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Chapter One: RULE #1: Shower after emptying the trash.
Once I was a professional princess. At age four, I was chosen, out of a very competitive field, to represent my preschool in the Palmetto Avenue Neighborhood Association Parade as Princess Moonglow. At seven, I was both Fairyland Angel and Sassy Star, while fulfilling all my elementary school duties and also my required household chores. I was twice crowned the Vegetable Princess, or at least the princess of a few green growing things, like cabbages. I was Miss Teen Broward County at the tender age of fourteen. At fifteen, I stood in a white cowboy hat in front of a car dealership, in wind that whipped the colorful pennants around and nearly tore the petals off the roses I was holding, and tried to pretend I wasn't wearing a bikini and five-inch heels in front of a bunch of grown men. I smiled. My mother, Gloria, ducked into the driver's seat of the red Mustang convertible I had just won for her, showing her legs as she did so, diverting some of the male attention her way. A salesman patted my ass as she was adjusting the bucket seat. That day I was Freddy's Ford Cowgirl. But then I threw in my sash.
Now I'm thirty-four, and I have just become Employee of the Month: August at Teddy's World. I guess I still have a thing for titles, in spite of my official retirement. I've made Employee of the Month in every job I've had. That's a lot of jobs. We're talking double digits here. Fourteen, to be exact. Start with your left thumb and go down to your pinkie; then your right thumb to right pinkie; back to your left thumb, forefinger, middle finger.
Stop at what is known as the ring finger.
Right now Gloria is trying to reach me on my cell phone. I'm not supposed to have my phone on while I'm at work, but someone might call me someone besides my mother and I want to be there if that someone needs to talk to me, if he needs to tell me that he misses me and wants to come home. So there the phone sits, vibrating crazily on the counter of Teddy's World, behind a pile of Poker Babies. Poker Babies is a book with photographs of babies who look like they are playing cards, with thought bubbles above their heads saying things like "Deuces wild" and "I'm calling your bluff." It's stupid and precious, two qualities that have made it a steady seller in baby stores across the country. Here in Long Beach, it's doing really well.
My phone has stopped vibrating; Gloria's name has disappeared from the display. She'd probably be happy to see I've made Employee of the Month at Teddy's World. I have to admit it gives me a little charge when customers glance up at the color head shot Tim took earlier in the summer. This was before he took leave of our marriage, which immediately drove me into a high-end salon in Belmont Shore for a savage haircut by someone named Linda, who was not, despite her name, very pretty. Average looks, extreme poise, zero personality. And definitely no talent with the scissors. Linda's talents, whatever they were, were not on display. "Can't you make it a bit less poofy on top?" I asked her, and she said, haughtily, "Then it will have no shape at all," and continued to hack away. When she was done, the hair I could once sit on lay all around me like a bunch of straw, and I wanted to lie down in it like a sick horse.
So all in all, considering recent events, I really needed to make Employee of the Month, a bright spot in a bleak stretch. Never mind that there are only two of us. A couple of weeks ago I suggested to Marlene, my boss, that having an Employee of the Month would make her look like a caring businesswoman, someone who appreciated her workers, so she said okay. She said I could be first, since I've been here longer than the other girl.
Usually, by the time my winning smile appears inside a frame on the wall, I am on my way out. I'm gone before the glass gets dusty. But I like Teddy's World. I've been here since May, among the jungle mobiles and snap-on pajamas, under the miniature model train that endlessly circles the store on its tiny tracks, the plastic engineer touching his cap in greeting, the smiling plastic children strapped in and waving. When Marlene hired me, I thought, What could be better than baby clothes, fresh from the manufacturer, the babies themselves safely quarantined in BabyBjörn carriers or in strollers, or, safer still, in the wombs of their soon-to-be-mothers? Plus, these mothers are easy marks, and I get commission on the larger items.
I smile at a pregnant woman looking over the cribs in the back. I leave my post at the counter and lead her down the rows. I can tell that when I'm done with her, she is practically going to buy the store. She looks about five months gone, maybe six. I'm pretty good at guessing by now.
"Marvelous!" she says, when I show her how to click the rails up and down on a maple hardwood drop-side crib.
"Adjustable-height metal springs," I tell her. "And it can be used as a bed when the baby's older." I load her up with the drop-side crib, the matching armoire with removable shelves and bar, and the marvelous nursing station a gliding rocker with matching ottoman, five fabric patterns to choose from. She's torn between Angel Blue and Delicate Flower. While she's debating, I stroll over to a grandmother and help her pick out bonnets and booties, a lacy christening jacket, two teething rings, and a plastic cow that plays Mozart. I ring up Grandma and then write up the order for the nursing station; we don't keep those in stock.
"So, Delicate Flower it is," I say. "Excellent choice."
"It feels kind of silly," the woman says doubtfully. "I mean, I can just sit on the couch and nurse, right?"
"Motherhood is tiring," I tell her. "You should pamper yourself."
"This is my first," she says. "Do you have children of your own?"
"Not yet," I say, feigning a regret bordering on bereavement. "One of these days."
"I'm so excited," she says, pulling out a Platinum Visa. "I just can't wait. We're going to have three. I'm going to breast-feed them all, of course. Children need their mother, right from the beginning."
She looks around Teddy's World, like she's already planning what to buy for the next two. She doesn't even notice I'm Employee of the Month; she's too busy being Expectant Mother of the Century. She looks about thirty, fresh-faced and happy. Right now she is free and unencumbered. Soon she will have an infant fastened to her breast like a polyp, clutching fiercely at her expensive blouse. She will be held prisoner by a screaming baby, standing on its rubber mattress and rattling its crib bars. By the time she is done having her family, birthing and coping with three children, she will look like a hag. The fabric of the nursing station will be faded and worn. She will just shove a bottle of formula in the last baby's hands and stick it in its crib, and she will glide back and forth in the nursing station rocker, longing to end it all.
"That's fifteen hundred and twenty-nine dollars," I say, taking her card.
A heavyset woman comes in, pushing a twin stroller. I don't know if these babies are twins or not. The babies all look alike to me, blobs of clay with glittering eyes and little smashed-in noses and wet lips.
I lean over them and breathe in their gauzy, milky smell. "So beautiful," I say. I kneel down and wave a clown rattle at the twins. I look up at the mother with tears in my eyes. I can do tears on a dime. Not really tears, just a moistening of my eyes that makes it look like I'm on the verge, like I'm overcome with emotion. Judges used to fall for it all the time.
"You are doubly blessed," I say.
"Yes, I am," she says. She thinks I mean it, and I can tell she's actually happy to have the two of them, and for a minute I'm jealous.
Then I notice it, under the new baby smell: something rancid, something I don't want to get too close to.
When the mother leaves, I notice the stroller wheels. They roll across the pale blue-and-pink swirls of the store's carpet, and I see the tracks, thin, sinuous parallel lines between the rack of overalls and the shelves of stuffed animals, lines that snake back and forth and cross each other until the colors of the carpet are barely visible. And, I mean, I just knelt down on that carpet. In shorts. Which means I've gotten it on my skin the oil and dirt from the streets, the smashed gray gum and spit and crud from the sidewalk.
Teddy's World is starting to get contaminated.
Contamination is why I had to leave my managerial position at Liquor Barn, why I did not last at Real You Salon or Dr. Woo's pediatric dental practice. I didn't make it as a telefundraiser for Save the Earth, or as auto parts inventory control clerk for Nissan. I washed my hands, over and over, but they would not come clean. Each time I quit, I removed my name in block capitals and my smiling head shot from the wall, and I walked out and threw them in the nearest trash can.
I don't want this to happen at Teddy's World. I need Teddy's World right now.
I'm supposed to be on Zoloft, but I've kind of stopped taking it regularly. My therapist, Sharon, told me it was important not to stop my medication, or our work together, just because Tim left. Stay with it, she said. Do your homework. Practice the Calming Breath. Break a rule.
The Calming Breath is simple. You breathe in and count to three, and then let out the breath as slowly as you can while trying to relax. The trouble with this is that I only seem to be able to do it when I'm already sort of relaxed.
Which I am not, at the moment.
The rules are posted at home, on the refrigerator, with a Teddy's World magnet. They are also posted in the laundry room and taped inside the bathroom cabinet. This is I mean, was for Tim's benefit, not mine. I know them by heart, since I made them up. There are currently thirty-seven items on the list. There used to be eighty, before I started with Sharon. I was down to twenty-four when Tim left. After that it seemed necessary to add a few again.
Without rules, all is chaos and darkness.
"Excuse me," a girl says, and I look up from the crazy lines, suddenly realizing that she's been standing there for at least a minute without saying anything.
"Do you have any music boxes?" she says.
She looks like she's in high school. High school kids these days dress like toddlers. She's wearing a teeny white ribbed top with a Hello Kitty on it. Her glossy dark hair is done up in pigtails; her skin is dewy as a baby's. Below the shirt, her bare stomach is a soccer ball, the belly button popped out. If I were still at Liquor Barn and she came in for cigarettes I'd definitely card her. If she walked into Liquor Barn, I'd be watching her to see if she tried to take anything. She has that look.
"Music boxes. No. We have jack-in-the-boxes. We have toys that play music. We have teddy bears and pigs and dolls you can wind up and listen to, but we don't carry music boxes."
"Oh," she says, a little, disconsolate "oh." Like she'd really expected to find a music box, like she needs it right now.
I look past her at the lines on the carpet, pulsing and glowing. I blink, trying to make them go away.
"Are you sure?" she says. "Miss McBride? You look different," she says.
She's looking at my picture behind the counter. Of course I look different; the woman in the picture has long hair. She is married. McBride is my married name, and I never liked it. It was too much like McDonald's. McJob. McMarriage, McBride. Still, it was better than Rose. I was born Diana Rosen, but one day Gloria changed it. She got the idea that Rose would be a better pageant name, so she dragged us right down to the county clerk. Gloria is half Jewish, on her father's side, but from that day on we were Presbyterian, which she explained was a more refined and forward-looking religion. We never actually went to church or anything.
"Please just call me Diana," I say.
The girl crosses her arms. Her nails are short and painted a grape color, and the polish is chipped, and I can tell she doesn't even care.
No wedding ring, I notice.
"Do you have anything that plays " She "dah-dah-dahs" a tune, Beethoven's "Für Elise."
"That's a popular one. We have a few things that play it."
I lead her over to a shelf of stuffed animals. "These are the musical ones." I know I'm walking over the lines on the carpet, but I try to tell myself it doesn't matter. I walk on the streets every day, so what's the difference?
She cranks up a teddy in overalls. We have all kinds of teddies pink teddies in diapers or long dresses, plaid teddies, the classic teddy naked, brown-furred, and, if you had one as a child, irresistible. I had one, which got lost years ago, and I bought another one from the store at an employee discount.
The girl holds the teddy to her chest and closes her eyes. Her face scrunches up, and I'm afraid she's going to cry.
"Why that song?" I ask.
She opens her eyes. "I had a music box once, that played it."
"So you want one for your baby. How lovely!" I click on the enthusiasm. "When are you due? Looks like any day now."
"No," she says.
"No, what?" I hold my smile.
"I don't want this baby," she whispers.
"Of course you do. Babies are such a precious gift." I wipe my hands on my shorts. "A gift," I repeat.
"Fuck that," she says. "I don't want this fucking baby."
"Of course you don't," I say. Why argue with her? I totally understand.
"I'm giving it up as soon as it's born. To be adopted." She looks at me defiantly, like I'm going to say it's such a tragedy, or something.
She's clutching the teddy to her. Its music loop has stopped. I look into its painted glass eyes. I used to look into the eyes of my childhood teddy, Ginger, and see infinite love. This one just looks at me, though. That's how they all are now. Today's teddies look out only for themselves.
I curl my toes in my sneakers, thinking, My feet are safe, inside the sneakers, inside the socks. Thinking, I want to go home and shower.
"Want me to ring that up?" I say.
"No." She puts the teddy down. I turn away to see if there are any actual customers who need my help. But by the time I get back to the counter, she's picked it up again and followed me.
"Sorry," she says, setting the teddy on the counter, not looking at me. She stares at the cover of Poker Babies, a drooling kid in a diaper clutching an ace in its fist.
She'd do terrible in a pageant interview, I'm thinking. Eye contact is crucial.
Just then, Marlene comes out of the back room with Kelly, the new employee. "Yes, yes," Kelly is saying. "I'm sorry. I know. I'll try."
Kelly will never be Employee of the Month. I will win, every time. Kelly is not perky. She has eczema on her elbows, and her outfit is hopeless: a shapeless dress that is totally the wrong color for her and doesn't hide the ugly flowers tattooed on her arms.
Eczema is a form of dermatitis. It often runs in families. Luckily, it can't spread.
"Diana," Marlene says, "be a dear. When you're done helping this customer, run up to Starbucks and get me a double Mocha Frappuccino."
The outer layer of human skin is made up of keratin producing cells, which are pretty much dead. They slough off continually. So even if I can't catch Kelly's eczema, I don't want to get too close to her. I move back as she comes around the counter.
"Skim Frappuccino, right?" I say. If I take my break now, I'll have time to get home, shower, and stop at Starbucks on the way back. Teddy's World is just a longish walk from the apartment. I'll tell Marlene there was a big line at Starbucks and that they got the order wrong the first time.
"That's my gal." Marlene loves my ass. She says I have managerial potential. Potential and I are old friends; my pageant career was built on it. Mostly what I have now, I think, is failed potential. No way I'm going to say this to Marlene, though.
I ring up $24.95, plus tax, for the teddy in overalls. The girl digs into a big denim purse, scrounging for balled-up bills, taking them out and flattening them onto the counter one by one with agonizing slowness.
"Do you want a bag?" I ask her, practically grabbing the last five dollars from her hand. We have pink-and-blue striped paper bags with handles, showing a teddy clutching a bunch of balloons, each balloon holding a letter of teddy's world. We have gold tissue paper, and gift wrap with teddies or balloons or birthday cakes and hats. We have flattened boxes that can be put together in a matter of seconds. All these are in neat cubbyholes behind the counter, giving off a faint gassy odor.
"No thanks, I'll carry it," she says.
Marlene comes over and pushes the clipboard on the counter across to the girl. "Sign our mailing list," she says. "We've got lots of wonderful sales coming up."
"Uh, no thanks," the girl says.
Marlene picks up the clipboard and kind of jabs it at her. The girl looks at Marlene. Marlene smiles. "Please, dear," she says. "Sign it." Marlene can be kind of intimidating, if you don't know her. Kelly is obviously scared to death of her, another reason Kelly will never get ahead here; she doesn't project an aura of confidence.
"Act like a winner," Gloria used to say, "and you will be a winner."
"Whatever," the girl shrugs, and uses the pen, attached to the clipboard with a blue shoelace, to write down her information.
"Diana dear," Marlene says. "Get me a slice of lemon bread, too. No, don't. Oh, go ahead." Marlene is watching her figure, as she puts it. She watches it get to a certain size, and then she starts throwing up her lunches in the bathroom.
I nod. I can keep it together. I can. Marlene takes a snowsuit off the Hold rack there are people who buy snowsuits in Long Beach, presumably to give their babies a head start on the slopes of Mountain High or Snow Summit. She whisks it over to the second register.
For an instant, giving the girl her change, I catch her eye, and neither of us looks away. If we were both younger, in the dressing room for some competition, I'd be sizing her up and weighing my chances. Thinking maybe she could take me, with a certain kind of judge. She's pretty, the dark-haired, big-eyed, sad kind of pretty that sometimes edges ahead of a blonde no matter how soulfully you play "Amazing Grace" on the accordion, or how brilliantly you smile like you're about to swoon with ecstasy. It's a fact of life, you get used to it.
"Good luck," I say. "With the adoption and everything."
She turns, and heads for the door to the street. I watch the stuff on the carpet swirl around her. Most of it settles back, but I notice a little gets on her shoes. I can see it very clearly, just like I can see that I am in more trouble than she is.
Copyright © 2005 by Kim Addonizio