Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Krimm's Triptych 

 

author's note: I have changed the names of people in this essay as well as the names of the department store where I worked.


Dar
 

I was sixteen and Dar must have been around sixty when we worked together in the basement of Krimm’s Department Store. Krimm’s was among those stores struggling to remain open in the downtown of a city whose steel mills still loomed large against the west at dusk. But by 1975, the year I began working with Dar, the mills were closing and there was over twenty percent unemployment in our town. I was lucky to get this part-time job – my first. Dar  (short for Darlene) had been working in the store’s linen department for over thirty years. Three decades of faithful employment had earned her charge of shower curtains and bathroom accessories.

I was shy around the sales ladies, concerned about getting every detail correct.  Days after I started, I forgot to get a woman’s signature for her return of a small purchase. Two quilted place mats, I think.  Dar pounced on my mistake while separating piles of credit receipts from personal checks at closing.  She stuck her Maybelline-powdered face one inch from mine and hissed that I had made a serious error.  Serious

“The New York office is going to be very upset if they find out about this.  See the address on this return slip?  Lady, don’t even think about coming to work tomorrow unless you find that house and get a signature.”

Fortunately, the customer lived on Marren Street, not far from my home. She was very kind to the terrified teenager who knocked on her door that evening, ready to burst into tears.

Dar enjoyed instilling terror. She liked to regard herself as a tough old broad, a dame who’d been around the block a few times. Diamond Dar, that’s what her friends called her when she was young, she told me later, after she’d warmed up to me a bit. And her eyes, which were the light blue of a Siamese cat’s, did indeed look hard as diamonds. Dar went to the beauty shop once a week to get her hair spun into cotton candy, and she kept that hair dyed antique gold. Her nails were long and painted bright coral. Her lipstick was bright too, and she took care with scarves and earrings. She had probably been remarkably pretty when she was younger.

Even after she began to be nicer to me, Dar’s meanness could not be denied. There was a woman who used to drift down to the basement from time to time, wandering ghost-like from fabrics to draperies to bedspreads.

She was always elegantly dressed, with a sleek silver wig and so much pancake makeup her face was immobile. I felt sorry for her; she would never look any of us in the eye. The story was that she had been quite lovely once, but that something terrible had happened to her face. Dar always snorted at the sight of her, nudging whoever was standing by the register. “There goes Miss America,” she’d say in a stage whisper, “ain’t she a beauty!”
 

Dar despised weakness of any kind but she had two fears that I knew of.  One was that the Social Security Administration would run out of money before she retired.  The other was that she would end up at Sunny Gables Nursing Home.  There were two nursing homes in Bridgeport.  Maple Terrace was for people with money.  Sunny Gables wasn’t.  Dar knew someone who died at Sunny Gables.  She said it was no place to die.

I continued to work at Krimm’s throughout my two years at the local junior college.  By the time I left, the Old Guard considered me nearly one of them.  I came back just once, the summer after I graduated, to say hello to the ladies I’d worked with for three years.  I was touched at how glad they were to see me, especially Dar.  In the middle of laughter and chatter, she told me her friend had passed away.  “I’m all alone now, Frances,” she said.  (Dar had never called me Francine; I think she disapproved of the name.)

 

At first, I thought: friend, what friend?  Who’s she talking about?  Then I remembered.  Dar had a male companion she used to play Canasta with.  They’d go out dancing sometimes.  About him, she was always mysterious.  When I told her how sorry I was, Dar nodded.  She hadn’t spoken to get sympathy.  It was just a hard fact.

Krimm’s closed its doors for good the following fall.  I don’t know what happened to Dody and Arlene and Amber, the linen ladies who knew about sewing notions and dust ruffles.  I don’t know what happened to Dar.  She looked smaller somehow that last time I saw her.  And her eyes, I remember, did not look like diamonds at all.  They just looked old.

 Rennie

A new interior always seems larger than it is.  As you familiarize yourself with the space, it shrinks.  Experiences are like that.  My first job at a department store seems like a small entry way now, but it was brand new and big to me at the time.  I learned how to work a monster cash register and assist customers without stammering and blushing.  I was peers with women three and four times my age.  I listened to unguarded talk about husbands and children when business was slow and we gathered around the register.

Edie Kowolski, who ordered kitchenware and talked like Edith on the popular TV show, All in the Family, liked telling stories.  I remember one about a festival she attended when she was growing up in our town’s Polish neighborhood on the East Side.  “The prettiest girl was crowned the Queen of the Festival.  They dressed her up like an angel – halo, wings, the works.  Then they put a harness on her and hoisted her above everybody, so’s to make her fly across the crowd.  Was she a beauty!  But they forgot what that does to your bladder, bein’ up there dangling from a crane, for cryin’ out loud.  The poor girl couldn’t help peeing.  I can still see the way her tinkle parted the crowd – men running, kids running!”  Big boned and genial, Edie threw back her head and laughed twice as loud as the rest of us. 

Krimm’s taught me grown women could share such moments of camaraderie and also feel the same hurt and anger as girls my age.  Amber and Dody, who had worked together in draperies, had a terrible fight in front of customers.  This was before my time; I heard about it from others.  From what I gathered, years of mild-mannered Amber overlooking crisp orders and tart asides from Dody collapsed into one spectacular meltdown.  Mr. Munson, the spindly department manager who cringed from drama of any kind, endured tears and wild threats that day.  He moved Amber from draperies to linens and put Arlene back in draperies to work with Dody, a seventy-year-old fireplug of a woman who wore homemade dresses and cut shades on an ancient machine I was afraid someone would suggest I learn how to use.

Any of the women I worked with (except possibly Dody) could have run the department more efficiently than Mr. Munson, but that would never have happened in Bridgeport in the 1970s.  Men managed department stores.  None of the basement ladies were surprised when Gene, a twenty-five-year-old who spent long minutes in the bathroom styling his hair, was hired as assistant manager to help run the floor.  They might have been resentful they were not even considered for the job, but they weren’t surprised. 

Every July, Krimm’s held a sidewalk sale.  Card tables full of merchandise were hauled outside along with cash registers.  Part-timers got to wear jeans and T-shirts with “Krimm’s” scrolled in elegant script across the chest.  Sales were plenty, so managers had to come around to collect cash from registers.  When the men’s clothing manager came to our table, it was so crowded he had to stand right next to me and slip his arm around my waist to open the drawer.  He was a big man, and handsome, with daughters my age.  A shock of sexual energy rippled through me.  He didn’t have to stand this close, didn’t have to lean his body against mine.  I knew he sensed the ripple that went through me, and I knew he felt one, too.  Tasting the power a girl my age possessed over a man in his forties both elated and shamed me.

I didn’t talk about this with anyone, certainly not with my friend Jerry Ann who flirted outrageously with all of the managers, even graying Mr. Munson.  Jerry Anne pretended to be mad when she told me her boyfriend called her a cockteaser but I could tell she was proud of his accusation.

Everyone, it seemed, lied when it came to sex.  Maybe that was why I was skeptical when Rennie told me what happened to her the previous summer.  Rennie was a year younger than me and pretty, but not terribly pretty.  She had short bleached blond hair and glasses and was one of the half dozen or so part-time girls I worked with in the basement during the three years I was at Krimm’s.

Rennie had a reputation at our high school.  She was the kind of girl who went to parties where jocks did things with girls like her that they didn’t do with their girlfriends.  Boys wrote dirty stuff about her on lockers.  This was enough to allow me to regard her with a bit of good-girl superiority.  I must have been deft at not letting it show or Rennie would never have confided in me that slow Sunday afternoon when only the two of us were at the register.

“You used to be a cheerleader, right?”

“Yeah, a long time ago.  When I was a freshman.”

“But you were on the squad with Kimmi Prebble, right?”

“Yeah.”  And what a bitch she was, I wanted to add.

“Did you know her older brother?”

She was talking about Dan Prebble.  Dan was a senior when I was a freshman.  He was popular – and cute.  He used to tease me when he saw me in the hall.  “Lookin’ good today, cheerleader.  C’mon over here, I’ve got a secret to tell you.”  I always turned red when Dan said things like that, but I couldn’t help liking it.  Unlike his sister, he seemed genuinely nice.

“Not really.  A little.  Why?”

“He and three other boys raped me at a party last summer.  Dannie did it first, then the others.  They got me drunk and they raped me.”

We looked at each other in silence.  I don’t believe you.  How can you be telling the truth when you’re so calm about it?  And why tell me?  What can I do?

“That’s horrible, Rennie.  Did you tell the police?”

“No, what’s the point.  They’d never believe me.  Dannie and his friends knew it.  They knew they wouldn’t pay for what they did.”

“Well, did you at least tell your parents?”

“Are you kidding?  They’d kill me.”

“Well, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry this happened to you!”  Even I could hear the skepticism in my voice.

I’ll never know if what Rennie described really happened.  To admit its possibility would have shifted my view of the world and what teenage boys were capable of.  I had my safe secret crushes on various high school bad boys, but I never asked myself what exactly attracted me to them, why nice wasn’t crush-worthy.  I, too, lied about sex.

I wonder what it was like for Rennie to receive polite condolences after telling a co-worker that she was gang-raped.  I didn’t hug her or hold her hand.  After staying with her at the register for a little while, I probably just walked away.


 

Arlene

Arlene Ostrem worked in draperies but knew the linen department as well.  It’s easy to picture Arlene.  She’s wearing a light peach polyester pantsuit that is kind to her short, wide figure, and her white bun is wound with an old-fashioned braid.  Arlene’s voice shook with earnestness as she promised a customer that a standard-size pillowcase would fit a queen-size pillow.  Her hands shook, too.  She had the beginnings of Parkinson’s, but I was too stupid to realize this until Jerry Ann lit up a cigarette as she was driving me home one evening.

“I don’t care if that woman does have Parkinson’s, she’s effin’ irritating.”  Jerry Ann exhaled a cloud of Salem menthol and began to imitate Arlene’s panicky queries.  “‘Who folded the washcloths into quarters?  Mr. Munson wanted them folded in halves!  Mr. Munson specifically said halves!’”

I snickered along with her, although I knew Jerry Ann would pretend real concern over those washcloths tomorrow.  She flirted and flounced with the full-time ladies we worked with and never smoked in the break room.  She thought this would blow her cover as an adorable, clean-cut teen. 

I’m not so sure that’s how the basement ladies of Krimm’s Department Store regarded Jerry Ann.  Those women were smart.  And as I began to get to know them better, I was impressed with what little fuss they dealt with tragedies I couldn’t imagine facing.  Easygoing Lou, who worked in fabrics, had a grown son who was paralyzed.  Amber, soft-spoken and frail, was a cancer survivor.  Arlene had nearly died from an infection after giving birth to her second son.  “My breasts were so swollen and hard, I screamed to the nurses, cut ‘em off, cut ‘em off!”  Arlene turned to me after saying this one afternoon, still distraught over a story she had probably told many times.  “Little girl,” she said, her head bobbing furiously, “you don’t know what pain is.” 

I didn’t.  Still, Jerry Ann was right.  Arlene could be irritating.  If Amber bought sweet corn at Jewel Grocery and it turned out to be mealy, Arlene was sure to tell us in her breathless voice about the sweet corn she bought.  “Got me some ears last weekend at a stand off of County Farm Road.   We had’em with sweet butter and a little salt.”  Arlene would gasp here, overcome with memories of the corn.  “Delicious!  I mean melt in your mouth delicious!  Too bad about the Jewel, Amber, because I never had better!” 

Arlene and her husband no longer spoke to each other.  I forget how I learned this, but it was common knowledge among the linen ladies.  Mr. Ostrem still picked his wife up from work every night.  “He’s going to be late tonight,” Arlene might remark towards closing.  “He had to take in the car for a tune-up today.”  She never called her husband by his name.

I thought about their car ride home sometimes.  I imagined Mr. Ostrem staring straight ahead, stone-faced, as his wife settled into the front seat making the little grunts and wheezes old people did.  Knowing Arlene, she probably forgot the rule and started talking about the silk sheets Mr. Munson had foolishly ordered (“Silk sheets!  In this town!”) or the split pea soup she had for lunch at the Tom Thumb Restaurant.  Then, she’d remember.  She’d stop in mid-sentence and turn towards the window, her small lips pursed tight.

What a way to live, I thought, self-righteous as only a seventeen-year-old can be.  I don’t remember ever feeling concern for Arlene.  She had Parkinson’s, after all, and was only going to get worse.  I didn’t worry whether Mr. Ostrem would help her when she could no longer boil sweet corn or button her own blouse.

I think about this now that I'm past fifty and know better than when I was a teen how deeply the remnants of love can burrow under bitterness and hurt.  I see Arlene and her husband growing older, still going about daily tasks in a spotless house – for some reason, I am sure it was spotless – speaking only when absolutely necessary.  I see Mr. Ostrem taking Arlene, who never learned how to drive, to the doctor.  Did he go in with his wife, or did he wait outside in the car, reading a newspaper?  And when she finally came out, could he tell when it was a particularly difficult visit?  Did he cover her twitching hand with his, in spite of the mountain of pain that stood between them, or did he simply start the engine, an aging man sitting next to an aging woman, neither one looking at the other.

 

 

Francine Marie Tolf is the author of Rain, Lilies, Luck, her first full-length collection of poetry, and Joliet Girl, a memoir, both from North Star Press of St. Cloud (2010).  Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Water-Stone, Rattle, Spoon River, Poetry East, Under the Sun and Southern Humanities ReviewProdigal, her second full length collection of  poems, was published by Pinyon Publishing in 2012.