Ina felt a slight sadness every time she did it—nothing huge, not even a little depression, and she knew what that was like, her mother, etc. Whenever she rented out a video, she experienced a twinge of…inconstancy, was that the word? It wasn’t incontinence, was it, like on the commercial? Yet maybe that word was right, funny as it was since it pertained to pee, because it meant the inability to hold onto something. The second Ina lent a title, she knew its return was inevitable, and that allotted a small amount of melancholy to the transaction, made her feel a little weepy, if truth were told, though she kept it from the customers, because who wanted a video clerk who couldn’t stop crying?
Ina felt hers was a big responsibility, doling out entertainment the way stores open during a war gave out eggs or whatever to those under an occupation. It was an extreme example, but Ina was extreme in how she expressed herself, “emotional” people called her, though she preferred “imaginative,” it wasn’t quite as cutting. Anyway, it was the first and only video store in town—there’d be another at the end of the year, but this was it for now—so hers she felt was a position of privilege.
If the video was kept past its deadline, it was not a nice sort of possession but a criminal kind, the way perverts kept little girls in basements for their entire childhoods and only got caught when the girls, now teenagers, were seen walking around outside, wearing dirty smocks. There wasn’t anything nice about that, and that was the kind of nasty ongoing attachment Ina meant when someone was late returning or worst case—and this had only happened once on her watch—kept a video for good. In other words, she had no choice but to prefer renting and returning, to admit and even embrace the fleeting aspect of existence, because the rejection of it was unacceptable, impossible, and even nihilistic, a word she’d learned in her one year of college before dropping out.
But maybe there was a third option, Ina thought. Today she saw what movie had been returned and then looked at the “Reserved” list. She was weirdly touched and buoyed by what the person wanted—not the person, the woman; it was always the same woman, and she always reserved the same thing, that is, different things in the same way.
“I’d like any film starring…”
And then she’d say Tom or Meryl or whoever, but always films featuring a single star, as if she was creating little film festivals for herself, until they came to an end, which they always did, and then she moved onto someone else.
The woman always showed up in person, too. Ina noticed she was not much older than herself, early twenties, and slight and delicate, not unlike herself, either, in other words, not an elderly movie nut but a young and vital person. This encouraged Ina, for here was a way to alter the idea of life being short, of having to quickly give it back, and having to be okay with it. Here was a way to deepen the time you had, to add at least the impression of depth and texture to the time.
“I just got…” Ina began over the phone. It was a picture starring Sally—for that’s whose work the woman was watching now—which had been late coming back and so was conceivably something the woman would have been missing and eagerly awaiting. Her phone had rung so many times it was clear she had no machine. Ina glanced again at the “Reserve” list—Cindy; Cindy had no machine.
Yet Cindy’s reaction wasn’t what Ina had been expecting. At first, in fact, she had no reaction; there was silence for a strangely long time on the other end. Ina began to repeat herself but realized in the middle of the movie’s name that she, the woman, Cindy, was crying.
“What’s the matter?” Ina blurted out, and immediately felt silly and sorry, but she couldn’t help herself, never could, and it was a human instinct to care, wasn’t it? Anyway, Ina shut her mouth and let the silence be filled by the faint sounds of Cindy’s slightly congested sobs. They came at steady intervals, like an expression of sexual arousal, at least those Ina had heard in movies, since she had had only two such encounters in her life, both with the same boy in high school, and neither had resulted in her making frankly any sounds, so that must have happened only on the screen. Maybe the more common sound in life was Cindy’s sound, unhappiness, but who wanted to hear that? It was depressing, that’s what they probably felt in Hollywood. So where there would be sadness they put sex, which sold better? Anyway, Cindy was letting up a little.
“Thank you,” Cindy said, her words like sun shining through a storm, but only briefly, before the rain began again. “It’s very nice of you. But I don’t want any more of her films. You can give it to someone else.” And the idea of someone else enjoying those movies starring Sally set Cindy off once more, so much that she stopped speaking entirely and slowly fumbled the receiver down.
This was a new mystery to Ina. It gave her much to contemplate as she sat behind the counter in the Your Hollywood store in the small shopping center in the town ninety miles from New York in the summer of 1984. It continued to engage her after she went home to her apartment in the housing development near the highway, which she shared with a small black mutt she’d named Bentl, comically, after the Barbra film, for the dog limped after having been hit by a car—that’s what they told her at the shelter—yet still ran and played as if nothing was wrong, as inspiring in his own way as the woman on the phone, Cindy, had been before she’d begun to cry.
Ina had picked the apartment because it was close to her mother’s house, which didn’t matter now, because her mother had recently died of an accidental overdose of the pills she’d been prescribed for mood swings, and moving had been such a hassle that Ina had stayed put. She’d adopted the dog a few days after her mother’s death and picked a particularly damaged one, which she was aware was meaningful but that was as far as she could go with introspection. Ina had been supposed to sell her mother’s house but the guy who’d appraised it said it was in such sorry shape—her mother had stopped cleaning and wouldn’t hire any help, was offended by the very idea, thought the place looked “beautiful”—that it would need a total overhaul, which was too much trouble. So now it just sat deserted, the wild and shabby lawn like the unshaven face of a miserable old man in a bus station reading a paperback Western. Would the grass keep growing like that old man’s beard? Or did everything eventually end on its own? This was part of what preoccupied Ina in her evenings after work and over the weekend which she and Bentl spent alone.
On Monday morning, Cindy called back with a new request. Ina’s boss, Jeremy, was about to answer the phone but Ina got there first, as if she had had a premonition (she sometimes did, such as during the Oscars and before awful events, like right before the phone rang about her mother). Sounding refreshed, Cindy said she now had a new star to follow, like the pilgrims, Ina thought, when they went to find the baby Jesus.
“I’m interested in any film starring…” And it was Jack this time. Cindy didn’t care which Jack films, four of them would do for now. If Ina would just put them aside, she’d be in for them as soon as possible, it might not be for a day or so, if that was all right, she wouldn’t inconvenience anyone; Cindy was so considerate, so sensitive, the same way she had been when she wept, emotional like Ina. Today she didn’t even mind the adjective so much, for it described them both.
“I’ve got an idea,” Ina said, feeling okay about addressing Cindy informally, even though she was a customer (Jeremy always stressed respect, maybe because he’d been in the Army, though drummed out, he’d admitted, for drug use). “How about I bring them over?”
“Deliver them. We do that.” They didn’t, actually, hadn’t since Jeremy canned the high school kid he’d hired for that purpose, after he stole porn tapes, kept in a separate room in the back, which was like a vault in a weird old millionaire’s mansion. But why couldn’t the delivery service be reinstated? Especially if Ina did it on her lunch hour and Jeremy didn’t even know? He’d shrugged and gone to the bathroom as soon she’d answered the phone, anyway.
“All right,” Cindy said, brightening even more. “That would be very, very nice.”
“I’m Ina, by the way.”
“Very nice, Ina.”
Cindy lived in a house in the new development on the better side of town, a place so nice that it surprised Ina when she walked up to the gate. She’d been saving up for a car but so far hadn’t pulled the trigger, put the pedal to the metal or whatever. (And Ina thought it would be better not to use the store Subaru, which Jeremy seemed only to keep now for his personal use, like squiring around that travel agent, Sue, who was also a burn-out, from next door in the shopping center—anyway, it was his car, he could do with it what he wanted.) The walk had taken longer than she’d expected and Ina had sweated through her shirt and felt funny looking like that and entering the development on foot. Still, no one stopped her or seemed even to notice, as if she were in one of those stories where you find out the person has been a ghost all along and not known it. Cindy’s doorbell, though, was an old-fashioned ding-dong that was very much alive and loud for the silent, recently invented neighborhood, even if dimmed by a heavy wooden door no one could have broken through if he’d tried, Ina thought.
It took a weirdly long time before Ina heard the soft—very soft, almost silent—sound of someone’s feet approach. When the door opened, Ina looked down at Cindy, who seemed very small on the marble floor of the expansive vestibule, which was as large as an off-white lake. She was dressed informally—like Ina, in T-shirt and shorts—and appeared to be a child left alone or allowed to answer the door by guardians or nannies or whoever rich people hired to watch their kids. Yet the house was hers, wasn’t it? And she lived there by herself? Cindy’s was the only name on the mailbox.
“Hi,” Cindy said. “You must be Ina. Nice to meet you.”
They had met several times before, of course, but it was always weird to see someone in a new context; Ina didn’t blame her for not remembering. And she didn’t bother to correct the pronunciation of her name, either, which was “I-na,” not “E-na,” her mother’s affectation. Her mom had been a big movie buff, which was where she got the bug from. (There’d been an Israeli actress named Ina, apparently; her mother wasn’t Jewish, just open-minded). Ina held up the empty donut box in which she’d carried the tapes and then, to be funny, balanced it on her palm like a waitress with a platter in an old-fashioned drive-in. Ina almost dropped it, and Cindy cried out, concerned before she got a chance to laugh. Ina caught the box right before it fell, and so wasn’t able to say, “It’s Jack in the box,” a joke she had prepared, the best laid plans, she thought, of mice and men, just like in the movie. Maybe she’d been a bit too excited to come.
Cindy seemed excited, too, maybe by the prospect of having company, which made her appear even more of a poor little rich girl or little princess or whatever forlorn and privileged child character she resembled. She had no compunction in saying, “Why don’t you come in?” extending a hand to indicate, look at what a house I have, there’s plenty of room, and we’ve got it all to ourselves. And Ina immediately agreed, suddenly unconcerned about getting back to work or that her lunch hour wouldn’t last forever, or anything that would connect her to a real and responsible world away from this enchanted and isolated environment in which it seemed only the two of them were allowed.
“Would you like some lunch?”
Ina remembered she had left her sandwich at work, where it sat in the refrigerator, adorned with her almost indecipherable scrawl saying, “Me,” as if Ina were so familiar to everyone she didn’t need a first name—as did Jack and all the others—and so was the biggest star of them all. It amused her, even though she suspected Jeremy, his brains to be frank gentled and indulged into idiocy by years of marijuana use, might not know it was her at all.
“I’ll have Maggie whip something up.”
So Cindy wasn’t alone, after all. As Ina followed her into the kitchen, she saw an older woman with her back to them, already “whipping up” a plate of cold cuts. The woman turned, nodded, and smiled once, somewhat mechanically, looking like an automaton Ina had seen in a crummy local fair portraying the world of the future. Or had it been in that Yul Brynner sci-fi film? Anyway, the woman wore a T-shirt with a company name, “Starrs Recreations,” on the front. On the back was a logo, “Starrs Shine Forever TM.”
It was such a great spread—there were pickles and cole slaw and little tins of Russian dressing—that it took a while for Ina and Cindy to say anything else; they were too busy stuffing their faces at a long, marble tabletop that looked like a counter in the world’s classiest and least affordable diner. At last, Ina glanced up from the gherkin she was decapitating with a bite and wondered, inevitably, she thought, excusing her usual lack of discretion, “So, Cindy, what do you do?”
A small circle of potato salad popped from Cindy’s mouth—she’d either been surprised or eating too fast or both—and it looked like a gold coin that had been swallowed by an enchanted elf in a fairy tale.
“I just asked…” Ina’s volume sank, for suddenly she felt too forward and abashed, “what you, uh, did.”
Cindy stared above Ina’s head, where she seemed to catch the eye of the cook—at least this was what Ina thought when she spun around and saw the lady scurry from the room, as if sliding on a track, like the robot Ina thought she resembled. Then Cindy gazed back, appearing amused and, well, not unfriendly, exactly, just better informed and not particularly interested in sharing what she knew. Or was she not allowed to tell?
“Oh,” Cindy said, “not much.”
And that was the general tone of the answers she gave to all the questions Ina had, and Ina had a lot of them (“Do you have a job? Were you ever married? How long have you lived here? Who’s your favorite star out of all your almost favorites?”). Each time Cindy just smiled, glanced over Ina’s head—this time to no one, for the cook lady had left—shrugged, and said, “Not now,” “I’m not sure,” “I don’t know,” or “Ask me later.”
Ina liked the “later,” for it meant she was allowed to stay, and she wanted to. Soon they had shifted to the living room: Cindy had shifted and Ina had followed, marching behind her like a drum majorette in the Memorial Day parade on Route 9 every year, who always came right before the high school bands and the old crippled soldiers on walkers and in wheelchairs.
The room was grandly round and a white leather couch virtually encircled its circumference or whatever the word was when you used a protractor. Cindy sat at the very end of the couch, her arm on its arm, like a wallflower waiting to be asked to dance. Seated at the other end, Ina saw that Cindy rested a glass upon the leather pillow beside her and that it sparkled light brown or dark yellow in the subtle light allowed in by elegant bamboo shades closed to slits. Ina realized that it was alcohol and early (two? Three?) in the afternoon.
“Would you like one?” Cindy asked, toying with the ice cubes in her glass by flicking them with her finger and making them collide, like a god might do to planets, just to be mean.
Ina was surprised by the question. Cindy seemed so small and young that it was hard to remember she was in her twenties, just like Ina herself (she had always looked years younger than her age and been hit on by creepy men because of that very fact, an insight Ina had gained early about this sick world we lived in). Anyway, it wasn’t anybody’s age that made Ina hesitate—she had a beer now and then, though rarely anything harder, liked to keep her head clear to watch TV at night or to read (to watch TV, who was she kidding?)—it was the hour. Ina had a weird sense of decorum, felt that five o’clock was the official cocktail hour, as if she’d been raised in a country club or something when she wasn’t even a WASP; her mother had been a Catholic but only in the most lip service sort of way, and who cared about her father, who’d bailed on them twenty years ago and then been hit by a car crossing a street, probably while drunk? No religion would have made what he did all right. It seemed naughty to be doing this, drinking at this hour, but Cindy had asked so innocently and now waited so eagerly for her reply—the way Bentl waited to play with a ball he’d brought over—that Ina couldn’t refuse.
“Great!” And Cindy came closer.
Suddenly, it was clear that Cindy did this—drank alone at this hour—all the time, and so was delighted for once to have a partner in crime. She filled Ina’s glass as completely as her own and didn’t ask if she wanted water or soda or anything to reduce the strength of the Scotch. Ina could tell what it was by the smell and, of course, the color, which was, pee-esque, and she recalled the “incontinence” idea, the not keeping things, which had drawn her to Cindy in the first place.
“Life is short,” Cindy said then, as if clairvoyant, and clinked their glasses together so hard it seemed she wanted them to break, and Ina couldn’t tell if she was happy, angry, nervous or all of these things. Both women sipped daintily, then drank lustily, Ina struggling to keep up with her host. There were refills faster than she had expected, and soon the room was barely lit at all, the sun just peeking through the slats like prisoners through bars, and it was so hot Ina couldn’t believe the air conditioner was on, but it was, she heard it whirring, or was that her own heart?
Soon sweat was pouring down Cindy’s neck, and it looked like rain on a scrubbed window pane, that’s how clean and white Cindy’s skin was. So many things were occurring to Ina at once, as she shakily placed her—once again empty—glass on the rectangular glass table before the couch.
“It feels good,” Cindy said, her words swimming in the air, which at once was wet, too, as in a rain forest or a swamp. “Doesn’t it?”
Cindy seemed so insecure that Ina wanted to agree but could only nod, her mouth out of order, needing a sign that said so, like a busted elevator, which made her laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Cindy asked, confused.
Ina shrugged; the answer had already slipped her mind.
Cindy was made unhappy by whatever the reason might have been. Her eyes grew red and she blinked, seeming to encourage herself to cry and get it over with. Yet only a few tears fell. Ina realized that she must have wept so much lately she had little left. When Cindy spoke, she sounded exhausted.
“Do you have children?” she asked.
Ina thought it was a joke. Who, her? At her age? Well, it was possible, of course, but so unlikely that she couldn’t even imagine anyone wanting to know. Ina had her hands full with a crippled dog and, besides, there was plenty of time. In fact, she felt she would stay this age forever if she stayed in Cindy’s house, which was a place that froze you in time, like the fortress of solitude in Superman or that ice palace in that movie about the handsome Russian poet. And now Cindy was tinkling (a funny word again) the last small cube in her umpteenth drink, as if calling things to order.
“No,” Ina said, giggling, holding her glass to her gums, which she had bared a few seconds ago, because it was fun.
“Because I have.”
“Really?” Cindy? Impossible!
“Sort of. A bunch of them. That was the good part.”
“I bet. I mean, that’s what they say.”
“But then they kept dying. That was the bad.”
Ina was too amazed to respond. It was preposterous! Cindy didn’t look like someone who’d borne so much tragedy, who’d had babies and then gotten pregnant enough to have still more. She was a little slip of a thing, as they said, with narrow hips, no butt, and a flat tummy that her T-shirt now was now riding up to reveal. Cindy was leaning back, so the T-shirt had no choice, so to speak; she had pitched her head into the pillow and begun to cry.
The sounds sort of woke Ina up, for her eyelids had been flooded by booze the way rainwater ran down her roof and caused her gutters to sag. She struggled to open her eyes, hearing the same sounds of rhythmic, almost erotic despair she had over the phone. Now Ina saw the face that went with those sounds: Not a face so much; Cindy’s head was pointed up and perpendicular to the elegantly staggered ceiling lights; her exposed white throat grew wetter and wetter with each new wave of weeping, her secret Adam’s apple pulsing and chucking from her swallows. Ina didn’t know how to help: she moved her hand onto Cindy’s, which was on the couch and damp; that’s how heavy her tears were and how far they had been flung. Then Ina prepared herself to absorb more moisture and pushed forward—slid, to be exact, on the increasingly wet leather—and went into Cindy’s arms.
Ina awoke many hours later. The only light left was coming from around the corner, from a little TV in the kitchen Ina hadn’t even known was on. Ina wasn’t sure what had happened, but she remembered kissing and licking up Cindy’s tears, like Bentl would do when Ina watched something sad. Then she drank more liquor off the other girl’s tongue, before Cindy began lightly biting her tongue and her lips which hurt only for a second before it excited her so much it was like people electrocuted in old cartoons who were fried for a second and then came back to life. She felt Cindy’s fingers—wet from what, tears, booze, her own insides? for her shorts were off and so was Cindy’s underwear if she had been wearing any in the first place—smearing liquid all over Ina’s bare breasts, because her own shirt and bra were up though not off, and then Cindy’s mouth made them even more slippery, as she bit Ina’s nipples, while her other hand moved below the waist of Ina’s shorts, into the underwear she hadn’t changed since yesterday, she’d simply forgotten. Cindy’s sounds of excitement were unlike her sad sounds, were more aggressive, more like grunts, as if she would do this whether Ina liked it or not. Ina liked it, too much to tell her or anyone else, and soon Cindy’s fingers pressed inside, and Ina was raising her own hand behind her head to grip the armrest of the couch, to brace herself the way you do when someone pulls off a boot that’s been stuck, and the boot came free, and so did she, she felt freer than she ever had, crying out herself. Afterwards, she and Cindy looked like little twin sisters in each other’s arms but really not related at all, before she fell asleep.
The last image Ina remembered—from walking to the front door as if in slow motion—was a deserted room to the right where there was a crib, a basinet, a mobile and other baby things. Cindy closed its door casually before opening the front door. She was still only wearing her T-shirt, her butt was bare, as if she were a baby now, but it was night outside, no lights were on, so no one could see in. When Ina asked to come back—begged, blatantly, openly, which was her way, because why wince words?—Cindy said nothing but hugged her for so long they both began to laugh.
“Thanks for the Jack films,” she whispered, at last.
Ina didn’t hear from Cindy after that, not for four whole days. She became cross and short at work because of the waiting and feeling hurt. Jeremy was already annoyed at her for missing the entire afternoon the day before, which Ina blamed on a stomach bug (the reason wasn’t entirely ridiculous, for she looked pale, felt shaky, and could barely speak above a whisper, being so hung-over). But Jeremy was in no mood for her mopiness. When the phone rang on the fifth day, he answered it quickly and vindictively, as if he knew he was depriving Ina of something.
“Who was it?” Ina asked him after he hung up, trying to seem breezy but coming off as hyper and crazed, she couldn’t help it.
“That, you know, girl, whoever.” Jeremy had already lost interest in Ina, had probably forgotten what they were discussing. He told her to get more Jack films, so Ina knew it had been Cindy and felt fluttery inside. Then Jeremy added, just as indifferently as before,
“She’ll have someone pick the tapes up. She said, don’t have them delivered. Not that we do that anymore, anyway.”
Jeremy went to the back, where the bathroom was, but stopped outside the door, as if uncertain why he was there.
Ina turned her back to him, both out of anger and because she didn’t want him or anyone else—like the customer entering, a mother with two fat and stupid-looking twins in a stroller—to see her cry.
This was also a new feeling, and an awful one; it reminded Ina of the food poisoning she’d had last summer after eating at that Turkish restaurant off the highway (since closed) she hadn’t want to go to in the first place. Ina held onto the “Romance” rack for support, which she realized was funny, though she was in no mood to laugh, felt in fact the most miserable ever, crushed, crushed, that was the only way she could describe it, having been buried and suffocated by Cindy’s call.
Yet she stayed standing, didn’t collapse, which surprised her; she was tougher than she thought. Looking at the “Horror” aisle, she remembered stories in which people clawed their ways out of graves; it could be done.
When Jeremy went out to lunch, Ina cut the big plastic tags from four Jack films, using the pliers he kept in the back. (It was something the high school kid had taught her; he seemed to have been raised without morality. Yet she’d paid attention to his trick and hadn’t turned him in, so what did that say about her? And now it had come in handy.) Then Ina called a cab, not caring how much it cost, and told the driver to hurry back to Cindy’s house.
Cindy opened the door, the same as she had before. Ina thought things must have changed: there must have been some reason she’d been rejected, for the two had been so close. And now she knew what it was: Cindy held a baby in her arms.
“Okay,” Cindy said, as if caught and it hadn’t been her idea in the first place. “You might as well come in.”
Cindy carried the baby, fed him with a bottle, put him in the crib, patted him for he was petulant. She was very good at all this, a natural. A certain calm had come over her, too, which made her seem both older (more responsible) and happier (more hopeful, less haunted).
“This one lived,” she said, excitedly, diapering the child now, almost automatically, as if she had grown up caring for lots of younger siblings, which Ina was convinced had been the case. How the baby came to be there was not information that Cindy offered or something about which Ina asked, being discreet for once, simply grateful to be back in the other girl’s good graces. But had she really been out of them? Ina didn’t know.
Since the child had stopped fussing enough to sleep, Cindy closed to a crack the door of the first floor nursery and stepped away. The two walked in silence down the hall to a bedroom Ina had never entered. It was apparently Cindy’s own, though generically decorated in “elegant rustic” style with a canopy over the bed and matching frilly curtains on the windows. Upon a weathered trunk, Ina placed the videos she’d been carrying in a plastic bag the entire time.
“You can keep these Jack ones,” she said.
“Keep?” The word had new meaning for Cindy.
And then they were kissing again, which happened without hesitation. Ina was bound to be the one giving today and not just receiving, reeling from having felt rejected by Cindy, her desire to please Cindy, her desire. Ina was kissing down Cindy’s stomach—she was wearing a baby doll dress, which was up around her neck, revealing her pink underwear, making her appear to still be secretly, privately young, which Ina yanked down and off—and then she didn’t know whose cries she was hearing, Cindy’s or the baby’s, but Cindy was rushing from the room, her dress ballooning up before being tugged down again, and Ina was alone, her face smeared with Cindy’s scent and juice, as if by icing, flowers, stars.
When Cindy returned, she seemed discombobulated, having been called away at the instant of her orgasm (which is what had happened—the child’s cry had interrupted and then superseded hers), and she sat back on the bed, beet-faced and bewildered. Ina regretted that events had occurred in this order, that there hadn’t been time to acknowledge what she’d achieved. She’d never made anyone so happy before, and it had all been improvised and by instinct, she had had no idea what she was doing. Still, some attention was paid, for Cindy moved a hand onto Ina’s, then pushed apart her fingers with her own and bent and kissed both their hands, as if saying, here’s what you did for me and did so well. Then Cindy sat up and shook her head, slightly, to clear it.
“You better go,” she said.
“Yes. And for good, maybe.”
Before Ina could ask why, Cindy was up and going through a desk, opening and closing drawers, cursing when she couldn’t find a thing. Finally, she sat in a chair, pulled a pen from an overstuffed cup, scribbled on the back of a slip of paper, and held it out to Ina, without looking.
“Here,” she said. “Take it.”
Ina was confused and about to be broken-hearted again, so she didn’t move. Faced away, Cindy waved the paper, saying, this, this, come and get this. When Ina still didn’t stand, Cindy sighed, slapped the slip on the desk, rose and—without a glance in Ina’s direction—left the room. Ina tentatively reached out as she passed but only could graze the hem of Cindy’s dress before she was gone.
In a few minutes, stunned, still aroused, Ina thought she should at least get up and take what Cindy had offered. It was a check to Cindy for five thousand dollars from the Starrs Recreations Co. (it was the company name on the cook lady’s shirt) which Cindy had signed over to Ina on the back.
No more calls came to the store from Cindy, and Ina was no longer allowed by Jeremy to go out for lunch. She didn’t deposit Cindy’s check, for she dreaded to see it manhandled by a bank teller, then buried in a drawer or stuck into a counting machine: she was reminded of calves or other animals being knocked on the head and pushed into threshers or whatever they were called, and cut to bits. She didn’t dare return to Cindy’s house uninvited.
Now evenings spent only with her dog were dissatisfying. Ina found herself judging Bentl for his clumsiness, for not having gotten out of the way of that dumb car in the first place and getting crippled. She tired of him constantly bringing her toys, wanting to play. Wasn’t there anything else he liked to do? Okay, eat, but that was about it. She knew it wasn’t his fault; maybe she should have waited a little longer after her mother died to get a pet.
Ina tried to play detective and looked up the Starrs Recreations Co., the name of which on the check she stared at each night for what seemed hours on end. The check had originally been signed by Leah Something for “new product testing/genetic copies #11-16,” whatever that meant. But the search turned up no address or even any proof of the company’s existence, leading Ina to borderline berate the poor operator who knew nothing, and Ina’s yelling only made the dog bark, another reason Bentl annoyed her.
At last, Ina bought whatever books and magazines she could find about Jack. She learned that the star had grown up believing his mother was his sister, for his mother had been too young to raise him and so let her parents say they were his parents, too. It was a revelation which had little effect on the actor—or so he claimed—learning it as he did when already a grown man. Ina wondered how much this might have messed her up, since she had had no grandparents, they had always been dead, and so her “sister” would have had to hire actors or asked friends to play her parents, which would have been even more peculiar. She knew she was over-thinking the story but she’d been drinking more at night now, to bring back the way she’d felt with Cindy that first time and occasionally adding a bout of masturbation to approximate that pleasure, and it hadn’t been enough, nothing was enough without Cindy.
One morning, Ina decided that she had to go back to Cindy’s house, that was all there was to it. It was too far to walk from her place, which was itself a decent distance from her job, to which she left a message before Jeremy arrived, saying she’d be late and giving no reason. So Ina rented a car, even though she was already in enough debt that she was almost at her limit. She took a cab to the rental office, realizing on the way that she hadn’t thought this plan through, because the taxi was so expensive it made no sense, but then it was too late, Ina was signing the forms for the rental car and even buying insurance, she had no idea why, except that maybe she felt a little fragile and endangered.
To her surprise, when Ina pulled up to Cindy’s house, she saw another car in the driveway (there hadn’t been any the other times). And the front door wasn’t opened by Cindy but an older woman who bore a weird resemblance to Cindy and was carrying Cindy’s baby.
“Yes?” the woman said. She seemed frazzled and maybe sorry she’d answered the bell.
Before Ina could complete her question, a louder and lower voice came from inside the house.
“I told you not to answer,” a man said and then emerged from the shadows into the pool of outside light isolating the lady and child. He, too, looked like Cindy, if Cindy were balding, portly, middle-aged, and male.
“I wasn’t thinking,” the woman said, clearly tired of him pushing her around. “All right?”
The man sighed and rolled his eyes, conceding it was too late but still stewing about it, he couldn’t stop. Then he addressed Ina, taking over from and convinced he could do better than the woman, who was obviously his wife.
“Is Cindy here?” Ina barreled ahead, heedless as ever, the odd circumstance only a new and minor obstacle to getting what she wanted.
“No,” the man said. The woman wheeled around with the child, who had begun to whine and reach for Ina, as if he recognized her, though Ina realized the boy was only aiming for a piece of fluff she hadn’t brushed from her hair, for she had barely taken time to dress let alone primp before fleeing her home. “She’s not. Whom shall I say is…”
“Well, to whom am I speaking?” Ina parried with the man, imitating his slightly affected way of speaking, snottily though unintentionally, it had just slipped out. It was hot standing in the doorway, and Ina squinted, which made her look, she feared, untrustworthy.
“We’re Cindy’s parents,” the man said, edging closer to the door, to close it.
Now Ina was squinting for another reason: to figure out if what he said was true. Of course, it was: the man’s and woman’s bones had obviously been handed down to Cindy, though not to the child, who looked utterly unlike them all. If anything, he looked like an infant version of Jack, which was peculiar. Ina indicated him now.
“And he is…” Ina felt she had one last chance to suss this story out.
“Our new son. Cindy’s new little brother,” the woman blurted, seeming not to believe it herself. The man swiveled to stare—glare—at her, but before he could speak, Ina felt cool breath upon her shoulders and back, the humid liquid already there rippled as if by a skimmed stone. She turned, and there was Cindy, standing too far away for any exhalation to have reached her, that had been Ina’s imagination.
Ina no longer wished to clarify any relationship or to get anything straight; she only wanted to be with Cindy. Yet the path into the house was blocked and the way back to her rented car and the road appeared impassible, too, for Cindy stood so still.
“Please,” Cindy said, “let me in.”
She meant the house, and for Ina to step aside. She hadn’t said it unkindly but as if ordered to do so, warned of the consequences if she did not.
Shaken, Ina did as she was told, swiveled and let Cindy shoot over the entrance to join the family framed in the portal. As they disappeared behind the door—which seemed even heavier than usual—Ina heard the child called “Little Jack” by someone before it closed.
When Ina finally arrived at work, Jeremy said he’d been waiting for her and not because she was late for no reason. He accused her of stealing the tapes she had in fact stolen, after finding the severed plastic tags in a trash can she hadn’t bothered to empty.
“You’re lucky I’m just letting you go,” Jeremy said, weirdly focused for once. Briefly, Ina didn’t understand. Then she did: she was lucky he wasn’t turning her into the police. But she was too dazed to pay much attention.
She packed up whatever stuff she had there: a raincoat stained by guacamole; a photo of Bentl as a puppy she’d taped to a wall; the sandwich marked “Me” from days before still in the fridge, which actually smelled all right. The ham had been unnaturally preserved by chemicals and so no longer really meat, she didn’t think, but she planned it eat it later, anyway. It reminded Ina of when she read sheep were being recreated by their cells or something, cloning they called it, which made her feel weird to think.
Ina still didn’t return the rent-a-car and parked it in the lot of her building, as if it were her own. She slept the rest of the afternoon and wasn’t even awakened by Bentl’s whimpering, for he hadn’t eaten all day. Before she became unconscious, she thought about being fired, her impossible debts and wondered what would become of her when she could no longer use her credit card. And who would ever employ her again, with a record of stealing? She fell asleep and dreamed about her mother’s house, and that she was attached by a vine to its overgrown lawn.
It was early evening when Ina was awakened by the need to defecate. First, she unsteadily stuck a can of dog food onto a plate on the kitchen floor. But the dog kept his distance, as he might have from his former negligent owner (the one who let him run out in the street? Ina wondered, idly, while sitting on the pot). After she came out, intending to return to bed, she was stopped by the sight of an envelope sticking halfway into the apartment under the front door, like an encyclopedia salesman in an old movie, determined not to be rebuffed. Ina stooped, retrieved, and opened it. She found a check written directly to her from that Leah lady at the Starrs Recreations Co. for more money than she could ever spend in her life.
That night, Ina drove back once more to Cindy’s house. She noticed that a private security car patrolled the neighborhood, and it slowed down as it approached from the opposite direction, before moving on. When she reached Cindy’s, she noticed that no cars were parked there and all the lights were out.
It was so dark, in fact, that Ina kept her own lights on after she pulled into the driveway. Fumbling for the brights reminded her that the car was rented, but now she was rich enough to own it. Yet she didn’t like the color—red—so would probably take it back.
Ina stumbled to the front picture window over which no curtain had been drawn. She peered inside, but the blazing headlights behind her made everything opaque, as if the glass was tinted black, which it wasn’t. Still, she saw enough to understand that the place was empty and that Cindy was gone.
As she drove home, Ina was shocked to find that a sense of peace was pouring over her instinctive reaction of panic; she imagined it as nourishing as skim milk over oatmeal, though she’d never gotten used to eating either. She had feared the brevity of life, sought a soothing way to address it (rentals, returns, etc.). But now her finite time, bought by the Starrs Co., loomed limitlessly ahead of her, as if lit by the brights she still couldn’t figure out how to turn off. Endless stability was more unstable than change; living forever was more frightening than the inevitability of death. Somehow she had seen this clearly in the eyes of Cindy’s strange baby with a movie star’s name, starting to re-live a movie star’s life. She would start by fixing up her mother’s house enough to sell it.
After she arrived home, Ina took the dog out for a walk. Slowly, connected to her by a stringy and insubstantial leash, Bentl began to move with less distrust and more confidence, freed by being tethered. Soon, on his damaged legs, he ran with irrational happiness, and Ina followed him, striving for control yet laughing, too, cars coming to kill them from every direction.
Laurence Klavan wrote the collection, “The Family Unit” and Other Fantasies, published by Chizine. An Edgar Award winner, he received two Drama Desk nominations for Bed and Sofa, the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London. His Web site is www.laurenceklavan.com.