"How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive" by Penny Zang

Penny Zang

Penny Zang

Penny Zang is from Baltimore, Maryland and now lives in South Carolina. She is a writer and college professor who spends her spare time with her husband and son. She graduated from Notre Dame of Maryland University with a B.A in English and West Virginia University with her M.F.A in Creative Writing (Fiction). Her work has appeared in publications such as the Potomac Review, Pank, Iron Horse Literary Review, Baltimore City Paper, and New Ohio Review. She is currently at work on her first novel.

How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive


How to write about a dead woman: First, confirm she is dead. Dead enough not to mind.

Hold a mirror to her cracked lips and watch for fog. Brave her wrist for a pulse. Let your fingertips linger.

When a moment of silence has passed, ask who she is. Ask for her name. Find someone who knows her well, a father or husband or boyfriend or brother or coach or teacher.

Do not let the reader forget that she was once alive. Search out the most telling details, like her favorite ice cream flavor and the name of her cat. Describe her smile, her generosity, her sarcastic sense of humor. Quote her old journals and old letters. There is so much to choose from. Keep digging. Go elbow-deep. Pencil in an open wound.

Ask yourself, what can you learn from scanning a dead woman’s body? Did she give birth? Did her skin stretch, leaving a trail of reminders? Did she once skin her knees in a parking lot while fleeing an angry co-worker who just wanted to talk? Some details are not relevant. Ignore the scars, like the one at her temple, a nickel-sized divot from playing in the woods as a child. Pretend not to notice her gnarled feet. Resist fingering her palm to feel the length of her lifeline.

Don’t bother with the non-essential details. No one cares if her ears were pierced. No one will ever need to know how her step-mom drove her to the mall and gripped her hand, or that she was allergic to the cheap metal and almost passed out, not from the pain, but from the excitement. Those tiny ruby stones were like a badge of courage, but no one else seemed to notice. No one took her hand and said, “Look at you. You were so brave.”

She is dead now. There is only so much you can do, only so much you can know. Pluck through the fairy tales at your feet to fill in the empty spaces. The kisses she waited for. The desperate love worth giving away her voice for. Some stories will never be told. It is sad, yes, but here you are. Someone has to tell her story.


Tuesday night, so many options. You could go to Taco Tuesday at the dining hall, or Ladies Night at Twisters, or bible study in the student center. You could sit in your pajamas and try to conjure your step-mother on a thrift store Oujia board. For a minute, it’s a toss up. Every night should swell with this much promise.

You end up at a party off-campus. If the party is lame (hint: it usually is), you will ditch early to get a drive-thru milkshake, and make it home before curfew. You have a test at 8 a.m. First Year Seminar: Gender and Popular Culture. You’re in Unit 2, the “Dead Girls in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture” unit. It is the kind of class that used to sound provocative until you were in actually in it.

The test will be questions like: This poet haunts popular culture with her sad-girl-gothic appeal.

And you are supposed to name the dead woman. This one is easy; your professor has a hard on for Sylvia Plath. He has made you read “Daddy” out loud more than once.

Baltimore is, as always, gray and sad-stoned. Scavenging pigeons, abandoned store windows, pocked pavement. A buzz cut answers the door to the party wearing a T-shirt stretched against his chest. The way he leers at your friend, you already know what kind of night it is going to be.

Later, you stare at a thumb-tacked movie poster of Marilyn Monroe standing over a grate in her air-lifted dress. “Where’s her face?” you ask to no one in particular. Tiny holes pierce through every part of her dress and her head is a black hole. The poster is nearly shredded.

A man with dimples laughs. “Target practice.”


Maggie slouches over the kitchen table. The kitchen was one of her favorite places when she was alive. She used to save the oldest, mushiest bananas days past their browning, then made loaves and loaves of banana bread. Some to freeze and some for neighbors. Some with chocolate chips. That smell of soft, sugar-rich bananas is like a whiplash of memory. One whiff and you always know, even though she’s been gone over twenty years, Maggie is on her way.

She stretches her legs out beneath the table and draws an eggplant in permanent marker on each palm. Her dress, always a new one, is long and pastel peach, ruffle and fluff up to her chin.

“Do you have a tampon?” she asks.

You wipe your eyes with a dishtowel. The baby hasn’t been sleeping well. “Bathroom, under the sink. But I might be all out,” you say, shuffling to the fridge for a glass of water. Any moment you will turn around and realize you are talking to air.

She pulls at a glimmering peach thread. “Sleep deprivation makes you weak. You can’t afford any weakness, not now.”

“I’m not weak.” Neither of you believes it.

She smashes her eggplant hands together so the ink smears. “If you don’t have a tampon, do you have a bra I can borrow? My tits are so saggy anymore.”

Her accent, flat and British, almost fancy, is as real as anything else. Maggie was your father’s third wife, your second step-mother, the one who died when you started college. Sometimes your mom still asks about her, as if anything has changed.

Now, you guzzle your water and watch her through the blurry glass as it tips against your nose. She is air, her puff of blonde hair just a haze, her arms dissolving against each other when she crosses them, like a watery vapor. She critiques your ratty pajamas without a word, the way only another woman can do.

When you try to fall back asleep, nothing comes. It is always like this after Maggie leaves. You are supposed to feel grateful for being alive. You are supposed to feel alive.


In a Pacific Northwestern town, her body is discovered, leading to a cryptic search for her killers. (Answer: Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks)

Her death is made to look like a suicide in this dark comedy from 1988. (Answer: Heather of The Heathers)


Arrive to work, coffee in hand, on time for once, though you slept four hours, max. You are so full of half-chewed thoughts that you ride the elevator all the way to the top before realizing you missed your stop.

Mannis and Brill cut you off in front of the copier/kitchenette.

“Do you have Gladys Strongwald?” Brill asks.

Mannis does a little jig. “Because if you do, you are going to get all the points.”

You shift your messenger bag to your other shoulder. For the whole commute, you have been on the edge of an idea, all your jumbled thoughts finally congealing, and now it seems sure to slip away.

“Gladys Strongwald? Playboy bunny?”

They laugh and Mannis slaps you on the back like you said something hilarious.

“No, that was last month,” Brill says. “Strongwald is the actress from that sorority movie. Twenty-one years old. Strangled by her boyfriend. I didn’t have her either.”

Some workplaces have book clubs. Some have professional development. Your office has Celebrity Death Pool, which is exactly as horrible and entertaining as it sounds. Some people really research their lists, pouring through stats, weighing athletes fresh out of rehab against old-ass celebrities who are somehow still kicking. If someone from your list dies during the year, points are awarded, depending on age and cause of death. Younger celebrities are the jackpot.

Now, in September, you would need three young celebrity deaths, young like under thirty, to even have a fighting chance at the competition. But seeing the young actress all over the news today is too much. She was famous for being beautiful and, now, famous for being dead. If you avoid conversations about her, you are less likely to blurt out something like, “Oh yeah, my stepmother died in the same way. Strangulation is all the rage.”

While everyone meets in the conference room, you sneak outside to find air and squint up at the sun. A pigeon craps on the sidewalk, two inches from your feet. That is the second time in a week. Good luck or bad luck, you can never decide what bird shit is supposed to symbolize. Either way, it missed you again.


It is one of those years when everyone dies: best friend, grandmother, two aunts, old classmate, coworker, neighbor, and favorite actress.

You wear your favorite black dress to every funeral. The same one you wore to high school graduation and your step-mother’s funeral. Years later, it still fits. Never get it dry-cleaned. Over the years, the dress has made it to theater shows and dinner parties. At work, with a blazer and heels. At dinner, with a cardigan and pearls. Without fail, someone, a woman, always stops to ask about the dress. Where did you get it? Do you think they have more? Some of the pushier women, the ones without boundaries, pull the tag out from against your skin and check for brand information and care instructions.

At night, the dead women show up, one by one, in a haphazard parade to try on the funeral dress. In real life, it would fit none of them, but in death, it slides on to each body type easily, as if the fabric is elastic and seamless. They pose in front of the mirror and smooth the fabric with cold hands. This ritual repeats itself over days and months, one woman at a time. Not every night, but frequently enough that you remember it in the morning and wonder, before falling asleep, who will show up next.

In the dream, you watch from your bed, terrified to make a noise and disrupt a dead woman’s work. You have seen enough scary movies to know that the dead can be angry and vengeful. After a few nights, though, you wonder if you should clear your throat to break the silence, and then talk to them. There must be something they want. There must be something you can give them.

They ignore you when you try. It is like watching a film through a thin layer of glass. They couldn’t be more different. The coworker who had a double mastectomy waiting behind the actress whose breasts have been enlarged three times. Your grandmother’s hunched back, hunched even in death, is slow and frail next to your aunt, the former ballerina, whose poise is infuriating.

Despite the differences, the connection between the women is tangible. The dress. The performance of it.


At slumber parties when you were little, Bloody Mary was the favorite game. You had to wait until midnight and be one of the brave few still awake, then decide who would go first. Or if all of you would go together. Say her name three times and she would appear. That was the story. You never saw her, but stopped playing after the mirror fell off the wall as soon as you shut the bathroom door. You had never screamed so hard.

“She’s coming for you,” one of your friends said. Then, in a fake-ghoulish voice: “Now she’s got your scent, you won’t ever lose her.”

It was stupid. Even as you avoided mirrors in the dark, you knew your friend was just messing around. But what if? What if you conjured a woman out of death and couldn’t put her back?


How to keep a dead woman alive:

Frame her portrait and hang it high. Wear her gemstone around your neck and tattoo her zodiac sign into your softest flesh. Lace a lock of her hair into your braid. Talk to her. Let her whisper her secrets into your mouth. Say her name. Say it daily.

Remember how she used to mourn her dead, relentlessly, her whole body under siege. She could crumble at the opening notes of an old song. Sometimes she stopped driving, pulled to the shoulder to let the dead wreck her all over again.

This is how she would want you to feed her memory, with your own private fanfare and a violence that looks like love. She would accept nothing less.

Build a shrine layered with dolls she once bathed and cradled. Plastic-headed dolls. Dolls whose eyes never close. The near-sighted one. The velvet-frocked.

Name a new baby in her honor. Or a building. Cry real tears at the ceremony.

Go to her home and hang a plaque. Raise a historic marker. Search the grounds for her burial dress. She stripped it off after the service, and kept running. The dress is in the tree, dangling on the wind, warped beneath the sludge. When you hand wash the fabric, ignore the frayed threads and the broken stitches.

She left other messes, of course, but those aren’t yours to clean up.


When your step-mother comes in to try on the dress, a fog fills the room. There is no sitting back as a silent witness anymore. There is a rush, a slide, a full body effort to reach out to this woman who used to keep your feet warm by tucking them beneath her legs and who used to walk you to the bus stop. But the dream traps your arms and holds you in place, unmoving.

She does not need to disrobe and slide the dress over her ancient body. She is already wearing it. Like she snapped her fingers or threw a penny into a fountain to make it so. The dress shifts and changes in a way it hasn’t for anyone else. First long, to the ankles, then dragging a webbed train. It goes from wool to silk to organza and something that looks like leather. But it is always black.

She sighs and the fabric sounds like ripping, but when you wake to check on it, it is intact, as always. You try to swallow the air in the closet, hoping to catch her scent, but there is only the smell of dirt.

You shove the dress in a box in the attic and the parade of women stops. It feels like a relief at first, but then, there is an absence. You still wake expecting to see your favorite aunt or your old neighbor twirling in front of the mirror, slow, like a beautiful rotisserie chicken.

How many of them had once stared at their own reflection, wishing for the reflection to change?

One more time, you pull the dress over your head and stand in front of the mirror. There’s your face and your body, but you’re searching for her, for every other woman’s body in that dress. The reflection blurs when you stop moving. Who knows what hand reaches out to scrape a talon across your cheek? Who would say you didn’t deserve it?