You could almost call them a squad—sometimes as many as seven, when they all pitched in. They were reliable for plumbing, basic carpentry, minor electrical fixes, and digging holes. They liked to dig holes. They liked it a lot. Twice she’d ordered a bunch of seedlings for the backyard just to keep them busy.
The men’ll take care of it, she’d say to herself, if she had a lot on her to-do list, and sooner or later the men would file in. Their blunt-fingered hands were capable of surprising dexterity.
They were smaller than midgets but larger than cats—about the size of dachshunds, if the doxies were walking on their hind legs. They’d smile sometimes. But not often. They played their cards close to the vest. The men weren’t much for talking.
She wasn’t sure where they went on their own time, though once she’d found them hunkered down around the TV staring slack-jawed at a game. And she’d walked past them grilling steaks one afternoon. They were using the old indoor/outdoor George Foreman on its stand in the driveway. She hadn’t seen it since Dan left. She didn’t mind.
“Hey, those look good,” she said.
One of them shrugged.
She always got the feeling they preferred her to move along. No chitchat, please. Almost a precondition of their service. It was all right. Honestly, what did she have in common with them? The answer was nothing. The men didn’t do small talk. Mostly they disappeared after a set of tasks was done and reappeared for the next.
They were small but not elfin. When she tried to think of them as helper elves—like the ones in fairy tales, say, who cut leather and stitched it into handmade shoes during the night to help a humble cobbler—it made her laugh. They were dachshund-sized, sure, but very solid. They were burly and walked with a swagger. They didn’t dance nimbly or wear pointy caps.
When Dan left she’d gotten depressed. She’d been blindsided, after all. No warning; he just didn’t come home from work one day. At first she thought he’d been mugged. Was lying somewhere in an alley, possibly bleeding out. She was so worried she called the cops. They wouldn’t do anything, so she called his office. She got stonewalled—no information forthcoming. On the third day she drove over there herself and found a temp who walked her back to his cubby. Empty, the bulletin board just a bunch of colored pushpins and a ragged old New Yorker cartoon, one of those ones that made no fucking sense. Wasn’t funny at all, that was a given, but also had no apparent meaning. Zero. Those cartoons, she’d always thought, were tests of something, and she failed the test. Who passed? She’d like to know. They put them in the magazine to enrage you. Smart people talking in code. Trying to bury you with their smartness. Like an autistic kid reeling off difficult calculations.
Had he actually liked it? Had he gotten it?
No way. There was nothing to get.
A gulf widened between them. She stared at the cartoon.
But maybe he’d just put it there for inspiration, for when he needed to be pissed off. Get a quick shot of adrenaline. For business purposes. Maybe the New Yorker cartoon was like a red flag to a bull.
Finally she asked someone, an older man she thought she recognized, although his name escaped her.
All he said was, “That guy? He quit. His assistant, Stacey, also quit. She had big bosoms. Very big.”
That was what the man said. “Big bosoms. Very big.”
“Neither one of them gave any notice,” he went on. “We saw them drinking champagne at 11 a.m., then they were outta here.”
When she got home she flipped out. She opened his file cabinet and found it almost completely empty. His birth certificate was gone, his Social Security card and tax files. In the bottom, a crumpled receipt for an oil change. That was it.
He wasn’t using their joint credit card, she saw online; he’d always kept one of his own.
Big bosoms, she wrote in her journal. Very big.
Had Dan been a breast man? He never told her that. She was respectable. A 36C.
The men appeared a week later when she was still on sick leave. Not actually sick, just crying, smoking, and eating donuts. They offered to clean out the gutters, replace an AC filter, and remove a dead limb from a tree; the limb, their spokesman said, was already splitting from the trunk. It could fall on her roof anytime. Cave it in. An injury could be sustained. Death might occur, even.
She was grateful; she hadn’t noticed those things needed doing.
Lately she found she was getting so used to their support—logistical support, as she thought of it—that she began slacking off. The men will do it, she’d think, lying in bed, feeling the sun from the window slant across her face. The men will handle it. It used to be just the tasks that took muscle or mechanical know-how, but lately she’d even relied on them for housecleaning. Scrubbing, mopping, using a pumice stone on toilet rings.
She’d lie in her bed stretching out, lazing till late morning on the weekends, or put her feet up on a padded stool while resting in a large armchair, reading a novel about romance in a tropical setting. She’d watch a movie on demand and spoon ice cream straight from the carton, while in the shadows the men toothbrushed mold from the caulking between the shower tiles or ran vinegar through the dishwasher.
She didn’t like the men to see her relaxing while they worked. She typically shut the bedroom door for privacy. Sometimes the spokesman needed to know something and knocked. Where did she keep the Shop-Vac? Did she own a Pozidriv screwdriver, or just that messy drawer of Phillips heads? Before she opened the door, she’d pause the movie, turn off the monitor, hide the ice cream behind a potted plant, and spread out some paperwork on her bed. And when she opened the door, she had to remind herself to squat, since the men took umbrage if you talked down to them.
As far as she could tell, they had a solemn respect for paperwork. “I better get back to my paperwork,” she’d say after a typically gruff exchange.
They cleaned with admirable thoroughness, though they tended to use way too much ammonia—enough to choke a horse. Once they polished a table so hard they stripped the stain right off the wood. Also, when they moved furniture to clean the floors, they always left it standing there in rectilinear formations. The men didn’t know about asymmetry. Japan, feng shui, the men had no idea. Chairs sat opposite each other squarely, for instance, so that living-room guests would be forced to face each other down in staring contests. She had to go around sliding it back into place.
Homunculi, she wrote in her journal. Defn: Diminutive human beings. She never saw them outside the house—well, never past the boundaries of her property. In the backyard, sure, even out to the curb, which they sometimes skirted while mowing the lawn, but never at large on the street. They were her men, she guessed—at least partly. Possibly they came with the neighborhood association dues. Although when she was married she’d never seen them; back in those days they’d never come around. Maybe they figured that when you were married, you didn’t need a team of men to help keep up. (They were wrong. In fact, when you were married you needed the men even more. When you were married you had to practically beg for help around the house.)
Technically, she was still married, of course, but after all this time, she had to figure that the men, like her, had realized Dan was never coming back. Dan was missing in action, where action was not some battlefield on foreign soil but their familiar life. Once familiar. Now faint. Sometimes Dan was an idea—Dan was a husband idea. The idea was draped over hangers in the closet. Drinking a cup of coffee at the counter. Reaching into the fridge for a beer. Dozing off in the middle of a pretty testy argument.
Sometimes he wasn’t even an idea. Ideas could fade if you ignored them.
A bout of food poisoning laid her low after a burger-shack dinner with coworkers, and the next day, wretched, she caught sight of the men while she was dragging herself from her bedroom into the kitchen to pour a glass of water. They stood lined up outside her sliding doors, saluting from the patio. The salutes were jaunty: not exactly a joke, the men weren’t inclined to humor, but there was a certain wit to the gesture. She padded across the rug in her socks and slid the doors open, and then, instead of squatting—she was too weak for that, dehydrated from vomiting—sat down cross-legged on the floor, half-collapsed. She told them how sick she was, but they didn’t need telling. They could see it, no doubt, from her sallow complexion and the greasy pants she’d slept in and hadn’t bothered to change. In decent health she’d never show herself like this. Even to a dachshund.
The men suggested they fold her laundry, order some groceries for delivery. They said they could make dinner if she felt up to eating by evening, and if she didn’t, no worries, it would keep. Maybe they’d even throw some entrées together for later in the week, lasagna or a ratatouille. Stick them in the freezer. They asked if she was counting carbs, or was it calories, and was she eating fish at the moment; they’d noticed she didn’t buy poultry.
Their proposal seemed, at first, too personal. Was there a pair of underwear in the dryer, for instance? Well, she could always check . . . and cooking! They’d have to stand on stools to reach the stove. She could picture their stubby arms held over her gas burners as they reached toward the back for pots and pans—easy to set a sleeve on fire. The freezer, too, was out of reach. And yet they knew their own capacities; likely there wasn’t any harm in it.
As she stood up, a wave of nausea making her sway and grimace, she thought maybe their spokesman had grown a bit. Of course that couldn’t be. They were men, not boys, and had long ago reached puberty. She glanced at his feet: scuffed brown work boots. Probably in a little boy’s size. Maybe they just had more of a heel on them than other shoes he wore.
Trial run, she thought. The men could cook for her this once. Her own cooking, if she was being totally honest—not so great. She mostly made pasta or salads. She’d tried a frittata last summer. Burned it.
It struck her, as it had several times before, to wonder what the men were getting out of this. At the beginning, she’d assumed she’d be paying them, but they always waved off questions about how much she owed. If they didn’t work for the neighborhood association, maybe their teamwork was some sort of government-subsidized employment program for the physically challenged—like the nearby community garden staffed by three retarded guys, one of whom had grabbed her tits—but didn’t want to ask in case it gave offense. She knew their height wasn’t, to them, a disability as such. Only a characteristic. And it was true: it seemed to her, sometimes, like there was no domestic task the tiny men weren’t equal to.
Still. Who would possibly wish to compensate the team for doing her cooking? Her laundry?
She’d have a frank conversation with the men as soon as she felt better. Very frank. Get to the bottom of their helpfulness.
She fell asleep for a long time after that, and, when she got up after twelve hours, ravenous, found her refrigerator and her freezer both well stocked. As usual, they’d gone off without a word, but on her way out to the car she caught sight of the spokesman, pruning a jasmine vine on the side of the house. He was up on a stepladder.
She walked over, stood beneath him to thank him for all the meals. Sure, he was on a ladder, but this time she had to swear he was taller. And bulkier. You’d never see a dachshund this big. He was almost the size of a poodle. Standard.
“Listen, this is awkward,” she said, squinting up. The sky was already bright. “It’s—I just want to thank you for everything. Would you accept—compensation . . . ?”
The spokesman inclined his head a bit, acknowledging but not responding. Had he ever said more than five words to her in a row? It could be—she had to admit—frustrating sometimes, the strong, silent position. Did you have to take the rough with the smooth? She waved and spun on her heel. Maybe the men were independently wealthy.
That afternoon she asked a couple of employees back to the house—make them feel comfortable with the boss. Outreach. Plus she could feed them the men’s lasagna, have something homemade to offer. For once. A paralegal and an assistant. They came over bearing wine (the paralegal) and daffodils (the assistant), and though she didn’t brag about the lasagna directly, she also didn’t deny ownership. Hey. The men didn’t ask for credit.
She drank most of the wine herself—the paralegal preferred beer and the assistant, a jack Mormon, was a total lightweight—and they laughed over the pieces of gossip the paralegal related. One of the lawyers had a serious foot fetish, according to his browsing history—not only a foot fetish but a fetish for dirty feet. A sales rep was having a steamy affair with the married head of HR. An IT guy, buddies with the paralegal, knew about it all.
Getting up from the couch around eleven, wondering when they would leave, she tottered up the stairs to use the bathroom and found two men beside her bed. For a moment she was taken aback—it seemed intrusive. Oh, but they were doing a turn-down service, that was all. One of them straightened as she came in, leaving a foil-wrapped chocolate on her pillow. It looked comical, him shimmying backward on his stomach off the side of the mattress. He hadn’t been able to reach her pillow without throwing himself on top of the bed—but her bed was high, and, like the spokesman, he seemed taller and broader-shouldered now than he had before.
This was a first, she thought, the team performing tasks while there were strangers in the house. (Plus, no one had asked them for turn-down service. She’d never understood turn-down service. What was the point, for chrissake?) She wished they’d come downstairs and meet her coworkers. Maybe the paralegal or the assistant would get the men to talk for once.
But before she could invite them down—a nightcap? Just this once?—they’d waddled past. They’d disappeared into Dan’s man cave, or what used to be. She followed, then saw she must have been mistaken: they weren’t there. She had to clean it out, put his things in storage. Or should she just give them to Goodwill? Yeah. Hell if Dan deserved storage. The dartboard, the photo of his farmer grandparents that looked just like American Gothic, even the high-school pole-vaulting trophy. She’d set it up as a guest bedroom. Invite some guests.
In the living room, the paralegal and the assistant had gotten serious. They were talking in hushed voices when she came back in, their heads close together.
“Oh. Delia!” said the paralegal loudly, interrupting what the assistant was saying.
“That’s my name,” she said. “What, were you talking about me?”
“Ha ha!” said the paralegal.
“Oh my God,” said the assistant. “It’s so late! I had no idea! But wait. Which of us was the designated driver?”
After they left she thought about Dan. She’d thought it was a slump, but the slump had lasted a long time. Most days when they got home they hadn’t even eaten together. He’d order pizza when she was trying to watch her weight, and then she’d make herself a salad. Or he’d come home with Chinese, enough for two but nothing that she liked. He’d eat the leftovers straight from the boxes the next night, not even heat them up. Cold and slimy. On weekend nights, he worked or he watched games; on Sunday, he played golf, which was off limits to her. Once, not long before he left, he forgot his clubs but was still gone for six hours. He said he’d borrowed someone else’s. “Testing a competition brand.”
Occasionally they’d run an errand together, but even that had started to feel strained. When all you had was trips to Costco, it wasn’t a good sign.
What got to her was how he’d done it. That was what kept her up at night. Couldn’t he have just said, like other guys did, hey, I want a divorce?
She’d never pegged him for a coward. He could be taciturn, he could be distant, but he wasn’t guided by fear. He’d been in the Army as a young man. Never saw combat, but still. No, it hadn’t been fear and it hadn’t been an oversight. “Shit! Almost forgot to tell you, honey, I’m leaving you tomorrow.” He wanted to disappear. He wanted to leave her holding a bag of nothing.
Champagne at 11 a.m.
She wasn’t even worth a goodbye.
In the morning, she decided she’d call Goodwill. She needed to eyeball the contents of the man cave quickly before she left to get a sense what size of truck they’d need. The door was closed—had she left it closed?—and when she pushed it open, she gasped. Chair, desk, lamps, a rug, shelves. The metal file cabinet.
All his personal effects were gone. Even the wall where the dartboard had been was bare, a field of dart-pricks around a clean circle.
Oddly what came to her first was: He’s back. Her heart raced.
But that ended. No one was back. Dan was in Fiji with very big bosoms. Or maybe Sacramento. (He always liked Sacramento. Another mystery.) The men had cleared it out, that was all. They’d taken care of it. She was confused, standing there in the doorway, about whether to be annoyed or grateful. How had they known?
She tried leaving money in an envelope for them on the table—five hundred bucks in cash, just a test, since what they’d done was worth far more.
They didn’t pick it up.
A few afternoons later she came home from work to find the front of her house barely visible beneath extensive scaffolding. The team was painting—six guys? No, all seven, painting the trim, the door, all the woodwork. She was attached to the colors of her house. It was fake Tudor, and the particular shades of brown and cream were based on some famous sixteenth-century building in England. She jumped out of her car and ran up the front walk.
“What’s happening?” she called up. “What’s going on?”
She looked—they were painting the rich brown a dull, flat gray—and started to panic a bit.
“But—” she called. “I like it the way it is!”
The spokesman, wearing paint-splattered overalls, looked down at her and nodded briefly. It looked like a polite nod, but then he turned back to his work. Not listening to a word she said—the objection hadn’t registered.
“Please! Guys! I really like the brown!” she repeated. The men went on painting.
She stood back and watched them for a while. Technically, if they wouldn’t stop she could call the cops on them, but was she willing to risk their defection? Was she willing to give up everything they did? Eventually she sighed and shook her head and went in the side door. So they made a mistake every so often—well, rough with the smooth. Maybe the gray was a primer coat. Maybe they planned to freshen up the brown. It had been peeling here and there.
The sun was going down when they left for the day. She came out and looked up at the house. Still couldn’t see much past the scaffolding but enough to confirm the trim had in fact been changed from brown to gray. It wasn’t a color she liked, but she could live with it, she guessed.
“Having some work done?” asked a neighbor man, pulling his garbage can to the curb. What was his name: Leon? Tony? Something like that.
“Yeah. Do you know those guys?” she asked.
They might have done some work for him—he wasn’t married, for one thing. He might be eligible for their help. A confirmed bachelor. You could see why: a reddish wart on his cheek that looked like the bud of a dried-out rose. Spent most of his money on satellite dishes. They clustered on his roof. An NSA operative, maybe. Los Feliz branch.
“Technically, you need approval from the association,” he said, squinting up at the scaffolding. “It’s a historic district.”
“But see, I never asked them to do it,” she said. Defensive, sure—the guy was a busybody. “I didn’t even want it changed.”
“Yeah. Still. Approval,” he said stiffly.
“Honestly,” she said, “maybe you could get the homeowners to speak to them? Maybe they’d make them paint it back. I feel like—it’s out of my hands. Like I said. I didn’t want it.”
He looked at her, mouth agape. He shouldn’t do that. It drew more attention to the wart. You saw the hole of the mouth, you saw the round wart so near, and you couldn’t help thinking how the wart would fit right in the mouth.
Couldn’t you get those things removed?
“Lost me. Your contractors aren’t doing what you told them to?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know if I’d call them contractors, per se,” she said. “Maybe you’ve seen them around. The little men?”
He stared at her a minute longer, then shook his head.
“Been a goddamn long day,” he said and trudged back inside.
But then there was the removal of all her window treatments, leaving the light streaming in and no privacy from passersby on the street until she hung new ones. And then, because of her work schedule, she couldn’t track them down to question them before they attached some vertical blinds she frankly couldn’t stand—where were her plain white-cotton tab tops? Even their vintage hardware had disappeared, replaced by the cheap plastic doohickeys the vinyl strips were attached to. They switched out her multiple TV remotes for a “universal” one she didn’t know to use; she couldn’t even get the DVR to work.
She needed a sit-down with the men. Maybe it was the payment issue—maybe, though she’d offered, left the test envelope, her willingness to pay them hadn’t been quite clear. Although, quite honestly, all these supplies: surely they wouldn’t have gone out and bought them without approval, if they were strapped for cash?
At work, she went over to ask Cheryl, the paralegal, to notarize something, but Cheryl wasn’t at her carrel. On the screen the inbox was open, which normally wouldn’t have caught her attention, except that she saw her own face there. Her face was there in the body of the email, the headshot from her bio on the website, but it was attached to a cartoon body. She leaned closer to see.
It was some Disney thing—a still from the classic animated version of Snow White was what it was. There was Snow White, in her yellow skirt and blue bodice, and beside her were seven dwarfs, their fat faces looking up at her with big, round noses, red like boozers’. The dwarfs were dipsomaniacs.
But Snow White had her own face, clumsily oversized for comic effect, Photoshopped on top of the cartoon body.
There was a caption underneath: “But where’s my Prince Charming?” “Sorry, Snow White, he ran away with his secretary.”
She stood stock-still.
She must have mentioned the men when they were drinking that night. Had she? She’d drunk too much of Cheryl’s shitty wine. She must have let something slip.
She looked at the From line. The assistant.
Then at the recipients. There was a long list of them.
So fired. That assistant was gone.
“Oh.” Now Cheryl was standing there. Triangulation. The image on the screen, Cheryl, and her.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” said Cheryl. Half-grimace, kind of trembling. Nervous. She should be. Guilt by association.
At least. Look at her face. Guilty as hell. Probably laughed her ass off.
“Why? It’s hilarious,” she told Cheryl. And smiled. As real as she could make it. “Love the Prince Charming line!”
She handed over the form. “Needs to be notarized,” she said.
She walked away from Cheryl’s carrel. A couple others glanced up from their desks as she passed—probably on the cc list. She smiled at them too. Like she was in on the joke. Always had been.
In her office she was agitated. Felt like high school again. Or middle school. Girls making fun of you behind your back. Huddled together. Their sidelong looks. Maybe you were wearing the wrong jeans. Maybe your zits weren’t covered up. Or there was toilet paper on your shoe. Her face felt hot.
Brought up the assistant’s personnel file. Eighteen egregious tardies in the past six months. Four screwups on shoots. It wouldn’t be hard to justify. She’d wait, of course. Till more infractions were chalked up. It had to look justified.
Divorce was hard, people said. Yeah? Try desertion.
That night she found the kitchen half-gutted. They seemed to be remodeling it and had already retired for the night. Her stove was pulled out from the wall, refrigerator unplugged. Food had been neatly stored in coolers stacked against the wall—she was relieved it hadn’t been left to rot—but it was hell finding what she’d wanted to eat for dinner beneath two pounds of cheddar, a tub of grapes, and a milk jug.
Half the Marmoleum had been pulled up, too.
Obviously it couldn’t stand. It had just gone too far.
She set her alarm for 5:30 so that the men, typically early risers, wouldn’t have time to start before she woke up; she dressed and went down to the kitchen, made herself a cup of instant coffee in the microwave, and planned what she would say. She had to be firm but polite—before this wrong turn they’d done so much for her—so she wrote a brief script for herself on her laptop in case she got nervous, drinking her coffee as she typed.
She was sitting in her living room with the mug in her hand and the laptop still open when the men came in. Through the front door, without knocking this time. (When was the last time they’d knocked?) But no. Impossible.
They were full-size.
She found she was speechless.
They filed by, seven of them; she counted as they headed down her hallway. Men of quite standard height—a mix of sizes but all within the average range. The spokesman nodded at her and one or two made brief hand gestures too slight to interpret, but they passed by in no time, carrying tools and extension cords, businesslike. One of them struggled under the weight of a large box of ceramic tiles.
She felt rooted to her couch cushion.
She couldn’t make the speech now, with the men so large. It was a shock. When they were small she’d had no trouble with any of it, but now. . . no. She couldn’t tell them it was over, couldn’t say she didn’t want them to do any of this. Hadn’t wanted a remodel. It wasn’t—let’s face it, it was like she didn’t even own the place. It was like she wasn’t even here.
She wasn’t afraid—more like intimidated. She was reluctant, that was all she knew. She couldn’t broach the subject.
Why should she, finally? She shouldn’t have to.
But if she just went away, she wouldn’t have to deal with them; if she went away, she could get a new place. She could finally sell this house. It was where she and Dan had lived. Another place, at least, would be her own. New start. There was a real estate agent the paralegal had talked about: she could sell a house in no time, the paralegal said.
From the kitchen came the high whine of a drill.
She picked up her bag, slid the laptop in and went out the front door without looking back. Maybe a buyer would appreciate the kitchen remodel. She’d picked out the Marmoleum herself, back when she and Dan bought the place—well, maybe it wasn’t for everyone. Same with the dull gray paint on the façade: a buyer might like the renovations, even if she didn’t.
The men, now that she thought of it—possibly they were helping. Facilitating her transition. Maybe somehow they’d known the best course. She’d needed a nudge to help her move on, hadn’t she? Too long in this house, too long in limbo. Dan was gone, but she lingered. She was the ghost, not him.
No doubt at all: they were intuitive. They had instincts. At the beginning, at least, they’d closely anticipated so many of her needs . . . lately they’d taken too much initiative, true. Lately they’d seemed to veer off course. But now she was thinking it hadn’t been a wrong turn, after all. Maybe the men knew what they were doing.
She knew she was coming back tonight—of course she was, she had to pick up some clothes—but it felt like she was running away. Sometimes running away was the best. The best! Beneath her feet was cool, cool grass.
The neighbor man who’d reprimanded her was getting in his car, no briefcase but a suit. Leon/Tony. She caught his eye and waved at him as she ran—no wave back, of course—before she realized she’d passed her own car and had no clear destination. Only then did she also realize she’d left her ring of keys on the table in the front hall. What was the plan, anyway?
She ground to a halt lamely and watched the neighbor’s car pull out, drive to the corner, and turn.
She’d get a hotel room for tonight, then find a short-term rental. That was all. Not rocket science. She’d built her own company, for chrissake. She could do it.
She looked back at her front door. It seemed darker and heavier now, almost to pulsate. Maybe the men had sensed that she was making her escape. Maybe it angered them.
Still, she needed the car key. But wait: she used to keep the spare in her laptop bag. Was it still there?
So she went to the door, opened it quietly. She could hear them in the kitchen, sawing or drilling. She saw the keys splayed on the hall table with her sunglasses. Approached stealthily, grabbed them both.
As she turned to go, she caught sight of the spokesman in the living room. He sat on her couch, exactly where she’d been sitting. The leather was probably still warm from her ass. The TV was on—some morning show. He held the universal remote in one hand, and with the other hand was eating a burrito. Cramming it into his mouth like he was ravenous. The wrapper lay unfolded on the couch arm beside him.
He swiveled his head toward her. That was how it seemed: he was an ancient beast, a beast of prey. He’d spotted his quarry, and his head swung round to fix on it. He chewed.
Then he swallowed. And nodded.
“Hey,” he said.
His voice was low.
Her arm was trembling, so she raised the hand with the keys. Did she smile, or was it a grimace? She jangled the keys in a kind of hasty response.