S H O R T S T O R Y
b y g. l. g r e y ~ s p o k a n e, w a s h i n g t o n
THE TIE display doesn’t get done this week. It is arranged the same as last week’s, the blues placed next to the purples, the paisleys carefully settled away from the stripes. This is Dora’s job. She rearranges the ties on Tuesdays, always, although it is a self-made goal, a false deadline. Today is the first Tuesday Dora has not reworked the ties in the three years she has been in the men's department at Nordstrom's, and the first day she has taken any time off for personal needs. Rick, the store manager, a man with a noble chin and teeth straight as soldiers, said she could take off for an extra hour at lunch, or even longer if she needed. The men’s department is busy today, men asking for Dora, pointlessly picking up sweaters and putting them back down again. Her absence is a felt thing: on the floor and in the till.
Today while customers anxiously wander the store and Rick bustles to meet their shopping needs, their special sizings, Dora is at the clinic.
The waiting room is white, small, friendly as a bathroom. It is a room filled with corners. She doesn't wait long and the exam is quick. Dr. Henry probes, pushes; he is so nice, always apologizing, warming his hands, warming his instruments, and feeling Dora all around with real compassion. When Dr. Henry is done, he smiles at her, a sad, complicated smile and says, calm as a sleeping cat, that her uterus is missing.
“Where was the last place you had it?" he asks. "Can you think back?”
Dora stares blankly at him, hurt. Seconds pass in silence and then she tells him the truth: she can’t ever remember having it.
"Don't worry," the doctor says, “like misplaced keys, these things turn up sooner or later.” He adds “usually” in a quiet voice, in an exhale.
"Maybe it took a vacation," he says cheerfully. Dora can't tell if he is joking. Is he joking?
"Maybe," he says sincerely, "it was just sick and tired." She looks hard at his old face for a trace of judgment, for a narrowing of his features, but sees only a blank oval, its tiny eyes incapable of a harsh look. He is gentle and informative.
Dora asks, “If I find a uterus, how will I know if it is mine?” She glances between Dr. Henry and the nurse, pleading: “How will I know if it returns?”
The doctor assures her that her questions are good ones. Before she gets dressed he gives her a pamphlet, shakes her hand unexpectedly, and then exits softly. Dora glances at the pamphlet briefly, flips to the back, which reads like a list: “Women Speak on Uterus Presence.” A uterus feels like a prickly cave, the first line says. A uterus feels like the oldest part of you, a foundation. She folds the pamphlet and places it in the front pocket of her purse.
Dora returns to the store promptly. This morning Dora and Rick discussed, again, the possibility of her working on the window displays. She has been asking to do the displays for months now, having these same, short conversations with Rick, asking him to give her a chance. He lends his ear each time, in a good managerial way, but is hesitant. He reminds her: they already have someone to do the displays. Roy, a short mustached man who hums while he works, is experienced. He is a real artist, Dora is reminded, and gets paid much more than she does.
While earlier she had been anxious to get to the ties, to prove her good eye after the clinic visit, now she is distracted. She ignores the tie table, ignores its too-familiar color combinations, the crooked ones ruining an old symmetry and, instead, begins to search in earnest for what’s lost. Elbows resting on the counter, Dora thinks, hard, and tries to remember a time when she felt anything like the pamphlet describes. A uterus feels like a pull at your center. A heavy, heavy pull downward. She watches the customers come in and out with ease, men she has never seen before looking for new pants, for the right fit. Dora, who is 35 and suddenly attentive, notices they are, all of them, worrying about the smallest things possible.
Rick approaches and asks how she is feeling. Dora is honest, straight forward; she is mystery-less. She tells him her problem, about her special part, its having turned up missing.
“Gone. The doctor says it might have left for good." She looks at him firmly, studies the smooth arch between his eyebrows, and gets to the point. "I just thought maybe you'd seen it. I was at your place that one night and left so quickly.”
“No," he says, looking across the aisle to the shoe department, avoiding her hard question and the unavoidable search of her hard face. "I’ll keep an eye out though. What does it look like?” He lifts a pen to his legal pad, ready to take down her description, but turns his body away from her and gazes beyond the row of cashmere to the far, far window.
"Pink," she says, "shaped like a canteen and slimy as a live fish."
At home Dora searches under the bed, between the cushions, and in the refrigerator. She feels silly, too awkward to cry. It is nowhere; the house is as clean as a hollowed melon. She sits on the couch, exhausted, and calls out to her uterus, waiting for some response, hoping it will seek her out, instead. She stretches her ears, expects a shoop or a whoosh. She wonders, shamefully, whether she would recognize its call, whether the sounds it would make are hers or if it has its own way of things, its own voice.
Dora thinks of calling her mother. It's an impulse, to confess her failures like this, to announce more of what's wrong with her to the one person who is most deeply and easily disappointed. She can imagine the conversation, the loud question marks, the soft accusations. It would go like this:
"You always did keep a messy house."
"May not come back."
"What did you think was going to happen?"
"I feel terrible."
"You should feel terrible."
Dora caresses the phone and runs these lines through her head. It may not be fair, all the assumed conversations, the severe tone her mother takes in her own head. They haven't actually talked for months; the image of her mother now grows wild and untrue inside of her, worse than the actual thing. Still, these conversations are real feelings, they are emotionally honest, the way it would seem. And she would rather contain her mother in mean generalizations than actually pick up the phone.
And this. It is the worst thing to confess to a mother, to her mother, with her familial devotion, her homemade pies and all the expectations. All the disappointment. The worst thing, really. She abandons the phone altogether, leaves the thought for others and heads to the bathroom.
Dora takes a long bath, running her thin fingers over the missing spot. She tries to feel the new absence, gently touching the rim of her fresh awareness. The water, dirty from the hard day spent, is welcoming and warm. Her stomach rises out of it, a small, white, and pleasant roundness. She has always liked this part, the length of her middle, its simple smoothness. She thinks back to the clinic. She thinks of the kind nurses, Dr. Henry, to the place her eyes first rested when he gave her the news—the complex, colorful poster tacked across from the paper-covered table, exploring the digestive system, showing, almost cheerfully, where and how things could go wrong, its arrows and cartoon seriousness speaking as a friendly warning.
In the bathtub, she means to mourn; she means to recognize the loss, to hunch down in her shame, her private disgrace. Instead her mind wanders, everything wanders, and pleased, her fingers find a path; tracing the important lines, feeling what's left, she ruins the ritual entirely. It is a useless thing, her sorrow, like a long note written for a lover who has already left.
The next morning, Dora arrives at work early. She starts folding crumpled shirts left over from the previous day’s trying on, when Rick comes from behind and warmly wraps his hand around her bicep, rubbing her back with the other. He can be gentle; Dora is thankful for the small gestures, tiny glimpses of something larger in him. She doesn't love Rick, or want to love Rick, but she does want to win him over in some way, to conquer his affection. And although the desire is real, and one similar to so many others she has—leaving her job, forgiving her mother—she can't rally the aggressiveness it would require, or the strength and creativity.
Dora and Rick’s single shared night, almost six months ago, had felt strangely familiar. Rick made love like a store manager. She recognized him in bed the way she recognized his walk across the store, the way she recognized a pencil behind his ear or his quick, cordial conversations with store customers, using the same lines again and again.
The next day they had talked about it coldly and quickly: they agreed to let it go, to "go back" to the way things had been, and to ignore the unforgettable little secrets they now knew about each other. She loved these two words, the way he said them like they were real things, like they were possibilities. Go back. It was a childlike wish, simple, and framed the night like a manageable regret. She thinks if she could really go back she would go back further than Rick, far enough, maybe, so that the world would fold into itself, would forget who it was in all its blackness and just swirl.
In truth, Dora can’t remember how long she has been working in the men’s department, how long she has been under the careful watch of Rick. He is, she does know, a hint of some other life. She gazes at him the way seniors in high school gaze at college applications, curious. Even in his bed she was full of imagination. Will you be my Harvard? she had wanted to ask, but deep down, she knew he wouldn’t understand. Rick is unable to fulfill any of her fantasies, they are all so ambitious and passive. He is, she knows, incapable of giving her anything that matters.
Rick, who is in the store now, but never concretely in her daydreams of the future, speaks while he rubs. "How are you doing today, Dora? Did you find what you were looking for?"
"Nope," she says, and tries for a smile.
Dora wonders if the men's department has something to do with it, its citrus colognes, the shining cuff links, all of the black leather wallets and their secret foldings; she wonders if her uterus is hidden in the large, winter woolen coats. She checks, hopefully, and she looks under the cashmere scarves, too.
She wonders if it has to do with the biological clock, that impossible metaphor she never did understand. As if she was so reliable, so easy and efficient. At lunch she discusses the clock with William, a friend who works across the street at the bank, counting money and giving financial advice. William is a big person, a big personality, someone trapped in the real world with all its bills and credit card debt, but is meant for a more glamorous life—a life, he says, with curtain calls. Dora likes his dramatic tendencies—they make her feel alive. Each time they get together, he talks about quitting his job, and what it will be like once he finally finishes writing his screenplay, "The Unlikely Banker."
William sips his lentil soup between his lips and asks his questions loudly, like it wasn't a thing to be ashamed of. He discusses the topic thoughtfully and logically, like a bank transaction, like a problem with a routing number.
"Do you really need it back?" he shouts above the restaurant crowd.
"Do I need it?" It is a new question and, like a new taste, she considers it thoughtfully and openly before deciding she doesn't like it.
"Yeah, I mean, do you want children? What's the panic? You've got time."
"You mean on my clock? I have time on my clock?" Dora takes a sip of her lemon water and sets the glass down gently on the table. She picks at her lettuce, peeks under the biggest leaf; she is always doing this now, uncontrollably peeking, even in impossible places.
“Tick, tick, tick," William says, and laughs. It is the one thing she dislikes about him: William’s laughter is both quiet and piercing.
Dora wonders silently, to herself, Do I have a clock or am I a clock? A uterus feels like a purpose. She imagines the harsh Roman numerals over her body, her hands thin and silver, moving in perfect, controlled circles. The pamphlet she keeps in her purse becomes her pamphlet. The definitions, her own, and growing. A uterus feels like a betrayal. A uterus feels like a time bomb. Does she want children? Doesn’t she? Dora thinks of the old childhood rhyme: he loves me, he loves me not. The way the truth of things came out clean by the end of the song. She thinks of picking imaginary children off a giant stamen. “I think,” she says, shaking her head, “that children are besides the point.” It feels like an answer, almost. In a world, in a mind, so full of a dropped desires, Dora knows, at least, that she wants back what is lost.
William asks the waitress for more soup but keeps his eyes on Dora. "I think," he says, "that you just need to spend more time with yourself." He is Oprah-wise and believes in the importance of loving oneself before loving others. "Find your spirit first," he says encouragingly, "and then you can begin to look for your uterus." And he is so happy, beaming like a child with a new drawing, that she gives him the comfort of his answer, pretends like it is a helpful thing.
Folding sweaters, the new selection from Hugo Boss, Dora notices Rick wandering around the store. This is a thing he does, walking from department to department, making announcements and checking items off his notebook. She knows she is next, before women's petites and after cosmetics. She is always right after the Clinique counter.
Dora despises the Clinique counter’s unavoidable presence in the store with its smells of new perfume, with its matte lipstick and funny-shaped soap. All the women look the same, short and pretty in their lab coats, with laughs that carry throughout the store, and heavily made-up eyes making promises. She hates the possibility of their sex, the threat they pose to her non-relationship with Rick. She knows they know things she does not know. They are, for instance, desirable, warm, and not 35. They are, probably, able to go to bed at night without giving their uteruses a second thought. Probably, Dora thinks, they each have six or seven. Wonderful spares.
Rick comes up behind her like a mouse.
"Hi, Dora, just going around the store to remind everyone that it’s time for holiday decorating.”
“Already! Who can believe it!” Rick is too excited, too animated; he is acting strange around her now, like someone from the television, phony and loud.
“Listen,” he says, “I want you to do the Christmas window this year. The front one. I think you’re ready. OK?” Rick puts his hands in his pockets, determined. “You can have one of the other girls do the ironing or help you get the mannequins dressed. Just let me know who and what you need—we'll do without you on the floor this once.”
Dora is surprised and suspicious. The Christmas window is the most important display. She has been here for two other Christmas seasons; she knows the precision the window requires, how many times Roy had changed the mannequin and props to get things “just right.” Dora knows, also, that however this change in Rick has come about, it is a chance, one that might not come again, if, say, other things were in place. A uterus feels like a missed opportunity. She loses all hesitancy and says yes. She says thank you.
On Friday, Dora tells William her news over lunch. She is eating a salad again because she cannot bear to find something new on the menu, to step out even with a changed dressing. She has other things to worry about, other, greater things to risk. Williams gets a hamburger, well done, and begins to gush.
"Thrilled! I'm thrilled. Bravo. Really, Dora, it'll be great." He lifts a fork to his mouth, french fries stuck to the tines, misshaped, the corners of his mouth rising in real congratulations.
"I have to do something new, you know. I have to really prove myself.” Dora emphasizes prove and thinks how funny it sounds, how truthful. Like a math theorem, like a case gone to trial, she lays out the evidence of her own capabilities. She speaks in a low voice: “You know I'm not going to get another chance."
William keeps things light. He doesn’t bring up the uterus at all during lunch. She doesn't know if this is his attempt to make her feel better, specifically focusing on the good, or whether it is a thing that has already slipped his mind—old trouble, old news. Together they brainstorm ideas for the window. They discuss catchy themes: Ties that Bind, Family Ties, Whatever Suits You. William suggests a window with ties hanging, winged, in the air. “Ties fly when you’re having fun!” he says, loud and laughing. They order a big piece of chocolate cake for dessert to share, but Dora eats it all, the frosting getting stuck in her front teeth.
Dora plans the window out on paper, first. She draws up the outlay, carefully selects the mannequins’ outfits, their positionings, the special Christmas touch. She has told Rick that she doesn’t need any help, that she will do all the work herself, to make sure it gets done perfectly. He is a little annoyed with her, his sympathy for her situation fading, his guilt for poor behavior, nearly gone. Rick has told Roy that he will not be doing the men’s displays for this most important shopping season and Roy is upset; he is furious and lets it show. He says they will all be sorry.
When Dora finally does get to work on the project, it is a slow day in the store.
She convinces Rick to give her the entire shift for window work. It isn’t a difficult thing to ask—he wants her out of the way, out of his way, despite her contribution to the daily sale goals. She has talked to the Clinique girls about lending her their sample make-up to color in the mannequin faces. These women are happy to help and Dora thanks them. She thinks they might know about her situation, about the hole inside, the filled space. She is vulnerable to them now in a new way, but forgives them their careful concern, is even grateful for their soft faces against the perfect angles of the rows of suits. She doesn’t want what they have, but she does want that confidence. The ability to walk around with big mascaraed eyes and ask for what you want.
The painted faces are her slant, a way to leave her own mark on the big display. She gives the mannequins solemn, simple, real faces, making their eyebrows and mustaches thick, their mouths short, straight lines. When she is done applying the make-up over their beige faces, they look clownish, almost, not like Dora had envisioned, but she figures they will look good from a distance, they will look fun and original.
She dresses the tallest mannequin in a dark, pin-striped suit and a red paisley tie, and he looks nearly perfect, like a man to take to a company Christmas party. She attaches his cardboard arms to his plastic body with precision, and re-ties the paisley tie again and again.
When the mannequins are all dressed, Dora crawls into the window space, awkwardly carrying a mannequin abdomen and mannequin stand. The window has been nearly cleared of the last display. A few of the standard props remain, a thin framed chair, a basket, a tall, broken lamp. She takes a deep breath as she sets down the mannequin, smelling the musty smell that Roy carries on him after an afternoon in the same space. She loves that smell, has envied Roy’s closeness to the artsy aroma of that tiny, glass-framed room.
When she is finally fully inside, when she means to really get down to work, she notices something unexpected near the front of the window. It is an unfamiliar object, pink. Dora is annoyed and moves over to handle the distraction efficiently. As she bends down, she notices its sliminess, its intentions. A uterus feels like a wheel, with spikes. Suddenly, she cannot breathe. She cannot move at all. A uterus feels like clasped hands, too tight. She kneels and stares. A uterus feels like the opposite of a secret, like the wrong question. The tall mannequin looks at her, his funny, scary face refusing to blink. Dora looks out the window, notices the shoppers engrossed in their own tasks, swinging shopping bags, making conversation. She sits down in the window, looks hard at it there, exposed, soft, noticing its gelled shape, its specific, yet dissolving edges. She listens to its silence until that silence becomes loud and the quiet mannequins with their fake, shut mouths become quieter. She listens until all the Gabardine and Marino wool soak up the sounds and men of the store, their false insistence that what counts is in the soft lining, the possibility of the thing. Dora picks up her uterus and gently takes it off display. She tucks it under her arm and rises, full and doubtless. It is the one.
Dora leaves the window space, the new opportunity. She walks past the department counter, past Rick, past the rows of neatly folded and military stacked sweaters. Before leaving, she reaches out her right hand, stiff, and runs it across the tie table, messing up the display just enough, so that no one else will notice, and then walks away for good.
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