In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Miss Lena goes into the dressing room, closes the folding three-way mirror, gets down on her knees, and prays. I wonder if she’s really praying for customers, as she tells me, or if she’s praying for bigger things, like peace in Yugoslavia, where she is from and which she calls Yugo, or maybe an end to homelessness. It seems to me you shouldn’t waste a prayer on attracting customers.
As always, as soon as Miss Lena starts praying, a customer comes in. I help the woman find a dress for her cousin’s wedding; she’s a size fourteen but insists on trying on eights. I cut the tag out of a fourteen, tell her it’s an eight, and boom! it’s sold. When the next customer comes in, I go to get Miss Lena.
“Miss Lena,” I say, knocking on the fitting-room door and turning my ear to hear her, “there’s a customer here for you.”
“You go ahead and help her, dear,” she says, exactly as usual.
We earn an hourly wage plus commission. The commission nearly triples your salary. I make the most money of anyone on the floor, but it’s only because I work with Miss Lena, in Petite Dresses, and she spends a lot of her time praying. Also, unlike me, she isn’t multi-tasked and can’t do two things at once, like help another customer while the first is trying on a dress, or answer the phone while she’s ringing up a sale.
“I already had someone,” I whisper to Miss Lena. “Sold her that Andrea Jovine in size fourteen.” I feel like I’m talking to a friend who’s locked herself in the bathroom.
The door opens and Miss Lena pokes her head out. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll pray for more. You take this one, and I’ll take the next one.”
“OK,” I say, and then I tell myself that if she doesn’t take the next one, I’ll just ring up the sale under her number.
Promising to ring a sale under Miss Lena’s number has turned into a bad habit lately. I’ve considered dropping the practice altogether, so I don’t feel like such a shit all the times I don’t keep my promise. Once, I swore with all my might that I would do it; I said, “No matter how expensive the dress, I will ring up the next sale on Miss Lena’s number, and if I don’t, may God give me AIDS and herpes, and scabies all over my face, and make me infertile.” And then the next customer who came in had just gotten divorced and lost twenty pounds, and she was going crazy, buying everything she saw. I even had to follow her down to Sportswear, where she bought a bunch of Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein, and Adrienne Vittadini. She wouldn’t buy Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein, though, because they’re men. “I hate men,” she told me, throwing another sweater onto the stack of clothes in my arms. I had to use a rolling rack to hold all she was buying. When I went to ring up her bill, she left me her credit card and went off to lunch because she knew it would take an hour to punch everything into the register, remove the alarm tags, and bag it all.
Miss Lena was so excited for me she hugged me from behind and said, “God is smiling on you today. You must have done something nice for Jesus.” I stood there with my finger poised over the keyboard, trying to decide whether to punch in her sales number or mine. “What are you waiting for?” Miss Lena said. And I said, “How about if I read the codes to you, and you do the register?” She said OK, of course. So it was her who punched in my sales number. I didn’t have to do it; I didn’t have to go back on my promise. The next sale I made, an $89 dress marked down from $179, I punched in Miss Lena’s number, but I didn’t feel good about it; I knew I had gotten away with something.
By the time the second customer is ready to try on dresses, Miss Lena has finished her prayers. I lead the customer to the dressing room where Miss Lena was praying, and find that she has left the mirrors closed, as usual. This bothers me, because it’s evidence of her personal, private activities — like an unflushed toilet or dirty laundry on a bathroom floor.
“If you need any help in there,” I say before closing the door, “just call for Miss Lena, and she’ll assist you.” I look to see if Miss Lena overhears this, and I’m glad to see her smiling warmly at me.
Miss Lena is thin and pale with stark blond hair (naturally blond), bright blue eyes, and full lips. She wears sack dresses that tie around her waist, and pulls her hair back into a tight bun. She’s about fifty and has never married or had children. Miss Lena’s face is as smooth as a paper plate — no lines or wrinkles anywhere. It’s the skin of a nun or someone who’s lived underground her whole life. I look at her and think, Man, if I had those natural good looks, what I wouldn’t do with them. But Miss Lena does nothing with her looks. I think she has no sense of them at all. There is not a speck of makeup on her face; she’s like one of those Merle Norman cosmetics “before” pictures, only without the bad skin.
I, on the other hand, am a carefully crafted piece of work. I pluck my eyebrows, wear green contact lenses, and have had my teeth whitened and my nose straightened. Every eight weeks, my hair is cut, styled, and dyed the color of honey. I am skinny because I eat only every other day. (Some people think this is an eating disorder, but I swear it isn’t; it’s just the best way to stay thin.) Men turn their heads and check me out. They offer me seats on the train, strike up conversations, ask me for dates. Women aren’t fooled, though — I’ve never had a girlfriend say, “Gee, I wish I looked like you.”
I am the only American who works on the dress floor. Besides Miss Lena from Yugo, there is Miss Liaskis from Greece and Miss Michelle from France. (In this store, all the salesladies are called Miss, whether they’re married or not.) Our manager, Miss Dani, has lived in California her whole life but was born in Germany. And the sisters, Miss Braughn the older and Miss Braughn the younger, are from Canada, but everyone assumes they’re Americans. They find this insulting.
I’m also the youngest person and the newest employee on the dress floor. All the other ladies have been here at least ten years. Miss Lena’s been here for sixteen. Aside from Miss Lena and Miss Liaskis, the salesladies don’t really like me. They think I’m snotty, or that I think I’m smart or something because I’ve been to college — even though I haven’t graduated yet and am taking a year off to work. They also hate me because I sell the most.
Miss Liaskis works in Formal Dresses. She dyes her hair red and wears long, diaphanous skirts — just what you’d expect a Greek woman to wear. She’s in her sixties and is good-natured and kind, but just can’t move fast enough to make the sales. She’s always getting the codes on the register confused, punching in the department number when she’s supposed to punch in the dress class, or the price when she’s supposed to punch in her sales number. About three times a day, I have to go over to her register and help her out of a jam. The other women just ignore Miss Liaskis; they don’t want to lose any sales while they’re busy helping her.
The other day, Miss Liaskis actually started crying at the register. She had a big sale, three designer dresses, and she just couldn’t get the numbers straight. The customer was a regular who’s always impatient and treats us like hired help or something. When I walked up, this customer was tapping her nails against the counter and saying, “Look, if you can’t do it, I’ll just give it to someone else to ring up.” I cleared the machine, grabbed the ticket, and punched in those numbers so fast I was finished before the woman had time to open her wallet for her credit card. When the sale was done and the customer was walking off, I looked over at Miss Liaskis, who was wiping away streaky, black-mascara tears from her cheeks. Her nose was red and her shoulders were still quaking from the cry.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I rang it under your number.
“I know you did,” she said. “You always do.”
I felt kind of bad when she said that, because sometimes when I’m having a great day, just standing at the register raking in commissions, I think, I ought to throw a sale dress or something Miss Liaskis’s way. But I never do.
Miss Michelle works in Contemporary Dresses. She makes the most money after me. She’s from France, but you wouldn’t know it. She’s not beautiful or elegant the way you’d expect a French woman to be. She sucks on hard candy all day long, and her teeth are brown and silver. The reason she makes so much money is because she yells at customers. She says things like “Hey, you, walking out of that fitting room! . . . Yeah, you. I showed you that dress, so if you want to buy it, you bring it to me.” People are always so shocked to find this tiny, gray-haired lady with a ball of candy in her cheek yelling at them that they do exactly what she says.
Of all the people on the sales floor, the only ones I really dislike are the Braughn sisters in Designer Dresses. I guess I forgive everyone else for whatever they do, because at least they seem to be true to themselves — they’re just being who they are. But the sisters . . . well, the sisters are full of shit. They both dress beautifully, and sort of float across the sales floor, helping only the customers they consider worthy of their time. They’re heiresses of some sort, so they don’t really need the money. Neither one likes to help people who are unattractive, overweight, or poorly dressed — that is, unless they have hoards of money. The sisters take the attitude of volunteers: You can’t tell me what to do, because if you don’t like the way I work, I’ll just leave. That kind of thing. They pretty much ignore me, and I ignore them.
Once, though, when I snagged a customer who was getting off the elevator, I caught Miss Braughn the younger glaring at me, and she mouthed the word slut. I was sort of shocked, as she’s so prim and proper and not the type of person you’d expect to use the word slut. After I’d finished helping the customer, I went into a fitting room and mouthed slut over and over again in front of the mirror, to see if it could be mistaken for any other word, the way vacuum looks like fuck you when you mouth it. I wanted to tell Miss Lena what Miss Braughn had done, but I don’t think I could say “slut” to her — although, being from Yugo, she probably doesn’t even know what it means.
Miss Dani, our manager, hates customers, is tired of her job, and lets us do whatever we want. She spends her days in the stockroom talking on the phone or trying on the new inventory. She’s as wide as she is tall, so everything looks bad on her, but she wears it all anyway — velvet suit-dresses with rhinestone buttons, suede skirts cut just below her ass, and silky dresses that cling to her like saran wrap. Her hair is cut short atop her big, rectangular head, and she wears a lot of makeup. If this were anywhere but San Francisco, she would go through life unnoticed, but here everyone thinks she’s a man in drag, so she’s constantly being hit on by gay men who like transvestites. They come in the store and ask for her, and she blushes and shoos them away.
When the customer I have promised to Miss Lena emerges from the dressing room, she buys three expensive, full-price dresses. The sale is about four times what the size fourteen was. I ring it up for Miss Lena, then secretly slap myself on the cheek for thinking that if I had given the first sale to her, this big sale would be mine.
More customers come, and I get so busy it’s closing time before I know it. As I’m clearing out the register, Miss Lena separates the receipts and adds them up (deducting the returns) to see how much we’ve each sold. I’ve sold twice what she has, and half her total is from that one big sale I donated to her. I jam the point of my left heel into the top of my right foot as punishment for having originally regretted giving her that sale. My eyes tear up from the pain, but I feel better.
I can’t wait to get home. Today is a no-eating day, and I want the rest of it to pass quickly so that I can wake up tomorrow and start chowing down. I’ve already planned what I’ll have for breakfast: a sesame-seed bagel with butter and cream cheese, and a mug of coffee with whole milk and four teaspoons of sugar. My roommate, Renee, thinks this day-on/day-off diet is crazy. She thinks that I should just eat the same amount of food but spread it over two days. She says I need to be more sensible. Well, I’ve tried sensible, and sensible doesn’t work. This does. In fact, I plan to write a book about my day-on/day-off diet. I’ve made some notes and even bought a book on how to find an agent. I’m just waiting until I have the time to write.
Tonight Renee says she wants to go out to the Triangle, the area of bars and clubs around Union Street. It’s in the straight part of town, the best place to meet guys. Renee has already eaten a Weight Watchers lasagna and is dressed for the clubs. I keep on the same outfit: a red leather miniskirt, tight black turtleneck, and pointy, black, evil-looking pumps.
At the Blue Light Cafe, Renee has three glasses of wine to my one. That’s one of the benefits of the day-on/day-off diet: not only do you save money on groceries, but on “off” days you only have to have one drink and you’re hammered. In fact, “Saving and Partying” is the title of Chapter Two.
Renee makes out with some ponytailed guy on the dance floor. I spend the night talking to an Arab guy who seems to have a lot of money, but I can’t be sure — you’re never sure until you see the guy’s car. Later, the Arab guy, whose name is Ahmad, walks Renee and me to her car. On the way, he stops at his BMW to get his Filofax. I give him my phone number before saying goodbye.
Renee swerves all over the place on the way home, but I feel safe because today Miss Lena told me that she includes me in her nightly prayers. Renee says Miss Lena is just a crazy religious nut, but I think she has a closer connection to God than most people. I mean, no normal person could be that pretty and just ignore it. Even if she only wore lipstick, she’d make Grace Kelly look like a dog.
The next day at work, the store is empty. Miss Lena goes into a fitting room and prays for about forty-five minutes, but no customers come. The dresses are hanging neatly; the dressing rooms are cleaned out; everything’s arranged. The other salesladies are gathered in a corner, having a hushed conversation that halts every time I walk by. I open the storage drawer by the register, get out a few blank “hold” tags, and start drawing the faces of the salesladies on them. I have a black ink pen, a yellow highlighter, a red pen, and a green highlighter. After drawing and coloring each one, I cut the tags into fat little paper dolls. I’m a pretty good artist, so the likenesses are striking. I give Miss Michelle a big bulge in her cheek, like she’s sucking a candy. On the heads of the Braughn sisters I draw golden crowns using a highlighter. On Miss Liaskis’s face I draw a line of tears, because she is always so sad and frustrated. And surrounding Miss Lena’s head, I put a yellow halo. Her eyes are pointing upward and she has a gentle, beatific smile on her face. I sketch our manager, Miss Dani, with faint, faded-looking lines, because she’s like a ghost; I sense her more than I actually see her.
I give the paper doll of me bigger eyes and fuller lips than I really have. I’ve been thinking of having my lips done lately, but it costs so much. I’m just waiting for the day when they come up with a way to make your eyes bigger. I’ll be the first in line to do it.
Miss Lena comes out of the dressing room and looks glumly out at the empty sales floor. “God must have some bigger business to take care of today,” she says.
“Maybe he’s spending his time in Yugo,” I say.
“He’d better be,” she says, “because I have been asking him every night to help out over there.”
Miss Lena walks over to me, looks at the paper dolls, and picks up Miss Michelle from the top of the pile.
“This looks just like Miss Michelle,” she says.
“Here you are,” I say, and I dig through the pile and pull out Miss Lena.
“Oh, my!” Miss Lena says, and her eyes tear up and she hugs me. “You have made me an angel.”
“No,” I say, “a saint. Angels have wings.”
Miss Lena spreads out the paper dolls on the counter, then picks up Miss Dani and, in an approximation of Miss Dani’s raspy, smoker’s voice, says, “You girls get to work! What are you doing playing with paper dolls?”
I grab Miss Michelle and say, “Oh, go back to your office or buy something from me!”
Miss Lena hops Miss Liaskis across the counter to the register and jumps her among the keys, crying, “Somebody, please help me! Somebody, please!” Then Miss Lena snatches up the doll of me, walks her over to the register, and says, “Don’t worry, don’t worry! I’ll fix it for you.” She picks up the Braughn sisters and makes them speak like Zsa-Zsa and Eva Gabor, even though they sound just like Americans in real life.
“Dah-ling,” Miss Braughn the older says to Miss Liaskis, “Vat iz your problem?”
“Pah-lese,” says Miss Braughn the younger, “just get out of our vay. You’re such a nuisance!”
I am laughing hard. Miss Lena and I have never talked about anything except God, Jesus, Mary, Yugo, and customers. I’ve always thought that she was oblivious to the goings-on of the sales floor, but now she does an entire show for me. She even closes the doll of herself up in the storage drawer next to the scissors and the alarm-tag remover to pray for customers.
“Make some more,” Miss Lena says. “Make some customers and a couple of those men who come in to see Miss Dani. And make Cecil for me, too.”
Cecil is the stockboy who is really a sixty-year-old man. He loves Jesus as much as Miss Lena does. They often stand in the middle of the sales floor, Cecil leaning on a rolling rack, Miss Lena ignoring the customers, and discuss the wonders of the Lord. If Cecil isn’t pushing a rolling rack or carrying a box of hangers, then the customers glance nervously at him, wondering what a black man is doing on the dress floor in “San Francisco’s Finest Department Store” (according to their ads). Cecil’s skin is as black as oil, and the whites of his eyes are as yellow as scrambled eggs. This makes him scary-looking to all the wealthy white ladies. But there’s nothing to be scared of; aside from Miss Lena, Cecil’s the most faithful Christian I know.
While Miss Lena continues to play, I make two pickle-faced customers wearing hats and holding giant purses, and a gay couple I call Bartholomew and Tobias. Miss Lena laughs when I tell her their names.
“Why’s that funny?” I ask.
“Those names are so formal,” she says. “Why not Bart and Toby?”
“Because,” I say, “everyone knows that gay men always use their full names.”
Miss Lena laughs again. She thinks I’m being zany.
On the Cecil paper doll, I draw a giant halo, just like on Miss Lena’s. She picks up the Cecil doll and kisses it right on the lips. I am so shocked by this that I just stand there and look at her.
“You be me, and I’ll be Cecil,” Miss Lena says.
“Why, hello, Cecil,” I say, with Miss Lena’s sweet voice.
“Hello, dear,” Miss Lena says in a deep voice, jutting out her bottom lip as if this will help her reach a lower octave.
“So many customers today; Jesus must be smiling on us,” I say.
“Jesus always smiles on a lady as beautiful as you,” Miss Lena says, and we both burst out laughing.
The two of us are leaning on the counter, holding our paper dolls, and roaring the way my friends and I do when we’re drunk and rowdy and obnoxious. I don’t know why this paper-doll thing is so funny, but I’m cracking up so hard my stomach hurts and I have to pee. Miss Lena has tears running down her face and is stomping her little foot in time with her laughter. After a couple of minutes of this, Miss Michelle wanders across the sales floor to see what we’re up to.
“What’s so funny?” Miss Michelle shouts, a scowl on her face. She is too far away to see what we’re doing. Miss Lena grabs the Miss Michelle paper doll, rocks it back and forth, and with a frown mouths, What’s so funny?
I am screeching with laughter, slapping my hand on the counter — the whole bit. Miss Lena is slightly more composed than me, and quickly gathers up all the paper dolls and dumps them in the drawer just as Miss Michelle approaches our register.
“Just what are you two hyenas laughing about?” Miss Michelle asks. She is angry now, furious at us for having so much fun.
Miss Lena and I clutch each other’s arms, turning our heads away from Miss Michelle and taking large gulps of air to try to control ourselves.
Finally, Miss Lena calms down enough to say, “Jesus has blessed us today.”
“I think Jesus gave you a whop on the head today,” Miss Michelle says.
“No,” Miss Lena says, “he blessed us with joy.”
Miss Michelle scrunches up her nose.
Just then the escalator deposits a group of four women at the border of Petite Dresses and Contemporary Dresses. We all freeze and quietly watch to see where they’ll go. Two head over to Formal Dresses, and two walk this way, into Petite Dresses. Miss Michelle snorts — I mean really snorts through her nose — and walks away.
“You take them both,” Miss Lena whispers to me. “I’ll go pray for more.”
Renee and I hit the Triangle again tonight. At Perry’s, I order a platter of fettuccine Alfredo and a side of fries. It’s an eating day, and I plan to do it up right. Renee watches me eat while she drinks a Bloody Mary, sipping the red liquid from the trough of the celery stalk. I try to tell her about the paper dolls and Miss Lena, but it’s not as funny when I describe it. “I guess you had to be there,” I say.
After my meal, I order a zombie, which is fruit punch with about three different kinds of rum in it. It’s an expensive drink, but you only need one to get drunk, even on an eating day, so it factors out as a bargain.
Later, at a club, I see a girl wearing a five-hundred-dollar dress that Miss Lena sold her. It was Miss Lena’s only sale that day. The girl’s not much older than me, and when she bought the dress I secretly hated her. I couldn’t stand the fact that someone my age had so much money. I also couldn’t stand her puffy lips, like miniature balloons stuck to her face — what I wouldn’t pay for lips like that!
Renee and I are on the dance floor, dancing together, but at the same time looking around to see if any guys are watching us. I scoot up close to Renee and shout over the music, “see that bitch over there?”
Renee turns her head, then rolls her eyes, meaning, Yeah, what a skinny bitch.
“she bought that dress for full price: five hundred dollars!”
Renee looks back at her again and checks out the dress. “I wonder how much her lips cost!” she says, and we both crack up.
The next day at work, Miss Lena comes in practically bouncing. “I am so excited to work today,” she says. “Last night, all I was thinking was that I couldn’t wait to play paper dolls again.”
I smile and then go back to opening the register and counting out the money. When I’m done with our register, I walk down to Miss Liaskis’s register and help her open. She doesn’t have a half-hour to get it straight today; it’s a Saturday, the first day of a big weekend sale, and customers are waiting outside for the doors to open. Miss Lena straightens the clothes on the racks, checks to make sure the dressing rooms are clean and empty, and then goes to the drawer and pulls out the paper dolls. She lines them up and says good morning in each of their voices. For Bartholomew and Tobias she uses a swishy, wispy voice that surprises me. Before we can start playing, though, customers push into the store and begin tearing through the racks as if picking out prizes on a game show. The dressing rooms are quickly filled. Women throw dresses they don’t want on the floor or toss them over the tops of the fitting-room doors. When someone does put a dress back on the hanger, it’s inside out or with one sleeve turned in. They’re gentle with the dresses they buy, though, examining them at the counter to make sure there are no snags or white deodorant streaks from the last person who tried them on. Miss Lena rings up her customers, I ring up mine, and we take turns ringing up the people who helped themselves.
A floater (a saleslady who spends her whole day covering for people when they go on breaks) comes to relieve one of us for lunch. I go first, because it’s a no-eating day and I just want to get the hour over with so I can stop thinking about food. When I return from lunch, I see the girl from the club last night standing at the counter with Miss Lena. The dress the girl was wearing is lying there, folded in white tissue. She is handing her credit card to Miss Lena.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Just a return,” Miss Lena says.
“But that was your sale,” I say. (Whenever a sale gets returned, your commission gets docked.)
“My boyfriend didn’t like it,” the girl says, her fat lips all blubbery and shiny.
“But you wore it,” I say.
“No, I didn’t,” she says. “I just took it home, tried it on for my boyfriend, and then stuck it back in the box.”
“It’s OK, dear,” Miss Lena says to me. “I’ll do the return; you go help some customers.”
“No, I’ll do it,” I say. “You go to lunch before the floater has to leave.”
As Miss Lena leaves for lunch, I pull the dress out of the tissue paper and examine it.
“There are sweat stains on the armpits,” I say.
“Must be from someone else who tried it on,” the girl says coolly. She pulls her sunglasses out of her purse and puts them on. “Can you hurry?” she snaps. “I’ve gotta get going.”
“We don’t take back items that have been worn,” I say.
“I told you, I just tried it on for my boyfriend.”
“Then why’d you cut the tags off?” I ask.
“Because I didn’t want him to know how much it cost,” she says, and sighs impatiently.
“I know you wore it,” I say.
“How could you possibly know that I wore it?” she asks.
I don’t want to get into how I noticed her at the club, because it would just be her word against mine, so I say nothing. I know it’s unchristian of me, but I now hate this girl more than I hate anyone else in the world. I hate her because she’s skinny and has fat lips and clear skin and the nerve to buy a five-hundred-dollar dress, wear it out to a club, and then return it. She probably does the day-on/day-off diet, too, but I bet she’s not smart enough to write a book about it.
I put a pink return slip into the register and punch in Miss Lena’s sales number. But then, instead of ringing in a credit on the girl’s card, I just ring the dress up again. I wish I could see her face when she gets her credit-card bill.
“Sign here,” I say, handing over the pink slip. She does, and I tear off her copy and hand it to her with her credit card. The girl rolls her eyes and walks away, her skinny butt dramatically swaying. My butt’s almost that small, I think, as the escalator lowers her into the floor, making her disappear like some magic act. I’m glad today’s a no-eating day, because it makes me feel thinner.
At closing time, everything’s a mess, and Miss Lena and I are both exhausted. Miss Lena starts to close the register, and I walk around picking up dresses, putting them on hangers, and returning them to the racks. Miss Lena arranges the receipts into four piles: her sales, my sales, her returns, my returns. I glance at the totals (I sold double what she did), then casually flip through the piles.
“Oops,” I say, “looks like you rang up a dress on a return slip instead of a sales slip.” I quickly stick the five-hundred-dollar pink slip into her sale pile.
“Oh, how careless of me,” Miss Lena says. “It was just so busy today.”
“Yeah,” I say, “no time to play paper dolls.”
Miss Michelle wanders around the sales floor asking everyone how much they sold. She’s keeping a tally on a piece of paper. So far, she’s sold the most. When she approaches us, she just lowers her eyebrows and scowls.
“Yes?” I say.
“How much?” she asks.
I tell her our totals, then make her read me everyone else’s. I sold the most, of course, with Miss Michelle coming in second. When I factor the misrung dress into Miss Lena’s totals, she comes out in third place. The Braughn sisters sold within a hundred dollars of each other. Poor Miss Liaskis, her total for the day is the same as my total for the first hour. She must be collecting welfare or something, because I don’t know how she makes a living otherwise.
Now Miss Liaskis hollers for me, her voice near tears. I run to help her close out her register. The Braughn sisters roll their eyes. Miss Liaskis stands by my side as I clear out her register. She’s panting from the long, hard day. She raises her hand to her heart, then strokes my forearm, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are always such a good girl.”
I suck the inside of my cheek between my teeth and bite down as hard as I can. Blood seeps into my mouth, sweet and metallic-tasting. I swallow it and think, If I were really a good girl, I would’ve thrown a couple of sales to poor old Miss Liaskis today. Then I do something that I really should stop doing: I make that promise. I say to myself, “Tomorrow I will ring up not one, not two, but three entire sales for poor old Miss Liaskis. And if I don’t, then I will slit my wrists and my neck, so help me God.”
Renee has a date, and all my other girlfriends have plans for the night, too. Ahmad called earlier and left a message. I debate whether or not to call him back. I liked him, but I wasn’t mad about him — he was a bit too ethnic for me. Finally, as I’m lying on Renee’s bed watching her get dressed for her date, I pick up the phone and call him.
Ahmad and I meet at the Blue Light Cafe. I sip a wine spritzer that seems to bypass my stomach and go straight to my head. I tell Ahmad about Miss Lena and the paper dolls. He doesn’t think it’s so funny to make fun of people behind their backs. Then I tell him about Miss Liaskis and my promise, so he’ll think that I’m good and generous. He seems unimpressed and says that I shouldn’t make promises I might not keep.
“That’s just as bad as lying or stealing,” he says, and he lifts his glass like he’s toasting me.
I start to feel sick to my stomach. Even though I don’t like Ahmad much, I’m disappointed that he doesn’t like me.
When I arrive at work, Miss Lena already has the paper dolls lined up on the counter. She got here fifteen minutes early and opened the register so we’d have time to play before the customers come in for the second day of the sale. She is the Braughn sisters, Cecil, Miss Dani, and me. I am everyone else. Miss Lena is giggling as we play, hopping the dolls all over the counter, and then having Cecil lead everyone in a prayer. I am trying to play along, but my stomach feels sick because I ate four bowls of apple-cinnamon Cheerios this morning. I’m glad when the customers fill the floor and we have to put the paper dolls in the drawer.
It’s even busier than yesterday. I am ringing up sale after sale and not doing a single return. Every time I get a dress that’s been marked down to half price, I think that I should ring it up for Miss Liaskis. But then I think, Oh, I should wait and ring up something bigger for her. When the bigger sales come, though, I just can’t help myself; I’ve got to ring them under my number, especially if I’ve worked for them — brought the customer different sizes, helped her decide on a color, or just flattered her until she bought it. As the day moves on, I keep thinking that I can ring up this big sale or that big sale for myself and still have time before closing to ring up the three sales I promised for Miss Liaskis. Thirty minutes before the store closes, I reinterpret my promise of three sales for Miss Liaskis to three dresses for Miss Liaskis. Fifteen minutes before closing, I have a sale of one three-hundred-dollar dress but talk myself out of ringing it up for Miss Liaskis because it seems easier to ring up a single sale of three dresses than three separate sales of one dress each. Suddenly, the store is closed and the customers are gone.
Miss Lena cleans up the sales floor as I close out the register. My heart is in my throat, and I want to cry. I can’t stop thinking about what Ahmad said about breaking promises. I decide that he is an asshole and I hate him as much as I hate the girl who returned the five-hundred-dollar dress.
Miss Michelle walks past me and says, “Hey, goody-two-shoes, Miss Liaskis needs help closing her register.”
My eyes burn, and I think, I’m not a goody-two-shoes — I’m evil, pure evil.
I open the storage drawer and pull out the scissors. I’m going to slit my wrists and slash open my neck. As I’m standing there with the open scissors poised at my wrist, I look down at the drawer and notice the paper dolls. The me doll stares back from the top of the pile. I pick her up, squint at her, and hiss under my breath, “You were bad today — very, very bad.” Then I snip off her hands and cut off her head, which floats to the floor like a butterfly.
I return the maimed paper doll to the drawer and place the scissors beside it. Deep in my heart, I know that I’ve gotten away with something — again.
When we’re getting ready to go home, Miss Lena opens the drawer to put away the alarm-tag remover. She gasps, shuts her eyes, and crosses herself.
“What is it?” I ask, feigning surprise.
“Someone has cut off your head and your hands,” she says.
I peer over Miss Lena’s shoulder into the drawer and gasp, too, but it doesn’t sound authentic.
“Who would do such a thing?” Miss Lena asks.
“I have no idea,” I say, and I reach up and pinch my ear with my pointed fingernails until the entire right side of my face aches. When I let go, my cheek is burning and my fingertips are numb.
Miss Lena crosses herself again, then crosses the decapitated paper doll and kisses it in the center of its chest, where its heart would be.
And I feel as if I have been redeemed.
Jessica Anya Blau