Welcome to the first week of Nine Weeks of Strange! From this Monday to next Monday, I’ll be talking about the story Playing Pretend, and the themes surrounding it. From amusing articles and anecdotes about “stupid criminals” and noir stereotypes, to the not-funny topics of classicism and racism, this week will sure be a meaty one! Be ready.
Playing Pretend is the first story in Women in Strange Places: Stories. It follows a teacher named Margaret who, during her summer break, ends up house sitting a mansion on the Upper East Side at the (coercive) request of her friend Alma. Here is an excerpt:
The soft surface I’m on shifts.
“Did you hear about Jerry?”
“No, what happened?”
Another door slam. I’m in the back seat of a car.
“Son of a bitch went crazy.”
Gruff, throaty chuckles.
“There’s a surprise. What he do now?”
Click. Click. A gentle, crisp sound. A long exhalation. The poison-pepper smell of cigarette smoke.
“I dunno. Jim says he’s hiding out in Long Island. Shane says he flew out to Montana or some shit. They both say he killed his old lady.”
A jingle of keys. A sharp click, then a locking in place. Little motors behind and above me moving, pulling something down.
Cool air streams in, quick like a pervert’s hand. The copper smell of blood. Goosebumps awaken all over me. My flesh becomes aware of itself. There are tight binds at my wrists and ankles.
The sound of twisting leather. Then silence.
“So when’s Ginger supposed to be here? It’s already eleven.”
Another twist in the leather. Another long exhale.
“Any minute now. She’s always fuckin’ late.”
“Think this one’ll wake up soon?”
“Eh. I hope not. Makes it easier for us if she don’t, and I doubt she will tonight.” He whistles, then pulls on the cigarette, then exhales. “You hit her hard.”
A satisfied, full laugh comes from the other.
“You gotta watch that right arm. Don’t kill ‘em.”
“Hey, I listened to you. At least took her out of the trunk. I’m a samaritan.”
Both men laugh. I need to look around me but I know I don’t want to see. I try to open my eyes. Something presses against the lids.
They won’t budge. I’m afraid to move the rest of my body. Is the interior light on?
I try to keep my thoughts as plain and cold as I can but the smell of blood won’t let me focus. I can’t tell if it’s coming from my nose or somewhere else on my head, sliding and slowing on my bruised flesh, looking like old red jam on molding bread. It hurts to breathe.
“How much did Ginger say?”
A long exhale. “Twelve.”
“Split or each?” Calculating excitement in the voice.
“Split. Are you nuts?”
Panic bullies my memory. Where the hell am I? All I remember is pulling the key out of the apartment door, opening it, and then everything goes bright white like I’d opened the door into another world.
The distant, anxious purr of a car coming, moving through a dark unbound by cardinal direction. My ears perk up. We have to be in the middle of nowhere – the sound of the car was the only thing out there. Wind and engine, tire on blacktop. Nearer and louder. Then a buzzing whoosh.
Then the loneliness of nothing, not even a cricket. Not a damned clue.
One of the men clears his throat. I try to sketch their faces in my mind by using their grunts and coughs and tasteless jokes. Their colognes smell like licorice and sugar, colliding with the smell of their sweat. One of them farts.
I wish I had a better venue in which to play dead. I figure that my ears are the only things pinning me to life. I continue to listen for clues.
The men sit without saying anything for some time before one of them turns on the radio. Rock and techno push past each other through the static as one of them searches for a station. I hope to hear a familiar commercial, or a DJ announcing a station name. Finally one of the men decides on a classic rock station. The other heaves a sigh, and then I hear the leather make that twisting sound again.
One of them is looking at me. I can feel it. I hear a soft, hollow click overhead.
A dry hand drags its calluses along my leg. My skin feels raw when he stops.
The leather twists again. This time it’s the other one. He must be watching. My heart, caged in my ribs, speeds toward fright. I have to remember how I got here.
My friend Alma was apartment sitting on East 85th Street. The building was a tall, old, well-decorated fortress that pressed up against Central Park, reinforced by granite and prestige. It was summer break; no more teaching downtown for a whole two and a half months.
Alma called me one afternoon to come over and see the place. It was one of four “apartments” in the building that looked like an entire house on the inside. It had two floors joined by a winding staircase, beautiful carpeting, antiques, the works.
Rich people’s houses had always made me uncomfortable. No matter how solid things looked I felt like I’d break everything just by breathing. Being in the apartment with Alma made me feel like I was little again, back when my mom was cleaning other people’s houses for money.
When she’d take me to see the places she cleaned (when the owners weren’t there) she was always stern when she said, “Don’t touch anything, Margaret.” She would bend over me and put her tired face close to mine.
I wouldn’t touch a thing. I didn’t want to appreciate anything or “ooh” at this or that. As time passed, I started to feel like we weren’t good enough to be in those places to begin with.
Alma led me through what must have been the fourth set of black French doors on the way to the greenhouse area. I kept asking her who her friends were, and she kept rambling about the floors and the ceilings, the walls and the sun. Every so often she would give me a strange look, like she was checking to see if I was paying attention. Like she was a salesgirl and I was her first customer.
I said, “Alma, we’re never going to live in a place like this, quit acting like you’re about to move in.” I felt a little shitty after I said it. I knew it was just my mom talking.
She stopped and turned almost on her heel. Her blonde hair flew around her face before it returned to rest at her shoulders.
“It never hurts to enjoy other people’s things you know. Don’t be such a fucking kill-joy,” she insisted.
We were next to a set of plants that I now know are called majestic palm trees. Their leaves fanned out and then stretched up, as if they praised a painting of a child and her dog beside us.
I looked around, trying to resist the beauty of the place. It felt preserved in there, like it was kept close to the heart of time. I felt like I was walking in front of someone’s camera just as they were about to take a picture of something wonderful.
“Why’d you call me over?”
In an instant Alma’s face went from being annoyed to freakishly happy. Her huge smile cut across her face and seemed to hang right off her cheekbones. Alma looked a little spooky when she was happy. Her skin tone was like an old coffee stain. Her body was the gaunt of a model. She was so odd to look at, but people loved to look at her.
“There’s something I gotta tell you.” She ran off into the greenhouse.
I checked my watch and started to follow her, saying, “Alright but hurry. I have to make a doctor’s appointment. And shouldn’t you be at work?”
I heard her suck her teeth when I came into the room. The smell of roses and green things whose names I didn’t know was overwhelming.
In a wild shriek, she said, “I’m getting MARRIED!!!” And then she told me all about the way her boyfriend Jerry popped the question, and all the sex they had afterward.
I planned on pulling something out of the closet for the wedding because I was sure I wouldn’t be in the bridal party.
I said, “Oh, I’m so happy for you, I can’t wait to go to the wedding.” And I was happy for her.
“We’re eloping. We’re going to Europe!” I watched her body dance around the flowers and overhanging plants.
“Wow! But, does your friend know about this? Who’s going to sit the apartment?”
She stopped her dancing and came up to me, with the fondest, dumbest look in her eye and said, “Mags, can you do me a big favor?”
“What’re you doin’?” The one who I think is the smoker asks the one who’s touching me.
The other sounds distracted. “Nothin’ … I thought I heard her make a sound or something.”
“So what? You’re gonna punch her out again if she wakes up?”
Classic rock plays while this creep starts rubbing my legs.
“Don, leave the fuckin’ chick alone. I don’t want to deal with your shit. Go jerk off somewhere else.”
Finally, a name. Don. Don what?
I hear Don laugh that big, full laugh again. “I just think I will.”
“Ginger’s gonna be here any minute, man,” the other says. He sounds genuinely annoyed at his buddy. My hope spikes up against my racing heart, and I wish that Don listens to the other.
“And, you know how Ginger is about the girls. Whatever you wanna do to her – fuck it. You ain’t listening. Just don’t let Gin find out.”
My gut goes cold. Any move I make can be seen. I don’t really know how to fight, or defend myself against a man with a laugh that big. He sounds massive.
I start to rely on the power of adrenaline as I hear Don turn in the leather seat again and the door opens. The car shifts as he gets out. I hear his feet crunch on what sounds like twigs and rocks as he takes a few steps to the door by my head.
The other sits there and smokes. I imagine he wants to laugh, like he’s watching a drunken friend do a stupid trick, not hurt a woman.
Or whatever he’s about to do.
The door next to my head opens. The cold breeze tenses me up even more. What am I wearing? I was wearing pants when I walked up to the door. And a long-sleeve shirt. Now my whole body feels bare and raw, like when a scab falls off a recent wound.
I try not to scream as he sticks those callused hands under my armpits and pulls me out of the car.
“Oh, no Alma. I can’t watch this place for you,” I said.
“Come on, it’s only for a week and a half. And they don’t even call. They’re off in Bali or some shit.”
She started hopping from foot to foot like a kid who needed to use the bathroom. “Mags! They won’t know a thing! I’ll be back a few days before they come back to town. There aren’t even any pets for you to worry about or anything!” She laughed to herself and spun around in a big, obnoxious circle around me.
“It’s easy! Just water the plants!”
“No, I’m sorry. No. I like my apartment. I like my things. I don’t want to stay here.”
“Come on Maggie Haston!”
“Don’t say my name in full like that. I hate when you do that. I said no.”
“Maggie, you don’t even have to sleep here if you don’t want to. Just come in once a day if that’s what suits you.”
In my memory that room is so damn bright. The sun is slamming against the room, pure white, making the green like neon.
“Stop insisting. I said no.” I started to walk toward the door.
She followed me around like a bad omen, occasionally jumping in front of me and pleading, even offering me money at one point. I finally stopped trying to figure out where the front door was to that place and leaned against a wall. We were between two colossal, floor-to-ceiling paintings of monks in robes.
“If it’s so secure in here then why do you insist? What’s the damned problem with just leaving this place alone?” I asked, my arms and ankles crossed.
Alma smiled and looked up at the ceiling. “They have a thing about leaving the apartment empty. It’s bad for the aura of the place or something. They’re really out there. You know how rich people are.”
This is a story about defying the past, while also being wise to observe the circle of friends one keeps to move forward emotionally. Margaret often feels threatened by Alma because Alma’s the “pretty” one, the popular chick who always gets what she wants. Much like with her attitude toward social class, Margaret feels like she doesn’t deserve better merely because she feels like she cannot achieve it. Why she feels like this is revealed later, and what she does about it is revealed later as well.
Tomorrow: Kidnapped chicks in noir hell