It hadn’t been the alarm. Those fast-paced electronic wails don’t wake our neighbors but on the rare occasion that they sound, we leap -- frenzied -- from our slumber. It could have been a phone chime, the baby crying, or perhaps just a hunch. Either way, I moved, quasi-upright, toward the bedroom door where I’d seen her exit, disappear into the hallway. Courtesy of the minimal light reflecting up the staircase, I saw Alice the Merchandiser vanish again -- this time into the foyer. The flash of her movement that I caught was quick and hunched, creepy like one of those alien snippets from Signs. It should have frightened me more than it did.
I should’ve been afraid for what she might be doing or what her intentions were. Instead, sordid motivations sent me -- grumpy at being awakened, startled and pissed by her presence -- after her. As is my tendency, I hadn’t thought it through and had no plan regarding what I’d do if I caught her.
For what seemed like an hour, though, I couldn’t find her. She was nowhere on the main floor and the more the time passed, the more I panicked. No doors had chimed; she wasn’t outside or in the basement or garage. Still, I could pick up no trace of Alice.
Body memories of real-alarm triggerings manifested in my gut and in my spine. Once -- when the breezy airs of spring had transformed to the heavy, thick airs of summer -- the door to the garage had swollen. We’d gone to bed with it unfastened. Many cycles into the evening, one particular ignition of the air-conditioning system had pressured the door to spring free of the threshold. Another time, a leftover Kevlar birthday balloon from our daughter’s celebration had traversed the family room and the basement hallway, tripping the entryway’s motion sensor. Both times we’d been certain of an intruder. Both times I turned every corner of the house -- armed with only a baseball bat -- uncertain if my next vision would be my last.
A few weeks later, my wife and I were driving somewhere.
“I know what you’re going to say,” I said, “but I’ve been thinking about getting a gun.”
I didn’t have any reason to believe Alice the Merchandiser was armed, but the two glimpses of her I’d been lucky enough to catch fostered a foreboding inside of me more intense than any weapon could do: She lurked in the nude.
As I tiptoed into the living room for the second time, my brain analyzed the possibilities:
1) She’d entered our home a victim of sorts.
2) Some element of sexual motivation drove her. Or worst of all:
3) Alice the Merchandiser was suffering from psychosis.
Having compiled the list, I searched with a heightened sense of agitation, apprehensive on new levels. I’d wondered -- a time or two -- what the attractive young woman did outside of work. At the office, she was a rock. She was the go-to switchboard gal, guaranteed to give you connectivity when all other operators stood listless like their ankles were embedded in a December bog. With Alice there was never attitude, seldom lag time, and always politeness. When we -- the members of the road crew -- would come across a glitch in the system, the solution was forever two-fold: Flip to the appropriate operator-manual page. Cringe if Alice’s name was not tied to your problem; rejoice if it was.
Once there was an unspoken panic amongst the crew when word first got out that she was -- gasp -- taking a week’s vacation. I can’t speak for my team members, but I know I spent the week with fingers crossed that the span would be glitch-free. Upon her return, she indicated that the family had been in New York. I didn’t know if this meant spouse and offspring or parents and siblings, but it wasn’t my business. All I wanted to do was welcome her back and let her know she’d been missed. Now, for the first time since our introduction, I wished her gone. I didn’t care who, but I longed for one of her colleagues -- be it the cold, the rude, the lazy, or a new fish -- to walk through my front door and clothe Alice, then remove her from my home.
I paused in the kitchen, curious of hallucination. As I reached to press the coffee-pot button, a faint sniveling caused my eyelids to widen, my extended fingertip to freeze. In the darkness I could hear the outdoor transition from cicada song to bird chirp. A lone creak of the house startled me and as I tried to lower the imagined volume of my breath, a small sob escaped from what seemed to be beneath me. My eyes shifted with a rapidity that suggested them to be my only sensory means, even though I could feel my ears strain. After a restless instant, they settled, focusing on the below-countertop Lazy Susan.
I withdrew my left arm in caution and placed its elbow on the outer right hand of the arm folded across my stomach. With my thumb and forefinger pressing my cheekbones, I stared hard at the wooden cabinet door, visible only by a fraction of the dawn-to-dusk-lamp light that shone through the kitchen-sink window. As I took a mental snapshot of the Susan’s inventory, I recalled the occasional from-home “blind” grocery orders I’d placed in my days as a chef. In this scenario, I didn’t need to know how many cans of apricot glaze might be on the shelf, or if the bag and-a-half of medium-shell pasta would get me through to Wednesday. All I needed to verify was the impossibility for a human to fit into that quasi-circular food-storage space.
Were the Susan vacant, it might be feasible. It would have been a contortionist feat, even for a petite Asian woman such as Alice the Merchandiser. I knew the contents of that interior turntable, though, and it was stuffed. There was no way -- no way -- you could even put a sleeping kitten in there without a symphony of plastic crinkles erupting, boxes tipping, rice grains and lentil peas raining upon the wooden floor. I had -- nevertheless -- to inspect. I stood adjacent to my favorite prep spot, infallible, as though I’d just uploaded an x-ray-vision Matrix program into my brain. I didn’t know how or why, but Alice the Merchandiser had crawled -- without an ounce of noise -- into my dry-storage nook.
When I squatted, my first concern was that the popping of my kneecaps had tipped the intruder. Now that I was in position, and a vulnerable one at that, I felt exposed without a flashlight. My source of light remained counter high, illuminating the vessel that housed my unbrewed batch of coffee. I rocked on my heels, and once more, questioned the legitimacy of the experience. If this situation -- this slideshow of insanity -- were possible in the realms of physics and human behavior, what would prevent it from becoming a cinema of real-life horror? What if I swung that door open and Alice launched out and clutched me with talons, ripping the skin from my frame and piercing my neck with bloodthirsty fangs? What if my ultimate fear -- her all-but-confirmed instability -- materialized and I lay dying with flax seeds on my chest, a ripped bag of aged, lumpy brown sugar at my feet?
The absurdity wrestled with my curiosity for a moment before a cocktail heavy in intuition and light on judgment summited my boulder field of thoughts. With a light push on the Lazy Susan door, I took a hunched step back as though the surfaced had pulsed me, electric-fence style. Cowering near the black kitchen floor, I waited with an audible-in-my-head elevated heart rate. The door’s exterior -- flush with its neighboring cabinetry when shut -- featured two planks that formed a 90-degree angle and an opposing pair of round silver knobs. When I’d leaned into it, it had felt weighted, lacking the ease with which it opened during ordinary use. This time I put my frame behind the shove and it swiveled like the wheel of a pulley bearing too heavy a load for its line. This time the heave sprung me backwards and I landed in a crab stance. Next to the cabinet that housed my sheet trays and rolls of foil, wax paper, and plastic wrap was a display that did not consist of pure vanilla extract, baking powder, and quinoa. Instead it exhibited the bare buttocks of Alice the Merchandiser.
Even though the air conditioner worked at capacity to keep the house comfortable on that roaster of a summer night, the kitchen must have been warm enough that the pantry stowaway did not feel a backside breeze. Poised for human retrieval, I wavered. In some ephemeral window, I’d forgotten my fear and its associated theory: This woman could be dangerous. An absence of how to remove someone in horizontal fashion perplexed any attempt to formulate a strategy, regardless of whether the person lay limp, or flailed, or resisted. In considering both her possible neurosis and her natural state, the list of risks seemed to multiply. I entertained the option of leaving her be and calling the authorities long enough to almost acquiesce. Overcome by a resurge of impulse, however, I reached into the pantry and wrangled my arms around her thighs.
It was as though Alice remained in some state of catatonia until only her neck and head remained on the shelf. Some signal, some injection of reality sparked her and she spurred me with her right heel, square on the bottom of the rib cage. As the shot knocked me backwards, I saw the impact reverberate in her body, causing her breasts to jiggle and the top shelf of the Lazy Susan to split. My release on her legs left her feet to smack on the unlit floor, leaving her remaining weight upon the edge of the once-intact shelf. The thud that followed was the sharp crack of her coccyx upon the hardwood. Though I winced at the blistering ache that accompanied my attempt to inhale, I watched as the woman covered her face with her palms and cried.
“Alice,” I said between puffs. “What are you doing here?”
Her response of “No” came steaming toward me before I had the question out and at such a lengthy shrill that I wrinkled my face and attempted to shield myself as though the decibels were blinding rays from the sun. I’d not heard the onset of a rapid-fire item clutch but learned of it in haste when a bag of egg noodles exploded upon the cabinet next to the one on which I rested my head. As luck would have it, this caused me to flinch, creating a near miss of a bottle of syrup to the temple. My fortune, however, shifted when it came to the jar of plum sauce that broke my nose upon impact. The explosion of pain in the center of my face lent me the opportunity of forgetting about my throbbing side and in that opportunity I was quick to my feet, and even quicker to smother my assailant.
After a flurry of positioning, I had her petite frame pinned. Had there been appropriate lighting, our bodies might have fashioned a silhouette as the tongue of my vomiting Lazy Susan. Alice’s grunts lessened as the moments passed and in a precipitous shift, I felt her muscles relax. Amidst the new silence of the house was my wife’s muted concern, accompanied by the sound of a passel of cricket chirps so loud the insects seemed to have eaten the cicadas and the birds and gathered upon the kitchen sink above us. There, in that lightless corner, I examined the woman’s face, searching for an explanation. And then she was there, present with her faculties -- or so I thought -- staring at me.
“C’mon, baby,” she said.
“You come down here to find me,” she said. “You want to fuck me? Here? On kitchen floor? I’m ready, baby. You fuck me now. I’m ready.”
“What the…” I was on my feet, dragging her, crushing her wrists in my grasp. “Stand up,” I said.
I hustled her through the dining room and into the foyer where I stopped sudden. My haste jerked her body from the momentum my pace had created and sent her crashing back into mine like a rubber band that had backfired in the face of the aiming shooter. In the flash of a second in which our bodies were pressed together, Alice the Merchandiser manipulated her wrist-clutched hands toward my waistline and had her right hand halfway down my shorts before I was aware of her intention. As I initiated retaliation, she pressed her mouth to mine, and pursed my bottom lip with both of hers.
“Get off!” I shoved against her chest as if I was executing a cross-court bounce pass. When she landed on the entryway floor, the bare buttocks I’d first seen inside the Susan screeched along the wooden surface. I followed and pulled her to her feet once more, quick to spin the dead bolt on the front door. With a turn of the knob, I yanked and placed both my hands on Alice’s back. I used my left foot to push open the storm door and heaved her in its direction, bracing for the blast of late-summer heat that would fling itself upon my shoulders. As I sent her from my home, a two-toned numbness entrapped me in astonishment. Alice the Merchandiser went reeling through the threshold and off of my stoop, but instead of into the thick, dark heat of the night I’d anticipated, I watched -- for a quarter second -- as her naked self landed in what seemed to be some three feet of snow.
My body recoiled at the frigid blast and the coat of white covering my neighborhood robbed me of sight for a moment. I squinted, gazing with determination out my front door, but winced as frosty gusts pelted my face, alerting the sensitivity on the bridge of my nose. In a slight cower, I shut the front door then stood panting against it, my forehead against my right forearm.
Alice began to scream.
I ripped open the closet door where she had molested me and fumbled, re-blinded by the dark. My hands recognized a fleece, pullover parka, and I yanked it from its hanger. I paused with my hand on the front door knob.
“How in the fuck…” I murmured to myself and flung the front door open just wide enough to throw the garment in her direction. When I had the door locked again, I hurried back to the kitchen, stubbing my toe on one of the sprawled items -- perhaps the assaultive plum sauce. I hobbled the final two steps to the kitchen sink and peered through the window glass: still black night and the beam of the exterior lamp. No signs of wind or snow.
Through the dining room once more I paused in the foyer. Car headlights made their distorted way through the frosted glass. The crunch of beneath-footsteps snow echoed. I lunged for the peephole door and twisted its knob like a safe dial that might send a silent alarm. A large shadow hunched over Alice and fumbled to scoop her. When he stood, the reflection of the snow drifts revealed the man to be James Earl Jones -- in full Coming to America King Jaffe Joffer attire. I wiped my eyelids with my fingertips and looked a second time. I could hear his guttural attempts to console her and -- frantic -- hustled upstairs to find my phone, hopeful it may possess some form of explanation.
My wife convinced me -- after an hour of profane pacing -- to lie down.
In the morning, I collected the Lazy Susan mess and set it aside just before leaving for the office. When I’d climbed the stairs to the second floor, I felt nervous for what I’d see around the corner. Only, there was nothing. I walked the long corridor and saw the people on their headsets, typing at their computers, speaking into receivers. In the restroom, a cold-water splash grounded me. As I came out, I walked past the Human Resources office. On the other side of the door, I could hear the very-stable, questioning voice of Alice the Merchandiser. I stood there for several minutes trying to make out the dialogue.
“Winston.” The familiar voice of Ted from procurement snapped me out of my invasive trance. “Could you be more obvious?”
“What’s going on in there?”
“It’s Alice,” he said. “She’s been gone for three weeks and just rolled in here today like nobody’s business.”
“Gone? For three weeks?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You didn’t know? No notice, no response to outreach. Just AWOL.”
We heard the conversation lull and the door open, orchestrating poor attempts to look occupied. Alice the Merchandiser walked past us, sniffling. Ted and I peered over the partition and watched as she loaded the contents of her office into a pair of boxes. Someone from H.R. stood in the corridor. When she’d finished, the H.R. guy entered her cube and lifted one of the boxes.
“We’ve got to do something,” I said.
“Like what? I’m not stirring any pots.”
“I dunno, man,” I said. “Just doesn’t seem fair.”
“Dude,” he said. “Not showing up is not showing up.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess. Just seems like something’s wrong with her.”