In Middleton, I was in the school of social work. I had decided against medical school. My mother and brother were in a car accident years before, and they were just bodies, problems and numbers, in that E.R. I wanted people to be something more than bodies.
I worked in a fabric store during those years: Keller’s. It was just across the street from my dorm. People weren’t bodies to me: they were measured in yards and bolts. Other than me, the employees were mostly little old ladies who wanted the measly 10% employee discount. Darla, for example, had glasses on a string, and talked constantly, licking the lipstick off her lower lip until the mismatch between the two pinks was garish. Irene looked padded, as if she was stealing batting in ingeniously sculpted pockets over her hips and breasts and belly. She was quiet and always made mistakes in stocking the shelves. I didn’t mind—the peace of sending her away to the shelves was worth it.
I actually managed the store during my last year there, though the owner, Robin, gave me little power to set schedules or hire and fire. There wasn’t much hiring, since we didn’t fire. I was better at stocking and ordering, and keeping records, anyway. We had a huge stock of patterns in the store, and we ordered them for customers, too.
Mrs. Simmons was one of our most regular browsers. She sewed very little. She thumbed through our catalogues, the tall, glossy books with pictures of tall and elegant women posed perky, trying helplessly to look modern in the most old-fashioned of circumstances. Mrs. Simmons had a sweatshirt from every major tourist site in the United States: the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, Miami Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Big Apple, Disney World, the Alamo. If you could imagine a crude symbol for a place, that symbol graced Mrs. Simmons’ chest. It was usually designed with a palette of girlish pastels, and used shadow behind the lettering. These were mementoes from other people’s travels. Mrs. Simmons herself never ventured past the state line. I’m not sure she went many places except the fabric store, to be honest.
“Who went to the Florida Keys?” I would ask her, as I pushed a dolly of bolts past her.
“My neighbor, Millie. She went in a glass-bottomed boat and saw alligators wrestling! ” She smiled her honest Walter Mitty smile. “Ooh, you know, David, I don’t like inverse pleats. I never have.”