A Little Customer Service
A Short Story by Lori Ostlund
That fall and well into winter, Tara lived with a woman 17 years her senior, though most days she felt like the older one; she attributed this to the fact that the woman—her name was Gretchen—was rich and always had been, a state of affairs that had resulted in a certain type of arrested development. Tara had lived long enough without money—32 years, which was her whole life—to know that money separated people from both misery and common sense. She was not overly familiar with lesbians, so she did not realize that Gretchen’s arrested development might also be caused by that, not by being a lesbian per se but by having spent the first 40 years of her life ignoring desire, channeling it into gestures and activities better suited for a schoolgirl. Take, for example, the way that Gretchen wooed her into having sex the night they met: by inviting her to leg wrestle. They lay on the rug in front of the fireplace, hips touching, heads in opposite directions, on the floor of Gretchen’s adobe house on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and all Tara had seen was the luxury around her and not the strange and almost heartbreaking fact of a 49-year-old woman coaxing intimacy out of leg wrestling.
They’d met earlier that night at a tourist restaurant, all coyotes and turquoise, where Tara was waiting tables and Gretchen was eating a Cobb salad, seemingly without enjoyment, as though eating were more of a job than waitressing. When Gretchen was done sighing over her salad, done lifting her fork and knife up and down as though they were a set of barbells, she began waving frantically for the bill, even though she could see that Tara was covering too many tables, or should have been able to see this if she knew anything about waiting tables—or seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. When Tara handed her the bill, Gretchen handed it back with her credit card, making a point to not even glance at the total. Tara did not know whether she was demonstrating her faith in Tara’s math skills and overall character or reflecting her casual disregard for money, but either way, Tara was not impressed. Then, after Tara had swiped the card and delivered it back to the table with a mint, a pen, and the receipt, after Gretchen had signed the receipt, pocketed the pen that was not hers, popped the mint in her mouth, and was free to leave, a need that her wild gesticulating minutes earlier had seemed in service of, she stayed at her table another 40 minutes, watching Tara take orders and fetch condiments and be polite to a group of six men whom Gretchen would later declare undeserving of politeness.
The men were dressed in matching sky blue T-shirts that said First in Customer Service, though the phrase “Customer Service” was in quotation marks, so the T-shirts actually said First in “Customer Service.” Tara laughed when she saw the shirts. She wished that she could laugh with someone, but she did not work with people who thought about things like irony and punctuation. In fact, just the week before, the manager had pulled her aside to say that the kitchen staff had complained about the way that she entered her orders into the computer.
“It’s all the extra codes,” he said. “You’re confusing people.”
“Codes?” she repeated, truly perplexed, and the manager pulled up her last order—“Burger on whole wheat; hold the mayo and cheese”—and tapped his pen on the semicolon.
“This,” he said.
“That’s not a code,” Tara said. “That’s a semicolon.” She took classes at the community college and hoped to cobble together a career someday from the things that she was good at, among them punctuation and multitasking. “A code is”—she paused, hearing her tone become instructive—“you know, for when you don’t want other people to understand.”
“Well,” said the manager, “congratulations. Nobody understands!” and then, “You need to knock it off.”
As she waited for the bartender to fill another pitcher, she studied the six men. She knew their story, knew, that is, that the shirts had been presented to them—probably along with this trip to Santa Fe—to reward them for a job well done, just as she knew the sort of men they were, men proud to be good at their jobs, to be the recipients of shirts that proclaimed as much, or claimed to proclaim as much. She wondered whether even one of them understood that the shirts were actually mocking them. “Nice shirts,” she said, setting down their third pitcher. All six men smiled proudly. Most people did not want a waitress who corrected their grammar. It was like going to a dentist and having him try to save your soul, which had recently happened to her. Tuition was due, and she needed her tips, so she smiled back and moved on.
Twenty minutes later as she steered a fourth pitcher onto their table, one of the six leaned forward and touched her wrist, asking, “Can I interest you in a little customer service?” and the others howled as though this were as clever as life got. It probably was. The men led the kind of lives that they wanted to lead, lives filled with routine and family and the pleasure of paying bills—not joyless lives, but lives that relied, nonetheless, on tired saws about the old ball and chain or jokes like this that made them feel like men. But she also knew that on a different night, each of these men might come in alone and sit, docile as a lamb, showing her pictures of his family. He would stare mournfully at the menu, settle on the meatloaf, and leave a carefully calculated 15-percent tip, as though anything more were taking food from his kids’ mouths.
Gretchen, who had been watching her interactions with the men, held up her signed credit card slip with an exaggerated casualness that suggested she expected Tara to rush over and look at it immediately, so Tara retrieved the slip but waited until she was back at the register to take a peek. Forty dollars. Forty on a 38 dollar check. Next to the tip were a phone number and the words Call Me.
Tara had never been hit on by a woman, not that she knew of, and she tried to imagine (not entirely out of insecurity, though there was always that to consider) what had caught Gretchen’s interest. Her hair was her best feature, but she was required to wear it back at work, so she knew Gretchen had not been able to take in the healthy swing of it. She decided on her shoulders, which none of the dozen men she had slept with had ever mentioned but which saleswomen noted admiringly all the time. Nice shoulders seemed like the sort of thing that only women would care about. Earlier, Gretchen had asked whether the restaurant monitored its carbon footprint. It was the kind of question that Tara was used to after two years in Santa Fe, but she knew nothing of the restaurant’s carbon footprint, for though she considered the environment important, the details of it bored her. She had invoked her polite Minnesota voice to say, “I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that, ma’am,” making herself sound overly obsequious because she sensed this would bother Gretchen. She had wanted to bother her. But was that flirting? She did not think so. First, she was not the flirting type. Yes, she had wanted to provoke Gretchen, but that was because she did not like the way that Gretchen sighed as she ate or her tone as she asked about the restaurant’s footprint. It was the same tone that Tara’s neighbors used in advising her to keep Toots, her cat, indoors. It was true that Toots was a hunter. One recent Sunday morning he brought down a rabbit, which he dragged through the open sliding door that led from the backyard into her bedroom, where he proceeded to pluck it merrily while she sat in bed reading. When she finally noticed, she leapt up and scolded him as she nudged the rabbit onto a dustpan, but her scolding was half-hearted: the rabbit was bigger than Toots, so she saw in his choice of prey an ambitiousness that she admired. When he nuzzled her chin later, she nonetheless pulled away, for though she loved Toots more than anything, bits of rabbit fluff still clung to his mouth, and she found herself unable to forget his ruthlessness with the rabbit.
Here was the thing: the neighbors, who were also her landlords, did not know anything about Toots’ predilection for rabbits when they suggested that she keep him indoors. They were just asserting their opinion, unsolicited, like people who owned a very big house and rented out the tiny caretaker’s cottage behind it, not for the money but because they liked knowing that someone was there when they went off to spend time in their other homes: a house in Los Angeles, an apartment in New York, and what they called a “bungalow” somewhere exotic, Bali maybe. In short, they wanted Toots confined forever to the same 600 square feet while they could not stay in the same very big house (or bungalow) for more than a month before flying off to the next.
* * * *
When Tara got home, she fed Toots and counted her tips. She kept a running tally in her head throughout the night, but she took pleasure in the counting ritual nonetheless. At closing, the six customer service reps had handed her 40 dollars, smiling because they believed it to be an impressive amount, even though their bill had come to 300. She thanked them, not profusely but sincerely, because there was no reason to make people feel bad that they did not understand what a good tip was or have the means to leave one, even if they did have the means to order six pitchers of beer. Men were said to be better tippers, and Tara supposed that they were, but men also convinced themselves that a waitress paid attention to them because they deserved it and not because the woman was trying to earn a living.
Anyway, the important thing was that she was on track to make her fall tuition. She existed in a perpetual state of studenthood, perpetual because something was always getting in the way—money or work. It was hard to find the right balance. It was summer, so she was taking just one course, memoir writing, for which at this very moment she was supposed to be writing an essay. The topic was her first sexual experience, an assignment that Tara found both overly prescriptive and voyeuristic on the part of the professor. His name was Bill, which was what everyone called him, except Tara, who called him Dr. Vance. He was 40 with severely crossed eyes about which he made frequent jokes that were meant to put the class at ease: when he returned homework he said they had crossed from grading too many papers, and when he assigned the sex essay, he said it was time to come clean—they had crossed because he thought too much about sex as a boy.
By way of illustrating the assignment, Dr. Vance had told them about finding his father’s stash of “horse porn.” This, he said, had shaped his notions of sexuality. Tara thought that by horse porn he meant horses having sex with each other. She had grown up on a farm, but she could imagine an audience, primarily urban, for whom such images might be a novelty. When Tara said this in class, linking it to an earlier discussion about knowing your audience, everyone laughed, and Carol said, “I think the professor means bestiality.” The first night of class, Carol had introduced herself as “73 years young.” She favored pantsuits the colors of Easter eggs and lipstick that made her look crazy. Her first essay was about gardening, her second about canning. Yet somehow even Carol had understood that horse porn meant bestiality.
“Carol is correct,” said Professor Vance. “I believe that horse-on-horse is what we call The Nature Channel.”
Everyone laughed, not necessarily at Tara but at the professor’s joke, which felt like the same thing. She had heard some of them talking about her in the parking lot one night, saying, “What’s she so competitive about? It’s a memoir class.”
Dr. Vance’s goal was to make them comfortable with themselves as writers, and the first step, he explained, was to make them comfortable with themselves as sexual beings. The other students seemed to accept that this was the only way to become a writer. Tara did not, but when she stayed after class to tell Dr. Vance that she did not think she could write about her first time, he laughed and said, “It’s that good?” She blushed because she had not meant this at all.
* * * *
“I knew you’d call,” Gretchen said when she called. “Come over for a drink?”
“Now?” said Tara. It was nearly midnight. Still, she showered away the smell of the restaurant and got into her car, but when she was finally standing on Gretchen’s doorstep, she decided that she had misread the situation, that Gretchen had invited her over simply so they could drink wine and chat like a couple of girlfriends—girlfriends in the sense that deeply heterosexual women used the word.
When Gretchen opened the door, she was no longer wearing the pressed linen outfit she had had on at the restaurant. Instead she wore a tank top and shorts cut so high that her buttocks tumbled out with each step as she led Tara inside. Tara looked away. Summer clothing made her uncomfortable.
“This is the living room,” Gretchen said, as though she did not think Tara capable of determining this on her own. It was true that the coffee table looked like an old piece of farm equipment, but Gretchen explained that it was actually a weaving platform from Java. On it sat two glasses and a bottle of wine, still bearing the price tag. When Gretchen was sure that Tara had seen the price, $95, she swooped in and said, “Oh God, I can’t believe I forgot this,” working a manicured nail under the sticker. The walls were hung with the sort of art that Tara saw when she strolled through many of the galleries in town, art that did not make her feel anything except shock at the combination of price and mediocrity.
Gretchen poured them both a good helping of wine and then stretched out on a Navajo rug, drawing her bare right leg up over the knee of the left. She rested her wine glass, containing roughly $25 of wine, atop her stomach. Tara sat on the sofa above her, stiffly, as though occupying a pew in church. The wine was red, so each time she took a sip, she wiped the corners of her mouth.
“I noticed your accent at the restaurant,” Gretchen said. “It’s very Fargo.”
“I’m from Minnesota,” Tara replied, though she knew Gretchen was referring to the movie and not the town itself.
“I’m from the East Coast,” Gretchen said. She mentioned her surname with the casualness of someone used to people recognizing it, of knowing who she was. Tara took a sip of wine, and Gretchen said, “You’ve never heard of us, have you?” She giggled and announced cryptically, “Paper.” Only later did Tara understand that paper was the source of Gretchen’s family’s wealth.
“You know you gave those men far more attention than they deserved,” Gretchen said.
“How much did they deserve?” Tara asked, not combatively.
Gretchen stared up at her, flexing her calf. “Let’s leg wrestle,” she said. She sat up with the fluid grace of one who worked out daily and set her wineglass on the coffee table. Tara lay down on the floor beside her, head to feet as instructed. As Gretchen counted, they swung their legs up and down, up and down, and on three, Tara felt herself being turned upside down.
* * * *
In the memoir class, before they were assigned to write about sex, Tara had wanted to write about the time she saw her father throw a litter of kittens against the barn wall. She was 14. When confronted, her father had defended himself by saying that that was how his own father had dealt with kittens and moreover he had not known she was watching.
Tara said what mattered was what he had done, not who had seen it. “Even if I hadn’t seen you, God did,” she added. About this, she had doubts, but she knew her father believed it, and that was what counted.
Later at supper, her father threw down his knife and asked what she thought would happen if he did not control the cat population.
“We’d stop having mice,” she said calmly.
Her father snorted. “Look at that young couple up the road,” he said, meaning the couple from the Cities who had bought the Halsruds’ farm. “They started out with six pigs, and now they’ve got 62 last I heard, but they’re still getting their meat in town because they can’t bring themselves to kill anything.” Tara’s mother laughed as she often did when something was not funny but she thought it might be, and then the meal continued in silence.
The next morning Tara had gotten on her bicycle and pedaled up the road. She wanted to see the pigs for herself, but she only got as far as the Andersons’ place, which still sat empty though it had been a year. In their yard was a For Sale sign, which she couldn’t imagine did any good on a dead-end road that only the locals used. The Andersons had moved away after what happened with Sheila, their daughter, and Tara had not heard anything from them since, even though she and Sheila had been friends. They were the same age, but the friendship had been a recent thing. One night, Sheila’s parents phoned Tara’s to ask whether the girls might spend some time together. They did not say that they were at their wits’ end, but Tara’s parents knew they were. Everyone in town knew it. Sheila was adopted, and people said that the Andersons had not known what they were getting into.
“This is your chance to be a good influence,” Tara’s parents told her. Tara agreed to the request because she had no friends. While adults generally knew how to see past her know-it-all demeanor, her peers wanted nothing to do with her. As a result, she was deeply lonely but had the know-it-all’s singular ability to say precisely the sorts of things that intensified her peers’ animosity. That is, she wore her loneliness haughtily, as a preference. Sheila was a tall, hulking girl with poor posture. The Andersons were both short, especially by Minnesota standards, and one of the first things that Sheila told Tara after they became friends was that whenever she stood near her parents, she looked down at them and thought, “These are not my parents.” She had been held back in the first grade and nearly held back again in the fifth, after she explained to her teacher that she had not completed her homework because voices had urged her not to. The Andersons asked the teacher, as well as the school nurse, librarian, principal, and bus driver—in short, anyone who had contact with their daughter—whether they should have her checked by specialists, but everyone said the same thing. Sheila was just lazy. She was laughing at them all. Only the bus driver said that they should have her checked, but he could not really explain why. “She’s just off,” he said finally.
Their first afternoon together, Sheila read to Tara from a magazine called Penthouse, a story about a woman who liked to have sex when she was menstruating. Tara had been shocked by the story, which was titled “Red,” and even more shocked by the casualness with which Sheila read, as though the story were an assignment for school. “Your parents let you read stuff like this?” she asked, a question that later embarrassed her greatly. “I’ve never met my parents,” Sheila said without looking up from the magazine. “And the Andersons don’t know. They’re not allowed in my room. Anyway, it’s none of their business.”
Tara tried to imagine telling her parents that her room and what she did in it was none of their business. She pictured the way Sheila walked down the aisle of the school bus, ignoring the kids who called her names but then occasionally punching one of them hard. She thought Sheila was wonderful.
* * * *
Gretchen had mice. When Tara woke up the morning after the leg wrestling—in Gretchen’s bed—she went downstairs, and there they were.
It was no wonder. The kitchen was set up like a smorgasbord: open cracker boxes, chunks of cheese on the counter, a 50-pound bag of organic brown rice seeping onto the floor. Of course, they made a show of running away when they saw her, disappearing into holes and cabinets, but as soon as she set the espresso pot on the stove, one poked its nose up from the burner ring. She’d leapt back, just as two boys appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Do you live here?” she asked. It was a silly thing to say to two children standing in their pajamas when she was so clearly the intruder, but Gretchen had made no mention of children, not before the leg wrestling, when they sat making small talk, and not after, when she coaxed Tara into spending the night.
“Oh, no thank you,” Tara had said in polite horror when Gretchen first suggested she stay. Tara considered sleeping together, namely waking up together, more intimate than sex.
Gretchen propped herself up on one elbow. “What do lesbians do on their second date?” she whispered.
It was the lead-in to a joke, an attempt to ease the mood, but Tara understood this only belatedly. She shook her head, and Gretchen announced, “Rent a U-Haul!”
Tara did not laugh, and Gretchen said, “What’s wrong?” They were still lying on the Navajo rug in front of the fireplace, surrounded by the innocuous art that did not look any less innocuous to Tara in her post-sex-with-a-woman state.
“Nothing,” said Tara, and then she confessed, “I just don’t really get the joke.”
“You mean you don’t think it’s funny,” said Gretchen.
“I mean I don’t get why it’s funny. I don’t understand what U-Hauls have to do with anything.”
Gretchen laughed. “It’s funny because lesbians rush into things. They go on a date and then they move in together. The U-Haul symbolizes that.”
Tara tried to imagine Gretchen driving a U-Haul. “You do know I’m not a lesbian?” she said. She reached for her wineglass and drank fifteen dollars of wine in two gulps.
“I know,” Gretchen said. “It’s what I like about you.” Somehow, this had persuaded Tara to stay. She’d slept poorly, then had her attempt at coffee making foiled by the mice, and now these two stood before her, regarding her warily.
“I’m Tara,” she said. “I’m a friend of your mom’s.”
Tara believed there came a moment in all children’s lives when they understood that their parents were imperfect—foolish or weak or ignorant, human in some complicated way that they were too young to understand but that would disappoint them nonetheless.
The boys nodded. They were young, maybe eight and five, but she was sure they knew that she had had sex with their mother.
“Richard,” said the older one.
“Kevin,” said the younger.
“Breakfast?” she asked, and both boys nodded again, solemnly.
She beat together a carton of eggs, added un-nibbled cheese from the refrigerator and a clump of wilted herbs. In the midst of this, Gretchen appeared and settled at the table with her sons. She did not offer to help. While Tara scrubbed a baking pan that contained mice droppings, the oven preheated, giving off a stench so pungent it made her head pound. “It’s mice feces burning, or maybe urine,” Gretchen explained, as though using a word like “feces” changed everything. She opened her computer and chuckled about something as she typed, but she glanced up when Tara began slicing bananas for the boys.
“Use the banana slicer,” she said. “It’s easier.” Tara kept slicing. Devices that did precisely one thing were never easier.
When the eggs were done, she served Gretchen and the boys, who thanked her shyly.
“Oh my God, did you use the Stilton?” Gretchen asked. Tara shrugged. She did not know whether she had used the Stilton because she did not know what the Stilton was.
* * * *
There was no U-Haul, just a slow migration of Tara’s belongings, a steady weaving together of schedules, though in truth, it was less a weaving than a total subsumption, Tara’s days taken over by the needs of the house and the boys, who sat at the kitchen table reading aloud to her from the books on their reading lists while she went through the cupboards, cleaning and disinfecting. Gretchen did not work, not really. Mainly, she spent her days examining every little part of herself and trying to make each part perfect, a form of narcissism (Tara thought) engaged in by those who found themselves with plenty of money and time but no way to imbue either with meaning. She was particularly enamored of therapy, though as far as Tara knew, she had never had anything truly awful happen to her, so Tara thought of Gretchen’s twice-weekly sessions as akin to a pedicure or teeth whitening.
In early October, Gretchen came home from one of these sessions and requested—in words that sounded rehearsed—that Tara quit her waitressing job, framing it as a selfless appeal: there was no need for Tara to spend her nights taking orders from others for a pittance. Tara said something about liking to work, and Gretchen said, “But you do a lot around here,” which Tara took to mean that there was still so much more she could do. What Tara did not say was that she needed the income to pay the rent on the caretaker’s cottage, where Toots still lived. She had assumed that Toots would move with her, but when she suggested this early on, Gretchen said that it would not work, that a cat on the premises would disturb the mice.
“The mice need to be disturbed,” said Tara.
“I couldn’t bear to live amid such savagery,” Gretchen said dramatically, and they had not mentioned Toots again, though Tara visited him daily.
That fall, Richard, the older boy, was often in trouble at school. The boys were enrolled in a bilingual school, where they had two teachers, Mrs. Garcia, who spoke to them in English, and the Spanish teacher, Mrs. Ramirez, who was from Mexico and was the one who always called about Richard’s behavior. Tara believed that she was right to call, that children needed to learn discipline, how to stand in line and put their own needs behind those of others sometimes. They were not going to learn these things from Gretchen.
When Tara asked him what the trouble was about, he shrugged and said that he did not know how to keep his hands to himself. “What do you mean?” she asked, and he said that he liked to touch his classmates. “Touch how?” she asked. Richard looked perplexed, and then he said, “Like this,” and held up his index finger, moving it steadily toward her as though her hair were a flame toward which it was drawn. When it settled on her head, stroking, it was as light as the wings of a moth.
Another day, as they were driving home from school, Richard told her that one of his classmates, Malcolm, had a long needle that he could pound into people’s heads until their brains leaked out. “Is he your friend?” she asked, and he said that they were not friends but that he had to pay attention to Malcolm or he would get The Needle.
“Have you actually seen this needle?” she asked, and Richard turned away and stared out the car window.
“I want you to tell Mrs. Ramirez about Malcolm,” Tara told Richard that evening as she tucked him into bed, but when he did, the very next day, Mrs. Ramirez said, “You need to watch out for your own body,” a cryptic comment that left him more terrified, for it seemed to imply that Mrs. Ramirez was afraid of the needle also, that it was each person for himself. When Tara went in to discuss the situation with Mrs. Ramirez, alone because Gretchen had an appointment with her therapist, she said that she had meant only that Richard should keep away from Malcolm. “He follows Malcolm like a little puppy,” she said.
“Richard,” she said as they drove home. “Where’s your father?”
She knew that Gretchen had been married until she was nearly 45 but that she had fallen in love with a woman when she was 40. “It was our maid,” she told Tara, laughing the way she did when she was pleased with herself.
“My father?” said Richard. “He’s with God.”
Tara had not been expecting this. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry, Richard. I didn’t know.”
“It’s OK,” said Richard. “We see him sometimes.”
That night, as she and Gretchen lay in Gretchen’s bed, which was made from some sort of sturdy African wood, Tara said, “Is your ex-husband, um, dead?”
“I wish,” said Gretchen.
“Richard said that he was with God,” Tara told her.
“Well, that’s one way to put it,” Gretchen said. “He joined some cult right after I kicked him out. He gave them all his money.”
“What sort of cult?” Tara asked.
“One of those cults where grown men and women all live together in very cramped quarters and know way too much about each other’s bodily functions. They begin each day with a group orgasm, which they consider a form of prayer, and they spend their afternoons selling candy bars door-to-door like high schoolers raising money for the prom.”
“What about the money he gave them?” Tara said.
“It wasn’t much. Just the million I gave him to get him to leave.”
“Dollars?” said Tara, and Gretchen leaned over and kissed her the way she had when Tara told her that she had never tried persimmons or capers or, most recently, arugula.
* * * *
Tara had stopped attending the memoir class after she met Gretchen, which was for the best since she had never completed—never even started—the essay about her first sexual experience, but one night she was at the grocery store selecting carrots—organic, which she considered a waste of money since the entire world was filled with toxins, but Gretchen insisted—when she heard Dr. Vance say, “Hello, Tara,” and there he was, regarding her with his crossed eyes. She started to apologize for dropping the class, but he held up his hand and said, “Why is it that every time I run into a student, they start apologizing?”
He was with a woman, not elderly but older. His mother, Tara thought. “This is Tara, from the memoir class this summer,” he told the woman, who smiled kindly, as though recalling something Dr. Vance had told her. “Tara,” he said, “this is my lover, Meryl.”
Tara pretended not to be shocked. “Pleased to meet you,” she said to the lover, who had nice eyes as well as a slight beard, just a bit of fuzz around her jaw. Tara thought that perhaps the professor, with his crossed eyes, had not noticed the beard.
“I enjoyed the class,” Tara said. “I just got busy.”
“Oh, come on. I scared you off with the sex assignment.” Dr. Vance smiled as if to suggest that he understood her perfectly.
“Not really,” Tara said. She made her voice firm.
“It’s OK,” he said, his expression turning gentle, his crossed eyes looking off in directions that Tara could not determine. “It’s hard to write about the first time.”
She wondered how it felt to have crossed eyes and why she had not wondered this before. “First times aren’t always a big deal,” she said. “I hardly remember mine.”
“How old were you?” asked the professor. He was examining a bunch of celery.
“Thirteen,” she said, anticipating a reaction, but he continued to assess the celery. “It was with my best friend,” she added. He brought the celery up to the side of his face, holding it there as though listening to it and not her. “Her name was Sheila.”
The last time she saw Sheila, they had kissed. She did not know how it happened, just that they were sitting in Sheila’s room, as usual, with Sheila reading aloud from dirty magazines, as usual, when Sheila started to cry right in the middle of a story about a woman and a Doberman pinscher. Tara stood up from the bed and crouched over Sheila, who was sitting on the floor with her back against the door. Tara was not comfortable with emotional outbursts, did not know how to touch someone’s hand or offer an embrace.
“Sit next to me,” Sheila sniffled, and Tara sat.
She asked, “Are you OK?”
Sheila rested the magazine with the story about the dog between her legs and crossed her arms in front of her, pushing her hands up inside the sleeves of her sweater. “Do you remember when I fell off the roof when I was eight?” she asked.
What Tara remembered was the ambulance speeding past their house and then running outside with her parents, listening for how far up their dead-end road it went. Her parents said it must be going to the Ericksons’ because Mrs. Erickson’s 90-year-old mother lived with them, but it turned out that it was for Sheila. In discussing the accident, which people did a lot over the next few weeks, they said, “Did you hear about the Andersons’ adopted girl? Fell off the roof.” Even though Sheila had lived there among them her whole life, she was still “the adopted girl,” not really from there, not when she did things like fall off a roof.
“Yes,” said Tara. “I remember. You slipped and broke your arm.”
“I didn’t slip,” said Sheila. Tara could see Sheila’s hands moving beneath her sleeves, scratching hard. “I jumped.” Tara expected to see the usual sly look that Sheila wore when she was testing her, but it wasn’t there. “Dad was cleaning the gutters. He came down to use the bathroom, and I climbed up.”
“You went up … to jump?” Tara asked. She wanted to understand the order of things, which came first: opportunity or desire.
Sheila shrugged. “I got up there, and I could see everything, the whole town, fields and lakes and silos, our school in the distance. It was all so familiar, and I thought about how my real family was out there somewhere, beyond what I could see. I thought about how we would always be looking at different things.”
“And then you”—Tara hesitated—“jumped?” Sheila looked at her and nodded.
Tara did not know whether she leaned in first or Sheila did, but one of them had and the other responded. They kissed for a long time, and Tara did not think about whether there was anything wrong with it. Nor did she think about whether it felt right. She thought only about Sheila standing on the edge of the roof and then leaping into the air, about Sheila keeping the secret all these years and then choosing her to tell.
Sheila pulled back and whispered, “Do you know who my real family is?” and Tara shook her head. “The Packers,” Sheila said. “You know who the Packers are, right?”
Of course, Tara knew who the Packers were. They owned radio stations and convenience stores and had their own grocery chain with the slogan “Pack it on at Packers.” Sometimes the Packer men ran for political office, always successfully, and especially then there were stories about them on the news, stories in which they gave money to charities, drove drunk, and cheated on their taxes or their wives.
“They’re rich,” Sheila breathed into her ear, and she reached under Tara’s shirt and squeezed her breast, hard, and when Tara said, “Stop. That hurts,” Sheila squeezed even harder.
“I said to stop,” Tara said, and she stood up, adjusted her shirt, and left.
She did not go back, not the next afternoon or the one after that, nor did she answer the telephone when it rang because she knew that it was Sheila calling. When Sheila tried to talk to her at school and on the bus, she stared to the side of Sheila’s head, as though she did not exist.
“You were a good friend to that girl. She’s just got too many problems,” Tara’s mother told her a week later, a comment that was uncharacteristic of the relationship she had with her mother, except that that afternoon the Andersons had left town after Sheila tried to harm herself, so everything that day seemed strange, not just her mother sitting on her bed trying to discuss friendship and feelings.
“I wasn’t such a good friend,” she said.
“You know who her real family is?” said her mother. She sounded excited. “The Packers.”
“How do you know that?” Tara asked. She had thought that Sheila was lying.
“Someone at the agency told the Andersons when they adopted her. Her mother got pregnant in the loony bin, and no one even realized until she was four months along.” Tara’s mother thought that “in the loony bin” was the normal way to say that someone was crazy. “It was probably one of the other patients,” her mother said, “which means poor Sheila got a double dose of all that.” By “all that” her mother meant craziness.
“I don’t really want to talk about it anymore,” Tara said. This was characteristic of their relationship, and her mother made a huffy noise as she left.
Later, as Tara got ready for bed, she studied the bruise on her breast. It was in the shape of Sheila’s hand. Over the next two weeks, it faded slowly, first the mark left by the heel of her hand, and then the fingers, one by one. The thumb mark, which she had to lift her breast to see, went last.
* * * *
Gretchen had a plan for the mice, which was to catch them in no-kill traps and drive them far from the house. When Tara asked how far was far—because the driving had quickly become her job—Gretchen said at least five miles. Tara knew that it made no sense to chauffeur mice around like that, not just because of the carbon footprint that Gretchen was always talking about but because she did not have time to drive 10 miles round-trip to free one mouse only to find his cousin waiting in another trap when she got home. Still, she did it because she could not bear the sound of the mice screeching inside the traps.
The boys often accompanied her, the three of them making a game of it, speculating about whether the released mouse would forge a new life or spend all his time trying to get home. Richard would watch the mouse hesitate at the edge of the open trap door, its nose quivering, and when it finally scurried off, Richard always turned away. Tara knew that he was crying, but he did not say why and she did not know how to coax it out of him. One afternoon in late November, while Kevin chased after yet another newly freed mouse, Richard sat beside her, crying and trying to keep it from her. Without looking at her, he asked, “Tara, do you feel sad about how big the world must seem to him right now?”
“Yes,” she whispered back because she did.
When they got in the car to go home, she found herself taking them instead to meet Toots. After Toots got over pretending to be uninterested in their affections, they spent an hour lounging together on the bed, where they rubbed Toots’ stomach as she told them the story of how he had killed the rabbit. At first, she worried that the story would upset them, especially Richard, but the rabbit was an abstraction while Toots was right there in front of them, purring and showing them his belly, and they refused to regard him as anything but heroic.
“I wish we could live here,” said Kevin. “It’s like a playhouse.”
“Shut up,” said Richard because he understood that Tara might be hurt by the implication that her home was too small for anything but playing.
“Toots would like that,” she said. “Wouldn’t you, Toots?” She made tooting noises and Toots purred, and later when they pulled out of the driveway, the boys waved and yelled, “Toot! Toot!” even though Toots was inside and could not see or hear them. As they neared their own house, Richard turned to her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We won’t tell her about Toots.”
* * * *
Tara left Gretchen in December, the morning after the lesbian club came over for drinks. She did not try to explain why she was leaving because she thought that Gretchen would say she was making too big a deal out of things, and maybe she was. Maybe the lesbian club was just the last straw. She had never even heard of the lesbian club until Gretchen announced that they were coming over. “We meet monthly to hike or have drinks and talk,” Gretchen said. “We’re a group of professional lesbians.”
“As opposed to novices like me,” Tara replied, though she rarely attempted humor.
Gretchen, who was straddling her hips while pouring maple syrup into her navel, said, “Ha ha. I mean that we’re women with professions.” Tara thought two things: that she hated to be sticky and that Gretchen had no profession because she had no job. She said neither.
The lesbian club consisted of six women, all of them coiffed and made-up and looking, Tara thought, like they were trying very hard not to be lesbians. They sat in Gretchen’s living room, admiring the Javanese loom table. “What I wouldn’t give to be a weaver,” said one of them wistfully. “You wouldn’t believe the day I had.”
The night they leg wrestled, Gretchen had told Tara that she and her ex-husband purchased the weaving platform on a tour of Java. “And I bought this on the same trip,” she said, showing her the textile draped over the back of the sofa, “from a woman in a market. I had to bargain hard, but I got her down to thirty bucks. It took her a month to make it.” She sounded pleased with herself, and Tara had said nothing.
Gretchen showed the professional lesbians the textile, repeating the story of how she had bargained for it. The women clapped, and one of them said, “I hate the way they treat you in some of those countries, like you’re a dumb tourist.” They began sharing stories of similar bargaining triumphs, and in the midst of this, Gretchen turned to Tara and said, “Do you suppose you could serve the wine? I’m too comfortable to even think about moving.”
She did look comfortable, stretched out on the sofa with her shoes off and the Javanese textile that had taken awoman thirty days to make covering her legs. Tara stood. “Would everyone like wine?” she asked. The professional lesbians all nodded, and one asked whether Tara might bring out some nuts or crackers, just something small to keep her stomach happy. “Of course,” said Tara. “Anything else?”
“Water?” said another, and the one who had had such a hard day that she wanted to become a weaver thought she might need a shot of something stronger.
“Coming right up,” said Tara, and she went down the hallway to the kitchen. She had put the boys to bed early, so the house was quiet, and she heard one of the women say something, and then Gretchen, who tended toward loudness, replied, “Best customer service in town,” and the professional lesbians laughed. Tara filled the wine glasses and carried them on a tray to the living room. She brought out cheese and crackers, mixed nuts, coasters, and water to go around. She placed a shot of Jack Daniels in front of the weaver wannabe. “Can I get anything else for anyone?” she asked, but they were too busy talking about the summer opera lineup to answer, so she went upstairs to bed.
The next morning, while Gretchen was still asleep, Tara made the boys breakfast and told them that she was leaving. “Why?” asked Kevin. “Don’t you like us?”
“I like both of you, very much. But you know adults have their own way of doing things, and this is like that. It’s stuff between me and your mom.” She knew this sounded like bullshit.
Richard began to cry, and she went over and hugged both of them. “Come on,” she said. “The bus will be here any second.” She gathered their things and walked them to the door, where they stood not talking until the bus arrived. Kevin hugged her and ran out, but Richard stayed behind, tapping the toe of his shoe against the doorframe.
“Just ask my mom to pay you more,” he said. “I’ll ask her. I’ll tell her.”
He kicked the door hard to show that he meant business, and she tried to put her arm around him, but he ran out without saying goodbye.
When Gretchen finally came down, looking pale, Tara said that she was leaving. “I’ve got a headache,” Gretchen said. “Can we please just discuss this later?”
Tara went upstairs and packed her suitcase, an old-fashioned, wheel-less thing that her parents had given her when she graduated from high school. When she appeared with it, Gretchen stood up without speaking and went over to the small desk in the foyer and took out her checkbook. She did not find it necessary to use checks in order or keep track of those she had written, so she opened the book up to any old place and began to write. When she was finished, she blew on the check and tore it out. “Here,” she said, waving it in the air as she had done with the bill that first night in the restaurant, a woman used to staying seated when it came to money.
Tara set down her suitcase. She walked over and took the check from Gretchen’s hand, saw her name after Pay to the Order of, the surname misspelled by a letter. She stared at the amount. $500,000. “I can’t take this,” she said. She did not say that Gretchen had paid her ex-husband twice as much.
“It’s not a gift,” Gretchen said. “I want you to hold onto it, until you realize you’ve made a mistake. Deposit it, and I’ll know.”
“Know what?” Tara asked.
“That you’re ready to come back.”
“What if I just cash it and run away?” Tara asked.
“You won’t,” Gretchen said. “I know you.”
Tara wanted to say that Gretchen did not know her, but she just put the check in her wallet and picked up her suitcase. It was heavy, and she had to walk in a lopsided way, as though one leg were shorter than the other. It was not the way that she wanted to look making her exit. She drove directly to the bank, where she sat in her car holding the check for a long time because she knew it was the closest she would ever come to holding half a million dollars. She pressed it to her cheek, remembering the way Dr. Vance had held the bunch of celery, and she understood then that that was how he saw the world best—peripherally. She tore the check into very small pieces, which she released out the window like confetti as she drove home.
Toots did not greet her when she came in, did not crawl inside her open suitcase or sniff the items she took out of it. He had spent the last four months indoors, with little companionship or challenge. It had left him dazed and slow-witted, and this was her fault. Tara opened the sliding door that led to the backyard and left it open, but for the rest of the day Toots did not go near it. Tara fell asleep early that night because there were no dishes to do, no boys to tuck in and read to, but she awakened suddenly, hours later she thought, to find Toots standing in the still-open doorway, looking out into the backyard as though recalling something: a scent, the taste of rabbit fur, the memory of a braver self.
That morning, after the boys left for school, she had gone through the house opening every trap, thinking about the mice, about their tiny lives and about the way that Richard cried to imagine their fear at being released. She should have taken the trapped creatures home with her. She knew that now. How lovely it would be to lie in bed listening to Toots thrash about in pursuit, engaging in some long-overdue savagery