Lena Derwent had worked at Mason’s for less than a week when they started making fun of her.
“Well hi there, handsome,” they said when she was out of sight. “My name is Lena, and I come to you from the 1980s.”
“She looks like an art teacher,” said Gemma from sales. “Don’t you think? Kinda over the top? Kinda demented?”
And Joe from payroll laughed, as he often did when Gemma spoke, because he knew Gemma was unkind, but, but what if she were to come unfurled, be private, tender, alone with Joe—what then? So it embarrassed him to live on the same street as Lena Derwent, and to have recognized her as soon as he saw her at Mason’s, with her large, fuzzed hair; her slipped lipstick; her cleavage. She was the middle-aged woman in number twelve, who was out every Saturday weeding in her garden, whose large backside hung above her low front fence like the face of a sunflower. Sometimes she stood up from her gardening and said, “Morning, sweetheart!” as he passed with his dog. Joe, smiling, polite, was never sure if the “sweetheart” was aimed at him or the dog. And if she was still outside when he returned from his walk, he might smile again as she made some exaggerated motion: wiping her perspiring forehead with one arm, or pretending to bark at Groucho. She had a friendly bark—Groucho always replied, seeming to like it. Once she asked Joe in for a cool drink and some water for the “pooch,” and Joe stammered something out, said he had plans, tried not to walk that way again. So when Lena arrived at Mason’s and said right away to Joe, “Hello, stranger!” it became necessary to laugh when Gemma spoke, when she was unkind.
“How do you know her?” Gemma asked, and Joe explained that they were neighbors.
“Oh, out there in Murder Town?” she said, and he smiled; he disliked that name, but it was the only private joke they shared. It was their only currency.
“Right in the heart of Murder Town,” he said.
A shudder passed through her: outsize, fastidious. “Beats me how any of you can live out there.”
“Pure balls,” he said. Gemma laughed, and someone called her name, and so she went.
Joe lived in Murder Town because his parents had lived there, once, before they died not of murder but of natural causes, and now he lived in their house. This meant he had to drive to work and back each day along a highway that cut through a state forest. The trees of this forest rose up around his car: long, lean eucalypts with their loose leaves and their bark littering the greenish ground. The real name of Joe’s town was Barrow. A man called Paul Biga had lived there, too, and this man would drive the same highway—up and down for hours—to find a person, any person, who looked far away from home, standing with a backpack at a junction or a bus shelter or just walking along the road or waiting with a thumb out for a ride, and this man would offer them a ride, and if they accepted he would kill them and take their bodies to the forest. Or he’d take them to the forest and kill them there—Joe wasn’t sure. Paul Biga was caught and had been in prison for several years. Joe drove through the white-green forest, and there were no longer any hitchhikers on this highway.
Not long after she’d started at Mason’s, Lena approached Joe as he sat in the park eating lunch—seemed to appear before him, really; she was very stealthy for someone so large—and said, “Mind if I sit?” She held a thin, stained sandwich.
Joe gave his Saturday smile.
Her sandwich, unwrapped, was spread with something green, which he knew would get in her teeth and stay there.
“Now tell me,” she said. “I’ve been thinking of getting a dog. You have that gorgeous, clever little guy. How old is he?”
“Around five or six, I think. I don’t know for sure. He’s from a shelter.”
“Aren’t you a darling,” she said, biting into her green. “Is he part bulldog? He looks it. That’s what I’m after. What I want’s a guard dog.”
“A guard dog,” said Joe. He finished his own lunch with a certain flourish. The park was visible from Mason’s.
“Can’t be too careful, right?” said Lena, conspiratorial. “Anything could happen. Considering where we live.” She licked her thumb. “Pesto,” she said. “I grow the basil myself. I’ll bring you some.”
“No, no,” he said, raising his hands as if he were about to push some flat, heavy object away from his body. “Don’t worry.”
Lena didn’t appear worried. She smiled as he stood up, lifting her face to him; and because she was looking into the sun, her eyes narrowed. Her smile was placid, drowsy, flecked with green. “It’s not for everyone, is it,” she said. She closed her lips and ran her tongue along her upper teeth.
“Bye,” said Joe, and Lena gave a happy little shrug.
To read the rest of this story, and others from the Fall 2018 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.