In the Fitting Room by Stefan Kiesbye

 

 

In the Fitting Room

by Stefan Kiesbye

 

    

 

On Saturday mornings around ten o’clock, Ginny and her younger brother Felix were dropped off at Meijer’s by their mother. When their mother Elsa Dunning returned, between four and six in the afternoon, she smelled of the oils and perfumes of a spa, or of the aftershave of her current boyfriend. If that boyfriend smoked, Ginny and Felix would guess the brand by poking their noses into Elsa’s fur coat. Ginny was ten, Felix was seven.

            For the long time between morning and afternoon, Ginny and Felix each received six dollars, good for sodas, fries, or fudge sundaes. Water could be had for free at the fountain in the hallway leading to the restrooms and staff room.

            Time, Ginny found out, was a thing you had to spend more wisely than money. Not because there was so little of it, but because there was always too much. She had to pace herself and her little brother, and each Saturday this got to be more difficult, since routine seemed to choke time without killing it.

            For the first hour, Ginny took Felix by the hand, and they tried to spot new product arrivals. Which of these lamps, if any, had not been here the week before? Which toys were new? And slowly she taught her brother the more complicated game of finding out which plants had been sold, which carpets had disappeared, and what baseball caps had sold out over the week.

            Sometimes Felix wanted to run up and down the aisles, and Ginny was wise enough to let him. [Only the food section was taboo, and not only for running. The food section was off limits until 12:30, when they took a stroll through the candy section.

            Ginny pushed the shopping cart, and Felix was allowed to fill it with whatever he desired. Then they loaded up on chips, pretzels, power bars, and soda. By then their mouths were dripping wet, their stomach huge pits with tigers roaring, demanding to be fed. They abandoned the shopping cart in the frozen-food section and ran to the store’s restaurant to spend every penny they had.

            After fries, sodas, or hot fudge sundaes, time was good until two o’clock. It trickled gently down their backs, the sugar high allowing them to envision soft beds, a car ride to Lake Michigan, their mom making popcorn in the microwave so they could watch a TV movie together.

            In the summers, Ginny took Felix into the parking lot, where they played with a small ball she’d brought, or with Felix’ toy cars he’d stuffed into his pockets. In the winters, they played with cookie jars that played songs when you opened them, or they pulled teddy bears off the shelf and sat down with them in the furniture section. Yet invariably, a floor person would come up to them and ask where their parents might be.

            “You’re not allowed to play with these bears,” they’d say. “Where’s your mom? Where’s your dad?”

            Running away helped. The store was huge, and they dropped bears, dolls, and blankets, and ran off into the home improvement section. Nobody ever ran after them, and running was easier than answering a salesperson.

            From that experience, Ginny invented the ‘Lost’ game. At first it was a variant of hide and seek, which they were afraid to play since they might get picked up by floor personnel. The ‘Lost’ game was always last, filling the dreadful hours between two and six.

            The salespeople wore red coats, and Ginny made a point of wearing red dresses or a red jacket each Saturday. Felix was allowed to choose a place where he had gotten ‘lost,’ and for a count of six-times-sixty, Ginny abandoned him in the middle of the Large Men section or near the fishing equipment. Then she walked down his aisle and asked, “Little boy, are you lost?”

            “I’m not little,” Felix said defiantly.

            “Are you looking for your mom?”

            Felix nodded.

            “Well, let’s find her, shall we?” She took Felix by the hand and together they looked at the women pushing carts, filling them with underwear, slabs of meat, and Jell-o.

            “Is this your mother?” Ginny pointed to a red-haired woman in a red leather jacket.

            Felix shrugged.

            “Excuse me, Ma’m,” Ginny said to the red-haired woman, who was only half a head taller than herself. “Is this your little boy?”

            The woman stared at Felix, then at Ginny. “Of course not,” she said.

            “Thank you,” Ginny said politely and pulled Felix away.

            They became smarter as they played, picking only the mothers they wished they had. These usually had brown hair, like Elsa, smooth hands like Elsa’s, and slim figures. Like Elsa. Sometimes a kid or two were already with them, and these Elsa-but-not-Elsas invariably stroked a child’s head, made a girl sneeze into a napkin, or diligently picked up the bottle her baby had thrown to the floor.

            “Is this your little boy?”

            “I wish, but no. Is he lost? Oh my God. Is he lost? Let me take you to the manager. Hey cutie, have you lost your mom?”

            Ginny and Felix never allowed themselves to be taken to a manager; they understood the rules of the game. But finding the right woman became their obsession.

            Dads were more difficult. Ginny and her brother weren’t sure what they wanted in a man, regarded them as stranger than aliens. Felix didn’t remember their own father at all.

            “Are you asking me for money?” the first man they asked responded before turning away. “Go see a manager, they’ll find your dad.” And, “No he’s not mine. Did he tell you he was?” Men were frightening, but after several months of sticking to females, they also appeared more interesting.

            When Ginny was thirteen, Felix joined the soccer team, and other parents now took care of him on Saturdays. Ginny, old enough to have friends and invitations to stay at these friends’ houses, still preferred Meijer’s. One day, she barged into the staff room – she should have known better, but the door was right next to the women’s restroom – and found it empty.

            She wanted to leave immediately, but then she saw a red coat hanging in one corner. Ginny grabbed it, stuffed it under her shirt, and ran out unseen. In the restroom stall, she tried it on. It was too wide, even though Ginny had become somewhat chubby in recent months, but the length was okay, and overall, she was satisfied with her appearance.

            “Hello, do you need help?” she approached a customer in the aisle with alarm clocks and tape recorders.

            “Well, no,” the man slowly said, hardly looking at her. His hair was gray, and Ginny found gray-haired men to be soothing. His belly stood out over his belt just so; Ginny imagined these bellies to be friendly, the harshness of young, taut football jock muscles gone, the angry fire of young men dulled. At thirteen, Ginny had thought a lot about men and their bellies.

            “Well, I’m a good helper,” she said.

            “I’m sure you are,” the man said, finally looking at her. “Do you know what a twelve-year old will think is a cool tape recorder?”

            “Your son?” she asked precociously.

            “Right,” the man said. “Sort of, anyway.”

            “This Sony radio cassette-player is a very hot item,” she offered. She knew what she was talking about. Between last Saturday and today, seventeen of these had been sold; she’d counted the boxes.

            Her very first customer put the Sony under one arm, thanked her, and left Ginny’s cheeks flushed and her pulse racing.

            In the following weeks she discovered that in her red coat she remained as invisible as she had been before. At home, she fabricated a name tag that looked identical to the real ones. The name she chose for herself was June, and from time to time, a manager would nod at her or tell her to re-organize the shoes or carry away some empty boxes – which she did – but no one, not even her ‘co-workers’ seemed to see her, or find her presence odd.

            The staff room, of course, was off limits, and Ginny had no desire to join the salespeople on their break. Her own house did not hold a single item of Meijer’s; her mother had not bought a single pair of underwear here, not even a pound of apples or a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. When Ginny started high school, she did not once think about getting a job at the store. Jobs were for the children of other families, less fortunate families, and anyway, it would have vulgarized her game.

            As she grew older, her taste for men increased. At fifteen, she led a University of Michigan sophomore to the men’s fitting room, after he had asked her for help. She opened a curtain for him, and closed it for him too. When he emerged with a new pair of jeans on him, she told him he should probably get pants downtown, in one of the good men’s clothing stores. He laughed, then pulled her behind his curtain.

            The sophomore was shocked when he saw her bleed, but she told him not to worry. “This had to happen sooner or later,” she said. “Was I any good?”

            He laughed again, a friendly laugh, and kissed her in response. Ginny liked his gratitude.

            For the next few weekends she avoided Meijer’s, visiting girls from her school instead. She was afraid her lover might return for seconds and ruin the store for her.

            Her friends braided each other’s hair, talked about quarterbacks and wide receivers and tight ends, ate cookies, and did their nails. One brought a joint once, but Ginny didn’t feel a thing. They discussed who was a slut and who was a whore, and Ginny was bored to tears. “Do your damn toes yourself,” she screamed when Emily Bartenbaker held a foot out to her.

            At sixteen she had figured out that the uglier a man was, the more gratitude he showed. There were exceptions. Some men did not want to believe they were ugly, and thought Ginny lucky to be treated to comb-overs and long fingernails. But even gratitude had its downside – the more grateful men were, the harder they tried to score a second time.

            Ginny, who was not slim and of uncertain features, began to target the better-looking men. This was hard work, and sometimes meant that she went home without having helped a customer, but at least these men, she found out in time, did not wish to meet her again. It hurt Ginny, and yet, she realized, it was for the better.

            By then, she drove herself to Meijer’s every Saturday morning, in a blue Ford Escort. She enjoyed that freedom, although she still stayed dutifully from ten to six, wearing one of two red coats tailored for her at a local store.

After a stretch in which her dealings with men had become too easy, Ginny started to suspect foul play. Had men put their colleagues up to sleeping with her? Had students bragged about her in the dorms? Just before graduation, with a heavy heart, Ginny felt the necessity to switch stores.

            In college at Michigan State she visited the Meijer’s superstore in Lansing, but soon found her services unfulfilling. She longed for Ann Arbor, for her old environment. Only in that particular store did she make sense.

            In grad school – she had been accepted with a partial scholarship to the U of M, she met Max, another writer, and moved in with him. Max was a year younger than her, and losing his hair. It inspired tenderness in Ginny. Felix, her brother, she hadn’t seen since freshman year in college. It was said that he was living in Oregon. He was a junkie, and in and out of jail. Sometimes a letter arrived at her mom’s house, pleading for money.

            In the last year of her studies, she believed herself cured. Ginny wrote short stories about Felix and her childhood, and one piece, “Superstore,” was published in Ploughshares and chosen for Best American Short Stories.

            After graduation, she was hired as a teacher and found that she had little time to write. Weekends were filled with stacks of papers she needed to grade, and even if she had time, Max – who by now worked as an editor for the university press – sat all day in front of his computer, typing away at his novel.

            “What if I get pregnant?” Ginny asked Max one Saturday morning.

            “You won’t, right?” Max answered, not interrupting his work.

            “But if?”

            “You’re still taking the pill?” he asked.

            “Don’t worry. But if?”

            “Well, then,” he said, finally turning around to face her. His eyes had a boyish tenderness, and his lips were actually smiling. “Then you won’t have to work anymore...I guess.”

            For a while she tried to make time for her writing again. Yet her own work seemed shallow to her now, insignificant, hardly distinguishable from the pulp her students produced. [What, after all, was the difference between her stories of sex in a store, and the pet deaths, abortion tales, and suicides her students so much loved? Her agent, who, for the better part of a year had hounded her for a novel, stopped calling altogether. After another six months of trying, in which she produced seventeen pages, she needed the real thing once more. Ginny went back to Meijer’s.

That day, she stood in one of her old, now a bit tight, red coats in the entrance, breathing in the smell of cheap cleaner, bad air, and rancid food. The pale neon light was just the right hue. How alive she was, how rich the atmosphere here. The noise of the cash registers, the people in cheap clothing she herself would never wear, the rattle of shopping carts in the parking lot, and squeaks of sneakers on linoleum, all this made her limbs tickle. Ginny was overcome with lust, gratitude, and a sense of having returned home. Like the relief of finally shooting up again, the first cigarette after a long break, the first drink.

“Would you like to try on those pants?” she asked a middle-aged, gray-haired, soft-bellied man in a brown leather coat.

His mustache twitched. “Sure. Where?”

“I’ll show you,” Ginny said.

Eight weeks later, she showed the result of her ClearBlue Easy test to Max. “Are you a bit happy?” she asked.

He swallowed, his eyes all tenderness.

 

 

**

 

Stefan Kiesbye is the author of the novel Next Door Lived A Girl (Low Fidelity Press 2005). His stories have appeared in Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Best of Carve Magazine, and the anthology Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction, edited by Stephen Elliott. He currently teaches creative writing and composition at Eastern Michigan University.

 

 

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