Monday, February 21, 2011

Pendant, a short story by Joan Baril

This story was previously published in The Story Teller, an American magazine.

The marble floors at Eaton’s give off a dusty coolness but by ten o’clock the August heat seeps in. My hand on the oak counter leaves a sweat mark. The boys’ sweaters I’m folding feel like the furry tongues of fire dragons.

On my coffee break, I rush over to check the jewellery counter. Once again, no pendants. Upstairs, in Woman’s Wear, I push through the autumn arrivals: racks of gabardine suits in murky colours, flowered rayon frocks, wool crepe in mud shades advertised as “slimming for the mature figure,” cheap cotton house dresses, and near the back, the hideous mother-of-the-bride gowns a-droop with swags and peplums. Thank heavens I work in the children’s department.

I gravitate to the small teen section against the far wall.

“Any customers downstairs, Janet?” It’s Mrs. Dalucca, head salesgirl in Woman’s and my mother’s friend. The maroon folds of her summer rayon criss-cross her bosom while below, wide pleats end in a square dance frill. It makes me shudder to look at it.

“The place is deadsville,” I say.

“Ye gads, you can say that again. You could shoot a cannon down the aisle.” She watches me as I run my manicured hands over the piles of banlon kitten sweaters in ice cream colours: pure white, cream, baby blue and rose, my nails moving like red petals across the silky knits. I turn to the rack of new fall skirts with their pleated backs and high waists and leaf through the size 10’s slowly considering each one. “Still trying to decide?”Mrs. Dalucca asks. She knows my mother has promised me a new skirt and sweater to start grade ten next week. I think about pairing the pale grey plaid with a white sweater. A cool combo but it needs a finishing touch, a fashion accessory. And that accessory must be a pendant. For a minute, I almost confide my problem to Mrs. Dalucca, but reason asserts itself. The sales lady is way too old to understand deep longing. I merely smile, wave and move away.

Pendants first burned into my heart last April when my friend Leona and I, perusing the Fall 1952 Eaton’s catalogue, noticed that many teen models wore nifty filigree circles on chains around their necks. We flipped to the jewellery pages but no pendants were offered for sale. Most annoying. And doubly so when a few of the rich kids appeared at Collegiate wearing pendants. Mimi Ballantyne tossed her blond page boy as she explained that she‘d bought hers on a shopping trip to Minneapolis. Glenda Swan’s ornate silver circle nestled perfectly into her lamb’s wool sweater between her pointed Wonder Bra breasts. “Burke’s Jewellers just got them in,” she said. “They’re the latest thing.”

As if we didn’t know.

Leona and I rushed to Burke’s after school. “Holy monkey tails, Janet.” Leona dropped her face so close to the glass counter her breath steamed the surface. Below, on a tilted tray, a waterfall of three heavy chains sliced the velvet, each ending in a dazzling silver medallion: a sun burst, a filigreed circle and a Celtic knot. I put my face down beside Leona’s but my heart crinkled up when I saw the prices. The cheapest cost six dollars. Every Saturday at Eaton’s, I made three dollars. No way would my mother let me spend two pay packets on a necklace. Leona was worse off. She’d spent her last babysitting money on nylons and a fancy pin for her kilt.

After the coffee break, still no customers. Perhaps it’s too hot for anyone to go shopping, I think. At such times one is supposed to look busy. I fold and refold the big pile of cowboy shirts. My boss, Mrs. Guernsey, the biggest pill in the Eaton’s bottle, hands me the lemon oil and a cloth to polish the oak sides of the long counters, a horrible job. “This is as good a time as any, Janet,” she squeaks. “And don’t use too much like last week and have it drip all over the marble.” She sets down the dirty square of carpet we use as a kneeling pad. “I’m told half the town is down the street for the grand opening of People’s Jewellers. I’ve never seen it so slow on a Saturday.”

I kneel at her feet, the sweat dripping down my face as I make big circles with the polishing cloth, using very little liquid. I want to protect my nail polish. It’s the newest shade, a shimmering fuchsia called Fire and Ice from Revlon, a birthday gift from Leona. However, when the Guernsey Pill moves away, I use a dry cloth pretending to put on a bit of lemon oil from time to time. The blond oak always looks shiny, I think; she’ll never notice the lack of polish. I hum a little, pleased with my deception but at the same time, something stirs the torpor in my brain, the words “grand opening.” A sale? Pendants? Possible?

I get an hour for lunch. Usually, I walk the four blocks up the hill to my house, but today I turn in the opposite direction and run down to the new shop. A cloth banner, Grand Opening Sale, waggles over a big orange sign, People’s Jewellers. I push in. I have to slide between customers, their sweaty armpits near my face. It seems half the town is crammed from one counter to another, their murmurs stirring the hot air while the constant cha-ching of the cash register rings a bright bell above the drone. On the far counter, my quest ends. A half dozen pendants hang by their chains from a small wooden rack. The notice says, “All the Rage. Our Low, Low, Low Sale Price–One Dollar.”

I have to hold on to the counter and breathe deeply.

I reach out a hot hand to lift each one in turn. Most are silver, a few gold but one is a burnished grey circle filled with snowflakes, a slice of glacier glowing in my palm. It conjures a picture of a dark haired young girl, me in fact, in a soft white sweater above a pale grey skirt, the snowflake circle linking both to the cool beauty of a winter’s day. At that minute, a sweaty hand comes over my shoulder and yanks two pendants from the little rack. The necklaces are selling fast and I have no money on me. I have a dollar at home in my sock drawer, but by the time I get back from lunch, the pendants will be gone. What to do?

No sales clerks close by. As I scrunch the chain and circle in my hand, a piercing thought urges me to drop the necklace into the pocket of my cotton skirt and leave. I grit my teeth, resisting temptation. Instead I look around, thinking hard. On the counter, a set of hideous vases covered with black and green swirls squat together in a group. Quick as thought, I reach over and drop the pendant into the largest. Then I slither outside and pelt for home.

After I bolt my peanut butter sandwich and glass of milk, I fly back downtown with my dollar bill in my pocket. I have ten minutes to buy the pendant and get back to work on time. The jewellery shop is still jammed with people. I shove my sweaty self in. The wooden rack is empty, all the pendants gone but the swirly vase still stands in place. Once more checking for hovering clerks, I reach inside. My fingers touch the metal loops. I scoop out my prize and stare at it as I stand in the cash line. It’s as cooly beautiful as I remembered. I am two minutes late when I puff into Eaton’s.

All the long afternoon, between serving the few customers and tiding drawers of underwear, I take quick peeks in the paper bag which I placed under the counter beside Mrs. Guernsey’s purse. When she’s at the far end of the department, I remove the pendant from its orange box and stare at the frosty cluster.

“What’s your tale, nightingale?” It’s Leona looking cool in her sea green eyelet cotton. She’s a short blond girl, a little heavy, with Doris Day freckles and a magnetic smile. I slide the People’s Jewellery box toward her.

Leona opens it and puts both hands over her mouth. “Holy teapot!” she says. “You remembered.” She takes the pendant from the box and slips it over her head. She’s breathing noisily and trying to smile. “Oh, Janet I love you. You remembered my birthday. You got me a pendant. I can’t stand it.” She jumps up and down shaking her arms. Next, she centres the snowflake circle on the green cotton and covers it with both hands. “Oh my God. I’m on cloud nine. I’m flipping out, you’re such a doll.”

My mind is lagging. And it does not want to catch up. Leona puts the empty box into her pocket. She reaches her hands across the counter and takes mine. “This is the best birthday present I’ve ever had in my entire life.” She’s close to crying. “Thank you heaps and heaps. I’ll never forget it.”

“Janet.” Mrs. Guernsey is standing behind me. “A customer,” she squeaks jerking her head to a woman at the far end of the counter. “And by the way, I believe this a retail establishment,” she says, “and not a social club.” The customer is holding up melton cloth breeks against a young boy standing with both arms outstretched. I turn in a trance, my mouth open, walking with my hand on the edge of the counter as if I’m lost. After I bag a pair of breeks and write the receipt, I see that Leona has gone. But Mrs. Guernsey is in front of me now, waving the fingers of her right hand under my nose. I can barely focus on the chipped and bitten nails swinging before my eyes.

“I have checked the sides of these counters and I can’t see any sheen to speak of. I ran my fingers across the wood and I don’t smell lemon oil. Do you?” She purses her fingers together and shoves then a half inch from my nostrils. “I don’t think there was lemon oil used on this side at all. You’ll have to do it over again after your coffee break.”

I plod upstairs in a mist, not sure where to go. No use going to the jewellery counter. Woman’s Wear looms at the top but I don’t want to visit the teen section and see the grey plaid skirt or the white sweater. I turn to the right and burrow between the racks ending up at the back of the corseteria behind a row of slips and a table set out with neat piles of discount underwear. The thick bumpy stucco of the wall holds me up. Mrs. Dalucca’s voice floats from the change rooms nearby. The corset lady is ticketing girdles near the cash some distance away. A few customers emerge from time to time between the racks.

I want to run home but the thought of my mother’s questions pins me in place. I want to cry, to roll in my tears, but no tears come. Why is everything in this world so hard won? I squeeze my eyes, compress my lips; sobs crumple in my chest. But, are they sobs? They feel like bursts of laugher, a laughter from outside myself, from some outer place, as if another Janet has been looking on and sees the nuttiness of it all. I bend over the table of rayon panties so no one will see my quivering face. I pretend I am searching for a certain size, a special colour. With one hand, I jumble them, laughing and flinging then about, stirring bras and panties together, circling my hand so all the neat piles are overturned and swirled into a mix.

The lemon oil bottle, the polishing cloth, the kneeling carpet await but, for some reason, they now seem to offer a haven, a steady mindless task that will take me to the end of the workday.

I become quiet, breathe deeply, compose myself and trudge downstairs.

No comments:

Post a Comment