by Lou Vargo
Nylons, makeup, hair, lipstick. That’s been her routine for over twenty-five years if she so much as steps foot outside the house. She did it during the war when she worked at the plant and all the men were overseas. She’s done it all the years since, while Louie and their seven older kids wore away every other part of herself that she loved. Today is no exception. When she’s ready, she puts her little Louis in the stroller, her purse in the diaper bag and walks to the bus stop. It’s summertime and she feels her sweat catch the soot that Zug Island’s steel mill belches a few blocks away. The diaper bag hangs heavy off her shoulder. The stroller presses hard against her palms. She pushes.
When the bus arrives she drops the coins into the tall rectangle and little Louis hands the driver a nickel for the transfer downtown. The stroller smacks with an awkward ping or thud into seats and kneecaps on the way to an empty seat in the back. They get out at Hudson’s Department Store and she pushes the stroller across the wide sidewalk to the entrance. The tall glass doors whoosh open with a sound that startles the boy. He looks up at the vast space, mouth open and eyes wide.
Once inside it’s as if a puff of cool air lifts her off the marble floor while “Claire de Lune” plays inside her head. Looking up, the soft light from the high ceiling reminds her of a picture she saw once of a yellow field of tickseed in morning sunlight, muted and unfocused. She realizes that it was on her doctor’s office wall, over his shoulder and just past his words. She was looking at it when she heard “toxemia,” when she realized that she and her little Louis inside had to check into the hospital, and “Yes – immediately.”
The music in her head stops. It’s replaced by the foreign sounds of gentrified shoppers. She’s back on her feet, pushing now. The cool air isolates the sweat in her armpits and under the thick wires of her bra. The press of her palms against the stroller returns. Sales people turn away and the shame of not belonging grows inside her chest like a tumor. She heads to the escalator and down to where she came to shop.
Hudson’s basement is humid and ancient. She feels better here. The shame is less panicked and more familiar. It’s the shame of knowing she belongs. The harsh light flatters nothing, turning everything it touches to a soft splotchy mass that looks like unbaked bread. The windowless walls are nicotine yellow and the tile floors are scuffed.
The clothes down here are a sea of wrinkled orphans struggling to find their place among resealed boxes of random shit all piled on peeling Formica tables. Among the piles she finds four blouses and a blue pantsuit. She holds each piece up to her neck in a mirror near the bathrooms. She gently shushes Louis and smiles small when she gets to the pantsuit. The color is good and the cut will help hide her weight. She double checks the price and drapes the pantsuit over the stroller. She pays at the register, snapping each bill between her thumb and middle finger, making sure she doesn’t hand over two precious bills for one.
Back outside the heat is punishing. She pushes the stroller to Lafayette’s Coney Island five minutes away. She and Louie used to come here when they were dating. Now it’s her excuse to keep from having to go home to him. She scrapes some fries onto Louis’ tray. The crunch of raw onions on the Coney dog is familiar and feels good between her dentures.
Later with her makeup, nylons and lipstick still on, she’ll rewarm the pot roast and open a can of pork and beans for Louie and the kids. She’ll stare at the cube of fat floating inside the can’s brown liquid and when she dumps it into the pan it’ll remind her of her baby’s shit as it spreads across the bottom.
She’ll stand over the stove and see herself as she was before; when she would swallow the days whole like a pill and its energy would radiate from her strong body out to the bigger world she could still only imagine. The moment will end when little Louis screams and runs to hug her leg. She’ll turn off the burner and put the leftovers on the table.
LOU VARGO is a Certified Sommelier. His wine lists have won several awards, including the prestigious Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence. He is the owner Toast & Taste Nashville, a private wine events and consulting company. Most recently his creative nonfiction has appeared in Chapter 16. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, daughter and stepdaughter.
Photo by Sarah Chai from Pexels