The Agency of the Dead


Sara’s essay, “Haunted,” appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Shenandoah, and was edited by fellow DW McKinney. While editing “Haunted,” the father of one of the children mentioned in the essay died in police custody. Sara has chosen to reflect on his death and the ghosts that have arisen from it.


“Do you see that boy?” my husband asks and I tense, but he’s holding up his cell phone. It shows a photograph of one of our feral neighbor children standing on her merry-go-round, an older boy next to her, their heads touching.

“Yes,” I say, “and I saw him yesterday hanging on the back of your truck.”

I hadn’t stopped when I saw my husband visiting with our neighbors because, unlike him, I’m not yet fully vaccinated. I had baked a loaf of dark rye and a babka for him to deliver when we heard the news that the father of one of the children, our favorite of the men, Billy, had died in a prison hospital. I didn’t stop to offer my personal condolences because I’m not going to socialize with unvaccinated Trump supporters, no matter how sorry I am for their loss.

“He’s Billy’s son,” my husband says now. “The girl’s half-brother.”

I take the phone and examine the two grinning blonds in the photo. They seem happy to be together. “Where’d he come from?” I ask.

“Down South,” my husband says, meaning the Deep South of the United States, not the rural part of Southern California in which we live. “Billy must have been a teenager.”

Our neighbors live their lives like nothing I’ve ever seen in my privileged San Diego origins. It isn’t just the unfenced property covered in dead cars, old appliances, and play equipment trashed by unsupervised children and tarnished by the high desert extreme weather. It’s the drugs and guns and the white supremacists. The first time Billy’s brother heard me speak Spanish and my husband told him I was a Jew, the man was rendered silent. We watched the emotions scatter across his face as he mentally rewound the conversation to check for anything offensive. There was plenty to find offensive, although nothing overt, but it’s mostly his subtle assumption that we’d agree with his bigoted views. This, of course, was why I’d spoken Spanish in the first place. I wanted to illustrate my story about another neighbor, one who drives dangerously fast and close to the children’s play equipment, and who yells rude words at me in Spanish, assuming I won’t understand. We’d been encouraging Billy’s family to fence in their property, to fence in their small children for their protection, for longer than the Trump bumper sticker has marred their truck’s window.

But once Billy’s brother collected his calm again, my antecedents were forgotten or glossed over. He didn’t apologize or address how his views affected us in our home and made me feel unsafe. He went on talking as I got up and left the room. My exterior doesn’t fit his notions of what a Mexican is, what a Jew looks like. To this day, the property is unfenced. I suspect it always will be. They are not my children, not my business, which I remind myself every time I drive through my gate and see them playing in their unprotected yard, wide open to harm.

“Why didn’t Billy’s son come before?” I ask my husband finally, giving back his phone. He is a handsome child. All the neighbors are good looking; Billy resembled a hillbilly Robert Pattinson. Their beauty makes them extra dangerous, if you ask me.

“Billy owed child support,” my husband says. “He wasn’t allowed to visit. I guess the boy is here now for the funeral. The eventual funeral.”

We watched the movie Winchester about Sarah Winchester and the convoluted house she built to appease the spirits of those murdered by the weapons of her company. Maybe being raised in a haunted house has made me biased or blasé, but I’m not impressed. The storyline is hokey, the tropes are tired, a little boy is possessed. I’ve never visited the Winchester House; it’s on my bucket list of things not to do, but the film states “Inspired by True Events.” I think that’s nonsense. The ghosts depicted have too much agency, too much power, and a deep-rooted animus and a narrative arc.

The ghosts I grew up with were pale, fragile things. Mostly transparent, they floated through our lives with less direction than the jellyfish we visited at Scripps Institute, staring enthralled until time lost all meaning and our eldest sister would drag us off to the gift shop. Only living beings have agency; ghosts are like underdeveloped Polaroids, people photographed onto time itself. There is nothing to fear there, except eternity.

The house I share with my husband is only the second non-haunted house I’ve ever lived in. My early childhood home was visited by a strange rapping on the wall of the bedroom that belonged to my older sibling’s half-brother before he burned to death in a crop-dusting plane crash. Late at night, a knocking came from above the headboard of the bed. If whoever happened to be in the bed raced out to the adjacent family room, it would be empty and dark, or full of family sitting feet away from that wall, faces entranced by Sanford and Son or Charlie’s Angels. Everyone would turn at the disturbed sleeper’s arrival, but the pale panic on their face was enough communication. They didn’t need to explain what they’d heard.

“Never mind,” our mother would say. “You’re fine. Come watch television.”

I was little then. We left that house before I turned twelve, and I only heard the knocking once. It was harsh and insistent, waking me in a panic, before fading away to a slight desperate scratching. I didn’t even bother going to the other side of the wall to check. There was nothing to see there, I knew. The lonely scratching faded away eventually, and I slept again.

“Billy isn’t dead,” my husband says when he comes in two days before the appearance of Billy’s blond son.

“Of course, he is,” I say before stupidly adding, “we gave them a condolence card.”

“The family won’t allow the prison hospital to take him off the ventilator,” my husband says. He won’t look at me. He was much closer to Billy than I ever was. I never found Billy stretched across a dark road late at night, waiting for a speeding car to hit him. I never spent hours talking Billy off the pavement and into my truck, putting shoes on his feet and delivering him to his mother—whether she wanted him back or not. But my husband did all that, more than once.

“The family says they’re giving him another week.”

“For what?” I ask, knowing there’s no logical answer. “A week for what? That isn’t how brain death works.”

In the film, Sarah Winchester is grieving the death of her husband, killed “quickly,” they say, of tuberculosis. Of course, that isn’t how tuberculosis kills. It’s a slow death as the lung tissue is destroyed and the patient drowns in their own fluids. This disease and death has new poignancy in the age of COVID-19, but it’s all the more reason to get their facts straight. Still recovering from the blow of losing her husband, Winchester is devastated when her baby daughter dies too, and that’s when she develops the obsession with spiritualism and ghosts and building a house to trap the restless spirits—and quite frankly none of it makes sense. Why would your baby’s spirit be restless? Why would your dead tubercular husband invite crazed Confederate killer ghosts into your house? If you were eaten up with guilt over the destruction wrought by your family’s rifle, why would you fill a room with every make and model of said weapon?

Our own lost babies do not haunt our home, and although I’m learning to live with their loss with every day that passes, I am not willing to accept more loss. My husband stood in line to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine the day after he told me he didn’t want to be vaccinated and I told him, “You can get a vaccine or a divorce, the choice is yours.” Now he calls his relatives and brags about being vaccinated.

“That’s right,” he says, as he smokes another cigarette. “Now I won’t drown in my own lung fluid.”

My husband has three living children with his first wife, long grown now, and only a few years separate his children’s birthdates from mine. I am not their stepmother; I am their father’s wife. And I don’t refer to myself as the mother of his dead children anymore. At least not where he can hear me. The one time I did, he made a strange noise like all the air left his body after falling from a great height. I never again want to be responsible for making my husband produce that sound. But it’s easy to forget that what came out of my body, ghosts made of flesh and blood, were his losses too. He had less skin in the game, so to speak.

The day we learn of our neighbor’s loss, I’m folding laundry on my bed, listening to Tom Petty, when my husband phones from our front gate. This is odd because he’d only just left.

“Billy is dead,” he says. “The prison says it was a drug overdose, but his family says he’s on a ventilator and the prison wants them to come give permission to take him off.”

“Are you there?” he asks, but I can’t respond because I’m on the floor, a hand towel over my mouth as I sob, unable to draw in enough air to speak.

“What are you doing?” he says and he’s genuinely puzzled. I didn’t cry like this in December when my favorite aunt, Rose, died. I didn’t cry at all when my Aunt Beanie, that poor miserable woman, died of blood clots after being vaccinated in February.

The last time I sobbed so hard I lost control of my legs and hit the floor was when I finally agreed to a hysterectomy to save my life but permanently remove any chance of future dead babies. My current response to our neighbor’s death doesn’t make any sense to me either.

“Are you even listening?” my husband finally asks. I drag in air and that’s when he realizes I am crying. “What the hell?”

I laugh-cry, and he laughs too, albeit reluctantly. It’s sympathy, not solidarity. But I’ll take what I can get.

“Listen,” he says kindly. “Just suck it up, okay? I have to repair a busted pipe in the horse corral. I don’t have time for this. Try not to be so weird.”

Neither of us understand why I’m mourning a man who abandoned his family for heroin and then QAnon. A man who wrecked his truck on purpose and burned his driver’s license because conspiracy theories were more seductive than everyday responsibilities. Perhaps later we will talk about the horrible, toxic waste Billy left in his wake. We’ll never know if Billy knew that my husband found Billy’s four-year-old girl walking miles from home and called Billy’s brother because Billy destroyed his phone so “they” couldn’t track him. We don’t even know when Billy went to prison or why, or that he technically isn’t dead yet and that a machine (oh the irony) keeps his heart pumping, his lungs inflated, for weeks after his brain function has ceased.

All I know is that it has been a long pandemic and a long four years before it; that I mistrusted our neighbors before they refused vaccinations, refused to wear masks, and before the Trump bumper stickers appeared. We’ve lost loved ones this year, lost or gave up our jobs, and haven’t seen extended family for eighteen months, but none of that explains why I grieve for a man who most likely would have denied my humanity. I am grieving my neighbor, yes, yet I can honestly say, if his ghost is wandering, searching for a home after death as he did in life, he is not welcome in mine.

Sara Marchant received her MFA from the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert. She is the author of The Driveway Has Two Sides, published by Fairlight Books. Her memoir, Proof of Loss, was published by Otis Books. She is a founding editor of the literary magazine Writers Resist.