the house baking cookies, but it didn’t stop there. I caught him setting fire to a pile of leaves in the back yard. When I jumped over the fence and grabbed a hose and doused the flames, he looked at me like I was the one whose circuits were scrambled. We haven’t had a good rain in years. The neighborhood is a tinderbox.
After that incident, I called emergency services about Henry—he doesn’t seem to have much of a family—and they referred me to social services who put me on eternal hold. We run on a shoestring budget here in this town. Last night Andy and I and some friends were out in the back yard barbequing when we smelled something awful, a waft of sulfur or some other kind of gas coming over the fence. I called the cops. I thought maybe Henry was dead inside the house but no, he came to the door when the cops pounded on it. They didn’t find anything. They weren’t very professional the way they let it be known they didn’t appreciate getting called out for a bad smell coming from the creek behind our house.
This morning a For Sale by Owner sign appeared on Henry’s front lawn. Andy was as surprised as I was. It seemed sudden, probably a bad idea since the downturn. I know it’s a contradiction that I could worry about Henry making a bad real estate deal because of his mental condition and still think of him as a wife-killer. That’s the way the mind works.
I rang his bell so I could explain why we called the cops last night. I was also curious what he was asking for the house. After four buzzes I was about to give up when the door creaked open. He didn’t acknowledge my apology. He said he was moving into town, into an old house in the Green Lake District. He said “we” several times.
This isn’t any of my business, but I did call our real estate agent to give him the heads up. Andy’s not in favor of buying, but if the price is right, he can be persuaded. It would be a good investment, before they raise property taxes.