The photograph arrives in a padded manila envelope, pressed between two sheets of cardboard. The picture is a head shot, with the blue-nothing background of a corporate portrait. The dead wife wears a starched white blouse and a black jacket. Gray irises like slivers of ice; a modest, toothless smile; tasteful gold studs in her earlobes. Her name is — was — Beth Butler, and she was killed in a hiking accident five weeks ago.
As a grief freelancer, this is not the first time I have received such a photo, nor is it the first time the photo has been mailed with such care. The husbands (I have yet to be hired by a wife) contact me at a designated email. I send them an online questionnaire and request a photograph be mailed to a PO box; I like to be able to hold the wives in my hands, and, as my sister has pointed out many times before, I can’t be giving these grieving husbands my home address. Next, I require three videos of the wives in their natural environments: delivering a work presentation or carrying a birthday cake into a crowded, singing room, or waving a sparkler on New Year’s Eve. Then I need a week to prepare, and then we meet. Between impersonating dead wives, I work as a part-time dog walker and a part-time landscaper and a part-time food-delivery courier. What an unbelievably exhausting moment to be alive, in this era of the gig economy.
I never meant to get into this line of work, though I cannot deny that I have always enjoyed being other people. In college, I interviewed to be a wealthy woman’s personal assistant. Over lunch, she asked me if I knew the difference between “tortuous” and “torturous,” between “adverse” and “averse.” Once it was apparent that I did not, she told me that the ability to make these fine distinctions was a critical skill in a personal assistant and that I should not bother ordering dessert.
It was late fall, and the wealthy woman arrived wearing a magnificent fur coat, quarter-length and dyed lavender. When the woman went to the bathroom, she left her coat slung over the back of her chair and I walked out with it. I wore the lavender fur all through the winter and was transformed from a student who slept in the backs of lecture halls to one who made the dean’s list. Every time I took a test, I imagined being a young woman of great means, of waking each morning to find my future rolled out before me, free of obstacle.
I discovered my gift for impersonating dead wives quite by accident. It was the year after college, and I was planning on attending architecture school. I wanted to build skyscrapers. Then my best friend’s wife died of a brain aneurysm, and he did not leave his bed for a month. I was working part-time for a theater makeup artist, and I brought in a photo of my best friend’s dead wife and asked for her help. Three hours later, I turned up at his front door in a frosted blonde wig and tinted contacts and a prosthetic chin. I had even broken into his garage and gotten some of her clothes out of storage: a linen dress, strappy sandals, and a black cross-body purse.
“Let’s get going,” I said when he answered the door. His clothes were rumpled, his breath rank. He was barefoot, and his toenails had grown into small talons. “Or we’ll miss the movie.”