The Shop Girl Sonnets

1. Once A Pawn A Time

It was my first week on the job and I was in the changing room trying on clothes to model for a wealthy client who didn't want to get undressed and try the clothes on herself. I tried not to wonder if this was really part of the retail clerk description and instead focused on the intricate lace-up pattern of the pearl-colored bustier and how full it made my little A-cup seem. She was flat like me and might like this feature, might buy, might give my desperate bank account commission. Seeing the sales angle I cinched that bustier until my ribs were in peril. 

            “Are you done yet? I’m getting impatient and you’ve been in there forever. What. Is. Taking. So. Long.”  The Upper East Side woman grabbed hold of the saloon style changing room doors and shook them back and forth causing the small latch to undo and she unexpectedly got me in full frontal cinch mode.

She just stared at me with her bony eyes so I stared back at her with mine. 

She reluctantly closed the doors but not without a once over.

I turned to the mirror to finish the cinch while calculating in my head for the seventh time just how I'd ended up in this situation. 

I watched them from inside the store while I straightened the lace camisoles.  Even though I needed sales I didn’t want them to come in. Not Barton and Asher. As if she had ESP Barton lurched forward in her enormous mink coat, pulled her large dark shades off her face and loomed into the glass, then to me, looking my thin and pale form up and down with delighted disgust. She cocked her head to the left, then right, the quick swoosh of eyes darting around like a raptor looking for prey, leaning in closer, wrinkled foreheaded focus, pulling back before peering in yet again, grabbing the arm of Asher to lean in too and look.

            When sieged by terror the only thing to do is face your predator head on. I inhaled and shook out my mane of hair as I marched toward the unknown one ballet flat in front of the other. They clanged open the front door and I faced the two women as they and their poodles stood glowing with a pinkish hue from the bright neon sign above that read Marie LeBrie Boutique. 

            I smiled to the two ladies and said good morning—they were Upper East Side locals and, specifically, 80th and Madison regulars. Bianca, my new boss had insisted that every sales girl make note cards of each regular client and write down what they liked, what size they wore, their contact info, and even urged us to take home the note cards and memorize them.   Since I was new to the job, she gave me her stack of cards to take home and memorize, which I had actually done.  Because of this, their names and little jpeg pictures had become etched on my brain like an unfortunate tattoo. Mrs. Caroline Archer and Mrs. Drusilla Barton.  

            Mrs. Archer peered at me from a staggering height, squinting in the light. “Excuse. Me. You. There.” She pointed at me just to clarify. “The Swarovski diamond rosary in your magazine ad. Do you carry it?” 

            I blew on my nails as if they were wet and simultaneously shrugged my shoulders. “We’ve got one left. But it’s on hold.” This was a tactic Momo herself had told me to do. She said to ‘always look bored with the clientele if they are intimidating or acting superior. This will ignite their passion for getting you to do something, and since all you can do is sell them clothes, you’re likely to make a large commission.’ I hoped she was right. I felt rude and ridiculous because 1) when can a retail girl ever afford a manicure?  And 2) we had at least fifty of the necklaces sitting in a box downstairs, and 3) no one is allowed to put jewellery on hold and I wasn’t sure they would go for it. 

            Wait. Just wait for it, I told myself. I calmly readjusted the scarf around my neck while the woman pondered existence. There was nothing that made one covet something more than it already being taken. 

            Mrs. Archer licked her lips. “How much does it go for?”

            Although it sickened me to realize I knew such intimate details of the customers’ lives via the notecards, I could tell Mrs. Archer had just had her hair done, probably this morning at Jacques on 83rd and Lexington.  And it looked incredible—a short blonde chop not unlike Sharon Stone’s way back when.  Momo had also told me that every shop girl knows good hair means a sale. 

“It’s twenty-four hundred because of the Swarovskis and the inlay work. This rosary is handmade in a small town outside Barcelona by a woman with one eye. She's not on social media so no one knows about her craft yet.”  I did a half-yawn and then motioned to leave and return to the computer.  I blinked back boredom, slow and methodical. From one woman who is half the age of the other woman, the narcoleptic blink is always the kill shot. This was another word of advice from Momo I couldn’t believe 1) that I was doing it and 2) that is seemed to be working. Somewhere I felt strange trying to sell this women the dream. I felt foolish, out of place. Then again she was here and capitalism is happening and money makes the world go round and I am giving this woman joy. 

            “Well,” Mrs. Archer sighed, “maybe please let me see it. It’s perfect for tonight.” She looked at me with ever-widening eyes, at her impending purchase that she’d—pray with tonight?—and as I helped them tie their poodles to the dog post I looked out at traffic, calculating my commission. I then helped Mrs. Barton remove her long coat while she eyed me warily.

             Mrs. Archer caressed the diamond rosary and threw back her head please with the early morning purchase, happy to feel that ain’t it grand feeling that comes from rare moments of female strangers bonding over excess. I gave her what she needed by joining in her exuberance with an orgasmic throat grasp. 

            “I’ve got to feel it on my skin. Here. You. Untie me.”  Mrs. Archer motioned to her neck, where a white fur capelet hung from collarbones. Rabbit, I guessed. 

            “Here.” I untied the strings around her neck and clasped the necklace on, adjusting the heavy chain so that she could see what it looked like in the mirror. 

            “My, that’s lovely. Turn it for me. Turn the mirror for me, will you?” The Sharon Stone look-alike commanded and I, a willing marionette.

            She walked around the store—lost in a reverie?, went outside to observe the necklace in natural light, put her hair up and then down, tilted her head at every angle, took several selfies and then—yes—motioned that she would take it.

            I pulled out pink tissue to wrap the rosary for Mrs. Archer and looked around the boutique that I’d called my workplace for the last three days. The hot ceiling lights gave the whole store a staged feel: overheated and constantly melting our make-up and turning the stores’ pink hues into bright salmon tones.  The black and white checkered tile floor was like a barber shop and most of the walls were mirrored floor-to-ceiling with racks of silk lingerie, prom dresses, stilettos and Laura Ashley wallpaper covering every remaining inch, giving the shoe-box sized boutique the overall feel of being in Little Bo-Peep’s boudoir getting ready to have a rather clean fetish-full orgy with women from the UES. 

            Because this store was selling sex in the form of cute outfits and tongue-in-cheek designs, most of the women that came in were looking for this fix: a certain pacification, a spice to add to their evenings, bedroom affairs, black-tie bat mitzvah’s and weddings. Mmes. Archer and Barton were no exception.

            I glanced over my shoulder to Mrs. Archer as the receipt printed out and watched her slip a cheap pair of shoe horse earrings into her purse. I quickly turned back around and crinkled my forehead. The woman can spend twenty-four hundred dollars on a necklace but not forty-five bucks on some earrings? I had never seen anything like it. Was I supposed to accuse her and risk ruining the sale? I glanced to Bianca, who had just walked in and seen the whole thing, but she just shook her head quickly as if to say, Don’t you dare ruin this sale on those, so I didn’t.

            “Here you are.” Klepto. I handed Mrs. Archer a pink bag with ruffled lace trim that held her diamond-studded rosary.  She muttered a “thanks” and again I glanced at Bianca.

            Bianca smiled at me from behind the two women. She eyed Mrs. Barton and motioned for me to close in on the remaining prey with the universal head tilt.

            "Cappuccino, Mrs. Archer? Mrs. Barton?" Bianca smiled such genuine energy that they nodded before she'd even finished asking. 

            Tucking my hair behind my ears, and breathing in deep, I turned my attention to Mrs. Barton and smiled. She looked me in the eyes; a quick flicker, a small challenge. 

            “And you? Are you looking for anything special this morning?”

            She lifted the heavy fur hat off her head. “There’s nothing in this store for me. Maybe my pre-collegiate daughter but she’s a beast and I dislike shopping for her in general.”

            Mrs. Archer nodded in agreement with her friend showing that it was perfectly normal to declare one's child a beast to the general public. 

            A mild nausea sprung upon my young, pure soul as my feet came closer to leaving my Rosie bubble and touching Earth. I had been warned that this started in one's mid-twenties but I was only 21. 

            Bianca stepped in to save the day. 

            “Mrs. Barton! I seem to remember that you enjoyed the Midnight blue teddy and white stockings last month, as well as the bias-cut black strapless evening gown, and I think you also bought three pairs of stilettos here a few weeks ago.” Bianca smiled and touched her bangs.

            Recognition passed over Mrs. Barton’s face as she remembered that she did in fact shop here, which I cautiously took as my cue to continue. 

            “Have you, um, seen our new line of bedroom wear”—I motioned to the delicate silk lingerie that could dissolve in your hands like rice paper—“or our cashmere accessories for the fall season?” I pulled three lush shawls from the rack, all in different autumnal colors, and held them up for Mrs. Barton to view.

            She eyed them, eyed me, and then slowly reached out to feel one.

            “And we have matching caps.” I grabbed one in the same color with my other hand and held it up to her, earnest. “And mittens too.”

            She flicked her wrist which I took as a 'no and show me more’ gesture, so show I did. I showed her all of our dresses that would look best on her. I showed her their matching wrap tops, wool capelets and ponchos, handbags.  Eventually, she caved.  She picked out a bunch of different items and I said, “Great.  Should I start a room for you?”

            “You try them on for me.”

            I glanced up at Bianca for rescue, who in turn winked at me from afar, acknowledging that she was the madam and yes, I should try them on for this woman because the final line was always sales.

                                                            ***

            I stripped down and put the first dress on.  It was a beautiful print and fit me well. Practically speaking, Mrs. Barton and I were roughly the same height at 5’7” but she was a bit curvier than me, a size 8 to my size 4. I assumed since she had picked out the sizes she was planning to have me try them on all along and if she liked how they looked we'd get her the appropriate size.  But that is the danger in having one try your clothes on for you.  You never know how it will fit your particular shape.  I came out of the room and she stood there, eyeing the dress.

            “Oh yes, I like this one. Your coloring is all wrong for it—too pale, the blonde hair, all wrong, washes you out completely, a little tight on you, but not on me, I’m a size 0, you look like at least a 6 or 8—but me, that’ll look smashing on me. Okay. Next.”

            Momo had warned me that this was standard from clients and to never correct them.

Twenty-five minutes later I had tried on eight different outfits for Mrs. Barton, including the pearl colored-bustier that all but left me naked as she prodded, feeling the fit on my body, touching the raw silk, analyzing the French seams that held it tightly together. I wondered if this were legal but Bianca didn’t seemed too fazed. With each outfit she told me to turn, walk, sit, stand, her voice strident and forceful. I followed each command with practiced grace and calm,  trying to enjoy the beautiful clothes in the hopes that this woman Barton would fucking relax. It's a horrible thing to work in customer service if you are even the slightest empathic. 

            After changing back into my floor samples, I came out of the dressing room and faced Mrs. Barton, who was finishing now a macchiato Bianca had served her on the couch after the cappuccino while she and Mrs. Archer had gone over their upcoming family trip to Scotland.  I stood in front of her, waiting for cues.

            “Have them all sent to my address, I don’t feel like carrying anything right now.”

            “Wonderful.” I left her on the couch to go ring her up for the dresses that totaled $3200. As I went to the front of the store Bianca winked to me and did the silent motion of two hands clapping, and then—after making sure Mmes. Archer and Barton couldn’t see her—gripped both fists and mouthed a wordless yes. 

            I thanked Mmes. Archer and Barton again, holding the door open for them as they went on to the next shop. I then wrote both postcards of thanks in gold pen and put it in the outgoing mail pile.  That it was a meaningful experience for me. After that I rehung all of the items they didn’t want, restocked what they had bought, steamed the items and then went outside to join Bianca, who was having a cigarette.

            Bianca exhaled a long stream of smoke and we watched it curl and then disappear up into the dim Manhattan sky. 

“Good work, Rosalie Meredith.” Bianca winked at me for the first time since I'd started and smiled. “Don’t ever let any of this get to you—it’s just a silly dream, all this.” Her low brunette bangs cut right to her smoky, charcoal-rimmed eyes as she motioned to the passers by on Madison Avenue. I knew what she meant and appreciated the sentiment.

On the outside Bianca looked like a pretty flower child from the 70's with her bangs and eye makeup. But no one who innocently wandered through the boutique doors stood a chance with this her.  That's why her store was the highest grossing Kawaiiland in the country, according to her, and I although I had zero to compare her to I chose to believe her because why not. Maybe that’s how I’d have to become. I sighed. 

“Did you see Mrs. Archer put that pair of earrings in her purse?”

            “She’s in the top five of worst thieves I ever saw. But as long as the stolen goods are cheap and her purchases aren’t we’re not going to do anything. Capice?” She flung her cigarette to the sidewalk and ground it out with the spike of her heel and we went back inside.