2022 Pushcart Prize Nominee - Now You See It by Anne Baldo
Now You See It
‘In the 1970s, the FBI had a file on Bigfoot.’
‘Right in there with the organized crime and the fugitives?’ Jessica raised her newly tinted eyebrows. ‘That’s so interesting.’
Jessica is so nice. Jessica is too nice. When we arrived for the wedding, Jessica knocked on our motel door almost immediately. Marlow! I’m so happy that both of you are here.
‘They analyzed hair samples and everything.’
‘And it was Bigfoot hair?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It was from a deer. The man who sent the hairs found out forty years later when the file was released.’
‘Wow,’ Jessica said. ‘That must have been, like, so disappointing.’
It would have been heartbreaking, I thought.
The Lakeview Motel had no view of the lake. There had been at one time, the receptionist told Lester and me upon check-in; it vanished in the 90s when condominiums sprang up across the road. The condos had floor-to-ceiling windows, marble floors, and something called Venetian plaster which Lester claimed to be impressed by, but I knew he was pretending. Like me, he had no idea.
Now Jessica stood in the hallway, smiling like in the television commercials she did with Lester. They both worked for her parents, at a mattress store. The Mattress King. Lester was the king, and Jessica was the queen. She wore a rhinestone crown, necklaces with big bright jewels, like chunks of frozen fruit. Lester had a black waistcoat, white gloves, his own crown. Get in bed with the king, their ads said.
Sleazy, I said, and Lester said I didn’t understand the world of small business, the way he always did when he had to work late, or got called in on the weekend.
I have my own small business. I just sold the Ultimate Warrior for two hundred dollars on eBay. Online, I traded in everything retro and kitsch.
A legitimate business. Not selling fake autographs, stolen —
I don’t do that, anymore, I said, although my forgery of Tony Esposito’s signature had been unreal.
Alright, Lester said. I don’t want to argue.
Jessica walked inside. Where’s Lester? I told him I’d show him the new condo when you got here.’
‘He’s in the shower.’
She sat down on our bed. ‘Let’s wait for him.’
There was no other place to sit in the room so I leaned, against the wall, listening to the water running in the bathroom as Lester tried to scrub off his repulsion to our motel. It’s not that bad, I’d said, and he’d frowned, eyeing the carpet, blotted as a Rorschach test.
It’s like you’ve never heard of bedbugs.
Let’s try and make the best of it. But there used to be a time when we didn’t have to make the best of anything, because being together it already was.
Getting ready to shower, Lester popped his contacts off. He’d worn glasses, large pilot-style, a thin silver frame. But since he had become the Mattress King, he had changed to contacts. When Lester started working there, there had been another king, Travis, but six months later he abdicated. Not, like Edward in 1936, to marry a commoner, but to pursue a career in professional wrestling. With Travis gone, Lester ascended the throne. He cut his hair, let his lip piercing close up. He started watching documentaries on TV about the Royal Family, although previously he had always told me they were absurd. He didn’t do magic tricks anymore, either. Sometimes I wished he would pull a coin from behind my ear, show me a new card trick; but he hadn’t done those things in a while.
‘This place is so cute.’ Jessica glanced around the room. Her necklace was a gold snake chain, and the light slithered over her collarbone when she moved. ‘I hope you’ll be happy here, that it’ll be a fun little trip for you. Lester said you guys never had a honeymoon.’
‘I guess not.’
‘And haven’t you been together since you were, like, teenagers?’
‘That’s amazing. I only met Ray a year ago. But when you know, you know, right?’ She pushed twice against the bed. ‘This mattress is awful, though. It’s not going to do anything for the alignment of your spine.’
‘It’s just a few nights, so….’
‘Marlow, no, it’s so important. I owe my good posture to a lifetime of excellent mattresses.’ She got up, wandered over to the dresser, touched the drawer handles, three gold atomic starbursts. At one time I might have devised a plan to loosen them, lose them deep in my luggage, but I wasn’t like that anymore. ‘So retro! Doesn’t it give you a Mad Men vibe?’
The motel had a sad, residual sixties aura. The carpet was a hard, flat brown, the bedding mustard yellow velvet. ‘Like maybe somewhere Don Draper would have an affair, I guess.’
The bathroom door opened, and Lester walked out, only in a towel.
‘Jess,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know you were here.’
‘We’ll wait for you outside,’ I said.
The hallways were dark, almost underwater, spangled with light
5 coming through the dusty windows at the end.
‘I’m so sorry about — ’
Jessica waved a quick hand. ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s totally fine. Lester’s like my brother.’
‘Venetian plaster is applied in multiple layers,’ Jessica said, as she led us on a tour through the condo. ‘It’s virtually invincible to damage. I mean the value it adds to your property is just totally unreal.’
‘Incredible,’ Lester said.
I’d thought I was overheated from the car ride, from reading in the car. We can take turns reading to each other, I said; Elodie, my sister, had told me that was what she and Bryce did on car trips they took. We read Just Kids on the way to Sauble Beach, she said. Her and her wife were big Patti Smith fans.
You’ll get sick if you read in the car, Lester warned, but I hadn’t listened. Now, in the condo, I felt dizzy, the collar of my dress hot against the back of my neck. From these windows you could see the lake. Ray hadn’t moved from the island in the kitchen, where he sat anxiously scrolling for updates on the weather.
‘I knew we shouldn’t get married this time of year,’ he said.
I nodded, sympathetically. Lester was with Jessica and her parents, moving down the hallway, touching the Venetian plaster walls with endless reverence. Almost one hundred dollars a square foot —
‘They’re saying eighty percent chance of rain,’ Ray said. I noticed his wrist, the watch, a Citizen, prized for its precision, and just, for a moment, thought about lifting it. Almost instinctual, at one time: compact handshake, clap on the back. Quickened crush, pushing the watch down, right against the wrist. That was the trick. To press hard enough even as you were lifting it that the impression of it remained.
‘Isn’t rain on your wedding good luck?’
At home no two pieces of silverware in my drawer were the same, all stolen from different restaurants, one by one. It wasn’t thieving itself, exactly, that I’d once loved; in truth, the moment I made up my mind to take something I’d felt deep dread, the buzz of my heart in my chest. But how I felt afterward — the relief, the release — it was almost ecstatic. It was what had been so hard to give up.
‘We’re in love,’ Ray said. ‘We don’t need luck.’
‘Right,’ I said, but he was wrong. People in love needed all the luck in the world.
‘Ray’s really worried about the weather,’ Lester said, when we got back to our motel room. He was remaking the bed after stripping it a second time to check for bedbugs. Look for tiny spots of blood on the sheets, he said.
‘What about Jessica?’ I was still examining a pillowcase, turning it inside out, sitting on the edge of the bed. The curtains had a faded tropical print, palm leaves and hibiscus flowers, although we were in Ontario, in the gloomy lakeside town Ray had grown up in.
Lester shrugged. ‘Jessica’s fine. She says maybe if it rains there’ll be a rainbow in the wedding photos. She’s pretty laid back like that.’
‘Jessica is really great,’ I said.
Before we were among royals, we met in the parking lot of a KFC in Tilbury, because Lester lived in Comber and I was from Windsor. I usually refused to travel to meet buyers, but I had become a little obsessed with Lester. He was already there, sitting on a curb in a vintage men’s shirt. I recognized the shirt from one of his profile pictures, except he wore it then with a pair of white gloves, pulling a bouquet of flowers from his sleeve. He advertised himself as a magician, available for shows and parties. I was fifteen minutes early, but he had been even earlier. He really wanted the Mr. Peanut salt and pepper shakers, or maybe he just lived closer.
Monday morning, when I checked my messages, his was the first.
Are the Mr. Peanut salt/pepper shakers available?
Would you take fifteen dollars?
My grandmother used to work in advertising. She did some of the designs. ‘Planters adds zest to Lenten Meals’? She worked on that one.
Sounds like a good ad. They’re twenty dollars. It’s already a deal. They’re from the 1950s. Mint condition.
There were no more messages, after that. Waiting, I searched for his name online, found his MySpace. Dark curls, big glasses, one-sided smile; he had his lower lip pierced and the cheek bones of a boy band member. He didn’t look like the leader, the hottest one, but maybe a lesser member; possibly a little sleazy, in some vague way. I was smitten.
That night he texted me during a documentary on Bigfoot. When I saw the screen of my phone light up, it felt I’d willed it. I’d been thinking of Lester already, how he was probably the type to have theories on Bigfoot.
I still want the Mr. Peanuts.
The KFC was old, with the red gabled roof and its full name in script: Kentucky Fried Chicken, before they omitted the fried. The sign was cracked, right through the colonel’s face; the red was sun-bleached pinkish white.
I nodded at the sign. ‘Do you know the life story of Colonel Sanders?’
‘It’s pretty tragic.’
‘Tell me,’ he said.
‘Harland David Sanders. He was a lawyer who fought with his own client in the courtroom. Ruined by the Great Depression. Started selling chicken by the roadside, gas stations up and down the highway. At the end of his life he was estranged from his own fast food empire. Can you imagine that?’
He nodded. ‘I could imagine it.’ Above us, Harland smiled beatifically in his white suit. I gestured to the grey brick wall that ran along the restaurant’s side.
‘We should sit down,’ I said. ‘You can take a look, first. Make sure it’s what you really want.’
‘Alright,’ he said, but when I handed him the Mr. Peanuts, he barely unfolded the newspaper or glanced down. Instead he looked at me. ‘I’m looking for someone to let me levitate them,’ he said. ‘Not for real, of course, it’s just a trick I’m working on. I do magic shows, sometimes.’
I had to stop myself from saying I know. Instead I said, sometimes I try a little sleight of hand, too. He folded up the twenty dollar bill. ‘You have to make sure your subject is looking into your eyes for this part,’ he said, so I did. ‘And then you reach behind their ear, and — ’ the green bill unfolded again. ‘So what do you think?’
Close your eyes, he said, when we practiced. Lay down. And then he would drape a sheet over me. We were both apt at misdirection, and he developed a story, for the audiences, words he repeated, signals so that I knew how and when to move. Pretend you are bewitched, he’d say, and I’d rise to one knee, pretend you are so enchanted I can summon your body to defy the very laws of gravity.
The next day, Jessica and Ray invited us to brunch. When we met in the motel courtyard Jessica was wearing a bucket hat.
‘Bucket hats are back,’ Jessica said. ‘I’m surprised you don’t know that. Don’t you sell jewelry and clothes?’
‘Nothing current, though. I sort of only deal in the past.’
‘Maybe that’s your problem,’ Ray said. He, too, wore a bucket hat, although only Jessica pulled it off. ‘I’m just sensing nervous energy, you know? You seem like you’re feeling some bad vibes, or something.’
‘Not me,’ I said. ‘Good vibes only. That’s practically my motto.’
‘Since when?’ asked Lester. But I decided to ignore him; good vibes only, I repeated to myself, as we walked towards the restaurant.
‘You’re going to love this brunch place,’ Jessica said. ‘They make these eggs in purgatory with black kale.’
‘No way,’ Lester said. ‘I’ve been really trying to up my intake of cruciferous vegetables lately.’
‘Oh, me too,’ Jessica said. ‘It’s so important.’
We split into pairs, Jessica and Lester, up ahead of us trading cauliflower recipes, and Ray by my side. The lightheaded sensation of yesterday sharpened into a headache, pulsing at my temples; I felt hot, despite the clouds over us. Overtired, maybe; I hadn’t slept. The bloodspots can be as small as poppy seeds, Lester said, when we got back to our motel room, as we tried to settle into bed, but it was hard, with Lester using the flashlight of his phone to try and peer behind the headboard.
‘Jessica says you’re really into Bigfoot.’
‘Not that into. I just find it interesting - ’
‘Are you okay?’ Ray asked, suddenly. ‘You don’t look so good.’
Up ahead of us, Jessica was trying to persuade Lester into trying on her bucket hat. ‘You’d look great.’
‘You’re messing with me,’ he said, laughing. Now you see it, now you —
‘You look good in anything,’ Jessica said, which was untrue. Lester couldn’t pull off earth tones, or really anything striped, we both knew that.
‘You’re staying with us, right?’ Jessica said. ‘It’s only nine. We’ll have coffee.’
The rehearsal dinner was at seafood restaurant down the street from our motel. Jessica’s engagement ring was too tight, but she hadn’t resized in time. All during dinner she twisted it around her finger, finally slipping it off.
It was hot. On the television over the bar, a magician stood on a stage. He closed his hand on a coin, clasped the other, and when he opened both hands again the coin was gone.
‘I always wondered how they did that,’ Ray said.
‘Chapstick on the back of his hand, probably,’ Lester said. ‘The coin sticks to it. Watch, he’ll bring his hands back together again, grab it off the back, make it reappear when he opens his hand.’
‘Really?’ We turned towards the television, where the magician finished the trick exactly as Lester described. ‘How did you know that?’
‘I used to practice a few tricks,’ Lester said, eyes still on the TV. ‘A long time ago. Marlow helped me.’
‘Just sometimes, for his levitation trick,’ I said. ‘Lester was the magician.’
‘No!’ Jessica’s ring was on the table, beneath a crushed napkin. ‘Lester, how come you’ve never told me?’
‘It was a long time ago. I wasn’t very good.’
‘Hey,’ Ray said. ‘You should totally do that, for one of your commercials. You could make Jessica levitate.’
‘I love it,’ Jessica said.
‘That doesn’t really make any sense, though,’ I said. ‘Why is a king doing magic tricks?’
‘Lester could play a dual role,’ Jessica said. ‘He could also be the court magician.’ ‘Like a wizard,’ Ray said.
My headache from the day before drummed inside my ears. ‘A dual role, like Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap?’
‘I was thinking more like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins,’ Jessica said.
‘Isn’t he just the chimney sweep?’ Ray asked.
‘He played Mr. Dawes Sr., too,’ Jessica said. ‘You know, Mr. Banks’ mean boss?’
‘No way,’ Ray said.
‘Dick Van Dyke is very versatile,’ Jessica said. ‘Just like Lester.’
Like a crow I’d filched bits of glitter, to silver my nest. I’d eaten with stolen cutlery for years, and now it had come back to me. When Lester left for work I sat in the kitchen, crying, listening to Jolene. Cosmic justice, a concept Ray had tried explaining to me over perch. You could take something that wasn’t yours, but the universe had its own ways of compensation.
The heat on my own face radiated. ‘Jessica, your ring, it’s under the napkin — ’
‘Marlow! Thank you, I completely forgot.’
Lester was looking at me, now. ‘Are you alright? You look febrile.’
‘I don’t get fevers.’ The candles flickered, like the stars in your eyes before fainting.
‘That’s impossible,’ Lester said. ‘Come on. Jess, we’re going to go back to the motel. We’ll see you tomorrow, at the wedding.’
Outside, a breeze came from the lake. In the motel courtyard, the pool glimmered green. Lester didn’t say anything about bedbugs, when we got inside our room. He didn’t even turn the lights on. ‘Lay down,’ he said. ‘Close your eyes.’
This time, when he let the sheet fall, he let it drift down over both of us, and we lay side by side, on bedding pin-pricked with blood. In the dark he found my hand, held on. I thought that true love was a lot like Bigfoot; maybe it was something real, out there somewhere, but that most people probably lied about it. Pretend you are so enchanted. The trick to lifting watches, the quick and secret ways we lost things. How a body could still feel the weight of something, long after it was gone.