The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins
It is the absolute shittiest day for a walk.
Rain has been pouring down all morning, making my drive from Center Point out here to Mountain Brook a nightmare, soaking the hem of my jeans as I get out of the car in the Reeds’ driveway, making my sneakers squelch on the marble floors of the foyer.
But Mrs. Reed is holding her dog Bear’s leash, making a face at me, this frown of exaggerated sympathy that’s supposed to let me know how bad she feels about sending me out in the rain on this Monday morning.
That’s the important thing—that I know that she feels bad.
She still expects me to do it, though.
I’ve been walking dogs in the Thornfield Estates subdivision for almost a month now, and if there’s one thing I’ve definitely figured out, it’s that what matters most is how everything looks.
Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.
She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.
She doesn’t, though, which is fine, really.
It’s not like I give a fuck about her, either.
So I smile, tugging at the bottom of my army-green raincoat. “Came prepared,” I tell her, taking Bear’s leash. We’re standing in the front foyer of the Reed home. To my left is a giant framed mirror propped against the wall, reflecting me, Mrs. Reed, and Bear, already straining toward the door. There’s also a distressed wood table holding a bowl of potpourri as well as a pair of diamond hoop earrings, flung carelessly when Mrs. Reed came in last night from whatever charity function she’d been attending.
Charity functions are big around here, I’ve noticed, although I never can figure out what they’re actually raising money for. The invitations I see lying on end tables or fastened to refrigerator doors with magnets are a word salad of virtue signaling. Children, battered women, homeless, underprivileged: various euphemisms that all mean “poor.”
No telling what Mrs. Reed was supporting last night, really, but that’s another thing I don’t actually care about.
And I don’t let my eyes linger on the earrings.
Bear’s leash is smooth in my hand as I give Mrs. Reed a little wave and head out onto the wide front porch. It’s painted cement, slick in the damp, and my ancient sneakers nearly skid across it.
I hear the door close behind me, and wonder what Mrs. Reed will do this morning while I’m off walking her dog. Have another cup of coffee? Chase it with a Xanax? Plan some other charity function?
Maybe a brunch to raise money for kids who don’t know how to yacht.
The rain has tapered off some, but the morning is still cold, and I wish I’d brought gloves. My hands look raw and chapped, the knuckles an angry red. There’s still a light pink burn mark splashing across my skin between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand, a trophy from the last day I worked at Roasted, a coffee shop in Mountain Brook Village.
I remind myself that walking dogs sucks, but at least it doesn’t carry the threat of second-degree burns.
Bear tugs on his leash, sniffing every mailbox we come to, and I let him pull me along behind him, my mind more on the houses, the neighborhood, than on my charge. Behind every one of these McMansions is a bright green backyard, so it makes no sense that anyone would even need a dog-walker. But need is not a word people like this think of. Everything with them is want.
That’s what all these houses are about.
Mrs. Reed and her husband live alone on Magnolia Court in eight bathrooms and seven bedrooms, a formal living room and a family den, an upstairs lounge and a “gentleman’s study.” Every house in Thornfield Estates is like that from what I can tell. I’ve been in four of them so far because of course once one neighbor has a dog-walker, everyone else needs—wants—one. I work for the Reeds, walking Bear, and now for the McLaren family on Primrose Lane, walking their dalmatian, Mary-Beth. Then there’s the Clarks on Oakwood with their shih tzus, Major and Colonel, and Tripp Ingraham on Maple Way just hired me to walk his late wife’s Labrador, Harper.
All in all, it’s a good gig, certainly better than working at Roasted. Here, people actually look me in the eye because they want to be the kind of people who tell themselves they’re not assholes if they actually call “the help” by their first name. “Jane is like family,” Mrs. Reed probably says to the other ladies at the country club, and they all make simpering sounds of agreement and have another Bloody Mary.
My sneakers squeak as I walk down the sidewalk, and I think of my apartment, how it’s probably leaking in that one spot in the kitchen again, the ceiling a darker, dingy gray against the rest of the dingy gray. The apartment is cheap and not in a terrible part of town, but sometimes it feels like living in a little concrete box, and no matter how much I try to dress it up with posters from Target or pretty blankets I’ve picked up from thrift stores, the gray fights back.
There isn’t any dingy gray in Thornfield Estates.
Here, the grass is green no matter the time of year, and every house has flowerpots or window boxes, or huge bushes covered in colorful flowers. The shutters are bright yellow, navy blue, deep red, emerald green. If there’s any gray at all, it’s soft and elegant—dove gray, I heard Mrs. Reed call it. There’s a constant hum of activity from lawn services, carpet cleaners, and housekeeping vans going in and out of driveways, even on a rainy day like today.
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