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From A Year and a Day, which will be published next month by New York Review Books.

Those who marry a widow may find themselves competing with a ghost.

Years ago, my friend Sally introduced me to Cheryl, who had been married to a painter named Edward Flood. Cheryl had met Edward when she was eighteen, he thirty-one. Though Edward was a gifted artist, he wasn’t selling much at this point. He also did what artists were supposed to do in those days, which was to smoke cigarettes and drink a lot. That, plus the harmful chemicals that painters inhaled then, may have led to his contracting brain cancer. They were married only a couple of months when he passed away, at age forty-one.

A widow still in her twenties, she struggled to sort out his artistic estate, managed to get him an exhibition, and put the rest in storage. Several years passed under a cloud of grief. She had just begun to get back into the dating game when I met her. Slowly I convinced her that we could have a future together. I sensed she was not passionately in love with me, as she had been with Edward, but that was all right.

I took to referring to Edward banteringly as her “real husband.” Cheryl was disinclined to make comparisons between us, but I sometimes got her to talk about Edward, his refusal to have children. It came out that life with Edward was not all roses. He too had a somber streak, and when he got angry he would refuse to speak for days. I may have many faults as a husband, but my pouts rarely last beyond a day. And Cheryl, for her part, would no longer put up with such treatment. If I start to sulk, she will immediately scoff, “Oh, so now you’re giving us the silent treatment? Don’t be such a baby!”

Every year, as widows do, she’d get a little sad around the season of her first husband’s death. But the birth of our child made her transfer the bulk of those emotions to Lily, and Edward became more of an afterthought. After twenty-six years of marriage, I recognize that she loves me as much as, if not more than, she ever did Edward, though in a different way, and is happy or content to be my wife. If anything, I am the one who has kept the romance of Edward alive in my head, as a tantalizing irritant. He, the promising artist who died young, and I, the schlemiel who shovels out several hundred dollars a month to the storage company to house his artworks. “Why can’t we just ship it off to his relatives in Colorado?” I would ask. She’d reply: “Because they don’t value art and never understood his becoming an artist. They’d probably toss it all in the garbage.”

Recently, Cheryl arranged for two gallery shows of her late husband’s work in Chicago. The first sold fairly well, the second not at all. I am resigned to never recouping the money I’ve spent on Edward’s storage—or should I say “storing Edward,” my spectral predecessor. We do have some of his art hung on our walls, and it doesn’t bother me. I think I would actually miss the artworks if they were someday taken down.

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January 1988

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