Guestbook, by Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton credit Derek Shapton.jpg

From GUESTBOOK by Leanne Shapton. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Leanne Shapton.

Nuts, Swiffer handle, Puff pastry, Oranges, Spoon, Eggs, White chocolate, Milk The night before, the twenty-third, at a party, the subject of ghosts came up. She asked the Academy Award winner if he believed in ghosts or if he had a ghost story. He shook his head, sat down, and began talking to someone else. It occurred to her that maybe the subject of ghosts was not cocktail party conversation, and that the stories that could be told over canapés were not the only ones. There were other stories that were harder, impossible, to tell.

Later, on the walk home, her friend elaborated: A suicide, an infanticide. Ghosts. Not ghost stories.

She slept alone that night. Her daughter was with her father. Woke at five, took a sleeping pill, and then woke at nine. It was raining out. It was Christmas Eve. The tasks of the day felt like brushing crumbs from a countertop. The vinegar in her salad at lunch was strong, everything stung, her tongue felt burnt.

There was a service at the church. Her neighbor recognized her, her ex, and her daughter and invited them over for eggnog and cookies. Why not? Why not. The apartment, with the neighbor, her children, and her grandchildren, felt warm. They ate crackers out of the package and cheese and whatever was in the fridge. There was turkey chili for the kids and some champagne. For the moment she got the Christmas feeling, that everything was right.

As they drank the champagne, the subject of ghosts came up. A ghost that had haunted an ex-fiancée, a blur in the air that circled the bed. A cold wind that had come down a chimney into a large stone fireplace, drawing the pregnant woman toward it. The ghost of an actor’s father. They left. She and her ex-husband put their daughter to bed. Her ex-husband was sleeping over at her apartment so the family could be together on Christmas morning. She left them together reading books.

Finally, at the last party of the night, in a house by the river, she told a story to a couple about meeting a librarian earlier in the week. She had just lost her husband and was not taking part in preparing dishes of vegetables and cheese for the library staff Christmas party. Grief came off her like heat. It was getting late. She left and walked east, away from the water. She wanted to walk and walk and keep walking.

When she got home her sweater itched, so she stripped down to hose and bra and tidied up. She went into the bedroom to get her nightgown and saw her husband’s body in her bed.

She heard him breathing.

Leanne Shapton is an artist and author of several books, including Guestbook: Ghost Stories (forthcoming from Riverhead Books on March 26), Swimming Studies, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, and a coauthor of the New York Times-bestselling Women in Clothes. She is also the cofounder of J&L Books, a nonprofit publisher of art and photography books. She lives in New York City.