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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
not allowed to play with these bears,” they’d say. “Where’s your mom? Where’s
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.
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.
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?”
not little,” Felix said defiantly.
you looking for your mom?”
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.
this your mother?” Ginny pointed to a red-haired woman in a red leather
me, Ma’m,” Ginny said to the red-haired woman, who was only half a head
taller than herself. “Is this your little boy?”
woman stared at Felix, then at Ginny. “Of course not,” she said.
you,” Ginny said politely and pulled Felix away.
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.
this your little boy?”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
do you need help?” she approached a customer in the aisle with alarm clocks
and tape recorders.
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.
I’m a good helper,” she said.
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?”
son?” she asked precociously.
the man said. “Sort of, anyway.”
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.
very first customer put the Sony under one arm, thanked her, and left Ginny’s
cheeks flushed and her pulse racing.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
laughed again, a friendly laugh, and kissed her in response. Ginny liked his
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
if I get pregnant?” Ginny asked Max one Saturday morning.
won’t, right?” Max answered, not interrupting his work.
still taking the pill?” he asked.
worry. But if?”
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
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.
“I’ll show you,” Ginny
Eight weeks later, she
showed the result of her ClearBlue Easy test to Max. “Are you a bit happy?”
He swallowed, his eyes
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.