I could tell you I have been busy. I have been. I can tell you I am sometimes overwhelmed by stories, that I don't always feel up to the challenge of honoring the real people I meet; that sometimes it's easier to write fiction; that often the people I meet contain, carry, stories so large that the very idea of trying to capture them in a blog entry seems paltry, even mad: like throwing a dart at a tidal wave.
Two things happened yesterday. I met a woman in a furniture store. And I read a poem by Minnie Bruce Pratt.
Klausen's Furniture in Greensboro, North Carolina, is closing its doors. "Lost Our Lease!" the brassy banners read in the windows. My husband and I are still trying to furnish our new home, so when we see the italics, Total Liquidation, Everything Must Go, we pull in, park the car, nudged like flies toward meat.
"Lost Our Lease" is, in North Carolina, a euphemism for We can no longer hang on and compete with cheap goods from other countries. Deserted furniture stores litter the landscape. Dying ones put on a bright face. To walk into a dying one is like picking your way through a tree farm after Christmas. You try to pay attention to what's still standing, but all you can see are the holes.
No sooner have we come through the door into the half-empty showroom than we are approached by an elderly saleswoman. She reminds me instantly of my grandmother: short, stout, close-cropped gray hair, bright eyes behind no-nonsense glasses, right hand leaning on a polished black cane. The hand itself is encased in a fingerless black leather glove, I guess to protect it from chafing. But it makes her look like a fighter, or a biker.
"Can I help you with anything?" she smiles and comes toward us, not slowly. She keeps ahead of the other sales people, who are half-lounging, as though they've given up.
"We're just going to wander through."
"Well I'm Nikki. Let me know if you see anything."
We walk quickly past the naked mattress and the sausage-link couches nobody, including us, seems to want. We make a circle through the store; and at the end of it there is Nikki again. I look at a pile of bright throw pillows, marked down fifty percent and more. My husband stands close by. He doesn't care about pillows. He turns to her.
"Nikki, is the store maybe moving somewhere else?"
"No. They're just completely going out of business."
"I'm sorry. Have you been working here a long time?"
"I'm--did--did you say four weeks?"
"Yes," she nods.
Pressed to my stomach I have two turquoise pillows originally marked at twenty dollars a piece. In a few minutes Klausen's will sell them to me for ten.
"Let me write that up for you and get you a bag," Nikki says, and balances her cane on a sofa table so she can take the pillows away from me.
My husband's eyes follow her limp. When she returns, he asks:
"Nikki, did you know the store was going out of business when you took this job?"
"Oh, sure. I had no choice, though. I'm sixty-three, and I can't afford to retire. And it's not easy, these days." Nikki doesn't say this in a complaining way. More as if she is genuinely amazed. She looks at my husband as if for a question somebody ought to ask. Then: "Because, if you're old, they don't want you, and if you're a woman, it doesn't help. And then they see this cane, and even though I get around just as quick as anybody, it doesn't help when they see it. Well. Here you go, dear." She smiles professionally and hands me a brown bag, too big for the small pillows inside.
They don't have the right size, I think stupidly. They're just using whatever's left.
"I'm sorry, Nikki," my husband says. "It's hard."
"You bet." She sighs. "I just start, and it's over. I was just getting to know people, and know what to do, know the place, and then . . . Those are really nice pillows," she turns to me, remembering, professional again. She has learned. She wants me to see it. "I hope you get lots of enjoyment out of them."
We go home. The pillows look wrong, as bright things against dark often do.
by Minnie Bruce Pratt
Leaving again. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be
grieving. The particulars of place lodged in me,
like this room I lived in for eleven days,
how I learned the way the sun laid its palm
over the side window in the morning, heavy
light, how I’ll never be held in that hand again.
From Pratt's new collection of poems, Inside the Money Machine.
Nikki estimates she has three weeks of work left.
Photo: Detail from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, DC.