For a long time, it was almost a play we would enact every time someone new visited us. But only if they saw him. This time, a friend was visiting from London and seeing our apartment in New York for the first time. We were seated in the living room, and she came in, a funny smile on her face. “It’s the strangest thing,” she said. “I could have sworn I just saw a cat. Do you have one?”
My husband laughed. “We sort of do.” She raised an eyebrow. “You saw Francis.”
He looked at me. “Charlie knows this one. He saw him too. Francis was my cat.”
I nodded, smiling, playing my part. I told the story of the first night I spent here, back when we were new to each other. David, my husband, had lived here in the same apartment for 29 years when we met. I had been walking in from the kitchen, the same as my friend, and saw what seemed to be a gray shadow flicker across the floor by the door. I had asked almost the exact same question. And David smiled the little smile I now knew so well. And he’d said almost exactly what he said now. “I called him Frankie, though. Everyone sees him but me.”
This was our little vaudeville act, carrying on as it always had. But this time, the friend from London asked us if Frankie was a nuisance ghost. And we both sat there, a little surprised.
“No,” David replied. “I mean, I can’t think of anything he does besides appear at the door.”
A nuisance ghost, if you don’t know this, is considered a relatively harmless spiritual creature. The conversation on this particular day turned to the one in the Penelope Fitzgerald novel, The Bookshop, where the main character has what she calls “a knocker,” a ghost who just enjoys knocking on the wall. They’re the most benign pranksters of the afterlife and usually just take things, eventually returning them. If you’ve ever put something down and then can’t find it when you go back for it, pulling your house apart before finding it again, that is possibly a nuisance ghost, though it is possibly also just your forgetfulness.
The friend left, but the suspicion did not. I kept thinking about the missing keys that eventually turned up, or the phone cord or wallet, more or less fine as missing things that return go, though they’d often made me late with friends, giving me a reputation for forgetfulness or lateness that I didn’t like. But then, shortly after this visit, a favorite wine key went away and stayed away. One my brother had given me, made in France, an elegant tool with a perfect heft. This was the first really personal price. Or so I thought.
A few months after that, I noticed that some new favorite shirts were missing — as if they’d never come back from the laundry. But there was no record of them there when I checked, and as I searched for them, the familiar feeling of missing new shirts came over me, and I remembered that it happened every year. Each year, I would get a few new good shirts, and they would at some point, a month or so in, just not be in the house. I had a reputation as someone who didn’t buy new clothes often, as I have some shirts that have lasted a decade, shirts that I like just fine. The new shirts were always the shirts that made me feel handsome, though. Elegant. Not average. Like the wine key.
Those old shirts, I understood then, as I puzzled over it all, predated my time in the apartment and with David. I’d moved in with them.
When I mentioned the lost shirts to my husband, he rolled his eyes. Only when I pointed out that all of the clothes that were missing were mine and not his, and then listed them off, did he really seem to take it in. Yes, how odd, he agreed. But when I blamed the laundry, he took offense and defended them — they didn’t take his shirts — at which point I observed that my missing shirts were nicer than his, which did not go over well. I apologized, and we moved on.
The news that my husband had never lost his shirts, however, began to eat at my previous somehow placid acceptance of their loss. How much money had it cost me? But also the person I had wanted to be in those clothes was gone with them. I had entered into some terrible pact with each disappearance, to accept it as a cost of my own nature. That I was to blame, for being forgetful, or stressed out, or working too hard — all true. But I lived on a track, essentially, one that I stayed on, most days, that led from the apartment to the office to the gym and back to the apartment. Most things I lost, I left in a car, on a train, or it fell from my hand as I walked. Or it was in my apartment, waiting for me to pull everything apart and find it. This wasn’t like that.
A few days went by, and a few more, and then weeks—who knows how long? Maybe a month or more. The feeling of being cheated by the nuisance ghost or even the suspicion that we had a nuisance ghost eventually faded again — it always did. I bought new shirts that were exact replacements, and they arrived and mocked me by not being lost.
The wine key was somehow the hardest to lose. Every time I searched for the wine key, and then couldn’t find it, I remembered the possibility of the ghost. I was tired of losing things, so I decided to learn, just in case, how one went about getting rid of a ghost.
When I looked into it, the methods for removing a ghost from a house all seemed, upon review, to involve a kind of violence that was at odds with how I thought of myself. Or the methods seemed unequal to the task, too simple, or they required you to depend on the holiness of people who, on inspection, didn’t seem capable of summoning more than contempt. Would a ghost really not cross a line of kosher salt placed at every entrance? Or would a ghost really respond to Latin? Do we all learn it at death? It seemed unlikely, though the most beautiful idea of the afterlife I could think of would involve learning every language, ever, at once, as I entered. And so, when I chose my course of action, I suppose I was once again only really looking out for myself but telling myself I also cared about the ghost.
The first thing I tried was to ignore the ghost. I tried to act as if the ghost had no possible effect on me. This seemed like the easiest device. It was actually quite hard. And besides, when I thought of all the incidents I was now laying on the ghost, it was as if I’d been ignoring him for years, and it still hadn’t worked.
And then another friend came to visit and entered the living room from the kitchen, chuckling in that way that I now knew came from just such an appearance. He, like the others, asked if we had a cat, and we again told the story of Frankie. And all was the same as it always was, except this time I was sure, as sure as could be, that the ghostly thief was Frankie.
After our friend left, the confidence I felt left also. It’s not him, I tried to tell myself, but then, the next day, as I woke, not even really a whole day later, I knew it had to be. It had to be Frankie. I just needed to know why. Why me?
The idea of Frankie’s haunting had been, from the beginning, a little intimidating to me, in the manner of any of the friendships my husband had before meeting me. And so perhaps for that reason I had never asked after Frankie, never knew his story. I’d only seen a photo of the two cats by the entrance, of him and Oliver, the other cat. “Oliver was never smart enough to be a ghost,” David had said. “I got a laser toy once, for example, and Frankie caught on pretty quick that he was never going to catch something made of light. Oliver was lovable but… he really spent his whole life chasing that red dot around the room.”
“How did you get Frankie,” I asked him. I had decided to start at the beginning. We were in bed, side by side, playing Scrabble on our phones.
“He was a feral cat,” he said. “I used to see him at the community garden. He would lurk around the garden beds, likely eating whatever he could find. At some point someone decided he was causing trouble, more trouble than he was worth, so I started leaving food out for him, which he ignored for a long time. And so then I just started talking to him.”
“Like, ‘Here, kitty, kitty,’ that sort of thing?”
“No. Like, actually talking to him. Like you talk to a cat.”
David would say things like this periodically, moments when I realized how specific his inner life was to his moral universe — that there was a way to talk to cats, for example, that all people should abide by — and the pleasure of learning it would sometimes make me laugh, from joy, as it was part of why I loved him. But it sometimes made him uncomfortable that I laughed, and so I had learned to suppress it. In this case, I asked, instead, for instructions.
“How did you talk to Frankie, then?”
He looked at me over the top of his readers. “Why are you asking about this?”
“I’m just curious.”
“I… talked to him like I would talk to you, I guess. I mean, I had him and Oliver while I was single.”
“So, did you expressly invite him home?”
“Sort of. I talked to him for quite a while. I would talk to him while I was gardening, and he would follow me around the garden and had decided on occasion to accept food from me. And so, one day, I said, ‘Hey, Frankie, I have someplace to show you,’ and I brought him home.”
“Do you ever talk to him now?”
“You do know he’s dead, right?”
“Well… He’s a ghost. He’s our ghost.”
David didn’t respond to that but just returned to the Scrabble game as if I’d said something stupid.
My husband had a photo of himself and Frankie that I’d seen so often I had stopped seeing it. I kept it in my phone. The photo was a favorite of mine: In it, David is very young, with an expression on his face that I love, a confident curious bemusement. Frankie is on his lap. David looks like a gay Bond villain’s lover, as he might before he tries — and likely succeeds — to seduce Bond. The expression is the one Bond girls usually give to James Bond when they’re about to try him. I’ve looked at it so much that I don’t look at Frankie, so this time I look at Frankie.
Frankie is also looking at the camera. Looking like the gay Bond villain’s cat.
I was driving, several months later, through Vermont. It was nighttime, and we were there staying with friends while I gave a talk at a college. I had gone for a basic run to the liquor store and was wary of the faint odor of skunk in the air. It was just past dusk as I drove back with my purchase, and I had taken my phone out to look at the map—what seemed like an ordinary enough gesture—when I saw out of the corner of my eye a flash of dark in the high beam on the road. A cat, I thought at first, and then, with fear, a skunk, or a badger. I threw down my phone and swerved the car, the bottles in the box from the liquor store clanking as I did so, and then swore as I heard the terrible thud that typically means you’ve hit something.
I pulled over. I paused before I got out. No terrible odor. No instant cloud of protective musk. I picked up the phone again, flipping on the flashlight mode, and stepped out to take a look. The car seemed fine. The grill was smooth, and the front fender had no sign of blood.
I lay on the grass and looked up at the car’s clean underside and then turned the light off. I was so sure I’d heard it.
I was late, of course, getting back with alcohol, and David clucked as I entered. “I can’t rely on you to go to the store.”
I laughed along as I took off my coat, revealing the old shirt underneath, which I plucked at with something like despair.
Most ghosts give off a sense of purpose, even if the purpose is hidden. They have the air of people going about their business. They may not even seem to notice you at first. But whatever this was seemed to require that the missing items were the only visible evidence of the ghost. It was a strange thing to think of the cat’s ghost somehow spiriting my shirts away, but it was at least more consoling than losing them to the laundry, if also more uncanny and, well, differently frightening, if you really thought about it. Which is what I did now.
What would he take next? But then the thought that he was also the figure in the road, the one I hit, scared me right down the middle of me. It didn’t make any sense that he’d be up there in the road, so far from New York. It had to have been another creature of some kind, I told myself. A cat would never travel that far, surely. Or after death. I kept talking myself out of it, all the way back to New York.
“What is bothering you,” David asked.
“Politics,” I said, and he made a disgusted sound. He too was bothered this way, I knew. It was easier than having to explain.
It was hard for me to imagine why Frankie would still be on this plane of existence. Why would he be patrolling our apartment, or why would he be, if it was him, traveling north to where I was now, to bother me? It took some time for me to remember that cats were not in the habit of being understood, much less a reasonable sweet creature of purring comfort. One friend’s cat would hide in the bathroom and viciously lash out at any guest who entered.
I decided that Frankie saw himself as my husband’s defender. And me, well, as a threat or, at least, an invader. And so, once we were back in New York, I’d mustered at least the kosher salt exorcism materials, which basically meant buying a lot of kosher salt, and had prepared to try it out on a day when I knew David wasn’t home. But the process would require leaving the salt there long enough that David would see, so I began by leaving the salt along the windows, and when David asked, I told him it was diatomaceous earth to protect us from bedbugs. I lied and said someone’s apartment upstairs had been infected.
After the first set of windows, something new. The coat I’d worn on our trip to Vermont went missing. And that night, I woke to the smell of cigar smoke. I woke David, who couldn’t smell it and, annoyed, told me to go back to bed.
The escalation continued after I did the windows in the rear. A single credit card, one I almost never used, went mysteriously missing from the back of my wallet. “What are you going to buy, Frankie?” I stared around the apartment after I said this.
The only thing left to do was the door, now that I’d completed the windows — the idea was to chase the ghost out and then bar reentry. I thought of the happy feral cat who had never asked to belong to someone, who now wouldn’t leave the apartment he’d been invited to, and as I sat down on our kitchen floor with a candle and a box of kosher salt, it occurred to me that Frankie might just be wanting someone to talk to him. The way David had so long ago. And it seemed at last I understood.
I lit a candle, a little the way I imagined David would put food out for Frankie, and closed my eyes.
“Frankie,” I said. “Frankie, are you here?”
I felt like I was trespassing and also making a fool of myself. I closed my eyes, putting the photo in my mind, until I could see the cat who had smiled here 20 years ago in my husband’s lap. And opened my eyes as I felt the candle flame rise up like a long finger of fire. I carefully reined in my terror at seeing it.
“Hi, Frankie,” I said. The flame stayed high, then shot down, then shot up again, snapping at me. Then down again.
Was this Frankie, or not? I experienced a moment of doubt, the first one. And so I said, a little experimentally, “Oliver?”
The candle buckled and went low, and then, as if in a huff, snuffed out. Not a breeze stirring in the apartment the entire time.
Oliver, then. Not Frankie at all. Oliver, the one we laughed about as the one who wasn’t as smart. Always in the shadow of the clever vagrant tabby, even after death.
I stood then and laid out the salt on the floor by the door. “I’m so sorry, Oliver,” I said, “so sorry. We never meant to hurt your feelings, but you must go.” I relit the candle on the floor and sat there, watching as the flame sat, small and low, entirely ordinary, until David came home.
There was no good way, you see, to tell David about this. Instead, I vacuumed up the salt that night after David arrived, and as he made us a drink, we complained of the neighbors getting bedbugs while I finished up. He never asked about the candle, even though I had never once bothered to light one, ever, on my own — I wasn’t that kind of person. I set the candle by the photo of the two cats as if that was where it should rest, before blowing it out later that night. And when I did, I crossed myself, despite not being Catholic. Who knows what protects us, after all? Or what keeps us? Or what might rescue us? Or who might come for us, when we are lost, and point us home?
The credit card returned the next day, on the floor by the bed. “You have to be more careful,” David scolded me as he picked it up and handed it to me. I said I would be. I was sad as I put it back in my wallet. I bought new shirts with it that day, as an experiment, and I still have them. My new shirts no longer disappear a month after I buy them. I can’t entirely say it has worked yet, but I can’t entirely say it hasn’t. We haven’t had anyone new to the apartment in a few months, and I wonder what will happen. If our little play will go on, or never return.
Sometimes when I’m alone in the apartment now, I almost want to say his name out loud. But I never do.
Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH.
About this Collection