by Meghan Phillips
Mary plays MASH at the bottom of the lake. She uses little stones to spell out MASH. This takes a long time. She uses a waterlogged stick to write out the rest of the categories: number of future children, future mode of transportation, future husband, future job.
She writes out the usual one, two, three, four kids. She writes out bicycle, motorcycle, jet ski, truck, which are the options Missy gave her when she taught Mary how to play during seventh-period study hall.
For future husbands, she picks Jon Bon Jovi and Bret Michaels and Axl. She has to pick four. Missy taught her that each category must have four options for MASH to work, and Mary had always been a stickler for the rules. She never chewed gum in class or pretended to have cramps to get out of gym. She did her homework every night at the kitchen table and always drank the glass of milk her mom poured her before bed.
Missy said that you have to write down your boyfriend if you have one. Future husbands was the category with the most rules. Bobby Landis wasn’t her boyfriend. He was her lab partner in Advanced Chem, a junior with an acid-wash jean jacket. He always lit the Bunsen burner for her. He said that he didn’t know many freshmen who were as smart as her. Or as pretty. Bobby wasn’t her boyfriend, but he did take her to prom, and Missy would say that was close enough.
So she adds Bobby even though he grabbed her butt while they were slow dancing and breathed Yuengling in her ear. She adds him even though on the way home, he hit the curve too hard and drove his dad’s Chevy into Tullytown Lake. She adds him even though the Bucks County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Dive Team found his body still belted into the truck’s cab but couldn’t find hers.
Jobs are her favorite because Missy didn’t have any rules about what to put down. Mary writes astronaut, gymnast, painter, biologist. She writes supermodel, whale watcher, chef, dog groomer. She writes alive, alive, alive, alive.
As an adult, so much of my life feels defined by work. I work three part-time jobs—jobs that I love—but performing these different tasks at different desks means that I’m always piecing together my schedule like a jigsaw puzzle. Days are segmented into working or not working. Invitations are accepted or declined. When I’m not at work, my time is still shaped by its absence.
Though this story comes from a lot of places—a Bucks County ghost story my coworker told me, an emailed prompt from a friend—I wrote this story, in part, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what ghosts do when there’s no one around. Like performers, ghosts need an audience to do their work. What is haunting if not a ghost’s job?