Subscribe to Gene's newsletter to learn about upcoming events and ways to connect.

Up There

Stacey shifted in the seat of her 1995 Mazda Protege. A rattling sounded from underneath her car intermittently. She gripped the steering wheel tighter hoping it was nothing that would keep her from getting to the house in Lafayette Square. The day before she had dyed her hair into a mass of golden radiance, paying the salon nearly every penny she had left for the privilege. Everyone loved blondes.

“Everyone loves you,” she mouthed to herself in the spotted rear-view mirror. “They love you. They want your radiance.”

To emphasize her radiance, she shook her head so her long locks twirled around her face in a halo. “You are the moon. No, no, no! Not the moon you fool, the f-ing sun. But no one can look at the sun.” This final thought stumped her as she pulled onto the wide tree-lined street.

The house at three-thirty-three lacked imagination. It was big and square and had a spacious front yard with a cascading fountain and a black wrought iron fence. The driveway was far larger than her studio apartment. The fountain was also probably larger than her apartment. Patches of green grass inundated with brown clumps littered the landscape. Most appalling was the color. A faded pink trimmed in white.

“Don’t judge. They obviously have money. A lot more than you.”

Lafayette Square had been ritzy in its day, but that day had passed. The homes were still grand, like an aging monarch, but the swagger was gone. It no longer offered the magic to draw in the rich and famous, but it was still centrally located and gated, making for an astonishing combination of quiet and convenience.

Stacey parked on the street and killed the engine with a final rattle. She opened the visor and raised the lid on the vanity mirror. The little light illuminated, flickered once, then went dark. She tapped it with her clear-coated fingernail. Nothing. The white plastic mocked and for the moment she forgot about the brilliant red lipstick clutched in her other hand. She tapped it again, a bit harder. The light flickered to life. She applied her lipstick and blew a kiss at the mirror.

***

“You know why the president wears a red tie?” her mother had asked her at age eight. Little Stacey had shaken her head in wonder as her mother tried to apply the red lipstick. “Keep still! You only want lipstick on your lips young lady.” The application continued. “Because it’s a power color. The power color. And what do we want?”

“To be powerful,” Stacey said.

“That’s right. To be powerful.”

***

Stacey stared into the mirror, the left side of her face illuminated by the cheap, orangey light. “I am powerful,” she repeated, snapping the mirror closed.

A knock on the passenger window made her jump causing the seatbelt harness to catch. A fifty-something woman motioned for Stacey to roll down the window. Instead of reaching across the seat, she got out.

“Hi,” the woman said. “Are you from Closets By You?”

“Yes I am.”

“Well, come on in. I’m eager to see what you can do with my closet.”

Stacey circled to the back of the car and unlocked the trunk while the woman swiveled her hips back and forth in her designer sweatpants and a headband that held back a mane of bottle-red hair. Was it powerful? No, her mother would have chided, red hair was not the same as the lipstick because red hair wasn’t a power red.

Satisfied that she’d keep her own hair blond, Stacey hauled all of her work crap out and loaded it on the luggage dolly. One of the wheels wobbled, so Stacey had to push extra hard to the right to make it go straight. If she got this job, her first purchase would be a new dolly from Office Depot.

The house next door had a scaffolding erected on the side. A pair of men in jeans and t-shirts washed the windows. One of them stopped, wiped his forehead with a bandana, and looked at her. She could hear the squeaking of the window squeegee as the other man continued working. Their eyes met momentarily, but his blank stare never altered despite Stacey’s attempt at a friendly smile.

Once inside, the woman showed her a large, empty walk-in and explained all the crap she wanted to stuff into the space. People’s eyes were always larger than the space could realistically hold. They forgot the key term in “walk-in closet” was the “walk-in” part: some of the space was necessary for walking in. Stacey patiently explained this to the redhead, who nodded and appeared to understand.

“Well, that’s fine my dear, go ahead and give me your best. You know, you remind me of my Emma.”

Hope filled Stacey’s chest. Reminiscences of a daughter or niece were powerful ways to connect to someone. “Who is Emma?”

“I’ll show you.”

The woman left and returned shortly holding a mouse. “You see it in the eyes and her overall aura?”

Stacey gave the mouse a finger-pat on the head, then said, “I’d better get started.”

“How long will this take?”

“No more than an hour,” Stacey said, clenching for the inevitable.

“An hour? Why would you take so long? Don’t you have a computer tablet or something that does it zip-zap.”

“Actually, no, I create a design on a sheet of paper.” The woman’s mouth was slightly open and the mouse squeaked. “It’s easier to see and I can specify it to your exact needs.”

“You draw?”

“Yes, I use pencil, rulers, all that stuff.”

“Wow! Like an architect.”

Stacey hesitated, the thought of designing The Disney Concert Hall or Union Station filling her mind with a brief history of magic, before returning her to more mundane pursuits.

“Sure, if you think so,” Stacey replied.

The woman glanced at her Apple Watch, then tapped the face with her pinky while still gripping the squirming rodent. She wandered off chattering into her wrist.

Stacey circled the closet, her hand caressing the walls. Raising her hand up, she pointed her fingertips as high as they’d reach in flats. She should have worn heels.

She could hear her mother saying, “Whenever possible, wear heels.”

But Stacey wasn’t a heels woman. She’d twisted her ankle three times. She felt unstable up there. Stacey removed her shoes and measured, viewed, and dwelt in the space for twenty minutes. Then she settled cross-legged in the center of the closet to sketch, detail and imagine good use of the space. At least she thought she had. When she was halfway finished, the closet door tipped open.

“Oh wow, you’re in here. I wondered where you’d gotten off to.”

“I’m here.”

“You know, it’s taking too long.”

Stacey looked at her phone and gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry!”

“Thing is, I have someone else here now, you know, for another opinion.”

A woman twice Stacey’s age stepped from behind the closet-owner. She did not wear lipstick and had a wide stance, as if poised for battle.

“Kinda awkward, huh?” The woman who owned the house said to fill the void. “I thought you’d be done and gone. Oops.”

Stacey pushed up and realized her foot was asleep. She gathered her stuff. “No problem. I’ll let you have the space. I can finish up out there.”

She scurried past the other designer, who was obviously only a salesperson, and took a chair positioned with her back to them. She hunkered over, determined to stay on task.

“You are powerful,” she whispered, twitching her mouth rapidly.

Laughter wafted out of the closet. They called it rapport-building. A metal spinning sound from the kitchen. Stacey cautiously peered around the corner. Emma was running on her exercise wheel.

Stacey returned to her place and completed her drawing. The woman came out of the closet still grinning. Make ‘em laugh, one of the hallmarks of salesmanship. She listened to Stacey’s pitch and attentively followed her explanation of the design.

“Such a nice design. Pretty lines.”

“Thanks.”

The woman seemed to be waiting for something else. When Stacey said nothing, the woman said, “Well, I’ll call you and let you know our decision.”

Stacey’s boss had been adamant on this singular point: you must get a yes or no before leaving and it’s getting more vital you get a yes soon.

“I’ll wait.”

The woman looked confused. “Excuse me?”

“I’ll wait,” Stacey repeated. “Can I sit here?”

Without understanding why, the woman consented. Stacey settled at the dining table trying to admire the view of pine trees, rich houses, and manicured grass. If she listened hard, Stacey could make out the ever-present drone of L.A. traffic. Even the rich weren’t immune.

The homeowner returned to the closet and tried to make small talk with the second designer, but she had to focus on her task, and simply answered with short, non-conversational comments. She couldn’t be salesy and create the design. She wasn’t Superwoman after all.

Adjusting her headband and smoothing her shirt, the homeowner excused herself and tramped up the carpeted steps to the vacant guest room and turned on the television. Halfway through an episode of Real Housewives, a smoker’s yell heralded the completion of the second design. Despite it being a recorded show, she yelled down that she needed a minute. She continued watching for another five minutes, then once more straightened her headband and smoothed her shirt before heading back down.

The scene in the dining room horrified her. The first designer hadn’t moved from her seat near the picture window. Her expressionless face stared out at the neighborhood. The other, older, more reassured lady, occupied a seat at the other end, sipping a glass of water.

“I helped myself,” said the older saleswoman, who had clearly never dyed her hair in her life. Plain old brown. No lipstick. Stacey wondered if the woman cut her hair at home in a mirror.

“No problem,” the homeowner replied. “It’s there to drink. Would you like some water?” she asked Stacey.

Stacey shook her head almost imperceptibly. She felt like a small melting ice cube. Inside she told herself this was no big deal, whatever happened, happened. She didn’t really believe that. The redheaded woman was examining her competition’s design. Stacey heard them talking softly, then they rose and went back to the closet. She wanted to move, to make some plea, so that the inevitable would not happen. Every scenario she considered ended the same way. Do nothing and see, that was the wisest course. She knew her design was best and she should get the job. That was how it should work. She kept waiting for that reality.

“Excuse me? What’s your name again?”

Stacey tried to speak, but her throat had become a raisin. She swallowed and croaked, “Stacey.”

“Hi again, Stacey.”

The saleswoman drank water at the other end of the table like she was relaxing on her front porch on a Sunday afternoon in Savannah, Georgia.

“Well, Stacey, I want to thank…”

“No, no, no, don’t thank.”

“Dear, I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to go with Mr. Closet’s design.”

She walked Stacey to the door. When it opened, sunlight poured in, a mocking reminder of better days: days of preparation, days of dreams. Standing on the steps, safely distant from the saleswoman, the words tumbled out even though Stacey knew they were imposters come to pin her down like Lilliputians.

“We’ll do it for less.”

“Excuse me?”

“Just show me what she said she’d do and I’ll do it for a better price.”

The woman’s finger, which had been twirling one of her perfect locks, stopped abruptly. A fake smile followed by, “Good day, miss.”

The door shut with an oaky click.

Stacey drove through every street in Lafayette Square, studying the large yards and gabled roofs. Her gas tank was nearly empty, so she left the neighborhood and stopped at a discount gas station, filling the tank halfway. Back in the car, she stopped a block from her office, unable to hold back the avalanche any longer.

She opened the sun visor and the mirror. The light blinked to life, then flickered out. Stacey took her drafting pencil, the pointy end needle sharp, and stabbed the silent light. Red lipstick oozed out of the broken plastic. It smelled like raw potatoes.

Leave a Reply