by Mary Miller
I’m in my boyfriend’s van with its newly tinted windows, parked outside of a lady’s house. His job is to follow the lady wherever she goes and take pictures. Ideally, his job is to photograph this lady climbing a ladder or doing jumping jacks or I don’t know what so her insurance doesn’t have to pay. So far we’ve followed her to Walmart and then to CVS and then through the drive-thru at Raising Cane’s where my boyfriend got in line right behind her and ordered something called a Caniac Combo. His order was delayed and we nearly lost her, which is the most exciting thing that has happened all day.
The lady is fat but she moves pretty well. There’s no way to tell if her back is hurting her, what her back feels like inside her body. At this point it is highly doubtful we’ll catch her doing anything more than driving to various places to purchase things. She isn’t going to put on a pair of tennis shoes and go for a jog, for example. But then neither am I.
We’ve changed spots, parked a few houses down from the lady’s in the other direction. She hasn’t seemed to notice us but her neighbors have. They crane their necks as they pass in their cars. One of them looks out her window, fingers parting the blinds, her pale legs on display from the knees down.
“They can’t see anything,” he says, dunking a chicken finger into some sauce. It smells so good. I want a bite but he already offered me a whole one and I declined. I’m always saying no. It’s a habit. I think it began, or at least it became a lot worse, when I dated a guy who talked constantly about his “year of yes,” a full year in which he said yes to everything, and which changed his life—turned him into an extrovert, a world traveler and a master chef, a man about town. Even when we were dating, when he was my boyfriend and I was his girlfriend, he was trying to sell me on himself, telling me how this “year of yes” had improved him. Because he couldn’t stop trying to convince me, I came to despise him. I think about him now and want to call or text him only to torture him further. Fuck your year of yes, I think. Fuck it so hard.
“That lady might call the police, or come out here and knock on the window. What do you do if they knock on the window?”
“They don’t do that.”
“Well, once or twice they have.”
“And what’d you do?”
“I pretend like I’m not here. This is private property,” he says, making a square with his fingers, which cheers me right up. I like it when people talk about private property. I trespass constantly. Because I’m an attractive white woman, nobody seems to mind.
“Hmmm,” I say. “So it’s like a bathroom in a public place. You know someone’s in there ‘cause the door is locked but when you knock they don’t say anything.”
He looks at me like this is an odd comparison, or like he always gets an answer when he knocks. I suppose I get an answer, too. I’m the one who doesn’t respond, at least not until the knocking starts to irritate me, at which point I yell. A locked door should tell the whole story, all you need to know.
Since it’s five o’clock, I open a beer. I thought this was going to be a lot of fun so I packed a cooler full of beer and La Croix along with a backpack of items that had seemed celebratory at the time I’d packed them: trashy magazines, two hats for disguises and one of my mother’s old wigs, a bag of cashews. When I was a kid, ten or eleven and overweight, I emptied an entire jar of cashews at my aunt’s lakehouse and my mother had berated me on the car ride home, telling me that cashews were the most expensive nut. I felt guilty about it for weeks. I think of this whenever I eat them, joylessly. I prefer almonds and pecans, even peanuts.
“Well, I guess you were right. This is very dull.” I put my feet up on the dash for emphasis.
“I told you,” he says. “I told you it was tedious.”
“I had high hopes, though. I really did.”
“That’s one of the things I like best about you. Your hopes are always so high.”
I smile. It doesn’t seem like a compliment but I decide to take it as one. I thank him. It’s not true at all, not in the least. My hopes are so low, so bottom-barrel, that I am dating a private detective-slash-musician even though I’m thirty-five and soon to be thirty-six. I consider doing something to thank him further but decide against it. And he’s still working on the chicken fingers, anyhow. He eats slowly, I note for something like the sixteenth time. I have never had a boyfriend who eats so slowly. He hasn’t ever been in prison or the military and is an only child. When you have three brothers, you learn to eat fast, hoard food. And that is also how you get fat.
The pale-legged woman has now opened her door and her little dog runs out and barks at us. I like dogs, pride myself on knowing the names of all the breeds. “That’s a cute little Yorkshire Terrier,” I say.
“Not really. I just wanted to say Yorkshire Terrier.”
The woman approaches, closer and closer, and stops at the edge of her yard. Boundaries, I think, everyone has such a preoccupation with them. She puts her hand above her eyes as if this will help her to see better.
“What do we do?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing at all. This is private property,” he repeats.
“Do that square with your fingers again, please.”
The year of yes, I think, a whole year full of yeses. I want to tell him about it but he’s heard the story a few times now. I feel like I could tell it better if I could do it one more time—could make it funnier, more interesting. Get my timing nailed down. I had really liked that guy, the yes guy, which is the great tragedy of the story. If only he could have stood being liked. I didn’t include that part, and wouldn’t if I told it again.
After a while, they go back inside and she continues looking at us out her window. What kind of life that must be, looking out your window all day long. I feel good, though, because we’re offering her some excitement. Perhaps she’s calling up all her old lady friends, telling them about us. There’s a van parked in front of my house and it’s been here all day. It has dark windows… No, I can’t see who’s inside… Should I call the police? Yes, a van. With very dark windows.
“Sweet heavens, this is a terrible job—old ladies watching you, following disabled people to the chicken place.”
“The chicken place is the only good thing about it. And the pay’s not bad.”
There is another thing I don’t tell him, perhaps I had forgotten it. After my mother’s heart surgery—I was twenty years old, home from college—there was a van parked in front of our house, too, not directly in front but a few doors down like we are now. It was there for days. I took the dog out for walks periodically to peer in the window, shooting nasty looks at a person I couldn’t see. My mother was in bed, or maybe propped up in a chair, dozing in front of the TV.
“Do you ever catch people doing something they shouldn’t be doing?” I ask.
“Sometimes,” he says.
“Mowing the lawn. Moving furniture. Things healthy people do.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say, opening another beer.
“You don’t know about what?”
He is still, somehow, preposterously, eating. It’s getting all stuffy and we can’t turn on the car to use the air conditioner or roll down the windows more than a crack. I feel my bladder filling up and grow alarmed. Earlier, I’d hopped out and peed at Walmart. I think about peeing in his enormous Raising Cane’s cup. I think about what the hell I am doing with my life, how it has come to this. My mother, though, she’s still kicking. Right this minute, she’s talking on the phone with one of her many friends or looking at dogs on her iPad. She’s the one who turned me on to them, the many breeds, their dispositions and temperaments. They calm her, she says.
I dig around in my backpack and pull out the wig, shake it while he watches. “My mom was Marilyn Monroe one year for Halloween.”
“Which year?” he asks, because he has seen my mother.
“A long time ago.” It’s flat on one side so I try to fluff it before putting it on. “She wore the white low-cut dress and the red lipstick, the whole deal. I remember sitting on her bed, watching her get ready for the party. I used to love to do that. Or sometimes she’d pull things out of her closet and tell me about them, like there was this doll she’d had as a girl but it had melted and its eyes were all droopy.” I run my fingers down my face to demonstrate. “It’s weird because I remember being so interested in her then, in everything she had to tell or show me. Now she talks and I immediately start to black out. Why do you think that is?”
“Because she’s a Republican?”
“She had me aim the fan at her while she described the significance of the dress, and how Marilyn had worn it in The Seven Year Itch. I think that’s the movie—is that the right one?”
“You look good as a blond,” he says. “I don’t know.”
I thank him and lean over to give him a kiss. It’s a far lean, a good lean, to reach him. “I love that you don’t know some things. That you say you don’t know instead of just pretending or making something up.”
“Do I say it a lot?”
“That’s too bad,” he says. “I’ll have to work on that.”
“You’ll have to work on knowing everything, all of the time?”
“Exactly. That’s what I mean.”
And then it is six o’clock and we’re free to go. He says it’s my turn and he’ll take me wherever I want. I tell him I’ve changed my mind, that I think I would like some chicken, after all. He seems pleased by this, which pleases me. “Okay, then,” he says, “chicken it is. Chicken for everybody.”
I wave goodbye to the legs, tell them they have done an excellent job keeping the neighborhood safe and we’ll see them tomorrow, even though I won’t be with him tomorrow, will never go on one of these boring surveillance missions again. But the legs are retreating. I feel something like wistfulness, or regret, as I watch them: knees and then calves, ankles, slippers. It’s dinnertime for old ladies, too.
Mary Miller is the author of two collections of short stories, Always Happy Hour and Big World, as well as a novel, The Last Days of California.
Image: modified version of a photo by Benjamin Schubert via Creative Commons