12th Writing Contest • First Place, Fiction
Sari Rose has won the New Millennium Fiction Prize for “The Daughter of Retail.”
She will receive $1,000, a certificate to document the success, and publication both online and in print.
“This is a story I always wanted to write. I had the store, the family, the bras. What I didn’t have was a way in, and a defining action. Verna Pixley appeared one day and led me down the aisle.”
The Daughter of Retail
By Sari Rose
Retail works like this: Someone walks in the door and she’s yours. You may not fall in love but you have to put her body before yours. You must see whatever it is she wants to show you; smell her smell; satisfy her. You must sell yourself as a suitor before you sell the suit.
I was 12 when I started working in my father’s store. “Schmirrs–Say what you need; get what you want. We got the whole Schmirr.”
“Shorten the slogan, Irv, for Christ’s sake,” complained the 80-year old accountant.”
“Shorten your mouth and maybe you’ll learn to add,” said my father, circling a number a half mile down from the top of the ledger. They sat in Schmirr’s glass -encased office which gave my father a commanding view of who was selling or talking or stealing. The accountant’s white hair had one large bald spot, a pink planet of a spot whose topography was speckled with mauve and brown gasses. My father banged his index finger into the ledger as though hammering a nail into oak. “To the moon, Alice!” my father yelled at the little old man, betraying his equal disdain for women and math morons.
In his own bald head, my father could figure columns of numbers the length of Rubber Avenue. Though he was a merchant of wearable goods– anything that could be hung on a rack or stacked on a shelf– what he loved most was numbers. He’d sell them if he could.
But he couldn’t. Schmirr’s New York Bargain Goods was his inheritance, his own father’s most successful enterprise (after the Naugatuck Screw Factory went belly up) and it was his duty as oldest son to take it over. Numbers, would have to wait or he could do them on the side. Just as a fine artist must sometimes steal time to do his art, my father had to steal time to figure his columns. You could say he stole time from his children, but he wouldn’t have known what to do with us, anyway.
Every night he’d bring home stacks of hard-bound, blue books and as he watched Walter Cronkite or What’s My Linehe would add and figure, mostly in an effort to catch the accountant in a mistake. I sat in the couch parallel to his and we parallel watched Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle try to determine if someone was deceitful or really a horse buckler from Idaho. My father kept his head down and followed columns from top to bottom. His pencil was a baton, going down, softening the sound of the loud horns. He was in a swoon over his numbers. Water pooled in his mouth but he was in too much of a reverie to swallow. He figured out loud, saying the numbers softly to himself like a man in prayer, raising his voice only when he found a mistake. “224, 289, 486, 552, 594, 604, Son of a Bitch!”
This was what my father lived for. The rest of it– the store, the goods, the coats, the pants, the hats, the coats, the wife– was filler.
I was filler. Stuart, however, was something more. To my father, Stuart was a successfully computed multi-figure, multi-decimal, quarter-mile column. He was the captain of the Naugy High Football team and the president of the Naugy High Band. With shoulders as big as boulders he could both command the marching band and plow into a fierce defensive line. The only bad thing about him was that people used his football prowess as a launching pad to diminish me. Seemingly respectable, law-abiding customers would come into our store and start striking me down with hammers, axes, small talk. “You athletic like your brother? You fast on the field, quick with the ball, comfortable on the court?” I could only look down at the linoleum, or out at the sky, clutch my bony clavicle and sigh, “Not really.”
The truth was I was afraid to challenge myself physically because I knew I’d always fall short of Stuart. I didn’t want to be short and I didn’t want to find out if I was short. I’d wait to find out; I’d wait as long as I had to. In the meantime, I had to be something.
So, when retail beckoned, when one evening making dinner my mother stuffed a hard- boiled egg into a raw, wet meatloaf and said, “Hon, you want to work at the store?” I clutched my clavicle again, that thin, protective guard rail and said, “All right.” I saw retail as my only chance to be recognized as a rightful heir; to be considered an important, viable Schmirr.
Yet at twelve I was only toying with my inheritance. Retail worried me. At its heart, retail is the art of getting familiar fast; of staring at a body you’ve never seen and summing up the size of its whole or its parts– either the whole oven roaster or, separately, her legs, thighs, breasts, back. Often in the course of doing business you have to touch people. You have zip, adjust, pull, snap, smooth, measure. If I was going to judge a woman’s size, I needed more evidence. If I was going to touch her, I wanted a longer courtship.
I started by dusting purses. I showed great promise, so my mother began grooming me for bras. There was no soft coddling or slow cooking where retail was concerned. At Schmirr’s my mother was all business, Schmirr’s wife, Mrs. Schmirr’s Deparment Store. And once I crossed the threshold of Schmirr’s as a worker, I became– in the eyes of the public and probably of God- Schmirr’s Daughter. The Daughter of Schmirr. There was no turning back. I could only stand and take my instruction. “If anyone asks about a bra,” my mother told me, “you say, “Playtex Cross Your Heart has good lift and separation.’ If anyone asks about a girdle you say, “Playtex Double Diamond has good tummy control.’ Then come get me.”
Waiting for my time to come, I hid in purses. The purse department was in the front of the store, yet it was hidden in the far wall of a tiny, three-sided shelter or alcove. The purses were right next to Schmirr’s large display window and therefore were heated from the afternoon sun. The sun passed through the family of mannequins, passed the fake fall leaves taped to the window, and always found its way to me. The sun blessed and covered me and I became a baby beneath a receiving blanket. If I didn’t fight it, I would have fallen asleep in the sunny tunnel of light and dust that shone down on purses.
Purses occupied the two top shelves of the alcove and the other two shelves were stacked with diaper sets, baby blankets, baby boxed outfits, and baby boxed bath wear. Flanking the rows of shelving were racks of hanging baby clothes– rompers, over-alls, acrylic pants with snap tops.
Most of our customers– rubber workers who worked the assembly line across the street–didn’t want purses. Only occasionally did they buy baby clothes. They needed the raw essentials– underwear, workpants, support hose. Still, purses were a great place to duck and cover, so I stayed there and did whatever I could to make the purses present themselves well.
There were vinyl purses with plastic handles, snaps, and single or double straps. There were vinyl clutches and vinyl shoulder bags with an array of different surfaces: rough, smooth, patched, pebbled, or alligator-look. There were some evening bags: beaded, lame, or dyeable. I arranged them by size and texture and color. Beyond that, they needed constant dusting since they were at the front of the store and seemed to catch all the dust and chemical residue spewed by our next door neighbor, U.S.Rubber. I’d spray Windex again and again on the vinyl bags, wipe them clean, wipe them until they sparkled and shimmered and until the customers had thinned out and it was safe to leave. I tried to make them my life’s work. I tried to look busy and uninterruptable. I hoped nobody would find me. They always did.
“Little Girl!” they’d scream, as they ran in for their 15-minute break. “Blouses for big women! Stockings for big legs!” The questions got progressively harder and from time to time I’d have to leave my small alcove to stand in the aisle and field the assaults. “Little Girl! Blouses for big women with big busts!” “Little Girl! Stockings for fat legs and big butts!” I’d show them, tell them, then slip back to purses.
Stuart got to avoid retail for the fall season. He had football practice and was therefore excused until after Thanksgiving. When he helped at Schmirrs, winters and summers, he didn’t have to do any dirty work, either. In Men’s, where he was stationed, it was easier. Men came in and asked for things but they always seemed to acquiesce to whatever we had, to make decisions quickly, to buy it before they’d tried it on, to wear it even if it didn’t fit. Women needed more time and pretty much always wanted to try on things. They wanted someone to counsel them or at least offer an opinion or a blessing. It was if they were saying, “Pray for me. Please, pray for me.”
Before I started working at the store, I too would be home for the fall season and for all the season’s. Most days after school I would come home and lay on my bed, on the pink spread that always caught the afternoon light. I could have taught my dog, our old terrier, a thing or two about lying in patch of sun. I knew how to catch the sun and make it stay on me, how to let it warm my head, neck, the small of my back.
Stuart, three years older, was supposed to baby sit me He’d bring his football friends home after practice, around 4:30, before my parents got home from the store, and our kitchen table would be surrounded by a large sample of Naugy High greyhounds eating two or three packages of Lorna Doones. My own room was right next door to the kitchen, in the former den, and even though Stuart would sometimes close the sliding pocket door that divided the two rooms I could clearly hear them. From my patch of sun I could almost imagine I was sleeping. But I didn’t imagine what they said. They spoke about Sky Bar tongues, Snow Ball breasts, Sugar Daddy legs. They talked of Almond Joys, Mounds, Milky Ways and Spearmint Leaves. They were breast and thigh guys rushing Candy Land. Stuart didn’t contribute much to the conversation except to laugh or say, “Shhh…” When they left Stuart would open the pocket door that divided them from me and say, “Are you there?”
But it wasn’t okay. I didn’t want to hear it and I didn’t want to see it and I wanted to stay in purses forever. I was in purses the day Verna Pixley rushed the main door of Schmirrs. I swear I heard glass spraying, as though she had crashed through the main display window, maiming the mannequins and wielding a semi-automatic rifle. “Somebody quick!” she yelled to everyone. “I need a bra!”
I turned my back as soon as I could, squirted yet more Windex on a vinyl bag, and hoped one of the other salesgirls– Lena, Rita, Theresa, Martha– would come over, save me. I was not ready for this. It was too fast for me. I was not precocious in bras.
I made some fake, useless motions around the purses–touching the handles and fingering the clasps– hoping to look legitimately occupied, but she found me. “Little Girl! Fast, Fast! I need a bra! Do you work here?” I turned around to face her, knowing as I did so, that I had just left purses– probably, forever. “Yes?” I said.
Walking out of the alcove, I stood in front of her, and looked into her eyes, which were big and black and seemed to regard me with absolute shock, as if I was either her tormentor or savior. “Can you help me?” she asked.
I couldn’t say, yes, because I didn’t know if I could. I couldn’t say no, because my father would kill me.
“Follow me,” I said, with twelve-year old poise and presence, even as I looked furtively for my mother. She was at the cash register, her glasses on, pressing buttons and moving her lips. She might as well have been behind bars.
We ducked and dodged other customers and made our way to the back of the first floor. We passed the Ship N’ Shore blouses; the knit, elastic-waist slacks; the poly-tricot nighties; the brushed flannel pajamas; the acrylic, vinyl- palm gloves; the Poll Parrot shoes and Hush Puppies; the pierced-look earrings. I could hear my father’s voice rise above the crowd. He spent his days waiting for his nights: his book of numbers. To pass the time, he yelled at the help and crooned to the customers. “Yolanda, I’m a fonda’ you,” he sang to a customer, as she waited her turn at the cash register. “Eugenie, give me a penny and I’ll give you a dollar bill.” To my father, lyrics were kindred spirits to numbers. They had to fit and have the right number of syllables. “Daisy, Shmaisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy, give me eight, twenty two.”
“That Mr. Schmirr got a perpetual song in his blessed heart,” Verna said as we made our way through the umbrellas and car coats. She told me she needed a new bra for her niece’s christening and right away I pictured girls in bridal-like gowns, boys in blue suits, and Verna Pixley in a new bright, white Playtex.
At every step in that walk to the back of the store, we sank or bumped or floated into other customers’ arms or hips or bottoms. This was the three o’clock rush when the rubber workers of U.S. Rubber emptied into Schmirrs. They were line workers, front-line footwear workers who assembled rubber boots and U.S. Keds. They had fifteen minutes to either grab a donut next door at the Coffee Shop or come to us to buy pastel shells or housecoats or half aprons. When fifteen minutes was up, a whistle blew that you could hear clear down Rubber Avenue and the workers had to race back to their line. To save time, I thought, they must pee in their pants.
50,60, 70 women filled Schmirr’s during the three o’clock rush. Men came in too, but not in such masses, not with such panic or dogged purpose. Our men’s department upstairs was smaller and had mostly work pants for rubber workers, painters pants for painters, pants for the safety pin and lipstick tube workers, pants for the mechanics, the chemists, the bottlemakers, the candy makers and the mayor. The women were the bread and butter of Schmirr’s. My father understood that women had abundant and unabiding buying potential. They needed to dress as workers and wives; as housekeepers, cooks and food shoppers; as mothers, gardeners and car drivers; as party, beach and churchgoers. They got old and sick and needed to buy things that slipped on easily, that didn’t need buttoning. They needed proper dress for luncheons and club meetings. They bought novelty items, things they didn’t know they needed: furry slippers and nighties with French travel phrases. They got pregnant. They got fat. And they filled every inch of Schmirr’s with noise, heat, smell. They filled it with their bodies, mostly big, hot bodies; so many bodies my own body felt unnecessary and weightless. In the rubber worker rush on Schmirrs I became bodyless, which was what I really wished for then.
If I were bodyless, I wouldn’t have to take gym. Without a body, I wouldn’t have to take off my clothes in the girls’ shower.
Just that day, the day Verna Pixley entered Schmirrs, I was working on a problem having to do with taking off my clothes in the girls locker room. Initially, this seemed a mathematical problem that could only have a mathematical solution. To get credit for gym class, we had to take off all our clothes and get in the gang shower. Now, none of us twelve year olds wanted to reveal our bodies– either to ourselves or to others. On the other hand, we wanted credit for jumping jacks, half push ups, half sit-ups, running our half court of basketball. So, what to take off, how to take it off, how to be naked without being naked, how to get wet while remaining dry.
Math failed me, so I went on to magic, logic, mechanical engineering. It was really about magic so I worked the problem magically, picturing myself simultaneously dressed and undressed, dry and wet, and leaving the gang shower wrapped in a big towel and eligible for credit.
Now, if I didn’t get credit for taking a shower I’d get a failing grade, a 65, and my father, looking at my report card for two short seconds would see before him the 95’s, the 90’s, the 85’s and 80’s, and hook his craw around the 65. “What’s with the 65? What about gym?” he’d say, pointing to the 65 with the neat nail of his index finger. “You need to be fit. Fit’s important. Fit’s the most important thing. Look at my bicep. Look!” It was a big bicep, marbled with veins. It looked like a snow igloo bursting at the seams with a big extended family inside. He worked at this. There were hand weights and hand grips and arm stretchers in the master bathroom. At parties or casual dinners with friends, he won more arm wrestling matches and did more one-handed push-ups than any other man. He’d get redder in the face, moan louder, push more. He had the biggest veins and biggest biceps and I had to be naked in the girls’ shower to win his approval. “What’s your excuse?” he would say, his now relaxed arm pointing again at the 65. There was no excuse and the only way to survive in the world was to have no body. It all came down to having an invisible body, denying the body, or trying to just walk away from the body, leaving the shell behind and taking the head with you.
But for now, tunneling through the crowd with Verna Pixley, I needed my body and it was there for me, even though it felt slight and light as air. The girls– Lena, Therea, Rita, Martha– each with different customers looked at me with badly restrained smiles. I was a new act for the ongoing show of their life which often seemed purposeless and unending. When my segment was over and the rubber worker rush was gone, they’d go back to sizing, sorting and straightening the same clothes they’d been handling for months. They were heroic by default and necessity. If by excruciating boredom they didn’t fold a sleeve under a sweater or left uncorrected a sixteen mixed in with the eighteens, my father, could sniff it like an Australian Water Dog and come out of his cubicle with his snout in a state of agitated expectation. He’d walk over to the sweater bin, pick up the object with his mouth, wag his tail in victory and talking through the spaces of teeth that weren’t clamped onto the sweater bark, “What pain in the ass isn’t doing her job?”
Finally, at the far corner of the first floor Verna and I reached a cramped section close to the back exit. The size of a 1950s closet, it was not big enough to qualify as a department onto itself. Among ourselves, we called the section simply, bras. On wooden shelves painted a deep aqua– the same paint we used on our aqua-colored ranch house– the bra boxes were stacked in uneven rows. They looked like books in the library. On the bra boxes I saw a mass of numbers and letters, a kind of Dewey Decimal system I hadn’t yet learned. There were also pictures of women in bras from which I could determine the style– whether the straps had lace, for example, or whether there was a floral design on the cups. But the picture couldn’t tell me if the bra had a light liner or big pads or what-the-hell-size this huge Verna Pixley would wear. What the pictures– white women with pointed nipples and neat pageboys– told me was this: you couldn’t opt out of breasts. You couldn’t get a written excuse; you couldn’t be out that day.
“Playtex Cross Your Heart, is nice,” I said, mimicking my mother. “It lifts and separates.” She looked at me like I was nuts.
“Lifts and separates,” I said again, holding my hands out like a book, then raising them up and out. It was a gesture Moses might have made to part the Red Sea. I had no idea what I was saying. Lift and Separate sounded like something a bulldozer did to shale and rock.
“Oh yeah!” she said, suddenly, startling me. “I saw that commercial on TV. Playtex lifts and separates. That’s right. Right. Good.”
She was with me and I was with myself until I asked again, “What size?”
“Sorry, but I need a number,” I said. ” We need to get it right because bras are not returnable. That’s a state law, not Schmirr’s.” I felt I was a medium and the spirit of my dead grandfather, the screw and retail magnate, was speaking through me.
I looked up at some big numbers I saw on the bra boxes. “42, 44? ”
“Lordy,” she said. “It been so long. Can you read the tag on the bra I’m wearin’?”
And before I had the chance to scream, she had her shirt up in the back of the store as though the words “private parts” meant nothing to her.
Well, I would have needed a map to find that tag, the expanse of bra was so big and the terrain so diverse. On her back were both raised and recessed spots, dots and scars. And the bra itself was in places bumpy or smooth, threadbare or thick, white or light white or beige according to various stretch, pull, or tension points. I found where the straining hook eyes came together but I had no room, and not enough strength to flip the material over to find the tag. “I can’t find it,” I said, to which she replied, “I’ll just take off the whole thing then.”
I must have had the look of a lean, nervous sprinter waiting for the gun to go off, because she said to me, “Look, Baby, I need this bra. Your daddy says in his jingle, tell us what you need and we get it for ya’all. I got less than 5 minutes. If I late, they kill me.”
We were both living with death threats: she from her supervisor; me from my father if I failed to make, or try to make, this sale. “Go in the dressing room,” I said quietly, “and take off your bra.”
I looked high up on the shelf and saw 42s, 44s but then there were the cup sizes, the Cs the Ds, the CCCs or the DDDs, the wired and not wired, the laced and plain, the cotton straps or stretch straps, the black or white. I was going for a 44 DD when she called out from the dressing room, “Little Girl! I found the tag but it so old I can’t read it. Maybe 44! Quick. Just get me 40 somethin’.” I pulled a 46 DDD from the shelf and ran to the dressing room.
There in the tiny closet of a room, I nearly drowned. For Verna stood before me, naked from the waist up, with breasts as big and obscene as anything I could ever have imagined. The full length mirror made me see four breasts and for a moment the four nipples, like four wide, puckery mouths, sucked all the oxygen out of the room and it seemed I was breathless and floating. “See about this,” I said, almost throwing the bra box at her while I tried to run out, but she said to me, “Girlie Girl, I’m afraid I be too sweaty to try these on. You got some paper towel, Sweet Pea? Or just a rag?”
Then and there I must have made a decision, a heart-felt promise to heaven that for a “Girlie Girl” or “Sweet Pea” I would do anything for her. My father gave me names like Pain in the Ass, Whiner, Worrier. Names of horses that would never see the Kentucky Derby.
But Verna’s names for me were loving, tender. She didn’t even know me and she was probably going to be docked money for returning late to her line. I ran for rags.
What I found was a new roll of toilet paper in the utility closet and some baby powder. I grabbed them both and ran back. I unwrapped, unrolled, sprinkled, mopped and felt like a true professional in the field.
“That’s good, Honey Doll,” she said, to me, as I was balling up paper, rubbing her down. “That’s good, Sweet Plum. Nice, Baby, Nice, Nice.” She pointed her index finger down her back. “Below the shoulder blade, Lemon Drop. That’s good.” Her tone worried me a little, but I was so in love with the promise of other fruit she had yet to call me that I just went on with my rubbing and mopping. “How’d you learn to be such a good helper?” she asked me.
“My mother’s teaching me but…” I knew I should just shut up and make a sale, but I wanted to tell her. Even though she was half naked, I edged slightly closer to her face, and looked into her ear as I spoke: “I think I’m bad at bras,” I said.
Her whole body seemed to tighten. She crossed her legs at the ankles and bent way over, her breasts approaching the floor way before the rest of her came close. “You’re not bad at nothin’, Sweetheart. Only don’t make me laugh. I’ll pee in my pants.”
” Don’t do that,” I said. “We’ll have to get you underwear, too, and I don’t understand underwear either.”
“Don’t understand underwear?” Still bent over, she put one hand on her stomach and the other hand straight out, as though she was trying to stop traffic. “Don’t make me laugh!”
But she laughed. She couldn’t help herself. And she peed. “Wait ’till you have your babies,” she said to me. You start leaking now and then.”
Leaking? They didn’t tell me about leaking. Breasts, sex, babies, and now leaking. But I had no time to feel stricken. “I got 4 minutes,” Verna said.
She had started trying on the bras now that I had prepped her and I went to look for “dry panties,” as they say in lingerie. Luckily, I ran into my mother who was trying to make some order in the back-snap dresses. “Ma!” I yelled. “I got some lady trying on a bra! 46 DDD.”
“You poor thing,” she said.
“And she needs underwear, too! I haven’t learned the underwear!”
“I’ll get it. I’ll get extra big–triple X– and meet you back there.”
Verna almost had the bra on, but needed me to hook it. As the two hook eyes came together, she said, “Yes, Yes, Baby, Good! Good!” I felt I’d come in first, whatever it was I had entered. Then there was a knock on the dressing-room door.”
“Who is it?” I asked, resenting the intrusion with my customer.
“Just me,” said my mother. She opened the dressing room door and I saw a hand enter, a disembodied hand from which was dangling an industrial-size panty. I grabbed it, gave it to Verna. “Meet me at the cash register,” I told her.
I was sorry to leave her. I would have helped her put on her blue, sweat-soaked jersey and her black stretchy pants. I think she was sorry to see me leave, too. “Yes, Darlin,” she said.
I walked down the front aisle to the cash register carrying her old bra, the new bra box, and the price tag from her new pair of panties. My mother saw me and cheered. “Atta Way, Babe.” The girls–Lena, Barbara, Theresa, Martha– stood behind the counter, their bodies like packages they had wrapped up in their own arms. I felt I was approaching a receiving line of New York aunts. Their faces, happy now as they saw me, were ready to snap into boredom at a moment’s notice
The old bra hung from my hand like cascading babies breath. My face was flushed. Verna was behind me now calling, “Where’s my Baby Girl? Where’s that Girl Child?”
“Her name’s, Esther,” my mother called out from behind the cash register. Beside her, my father was crooning “Somewhere, over the rain hats,” to a small white woman as he rang up her triangular plastic babushka. As I was walked down the aisle he saw me, witnessed my victory, felt the spirited air around him and interrupted his song to belt out an insult so everyone could hear, “That’s my Pain in the Ass.”
I was twelve, but at that moment I was pushed farther out, over my head. And while I didn’t ask for retail I knew, for better and for worse, it was beginning to happen to me. My father knew it, my mother knew it, and Stuart having just now finished practice in the fall dusk knew it, too. Retail was the woman I supposed to become.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sari Rose won the 12th New Millennium Fiction Prize for “The Daughter of Retail.”
“The Daughter of Retail” © 2001 by Sari Rose