April 22, 2014

Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.
— Woody Allen, b. 1935
American filmmaker and writer
from Blue Jasmine

I was flipping through a stack of yellow cotton cable cardigans as if they were file cards, trying to find an XL, because I know that although I can wear an L or even sometimes an M in Lands’ End pants, the tops drape better on me in XL.

“Do you think these look right together?” the woman said to me. She was holding a light purple cardigan and a crew neck sweater printed with flowers in shades of purple and deep blue shot through with a little yellow and a spot of red here and there.

“I’d wear them,” I said, and I would, but I wondered if they were right for her gorgeous auburn hair.

“I’m doing some retail therapy today,” the woman said. She was trim, attractive, well put together. Her hair spiraled out in ringlets that framed her face, and her eyes were accented with just the right amount of shadow and mascara. She’d applied probably a high end CC cream that evened her skin tone but allowed her freckles to show, as if each one had been placed for maximum charm. She’d probably spent every day of her life with all her buttons and buckles done up right.

“I had a flat last night,” she continued. “Before I even got up this morning, my husband had taken it to get it fixed.” I nodded, wondering why you’d need “retail therapy” after that. We were, of course, in Sears, not Neiman-Marcus, but still.

Maybe she knew I had questions. “He took it to Pep Boys,” she said, her emphasis suggesting that this might be the worst possible choice. “I would never go there! I always use Goodyear. This is my third flat since October — the road up to our place is a mess — and I always use Goodyear. I trust them. Know what I mean?”

I nodded again.

“I think we should be able to trade them in!”


“No! Husbands! He just doesn’t get it that maybe we should have a holiday at somebody else’s house for once. We live in a ranch house! People can just wander around and look in all the rooms. His sister especially. I know she snoops. I put all my medications in my gym bag in my car when I know she’s coming over.”

I tried to think of an exasperating husband story to share. “I once called home from an airport to say my flight was delayed five hours and he said the garbage disposal was broken but he didn’t think we used it enough to have it fixed.” I didn’t tell her that I called the plumber myself right there and that the new disposal had already been installed when I finally got home the next afternoon.

“I don’t even have a garbage disposal,” she said. “We live way out in the middle of nowhere, up above 322. No sewer. I have to separate compost stuff from bones and fat and shit. I had twenty people yesterday, a ham and a lamb. I wish they’d all go vegetarian. At least my house is clean for a week.”

I pictured the middle of nowhere up above 322. Likely the new enclave of McMansions that are on “homesites,” not the cramped aluminum frame prefab boxes that have been sitting on “lots” since the 1940s.

We’d made our choices. She went with the lavender set. She paid for it, and then waited while the clerk rang up my sunny yellow cardigan and the top with the blue and white flowers dotted with yellow centers. Then she followed me out of the store, going on about how she has stayed home to raise her son but she’d like to get paid to shelve books at his school but they only pay $8.50 and she could make more than that at Wal-Mart for god’s sake!

An observer might have thought we were friends who’d gone shopping together. At the entrance to Sears I turned toward the parking lot door. “I’m headed down to the food court,” my accidental companion said. “It was nice talking to you.” If she’d asked me for my phone number so we could have coffee some time, I’d have given it to her.

I walked to my car, got out my Moleskine, and wrote down all the details I could remember. This is Stacey’s mother, I thought, picturing the woman who walked out of my character’s life when the girl was 13. Stacey’s story, in which she forms a desire to reconnect with the missing mother, is the one I am taking with me to the cabin-in-the-woods revision retreat that begins on Friday. I’ve known for a long time that I need to figure out why the mother left. Somehow, I think the red-haired woman with her new purple sweater set can provide a clue.

On the way home, I passed a billboard that had. writ large above 322 where it splits off to go up the mountain, UNSTOPPABLE. I had found the name for this Gallivant.

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