E
Oct/Nov 2014 Fiction

American Leather

by Raul Palma

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff


I.

At Salvatore's, spring arrives on January 15th. Collette, our visual designer, flies in from Milan to reset our collection. Orange-glazed porcelain vases, set with violet and pearl hyacinths, displace wreaths and acorns. The display wall, a partition of restored French oak, blossoms with new calfskin handbags—powder yellow, Egyptian blue, Lolita pink. Each bag is accessorized: a pleated silk scarf tied around a handle, black bachelite sunglasses tucked into a pocket. Passersby ducking their heads from snow showers often revel at our store windows, but they seldom step in. Even a Salvatore's leather key chain can set a layperson back a month's rent.

The replacement, a 20-something-year-old kid recruited from The Gap, follows Donald along the display wall. He's being trained, but it's clear the kid's no Earnest; he's cute, for starters, clientless, unshaven, wearing dark-framed glasses and a linen suit, looking like he rolled out of a trendy fashion magazine, not a boutique. His youth is probably why he was hired in the first place, to make Salvatore's appeal to an emerging audience: college kids and teens, penniless play plays, notorious for wasting our ups. Maybe he'd be better off working on 5th Avenue, selling to 20-year-old execs. He should be playing beer pong, waking up next to strange women, getting by in his classes, not slopping leather alongside little old me. I could be his mother, his silver-haired cougar; I could sour his taste for prudish tarts.

Look at him caressing those handbags, squeezing them like they're breasts. How generously he handles the satchels, slings, wristlets. How respectful he is with the totes, hobos. I'll bet he's the kind of kid who doesn't rush to take off a women's bra. Take it easy there, boy. He could tease a girl, let her get all worked up, his fingernails drawing circles along her skin. After undoing the clasp, he'd slip her arm through, one strap at a time, the warmth of his lips against her neck and ear, the coarseness of his chest brushing up against the tips of her nipples. I could watch him descend into my bust this way, feel his tongue explore the scars and creases tucked below my aesthetic alterations.

I'll have to show him that they're handbags, not purses. A Salvatore's bag ages gracefully, its leather forming natural stains and creases through the years. Our European artisans acquire the best skins from privileged calves. These calves never know fences; they have names; they graze freely, receive daily massages, drink watered down wine.

Truth is, the problem with American leather is that we rely too much on barbed wire fencing, which leaves its mark. Salvatore's would never truly use American cattle for product. In America, cattle are injected with hormones, herded in closed quarters, fattened with chemically engineered feed. When cattle are slaughtered, they are blindfolded and led into gas chambers. Carbon dioxide acts like an anesthetic, minimizing stress. Cattle are placed on a conveyer belt, blindly led through a processing plant where a technician uses a stun gun—a pneumatic penetrating rod—to pierce the cortex, making the cattle mostly brain dead. Still breathing, cattle are piled on top of each other for processing. Their brain stems remain active, which allows their hearts to continue pumping.

We were always pumped when Earnest was around. Though I find the replacement cute, Earnest was cuter, flamboyant at times, always ready to shake his firm tush to whichever song played over the sound system. God bless his queer little soul.

 

Manny and Earnest were casual lovers, often dedicating Tuesday afternoons to furniture shopping and champagne by Manny's fireplace. Earnest might have been my lover, too, if he were into that kind of thing. We'd kissed about a dozen times, but it was only because we'd been drinking. The first time I kissed him, he was so tickled by my inappropriate advance, he grabbed my breasts and declared, "Honey, you trying to make me straight? What is that your wearing? Cocoa-kiss chap stick? Give me some more."

Often, Earnest and I would hang out at Manny's condo—a 1920s vintage high rise overlooking Belmont Harbor. Wednesday nights, after work, we'd dim the lights, snack on pistachios and prunes, watch films— classics by Kubrick, Hitchcock, Coppola, Tornatore, and Almadóvar. We'd unwind, rewind, fast forward, and occasionally pause if we felt like it. Earnest would lay his head on a pillow on my lap and rest his bare feet on Manny's lap. How easy it was for the three of us to drink and smoke and become passive observers.

At Salvatore's, observing is built into the job description. Inside, instrumental Bee Gees might play "Stayin' Alive," while on the other side of that windowpane, on-screen drama flourishes. One spring, police canvassed the avenue, handing out missing children flyers. Months later, an older gentleman was run down by a taxicab. There was that block of ice that fell off the Tiffany's building, crushing a pair of identical twins—boys. Then even further along, gay rights protestors marched down the avenue. Mounted police officers kept the peace, trampling innocent bystanders. Then the traditions—men and women dressed in their best Irish, drunkenly marching towards the green river—and the once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, like Obama's motorcade leaving Grant Park after his 2008 victory, and like when a giant, 40,000 pound replica of Marilyn Monroe was dismantled in 2012, hoisted onto the bed of a few trucks, and driven off a section at a time. Too often, a man down on his luck sits against our windows when he begs. Passersby stand over him, ignoring his signage, admiring the exuberance of Salvatore's display windows, wishing they could reach through the glass and take a piece of our leather.

And although Salvatore's may be a beacon of fashion and wealth, it is not immune to this drama. While carrying six shoe boxes up the stairs, Earnest's heart stopped. He was at the bottom of the staircase when I found him, covered in women's shoes. Paramedics tried to resuscitate him; they placed him on a stretcher, rolled him onto the sales floor, and cut his clothing off. I'd never seen how smooth and unblemished Earnest's chest was; he was practically hairless. Beneath his handsome complexion and designer drab, he was all baby. Even his breasts seemed smooth as calfskin.

Paramedics asked us to stand back. Passersby stopped at our windows and observed, watching them prepare the defibrillator, clear, and administer the first shock. Afterwards paramedics formed a line and took turns performing CPR—25 minutes worth. I watched Earnest's chest bruise and redden too, while consoling Manny. It was unreal and haunting; I'll never forget that one customer, wrapped in her black chinchilla fur coat, still shopping even while paramedics followed the defibrillator's directions, counting off chest compressions and breaths.

At the funeral Donald, Manny, and I dressed in Salvatore's very best. I can only speak for myself, but looking at Earnest on that day, all made-up and glamorous and also dressed in his best, reminded me of that time in the year when we'd pack up the old season and ship it off to the outlet stores. I stood over Earnest, admiring his still pronounced jaw line, and applied my Cocoa-Kiss chap stick over his thin cracked lips for the last time: "Goodbye, my friend."

 

Earnest was literally the (EA) in (TEAM), the buffer that made it possible for me, (T) Tess, to withstand (M) moody Manny. All together we were a fantastic team, top in the company, just as clever and corny as the acronym. We'd worked with each other for 20 years, so the replacement shouldn't expect this kind of camaraderie to come naturally. We're older, and Earnest's death weighs heavily on us. The replacement needs to be patient, especially with Manny, who is particularly offended by the hasty hiring.

The replacement shouldn't be threatened by our chiding. At Salvatore's, sometimes the only way to stay sane is to poke fun at customers (the customers hardly notice). Earnest used to gather us by the storefront window so we'd knock passersby—senile ladies with dogs in strollers and that kind of crazy. For years, passing judgment was simply a form of play, a secret communion we participated in, protected by the large storefront windows.

Now that Earnest is gone, we really don't play games anymore. Everything has become deathly serious. Corporate's goals are more aggressive, less realistic. Manny and I wait for our ups or argue over Earnest's clientele. Now, we have to keep records, stay within the top 50% of the company's sales average, justify our salaries. Nowadays, we don't talk about it, but we're both afraid of losing our jobs.

If the replacement wants to keep the peace, he should learn and honor the up system and stick to it. He will already make us uncomfortable; he is young, energetic, while we are old and tired. When we walk up and down the stairs to retrieve product from storage, the replacement will pass us, two steps at a time, and he should avoid doing this.

The up system is simple. The first person to arrive in the morning gets the first customer, the first up. We then alternate ups based on arrival. Ups can be wasted. A person asking for directions is a wasted up. A customer returning product is a wasted up. A visit from a girlfriend is a wasted up. The replacement should keep his eye on Manny, who likes to take other people's ups when they're not paying attention.

During down time Manny likes to lean against the leather good's case, reading and rereading House and Garden magazine. I like to organize and reorganize the women's ready-to-wear display, my pumps ready at my side. The replacement will need to find his place in the store, too.

Occasionally, one of Earnest's old clients visits, unaware. At Salvatore's, HR doesn't allow us to tell customers where he's gone, even though he's dead, so one of us will hand the client a little prayer card with Earnest's name on it. In time, I will show the replacement where the cards are.

 

Donald takes the replacement over to the shoe lounge—a series of ivory-colored shelves, teaming with display shoes: ballet flats, mules, stilettos, kitten heels, wedges. Most of the shoes are constructed from a single piece of leather, dyed in our season's signature colors, but there are also the exotics: python, pony, crocodile.

Even if Donald spent a week teaching the replacement the history of Salvatore's shoe line—the difference between suede and nubuck, the proper way to treat leather, or the various methods of coordinating shoes with an outfit—this would not prepare the replacement for the way in which women shop for shoes. These are seldom practical purchases.

More often than not, a woman is empowered by her footwear. She might not even wear the shoes she buys. Just as Dorothy's ruby red slippers whisked her home, and just as Cinderella's glass slippers paved the way for a happily ever after ending, the clack clack of suede purple heels can give a woman the confidence she needs to win a job interview. Yellow ballet flats can influence a woman's lifestyle, inspire her to purchase a vintage bicycle, dump that old boyfriend, get an abortion. A woman, timid in the sack, can become a raging nymphet in chocolate knee-high leather boots. So when a woman is surveying Salvatore's shoe lounge, it is important the replacement understand she is likely considering the various ways in which she will reinvent herself. That's why I take my shoes off whenever I can. The replacement will need to watch where he walks, so he doesn't crush my little toes.

 

When the replacement steps away for a moment, I approach Donald. He's pulling some handbags and pairing them with display shoes when I ask, "You plan on introducing us to him?"

Donald doesn't look at me.

"Hey, Donald. If you want me to help out. Mentor the replacement or something. Just let me know."

Donald smiles. "Tess, thank you. I appreciate it—you know that, but don't take this the wrong way. I'll handle the training. Here. Hold this." He hands me four display shoes, and he walks away. I follow him to the women's ready-to-wear line where he stands the shoes up on the couch, places the leather bomber jacket against the couch's back, and drapes the pants over the jacket. "What do you think?" he asks. "Tess? Focus for a moment."

"This," I say. "Is this what you're teaching him? I wouldn't wear it."

"Ok," Donald says, smiling. "Great. Thanks."

 

II.

In the afternoon, Donald calls an impromptu store meeting so he may formally introduce the replacement. The replacement doesn't wait to be introduced; he's shifting his weight from one leg to the next, moving about to the sound of the in-store soundtrack. He extends his hand to Manny and then to me. His hands smell like incense, and he says things with his eyes: "Pleasure to meet you. Lovely necklace. Nice rack," but he really doesn't say anything.

We give him our names, but he doesn't share his. "You know," Manny says, "usually when people introduce themselves, they also share their names. It's kind of the purpose of an introduction. So you want to try this again?"

The replacement forms a C with his hand, presses it to his eye, and then slowly moves it up and towards the ceiling. He repeats the signal, smiles.

"Kid. What's wrong with you?" Manny asks.

"Play along," Donald says.

The replacement draws an imaginary circle in the air with his finger. He brings his hands together, as in a prayer, and proceeds to separate his palms while keeping his fingertips touching. Soon, even his fingertips pull apart, and his hands break their connection. I picture them drifting this way, never touching.

"Are you talking about...?" I say.

The replacement snaps his fingers, points at me and winks; his excitement is infectious, which makes me laugh. He performs the sign again, hands like a prayer drifting apart. Then he touches my arm, inviting me to guess again.

Manny turns his back to the kid. "Boss, what are you trying to do to us?"

"I think I see what he's saying," I say.

"Yeah. Me, too. He's a mute kid from The Gap."

"Manny. Don't call him that. How would you like it if he called you a fag?" I asked.

"Let's avoid name calling, please," Donald says, fixing his lapels.

"So tell me, then. What's he trying to say?" Manny asks.

"'Sun.' Like the sunrise, the way it radiates. His name's Sun," I say.

The replacement smiles, shakes my hand again, and brings it to his lips.

Manny swings the magazine into his palm. "Explain me this, Boss. How's Sunny supposed to sell if he can't talk? I mean, we sell, so we have to talk, right?"

Sun responds by touching his ear and bringing his hand forward while rubbing his fingers together. Manny avoids eye contact with him, so Sun stands in front of Manny and performs the gesture again, following Manny's eyes.

"No offense, Sunny. I was asking my boss." Turning to Donald, Manny says, "So in addition to selling, we'll be playing charades?"

"He's trying to tell you," Donald says. "Good sales people are good listeners. Good sales people make more money."

"So now you're training us, too. I thought he was the new guy."

Sun cleans his eyeglasses with his dress shirt and walks away. As Donald and Manny bicker, Sun returns to the handbag wall, poking around, caressing the women's display shoes. He's holding the Middleton, a women's woven leather sandal, and reading it as if it were a book or magazine. I wonder what he's getting from it. How I wish I could look at something as simple as a sandal and still be fascinated by it.

 

When the store opens on Saturday morning, Sun claims the scarf display case by the front door. He's equipped with an iPad, which makes my pink pocket notebook seem pubescent. Manny is reading and rereading the same old Home and Garden magazine. I'm barefoot at the back of the store, checking inventory on the women's ready-to-wear. Donald's in the basement writing reports and watching us on the monitors.

It's a freakishly warm winter day—upper forties. Through the wrap-around windows, we can see that snow has become slush. Orange cones warn pedestrians of falling ice. Though the streets are filled, it is likely we will have few walk-ins. Holiday sales quenched shoppers. January is generally a time to regret debt.

At ten a.m., a woman walks into the store, our first walk-in. Though its warm out and warmer inside, she's still wearing a shearling coat and rubber soled boots—a good practice when dealing with Chicago winters.

"It's your up," Manny says. "Looks like a crazy."

He's right. She has the look: CVS bag filled with meds, sloppily applied lipstick, and clunky men's boots. Even when she walks by Sun, she completely ignores him.

I approach her. "Welcome to Salvatore's," I say, eyes smiling.

"Yes. Yes. I'm not going to buy anything. I'm just looking," she says, walking past me and into the women's shoe lounge. "So darn bright out there. I just want to look."

Manny sings, "I'm just looking. Just looking. Not buying. Just looking."

The woman enters the shoe salon and kicks off her left boot.

"Would you like some champagne or Pellegrino?" I ask.

Ignoring me, she grabs display shoes, favoring dark, closed toed kitten heels over flats or higher heels. When she's found one that interests her, she drops it on the floor. She smooths the folds of her nude-colored nylons and pokes her foot into the sole. "Oh lordy lordy," she says. "Feel that insole." She models the shoe in a ceiling-high mirror, the variation in height between her boot and the display shoe makes her balance staggered. "Lucky me," she says. "My left foot is always the display size." After a few poses, she tosses her handbag and shearling on the sofa.

"Do you need help?" I ask.

"Lady, do I look like I'm crazy?"

"You look very glamorous today."

Underneath that coat the woman's wearing jeans and a black glittery t-shirt, tucked in, emblazoned with the head of a horse, hair flowing in the wind. The price tag is dangling beneath her hair. "The problem with Salvatore's," she says. "It's that you people don't fit shoes right."

"The Catalina seems to fit you just fine," I say.

"Yes, Honey. Of course it does. On my left foot it does. My left foot's normal. If you would look at my right foot... There's no Salvatore's shoe that could ever fit my right foot." Using the Catalina as leverage, the woman kicks off her boot. It scuffs the base of the sofa. "Do you see the problem, now?" She asks. "Looks like a bunion, right? Nope. It was my Papa's horse, Chap Stick, stepped on my foot when I was just a little girl, ruined me. I was seeing horse shoes for weeks."

"That's terrible," I say.

The woman grabs my wrist. "Never. Never. Never. In all my life. Have I walked into a store. And purchased a pair of shoes. All because of that damned horse. You know how I get my shoes?" she asks, kicking off the Catalina, using my wrist to balance herself, and trying on a black patent pump, "I have to buy them in outdoorsman shops. Men's shoes. They're the only shoes wide enough. Isn't that just a bunch of cheese fluff?"

"I'll bet you're not very fond of that horse," I say, squirming out of her grip.

"Chap Stick?" she asks. She lets me go.

Manny is smiling, just about to start laughing. He's hiding his face in the magazine. Sun listens intently. The woman grabs four different shoe models, some from our new spring collection, and drops them on the floor. After slipping her foot into each of them, she kicks them over to the couch and sits.

"Did you want to try the right shoe? Maybe you get lucky?"

"It wasn't Chap Stick's fault," she says. "That's what you asked me right? I just wanted to play with him. Papa had told me to stay away, but he was such a pretty horse, so black. They made everything but chap stick out of him."

Sun approaches me, shows me his iPad. He has an app open that looks like a loose sheet of paper. On it, he's written "Sun Glasses!" in thick letters. He points at the black bachelite glasses tucked into the Lolita Pink handbag. "A moment, Sunny. How about the shoes, Ma'am?"

"I have a belt made of him, you know? Isn't that just the neatest thing you've ever heard?" she asks.

"Ma'am, did you want to try any of these on?"

The woman rubs her nose clean. "Didn't you hear me? They're not going to fit," she says. "Gee whiz! You sales people."

I walk away. Watching this woman sit, her deformed foot surrounded by so many dainty shoes, makes me wonder what inspires her to get out of bed each day, let alone walk into a shoe store. I picture her sliding that frayed old horse belt around her waist each day, too attached to the thing to ever buy another one. She seems like the kind of woman who has pictures of horses hanging on all her walls, maybe even one of those cloth toilet covers in some horse theme. I wish she'd hop on some imaginary horse, ride out of the store, and burn up in the sunset.

"High ho silver," Manny says, his mouth concealed by the magazine.

"Cut that out," I say. "She'll complain."

Manny holds the magazine over his mouth and mimics a horse's neigh. I shove him. "Don't look now," Manny says, "but it seems like she'll be here for a while. The replacement's getting ready to break her in."

"What's he doing?" I ask.

"Bringing her a bucket of apples and carrots," Manny says.

We laugh hysterically, which overpowers the store's soundtrack. Sun ignores us, sits beside the woman and organizes the display shoes. I shoot him a look, enunciating "Stop it." He shakes his head, returning to his work with her.

"This kid is making you waste your time," Manny says. "You're going to have to tell him something; he needs to learn the way things are done in this business."

"How about I just make it his up," I say. "Teach him a lesson."

"You should do that," Manny says. "Show him how valuable our time is."

But there is no lesson to teach Sun here. As we continue to observe, we see that the woman isn't bothered by Sun. In fact, she's calm and silent and watching Sun arrange the display shoes on the sofa cushion beside her. Without saying a word, Sun hands her the black sunglasses on his open palm—the ones he'd asked me to fetch her. They look like a little black spider all folded up. In her nude-colored nylons, she walks to the ceiling-high mirror and tries them on. "Isn't that something?"

"Yeah," Manny whispers. "Now send her back to the stables."

"Really," I say. "Keep it down. She'll complain."

"And so she'll complain," Manny says. "What difference will it make?"

"Maybe our job," I say.

"Shut up."

The woman turns towards us. She says, "What do you think?"

We nod in approval, holding back our laughter (what else are we going to tell her?). The customer turns to Sun, glasses hanging off her nose, and tells him, "You're so thoughtful and cute. I'll take them."

For a moment, I wonder whether Sun is going to steal my commission, but he doesn't. Instead, he invites me over and allows me to complete the transaction: $1,175. "She wants to wear them out," he writes on his iPad.

"What a sweet boy you have working here. How long has he been here?" She asks, as I hand her the receipt.

"Brand-new," I say.

"Not much of a talker," she says.

"Nope. He doesn't talk at all, actually."

"He's what Salvatore's needs. You should tell him I said that. He could be my grandson, you know? That's what Salvatore's needs. Grandsons working here. Tell him that."

"I will."

"Tell Salvatore, too. Maybe Salvatore's doesn't have a problem like people are saying, not with fresh young people like him. So nice, so thoughtful, so quiet. Maybe this store won't turn into an Argo Tea after all."

 

Manny's up.

By noon, the Saturday street drummers arrive—a gang of four shirtless kids with skeleton tattoos on their backs (I wonder how they manage not to freeze to death). Sun stands by the window, his palm against the glass; he is mesmerized by the performance. Two drummers sit against the store's embankment, surrounded by upside plastic buckets and iron-clad ovenware. The other kids dance, swing cartwheels, somersaults. Occasionally, the performers break-dance on the salted sidewalk, or freestyle, or invite passersby to partake and tip.

Manny hates street performers: "They better not come in here and waste our ups," he says. It used to be that these street artists would take refuge from the elements by entering Salvatore's. Shirtless school boys would drag slushy buckets and drum gear into the store. They could get away with warming themselves up for 3-5 minutes, before the police would arrive and kick them out; I mean, we certainly weren't going to kick them out ourselves. But this practice ended; police actually started arresting them.

Though Salvatore's windows are plenty thick, the sound of their drumming penetrates the sales floor. I think it gives the store's soundtrack an added flair, but Manny disagrees. He says, "There's nothing charming about the street." Obviously, Manny is bitter. Even if there were nothing charming about the street, there is certainly something to be said about Chicago's Magnificent Mile—the very nature of the avenue, lined by storefronts, perfectly manicured gardens, and sky scrapers, informs the notion of the great American city. Even in the winter, when we're walking down Michigan Avenue, passing Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building—a lone saxophone warming the night—we are amidst the great engines of the last century. It's hard to associate such a marvel with killings and gang violence, but Chicago is violent. It is a segregated city, always has been.

 

The second walk-in of the day is a youngish-looking black guy, looking like he could be the street performer's manager. He's a preppy thug, wearing a black leather hat backwards, which shows off a red and green Gucci logo, and he's sporting a knee-length coat with Burberry's signature pattern.

Manny approaches the guy but doesn't greet him (this is Manny's style: he finds it offensive when he's greeted in a store, so he returns the favor). The guy lingers around the Men's Small Leather Good's case, eyeing some of our wallets, then backs away from the display case and browses through his smart phone. "Pretty dope," he says, to no one in particular. A duffel bag catches his eye. "How much?" he asks, indifferently motioning towards the bag with his head.

"Depends on the size. Six to ten-thousand dollars," Manny says, bringing down a full-grain brown leather duffel bag. Manny unzips the bag, removes its stuffing and show's off its crimson interior.

"It's sweet, swag. Pretty nice stuff for a store I've never heard of."

"Stuff? Well, we've been here for over 60 years."

"Is that right?"

"We're only the premier leather goods seller in the world. I mean, Ferrari commissions our artisans for the leather detailing in their cabins. American presidents walk around in our shoes."

"That's really dope," the guy says.

"It's more than dope," Manny says.

"Hold that duffel for me. I'll keep it in mind."

"Sure you will."

"Excuse me."

"I'm sure you will."

"Oh, I will. Hold it for Plush" he says, all matter-of-fact, like he's made of gold. Then he turns, full swagger on, shuffling out of the store to the sound of the drums outside. On his way out, he throws Sun the sideways peace sign. Sun returns the gesture. Manny stuffs the duffel, zips it back up, and sets it back on the display wall. I come up beside him.

"You're not going to put it on hold?" I ask.

"For that clown?" Manny asks.

"Maybe he's got money," I say.

"When guys named Plush start buying our premium product, I'll happily resign."

 

Chicago's winters bring about an early night. By five p.m., the temperature has dropped into the teens—a thirty degree difference from earlier in the day—and the slush on the sidewalk has frozen. The white Christmas lights on the Mile's bare trees come on, swaying back and forth in the evening's gusts. Slowly the foot traffic thins, and the homeless, preparing for another freezing night, set up their down sleeping bags on the side streets against the stores. An hour from closing, I'm not surprised that no one else has walked in. Business can be dreadful this time of the year. Understandably, customers would rather be sitting by their fire places or snow birding in Florida, not braving the Mile's chill.

It's Sun's up, has been for a while.

In his boredom, he's succumbed to sorting and organizing the woman's silk squares. He's making a real mess, taking the silk squares by their ends and tossing them open on the glass display. Each square depicts a safari animal: a silver cheetah on a cold blue backdrop, a yellow elephant against a pink safariscape. This is not the bread and butter of our business—merely $410 per square—but in temperate weather women do love tying these around their necks. It makes them look real sophisticated, real European. Some women go for that bohemian look, wearing the squares out like a bandana, and then there are those real fashionable types, the kind who go braless, using two or three squares and tying them together to wear as a halter top—a look I could never master. I'd like to tell Sun to quit making a mess, we'll be cleaning up soon.

"Are we just supposed to ignore him the whole time?" I ask.

"Ignore who? What?" Manny asks.

"Nothing," I say. I'm sitting on the couch in the women's shoe lounge. It's tiring to stand all day. Manny's going through his client book, likely trying to figure out how he will drum up business next week. Plush walks back into the store, too cold to swag. In fact, he's practically shivering, stomping and rubbing his gloves together.

"You gonna take this one," I say. "You were working with him earlier."

Manny closes his client book, rolls his eyes. "I'd rather be home. Give it to the replacement," he says and walks off the floor.

Sun greets Plush with a sideways peace sign.

"Yo," Plush says. "How is it? Let me see that set again?"

Sun nods his head, smiles. He sets his iPad down and retrieves the entire luggage set from the storage room. In addition to the luggage, Sun provides Plush with a glass of champagne and invites him to sit with a hand gesture.

"Wining and dining me," Plush says. "I just came to gander."

Sun shrugs. As he removes the luggage set from its packing, Plush drinks champagne and browses through the men's shoe wall. "Tell me, what else should I know about Salvatore's before I spend my fortune here?" he asks.

Sun stops unpacking the luggage set for a moment, takes his iPad, writes something and shows it to Plush. "You can't talk." Plush says. "What kind of bogus sales rep are you?"

Sun makes some signs with his hands.

"I don't have time for this," Plush says, and he looks at me. "Lady, can you speak? Can't you help me out?"

Sun shakes his head and hands the iPad to Plush. He's uploaded a documentary produced by BBC, recounting the life of Salvatore. The documentary eases Plush's original dissatisfaction. "I can respect this," Plush says. "Just the facts. Maybe it's a good thing you can't talk. I always says that, yo. Some people probably shouldn't be saying nothing in the first place."

This seems to entertain Plush until the iPad runs out of battery. With no scraps of paper to write on, Sun runs off to the cashier room. He emerges with a stack of Earnest's prayer cards.

"Sun," I say. "What do you think you're doing?" I ask in passing.

"So what was that last bit about Salvatore's custom shoe program? How much will that set me back?" Plush asks.

On a prayer card Sun had obtained, he takes a black permanent marker, strikes out the memorial we'd written for Earnest, and writes, "$4,200." Then he hands it to Plush, who responds: "Jesus Christ, kid. Your leather is rich."

 

At closing time, I take the remainder of the prayer cards and hide them in my locker. Sun pours Plush another glass of champagne. Manny and I are sitting around waiting for Sun to finish up with Plush, until Donald finally decides to check our bags by the back door and excuses us early. It's cold and snowing outside, so Manny and I huddle together under a warm bus stop.

"This kid isn't going to last a week," I say, slapping the cold out of my legs. "You should have seen him, Manny. His iPad ran out of battery during the sale. And that thug, he was getting all worked up because Sun couldn't speak to him. You know the way our customers are. They're never going to buy this mute thing."

"He wasn't so bad," Manny says. "I mean he didn't say anything, but he wasn't so bad. He wasn't great, either. But he wasn't annoying."

"He took one of Earnest's prayer cards, you know?"

"How so?"

"He took it, and scratched out the memorial. He used it like scrap paper."

"Asshole," Manny says. "Who does something like that?"

"The replacement," I say. "Do you think we're going to get replaced, too?"

Manny chuckles. "I'd like to see corporate try."

"All I'm saying is that if they try, I'm leaving. I won't be fired."

"Tess. We've been there for 20 years."

"I hate this feeling, Manny. I feel so unwanted."

"Come on. Who could they replace us with? A blind monkey and a deaf monkey?"

"Shut up," I say, shoving Manny.

"See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil."

"Sounds like a recipe for sell no leather," I say.

"Look at you, Tess. Being funny. I'm curious. What do you think of the replacement?"

"He's a bit standoffish."

"So you're not going to try and screw him then?"

I punch Manny. He chuckles and hugs me.

"Tess, I can hardly feel my nose." Manny hails a cab. "You should do the same. Want to share a ride?" he asks.

"No."

Manny holds the door open for me. "Come on, Tess. Don't be hard headed."

"I'll be fine."

"All right then. Get home. It's no night to be out."

"Ok."

"And one more thing, Tess. I love you."

 

When I'm finally alone at the bus stop, I can hear the snow falling. Michigan Avenue is quiet, except for an occasional taxi or the steps of a passerby. It's been some time since I've seen the store all illuminated from the outside. I'd forgotten how platinum it looks from the street. The aluminum window frames reflect the iridescence of the indoor lights, making the windows shimmer.

Sun runs around the store; his shadow falls onto the avenue, extending halfway across the street. I see Donald sitting next to Plush, animated in conversation. Things seem to be going well for them, and yet something about looking in from the outside makes me feel unwelcome and numb all over, like I'm not wearing a coat or a suit or anything at all.

 

III.

On Sunday morning, Donald's in his office talking on the phone. The music is still playing, and it's evident the lights were left on. In the spot where Plush sat, a champagne bottle lays oozing into the couch. Some more of Earnest's prayer cards lay folded and scattered about, used and wasted like scraps of paper. Beside the cards, there are Salvatore's dress shirts, pants, jackets, plastic sleeves ripped open, the ready-to-wear folded in a pile beside the hangers. There's that luggage piece that Plush was looking at, but there's also the entire set. And I can see through the opening in the upright set that it's filled with Salvatore's Men's shoe boxes. Ties hang from the display cases. Belts lie in a jumble, tangled on the women's shoe lounge area rug. A mannequin from the window has been disfigured; his upper body is lying flat on the Small Leather Good's display, while the lower portion of his body is standing beside the sunglasses case. I'm about to start picking this up when the phone rings. It's Donald. "Don't touch the merchandise," he says.

"What happened here last night?"

"We sold a whole lot of leather."

"Well, I hope you don't expect me to pick this up by myself," I say.

"No. No, Tess. Sun will be in earlier than scheduled. He will pick it up."

"So he'll be working through my shift."

"You'll share the floor," Donald says. "The more people on the floor, the better."

"Not better for my commissions," I say.

"Well, it's better for the store," Donald says and hangs up.

 

I find Donald in his office. He's in a navy suit, legs crossed, talking on the phone. In front of him are the security monitors. He lifts his finger at me when I step in. When he's done talking, he turns to me, smiles, and says, "You look lovely today. How can I help you, Tess?"

"You going to replace us?" I ask.

"What?"

"Me and Manny. Are you going to replace us?"

Donald sits back, plays with his cuffs. "Why would you say that? Here. Sit," he says, kicking out a chair for me, but I don't sit. I lean against the wall, fold my arms. "I don't know why you would say that," Donald says. "Who told you that?"

"Who told me?"

"Yeah. Who told you?"

I back off the wall and head to the break room.

Donald follows me. "What happened?"

"You just said it. 'Who' told me. 'Who."'

Sun walks in, fresh, sporting new glasses. He waves "hello." I turn my back to him, facing my open locker. There are things I will need to take, so I unload my locker, letting all the things I've hoarded through the years pour into my handbag. There are pens and awards I've won—certificates, pins. Taped to the inside of my locker are photos—the original team. We were so young, then. I have old sets of clothing, old shoes, things I must have forgotten to change into after work. Within minutes, my locker is an empty shell.

Sun touches my shoulder. He sincerely looks concerned for me, but I walk out of the break room. Upstairs there are a few more things I keep by the register: my pink measuring tape and matching pink notepad. There's my silver shoehorn, which I won for leading the company in women's shoe sales, and there's a small stuffed bunny Earnest gave me, which I keep behind my register—the bunny was an inside joke about my sex life, but in the last few months, it had been a source of companionship.

I should call Manny, I realize. He'd walk me off the ledge, but it would only be prolonging the inevitable. I'm at the back door, holding it halfway open when Donald comes running up behind me. Now he's muted by the situation, a look of guilt and embarrassment on his face. I look at him, and then I look at Michigan Avenue sprawling out before me, stores stacked on top of stores. I wonder, how will I get by? The chill wind is channeling past me and into the store, making my eyes water. With a heavy Salvatore's bag over my shoulder, I walk out onto that street, into the crowd.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece