My father arrives in the middle of the night. It’s been a month since his death when I open my door in response to his insistent two a.m. knocking, and he stands there whole, smiling.
I have been sitting up for hours, getting up and sitting down again, trying to read and losing concentration, expecting something without knowing what it was, and then he is there. He is much younger than when I saw him last—about my age, with more hair, less paunch. His hairline having flowed back in like a returning tide, his broad shoulders having straightened, he leans casually against the porch railing, as if he had just bounded easily up the steps. He is not even winded. My heart jumps within me, but I only say, “I’ve been expecting you,” because I suddenly realize that I have and that this is what I was waiting for.
“I didn’t hear you unlock the door,” he says.
“I forgot to lock it,” I tell him.
“You should lock your door,” he says, his brows furrowed with worry. “It’s important. You are leaving yourself completely unprotected. Anyone could just wander in. It didn’t have to be me, you know.”
But it did have to be him.
“This isn’t real is it?” I ask him. “I mean you aren’t really here?”
“That depends on what you mean by real,” he answers. “Some things are more real than literal reality. You get a different perspective when you’re dead. Think of this as a visit from beyond. Your fantasy or mine—it doesn’t really matter. I’m here. That’s real enough.” His smile spreads, as it always did, across the whole of his face.
My heart hurts. He is so young that I hold my breath, not wanting to break whatever spell it was that brought him here. I concentrate on remembering him into whatever kind of real this is. “So you’re still dead?” I ask him.
“Of course,” he says impatiently, then adds, “You forgot the most important part.”
“Of what?” I ask. He would often do this, begin a conversation in the middle.
“The story, of course. Now listen, because this is important. Are you listening?”
“You wrote that you didn’t remember what I said.”
“When?” I can’t imagine what he means.
“In the story you were writing,” he continues impatiently, “You said it was the last time we sat together as father and daughter and you couldn’t remember what I said. That was the most important thing of all, Meggy.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. I notice then that he is still standing out on the porch in the dark, exposed to the night. “Come in,” I tell him. “Come into the living room where there is more light.”
He moves with ease, with such large strides, that I am taken aback—I had grown accustomed to the awkward shuffling gait of his old age. I remember then that he was an athlete in his youth, even playing basketball well into his 60s. He folds his height into the largest chair, leans back and stretches out his long legs. He seems comfortable and at ease in the messy room, ignoring the socks my son has left curled in tiny balls on the carpet in front of him.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I ask.
“Meggy, I’m dead. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”
He smiles indulgently, acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation, and then, remembering his purpose, continues, “But let’s get back to that story, because we need to start there. It was important. It was the last thing I said to you, and you forgot? Really?”
“There were so many things to remember. It was hard, you know—your dying.” I pause then add, “I know we should have expected it.”
“I wasn’t ready either, and hell, if I wasn’t expecting it, I can certainly forgive you,” he sighs, “To be honest, I was scared, and I couldn’t conceive of being dead. Failure of the imagination, I suppose. You were always better at that than I was. Dying shouldn’t have surprised me—most people my age are dead.” He flashes another winning smile, as if the joke were on him.
“It’s okay,” I tell him.
“But about the story—it was important—and for you, being a teacher, even more important, so listen this time.” He checks to see if he has my full attention before continuing. “It’s about a teacher, this story. I was never much of a student—second from the bottom of my class at Nashua High School. I got mostly Ds—just enough to pass, at least most of the time. I was kind of a class clown, you know.”
He chuckles to himself, as if remembering some of the crazier escapades of his youth, then catches himself and continues. “But I had this teacher, Miss McSweeney—teachers couldn’t be married in those days, so they were all Miss. She’s long dead now, but I never forgot her. I wasn’t any better in her class than any other, but she saw something in me that nobody else saw, so she called me in after school. I came into her classroom and sat down in one of the desks.” He stares off past me into the kitchen, as if seeing a vision of that faraway classroom.
“‘Now Peterson,’ she said to me (we used last names back then), ‘Most people don’t think you are a very good student, but I know you can do a lot better.’ She had this kind of crafty grin like she saw right through me. ‘Well, I guess you might be right,’ I told her; that was the way to get teachers to just let me go about my business when they got too mad at me. After I agreed with them, I’d just promise to do better.” He pauses and then adds, smiling to himself, “Never would though.”
I return his smile, as if sharing the joke.
“But she was different,” he says. “‘No,’ she told me, ‘I’m serious. You could do great things in your life.’ Those were her exact words: ‘You could do great things in your life’—not just that I could do better in school (I knew that), but that I could do great things, make a difference in the world. No one had ever said that to me before, and it caught my attention. I stopped and thought about it. I didn’t exactly believe her, but since she was being so nice and all, I thought it was the least I could do to try in her class. So I started to work in her class and I started getting Bs (you didn’t get As in those days). I still got Ds everywhere else, but people started to notice, and others started to expect more of me and I started doing better in other classes too. And slowly I moved up in the ranks. Not to the top—I’d started out too low to ever get there—but into the top half. Barely, but I made it.” He pauses, and checks to see that he still has my attention.
“I don’t know where I would have been if it weren’t for her.” His voice cracks with emotion, and he gazes beyond the picture window out to some distant streetlight, as if gathering the strength to continue. In this moment, nothing seems to move.
“Of course she’s dead now, but I saw her at a couple of high school reunions over the years, and then once she came to a rally in Nashua where I was campaigning, and I was so glad she could see I was still trying to do something with my life. I still wish I could thank her for all she did for me.” His voice chokes again, but then he smiles. “By the way, it isn’t true about all of us dead folks getting together and having a good time and talking to each other.” He seems to be finished, but then adds, “I can’t believe you didn’t remember the story.”
“I do remember,” I tell him. I remember how his voice broke the first time he told me, and the time after that, and the last time.
“I remember,” I say again.
We sit in the absolute stillness of the early morning dark. I breathe it in. He is beyond breathing. I let his story fill the space around me, probing it for clues to why he has told me this tale with such urgency, why he had to come back to tell it again.
“You know,” I tell him, “I sometimes have wondered what it would be like to just hang out with you, if we were the same age. I mean, would we have things in common?”
“What do you think?” he asks me.
“I don’t know. We might talk about baseball, or politics, or education. We have some common interests and values. I think we might get along,” I say, watching his face for a reaction. Something I see there makes me sad. “But, it’s impossible, isn’t it?” I say, and I feel as if he is already fading a bit, as if his outline were suddenly a little bit blurry, and I desperately want to keep him there.
“Hey,” I tell him, “This isn’t fair. Maybe I have something urgent to tell you too.”
He seems to hover in the air, waiting, shimmering.
I try to come up with a question that will say it all—I consider: ‘Why did you have to die?’ or ‘Did you love me?’ After rejecting those, all I can think of are trivial questions about the finer points of baseball rules. I am afraid he will be gone again before I can speak at all.
“How did you know what to do with your life?” I ask him, the question surprising even me.
“I always tried to be of service, to use what I was given, what I knew I didn’t earn,” he answers, but then seems to catch himself and adds, “Weren’t you listening to that story this time?”
His outline begins to flicker, and I reach out as if to grab hold of him. He eludes my grasp as deftly as if he were a wisp of smoke I was trying to capture in my hand.
“Wait!” I say. “What if I have more questions? There are things I want to tell you too. Will you come back?”
“It doesn’t really work that way,” he says, dimming before my eyes.
An earlier version of “The Visitor” was published in the Summer Anthology of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire.