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Culture

Your Second Wife

An original short story from the author of The Third Hotel.

double exposure of a pond and flowers
Photo by Farah Al Qasimi

Gig Economy
The photograph arrives in a padded manila envelope, pressed between two sheets of cardboard. The picture is a head shot, with the blue-nothing background of a corporate portrait. The dead wife wears a starched white blouse and a black jacket. Gray irises like slivers of ice; a modest, toothless smile; tasteful gold studs in her earlobes. Her name is — was — Beth Butler, and she was killed in a hiking accident five weeks ago.

As a grief freelancer, this is not the first time I have received such a photo, nor is it the first time the photo has been mailed with such care. The husbands (I have yet to be hired by a wife) contact me at a designated email. I send them an online questionnaire and request a photograph be mailed to a PO box; I like to be able to hold the wives in my hands, and, as my sister has pointed out many times before, I can’t be giving these grieving husbands my home address. Next, I require three videos of the wives in their natural environments: delivering a work presentation or carrying a birthday cake into a crowded, singing room, or waving a sparkler on New Year’s Eve. Then I need a week to prepare, and then we meet. Between impersonating dead wives, I work as a part-time dog walker and a part-time landscaper and a part-time food-delivery courier. What an unbelievably exhausting moment to be alive, in this era of the gig economy.

The Overcoat
I never meant to get into this line of work, though I cannot deny that I have always enjoyed being other people. In college, I interviewed to be a wealthy woman’s personal assistant. Over lunch, she asked me if I knew the difference between “tortuous” and “torturous,” between “adverse” and “averse.” Once it was apparent that I did not, she told me that the ability to make these fine distinctions was a critical skill in a personal assistant and that I should not bother ordering dessert.

It was late fall, and the wealthy woman arrived wearing a magnificent fur coat, quarter-length and dyed lavender. When the woman went to the bathroom, she left her coat slung over the back of her chair and I walked out with it. I wore the lavender fur all through the winter and was transformed from a student who slept in the backs of lecture halls to one who made the dean’s list. Every time I took a test, I imagined being a young woman of great means, of waking each morning to find my future rolled out before me, free of obstacle.

Old Pal
I discovered my gift for impersonating dead wives quite by accident. It was the year after college, and I was planning on attending architecture school. I wanted to build skyscrapers. Then my best friend’s wife died of a brain aneurysm, and he did not leave his bed for a month. I was working part-time for a theater makeup artist, and I brought in a photo of my best friend’s dead wife and asked for her help. Three hours later, I turned up at his front door in a frosted blonde wig and tinted contacts and a prosthetic chin. I had even broken into his garage and gotten some of her clothes out of storage: a linen dress, strappy sandals, and a black cross-body purse.

“Let’s get going,” I said when he answered the door. His clothes were rumpled, his breath rank. He was barefoot, and his toenails had grown into small talons. “Or we’ll miss the movie.”

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We strolled arm in arm to the theater, as I knew he and his wife used to do every Sunday. After the matinee, we had a drink on the patio of a nearby restaurant, as was their custom, and I ordered her drink, an Old Pal, even though I can’t stand rye whiskey. I considered this flourish to be nothing less than an act of love.

“Forget about skyscrapers,” my best friend said as I walked him home. “This right here is your calling.”

Later, he told his grieving colleague about what I had done, and then I had word of mouth, and then I had cards for a business called YOUR SECOND WIFE. More photographs of dead wives came in the mail, and suddenly I had four part-time jobs instead of three and was too busy to apply to architecture school. Whenever I found myself in the Financial District, I would gaze up at skyscrapers and wonder what had ever happened to the person who longed to build such great and terrible things.

Marco Polo
YOUR SECOND WIFE is two years old, and my sister still thinks I’m a part-time prostitute. She lives in Australia, and we communicate primarily through an app called Marco Polo. Most mornings I wake to find a new video, usually filmed in her kitchen or in her bathroom, as she holds her toothbrush up like a saber. I hope you’re being careful, she tells me. I hope you’re using protection. Again and again, I tell her: NO SEX OF ANY KIND is among the first items on my contract, and I only meet grieving husbands in public spaces. I once had to turn down a job because the husband told me his dead wife was agoraphobic and never left the house. I have binge-watched all the seasons of Law & Order: SVU, so I know what’s out there. I’ll give my sister this much, though: while I am not exchanging sex for money, my most lucrative asset has still turned out to be my body. After YOUR SECOND WIFE hit the six-month mark, I felt awash in cash and treated myself to dental insurance.

The Claremont Killer
On this morning’s video, my sister says that the police have finally apprehended the Claremont Killer, who stalked the streets of Perth in the ’90s. The police have released footage that shows one of the victims outside a hotel, waiting for a taxi. She nods at a man lurking on the edge of the frame; the camera changes its view, and when it switches back to the hotel entrance the young woman is gone. My sister says that if you freeze the video, you can see the profile of the killer’s face, sharp and bright, like the fin of a shark hunting a night ocean. Until his arrest, he was the president of the Perth Junior Athletics Club. Today is the day I am scheduled to meet Beth Butler’s husband, and I know this is my sister’s way of telling me to be careful.

Part 3
Parts 1 and 2 of the questionnaire are similar to what a person would find in an application for a mortgage, if lenders accepted applications from the deceased; Part 3 is where the husbands run into trouble. This is because Part 3 forces the husbands to get into what they would rather not have known about their wives or to confront how little they understood their private worlds. What is the worst thing you ever suspected her of? When was the last time she burst into tears without explanation? What was her kink? Comb through her toiletries and send me the name of every lipstick color. Did she use pads or tampons or a menstrual cup? What brand? How long did her cycles last? Experience has taught me that nothing makes the husbands more uneasy than being interrogated about the menstrual cycles of their wives, and testing them a little — making sure they get uncomfortable and then seeing if they push on or not — is a safeguard, one way of assessing whether this whole Second Wife project is something they are prepared to want.

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Stockings
Beth Butler preferred Kotex tampons. Her lipstick colors were all classics: Lady Dangerous, Bruised Plum, Cherries in the Snow. Impersonating her will require a prosthetic nose, tinted contacts, highlights, and three teeth-whitening treatments, as Beth Butler had unbelievably white teeth. She was five foot eight, making it necessary for me to wear a kitten heel. From the video footage I learn that, irrespective of occasion or season, Beth Butler always wore the same tacky black glitter stockings, the kind a teenage girl might slide into on prom night in the name of festiveness.

Worlds of Mystery
When she was alive, Beth Butler loved visiting the planetarium. I meet her husband at the entrance, holding two tickets. “You’re late,” I say, because Beth Butler arrived early for everything and was thus always chiding people for running behind. I take his hand and together we sail through the planetarium’s dark rooms. We sit in a theater and watch a video called Moons: Worlds of Mystery. The moons that orbit across the screen look like giant marbles.

In the parking lot, I’m supposed to say, “I’m going to swing by the market and pick up clams for dinner” — Beth Butler’s signature dish was linguini with clams — and then head to the T, where the train cars would be crowded at this time of day, but the husband breaks the script by asking if I need a ride home. The clouds move swiftly above our heads. My glitter stockings itch. I say the line about the clams and then spin around. My heels are clicking fast across the asphalt when a shadow looms behind me and a lunging hand presses a white cloth to my face.

Uh Oh, You’ve Been Kidnapped!
I wake up in the dark trunk of a car, my wrists and ankles bound with rope, a square of duct tape over my mouth. I feel like my eardrums have been replaced by tiny bells. I am starting to suspect that poor Beth Butler did not die in a hiking accident after all.

This is the problem with the gig economy, I think as I squirm around in the trunk. Everyone is so vulnerable, and the rules for what constitutes civilized behavior — well, they’re coming apart so quickly, I’ve decided those rules were illusions all along. We have stopped seeing each other as people, as fellow travelers on this dying earth; we just see a gig or an economy. The men I deliver food to, the same ones who refuse to add a courier tip, offer me twenty bucks to come up to their apartments. The dogs I walk pull on their leashes and growl at birds, and the owners send me angry texts, demanding to know why their dogs, despite all these walks, remain so wild. Once, in a recital hall, a husband pinched my nipple, as casual as can be, during a Shostakovich performance; his dead wife had counted String Quartet No. 3 among her favorites. The system is designed to keep us so depleted that we forget our sense of decency and become so savage about our own survival that we have nothing left to contribute to the common good.

The car slides off the highway and creeps down a road. I imagine metal streetlights and vacant parking lots and shuttered box stores. The car turns again, bumps down another road, lurches to a stop. I hear the engine cut. I hear the driver’s door open and close. I make myself small in the trunk. I think of childhood, of little boys smashing snails with their fists. I wait for the trunk to pop open, but instead I hear his footfalls move farther away.

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In the early days of YOUR SECOND WIFE, my sister sent me an online tutorial called UH OH, YOU’VE BEEN KIDNAPPED! I grope the trunk’s carpeted interior until I find the release. Beth Butler’s husband is clearly an amateur, as the release has not been tampered with. He’s also failed to realize that once I shake off my kitten heels, the glitter stockings, made from a slippery material, will help me shed the rope from my ankles, as though Beth Butler herself has thrown me a lifeline from the Great Beyond.

I roll out of the trunk, feet first, my wrists still bound, my mouth taped. The car is parked on the glimmering edge of a lake. Beth Butler’s husband has left the headlights on and ahead I can see him kneeling on the ground and unfurling a roll of plastic sheeting, probably part of some twisted ritual he lacks the skill to perfect. Woods rise up behind me like gravestones. Even in the dark, I know I have been here before.

Walden Pond
Once I’m on the other side of the woods, I walk uphill on a quiet two-lane road. On the shoulder I pass a sign for Walden Pond and understand why the landscape looked so familiar. The last time I went to Walden Pond, my best friend’s wife was still alive. The day was hot and infested with flies. We ate tomato-and-cheddar sandwiches on the shore and then my friend and his wife took a nap under a giant tree. I walked the perimeter of the lake, and when I returned I noticed, from the faint twitching of their mouths and the involuntary tapping of their index fingers, that they seemed to be having the same dream, like two dogs linked in sleep.

I’ve always been a little in love with my best friend. He moved to another city last year and we have now lost touch, as people do. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if, during his time of grief, I had shown up at his door looking not like his dead wife but like my very own self. If I mistook kindness for cowardice. If I am just a person afraid to face the world unmasked.

Eventually I come upon a 24-hour diner called Helen’s Kitchen. The door chimes as I enter. The diner is empty except for two waitresses, standing behind the counter like strange twins, one on the left-hand side, the other on the right. They are both wearing forest-green aprons and holding white coffee carafes. They are wearing the same glasses, with pink cat-eye frames; their hair is pulled back into matching French braids. For a moment I think Beth Butler’s husband has murdered me after all, and Helen’s Kitchen is the afterlife. The woman on the left puts down her carafe. She walks over and rips the tape from my mouth.

“How can we help you?” she says, like a woman in my state is something they see every day.

I ask if Beth’s Kitchen serves alcohol, and the woman on the right disappears into the back and returns with a bottle of Fleischmann’s and three little glasses. They don’t remark on that fact that my hands are still bound. We sit in a booth, the two women across from me, and I realize both their name tags read Helen. I ask them if they’re the Helen, and they tell me the Helen has been dead for fifty years, but every woman who works here is made to wear a name tag that says Helen. The first Helen, the one who stripped the tape from my mouth, points to an oil portrait of the Helen, on the wall above the entrance to the bathroom, and there it all is: the forest-green apron, the pink cat-eye glasses, the French braid. Everyone is impersonating somebody.

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“Where did you come from?” the second Helen asks me. “And why are your teeth so white?”

“Walden Pond,” I reply.

“I hope you didn’t go swimming.” The first Helen explains that a steady increase in swimmers peeing in the pond has given rise to a virulent algae that now makes those same swimmers violently ill.

“Life is just a circle of destruction,” she adds, shaking her head.

The Helens pour us another round. I extend my arms across the table like a supplicant, and they begin to work on the rope around my wrists.

“How did you escape?” the second Helen asks, and I wonder if she’s asking because I came in with my wrists tied and my mouth taped or if because tonight is not the first time Beth Butler’s husband has tried to murder a woman at Walden Pond.

“I’ve had a lot of different jobs,” I explain. “I know how to do a lot of different things.” I pause and add that I also have to credit my sister, the only person who has ever looked out for me.

Pythagorean Identities in Radical Form
These days I have apps that track everything — how many steps I take, how much water I drink, every cent I spend — but what about the things that can’t be quantified, like the difference between kindness and cowardice, or the meaning of life? When I tell my sister about the incident with Beth Butler’s husband, I know she will plead with me to get a real job, but doesn’t she know real jobs barely exist anymore and not all of us are made to run off to Australia? The longer you stay in the gig economy, with its strange mix of volatility and freedom, the harder it is to get out.

When I leave the Helens, it’s four in the morning and the sky looks like the interior of a vast cave. I walk to the commuter rail, to catch a train back into the city. At the station, I pace circles on the platform and think about how I will explain YOUR SECOND WIFE to the police when I report Beth Butler’s husband. Maybe they’ll think I’m really a prostitute and was about to get what I deserved at Walden Pond. Either way, Beth Butler’s husband seems like an altogether incompetent killer, and I imagine he’ll be apprehended soon enough.

I peel off my prosthetic nose and leave it on a bench. I watch the glowing green numbers change on the platform sign.

4:21. 4:24. 4:32.

I can barely remember the math I studied in college, back when I still wanted to build skyscrapers, but sometimes the lingo returns to me, like a language I can only recall in fragments. Fractals. Pythagorean identities in radical form. The unit circle as a pie chart for how I have spent my life and where that time has gone. There is symmetry in math and there is grace. There are rules and there are ways to circumvent the rules. There is no chaos, or, rather, chaos exists as a set of theories, designed to help us navigate the most complex systems on earth. I remember a line from one of my textbooks: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. Translation: it’s all about the initial conditions.

I consider my own initial conditions, all the way back to when my sister and I played hide-and-go-seek in the woods behind our childhood home. With my inborn gift for ventriloquism I could make my voice leap from tree to clearing to creek, I could make my voice be where my body was not. I could adopt different characters and different languages, from the bits I picked up from TV or school. I was an attentive child; the word seemed like a bewildering place and I wanted all the knowledge I could come by. My sister always wanted to play this game even though it left her furious, but she is an optimist and she thought she could figure out my tricks. I agreed to play each and every time because I knew that she would never beat me, not as long as she remained uneducated in the art of being both everywhere and nowhere at all.

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Laura van den Berg is an acclaimed novelist and short-story writer. Her novel The Third Hotel was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.