The Clarion write-a-thon is over. I enjoyed the challenge and made some real progress toward my personal goals. As part of my write-a-thon commitment I promised to write a story for anyone who donated on my page. I was inspired to do this by the brilliant Robert Shearman and his One Hundred Stories project (never mind that he’s on break, there are plenty of stories to read). It’s a little intimidating to follow in his footsteps, but I promised to feature any donors by name in a hand crafted, artisinal story of my own concoction. One Karen G. Anderson donated on my page, so here you go!
The Other Karen Anderson *
By Rebecca Schwarz
Karen marched up the driveway, her dead phone slick in her hand, convinced despite all evidence, that it might light up with an incoming call or allow her, even now, to call a tow truck. They’d given up the landline last year. Thank God the car quit only a couple miles out on the frontage road that bordered their neighborhood. She walked through the foyer to the kitchen. Everything looked just as she’d left it this morning, tidier even, but what she really noticed was the cool puff air conditioning.
Lucky for her, the car had rolled to a stop in front of a gaggle of college kids (the girls in crocheted tank tops the boys in tee-shirts that referenced completely unfamiliar bands or memes or something). They pushed the old Oldsmobile off the road and into the empty yard of an abandoned house that she’d driven by every day for years without ever noticing. Their good deed done, the kids moved off before she realized that her phone had died.
She turned back to the house. A tiny sign hung on the porch. Apparently, this had been the law office of Dickerson and Poole, LLC. The door once painted an optimistic blue, was now grimed to a cloudy twilight shade. Sunlight shone through the lone window, its small panes dull with accreted dust and exhaust. For a moment, she thought she saw motion inside and considered knocking on the door, imagining a desiccated little lawyer inside, hoping for a client. Would he even have a phone? How had she never seen this house? The motion was probably a curtain shifting, or the effect of the shadows cast from the cars roaring by on the highway behind her. She started home on foot across the uneven pavement of the neighborhood streets. Everything looked different in the bright afternoon heat. The satin lining under her seersucker suit clung to her arms.
She stopped and looked back. She hadn’t locked it. She slipped her hand into her pocket and closed her fingers around the key ring. Well, if she’d been smart, she would have left the keys in it. Then maybe someone would steal it and she’d be free of the thing at least for a while. The car was old, but of course Mike had kept it in tip-top shape. She used to tease him, calling him Mr. Parker, because he was like the Old Man in The Christmas Story. Ralphie was really talking about Mike when he said: “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man.” In every other way he was a regular husband. She believed everyone should be allowed their obsessions, but enough was enough. He knew she wanted to drive something different; a nice, modern compact. She sure as hell was going to bring it up again tonight.
The kitchen was the coolest room at this time of day. She couldn’t recall everyone’s schedule, and checked her phone reflexively, even though she knew it was Wednesday. Her face glared up at her from the black screen, dripping sweat and pissed. She peeled her jacket off, threw it over the back of a kitchen chair and went to the bathroom to splash some water over her face. Someone moved around the kitchen. She toweled off and took a deep breath. She felt better, a little cooler and she was home. They’d get the car towed and she’d pour herself a glass of wine.
Mike gave a little start when she stepped out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. He stood there on the other side of the island holding the meat tenderizer, and stared at her for a moment before putting it down on the counter behind him. Finally, he said, “Hello?”
“Hello yourself.” If he was planning to make dinner that only meant that he hadn’t been out to see that one of his precious Oldsmobiles wasn’t in the stable. “The car quit. My phone, too, though I knowI charged it last night.”
“Oh, I see.” He sounded relieved. She’d expected something closer to panic. “You want to call a tow truck from our phone?” He pointed to a phone mounted on the wall next to the fridge.
Karen stared at the thing. It was the same shade of green as the leaves on the wallpaper that she’d picked out three years ago when they’d redone the kitchen. She’d never seen this phone before in her life. Their old phone had been some ubiquitous cordless from BestBuy. Mike backed away so that she could step around the counter to make her call. But she couldn’t move. She had to concentrate to breathe.
“We don’t have a phone.” Her voice disappeared into a whisper. She cleared her throat.
“Why don’t you sit down for a bit?” he said. “It’s awfully hot out there.”
He took a glass down from the cupboard. A glass from the set she’d bought at Ikea. And turned back to her. “Who’s Mike?”
Karen slid onto one of the chairs and took up her phone again in her now shaking hands. This man, who was not Mike, filled the glass with ice and then water and slid it across the counter to her. She drank it down.
“I’m sorry – ” She looked at him.
“Phil,” the man provided.
“ – Phil, it’s just. This house looks a lot like my house. I guess I got confused.”
“Like I said, it’s hot out there.”
“I know.” Karen couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice. Sweat trickled down her back soaking her blouse. She stood and snatched her jacket off the chair, dropping her dead phone into the pocket. “Thank you for the water. I think I’m fine now.” This was her house, but somehow not her world. Had the abandoned law office really been there all these years? It looked like something from some creepy fairytale. She should get back to the Oldsmobile.
“Are you sure? I can call a tow for you.” Phil picked the receiver off the cradle and held it up, its faint dial tone reaching across the space between them.
“No, I’ll be okay.” She turned and strode to the door that led to the garage. The handle wobbled in her grip. Fixing that doorknob was an item on Mike’s honey-do list. Apparently neither Mike nor Phil had gotten around to it.
She opened the door and froze. There in her spot (she always parked on the right), was a silver Mazda Miata. All these years, she’d imagined driving something sporty but sensible, never imagining something like this. Behind her, Phil put the phone back in its cradle. That green phone was some other Karen Anderson’s phone. This was some other Karen Anderson’s garage. She tore her eyes from the car and looked back at Phil standing awkwardly in the kitchen.
“You’re right. It would be lovely if you could you call a tow for me?”
“Of course.” Phil picked up the phone again with relief.
“I’m going to wait with my car. It’s just off the frontage road a couple miles south of here.”
Phil pulled the phone book out of the drawer where, in her world, she kept all the take out menus. He opened it and glanced up at her. She mouthed, “Thank you,” then stepped into the garage, closing the door behind her.
She pulled the Mazda’s keys off the key board, took the old Oldsmobile’s keys out of her pocket and replaced them on the hook. Quietly, she opened the driver door and slid in. The seat fit her body like a glove. She started the car, threw it in reverse, backed out, and headed for the highway. She hoped the other Karen Anderson would like her new Oldsmobile, it really was in mint condition.
* In Karen’s bio on her write-a-thon page she claims she is “The other Karen Anderson.” I used that as a jumping off point for the story.