by Carrie Spell
I’d been working all day at Wegman’s, a grocery store, and when I got home our schnauzer, Homer, was yipping and running back and forth across the front yard without a leash. My brother Dave was by the door, leaning over the porch swing. It was freezing and the last of the brown leaves were stiff on the trees. I called out to Dave from the driveway, but he didn’t turn around, so I walked up our leafy driveway to the porch. He was standing over a lady. She sat on the swing with a plaid blanket around her, asleep.
The woman was beautiful, practically glowing like stained glass in churches. She had perfect make-up, smoke-colored and smudged around her closed lids, lashes stretching out above them, her lips glossy, cheeks brightened as if she’d been sitting by a fire. Her hair was parted on the side and pulled back with two barrettes, the rest hanging down in curls. Her blouse was gauzy and white with a low V-neck, and her black skirt stopped mid-calf, above her long legs. She looked like a film star from the forties.
“Who’s this?” I asked Dave.
“I don’t know,” he said and turned around. “I got home a minute ago and she was just . . . here.”
The sky was dirty-looking, the air crisp and dry. It had been getting darker earlier each day. The dog was bounding across the yard, excited by the woman. I’d gotten the dog as a present to myself on my eighteenth birthday. Normally he seemed bored around the house. He fit in fine with me and Dave.
Dave blew on his hands to get them warm. He was always cold.
“You should wake her up,” I said.
Dave grabbed onto her elbow and shook her arm, and her eyes opened, blinking a bit before she looked at him.
“Hey, uh, are you okay?” he asked her.
The woman’s eyes were violet, a surprising color you never see. She nodded but didn’t speak. She shook from the cold.
“This is my sister Nadine,” he said, gesturing back at me. “I’m Dave.” He was loud, as if he thought she had a hearing problem.
“We should bring her inside,” I said.
“Can you get up?” Dave asked the woman and she nodded again. She stood. She had red patent leather high heels.
I walked behind her toward the door with Homer following next to me, jumping up on the woman, pawing her arm, sniffing her legs. Dave held the door open for her.
“Have a seat on the couch,” I said as Dave helped her into the house. We settled her in the living room, put a blanket over her arms and chest.
Hours later, we were still hovering over the woman, trying to get her to talk. She would smile and nod or furrow her forehead at us, and her skin was looking pinker, but she hadn’t said anything yet. Dave had turned the radio on, cranked up the volume to see if it’d wake her with commercials blasting about dirt cheap bedroom suites. Homer was perched on an armchair, overseeing everything, not sure whether to bark at the woman or at all the commotion.
“Should we call someone?” I asked.
Dave served warrants for the police so I thought he’d have a contact. “She’s fine,” he said.
“It’s kind of weird, don’t you think?” I said. “A mute woman just sitting on the porch?”
“It could be stranger,” Dave said.
“Stranger how? We could call Mom or Dad.”
“What’re they going to do? They don’t care. They don’t care about us.”
My parents had been gone for three years—since I was seventeen, at the very end of my senior year of high school. My father had retired early so they moved down to Florida and told us we could stay in the house if we paid them rent. We’d been sending four hundred and fifty bucks apiece down to them every month for the last three years.
“Technically,” I said, “it’s still their yard and therefore their woman.”
He switched the radio station but kept the volume high.
“Oh that’ll help,” I said.
Dave and I took the next few days off work. We made up things to do in the living room so we could watch over the woman. She slept a lot. Dave tinkered with the Blu-ray player and I cleaned things that weren’t dirty. I was dusting the coffee table when I saw Dave stare at the woman’s legs. He eyed her slender fingers, her delicate earlobes, her pert mouth. He had always kept a sketchbook and in it he’d drawn pictures of women with thin waists bending over pool tables, women in bikinis straddling surf boards, women on barstools opening their lips and smiling, hands folded on top of a bar counter. I wondered if Dave was up in his room sketching this woman we found, thinking about her day in and day out.
A week later, the woman was still lying on the couch, looking around and seeming conscious but unable to talk. Dave ran out of vacation days and had to return to working overtime. I called my manager, Mr. Bigus, and told him I had appendicitis and would have to rest for awhile. I felt odd about watching over her all the time so I made up reasons to return to the living room. I pretended to have lost something and spent a couple hours around the couch, lifting pillows, moving stacks of magazines, shifting the woman’s legs from side to side.
Nine p.m. rolled around and Dave was still gone. I wondered if he’d stopped somewhere first. He said he wasn’t hungry. I was getting ready to heat up some vegetable soup, so I helped her into the chair from my father’s old office and wheeled it into the kitchen. I pushed the chair up to the kitchen table so that she faced the stove.
While I was cooking, I talked to her. “Our parents left,” I said, “so that’s why we’re here alone, me and Dave.”
I looked back. She blinked.
“We’re barely in contact with them anymore. Dave and I have each other, though. We always have.”
I pointed to the refrigerator at a picture of an orange grove my mother had sent. It was December when she sent it, but there my father was in front of all the trees, in shorts and a Polo shirt and deck shoes. When I stuck the photo on the fridge, Dave told me I should take it down.
“They’re still our parents,” I’d said.
“Whatever,” he had said.
Homer sniffed around the woman’s feet. He brought his nose up and sniffed at her knees, put his paw on her skirt as if to test her out. Then he jumped and settled on her lap. I rummaged through the kitchen drawer to find the pictures of my parents’ dog, a Scottish Terrier that they got after they moved. There was one of him dressed in a pumpkin outfit on Halloween, another of him leaping for a Frisbee, and a third of him in front of his dog bed that was monogrammed “Bam-Bam.”
Dave was angry about that dog. He’d always wanted one when we were kids. One Christmas he cut pictures of dogs from magazines and taped them all over the house, begging for a puppy, but Christmas came and went with no doggies. I told the woman how Dave got Homer from the pound after they sent the second photo.
I put the pictures away and turned the flame down on the stove. I put a few rolls in the oven.
“It’s nice that you’re here,” I said. “You’re older than me, but that’s okay. Most people my age fled this town. There’s some girls at Wegman’s—that’s where I work— they’re in high school. They’ll probably be gone soon.”
I stirred the soup around a little more and then misted the plants with a little water. I looked through the window and out of the corner of my eye, I thought the door to the back deck was open. I saw the woman out on the deck, her skin so white it almost looked lavender, her skirt rustling a little in the cold night air. The sky was black, the color of new electronics. She put her arms up above her head and stars appeared.
I turned back to the table, but she was sitting still, her arms folded on the wood top. I twisted around again and the yard was empty except for Homer, who was digging another hole by the fence. I didn’t remember letting him out.
I closed the curtains, turned the burner off. The rolls were done so I took them out and set them on the stovetop. I ate the soup straight from the pot, dipping in hunks of bread, all the while watching the woman at the table. I’d never been a religious person but I wondered, at that moment, whether the woman was an angel. I moved behind her and touched her soft hair. Were her legs crossed like that before? I put my hand under her nose to check her breathing. I kissed her on the cheek. I looked at her, then at the curtained window. In the empty house, I heard her chest rise and fall with every breath.
Around four in the morning, I woke to noise in the living room and I figured it was Dave. I had heard his car pulling into the sloped driveway about an hour before. Usually when he got home late, he stayed up watching television or reading Consumer Report. I went out into the stairway to listen more closely. He must have been talking to the sleeping woman because he was lying about being part-Navajo Indian, something he always told pretty women in bars. I heard a feminine voice and I wondered if he had gone to a bar and brought a woman home. I decided to go out there and tell him to keep it down, that I was trying to sleep.
The living room lights were off. Dave was sprawled all over the couch. I started to ask about the woman, but then I noticed he was lying on top of her. He had his mouth all over her skin, one of his hands down by the hem of her skirt. A pack of cigarettes and a lighter were sitting on the coffee table, next to an ashtray of smoldering butts.
“Hey!” I said, turning on the lights. Dave twisted around toward me, and then I saw that the woman’s eyes, violet, like you read about in books.
“Jeez, that’s bright,” she said. She had a low, sexy voice.
Dave moved off the woman. She straightened her filmy blouse, smoothed her skirt and reached for the pack of cigarettes.
“She’s talking,” he said to me, grinning.
The woman’s eyes were only half-open in the bright light. She fluffed her hair as Dave lit her cigarette. She brought it to her mouth, inhaled, and blew the smoke out in three rings. It was weird to see. Nobody I knew smoked. We were the generation that had cigarettes, pipes, and cigars Photoshopped out of all of our classic children’s books.
None of the woman’s teeth were crooked or out of place.
“This place is cold,” she said.
Dave beamed at me. I offered her my hooded sweatshirt, but she frowned and shook her head. Then I began asking her about how she got in our yard, how she had fallen asleep, whether she had any medical conditions. She furrowed her perfect forehead and said she didn’t know. The more questions I asked, the more bored she seemed. I asked her name and she said I could call her Lana. She complained about the cold again and finally, Dave got up and turned on the heat even though it was too early for that. I smelled the gas kicking in.
“Where can I find the ladies’ room?” she asked and I pointed her down the hall and to the left.
“Good,” she said.
The next morning I went out to buy more cigarettes for Lana, and when I got home, Dave was making her an omelet in the kitchen. The house was hot and it smelled like peppers. Lana’s legs were crossed under the kitchen table, one arm draped over the back of her chair, a lipstick-smudged cigarette dangling from her fingers. The smoke stunk. I’d have to bury my clothes.
“Lana,” I said, “have you heard of e-cigarettes?”
“Did you know Lana can dance?” Dave asked.
Lana smiled, blew smoke out of her nostrils. “I sing, too,” she said.
She asked me to hold her cigarette and then she stood, let her high heels click on the tiled floor. She sang something slow and haunting while dancing in one place, moving her arms around and hugging herself like she was in some kind of David Lynch production.
Homer whined by the sliding glass doors to be let in. Nobody moved.
“Doesn’t she have the voice of an angel?” Dave said, shoving the spatula around in the pan of eggs.
“Lana,” I said, “maybe we should go to the mall later so you can get some different outfits. Maybe you could get something at the make-up counter, too.”
“Oh no,” Dave said. “I’m enrolling her in modeling school today. John Casablanca’s—we saw the commercial and she wants to.” Lana flicked her long cigarette in the ashtray.
“Didn’t you get any clove cigarettes?’ Lana pouted. “I prefer the clove cigarettes.” She pushed her eggs around the plate and said they were hard.
After her first few nights on the couch, Lana said her back hurt. She stretched and made sure we heard her bones creak. Dave decided that Lana should sleep in the master bedroom, which had been empty since my parents moved out. I didn’t like it; I thought of it as my mother’s space.
“It’s fine,” Dave said. It’s not like they’re going to come back.”
“I know,” I said. “I know that. They’re not coming back. It’s just you and me”
“It’s either there or she can sleep in my bed with me,” he said.
So Lana slept in their room. In the morning, I made the king-sized bed while Lana took her shower. I only had to pull the comforter up to the pillows. The sheets were still perfectly tucked into the mattress, as if Lana slept just as peacefully as she had when we found her in the yard.
Two weeks later, I went to work my shift and I took Lana with me. Dave didn’t want to leave her home alone and neither did I, but Lana looked bored and overdressed at the grocery store. She’d been wearing the same clothes since we found her, almost two weeks before, but they were still pristine. No stains or wrinkles. No dog hair all over her skirt.
Lana stood behind me at the register, shifting her weight from foot to foot, refusing to help bag any of the groceries. It was a Saturday and the line stretched out past the arrangement of candy and magazines and gum. The men in line had their college football t-shirts on, all of them carrying packs of beer and chips and cans of honey- roasted nuts. They eyed Lana.
I tried to talk to her as I worked but she wasn’t answering my questions. I asked if she remembered yet how she got to our porch.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even remember. It’s like someone put me there.”
When Mr. Bigus walked by, I told him that Lana was my cousin from out of town, that she might be in a movie and she might play a grocery store clerk.
“She wants to know the ins and outs of grocery stores,” I said.
“It’s real simple,” he said to her. “Nadine stacks the macaroni salad when the crowds are low. She’s not that good with customers—she never smiles enough—but she scans their groceries fast enough, I guess.”
He was acting nicer than usual in front of Lana. And he wasn’t calling her “Darlin,’” which is what he called all the cashiers. It was always, “Darlin,’ open up register ten,” or “Darlin,’ rearrange those magazines,” or “Darlin’ for god’s sake don’t wear those press-on nails in here.” A bunch of high school girls worked at the store on weekends, and they called him “Mr. Big-Ass,” giggling, mimickimg the way he waddled around, touching the doughnuts and the cookies and M&Ms.
Lana looked over her shoulder at boxes of chocolate with red and green bows, out way ahead of time for Christmas.
You like those?” Mr. Bigus said to her. “Here, take one.” He pulled one of the big packages, butter creams and nut clusters, off the display.
Lana ate the butter creams later in the back storage room, where I spent my break when business was slow. We sat on a cardboard box full of Uncle Ben’s rice. Two of the high school girls were back there, too, smoking even though they weren’t allowed. Mr. Bigus never made a big deal because they were all pretty. Sometimes he’d even give them cartons and watch as they tucked the cigarettes between two bubble-gum colored fingernails and brought them to their mouths.
Usually the storage room was cold, the gray concrete floor like ice, but today it was hot. The high school girls had their hair up off their necks. Lana unfastened another button on her blouse. She fanned her face with one hand and reached into the chocolates with the other.
“You look like one of those old time movie stars,” one of the high school girls said. “Like Mia Farrow.”
“Mia Farrow is from the 70s. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
This was the girl who was always asking me about Dave. He’d come into the store one morning to buy some shaving cream and she’d asked me if he made a lot of money working for the police department, and if he had a lot of girlfriends.
“It doesn’t matter,” the girl said. “Nothing matters around here.”
I started going to work regularly again, early in the morning. Lana stayed at home, still asleep with Dave. She slept in his room now, on the left side of his full size bed, because she said it was warmer than the master bedroom. Dave said she was the
perfect woman to share a bed with because she didn’t have any annoying sleep habits. She never snored, didn’t disturb the mattress by rolling over or moving her arms at night, and her body was the perfect temperature. He said it was like sleeping with no one at all. Sometimes he opened his eyes and touched her to make sure she was still there, breathing.
I imagined what it was like for them waking up—Dave in his boxer shorts and messy hair, watching Lana’s smooth face as her eyes adjusted to the sunlight. He must have said things to her like, “You’re my angel sent from heaven.”
When Dave had a day off, he always planned an activity for him and Lana. If Lana wanted anything in particular, she batted her crystalline eyes at Dave, sang him a sweet song. She wanted headshots so he took her to a professional photographer. The pictures were black and white on glossy paper, and they were sitting on the entranceway table when I got home. Lana had an upturned collar and just a trace of a smile. Her eyes sparkled like white Christmas lights.
I put my purse on top of them. Then I felt bad for covering her face and shifted it to the side. Dave and Lana were talking in the living room, so I followed their voices.
“How much did the photos cost?” I asked. He and Lana were stretched out on the couch, flipping through old photo albums that my parents had left behind.
“These?” Dave asked, lifting up the album in his lap.
“No, the headshots. Lana’s headshots.”
“Not that much,” Lana said, and turned to Dave. “Where was this one taken?” She pointed down at the album.
He looked. “Hershey Park.”
“Is that your mother?”
Dave didn’t answer.
“How much were the headshots?” I asked again.
“I paid for it, so calm down.”
The dog was scratching at the sliding glass door, toenails scraping the glass.
“He’s been doing that all day,” Dave said. “Would you let him in already?”
I figured Dave had no reason to stick around, or participate in any of the normal household stuff, now that he’d found Lana. I expected to come home one day and find cardboard boxes with Dave’s name written on them, empty closets, bulky suitcases and a borrowed van in the driveway. In my head, the house looked the way it had been the weekend my parents moved out.
On the way to work, I kept my car windows open even though the air outside was brisk and cold, whipping across my neck, blowing in the loose folds of my jacket. I turned on the radio, remembering the night I told Lana all about work and my parents and Dave, and she listened. I figured it was Dave’s fault that she didn’t listen anymore. He was always distracting her, asking her to sing, or tap dance, or walk across the living room as if it were a runway. When I entered the house, he barely looked up, even though I had been the one here with him since our parents left. I had been the one who stayed up late, waiting for him to get home from work. I was the one who sat through the World Series with him, rooting for whatever team he liked that season.
And Lana was the same way, her attention drifting whenever I asked her about herself, even though I was the one who made her bed in the mornings. I washed and ironed her red skirt, made her eggs runny the way she liked them.
I thought more about what I wanted from Lana and Dave when I arrived at work. There were only a few cars in the parking lot. I pulled into a space near the store, bumping a grocery cart with the front end of my car. I watched it skid across the asphalt. Mr. Bigus eyed me from in front of the automatic doors. He was standing on the sensor and the doors opened and shut like valves. I put the car in park. I was tired of watching people drift away from me and move out. I felt left behind.
The grocery store was slow for a Saturday. When I wasn’t giving Mr. Bigus dirty looks, I was flipping through one of those Hollywood magazines. I read about the divorced stars and their child-custody battles. I read about the young starlets and their Instagram accounts and drug problems. Then I found an article about a woman, twenty years old like me, who moved to Los Angeles from Illinois and landed a role in a hit movie. I thought I could never do that. But Lana could. I could drive off with her to Hollywood, leave Dave behind; he wouldn’t know what hit him when he got home from work and we were gone.
It was dark already when I left Wegman’s. The sky was asphalt. I took the magazine and a bunch of snacks—Lay’s potato chips, Milano cookies, the diet strawberry soda that Lana liked. I got her a carton of cigarettes, too. I had Mr. Bigus cash my check with money from one of the registers and I didn’t tell him that I wouldn’t be back.
I loaded the bags into the trunk of my car, zipping my jacket. In front of me, my breath formed clouds, then slid away as if on tracks. I drove home and found Lana in the bathroom, pumping a wand in and out of a tube of mascara. She was staring at herself in the mirror, didn’t bother to shift her eyes up.
“Dave, I hope you didn’t forget my clove cigarettes.” She twisted around. “Nadine–” She tilted her head to the side and fluttered her lashes.
“Lana,” I said, “why are you bothering with these modeling classes? Why are you even staying in upstate New York? Those girls at work think you should be in Hollywood already.”
“I need time,” she said.
“You could get an agent and some auditions. I bet it wouldn’t take long at all. We could leave tonight, now—why wait?”
“Tonight?” she said.
“Dave thinks it’s a good idea, too. He said if we left tonight, he’d give two weeks’ notice at work, rent a truck and meet us out there.”
I couldn’t tell if she trusted me or not, but she got dressed in her skirt and blouse while I packed a suitcase with clothes and toiletries. I ran out to the car to warm the engine, jammed the suitcase into the trunk with all the stuff I had gotten at the grocery store. From the driveway, I could see Lana through the window upstairs, flipping through the Hollywood magazine I had given her, gazing into the mirror, singing her vocal warm ups. She turned her head away from the mirror, then whipped it right back and flashed a smile. She touched her chest, put on a puzzled look and mouthed “Who, me?”
We were in the car, Lana and me, easing onto the ramp to route thirteen south. Soon enough, we’d be on I-90, passing Cleveland, Toledo, on I-80 in Iowa rushing past corn fields, heading west toward Los Angeles. I had Homer in the backseat. I couldn’t see him but I heard his teeth chewing a piece of rawhide, and I imagined his ears cocked as he watched the scenery whisking by. We were far from the house, hundreds of miles from Wegman’s. The farther west we got, the warmer the air would feel, the bluer the sky would be. We would live in a Spanish-style apartment building with palm trees. I drove on. Sometimes I glanced in my rearview mirror, and I could swear that I saw Dave behind us, waving, beeping his horn, following me at every turn, going wherever I went.
I sped and drove through the night, passing the truckers. I turned to watch Lana sleep behind me, the heat from the vents blowing warm air on her shimmering face. I faced front again and gripped the steering wheel. I was riding into daylight, turning back every once in awhile to check on Lana. Sometimes she was stretched out, sleeping. Sometimes she was awake, leaning her head against the window, listening to me talk. Other times, I felt alone in the car. I’d turn back and she’d be gone altogether, slipping out of the window and disappearing into the cold air. I turned toward the steering wheel and kept an eye on the road, blowing on my hands to keep them warm.