I EAT A BALONEY SANDWICH every day on my lunch break at Jo-Ann Fabrics. Yesterday, my father, who is close to enlightenment and who wanted to use my employee discount, came in looking for red fabric for a new prayer shawl. He saw mustard on the corner of my mouth and his eyes darkened, then his brows relaxed, and finally he chuckled and patted my shoulder. He’s getting closer. This morning as I packed my lunch, I told him I’d stop buying baloney, but he said it’s his struggle, not mine, and how’s he ever going to achieve detachment if he can’t deal with a freakin’ baloney sandwich. He slammed the kitchen door on his way to work at Schmidt’s Auto.
I love my job, but I may quit, as I’ve got a lot on my mind.
There are so many things here that are soft. Pillow filling, ball fringe, soft-handled scissors. Fabric’s only part of it. Twice when it was quiet, I’ve gone into the storage room, pushed a big box of chenille yarn into the corner, and crawled inside.
The second time I crawled in was yesterday, and I fell asleep. I woke at eleven at night with a sore neck, but other than that I was fine. I got out of the box and the store was like a giant aquarium, all blueish and tranquil. That was it until morning, and I thought of the other half of my sandwich, which reminded me of my father, so I gave him a call.
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I like it here. It’s quiet.” I picked up a pretend flower that was really a pen and doodled on the counter, wiped it off with spit.
“I’m calling the cops.”
“That would embarrass me.” I scooted up onto the counter. “A twenty-six-year-old woman locked in a store.” I stood. Plié. “Chant a mantra for me, Pop. Then go to bed.” I hung up the phone before he could answer.
The craft store is good for me. It keeps my hands busy. That used to be a problem, ten years ago when I was sixteen and my mother took off without telling us—we still don’t know where she is—and Dad walked into my room and caught me with my bubblegum-pink legging rolled up and a razorblade in hand.
“Amy. What the hell are you doing?” he said.
“Nothing.” I rolled my legging back down over the red lines.
That was then and this is now and therapy and time did the trick. I don’t like to dwell on it.
Half of aisle ten is nothing but foam. In the blue light, I picked up the ethereal Styrofoam heart. Foam is something I’ve never worked with. It’s scratchy and, frankly, useless. It’s a heart already. I placed it on the shelf and left the aisle of unimaginative foam and fake hearts with my hands in my smock pockets, browsing like a customer.
Aisle eight is Susan’s. Decoupage. She always says it like that—découpage, as if it’s exotic. She does that with her name too. With a black Sharpie she drew an accent mark over the a on her nametag. Carrot and mud-colored tunics stick out from her smock-sleeves, and her flowing pants catch on the metal garden frogs when she breezes by. She told me she’s been to London and has seen Buckingham Palace, but when I asked about the guards, if they’re dressed like the Nutcracker, if it’s true they don’t move an inch no matter how long you stare, she pretended she was needed at the register and fluttered away.
Behind and under the stacked decoupage—royal satin, mod podge, sparkle podge—was Susán’s special contribution: pictures from magazines—the Eiffel tower, the Twin Towers, the Taj Mahal—covering two shelves, glued with worldly shine. I pushed over a sack of instant papier-mâché and slid my hands into the cool shelf. She’s good. I have to give her credit. How could I blame her for lying about where she’s been? She lives alone, her kids are grown, and she treats herself to massages constantly, coming in from her lunch hour, rolling her loose head on her rubbed-down neck and telling me how I should stand straighter, that I’m going to bunch up my colon, that I emanate constricting energies. That says bored to me.
I slid the papier-mâché package back to its spot and peered deeper into the shelf and truth be told there was a close-up snapshot of Susán in winter garb. I’m shaking my head when I see another picture, this one taken from a distance. The same long coat and hat, but I realize she’s in what I think is Red Square because she’s standing on a brick road and there’s that church that looks like a beautiful carousel with the swirly bright domes behind her.
I straightened the decoupage, the glues and finishes. Walking away, I corrected my posture and rubbed my hard stomach.
In the refrigerator in the break room was my trusty sandwich. I couldn’t help myself—I peeked inside Doug’s lunch tote.
Doug is five years younger than me and thinks I’m “interesting.” I went on a date with him last week, but he picked me up at my house on his motorcycle, which I wasn’t expecting, so I had to change out of my above-the-knee denim skirt—beautifully embellished with floral appliqués, I might add. My father was sitting on the living-room floor meditating when the screen door slammed. He opened his eyes.
“Sorry, Dad,” I said and opened the door wide for my date.
Except for his blond mustache, Dad’s face turned as red as his shawl.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Sowicki.” Doug walked across the green carpet and put out his hand, sticking his ace-of-spades tattoo in my father’s face.
“So this must be Amy’s lucky night.” Dad uncrossed his legs and stood. They were both tall, but Doug was half his weight. Dad was mostly muscle, Doug mostly air.
“I have to change. I’ll be right back.” I could hear them talking from my bedroom and could see them through a crack in my door. Dad sat on the couch and reached for his Marlboros.
“Have a seat.”
Doug pulled a Zippo out of the inside of his leather jacket and offered my father a light, which he accepted. Doug took out his Camels and lit one.
“So. Crafts.” Dad’s arms spanned the back of the sofa.
“It helps buffer educational expenses.” Doug’s combat boot rested on his skinny knee, his loose arms spilled on the arms of the recliner. I had put on jeans, but I continued to watch.
“What’s your major?”
Dad nodded, though I knew he didn’t know what that meant.
“Your daughter fascinates me.” Doug blew smoke toward the ceiling.
Dad’s thumb beat on the sofa. “How old are you?” he said.
“I feel that age is a matter of maturity, not a number on a birth certificate.” Doug lurched forward, flicking his ashes in the conch shell on the coffee table.
“You may feel that way, but the number gets you a beer.” Dad blew smoke at Doug.
A beer. How could he? Four years of drinking both of us to hell, three years of Twelve Steps, and Buddhism for the past two. After Mom left, finding him the first time on the hallway floor was amusing, that our roles should be reversed, that he should stumble into the house loaded. But then it got serious—that I should pull his blinds in the morning and shake him awake. Often, he’d leave for work with the sweet-sour smell of stale beer stuck to him. And the crying—when would it end? He’d come home from work and peel open a beer with greasy fingertips before he even sat down. First he’d bring home a six pack, then a twelve, and when it got to a case, I couldn’t nab a beer and a cigarette to sneak outside anymore because there was no one to hide from. No one buying food and no one doing dishes. A brown ring replaced the blue toilet water and I began to understand why she left.
I spent the last two years of high school cleaning house and shopping and cooking. In the beginning, I’d vacuum the main areas of the rugs, buy cheesy mac and choco chippies. But when it’s your duty to keep someone alive, you change your habits—at least I did. I attached the hose accessory to the vacuum, removed the couch cushions, and sucked up six months of skin cells and beer caps Dad had sloughed off during his nightly bouts.
I looked through Mom’s cookbooks and was happy to serve spinach soufflé, a meal Dad cried through while I ate half the contents of the fluted white dish.
On graduation day, I demanded he stay sober and show up. So he went to bed without drinking, something he hadn’t done in two years. He did have four beers, but that was to keep him from getting the shakes, which I agreed to. I watched him that night as I dusted the lamps in the family room and paid the bills at the coffee table.
The next morning, he walked around the house with a cup of black coffee in his hand and a déjà vu expression on his showered face. He looked like he was going to cry again.
“Dad, please. Not today.” In my hand, my graduation cap shook.
“No, honey. Not today.” He started crying. “There’s going to be some changes around here.”
There were changes. He lost his job because of drinking on his lunch hour. He gave oil changes to customers who came in for brake service. One guy who came in with transmission trouble got in a fistfight with Dad, who had misplaced his battery. That was his last day at that job and the day I threw my college applications in the garbage and started looking for work.
“I fascinate him.” In the mirror, in the same bedroom I’ve had my entire life, my blond hair that hadn’t seen a full day of sun in years looked brown. No lips to speak of. A wide pale face. Uninspired, sand-washed, button-down. But there were commonalities—he paints, I paint. I do a lot more than paint—I crochet, knit, macramé, bead. I don’t scrapbook though. I tried, but I couldn’t get past 1986, when she left. Then my glue dried up and I threw it all out.
Doug paints on canvases as big as a New York façade, he says, à la graffiti—that’s his dream. Imagine, having a dream that big.
“Ready?” Horizontal lines of orange sequins circled my denim pant legs.
“Groovy.” Doug smiled and ran his palm over the dark stubble on his head while eyeing my intricate handiwork. “Amy, your father is amazing.”
“You didn’t tell me he’s a mechanic.”
“Hon, Doug wants to see my old bike. Do you mind?”
I blink again, and they walk past me into the family room and through the garage. I sort of follow them and stop in the family room. My dad comes back in, lifts his eyebrows twice and tosses his prayer shawl onto the couch.
Dinner was an hour later at Dao’s near the university. I know I don’t scream wine-and-dine, but the atmosphere could have used some nips and tucks. I mentally added borders across the drab wall and sponged Firecracker Red on the dull plaster to offset the dragon and rooster that cried out to be proper motifs.
“You’ve always lived in Buffalo?” Doug asked, hands folded on the menu, having memorized his favorite dish, F9.
“Yes.” Everything on the menu seemed to be the same, but worded differently—chicken with curry, chicken with coconut milk, chicken with coconut milk and curry. “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble deciding.”
“Whatever you pick you’ll love, trust me.” He cocked his head to see my menu, leaned in. I smelled maybe peppermint, vanilla, cinnamon, as if he had sprayed all the gelly candle fragrances in aisle seven on his neck. “Amy?”
My eyes had been closed. “I do it too, you know.”
I breathed in deep and exhaled, finding myself biting my lip and touching his jacket sleeve with my pinky.
“You’re so intense.” His voice was husky. He bent his head and took my pinky into his mouth. His scalp looked like the velvet art poster kits in aisle four.
After the waitress came and took our order, we had time to talk, a real conversation, not like at work where it’s secretive because of section 7.9 in the employee handbook, which prohibits excessive fraternizing. How ya doing when you’re arranging artificial eucalyptus sounds like I want you as he stretches his neck over a harvest cornucopia.
“Amy, Amy bo bamy.” He rapped his knuckles on the paper placemat.
I drank my Vietnamese iced coffee through a straw.
“Tell me more. What are Amy’s plans, goals, dreams?” He sat forward, arms crossed.
“Amy wants to finish this sweet and delicious beverage.” Bottom-of-the-glass sucking sounds now.
“F9 and G7 should arrive, hot and steamy.” I hammered ice with my straw.
“And then?” He reached over the table and held my plastic tumbler in place.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time. Life is so unpredictable.” I looked past his shoulder and out the window. People I never saw in my neighborhood hurried past the window, mostly students from other cities, clothes other than T-shirts and jeans. They would have places to go when they graduate.
“Unpredictable?” He laughed. “You’ve lived in the same house your entire life. You’ve worked at the same place for five years. I think it’s time to branch out.”
I tore the placemat, making small rips along the edge, creating an enviable fringe.
“Why? I’ve got everything I need.” I clasped my hands in my lap. “I’ll be store manager one day.”
“You’re different from anyone I know.” He rubbed strands of my hair between his fingers and thumb.
The bell over the door jingled. Two students came in and sat at a table on the other side of the restaurant, directly across from us, giggling. The brunette noticed Doug and her face soured.
“Well,” Doug said, back up against his chair, staring hard at me as if our locked gaze could protect him.
“Well,” I said.
“Excuse me, Amy. I’ll be right back.” He walked over and pressed one hand on their table. They spoke in low voices. Doug returned. The girls flipped their hair in many directions and left.
“Sorry about that.” He sat. “Old business.”
“It didn’t look old.”
“We had a date once. I didn’t show up. But I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.”
“A little late for that.”
“It’s you I’m interested in,” he said.
I stopped playing with my fork. “Doug, can we just enjoy this evening?”
He twisted the silver stud in his ear, then stopped and shook his head. “You’re my dream date, Amy.”
There’s a point in life when you know this is the remainder of it, that this is what it’s going to be like for the rest of your life. Maybe you’re seventy-five and near a pool in Florida. Maybe you’re thirty and both legs were blown off in the Middle East. For me, it’s twenty-six and I’m on the back of Doug’s motorcycle and we’re going sixty on some curve of some street that I never knew existed and I say, “Oh shit,” and when I can’t hear myself, I scream, “Oh, shit,” and bugs go in my throat but I yell to go faster because I never felt like this before and I know that the remainder of my life isn’t going to be soft like chenille but as weightless as Styrofoam. And as he pushes ninety, past dry brush, past wet lake, past white moon with my arms around his body, I know I’m not going to answer his calls, and I’ll stay in my section of the store and he’ll be gone to New York by summer.
Sushi. “Where does he get this stuff?” I closed the Velcro on his black lunch tote. He had eaten most. I brought the bag to my nose. His fragrance was faint, but palpable. I opened the tote back up and took out the sushi, a pink substance surrounded by shiny white rice wrapped in seaweed. I picked it up with my finger and thumb. The seaweed was soft and sticky like Elmer’s paste. It smelled beachy, but I put the whole roll in my mouth anyway.
Sorry excuse for a break room. Of all places. Table and chairs, microwave, bulletin board, fridge. They could do so much with this space—a cozy nook. Mom had cozy nooks all through the house. I stand in the shadows of her finesse. The tall plant stand in the foyer, wandering Jew cascading down the fabric-covered arms: once a StairMaster. The cloud on the mural of the guest room: thirty bags of cotton balls. It’s still there.
Funny, I rolled my eyes at her projects, asked her, why? Why bother? And I can remember her wiping around my father’s feet on the coffee table and mumbling to herself. He’d say, “Sit down for a minute, hon. It’s ten at night and you’re still at it.” But she wouldn’t. Even the day she left, there was a pot roast in the oven and a fluffy yellow cake on the counter in the shape of an S for Sowicki. A note on lilac-scented paper: I’m sorry, I can’t do it anymore. I love you both. P.S. Amy—hairspray gets out ink. Help Dad pre-treat his work shirts. Janet/Mom xo
I sat on the concrete floor and ate the rest of my baloney sandwich and drank my Dr Pepper. I squeezed the can and rubbed my thumb around the sharp opening again and again.
The store was getting colder, so I made my way to the fabric section.
“Louise is going to kill me,” I said, as I unrolled a bolt of Purple Royale quilt backing on the cutting table. I had never cut anything on that table before and a chill ran through me, hearing the zigzag scissors crunch cleanly into the flannel. Before I knew it, I was draped in kingly warmth.
Louise is also known as Fabric Tyrant, or FT when she’s around, so it felt pretty good to dawdle in her domain. She’s mean to the customers and will let a long line form instead of asking for help. She’s worked here for fifteen years and is the only barrier I see blocking my route to success. But I think I’ve got her between a rock and a bolt of muslin, so to speak—she doesn’t want to relinquish her territory: fleece, lace, gabardine, satin, cotton, denim, linen, mesh, tulle, suede, brocade, jersey, polyester, rayon, nylon, chiffon. She wants to stay here forever, cut forever, fold forever. The funny thing is, she doesn’t even sew. Maybe that’s why she says “Next” when customers tell her about their projects. It’s as if she’s blocked sewing out of her mind, as if she’s mad for not learning how. And she really should sew because she’s got to be three hundred pounds and her clothes are cheery pastel prints—not at all a reflection of who she is.
I felt a little bad about using her scissors and table, and so I tidied the area, sweeping scraps into the trash, and when I opened her drawer to put a rubber-band inside, there was a worn copy of How to Retire Rich at Forty. Inside were countless notes in the margins and a lined piece of paper I unfolded. Two columns filled the page, dollar signs and tallies of large amounts that I’ll never live to see.
I took off the wool, folded it in thirds, and set it on the discount pile.
I walked toward the front of the store and stopped at the springtime basket I myself created containing pink, blue, and yellow yarn, needles, and, if you lift the plastic grass, a calligraphic note on parchment, written with black ink and a sharp feather quill, the tip of which I cut and slit, sitting on my bed, until it was perfect:
S keins old and skeins new
P url and knit, pink yellow blue
R ows continue ‘til the end
I n the silence find your friend
N eedles click in late night hour
G auge in error, then, why bother
Outside there was a rumbling, and I tucked the note back under the grass. I recognized the heavy tick as the bike came around, but it was magnified. Two bikes.
They both pulled up, one Harley and one Suzuki, Butch and Sundance staging a heist in front of a store full of notions. At acute angles to the sidewalk, idling in black leather, smiles in the middle of their helmeted faces. Doug cut the motor, dismounted, and took off his helmet, and I have to say there is something about cute men getting off bikes that’s hard to ignore. He walked to the payphone beside the entrance. I couldn’t see him. The phone at customer service rang, and I walked around the counter and picked it up.
“Jo-Ann Fabrics, can I help you?”
“Yes. You can. I was wondering if you have any of those little fuzzy balls?”
“We have twenty-seven kinds of little fuzzy balls, sir. Can you be more specific?”
Dad wasn’t moving, just watching, very outlawish.
“I’m looking for the kind that you can glue all over five-feet six-inches of a pretty blonde.”
“Oh, and I need one pretty blonde too.”
“We have one left in stock.” I twirled the cord into a spiraled mass.
“I’ll take her.” He hung up.
On the other side of the glass, he stood with his helmet at his hip.
I walked around from the counter, crossed my arms.
“We’ve come to bust you out of there,” Dad yelled from his bike.
“I can’t go past the electric eye,” I shouted.
“I’ll get you out,” Doug hollered.
I moved a step closer, two feet from the eye. I knew a beam would hit both my legs and arms if I crossed, and I couldn’t disengage it from this side.
“How you going to do that?” I asked.
He squinted. I could tell he was stuck. I watched him a minute, shifting from foot to foot, scanning the doorframe from top to bottom while chewing his lip, his eyebrows scrunched together. There was something about his inability to figure it out combined with his wanting to that prickled a place between my ribs and surprised me so much I touched my stomach to feel the flutter. All his sureness washed away by an alarm system. And for what? For me, standing in a store, while he had the whole world ahead of him.
“Doug, tell me, what’s it like in New York City?” I gripped the hem of my smock.
“It’s everything, Amy. From what I hear.” He hung his helmet from his fingers. His voice dropped, so I walked closer. Dad cut his motor. “Look. Besides Buffalo, I’ve lived in Poughkeepsie my entire life. Two hours from Manhattan. I could have gone to school in New York.” He stared at the ground and then at me. “I’ve got to go, or I’m going to regret it.”
Dad had his eyes closed and his back straight, residual gas fumes carrying his prayers into the parking lot.
“Regrets suck,” I said. “You don’t want regrets, trust me.” I walked through the blue eye to the glass door. The alarm sounded. Turning the bolt, I pushed the door open and we ran to his bike. He pulled his extra helmet from the top case and put it on my head. I fastened the chin strap. I got on the back of Doug’s bike and put my arms around him. Dad fumbled with his helmet and we sped out of the parking-lot light, out of the Buffalo suburb, heading toward the moon, my smock ballooning on my back until I let the wind take it, and me, shouting, “But I’ve never even been to Poughkeepsie!”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.