Fiction Issue - First Place: Clothes linesWednesday January 6, 2010 08:00 am EST
Grady waits in his Buick outside the JC Penney’s, waits for the rain to stop. If he goes inside soaking wet, his gray beard dripping water dripdrop on the linoleum – well, he supposes, the less attention he attracts, the better.
Patience. He must be inconspicuous.
“In-con-spic-you-us,” he mumbles to himself. The habit of saying the last of his thoughts out loud with a near obscene pleasure in drawing out, then clipping, the syllables was one of the many reasons his wife left him last year. If she caught him doing it she’d always say, God, Grady. You’re a simple one. So dumb, talking out your thoughts like a child. With a quick glance to the passenger seat to make sure she’s not actually there mocking him, he switches on the radio to fill the car with something other than the lonely sound of rain on his windshield.
He passes the time imagining the silk and how it will feel on his bare skin. The thought stirs him so that his foot twitches involuntarily, and a fragile sound from the floorboard draws his attention downward. Craning his neck and pressing his beard to his belly so he can see, Grady makes out the silvery glint of plastic packaging: a fortune cookie. The prophetic slip of paper peaks through the folds. He remembers being pissed that Hunan House forgot it the last time he got takeout, but it must have fallen out of the bag. He pockets it and gets out. The rain has slowed to a light drizzle.
In the cold night the store lights look inviting. As he hobbles toward them he grimaces. The pain from his foot triggers the humiliating memory of the night before. Drunk, he fell and twisted his ankle outside his trailer. In an alcohol-fueled haze he had scrambled up the embankment that separated his back yard from the quarry. Howling with the dogs across the night air, bottle in hand, he stepped out where he thought there was earth (there was none) and slid back down, crashing into the rusted corrugated metal of his mobile home.
Inside the JC Penney’s that memory evaporates. The mannequins look past him with their painted-on eyes and he takes a deep breath. The smell of the store is comforting and familiar, a musty combination of perfume and leather goods. It’s a small store and he can see his distorted reflection in the black security cameras that hang from the ceiling like single grapes. He pulls the brim of his camouflage hunting cap to cover his eyes, to look less suspicious.
First, he must grab the decoy. With military precision, straight lines and head down, he heads to the Men’s section where he grabs an extra-large Oxford shirt, the kind that button at the cuffs and have a stiff collar. He takes a tie that hangs noose-like on a clearance rack. Long wasted hours at church services and divorce proceedings, that’s what starched collars and ties mean to Grady. His last phone conversation with his wife before the divorce, the last thing she said to him not through a lawyer, between deep, angry drags off her cigarette, she said: Pull a comb through that rat’s nest before you come to court.
“Rat’s nest,” he says while smoothing out his beard against the wide expanse of his belly. He crinkles his nose in disgust at the love he had felt for her, before he opened up to her the way she’d always asked. Passing a mirror he stops; the store lights have given a sickly yellow tint to his skin. He looks older than he remembers. The janitor outfit isn’t helping. Stains from sloshed mop-water creep up his faded blue coveralls, his nametag gone from white to a dingy ivory. He shakes his head and walks toward what he came for.
The anticipation starts building in his gut, shivering his insides with what feels like electricity. Just beyond the ladies’ shoes he spies them: the slips. In Grady’s mind they’re the classy and sophisticated ladies’ undergarment. Not dowdy like the puritanical nightgown and not trashy like a teddy and certainly not one of those beige Maidenform bras that his aunts wore. No, Grady goes straight for the slips. They hang so sweetly on the racks, descending down the metal arms. There is no breeze, just stale department store air, but he imagines them swaying ever so gently, as if they are hanging from a line in the summer sun. He can almost smell the scent of clean clothes, of safety. He takes one and flutters his fingers against the fabric like he’s tickling it. The material must be buttery soft against his skin – the rough calluses on his hands demand it.
They shake as he takes one, a golden silk full length, and its hanger clinks against the metal arm of the rack. Grady looks around in a panic, sweat breaking out at the small of his back. He catches the eye of the woman working the counter, a stout brunette, but she looks back down at the register. She’s engrossed in counting down her drawer. Closing time is in 15 minutes.
After a quick glance around the store for other shoppers, Grady closes his eyes and pulls the slip up to his nose and takes a deep breath. He buries his face in it. It’s cool against his skin. The slightly synthetic smell triggers a memory, exhumes something from his childhood.
He was younger than 10 years old, 8 or 9, watching his mother ready herself for a date. In a dress of crushed velvet, tight across the hips, she looked lovely and cheap, which was perfect. She had been trying on dresses for an hour; this date would be paying their grocery bill for the next two weeks. Her slip peeked through, just under the velvet.
His mother had asked him, “What do you think?” She was looking herself up and down in the mirror, holding in her stomach, and craning her neck to see how her bottom looked. She held her arm close to her chest, her right hand cradling her elbow. His mother’s pale skin looked like bone against the dark of the fabric.
“Well?” she asked him in a vulnerable tone he’d not heard from her before.
“Pretty,” he said. “You look pretty.” She grabbed her handbag and kissed the top of his head.
The sound of a clearing throat startles him and he straightens up. Some nosy woman, an old gray bird stern in her Buddy Holly glasses, walks by eyeing him. She’s prim, moves like her ass is glued together, and neatens every piece of lingerie as she passes the racks. He feels violated from her intrusion and, discretely stuffing the slip into his janitor coveralls, he heads for the closest dressing room.
“How many?” the brunette woman asks. She’s caught him before he can sneak in unnoticed. Up this close he can see her better: her rouged cheeks, the gap between her front teeth, and thick blue eye shadow. He freezes for a moment, unsure of how to speak to such a beautiful woman. “How many pieces are you going to try on, sir?” she asks again, this time slowly. Her nametag says Sheila.
“Just the shirt and tie,” Grady says. He stammers a little, with a flushed face. He follows her to the dressing room door. Sheila unlocks it and leaves him there, giving him a curious glance as she walks away.
Inside the dressing room he disrobes, the dirty work coveralls falling to the floor in defeat. He hangs up the Oxford shirt, taking out the pins and cardboard collar. The slip is for a full-figured woman and he unfurls it like a flag. The rich golden tones shimmer under the lights. It is like a hundred diamonds reflecting; a garment fit for a royal elephant.
He slips it on. It feels like tongues up and down him. He gives it a spin and the weight is good, the lacy hem flares nicely. The dimpled girl pose: hands on knees, head cocked Shirley Temple-cute. Good.
“Good,” he says. Knocks on the door pull him unwillingly back into reality. He looks down under the dressing room door and the shoes on the other side are shiny, masculine, official.
“Sir,” says a deep voice from the other side of the door. Grady hurriedly pulls up and zips his janitor coveralls over the slip. It’s times like this he hates having his name stitched over his heart. The zipper snags the delicate silk and he curses under his breath.
“Sir,” the voice says again, with three more hard raps on the door. Grady thinks it sounds almost like an actor’s voice, someone playing the role of a department store security guard. He keeps struggling; the fabric seems to be hopelessly meshed in the zipper’s teeth.
“Just a minute,” Grady says. He can feel the creeping perspiration under his arms as he struggles to dress himself. He gets the coveralls up and, with the Oxford shirt in one hand and the clearance-sale tie in the other, he opens the door
“Grady!” the security guard says. It’s Carl, Grady’s drinking buddy down at Andy’s Bar. When the hell did Carl get a job at the JC Penney? Grady wonders. Sheila, the brunette girl from the counter, is standing behind Carl, watching and curious. The older woman with the Buddy Holly frames – must be the store manager, Grady thinks – is hovering behind them both and looks hungry to exercise some authority.
“Grady,” Carl says, “What the hell was going on in there?” Carl’s got pillow-like bags under his eyes and silver hair. He’d look dignified if it wasn’t obvious he’s a terrible drunk; that red bulbous nose is a dead giveaway.
“I’m sorry,” Sheila says. She steps in front of Carl. “You were just taking a long time and we’re closing soon and I could hear you breathing heavy and ... .” Carl puts his hand on her shoulder attempting to calm her, but she steps toward Grady. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” Grady begins to speak but his throat is so dry that all he can produce is a pitiful croak.
“You couldn’t embarrass this old bastard,” Carl says, grinning. He slaps Grady on the back and Grady coughs. “This guy, he’s ... .”
Grady looks down and sees the left shoulder strap of the slip showing. In his hurry he hadn’t made sure everything was tucked away. He quickly zips his coverall all the way up to his neck. There’s no way to tell if they saw it, though he’s not sure why Sheila’s smiling like that.
“I think I’m done,” Grady says, “I think I’m done shopping.” He pushes the shirt and tie into Sheila’s arms and starts walking to the front doors. Carl follows him looking confused.
The alarm goes off and Grady stops. There must be some device, some theft deterrent on the slip somewhere he didn’t catch. Now that they’re standing at the doors together, Grady can see there’s something in Carl’s eyes. It seems to hint at knowledge Grady would like to keep secret. Carl turns around and hollers to the store manager, who’s already walking to the front to investigate, “My fault, ma’am. False alarm.” He cups his hand around Grady’s arm and squeezes with surprising strength. “I don’t know what you’re pulling,” Carl says. Grady winces at his breath. “But try this shit again on my watch and you’ll be hurtin’.”
Grady nods and walks out of the store. The rain is falling harder and he limps to his car. As he pulls away he thinks Sheila is standing at the big storefront windows, still holding the shirt and tie, but it’s probably just a mannequin.
The next day he’s back to cleaning the classrooms and hallways of Ollahewa High School, but all he thinks about is Sheila. Her calves – so fleshy they seem to quiver as if to the bursting point – and those thick, pragmatic ankles make his day of cleaning commodes and mopping up soda go faster. His near exposure in the dressing room, Carl knowing something isn’t quite right – those worries only flicker between images of Sheila. Carl will give him a funny look next time at Andy’s, but what the hell does Carl know about love? Nothing.
“Nuh-thing,” Grady says to himself, and a student, walking by with books in her hands, looks at him with a mixture of fear and pity. Carl’s an idiot, he thinks.
Grady’s mother went out with men to scratch together money to pay the bills. One night she was out – that night with a hotheaded kid who clerked at the only lawyer office in town – Grady woke up and she still wasn’t home. Bored and poking through her things, he discovered her old cami-knickers. Grady had always loved the feel of the silk cami his mother left lying around their two-room apartment. When he missed her, when she was gone, he’d wear it and the light material, comforting like she was, would lull him to sleep. The door opened. He heard his mother’s giggle and a man’s voice.
The lights came on and he was disoriented, blinking and defenseless. His mother’s smile faded. “Grady,” she said. “You’re supposed to be asleep.”
“You didn’t tell me you had a kid,” the man said. His stink of Brylcreem and cigarettes filled the room. And seeing the revulsion in the man’s face, Grady closed his eyes and heard the man say no thanks and then footsteps going down the stairs. He opened them when his mother had turned out the light.
“You were supposed to be asleep,” his mother said in the dark.
Sheila smokes, leaning against the painted brick walls of the Penney’s. She’s half in the shadows, just beyond the glare of the parking lot lights. Grady guesses she’s on her break. As he walks to her, he tries to hide his limp.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asks him.
“No,” he says. He’s taken aback. “No, never.”
“Just making sure,” she says. “Back for more?”
Grady senses a playfulness in her voice. It’s another cold night. Her cigarette smoke mingles with his exhalations; a single vapor hovers entwined before dissipating into the darkness.
“I just wanted to come by and apologize ... .” He shuffles his feet and a crinkling noise comes from inside his jacket. He stops and searches his pockets.
“You a mechanic?” she asks, pointing at his coveralls with the lit end of her cigarette.
“High school janitor,” he says. He pulls out the fortune cookie package, the cookie itself broken into pieces. “Cookie?”
She takes the biggest piece. There’s no reason for her to be charmed by this, he knows, so she’s either a good sport or very hungry. The way she nibbles the cookie makes him flushed again with desire.
“Oh, the fortune,” she says with excitement. “Read the fortune. You put ‘in bed’ at the end and it’s hilarious.” Grady shrugs and hands her the slip. Trying to find good light, Sheila holds up the paper with both hands like it’s a tiny book and reads, “Very soon your endeavors will succeed.”
“In bed,” he adds softly. Sheila laughs. Grady leans closer, half hidden with her in the shadows, and she does not recoil.
Home, the trailer, he keeps it neat. The place isn’t much to look at, certainly, but it’s quiet, unless Grady’s howling at the full moon with the neighborhood dogs. Sheila sits down on his old sofa, its stuffing poking through the duct-taped corners. He opens two cans of Budweiser.
Grady doesn’t have a television and the radio is all static. His courage starts to dwindle, the fear of rejection growing every time she looks bored at his attempts at conversation.
“Carl?” Sheila says. “Sure, he’s OK.”
This goes on until she grows impatient. Sheila stubs out her cigarette and jumps on him, tearing the name patch from his janitor uniform in her frenzy.
Soon they make their way down the hallway of the trailer, bumping against the wood paneling that’s bowing out from age. Shoes and belts are left in the lovers’ wake. She leads him to his own bed, but Grady breaks away.
“I’ll be right back,” he whispers and runs to the bathroom. He takes a minute to change, to peel off the rest of his clothes and pull it on. He stands there for a moment, building up his courage.
He steps out in the slip. Even though he’s wearing it, he’s never felt more naked and vulnerable. With a dash of flourish, a deeply felt need for bravery, he crosses his legs and curtsies. Sheila’s eyebrows arch in mild surprise.
“Do you wear that all the time?” she asks. “With women, I mean?”
“No,” he says. “I mean, yes. Once.”
She kicks off her heels, the ones she always complains about pinching, and says, “I guess it didn’t work, did it?”
He shakes his head and sits on the bed. His butt is slick and he nearly slides off.
“Listen, Grady,” she says, “It’s not the craziest thing. You’re expressing yourself and that can be beautiful.” She puts her hand on his knee. “But that color is terrible. It’s not doing a thing for your skin tone.” She lights another cigarette and the slips from the open closet door catch her attention. “Were those your mother’s?”
“Some, yeah,” he says. “Some I bought.”
“Unbutton me,” she says standing up. Grady trembles like it’s his first time. He pulls off her dress. Underneath she’s wearing a dirty ribbed wife beater, the kind Grady keeps for working on his car, and white boxer shorts a size too big. She pushes him down on the bed and straddles him, moving her face so their noses are nearly touching.
She says, “Let me tell you about my father.”