Clemens monitored the parking lot lives of strangers from the comfort of his home office, where he’d spent seven years watching eight stacked security monitors for a Safe & Secure Living company out of Illinois.
He worked from home and since he worked from home there was no one to judge what he did with the images at hand. A busty brunette with a swooping neckline. A fumbling couple in the backseat of a parked car at night. No shortage of scenes to do the trick.
Clemens was married but his wife Marcella only screwed for babies—that was, potential ones. For her, everything was on a cycle—eggs this, fertility that.
No fun in fucking a bread machine.
He’d been faking it, or faking sickness ever since.
Shortly after beginning his security job, Clemens lost all interest in Marcella, both sexually and personally. He lived for the lives in those eight screens. He studied their clothes and hairstyles. Wondered about where they went at night and what scared them the most.
Most of the people he only saw once, but among them were a few regulars: teachers, lawyers, parking lot attendants. Or store clerks, like Sophelia.
Sophelia: not her real name but real enough to Clemens. He’d given it to her a couple years back while kneeling in church between Marcella’s coworker who sat openly nursing her infant son (the people in his screens would never do such a thing in public). With his hands pressed flat and pointed to the ceiling, he’d mouthed the name like a prayer.
Sophelia became the darling of Clemens’ voyeuristic vocation. It was uncanny how much she resembled a certain painting of Marcella’s hanging in the hallway. Same pale hair, blushing lips and high cheekbones.
Five days a week, five o’clock on the nose, the real Sophelia left her job at the mall and walked out to her car in Lot B.
He fantasized about meeting her there, with chocolates and flowers, wearing a crisply tailored suit. He’d say that he worked nearby and had noticed her during his cigarette breaks. That he was shy, but thought she looked like she’d be easy to talk to.
With his video surveillance equipment, Clemens was able to capture screen-stills at the push of a button. Something he did often—a print-out for every pretty young woman; photos stored in three-ring binders, labeled on a shelf as Surveillance Stills.
He spent so much time with Sophelia, in fact, that he’d come to feel responsible for her safety. Who else would watch out for her if not him?
He had close-ups of her every feature: the bend of a wrist, the stretched fabric of her patterned blouses, her flaxen sunlit hair framing her slender face. Clemens often cut out the pictures of her and shaped them into little dolls that would pay him compliments.
Dressed in his usual shades of brown, Clemens poured himself his morning cup of weak coffee, then walked down the hall to his office, stopping at the wall to pay his respects to the painted Sophelia.
They were so identical—painted and living—that he saw them now as one in the same entity.
Clemens wondered if Sophelia would want children the way Marcella did. He couldn’t be sure, but he didn’t think so. Sophelia seemed like a woman who felt more at ease with men than children. She would make the perfect mistress. She was young, lovely, and inspiring. An ancient muse with mythical methods of pleasuring men.
He allowed himself to talk to the painting no more than an hour a day, during which time he’d share with Sophelia his thoughts on crime statistics, how he dreamed of adding an additional security monitor to his stack, and how he dreaded Marcella growing big with child. Never before had he felt so unrestrained. No one, from his past or present, listened like Sophelia (painted, on screen, or in his mind).
That night, Clemens’ dreams lured him into Sophelia’s world, where he crept along the railing of an unfamiliar house. Everywhere was dark except for a trail of oil lamps, and at the end of the hall, flickering lights shone through a partially opened door. An invisible tug pulled him into the candlelit room.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” said a woman’s voice.
Before him, perched naked and immaculate atop an elegant bed, was the full-bodied figure of Sophelia.
Clemens climbed onto her blue satin sheets.
She drew him into her breasts and kissed his forehead, his temples, lingering at his mouth, telling him he was brilliant, he was handsome, he was powerful. That he was the only one for her. Clemens melted into her pillowy embrace and spent the night with her in infertile bliss.
At dawn he hit the snooze button and rolled over to tuck his face into the curve of Sophelia’s back, but in her place he found only an empty pillow. He looked up and saw Marcella at her vanity mirror.
“Good morning, Mr. Handsome.” She eyed Clemens flirtatiously in the mirror. “Still worn out? Last night was a long time coming.” She kissed the top of his head, affixed one last bobby pin and hurried out of the room.
What was with Marcella? Maybe she’d also had a good dream. Clemens relaxed back into bed and replayed his entanglements with Sophelia. He imagined leaving Marcella and her maternal instincts behind. With Sophelia he could be free, adventurous. She understood him in a way his wife never could.
“My darling,” said Clemens to Sophelia after breakfast, stroking the rough surface of her painted cheek. “Last night you gave me the greatest gift I could imagine.” He gazed into her unblinking eyes, remembering how they’d shone by candlelight, then he kissed her lips, careful to not flake off any of their delicate rose.
That night when Clemens went for a walk, he saw Sophelia’s body in the constellations, her face in the reflection of the moon. If only he could grasp hold of her in waking life.
Back at home, he found his office in disarray. An intruder—most likely Marcella, who was nowhere to be found; and by the looks of it: scissors wielded vengefully against the printed-out stills and paper dolls of Sophelia. The entire contents of binders 1-7—everything torn to shreds and scattered across the furniture and floor like so much matte-finish confetti.
Clemens imagined the scenario: Marcella, taking a newfound curiosity in his work, venturing into his office and discovering the hidden side of her husband’s life.
At least she hadn’t destroyed the painting. Yet.
Clemens paced over the slick, confettied floor, debating his next move. The weight of his right foot made one of the floorboards creak. Clemens knew the spot and stepped on it at least once a day, either to remind himself it was still there or because he sympathized with the lone weak floorboard.
In order to keep Sophelia ultimately safe, the painting would have to go. But where? When?
Tonight. Before Marcella returned.
He knew his wife. She was giving him time to let the message sink in, but she wouldn’t stay gone for long.
Cool sweat beaded up on the back of Clemens’ neck. He felt queasy, sick at heart. He rushed out into the hallway.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said to Sophelia as he lifted her painting off the wall. “I have a plan. You’ll be safer away from Marcella.”
And if he hadn’t known better, he could’ve sworn that she looked relieved.
He wrapped Sophelia in a garbage bag then loaded her in his car and headed out, backing out of the driveway and speeding across the state to Lake Ridge Mall, to where the real Sophelia worked.
He would park in Lot B, not too close, but close enough. He’d leave the painting for her as a gift on her windshield, then disappear as soon as he saw her face. (Her face, in person, he could hardly imagine!) He’d then go home and print more pictures—this time hiding them in fail-safe places.
At the very same moment that Clemens pulled into Lot B, Marcella returned to their home on the other side of the state to make amends with her husband. She loved him, after all, and all men made mistakes. If they were going to raise this child she now believed was growing inside her, she’d have to forgive and forget.
She walked into his office and was only half surprised to find him gone. Seeing the room disheveled like this, now from a place of emotional reserve, made her feel a bit melodramatic. But also: vindicated.
She felt around with her feet for the loose floorboard, brushing aside some photo shreds, then lifted it up with her fingernails.
From the brick-sized hollow, she lifted out a teddy bear hugging a bundle of stinging nettle—a strong fertility herb—and an infant’s onesie that she gave a sad look of affection and smoothed over her belly like so many expectant mothers before her, folding it into a perfect square, then repeating the process over and over as her mind wandered off in a daydream of bottles and balloons and blankets.
If Marcella were only to reach out and press a button on the top left monitor of Clemens’ security stack, her daydream would quickly turn to confusion, and then to horror.
She would see on the screen the black and white pixelated form of her husband, caught in a headlock by a security guard while he frantically presented Marcella’s painting to the woman in all his pictures, the woman who went not by the name Sophelia, but very plainly by Anne.
Marcella would question her devotion, her hopes and intentions. She would question marital bliss and motherhood. She would even question herself. But only if she knew where to look.
“The Big Gloom” by Have a Nice Life
“Poem of Ecstasy” by composer Alexander Scriabin