Please Please Me
Please Please Me
A Short Story by Jenna Rigsbee
They lived in the country. The house, a small blue clapboard ranch, was far enough from the road that people rarely visited. The driveway leading to the home was dirt, nearly a half-mile long, and flanked on either side by tall, shimmering fields of wheat, which were taken care of by a farmer a town over. Behind the home was a wood, which in those days was still safe from being torn down and turned into a neighborhood of identical homes. No one bothered them.
For this reason, Mrs. Smith was not worried about leaving the girls’ home alone for the night. They were too young to find any sort of trouble to get into. She laughed quietly to herself, dabbing her lips with a subtle pink lipstick, as she imagined her daughters, boring and innocent as they were, doing anything other than what they were currently occupied in for the rest of the night. Camilla, Mrs. Smith knew, was reading a romance. Some small thing with a silly title like The Nurse Maiden or The Duke’s Secret. Amelia was sitting cross-legged on Mrs. Smith’s bed filling out a crossword puzzle, the newspaper folded into a rectangle and propped against the surface of a record sleeve for support.
“‘Mitchum’s opposite in the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter?’” Amelia said from the bed.
Mrs. Smith looked at her from the vanity mirror, rubbed her lips together before saying, “Winters.”
Amelia was silent, then, “Five letters. It does start with a ‘W’ though.”
Mrs. Smith thought a minute, finding it curious that she’d said the wrong thing when the answer was quite obvious. She capped her lipstick and puckered her mouth before smiling garishly to check her teeth for stains and saying, “Widow.”
Amelia wrote it in. “Have we watched that one?”
Mrs. Smith stood, grabbed her purse and sunglasses, sliding the doily with her perfume on it across the vanity, nearly toppling it off. She straightened it, checking her reflection again before saying, “No, not a time for it.” She had seen it and knew it well, the widow, the handsome man, the young children, the stolen money. It was thrilling but not something Mrs. Smith wanted her girls seeing. She didn’t want them to get any particular ideas about Mr. Smith in their minds. He was of no import to them, dead as he was, when Amelia was just a baby.
“Up you go, now,” Mrs. Smith said. Amelia climbed off and Mrs. Smith gave her rear a small smack as she walked in front of her, down the hallway to Camilla.
Camilla, fifteen and perpetually bored, was sitting on the sofa under the window; her long legs stretched out in front her, her hair pulled behind her ears with a yellow headband. Mrs. Smith had been correct: Camilla was, in fact, reading. The novel was called The Woman and the Stallion. Camilla’s cheeks were pink, something that was likely due more to the reading than the weather, though at this point in the season their house felt more like an oven than anything.
Amelia went to lay spread eagle in the center of the room, the ceiling fan pulsating above her. If she stayed very still, she thought, perhaps it would cool her off. The crossword sat next to her, unfinished, the empty boxes like open graves.
They will hardly have moved when I return in the morning, Mrs. Smith promised herself. She had put her toothbrush and lipstick in her purse, as well as her credit card, in case the evening didn’t go as planned. She was meeting a man. It didn’t matter how she’d found him but their correspondence had been frequent and growing more desperate with time—on her end at least. She hadn’t mentioned the man to her daughters, wanting to avoid questions—Mrs. Smith saw no point in sharing something so delicate—instead leaving the house saying she was watching a friend’s child for the evening.
“I’ll be back in the morning. There’s a roast chicken staying warm. I trust you’ll remember to turn the oven off when you eat?” Even though she was younger by two years, Mrs. Smith addressed Amelia, expecting her to be responsible for the two girls. Camilla reminded Mrs. Smith so much of herself in her adolescence. They subsisted on the same romantic view of things, or had subsisted on the same romantic view because Mrs. Smith was above all of that now, despite the covert affair she found herself in. “And a chocolate mousse behind the egg carton for dessert.”
As she left, Mrs. Smith grasped Amelia’s chin in her hand and pulled her lips to hers. She peered at Camilla and announced her leaving. Camilla barely glanced up from her novel.
And then Mrs. Smith was gone.
In the drawer of her vanity was an envelope containing one thousands dollars. She had meant to bring it on the date. Not for any sort of emergency money—she had her card—but for the man she was meeting. He had told her he’d been down on his luck, having recently lost his savings due to having to put his mother in an asylum. In these days asylums were still relatively popular. Mrs. Smith’s own brother had been sent to an asylum when she was a young girl. Her parents soon stopped mentioning him and to this day she assumed he was still there, but she had never asked, nor gone to visit. It wasn’t in her nature.
So Mrs. Smith could sympathize with the man and promised him money. She had savings from her husband’s life insurance and had no doubt that this man she was meeting would propose to her, just as soon as he got back on his feet.
It was sometime later that Camilla was brought out of her novel by a flash of light glinting off a car’s hood. It was a stranger’s car, a truck, creeping up the driveway, the slowly descending sun silhouetting it in black. Was it real? From her spot on the sofa, Camilla watched as someone exited the truck, the sound of the door slam caught in the heat. The figure began walking toward the house.
He had driven quickly. After this errand, his debt was settled. Blake Greysey had called him from a payphone—he’d nearly jumped out of his skin when the phone rang, knowing this was it—and told him Mrs. Smith had forgotten the money. The instructions were simple: get in the house, take the money, and don’t get distracted. But, as Mrs. Smith had kept Blake Greysey from the girls, she had also kept the girls from Blake Greysey.
Earlier, Amelia had gotten up from her bed on the floor to eat the mousse, cool as it was in the hot afternoon, but had returned. Her eyes were closed and had it not been for her fingers tapping slightly to the record playing on the Crosley, Camilla would have thought she’d fallen asleep.
I should tell her, Camilla thought. But she didn’t. Not yet anyways. She wanted to have the figure—the man—to herself for a few moments. She wanted to imagine that he was there for her, to rescue her from the sluggishness of her days. She wanted to enjoy her own private fantasy and knowledge of him before he descended, overtook the house and revealed his coming to Amelia as well.
A thought that would not occur to Camilla was the perfection of the stranger’s arrival. It was not her way to be suspicious of men. Suspicion, though Camilla had been born with it, was a trait that had been exercised so little over her lifetime that it was now almost entirely disappeared from her person. There was no doubt in her mind that of course he would come today. He had always planned on coming today and it was merely by chance that Mrs. Smith happened to be gone when he did. Fate worked like that and Camilla had every determination to believe that fate had brought this man to her, for her, on the day her mother was absent.
Camilla then, deciding it was time to reveal her secret to her sister, scoured the room for Amelia.
“Amelia,” Camilla hissed at the floor. Amelia opened her eyes, the tapping fingers ceasing momentarily. “Come over here. There’s a man.”
Amelia stood with the careless, agile grace of a skinny prepubescent girl, stretched, and walked to the window. The approaching figure was still too far away for the girls to make out every feature but neither Camilla nor Amelia had a problem seeing his apparent strength or confidence. He walked with a certain uprightness that Camilla had only read about. Instantly, she longed for him to be cast into the heroic, gallant role of the prince in the stagnant, plotless play that was her life. How quickly could he overtake her, throw her over his shoulder and lead her away to his castle somewhere, to keep her hidden for himself? Camilla sighed, imagining his strong arms holding her to him.
“He must be the renter.” Amelia squinted out the window screen; Camilla’s nose was nearly flattened against it. The sun framed him, blocking out all but his form, which was only becoming clearer as he came closer. To Camilla, he looked haloed, like a Gabriel approaching. “What’s he doing here now?” Amelia continued.
Camilla released her squashed nose and she turned around to look at her sister, saying, “He’s paying the rent, obviously. Or whatever it is renters do.” Had Mrs. Smith forgotten to collect the rent? She had never forgotten, that Camilla knew of, so suddenly Camilla realized that Mrs. Smith was not going to watch a child for the evening. She was meeting someone, someone secret, who would make her forget about things like money. Mrs. Smith was a handsome woman, small boned with a large face, though her teeth were somewhat crooked. It wouldn’t be inconceivable for her to have a man somewhere, waiting for her. Camilla laughed inwardly at the thought of her mother sneaking out to meet a man. Perhaps they were meeting at a restaurant and he would give her a quarter to put in a jukebox so they could dance together as they waited for their meals. Mrs. Smith had said she would not be home until the morning. Yes, she was surely meeting a man. Camilla turned back to the window just as the visiting man arrived to the bungalow, taking the stairs two at a time.
“We should ask him to come back later,” Amelia said. Her voice held a note of panic in it, something Amelia rarely felt. But then again, Amelia rarely had reason to as they lived an unusually quiet life in their little bungalow, in their world of women.
At Amelia’s voice, he looked over and first noticed the girls. To mask his shock he looked away, exhaled a quick, sharp breath and hooked his thumbs into his belt loops, before turning his full attention to them, framed helplessly in the window, the front porch showcasing their position like stage curtains. “Well, hello there.”
“Are you the renter?” Amelia asked, voice cautious. Camilla had wanted to speak first. Her voice was appealing, she knew, and she wanted him to fall in love with it. It would be, she pictured him saying at their wedding, the second thing about her that he fell in love with that first day they met, the first being her obvious beauty.
The man hesitated so slightly that Amelia wasn’t certain whether he actually had or whether she just persuaded herself of it. “I am,” he answered.
His eyes were a light brown and small for his face, which could have appeared so due to the size of his nose. A large nose is good on a man. It made him more of a man than one with a small, feminine nose, Camilla decided at that moment. Something about the size of a man’s nose proved that he was capable of things, like recovering from illness or even surviving perilous conditions. A man with a small nose would not be able to sense danger. Large noses aroused an animalistic desire in Camilla where she fantasized over being at the mercy of a beast, one much stronger than she, and her mind wandered again to thoughts of being tossed over a shoulder.
“You don’t look like a renter,” Amelia said. Still, she had no idea what a renter was supposed to look like. Nor could she place this feeling of panic or rising suspicion within her.
Annoyance clouded Camilla’s words as she scolded her sister, saying, “Amelia!”
The man chuckled, asking what it was that a renter looked like.
“You usually have that old tractor. I’ve never seen you drive anything else.”
The man stuck his hands in his pockets. “Well, you can’t blame a man for wanting to come to a lady’s home in a more appropriate vehicle, can you? I needed the shade. This is dry heat. It’s the kind of heat that knows how to get the blood pumping.” He looked at Camilla as he said so, winking at her. She laughed, surprised that an older man, a stranger, was flirting with her, but pleased all the same. She rose from her place on the sofa, meeting the man at the screen door. She came up to his chest.
Camilla opened the door, moving cautiously as a bit of sweat had pooled under her arms throughout the day, allowing the stranger in. It banged shut behind him. Tucked into the waistband of his jeans was a gun.
“We don’t like the heat,” Amelia stated matter of factly.
Above, the ceiling fan rocked rhythmically, pushing cooler air down upon them.
“You don’t?” he asked them before turning toward Camilla and saying, “Not a fan of the heat on your skin?” The light brown eyes stared at her with careful intensity.
“A little heat is okay,” Camilla whispered, in a voice slightly more breathy and deeper than normal. Her eyes darted back to bulge of the gun and he turned slightly away from her, as if to obscure her view of it.
“What are your names, girls?” His eyes wandered the floor, the hallway, as he asked, and he took another step into the house until he was equidistant from the girls, forming a triangle with them. Amelia was still crouched on the sofa, her legs tucked under her. Camilla cleared her throat, embarrassed to have ended up stuck by the door and feeling that she was merely cowering at the mouth of the home. She wanted to catch Amelia’s eye, see if she had noticed the gun as well, but couldn’t. “Camilla,” she said, remembering the introduction. She stopped, as if debating whether to go on and give her sister an identity. “And Amelia,” she finished.
As she spoke, he turned to her, his eyes glancing her up and down before sliding forward to take in Amelia fully. Finally, back still to the wall, he moved his gaze to the record player, the table with the glass paper weight and chair, tacky in its plush green floral cushions.
The man moved away from them, walking to inspect the player and the record in it, a Beatles album. He picked up the album case and brought it to his face, resting it slightly under his nose. Then he dragged it, breathing deeply across the cardboard case, inhaling its scent. The record had stopped and the house was silent, but Camilla imagined the soft thump of the record case being set down as the bang of his gun. Then he turned to the girls, the tips of his fingers still on the album, and bowed slightly, “Honored.”
The front door clicked shut behind Camilla, the lock snapping into place. Her knees went momentarily wobbly. She wished he were running his nose up her arm, breathing in her scent, her arousal—then stopped the thought as suddenly as it arrived, remembering the sweat.
“And your name?” she asked him.
“Charlie,” he said, a smile on his lips as he stared at Camilla. There were a few beats of silence until Charlie continued, saying, “Your mother asked me to stop by. To check on you.”
“What for?” Amelia asked. She appeared glued to her position on the sofa, except for her eyes, following Charlie as he moved the needle back onto the record. The gun sat proudly against his back. Guitar chords filled the room as opening notes of “I Saw Her Standing There” began playing.
“Oh,” he said, turning around to the face the room again, “to make sure you girls hadn’t gotten into any sort of trouble.” He lifted his eyebrows at Camilla, who laughed, delighted at the idea.
“What sort of trouble could we get into? We’re just two girls,” she said.
“Girls are ripe for trouble. You, especially.”
Camilla and Charlie stared at one another. She looked away in mock shame, her cheeks flaring red but he kept watching at her.
Amelia wanted him gone. Mrs. Smith hadn’t told her a man was coming to check on them, not that she would ever think to have a man come to check on them. It was true Mrs. Smith didn’t leave them alone often, but wouldn’t she, Amelia wondered, say something about a man coming by? Or would that defeat the purpose of his checking their goings-on? Amelia’s thoughts spun. If they knew someone was coming, would they not be more likely to stay in check? But they hadn’t known he was coming, she argued inwardly, and they were perfectly behaved. It made no sense to her. And now there he was, this man who had come to see them, in the house, having done his duty and remained, sizing things up with his light eyes and penetrative gaze. He studied everything. He moved without the swagger he’d had before, carefully now, picking up the paperweight, removing books from the shelves.
In the moments between songs, a noise interrupted the silence.
Horrified, Camilla’s hands flew to her stomach. Amelia forgot herself, laughter bursting out of her. Charlie looked at the clock on the wall. It read 7:15.
For the second time in mere moments, horror filled Camilla. She had forgotten supper.
“I think we have something in the oven,” Camilla muttered, eager to escape the room. In her novels, the women did not cook for themselves; there was always someone else to do it for them. But Camilla now found herself having to take the food out on her own, dress it on her own, even serve it singlehandedly. And Camilla did not know the first thing about such tasks. She had never thought to learn. Agony seized her. How was this man ever going to adore her if she could not even get supper on the table on time?
She left, dread at having to face the oven nearly overwhelming her. For Charlie, Camilla vowed, she could do it.
The kitchen, though Camilla had entered it before, was a room of mysterious contraptions. A towel hung on the oven’s handle and Camilla took it, wrapping it around her hand, before opening the oven door and pulling out the chicken. Sweat prickled up her arms at the heat. Next she removed a knife from its wooden holding slot and stuck it through the bird’s skin. She sawed, cutting chunks away and filling up a set aside serving platter with pieces of various size and thickness.
As she worked, Camilla suddenly wondered if she could get used to this exercise. She’d tied an apron around her waist and set a pot of water to boil for a box of mashed potatoes she’d found in the pantry, pulling out a can of gravy along with it. Yes, if it meant Charlie, Camilla could behave like one of the other characters in her novels, one of the unnoticeables, waiting for her prince to arrive.
When she went into the dining room, the man was already there. Charlie took the plates and cups she was holding and set them around the table, three of each.
“Is he staying?” Amelia asked, having come in behind them.
“Certainly,” Camilla and Charlie said together. Validation that he had come for her blossomed in Camilla’s chest. Charlie laughed, showing straight, white teeth. “I should, so your mother knows I did my job in coming to make sure you ate.”
“I thought she just wanted you to check on us,” Amelia said.
He didn’t answer.
“I just don’t understand why she would ask you to do it,” she continued.
Irritation flickered around his eyes.
Camilla came back, holding the food in either hand, and said, “Because she did, Amelia. Drop it.”
Amelia glowered at them.
The trio moved to sit around the small, round table, Charlie placing himself between either girl. Upon sitting down for supper, he had removed the gun from his waistband and set it between the three of them, as naturally as if it were table salt. They chewed the roasted chicken in silence, save the Beatles album, still playing faithfully in the other room. The chicken pieces, dried after staying in the oven an hour too long, were worked with effort between their teeth.
“That’s a very nice gun,” Camilla said to break the quiet. Really, it scared her a bit, sitting, hard and prominent between them. She was afraid to move, for fear it would strike.
“What’s it for?” Amelia asked, gracelessly, food bits showing in her mouth.
“Well, for safety of course. You never know when you’ll need it. Danger can come from anywhere,” he said. His eyes never left her face.
“I think it’s very brave,” Camilla said, in an attempt to impress him. “I like it. I’ve always wanted to learn how to shoot a gun.”
“You would never. Our mother doesn’t believe in guns,” Amelia stated, staring pointedly between them.
“Women don’t need to have guns. Guns are a man’s invention, for men. A woman wouldn’t know what to do with a gun.” Then he turned to Camilla, adding, “But I could teach you to shoot if you prefer. But if a man is around, a woman would never need to shoot a gun.”
Camilla liked this idea, the male protectorate. It was like something out of one of her novels, only in those the men usually wielded swords and daggers, rather than guns.
“Unless, that is, your boyfriend would object?”
A furious pink bloomed in Camilla’s cheeks. “Oh, I don’t have a boyfriend,” she whispered, glancing up at Charlie through her lashes.
“No boy wants her,” Amelia declared and Camilla’s head shot up at her sister’s words, loathing in her eyes.
“Impossible,” said Charlie, and he examined Camilla with what she thought was a look of wonder, before closing his lips around his fork and drawing it from his mouth like a silent charm.
The plate Camilla had piled with dried chicken, boxed mashed potatoes, and canned gravy, and set in front of Charlie was empty. “Are you finished with you meal, Charlie?” she asked him, rising from the table.
“Yes!” he answered, smiling, ever the gentleman. “It was delicious, Camilla. You really know how to make a man happy.”
Camilla blushed and gathered the dirty dishes. As she picked up his plate, his hand went to her back, sliding down until it reached her rear and squeezed lightly. The knife on Charlie’s plate clattered to the table as she jerked with his touch, hitting the gun. It spun, slowing its pace until it landed on her.
While the girls were in the kitchen, Charlie—it was his real name, a careless mistake on his part, giving his real name to a couple of idiot girls who wouldn’t keep their mouths shut once he left—stood up and walked back to the main room, eyeing the tasteless furniture and geometric décor. It was stupid of them to leave him alone. The older one, Camilla or Camille—he couldn’t remember—he could use to find the money. A little virgin like her, pink all over and sweating at the sight of him, would do anything he asked. The younger girl he could force, if it came to that. She would be fun, unlike the other who would give in too easily. But he wasn’t there to satisfy his cravings. He was there to look for the money.
It was pathetic how easily the woman fell for it all. The meeting—unimportant though its origins were—the letters, the sob story. His friend hadn’t needed to promise anything. He made vague statements, left things unanswered and never closed them either, and it had worked. Charlie was almost sad it had worked so easily. It was worse if they didn’t at least try to maintain some dignity instead of falling head over heels for the first man to look at them.
Regardless, he thought, he was here for a reason.
From the other room, Charlie could hear the whisperings of the girls, water running and dishes clattering. He quickly strode down the hall, looking into the bathroom as he went; perhaps there was a crystal cup he could snag and sell for cash, an heirloom mirror. He moved rapidly, going to the bedroom in the back of the little house. It was nestled like an egg, so innocent and quiet. He softly shut the door and went to the dresser. An old chestnut thing with heavy drawers he had to lift slightly so they wouldn’t squeak while being pulled open. Underthings, nightdresses, pantyhose, garters—the slut, he thought to himself, working his fingers through the lace and satin, searching for a pile of bills. No wonder the girl was so ready for him, he thought, what with such a mother. Charlie balled the clothes in his fists, his breath coming in deep puffs. Where was the damned money? They had to have something hidden away.
He turned sharply, exasperated and frustrated at the debt he owed Greysey that put him in this situation. Then his eyes landed on the vanity. Atop it were various shades of lipstick, pearl earrings, necklaces. A bottle of perfume.
With a slow reverence, as if this would be the moment of his reckoning, he turned slowly and walked, spellbound, to the vanity. He slid open the drawer, committed to the task at hand, but his eyes remained on the perfume bottle, entirely missing the envelope sitting inside its wooden home. The bottle beckoned his hands closer. He picked it up, brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply before releasing a shuddering breath. Slowly, he unscrewed the lid of the porcelain bottle and brought the cap to his face. He drew it under his nose, leaving a faint wet mark across his upper lip. Then he slid the cold stem onto either wrist, capped the bottle and set it gently back in its place, on a lace doily. His wrists, he brought up and wiped beneath either earlobe. Only afterwards, did he see the envelope, grab it and, folding it tightly, put it in the front pocket of his jeans.
But when he turned around the door was open, the girls there with horror on their faces, and the younger one, with the gun in her hand.
Charlie stopped. Not frozen, but calculating. What had they seen? He hoped it had only been him taking the money.
“Girls.” His mouth quirked slightly up and his eyes flashed between them. They settled on the younger one. “Now what are you doing with that?” His eyes went to the gun and he tilted his head slightly to the side.
Camilla—or Camille, or whatever it was—was silent. The other spoke. “We saw you. We saw you take something.” So they hadn’t noticed his moment of pleasure, he thought.
Charlie could see her swallow. Her arms were trembling. If she tried to shoot the gun, there was no way she would manage to hit him. Likely she would shatter the mirror behind him, or even bury the bullet in the wall, injuring herself in the process with the recoil.
He moved to go towards them, the two feral cats. “Why don’t you give me my property, little girl?”
“Give us what you took first,” she said. Tears welled in her sister’s eyes. Not from fear, it seemed to Charlie, but betrayal. Her eyes were searching him; looking desperately to find the thing in them she had thought she’d seen earlier.
In a single movement, his hand reached out and he lunged forward to grab the gun.