Vintage – By Patricia McCowan
Christine spots the suit towards the back of the dusky shop. No, the suit spots her. She has escaped her desk at the brokerage for an illicit lunch hour. She has taken a long walk away from the towers, found a street of little brick buildings and grime. Now, inside, Christine makes sure her cell is off, checks over her shoulder. Just the burgundy-haired girl at the counter, idly flipping through an old Life magazine. Christine stands in place, prolongs the moment, describes to herself what’s caught her: Size Eight Ladies’ Tailored Grey Suit, 1930’s. Severe, sombre. Her breathing slows, the musky smell of the place like a tranquilizer. She goes to it. She reaches out and pulls the garment towards her, strokes the pleasurably raspy fabric of the jacket and matching skirt. The sensation catching on her nerves like tiny hooks. She narrows her eyes, pauses like a swimmer on a sun-heated dock, then slides her hand inside the skirt. Lined, she knew it would be lined. The old silk a thin barrier against the scratchy wool. She splays her fingers against it.
Maybe she could have it. Maybe she has to have it. She could buy it and a few faded blouses, pack a small, hard suitcase with underwear and stockings to be hand-washed in a sink at night and dried over the foot of a metal bed. Yes.
She’d take that suitcase and board a stale bus to a town with a Main Street of stubby buildings, brush-cut architecture. Buildings with bulky, solid doors and short staircases. No elevators. Buildings with windows that can open, with blinds that can close. In that town, Christine would carry her hard suitcase off the bus and walk alone in black shoes down the street. Men might tip their hats to her, women pushing strollers might nod and smile, but no one would talk to her, no one would need anything from her.
She’d come to a lunch counter. Push open the watery-glassed door. Inside would be a fan up on the greasy ceiling, pushing the air around, and a few men along the counter, reading newspapers in their shirtsleeves, suit-jackets and fedoras on the stools beside them. There would be a woman and her stooped mother at a booth, each nursing their lemonades with chipped ice, not looking at each other. A ballgame no one seems to care about playing on the radio by the cash. No one here has discovered rushing yet.
Christine would put her suitcase into a booth, slide in beside it, and order a ham and swiss and a coffee from the waitress with the friendly look about her. Maybe she’d even get a slice of pie. Nobody’s too skinny here, no one would judge her. The lunch would be satisfying but not filling, even with pie. There would never be too much of anything in this place, in these clothes.
She would pay her bill, putting paper money right into the waitress’s hand and getting change back as coins in her hand, and putting those coins in a change purse with a hard clasp that shuts tight, and putting that change purse in her handbag. You know where you are with a handbag.
She’d go freshen up in the ladies’ room, where a window looks out on garbage cans and a patch of dried-out grass with an empty teeter-totter on it. The children who played on that teeter-totter are gone, Christine would think, they’re grandparents, or maybe even dead. Time ticks on.
No! No, she’d look hard at her face in the mirror, convince herself to stop thinking like that. Time is malleable. She’ll powder her nose.
After, the counter girl will give her directions down the street and around the corner to the rooming house with the yellow front porch and a sparse row of marigolds huddled along the foundation. A short walk. Christine will go up the steps and knock on the quilted metal bottom of the door. She will peer through the screen to a narrow hallway, dark at one o’clock on a September day, and watch the landlady emerge from the kitchen at the back of the house and come towards the door, slowly, drying her hands on a well-used apron. Floor boards squeaking. Christine will be patient. She will put her trust in this woman.
She will live alone in a dull room upstairs, with a narrow bed and a dresser with the drawers lined in not-yet-yellowed newspapers, and eat meals cooked by the fat, frazzle-haired woman emerging from the dark innards of the unfamiliar house. She will know only this as her future. A life of cold solitude and lack. And she will be content. Finally.
Christine lets the suit fall from her hands and it swings back into its proper place on the rack. Looks around, blinking. The girl at the front is staring out the front window, finished with the magazine. Christine should get back to work now. Things, deals, people — they’ll all be piling up. She pulls her cell phone out of her purse. Time is piling up. Christine stands very still.