Twenty five years in, she found herself a ghost. She stood unseen in the living room, stupidly holding a large bowl of homemade caramel corn. The noise from the widescreen television washed over her, the whistles and calls, the screaming of the fans, the roar of the crowd. The men in the room, overgrown and overfed, booed and hooted, depending on their agreement with the referees. Empty bottles of beer and depleted bags of chips lay pillaged.
She sat the bowl down. Quick meaty hands dug to the bottom, shoved gooey warm caramel corn into half full mouths. Murmurs of approval quickly followed.
Her husband patted her on the arm as she walked out.
He patted the dogs in the same way.
Although she should have returned to the kitchen to clean up, smooth as a shade, she glided out the side door into the yard. The dark corn syrup would hopelessly encrust itself to the sheet pans in her absence, but they could silently soak all night. The sugars would loosen, dissolve, disappear.
Outside, she looked up at the trees, splendid in their fall regalia. The reds and yellows and oranges cheered her spirits in the crisp air.
She felt as if she could walk for hours.
And so she did.
A neighbor would wave and she would nod in return, a quiet visitant to these familiar streets. In decades past, she would have stopped and talked, laughing about the inanities of life. Watch out for the speed trap by the school. ShopMart has a sale on nectarines. The Brookers are getting a divorce. But nodding was about all she could manage in her new spectral state.
She didn’t talk very much anymore.
She briefly wondered when that had happened.
The ballfields were around the corner. How many hours did she spend there when her children were young, packing up sliced oranges, carrying lawn chairs, ordering trophies, and organizing pizza parties after the game. Her husband had always coached, holding up a clipboard, fending off other fathers who felt they could coach better, but they just didn’t have the time. Her husband would brusquely ask her to get the cones out of the car. To run down to the community center to pick up the uniforms. To make sure all the parents signed the consent forms.
She always did.
When she had first met her husband, the excitement had been raw, primal. She had never felt more alive, seeing him light up when she entered the room. He truly saw her, his eyes wide open, following her every move. He would come early for their dates—making an effort—walking to her door, escorting her to his car, opening the car door for her, holding her hand, leading her to a table in a restaurant with his hand on the small of her back.
Now, they seldom went out.
When they did, he would drink too much and complain. He didn’t complain to her—her being insubstantial—but he generally complained to the general body populace.
Last Halloween she had tried somewhat successfully to make homemade marshmallows. The first step was to make the sugar syrup. How easy that was! Almost like falling in love, adding the sugars, adding heat, and simply covering the pot. If this had been all it took and if this had been the only stage, the marshmallows would have been a complete success. But the tricky part was making sure the sugar syrup reached the right temperature: the firm-ball stage, where gently swirling the pan from time to time dissipated the heat evenly. This was particularly hard to do as things can be too cold or too hot. Spouses grow distant, emotionally retreating to somewhere less painful, less aggravating. Spouses say fiery things they do not mean that burn, sometimes throughout decades. Spouses apologize, but scars remain. And that scar tissue can fester over time, as finally smiling smiles do not fully reach the eyes and embraces fail to warm. A marriage so easily becomes a lifeless apparition from the vibrant corporal entity it had once been.
The next step of making marshmallows was adding the gelatin and egg whites. She enjoyed this part immensely, seeing the candy transform and progress, much like children who come to a marriage to give common purpose and meaning. This step in candy making was incredibly satisfying, as all efforts appear to be worthwhile. Besides, a cook was too busy at this point, watching the whole of it come together to notice if anything was really amiss.
But the hardest step was setting the marshmallows, which just takes an inordinate amount of time. All one can hope for was oozing the creation into a prepared pan, quietly praying the process was worth it. Knowing that if the batch failed or went soggy or imploded from structural deficiencies, it was too late to start over. Like all candy making, the process required focus and forethought for things to go smoothly. External factors seemed to play far too great a role to guarantee success.
In the end, marshmallows appeared to be far too fragile for this world, she thought, as she rounded yet another corner of the neighborhood. After all, marshmallows were simply sugary spun air, with nothing really to support them. They were as almost an illusory phantasm as romantic love, unsupportable after the years. As tenable as wrapping barbed wire around a marshmallow.
She stopped, sat on a park bench, looked out to the rolling hills and would have preferred to be there, far away, simply a shadow walking among the trees. Instead, she sat, watching a late fall sun drop down on the horizon.
With the sun setting, a stronger chill set in.
She stood and steeled herself for the walk home in the silent dusk, watching young families take their children out for trick or treating. She felt ethereal watching them, as if on the other side of a looking glass.
The end of October was mystic that way, she thought, as it sealed off all the possibilities that autumn seems to bring. Tomorrow would start November, a dead time. A time when nothing grew or changed; it just was. And much like death—or what feels like death—she walked back home, icy and cold, as invisible and hopeless as any ghost.