by Marilyn Abildskov
I am the one who unlocks the door, who opens the register, who dusts the counter of this small shop, who writes on the chalkboard sign outside. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Welcome! I am the one who draws tulips and daisies in yellow and red. I am the one who welcomes women in.
What propels? Not depression. Anxiety. Not buying. Browsing. Not the drab cubicles of H&M. The Chalk Garden welcomes customers to browse the racks of extravagant clothes, clothes that fill a need.
Did you see this? I ask, urging them to try this, try that, to rest now a moment on our velvet settee. We offer here what downtown malls selling cliché and gimcrack cannot.
On my headstone it will say she saved lives. No lie. Not a sales clerk but an instrument of good. I know how to work. How to study this jawline (she is knee-deep in lorazepam) or that face (a lawless beauty: lamotrigine). I know the metric of desire.
I do not pretend. I cannot banish all trouble. Still. Material goods appreciate. A scarf made of cashmere. A dress made of silk. Necklaces boasting long tassels. A yellow zircon ring.
Hyacinth, I say, slipping it on, admiring its fit.
We live in a city misunderstood. Ours is a punch line, a joke, a place full of polygamous whispers and conservative blondes. But that’s not all. Our city is not only its temple. Its people are not only made of one faith. We are not only a circus of churches and ice cream. Believers here come in every flavor and stripe.
I am not stupid. Neither am I made of calico. I do not spend days watching sheep. And if I did? What of it? Still, I would understand. Retail is the study of human desire. Bags wait. Accounts wait. Shoulders wait. Waists wait. We all wait for something. We all wear sacred underwear.
My ladies-in-waiting come to be filled, then emptied, and then caressed. This is how they begin again. I know them. I know what matters. The shape of a leg matters. This length of a skirt. Material matters. Names matter. Not cotton but flax. Not lies but compliments. What I perform is a service, not insincere. This one, her forearms. That one, her back. Even a patella can be perfect, depending on the light. One has a neck so smooth she cannot cover it up.
Here, leave the scarf open, I tell her. Show it off!
I hold out a necklace, an offering made of colored rhinestones. I let my fingers brush—lightly—a sliver of pale skin. The gesture matters. The language matters. There are certain things few women can resist. Sea silk. Sinew. Mohair. Jute. I see these women for what they are. Not who but what. A quarry. A pit from which one must extract. Extraction itself. Don’t you see? A single perfect stone. Sales, yes, but also something else.
Where else can the lost go but this shop, this garden made of chalk? As if someone else would do what I do? Erase what pains these women who labor in the city of salt? Take scissors to cut rope? Hold this one’s slender hand as she teeters down the slope? A death wish is a death wish, no matter how understated, true? Its whisper can be audible. Materials are material.
Crepe de chine.
I look like a whale, one of them says. I listen. I do not argue or agree or contradict. I do not focus on the tag, the size two, size four, size eight. Immaterial. Instead I focus–and focus her–on something else: saturated color. Heed the lesson. We are all relative to our own bright mistakes. Blinded. We buy for the sister, the mother, the best friend, the aunt. Later we say, not for her, for me instead. It’s a matter of distance. Keeping your distance.
You can measure the distance from here to the temple where women, by law, must only wear white. You can take a yardstick and touch the women who pray every night. These women have meek husbands and shop at Jo Ann’s. They make pillows from crooked ruffles, happiness out of patterned lives. They stay busy. Their clothes reflect that: the fullness, the busyness, the wordiness of the God to whom they wordily pray.
My women are different. A different breed shops here. They look different from the women you might expect. If the others are made of flesh and cold blood, these women remain brittle. Fierce.
True, the matrons must have their secrets. Those dowdy women who pray for the dead? If they spilled their secrets, their throats would be slit. Still, my women keep secrets too. I know them just as I know my city. I know their laws. Some have left their homegrown religion, changed beliefs as if changing a dress. Some want to wear other colors. Black, for instance, instead of white. Eggplant. Indigo. Forest green. That’s when they come to me. And underneath their dress? They are not religious but wear garments too. They pray for another drink, another glass, for the husband to stay late at the office again tonight. They do not dress in cotton sheaths. They do not believe in family home evenings or home-cooked meals. They court something other than ice cream. Elegance. And yet. They are grotesque too, they are ridiculous too, they are whales too, just whales with tiny waists. So perhaps we are not so different, after all, these two kinds of women in this city of mine.
This is what I think as I clock out for lunch, as I serve the sacrament of the day, as I hang clothes on a rack, as I dust the light fixture and pray to the holy above. Perhaps we all want to dress for dinner at night. We who live in a desert must be ready to go out to sea. Ours was an ocean once. Ours is a nature not to sink. How do I know? I have lived many lives. I was once a girl dressed in white. My father baptized me, held me under water. I closed my eyes. Now I am opened wide.
Once, I saw him, my husband, framed by a window late at night. He kissed a man, then turned away. This is how I dress the weary every day. Clothes will raise us, redeem us, deliver us.
After locking the store and erasing bright tulips, after driving home and slipping into a darkened room, I undress in silence, draping myself onto a straightened bed.
When we die? I dream we will be magnificently dressed.
Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country. Her short stories and essays have appeared recently in Sewanee Review, Southern Review, Story, Crazyhorse, and Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Image source: Egor Myznik/Unsplash