Invisible Women (a short story)
People notice dead women. After the third one, the Philadelphia media started lovingly resurrecting family backgrounds, social lives, and charitable causes, packaged in news shows like made-for-TV movies. As I snaked my way through our office cafeteria, the television on the wall blared a eulogy of the latest victim: "Miranda volunteered at a local homeless shelter every Sunday afternoon. As the shelter director said, 'She always thought of others first.'" The victim's face filled the screen, a happy brunette, her wide grin revealing healthy gums.
All the women were slim. And brunette. When I was little, my mother told me my hair was dirty blond, like my father's. I'd wash it twice a day.
The woman in front of me in the entrée line lunged to rescue a fork falling through the slats holding her tray. She'd need to let a few more forks go before she'd fit the victim profile.
"Go ahead," I told a skinny man who bumped into me at the soft drink dispenser. I paid for my lunch and joined Lucinda at her table. We both worked as clerks at a Center City Philadelphia accounting firm. Our cubicles had faced each other until the office gods moved her three cubes away.
"Pretty scary." She tilted her head toward the television.
"Yeah. Neither of us has to worry, though," I said. Lucinda was in her sixties, with yellowy white hair and glasses. She considered contact lenses vain.
"Well, I don't." She sipped her ice tea. "But you, you're young and pretty. You should be careful."
I moved my peas away from my potatoes. "No need to worry about me. I'm invisible."
Lucinda warmed the inside of my elbow with thick fingers. "Oh, stop it, Amy! You're a sweet, pretty girl."
Apparently, the guys at McDougal's at happy hour that Friday didn't think so. I'd walked the few blocks from my office to the bar, surrounded by pulsating music from car radios and prolonged honking that passed for conversation between drivers. The city hummed louder on Fridays. Its narrow streets and wide sidewalks struggled to hold the crowd, and I tucked in behind a man speaking at auctioneer speed into his cell phone. His wake cleared all obstacles except one Revolutionary War re-enactor who'd wandered from Independence Hall. I detected the scent of mothballs as I evaded him.
Despite the gathering outside, McDougal's still offered pockets of air, its peak occupancy yet to come. I snagged a wobbly stool at the end of the bar and ordered a frozen margarita. The late June sun pushed in through tall windows, brightening the bar but melting the ice in my margarita. Global warming in a glass.
The shirt of the man next to me had a triangle of sweat pointing toward the middle of his back. His front poured charm at the woman sitting on his other side. She formed the center of a storm of men, of which he was merely a gust. In the mirror behind the bar, I watched her brush dark hair from her face before wrapping slender fingers around the stem of a white wine glass. Her tiny nose crinkled in laughter at some witty male comment.
Her nose looked flatter in the newspaper Monday morning. Victim Number 4. "The body of Betty Vanderkamp, 32, a breast cancer survivor, was found yesterday..." I pictured the men circling her that evening. Then Lucinda stopped by my cubicle for our break, and I put the paper down.
"New picture." Lucinda pointed to the photo propped next to my mouse pad. Inside a cherry frame, my mother stood on her concrete steps, the white spiraled metal on her screen door partly visible. Her hand saluted to shield her eyes from the sun, and her flowered dress fluttered away on one side, as if the breeze were reaching out to grab her.
My mother had never liked my job. She called it low status, like my father. My half-sister Camille had been an officer at a local bank. My mother often said Camille resembled her father, too. Jack, my mother's only husband. His pictures had stood on my mother's mantel and bedroom dresser. Curly black hair, freckles sprinkled over a wide face, uneven grin. My father appeared shortly after Jack's death, taking advantage of my mother's grief. He'd stayed just long enough to leave me as a souvenir.
I had a childhood picture of me with Camille, half of me hidden behind her. Our faces, both round, smiled. But the real reminder of my childhood appeared in my car window every day as I passed a playground on my drive home from the train station. Just before I crested the hill, the tip of the burgundy monkey bars would tantalize me. When my car reached the top and tilted downward, the hill acted as stadium seating for the playground scene.
My fondness for monkey bars came from my childhood walks to the playground. My mother and Camille would lope ahead of me, Camille's ponytail swinging side to side. I trotted behind with Fredo, a dog who'd wandered into our small yard one day and never left. At five, my head barely reached my mother's hip or Camille's ten-year-old shoulder. But being small put me closer to Fredo. He'd march next to me, tapping his wet, rough nose into the cradle of my palm. I'd wipe my hand dry by smoothing the white flyaway fur on his head. Though Camille asserted ownership as the first-born, Fredo and I knew he belonged to me. As soon as Camille left for college, I was allowed to have him in my room at night.
Once we reached the playground, my mother would deposit me in the sandbox with the toddlers while she went to the swings with Camille. She looked only at Camille, so I'd shake sand from my legs and run to the monkey bars, where I'd arm crawl across while Fredo leapt to nudge my heels along.
Maybe Camille loved those afternoons, too. Maybe that's why she bought a townhouse near a playground. I lived there now, having inherited it by default, along with all her personal belongings. Her favorite black dress, her pearl earrings, even the insulin for the diabetes she'd hated anyone knowing about.
My mother and Camille had been driving to brunch when a moving van punched a hole in their car. Camille, in the passenger seat, was killed instantly, but my mother lingered several days. I sat by her hospital bed constantly. For the first time ever, she'd focused on me, smiled at me, even stroked my hair with the scrap of strength she had left. I gripped her hand for hours, our fingers intertwining, and told her how much I loved her. The soft heel of her hand caressed my chin. She looked at me, only me, and I became real. Even the nurses paid attention to me, updating me on her condition and asking how I was feeling. Then she died, and I became invisible again.
But Lucinda saw me. She brought me casseroles after the accident, patted my back when I cried in my cubicle, ate lunch with me. And now she'd invited me to visit the art museum with her, to see the newly expanded Impressionist exhibit. As a museum member, she had free tickets. She and her late husband had often walked there from their Center City condo, bought before downtown became upscale.
There were several restaurants near the museum and the café where we met for drinks played up its proximity by sprinkling Van Gogh and Renoir posters along its walls and giving some of its drinks cutesy names. I ordered a frozen Monet Mocha. Lucinda ordered ice tea.
I reached across her to pay for both drinks. She stuck her worn wallet between me and the boy at the cash register. "Let me get this," she said. "You shouldn't be paying for me."
I pushed her wallet away. "I owe you a lot more than a cup of tea."
"No, you don't, sweetheart. You've been through so much." But she tucked her wallet inside a crocheted handbag. We claimed two stuffed armchairs just as a family vacated them. We sat and I wrapped my hands around the glass and leaned over to take in the smell of cocoa.
After we climbed the steep museum steps, the hot atmosphere settled even more heavily on my shoulders, so I welcomed the goose bumps the icy lobby air brought. The bright colors worn by people filing into the Impressionist exhibit stood out against the tan and cream walls.
"I hate crowds." I pointed to the people bunching in front of two Monets, the tops of their heads seeming to float amid the water lilies. "Let's go to another room first." We headed toward lesser known artists, our sneakers squeaking on polished floors.
I stopped in the middle of a rectangular room and leaned in toward a small painting before backing away to sit on a leather bench directly across from it. "I like this one." I pointed to the watercolor depicting a field in mid-harvest. At the field's far end, a woman with a basket stared out at us.
Lucinda strode up to the painting. "Why this one?"
"I like the woman at the edge." I leaned around the backpacks of a whispering couple that had stopped suddenly. "You have to see it from back here." Up close, the woman became blobs of chestnut hair, cream skin and light blue dress. But from afar, she looked right into you.
We passed through the museum store on our way out, browsing masterpieces that had been miniaturized and captured in refrigerator magnets and postcards. Lucinda picked out a book on the Impressionists and got in line.
A steady flow of customers kept both cashiers busy, with a man at one register periodically trotting over to help a trainee work the other register. "Joleen, remember to close the cash drawer after each sale."
Lucinda handed the girl her book and said, "I like your name."
"Perkins?" The girl looked at her nametag. "Oh, you mean Joleen! Thanks." She took Lucinda's credit card. "That book looks good. I keep meaning to read books like that, but running after a toddler – she wears me out. If my cousin didn't help, I'd be exhausted."
Lucinda said, "I saw a children's art book in that aisle." She pointed. "Maybe you and your daughter could read it together."
"Good idea." She slipped Lucinda's book into a plastic bag stamped with the museum logo and handed it to her with a smile.
Lucinda leaned in to whisper, "You're doing a good job." The smile widened.
Sunday evening offered perfect weather for weeding the small bed in front of my townhouse. A slight breeze lifted mildly humid air, helping the lowering sun ease up on the heat.
As I put on my gardening gloves, my neighbor pulled into his driveway and waved. "How's the bike?" He'd helped me fix my sister's mountain bike, inflating tires, lubricating gears. I still hadn't ridden it.
"Great! Thanks again for your help." I waved a gloved hand slightly before crouching back down and spotting a nasty spreading weed marring the bed. My fingers yanked it out. No matter how many times I pulled them out, the weeds always came back. The sun rubbed my back as my hands cleared the dark mulch. By the time I finished, despite a relatively cool summer evening, sweat had bloomed on my face and arms. I wiped my forehead with the sleeve of my shirt and headed in for a quick shower.
After combing my wet hair, I made myself a salami sandwich, the bread crumbs contaminating one of Camille's blue and white plates, and settled on the couch to watch the news. The fifth victim took the top story spot. "Joleen Perkins, 28, was found dead in her home early this afternoon. A single mother, she'd dropped her daughter off with a relative before going away overnight. When she didn't pick up her daughter this morning, the cousin went to her house and made the gruesome discovery. Police now suspect that the killings are caused by a massive overdose of insulin, probably administered by injection."
Talk of the killings rustled through the break room Monday morning. "Did you hear?" A plump woman handed me the powdered creamer. "They got the guy." The police were talking to a former boyfriend of one of the victims. He'd worked in the same building as another victim. The women in the office relaxed with an impromptu pizza party at lunch. I ate my two slices, but said nothing.
Two weeks later, the cafeteria television broadcast the news that the man had been cleared, even as they informed the city of the sixth victim. I felt relieved that he'd been let go. I didn't want an innocent man to suffer. I didn't want anyone to suffer. I just wanted to be visible, the way I'd been with my mother at the end, the way I was with Lucinda, and sometimes when someone first learned about the accident. But another Camille could eclipse me at any moment.
My teeth crunched on a piece of ice, but stopped mid-bite at the next comment in the news story. The ice melted on my tongue as the announcer said: "A neighbor called police when the woman's small dog wouldn't stop barking."
The dog would quiver at the front door tonight, waiting for the sound of her shoes, for the joy of a reunion that would never come. My throat let out a whimper for him. And for me. As soon as the Camilles went away, I could stop. Plenty of places they could live in peace. How much longer would it take?
I spotted Lucinda's head bobbing up and down near the cash register. Motioning her over to my table, I smiled to distract her from the tears in my eyes.Read more on: fiction winners 2012