“Who is she?” I asked. The young girl was dressed in a reddish-peach silk ball gown from the 40's with a long draping skirt that went all the way to her bare toes. The curls of her short dark hair looked weightless as she floated in the clear liquid that suspended her. She clearly wasn't wearing lipstick, but her full lips had a natural red hue, as if she were alive. I ran my fingertips over the cylindrical glass container that imprisoned her body, as if she would be prompted to do the same. It felt freezing cold. My fingertips stuck to the glass for a moment and left behind trails of frost.
“You mean, who was she? I don't know. And if you know what's good for you, you'll get back to cleaning this old place and not ask so many questions.” Linda was right. I needed to get back to cleaning. Mr. Arnold hired us to come in twice a week and clean up his old Gothic manor and we weren't getting paid by the hour. Bathrooms, kitchen, laundry then out. And the faster we got them done, the better. This old place gave me the creeps. There were so many doors, I kept expecting Dracula to come out of one of them. I was sure I'd catch him on his way to the bathroom and he would just have to stop for a bite.
Whenever I came to clean, I always stopped to visit Ms. Lamarr. At least, that's what I came to call her. She was in Mr. Arnold's bedroom, in the corner and set diagonally so she can see everything. Her eyes were closed, but I was convinced that she could still see. Whenever I talked to her, she never had much to say but she was a great listener.
She floated, neutrally buoyant, within a completely sealed glass container that was filled with a clear liquid. The whole thing stood on a pedestal, lined in gold trim with lots of tiny lights and sliders that I didn't dare touch. The top looked like an exaggerated jar lid, also lined with gold, with lights on the underside that made her look like an angel when they were lit.
I knew she wasn't alive. At least, that's what Linda said. But I still talked to her, when I come in.
“Good morning, Ms. Lamarr.” I'd say as I pulled the glass cleaner and paper towels from my cart. “I hope you had a good past couple days.”
She would float in her bath and almost look like she was smiling.
“Did you go dancing with that cute boy? No? That's okay. I know he's just working up the courage to ask you out. Maybe you should give him a sign to let him know you'll say 'yes'.”
I'd watch her floating in that stuff that I know isn't water and I'd wish I could join her. She looked so comfortable, not sinking and not rising. Just being. Somehow, Ms. Lamarr always looked like she was smiling. Maybe she was.
One time I brought this book that I'd been reading and read it to her. I wasn't sure if she would appreciate it or not. She looked like she was 19, but that dress was from my grandparent's day. I read it for her, anyway. It was a racy story about a young tomboy on the farm and a sexy new hand that her dad hired to help break in young colts. I was just getting to the part where he might finally kiss her and wanted to save it for Ms. Lamarr.
“Her heart raced when she felt the heat of his shirtless chest. She could smell the musk of his natural manliness.” I looked up to see if she was listening. “So it's not the best book. It's still pretty good, right?”
She seemed to approve.
“Malcolm slid his fingers under the line of her jaw and lifted so she would look in his deep black eyes. 'I've never felt this way about anyone, before.' he said. I know. They all say that. But not in books, though. Right?”
Ms. Lamarr must have agreed.
I read the rest of the chapter and a couple more, before I realized what time it was and ran out the door for the next appointment.
“So who is she” I asked Linda as she sipped her caramel macchiato.
“Was, you mean?” She blew on it, a little. Someone told me that blowing on your coffee doesn't make it cool down any faster but I think they're dumb.
“Okay, was. She looks like a movie star. Was that his wife?”
“Well, I've never talked to him. But the last girl to clean his place told me that was his daughter. She was dying from cancer so he cryogenicly froze her butt until he can find the cure.”
“That's not true. Stop it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because, I watch cartoons, is how I know. That's a Batman villain. Dr. Cold or something.”
“Okay, you got me. I have no idea.”
“Jerk.” I said as I playfully tried to push her over while she sat in her stool, drinking her coffee. “I'm going to ask him.”
“You can't!” She said, almost spitting out her coffee.
“Why, not? It's not like she's a secret. She's standing...”
“...floating right in the middle of his bedroom that he pays us to clean. He has to expect the occasional question about her.”
“Yeah, but how would you even ask a question like that? 'Excuse me. I couldn't help noticing the dead chick in your bedroom...' That never works out well in the movies. Well, I mean, it does for me but the people in the movie, not so much.”
I laughed. “Maybe you're right. Or maybe I just don't want to know. You know, like maybe she's not even a real woman. Maybe she's just a lamp that he found at a flea market.”
“Oh, my god. That would be the creepiest lamp ever.”
The next cleaning day I brought a magazine with me to read to her. I thought maybe she could help me with some of the quizzes. I mean how should I know what kind of lover I am? That's a big deal and I'll need some to help with a quiz like that.
“It says 'When you go to bed at night, do you drink water or do you need a nightcap?' What did you do when you were alive?”
Just looking at that dress, I could tell she needed a nightcap.
“Got it. Nightcap.” And I marked it with my pen. “Okay, it's asking 'Do you believe in pooper scooper laws or do you think nature should be allowed to take its course?' That's nasty. We're marking it pro-scooper”
“I'm sure she really appreciates you doing that.” The voice came out of nowhere. Actually, it came from the doorway.
“Mr. Arnold!” I stood up, dropping the magazine and patted the wrinkles from my uniform. “I, uh..”
“It's okay” he said as he held up his hand. He had a full head of white hair, cut short and wore jeans like he invented them. I expected a hunched over, old man with liver spots covering his bald head. His eyes seemed to twinkle; the outside corners curved down. I didn't expect him to look so handsome. I think that made me more nervous. “The nanny cam caught you talking and reading to her.” He pointed to a wall shelf with glass animals on it. “I'm sure she'd love a friend.”
“I.. uh... It's not a problem.”
“You probably want to know who she is.” He stood with his arms folded, leaning against the doorway.
“I named her Ms. Lamarr.”
He laughed. I'm sure his teeth were fake but I can ignore that. “She loved Hedy's movies. Nancy would've really liked you.”
“Nancy? That was her name?” For just a moment, I couldn't help but wonder if this was the part where he told me she was his girlfriend until she tried to break up with him, one day. Then -plop- in the tank she went.
“Yes, it was.”
“So, don't keep me waiting. Who was she?” Please don't say old girlfriend that tried to break up with you.
Mr. Arnold took as seat on the bed and turned his body to face me. “Nancy was barely my wife.”
“Barely? What happened?”
“Well, we courted all through high school and then while I went through law school.” I love that word, 'courted' “I finally got a good paying job at a law firm and asked her to marry me. Can you believe she had to think about it?”
“I know! With me as ruggedly handsome as I am.”
“So what did she say?”
“It was days afterward when I took her to dinner and dancing. This was way back when you could do both at the same place. The band played jazz, the way it was played back when it was good. We were on the dance floor and the band was in between songs. The lead singer was going on about one thing or another. Nancy looked me in the eye and told me that becoming my wife would make her the happiest woman in the world. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Wow! No, they haven't. That's beautiful.” I came over and sat on the bed with him. “So then what happened?”
“One day some boy will, just wait. It's the best feeling ever. Anyway, I picked her up off her feet and swung her around. People gave us weird looks, so I had to tell them all we were getting married. They all cheered.”
“So things were going great. The day of the wedding came and both our families filled the church. Even my uncle that hated me came. My father actually told me he was proud of me, that day. He did. He was helping me tie my bow tie, at the time. I had never heard him say that about anything. And I graduated from law school.”
“But you look sad.”
“Yeah. I know. It's still hard.”
“It was when we were at the alter. The doctor said she never felt a thing. We had exchanged vows and rings and I was told to kiss my bride.” A tear slid down his face that he quickly wiped away. “I held her when I kissed her. She stopped breathing.”
“Oh my god! When you kissed her?”
“Yeah. It wasn't the kiss, though. The doctor said it was a blood clot that traveled to her lung.”
“That's terrible! Barley married. I see what you mean.”
“I was so distraught and racked with denial that I looked everywhere for someone that could preserve her beauty. And she was so very beautiful. Eventually I found a guy would could do it. A few chemicals super-cooled to a couple dozen degrees below freezing... It's a process that's not legal, anymore. It was barley legal at the time and that was just because no one knew about it to make it illegal. That's why she still looks so alive. I spent every penny I had to get it done for her. And I've had her with me, ever since.”
“Wow. That's a sad story, Mr. Arnold. Did you ever remarry?”
“No. There was only one Nancy. Every time I thought about taking a wife, I'd see her and realize that I was perfectly happy on my own. I'd see that I wasn't really interested in the new girl and that I was just trying to replace Nancy. And that wouldn't be fair to anyone. So I never did remarry. Oh, in case your wondering, the dress she's wearing is what she wore when she agreed to marry me. I always loved her in it.”
“Wow. I don't really know what to say after a story like that. That all really happened?”
Mr. Arnold walked over to where Nancy floated and opened a drawer in the pedestal at the bottom. Frosted air billowed out that he seemed to expect. Then he pulled out a bottle of beer and closed the drawer with his foot. He reached up and found a bottle opener on the lid that I hadn't noticed and flipped off the cap. It must've been hidden in all the gold trim. “Nope. I made it all up. My real wife divorced me ten years ago for a pool boy she met in Florida. That's a mini fridge/lamp that I found at a flea market, after she left. I bought it, just because I could. You can keep calling her Ms. Lamarr, if you want. It does kinda fit. Oh and hey, you can stop doing my laundry. A young girl like you shouldn't touch an old man's drawers. It's just creepy.” Then he walked out.