Jane by Mathew C. Easterwood

It all started with an ottoman and an iron. The burnt-orange Mini Cooper pulled up to our Goodwill donation door, parked. Out she stepped. A small, whimsical creature with flowing brown hair. We were immediately transfixed. She opened a back passenger door, disappeared, came back into view with the dying, tan ottoman wrestled in her arms. The inexpensive iron sat atop—perilously balanced. As she approached, it happened. She smiled.

None of us have since been able to distinguish or categorize the smile. Too big to justify itself in the instance of donation. Bright and alarming—forcing you to both look at and return it. But it hides something, Tony said. We agreed. It’s her mask. Dazzling and disarming, and making you forget there’s something beneath.

Thomas approached her and nonverbally offered his help by putting his arms out. She obliged him. He says their hands touched. We have our doubts. She thanked him, and the voice was nothing like our expectations. The sound of wind forcing its way between two buildings, Cedric said one day. We quietly nodded our approval.

She turned away. Her hair bobbed gently in the commotion of her retreat. “Receipt?” Thomas managed the one word of our prescribed credo.

She paused as she entered her car. She seemed to be somewhere else. Pondering the arbitrary counterbalances—the weight of a slip of paper against an ottoman and iron. Then the smile returned, and we were all lost. Juan swears, to this day, that she shook her head as she smiled and entered the car.

Had the incident remained solitary, maybe it would have faded from our minds. Or maybe, as Cedric offered one day, such a moment would have stayed with us forever under any pretense. We’ll never know because, about two weeks later, the burnt-orange Mini returned.

There had been return returnees in the past, but her items and gap between visits were unique. From behind her passenger door, the second time she revealed a plastic grocery bag with boots—later determined to be in, at minimum, wearable condition—and a set of four salmon-colored plates with two mugs—one teal, one canary—shifting about the top of them.

Tony managed the approach this time. The rest of us stood befuddled. Her smile brightened and shattered his speech. It were as if language was lost. As if body became machine, following commands broken down in miniature. We tested him, asked what color the plates had been. He thought she had brought in another ottoman.

After the third visit, Cedric revealed he had been counting the days, estimating the hour, predicting the type of weather of her return. We humored him, said he was most obsessed. Privately, we each had individualized fixations.

Juan began going to the library and finding books on the psychology of smiles. He began to analyze our various levels of happiness or amusement based on how high our check bones lifted, how many teeth were visible, the position of our lips.

Thomas broke up with his girlfriend of months and began obsessing about Jane—as we had christened her.

(Juan had proposed Smiley, but we had agreed on the impossibility of diminishing her to even her most startling feature. When Cedric had suggested Jane Doe, pessimism filled the room, but no refute. In the floating silence, he had corrected to, simply, Jane.)

Not long after, Thomas began dating a skinny brunette. We saw the failed semblance. He then began rotating through skinny, smiling, brunette girlfriends.

Tony’s compulsion was less clear. A journal appeared. None of us asked at first. Then after Jane’s sixth return—a striped scarf, a coffee maker, and a box of college textbooks (ranging in subject from human anatomy to modern poetry), we saw him writing and asked. He revealed his charting and cataloging of her returned items.

The journal was absorbing. Patterns were estimated. Methods proposed. A hypothetical map of her apartment took form.

By this time, there was a calendar and betting system in place. Initials randomized on dates. Two names were allowed per date. Forty dollars (ten apiece) was put in the canary mug between returns. X’d boxes populated the dates between those filled with orange highlighter—her visits.

For fourteen months, Jane’s fifty-three returns were archived in two calendars—one of United States wonders, one of adorable puppies, and we existed in a merged reality revolving around the appearance of that burnt-orange Mini Cooper in our Goodwill returns drive. Then the orange boxes ceased, and X’s echoed to December.

Parts of us still reside in those calendars. We imagine in the fifty-three, fading, orange boxes. But we’re in the X’s. Marked and unmarked. Before and after.

Mathew C. Easterwood is taught by the children he teaches in Denver, CO, where he lives with his wife, Marisa, and their cat, Gatsby, among the humbled skyscrapers near the humbling mountains. He has previously been featured in Defunct magazine.