- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent at the neck of her blouse opens slightly — she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, tan, and greatly freckled. She wears a dark blue V-neck blouse without a collar, and her skirt is white cotton, calf length, slit up the right side to a point just beneath her thigh. Her hair, a soft blond, is pulled straight and close to the scalp, woven at the back into a single thick strand. In the fluorescent light of the display cabinet her eye shadow shines.
She catches you staring and gives you a perfunctory but knowing smile, and you turn quickly to study the purses on the chrome rack next to where you stand. You are embarrassed. You open a large red purse from the rack and stick your hand inside, pretending to inspect the lining. Then you lift the purse to your face as if the smell of it will help you determine the quality of the leather. The truth is that having sniffed the skin of the purse, you don't know what material it is, and, for just an instant, that troubles you. You look more closely at the purse, twisting the lip a little so you can see the label, on which, in very small print, it says: MAN-MADE MATERIALS.
After what seems like a long time, you glance again at the perfume counter: the girl is not there. You drop the red purse back onto its hook, and stand on your toes looking for the girl. Then you start toward the center of the purse department for a clearer view.
"Can we help you with something?"
It's the salesgirl in Purses. She's thin, a brunette, with stylized makeup that seems to carve her face. She's wearing a thin black silklike dress — a sundress, and her shoulders are bare. She has caught you off guard and presses her advantage by putting a smooth hand with perfect red nails on your forearm.
"Well," you begin, "I was looking for a gift."
"Of course you were," the girl says. The tone is patronizing. She has seen you staring at the blond girl in Perfumes.
"For my wife," you say.
"Something in the way of a purse," she says. "Or perhaps a nice perfume?"
"I'd better go," you say, but she tightens her grip on your arm and glances over a lightly rouged shoulder at a middle-aged woman who is standing impatiently at the far end of the purse department.
"I have a customer," the salesgirl says. "But why don't you wait a minute and talk to me? Jenny says you're very handsome but painfully shy — are you shy? Will you wait?"
You laugh self-consciously.
"I'll get rid of her," the girl says. "Be right back." As she turns away she draws her nails down on your arm, leaving thin white trace lines.
You watch her show the woman a purse, watch her arms move as she selects a second purse off a treelike stand, watch the way she cocks one foot up on its toe behind the other as she sells. The soft black skirt ripples and clings gently to the backs of her thighs as she moves, and when she goes behind the cash register to ring the sale, one of the straps falls off her shoulder, and she pulls it back into place routinely, smiling past her customer at you.
* * *
"Jenny says you followed her everywhere for weeks, is that so? All around here?" Finished with the middle-aged woman, the salesgirl has come back to you.
"I don't know Jenny," you say. But when the girl tugs at your arm and points over the tops of the displays toward the shoe section, you don't need to look. You know the girl she's talking about, the tall girl with the very short hair who works in Shoes. You trailed her around the store and around the mall for a few weeks, watching her shop, watching her eat, watching her sit by the garishly painted fountain in the center of the mall — you trailed her until you got worried. Then you stayed out of the mall for nearly two weeks, and when you returned you carefully avoided Shoes. That's not entirely true. Once you spent half the morning going up and down the escalator so that you could see her over the thickly forested juniors' casual wear.
"She likes you," the brunette says. "I think when you started in on Sally it hurt her feelings, Jenny's, I mean."
You nod to indicate that you have understood, then realize you shouldn't understand, so you say, "Sally?"
"Sally?" the salesgirl says, mimicking you, exaggerating your delivery until it is a high prissy whine. "Sally's the blond you've been staring at all morning while playing with my purses."
"Oh," you say. You think you should have left when you had the chance, but the salesgirl has her hand on you again, her nails biting your skin, and to leave you'd have to jerk yourself out of her grip.
"Half the day," the girl says deliberately, "and that's a conservative estimate. That's this morning only. Then there's yesterday, and Saturday — you're quite a regular around here, aren't you? At first Sally thought you were the store dick, but she checked with Mr. Bo — he's our manager for this floor — and found out you weren't. My name's Andrea, what's yours?"
You don't want to tell her that. "Wiley Pitts," you say. It's a football player's name you saw in the morning paper. "I'm thirty-six years old." Instinctively you reach out to shake hands, then abruptly withdraw your hand and lift it to your forehead where a thin string of sweat has broken out along your hairline.
"Are you nervous?" she asks. "You shouldn't be nervous. Come sit with me." She guides you by the arm to a small round-topped stool in front of her sales counter. "I have to stick pretty close to this," she says, tapping the cash register with one bright fingernail.
You take the seat. You are inexplicably docile, obedient. You feel suddenly faint, as if moving about for the first time after a prolonged illness. Andrea is pretty, she smells pretty, she is being kind and gentle with you, and you are enjoying her attention. The sheen of her dress reflects the store light as she moves.
"The others think you're crazy," she says, twirling her finger near her temple and smiling. "I said you were just lonely."
"I suppose I am," you say. You cross your legs clumsily, then uncross them when you find it difficult to maintain your balance on the stool.
"We're all lonely sometimes," Andrea says. "I'll tell you what — I'll get the others and we can go to lunch together, would you like that? That way you can get a really close look at Sally."
"You're very pretty, too," you say. But as soon as you've said it you feel you shouldn't have, and you say, "I'm sorry. I don't know why I said that."
"Of course I'm pretty," Andrea says, laughing, obviously pleased. "We're all pretty. That's why they hire us. Do you think they want ugly girls out here trying to sell this stuff? We have to be pretty because that way the customers buy more so they can be pretty just like us." She tucks and smooths her dress for a minute, for your benefit, then says, "Well? What about it?"
Before you can reply, she's on the telephone. You realize she is talking to Jenny, the girl in Shoes. "Yes," Andrea says, fingering the curled cord and looking at you, "I'm sure he's the same one — you pointed him out, didn't you? No, not at all. Very nice. Yes. No, no — the first thing, yes. Right. Morrison's. You tell Sally — huh? Yes, she will."
You watch a young woman customer in very tight shorts and a lavender tank top glide up the escalator, which is directly across the aisle from Purses. Then Andrea is off the phone.
"Jenny's very excited," she says. "She didn't believe me at first."
You nod again, now staring at the empty escalator.
"Listen," Andrea says, "are you all right? You look very depressed." She tosses her hair over her shoulder and twists around on one leg to look at the store clock mounted on the wall above and behind her. "It'll just be a few minutes," she says. "You won't mind waiting, will you? Is your name really Pitts?"
"Robert," you say sheepishly. "Robert Caul. I'm sorry about the other." But Robert Caul is not your name, either.
"Oh, don't worry about it, and don't look so forlorn, Robert Caul," she says. "You're going to have a great time, really you are. It'll be a dream come true."
"Yes," you say. Then you look away, around the store, seeing only colors and shapes and reflections in columns that've been turned into mirrors. Andrea moves off to chat with a customer, a young man in jeans who explains that his wife is pregnant and needs a new purse for when the baby comes. Finally, accidentally, you look toward Perfumes, and the blond girl is back, sitting primly on a tall stool inside her glass enclosure, talking on a black telephone and toying with the braid in her hair. She is looking at you.
* * *
At the cafeteria with Andrea, Jenny, and Sally, you take a thin slice of roast heel three round white potatoes, a salad, and a shallow cup of peas. The women talk to one another as the four of you slide your trays over the polished aluminum rails attached to the serving counter. They are talking about you, whispering, being a little impolite, but you don't mind. You laugh, too, and smile to yourself as if you are in on the joke.
When everyone is seated at the table by the window, Jenny says, "Why are you doing this?" The window is the size of a bathroom window, small and heavily curtained. It looks out into the center of the mall.
"Never mind that," Andrea says. "He sure is handsome, isn't he?"
"Within certain well-known guidelines," Sally says.
"Posh," Andrea says, smiling at you.
"You really scared me at first," Jenny says. "Following me like that. I didn't know what you wanted. But then I got used to it, and I wasn't scared anymore."
"You were going out of your skull," Sally says. "Admit it."
"Sure, at first," Jenny says. "After he'd followed me for a week, I almost went up and introduced myself one day."
"He wishes you had," Andrea says. "Don't you, Robert?"
"I don't know," you say. "Not exactly — maybe." You try to smile, but your lip catches on your teeth somehow, hooks itself there, and your smile feels horrible.
"I like a man who knows his mind," Sally says.
"Oh, leave him alone, Sally," Andrea says. "Can't you see he's nervous?"
"What's he nervous about?"
"You," Jenny says. "He thinks you're beautiful."
"He's right," Sally says. "But that doesn't mean I don't like him. I do like you, Robert. Really."
"Listen to her," Jenny says. "It takes her two hours every day to look like that, and she's so blasé."
"It's worth it," Sally says, wiping a small cone of mayonnaise off her dark lower lip with the tip of her third finger. "It makes me a more sensual person."
"If you were any more sensual," Jenny says, "you'd be an open sore."
"We had to go to school to learn how to look, Robert," Andrea says. "Would you believe that?"
"Some of us did," Sally says.
Jenny bobs her head and mouths some words to make fun of Sally, then turns to you: "We're professionals, like models. We make the women envious and we make the men feel cheated, and that's not as easy as it sounds."
"He doesn't talk much, does he?" Sally says, waving her fork in your direction. "What are we going to do with him?"
"We're not doing anything," Andrea says. "I'm taking him home with me." She drops her fingers over your wrist and pats you twice. "We all live in the same complex, Casa del Sol — ever hear of it?"
"I don't," you say. "I mean, I never heard of it, no. Sorry, Andrea."
"It's got a hot tub," Sally says proudly. "More than one, in fact."
"Six," Jenny says, smiling. "By actual count. Of course, some are hotter than others."
The three women laugh at this joke, then Sally says to you, "Jenny would know, she's a real hot-tub artist."
"Thanks, Sally," Jenny says.
"You know who he reminds me of?" Sally says. "He reminds me of one of the Dead Boys—I can't remember which one, though. I think it's the one they call Johnny."
"Jeff," Jenny says. "I saw them last week at the Palace, but he doesn't look much like Jeff, anyway."
You look down at your plate and see that you have cut your roast beef into tiny squares less than an inch on a side, and you have stacked the squares one on top of the other in three small piles. You begin to play with your peas, lifting them onto your plate with the fork and then pushing them across the open center of the plate, encircling the stacks of beef.
Sally says, "You're not going to eat your salad, Robert? I'll eat it if you don't want it." She pulls your salad across the table, then turns to Jenny. "I wish somebody would tell me what we're going to do with him."
"Andrea's going to marry him," Jenny says. "The dear girl."
"Why don't we ask Robert what he wants us to do with him?" Sally says.
"We know what he wants," Jenny says, pushing a large square of lettuce from your stolen salad into her mouth. "He wants to lurk around the store watching you bend over."
"Or you," Sally says. "Or you, Andrea."
"We're just friends," Andrea says. "He can watch me at home."
"Well," Sally says, suddenly pushing back her chair and standing up, "I think it's me he really wants to look at. Isn't that right, Robert?" She comes around to your side of the table and leans over you and wraps her bare arm around your head, then pulls back and with her other hand opens her blouse slightly. "See, Robert? Isn't it pretty? Tell the girls I'm the one you really like."
"You're the one I really like," you say, but you don't think Andrea and Jenny hear you because you can hear them laughing, although you can't see them because Sally has your head in an awkward position, her upper arm almost covering your eyes.
"That's nice," Sally says, and she kisses you lightly on the top of your head.
"Doesn't prove anything," Jenny says, dragging a napkin over her lips. "If I showed him mine, he'd swear he'd marry me ten times."
"He'd swear you'd been married ten times," Sally says, "if memory serves. You're a little lank through the chest, darling."
"Why, you cat," Jenny says. "You bitch."
Laughing, Sally says, "You guys ready to go?"
"Come on, Andrea," Jenny says, pushing her chair away from the table. "And bring your friend."
"You two go on ahead," Andrea says. "We'll be there in a minute."
Jenny and Sally walk out of the cafeteria together, and you watch them go, you watch the way each careful step causes a particular swing in the hips—they strut, their sleek clothes snapping precisely.
"That was fun," you say.
"Well, I'm sorry," Andrea says, looking at you over the rim of her coffee cup. "I didn't know."
* * *
In the living room of Andrea's Casa del Sol two-bedroom apartment identical white rented sofas face each other. You sit on one of these sofas. Andrea is not home. Her television is small, white, balanced on top of a tall straw basket in front of the window. There is a white Princess telephone on the back of the sofa opposite you. The late afternoon sun slants into the room, cutting across the twin sofas and casting dense, hard-looking shadows. You have the feeling that you are the only one home at Casa del Sol.
When Andrea arrives she has two whole barbecued chickens she bought at the grocery store. The chickens are in aluminum foil pans, wrapped in clear plastic. You watch her unwrap the chickens and listen to her talk.
"My father," she says, picking at the skin on the breast of one of the chickens, "was a speedboat racer. Not for a living, but that's what he was really. I have home movies of him on Lake Livingston, if you want to see. I've got lots of movies, in fact, of the whole family — Dad worked real hard editing the movies, putting them all in order by year, you know the kind of thing I mean. He even shot titles and put them in. He wanted so much for everything to make sense."
You notice that the legs of each chicken are twisted together so tightly that the bones have bent around each other.
"He wanted to know how things worked, even the simplest things — the air-conditioning, the movie projector. The first thing he did when he got a new movie projector was take it apart. Then he tried to improve on it, gluing little sticks of foam to the lens mount to cut down on the vibration and, when that didn't work, hooking rubber bands around the lens itself. It was terrible the way all his improvements didn't work. But he didn't notice that, or, if he did, he didn't talk about it. And he always did it, no matter what. He busted the television trying to make a better antenna, and he busted the stereo when he decided he could make a spindle that would drop fifteen records instead of the five the factory suggested. And the older he got, the worse it was. I mean, he just kept busting things and busting things until there was nothing to do but laugh, we all laughed, he even laughed, it was so horrible."
You listen and nod, but she's finished. You don't know why she's telling you about her father anyway. It has gotten dark outside, and the only light in the apartment is a tiny night-light pushed into a socket on the kitchen wall. Andrea is crying.
You ask where Sally and Jenny live, thinking this will help, and Andrea leads you to her front window and points across an open courtyard, empty except for the brilliant green island of the pool, at some apartments in another building. "They don't know you're here," Andrea says. "Do you want to go surprise them?"
"No," you say. "Not tonight."
"My grandmother is ninety-one," she says. "She lives in Palestine, Texas. She runs every day, she was running before everybody else started running, she was ahead. I don't know, around here everybody runs now. You go out at six o'clock, and it looks like one of those sports shows on TV. There isn't any reason to run, but they do it anyway. Bunch of goons. They think just because it's an apartment complex suddenly they're in California. I bought the shoes, but that's as far as it went. Are you getting hungry? If we don't eat I'm going to scalp this chicken."
She serves you a quarter of a chicken neatly severed between breast and thigh and two slabs of white bread on a bare plate. This makes you very happy. For the first time you stop wondering if you should have taken her key after lunch. Andrea sits on one sofa and you sit on the other, and both of you eat with your fingers, occasionally stopping to tear away a bite-sized square of bread. You smile at each other as you eat. The chicken is tender and spicy, the perfect meal. When you finish, you carry your plate into the small kitchen and drop the bones into the garbage sack under the sink. Then you rinse the plate and turn it upside down on the flecked Formica counter, then you wash your hands with her Ivory soap. As you run the water over your hands, you splash a little first on your lips, then over your entire face. You pull two paper towels off the roll alongside the sink and dry your face and hands. You throw the crumpled towels at the garbage sack, miss it by a full yard. When you return to the living room, Andrea is sitting in the semidarkness, licking her fingers.
* * *
"Once, when there was a hurricane coming," she says, not talking directly to you but rather into the room and to herself, "my father required that we make all the preparations, and we checked the flashlights, counted the candles, drew clean water in the tubs and sinks, bought bottled water to drink, taped the huge bay windows in our house with gray duct tape, and nailed plywood over the smaller windows. He carefully plotted the storm's course on a chart he cut out of the newspaper. The storm moved very slowly. My father called the weather service often, cursing and slamming the phone down when he got a busy signal. When the storm finally reached the Gulf it stopped dead in its tracks for twenty hours, whirling itself into a two-hundred-mile-an-hour frenzy, and as the storm got larger and more powerful my father spent his time sitting silently by the radio, his head slightly bent, a coffee cup balanced on the arm of his chair. He wouldn't talk to any of us. He hushed us angrily when we tried to talk to one another. He was intent on the storm, and he sat up all night listening for news bulletins, marking and calculating on the crumpled chart in his lap. The radio spewed instructions about what to do in case of fire, what to do in case of flood, and also history — the great and dangerous hurricanes of the century. We were prepared, and, as far as I knew, the real danger to us was minimal. Nevertheless a silence spread over our house like nothing I'd ever felt before. The kids kept watch at the windows, but the weather outside looked fine and breezy. At eight in the morning the radio announcer read a bulletin from the weather service: Elise had started to move again, but she had reversed her course and was now headed southwest, straight for Mexico. This news did not deter my father from his vigil, and, seven hours later, when the storm made landfall well below Brownsville, my father came to the door of his study and told us the news. He was a big man, a powerful man physically, and I remember him filling that doorway between his study and the living room of our house, I remember the way his voice sounded and how his eyes looked when he told us, and I remember watching him retreat into his study and close the door. He shot himself in the temple with a twenty-two-caliber pistol."
"Killed himself?" you ask, sure that you shouldn't, sure that you already know the answer.
"No," Andrea says. "Crippled himself. In a wheelchair the rest of his life."
"I'm sorry," you say.
"Me too," she says, staring at her red nails.
* * *
You notice for the first time that one of Andrea's eyebrows is plucked too much, and that the brows are not symmetrical with respect to the bridge of her nose. Her left brow, the one that is far too thin, also starts well over her left eye. Once you have seen this tiny imbalance, you cannot stop seeing it. Every time you look at Andrea's face you see this odd-shaped patch of skin there above her nose. You stare at it. Her face looks wrong suddenly, almost deformed. You try to think of something to say about her father, but you can't think of anything. You wonder if you should ask Andrea about Sally and Jenny, but decide that that might hurt Andrea's feelings, so you say nothing. You sit with her until well past midnight — hours of occasional sound, occasional movement.
When she decides to go to bed you make no move to follow her into the bedroom, and she makes no special invitation. You sleep on the sofa, fully dressed, without even a sheet to cover you. You imagine yourself leaving the apartment on a sunny day in the middle of the week. Three beautiful women in tiny white bikinis lift their sunglasses as you pass them in the courtyard. They smile at you. You drive to the mall in a new car and spend two hours in Housewares on the second floor. You do not remember ever having been on the second floor before. You buy a wood-handled spatula from a lovely girl with clean short hair. Kitchen equipment is exquisite, you believe.
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