Today I’m sharing a short story I wrote. It takes place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Shadyside and Bloomfield neighborhoods, not far from Mr. Rogers real-life home. I never mention this in the story, but now you know.
Walking into the post office I caught sight of myself in the heavy glass door. I’d eaten off my lipstick and my brunette hair fell limp on my shoulders, the roots damp with humidity. My cotton blouse hung in crumpled folds left over from reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” on my bed. I stopped for a moment with a hand on the cool metal handle, arrested by my reflection—a stranger to myself.
I looked dull, like a junker Mercedes. People notice when you look sick and green or chic and polished, but never when you look dull. Dull people are anonymous.
A raspy voice startled me. “Miss, are you the doorkeeper?”
Turning I saw the blotchy, translucent hands of an old man carrying three cumbersome packages. Two watery grayish eyes shaded by a charcoal fedora peeked over the top box.
“Excuse me,” I said whipping open the door too fast. A red heat crept up my neck in frond-like streaks. “Can I help you with your packages?”
“That’s all right honey, thank you much,” he said.
I slid my letters into the out of town slot and left quickly, hoping to avoid anyone who might have noticed me staring at myself.
In the car I turned full attention to my Saturday list, mentally mapping out the most efficient order: dry cleaners, grocery shopping, house cleaning. I thought about the butchers at Dillman’s, last week I’d waited twenty-three minutes.
In the grocery store I scanned the latest issue of Writer’s Digest for possible leads, finally shoving it in my basket under the bananas. For my wedding two years earlier my father had given me an ultra-thin laptop with a card addressed to “His Little Writer!” “I know you can do it,” the note had said. I used it to write letters and organize my extensive recipe collection so any dish could be accessed calorically, alphabetically, or categorically. With my husband working so much, I did little cooking, but I liked knowing I could access my collection so easily.
When we first moved here my husband used to tell people I was a free-lance writer, moonlighting as a receptionist until I got established. I interrupted college just before the end to facilitate his internship, intending to return as soon as I could.
I try to write something every Saturday off, but at the keyboard my thoughts stiffen into stock stories, headed by whichever hero stared in whatever action/adventure movie was playing at the mall’s cheap cinema where I go three times a week. I think my husband suspects my laziness. Three weeks ago at a party a new guy asked what I do. I’d stammered slightly, but he spit out “receptionist” loud and clear and turned the talk to someone else.
By four o’clock I’d picked up milk, fruit and roast beef; waxed the kitchen floor, cleaned the oven and dropped off three dresses, three pairs of pants, four ties and six white shirts, remembering to point out the small ink stains. At the cleaners Mrs. DeAngelo always grunts over the ink, asking in a thick New Jersey accent if all stockbrokers have as much trouble keeping clean as mine does.
At 4:30 I sat on the couch feeling my body sink into the deep cushions with the relief of work finished. My mind started on the laundry, calculating the amount of clean underwear and white socks left in the drawer. It would have to be done soon. He went through them fast—cut-throat racquetball twice a week, tennis three times and assorted team sports in season.
The night before I’d watched him play community basketball. His tangerine tank top and shorts clung damply to his sweating, tan skin as he streaked between players. Stealing the ball, he’d speed toward me, pivoting at the last second to stay in bounds. His head twisted toward the court in slow motion, flinging sweat beads onto my arm. His hair gleamed almost white—the overhead lights reflected off individual strands making them appear to glow by themselves. One of the other wives turned to me, “He’s fast and assertive, a real scrappy player.” I nodded, wondering if she’d sensed his animal desire to win.
Sitting on the couch my reflection from the post office door crept back to me.
How do I appear to him? Dull—probably.
I heard a knock. Outside the peep hole stood my neighbor Anne with her eight-month-old Ted strapped in a front carry pouch. I smiled to myself and opened the door.
“How have you been. Ted and I were just about to start our walk and we thought you’d like to come,” she said.
I laced into my Nikes, glad to escape the laundry.
“It’s still hot, but the edge has gone off. Ted was getting so restless, I counted the hours until I thought I could take him out,” she said.
Anne has her degree in microbiology, but quit her job to be Ted’s mom full-time. He spits up on the carpet and keeps her awake two nights a week, but she leans over and kisses his head every half block anyway.
She turned her head to me the way she always does when she wants me to catch every word. “Did you hear about Andrew and Sylvia?”
“No, what’s up with them?”
“They’re getting divorced,” she said, her hand shielding her mouth.
“Are you sure? Last I heard they were on their way to Aruba for a second honeymoon. She mentioned to me two months ago that they were trying for another baby,” I said.
“Not Andrew and Sylvia, Sylvia and her boyfriend. She was just planning to sleep with Andrew within a few days of anytime she slept with what’s his name to cover it up. Anyway, Andrew started to suspect and hired somebody, pictures and everything.”
“Hmmm. This sounds an awful lot like Days of our Lives.”
“No word of a lie. Sylvia told me herself. She’s such a loud mouth. The only shocking thing is that Andrew didn’t find out sooner.”
“They were never really much of a couple. She has big lips and calls out toasts at parties. He just smiles and laughs politely,” I said.
She smiled broadly, “How’s your job going?”
“You know me, the receptionist of the future.”
“That husband of yours sure keeps busy. On Thursday Jon and I were going to ask you two over for a game of cards, but we didn’t see his car in the drive.”
She looked at me expectantly. I smiled to fill time, but she saved me answering.
“That poor guy works so hard. They need to rethink how hard those people work. I’ve seen the stock exchange on tv. Those guys are throwing around little scraps of white paper that represent real money. I don’t want anyone throwing around my money when he’d been working a hundred hours a week. He might get walleyed and use it to wipe his . . .” she broke off, winking at her son.
Our two-mile walk had come full circle. I did a little tap step while unlocking the front door. I always feel pumped after talking to Anne.
In the house I turned on the stereo past the fifth notch. The crisp clarity of rock drums beat through the subwoofer, vibrating my skin. Jittering and swerving around the room I stopped in front of the full-length mirror to pose from the side and pucker my lips like a rock star on an album cover wearing a red bustier and matching garter belt.
My blouse was still crumpled.
I felt the sticking sweat of physical labor in a hot room. I picked up a Kleenex to wipe my face and went into the bathroom to take a shower. The hot water streamed over my body washing away the mildew of the day. I thought about the night I first knew I’d fallen in love. We’d gone to an old downtown theatre to see Cyrano De Bergerac. I teared up a little at the end. He’d touched my hand for less than an instant, smiling nakedly with his eyes.
He would be home in two hours. As I shaved my legs I considered topics for conversation. Lately all our talks waded stiffly through a green swamp that limited my subjects to movies or television.
I squeezed a dollop of shampoo into my palm and worked my hair into a frothy lather. Why couldn’t I tell him about the man ahead of me in line at Dillman’s with the enormous nose, three teeth and eighteen strands of hair, who’d shown me a picture of a model in a magazine and said it was his granddaughter; or about Mrs. DeAngelo at the dry cleaners who tells me her life in furtive bits and pieces. Just last week she’d confided that she hadn’t had an evening out alone in almost fifteen years because her husband is a good Italian Catholic who believes in family togetherness. Today Mr. DeAngelo’d cordially tipped his cap to me like always, completely unaware that I knew he screams gibberish when he’s angry, pretending it’s Italian.
The water ran deliciously over my stomach and down my legs. Turning, I let it massage my back before guilt at my waste of time and water urged me to shut it off.
Before drying off, I rubbed myself with jasmine oil from shoulders to heels and sat by the window at my dressing table wrapped up in a soft, green towel. The breeze felt cool for the first time that day. Outside the dogwoods bloomed in explosions of soft pink blossoms that dropped petals all over the driveway.
Cocking my head to one side I finger dried my long hair, alternately scrunching and fluffing. Then I wound my hair in hot rollers and decided what to wear. It had to be red and quietly sexy. Most of my nice clothes are classic pieces, silk or wool. Finally, I settled for a clingy jersey knit dress with a wide scoop neck and an inviting softness.
At my dressing table I started my makeup. Base, powder, eye liner, shadow blended soft, smoky, barely there. Mascara, blush, lipliner full around each lip, outer edge, smudging inside.
I took my rollers out one by one, dropping the clips into their tin. Flipping my head over, I brushed in even strokes until all the curls blended into loose, heavy rolls.
I heard his key in the lock. He walked in with his quick, assertive steps, still wearing his tie all the way to the top.
“Hey baby, how you been?” I asked. My voice sounded rusted and strange to me.
“Fine.” He answered with a rising inflection, elongating the ‘i’, just as he does with strangers.
“Did you make a lot of money today?”
“It was pretty slow.”
Bending into his closet, he studied each of his six tennis rackets carefully. Pulling out the first he swung it gracefully, then hit the strings with his palm. Dissatisfied he replaced it and picked up the next in line—1.5 ounces lighter—and repeated the test.
“Would you mind getting my Lightening Stick restrung,” he said.
“The dark grey one.”
“Sure. Are you going to play tennis?” I saw he was, but I wanted to talk.
Pausing mid-swing with his third racket, he looked at me for the first time. I saw him see my dress, my hair.
He put his racket down on the bed and took off his watch, laying it gently on the dresser. I almost started up to kiss him. The rising impulse zinged from my stomach down to my toes. I shifted my feet to move toward him. He picked up his digital underwater sports watch and buckled it around his wrist.
He spoke, his back to me. “A bunch of us are meeting down at the courts. Where you headed tonight?”
“I thought I’d get some dinner,” I said.
Opening the drawer he pulled out a white shirt and shorts set with a neon blue stripe running in a diagonal lightning bolt across his chest.
“What do you think of that outfit? I read an article in Tennis Today that said more brights are coming onto the courts,” I said.
“It’s probably because the winners of Wimbledon and the French Open were both sponsored by Reebok. Their players always wear colors,” he said.
He dressed quickly. Taking off his socks he laid them in the corner exactly parallel, two feet from each wall. For two years I’ve wondered why he didn’t just throw them in the hamper. Sometimes I step on them after he’s left.
“What did you do with those new balls I bought?” he asked.
“Front hall closet.”
He went out to get them, and returned laying two cylindrical cartons side by side on the bed. Replacing the third racket, he decided on the fourth and picked up the navy and white Reebok cross-trainers.
“Kiss me,” I said.
“What?” he said.
“C’mon, I need a kiss.”
He finished lacing his shoes and walked over, quick, assertive steps.
Leaning over he kissed me lip to lip, not fast, not slow, a married kiss. I put my arms around his neck as he pulled away. I focused on his blue eyes, trying to view his face as though for the first time. I saw a vacancy, frightening but clarifying.
“C’mon, let go. If I don’t hurry I’ll be late. Have fun at dinner. See you later.”
I dropped my arms to my sides. “See you.”
He smiled and jauntily walked toward the door.
I heard the throbbing stereo of a slow passing car fight with the neighbor’s blaring television—on the corner a group of teenagers with headphones yelled to each other over their music. For a single instant the door’s slam rose and swelled into the urban anthem of opiate desire, “What’s next, what’s more? Entertain us.”
Sitting at my dressing table I held a lipstick loosely in my fingers. Fire engine red. “Guaranteed to start a fire,” the advertisement said. Maybe I should have put it on sooner. My mouth curved in a smile at my own gullibility, but I smoothed it on anyway, automatically completing what I’d started.
I slid my feet into black heels and sat with my back to my dressing table. I wanted to cry, scream, scratch my fingernails across the moldings leaving ten perfect marks. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I sat with my legs apart staring at the room, unable to look out the window. I considered calling Sylvia—or Andrew. My phone blared, cutting into the air. I stared at it blankly.
What’s next. What’s more.