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United Gypsy Services

Sarah despised the new pastor’s wife, a wisp of a woman named Angie Drummond. It wasn’t a conscious decision on Sarah’s part. Instead, it stole on her slowly when Pastor Drummond, a refined theologian with enough books to fill a library, came to live in the rectory behind the church.

The rectory was a roomy old house, bright with fresh white paint inside and sky blue paint outside. A combination of the ladies’ rose club and the church janitor had, for years, lovingly tended the yard that ran below the house. Everything about the place sparkled and continued to sparkle because Angie and her refined husband had no children to turn the yard into a mud pit or to cloud the white walls with their dirty paws. And Angie, herself, whispered through the world, her ninety-pound frame leaving little impression anywhere. She barely swirled the dust, which was lacking anyway, owing to the maid the pastor had hired to help his wife with housework twice a month.

By contrast, Sarah was still heavy from giving birth to her fourth son. Nor had she ever been a floaty sprite, not even at her seventeen-year-old prime. Her husband, as a seasonally out-of-work contractor, was too unrefined to read anything but alternative online news sources. To add to the irritation, he refused to tend to the yard that came with their gloomy ranch house, which topped out at 1400 sq. ft. if Sarah added the garage measurement.

Sarah’s life was rendered chaotic from lack of help. Angie’s soft world was made continuously soft by her husband’s gifts to her, by the doting congregation, by a world that seemed to believe Angie was more special than the average human being. And for that, for her own extreme lack of specialness, Sarah found herself seething while sitting on Angie’s brand-new leather couch, which was just one piece in a brand-new living room set. The set hadn’t been there last week when Angie had invited Sarah to coffee.

Angie set a coaster on the brand-new bright red coffee table and placed a cup of coffee there for Sarah.

“Would you like a slice of pound cake?” Angie offered.

“I’m dieting,” Sarah said.

They sat in silence for a while, Sarah sipping at Angie’s weak coffee. Sarah smiled and pretended she liked brown water, though the entire affair felt as awkward as her meaty hands did gripping the tiny cup. Sarah was a giant at a little girl’s tea party. Angie, more of a doll than a child, sat with a slice of untouched pound cake as though it was a prop for the bone white china. Then, bizarrely, the doll cackled.

“United Gypsy Services,” Angie said. “That’s what you want to know, isn’t it? Where we ordered the furniture.”

Sarah stared at the woman open-mouthed. For a moment, Angie’s face transformed into a leering, witch face, her head covered by a coarse babushka. After squeezing her eyes open and shut a few times, the face opposite hers returned to normal. Surely, Angie jested. Everybody had heard of the United Gypsy Services, and everybody knew it was an occult mail order service that involved the casting of spells. A Methodist pastor would never stoop to such a public sin as ordering his new living room set through magic.

As soon as Sarah could reasonably escape, she did. Something was definitely off in the rectory. Back at her ranch house, she decided to check out the United Gypsy Services for herself. Once online, she didn’t hesitate before clicking straight into the mail order site. She convinced herself it was curiosity, or the need to investigate for the sake of the church.

It had nothing to do with Angie having better furniture than Sarah had. Why should Sarah have good furniture, anyway? Her boys would just destroy it.

The site was a little overwhelming, with bright flashing signs attracting the eyes to Today Only, 85% off! and other such sales pitches. Sarah smirked. Angie would be foolish enough to fall for such pitches; she wondered how much the pastor had been taken for after all was said and done. Sarah, on the other hand, was far too smart to fall prey to disreputable sales people.

She scrolled to the bottom of the page, seeing no advertisements for the quality living room set at Angie’s house. All the products–kitchen appliances, gardening tools, bedding, clothes–looked chintzier than the products at the Dollar Store. It was no surprise, then, to find this disclaimer in small print near the customer support button: UGS and their affiliates are not official trademarks of the Romani people. Yes, more likely, the products were made in a mishmash of third-world factories and shipped by slow boat to the states.

Bored at the obvious lack of magic, Sarah scrolled back up until the slow internet speed brought the page to a halt. That was strange. Her mouse arrow had landed on an ad for furniture she hadn’t previously seen. In fact, the arrow remained stuck there until she clicked into the furniture sales page.

There were the leather couches, the brightly painted tables and chairs. And they were cheap. Even Sarah could afford them. Overwhelming desire consumed her insides until she managed to satiate it by ordering the entire set and finalizing the sale by entering her credit card information. She told herself her husband would be happy about it. He would congratulate her on finding such a great deal.

He wasn’t. “You ordered furniture from the United Gypsy Services? What have you done to us, woman?”

“It was a great deal. We’ll have it paid off in a couple months, maximum.”

“You think I’m worried about more debt?” His laugh was dark and worrisome. “Just bring it on! Bring on more debt! That’s what you do. No, I care more about what this will do to our family, what the magic will require of us.”

“The pastor orders from them,” Sarah said–a faint excuse, spoken to herself because her husband had stomped off into the dark and gloomy bedroom.

She sat and stared at the awful mismatched, scratched up, stained furniture that decorated her living room. Didn’t she deserve better than this? And why was the debt her fault? She had never spent money on herself or her clothes–except maybe her monthly manicure, which was her only luxury. Instead, she was a responsible mother who took her children to the doctor or dentist and had the oldest wired with braces on his teeth. She bought them school clothes and soccer cleats. And for some reason, taking care of the boys made her husband angry. They were supposed to care for their offspring, which she had been doing, without complaint, for years.

Irritated at the deprivation caused by marriage and children, she slammed her dishes in the dishwasher–no bone china for her–and wiped the grunge from the counters.

By the time the gypsy caravan arrived with her furniture, she had overcome her anger. She was excited. She would tell the boys the living room was off limits to their wrestling games and wooden swords, and then she and her husband would sit together on the love seat. If he changed his clothes first, she would give him ready permission to enjoy the new living room, and he would come to enjoy relaxing there after a hard day.

For about fifteen minutes, the caravan and its train-like cars marched, noisy and bright, up the road. Obviously, this was not an anonymous service. Her neighbors, if they were at home, stumbled from their front doors to gape at the parade. How had it escaped the notice of the church when Angie’s furniture arrived? Sarah had no idea, but she itched with agitation to catch sight of her brand-new, beautiful living room set.

A man with a clipboard stepped from the main carriage and shouted orders for the products to be brought out. From inside the second carriage, three men in circus costumes popped out and unceremoniously dumped a few pieces of cheap, plastic furniture on her patchy front lawn.

“That’s not what I ordered,” she protested.

The man with the clipboard glared at her, his beady eyes making direct eye contact. “Am I to understand you’re refusing what we’ve delivered to your doorstep?”

“If that’s what you’re delivering, yes.”

“Move it back, boys!” he shouted. “And don’t you move, ma’am. This could get dangerous.”

Sarah couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to. Her feet were glued to the spot, her limbs frozen. She could only watch, in horror, the train of caravans moving in slow speed toward her, their moving parts ching-chinging, clanging, whistling. Just as she thought she would be slowly crushed underneath the multiple wheels, the first car swung wide around her and all the rest followed, but pulled closer and closer, as though she were the center of a spiral that was ever shrinking. And then, when the nearest car sat inches from her face, the train halted. Aside from the faintest rattling, the world inside the spiral was silent.

Then she heard a loud, gruff voice: “How will she be redeemed?”

“Says here, her youngest son will go in trade to one Angie Drummond, in exchange for the leather living room set.”

“Terms of trade?”

“Eternal.”

Rough laughter, as if from an invisible but near caravan window, assaulted Sarah’s ears.

“She must be a nasty piece of work.”

“Measured by the pound, no doubt.”

More laughter. Sarah wanted to shout in protest, but her mouth was as frozen as the rest of her.

“Ah, look at that–a note from Mrs. Drummond. She’s willing to give the cow her china, too. Since boys break china, and she has a son now. Generosity never knew such bounds.”

“All right, men, let her go. We wouldn’t want another heart attack victim on our hands.”

With that, the spiral spun her loose, one slow car at a time. Sarah stomped her tingly feet, readying herself to dash off to her youngest child’s kindergarten.

“Run after him, if you like, but I doubt they’ll let you have the Drummond boy,” the man with the clipboard said as he checked an item on his paper. “They might even arrest you for kidnapping.”

“I–” Sarah closed her mouth, motherhood of three settling in her soul like the calm after a storm.

He jumped on the train that sat, waiting, rattling. He waved at her with one last shout: “Remember to tell your friends: United Gypsy Services aims to please every time!

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Does Wonder Woman Cry?

When Meredith’s husband Aaron walked in the door, tired from working on the job site, she sat at her desk, absorbed in reading articles about the rare autoimmune disorder her mom had died from, highlighting portions of text. The baby cried, dinner remained unmade, toys skittered across the floor at Aaron’s heavy footfalls.

He disappeared for the shower, a two-hour process in which he listened to the radio while dismantling his layers of filthy clothes. Meanwhile, Meredith slammed down her highlighters and reordered her desk. She barked commands at the older children to pick up their toys, and threw together an edible dinner one-handed [the baby in the crook of her other arm].

She couldn’t continue this way, exhausted, grieving for her mom, who died three months ago. Didn’t Aaron consider her grief when he sat in silence at the table, his lip upturned at her execution of leftover spaghetti and refried beans that still bore the imprint of the can? Couldn’t he hear the baby cry, the children whine, or the sadness pounding in her heart?

She needed to take charge, organize her house, and forget about her husband’s bad attitude. She needed to unpack the multitude of book boxes she’d culled from her parents’ garage at her dad’s insistence [they’re all female books, he’d claimed]. Her parents were archetypes: Dad a take-charge man and no reader of fiction, Mom a supporting wife who read fluff and self-help books. And they were happy, or at least at peace with one another until death parted them.

The next day, when Meredith dared slit open the first box, she was taken aback at what she discovered inside–not self-help manuals, but marital guides. Maybe her parents’ happiness was not as easy as it appeared through a daughter’s eyes, but a construct propped up by her mom. At first amused, she flipped through the pages of the wifely advice books. Then she felt troubled. According to these authors, a good wife was Meredith’s polar opposite. She flipped the books over and studied the authors’ credentials: glowing Christian PhDs, all.

Maybe Meredith did lack the essence of womanhood. In order to test the advice, she would have to try it on Aaron. Her relationship with him wasn’t in shambles so much as it was nonexistent. Carefully, she picked one piece of advice from each book and set the stage for acting them out. If all men desired sexual serving wenches, as these books suggested, then Aaron would soften at that kind of approach.

When he walked in the door that evening, a chicken already spat fat in the oven, and a tossed salad chilled in the fridge. She caught him at the door, where she bowed at his feet and untied the laces of his work boots–as one book suggested she do–and tried to yank them from his feet. Massaging his feet was the ultimate goal, and she couldn’t do that without first removing the boots. He lost his balance and fell against the door.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked. “I can’t wear my boots in the house now?”

“No, you’ve worked hard all day and…I was trying to be helpful.”

His eyes, surrounded by grit, muddied with confusion. “I can take off my own boots.”

Emotions stuffed, she watched him disappear into their bedroom. She pulled dinner from the oven and sang out that it was dinner time. Aaron, of course, didn’t hear her because he’d already turned up his radio. She set him a heaping plate of food, just as another book suggested she do, and it was cold by the time he was out of the shower, which seemed to make him angrier than the boot incident.

After a few bites of salad and chicken, he shoved the plate aside.

“Do you want me to heat your chicken up for you?” she asked. “Do you want another helping?” She was supposed to feed him a second helping before he asked, but how was she to do that when he wouldn’t eat the first?

“I grabbed a bite on the way home.” He scooted back his chair. “I’m tired. I need to go to bed.”

“Wait, I’m not ready–” But he was already gone.

“Kids, go put your pajamas on and find a sleeper for Baby.” Soon, Aaron would discover her next romantic trap, and she needed them in bed when that occurred.

From the kitchen she heard him shout, “What the…?”

Nervously, she scraped dishes and dumped them in soapy water.

He banged out of the bedroom wearing nothing but underwear. “Why does the bed reek? Did I come home to the wrong house? Are you ill?”

She stared at the soapy water, wishing she could drown in it. “I sprayed perfume on the sheets to make the bed seem romantic.”

“It’s not.” With that, he pulled a blanket and pillow from the hall closet and stretched his long body out on the couch. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you today.”

Neither did Meredith. After the dishes were done and the children tucked in their beds, she stared at the stacks of pages on her desk–her research, which she now loved more than her husband because it was unflinchingly true, albeit not toward her. What would it matter, now, if she finished with the wifely ideas? None had worked yet. She picked up the paper where she had written the list, and her mind drew lines over her failures.

Then, her eyes skipped to the last. Enliven the bedroom with a costume. If possible, greet him at the door with it. In the back of the closet, somewhere, she had stored a Wonder Woman costume from an ill-fated college party where she’d drunk too much rum and vomited on the shiny red boots. That might do the trick to bring the day to a crashingly bad close. But she also considered drinking a whole lot of wine for oblivion’s sake [not to vomit on the boots].

She yanked the costume over her extra baby curves and filled a mug with wine.

“Do you want a drink?” she asked Aaron, who still lay prone on the couch, but with a newspaper, which caused him to mutter obscenities such as what the hell is fucking wrong with these damn people?

“That’s the best damn idea you’ve had all day,” he told her.

Most of the ideas she had belonged to others, anyway. When she handed him a mug of wine, he took a big swallow as if it were beer [he probably wished it was] and glanced up at her in disgust at the taste of the Merlot.

The wine spewed from his mouth. “What are you wearing?”

“I wanted to excite you.” She covered her chest and stared at the floor.

Nothing would work. She was a loser, a freak with lactating breasts bursting out the sides of a golden eagle. She would never be a supporting wife in the vein of her mom. She might as well return to her desk and highlight yet more useless marital advice tips.

“I always wondered what Wonder Woman looked like without her costume,” Aaron said, and he used the crumpled newspaper to wipe up the wine.

Meredith raised her eyes from the floor, hopeful. She reached her hands behind her back and tugged at the zipper. As Aaron drained what was left of the Merlot, he stared at her and waited. Finally, she gave up and fell into his arms, and she cried because the zipper on her costume had caught at the bust area and she, obviously, couldn’t do anything right. But not to worry–together, they could manage to disassemble even Wonder Woman.

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