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Margo, close-up.

MARGO WORKS AT THE COLD BEER AND LIQUOR. When business is slow, she counts the contents of the penny jar. She checks foreign currencies online, changes dollars to pesos to pounds, and looks up flights to far-off destinations. She clicks on buttons that shout "Press Here to Escape!"

She works days because her boss thinks she's too delicate to deal with the nighttime riffraff. It's true, there's no shortage of loudmouthed jerks looking to sustain a buzz between bars. But the customers Margo sees aren't much different. Hers tend to be muted versions of the evening crowd, dull-eyed and devoted to magnums of red wine. They're looking for a fix too; something that keeps them dead enough to stay alive.

Sometimes she makes small talk with the customers. Mostly, she looks at their hands. They come in all shapes and sizes, with every possible defect: chewed cuticles, chipped polish, wedding rings. Margo doesn't discriminate. She reaches for each one, drops change in the palm and then lingers, waiting for contact.

MARGO LIVES ALONE IN A STUDIO APARTMENT with a fire escape that goes nowhere. The stairs start at the roof and then snake past her place on the fifth floor to just below the second story. After that, they disappear. She's unsure what she'd do in an emergency: jump and deal with the damage, or sit and wait for the end to come.

Her parents are several time zones away. She's required to speak with them every Sunday night at six o'clock. They call. "We can't rely on you to remember," they say. "If it were up to you, we'd never talk."

She picks up the phone on the third ring and is greeted by a familiar voice: "Hello, Margo. It's your mother."

"Dad there too?" she asks.

"He's in the kitchen. Say hello, Dad."

"Hello," Margo's father says. His tone is formal, as if he's introducing himself for the first time. "This is Dad."

"I know," she says. "I know who you are."

Her mother speaks again. "What's new?"

"Nothing," she says.

"You always say that."

"You always ask."

"Tell us what's going on," her mother insists.

"Nothing's going on."

"You can't be doing nothing all the time."

"I watched a Julia Roberts movie yesterday," she says. "She tried to break up her best friend's wedding."

"Wonderful."

"It's supposed to be a comedy."

"It sounds like it."

Margo's father coughs into the receiver, a real phlegm rattler.

"You okay, Dad?" Margo asks.

"Fine," he says. "You?"

"What do you want me to say?"

"Say yes. I want you to say yes and mean it."

Margo prefers not to lie. She pulls a dictionary into her lap, finds the right page. She runs her finger over all the things she's not--Filipino, filthy, fireproof--until she comes to fine. Thin, delicate, diminished. She's the very definition of the word.

"Yes," she says. "Yes, I am."

MARGO'S NEXT SHIFT UNFOLDS AS USUAL. She unpacks cases and writes bullshit descriptions about wines she's never tried. She's just about to do her hourly check of exchange rates when the sudden smashing of glass reverberates through the store. She looks up to see bottles tumbling from a display. One after another, they jump and crash without a second thought. Purple liquid oozes from the broken shells like blood from a burst vein.

A young man wearing a brown sport coat and sneakers stands to the side of the growing stain. He slouches and grins sheepishly. "Sorry," he says. "I was just walking by."

Margo goes to the storeroom and fills a bucket with soapy water. The fraying mop has seen better days, but it'll have to do. She carries the cleaning supplies up front and sops at the puddle. She shouldn't have worn her white sneakers. The canvas sucks the wine into its pores faster than the mop does.

"Sorry," the man repeats. "It was an accident."

"I know," she replies.

"Will you get in trouble? I don't want you to get into trouble."

Margo doesn't care. It's collateral damage. She'll wipe up the mess and go on with her day.

He pulls a wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and fans a handful of bills. "Let me pay for it."

"Don't bother."

"But I've made all this extra work for you."

"You've given me something to do."

He shakes the money again. "Please, I want to help."

She leans the mop against a shelf and approaches him. She takes the money and places it on a nearby twelve-pack of Corona. Then she closes her eyes and puts her hand in his. She thinks of cheap drinks in cheaper currencies, of dinners for two and sunset over Machu Picchu. All the while, she senses the man shifting and squirming. He won't let this go on for much longer. She opens her eyes just as he shakes free from her loose grip.

He alternates between staring at her face and his open palm. "Are you a fortune teller or something?"

"Have a nice day," she says. Then she hands him the cash from the beer box and gets back to the business of cleaning.

ROGER, MARGO'S BOSS, is at the shop when she arrives the next day.

"You look pretty," he says.

"Thanks," she says. She's wearing a dress because she's been neglecting her laundry, not in order to make a good impression.

"Brightens your eyes," he says, and hands her an envelope.

"A raise?"

"Keep dreaming, kid," he says. "Some guy dropped it off earlier."

She opens the envelope and finds a hand-drawn map beneath an address, along with a name that looks like Eric. There's also a note: I need a Girlfriend. Interested?

She leans against the counter to steady herself. The bottles near the door look ready to take the plunge once again, but Roger keeps working as if nothing's the matter, ticking his pen against his notepad and shaking the clouds from the clear liquors. Margo rereads the words. She hasn't been asked out in a long time. Maybe this is how it happens: he points her in the right direction and she finds what she's looking for.

The instructions take her to a coffee shop on Main advertising a two-for-one bagel special. She stops to check herself in the glass. Teeth, hair, armpits, and fingernails--all clear. She's glad she wore her dress now. It shows off her collarbone. He'll see some of her skin but she won't be totally exposed, which seems appropriate for a first date.

She spots him sitting in a corner booth. He's wearing the same jacket, the same shoes. How nice that he hasn't changed.

She walks to his table and taps her hand on the laminate, saying hello in Morse code.

"Hey," he says. "You made it."

"Hi."

"Sit down?"

She slides into the booth across from him. He smiles, tight-lipped, and fiddles with the sugar packets. She fidgets and rolls her hips side to side, fighting her skirt's urge to bunch at the waist.

He breaks the silence with a question. "Do you like carrot cake?"

"I like it fine."

"You should try their carrot cake. No raisins."

"I like raisins."

"Then you might not like the carrot cake," he says and laughs the conversation back to a standstill.

She picks at a flattened napkin corner. She wonders if this is a joke. She looks up, half expecting to see a bucket of pig's blood dangling from the ceiling, but there's just a ceiling fan and a light fixture overhead.

"You're Eric, right?"

He nods. "Sorry, I never asked your name."

"Margo."

"Well, thank you, Margo. Thank you for cleaning up my mess."

"It's part of my job."

"I was distracted. I wasn't myself."

"Because you lost your girlfriend," she says.

"Yeah, just like I said."

She takes the letter out of her purse and places it between his coffee cup and his cell phone. "Just like you said."

He rubs the back of his neck and looks at her through his shaggy bangs. "This is probably a long shot," he says, "but I was kind of hoping you'd be interested."

Margo casts her eyes skyward again--one last check for the bucket. Eric, meanwhile, slides a stack of papers toward her.

"Take a look," he says.

She wonders if this is some kind of contract, a preemptive prenuptial agreement. The first few pages are a mess of notes and scratches, words on top of words with lines drawn through them so emphatically that the paper is worn thin. She reads on and notices that every instance of the word Girlfriend is written with a capital G. Just as in the note.

"You're making a movie," she says.

"For film school," he says.

"You don't need me."

"I do," he insists. "My actress has a paying gig. I've got to start shooting now or I'll flunk the term."

She considers his offer. This might not be a date but there still exists the possibility of one. She reads People. On-set relationships happen all the time.

"There must be somebody else who can help you," she says.

"You'd think."

"I've never acted before."

"Who cares?" he says. "When I saw you in the store, I knew you were perfect."

"Really," she says. "How so?"

"You've got a sad face. Sad faces tell the best stories."

MARGO SPENDS THE NEXT DAY plucking her eyebrows and rearranging the couch cushions in anticipation of Eric's arrival. He wants to talk about the project. She wants to look like she receives guests regularly.

He brings flowers, notebooks, and a six-pack of Red Stripe. "I know you work in a beer store and everything," he says.

"It's perfect," she says. "I made room at the table."

Eric points at the picture window that leads to the fire escape. "Why don't we sit out there?"

"It's kind of cramped," she says. "I guess I can move my plants."

He's outside before she can clear a spot near the coffee table for her cacti. He sits with his back against the building, his legs dangling between the metal rails.

"Great view," he says. "Do you have a roommate?"

"There's no space."

"Must be nice to be alone, though."

"It's quiet," she admits.

He nods noncommittally, his mind already on a different subject. "Say, would you mind if we filmed here? It has terrific light."

She looks inside. "It's really small."

"Sorry, I don't mean to take advantage of you."

"You aren't."

"It's the perfect venue," he says and hands her a revised script. "Suits the mood."

Margo swigs her beer and scans the pages. She holds each sip of bitter liquid in her mouth for a few seconds to let the carbonation prickle her tongue.

"There isn't much dialogue," she says.

"I'm inclined to ad lib," he says.

The prospect of improvisation worries her. She has a habit of seizing up in the moment. "I wouldn't know what to say."

He reaches over and points to a passage that belongs to his imaginary Girlfriend. "That's the beauty of this, Margo," he says. "I'll give you some direction and you'll do what comes naturally."

She thinks of her natural state. She thinks of her days at the store and her nights at home, of virtual vacations. "I'm just worried that it won't seem real."

"Nonactors make the most convincing characters," he says. "But if you're having second thoughts ..."

Eric's knees clang against the handrail as he stands, shaking the entire landing. Panicked, Margo grabs one of the bars to try to control the rattle.

"No," she says. "I want to do it."

He folds himself through the opening of the window, then offers his arm. "Great," he says. "You won't regret this."

She takes his hand. As she slips back into the apartment, she thinks of airplanes over the Atlantic and bicycles built for two. Of how the wale of his coat is soft yet threadbare and of how he smells familiar, like Old Spice and french fries.

Eric releases her to gather his belongings. "I'll come at eight. Is that cool?"

"Sure."

He salutes then disappears downstairs. Margo stands in the doorway, wondering what he likes to eat. He might have to stay through to supper. Dinner and a movie, she thinks. That would be nice.

ERIC HAS LEFT MARGO WITH A HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT. He wants her to compile a list of adjectives describing her fictional self. They're going to call the character Margo too. He thinks it'll be less confusing.

She sits on the couch with a handful of pens and highlighters, hoping to glean something useful from the script. There isn't much to go on at first. Most scenes open with quick cuts of her bed, her kitchen, or her bra slung over the radiator. She's just a passing shadow, a shoulder in the corner of a frame.

What she does most often is sigh and listen to drips. She looks at things a lot too, but never in a cursory manner. Anything that garners her attention is looked at longingly. There are no throwaway glances or moments of obliviousness. Everything she's meant to see is regarded with a melancholic stare or, to use Eric's most frequent descriptor, wistfulness.

So that's the first thing she writes under the heading of "Margo is": "wistful." She puts "serious" next because she reads a book twice in the span of three script pages. She adds other words--"small," "quiet," "often caught in the rain"--then studies the list. What she discovers is that this Margo is catatonic and heartbroken and in dire need of an umbrella.

She crumples the page and starts anew: "Margo is not herself."

MARGO WAKES BEFORE HER ALARM and dresses in fresh jeans and a T-shirt. She figures that Movie Margo isn't flashy, that she would wear something plain and comfortable. Eric shows up just after eight, his arms laden with a camera bag, a coffee jug, and a box of donuts. His hair is still slick from his morning shower, and he's wearing that familiar sport coat.

"Here," he says as he hands her the donuts. "Half raisin, half plain."

"Thanks," she says. "Would you like some juice?"

"Coffee's fine."

"I can make toast."

"I just need the caffeine," he says and takes a long pull from his mug to prove it. "Are you ready to work?"

She picks at her cuticles and offers a thin smile. "Okay."

"Lighten up, Margo. This is going to be fun."

She nods, but she's concerned about the ten pounds and everything else that the camera sees. "Are we doing the scenes we talked about yesterday?"

"Change of plans. Your Boyfriend's gone missing."

"Oh." She tries not to look disappointed. There was supposed to be a kiss.

"Idiot's stuck at the border," he says. "Don't ask."

"That's too bad."

"Not really. This isn't his story. It's yours."

"So where do you want me?"

"Let's start with some close-ups."

Margo's hands fly over her nose. "I need to put some makeup on first."

"Don't," he says. "You've just been dumped. You're supposed to look like hell."

"But I've got this zit."

He points to the couch. "We're going for reality here. Zits are real."

She takes a seat and bows her head slightly, hoping to hide behind her hair. "I guess."

"And so are under eye circles, crooked teeth, and freckles."

She tries to turn away, embarrassed at how easily he picks out her flaws, but he intercepts the attempt. He seizes her chin between his thumb and forefinger, steadies her head, and aligns the top of his camera with her eyebrows.

"Don't be paranoid," he says. "I'm making a generalization. Now look sad. Do you think you can do that?"

Suddenly, the camera's red recording light turns on. Eric inches closer and flashes a thumbs-up. She supposes she should be acting now, so she focuses on the camera and tries not to fog the glass when she breathes. She'll stare until he tells her to stop, until she's convinced him of her despondency. She blinks a few times, then exhales one long breath from her nose. He keeps filming.

Margo finds her reflection in the lens. Her face looks warped and blurred. This is what it's like for the goldfish, she thinks.

MUCH TO HER SURPRISE, Margo enjoys acting. The process suits her style. She likes the slowness and the repetition and the fact that she only has to come to life in thirty-second increments. She likes that she can bail out midscene and ask to try again if, as Eric notes, she hasn't made the right choice.

She also likes Eric and senses he likes her too. He preps her for each scene, offers possible endings and as many new beginnings as she needs. Between takes, he shows her the ever-growing flowchart that maps the movie's progression. The story is plainly told on paper--a cinematic still life of a girl who has lost her love--but it looks quite different in reality. It's less monochromatic at least, with Eric shooting her by the glow of reading lamps, sun flares, and glare-warped windows.

"The light makes you look a ghost," he says, "but in a good way."

"I'm not the one who's dead."

"I never said he was dead. He's just missing."

"It's all the same to Margo."

He tips his chair on its hind legs, nearly kicking over his coffee in the process. A small splash escapes the cup and lands on his sock, but he doesn't notice. He's lost in thought, stroking his faint goatee, until he spontaneously throws his arms skyward. Margo can't tell if he's stretching or celebrating.

"Yes," he says, "that's it."

"What?"

"The fatalism. That's why Margo is the way she is."

She shakes her head, unconvinced. "I think she's realistic."

He forms a pyramid with his hands, resting the tips of his forefingers against each other. "Really? How so?"

"She's alone," she says. "It doesn't really matter why. What matters is how she reacts."

"What do you think should happen next?"

"Maybe she should say something. She doesn't say much."

"What would she say?"

Margo lifts her shoulders to her ears.

"Don't shrug," he says. "You brought it up for a reason. What would she say if she could say something?"

"I don't know."

"That's not an answer."

"Who are you, my mother?"

"I'm trying to collaborate."

"I said I don't know."

"Why not?"

"Because."

"That's not an answer, either."

"Now you're worse than my mother. Drop it."

"This is important. Words are related to actions, you know."

"She has nothing to say because there's nothing to talk about," Margo says and gestures to her surroundings. "This is her life. This is the space she's stuck in. Here and her office and the little corner store where she buys near-expired milk."

"Things could be worse," he says.

"Things could be better."

"And?"

"And I think she should say something to make it better."

He throws his head back and shouts, "Argh!" He pronounces it like an actual word, as if he means to ask for argyle socks. "I thought we'd agreed to make this real."

"We did."

"Happy endings aren't real. When I'm looking at you through the camera, you know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking that the audience is going to feel sorry for you. They're going to cringe and squeeze their armrests the whole time, then go home and screw the person they're with so they don't end up like you."

She pulls a throw cushion into her lap, braids the corner tassel until it tangles in a lopsided knot. "You want her to be alone," she says.

He stuffs his hands in his pockets and shrugs. "That's where it's going, isn't it?"

She thinks of all-inclusive deals and the Hollywood formula, of prepackaged plots and whirlwind tours. Maybe he's right, she concedes. Maybe the promise of escape never lives up to its five-star review.

She dips her chin and stares at the knot in her hands. Eric mistakes this for agreement.

"All right, then," he says, clapping like an overzealous Little League coach. "Let's finish this off."

MARGO SLEEPWALKS THROUGH A FEW MORE SCENES, responding to Eric's directions as if taking an eye test. He appreciates her skilled detachment, exhorts her to appear even more upset when she fakes reading a past-due bill and an eviction notice.

"No one gets evicted anymore," she says after the cut. "Squatter's rights."

"It's a visual metaphor, Margo," he says. "She can't leave on her own terms, right?"

"I get it," she says and walks into the kitchen. She reaches into the cupboard for some orange pekoe. "Tea?"

He waves his hand and points to his omnipresent coffee mug. "Do you think it's working?"

She fills a cup with tap water and puts it in the microwave. She punches the buttons with unnecessary force. The machine beeps feebly, the turntable groaning with each rotation. "Sure," she says. "Your teachers will want to screw their spouses when it's over."

He stops rifling through his bag to offer an apologetic grin. "That was over the top," he says. "I was just trying to make a point."

"Well, you're right," she says.

"Right?"

"Right."

"It's nice to know we're on the same page," he says, flashing a more relaxed smile. "I tried working with my girlfriend but it got too personal."

She dunks a tea bag into her mug. While she watches the water muddy, she considers his admission. Yes, of course. Why wouldn't there be a girlfriend? And why wouldn't he use a stand-in? He would never subject someone he cared about to this scrutiny. She would be too familiar to flatten into two dimensions, too well-formed to fracture into twenty-four frames per second.

She sips her tea and looks outside. It's starting to rain, barely. As the tiny drops tap against the window, she imagines what each one is saying: "Hello, I'm here, can you see me?"

ERIC PASTES A SCOTCH TAPE 'x' on the hardwood by the picture window and then creates a rectangle around it. "Sit," he says. "On the spot."

She steps inside the perimeter. "And?"

"I'm doing a pull-back," he says. "So I'll start real close and then, well, pull back."

"I'm familiar with the term," she says.

He clears a path across the living room to the front door. It's a straight shot from her position. He runs his finger between the two points like a flight attendant during the safety demonstration. "Here's where I'm going to go," he says. "I don't want you to make eye contact, though."

"Where do I look, then?"

"Outside, inside, at the ceiling," he says. "If you've got the urge to look at me, try to look past me instead."

"And what's my motivation?"

"Check you with the lingo."

"This is the end, right?" she says. "I should feel different."

"You should feel the finality," he says, "of one more take."

"Be serious."

"I am," he says. "Let's get this done so we can go back to our regular lives." He looks at his watch, shakes his wrist as if trying to turn back time with a bit of physical intimidation. "At least you can. I've got to edit this bloody thing for tomorrow."

"Well, I don't want to keep you," she says and takes a seat. She rests her elbows on the ledge and thinks of typhoons and other acts of God. She'd prefer a tropical storm to this half-assed attempt at rain, this mist that releases the smell of hot concrete and coats her skin with the residue of another slow summer's day.

"You all set?"

She puts her chin atop her fists and peers through the haze. "Go ahead."

"We're rolling," he says.

He hovers low and close like the clouds over the warehouse across the street. She catches him in her periphery. He watches her the way people study art in galleries. But she wants him to come closer, to remove the glass between them and see that she's not a subject but a real person.

The phone rings and startles Margo back to reality.

"Can I get that?" she asks. Her parents won't appreciate the missed call. They'll think she's dead.

He waves it off. "Let it go."

The answering machine picks up. Her mother's voice blares from the speaker, shrill and tinny. "Margo, where are you? This is your mother. Your father's here too. We're worried. It's been raining all day. It's probably gotten to you by now. Shut your windows, please!"

Margo stops listening after the weather warning. She needs to take her cacti indoors. They can handle a bit of drizzle, but not the downpour the rain has become. They'll suck all the water into their veins and swell to the point of explosion.

She leaps onto the fire escape, her bare feet slipping on the slick metal, and holds her T-shirt out like a canopy over the pots.

"What the hell are you doing?" Eric yells from across the apartment.

"My plants are drowning!" she shouts.

One by one, she ferries the cacti to safety. She brings the last one inside with her--a soft-sided pincushion that has been struggling to bloom all summer--and offers Eric an apology. 'We can do it again."

"It'll take you forever to dry off," he says. "I can't have you wearing different clothes, either."

"Please, I won't screw this up."

He clicks his tongue disapprovingly, but turns the camera on. "Don't. Move."

She keeps her feet stuck to the mark, even as her limbs begin to shake under the weight of her rain-heavy clothes. He resumes his pull-back, using a modified moonwalk. The distance between them grows with each silent step. He's nearly out the door when Margo senses how close she is to disappearing.

"Cut!" she says.

Her outburst catches Eric off guard. "What is it now?"

"I want to start over."

"We almost had it."

"You said I could start over if it didn't feel right," she says. "This doesn't feel right."

"But you've been doing great this whole time."

"I've just been sitting and staring," she says.

"Because that's what Margo does."

She nods. "I know."

"So what's the problem?"

Margo runs her fingers along her wet twists of hair and squeezes water from the tips. "I feel like I've been making the wrong choice," she says. "I'd like to try something different."

"Yeah, yeah," Eric says. He points his forefingers and makes pistols with his hands, then shoots a round of snaps in Margo's direction. "Maybe you should cry this time."

"Maybe."

Eric repositions his camera and resets the shot. "Remember," he says. "Remember who you are, why you're here, and what you're going to do about it." Then he mouths the word nothing and prompts Margo to emote for all she's worth.

She nods and attempts to distract herself from the cold. She lists the Seven Wonders of the World in alphabetical order, and then in the order she'd like to see them. She imagines sending postcards from Casablanca and California.

Suddenly, a shiver twitches through her body and the chill is too much to ignore. She's freezing, possibly hypothermic. It'll be just a matter of time before her entire body shuts down: liver, uterus, eyes, heart. What a terrible way to go, Margo thinks, to die of natural causes. She starts to undress. She peels the cotton T-shirt from her goose pimpled arms and tosses it on the back of the couch. Then she moves on to her jeans, unbuttoning the fly. She shimmies the stiff denim down her legs using a seesaw motion, until her pants pool around her ankles. Blue dye stains her thighs like birthmarks.

Eric raises his eyebrows but keeps filming, shuffling backwards as if on autopilot. Margo follows. Her damp soles leave half-formed smudges on the floor as she moves forward. She catches him in the foyer, beside the stack of unworn high heels she's been saving for a special occasion.

He holds his hand up and out like a nervous grade-school crossing guard, motioning for her to stop before she completely ruins the shot. But Margo knows this can't be how it ends. She takes his outstretched hand and pulls him close, close enough to sense his hiccupped breath on her face. She flattens his palm against her sternum, closes her eyes, and waits for the feeling to return.
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Title Annotation:PORTFOLIO
Author:Ngan, Kellee
Publication:Witness
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:4747
Previous Article:Developing.
Next Article:Suite for the Twentieth Century.

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