Jennifer’s hair in the mirror was a little redder and shorter than she’d asked for. When Debbi, the stylist, spun her around in the chair so she could see the cut from all angles, Jennifer stared at herself for much longer than she normally felt comfortable doing in public, tilting her chin, watching how the new bangs suited her cheekbones. When she stood up from the chair, she felt lighter. As she paid the bill, tipping more than she usually did, the receptionist said,
‘You like it, huh?’
Jennifer, answering her own reflection in the small desk mirror, said, ‘Yes.’
She’d booked a manicure at three, but the next stop was the supermarket, where she clacked slowly up and down nearly every aisle even though all she needed to buy was a chicken for dinner. Then she drove to her husband Don’s car dealership, the window rolled down, going faster than normal. She felt the way she remembered feeling the day in high school when she bought her dress for the senior prom. After several fruitless afternoons shopping with her girlfriends, she had cut the last class of the day and gone to the mall alone. It was pleasant walking around without anybody else, and she tried on dress after dress, almost all of them too expensive for her but so pretty that she couldn’t resist. Finally she found the perfect one: ivory, with a lightly puffed skirt to her knee and pale antique lace around her décolletage. That night she wore it in her room with the door locked, spending most of the evening at her vanity table, imagining conversations with adoring fans and journalists, proposals from love-struck suitors, and even, a little grudgingly, the face of the boy she had agreed to go with to the prom.
She pulled into the dealership, reapplied her lipstick in the rear-view mirror and stepped smartly outside. She swished over to the office, swaying her hips as she always did when she went to see Don at work. She didn’t want to be accused of letting him down in front of his employees. Several of the younger men flirted with her, and Don’s secretary Hilary, who was just out of business school, often asked her for beauty tips.
Hilary sat on reception. ‘Hi, Mrs Scotty,’ she said. ‘You’ve done something to your hair!’
Jennifer smiled regally. Hilary patted her own strawberry blonde bob, its colour the same as Jennifer’s had been that morning, and said,
‘You must tell me where you go.’
‘Oh,’ Jennifer said, and was about to compliment Hilary in return, but something stopped her. She looked at the way Hilary’s cut framed her face, and her mouth snapped shut.
‘Well,’ Hilary said brightly, ‘I guess he’ll see you now.’
It took Don a moment to realise Jennifer was there, and she noticed that after he saw her, his eyes flickered almost imperceptibly to the clock on his desk; it was nearly two.
‘Hi, honey! Just thought I’d stop by, see what you’d like for dinner. I have a chicken.’
He paused, staring at the poster of a Lotus next to the door. ‘I guess chicken would be good. Maybe with some of your mom’s barbecue sauce.’
‘I think I can manage that.’ She pressed the door shut behind her, leaning back on the handle like a femme fatale in the movies. She crossed her legs at the ankles, showing off her calves, and pushed her breasts forward.
‘Was there anything else?’ he said.
She hesitated. ‘No. I just wanted to see how you are.’
‘I’m good. Busy. Tell you about it at dinner.’
She stood up straight. ‘All right,’ she said, and turned to go.
She half-turned. ‘Did you get your hair done?’ Her smile was nearly wide when he added, looking back at the Lotus, ‘It’s a little red, isn’t it? Hope you didn’t tip more than ten percent.’
As she walked back to her car, Jennifer’s hand twitched with the urge to scratch her keys over the nearest new car.
She drove for a while without really thinking where she was going, until she passed a strip mall, and made a sharp turn in, parking outside the donut shop. She had no intention of going in. When she was a child she had been pudgy, and her mother had blamed it on a love of donuts. Now she never touched sweets of any kind, but she liked the smell of the stores; she didn’t make a habit of visiting them, though, because being in a place and having no purpose was uncomfortable. Even now, as she sat inhaling the smell of the sugar and the warm dough, her fingers tapped on the steering wheel, and her toes curled and uncurled in her shoes. After about five minutes, she picked up her purse, and emptied it out in her lap. Slowly she went through all the items she carried: lipstick; wallet; keys; the magazine picture she’d clipped to take to the salon; supermarket receipts; an earring; a pen. She went through it all, folding the unneeded pieces of paper into tiny squares and jamming them tightly into the trash compartment before returning everything else to the bag. Then she checked her hair; its redness seemed treacherous. She examined her nails, holding the tips up close to her eyes. She tried to bend the acrylic index nail, but it wouldn’t give way, so she forced the diamond of her engagement ring to make a pattern of long scratches. The results were disappointing: the acrylic was so close to the shade of her natural nails that she could barely see the damage. At least the manicurist would notice.
She flipped down the driver’s side visor and slid her family photographs out of the flap that also contained the notebook Don insisted she use to record her gas usage. There was a cracked photo of her grandmother in the care home garden, and two pictures of Don, one at his dealership, and the other holding his three-year-old nephew Todd gleefully above his head.
She looked at the photos one at a time. When she and Don were newlyweds, and Don was trying to build up his dealership, he persuaded her to pose in a bikini on top of one of the cars, and then he put the picture on a billboard. She liked the idea to begin with, but it was strange to drive past an image of herself, and she soon stopped wanting to be looked at. When she met people for the first time, she was never sure whether they knew what she looked like in her underwear. Many people assumed that Don had hired a model, and they were surprised to discover she was his wife. Several people had asked whether they got married before or after the billboard shot was taken. She closed her eyes and remembered her reluctance to strip down for the photo shoot, and how Don had to coax her into removing her robe. And then she realised that the person she was picturing spread out over the top of the car, her pale hair falling appealingly over her face, was Hilary.
‘Yes please,’ said the girl behind the counter in the donut shop. Her name tag said ‘Marisol,’ and she seemed about eighteen, a little overweight with a sweet face burdened with makeup. After repeating her greeting, Marisol looked at nothing in particular, waiting for Jennifer to speak. Jennifer traced her finger along the glass counter, looking at the rows of glazed and chocolate and sprinkle-covered donuts. Finally she ordered a box of twelve, and paid in cash. As she walked back to her car, the donuts weighed heavily in her hands, and for a moment she regretted buying them. But the sweet smell of the store followed her outside, carrying her to the car.
As she rummaged in her purse for the keys, she noticed the chicken she had bought earlier in its plastic bag on the back seat. She stared hard at it as her fingers continued their search. There were drops of condensation visible through the bag, and her stomach turned at the thought of touching it. It seemed to loom over the inside of the car. When she finally found the car keys, she opened the door, heaved the chicken out, and pushed it into the nearest trash can.
She arrived home around half past two, and the house was quiet except for the rush of the air-conditioning. Everything was as she had left it; no messages on the answering machine. The place felt oddly like a museum, rooms where people had lived once. Her footsteps, even on the hallway’s deep pile carpet, sounded like sticks cracking in a forest.
By the time she opened the box of donuts the glazes were melting. She picked out one that looked relatively intact, and finished it in three bites, cramming it into her mouth as fast as she could, and spilling crumbs over the kitchen table. She picked up a cloth then dropped it again, leaving the crumbs where they were. She ate another donut.
After the third one, she walked around the house trailing her fingers over heavy furnishings and gleaming photo frames and television sets, as though she was walking through a showroom; she half expected the books on the shelf to be cardboard shells. She lingered over the line of pictures on the mantel, including one of Todd as a newborn that had always made Jennifer a little uncomfortable. Jennifer’s mother reminded her often that the house was a real nice place. Her parents’ home was similar but, her mother would say, tapping her nail against her coffee mug, we had to wait twenty years for it, and Don’s so successful it hasn’t even taken five. Her mother’s tone when she said things like this was one of slight disapproval, as though somehow Jennifer had stolen her good fortune from someone more deserving. Jennifer stared at the mantel, her fists clenched tightly at her sides.
Suddenly the telephone rang. She swung on her heel and ran to the kitchen, gulping as though she had just remembered to breathe. The phone continued to ring from its cradle on the wall, and her hand reached out for it, hanging in the gap until at last the answering machine clicked on.
‘Hiiii!’ a woman’s voice sparked out. ‘Mrs Scotty, this is Lee at Nail Heaven. We were expecting you at three, and -’ Jennifer stared at the crumbs still littering the sideboard. Then she hurried out of the front door, and drove away without setting the intruder alarm.
After Lee had finished working on her, Jennifer drove back to the strip mall. She strode to the trash can where she’d dumped the chicken. She could see the shopping bag still in there; it would be harder to get out than it was to get in. She rolled up her sleeve, flexing her wrist to admire her newly blood-red nails (‘What have you been doing to yourself, Mrs Scotty?’ Lee had said, tutting happily) and reached through the gap. She felt around until she could grasp one of the bag handles, and pulled. The trash that people had thrown away in the intervening time shifted, and she felt the plastic handle stretching under the weight of the chicken. But she was able to get it high enough until it was level with the gap, and then she pushed from the other side until the chicken popped out. The bag and plastic wrap tore as it emerged, leaving a cut in the meat. She threw the bag away and brushed the chicken off, unsticking some food papers and tissues and wiping off a long streak of something unidentifiable. It was a hot day, and the chicken was warm after hours in the metal trash can. As she stood holding it, another thought struck her. She placed the chicken carefully on the ground, and reached back into the trash can, her fingers closing around a clump of mushy takeout wrappers and a half-eaten pot of potato salad, one of the chunks still showing teeth marks. She dropped these next to the chicken and stretched out her arm again. Her nails gleamed in the sunlight.
Jennifer’s mother’s barbecue sauce was famous, or so her mother liked to claim. Jennifer spent a long time preparing a new batch while the chicken cooked. When Don came home, late as usual, she greeted him at the door in her best dress. In her arms she held the chicken, laid out with style on a platter, glazed with sauce and garlanded with potatoes and beans.
‘I’m on a diet,’ she said, ‘but I made your favourite.’
Red by Tessa North was read by Clareine Cronin at the Liars' League Rebels & Tyrants event at The Wheatsheaf on Tuesday 14 July 2009
Tessa North has been writing fiction since she was very young and still can't find anything else she'd rather do. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from UEA, and is currently working on a western novel.