With Me In Spirit

A short story about a writer of short stories.

by Melissa Rayworth

Shirley arrived, the first time, on a warm Thursday afternoon in May. Sunlight was flooding the yard outside my window, illuminating our suburban neighborhood so fully that you’d think ghostly happenings would be impossible.

And yet there she was, nestled in the high-backed chair in the corner of my cluttered study. She was smoking a cigarette that gave off no perceptible smoke even as it burned down in her fingers, and she watched patiently as my fingers wandered my keyboard, lost in the desert of doubt.

For nearly an hour I’d been typing one sentence and then erasing it, then typing three more and then erasing that entire paragraph. I stopped, finally, slumping back into the stiff, vinyl embrace of my black office chair.

“You don’t believe a word of it, do you,” she said, breaking the silence with a statement that barely masqueraded as a question.

I turned my head at the sound of her voice.

I should have been terrified. I was the only person in the house. I hadn’t let anybody in all afternoon. But there she was, this apparition in a faded housedress occupying the corner of my most personal space and putting my misery into words. Somehow it was comforting.

“No,” I answered her. “Everything I write sounds false and contrived.”

She let out a burst of low-pitched laughter that would have sounded aggressive if it didn’t seem directed as much at herself as at me.

“It’s not the words that are the problem,” she finally said. “It’s the ghosts in the room where you live. Where you really live.”

She stood then, with some effort, pausing to stub out her cigarette in a cut glass ashtray that had materialized suddenly and faded away just as quickly. As she took one labored step toward my study doorway, and then another, she faded away herself. As if she’d said her piece, and now had other work to turn back to, done with me for the moment.

I watched the outline of her pale blue dress disappear and found myself alone suddenly, chilled by the room’s emptiness despite the summer heat that hummed right outside.

The room where you really live.

Shirley, whose married name was Mrs. Shirley Hyman but wrote under the name Shirley Jackson, wasn’t famous when she wrote the deceptively creepy short story “The Lottery” in the spring of 1948. And she probably wouldn’t have imagined that it’d still be frightening people more than a half-century later. She wrote best-selling novels, too, and because of that I had assumed, as her friends and neighbors probably assumed, that she must have felt confident and comfortable each time she sat down at her typewriter.

She did not.

The next time Shirley appeared was at 9:47 p.m. that same evening, as I washed a sink full of dinner dishes that I knew I should have ignored. My children were in their bedrooms, presumably approaching sleep, this being a school night. My husband was downstairs, writing at his desk.

My head had turned in the direction of the stairs down to his office, and that’s when I saw Shirley sitting at the kitchen table. She was just looking at me. Didn’t need to say a word.

“I should be in my study, writing…” I began, sure she was there to point out that I was only doing the dishes because I was putting off facing the blank screen on my computer. But she stopped me.

“That’s not where you write,” she said. “That study, it’s not where you live. The room where you write, and live, where you dwell more fully than you’ve ever been anywhere, is a low-rent, second-floor walk-up — a studio apartment with nothing on its plain, white walls.”

I could picture it, and I knew she was right.

“It’s not the worst place,” she continued. “You cleaned out the cobwebs a few years ago. Got rid of the roaches and fixed the broken windows, and the neighborhood’s gotten safer. But it’s still a pretty empty place, isn’t it? You can do better than that cheap furniture and the bare floor. And you know it.”

This time she didn’t fade out gently. She was simply gone the moment I opened my mouth to reply.

I found myself staring at the empty kitchen table, and when I looked back toward the sink I saw my cat curled up on the kitchen counter, looking at me as though we both knew exactly what Shirley meant.

We think we know what would make us feel peace and joy inside. You hear people say it all the time. If I could just earn more money… If I could just meet the right person… If I could just write a book… If I could just have a baby… If I could just, just, just…

But here’s a secret about outward progress: That paid-off debt, the lover who falls for you, even the published best-seller — it doesn’t actually do what we expect it to do. Because we don’t really occupy the world where those things exists. Sure, we walk around in it. We drive to work and we hang out with friends and we wash dishes in an empty kitchen at 9:47 at night. But really, we each live in a room nobody else can see that’s located inside our heads.

The nature of that room is shaped by our childhoods and our grown-up experiences and the million messages we get throughout our lives from the society where we live. Maybe it’s a safe place with a soft couch, clean running water and plenty of heat on winter nights. Maybe it’s small and spare but filled, at least occasionally, with a reasonable amount of sunlight. Or maybe it’s a run-down tenement in a sketchy part of town where the neighbors have angry arguments that seep through the paper-thin walls and it doesn’t seem wise to fall asleep at night.

I lived in one of those for an awfully long time, and if the extensively researched, doorstop-sized biography about Shirley Jackson that came out last year is to be believed, so did she.

For brief stretches, she managed to upgrade her place to make it more livable, as I’ve done with mine. But she could never quite keep it that way, and by all accounts she died in a mental space far more dark and plagued by demons than her exquisitely scary, successfully published stories should have earned her.

Shirley lived with the fear and crushing insecurity that eats at anyone who grew up believing they were worth less than everybody else. After years of anxiety and agoraphobia, hobbled by the alcohol and rainbow of pills she used to manage those conditions, Shirley died at age 48 having lived more miserable days than joyful ones.

Hill House had nothing on Shirley’s internal haunted mansion. Despite her immense ability. Some days, it’s got nothing on mine.

I turned away from the empty table and dropped the damp dishtowel on the kitchen counter, leaving the rest of the dishes idling in the sink. I had work to do — renovations on a second-floor walkup with walls I was determined to make ready for bright, cheerful paint and a few carefully selected pieces of inspiring art. I needed to ditch the budget furniture for a plush sofa and chairs, find a low, sleek coffee table to rest at the center of the room, and add a cut glass ashtray for the next time my friend Shirley happens to visit.

What better place for her to read my first novel?

A few more, this time non-fiction:

  • Where There’s Smoke. When we divorced, my ex-husband took a match to my childhood photos. Now I’m learning to follow the breadcrumbs that lead me back to my own history.
  • You Go First. If a working mother waits until it’s a good time to take a trip purely for herself, she will never go. Go anyway.
  • Welcome to the Pool Party. Tween life on Instagram is getting weirder and weirder.

Melissa Rayworth writes about the building blocks of modern life, including parenting and marriage, home design and work/life balance, and the impact of pop culture and marketing on women’s lives. She currently does her storytelling from Bangkok, Pittsburgh and New York. Find a collection of her stories here. She tweets at @mrayworth.

©2017, Melissa Rayworth