Tonight, the Woman would be Big Red. It was Tuesday. She would put on the white skirt, the red blouse, the white boots, the big red wig, the gold hoop earrings. She would paint her lips red and serve a red fish, too—salmon. When the Man She Married came home from work, she’d serve it to him, like she always did, on a yellow plate beside a glass of water and a glass of Pinot Grigio, while Frank Sinatra’s 1966 concert at the Sands played in the background.
“Hi, honey,” he’d say, as he entered the dining room after setting down his briefcase in the foyer. “How was your day?” She’d smile and make something up. He’d take off his coat, hang it on the back of his chair at the table, then go to the bathroom next to the kitchen to wash his hands. He’d call through the wall to her where she stood at the sink, “What’s for supper?”
“Salmon,” she’d say. Then, “It’s Tuesday.”
“Well, if this is Tuesday, it must be salmon,” he’d call from the bathroom.
Then they would sit and eat their fish. Usually, it would be garnished with lemons and accompanied by white rice and asparagus. Sometimes, broccoli, but there was always a green to go with the red fish and the white rice on the yellow plates.
Only today, the Woman’s heart was lighter than usual, because she’d met her replacement. Coming out of Kmart that afternoon, with a new iron, she’d spotted the Girl on the Street right away. She’d noticed the sun-bleached duffel bag, the scraggily brown hair, the too-thin frame. A transient: about five-foot-four, 110 pounds—and brown eyes, too. She was bending over a trash can. She was perfect.
The Woman bought a slice of pizza at Andre’s, then approached the Girl on the Street with it, handing her a twenty-dollar bill, as well, and asking if she’d like to sit and have a cup of coffee. The Girl on the Street had accepted, but not before shoving the slice into her mouth in three bites and starting to choke. The Woman offered a bottle of water; and at a nearby café, she presented her proposition.
She’d been planning her exit for well over a year, and was finally close to accomplishing her goal—the creation of a new life. At the beginning of each week, the Man She Married gave her money to run the household. She’d bought cheaper cuts of meat, one-ply toilet paper, generic cleaning products. She’d sacrificed her manicures and pedicures and done her own nails. She’d repurposed the cotton from medicine bottles to remove her makeup. And at the end of each week, she’d set the balance of this money aside—enough now for a bus ticket and two months’ expenses.
Nine months earlier, she’d introduced the practice of wearing a different outfit each night, to pair with a particular meal—“A treat for you,” she’d told the Man She Married, “something fun, to spice things up”—and in this way, she’d trained his expectations. At first, he was surprised and amused; gradually, he became completely habituated.
Monday was Miss Business and a bowl of soup: the suit was classic gray tweed, with a white silk blouse and low pumps, her hair in a bun; and the soup, mushroom barley or split pea, with a fresh green salad and a slice of sourdough, a glass of chardonnay. Tuesday was Big Red and salmon. Wednesday was Madam Ling-Ling and stir-fry. Thursday was Cowgirl Candy and pork chops—lots of leather and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. Friday was Miss Sixties and tuna casserole, finished with pink frosted lipstick and green Jell-O. Weekends were equally set: Saturdays, she’d slip into black spandex, and they’d share a pizza and a bottle of Chianti, then look at a porno movie. Sundays, she’d pull a gingham apron over a tie-up top and cut-off shorts, then roast a chicken, mash potatoes, and open a can of peas and a bottle of beer, while Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits spun on the hi-fi. All the outfits were lined up in her closet, all the recipe cards in a box on the kitchen counter.
“It’ll be easy,” she’d told the Girl on the Street, that afternoon they’d first met. “You hardly even have to speak. Just clean the house, do the shopping, make dinner, a little sex now and then, nothing too demanding—usually missionary in the dark. You’ll have a roof over your head, food on the table, money in your pocket. What do you think?”
The Girl on the Street had listened with an interested if wary expression. She told the Woman that she really did need a break from the street, that it was getting to her, that she longed for an escape.
“Well, think about it, OK?” the Woman said. “I’ll come back tomorrow. You can give me your answer then.”
The Girl on the Street
The Girl had been on the street for two years now and was tired. Recent nights, she’d slept in a tree in the park at the La Brea Tar Pits. It was big and leafy, with thick, high branches; secreting herself into its upper reaches, she felt safe. The only trick was timing the climb—she had to scale the trunk before the park closed but after the crowds had cleared—then hoping the security guards’ wandering flashlights wouldn’t wander skyward. So far, it had worked. She’d found the balancing difficult at first—gripping a bough between her knees, dozing, fearing she’d slip as she slipped into sleep—but by the second night, she’d gotten the hang of it. There was even a forking branch a little higher up where she could set her duffel. Still, she knew she couldn’t stay there for long. She couldn’t stay anywhere for long.
That afternoon, outside the Kmart on Third Street, the smell of garlic, and just food in general, had been killing her for a good thirty minutes as she dug through trash cans and contemplated her next move—should she try the islands on La Cienega, begging for change from passing motorists, or the sidewalk at the corner of Third and Fairfax with a handwritten sign, asking for money from pedestrians—so when that steaming slice of pizza appeared, she automatically reached for it and shoved it into her mouth.
She didn’t refuse the twenty dollars, either, though she knew there had to be a catch. People never gave that much money without wanting something in return.
The Woman watched her expectantly, then asked a question she seemed to have asked already; the Girl sensed an echo of it in the air. Would she like to sit and have a cup of coffee? The Woman looked reasonable enough—she’d just bought a Sunbeam steam iron from Kmart; the Girl could see the box through the plastic bag hanging at the Woman’s elbow. So she nodded her head, and they sat at an orange plastic table, where the Woman presented a proposal: she was searching for someone to replace her.
That’s how she laid it out, real straightforward like that, real simple. The Girl had been propositioned plenty of times before during her time on the street, had been asked to do things far stranger. What the Woman described sounded more like a job, a real job, something the Girl had never really had, except for those years living with her mother, when she’d babysat for neighbors in their apartment complex and worked late shifts at the Pepper Tree Frosty on South Santa Fe—saving every dollar to hitch out of town and land eventually in LA, where she’d come by money in strange, unpredictable, and unpleasant ways. Mostly unpleasant. So this offer, as crazy as it may have sounded to an ordinary person, sounded really good to her. Who wouldn’t want a roof, regular food, a clean bed every night? Even the sex part—missionary in the dark—would be a relief. If what the Woman said was true, the Girl would have it made.
The Woman told the Girl to think about it and said she’d return the following day. But the Girl didn’t have to think about it—not anymore; she’d been thinking about it since the night she washed up here. Her answer was yes.
Training began that Friday. The Man She Married was away on business, so they had the whole house to themselves. The Woman immersed the Girl in the routines: the cleaning, the shopping, the outfits, the recipes—all of it—and the Girl was a quick study. The Woman was impressed.
By Sunday, she held the Girl by her shoulders and smiled. “I’m ready when you are, and you’re ready,” she said. “More than ready. How about we start tomorrow? We’ll do a trial run—let’s say you do Miss Business on Monday, I’ll do Big Red on Tuesday, you come back for Ling-Ling Wednesday, and that way if you have any questions or concerns we can work them out.”
“OK,” the Girl said. Mostly, she looked forward to sleeping in that big, soft bed.
All that weekend, going over the Woman’s routines, the Girl couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave all that: the plush carpets, the washer and dryer, the green lawn.
“What if you want to come back?” she asked the Woman.
“Oh, I won’t be back,” the Woman assured her. “That is the least of your worries.”
The Girl really liked the Woman. She was funny and smart and pretty, too. A wonderful person. Who wouldn’t want to be like that, who wouldn’t want to be with someone like that? The Girl couldn’t understand it.
Monday and Wednesday went without a hitch for the Girl. Each evening passed just as the Woman had predicted. Nothing more, nothing less. And each morning, the Girl woke and felt like the day before her was a new and welcome friend, full of possibilities and an unfamiliar security.
On Thursday, the Woman returned, as planned, but lingered on the front porch, seemingly reluctant to go inside.
“I know you’ll be just fine,” she said, convinced.
The Girl wanted to hug her but was unsure, so shook her hand instead.
“Thank you,” the Girl said.
“Thank you,” the Woman replied. “And take care of yourself.” She meant it, too.
The Girl stood on the porch and watched the Woman walk down the driveway. Reaching the sidewalk, she stopped and shook her head, so that her brown hair flew away from her face for a moment, shining brightly in the noonday sun.
It’s funny, the Woman thought, I haven’t felt this way since I was a girl, riding my pink bike with the white basket away from my house, and the Girl finished the memory: heading toward those fields of yellow wildflowers in the springtime.
The Woman looked back over her shoulder and said, “You don’t have to stay, you know.”
But the Girl wanted to stay. She belonged here now.
The Girl closed the front door and stood with her back against it, then surveyed her surroundings. She crossed to the liquor cabinet, made a stiff drink, sat on the couch, and put her feet on the coffee table. She was very, very lucky.
That night, when the Man She Married came home from work, the Girl was serving his plate of pork chops, with beans and squash. His glass of water and his glass of wine were both in their places. The Girl stood at the sink in her leather fringed cowgirl skirt and blouse, her hat and boots.
“Hi, honey,” he said, as he entered the dining room after setting down his briefcase in the foyer. “How was your day?”
She smiled and made something up.
“Terrific.” He took off his coat, hung it on the back of his chair at the table, then went to the bathroom next to the kitchen to wash his hands. He called through the wall, “What’s for supper?”
“Pork chops,” she answered. Then, “It’s Thursday.”
“Well, if this is Thursday, it must be pork chops,” he called from the bathroom.
When she sat across from the Man She Married, she noticed how happy he was, slurping up the good beans, the sweet squash, the tender chops. She watched him, her mouth quiet, smiling mildly.
The Man She Married
The Man She Married sat down to his steaming plate of meat. He picked up his knife and fork, and he ate and ate and ate some more.
How he loved Pork Chop Thursdays!
How he loved Cowgirl Candy!
How he loved his life!