The barn door opened and my eyes flooded with burning, all-knowing light. It was rare for her to come in during the day, so rare, in fact, that it had been at least a week since I’d seen the sun. My eyes, unprepared for that particular assault, felt like she’d slammed them farther into my head. When the light calmed down, I was able to see it--the big, beautiful oak tree that stood majestically outside the barn. Sometimes, when she would forget to bring me a meal or two, I would think about what it must be like to be that tree. I wanted to suck water from the earth and grow lazy and fat on the rays of the sun. These were simple dreams, but at that time, I was a simple girl.
I didn’t see the entire oak tree, though. I saw only a halo of oak tree, fanning out around the shadowy figure of my mother.
“Do you want to go outside?” she asked. Her tone, as always, did not betray a single emotion.
“Yes,” I said, trying to suppress my elation. It was unusual for her to let me go outside during the day.
“Do you promise to act modestly?”
“I wouldn’t know how to act immodestly,” I said. She reached out and slapped my cheek. It was an admonition, rather than a punishment. For that, I was grateful.
“Don’t sass me, girl,” she said. “I’m doing you a favor.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I followed her out into the yard, eyes wide open, terrified and thrilled.
“There’s a man out here I want you to meet.”
I stopped, dead cold, with one foot still waiting to fall in front of the other. The idea that my mother would want me to meet a man was preposterous! As far as I could tell, my mother was keeping me in the barn precisely so that I wouldn’t meet any men at all. She’d kept me there since she noticed that I’d grown breasts even bigger than hers. I was too afraid to ask her why she hid me in there, but I allowed myself the flattery of believing that her reasoning was as I imagined.
There was a man standing by an unfamiliar car, which was parked next to my mother’s car. The car was a convertible, shiny and pale green, with the top down. The man looked to be about the same age as my mother, and he looked extremely rich. I’d only seen rich people a couple of times, back when Dad was alive and we’d go shopping in town for Christmas. Everything about the rich people I saw seemed perfect, down to their perfectly starched clothes and straight-toothed smiles. They would stop in front of shop windows, and buy whatever they (or their squeaky clean children) wanted. We had to walk past the nicest windows and go straight to the back of the store, where the clearance shelves stood, simultaneously picked over and neglected. This man looked like he could buy anything he wanted from the nicest window in town.
“Mackenzie,” she said, in that tone of voice that said she meant business. “Mackenzie!” She’d been calling me for a minute, now, and I’d been so consumed by the rich man and the convertible and the outdoors and the sunlight that I hadn’t noticed. I walked over to where the man and my mother were standing, near the cars.
“Mackenzie, this is Mr. Richardson,” she said. Mr. Rich. “Mr. Richardson, this is Mackenzie.” Mr. Rich smiled coolly.
“Please, call me Steve,” he said. His voice even sounded rich, like smoke and velvet.
“All right,” I said.
“Mackenzie,” my mother said, gripping me by the shoulders. “You’re to go with Mr. Richardson and behave with him as if I were right there with you. You’re to do whatever he says.”
“All right,” I said again.
“She’ll be back…” she started, looking at Mr. Rich.
“As we agreed,” he said.
“Fine, fine,” she said. I thought I saw something strange happen to my mother’s eyes, then, but I wasn’t sure what. Without another word, she turned around and went into the house. I didn’t see her at the kitchen window, or at any other window.
“Are we going for a drive?” I asked, clearly giving the convertible a mental once-over.
“Yes,” he said. Mr. Rich was still smiling, and I immediately decided that something about all this was quite unnatural. I did not like him.
I reached into my mother’s car through the open window of the passenger’s side and clicked the latch on the glove compartment. Inside, my mother’s leather driving gloves were cool to the touch, in spite of the summery temperature. I took them out and put them on. In hindsight, they probably looked silly with my t-shirt and knee-length cutoffs, but I loved them. Those gloves, which she faithfully donned whenever she drove the car, were one of the few things I loved about my mother. I’m glad I took them with me.
Mr. Rich did not ask me about the gloves, even when we were a safe distance away from home. The convertible ran like a dream, and the pale green of the car seemed to happily coexist with all of nature’s greens. I squirmed against my seat belt, trying to count the number of shades between my pale knee and the creamy leather bucket seat.
“Do you know why your mother sent you to come with me?”
“No,” I said. I figured that I would let him do most of the talking, at least until I got to know him a bit better.
“Do you remember writing that story? The one for the class assignment?” It had been ages since the last time I even thought about school. I had been too busy trying to occupy my mind in that dark barn to think about days with routines.
“Sure,” I said. I had written lots of stories for school assignments. They always urged us to write creatively, even though there weren’t any jobs for creative writers, and we’d all be giving up the pursuit as soon as it was time to apply to college.
“Your teacher showed it to your mother,” he said. “And your mother showed it to me.”
“Great,” I mumbled, looking out over the edge of the convertible. The tall grasses and corn fields rolled by, one after the other. Mr. Rich watched the road and I watched everything else.
“You aren’t paying attention,” he said. “But I suppose that’s to be expected.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re thinking about things you’re seeing, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “So?”
“Your mother is graciously allowing me to show you the world, so that you can become a better writer.”
I snorted. If my mother was ever planning on letting me live outside of that barn again, I imagined that she would want me to get a real job and make some money to support us. The needle of the gas gauge caught my eye.
“On a quarter tank of gas? Good luck,” I said.
“She keeps you in that barn, doesn’t she?” Mr. Rich said.
I found myself liking Mr. Rich less and less, but I still believed that if I misbehaved, she’d find out and punish me. So I pushed at the boundaries of good behavior. “So what if she does?”
“So that isn’t right,” he said. “And you won’t be going back there without me.”
“Are you my bodyguard, or something?” I asked.
“Or something,” he said. The county road had become a four-lane interstate highway while I wasn’t looking, and we were going faster, much faster than my mother ever drove. I crossed my arms in front of me, gripping my upper arms with my gloved hands, holding on to the one thing that I could trust to be still in my strange new world of motion.
Mr. Rich suddenly slowed the convertible and pulled off the interstate. We glid along a small suburban road until we found a gas station, and he pulled in. “Do you want anything from inside?” he asked. I never got to get anything from inside, so I barely even knew what sort of things they had.
“How about…some candy?” I ventured, hoping that I wasn’t making a fool of myself.
“What do you like?” he asked. Anything he liked from the shop window, from the gas station candy counter.
“Necco wafers,” I said. Mr. Rich nodded and pumped the gas while the soda machine and the machine that dispensed air into tires hummed innocuously next to the touchless car wash. I noticed then that the car looked very clean. I could imagine Mr. Rich polishing the chrome accents, but I couldn’t decide whether he hosed the car down himself, or if he had people who did that sort of thing for him. Cars like this one surely couldn’t go through such a vulgarity as the automated car wash I saw here. I loved it when my mother took the car through the wash, the way the water and soap pounded on the roof and chassis like a superpowered rain.
Mr. Rich surprised me by returning to the car. “They had chocolate ones,” he said. “I hope that’s all right.”
“Wow,” I said. “Sure.” I took the candy from him and busied myself unwrapping the waxed paper, the roll of candy unwieldy in my gloved fingers. I didn’t even know they sold the chocolate ones by themselves. They were my favorite anyway. The car was moving again, and the sugary wafers melted on my tongue. I suddenly felt as though we were gliding into my future.
“Do you think you’re up to meeting someone else?” Mr. Rich asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“She might be able to lend you some clothes,” he said. “You’re a little shorter, but you’ll fit them, for sure.” I looked down at my clothes and felt embarrassed, even though there was nothing inherently wrong with them. I picked a piece of straw off of my denim shorts and let it blow over the side of the car.
“What do I need different clothes for?” I asked.
“I need to take you shopping,” he said. “And you can’t go like that.” I pictured the children in their Christmas finery, perfectly bleached and starched. I wondered if he would make me wear petticoats.
As we drove on, I could feel things getting closer together, and the air developed a hard edge that made it more difficult to breathe. We were going to the city. The car handled just as smoothly on the uneven city streets as it did on country roads, and Mr. Rich darted us between other cars and around people like a pro. My mother was always a cautious driver, and very rarely drove in the city, if ever. The few times that we did, I recall, she would invariably end up holding up traffic, horns blaring at us from behind while she studied a street map. He pulled the car into an underground garage and parked it in a tiny space next to another luxurious convertible.
The elevator was fast and silent, and it opened on an expansive penthouse apartment with gorgeous high ceilings and windows everywhere. I’d heard about places like these: wide open spaces, gourmet kitchens, manufactured coziness radiating from the expensive furniture.
“I thought you would never come back,” said a husky female voice. The body belonging to the voice lazily loped into view. She looked exactly like a woman from a magazine, tall, thin, long-limbed, but still graceful. Her hair was loose, shiny, and voluminous. She brushed it out of her face with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other. The woman was wearing what appeared to be one of Mr. Rich’s shirts and little else.
“I thought I told you not to do that inside,” Mr. Rich said. I caught a flash of her black panties when she reached over to put her cigarette out.
“Is this the girl?” she asked. Mr. Rich nodded.
“Can you loan her some clothes or something, and take her shopping?”
“Sure,” she said. “She needs a bath first, though. What was she, sleeping in a barn?” I felt a surge of something powerful and unidentifiable course through my veins. Who was she to judge me? But at the same time, she was exactly right. I had been sleeping in a barn. How did she know? “Can you bathe yourself?”
“Y-yes,” I stammered. How young must I have looked to her? If only I could have seen myself next to her at that moment, me in my cutoffs and driving gloves, and her in her nightshirt and stylish dark manicure. I looked like childhood, and she looked like sex. I wondered whether she, too, had been a girl that Mr. Rich had promised to show the world; I wondered if her present was my future.
“Bathroom’s that way. I’ll lay something out for you while you’re in there,” she said. “I’m Isabelle, by the by.”
“Mackenzie,” I said. I wandered into the bathroom and closed the door behind me.
I used the soap that was in the shower, and it made the whole room smell like lavender, like the hand soap in my mother’s bathroom at home. It wasn’t homesickness that I felt, rather, it was nostalgia for the time when the scent of my mother’s lavender soap meant that my father would soon be coming home from work to love us both. Lavender had smelled empty ever since I realized that he would not ever be coming home. Now, it was just another sensation to be processed and absorbed. It had been a while since I’d had a proper shower.
Isabelle came in while I was bathing, to lay out the clothes like she’d said. I was even more afraid of her than I was of Mr. Rich. But I asked, “Isabelle? Can I ask you something?”
“Yes,” she said.
“How do you know Mr. Richardson?” I could hear her stop moving for a moment, and I worried that I’d asked something socially inappropriate.
“He’s my lover,” she said, carefully. “Do you know what that means?”
I debated with myself for a moment: if I said yes, I might get in trouble. If I said no, she might try to explain it. I wasn’t sure which was worse. “Yes,” I said.
“Good,” she said.
“Are you a writer?” I asked.
“No,” Isabelle said, still choosing her words thoughtfully. “I’m a model.” So she was a woman in a magazine after all. How would a simple girl like me fit into a model’s clothes? I found out, after I’d dried off. The sleeves of the lightweight black turtleneck were a bit too long, and the short flowered skirt Isabelle lent me was almost tea length on me. I pulled my driving gloves back on to complete the outfit.
“What size shoe do you wear?” Isabelle asked. “Are you dressed?” She was in the room already, clearly not caring whether I was dressed or not.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “The last shoes I had were eights.”
“Hold on, I think I might have some eights somewhere.” Isabelle ducked back into the bedroom, probably into a walk-in closet bigger than my barn. “I had a friend who wore eights, she was always giving me her shoes even though I wear tens. Oh, here.” Isabelle came back into the bathroom. “Try these.” She handed me a pair of brown leather mary-jane heels, quite a few inches taller than anything I’d ever been allowed to try on, let alone wear. They matched my gloves, I noticed, as I fastened the buckles.
“There,” she said. Isabelle approached me with a comb, a brush, and a hair dryer. “Now hold still.” This suited me fine, as I was uncertain about walking in my borrowed shoes.
I hadn’t figured Isabelle as the motherly type, but there she was, getting wet while she stood with me in that lavender-scented bathroom, detangling and heat-styling my hair. She walked around to my front and started pulling sections of my hair up, away from my scalp, heating them with the blow dryer.
“You have great hair,” she said loudly, competing with the deafening whir of the dryer.
“Thank you,” I said, pushing on each word with my diaphragm in order to be heard.
“Now you look proper,” she said. “Give me fifteen minutes, and we can go.”
“Okay,” I said. I took a tentative step. I took another step and nearly broke my ankle falling off of my heel.
“Oh, Christ,” she said, picking me up from the floor. “We’ll buy you some flats. Heel, toe. Heel, toe. Come on, walk like this.” Isabelle taught me how to get by in my heels, and I walked cautiously back to the living room.
Mr. Rich was there, reading The New York Times. He offered me a section, and I took it. My eyes rushed over the words for a few minutes and nothing really stuck. “Why are you helping me?” I asked.
“I owe your father a great debt,” he said. I wanted to know more, but I felt odd asking. I didn’t even know that my father knew any rich people.
“What are we going to do?” I asked. “After I have some clothes, I mean.”
“We’re going to begin your education,” he said. “Tonight, we’re going to hear some music.” I nodded. My gloved hands twitched and the paper rustled.
“Will Isabelle come?” I asked.
“You’ll see a lot of Isabelle,” he said. “I hope you like her as much as I do.” Nothing about Mr. Rich seemed malicious at the time, and indeed, he was quite earnest in his intentions.
Sometimes I think back upon this moment, this beginning of my new life, with joy in my heart and overflowing gratitude. But at other times, I realize that my mysterious benefactor had absolutely no idea what he was doing. The moment he decided to repay my father by educating his daughter, Mr. Rich started to create something that he did not know how to control. He and Isabelle could clothe me, educate me, and teach me to drink in jazz clubs. They could and did introduce me to influential writers who taught me and improved my writing. They could disguise me, but they could not hide the frightened little girl whose widowed mother would never get her driving gloves back. They could not stop me from feeling like a manufactured woman, a counterfeit of a fraud.
“I am looking forward to that,” I said. Isabelle emerged from the bedroom then, smelling of the same lavender.
“Come on, let’s go,” she said. “We’ll be back later.”
Mr. Rich just nodded and smiled, sipping at a glass of brown liquor. “The show is at ten,” he said.
“We’ll be back,” Isabelle said. She tossed her rich leather handbag over her shoulder and grabbed me by the hand. “Shoes first.” I stumbled along after her, feeling ready to be remade. How little I knew, then! How little I knew!