The Tenth Annual "Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest Results
Fourth Place: Liesby Joan Burditt
The only reason Mrs. Reznik hired me that summer was that she wanted her grandson to become interested in me. Not that I was anything special. She just wanted her little David to become interested in a girl, any girl. I had no experience in retail, but Mrs. R., owner of the neighborhood ladies clothing store, was desperate. David went to an all-boy parochial school in north Dallas. It was hard to meet girls. And even after he was forced to attend dances, he still avoided girls like a terrier avoids the water.
He was Catholic to my Methodist. He was forever forgiven to my forever guilty. The fact that he was Catholic did not bode well for a relationship without end, ahmen ahaaaamen. My mother had already warned us girls, "If you marry a Catholic, you'll have to raise your children Catholic." My sisters and I understood my mother's admonition perfectly well. Jesus Christ on a crutch -- you shouldn't have to mumble the same thing over and over and over again to atone for every little wrong move you made. You just had to be honest enough to plunk your nickel into the little wooden church piggy bank every Sunday instead of spending it on crap like rhinestone jewelry at Kresge's Five and Dime. Even as kids, we understood that.
But my father's warning required some careful thought. "Never sit next to an Italian man on a train or bus," he warned. How that didn't make any sense.
So we talked amongst ourselves. "Why did Daddy say we shouldn't sit next to Italians?" my younger sister and I asked my oldest sister, Diane. "Is it because a lot of them are Catholic?" Diane, wise beyond her years said, "No, of course not. I think it could have something to do with their hair. You know how it's always so dark and thick and pretty?" A dreamy look passed over her face. "I think Daddy's afraid Italian men may all be fruitcakes and he doesn't want us around them." We nodded. Now we got it. A fruitcake was a man who sort of acted like a woman. Like throwing a ball underhanded or slapping instead of punching.
Anyway, David wasn't Italian. He was just Catholic. So during my interview, when Mrs. Reznik brought up the subject of her grandson, I glanced up at the photo of John F. Kennedy and the picture of Jesus (not a photo, but looked like one) hanging on the wall. "David sounds interesting," I lied.
I knew this job would be a cinch. For All the Right Seasons was a tiny store. These days it would be called a "boutique" with gleaming hardwood floors and about five dresses in the whole place. But Mrs. Reznik's store was crammed with stuff. Racks covered nearly every square foot of the harvest gold carpeting. On clear plastic hangers were dresses lined up like beauty pageant contestants, their sizes separated by plastic donut rings that whispered Size 6, Size 8, Size 10 and screamed, Size 18, Size 22. There were no S, M, L, XL sizes back then. You had to make a commitment to a size. Fish or cut bait.
The "separates" section was smaller. Separates, I learned, were tops and bottoms that you put together to make a cute outfit. Like you might pair some nice white polyester slacks with a hot pink tunic that zipped up the front. A twirling rack of earrings and necklaces stood close to the cash register, luring customers to buy some sweet white plastic hoops to complete the look.
Most of the time I worked in the store alone. There were never more than two or three customers in there at a time, and one sales girl was plenty. Besides it was Dallas and it was summer and it was hard to keep the place cool when there were too many women in there at one time.
After you've worked in a place like that for awhile, you get to know the customers. You know whether they want your help or whether they just want you to leave them alone for God's sake. You know which ones want a close-fitting cheap harpy look for a Saturday night, which ones want a God-fearing good-girl look for Sunday morning church, and which ones want both.
About every two weeks Connie would pull her dirty red and white Pontiac up to the parking space in front of the store. She'd shove the door open and just stand there. Her hair was probably gray, but it was died as black as the oozing asphalt parking lot. She smelled of cigarettes mostly, but there was also a faint odor of alcohol about her, as if she'd had so much liquor in her 60-something years that if she cut herself on something, alcohol would squirt out instead of blood.
I would sometimes see her walking the streets in the neighborhood, talking animatedly, waving her hands and arms around as if she were telling a story to someone or even to a full audience. But she was alone. She was always alone.
I was sort of afraid of Connie, not just because she talked to herself, but because whenever she was in the store, it seemed like things got too quiet and moved too slowly. I would turn up the radio, polish the glass case, straighten the racks. But her presence had a chilling effect on me. She was crazy, and possibly evil. Connie might do anything, and I didn't want to be in her world for even a few minutes.
That day Connie pushed open the door and stood on the threshold. Her black eyes wandered over the racks and finally rested on a little display of dresses that had just come in. They were beautiful: a pale blue chiffon a-line shape with the boat neckline that Jackie Kennedy had made so popular. The handmade sign above the rack said, "Jackie Dresses!! Be a 1st Lady!!" Connie lifted the hanger off the rack. Her hands always shook, so the hanger rattled like plastic wind-up teeth. She gazed at the dress for a full five minutes. Then, Jackie dress in hand, she began to slide the other dresses back and forth on the rack. The metal hook on the hanger scraped against the rod. Back and forth. Back and forth. Every time she engaged in this ritual, I thought I would scream and throw her out.
The door banged open, startling me enough to knock over a display genuine faux pearl necklaces. "Okay. Where are those Jackie dresses? Mrs. R. called me about them yesterday," hollered the store's most frequent customer, having made a startling showing last month of sixteen days in a row. Nancy Jane Cobb was a demanding customer, but she put out. The money that is. She was married to a man whose life had climaxed at the age of eighteen when he scored a winning touchdown in a high school football game that must have been the only event in Amarillo, Texas during which liberals (all three of them) and conservatives hugged. As a result of this good fortune and skill, Mr. Cobb had won a scholarship to college and discovered not only was he smart, but he was a very capable writer. So he never amounted to much financially. Therefore, Mrs. Cobb took things into her own hands, and made a fortune selling makeup at little house parties. Her fortune was the store's fortune.
Before I could say hello, Nancy Jane rushed those Jackie dresses like a bull rushing a red flag. But unlike a red flag, that rack of dresses didn't move. Nor did Connie. She seemed not to even notice Nancy Jane, her nostrils flaring, her feet generating sparks on the rug. I, on the other hand could see a train wreck fixing to happen. Connie was holding the only jackie dress in Nancy Jane's size.
"Are you going to try that on?" asked Nancy.
Connie just stood there, the hanger still rattling in her hands.
"I said are you going to try that on?" Nancy repeated.
What she didn't know was that Connie never tried clothes on. Never. Her pattern was always the same. As soon as she decided what she wanted, she would just walk up to the register and say, "I want these things." It was always those same five words. Then she would pull a bank envelope out of her purse and count out the cash. It was like watching someone dealing a deck of cards in slow motion, 20s, 10s, 5s. Then I'd put her purchase in a paper bag and she would quietly walk out.
Connie never even looked at Nancy. She picked up a pearl necklace from off the floor and brought the dress and necklace up to the register. Nancy opened her mouth. I help my breath.
"How do you even know if that even fits you?" she said too loudly, becoming so agitated her Just So Smooth makeup was getting all slick and oily on her face (but only in the "T" zone).
It was time for some action. It was time for me to earn my wages. It was time to get the hell out of there. But I needed the job, so I said "Connie, excuse me for a minute. Mrs. Cobb, there's something back here in the storage room that just came in. This morning Mrs. R. told me to show it to you first."
Mrs. Nancy Jane Cobb lived for these powerful purchasing moments when she was given first dibs on something. She followed me importantly into the storage room at t the back of the store. My problem was that I didn't have anything new to show her except for some perky straw hats. She'd rather have been caught wearing dime store makeup than wearing one of those hats.
"Look," I whispered to her. "I don't really have anything new back here. I just needed to tell you that I think you should just forget about that blue Jackie dress."
She opened her mouth to speak, but I kept talking.
"Look, Connie's got some problems and I just think you could really help her out if you'd just let her buy that dress."
"What sort of problems?" Nancy asked suspiciously.
This wasn't going well. I tried to explain how Connie seemed lonely and how she talked to herself a lot and how she always smelled like she'd been drinking. Then I had a stroke of pure adolescent retail genius.
"Besides, I think that size is too big for you. You probably need the next size smaller."
"Well, I have been losing weight. I bought this new exercise machine that has a strap that wraps around your thighs and makes then vibrate until they just melt away."
"I could tell something looked different about you," I lied. "You're going to look like Twiggy before long." I would need more than a few "hail Marys" or whatever they say for my lies.
I put her in a dressing room and brought her the dress. Out front, Connie was still waiting at the register. "I'm sorry you had to wait," I said. Connie began the slow process of counting out her money while I slipped her purchases into the sack. I heard a lump thump against the dressing room wall. Nancy Jane Cobb was staggering out of the dressing room, slamming into everything in her way. Her feet were bare and her panties were hiked up over one cheek of her buttocks. One cup of her bra had hiked up above her breast which was poking out from under the wad of dress. Most of the dress was lodged under the other breast. Her crossed arms were grabbing at the sides of the dress as if she were in a straight jacket. She was struggling to force the dress up over the errant breast and then over her head. It seemed as if the freed breast was winking at me. It seemed as if Nancy was suffocating. It seemed as if I would go to prison for murder.
I grabbed the dress and tried to force it over her head. I heard the rip of a seam. I smelled the sweat of a liar. I tasted the blood of a bitten lip.
I prayed. God, if you get this dress off Mrs. Cobb I'll become any denomination you want. I'll quit making up lies to get out of meeting Mrs. Reznik's son. I'll never lie to a customer again. I'll ...
God works in mysterious ways. Connie swung into action. She slid one hand under the soft fabric and smashed Mrs. Cobb's trapped breast as flat as it would go. With her other hand she yanked the dress up free and clear of Mrs. Cobb, sending it sailing across the shop. The dress landed in a blue cloud on top of the spilled necklaces.
The emancipated Mrs. Cobb kept repeating, "Oh my Lord Oh my Lord" over and over again.
Connie just picked up the sack and walked out the door, as Nancy scuttled back to the dressing room, her hands placed strategically over her beautiful breasts.
When Mrs. Cobb emerged from the dressing room, her hair looked like she had been straddling an electric fence with wet Breck-washed hair.
"I'm sorry. Come back again soon," I called lamely after Mrs. Cobb.
She did. Come back soon, I mean. I watched her climb into her car, pick something up, and get back out of the car. She, entered the store. "Look at this. It was in the seat of my car," she said softly, almost in a whisper even though we were the only ones there. In her hand was a store sack. Scrawled on the sack in haphazard writing were the words, "For You." I dumped the sack out on the counter. It was the dress Connie had just bought.
That summer sizzled to an end. Mrs. Reznik's grandson and I managed to avoid each other altogether. Mrs. Cobb still frequented the store and asked often about Connie. Connie didn't come back to the store, at least not while I was there. I did sometimes see her wearing the pearl necklace, walking the streets of the neighborhood. But her wildly moving hands no longer looked like the hands of an evil mad woman, at least not to me. They looked like the passionate hands of a conductor, playing a beautiful symphony that only she could hear.