The Favor by Nora Murphy: Cover Reveal and Excerpt
By Crime HQSeptember 13, 2021
Friday, May 3
The key is to go to a few different stores. I used to always go to Jerry’s Liquors on Bonifant Avenue. I was a regular. Too regular. Jerry’s mouth started to form a thin line when I’d come in. I could see the conflict on his face. He was glad for the business, but judgmental about the frequency of my visits.
Don’t make this hard on me, his face seemed to say. Don’t make me feel bad for you.
Jerry, like so many others, didn’t want to be bothered with sympathy.
Now, I don’t go to Jerry’s anymore. I have five other stores I frequent, all within a fifteen-mile radius of my house. They all think I’m a regular. A devoted and loyal customer.
They’re all right.
Typically, I stop by each one once a week. One store per day, Monday through Friday. I like to go in the early afternoon. Always after three, but usually before four.
My favorite store is Pine View Liquors on Main Street. My Friday store. It’s a little bit bougie, amid the boutiques selling clothing of the type I used to wear in my former life, and restaurants serving tapas and crepes, and houseware shops displaying accent chairs to be admired but not sat upon, and teakettles to be visible in the background of Instagram posts but never used, and candles to be sniffed but not lit on fire.
In addition to beer and wine and liquor, Pine View sells bags of kettle chips that shimmer with oil, colorful artisanal sodas, and specialty chocolates stuffed with PB&J, salted caramel, and cookie butter. I always load a few such items into my basket to distract the cashier from the fact that I’m a five-foot-four woman purchasing seven hundred and fifty milliliters of Grey Goose vodka, just as I do nearly every Friday.
It was in Pine View Liquors that I first saw her.
It was like looking at myself, nine months ago.
Her jeans were neither light nor dark, just blue. They grazed her ankles and the hems were frayed purposefully, rather than from wear. I knew, because I have the same ones. A flowing white blouse rested at the level of her narrow hips. She was wearing taupe espadrille wedges—closed toe, it was only May, not quite open-toe shoe season in Maryland. But her fingernails were a shiny coral hue and I could only assume her toenails matched. Her deliberately golden blond hair was loosely wavy, as if she had braided it when wet the night before.
This morning, she woke up, undid the braid, sprayed dry shampoo at the roots and hair spray at the ends and tousled them, for a beachy-looking effect. I could almost see her doing it. She may have wound a few sections around a curling iron for several seconds to enhance the definition of the waves, for a more polished look.
That’s what I used to do.
Her mouth was twisted in concentration as she inspected the wall of white wine. The sunlight filtered in through the abundant windows on the front wall of the store, reflecting off the silky-looking yellow liquid filling the bottles, and casting a warm glow across her pretty face. The shelves of wine are in the front of the store, near the windows, while the bottles of liquor and the people who buy them, people like me, are relegated to the back.
Finally, she selected two bottles—one Riesling and one sauvignon blanc—and carefully placed them into her red plastic basket, which already held a six-pack of beer. An option for those who like something sweet, and an option for those who don’t. But what about everyone in between?
I stood frozen at the edge of the aisle, watching her, but she paid me no mind until she turned away from the shelves. She moved out of the aisle, smiling slightly at me as she passed, the way strangers in close proximity do when they don’t feel threatened by the presence of the other person.
I took her place in the aisle, still fragrant from her presence, and added the same two bottles of wine to my own red plastic basket, even though I’m not usually a wine drinker. Not anymore.
The bottles clattered against each other and the Grey Goose as I followed her to the checkout line. I pictured the bottles shattering from the force of being knocked together, the liquid gushing to the floor in a waterfall, soaking my yoga pants and sneakers, the woman turning to look at me as I melted to the floor in embarrassment.
That didn’t happen, and I didn’t know whether I wanted it to, or not.
But I had become the sort of person to whom something so shameful might happen. Not like her. Her bottles would never shatter. Mine wouldn’t have, either, back then.
On my way to the checkout line, I tossed a bag of chips and two chocolate bars into my basket. I didn’t notice which flavors I selected, and that’s because it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t taste them anyway.
I stood in line behind the woman, approximately two feet away. I imagined that I was her. I wished that I was.
And I almost laughed. Because I used to be.
I could see a single gray hair sprouting from the back of her head. It must have been missed when she last had her highlights done. I resisted the urge to reach out and pluck it for her.
I have started to notice a few gray hairs on my own head as well, even though I’m not quite thirty. They’re mostly underneath the top layers of hair, around my ears. I, too, used to sit in a black leather swivel chair for three hours every few months while a woman whom I knew very superficially would paint odorous dye onto my head and fold sections of hair into the same aluminum foil used to roast potatoes or salmon. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, and I don’t plan on resuming the dreaded ritual any time soon. I have no need for dyed hair, for multifaceted tresses, for covering grays. Not anymore.
Last Wednesday, when I awoke in the basement guest room, my head pounding and pulsing like a car full of teenagers, my mouth bone dry, I pawed at the nightstand, feeling for my cell phone so that I could check the time. Instead, I’d located a small cardboard box. I’d held it inches from my face trying to make out the words.
Permanent hair color. Ash blonde.
I hadn’t purchased it, and I hadn’t put it there. I’d thrown the box across the room with strength I hadn’t known I possessed.
My only thought: I wish I could lock him out.
Abruptly, the woman turned. My mouth fell open in surprise and I almost gasped. Almost, but I didn’t. I swallowed it down like a shot of vodka.
“Sorry,” the woman said. She smiled slightly at me again before moving out of her place in the line and ducking past me.
That’s okay, I wanted to say.
I wanted to, but I didn’t. Instead, I stepped forward and assumed what had been her place in the line. I glanced over my shoulder to see her standing in front of the rack holding bags of kettle chips. She selected two and put them in her basket. I turned away, focusing on the bald head of the man in front of me, watching as he stepped forward to pay for his six-pack of beer.
I sensed, rather than saw, the woman standing behind me.
Would she, I wondered, rip open one of the bags of chips before backing out of her parking spot, and eat one after the other on her way home, wiping jalapeño flecks and sea salt and black pepper onto her thighs, like I do? Would she open one of the bottles of wine and pour a few fingers into a stainless steel water bottle, waiting patiently open mouthed in her cup holder? Does she have a wine opener on her keychain, along with keys to her car and her house? I do. Even though I’m not usually a wine drinker—not anymore—I do. Would she sip from the cup as she made her way home, feeling the warm blush of relief burgeoning in her belly?
I felt the buzz of attention. I felt an oddly pleasant glow of affection toward this woman standing behind me. I didn’t know for certain whether she was looking at me, but I felt like she was. I wondered whether she was taking her turn, taking stock of my gray hairs.
Was she examining my once black but since faded to charcoal gray yoga pants? Was she seeing the way they stretched, with great difficulty, over my thighs and backside, which had, in the not-too-distant past, been as small and taut as hers? Was she looking at my oversized Georgetown Law sweatshirt—one of the few items I possessed that could still be considered oversized? Was she thinking that I looked sloppy and pathetic? Was she a person who had time for sympathy?
When the bald man spun away from the checkout counter, his cardboard carton of beer in one hand, his other tucking his wallet into unflatteringly too-tight jeans, I stepped forward and heaved my basket up and onto the counter.
“How are you?” said the cashier. It was a new cashier, which was strange. Usually Simran works on Friday afternoons. This cashier had a heavy brow and thick, dark eyelashes. He was very young and hopeful looking. He shouldn’t be working in a place like this.
“Great,” I lied. “How are you?”
“Great,” he echoed. He was lying, too.
Why bother asking, I wondered, when we never told the truth?
I looked at his name tag. It said evan. I wanted to ask if he had taken over the Friday afternoon shift. I wanted to know what happened to Simran, and why she wasn’t working.
I didn’t ask about any of these things because, although I wanted to know the answers, I also wanted to enjoy this modicum of anonymity. Evan does not see me as a regular. He does not realize that I’ll be back next Friday, around the same time, purchasing another bottle of vodka the approximate height of my calf.
He tucked each bottle, three this time—I was splurging today—into a brown paper sleeve with exaggerated care, before placing them into a cardboard box. He arranged the bag of chips and chocolate bars in the opposite end of the box after swiping them across the scanner.
He looked up at me, something not unlike surprise registering on his face. It was as if he had become so subsumed in packing up my purchases that he forgot I was there.
“May I,” his voice cracked, “see your identification?”
I smiled and reached into my wallet. I slid my driver’s license out and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he said, holding it in front of his eyes, making a show out of inspecting it, though I doubted he was even looking at my birth year or performing the requisite calculation.
“No problem. And thank you,” I said. “I’m flattered.”
It was a stupid thing to say, a shockingly unoriginal excuse for a joke, usually reserved for people much older than twenty-nine.
He laughed anyway, then handed my license back to me.
My total came to $93.40—much more than I usually spent—and I handed over five twenties. He accepted them like I had just handed him Monopoly money, froze for a few seconds, then sprang into action, punching at the keyboard, tucking the bills into their compartments in the money tray and pulling others out. He dropped some coins into my hand and I promptly let them fall into the Take a penny, leave a penny tray on the counter. I despise coins. I always have. Dirty and slimy and covered in germs and memories.
I feel the same way about cash, but I’ve no choice but to use it.
I can use the credit cards at my stores, and sometimes I do. But the credit cards provided too much information. Information I didn’t want him to have.
I slid the bills into my wallet and wrapped my arms around the cardboard box. I pulled it off the counter.
“Thank you,” I told Evan, and he smiled at me. I tried to smile back, but my lips wouldn’t obey. My heart was thudding in my chest. I could practically hear it, pounding, echoing, like someone dribbling a basketball in an empty gym. I turned away from the counter and my eyes were dragged toward the woman waiting in line behind me, as though compelled by a magnetic force.
Her eyes met mine, for just a second, before she flashed a small smile, identical to the one she had displayed when we had passed in the wine aisle, and stepped forward to load her items onto the counter.
I felt a faint blush creep across the back of my neck. I didn’t want her to think I was strange. I didn’t want to be caught watching her. And yet, I couldn’t seem to stop. It felt like looking into a mirror, to an earlier time. A simpler time. A happier, and more hopeful time. A time before I’d begun to drown in shame, to attempt to push myself to the surface and gasp for air.
I hurried toward the front door and burst out of the store, my last few seconds of quickness, of vigor, before the lethargy and inertia would set in. I walked to my Lexus SUV and placed my box on the front passenger seat, before climbing into the driver’s seat. I had purposely parked far from the doors to the store. It was my usual spot, by the hedges around the side. I park where I’m less likely to be seen. I reached into the box and lifted the paper bag concealing the bottle of vodka. I twisted the top loose, before pouring a few shots into the empty water bottle resting in my cup holder. I took a sip, feeling the lukewarm liquid run down my throat. It began to burn as it reached my empty stomach. I tore into my bag of chips, and crunched down on a handful, crumbs falling onto my lap.
“You are such a slob,” I said. “Disgusting slob,” I added as I watched her exit the store. “So sloppy,” I threw out. That one he’d said just the other day. I laughed as the woman loaded her brown paper bag into a navy Lexus SUV, a model or two older than mine.
I wiped my salty hands across my yoga pants and turned on my car. When the woman backed her SUV out of her parking spot, I did, too. I could have pulled out of the parking lot right behind her, but I waited for a car to pass first, so that there was a buffer.
I hadn’t made a conscious decision to follow her, but that was clearly what was happening, and it felt as if I were powerless to stop. Anyway, she was headed along the same route I take to get home. It could have just been a coincidence that I was one car behind her.
It wasn’t, but it could have been. I didn’t know her, but I wanted to. Know about her, at least.
It wasn’t a recognition. Not quite. It wasn’t that we’d ever met before. It was more like I’d seen her in a dream, even though I no longer dreamt.
There was something about this woman.
She looked the way I used to look. She drove a car just like mine. Did she live in a house like my house? What went on inside? Did things look idyllic from the outside? Was there hate and fear behind the pristinely painted front door? Or, was there love? Was there perfection? Was there everything I used to have? Everything I’d thought I had?
I needed to know more.
When we reached River Road, we passed the street leading to my neighborhood, continuing for another mile, before her turn signal began to blink. I slowed until she had made the left turn onto Orchard Grove, and then I followed.
The neighborhood appeared to be identical to my own—single-family, Colonial-style homes between three to four thousand square feet, two-car garages, close-clipped green lawns, professional landscaping, and luxury cars. I could tell that, like in my own neighborhood, paved walking paths were woven amongst the houses, connecting the streets together. There weren’t many people out. The younger kids weren’t yet out of school, and the nannies and au pairs hadn’t yet emerged from the houses to retrieve them. The homeowners weren’t home. Still hard at work, earning the money that allowed them to afford a neighborhood like this.
After hanging a right onto Apple Blossom Lane—all of the street names seemed to reference some type of fruit—I saw the woman’s navy SUV turn into a driveway up ahead. I kept driving, but I glanced toward the house, committing it to memory, as I sped past. It was light brick with green shutters and a side load garage. Several large, terra-cotta pots exploding with pansies decorated the front steps.
I turned onto Pear Tree Circle, which in fact curved, indicating that it was at least somewhat appropriately named. (I didn’t see any pear trees, although admittedly I didn’t know what a pear tree looked like.) I had planned to find a cul-de-sac in which to turn around, but in looking around me, I realized that Pear Tree Circle ran behind Apple Blossom Lane, and I recognized the light brick of the woman’s house. I cruised a little farther down the road to a spot that wasn’t directly in front of any houses, but also wasn’t too far from one, such that my car could still possibly belong to someone’s guest. The back of the woman’s house, glass doors, a patio, were visible from my parking place.
Anyway, I wasn’t worried. There’d be no complaints about my Lexus parked on the street. No complaints about a thirtyish blond woman sitting inside.
Besides, it wasn’t unusual, at least in my neighborhood, for nonresidents to arrive by car, park on the street, and stroll along the walking paths, pretending that they belonged, wondering what life would be like if they did. The residents didn’t like these outsiders who enjoyed the perfection of the neighborhood without paying upward of $4,000 a month on a mortgage, but there wasn’t much they could do about it besides cast disapproving glances as they went out for walks of their own.
I could simply be parked here, typing out a work email, before heading out for a walk. It wasn’t a bad cover story.
I drained the rest of my drink and turned my attention to the back of the woman’s house. I could see a flagstone patio with a built-in firepit, around which several Adirondack-style chairs were arranged, and a wicker sofa and armchairs with white cushions, which seemed highly impractical for outdoor furniture. I wondered whether she brought them inside every night, to protect them from the elements, as if they were her little children. I wondered whether she had any children.
I covertly poured a few more fingers of vodka into my water bottle and took a sip while I waited. For what, I was not sure.
Finally, I saw a car park on Apple Blossom Lane outside the woman’s house. It was a silver sedan, and through the trees lining the street, I caught glimpses of a woman approaching the house. She was petite and had a sleek black bob. Seconds later, another car pulled up. A door slammed, and the woman who had been approaching the house stopped, waiting for her friend to catch up. This woman was blond and very tall. They disappeared from my view, and again, I waited.
I drained my water bottle that wasn’t used for water and wondered whether I should just leave. I had no idea what I was doing or why. I was steeling myself to pull away from the curb and make the short drive home—I was confident I could manage the trip even after several drinks—when I caught a glimpse of movement on the patio. The trees were sparse. There was nothing to obscure my view, but for the distance between my car and the woman’s back door, across her backyard and the county land abutting it.
Three women, the blonde from the store and her two friends, had emerged from the French doors at the back of the house. The dark-haired woman was carrying two bottles of wine, the tall blonde had three wine glasses tucked between her fingers, and the other blonde, the host, was holding a basket full of kettle chips.
I watched as they settled down onto the outdoor seating. The woman from the store perched on the edge of an armchair while her friends sat down on the sofa across from her. They poured themselves healthy servings of wine and deferentially reached into the basket for chips.
I wanted something sweet to balance the salt and spice from my own chips, so I used my keychain to uncork my bottle of Riesling and poured a helping into my water bottle. The taste of the vodka lingered, but it still satiated my craving. I continued my reconnaissance of the women. After fifteen minutes, they had all sunk deeper into the furniture, becoming loose and heavy from the wine. The chips lay forgotten in the middle of the table. When the tall one threw her head back and laughed, I found myself smiling along with them, wishing I was one of them. I wished I was the sort of person who could spend a Friday afternoon sipping wine and chatting with her friends. I wished that I still had friends. The other armchair was empty, almost as if it were waiting for me.
The French doors opened again, and the blond woman from the store jumped. I did, too. I hadn’t seen any other cars approaching. I’d been so engrossed in the little party to which I hadn’t been invited.
This time, it was a man who emerged from the house. He was tall and fair haired. He wore a navy blazer over a Kelly-green crew-neck sweater.
The woman from the store popped up from her seat like she’d been burned by it. The man strode toward her, bent his head downward, and they kissed so briefly it was almost lost in a blink. My eyes were becoming heavy from the liquor and wine, but I could swear that she didn’t want to kiss him. The man stepped toward the friends and bent again to bestow a superficial cheek-kiss upon each of them. Everyone was all smiles and polite conversation, but there was something quite spurious about the whole scene. A cloud of tension hung over the little group, and when the man turned and went back inside, it only dissipated slightly.
The women continued to sip their wine and chat. A dog began to bark. A rumbling in the distance jolted me, and I was no longer sitting on the patio with them. The fantasy had slipped through my fingers and was replaced with reality. The wine was mingling with the Grey Goose and stomach acid. It felt like a corrosive combination, and I swallowed the urge to vomit. For once, I wished that my water bottle actually held water. I looked up to see a school bus rolling down the street, toward my car. I turned on the engine and checked the time on the dashboard. 4:02.
The fun was over anyway.
I put my cardboard box on the floor of the car, hoping it would be less visible there, and that it wouldn’t spill. I did not want to spend the rest of my afternoon cleaning wine off the floor. It would be a nightmare to get the smell out. Not that the smell would bother me, but I expect it would get me arrested on the spot if I ever got pulled over, and that could not happen.
Drinking was an approved activity, when at home, behind closed doors. But drinking in the car? Drinking while driving?
That could get me killed.
Although, not in the manner one might expect.
I glanced at the women one last time before I pulled away from the curb. The blonde from the store was perched at the very edge of her chair again. Her shoulders were hiked upward, toward her ears. The light, the vivacity, had left her face.
I was no longer sure whether I wished I was her.
Copyright © 2022 by Nora Murphy. All rights reserved.