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Rob Hardy


“You’re muted,” I said.  “You have to click the little microphone icon in the lower left-hand corner.” 
          She stopped talking for a moment, then started again, her mouth moving soundlessly. 
          “Mom,” I said. “You’re still muted.” 
          She continued to talk. I waited for her to finish, looking at the face on my screen, thinking this whole thing was weird and probably a mistake. I just wanted to say the things I would have said if I had had the chance. But I couldn’t say any of those things while she was muted. I needed to hear her response. I needed to know she had forgiven me. 
          She stopped talking and squinted at the screen. She looked vexed. She put on a pair of glasses and leaned in toward the screen, her brow furrowed, her lips pursed in concentration.
          “I’m so sorry,” she said, suddenly audible. “It was muted the whole time, wasn’t it?”
          “Sorry. I’m still not used to doing this on Zoom.”



“Mom?” I said.

          “Do you remember Tanya?”
          “Of course,” she said. “She was a lilac-point Siamese. You loved that cat. You wrote a poem about her when she died. I still have a copy of it. I kept copies of all your poems.”
          “I know,” I said. “I found them when I went through your things.” 
          “‘First cat in our home and hearts,’” she recited. 
          “You memorized my poem about Tanya?”
           “Do I pass the test?” she asked. 



“How is Monica?” she asked. 
          “We broke up,” I said. “A year ago. You knew that, Mom.”
          “There’s a lot I don’t remember,” she said. “Are you seeing anyone new?”
          “No,” I said. “The pandemic hasn’t exactly made it easier to meet someone.” 
          “What about Paige?”
          “Paige? Oh my god, Mom. No. That’s so creepy.”
          “She seems like your type. She reminds me of Lisa. I think you really missed your chance there.”
          “There was never anything between me and Lisa. Wait, how do you know what Paige looks like?”
          “She’s in the little box in the corner of the screen,” she said. “It says Paige.”


“I’m not sure I can do this anymore,” I said. 
          “Have you said the things you wanted to say to her?” Paige asked.
          “No,” I said. 
          “Then why?”
          “It’s complicated. I thought this would be a way to bring some kind of closure to our relationship. I just wanted to tell her I’m sorry I wasn’t there when she died. It was two months before I even got the first shot. Still, I should have risked it and gotten on a plane.” 
          “I get a lot of people who want to contact loved ones lost in the pandemic,” she said. “There are so many people who didn’t have a chance to say goodbye over the past two years.”
          “Is anyone able to just say goodbye and be done with it?” 
          “I think most people find it hard to let go. You’re not the only one.”
          This had all become familiar by now. She started the meeting, and without any preliminaries, closed her eyes and went into her trance. When her eyes opened, my mother was there. I think I recognized it the first time it happened, although at first I was skeptical. The expression on her face changed and became my mother’s. That critical look she always gave me. Her voice took on my mother’s tone and mannerisms, even though it somehow remained Paige’s voice. 
          At the end of the session, my mother closed her eyes. When her eyes opened, she was Paige. I really had the sense that I was talking to two different people: my mother, who had been closer to me than anyone in the world, and this stranger. She was always dressed more or less the same, in a bulky sweater, as if the ghosts made her cold. I had heard that a sudden chill in a room was a sign that a ghost was present. Behind her, a bookcase filled the wall from floor to ceiling. I couldn’t make out the titles of any of the books. 
          “It must be so strange, having these difficult conversations with strangers all the time,” I said.
          “When you’re talking to your mother, I’m not listening in on your conversation,” she said. “I have no memory of anything that’s said during a session.”
          “So what’s it like for you when she’s talking to me?”
          “I’m not there,” she said. 
          “Then where are you?”
          “I don’t know. It’s like when you go under anesthesia. I close my eyes and open them again. It’s as if no time has passed at all. I think of it like this: I make myself an open window. A bird flies in, sings for a while, then flies out again.”
          “What if the bird doesn’t fly out again?”
          “I set strict limits. Half an hour and no more. I know what I’m doing. And besides, it would be nearly impossible for a dead spirit to possess a living body. It’s like mixing oil and water.
          “Still,” I said, “it has to be strange, going under anesthesia all the time and knowing that something painful has happened while you were out.”
          “These days it’s kind of a relief,” she said. 


“Did you talk to her?”
          “Yes,” I said. 
          “Well what?”
          “What did you talk about?”
          “I told her I didn’t think I could do this anymore.”
          “How much is this costing you?”
          “She charges seventy-five dollars a session. But the money’s not the problem, Mom. The thing is, I don’t think there’s a way out of this. I mean, I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I thought if I did that, if I said I was sorry, this weight would be lifted. But now I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”
          “What do you have to be sorry for?”
          “For not being there, Mom. I should have been there with you.”
          “It might have made you feel better to be there,” she said, “but it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. I was beyond that. I wouldn’t even have known you were there. This is so much better, don’t you think?
          “I don’t know. I mean, where does it end?”
          “You should ask Paige for a date. Look at that pink sweater she’s wearing today. Isn’t she just the sweetest thing?”
          “Mom, please.”
          “You’re thirty-four years old,” she said. “You need to start living your life. Submit your poetry. Go to graduate school, if that’s what you want to do. What are you doing with the money your father and I left you?”
          “It’s earning interest.” 
          “Spend it. Take Paige on a honeymoon. The Greek islands. Thailand. There are so many beautiful places you could go together.”
          “You’re getting a little ahead of yourself,” I said.
          “You’re just like your father. If I hadn’t come along, he would have ended up a bitter, lonely old man. But we had some good times together, your father and I. He just needed me to show him how it was done.”
          “I think I can figure it out on my own.” 
          “I just need to know you’re okay.”
          “I’m okay, Mom.”
          “I need to know you’re not alone.”
          Her lips quivered—I remembered that look—and tears rolled down her cheek. 
          “I love you, Mom,” I said.
          “I love you, too.”


“I’m sorry about the tears last time,” I said. 
          “No problem,” Paige said. “That’s why I don’t wear contacts. If you’re ready, we can begin.”
          She closed her eyes and went into her trance, then opened them. 
          “Any progress since last time?” Mom asked.
          “Mom. Listen. She’s a professional. I’m sure she doesn’t get involved with her clients. So stop asking me about Paige.”
          “I want grandchildren,” she said. 
          “You’re dead, Mom. What difference does it make to you now?”
          “It would just be nice to know that I had grandchildren. That’s all. You should ask Paige how she feels about having children.”
          “Mom. Just drop it, okay? Paige and I don’t have any kind of a relationship. I Venmo seventy-five bucks, she sends me a Zoom link, she goes into a trance, then you’re here, doing what you’ve always done. Always finding fault.”
          Her lips began quivering, her face puckered up, and she started crying. Her eyes red and her nose dripping, the tears and mucus running into her mouth. 
          “Mom, please don’t cry. Think of poor Paige.”
          “Paige? You’ve already made it clear that there’s nothing between you and Paige, but you obviously care more about messing up her face than you do about your mother’s feelings.”
          “That’s not true,” I said. “Listen, Mom. This is why we need to stop doing this.”
          “I’m better off dead,” she said.
          “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying we’re never going to resolve anything this way. It will always end in tears.”
          She closed her eyes, still squeezing out tears. There was a long silence, as there often was when this happened. 
          She opened her eyes.
          “I’m sorry,” Paige said. “She’s gone. Oh my goodness. It’s a good thing I keep a big box of tissues on my desk.”
          She leaned forward for a tissue, and wiped her nose. 
          “I’m sorry about this. She cries easily. I really feel like I should be paying you more if you’re going to have to put up with this every time.”
          “No worries,” she said, grabbing another tissue. “It’s all part of the package.”
          “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I asked.
          “Not at all.” She’d finished with the tissues and looked as if nothing had happened. “This is a new experience for you. It’s natural to have questions.”
          “Okay. If she doesn’t actually possess your body during the session, how can she cry? In fact, how can she speak? She has to be able to produce sounds from your vocal chords and move your lips.”
          “Those are all physical responses to a mental stimulus,” she said. “When I’m in a trance, the stimulus comes from outside, from the spirits, instead of from inside my own brain. Think of sunlight that comes through a window and warms a room. The room isn’t warming itself. Your mother is like sunlight.”
          “I’ve never thought of her as sunlight. But she is a force of nature.”
          It made perfect sense, actually, to think of my mother as an outside force exerting control over someone else. That’s what she’d always done, and she was still doing it to me from beyond the grave. 
          “I was also wondering if you’ve ever seen what happens to you. Have you ever seen a video of yourself during a session.”
          “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she said, “but just recently there was this old woman who was contacting her dead husband. Her daughter was supposed to Venmo the money for the session—of course, the old woman didn’t know how to Venmo—but she wouldn’t do it unless she had proof I wasn’t scamming her mother. So I recorded the session. It was sweet. The old couple sang some old songs together. I’m not a great singer, but the old man was pretty good. Then they reminisced about their courtship—that’s what they called it, their courtship. Imagine being together for seventy years! That’s what I felt mostly, watching the video. Envy for what the two of them had together for so long.” 
          “It wasn’t weird, seeing yourself like that?”
          “I knew what to expect. Besides, it wasn’t me. It was an old man talking to his wife.”
          “I’m sorry I have so many questions,” I said.
          “I’m happy to answer them. But now you have to tell me something about yourself. What do you do?”
          “I work in a bookstore,” I said, adding, “and I write poetry.”
          I said it apologetically, the way you do when you admit you write poetry. It’s like admitting you masturbate, except that fewer men write poetry. 
          “You’re a poet!” she said, more enthusiastically than I had expected. “Where can I read some of your poetry?”
          “I haven’t actually published any. Mom keeps pushing me to submit something, but I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s really good enough.”
          “You should do it,” she said. “At least send some to me so I can read it.”
          “I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”
          “Is your mother your only family?” she asked. 
          “I’m an only child. Both parents are dead.”
          “Are you interested in contacting your father?”
          “We wouldn’t know what to say to each other,” I said. “It would just be half an hour of awkward silences.”
          “I get it. I’m an introvert, too.”
          “Really? I wouldn’t have expected that.”
          “People think I must be an extrovert because of the way I come across during their sessions, but it’s the spirits who are the extroverts. I’m embarrassed to say it, but the pandemic has been the kind of conditions I thrive in. I can stay at home and not have to see anyone. But at the same time I’ve been working more than I ever have.”
          “So what did the daughter do when she saw the recording?” I asked.
          “She Venmoed the money,” she said. “And she made an appointment with me to talk to her father.”



She opened her eyes.
          “Mom,” I said. “I’m sorry about what happened last time.” 
          “Oh, sorry,” she said. “It’s Paige. I can feel her presence, but she’s not responding.”
          “She’s still upset about last time,” I said. “I guess you won’t need those tissues this week.”
          “Your mother isn’t the only crier. The experience is very emotional. There’s intense grief, sometimes anger, and a lot of tears. I go through so many boxes of tissues.”
          “I’ve been noticing all those books on the shelves behind you,” I said. 
          “I like to read. If it’s just me, I’m in my pajamas, curled up in a chair with a book.”
          “What’s the best thing you’ve read recently?” I asked. 
          “Oh, I don’t know. I read so much and I usually like everything I read. If I don’t like it, there’s no point in reading it.”
          “I’m the same way.”
          “What about you? You’re a bookseller. What would you recommend?”
          I mentioned a novel I had liked recently, and typed the title and author into the chat. 
          “It can be hard to find a copy,” I said. “Do you have a good bookstore where you are?”
          “In Iowa City? Are you kidding? We have Prairie Lights. It’s one of the best bookstores in the world.    We also have a haunted used bookstore. They brought me in for a session once. The ghost was some poor woman looking for an out-of-print book. The bookstore found a copy of the book for her, but she’s still there. There’s quite a lot of spiritual activity in Iowa City. Listen, you don’t have to Venmo again for next week’s session. Your mom didn’t even show up this week, and here I’ve just kept you talking.”
          “I’m enjoying this,” I said. 
          “I am, too,” she said.
          “It’s a lot easier than talking to my mother.” 


“She’s lonely,” Mom said. 
          “How do you know she’s lonely? Can you read her mind?”
          “You’ve just described a lonely person to me.”
          “She’s not lonely. She’s introverted. She prefers to be alone. Some people are alone by choice, in which case it’s not loneliness.”
          “How do you know she’s not lonely? Have you asked her? You should ask her if she’s lonely. Tell her your mother wants to know.”
          “I’ll think about it.”
          “You’ve always been such a loner yourself,” she said. 
          “Putting it that way makes me sound like a mass murderer,” I said. “They’re always described as loners.”
          “When you spend so much time by yourself, I’m sure people begin to wonder if you have bodies buried in the basement.”
          “There are no bodies.”
          “You were always up in your room, reading or working on something. Every now and then you’d come downstairs with a poem to show me. You wrote a sonnet about Cathy Bennett, do you remember? There was a line about her braces. Braces, embraces. I’m not sure that’s a legitimate rhyme, but anyway it was sweet. And you never showed it to her. You should write a poem for Paige. A lot of things rhyme with Paige. It’s much easier than Cathy.”
          “Cage,” I said. “Rage. Page. Except I’m sure you wouldn’t consider that a legitimate rhyme.”
          “It wouldn’t have to rhyme,” she said. 
          “I know. I’ve written poems before.”
          “Look at the sweater she’s wearing this time. I wonder if she knits them herself. I can see the two of you curled up together in the evening, all cozy, Paige with her knitting, you reading poetry out loud to her.”
          “That sounds lovely, Mom.”
          “All you have to do is ask her out.”
          “Look, we’re almost out of time. I love you, Mom.”
          “I love you, too.”
          She closed her eyes, then opened them.
          “No tears this week?” Paige said. 
          “She was in a good mood this week. But it won’t last. I wouldn’t put away that box of tissues.”
          “You should have seen me yesterday,” she said. “I practically needed the entire box. I shouldn’t talk about my other clients, but, well, okay, this young man wanted me to contact his fiancée who died of Covid. He tells me she’s been dead six months and she still thinks the whole thing’s a hoax. Anyway, I guess she got pretty hysterical when he told her he was ready to move on. That’s why I might seem a little hoarse today. After the session my friend Dani, she lives in the apartment downstairs, knocked on my door to make sure I was all right. She’s never heard me swear like that before.”
          “This guy talked to you after the session?” 
          “Some people like to talk. Not that I have any special insights. I mean, after all, I wasn’t there. But I think it helps some people process what just happened. It helps them reenter the world of the living. The other day I had a mother who contacted her daughter who died in college. Apparently the daughter said that what I’m doing is exploitative and she didn’t want to be a part of it. But she kept on talking. She told her mother that death was a really important step in the process of individuation. Then she asked if her mother knew she was queer. The mother had a lot to say afterwards. But most people don’t want any contact with me at all. They want to be left with the sense that they’ve been alone with a loved one.”
          “You have an interesting life,” I said.
          “Interesting? Most people would think it’s boring. Dani, for instance. Before the pandemic she was always inviting me out, wanting to fix me up with someone, telling me it wasn’t healthy to spend all of my time shut up in my apartment with dead people. It’s nice that she cares, but really I’m doing okay. Oh, Prairie Lights had a copy of that book you recommended. So good. I read it practically in one sitting. Maybe if there’s time next week at the end of your session, we can talk about it for a few minutes.”
          “Sure. Absolutely. I’d like that.”
          After she ended the meeting, I sat there for a while, imagining her curled up with a book. 




“Did you ask her if she’s lonely?”
          “No. But we talked after you left.”
          “What did you talk about?”
          “She told me about another guy she talked to after a session.”
          “Were you jealous?”
          To be honest, yes, it did make me jealous. The whole thing made me jealous. I thought about her having all of these intimate encounters with other people. I knew she wasn’t actually taking part in them, but it was hard to think of it that way. It was hard to keep her separate. I thought of all the times I’d said “I love you” to her face, and I wondered what other people had said to her. If we were married, I’d have to learn how to cope with what she does for a living. 
          Oh my god. If we were married? Mom had really gotten inside my head.
          “You should tell her how you feel about her,” Mom said. “If I were alive I’d have a nice little chat with her.”
          “I know you would. But you do realize that if anything happened between me and Paige, you and I would have to stop having these weekly conversations. It would be too Oedipal.”
          “She’s very pretty,” she said. “She’ll give me beautiful grandchildren.”
          I smiled. I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was never going to change her, especially now that she’s dead. I just had to accept her for who she was. I also didn’t want to get into a long argument with her when I was looking forward to talking to Paige about the book. 
          “I love you,” she said.
          She closed her eyes. I thought about those three words coming out of Paige’s mouth. She opened her eyes.
          “Hello again,” she said.
          “We had a good session this week,” I said. “How about you? How’s your week been?”
          “Yesterday I had a session with a professor at the university. I think it’s okay to tell you this. I contacted her graduate school professor, she calls him her mentor, and they had a long discussion about me. I know this because she asked me to record them. I watched the video of the first session. Her professor is constantly interrupting her and repeating her ideas back to her as if he came up with them himself. She laughed when I pointed this out to her and said she found his mansplaining easier to take when it was coming out of a woman’s mouth. She wrote this down in her notes like it was a data point. It turns out they want me to be part of their research. They want me to have brain scans before, during, and after the session, to see if there’s any change in my brain activity.”
          “Are you going to do it?”
          “I’m thinking about it. The funny thing is, her professor doesn’t believe any of this is real. He says it’s impossible to make contact with the dead.”
          “But he’s dead and you’re making contact with him,” I said. 
          “I know. He thinks he’s experiencing residual electrical impulses in the post-mortem brain. The younger professor tells me there’s research showing that highly intelligent people are actually less likely to change their minds based on evidence that contradicts their deeply-held beliefs. Their intelligence allows them to construct more sophisticated arguments to support their preconceptions. It’s basically how the Supreme Court functions.”
          “Like the woman who died of Covid and still thinks it’s a hoax,” I said. 
          “Some people are just plain stupid. Oh my gosh. That was so unprofessional. Please forget I said that.”
          “Forget what?” I said, which made her smile. “I was just about to ask you if you knit your own sweaters.”
          “Most of them. I do have some dressier ones I bought. Since things moved to Zoom, I’m mostly just wearing sweaters and pajama bottoms. Look, I’ll show you.”
          She stood up and showed me her pajama bottoms. Plush material printed with colorful skulls.
          “These just happen to be my skull pajamas,” she said, sitting down. “I’m really not obsessed with death. I also have dinosaurs and a couple of plaids and some plain gray ones. But let’s talk about the book.”


“We talked for almost two hours,” I said. 
          “You see? What did I tell you? Did you ask her out?”
          “Why not?”
          “For one thing, she lives in Iowa City.”
          “Iowa City? That’s nothing. You see, this is exactly what happened with Lisa. You obviously liked each other, but neither one of you would do anything about it. Iowa City is only a four hour drive. A long-distance relationship isn’t ideal, but people have made it work. What else did you talk about?”
          “Books, mostly. We both love to read. She said reading is the only thing that really lets you experience what it’s like to be someone else. That’s exactly how I feel about it. She said every day the dead speak through her, but all she hears is silence. She’s the page, but not the words. But when she reads a book, she’s filled with the words.”
          “She’s looking especially nice today,” Mom said, squinting at the corner of her screen. “Did you notice she’s not wearing one of her usual bulky sweaters? This tank top is definitely a new development. She has a nice figure, too. What I can see of it.”
          “Mom. Please don’t.” 
          “She should try using a little makeup. A little color to the lips. She’s too pale. Like she’s the one who’s the ghost. There’s a lot I could do with a face like hers.”
          “I like her the way she is,” I said. 
          “Of course you do, darling. It’s only natural you should feel that way about the mother of my grandchildren.”
          “Mom, please don’t start that again.”
          “I remember when I was young and had a body,” she said. “A body could really be a wonderful thing. There’s so much you can do with a body that you can’t do otherwise. Back when I had a body, I had sex with your father. Lots and lots of sex at first, then less and less, then almost none, then—well, here we are. Dead.”
          “I really don’t need to hear about how much sex you and Dad had when you were alive.”
          “Now that I’m dead, I don’t even remember what sex was like. I’m sure it wasn’t always wonderful, but just the thought of bodies—two living bodies—abandoning themselves to their embodiment—oh, the abundance! Eventually, I’ll probably forget about it altogether. But you’re still young. Both of you. You should be having lots and lots of sex while you still can.”
          “Okay, Mom. That’s it. I’ve got to go. The half hour’s almost up.”
          “Next week I want to hear that you’ve asked her out,” Mom said. “Look at her. She doesn’t look like someone who has a lot of sex.”
          She closed her eyes. Paige opened them. 
          “How was she this week?” Paige asked.
          “I think she was drunk.”
          She smiled, in a lovely way that was her own and not my mother’s. It was strange how my mother’s personality took over that face, and how different she could become in the blink of an eye. 
          “You really don’t have to tell me anything about your conversations with your mother,” she said. “I’m usually so strict about talking only if the client wants to talk. But here I am, first thing, asking you how your mother was. I force myself not to be curious. But when I come back after your session, I find that I’m curious about what happened. What you talked about. But of course what happens during sessions is personal and really none of my business.”
          “We talked about you,” I said. 
          “She has me on speaker view, of course, but you’re still there in a box in the corner of the screen.”
          “Oh my gosh.”
          “She said you were dressed differently today. You’re not wearing a sweater.”
          “Oh.” She glanced down at herself, then looked at me and smiled. Her face was redder. “It’s really hot here, and my air conditioner died.”
          “She thought you looked nice,” I said. 
          “Thanks. I mean, that was nice of her. It’s just so interesting that she would say anything about me at all. I had a feeling there was something different about your mother.”
          “She’s definitely one of a kind,” I said.



“Did you get your air conditioner fixed?” I asked. 
          “Yes, thank god. Okay, are you ready?”
          “As ready as I ever am to talk to my mother.”
          “Do you want to talk afterwards?”
          “Of course.”
          She smiled and closed her eyes. When my mother opened her eyes, the smile vanished. 
          “What happened to the little box in the corner?”
          “It’s not there?”
          “She must have collapsed it,” I said. “Maybe she thought it was getting in the way.”
          “You’ll have to tell me what she’s wearing today.”
          “She’s wearing a sweater again. The tank top last week was because the air conditioner was broken.”
          “Tell me about the sweater.”
          “It’s not one of her bulky ones.”
          “A tight sweater. That’s good. She’s trying to make herself attractive for you.”
          “Maybe she’s run out of bulky sweaters. Maybe it’s laundry day. Or maybe she has a rotation and this is the sweater she wears on the third Wednesday.”
          “You’re always so quick to dismiss the evidence that’s staring you in the face,” she said. “But I’ve heard that intelligent people are often more resistant to new evidence that contradicts their deeply-held beliefs.”
          “Wait. Where did you hear this?”
          “I don’t know. I must have read it somewhere. Tell me more about Paige.”
          “She’s done something different with her hair.”
          “Did you tell her it looked nice?” 
          “No, Mom. I didn’t. We’re going to talk afterwards. I’ll say something about her hair if it’ll make you feel better.”
          “Good boy. The two of you. You’re so lucky to have bodies. You should enjoy them while you can.”
          “We are not going to have this conversation again. Oh, here’s something we can talk about. I wrote a poem about you and Paige. I wish you could read it.”
          “I can’t be your only reader anymore. You need to start putting yourself out there. What you need is a little more self-confidence. It’s the same with you and women. You’re so afraid of rejection. That’s why you won’t tell Paige how you feel about her. Because you’re afraid. I don’t want you to come to the end of your life and have nothing left but your fear.”
          “Here you go again. Even with my poems it was the same thing. You were always finding something to criticize. I didn’t show them to you so you could criticize them.”
          “You need someone in your life who can give you constructive criticism,” she said. 
          “But that’s all you ever do. All you ever do is criticize. I’ve never been good enough for you. Maybe it’s a good thing—.”
          I  stopped myself, but it was too late. Her lip started to quiver, then came the flood. 
          “Mom, don’t. I’m sorry.”
          “You’re glad I’m dead,” she sobbed. 
          She shut her eyes, squeezing out tears.
          “That’s not true, Mom. I miss you every minute of every day. You left me with this emptiness that no one else can fill. Since you died, it’s like I’ve stumbled into an alternate universe. In this universe you don’t exist, but you still exist inside my head, and sometimes it feels like it’s tearing me apart to inhabit these two different worlds at the same time, the motherless one my body inhabits and the one in my thoughts where you’re with me all the time.”
          She opened her eyes. 
          “It’s possible to exist in both worlds,” she said. “Look at me. I’m doing it.”
          “I’m still your mother,” she said. “I will always be your mother.”
          She closed her eyes again, then opened then. 
          “Another wet one today,” she said, grabbing a tissue. 
          “Paige?” I looked at the time displayed on my screen. “We went two minutes longer today. Two minutes beyond the half hour.”
          “Did you? Well, that’s all right. There’s no extra charge.”
          “You told me you were very strict about setting limits.”
          “Your mother must have had something that really needed to be said.”
          “Give my mother an inch,” I said, “and she’ll take a mile.”
          Paige finished wiping her face, put her glasses back on, and smiled. Again that smile that was hers and no one else’s.
          “Your hair looks nice,” I said. 
          “Do you like it? I’m trying something new. You’re the first person who’s noticed. At least, no one else has said anything.” 
          “I can’t do this anymore. This has to be the last time.”
          “Oh? Why? What happened.”
          “It’s just that, it’s like an addiction, isn’t it? I’ll keep wanting it, and it will never be enough. I just need to cut it off.”
          “Oh. Okay. So, I guess this is it then.”
          “I’m sorry.”
          “No, really, it’s okay. It has to happen eventually. People realize it’s finally time to say goodbye.”
          The host has ended this meeting for all users.


After our last session, I emailed Paige the poem I’d written. Then I regretted it. I kept checking my email for a reply, but there was nothing. It was like death—irrevocable, a nothing that changes everything. 
          I still kept thinking about her all the time—not the way she was during our sessions, when her facial expressions and her tone of voice changed and she took on the characteristics of my mother, but as she was during our conversations afterwards when she was herself. That one long conversation about books? I wanted to live it again. I wanted to be back in those moments. But time is never given back. 
          I tried to think of other people I could ask her to contact for me. Not my father, but maybe my grandmother, my father’s mother, who gave me books and encouraged me to write poetry. I didn’t really know a lot of dead people, even with the pandemic. The only one I could think of was Olivia, my girlfriend for a couple of sex-saturated months in college. “Oh, the abundance!” To quote my mother. But with Olivia I think the sex was just a temporary substitute for the drugs that eventually killed her. I was afraid talking to her through Paige would make me feel different about Paige. It would be safer to talk to my grandmother. 
          Then there was a ping on my computer. Paige had sent me a Zoom link. Although I had told her our last session was the end, I clicked on the link. 
          Paige looked different. The sweater she was wearing—I think you could still call it a sweater—was made of some soft-looking material, maybe cashmere, and scooped down at the neck to reveal a teaser of cleavage. She was wearing makeup. I suddenly remembered being a little boy, watching my mother put on her makeup as she got ready to go out somewhere. It was as if she were making herself into a different person, the person she was when she was out in the world without me. 
          “How soon can you get to Iowa City?” Paige asked.
          “What’s wrong?”
          “Your mother is here,” she said. 
          “Can’t we do this over Zoom?” 
          “What I mean is, your mother is here. In Iowa City. In my apartment. She manifested.”
          “I woke up in the middle of the night and there she was, standing at the foot of my bed. I nearly had a heart attack. I’ve never actually seen a ghost before. I have my work life and I have my personal life.”
          “I kept telling her you kept things separate,” I said.
          “Well, she’s here now, and she says she’s not going until you come. You didn’t come before, when she was dying, so you have to come now.”
          “I can be there in about four hours,” I said. “But were you planning to go out?”
          “No. Why?”
          “I’ve never seen you in makeup before,” I said. 
          She smiled, and her smile seemed different to me. Maybe it was because of the lipstick.
          “Your mother thought I could use a little color,” she said. “Don’t you like it?”
          “You don’t look like yourself.”
          “I know. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself.”
          “Oh my god. Mom?” 
          She froze with a look on her face like someone waiting for a translation out of a foreign language. Then she laughed. 
          “I’m not possessed. She’s just never had a daughter she could do mother-daughter things with. She’s really great, your mother. I knew I’d like her if I ever had the chance to meet her.”
          “Okay, I’ll be down there as soon as I can,” I said. 
          “And while you’re here,” she said, “we can talk about your poem. I really like it, but I think you should cut the last two lines.”
          “What’s wrong with the last two lines?”
          “It’s too neat, the way you try to tie everything up. But we can talk about it when you’re here. You need someone in your life who can give you constructive criticism.”

Rob Hardy has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in numerous literary journals, including New England Review, Ploughshares, Pleiades, and Rattle. He's the author of one book of poetry, Domestication (2017), and two poetry chapbooks. From 2016 to 2023, he served as the first Poet Laureate of Northfield, Minnesota. He's excited to return to fiction with "Blank Page," his first published short story since 2004.

About the AUTHOR

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