I once consumed 33 turkey legs in an evening. I was an extra, one of the flesh-eating zombies, in the 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead. The camera pans in from a hillside and there I am, gnawing on what is supposedly a human limb. Throughout the film shoot I had an almost insatiable appetite. I didn’t know I was pregnant at the time but the truth is, I’ve always needed to eat frequently. I thought about this as hunger and low blood sugar led me into a storefront on San Francisco’s Grant Avenue.
“Welcome, to Hermes,” a video greeted me as I walked in. The voice came out of a flat screen so flat I didn’t know it was there until an equestrian pattern swirled around its border.
I don’t like to eat on the street, but I still had a 20-minute walk home from my hair appointment so I figured I would pretend to try something on and nosh on the salted macadamia nuts I always carry in my purse. I’d eaten in dressing rooms countless times. I’d been banned from the now shuttered Loehman’s for doing it in the communal space with half-naked women. Apparently half-naked women don’t want another woman sitting there eating while they try on clothes.
I wasn’t pedestrian enough to think the store was called “Hermies,” I had gone to boarding school and Skidmore, but I had never known the exact pronunciation and found myself in awe of the quick, affected clip and emphasis on the first syllable that parlayed its way to a perfect-10, tight landing on the sting of a “z,” all coming from a subdued voice without a face.
“Air, mez” I whispered. “Air mez.” “Welcome to Air mez,” I said to myself. I felt like when I’d spent my junior year abroad, even though that had been in London and everyone spoke English.
“Excuse me?” asked a woman whose name must have been Genevieve or Vivian or Lucinda or Loquacious. A silk scarf tired around her neck made it impossible to figure out if her head was tied on or if it was just decorative.
“Do you need help?” she asked, scanning my black top and washed-too-many-times off-black skirt. She probably thought senior citizen when she looked at me.
“Welcome,” I said again for some reason.
“Let us know if we can assist.”
I nodded and looked around for the “we” but it appeared to just be her and a bulky security guard who eyed me. She went and stood with her incredible posture behind a marble topped desk. She gave off the air of someone who had a lot to do even as she stood perfectly still.
“Thank you,” I said, and “Welcome.”
She looked away as I scanned the pale Scandinavian wood floors interspersed with a tiled mosaic of a horse and chariots. A staircase curved down from above, making me fee like I was in the chic Upper East Side duplex that I had seen in the NY Times real estate section last Sunday. I stopped in front of a hermitically sealed glass case featuring a purse.
“How much is this?” I asked the security guard because he had maneuvered his way from the corner to next to me.
“If you have to ask,” he began.
“You can’t afford it,” we said in unison and he smiled.
“More than 30k he said. That’s what I make in a year. The crazy thing, it has the same name as my wife. Kelly.”
“I get it,” I said. I instantly felt like a fraud. The truth was until recently I had never worried about money but nonetheless, I would never spend thousands on a handbag. Glenn had afforded me a comfortable lifestyle but we were never extravagant. And now I was retired.
I looked across the room at the open shelving of color-coded purses. It was a lifesize candy box of luxury.
“Where’s the restroom?” I asked the security guard. I doubted they even had a dressing room.
He pointed down a small hall.
I walked in. A chic square sink greeted me. A Japanese toilet lifted its lid.
“Welcome to Hermes,” It said.
“Welcome,” I said back. I started to wish I had been a flight attendant, or at least a parrot, but now, at 70 years old, it was probably too late for both.
The bathroom in Hermes was not really a bathroom. It seemed unfathomable that anyone had ever unbuttoned anything to expose their genitals in this stunning room. The toilet lid gently slid down when it sensed no action. It was topped with a perfectly molded square of soft bamboo that looked almost like a child’s pillow.
I surveyed it. Could I? Eat the nuts, here? On the toilet? It was Hermes after all.
But no. Years of ingrained thinking that toilets and eating do not mix, no matter how much the feeling of extreme privilege swirled around the room that was larger than my apartment. Even here, I just could not take seat on the heated floors and snack on a toilet lid. Instead, I sat down on the bamboo square and took of my shoes. I wiggled my toes. For the first time in a while, I felt good.
A few minutes later I stood up and placed my hands under the automatic faucet. The ideal temperature of water—slightly elevated from luke warm to a degree I had never felt making me think it was personally curated to my body temperature trickled out, tickling my hands in a way that I had not been touched since my husband had left me a year ago. I pushed the lever on the gold and orange hand pump. The smell of light citrus and a wild berry that I imagined could only be cultivated in some obscure part of Switzerland permeated the room. I pulled my hands close to my face. My digits had never smelled so good. I heard a light knock at the door and ignored it. They’d have to wait. I was getting my small moment of luxury. I moved on to the hand lotion that stood next to the soap. A matching sent. I inhaled. It was so intoxicating I took a seat on the white chair in the corner, made of fur or maybe it was a sheepskin flown in from Santorini. I closed my eyes. Just for a minute, I tell myself.
When I come to I feel wonderfully dizzy and happy. Something I haven’t felt in months since my husband’s affair and then marriage to a woman who had inherited her family’s cosmetic empire. She had quickly moved him into her house in Torrey Pines at the tip of San Diego to “minimize the stress for all involved” as she had said the one time we had come with my face to her cosmetically perfect face. I got my San Francisco, lower Nob Hill rental and left him with packing up and selling our Noe Valley home where we had lived for forty years, and raised our now grown daughter, Lula, who had left shortly after for college in New York. We had a nice bathroom there with double sinks and heath ceramic tile but nothing like the space I was standing in.
I move the gentle lock above the gilded doorknob of the bathroom and step out in a twilight hue from a setting sun. The scarf woman and security guy are gone. The lights are off. I walk to the front door of the store and push. It doesn’t move. I am locked in luxury.
“Welcome,” I say to no one.
My first thought after the initial exhilaration is that I will be arrested and that I’ve somehow gone seven decades without that happening until now. I imagine The San Francisco Chronicle article with the headline “Luxury Boutique Stowaway Gets 20 Years.” I immediately take out my cell phone to call 911. No bars. Hermes must be a tech-free zone. I’d read about these recently. I imagine a corporate meeting where they decided the outside world was a nuisance to those who are here to immerse themselves in the finer things. I move to the marble desk the scarf woman had stood behind. It’s topped with a lovely gold phone beside an empty note pad. I pick up the receiver. I pull it close to my ear and realize it has no cord, or dial tone. A luxury prop.
I look out the front glass door at what is quickly becoming a dark Grant Avenue in downtown. No one is on the sidewalk on the cusp of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I flip a light switch on and one small stream of track lighting comes on. The perfect warm hue trickles into the space. It is reassuring and almost womb-like.
I decide I will wait until someone finds me and at least enjoy myself until then. I will explain about the nuts. That I had come in to have a quick snack and fallen asleep. They will just have to believe me. I had no criminal record. Not even a parking ticket and I will pull my old lady card I’ve started using.
Coming to terms with my plan I ask myself, can I survive in Hermes overnight? I haven’t packed provisions or clothing but luckily I carry my blood pressure meds, just in case of an earthquake. I open my purse. I have another bag of unopened macadamia nuts and some Velemints. I will check upstairs and see if there is a staff refrigerator and assess what’s there but I assume the staff here eats air or seaweed or those horrible chia seed bowls my daughter had been on me to try.
I slowly climb the curved staircase to the second floor. I give a quick look over my shoulder to an imaginary suitor as if to say, “I’ll be right back and then you can take me to that champagne bar.”
Upstairs is a small room that I assume is some sort of VIP section for celebrities who need to rest on the pristine gold fainting couch when they tire of buying luxury goods. I walk the perimeter of the room and find a small fridge disguised as a marble cabinet filled with Dom Perignon. I grab two bottles. I move through the archway into a larger space where a dining table is set up with display tableware. I guess the company has morphed from just purses to home goods. Cream porcelain dinner plates are topped with a smaller, salad version with a gold etched horse in the middle. There are cups and sauces in a matching pattern alongside wine glasses. Oddly, no flatware. I guess the wealthy just will the food into their mouths. I pull a Velemint out of my bag. The top one is dusty and matted with purse lint so I throw it back in loose and unpeel the roll of candy. There are six indented square mints left. A decent start for a meal, I think to myself. I pull out the nuts and circle around the table, placing a mint and few macadamias on each of the plates until my bag is empty. I dig deeper in my purse and find a Keebler peanut butter cracker packet with two left so I spit it into two more so I have four and add those to the place settings closest to me. I open the champagne and pour some in each glass.
I sit down at the head of the table and pick up the gold-engraved goblet. “Cheers, I said to my imaginary guests. Welcome to … my home. “
“I’m so glad you could join me on my first holiday alone.” I say to no one. “As you can see, I’ve landed quite well since the divorce.”
The truth is tomorrow will be my second Thanksgiving alone. I can’t believe how much time has gone by and I still feel as lost as when I’d first moved in 15 months ago. Last year I bought a small, overcooked turkey breast at Mollie Stone’s and opened a can of green beans. I knew my ex- was having a feast at his now second home in Napa with his makeup heiress and her family because I had seen his Facebook posts that morning even though I had vowed not to look. Our daughter had declined to come back from the East Coast last year and this year in favor of going to her in-laws in the Hudson Valley and for a moment I was grateful thinking if something happened here at Hermes, she wouldn’t be the one to bail me out. It would be one more reason for her to criticize me.
“Darhleeng,” I say in a long, drawn-out drawl and taking a sip of my champagne, “Can you please pass the pheasant?”
I quickly get up and go to the seat next to me. “Certainly, Ophelia,” I say back to my now empty chair.
When I played a zombie in the 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead, I wasn’t one of the naked actors though they asked. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it but even at the age of 18, I was too shy to walk around being filmed without clothes and my mother was still alive. I couldn’t embarrass her in front of her devout Christian friends. I did get one of the close-ups though, a big deal for any aspiring actor. The camera pans in and there I am, chewing on an “arm” from Larry’s barbecue joint. Maybe that’s why Thanksgiving turkey dinner is not something I ever really looked forward to, even before my divorce.
I thought the role was my big break. After Skidmore, I had gone to Yale drama school and many of my classmates like Meryl Streep, had gone on to have major careers. A professor had gotten a few of us an audition for the movie. I didn’t know until weeks after filming that I was pregnant with my daughter Lula, and the movie would be my first and last. Lula had always been quite disdainful that I did the film because she said technically she is also in it without her permission or payment and she used to say as a teenager, “Mom, if you bring up The Living Dead one ore time, I’m going to literally die,” while she fell to the ground, pretending to choke herself. She was always a drama queen but refused to do theater in school because she said she didn’t want to be anything like her mother. I don’t think I brought it up that much but in our Bay Area circle it was quite a fun fact that housewife Dorrie Lewis had been in a major movie. “Here comes the movie star,” the wives used to joke at our dinner parties. I kept my good looks for a long time and my husband, Glenn had seemed proud of me that people had found me of interest beyond being a housewife.
God bless his soul, I think as I sit back in the armed Chippendale-like chair and take the last sip of champagne from my goblet. But Glenn isn’t dead, I remind myself, Just remarried.
My hair appointment near Union Square just hours ago seems like months ago when the bustle of office workers going to lunch and traffic in and out of the Stockton garage created a universal buzz downtown. I had asked Sean, an overpriced stylist that had bee recommended to me by someone in my book club, to make me look like an early photo of Sophia Lauren. I held it up to him on my phone. He barely glanced at the screengrab of her with shoulder length tousled brown hair that made her look both classic and wild with an off center part, a few strands brushing against her almond-shaped eyes. “But you’re gray,” he said, “You want color too? You only booked a cut.” “I was just thinking of the length,” I said, “Maybe a few layers?” I was already humiliated when he asked, “Is she related to you?” “Who?” I asked. “The woman, in the photo,” he said, picking up his sheers. “Oh,” I said, “That was me, when I was much younger.” He nodded and started to clip and I thought about the hair and makeup trailer on the set of The Living Dead. The Zombies had been shuffled in two at a time. After a pale base the male and female zombies eyes were linked in heavy, inky makeup. I remember my mouth was outlined and filled in with a thick orange lipstick, and at the time I had no idea Romero was shooting us in black and white and I wondered why a dead person’s lips would be so vibrant. He was brilliant.
We had been directed to keep our arms out straight in front of our body for hours and I remember feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. The zombies had been scheduled for a day and a half of shooting but it had morphed into three. I lost my job as a waitress in New York at the time because the movie had filmed outside of Pittsburgh and I hadn’t been able to come home for my next shift. Glenn, who I’d been married to for just a few months at the time, assured me it was OK even though I knew we needed the money since he was still in law school. “This could be your break, Dorrie,” he said. “Are you going to ruin it to serve hash browns?” I stayed in Pennsylvania and even though the film budget was low, they put the zombies up at a motel. Our shoots started at 1am and we roamed the same soggy hillside all night with arms extended. For weeks after I found my arms out like that at the grocery store, on the way into a restaurant with Glenn, in the reception room at the doctor’s office when I found out about my pregnancy. Even now, sometimes I’ll be doing something and realize I’m walking like a zombie, like last week when I browsed Yerba Buena Gardens on my own. I saw a young girl give me a strange look and realized my elbows were locked and my fingertips were pointed straight out, I realized I was doing it again in the checkout line at the grocery store nudging my shopping cart slightly ahead towards a cashier.
I was allowed to keep my white zombie dress. The neckline was rimmed with beige makeup after shooting but I kept it and I wore it on Halloween to take Lula and her friends trick or treating until she forbid me to do so. I eyed the white dress that looked like it was floating in a glass cube at Hermes. It reminded me of when I had gone with Glenn and Lula to see the Emily Dickenson house in Amherst and her famous garment was featured in the entryway.
I open the front of the Hermes case and pull out the silk column gown. I run my fingers along the soft folds of the front. I gently take the padded hanger off the translucent hook and unbutton the back of the dress. I can tell by looking at it that it’s at least a few sizes too small but I am still thin and I slip my black top off and pull the dress over my head. I guide my arms in and it’s like dunking my limbs in organic cream. I pull down my skirt and adjust the dress. From the front, it looks amazing, like it fits, but there is no chance of the back being fastened. I don’t care. I decide to keep it on even with the gaping back. I look down at my clunky and sensibly soled Dansko shoes I bought in North Berkeley the day Glenn finally admitted his affair after I thought we were having the best afternoon eating bagels and lox at Saul’s after he told me he really did still love me but he was moving on. “You’ll be alright, Dorrie,” he said. “I’ll be alright.” I had thought he was kidding before I hunched over on the sidewalk and threw up brunch.
I look at my phone with no bars. I’ve been in the store for hours now but time is starting to feel fuzzy. Over the years Glenn and I called that feeling Zombie time. Like shortly after Lula was born and we stayed up all night and we couldn’t tell if it was really morning because exhaustion had left a veil over us. The cast had actually coined the term on set because the nights felt endless and I had continued to use it over the years and Glenn used it to describe how he felt when he would stay up all night studying for the bar.
By the end of the shoot we really had morphed into the living dead, we almost didn’t need makeup after the all-night shoots. We didn’t have e‑mail or iPhones back then and I lost touch with the cast and crew even though we had become quite close during filming. It was almost seven months later when we reunited for the première at the historic Fulton Theatre in downtown Pittsburgh. At that time, horror movies premiered on Saturday afternoons and Glenn had happily woken up early to make the six-hour drive in early October. He was more excited than I was. He handed me a small box that morning before we pulled out off the driveway and I opened it on the road. It was a small rhinestone encrusted pin in the shape of a star. “You’re my star, Dorrie,” he said as he pinned it on my maternity dress. I hoped the sparkling broach would detract from y waistline. I didn’t know why but I was embarrassed at the thought of my cast mates seeing my bulging stomach. We had spent our off time talking about our movie careers and dreams and I felt like I was letting them down. “You can go back to auditioning after the baby,” Glenn had told me. But we both knew it wasn’t true. He was always studying We had no money. No childcare.
I think of this as I look at my reflection in the gold-framed triptych mirror near the fainting sofa in the store. I know I look good for my age, even if I can’t button the back of my dress. At 70 I have lines on my face but I have always been careful with the sun and they are subtle. My book club says I could pass for early 60s. That makes me laugh. But right now, in the light, in the white dress, I feel beautiful.
I’d also worn white to the movie première. I hadn’t been able to fit into my zombie dress, which I had planned to wear, so instead I stayed up nights sewing the empire waist gown and added a small green satin sash for contrast. I had left the screening just a few minutes in at the première to use the bathroom and found myself wandering the maroon-carpeted hall to the ladies lounge. I had laughed off the idea that the theater was known for being haunted (Glenn had told me it was a well known fact that the most ghost sightings in Lancaster County had taken place there) but I felt an eerie silence as I walked. I told myself it was because the frenetic hustle of the opening had been such a contrast and now everyone but me was in the theater. Even the employees had gone in to watch, I assumed, as I hadn’t seen anyone since I’d gotten up from my seat. I walked into the large outer lounge of the ladies room and took a seat on one of the red tasseled velvet chairs. I had felt fine during much of my pregnancy but now with weeks to go, a short walk tired me out. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt a soft hand on my shoulder and someone gently pushing a strand of my hair back. I opened my eyes and no one was there. “Hello?” I said to the empty room. “Is someone here?” I stood up and in the softest whisper close to my ear, I heard, “You’ve chosen.” I felt a panic run through me and pushed the wooden door to the empty stall and yelled, “Who’s here?” “Who said that?”
When I returned to the theater it was the scene in the graveyard and Glenn patted the theater seat for me to sit down and put his arm around me. “They’re coming for you, Barbra,” said Russell Streiner, who played Judith O’Dea’s brother, Johnny. “They’re coming to get you.”
I can feel the tight pull of the too small Hermes dress but I close my eyes and think back to when I was that 18 year old girl on the cusp of a new life, one that had fallen in front of me unplanned, a husband, a child. I take a deep breath. The store smells clean with a slight cedar scent laced with citrus. I start to imagine no one will ever come back and find me here and I can just live in this hermitically sealed place of luxury where cellphones can’t intrude, where friends haven’t started to die, where I haven’t been orphaned by my parents, left by my husband, and the idea of growing old alone won’t keep me up at night.
I walk over to the case with the infamous Kelly bag again. This time I notice it has a small tag that looks almost handwritten. Vintage, 1968. It reads. I do a double take of the date. What are the chances? I say aloud to no one. The same year as the movie opening. The center of the almost envelope-shaped bag is a creamy canvas with the outside lined in thick, soft coffee-colored leather. I open the front of the glass case thanking whoever decided visible locks were not high-end and instead opted for store security. I pull out the bag and loop it on my left arm. It still has a shiny gold clasp that I turn and unturn, opening and closing the bag and imaging myself tossing in a lipstick, a hairbrush, or keys to a happy home. I walk back to the triptych mirror and envision myself arriving at the Living Dead première, only this time in the staring role, and it’s evening, in Los Angles, with a red carpet. I humbly wave to my fans as I enter with the bag on my left arm, my forever husband Glenn proudly on my other.
I open my eyes. No Glenn. No Hollywood. I am a 70-year old woman in a locked store in a too small dress in downtown San Francisco. I will later return to my newly rented and modest apartment after a kind policeman tells me after I’ve broken down in tears not to worry, no one is pressing charges.
But this hasn’t happened yet and I tell myself I should be trying to get out. I should be looking for an Exit or a backroom phone. I should flash lights or make noise, do something so that someone walking by will glance over and see that I don’t belong. They will call 911 or a non-emergency number and a small group with nothing better to do on the night before Thanksgiving will gather in a semi-circle on the sidewalk, eager to see what is happening.
But instead, I remain still. As still as I’ve ever been. I barely allow myself to breathe. The dress still on. The bag hanging from my forearm. I stand so still that if anyone walking by, on this now foggy night in late November, will see a mannequin, a statue, a zombie—ready and waiting on the cusp of night.
Anna Mantzaris has appeared in publications including Ambit, The Cortland Review, Necessary Fiction, New World Writing, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.