a short story by Stacey May Fowles

Despite the fact that Marnie always wanted to be an outreach worker for drug-addled street youth, she instead works as a perfume counter girl at a major downtown department store on evenings and weekends.  This is partly due to the fact that Marnie’s mother told her she didn’t have the stomach to be an outreach worker for the drug-addled, and that Marnie’s boyfriend discouraged her from studying to become an outreach worker because there was a need for immediate income in the face of him doing his PhD in comparative literature.

Marnie owns three knee-length black skirts, each one purchased at the same mall in the same store for $19.99. Each skirt is a slightly different style and a uniform requirement of her job as a perfume counter girl.  On the way to work each day she drops yesterday’s black knee-length skirt at the drycleaner in the same mall where she is perfume counter girl.  The elderly male attendant who she assumes is the owner and is always behind the counter takes the skirt from her hands and stares straight through her, telling her the cost daily through his nicotine stained beard despite the fact that she has the cost memorized and therefore always has exact change. The first few months she worked at the perfume counter she waited for the old man in the drycleaner to recognize her, acknowledge her return on one of her many skirt drop offs, participate in some witty banter, but he never did and Marnie gave up on waiting for him to do so.

The drycleaner’s lack of witty banter is directly responsible for Marnie’s debilitating fear that she will become like the woman behind the counter at her local Hasty Mart.  As the woman packs up Marnie’s six eggs and three tins of cat food something in her face seems to suggest she has endured a lifetime of being stared through.

Marnie doesn’t know the drycleaner has Alzheimer’s that will be discovered by his doctor two weeks after they pull her boyfriend’s body from the lake.

Marnie will be thirty soon.

After her shift at the perfume counter and after making her purchases at the Hasty Mart, Marnie goes home to the tiny apartment she shares with her boyfriend who is doing his PhD in comparative literature and Marnie stares into the bathroom mirror without unpacking the six eggs and three tins of cat food.  She is looking for evidence that she does indeed exist, a way to validate  that she is still flesh and bone despite the fact that no one connects with her at any moment during the day. She squeezes her cheek just to be sure as the cat curls around her feet on the fraying blue bathmat.  The squeeze leaves a mark of vibrant pink and then the flash fades suddenly into nothing.  The cat looks up and meows to be fed.  She forgets to unpack the eggs and put them in the fridge before she goes to bed and therefore throws them into the garbage the following morning. 

Marnie’s boyfriend, who is doing his PhD in comparative literature, hasn’t been home in five days.

During the day Marnie wakes around noon, and eats a poached egg on rye toast while she reads the books she buys on the Internet. Daily they arrive in her mailbox from all over the world, first editions, new releases and rare signed copies, each one read and then carefully placed in alphabetical order in milk crates in the hall closet.  Aside from the books, the hall closet also has hundreds of coat hangers in it, each one from the drycleaner in the mall, given to her by a man who will never recognize her despite the fact that she is there almost daily.

At three in the afternoon Marnie showers and slips into a freshly dry-cleaned black skirt, and depending on the day it is slim fitting, A-Line or pleated.  The pleated skirt costs more to be dry-cleaned.  Marnie feeds the cat and checks the mail and takes the subway to the mall.  While she is on the subway she notices a rather large, muscular man in a beer t-shirt with a shaved head and the name Carol tattooed all over his body.  The name is written in grand looping letters up his left calve, contained in a bursting bleeding red heart on his right forearm, and scripted small in the bulldog folds in the back of his neck. 

Marnie is sure that Carol’s beauty is convincing.

Marnie’s boyfriend, who is doing his PhD in comparative literature, hasn’t been home in six days.

Marnie tries her best to look pretty at the perfume counter, but in many ways she cannot figure out why she was hired for a job that’s success is dependant on how convincing her beauty is.  Marnie believes it to be unconvincing.  She believes that her boyfriend has left her for one of the undergraduate students in a class he TA’s for, believes that the undergraduate’s beauty is probably convincing, that the drycleaner would see her and that she would never fear, would never become the woman behind the counter at the Hasty Mart.  Marnie believes it is the undergraduate’s phone number she found in the pocket of her boyfriend’s gray overcoat when she took it to be dry-cleaned and was not acknowledged by the man who works behind the counter.  Marnie also believes the undergraduate student is the reason she discovered she had Chlamydia at her last doctor’s appointment.

 Marnie likes to leave messages without making contact over the phone, never having to return inquiries directly, merely pressing a button and recording a response onto someone’s voice mail.  She enjoys the lack of intimacy that technology affords her. 

Marnie cannot recall a time in her life where she has been satisfied, although she additionally cannot recall a time in her life where she has actually complained about being dissatisfied.

Marnie’s boyfriend is bloated and blue, a heavy drinker who drove into the lake and now lies there motionless as the waves lap the shore and his flesh pulls and pops away from bone. The fish gnaw at his pockmarked skin as Marnie daydreams of him making love to her, daydreams of him making love to a petite blonde undergraduate student whose phone number she found in his gray overcoat pocket. 

Marnie’s boyfriend did his PhD in comparative literature simply because at dinner and cocktail parties it seemed more appropriate to announce academia as his vocation rather than “telemarketer.”  He hasn’t been home in seven days.

On this, the seventh day, Marnie’s mother calls long distance from their family home on the west coast while Marnie is poaching an egg and watching the cat chase imaginary spiders across the living room rug.

“Marianne,” she says in her raspy pack-a-day voice, “you should really get out more.  Make some new friends.  Go out with the girls in the cosmetics department.”

“I know.”

“How’s Michael?”

Michael is doing his PhD in comparative literature and hasn’t been home in seven days. A petite blonde undergraduate student is calling his cell phone and getting his voice mail.  The petite blonde undergraduate student is assuming Michael has decided not to leave his frumpy girlfriend and as a result she is now plotting martinis with her girlfriends and make-out sessions with strangers.  Michael is at the bottom of a lake in the driver’s seat of an ’84 Volvo being eaten by fish. 

“He’s fine.”

Marnie and Michael have been together for three years.  Michael wanted Marnie to go and stay on the pill despite the fact that it made her gain sixteen pounds and made her moods unbearable.  She had to buy three brand new knee-length black skirts because she went up a waist size.  Since she went off the pill without telling Michael, she has gone up yet another waist size.  She has an appointment at the women’s clinic on Friday, which will be the ninth day Michael has failed to come home and the sixteenth day Marnie has been late.

Marnie has never had an orgasm.

On the eighth day the petite undergraduate student unexpectedly arrives at Marnie’s front door at two in the afternoon.  She is wearing an emerald green mini-dress and a pair of patent leather kitty heels. As predicted she is convincingly pretty and apparently drunk.

“Where’s Michael?” she asks without introducing herself.

“At the university,” Marnie replies, deadpan.

“You’re fucking liar.”

“You gave me Chlamydia.”

Marnie slams the door in the pretty blonde’s face and goes back to getting ready for her shift at the perfume counter.  She can hear the undergraduate student call her an “ugly cunt” from the other side of the door as she unsheathes a black skirt from its gauzy plastic casing and slips a second black skirt into her backpack.

“That’ll be $4.36,” the drycleaner says.

“I know,” Marnie replies.

Marnie is almost thirty.

On the ninth day Marnie has a conversation with a plump and pleasant woman at the clinic about “options” and comes home to find that the cat has killed and left her the body of a gray mouse on the bathroom floor.  There are three messages on the answering machine.  The first is from the University stating that Michael has not attended a week of tutorials, the second from Michael’s mother wondering where he is, the third a series of curse words from the petite blonde undergraduate student. 

Marnie unplugs the phone.

When the police arrive on the tenth day, her day off and a Sunday, Marnie is picking out baby names and writing them in neat gendered columns in a small steno pad.  She makes them a pot of coffee and answers all of their questions politely.

“I last saw him on a Thursday.  We had lunch.”

“He was wearing a torn black sweater and blue jeans.”

“No. He didn’t seem distressed or out of sorts.”

“We have been together for three years.”

“I miss him.”

“I didn’t report it because I assumed he had left me for one of his students.”

Things she Marnie didn’t say include:

“I didn’t care that he had left me.”

“The day we had lunch I told him I was late and he had too many gin and tonics and as a result called me a miserable bitch.”

“He was suffocating me with his narcissism and self-absorption.”

“I am carrying his child because I was deceptive.  I am picking out names and writing them in neat gendered columns on this steno pad that is lying between us on the kitchen table. I don’t want him to be involved. In fact, if he is dead I would feel a sense of morbid relief because I despise my life and have allowed him to become the architect of it.”

Michael is no longer the architect of Marnie’s despised life.  Michael is at the bottom of a lake in the driver’s seat of an ’84 Volvo being eaten by fish and receiving angry, pleading voice mail messages from a blonde undergraduate student. 

On the twelfth day they pull the ’84 Volvo and Michael’s blue and bloated body from the bottom of the lake.  Marnie receives a message stating that she is required to come and identify the body, a body that is wearing a torn black sweater and blue jeans.  On the way home from the morgue she buys six eggs and three tins of cat food from the Hasty Mart.

It is discovered that the owner of the drycleaner has Alzheimer’s and his thirty-eight year old daughter who has never married and likes it that way temporarily replaces him behind the counter. 

Marnie’s list of baby names, neatly written in a steno pad on the kitchen table, exceeds one hundred possible choices. During the week that  Michael’s body has been found she has been busy transcribing them into a separate list, this one in alphabetical order.

The following week when she returns to work she drops off a black knee length skirt at the drycleaner and pays $4.36 in previously counted exact change.

“You must come here often,” the drycleaner’s daughter says.

Marnie is thirty.


© 2006 Stacey May Fowles

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