GIOVANNA'S 86 CIRCLES
Short Stories by Paola Corso
(University of Wisconsin Press, 2005, 2007)
Topaz, the thrift store clerk with the stickpin hair and rhinestone smile, shoos me into a dressing room as though she were swishing a fly out the window. With enough bracelets on her wrist to rival the rings of Saturn, she waves at me, pulls the curtain shut, and hands me the very same old clothing of my mother's that I donated to Yesterday's News weeks after she died.
I side zipper, suck stomach, top snap, suck stomach, double buckle, suck stomach, and back button my way in. The fit is unreal. It's as if the fat on my body is half-chilled Jell-O taking shape in a new mold. Even my reflection in the mirror is fooled.
"How’s it going in there?" Topaz calls out from the counter where she lifts a pile of green-tag specials as abruptly as the wind scoops up a bed of leaves. She stuffs the ball of clothing in a buggy to be retagged and circles back to the dressing room.
"Are you a different woman or what, Denise?" she chirps, her bracelets jingling as she puts her hands on her hips.
Up to that moment I had no idea. Before I stepped into this makeshift dressing room, I didn’t even know who my mother was. Her life—outside of being my mother—was a mystery to me the same way mine, as a thirty-seven-year-old married woman who chose a career over children, was to her. I wanted to ask her before she died but couldn't. Maybe because I was afraid she wouldn't answer, or even worse, wouldn't give me the answer I was looking for. Then she suffered a stroke and never spoke again. I kept my finger on her lips as if it would help her form the words, somehow enable me to read them.
After my mother's funeral, my father, sister, and I cleaned out her belongings. I wanted to keep everything in the family because I knew how my mother labored over shopping. She couldn't just pick something out and toss it in her buggy. She had to inspect it first—seams, hem, buttonholes, zippers. She did this with all her clothes often finding imperfections even after they were purchased and brought home. In fact, the running joke was to ask her what she took back that day rather than what she bought. It was my mother's way of being able to participate in the ritual of shopping without having to spend money we didn't have.
Since my father didn't have a great deal of room, he didn’t keep many of my mother's belongings. Neither did my sister, who lived in a trailer. Ever since I can remember, my mother pushed both of us to start filling a hope chest. I could never convince her that there'd be nobody for me to pass it on to. I kept only a few of my mother's things; what everyone else in the family didn't want, I decided to donate.
So I drove up to a big thrift store bin in the South Side to drop off a half dozen bags of my mother's old clothing, but I couldn't bring myself to treat them as garbage.
I suddenly got this urge to hand them to somebody. I parked the car, and once in the store placed the bags on the glass counter in the front, and rang the bell for help. The smell of cedar drifted through the air. Wrinkles on the garments seemed to disappear. Creases vanished. Clothes on racks rose up from their flattened state as if an invisible body were inside each one. Every top, bottom, overcoat, and under- garment floated on its hanger, defying gravity. Yet they all were evenly spaced, lined up like singers in a choir.
A sales clerk with a name tag that read "TOPAZ" appeared. (She later told me she was named after her mother's favorite Avon cream sachet.) Clearly, she was a company woman who dressed in company clothes, a walking testament to Yesterday's News: lemon boots and trumpet skirt; a red polka-dotted, ruffled blouse; and a crushed velvet, floppy hat. I wondered if she was an illusionist, and clothes were the handkerchiefs she pulled out of her sleeve. The hat made her look taller. Gloves turned her skin into a soft, powdery shade. Ruffles along her neck were cascading waterfalls where she was bone dry.
"I'd like to make a donation."
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