The front of this is all windows, a tank of manikins
yellow as cigarette filters, arms attenuating to clubbed fingers.
Their plaster demeanors eschew all responsibility
for the madras Bermudas, the sheaths of polished cotton,
the slacks for golfers who send their kids out-of-state to school
and vacation on the coast (but not at Myrtle Beach the week of the Fourth,
when all of Spindale’s mill workers slip to the sea,
tipping the Carolinas like a tilt-o-whirl). My mother and I
drive up in the VW van patched
with a passenger door hand-painted with stars and stripes.
We park at the meter. I can see the plate glass,
the black and white tiles of the entry, the gold letters spelling:
Davis Sisters: Your Patronage is our Privilege.
My mother wears an XL quilted jacket left by some gambler
at my grandfather’s pool hall, and blue jeans splattered with paint.
I am in overalls, my skin like a fish’s belly, the pallor of trash.
A black man behind green velvet curtains steams clothes on a coffin-sized press, hangs
them on wood hangers. This is the readying of “of” personas: wife of doctor, wife of
mill manager, daughter of Cadillac distributor.
My mother captures the prettiest cashmere cardigan, light as a kitten’s tongue,
some pleated trousers, a lined lacy skirt like handkerchiefs sewn
and a white dress shirt, pinned into a square with silver-headed straight pins.
She nods at the oldest Davis Sister, the one who sits all day at a tall stool by the cash
register. She’s the humpbacked, sour sister, the one who wears a
Prince Valiant wig with a brown flip. She’s clever, keeps accounts, and sizes up
the food stamps in my mother’s wallet, the clinic-issue horn rims on my chubby face. I
can tell she wants me to see the judgment in her eyebrows: trash, trash on the street
corner. Blow away, you trash.
But I’m trying on hats: a beret with a stem, a flattened apple. A veiled trilby
for riding to hounds. A picture hat with foamy ribbons to tie. Squinting, I look
wonderful in each and every one. I am crooning: someday, someday.
Happiness is having hats. Not that minute calibration of “how much?” to
“here’s fine, this is good, I can live with this.” I lift the hat from my head
and I’m plaster again. I slip into the dressing room and settle on the floor to watch her.
My mother wears large cotton panties and no bra. She slips the dress shirt
over her head, too impatient to unbutton all the buttons. Straight pins tingle to the carpet.
I stretch to collect them, a little seamstress on my knees, and count them into a silver
ashtray built into the wall. My mother adjusts the collar at her neck, her body lengthened
and disciplined by tailoring. She pulls these off and puts on the doctor’s wife, the
organizer of hospital teas: Peter Pan collar and khaki culottes. Then assumes the
businesswoman in a navy cigarette skirt and silk shell.
She tosses me the cast-offs to re-hang. “You doing all right in there, Miz Guffey?”
the younger Davis sister flutters outside the curtain.
She calls my mother by her maiden name, her name two marriages back
and written on a thick card with columns of red ink for “owing” and black for “paid”
filed in a metal box by the cash register.
“Could you get me an 8 in this one, Miss Davis?” my mother calls,
mimicking the other woman’s trill as she tenders a wadded shirt.
“It’s a little tight in the bust.”
“Yes, ma’am, they do run that way.” And the sister disappears
returning with another. From this point on, she’s at the changing room door,
seeking to shame my mother into buying with handmaiden subservience.
But my mother won’t be shamed. In her own mind,
in the confines of the dressing room, in the mirror, she is not a waitress
at the country club. She is still Miss Guffey, daddy paying her tab:
“cash,” as he’d say, “on the barrel-head.”
“Can I take anything away, honey?”
I open the door to give over the rejected, refolded and rehung clothes.
I want to deaden what I feel in my sternum as I look
into Miss Davis’s crinkling face above the wings of her tennis collar.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Did you not find anything, Miz Guffey?” she says loudly,
causing the other shoppers to turn and look as she casts her voice
beyond me to my mother. “Not today,” my mother replies and she’s back in
and trucker’s jacket and – ding a ling — the door opens and I’m padding
along behind my mother as Miss Davis practically hollers,
“Would you like to put a little something on your account, Miss Guffey?”
“Not today,” my mother mutters as we step up into the cab of the VW.
As if Miss Davis were patronizing her, mentioning such a thing as money.
“I didn’t see anything I liked, did you?” she says.
“Not a thing,” I say, raw. I want to be wrapped in the hushed tissues
of waxed paper shopping bags, in Davis Sisters respectability –
so far from what will be stuffed into brown Winn Dixie sacks
by a volunteer at the church thrift store and – here – handed over.