Ashley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals, and she is an Associate Editor for Bound Off. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Learn more at www.ashleycowger.com.
“I just thought you should know,” is what the woman says, her voice smug. “If I were you, I would want—” and then Lenny disconnects her.
May watches as the little red light on the camera goes dim. Carl must have signaled Mike to stop shooting.
“Sorry, May,” he says into May’s earpiece.
May offers a put-on smile and shrugs. “No biggie.” But she can see by the reaction of the crew that this is not the appropriate response. “I mean, it isn’t your fault, Carl.” May can feel little beads of sweat forming along her hairline. The lights seem abnormally strong today.
“Let’s, uh, why don’t we take a minute, huh? To regroup,” Carl says, not to May, but to the crew.
Mike leaves his post, walks swiftly toward the bathroom, and Melissa approaches May with that little bowl of face powder she always seems to have on the ready. “Touch up?”
May forces a smile. “Oh. Sure.”
Melissa swirls the giant brush around in the powder, then dabs it all over May’s face and neck. “What a bitch, huh?” Melissa says.
“Who?” May asks.
Melissa snorts. “Right.”
“Oh,” May says.
“Mahhhgaret,” Melissa says, taking on the caller’s faux British intonation. “You can just tell by the way she says her name she’s a bitch.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge,” May says.
Melissa doesn’t seem to have heard. “I can’t believe she would call you on the show like that.”
“Melissa,” Carl says. He sounds like a stern father, like he means business.
Melissa, who is still of an age where a stern father means trouble, jumps.
“May looks fine. No more makeup.”
Melissa walks away without argument.
Carl leans in with his stale coffee breath, puts his lumpy hand on May’s shoulder and squeezes. “You okay?”
“’Cause if you need to take some time, we can just call it a day and pick up fresh next week. Show a rerun.”
May thinks about it for a moment, but shakes her head. And do what? she wants to ask Carl. Go home and face Sam? He probably knows she called. She probably told him. “I’m fine,” she tells Carl.
Carl squeezes her shoulder again, then lets go. “Show must go on, right?” He lifts his hand up, and for a second she thinks he’s going to hold it out for a high five. Thankfully, he just runs it through his thinning hair. “Soon as Mike gets back then, eh?”
“Sounds good,” May says. She crosses her legs and folds her hands neatly in her lap. She is wearing a yellow dress today, yellow with brown dots. She feels attractive, summery. Sam bought the dress for her last summer. It’s probably the only time he’s bought her a dress that she actually likes and fits well, both. He loves her in the dress, tells her every time she wears it. Wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her, May knows, if it weren’t for Margaret, whose name May didn’t know before now.
It worked well that way, not knowing her name. She was just a shady figure in the background of their lives, one it was easy to pretend away. Sam had been so much happier these past few months, and May didn’t have to deal with his constant groping. She could make dinner now, brush her teeth, without him coming up behind her and nestling his dry lips into her sensitive skin. She didn’t have to come up with excuses anymore—headache, backache, exhaustion, arthritis pains. On top of that, Sam had been extra giving in other ways, out of guilt, May assumes. A few times, she’d suspected he suspected that she knew, but she played dumb and he bought it, and he would buy her a ridiculously expensive bouquet of flowers afterwards, or take her to dinner at Chez Pierre.
But now, all of that is over. Now she’s heard the woman’s voice. Now she knows her name: Mahhhgaret. Everybody on crew knows it, too. Everybody knows that May knows. Sam probably already knows, and if he doesn’t, he’ll find out soon enough. Her blissful life of feigned ignorance is over. And she doesn’t know what to do.
Mike comes back from the bathroom, a sheepish grin on his face, probably for having taken so long, which he always does.
“Everyone ready?” Carl asks.
Mike readjusts the focus on the camera and gives a thumbs-up.
“Let’s see some teeth, hon.”