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.
The next morning, Mary smoothed out her black hair, put on makeup, dabbed some lipstick onto two fingers and patted them on her cheeks. She spread this same color on her lips. She wore black. One of her black pencil skirts and the long-sleeved blouse.
It was eight fifteen when she arrived. The sky was a long, unbearable lump of gray and there was rain all over everything. When she walked up to the community center, the sliding doors parted. It made her feel like some god parting the ocean. Sometimes, when she thought no one was looking, she spread her arms dramatically out to the sides.
Instead of going to her desk, she went to the bathroom. It was clean and bright with lots of room. You could smell the bleach. She sat down on the counter next to the sink and pulled her skirt up to her thighs, spread her legs apart, and arched her back. She closed her eyes. She brought a finger to her mouth and her teeth clutched it there, muffling a moan of pleasure. The fluorescent lights were unflattering.
She went to take her seat and opened her laptop, looking at her list of appointments. The gas station man had an ordinary name. If you looked him up in a phone book, his name would take up several pages. Everyone knew at least one person who had that name.
A brown suit came into view, something definitely from a secondhand store. The lapels were wide. It belonged in a different time and to a different person. It was sad.
“I have an appointment,” he said.
“Take a seat.” Mary rested her elbows on the desk and interlaced her fingers. He asked his questions and was gone.
That afternoon, she stepped out into the rain and tried to look for something familiar, to steady herself. Everything was wet and muggy. She stepped back underneath the awning and noticed a little mound of dirt. Ants. At the center of that mound was an entrance and an exit, efficient. Everything in one place. She hated that it was closed off to her peering. That world of work, their little secrets of living together and lifting things greater than themselves. She imagined the networks below her feet. How they went on forever. She lifted a foot and wiped away the mound. As if nothing had ever been there. They would build it back eventually. That was the magic they had, together.
Mary got to his apartment and pressed the button in the elevator to go up to the fifth floor. It was not the speed she liked. It crept up too slowly, moved in jitters and jitters and then jolts. She could have walked up the stairs. It would have been faster. She would have liked to feel her legs pound each step.
When the elevator arrived, there was a ding, like a microwave. Her black shoes clicked on the floor and when they stopped, the door to his apartment opened. He served dinner. He explained everything to her. How it would all unfold. He said it was going to be sweet and tender and loving. Then, at every opportunity, he’d tell her he didn’t love her. It’ll be a lie, he said. “I don’t like feelings.” She was going to go home, but he sat there on the bed looking lonely and sad. It was the thing she loved most in the world. The one no one saw, the one no one wanted. So she stayed.
It turned out the gas station man was an artist. He painted only with black. He had very large canvases leaned against the wall. They all looked the same to Mary. There didn’t seem to be any difference, until she got closer to each one. The thing about these paintings were their strokes. Each one was particular, original. She angled one until the light hit it and saw where the strokes had been slapped on, where they changed, where they thickened, where they swirled.
It was just as he said it would be. It was tender and sweet and loving. When he was around, all Mary could ever see was the black at the center of his eye. The world and its little towns fell away. What time it was, what day or hour, where the sun was in the sky, Mary never noticed. All she saw was him. “I want to stay in,” he said. He kept himself inside her, attached, his body forming an appendage that grew out of her center. After a while, he said, “I don’t love you.” Mary did not say anything back. She was listening to his breathing, feeling. She saw now that his eyes were gray. And she was not there anymore. She said nothing about love, asked nothing about it, or how he felt. “You’re lying,” she said. “Like you said you would.” He said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” What was the difference between someone who lied about love and someone who didn’t love you? Nothing.
Mary packed her bags and left all her furniture. She knew if he called her, she would go back right away. But she didn’t want to go back. She wanted to go and stay gone. She was free. Free, she drove to the gas station and pumped gas into the car herself. He watched her from his tiny glass box. When she was done, she threw the pump down on the gravel and didn’t pay. She twisted the lid to the gas tank, and when it was tight to her satisfaction, she drove away. She took the one road out of that town, picked up speed, flying over the potholes, not feeling any bumps. She knew she would reach the city. Its bright lights sprinkled across the sky like broken glass. She would become one of those bits, in a few hours’ time.
And as for him. He’d still be there, in that town. Nothing would change there, but she imagined a few years from now the gas station would be shut down. Its bright tennis-ball green faded. No one would be able to see it from the interstate. The glass box broken on one side. Weeds growing through the concrete cracks. No one would be paying him to be there anymore, but there he would be, not even knowing why. Probably the hair on his head would fall out and would not come back. His face round and heavy and drooping. Two front teeth missing. The glasses he wore still there on his face, but behind one lens the eyelid remained closed. It didn’t matter what happened there anymore. She knew what she never was, a void that was not immense.