By Kerry Steib
Olivia was a nightmare to live with. Crumbs on the table, towel on the bed, inserts to her magazines on the floor where they fell.
“The maids come and clean up,” she said. “Why should I?” Oliver watched another wine stain spread across the heavy-pile carpet. This one looked looked like pointed finger.
Oliver wasn’t fastidious, wasn’t a hospital-cornered husband. But dishes belonged in the dishwasher, even if they reappeared, cleaned and stacked, in the cabinets. The Agent was watching. Soon enough, he’d buzz Oliver’s earpiece and order him to fetch Olivia from whatever corner she’d run off to, send him off on an individual game of hide-and-seek. Oliver would find her smoking on the porch or writing postcards to friends on the outside. Wish you were here, xx.
They were the latest in house-selling trends. Up and down the coast, Olivers and Olivias arrived on the doorsteps of cavernous mansions, their footsteps echoed on heated tile floors. Their paths were lit by lights on automatic timers, rooms going dark once they moved on. The thick rugs absorbed their sounds.They shared sets of twin beds in a guest room on an upstairs floor. T After the full run, the clients who wanted to purchase would be forced into a blind financial cage match to outbid each other—and Oliver would be back to boxed pasta and instant coffee.
Oliver always wanted to be an actor, and for a while, he was. There were national commercials that his hometown friends claimed they saw, a side plot in a blockbuster, an indie film by a buzzy director. Nothing tabloid-worthy, but he was doing it. He made rent and bought groceries. It was a living, if not the life.
But guys who looked a lot like Oliver were installed in every sitcom armchair and hung out of the side of every souped up race car, speeding to get the girl. The same type of handsome winked at canned laughter and said the right thing as the music swelled. His manager cut back her list and told him there was nothing distinguishable about him that she could sell. The same face, teeth, hairline was on every billboard and at every audition. Oliver tried on his own, acting in message boards and student films, B-horror remakes and something left of porn.
Then, this: a company that staffs has-beens to help made-its see themselves differently. He did a number of odd jobs for the firm: stood in lines outside the doors of nameless clubs to make the owner look successful, hit on women who’d been recently dumped, filled out the guest lists of parties that their hosts couldn’t fill. There were lots of businesses willing to hire people who looked just a little bit better than everyone else.
His favorite jobs were in real estate. Boxes of each client’s clothes, furniture and memorabilia were placed in the prospective house so that these wealthy home buyers could see what their lives could be like. Oliver and Olivia were real life holograms, assembled from client surveys and family videos, flickering projections of the client’s future selves.
“It’s the greatest challenge, to play someone who is alive and watching,” he said to his friends over cheap beers. He loved disappearing while the clients watched. He felt like an illusionist. A client’s words, “I can see myself here,” was his standing ovation.
They took small duffel bags of personal belongings, toothbrushes and underwear, necessary nods to their lives outside of the showing. They stuffed these details into a closet with a false front that was built into every master bedroom. As the one space without cameras, the closet was break room and dressing room, prayer space and hideout. The wigs for each client were stored there, scalps dripping off the walls in dozens of textures, lengths, and styles. His and hers.
The closet was small, so Oliver and Olivia took turns preparing for the day. Boxes of the clients’ clothes were stacked against the wall, outfits they’d selected for Oliver and Olivia to wear while they watched. The Agent directed them through proclivities and mannerisms, his voice sent from far away into their individual earpieces. Follow him from room to room. Cook breakfast together. Nag him a little in a British accent. Oliver and Olivia played out grudges and wishes, the clients’ relationships let loose to run across the hardwood floors.
Once, he’d tried to kiss her. Their characters had been very affectionate that day. Touch his lower back, hold his hand, the Agent had said. It was a mistake. She was nice enough about it, patted him on the cheek and said, “Sorry, Oliver. It’s just a job.”
“I forget that sometimes,” he stayed close to her.
“I never do.” She lit a cigarette, a brand he’d never seen before. He tried to picture her buying them, another Olivia out on her own, with her own clothes and makeup, peeling dollar bills from a wallet. But he kept conjuring the woman in front of him, her hair pulled back in the neat style of the client. “That’s the difference between us,” she said as she faded into the closet, the smoke from her cigarette clouding the entrance.
In the morning, the December sky was heavy. Oliver pressed himself into the door, leaning thickly against the latch. Inside, he greeted the wigs that lined the walls like business acquaintances. Each was a trophy of a life he’d lived for someone else. He nodded to the graying shag, the one he wore for the client who had wanted Olivia to clean the carpet. This blonde one who’d insisted they turn on all the televisions. The bald cap who left a recipe for meatballs that Oliver and Olivia made together, mashing their naked palms against the raw meat.
Oliver always changed quickly. He preferred to spend his time in character, roaming the open-plan kitchens and expansive man caves. He kept something small from each client’s story, the recipe for meatballs crumpled into a ball or a forgotten coin in his pocket. He’d learned a song on the guitar for a music-loving client and kept the melody running in his head throughout his stay.
Today’s client used a cane to move himself from room to room, body slack inside a crisp blue blazer. Oliver folded and refolded a pink pocket square. He’d never done it before and his hands shook as he followed the Agent’s instructional video. Olivia’s earpiece must have buzzed because he could hear her muffled questions through the walls. He kept folding, biting at his cheek while he concentrated. She banged at the door and he bit too fast through some soft tissue. A metallic taste seeped into his mouth. She opened the latch. “They want us in the living room.”
They sat in armchairs that faced each other and the fire. He dabbed at his eyes with the pocket square and conjured phantom pains to match the cane, the pills. “We’re angled just so,” Olivia said.
“Just so, what?” Oliver asked, tonguing the sore in his mouth, seeking the open rawness. She was already off to another room, her lipstick imprint on the edge of the coffee mug. With the cane, going after Olivia would be complicated and slow. He’d wait for her to remember the Agent’s directions and come back. He opened one of the client’s prescription bottles and popped a placebo into his mouth. Minty fresh.
He looked for the cameras, arranged himself for the best shot. He was folded tightly into the chair and there would be an indent from his body when he stood up. Around the room, he noticed the places he’d been and imagined the imprint of his body on them all: the couch, the rug, the ottoman where he’d paused to catch his breath. He liked the idea of all the outlines of many Olivers traced into the bones of the room.
His ear buzzed. He pressed into the receiver and the Agent’s voice flooded in.
When Olivia came back into the room, she saw Oliver’s body slumped over. The pocket square lay on the floor, a slash of pink across the dark wood.
She dropped to her knees, her hands flying across his body. He held his breath, steadied his chest. He felt the color in his cheeks turn to a believable gray. He could will himself to die.
She twitched backwards, clutching her ear. It would be the Agent closing the scene. Oliver could breathe out soon. He heard her say, “Oh thank god.” His own earpiece buzzed. When he dialed in, he could hear the Agent clapping.
That night, Oliver and Olivia lay in their twin beds, sleepover siblings recounting the day’s performances. “You didn’t have to do that today,” she said. “I almost believed you.”
His chest was tight, his legs weak. Those phantom pains had turned into real ones. He thumbed the pocket square he’d stuffed under his pillow. “I did. I took the direction and made it my own.” His voice was cloudy. He wished that she would climb into his bed and let her arms wrap around him. “This could be the house where he really dies,” he said into the darkness.
“But, it isn’t real. Not for us,” she said. He closed his eyes against her brightness and turned over into sleep, alone.
It was early, the hallway still dim. Oliver was bent over, listening. He didn’t remember when he got up, how he’d ended up in the hallway in the night. When the Agent disconnected, he tried to straighten up, but his body was slack. The pocket square was in his fist, a cut of pink, damp from being in his hands all night. He felt unsteady and leaned on the cane to bring him back to the room where Olivia still slept. “Time to get up. They’re already watching.”
In the client’s clothes, Olivia was all outline, crisp and defined. She adopted an accent edged with white tablecloth lunches. The Agent had directed her to call Oliver, honey. She practiced, her lips pulled at the syllables out until they faded away.
In the closet, Oliver chose the assigned wig, a dark swoop of hair parted to the side. He watched a video of the client, the way he touched the hair at the temples first, pushed the rest across his forehead. Repeat. Repeat. Oliver put on the button-down shirt, the bulky jeans. Touched the hair at his temples. Combed it to the side. Repeat.
Olivia pushed past him. She sat on the floor and lit another cigarette.
“You’re going to wrinkle her suit,” Oliver said.
“Who cares.” She pulled at a knot in the wig, tearing out a few strands and dropping them onto the floor. He reached down and picked them up, stuffed them in his pocket.
“You’re still using the cane?”
“I’m not sure I can make it by myself. My leg is sore.”
“The same one as yesterday?”
“I guess so.”
“Weird.” Her hands floated up in prayer. “I’ll pray for your recovery.”
Oliver’s instructions for today were simple. Read. The Agent had been specific on the set of books, stacked neatly on the side table, their titles thick in Oliver’s mouth. He was happy for the simple role. His head was heavy, his leg ached. He sat in the armchair facing the fire. With one hand he touched the pocket square that he’d stashed in his jeans. With the other, he picked at a potted succulent, its top leaves green and tough. The leaves reached down towards the dirt, hiding a layer of shriveled yellow leaves beneath. He pulled one out and lifted another green leaf to reveal more of the dead. Pulled again, discarded the dead behind the armchair.
Olivia clicked across the room to fix a drink. Whiskey rocks.
“It’s only noon,” Oliver said, as he flipped through one of the books on the end table.
“My instructions didn’t say I couldn’t drink.” She placed three ice cubes into her glass with her fingers.
“They didn’t say you should, either.”
“Consider it improv.”
He opened a page and tried to read. He tapped out the rhythm of the song from the other night, the song he learned for the client. His hand slapped the the side table. He couldn’t shake the melody, it had been with him all night, running through his dream.
Drink in one hand, Olivia flexed her fingers of the other. She turned the pointer and middle finger into disembodied legs and walked them along the back of the couch. A show to go with his soundtrack. They walked across the back of the leather, up over the plateau of the cashmere throw blanket, down the slick of the arm. On the last beat of the song, he flattened his palm on the table. Her fingers jumped. There was a buzz in her ear.
Olivia listened. Disconnected and swallowed the whiskey. Oliver heard the clink of the ice against her teeth. He hated that feeling, the cold slipping in between the gaps. She set the bare glass onto one of the tables. Oliver watched the water collect in a ring between the glass and the wood. He stopped himself from wiping it, from getting up to slip a coaster beneath it to save the table. He pictured what he would look like from the client’s point of view. Strong chin, piercing eyes, salt-and-pepper wig. How would the actual man react? Scold her or fix it? Would he let it go? He thought about the Agent’s instructions: Read. So he did.
There was an unusual stillness in the room, and he looked up to see what the Agent had told Olivia to do. She was standing in front of him. Close. He couldn’t reach her, but he could smell the client’s perfume, and underneath, the incense she burned in the closet.
She unbuttoned her shirt, slipped off the right arm, the left. Let it drop to the floor. She reached down slowly, a bend in the waist, and collected the silk in her hands. She folded it softly, neatly on the arm of the couch and came back to face him. Oliver thought of her finger-walking, the challenge of climbing the new plateau of blue silk.
He was surprised by her bare shoulders, the bra that matched the flesh of her stomach. He looked around again for the cameras, strained to hear the beginnings of the ringing phone. The house was silent. Olivia moved slowly. She shifted from foot to foot, a silky swaying she learned somewhere long before. He picked up the book and tried to find distraction in the words. He assumed the Agent would buzz soon with directions for him. Pick up a blanket and cover her. Laugh at her. Tell her to stop. He thought about his training, those relaxation techniques taught in class. He counted his breaths, in and out. He turned the page. Turned another.
The skirt slid off of her. It wrinkled on the floor, a dark smudge, the last of the color left on her body. She was smooth, the same color from neck to shoulder to chest to stomach to legs. He tried to read, but the spaces disappeared between words. He wondered if they could tell he was hard, if the cameras were angled just so. The creation of the perfect shot of him and her at this moment. Olivia swayed back and forth, the same rhythm over and over and over. She was a metronome, steady like steel.
He shifted the book from his face to see more of Olivia, to see her features above all the skin. He looked for the dark eyebrows, the red lips, the flush below her nose, any color to remind him that she was there. Her eyes were glass and she looked past him into the belly of the house. The butcher-block kitchen island. The subway tile backsplash. The eco-friendly stainless steel dishwasher. Standard comforts of the rich devoured her movements.
Underneath the ridge of the book, the flesh-colored bra and underwear slid to the floor. Dead skin.
The short shadows of the winter sun faded into corners, slipped under the carpet. It was getting dark. Oliver thought, Say something, they’re waiting.
He projected from his diaphragm, the sentences unstuck in his throat. It felt good to rely on instincts that had been honed inside the damp boxes of theaters. He picked up the book and read, “The question of identity prominently features in national discourse, yet narratives within the private spheres are often at odds with each other…”
His earpiece came to life. Oliver heard soft applause on the other end of the line and the Agent’s voice. Keep reading. They liked his improv. He hummed that same song, wiped his eyes with the pocket square, patted the hair at his temples. Oliver held the book still, focused on the sentence, evened his breathing. He would read more if they demanded it. He wanted more applause. He flipped through the pages. He could find the perfect passage.
She was whispering. Her voice snuck into the air between them.
“Oliver.” She was looking at him now, he could feel it. He turned another page. Another. He had to find the right words.
“Calvin. Thomas. Peter?”
The Agent had only told him: Read.
He turned the page, but too quickly and he ripped a tear through the middle. The jagged line opened the page to reveal another beneath it, words on words. He lifted the book to block her out.
“Luke. Carter. Jack. Anthony.”
He looked at Olivia, and felt something raw and new, something exposed by that name. She was naked, swaying, helpless. He tightened his fist around the pocket square. He thought about all the time she spent in the closet, smoking and chanting, the hair between his fingers, the lipstick on the cup, the times she had ignored the Agent’s directions. When she had told him it was just a job.
He stood and faced the cameras straight on. He opened the book and read. His voice was loud. He projected to the back row, to the balcony, to the control room. The words bounced off the fireplace and skidded across the floors. “While the marketplace of contemporary capitalism reverberates with postmodern choices, there is still a residual bland authoritarian cultural predisposition which reasserts itself from time to time.”
He clapped the book shut and remained standing, square to the camera. This was his moment. He settled his jaw, tilted his chin down to create the profile he liked best.
Her heels echoed in the room. She left her clothes in a puddle at his feet. She passed Oliver. Up the stairs. He heard the latch to the back closet open and swallow her whole.
He sat back in his chair. The ring around Olivia’s glass had grown into a thick pool that clung to the side of the table. He tapped his foot and the movement released a drop of condensation from the glass. It was enough. A drop fell to the floor.
When she came back through the house, she was dressed in a white shirt and worn wide-legged jeans that he’d never seen. She pulled her hair out of the bun and let it fall around her shoulders. She belonged in a coffee shop upstate serving homemade granola, not here among the slickness. He could picture the discarded wig on the floor of the closet. She could walk out of the house, take the bus, turn the key in her own lock, sit on her own couch. She exited stage left, through the front door. It clicked when it closed, sealing Oliver inside. He wanted to call out to her, but didn’t remember her name.
He combed his hands through the hair and went back to the book. He would wait for the lights to dim, fading in from the edges of the room until the only thing illuminated would be his character in the chair. He would wait for the voice to begin, to be told that it was all over.
Kerry Steib has recently turned her lifelong love of stories into workshop participation at Sackett Street and Catapult. She’s interested in the darkness that lives in the cracks of our modern lives and how it changes our relationships with each other. She lives in Tarrytown, NY with her husband, son and dog.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.