Short Story: Posthumous Divorce

…it’s time to move on, and I believe a divorce might convince James of that, too.

With Halloween upon us, it seems like a good time to share a ghost story I wrote. Posthumous Divorce originally appeared three years ago in Boundless: an Anthology of Prose.

Photo by Aidan Roof on

Posthumous Divorce

I’d waited a respectful two weeks after James Weldon’s funeral to move into his office. In a town slow to accept change, I wanted to avoid the stereotype of attorney as vulture. I was also daunted by the shoes I had to fill. Five months on, I was about to face the real test of how well I’d taken ownership.  

James’s widow, Kathleen, would be arriving any minute. She’d declined to say what she needed, telling me she’d explain in person. I’d sent the secretary on errands, so I could greet Kathleen personally. 

When she entered the reception area, she looked impeccably groomed, but a little more creased and worn than she had been. We exchanged pleasantries and I poured us both cups of coffee before escorting her into my office.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

“I’ve been thinking for days about how to tell you, Andrew,” she said. “I believe I have to settle with blurting it out. I’d like you to help me obtain a divorce.”

I nearly choked on my coffee, but tried to keep any hint of shock from my voice. “I’m sorry, I was unaware you had remarried.”

“I didn’t. I’d like a divorce from James, posthumously.”

It became clear in an instant. Kathleen must had found something in her husband’s personal effects — evidence of an affair, possibly — that had shaken her.

“It’s an unusual request,” I said

“It’s an unusual situation,” she responded. “I know how this is going to sound, but please have an open mind. I loved James. I certainly didn’t wish for him to die when he did. But it’s time to move on, and I believe a divorce might convince James of that, too.”

“I’m not following you,” 

She put her cup on the desk and folded her hands in her lap, gazing down at them. “James insists on continuing to live…er, dwell…at our house. He says when he elected to stay, he had to choose a location. I don’t really understand, but apparently there are rules of some sort. He selected our home, and he is bound there as long as he remains on earth.”

An alarm sounded in my mind. “Are you saying James’s ghost is…” 

She looked up. “Yes.”

“I see.” She needed a good mental health professional, not an attorney. I’m sure my thoughts were clear on my face.

“I never believed in ghosts,” Kathleen said. “In your place, I would have trouble believing me. But I hope I can call on our friendship to ask this favor.  Will you hear me out, then come speak to James? He wants to see you. He respects you. I’ve tried talking to him about it, but he always changes the subject before I can ask him to leave. He might listen to you.”

“You want me to come to your home?” 

“If you could be so kind.” Kathleen searched my face for a second. “To be fair, I should explain the situation. I said James wanted to see you, but I was the one who planted the idea. He’s repeatedly asked me to visit you here and report back to him on how you were handling the practice. Finally, I suggested he speak to you, himself.”

I saw no other way out than through, so I settled in to hear her story. “I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around what you’re saying, but I’m willing to listen.”

Her posture lost its rigidity. “Thank you. I haven’t been able to tell anyone. I can’t continue to live as I have been the last few months.”

“When did you first see James? I mean, after his demise.”

“When I went home from the funeral. My sister stayed with me the first night. As soon as I had seen her out the door the next morning, I turned around to find James standing in the foyer.”

“Has anyone else seen him?” I tried to keep my tone gentle.

“No. I’ve had friends over a couple of times for cards, and the Friends of the Library held a board meeting at my house. But I’ve convinced James to remain in the bedroom. I feel guilty about it, but I can’t…have him…”

“No, of course not,” I patted her hand awkwardly.

“He listens in, though,” Kathleen continued. “and gives me what he considers helpful advice. It’s a side of him I never had to deal with, much. He was always too busy with work. I value my autonomy. As you know, I’ve been dedicated to my volunteer activities for years. James had his sphere of influence and I had mine. Now he’s at my elbow every moment, second-guessing my decisions, trying to…”

“Meddle?” I suggested.

“Yes. I’m his only conduit to the world. I’m uncomfortable having guests any more. Yet, I can never leave without James asking for an account of how I spent my time while I was away. If I stay up late reading, he says I should get more sleep. But how can I sleep? I feel like that fellow in the George Orwell book, watched all the time, worrying about every movement. The best thing for both of us would be for him to move on.”

I could picture James behaving as described. A part of me almost believed her version of events. Almost. I would agree to Kathleen’s request, I decided. But I wanted time to think over how to tell her James wasn’t really there. 

“Will you take my side – case, I mean?” Kathleen asked. 

“I’ll come see if I can speak to James,” I offered. “Let me check my calendar.”

“Of course.” She sounded relieved.

I consulted my phone, thinking James would not have approved my abandonment of a paper appointment book. “How about Thursday evening, around 7:30?” 

“Perfect. I’ll let James know. Thank you.”


Kathleen opened the door the moment I rang the bell. The circles under her eyes were darker than they had been earlier in the week, but she managed a half-smile. “Come in and have a seat.”

As she led me into the living room, I thought about how difficult it had been for me, moving into James’s office, how unnatural it had felt to be there on my own. How much more intense would Kathleen’s feelings be about the home she had shared with her husband? It would be easy for anyone to imagine a departed spouse still present, especially when the late loved one possessed such a forceful personality.

As I settled myself into a wingback chair, Kathleen said, “I’ll get us some coffee, and let James know you’re here.”

When she left the room, I eyed my briefcase, trying to decide when to present her with the information I’d gathered on bereavement counseling. How long should I wait before confronting her with the truth of her husband’s absence? James Weldon had taught me that evidence wasn’t enough; the manner and timing of its introduction were paramount. 

“You take your coffee black, right?” Kathleen’s voice drew me out of my meditation.

“Yes, thanks.” 

As she set the cup on the table next to me, the lights in the hall flickered. Kathleen moved to the sofa, and the lamp on the other side of her flickered as well. I hoped she didn’t have problems with her wiring.

I focused my attention on the lamp to see if it happened again, and saw the light playing tricks with the shadows around the other chair. A voice said, “Hello, Andrew. It’s good to see you.” The shadows lightened and changed, filling themselves in with details that comprised the form of James Weldon, in the suit he’d worn the day of his heart attack.

I jumped from my chair, banging my knee into the coffee table and sloshing the contents of my cup. “James!” my voice wouldn’t raise above an urgent whisper. “I…I…you’re…”

Kathleen stood and patted my arm, the way I’d patted hers in my office. “I knew you wouldn’t believe it until you’d seen him yourself. Please have a seat again so we can chat.”

I fell back into the chair, cutting my gaze back and forth between the two Weldons, the living one and the post-living one. Was I imagining him? 

“Whatever your beliefs about the afterlife have been,” James said. “the overwhelming evidence shows I am still here, though in a limited fashion. That being the case, let’s get down to business.” Marching straight into action. It was James, all right.

“Suh-Sorry about the coffee,” I said.

“No worries.” Kathleen wiped the table with some tissues. “James is right, we should discuss why you’re here.” She gave me a pointed look, but I was focused on trying to stop my hands from shaking. 

“I’ve been following the news,” James said. “I saw you managed a successful resolution for the Ramirez family. But there are some other cases I’d like to hear about, ones I left hanging.”

I felt a slight clutch in my chest, worried he was about to bring up Mrs. Winthrop. Her case had been in the news, too. I had encouraged her to settle much sooner, for a lower amount than James would have considered. I felt the emotional toll it had saved her would be worth it. But how to get James to see it this way? I became aware he was still talking, and wasn’t sure what I’d missed.

“…you could drop by weekly to fill me in on our current cases,” he said. His attention shifted to his wife, and he added, “We’d have to find a convenient time for Kathleen, of course. Perhaps for now you could give us some privacy, dear?”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Kathleen, making no move to leave, said, “We have something to discuss, the three of us.” 

“Right,” I managed to say, “Kathleen has asked me to represent her in a matter.” I wished I had prepared for this, in any way at all. 

“I see. We can discuss my wife’s concerns first. What is it? The liability issues I brought to her attention regarding the Friends of the Library fundraising activities?” James asked.

“Nothing like that,” I replied. “It’s of a more personal nature.”

James raised his ethereal eyebrows. “Personal?”

“Very personal.” Kathleen’s voice trembled. “It has to do with the two of us.”

“I don’t see what personal matters we’d need to involve Andrew in. There should be no probate issues. I wrote a clear will and the law is straightforward in this kind of situation.”

I felt I’d better speak up while I still had a chance to gain control of the conversation. “Your wife has asked me to be here – “

“Because I requested it,” James interrupted.

“Not exactly,” I told him. “I’m here on Kathleen’s behalf, not yours.”

“In what capacity?” His voice sounded more sharp than ghostly. Death had made him cranky, apparently.

Kathleen said, “Andrew is here as a friend and advisor. I have something difficult to say. I’ve tried to broach the matter before, but please hear me out this time.”

“Go ahead,” James told her.

“You know I love you, James. We made a good life together. But there is a time for everything, and the time has come for you to move on.”

“Move on?” he echoed, and now his voice did sound a bit ghostly.

“I believe we’d both be happier if you were out of the house.”

“As I’ve explained, I’m tied to one place. There are rules.”

I entered the discussion again. “But the rules don’t require you to stay here indefinitely? You can…go?”

“Yes, but I wouldn’t be able to come back. If I leave, it’s permanent.”

After a moment’s uncomfortable silence, James said, “You understand I’d be gone forever? But there are matters for which I’m still needed. I’m willing to discuss how to make this arrangement work better, but we’ll have plenty of time for that. While you’re here, Andrew, there are some other things I need talk over with you. Why don’t we get those out of the way first?”

“I’m sure Kathleen understands your leave-taking would be permanent,” I told him. “It’s not a request she’s making without serious deliberation. Do you understand what you’re requesting, Kathleen?”

“I do. I’m sorry, but you need to go,” she said in a quiet voice.

“You’re asking me to leave?” He could no longer pretend not to understand.

“It’s not that I won’t miss you or that I didn’t – don’t – love you.”

“I can see how it’s an imposition, but you haven’t thought this through,” James said to her, before turning his attention to me. “I’m glad you’re here to mediate. I’m sure we can work out some sort of agreement that will be less burdensome for my wife.”

Okay, he could keep pretending not to understand.

“Your widow, you mean.” I surprised myself by saying this.

“Technically…” he began.

Kathleen spoke. “James, sweetheart, I’m sorry, you can’t — “

James held up a hand. “Let’s have a rational discussion. This home belongs to both of us. I have as much right to be here as you do. Then there’s the matter of our wedding vows. I took them seriously, and believed you did, too. Can you disregard them so easily?”

I responded, instead of Kathleen. “Assuming you had traditional vows, the words are ‘until death do us part.’ You can’t deny you have died, releasing Kathleen from her obligations to you.”

“But death did not part us,” James countered. “I can’t believe my wife really wants a complete separation. She needs a little more space, but we can work out something amenable to both of us.”

Kathleen took a deep breath, before asking. “Do you remember when we first moved here and I was so miserable?”

“You were?” James sounded surprised.

“I didn’t know anyone. We planned to start a family right away, so I didn’t take a job. I assumed I’d meet people through mothers’ groups and the PTA. But the months went on, and… I had nothing, except you.”

“We’ve made a good life together. You said so only a few moments ago,” he replied.

“Yes, but only after I realized I couldn’t live through you. When you couldn’t be everything I needed, I resented it. I was unhappy and I was making you unhappy, whether you remember or not. Things needed to change; I couldn’t sit here waiting for you to bring the world to me. I was attached to my vision of the life I wanted, but had to face the fact that I needed to move on from it.”

“This is my home, and I’m within my rights to stay,” James responded, with a petulance I had never before heard from him.

“Then I may have to leave.” Kathleen wiped away a tear.

These personal revelations made me uncomfortable, but my years of experience dealing with this kind of family matter – minus the ghost part — served me well, I think. Kathleen had anticipated James’s reaction and thought through her alternatives. Under different circumstances I’d consider her the ideal client. I didn’t want to imagine her being forced to uproot herself at this point in life.

“Legally, this is not your home, James,” I said. “Let’s revisit your own words. You wrote a clear will and the law is straightforward. The house belongs to Kathleen alone as your only surviving family member.”

My words felt brutal, directed toward my old mentor. Then again, I remembered what James could be like in the courtroom. I knew I couldn’t back off an inch.

“I’m still here,” James said. “The law does not cover this eventuality.”

“But you’re dead,” I countered. “And the law does cover that eventuality.”

He cocked his head. “There are gray areas, as we’re discovering.” 

“Do you believe a judge would see gray areas?” 

“How would a human judge become involved in my decision?”

“As I said, your wife is acting from sad necessity. If you refuse her request, she is prepared to seek a divorce. Am I correct, Kathleen?”

“I don’t want it to come to that,” she answered. “I hated having to involve you, Andrew. I certainly don’t want to drag others into it, but if it’s the only way-“

“There is no legal precedent,” James objected. 

“It would become the precedent, ” I answered.

“No judge would hear the case.”

“It’s possible Judge Ferson would agree to come to the house. She’s open-minded. You always taught me to look at things from the judge’s point of view. How do you think she would rule?” 

James looked to his wife. “Surely you don’t want that kind of attention to our personal lives.”

“If I could have what I want, I’d have you alive. It’s a matter of what’s best in the circumstances.” Kathleen was openly weeping now. 

James moved to her side and attempted to put his arm around her shoulders, but his hand only passed through her.

“You see, don’t you?’ I said. “You can be an observer here, but not a man of action, not the man you were.”

“I’m glad I’m here,” I continued. “It gives me a chance to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. You taught me most of what I know, including the futility of trying to deny what must be faced. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, but as hard as it is, it’s time to say goodbye.”

After a moment’s silence, James put on his decisive face. “I did teach you well. Will you continue to look after my wife’s interests?”

“Of course.”

“Goodbye,” Kathleen choked out. “I’ll always love you.”

James nodded and the lights flickered. As I looked at the place where he had been a moment before, I thought I heard a whispered “Goodbye.”

It could have been the wind rustling the leaves outside the window.     


Copyright, Ida Bettis Fogle

Publication Alert: Short Story

Boundless, a publication of the Unbound Book Festival, is a collection of many wonderful stories. I am honored to have one of mine among them. If you’re burning with curiosity to find out what a story called Posthumous Divorce could possibly be about, click on the title (first word of the blog post) to order the book on Amazon.


Penciled In – Short Story

Did you know May is Short Story Month? I found out rather late in the game. But since it’s still May for a brief while, I’ll share a short fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. This story originally appeared in the May, 2009 issue of THEMA – the “Box Under the Bed” issue. Before I get to the actual story, I’ll use this opportunity to say that THEMA is an excellent little magazine. If you’re looking for something good to read, and/or if you’re looking for a prospective market for your writing, take a look at it. Even when they’ve rejected me, I’ve received thoughtful and helpful responses on my writing.

Now the story:

Penciled In

I was written in pencil. This represented a compromise between my grandmother, who believed Mama shouldn’t waste a name on me because I wasn’t a keeper, and my mother, who swore I would live and believed I should be listed in the family Bible in ink with the rest of the family. My grandmother kept the Bible in a locked pine box under her bed. I never did get changed to ink, though Mama asked about it occasionally. Granny always claimed she’d get around to it, but then would add, “It might be wise after all to wait a little longer just to make sure.”

The way she’d look at me made me feel like I was shrinking away to nothing already, as if I’d be gone without a trace in just a few minutes. I hesitated to go to bed some nights for fear I’d simply disappear in my sleep.

I was the only thing Mama ever stood up to Granny about. Mama told me how she insisted on having a bed set up right next to the wood stove when I was born. She’d hold me there between the warmth of her body and the heat of the stove, making sure I didn’t have a chance to go cold and stiff. Once I overheard my two aunts talking. They said when Mama realized I didn’t have even the strength to suckle, she soaked up her milk with a clean rag and squeezed drops into my mouth.

Granny never forgave Mama for being right, never completely admitted Mama had been right. I remember her arguing with Mama over whether I needed new pants. Granny told her, “The boy’s never going to get to any respectable size. He doesn’t outgrow his clothes but once every couple of years. If he’s too big for his breeches it isn’t in any physical sense.”

She used to short me on food too. Sometimes she wouldn’t set a place at the table for me until Mama reminded her. Then Granny would say, “Oh, I clean forgot he was here.” As if I hadn’t been there every dinner time my entire life. More often she’d serve out tiny portions onto my plate. If Mama then dipped out more for me, Granny would shake her head and ask, “How much do you think that little thimbleful of a child can hold?”

Granny’s always been substantial, sturdy, every bit as strapping as any farm hand she hired. And she doesn’t make room in her life for those who are too small and weak to make room for themselves. She’s never lost an opportunity of telling people she weighed over 10 pounds at birth, as did all three of her children. I was about a third of that when I was born, according to what I’ve heard.

Mama had me too soon. My early birth was due to her emotional upset at losing my father so unexpectedly. He got into a barroom fight, or else he was trying to break up a fight, or he walked in just as one man was shooting at another. Somehow he found himself in a bar and ended up taking a bullet. Nobody ever was arrested. The story was too confusing for the sheriff to unravel. I’ve heard about eight different versions myself. Well, all the witnesses were drunks.

My father was big, like his mother. I used to look at the only photograph Mama had of herself and Daddy together, taken just after they got married. In the picture they were standing close to each other. Daddy stood there broad and tall, taking up most of the space; even his whiskers seemed extra thick. He had his arm around Mama, a little wisp of a thing, with the top of her curly blond hair just grazing his shoulder. She wore a white gauzy dress. Daddy looked something like a bear who just ambled out of the forest, and Mama like a woodland fairy he’d found and carried with him.

Granny didn’t consider my mother to be good for much of anything; couldn’t understand why my father had brought such a person into the clan. My grandmother measured out her days in complaints over the meals Mama didn’t cook, the garden she didn’t cultivate. Of course, whenever Mama did try to help, Granny wouldn’t allow it. She’d grab the hoe right from Mama’s hand, declaring, “ Whacking the top off a weed’s no good. You have to be strong enough to get it by the root.”

Sometimes I thought Mama poured so much energy into taking care of me just to show up Granny. Keeping me alive was the one thing she could accomplish, against the predictions of just about everyone.

It was because of me that Granny had to keep Mama after Daddy died. Mama didn’t have any family of her own to go to. I know Granny hoped I’d take after my paternal side and serve as a replacement for Daddy. Or failing that, she wished I’d have the decency to be prompt about the journey to my heavenly home, preferably taking my mother with me.

Instead, I arrived early, extraneous and runty, neither condition ever to be remedied during my time in Granny’s household. When I first went to school I had to sit on a dictionary to see over the top of my desk, even though the teacher put me in the littlest seat at the front of the room. Embarrassed for anyone to know I came from her family, Granny tried to convince Mama to enroll me under a false name. By the time I started seventh grade, this past year, I had only moved back two rows. I’m still not tall enough to see over the heads of any but the youngest children.

I doubt I’ll be going to eighth grade. I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end of this summer. Right now I can’t think that far ahead. I can’t seem to think any farther than getting some food into my stomach and figuring out where I’ll sleep tonight. Once it’s dark, I can probably sneak some vegetables from a garden somewhere, maybe find a barn to hide in.

Mama died last week. She took ill one night shortly after dinner, and passed on two days later. I put on my best shirt and trousers for the funeral. That’s what I’m still wearing, though they’re not looking so good now. I’ve ripped a hole in the left knee of the pants. The shirt is stiff with mud and old sweat and grass stains. It’s amazing to look at it and think it used to be white just a few days ago.

I rode to the graveyard in the buggy with Granny. She didn’t tell me to; I just saw her climbing up behind the horses and assumed I should too. Not many people attended, only Granny and myself, my two aunts with their husbands and children, and the preacher. The service was brief; everyone seemed in a hurry to get out of the hot July sun. If there’s a minimum requirement for the number of words that can be said at a funeral, the preacher barely met it. I don’t remember much more than “God’s will be done.”

Next thing I knew the wagons were driving away. Everyone forgot me. I didn’t mind; I wanted to stay there with Mama a little while. I don’t know how long I sat by her grave. A couple of hours maybe. I talked to Mama, told her how much I missed her already. I asked her now that she was in heaven, could she be my guardian angel? Then the men came to shovel in the dirt. They told me I should go, so I walked back to Granny’s house.

I thought the family would gather there, bringing food, like people do after funerals. But when I came in sight of the house, I didn’t see any extra horses or wagons. Apparently they all went back to their own homes. By that time, I only wanted to go lie down in bed anyway. I was hot and my shirt was sticking to my skin; my head hurt and I felt like there was a sharp rock inside my chest, ripping a hole in me.

I walked on down to the house thinking that once in bed I might not get back up for several days. However, when I put my hand to the door latch, I found it was locked. I knocked, but didn’t hear anything inside. I stood there for several minutes, pondering where Granny could be. Finally I decided all I could do was wait for her to come home. I went around back and drew up some water from the well. I took a long drink and then poured some over my head. It didn’t do much to revive me. Feeling a thousand years old, I dragged myself up to the top of the small knoll beside our house and let myself drop under the shade of a maple tree. I fell asleep right off.

I woke up at dusk, groggy and confused, wondering why Mama had left me outside, sleeping in the grass, instead of bringing me in to my bed. Then I remembered. I looked down and saw lamplight through the window. Granny was home. Once again, I made my way for the door, aiming to get to my own bed. Once again, the door was locked. I could hear Granny moving around inside this time. I banged my fist on the wood and hollered, “Granny, it’s me.”

I received no reply. Eventually, I climbed back up to my maple tree and watched the stars begin to dot the sky. I wondered if Mama was looking down on me. “What should I do Mama?” I asked. No answer there either.

True night had come by that time. The dark seemed like it was grabbing at me, and the mosquitoes were eating me up. I ran back toward the house, stopping in the front yard to catch my breath. I began to tremble all over, standing there completely alone. I felt smaller than I ever had before. The thought came to me that if I shouted loud enough for long enough, someone somewhere would hear me and come to see what was the fuss, a thought immediately followed by the fear that it might be coyotes or wolves who heard me. My legs felt about as substantial as pudding by this time.

Wobbling a bit, I crept closer to the house. Instead of the door, I headed for the window. I peered inside, not knowing what I expected to see. There was Granny, sitting at the table, the wooden Bible box next to her. She was snipping a photograph with her sewing scissors, the picture of my parents. She was cutting them apart. When she finished, she lay Daddy down on the table, smoothing him out. Then she took Mama and threw her into the wood stove.

Next she went to the shelf where she kept her writing things: paper, pencils and such. She picked up something and brought it back to the table. Taking a key from her apron pocket, she opened the pine box. She lifted out the family Bible and opened it up. After staring at it for a moment she put her hand to the page. I saw then what she was holding – an eraser.

Copyright: Ida Bettis Fogle

Me, Published

In which the blogger reveals clues to her true identity. Alternative title of post: Shameless Self-Promotion.

One of my short stories is now available for your reading pleasure, in Main Street Rag’s 2010 short fiction anthology: Coming Home.










Follow the link above to purchase a copy. The title of my piece is The Writing on the Wall. If you can’t afford to buy your own copy, you can always head to your local public library and place a request for purchase.