by Katherine Hubbard
The lights flicked on in the house next door. Marnie had the pleasure each morning of watching her neighbor, Celine, barely covered by an ivory kimono, passing in front of windows like a ghost; appearing, disappearing, appearing again. Upstairs, Russ was banging around, shaving, dressing. Finding a tie. He made more noise doing everyday things; it was impossible not to be aware of him when he was home. Marnie opened the fridge. They were out of milk.
Issue #119 soundtrack: Nathan Hobbs Blehar “Heaps”
Alison, freshly turned six, sat at the table and pulled a pack of birthday gum out of her pajama pocket. Marnie took it out of her hand. It was squished and looked like it had been there all night, melting in the heat of her daughter’s body.
“Mom, there are dentists who say gum is actually good for your teeth.” Allison picked up a spoon and began tapping a juice glass.
“Stop that,” Marnie said. “Get yourself breakfast. No gum.”
“Mom, seriously, gum is just as good as brushing.” Allison now stood directly in front of her, right in her way. She picked up the gum Marnie had left on the counter.
“I said no.”
Quickly, Allison unwrapped a piece and stuck it in her moth. Marnie swiped the rest of the pack out of her daughter’s hand, lifted the garbage bag out of the can, stuffed the gum in the bag and tied it off.
“Noooooooo!” Allison’s wail ricocheted off the walls. Marnie stomped outside, stuffed the bag deep into the can, with Allison on her heels both ways crying, “No! No! No! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Allison hit Marnie on the back with her fists, wailed louder.
The whole time, Marnie felt Celine’s eyes on her. Russ, finally downstairs, shouted, “What the hell?” Allison flung herself at his waist, wailing anew. Marnie pushed past both, marched upstairs, violently opened the door to Tessa’s room, shouted, “Out of bed! Now!” Immediately Tessa started crying. Marnie slammed the door, went into her own room, into the bathroom, slammed that door, mystified by the sudden absurd anger.
“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
Through the door she heard Russ yell at both girls to calm down. Marnie sat on the toilet seat, put her head on her knees. Imagined Celine still at the window, a ghost witness to Marnie’s red face, rigid body, ghost auditor of all the yelling.
It snowed. Large flakes, fat and wet, gummed the windshield wipers, fell down the back of Marnie’s neck when she stepped from the car. The parking lot was packed because the moment flakes hit pavement, everyone thinks it’s the apocalypse. If she could have, she’d have forgone shopping, but there was nothing in the house. No apples, no chicken nuggets, not even pasta. Somehow she intended to get to the grocery store every day, and somehow, every day, she managed not to go.
Most of the grocery patrons were either over 70 or women who seemed to weigh 70. The women in this town dressed, that’s what always got her. Skinny jeans to go to the grocery. Hair done. Women like Celine. Marnie picked at her socks, pulled down her t-shirt, could not get Celine, her ghostly ways, out of her mind. It was ridiculous – how observed Marnie felt this morning – how thoroughly without privacy.
Two older ladies strolled by, arm in arm, one with a basket over her arm as if it were the Champs-Elysees. The other had a rain scarf over her head, the kind Marnie’s grandmother used to wear, clear plastic, lightweight to protect the 'do, tied under the chin. Arm in arm they walked, not speaking, a kind of companionability Marnie had not experienced since childhood.
The store was silent and noisy at the same time. Music blared, cart wheels squeaked, but people didn’t speak. Collect crap in your cart, but for God’s sake don’t speak unless you need something. The list: Eggs. Milk. Bread. Chicken nuggets. Frozen peas. Most important: Coffee. More and more people came through the entrance, snow swirling in with them. People dodged the guy stacking apples; Marnie thought, “Cheese?” It was hard to know. Weirdly, the produce section smelled like fried chicken and salmon. Why was she here? Chicken nuggets. Bread. She wheeled her cart toward frozen foods, wishing she’d worn a coat instead of layering a sweater over her sweats. There was a display of hand-knit scarves near the fish stick display. Soft, chenille probably, not wool. Marnie picked one off the hook, wrapped it around her neck. A blond woman in a fitted white snowsuit and moon boots knocked by, ponytail swishing like a beacon, and now Marnie walked behind her, following the snowsuit the way you follow red tail lights of the car before you. Seeing, not seeing. Both carts squeaked around corners, shopping list forgotten. It was the woman’s perfume, a deeply rusty floral Marnie felt lodge in the back of her throat, a scent half recognized. Ceiling-high displays of chips and Frosted Flakes and Oreos loomed like thick-trunked trees. Marnie’s shoes rubbed against her socks, which rubbed against her ankles. From the back, the woman looked like Celine. Was she? Marnie lost sight, took the corner of the pet section too close, nicked a display of cat food with a back wheel. Cans clattered into her empty cart and around her feet, the noise momentarily slapping her up short.
Back to the beginning, back to the in-door. Focused now, she followed the list and went home with one bag: can of coffee, chicken nuggets, bottle of seltzer, bag of grapes, the last gallon of skim milk from the refrigerated section and only two things she had not paid for: a small tube of beeswax lip balm and the soft chenille scarf still around her neck.
The snow continued, doming the kettle grill on the deck, silencing street traffic. At two the school closed. Apparently the district couldn’t wait an hour. Marnie pulled her boots out, found the ski parka she’d shoved in the back of the closet last year, tromped up to the street. Tessa and Allison flew from the doors, each surrounded by her own gaggle of excited children. They want to go sledding immediately; they want to go with their friends, bright eyes, lashes flecked with snowflakes. Gloria’s mom, Sage (or was it Sorrell? All Marnie could remember was that her name was an herb), after making a quick survey of Marnie’s parka with the broken zipper and Marnie’s leaking boots, volunteered to take them, opened the trunk of her Lexus SUV, and the children climbed in still squealing, excited, and then they were off, leaving Marnie on the sidewalk to walk home again, back to the silent house where the breakfast dishes sat in the sink like a reprimand.
An hour later, Marnie heard Russ’s car pull into the driveway. The car door slammed, but Russ didn’t materialize. Fine. Marnie got off her bed and stomped to the kitchen where she could see directly into Celine’s window. Snow was thick on the sill, creating a cloud Marnie couldn’t see through – Celine’s lights were off. What could she see anyway? Russ knew the kitchen looked directly in on Celine’s living room. Marnie turned her body slightly so that she was no longer facing the window. Once again, she felt the same anger that had propelled her that morning - the need to grab something, wad it up, stomp on it, throw it away. Then she saw Russ was not inside the house, he was outside, shoveling Celine’s sidewalk while Celine stood in the yard chatting. Russ still wore his work overcoat. He had not bothered to come inside and switch to a parka or even put on gloves. Celine’s blond hair caught a sunbeam, which, at just that moment, had wormed through dark clouds. A spotlight highlighting both Celine’s hair and her white, bloodless skin. Marnie stood at the window, not bothering to conceal herself. Celine’s cheeks were not even pink with cold. Russ, however, was flushed; Marnie had always liked the way his face reddened, cheekbones to jaw, like a child. He removed his coat, and Celine took it from him, draped it over her arm. Snow gust from the tree above them obscured the two for a moment. Then clouds merged to form one large black cloud again, the sky darkened further. More snow. Russ finished and walked toward Celine, traded shovel for overcoat. Marnie stepped back from the window. He’ll come home now, she thought. But instead she watched Russ walk with Celine toward Celine’s front door.
Marnie finished the dishes. She wiped all the counters. She went upstairs and made her bed and her children’s beds. She picked underwear off the floor, swept the gum wrappers she found beneath Alison’s mattress. Straightened crooked photographs on the landing wall. Plumped the family room pillows. Put a new load of clothing in the washer; changed all the towels in the bathrooms for fresh ones; sorted stacks of mail into junk and bill piles. Now it was five, so dark it could be midnight. Russ opened the front door, the girls right behind him, dropped off by Sage who didn’t even bother to get out of the car, just waved one hand distractedly out a crack of the car window while backing up out of the driveway and hitting the road.
What is it with these people? Marnie thought.
The girls’ pants were sopping, boots with as much snow inside as out. Sweet little faces bright red, voices shrill.
“Mom! Mom! Guess what?” Tess shook her boots in Marnie’s direction, obviously wanting them to be pulled off. Russ bent down to help Allison, who was lying on her back, both legs stuck in the air like a rolled turtle. What princesses these two are, Marnie thought. She never intended to teach them to be that, yet there they were.
“Mom! Listen! So we’re at the park and Gloria and I are on the saucer and we slide from the top of the hill to almost the tennis courts and Drew and Keith were at the tennis courts and were playing tennis with iceballs and Keith pitched one over the fence at us and Gloria looked up and it knocked out her tooth and then Sage came running over and there was blood, literally blood, everywhere! and Sage was totally freaking out but guess what! I found the tooth! I found it in the snow because it was a little bloody and I gave it to Sage and then she got everyone in the car and now she’s going to the dentist with Gloria and they might even be able to put that tooth right back in her head!”
“Oh!” Marnie said, pulling Tessa’s other boot off. “That’s quite a story!”
“It’s not a story, Mom. It’s completely true.” Tessa pulled her sock off violently from the toe. There was an enormous puddle around her; chunks of snow slid in slow motion from her parka.
“I know it’s true, sweetheart.” Marnie stood up, the blood rushing from her head unexpectedly. “I didn’t mean that it was made up.”
“Because it’s NOT! I wouldn’t make that up!”
What? How had this become an argument? She looked at Russ, who shrugged.
“I don’t think Mom meant you were lying,” he said.
“Who asked you, Dad! Oh My God!” Tessa was halfway up the stairs when she turned and glared at her parents, then turned again, stomping the rest of the way before slamming her door so hard the house shook.
“I swear to God if she puts another crack in the wall I’ll take the door off its frame,” Russ said. His face was inches from Marnie’s. Then he turned on his heel in the direction of the liquor cabinet. Allison sat on the floor in her own snow puddle, working at removing the remaining boot.
“I’ll help you, baby,” Marnie said, grasping the bottom of the boot.
Allison shook her head. Kicked gently in Marnie’s direction.
“I can do it.” She wiggled the boot off triumphantly. Pulled her socks off with both hands, both socks at the same time. Rolled onto her back involuntarily, grinning. Marnie stood, backed up into the kitchen.
Night. The girls were in bed after baths and dinner. Clean pans piled on the drainboard, the dishwasher gently humming. Marnie sat at the kitchen table with the lights off, drinking a glass of red wine. A light flicked on in the upstairs window of Celine’s house, casting an unexpected shadow of Marnie across the table. Her head, shoulders, and the bottle next to her merged into a Rorschach of a warrior in hauberk. She flagged her hand next to the bottle, and now the shadow had an axe; now it was stronger than expected. A draft from under the back door made her ankles cold. Russ puttered in the basement. She tried to remember if he’d kissed her that day. Probably not.
Overnight, the snow ended. Rain. Russ never did shovel the walk in front of their own house and Marnie felt cheated. So what if the snow was gone? Their driveway and front walk remained icy. But Celine’s house looked like the person who lived there cared. What if the mail carrier slipped on their walk? What if he slipped and sued them because they hadn’t cleaned the sidewalk in front of their home? People were like that these days.
The rain continued-- a downpour with distant thunder. In February. Because that made sense. Once the girls were off to school, Marnie turned the lights off in the house, unplugged the phone. Years ago a friend of hers had been electrocuted while on the phone during a lightening strike. Marnie preferred not to take chances like that. She had her cell; she didn’t think that lightening travelled across a wireless network. This was something Russ frequently made fun of her for, but she couldn’t help it. It was the idea that she’d be electrocuted and the girls would be the ones to find her; that’s what made her do it.
“What’s with the phones?” Russ texted.
“Lost electricity,” Marnie wrote back. Marnie decided to set the clocks back in the house ten minutes or so just to make it seem true. Then she regretted the lie – what if Russ texted Celine about it? It couldn’t be that their lights would go out, but Celine’s wouldn’t. She looked out the window. I could set her clocks back, too – Celine’s extra key dangled from the key rack by the door. Their houses were exactly the same, although last spring Celine had put in a deck off her bedroom on top of the garage, where she spent her Saturdays sunbathing in a white crocheted bikini so tiny Marnie thought, What’s the point. Celine’s body – flat stomach, grapefruit breasts, musculature that shifted obviously beneath her white skin - and the woman was well into her 40s! As old as Russ! It was difficult to stand in the back replenishing the plastic pool Allison insisted on having despite being too big to fit in it. The only thing that kept Marnie from becoming homicidal was that Celine never seemed to tan – she remained translucent one Saturday to the next. Every summer Marnie’s skin turned a satisfying gold, so she used to prefer summer, believing it was the season she looked her best. Back then, there was an easy elegance that drew men to her. When they were first together, Russ liked to say Marnie looked as good in a jean jacket as she did in silk. But, since the children were born, Marnie had quit caring, quit exercising, quit paying attention to what she ate. The result was a new invisibility, particularly around men, which was not entirely unwelcome.
Lightening, closer now. Marcie was relieved she’d unplugged the appliances. Thunder. “Don’t forget to fix the clocks when it’s over,” Russ texted.
Marnie waited until the thunder and lightening subsided. This is bananas, she thought to herself, but she fished the key out of the basket and walked across the driveway. Celine’s foyer was very dim. Marnie heard the alarm whine from the living room, but Celine had conveniently written the code on the key fob with a sharpie. Living room, also dim. All the curtains on the windows facing the front of the house were drawn, unlike the ones in the back, but in the shadows, Marnie could see it was decorated in an Art Deco style. A couple of Erté prints were framed and hung on either side of the fireplace below tulip shaped sconces. Tacky. She went upstairs. There seemed to be no clocks. Well, nothing was ticking. A glass case at the landing caught her attention. It contained figurines, Asian maybe. Marnie carefully took one out. To her amazement, it was a tiny carved sculpture of a man and woman fucking. The detail was astounding, raised nipples, eyelashes, infinitesimally small curls of pubic hair. The tiny woman’s face was joyous, but the man, it was difficult to say – his head was thrown back, his eyes closed, his mouth slightly open, neither a smile nor a grimace. Just, open. Embarrassed, Marnie replaced the figurine, though as she did, she realized every object in the case depicted sex. It was like stumbling on a secret stash of Playboy. Of course Celine would have pornographic figurines – it certainly had seemed to Marnie for as long as she’d been acquainted with Celine, that sex was her thing. It’s probably why she didn’t have children or a husband. She stood in front of the case a moment, then took the first figurine out, slipped it into her pocket, then closed the cabinet door. She felt the same bump of adrenaline she felt stealing from the grocery or the drugstore. Though this was a little different, of course. Would Celine notice the figurine was gone? Would she worry about it? That alone increased the adrenaline for Marnie, made it exciting. It was the best she’d felt in months, and for a moment she couldn’t remember why she was there, in Celine’s house, looking at her stuff. From the window on Celine’s second floor landing, Marnie could see right into her own home. She could see the laundry basket on her own landing, waiting to go to the basement. She could see her own bedroom and the foot of her unmade bed. When she turned and walked into what must be Celine’s bedroom, Marnie realized that from the largest window, she could see all of her own bedroom, as well as partly into Tessa’s room.
Celine’s bedroom was impeccable: grey linen duvet, coordinated shams with scrolls, and one of those tubular pillows no one with children would ever own. No one like Marnie has time to make a bed like this. A dressing table was situated in the corner, and upon a small mirrored tray sat several small bottles of perfume: Creed, Guerlain, Channel, and a very tiny, very elaborately-carved crystal bottle with a stopper in the shape of a crown. Marnie picked this one up and opened it. That scent: rust, gardenias. She set it down. There was a clock on the nightstand, it ticked faintly, some old windup thing that looked great in the room but which was probably impractical for waking one up. It was an hour off anyway. She turned back to the table, bottles, a brush and matching comb, tiny compact that also looked Art Deco. Ran her fingers over everything.
What she really wanted was that bottle of perfume. But she didn’t put it in her pocket. Instead she opened it again, dabbed perfume behind both ears, and then, without really thinking, pulled off her sweatpants and traced the blue vein down her inner thigh in perfume. The blue vein that surfaced after Tessa was born and became more pronounced with Allison.
She took the rest of her clothing off, carefully folding her shirt, pants, and underwear, and set them on the dressing table chair. Turned down the duvet. Celine’s sheets were linen, not the silk Marnie expected. She pulled the covers up to her chin. Silk would have been cold against Marnie’s skin, but linen was not. Not warm either, but soft. Enveloping. The pillows were feather. The bed, too, feather. Expensive.
Marnie lay there a while looking at the ceiling, listening to the rain and the thunder which was fainter now. Would Celine know someone had been here, in her bed? Would she know Marnie had taken the figure? She thought again of the little ivory couple sitting in her sweatpants' pocket, of their grim faces, their little anatomical parts. When Celine went to bed that night, would she smell the remnants of Marnie’s unwashed golden skin, feel the indent of Marnie’s head on the pillow? The clock on the table ticked. Celine’s house made settling creaks. Celine’s perfume, rust, gardenias, warmed to Manie’s skin, and the scent began to change from the one in the bottle. Began to acclimate and mingle with the scent of her own skin. She loved the way it smelled on her. It was possible Russ had been in this bed, Marnie thought. It’s possible that when she went home later he’d smell Celine’s perfume coming off the back of Marnie’s neck and from between her legs. She looked at the ceiling; there were a million hairline cracks in the paint. Had Russ fucked Celine, seen this ceiling? If he did, knowing Russ, he would have wanted to fix it. If he had been in Celine’s bed, it didn’t bother her, Marnie realized. I don’t actually care, Marnie thought, relieved, her eyelids suddenly heavy. And then, she slept.
Katherine Hubbard’s stories, flash fiction and non-fiction have been published in VCU Blackbird, Sanskrit Literary Arts Journal, Front Porch Journal, The Dos Passos Review, Yellow Chair Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and other journals. She has a Master’s Degree in creative writing from NYU, and she teaches writing at Philadelphia University and creative writing at Stockton University in New Jersey. For more, visit her online at thisthingneedsatitle.blogspot.com.
Laura Bernard is an illustrator, pattern designer, and all-around creative who was born in London, England, grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, and is currently based in Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been featured by The Pyramid Club (New Zealand), Matchbox (New Zealand), and Frankie Magazine's blog. For more, visit the artist online at laurabernard.com, or follow her on Instagram and Tumblr.
Nathan Hobbs Blehar is a composer and instrumentalist living in western Massachusetts with his two cats, saxophones, drums, and guitar. "Heaps" was recorded live to two-track tape at the Blue Barn at Bramble Hill in Amherst, Mass., and features voice, guitar, and the birds that were living in the barn at the time. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.