CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|From Just Looking
Freddy caught his reflection in the window of Sophistication—he looked good. His hair had followed orders this morning, succumbing to the blow and comb. He’d ratted it up and over one eye to balance the big white shirt flowing over his tight pants, the studded belt and boots. Tough and put together—no one in Lynch looked like him. Behind his image, Sophistication showed camel-colored sweaters and thick ropes of pearls; the store was new to Lynch, as were all of its customers, made rich by Pentagon spending and brought here by the new interstate. Freddy kept moving, past the Flying Fruit Fantasy, where Brunette Sandra stood at the counter, her belly quivering against the hot pink Formica.
“Hiya, Freddy,” she called.
“Hi,” he said. And that was it. Even now she was sixteen and clearly knocked up, not a fourth word ever passed between them. They might be allies, Freddy thought: she was one of the few original Lynchians who risked talking to him, even just a Hiya, since he’d turned into this. She liked his clothes, she smiled at them. She had the nerve to drop out of school. But still, somehow both of them working at the mall bred reserve, an etiquette or silence or maybe an armor. Either way, it wouldn’t break this morning. He waved and walked on.
The brass handles of Bananas were still padlocked together. Behind it, the store looked neglected. The front table was chaos; the side counter, a mess. T-shirts had fallen, unfolded and uncolorized. Streaks disgraced the front display windows. Freddy banged on the door.
Eventually, his manager appeared from the back. “Oh man,” Bruce groaned through the door. His face was bloated, his body lost in a large, striped shirt, like a pajama top he had yet to outgrow.
“I am hurting,” he said.
“Another night at Terrific?”
“You should come next time.”
“I wouldn’t get in.” Freddy catalogued the store, the wall of blacklight hesher posters, all of them slipped from their tubes and unfurled, and entered the storeroom, another disaster.
By 11:30, Bananas was packed with teenage girls fingering the stuffed animals. Freddy sold hundreds of bangles to them as their mothers in sweatshirts eyed him, curious, maybe even intimidated. Boys his age moved through the girls, flirting. The rich ones caressed the static electricity globes; the poor ones fingered the cut-glass sobbing clowns.
A man came in, his good suit clinging to the muscles of his chest. Mr. Coyne looked like a movie star in all that silk and wool. He smiled at Freddy. Just like with Brunette Sandra, they had a routine. Freddy watched him all over the mall, straddling a bench or nursing a soda, laughing into the hair of some regional manager. That should be me, Freddy thought. In another world, we’d meet cute and go off into the future and so on and so forth. He left the counter and approached Vernon, his stomach prickling like the fiber-optic orchid Vernon held in his hand.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “Those glow, you know, when you plug them in. Their tips, I mean.”
Vernon smiled. “I prefer the real thing. But good for you, for the pitch. I hope business is as good as it looks?”
“Today was, well, really boffo.” The word wasn’t right, but Freddy had wanted to say fabulous, or even fantastic. The sibilance would be humiliating.
“That’s quite an outfit—Freddy, isn’t it? I’d say fashion’s more your game. To me, that takes a lot of nerve.”
Freddy wanted to die. Vernon put the toy down before Freddy could say thanks.
“Your manager around? I need to ask him something.”
“Just please go get him. He should be out here, anyway.”
Freddy couldn’t imagine what Bruce could offer Vernon, but he ducked into the storeroom and banged on the office door.
“Vernon’s asking for you!”
Bruce cracked open the door. “Oh, man. He drank me out the door last night. And now he’s coming back for more.” Bruce moaned and let the door swing open. “I like the dude, but it’s all battles with him.”
He dug under the green pleather cushions on his coach, extracting bottles of eyedrops and cologne. Muttering under his breath, he prepared, and then raced to the sales floor and pumped Vernon’s hand.
“Hey, Vernon, hi. Man, you look great. Never know you’d closed down Terrific, two nights in a row. What’s your secret?”
“The suit.” Vernon winked at Freddy. “The suit hides all. Listen, you want to hit Le Chou for a little hair of the dog?”
“Why not? Chicken?”
Bruce rocked on his heels. Freddy knew he didn’t like the mall’s new French restaurant. But he wanted to help Vernon get what he wanted.
“Go on,” Freddy said. “It’s the one o’clock lull right now, anyway. Everybody’s recharging, they won’t shop for awhile.”
“You see,” said Vernon, “this young man knows his place, knows it like the palm of his hand. Bruce, you could take a lesson from him. We probably all could.”
They left. Through the front window, Freddy could see Bruce’s face remain puzzled. Good thing I wore my boots, Freddy thought—otherwise, with that praise, I’d float right out of here.
Freddy spent the afternoon imagining what Bruce and Vernon were up to. By five o’clock they would have landed at Terrific—a sticky floor in his mind, dull-eyed girls in teal T-shirts sloshing enormous Harvey Wallbangers to their glossy lips. He didn’t want to be there, he just wanted to see it.
Right before closing, a group of guys rambled in, bow-legged in worn jeans and frayed denim vests. Stoned, Freddy figured. The front table, with its fleet of miniature stuffed penguins, fascinated them. They guffawed, bending one penguin over the next. They made them butt-fuck, then tossed them at the register. One hit Freddy’s head. It got caught in his hair. What do I do now, Freddy thought, alone in my store? He stomped over to them.
“You need some help?” he asked the shortest one, whose freckles disappeared as he began to blush.
“What,” said the guy, “are we doing it wrong?”
The tallest turned from the others, who were pairing the penguins, two by two, into a daisy chain. “You look like a pirate, guy. Why do you look like a pirate?”
“He’s after your gold,” the short one growled. He minced around the table, kicking up his heels.
“That’s not what he’s after,” another one said.
He thought of Vernon then, calling Bruce a chicken. He felt Vernon’s charisma pool deep in his stomach.
“You’re right,” Freddy said. “Pretty fucking observant. So which one wants it first? Which of you has the balls?”
They stared at him. When they saw he wasn’t kidding, they dropped the birds and took off.
Ha, thought Freddy. Fucking wimps. He picked up a white ceramic hand from a shelf; designed to display bracelets, it was larger than life. He pumped it in the air, like a boxer. He locked the door and turned up the PA, dancing as he cleaned up. When the store was pristine, Freddy went to the storeroom. Bruce had left his office open. He dropped onto the couch. It really stank in here. The desk was draped with thick dustballs. A titty calendar hung over a cracked princess phone.
Freddy opened the filthy minifridge underneath Bruce’s desk. He’d earned a drink. Inside, there were a few beers and half-empty fifth of Vodka, along with a huge tub of orange juice. He took a beer and drank it, staring at the green stains on the ceiling. Kind of a great day. He should cash out the register and see if he’d broken a sales record. But the beer undid his sense of obligation: he was back here, drinking. What could he make from another boring night?
Freddy emptied the refrigerator of all its bottles. They goose-pimpled him even through his thick shirt. He took the bottles to the bathroom, and lined them up on the sink’s cracked yellow rim. In the mirror above it, his shirt ruffled perfectly. He drank the other beer, then poured the fifth into the orange juice. The booze turned the orange water almost clear.
Out in the storeroom, he wrapped the bottles in Bubble Wrap and laid them in an empty box; he taped the box and put it on a shelf, turning the trash into backstock. He took the bucket and sponge from their corner and returned to the office to clean out the fridge. Soon, it gleamed, free from its past. The tub was empty, and Freddy was drunk.
They had to know what they were missing. But because he wasn’t there, Bruce didn’t see Freddy grunt and shuffle as he carried the refrigerator to the front of the store, and Vernon didn’t see Freddy leave the broken table in the hall out front, with a note that said “Trash me.” Those cocky boys weren’t there to see Freddy fill the fridge’s clean shelves with stuffed penguins, or secure a row of strobe light toys to flash across along its top. The cute blond boy who’d bought a David Bowie poster; the girl who’d shyly sang his favorite song as it played on the store radio; not even his sister would ever witness the door of Bruce’s refrigerator become born again as a floating display shelf. An entire tropical scene perched upon it: inflatable trees rustling in the breeze drummed up by a half-dozen blue wave machines, and crystal dolphins pranced around them. It was an oasis in the empty mall.
No one would see it, not tonight anyway. But tomorrow, maybe. His display would last. He turned off the lights and took the fire stairs to the parking lot. He carefully drove down the glowing interstate, nowhere to go, proud and alone.
The woman wore an emerald satin shirt with luxurious shoulder pads, matching culottes with dark hose and heels, and a large rhinestone chicken pinned to her breast. She ran a manicured hand across the side of Freddy’s oasis; her series of gold bangles clattered against the chrome.
“Really quite smart.”
“Thank you,” he said. He had his big white shirt on, some lucky eyeliner: this morning, he’d felt something in the air.
The woman peered into the fridge and selected a stuffed penguin. She held it to her brooch.
“You’re arguing that penguins are the new chickens, I see?”
Freddy blushed, glad that Bruce wasn’t around to spray his sex vibe all over the store. On a Saturday afternoon, holiday or not, he was with Vernon, getting drunk at Terrific. After his first hangover, Freddy had decided to keep his eyes clear.
The woman examined his floating shelf next to the T-shirts. “Are these displays,” she said, “specific to this Bananas? You look confused. What I mean is, did you do this?”
“I did,” he said.
“Clever,” she said. “Explain.”
He described the long arc of the electric blue cleanser, the way it took the yellow right off the walls.
“I am refreshed,” the woman said, “that you understand the display means how you made it. Tell me. I have a daughter, she’s twelve now. A pill. Recommend me something to please her. To be honest … what’s your name? I’m Mrs. Thompkins. To be honest, my daughter, Jennifer, is kind of difficult. I’m sure you understand the way kids are. I was hoping for something to encourage a new attitude.”
Freddy nodded. He led her to a side table, where brighter spotlights attended the high-end gifts.
“Too fussy. She’ll smash them in a fit.” She turned from the crystal birds with their diamante beaks. Freddy showed her his series of neon signs. “For her bedroom,” he said. Sweet Dreams, one read in hot pink script. Gone Wishing in lavender, its i's dotted with hearts.
“Perhaps not quite.” Her lips went burgundy in the neon light. “Eleven-year-olds are so cynical these days.”
“There’s so much to be cynical about.”
“I suppose. Jennifer doesn’t keep up with current events, though.”
“Oh,” Freddy said, “there’s nothing current about cynicism. I myself have been cynical for years.” The words scared him, not so much for what they meant—he could have easily admitted more terrible things, the crunchy sock under his bed—but what scared him was how he said it. He spoke as if in italics. The woman was drawing affectation from him, and Freddy loved it. He did.
“I have just the thing.” He extracted a small teddy bear from a Lucite box on a high shelf. It wore real Ray-Bans on its white furry face, and a T-shirt bearing the slogan Too Cool for School.
She frowned. “Are you being ironic?”
“Now this is just an option,” he said. “But I’ve found it’s always best to stare down a threat. At eleven, kids still want to be kids. They also, however, want to be adults. Sometimes they’re forced to be, there are bills to pay. But they want how they act to be their own decision.”
“I don’t disagree.”
“So this bear’s a bit weak. But that is its genius. When Jennifer wants to be a kid, she’ll hug it. When she’s feeling rebellious, she’ll get off on the slogan. When those feelings collide, she can write the bear off as another sign her mother doesn’t get her, you know? In five years it’s her whole childhood. She’ll probably carry it to college.”
“That’s quite a burden,” she said, “for one bear to bear.”
They smiled at each other. Freddy could not believe he’d pulled off such a patter, but the woman looked impressed. Weirdly, there was attraction in her eyes. Surely she knows the kind of boy he was.
“What a pleasure.” Vernon arrived. She’d been staring at him, not Freddy, of course. “What brings you to Bananas?”
“Hey Freddy,” said Bruce. He wore a down vest and a stretched-out thermal. Vernon, striking in his suit, came up to Mrs. Thompkins and kissed her.
“You smell like a cashmere glove,” he said. “Freddy, sorry to take Bruce from you again. You managed, I see.”
“He’s managing just fine.” Mrs. Thompkins put a hand on Freddy’s shoulder.
“Ivy,” Vernon said, “have you had lunch?”
“I won’t,” she said. “I have fires to light.”
“Well then,” he said, “goodbye.” He kissed her cheek again. Bruce winked at Freddy, gross, and then he and Vernon went into the stockroom and Freddy heard them both laugh. Neither of them asked how business was—booming, by the way—and neither one had ever acknowledged the changes to the store. Maybe Bruce didn’t notice them. But a man like Vernon should.
“Oh Freddy, could I have a word with you?” Mrs. Thompkins lingered by the front door. “I assume that’s alright with the bona fide management.” She brought him to the balcony, where kids his age milled around in their fall clothes. They had more money than he, better homes to go back to; they had fathers and DAR mothers to parent them. But above even this, the biggest separation was simple: these kids of privilege were all just killing time, while here he was waiting for a polished woman of a certain age to speak, hanging like a tennis bracelet on her sighs, her little glances.
“You should know,” she began, “men are like echoes. The bigger the room, the bigger the boom. Understand?”
Freddy didn’t, but he nodded.
“What I mean is that one has to grow to fit into one’s world. And Freddy, let me be clear. Bruce may be a good man—though I suspect Vernon brings him along to those grimy bars so he appears the better choice of two, and I’m glad you think that’s funny, Freddy, it means that you agree—but Bruce and his whole organization will do nothing but stunt you. You’re far too talented for that. And I’m impossible to impress.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“Another thing that you should know is Jennifer is a Chihuahua, so unless your little bear is filled with salmon, she won’t care. But you couldn’t have known, it was only test patter. Don’t frown. You’re so delicate, my goodness. Freddy, listen up. I work for the Terrace. Yes?”
She thrust an arm down the balcony to where the anchor store hummed.
“As, come Monday,” she said, “do you.”
“I want you for our windows. Assist with our windows. They’re blank, as you can see, waiting for your attention. You’ll be under Helen. You know Helen? You should. You will. Well, won’t you?”
“You’re offering me a job?”
“Quick, please. You want to work at Bananas and move jelly bracelets from one table to another? Preemptively bloat like Bruce? Of course you don’t. You’ll start tomorrow. You’ll make, I suspect, twice your current pay, plus the Terrace discount. That should help with those bills you spoke of. And of course the uniform. You’ll start tomorrow at 9 a.m. We’ll meet you by the loading dock. You know where that is?”
“I’m thrilled. Stop blushing, you look so much better pale. I’m flattered, nonetheless.”
“You’re flattered? Mrs. Thompkins, I’m the one—”
“Call me Ivy. But don’t forget that I’m your boss. It sometimes slips dear Helen’s mind.”
“I’ll do my best, ma’am.”
“Don’t push it,” she said.
When Ivy smiled, her bottom left tooth jutted out like an English bulldog’s. The flaw made her look flawless—the woman worked with what she had. Frederick hugged her, shamelessly, and memorized the jut.
The next morning, he woke in his own bed. A new job. He showered and selected a twill pair of trousers. Colorized shirts hung content in his closet—a white shirt, a blank slate, a bold tie, his best shoes. Out his bedroom window, a row of maple trees shone, gold and red in the fresh autumn sun. Freddy wanted to be in all that color.
In front of his door was a warm plate of eggs. His mother had gone to some trouble: each egg had a perfect yellow rise, dusted with black pepper and awaiting puncture with a toast point from the pile on the blue plate nearby. Freddy carried them into the living room, to thank and eat with her and explain how he looked. But his Mother was gone, replaced by a mess. Salad plates and tumblers teetered atop the sideboard, amid a frozen whirl of cutlery. An oblong blue bowl held beige, skinned pudding—vanilla, her favorite, not white but oxidized, overnight, until it went beige like the crème brûlée they’d watched Julia Child create and then torch. I just can’t handle this, Freddy thought. Her nebulizer was on the sofa, surrounded by plates of hot dogs and saltines. Freddy wiped the machine with a dishtowel he’d laundered himself, cracking the crust of dried dip that encased the mouthpiece and trailed down the tubes. She was awfully sick. The cancer was feeding on her and she was feeding too—these predawn feedings, secret and disorderly. He’d called her doctor after the first time, he did; just like with the dishtowels, he did it himself. Where was his sister? In the city, gone and fancy. All the doctor had said was to be patient with her, and it killed Freddy to pay him twenty dollars for such advice.
He created a semblance of order from the wreckage. All he could do was make the place look nicer. The mess got on his clothes and he changed once again. He grabbed a trench coat from the hall closet. Its construction forced Freddy to be strong enough to wear it, to stand up straight and breath deeply.
The glass pyramid sparkled. The blacktop faded into the gray of the sidewalk and then into the bone-colored bricks of the Pavilion walls. Success opens your eyes, doesn’t it, Freddy thought. The bone line was unbroken, sweeping right from the entrance down the length of the lot. If not for the thin film of exhaust fumes and pollen, Freddy thought he might see his reflection on the wall. He stepped into the browning grass and wrote his initials into the dust. The mark was only temporary but you never knew who might see it.
At 9:15, a thin-framed woman raced to the loading dock on a burgundy bicycle.
He rose from his bench and adjusted his coat. The woman climbed from her bike and rolled it onto the sidewalk, wheels clicking like high heels. She wore black jeans and a white t-shirt with a sleeve rolled over a pack of cigarettes. A black cloth army bag slung over her shoulder.
“I’m Helen Windy. Nice coat, you look like The Man Who Fell to Earth. Seen it? Never mind. Come along.”
They came to a small metal door with a chocolate brown Terrace logo painted on it. Helen wore keys on a chain long enough to unlock the door with the ring still clipped to her. Frozen air fell over them.
“In you go,” she said.
It was like a meat locker. Shuttered freight doors filled the left-hand wall; a ramp rose in back. “You come praised,” Helen said. She locked her bike to a metal pipe. “Never been to Bananas, myself. Don’t know how anyone could work there. Then again, maybe you know something I don’t? I suppose there’s always that chance.”
She clomped up the ramp and unlocked another door. Freddy followed her into a yellow hallway with aggressive bare lights.
“Quiet, huh? Like Being There? Not seen that either? Okay, you’re from Lynch. Can’t expect much.”
Apparently he didn’t know very much. But he knew that he probably didn’t like her. They entered what must be the employee lounge, a room the size of his whole house, with metal lockers and a peach leather couch, and plush teal carpeting from wall to wall. Framed Terrace ads hung across from a tidy little kitchen, with a vintage Formica table supporting an enormous vase of vibrant, silk orchids. You’re just intimidated, he decided. Even Bruce frightened you on your first day.
“It’s child abuse to raise kids here.” Helen opened a locker and pulled out a garment bag. Freddy sat on the couch, trying to look casual. Should he take off his coat? Did one of those lockers belong to him?
“I’ll give you some advice.” Helen undid her pants. Freddy kept his eyes on the wall in front of him.
“Give Ivy what she wants.” She said her name with precision, like the word meant a needle instead of a plant. Her silk underwear was black and boyish. Helen stripped off her shirt.
“She may not know what she wants. You still have to give it to her.”
Freddy uncrossed his knees and wiped his palms on his coat. Little streaks of sweat stained it, then disappeared before his eyes. Across from him, a tanned man in tight white pants reclined upon a bright white boat. His stomach was dimpled like an insect’s exoskeleton.
Helen unzipped the garment bag, unfurling a sleek black dress. It went over her head, then fell. Freddy gasped, despite himself.
“That’s right,” she said. “You’re right to gasp.” The dress was asymmetrical, it wrapped and gathered down her chest and descended, flouncy, about her bare legs. The dress was like a magic trick. It edited her boyish body into something brand new.
The way that ad’s bronze muscle man looks like a different species, he thought, is how she looked now—superior.
“Chances to gasp haven’t come around much, have they yet, Freddy? Well, all that’s changed. Gasping shows you’ve got good taste. Like burping. In Europe, it’s a compliment. Keep it in your arsenal, you’ll do fine by me.”
He didn’t like her. He worshipped her. She slipped her feet into shiny spiked boots, and he gasped again, louder. It was, he realized, the same kind of affectation Ivy had encouraged in Bananas; it still felt strange and right. Bananas, that felt like so many years ago.
Helen asked him for his coat. “I like how you chose real London Fog.”
The coat wasn’t a choice—it belonged to his father. She hung it in an empty locker.
“Yours,” she said. “Let’s see what you’re made of.”
Another hallway, and onto the sales floor. They found Ivy in a fuchsia pantsuit, her arms around bare mannequins like they were all the best of friends. A diamante teddy bear sparkled on her lapel.
“I trust you two made fond acquaintance? Wonderful. Let’s begin.”
The Terrace was lit by security lights, sharp pools that scattered around the racks, creating more shadows than they erased.
“First floor,” Ivy said. “You are here. Women’s lingerie to the left, furnishings straight ahead. Activewear rightward.”
Freddy and Helen followed her, squeezing through the gleaming racks.
“Sleepwear and intimate luxuries to the left; jewelry straight ahead; bridge lines to the right. You keeping up? Of course you are. We soldier on. Sweaters, suits, and good cloth coats are to the left. To the right, fragrance and makeup. Ahead, the Main Collections!” They had come full circle.
“Another week,” said Helen, “you’ll be able to do this blind.”
“Not that you’ll ever want to,” Ivy said. “For there are things you must notice. For example: the mannequins I stood with disrupt the passage. They can be seen through the front doors before us. They block your way. Can you see why?”
“Because what you should want is here.” Freddy bit his lip. “Why go any further?”
“They’re like speed bumps,” said Helen.
“No,” Ivy said, “they are an oasis. You know just what I mean. ”
“I do,” he said.
“You see? He does. I wasn’t wrong to hire you.” She slipped through a row of hanging sweaters. “You see that there are narratives here. Above us is the menswear floor. It’s just the same as here, except less so. See this mirror? It’s a door. Follow me.”
Ivy swung the mirror open and parted a curtain. “Go on,” she said. Freddy was in the dark now, alone. He climbed a few steps, and track lighting blinded him. He blinked off the glare, and found himself inside the Terrace display windows. The space was narrower, maybe three feet across. Its back wall was gold, like the trees outside his house. The forms stood between him and Helen, who had squeezed to the opposite side and was kneeling now before the first form, to adjust the wool hem of its suit. The center form wore a skirt suit with brocade trim, glossy and fine. The form nearest to him wore a cocktail dress. He’d seen these clothes before, had walked past them on lunch breaks from Bananas, had considered who might wear them. But close up now, he saw their construction, their real character.
“‘Autumn elegance,’” Helen said. “If you ask me, this is kind of a bore. Ivy says I overestimate Lynch. What do you think? You’re a bit of local color.”
“I think it’s really wonderful.”
“There’s nothing real about it,” she said. “You see this wall? It’s a false back.” She knocked the yellow panels and the entire display shivered. Behind the streakless glass, a security guard stood in the atrium. He swung his nightstick. At the mall’s other end, the fountain was quiet. Freddy realized he’d never seen it still. The Pavilion showed itself to him, as if the mall had become the display window itself. The reversal stunned Freddy. He never wanted to leave. But Helen pushed him down the stairs, where Ivy was waiting and checking her watch.
“That’s enough for now,” she said. “Helen, better show him the steamer.”
The two of them walked past the fitting rooms, a warren of slotted-wood doors hiding spotless rooms, each with a hook and mirror. She opened the one solid door: a storeroom with dingy concrete floors. Rows of metal bars stood proud against the walls, holding up hundreds of garments.
“Here,” said Helen, “is where you’ll work your magic. At first.”
In the corner, a little beige machine sat next to a full-length mirror on wheels. An accordioned hose fit into its mouth, and hung on a hook built into the mirror’s frame. The hose finished inside a larger plastic bulb, with an orange switch Helen flipped without looking at it. The hose filled with water and began to gurgle.
It’s like, Freddy thought, my mom’s nebulizer.
“Don’t be scared of your new friend,” said Helen. “You two will get intimate quick. We cannot sell a wrinkled suit. Not even the laziest Lyncher in town will spend money here if the clothes look like shit. My first month here, all I did was steam. My hands were giant red balloons. My complexion, I’ll tell you, never looked better. I steamed for three Terraces at once. Maybe you’ll be luckier. Maybe you’ll clean the windows tomorrow. For today, however, this is your fate.”
“Okay,” he said. “What do I do?”
“Try your hand at a couple size Fours. Two pantsuits, two skirts, two dresses. You do know how to steam?”
“Sure,” he said. He could figure it out.
“Well,” Helen said, “it’s not DC. It’s not Paris in the twenties. But make yourself at home, Freddy Spector.”
He raised the hose and said, “I will.”
Freddy sat in his metal folding chair as the lights flickered above him. A man’s naked torso filled his arms. He traced the muscles with a chemise, polishing the neck. He spritzed the abs with blue cleaner. Outside the stockroom Helen discussed him on the white courtesy phone.
“Well, I’m certainly sorry about Jennifer. I know how you loved her. But perhaps in your grief … We don’t disagree, Ivy. Honestly, we don’t. I just though you might want to know the reason why. I could do as much as him, if I worked eighty-hour weeks.”
Freddy lay the torso on the floor, just one of three dozen he’d cleaned off today. Helen spent the day bitching about the Halloween windows, how Ivy held the reigns right around Helen’s throat.
“I know,” she said. Her voice grew faint. “I think that he’s dropped out of school. No, I don’t care. But can he commit?” She paused. Then she began to shout.
“You change your concepts in midstream! I do, and redo, and redo, and redo, all of it at your pleasure, and the windows get done. You leave him alone, Ivy, you don’t interfere with him. You let him swan around. Of course his work adds up!”
I shouldn’t be hearing any of this, he thought. He stared at his hands, burned and callused from pinching light bulbs from the spotlights before they’d cooled. He was here too often. But where else could he go? His mom was disappearing before his eyes; not even saltines would stay down anymore. The house smelled of urine and metal and mold. The filth was like a third person living with them. The doctor couldn’t do much. Throw yourself into school, the doctor had said, and his mother had mumbled he was such a good boy. Freddy’d cried sissy tears in biology the next day, got chased down the halls, why the fuck should he go back. He thought now of all the fake bats around the atrium, strung above the fountain and swooping off the balconies. He was hanging in there, just like them.
“Yes, Halloween. I buy the correlation,” Helen said. “I just wish you’d see the truth in what I say.”
She came into the storeroom. Don’t fire me, he thought. Don’t banish me back to Bananas, please don’t.
“Freddy,” she said. She examined his steaming. “I need to ask you something. Okay? Where do you go when you’re not here?”
“Where do I go?”
“When you’re not here—is there somewhere else you go?”
“Not really,” he said.
“Better find somewhere. If you don’t now, you never will. Let me tell you something. You should travel. There are better worlds than here. I watched you on the floor, last week: Agnes Gooch in combat boots. You need some cool. Some detachment. Priorities, you get me? You steam like it means everything to you.”
“But why,” he said, “should I do a bad job?”
Helen shook her head. “You just don’t get it. But anyway, Ivy is on her way down. She’s going to give you more to do. Calm down, you’re only proving my point with your flushing face. Ivy’s going to suck you dry. You’ll get your suit—”
“Uh-huh. Just watch out, Freddy. The suit has strings.”
Then tie me down, he thought. “Can I call my mom?”
“Get a boyfriend—I’ll let you call him.” Helen laughed. “Just remember what I said. Your inner life attracted Ivy. It’s yours, though, Freddy. Don’t sell it short.”
It was weird how she kept saying his name. Like she was trying to remember it. Or like he might forget it, too. Whatever. He called his mom from the white courtesy phone. She didn’t answer, like always, sleeping through his success.
In an hour, Ivy collected him. Her hair had gone darker and stiffer since he’d seen her; she wore a dark pantsuit with glasses, and a pantomime pin. They met Helen at the entrance to the Terrace.
“Let’s go shopping,” she said.
The atrium crawled with contestants, small children in sheets. They passed a dozen kids in cheap store-bought costumes. “We’re looking,” said Ivy, as they swerved through the crowds, “for what I call Aspirational Understandings of Real Appearances. AURA, for short.”
They walked around the kiosks that used to be wagons; last year, they’d become red and yellow convertibles.
“We examine a person’s appearance,” Ivy said, “and improve it exponentially. Not alter it or erase it, no: just take its essence and distill it. That’s what we do at the Terrace. Let’s take that man down by the fountain.”
“God,” said Helen, “shorts in October!” Freddy noted their pleats and how they matched his rumpled safari shirt. He held a little girl in his arms. Her face cracked under warrior paint, which she smeared as she cried for some more candy corn.
“I’m talking,” said Ivy, “to Freddy now. Please reveal that man’s AURA to me.”
Detachment, he thought. Helen said to detach.
“His shorts do him no favors, I guess. He looks like a sausage? The way they cut off his legs? Like flabby links?”
Ivy’s earrings whacked her pale white neck. “Don’t give me that. Condescension will only hide the AURA from you. Anyone can pick out the ways people who don’t give a goddamn look appalling. I mean, of course, yes: the man looks like two links and a short-stack. A haircut, a jogging habit, a diet to begin with. But please don’t confuse discernment with derision. I don’t want sarcasm. I want acumen. You can see how he looks. See what he wants to look like.”
Freddy watched him pull a tissue from his pocket and wipe the girl’s face. Snot went everywhere. The Dad laughed and Freddy wanted to laugh along with him. He was doing his best.
“A man wears that shirt,” he said, “to look adventuresome. To look prepared. He wants to be active. The clothes are all beige so the stains will blend in, and he slouches because his daughter’s heavy and his back’s weaker than it used to be. She’s usually in her stroller, anyway, but his wife is off with her family and he hates them, or they hate him. Either way, I bet she hates those shorts, so wearing them is a rebellion. I bet she also bought the shirt. She wants to be seen on the arm of a man who knows more than this mall. He wants something with pockets to keep all the stuff he’s weighed down with. It’s ugly, but a compromise.”
“Like our windows,” Helen said.
“Yuck,” said Ivy. “Quit being so blasé.”
“Fine,” Helen said, “but let’s not get lost in illusions. The buyer—you—bought too many worsted wool triple-pleated slacks. So in the window they go. We’re hoping supply creates demand without tailoring the supply to project the demand.”
“His belt matches his shoes,” Ivy said. “Please note, in that balance, the conservatism Lynch embraces. As I note in the buying.”
“What I’m saying is, this AURA stuff is just a gussied-up status quo fantasy. We’re jerking them off, not inspiring them.”
Ivy took Freddy’s arm and stood him up. “Helen, you’re free to go now. You may come back to work tomorrow, if you choose. But tonight, darling, won’t you stare into the mirror? You’ll see a spoiled brat, not the spitfire and moxie you see in your mind’s eye. Come, Freddy. I’ll fit you myself.”
Holy shit, Freddy thought. He kept his mouth shut as Ivy escorted him back through the bustling Terrace and into the kitchen. She took Freddy’s combination lock in her hand, and with a raised eyebrow, she opened it. Ivy pulled out something that could have been a body bag or cocoon.
“Helen’s jealous of you,” she said. “Because she fears you might eclipse her.” She slapped the bag onto the kitchen table. “You might, in this.”
He carried the bag onto the sales floor, afraid it would slip through his hands. But, in a moment, Ivy opened the door to the largest fitting room and called for the tailor. He tried the suit on. It was modish and charcoal, small lapels, three buttons; the shirt was a hallucinatory white that fit like it was made for him, and slimmed and aged him just enough. Ivy knocked and entered the room, followed by the tailor, a man in his early fifties with crows’ feet and pursed lips. Freddy slid his old clothes into a corner with his foot. The tailor knelt before him, distinguished if outdated in his blousy shirt and penny loafers, and unleashed a flaccid tape measure from around his neck. He chalked his cuffs and Ivy said, “That’s it exactly. How nice. You look just like I hoped you would.” She jutted her jaw and then she left.
The tailor asked which side he dressed on, and Freddy said right. The tailor smirked. He chalked Freddy’s inseam and brushed his cock, twice. Freddy froze. The tailor nudged him a third time. Now Freddy was projecting through the thin wool of his pants.
“Show me,” he said, “how you pin up the jacket. This placard here, can it be moved up?”
The tailor sighed. “Your priorities are out of shape.”
“People keep telling me that,” Freddy said.
“It’s time to change,” Ivy called from the sales floor. “Tailor, let him be.”
“Leave your suit on the hook.”
Freddy put on the clothes he’d been happy with, this morning. The ruffled shirt, the skintight pants—his outfit looked quaint to him now, flinty. He examined himself, wondering what Ivy saw in him. What could Ivy think his AURA was—sixteen and gay, a dying mom, a high school dropout with dyed, moussed hair, dressed in poor reproductions of boys in magazines. But somehow, it all worked. It had gotten him here. Freddy left the fitting room and returned to Ivy, who sat among a group of forms.
“Big day,” she said.
“Thank you so much, for the suit. I love it,” he said.
“It loves you back. Here’s how you earn it. No more steaming today. Some fresh blood, yours, might liven up the place. Take your break, have a look around at this mall. I want this display reconcepted, according to AURA principals you discover out there. You don’t have plans tonight, do you?”
Masturbation, he thought. “No plans but the mannequins.”
“Well said.” Ivy’s hand came to rest upon his shoulder; it felt like a laurel wreath. “I’m very curious to see what you’ll do. Just remember the AURA, I don’t want penguins here. And don’t let Helen dissuade your enthusiasm. She means well. Oh, perhaps, she actually doesn’t. But the danger she poses is only to herself. Take that as instructive. Now go take your break.”
Ghosts filled the atrium, their stained sheets fraying around scissored eyeholes. Kids dressed as flying saucers spun, their clever ships made of aluminum foil folded over cardboard, around the convertible kiosks. A few boys his age were dressed up like the Dukes of Hazzard, their jeans too tight for him to look at too long. The fountain overflowed with surfer girls, and Carries with red plastic blood from Bananas. They look convincing, Freddy decided, but they glared at him as he sat on a bench and he was thrilled he didn’t have to sell them more makeup or wax lips or fake fangs for their parties he would never be invited to. The Hazzards came and hassled them. Freddy watched them, thinking what do they want?
“Those assholes don’t know what they’re doing.” The fountain ceased its spurting and Freddy could see his old boss across the way. Bruce wore a tight sweatshirt. He was shouting. The fountain gushed and he disappeared again, soon to be revealed sitting next to Vernon, who was in a sharp suit and bent double. Vernon slid off the bench and collapsed on the floor, weathered and handsome like a broken-down barn. Bruce slid next to him and Freddy gasped without caring who heard it. Vernon’s face disappeared behind his own hands. His shoulders shook. He was crying. Bruce stared straight ahead, embarrassed but right there. The fountain sprayed. When it retreated, Freddy could see Bruce lean toward Vernon and whisper in his ear. That movement, their closeness, an intimate gesture in public, was astonishing. It took a gorgeous courage. It made him feel guilty he never gave Bruce any notice. The shape of their bodies, friend propped against friend, was all anyone wanted.
Later, the Terrace’s cleaning staff plopped their mops back into their buckets, and the salesclerks had refolded the jeans and the sweaters. Someone switched off the main light and turned on the securities. While all this went on, Freddy completed a triptych from the forms Ivy gave him. One man in a yellow Anorak and thick corduroys bent toward another, taller man wearing the Terrace’s nicest wool sweater. Their faces were deadpan and yet they responded, somehow in their stillness, to a third form: a young boy on his knees, in his best Sunday clothes. The boy bent to their feet. Freddy made him hold nickels. He closed his eyes, thrilled, as the coins began to drop, twinkling as they slipped into their loafers—a perfect fit.
Jesse Dorris is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His work can be found at http://www.jessedorris.com.