When the actress invited me, she was hiding in a large house in Kansas, moving from room to room like a black cat in the dark. Bending over the beds, she breathed on the faces of her many adopted children, covering them in her long thick hair. How did she have so many adopted children, and how could I have been so stupid not to realize I was now their nanny?
The Matcher House was in a rural area full of scrub bushes and cottonwoods where crows roosted, miles away from town. The actress would not tolerate intruders. When strangers began to peer through her gates near the oak trees that sheltered us, she posted NO TRESSPASSING signs and bought six large black dogs that barked when the leaves rustled or when voices called through the trees.
On rare evenings, the sky was as violet as the walls of her rooms where moonlight from the windows cast a pattern like veils on the painted doors. The rooms were odd colors she mixed on a whim—periwinkle, buttercup, lime, eggshell, and scarlet. We repainted a room every month, the precise color that suited her changing mood. She looked lovely in her dark dresses, standing in front of startling walls. Color influenced her personality. In the periwinkle room, she was calm, but in the buttercup room she was hysterical with laughter. In the lime room with the mauve curtains, she brooded, going into an introspective phase. She glided through the eggshell room on her pointed shoes, practicing the old steps of her childhood. In the scarlet room, she grew charming, played games, flirting with me while she smoked her cigars, attempting to seduced me as if I were a man.
She would hold a small leaf in her hand and stare at it for hours because certain greens made her feel more olive, alive, I mean. Her eyes were powerful. When she looked at me, it was like she was holding my hand or touching my face, as if she were feeling me shiver and I were locked in her gaze.
But what can I say of her eyes? I think too much has been said about eyes, and pretty soon words used too often pass us by like bats weaving above a balcony in the night. Because we cannot hear them, we assume they make no sound. As they dart above the trees, we rarely notice their presence even as they fly into the eaves of our houses. I did not know her, even though for a time I thought I knew her better than any other woman in the world. I knew I was a liar, and I know I’m a liar now, but I don’t want to say what her eyes looked like. My words would be no substitute for gazing into her irises. It’s meaningless to say that one night I thought her auburn eyebrows were rusted bridges leading to nowhere above her bloodshot eyes. Blue. I’m almost ashamed to say it that way; in one word, they were blue with pupils that constricted to pinpricks without warning as she shielded herself from the light.
No one who simply hears what I’ve said about her can see her the way I saw her—of all the people who saw her perhaps no two of them ever saw her the same way. She was like that, but so was everyone else I ever knew.
The actress was an old woman already, or at least she pretended she to be. Her body was ravaged from too much dancing in her youth, or so she said at night when she fell in the halls. I tried to catch her every time she stumbled. Because of her frailty, the house was equipped with a series of handrails. On her good days, she could run with the children through the fields or stretch her legs to their full extent, one foot above her head has she stood, her hands bracing her ankle. On her bad days, she couldn’t stand on her own. I had to bathe and dress her and help her stretch her legs. That’s how I knew she was pretending to be older than she was. When I glimpsed her naked body, it was the body of a beautiful young woman. Old woman, my ass, I thought. I never knew her true age, but underneath her long blue and black dresses, her body was more supple than my own. Shadowed beneath her long white wig, her small breasts stood high and firm, swinging from side to side only slightly as she struggled for balance. Her skin was smooth and elastic, fitting tight over her elegant bones. Sometimes I saw the white wig slipping from her head in the mornings while she slept. In the afternoons when I had to wake her, her real hair, thick and reddish brown, showed through.
The actress had a bathtub shaped like an old-fashioned red convertible in the middle of her bedroom. I turned the silver steering wheel to run the water, hot or cold. In the evenings, when she woke in her bed, she would walk to the car tub in the nude, stepping over the closed passenger-side door to sit down in the steamy hot water before honking the horn for service.
After her bath, I dried her body in soft fresh towels as music from the old bandstand echoed across the pond. The actress laughed and threw on her velvet robe. Shivering, she held my hand as we ventured out of the house to discover her children beating drums into the evening. We mended the old cello we didn’t know how to hold without dropping onto the deck. When the children threw the cello into the pond, it drifted toward the other shore and she whispered, let them play.
Aimee Parkison is the author of the novel The Petals of Your Eyes (Starcherone/Dzanc 2014) and two story collections, Woman with Dark Horses (Starcherone 2004) and The Innocent Party, (BOA Editions, Ltd., American Reader Series 2012). Parkison’s fiction has won numerous awards and fellowships, including a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, the Kurt Vonnegut Prize from North American Review, the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, the Jack Dyer Prize from Crab Orchard Review, a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, a Writers at Work Fellowship, a Puffin Foundation Fellowship, and an American Antiquarian Society William Randolph Hearst Creative Artists Fellowship. Residing in a house full of books, surrounded by owls and trees in beautiful Stillwater, Oklahoma, Parkison is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University, where she teaches fiction writing.