The schemes were for people with plenty of time, or people not totally unfamiliar with being treated like shit. I was intimate with both situations. Management interviewed me—bizarre questions through an inch of plexi-glass: How long, in hours, have you been unemployed? Did you misspend your youth throwing stones at passing cars?
‘This can be a tangential process,’ management explained and I said sorry.
‘Only peasants apologise,’ management stated and returned to her obscure markings.
The interview was an all-nighter, designed to break my spirit and ensure I pledged organisation and responsibility for the rest of my days. I emerged from it, not completely sure of anything except my own name and my age, which I knew was somewhere in my late-twenties. In the morning, I was taken to the bathroom to be measured for a uniform. The toilet stall had the dark, depthless feel of a place where a body may have lain undiscovered for days. The shirt gave me breasts, the regulation boots gave me legs. All those parts I had worked so hard to forget were now reunited under surprising polyester circumstances. When I was dressed, management offered me a manic thumbs-up. Management was round, almost perfectly so, and given to spontaneous bursts of laughter. She looked at me, at my white and empty face, and asked, ‘Isn’t it a great thing to be able to give yourself a giggle?’ I saw in that gesture her former life as a farmhand, the crazy ease with which she sent animals off to be slaughtered.
Management explained the procedure again. Our function was to be near the till, maintain the presence of the garage and, most importantly, believe. Management left the room as I screened the demonstration video. In it three participants, with the sexless, good looks of catalogue models, spoke of the joy of being back at work. Whenever they did something spontaneous, or something considered outside their remit, a large X popped up on screen. As I watched I felt giddy and ashamed, as if I were witnessing a particular type of vicious pornography.
Management suggested if I ever felt like I didn’t believe, I should go for a short, furious walk—maybe up and down the motorway path—and stay away from my colleagues, as my attitudes and sulky face could be hazardous. She said I seemed like a nice person and if we had customers they would probably like me. I had a personality that was best suited to short interactions.
‘Should I get a business card made?’ I asked.
‘It’s something to consider,’ management said and she repeated her manic thumbs-up.
Before the garage, my hometown was famous amongst people with car-sickness. It was here they stood retching and spewing before moving on somewhere better. When I came back from the city I thought we both might have changed in bright and glamorous ways, but we hadn’t. We were both long acquainted with disappointment and the joys of being used.
I’d been home two months and the house felt strangely empty to me, as if all our furniture had been sold. Somehow, a hundred, tiny, unspeakable events had happened in my absence. I was reunited with my mother—two flirts, two women who might find themselves in abusive relationships and not even notice; two true suckers, back together.
Every dinner time, she questioned why I ate the way I did, why I stuck my fingers in so many jars and rooted around. Did I eat vegetables at all? Did they serve peas in many restaurants in that city? I said I didn’t know. It wasn’t something I thought much about and she pointed her fork at me, that absurd vegetable speared on it, as if we shared a private joke.
‘Were there boys there? Did you have a boyfriend?’
‘Was he nice?’
‘Not really. He was irritating, you know. He said things like: I will have a small espresso. Stuff about coffee that people already just know. He wasn’t funny at all. And he kind of hit me, sometimes, in my sleep. Though I suppose I was just pretending to be asleep so it wasn’t totally honest of me either.’
‘It’s important for a man to have a sense of humour.’ A confiding, motherly smile. Her optimism was of the terrifying, impenetrable variety. It could burn through entire periods of history.
My parents had a fierce bond I admired. They had refined the habits of the long-married—saying nothing, and then saying everything twice. They disregarded me, but in a practical way: the way you might ignore the weakling in a bomb shelter. Their days had their own sedate, private rhythm, punctuated by the sharp slam of the dishwasher. There was a strange, daily pattern—down the street; go to the supermarket; wave at a slight acquaintance; glance at the same patch of sky; come back home. They had seen boredom, stared it straight down, and survived. And still, they were less drained, less aged than I was. My father, who had always worn black, suddenly had the energy and enthusiasm for colours, and sported a pink shirt under a red golf jumper. My mother encouraged me to support his developing style. They had new friends, couples they had allegedly met in the supermarket. When these new people called on the telephone, I answered and said, ‘Who is this?’ and they said, ‘No. Who is this?’ like they might have stumbled across a burglary scene, a dramatic horror show that would strengthen their ties to my parents.
I lay on my lumpy bed and dreamt up inventive ways of leaving my own body. I looked down at it—slack, star-shaped—and closed my eyes, re-opened them. Still there. It didn’t seem to be going away. I made lists of things I cared about, things I did not care about. One of these lists was always significantly longer than the other. I was restless. I made many visits to the rain barrel in the yard. I felt the rain barrel was a measure of time—all the rain collected in my two-year absence. My mother sensed the world might run out of water and this cracked, aluminium barrel was our security, our secret plan. I wanted to say, ‘It’s the twenty-first century,’ but it sounded self-important and foreign in our hostile little house.
I had no interest in redemption. I didn’t believe in it—it was for crackpots, squares—but something about that rain barrel made me want to be reborn. I could see myself sailing through the murk, the dirty leaves framing my face, the blueness of the barrel bringing out my inner-Virgin Mary.
It was necessary for me to get out of the house.
Kevin arrived on the job exactly one week after me but immediately possessed an understanding of the garage that I lacked. He grasped its quiet romance, its rusty appeal. He knew the order we were meant to do our activities in—it was innate, it was perhaps something he was born with. I might put the mop in the bucket, or I might wring out the mop, and he would say, ‘We are not supposed to do that part yet’ and he would be right. He worried about my non-linear mind but I felt we worked smoothly, as a perfect, synchronised team.
I liked him far more than was strictly encouraged. I knew management wanted us to have a more difficult relationship, with maybe a frisson of grim sexual tension, but it didn’t happen. From the beginning we shared a special atmosphere, a private connection that was pure and honest. For instance, he knew immediately when I was in the bathroom checking my face to see if I was still up-to-scratch, that all the waiting around hadn’t ruined me. He didn’t hate me for it. We both shared dim dreams of self-assertion, fantasies where we fought and emerged triumphant. We trusted each other. We made confessions. I was probably the sister he wanted to marry.
As an older woman I felt it necessary to encourage his self-esteem. I told him he looked incredible in his uniform, that it did wonders for his lanky nineteen-year-old frame. That was true. He looked like something out of a movie about bandits or serial killers on the run. Except he wasn’t a bandit or a serial killer. He was the gas station attendant who pointed helpfully and said, ‘They have gone that way!’ He enjoyed these comparisons, these tokens. He admitted—as we swept the garage forecourt, as we kept our eyes peeled for lucky pennies—that in his mind everything was television. There were ways of separating reality from fantasy but he did not know them. This could be a minor problem—like having trouble with directions, confusing north and south. Or it could be a major problem. Once, as we weeded the area around the rude, unnecessary fence, he told me he felt like a character being awkwardly written out of a sitcom.
‘You know when they are there but they don’t do or say anything? Like nobody has a clue what to do with them? Then they disappear and not a single person even bothers to mention it. That is happening to me, I think.’
I was familiar with numb feelings of this type. In the garage I felt like anyone could step in and play me, if they were supplied with the correct expression of anguish, the sluggish reactions of someone baffled by their own poor choices. Often, in the evenings, when self-pity set in, talking seemed like a good idea. I would say ‘Talk to me, Kevin,’ and he would oblige. Kevin’s cinematic knowledge was both detailed and absurd. It left slim room in his brain for anything else, but I was grateful for it. It eased the spectral silence of the garage. I liked to make a big show of listening to him. I think it made him feel better, like he had done more than mark a time-card, weed the yard, wait.
I wanted to impress him. It was just something in the air between us.
‘You know, I did some films, small parts but I was on-set.’
Both of us, perfectly unmoving in the motorway breeze.
‘What was it like?’ he asked.
‘Like everything else after a while. Almost boring. Unpleasant. A lot of hanging around.’
‘Is that why you left?’
‘Yeah. And all the good roles started drying up.’
‘Oh, that happens.’ Kevin agreed earnestly. ‘I have heard of that happening to women.’
Within a few weeks, I developed a nightly routine of walking briskly, guiltily, past the house where Kevin still lived with his father. I did not like the conclusions I came to. I could picture him inside, folded over his single bed, staring intently at a screen. Some mornings, I could imagine a faint trace of a television glow on his body.
It seemed embarrassing to go out looking for people I knew on my grubby, old streets, but I did it. I was past pride at this point anyway. I had put it behind me, no plans to see it again. My friends, what remained of them, were sweet girls— transparent, tame—but likeable. I assembled us together in a bar for one sorry night. Since we grew up with mothers who sat, dour, over their annual wine, we all drank like our fathers. It was our great generational decision.
Every now and then, they asked, in an offhand way, what I did in my time away. They were furious that this was it, that they were still here, that they would never know their fully realised selves. They were ready to turn on me in a moment. I said, in a wishy-washy attempt at sensitivity, that I had to leave to discover things about myself. I withheld the fact there wasn’t much to discover. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface. I begged them to consider my new walk. It was a city walk. I did a demonstration. ‘This is it,’ I shouted as I traversed the length of their favourite and most tragic town bar.
I stressed that in the city I had worked for a number of wealthy people. I saw a lot of views because looking at things was simple and easy. I went to several apartments, all of them stubbornly identical, stared out the glass and exhaled in appreciation of beauty. I took my life for apart for them with a cheerful contempt. It was amusing to me.
I sensed a certain exasperation with my stories. My girls, my sweet girls, suddenly all had the searching, exhausted faces of the precariously employed. They sighed, slurped their drinks in an unladylike manner, repeated my name hundreds of times. While I had been pottering around, waiting for the right moment to introduce myself to the world, they had been attempting somber business—trying to drink in moderation, paying motorway tolls.
Of course, we had an abrupt, jittery conversation about money. My main problem was I had none and I was uneasy about it. In the city, getting cash was no problem. Anytime I opened my purse ugly dollars just leapt out, excited to see me. I never stole anything. I was civilised in that way. I made a living. It was a confidence trick, it was leaning in at exactly the right moment, it was lying on your back very flat, very still. Poverty was only for women who didn’t know how to make slight social improvements.
My friends said I should keep busy. They were all familiar with my patterns—my fondness for just fucking things away. They had a dull list of activities for me to do. At one point or another, it was put forward, it was implied that being a good-looking person was not a full-time occupation.
‘You should try it,’ I said. ‘Try it for a week and get back to me.’
If there was a lull in the conversation, if there was a place I could edge in, I liked to talk about the city women on the trains, the women who never removed their sunglasses. They were incredible, these ladies! They sat deathly still, their eyes shielded from the dark, metal sun and tears moved down their cheeks, as if by chance, as if it had nothing to do with them.
I exhibited much wisdom and maturity at these moments. I didn’t know where it came from. I was really very drunk.
Back at the garage, I was in charge of the interior. It contained three tin cans of indiscernible origin, one for each shelf; a feeling of forever melancholy; a postcard of a skyscraper; and a ghostly fridge floating in the middle of the floor. We talked about painting the walls. Painting, stock, customers—Kevin had the schemes and the mindset of a helpless idealist.
As regards love and friendship, I sometimes got the sense it was a bit of a one-way street with Kevin. He was embarrassed by my cluelessness, and this brought out a red, rough rash on his cheeks and an unattractive side. I slowed him down, he said. I held him back from his advancement in his field, he said. Blah-blah. He had a habit of pointing out my less-than-quick wits in the mornings. He pushed out his hands, rolled back his eyes and staggered in my direction. I was his zombie wife, his zombie sister. He added, in a polite and helpful way, that there are ways of mixing things so you don’t get formidable hangovers.
‘Don’t you want this place to be nice?’ he shouted at me.
‘I do.’ I certainly did.
‘They could have given us more than three cans of godforsaken soup.’
‘We don’t know if they are soup.’
‘What I mean is that they are not even putting in a bit of effort. In the training offices in town they have two working computers. What do we have?’
I double-tapped the postcard.
There was possible room for promotion at the garage and that possibility nearly drove Kevin demented. I was done with trying. There was nothing to do and I didn’t feel like doing it. Just stay alive—that was my job. But Kevin was starving. Management knew just how to send him sky-high with outrageous promises and complete lack of follow-through. I said it was tacky to want to succeed at an imaginary job. I liked to be honest when I felt it was needed.
Kevin said he wished I paid the same level of care and attention to everything in the garage as I paid to the plant, which I watered daily. The plant had been introduced in the summer as a new level of responsibility, and it quickly became our incredible object. It was the sole living thing in our stockless gloom. It was green, as plants usually are, but it had a touch of the exotic about it. It was in my interest to keep it out of the sun and away from the greedy birds.
‘Stop cuddling the plant,’ Kevin often suggested.
‘I’m just holding it,’ I lied. I liked to have it in my hands, my fingers wrapped delicately around its black, plastic casing. If pushed, I probably would have admitted to feeling some kind of kinship with the plant: there were hundreds of things we didn’t understand about the world and there wasn’t a person alive interested in telling us. Poor short and squat fellow.
Kevin blamed my passivity for our slow days. I was a human scarecrow: a strange woman, wild-haired, with end-of-the-world eyes. What town could not turn away from that? Despite his calm exterior, he was capable of great crabbiness. He screamed questions at the blameless sky. He shook the petrol pumps as if he alone could outwit their emptiness. ‘We must be profitable,’ he said to nobody in particular.
‘Why do you move like that?’ he asked once.
‘It’s a walk I’m trying. It’s only recent. Do you like it?’
‘It honestly looks like there is something wrong with you.’
‘There is something wrong with me,’ I said. ‘When I was a child I grew at an advanced rate. My mother took me to the doctor to measure my arms and legs and they are actually two inches longer than they should be.’
I had ways of silencing Kevin, ways of forcing him to stare rigidly into the distance as if being near me required huge strength. He was a young person given to habitual fits of insanity and nervy implosions. I passed several weeks simply following his erratic, slippery shadow through the glass as he stalked the garage floor. He needed to get over his moods, sharpish. But I worried for Kevin. I did. I worried about people, desperately. It took up a huge amount of my daily hours. I didn’t ask to be that kind of woman but that’s just the way it worked out. The reason I ended up in the garage was clear: I was being punished in a sluggish, work-shy way by the universe and, honestly, it just made me laugh.
‘Why are you here, Kevin?’ I asked.
‘My dad said even a clown could do it.’
Occasionally, when people from out of town arrived in, rumpled and made frantic by too much time with their families, I became shy. There were probably interesting things to talk about, and ways to make the garage understood, but these people possessed an energy that was beyond me. I was skittish, I sweated unnatural amounts, I went unusual hues. The people moved at a ferocious speed. They had their grand intentions—conversation, sucky sweets, inexpensive petrol. I felt like a child trapped in a dumb, plastic playhouse before these adults. Forever dutiful, I stuttered through my spiel: ‘Thank you for visiting us today. I’m sorry I can’t help you in any way as this establishment is a participant in the practice scheme designed to improve my skills and eventually lead to long-term employment. I know what you are thinking. But you would be wrong. Please take a complimentary mint.’
The mints were my idea and I always pushed the bowl towards the customers in what I hoped was a cordial way. These people had a habit of looking right through me, so it was not unusual for me to go completely silent and turn stiffly away from them. I could still feel them behind me, their impatience growing, breathing, becoming lethal, but I never looked around. My frozen back said it all. I returned to tending the plant or standing stupid-still with my hands resting on my thighs. Had there been a panic button, I would have pressed it. Kevin beamed at them as they left. Kevin said the unique service experience dug straight into a customer’s soul. It was something to do with the correct measure of eye contact and unobtrusiveness. Afterwards, he tended to lock himself in the toilet stall for half an hour. He may have been punching things and missing, or not missing. I didn’t know. Usually, he would emerge, in obvious despair, and accuse me of being antisocial. I was not being my premier self so he was correct in that sense.
Management was aggressive in her pursuit of a good time. Though she despised everything—and did unspeakable things to animals—she was, at heart, a fun-loving person. We had good times for an hour on Fridays. Kevin and I traipsed into the offices in town, where Henry and Lynn—the other two participants—were based, and we all grouped semi-merrily together in the backroom. We ate supermarket-brand crisps from a cavernous bowl, electric dust coating our fingertips. We drank beers with bearded men on the labels. These men with their fishing-rods, with their broad smiles suggesting happy retirement, advised us to kick back. Have one on us. Management wanted us to be comfortable, comfortable enough to lie down playfully in each other’s laps, if the desire struck us. This never once happened.
At these gatherings, it was not unusual to be offered advice that would make a ‘new woman’ out of me. We all agreed early on that my pretty face and nice body were my best qualities, but I could probably pull up my socks re: everything else. I didn’t take a whole lot of it on board. At one time or another everyone in the garage had a low opinion of me but that didn’t matterso much now. When we first met, we stood in a group circle—in my life, not a single good thing ever came of standing in a circle—and we introduced ourselves, announced our favourite colours and confessed to the many errors, ignorances and life missteps that had brought us here, to the garage.
We listed our favourite colours in a routine way; we were careful to choose from the brighter end of the rainbow. We did not want to hint at brown, black or horrible grey deficiencies that may have resulted in termination, or some other unknown fate.
‘You know what?’ management said, ‘I don’t have a favourite colour. I like them all. And you know what I like best?’
We made our most inquiring faces as if in the presence of revelation.
‘When all the colours work together as a team.’
This was particularly popular with Lynn, our secretary of sorts from the office, who smiled effusively.
‘Yes, I treat all the colours equally,’ management said, as if this were the final word on the subject.
‘That’s very Christian of you,’ I said. Religion made me chirpy. It was so sweet and old-fashioned, like dinner and a movie.
‘I don’t hold any other religious beliefs,’ management blushed. ‘Except, I do believe in sin.’
‘In that case,’ I said, ‘I’m not sure you are going to like what’s coming next…’
There were so many words for the things I had done that it was hard to know where to start. There wasn’t a single person in that backroom prepared for my shameful moments. I tried to fit as much degradation into each sentence so as not to waste time. I truly wanted everyone to get their turn. I was considerate in that way. I felt, having disclosed all this information, I hadn’t given myself a fair, decent start at the job, a fresh slate. But, like I said, it wasn’t important.
Lynn spoke about her ex-husband. The whole romance right from the get-go. I couldn’t care less about whatever basement she found the dud in, and that it got gloomy but they muddled through for a while. There was a fat child born somewhere in the middle of all this, maybe? A diabetic child? I didn’t know. I drifted in and out. What caught my attention was when she admitted that, during their time together, she kept a detailed record of everything her ex-husband ate. Now, he was out there eating—at other dinner tables, at restaurants with new women—without restraint, his meals undocumented and she was terrified. This disgusted me.
‘That’s not right, Lynn.’ I said. ‘People should be allowed to eat whatever they want without you interfering.’ Lynn really made me sick.
She stormed out of the room, flying down the hall in her flat shoes. Came back a few minutes later with a puffy face. There were so many Lynns in the world, each one expecting hand-holding, mollycoddling. What to do with all of them?
Henry was here because he had limply tried to rob a post office but it was actually monstrously difficult, much more than the five-minute task he expected. He gave up mid-way.
‘Give ‘em hell, Henry!’ I commanded. I applauded any display of rebellion or wildness.
Henry had had a small, shitty life that had made waving a box-cutter in front of a few mildly frightened employees seem like an empowering and enriching experience. In another, better, world he might have been a hero. A hairy, folklore type with a soft, touchable face. Instead, he made beautifully constructed pie charts for a petrol station that did not exist. He was beefy, mighty, capable of picking me up and swinging me around menacingly. I would shout, ‘Put me down, put me down, Henry!’ but not mean a word of it. It was all girlishness. I loved being picked up. Things were much clearer from that height. Despite my previous run-ins, I was still not immune to men like this.
Kevin didn’t have anything to confess. He used most of his allotted time to argue for the addition of hats to our uniforms and I half fell in love with him. Then he was a little agitated as he tried to describe his dreams for television which, as he spoke, seemed to become even more vague and nonsensical. The way he saw it, the problem with modern viewing was that there were too many remotes. People wanted a single, functional remote for everything and he, plaid-clad, barely pubescent, would invent it. This was an example of hope. The garage was about giving us hope. The hope of a bright future, the hope of a high tax bracket.
After the first meeting, I felt so hopeful that I went out and had seven or eight large drinks. Kevin accompanied me, my boy chaperone. We went to a godawful place I wouldn’t normally be seen dead in, but it suited my state of mind at the time. The tawdry bar lights cast an angelic glow on us both. Kevin thought I drank too quickly, put his hand over mine, said things improved if you went slow. So I drank seven or eight drinks, slowly.
‘The problem is they don’t listen to me. That’s the issue at hand, Kevin,’ I said.
‘That’s because you have literally nothing to say.’
Next day: the usual show. My bed; dry-mouthed; alone; my entire life still before me.
My mother, clad in one of my father’s more colourful golf shirts, confronted me: ’I just don’t think that job is bringing out the best in you.’
Management always found an excuse to ‘pop’ into the garage, wielding an enormous coffee cup along with her tremendous power. Her latest plot was to put chairs of various shapes and sizes at the front of the garage. Management had a vision of the townspeople sitting on these chairs, chatting happily amongst themselves, and gazing luridly at their young people as they busied themselves being employed. It was as if the chairs could sense the unreasonable expectations placed upon them—they vomited their stuffing, revealed dangerous wooden splinters, and discoloured horribly in the daylight.
During the chair-moving task I did my best to be well-mannered, uninventive, kindly.
‘The weather is cold today,’ I once offered.
‘Only idiots talk about the weather,’ management replied as she surveyed me from a sinister distance.
I tried to leave a baffling number of times. Each time I tucked my hair behind my ears in a nod toward a tidy aesthetic and squeezed myself into management’s tiny cubicle. ‘I quit. Thank you,’ I’d say and management would reply, ‘I will see you tomorrow,’ and somehow she was right and I was always destined to be wrong.
I had up-and-down periods. I experienced great bursts of tenderness towards Kevin, the pigeons that littered the garage forecourt, even the empty chairs. I was hugely nostalgic and wistful for the garage even while I was still technically working there.
‘Kevin, do you remember the good times we used to have?’
He looked at me. ’Not really.’
Then: the anxious darkness, a rising feeling that I might rip all the leaves from the plant for no good reason, an anticipated anger at the next person who might dare touch me.
‘I hate this place and if you are having similar feelings, my friend, we should run away,’ I said.
‘Haven’t you just come back from running away?’
The garage encouraged education—learning skills that would be transferrable to newer, better, positions—and in its own sterile way, it succeeded. I gained insights into my own personal habits that I could have gone decades quite happily never knowing about. This mental unravelling happened at no great speed. Even the catastrophe of my own life was something I managed with amazing slowness.
Christmas came from nowhere. ‘When was that decided?’ I wanted to ask but it brought a new thrill and direction to our days so I didn’t want to argue. Management, occupying the head chair, her smooth, superior hands sitting on thetable, searched out themes for the decorating. And in a burst of friendliness and participation, that surprised even myself, I suggested we went with ‘Christmas’.
‘In what way?’ management inquired.
‘You know the festive way with tinsel and the colour red?‘
She pursed her woeful, shrivelled lips.
‘Can you not think of anything else?’
In that brief moment everyone saw my mind and my mind was absent of all ideas. I thought I would be a different person by this time in my life, but I was actually becoming less like someone else and more like myself. It was troubling. Kevin ignored me during that Christmas discussion. Often, during Friday group, he sat across from me with Henry and Lynn. I tried to let him know we were being held hostage using just my eyes but I could widen them only so far to convey the corniness, the stupidity. I sometimes saw him laugh with his hand over his mouth—that was for me.
‘Don’t give out to her just because she didn’t have a good theme,’ said Lynn with deft and hidden savagery. She was the kind of woman who would cause tears in others just to wipe them away. Lynn had no respect for complicated people and situations. It was so lousy and exhausting. It probably had caused a lot of problems in her life. And she was brutal at her job. She made me look conscientious. She simply had to draft email correspondence, but she never quite got the tone right; there was always a whiff of incompetency. We were all nervous about her genuine ineptitude. I, for example, was consumed by compassion for her child.
‘I’m not giving out to her,’ management said.
‘Good, because you know she’s not all there.’
‘Why isn’t she all there?’ Henry piped up, in a rare moment of conversation.
‘On account of all, the, you know…’ Lynn whispered.
‘What was that, Lynn?’ I said.
She looked directly at me. ‘You know,’ she repeated, stiffly.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I forget. Please tell me.’
‘You were,’ she cleared her throat delicately, ‘a fantasy girl.’
‘The pornography,’ management stated, flatly. ‘The prostitution.’
‘And that’s just the stuff she has told us about,’ Lynn shook her head sadly. ‘It was a lot of work for me, you know, a lot of extra work for me. When I was doing up our history folders on the computer, I had no idea what to call hers. I stayed late. I couldn’t figure it out.’
‘Sordid Affairs?’ Henry suggested.
‘What did you go with in the end?’ Management inquired.
‘That’s a powerful title for a folder, Lynn,’ management congratulated her. ‘You’re really improving at the computer.’
‘Don’t hold back, you two,’ I said. ‘Pretend I’m not here.’
Kevin’s sly smile.
‘Can we all try and enjoy ourselves please?’ Management’s voice was sharp, high with that animal bloodlust.
We nodded. Our heads bobbing, bobbing, bobbing.
Management was not above demeaning us. She had lofty, liberal ideas but she was as base as anyone I have ever encountered. She disguised it as fun and games—playtime—but it was tyranny. Pure, intentional terror. There had been ugly scenes in the past. Things had gotten nasty, once or twice.
That Friday, she took out a small cardboard box and placed it on the table in front of her.
‘Can you come up here, Kevin?’
Kevin lumbered towards her and as she rested one hand on his queasy, young shoulder she pressed an object into his palm.
At the sight Kevin’s whole body clammed up; he disappeared into himself. I caught only a flash of it—the sorrow, the roundness, the honking redness. As Kevin stretched that clown nose over his startled face, the silence in the backroom was clammy, damp.
‘Isn’t it amusing?’ management asked.
‘It’s brilliant,’ I said. ‘May I have one please?’
‘The nose is just for Kevin.’
‘I would like one.’
‘Don’t be a sourpuss.’
‘Just give me one, would you?’
‘Because it would look fucking good on me.’
Management rolled her eyes, weighed up something in her mind and, finally, threw me the prop. I placed it over my face in what I hoped was a demonstration of anger.
‘Now, isn’t this a nice evening?’ Lynn said.
The next morning I came to on Kevin’s couch, his Jaws T-shirt stretched foolishly over my chest, the shark slithering up to say hi. I could taste the night before— the emotion, the dramatics. My impassioned speeches left highly irregular tastes. Through the kitchen wall came the low murmur of television, accompanied by the mean movements of Kevin’s full-time bastard of a father. Fridays were not easy on Kevin either, make no mistake. After the meetings he frequently had dreams where he chased me off a cliff.
At the Christmas party, Kevin and I were both rewarded with a bottle of Chardonnay. I think we were supposed to be awed, or at least grateful. Back at the garage, we strung handfuls of fairy lights around the plant. I placed the star, sideways, on top. All lit up like a Christmas tree, that old story. We sat heavily on the spotless floor, mixed our drinks in paper cups, and watched the motorway opening and closing in front of us like an accordion.
‘You never know, Kevin, you might get laid in the stationery cupboard.’
‘We don’t have a stationery cupboard.’
‘That was a joke.’
‘Didn’t management warn you about those?’
I liked Kevin’s sincerity, his skinny torso, his rancid, red-light district aftershave. I was fond of it all. It had nothing to do with his looks—which were limited—or where he lived, or if he was interesting and successful in a way that was supposed to appeal to me. Nowadays, you have to be careful who you fall for, but I liked Kevin. He didn’t ask anything of me. That wasn’t nothing. If it was, more people would have done it.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘You won’t get laid. You are weird and flat-broke.’
‘Ah.’ He took a swift drink. ‘But so are you.’
I nodded, my expression grave. ‘That is correct, Kevin. Very clever of you to notice that.’
The first person to occupy a chair on the garage forecourt was a local man in his late seventies. He arrived in early January, wore a three-piece suit and leaned heavily on a gnarled cane, like a guest from another era. He was harmless, his own deterioration driving him out of his house and into the world. I thought he sat on the high stool with a magnificent dignity, his back resting on the chain-link fence.
‘Keeping busy?’ he shouted at me from across the garage forecourt.
I waved my arms around in a demonstration of busyness. ‘Yes, yes, I am.’
‘Nothing like it. Great to see it.’
‘I hear you were away?’
‘What did you do over there?’
I shrugged. ‘Nothing good.’
‘Well you are back now and are doing a fine job. Stay at it.’
Sometimes his wife came with him. They’d hobble down the motorway path together, so tiny, so diminished, they almost disappeared. Each time, they brought me strange gifts that I suspected they found on the roadside: a scratched CD of affectionate love songs, a silvery disco jacket for a Barbie.
‘But I don’t own a doll?’
‘Consider it a present,’ his crinkly wife winked. She was maybe deaf.
Whenever management appeared, the old man liked to bellow and point.
‘That’s a great girl you have there!’
Management always spun around rapidly, fiercely, like she was in a cop show, hoping to find a new, normal person. But, no—it was just me.
We were both equally surprised.
At night, the garage often welcomed other, less accommodating visitors. Young men who stepped out from behind the wheels of their tin cans like small, showy princes. They all drove cars that looked like they were designed to be in accidents—scraps of metal with a colony of screaming girlfriends trapped inside. I squirmed at their clumsy, implied intimacy. Was I always this quiet? I was. Did it not get boring? No, not ever. I was careful not to move during these conversations—I did not want to draw attention to myself even though I was on display. They had caught some of the films I had been in and you know what? I wasn’t nearly as hot in real life. I was scum, trashy, that was the word, repulsive. Etc. They called me other names too. Wholly unimaginative stuff. Plain lazy. And then there were others, who were worse. Smart and careful—they made assumptions. From what they learned in college, they were concerned my self-esteem might be on the lower-end of the spectrum.
I said, ‘Of course, I have low self-esteem. You think I would be standing here talking to you if I didn’t?’
I entertained one or two of them, those who made a true first impression: new disasters. I liked conversation and challenging situations. If they pushed me, I pushed right back. Why not? I bit down hard on my bottom lip. There was blood drawn, but it didn’t bother me. I promised myself this would all end, at some point or another.
Many took greedy fistfuls of mints before they screeched off. I had to get Kevin to watch the till as I refilled the bowl. I had to be alone. I needed to rub my hand across my mouth and face while comforting myself with scenarios: telephone poles springing from hallowed ground, hard, unforgiving walls stretching soundlessly across the motorway, bodies thrown into the starless night.
I wasn’t feeling good about myself. I wasn’t feeling relaxed and it showed.
One evening, Kevin approached me with the bare and battered plant. His voice was not far from tears. ‘What happened?’
I looked at the plant. ‘We had a falling out.’
I returned to rearranging the chairs, my freckled back sadly exposed.
Not long after, people began drifting into the garage forecourt on a daily basis to watch Kevin and me. These ‘customers’ had no single defining characteristic; they were fuzzy, unfamiliar. It was as if Kevin and I blinked them in and out of existence. The garage was not our place anymore. Often, the strangers feigned indifference but their eyes followed us, their gazes alert as we performed. I was not aware my town had people like this. Middle-aged bodies in stretched jeans, with sharp, angry jaws. They rarely sat, instead they loitered around the chairs, exuding a dangerous energy. Occasionally, they made pointing motions, fraught signals as if leading Kevin and I across the garage forecourt. Sometimes, they clapped their hands against their knees and cheered us on.
Management advised us to engage with them and I did. I asked questions like: ‘Is my hair nice pushed back?’ and ‘What have I done to deserve this life?’ I came back to life in their presence, was strangely reassembled as a homely hostess, with her hands spread wide open. I did not know who I was fooling, them or me.
But Kevin wilted. His eccentricities were very apparent under the strangers’ constant supervision. He was inelegant. I slicked back his hair with foul-smelling gel and tucked in his shirt. It didn’t help. All this time, I thought he was just an ordinary loser but it was worse than that. The people disliked him. Anytime he wandered on to the garage forecourt, the people looked away. While he worked, some even turned their chairs to face the opposite direction, like the garage was a stage and Kevin was a character they refused to acknowledge.
‘What was it like seeing yourself onscreen?’ he asked one day. ‘Was it scary?’
‘It was incredible,’ I said casually. ‘I mean there was a lot going on in the scenes I was in, a lot of distracting stuff. But I looked great.’
‘I’m sure,’ Kevin said, and he pretended to be suddenly invested in a balloon.
‘It was amazing. I could have been anyone, anyone at all.’
‘That must have been hard,’ he said.
Kevin always missed the point. That was going to be an obstacle for him, going forward.
‘No, Kevin,’ I said. ‘Being anyone was the entire appeal.’
The garage was not real but it was still the most real experience I had in years. In the city, my boyfriend was the director, but he was no artist. He didn’t have that sort of intelligence. All he knew was how to fuck people over, drink infinite blue cocktails, and make everything cheap. I had more vision than him. I had a lot of excellent suggestions for set design, but I kept them to myself. In our terrible bedroom, trapped in our smooth apartment, I trained myself to sleep for only four hours a night. I had to be prepared to jump up and raise my fists to the dead night. It was so pathetic, it didn’t suit him at all.
Usually when he was halfway through hitting me it would occur to him just how obvious he was. Then he would curl up, say sorry, baby, sorry, sorry. Baby this, baby that, baby all the livelong day. It was possible that this person who owned me didn’t even know my name. It was all a dull attempt to get my attention, and the stuff he bought me was dog-ugly. He got it into his head that I was kitsch and he just went with it without my permission. He gave me one pair of costly pants meant for ‘leisure’. I wore them outside—they were okay pants— and this was a big no-no, apparently. ‘They are only for leisure!’ Those kind of rules. It was hard to know who to be minute-by-minute. His friends were in the films too and I just put on a wig, let them do whatever they wanted to me, went home, practiced falling asleep and then leaping awake. It killed time. After that, there was emptiness. Some wandering around, eating not-good stuff out of bags, doughnuts, Taco Bell. Enough loneliness to make you lose your mind. I got my nails done, twice a week—there was a violence to it that I worshipped. The rooms where I was filmed were just like beauty parlours: the same glossies on the coffee tables, the same plastic furniture, nothing words snapping into the air. Girls, lots of them—all of us mutely conspiring, an exclusive club.
I spent the last two months of our relationship staring straight past my boyfriend’s head. I played a lot of Candy Crush. It was just easier for everyone that way. I was such a good girlfriend, god damn it. It was an outrage how lovely I was. I was the very best until the morning, the morning that came from nowhere, when I woke up and said, ‘I’m going home.’ He just rolled over on to his side, gave me a filthy look like I was quitting, slipping out early. His last words to me: ‘Don’t misrepresent the company.’
‘How did you get into it?’ Kevin asked. He was doing his version of eye contact, which was staring at a point above my head.
I shrugged. ’Well, I’d gone all that way. I had to do something.’
On the first day of a freezing spring, I came in to find the light not working and Kevin absent. I loitered. I hung around late, scuffing the concrete, flicking bits of dirt from under my fingernails. He did not arrive the following day either, although I stood at a visible point on the motorway path waiting for him. I consulted the strangers, gazed into their flat, flavourless eyes, and they adopted innocent faces, like they had nothing to do with this disaster. Some expressed befuddlement at the mention of Kevin’s name. Others just laughed. It wasn’t confusing—it was the opposite. It was the first moment that made sense.
From that day forth, I decided to stay safely inside the garage. I swaddled myself in Kevin’s old sweatshirt and made advancements for us both. I consulted interior decorating magazines; I recognised all the women who posed languidly over chairs. I pushed the fridge to one end of the garage, using all my body weight and will. I unscrewed an overhead lightbulb, held its cold glass in my hand, crushed it, threw the shards out the window and watched them fly towards the strangers. I told myself that when the lights went back up, everything would be different. I lit dozens of candles and left them in precarious places. I didn’t cry but, if it happened, I would have allowed it. On the garage forecourt, I only appeared once or twice and that was to chase away the pigeons. I charged out into the fog and dirt, deliberately angry and ugly. I wanted these people to know that Kevin was capable of great, complicated feelings, and they had done something to him, something awful, and I did not like it.
Management arrived when I was sitting beside the fridge, in flattering candlelight, my fingers resting on my lumpy knees. She had heard of the temporary changes I had made to the garage and she stressed concern. She said that she couldn’t help but notice at the last Friday meeting that I wasn’t really there, my name had to be called at least three times before I snapped to attention. She hunkered down beside me, kindly, as if preparing for bad news. Her body was uncomfortably close to mine: a body I did not want to know a single thing about.
‘Can I have Kevin back please?’
I hated how wanting I sounded.
‘Kevin wasn’t panning out. He received a fine severance package.’
I glanced at the shelves and noticed where there were once three cans, there were now only two.
There were things happening out there in the world—history, events. But history was not happening in my town, not to me. I was just standing outside bars, without my coat, shoes and underwear wondering where exactly they were because—sadly—I was not wearing them. My thoughts had reached a manic, fever pitch. I had taken to becoming a resigned passenger in cars that traversed the motorway; these were meaningless trips but I did not sleep well after them. I watched my old films on my phone, my legs curled up underneath me, my heart beating fast. All those devastating angles. I wanted them to be instructional, but they told me nothing about myself. I got weary simply fast-forwarding through them. The furniture was always wrong.
I watched early CCTV footage of Kevin and I, both of us sauntering around, looking oddly delighted in our own misery. It was amazing how little we did. I regretted not laying down in his lap when management encouraged it; that was my true regret. I wondered if he knew it was his final shift, before or afterwards. I genuinely hoped it was after. I imagined myself, barefoot, sprinting down the motorway path after him.
I resolved to replace the lightbulb and that became my daring project. With Henry’s assistance, I took a stepladder from the office in town and practiced climbing up and down the three steps. I had never replaced a lightbulb before. It was difficult work. I must have walked to the hardware shop, I must have put one achingly slow foot in front of the other, but I have no recollection of doing so. Suddenly, I was just there. I spent hours picking the perfect one; I had experience in the right wattage and what it could do for a scene. In the lightbulb’s reflection, I was stretched and distorted to a stunning degree. On my way out, I heard the cashier advise a young lady to be careful while doing home renovations, but this did not apply to me.
On the day of the lightbulb replacing, I felt an exciting charge like I was revved up. It was a special day, no doubt. I knew this because at the front door of the garage a new plant greeted me—a first-place pageant bow running around its black casing, its leaves in full bloom—a gift with no note, celebrating nothing.
‘Oh good,’ I said. ‘You got here just in time.’
I did not want to rush the task. I propped up the plant nearby to keep a close eye on me. I needed to take it easy, slow. It was important. I was a long way from the ground. I tried to steady myself on the ladder while saying, ‘Woah, woah’. I caught only the bright tip of the wire as that ladder slipped from underneath me. And as I went hurtling through, all the way through the cement floors, everything—everything—looked familiar and enchanting.