Doreen felt a bit sheepish about being in the discount fashion store the Saturday after Thanksgiving. After all, she’d clucked in disapproval and shook her head, watching on CNN as mobs of shoppers were shown trampling each other, trying to get in the doors of Walmart (and Best Buy, and Victoria’s Secret) on Black Friday. “What’s this country coming to?” she’d complained, out loud – and then realized how old she sounded.
But the weather was suddenly cold, as often happened in November, and although she didn’t have much holiday shopping to do, she did need new gloves. So Saturday morning she headed out to one of the many strip malls that sprawled the length of the main road, growing along the edge of her neighborhood like a kind of mold. The parking lot was crowded; and she drove around a while beneath the lightposts decorated with tinsel candy canes before someone pulled out right in front of her and she got their spot. Inside, the store was busy, although nothing like the images on TV from the day before. She threaded her way around the other shoppers, one of whom was talking loudly into a cell phone while standing in the aisle.
The gloves were near the back of the store and, she was surprised to find, not too badly disarranged. She picked morosely through them, jostled a few times by women pushing carts bearing piles of clothes and the occasional toddler. The leather gloves seemed pricey, but the cheaper models would be hard to drive in: no grips. She deliberated – was it worthwhile to purchase before Christmas, or should she wear her ratty old gloves until the post-holiday sales? Meanwhile the loudspeakers blared Christmas music, some tenor belting his way through “O Holy Night.” She loved most Christmas music – but personally she couldn’t care less if she ever heard O Holy Night again. Especially played over a public address system.
After a detour to a display of bomber hats with fake fur trim, a few of which she tried on, she decided to go. It seemed she lacked the conviction needed to buy anything. Despite the store’s advertising – their slogan was something along the lines of “more for less!” delivered by various svelte young women with toothy white smiles – she wasn’t convinced that anything they had to offer was going to make her instantly more attractive, not to mention happier. She started for the front of the store, feeling like she should have anticipated the pointlessness of the excursion and stayed home.
About halfway to the front doors, she was waylaid by some nice-looking black turtlenecks hanging on a rack. She stopped, just out of curiosity, to see if her size was there, and just then a small girl walked by, wailing. Clearly lost, Doreen thought – the girl’s face was streaked with tears, and her crying had the breathless quality of panic. The girl’s head came not much higher than the elbows on the turtlenecks – of course she could not see beyond the racks of clothes that hemmed them in like the walls of a labyrinth. As Doreen watched, the girl looked up and down the narrow aisles, plugged with women engrossed in sifting through the hanging clothes. They seemed not to notice the distraught girl.
Doreen approached her. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked.
The girl nodded, and her brown ponytail bobbed. She stammered as she tried to catch her breath. “M-m-m-m-y Aunt Liddy,” she said. “She was right here…” Her dark eyes did not make contact with Doreen, but instead she turned a half-circle, still looking for her aunt. She started to wail again – a low sound that seemed both despondent and tired, like she’d been at it for a while.
“Don’t worry,” Doreen said. “We can have her paged.” And then she realized the girl didn’t know what “paged” meant. “Let’s go to the counter and the women who work here can help you find your aunt,” she explained. The girl seemed doubtful, but walked with Doreen to the checkout, her head still swiveling, on the lookout for her missing aunt. Doreen noticed the girl’s boots: shiny black, with a Hello Kitty face emblazoned on the side. How old was she? Six? Maybe seven?
At the checkout counter Doreen flagged down a clerk, who promptly took the situation in hand, telling the girl to stay right there while she paged Aunt Liddy. Doreen was watching from a nearby stack of cashmere sweaters as the aunt arrived: a plump woman with a blond-streaked bob, wearing black yoga pants and a ski jacket. She seemed completely mystified by the girl’s distress. “I was right there,” Doreen heard the woman chide the girl, gently. Sure you were, Doreen thought. Sure you were.
The aunt, now holding the girl’s hand, walked towards the shoe department. Doreen felt beyond done with looking at clothes. Invigorated by the purposeful activity of getting the child reunited with her guardian, she felt released from a trance – a shopping zombie no longer. She walked to the doors – which graciously opened for her, automatically – and went out into the cold, crisp air.
In the car on the way home she didn’t feel particularly bad about leaving the store without new gloves, nor about the gloves she was still wearing, one of which had an embarrassing (and drafty) hole in the index finger. The voices of the Andrews Sisters came on the radio, singing a saucy rendition of “Jingle Bells” festooned with jazz horns and Bing Crosby’s baritone. She found herself thinking of a story her parents used to tell, about their first Christmas together; how their new puppy got into the cardboard nativity scene under the tree and chewed up baby Jesus.
The holidays, she thought, would always get chewed up – at least, a little bit. But it was ok. Even wandering around the sweater aisles, dazed and confused and on a budget, a person might still find a reason to be right where she was.