Mary believed there were two kinds of people in the world. There were those who were seen and those who were not. Mary considered herself the latter.
She hadn’t lived in the town for long, only a few months. It was known for its beaches. It swelled with tourists during the summer and then was quickly abandoned. There was no bar or café open by summer’s end. She liked the town empty.
Mary preferred her own company. She was thirty-six years old, living, with no pets, in a small house painted white. It was one of many white houses in the neighborhood, painted that way because of the intensity of the sun. The one she lived in had a flat roof. It wasn’t a place that needed to deal with snow. Or cold. She didn’t know they still made houses this small. She didn’t know who owned it. She wrote her checks to a corporation that was just a bunch of numbers. Her wardrobe was two black pencil skirts, one black jacket, and two black blouses, one short-sleeved and one long-sleeved. The house had one of everything. One bedroom, one bathroom, and one kitchen. Each room had one window in it, all of which looked out onto a pine tree. It was not a pleasant sight.
What was a pleasant sight was the man who worked at the gas station. She saw him there, but they never talked. He had a terrible reputation. Something about him taking in women and leaving them, always, wailing in the street below his window, begging. Mary wondered what he did to make them lose themselves that way. And whether it could happen to her.
Mary worked from home. She was an independent accountant. During the tax season she often found work at a clinic or some pop-up arrangement, or sometimes clients came to her. She had many types of clients. They all surprised her with their needs and problems, but her favorites were the ones who had to explain what had happened to the person they filed with the previous year. Their husband, their ex, their other person. In this way, she saw every stage of love. The giddiness at having found each other, the boredom of having been together, the anguish of separation. This was how you lived a full and human life. It was like a play acted out in front of her. She spent her days listening to people describe how things had fallen apart. Did they see it coming?
One client Mary never forgot. She worked for the government. She was a redhead with large blue eyes. She booked and rebooked her appointment on the phone and then finally arrived. Her ex wanted to claim the childcare expenses, but she was the one who paid them. Mary looked at her papers laid out on the table and advised her that since they were not together, and the child lived with her, it was her right to claim the expenses.
The woman’s eyes welled with tears and they began to fall one right after the other. Mary started with the 1040. She made sure to leave blank the box that asked for $3 to go to the presidential election campaign. She filled in exemptions, calculated total income, then adjusted gross income. This went on for quite some time. Mary filling in the lines, and the woman and her tears. The woman apologized. “I’ve been with incredible men,” she said. “Men who really loved me and cared for me. And appreciated me. But he, he was the only one.” It sounded like a cheap old country song. “I had been told I couldn’t have a baby. Given my age. I didn’t give it much thought. So when I got together with him, I wasn’t thinking. And then suddenly I’m pregnant. After all the tests, the pills. He’s the father of my child.” Mary did not say anything. She was filling out the forms.
The gas station was on the edge of town, before you hit the interstate. It was bright green like a tennis ball. Easily spotted from miles away. This was where he worked. The gas station man. He came out to pump the gas. He was not beautiful, but she liked looking at him. Grotesque seemed right to describe him. It was not yet spring. The white sand in the town still glimmered. The ocean still swelled, wave after wave crashed into shore. There was a chill in the air, but he was shirtless. He had hair all over his chest. Like pubic hair. Messy and wet and shining. It was inappropriate to walk around like that.
From inside the car, Mary pushed the button that unlocked the door to the gas tank. She watched him in the mirror where there was a note of warning that said objects in mirror were closer than they appeared. He knew what to do. He came over and pushed aside the door, reached his hand in, and twisted the lid. Mary knew it opened to a little hole. He turned, pressed a few buttons on the machine, brought over the pump, and pushed the nozzle in. Mary could hear the oil, how it rushed in, eager and desperate. It took a while to fill that voluminous tank. He came over to the driver’s side and she opened the window just a slit. She ironed out the wrinkles on a bill with the warmth of her palms. She pressed on the side with that old man’s face, and pressed again on the reverse on the image of a white building. All the money was green. It was easy to give away the wrong denomination. She checked all four corners for the number fifty, to be sure. The bill came out of the window like a tongue and he grabbed an edge. Mary drove away before he could give her back her change.
The town did not encourage much walking around. There were no sidewalks, only grassy ditches along the road. Most people drove pickup trucks, and at interstate speed. Every bank had a drive-through window. The tax deadline was approaching and Mary relied on being noticed. It would take some time before anyone did. She had to set up her office in a public place early this year, get a head start, especially in a town like this. Besides, she could use the money. She worked out a deal with the manager of the community center to let her set up her office there, in front of the library. She brought in a foldable desk and put out her sandwich-board sign. She looked around and thought it was the perfect place. There was a lot of foot traffic. There was a pool and a gym, too.
She saw the gas station man. His whole body was covered up. The only flesh she could see was his hands and his head. She wondered who was at the gas station now that he was here. He was checking out a book from the library. She saw it from the back but couldn’t tell what book it was. He noticed her sitting at her desk and came over and said, “Hey, can I ask you some questions?” He had on large black-framed glasses. They looked too big for him. His eyes were gray or blue. It was hard to tell. There was glass in the way. And while she was trying to determine their color, he was seeing all of her. Most people stared at a detail of her face or at the wall behind her. To be in someone’s gaze was something more.
Even before she answered his question, she did not like how he used that first word. Hey. As though she were some hole in the wall you could just stick your questions into.
“You have to make an appointment!” she yelled. There was fury in her voice. She pulled down her skirt, which had been creeping up, showing too many details of her legs. The ankles and their bony joints, the muscled curve of her back legs, the rough patches of her knees, and the area above that did not tan. He laughed.
“Okay then. Can I do that?”
When she turned to look at her schedule, he had taken the seat in front of her. He continued with his questions. “There’s no one here.” He looked around. It was true, but she was a professional. He couldn’t just walk up to her and take up her time as though it were free.
“I am a professional, sir,” she said. “Professionals take appointments.”
He seemed amused. “I’ve never met anyone like you.”
She did not know whether that statement was a compliment. She decided it was an observation. An observation of a fact. Well, working at the gas station, how could you? she thought.
“Oh. I get it. Dressed in black. Death and taxes,” he said.
She ignored his comment. She handed him her business card and said, “How is nine o’clock tomorrow morning?”
“But I’m here now.”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“What’s the problem, then?”
“No problem. As I said, you don’t have an appointment.”
He kept pushing.
“We’re done here,” Mary said, making a small circle in front of her with a finger, a boundary that needed to be drawn.
He put his hands up, as if preparing for an arrest, and said, “Ma’am. I like you. Sharp. Real tough. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And he walked out.
Mary drove home that night, glad she didn’t have to go by the gas station. On purpose, she drove over three bumps in the road. She made sure she went slowly, so she could feel the rise and rise, rise and fall, of the car. The bounce was more pronounced at a slower speed. Her eyes looking up at the ceiling, her jaw loose and open. At high speeds you couldn’t feel anything at all.
She didn’t make anything to eat. She wasn’t hungry. She took a shower, washed her hair, and polished her only pair of shoes. She read a book that had belonged to her as a little girl. It was about a monster. It wasn’t scary at all. She had played both parts. The beauty and the beast. Mary loved being the beast. She could roar and pound at her chest and no one ever said that was not how a little girl should be. She could be ugly and uglier and even more ugly. She threw the book across the room. It left a dark mark on the wall, like a bruise. To be a monster, a beast of some kind. Watching everything shudder, down to the most useless blade of grass.