The girl and Marjorie have gone to the shopping mall, hoping to buy the girl’s mother a gift. It has been a long day, and the girl and Marjorie are in a tiff. They couldn’t find nice shoes in the shoe stores—everything was patent leather, wedge-heeled, ticky-tack. They couldn’t agree on a scarf or a lipstick shade, tending toward different colors and styles. The girl likes everything diaphanous and bright, whereas Marjorie is looking for something just a little practical, for a woman, after all, who has to wait outside every afternoon for the bus.
Now it is getting close to closing and the girl is tired in her knees and her spine. She tells Marjorie her ankles are getting swollen and Marjorie snaps at her to sit down then. Just wait on the bench, and she will find the one object they can come to terms on: a charm for the mother’s charm bracelet. Both disapprove of the bracelet itself, where it comes from, but they know the gift will please her.
In her early life, the mother was a beauty. She got married just out of high school, choosing a husband a few years older than herself—one who’d already been on his church mission. She had her pick of men to fall in love with, and that was an important criterion. If she missed a few others, well, never mind. It was of great concern to girls she knew, their beaus leaving to travel the world while they sat at home, writing letters. They were like fishwives, all of them, doomed to it. So the girl’s mother had sniffed.
Her husband did his mission work in Istanbul, walking or biking around the city wearing a crisp white shirt. Temples, though not his temples, loomed above him. Bells rang, and voices called the world to prayer, but not his prayer. He showed her pictures. In them, he looked very young, and very happy. After a year of marriage, he melted back into those images, this time for reasons of his own. Proving that there are no safe choices, not in marriage, not in the world.
After a year of marriage, he melted back into those images, this time for reasons of his own. Proving that there are no safe choices, not in marriage, not in the world.
The girl has never yet seen those fabled pictures of her father—the disappearing man, the vanisher—though she has seen the charm bracelet from him that her mother still wears everywhere. We’ve already looked in the jewelry store, the girl tells Marjorie. She’s sitting on a bench that wraps octagonally around a planter, in the middle of the mall’s throughway. The bench is made of slats, and bits of the girl’s legs keep getting stuck between them.
I’m just going to pop downstairs and check the bargain area, says Marjorie.
But it’s her birthday.
Just sit. Marjorie screws her lips up to the side, making herself look somehow garnished. Her mouth a vegetable sliced up like a flower. You never know, she says, what you’ll fnd down there.
This late in the day, Marjorie is the only one going to the basement, and so she seems to be the engine driving the escalator down, sinking the steps with her bulk. Who knows what she will do there, how long she will dawdle? The girl can only guess, inventing interactions between Marjorie and exhausted merchants: Marjorie tossing out uninvited banter and standing in the middle of a walkway to consider a spritz of discount perfume. Marjorie peering one-eyed through a glass paperweight, as though, on the other side, another world would reveal itself.
She won’t find anything, the girl knows. By now, half the bargain counters will have been locked up and prematurely abandoned. Perhaps, by the time Marjorie gives up her quest, the escalators will even have been disabled, forcing her to trudge, step-heavy, up the immobile staircase. The girl smiles; she thinks it’s funny: Marjorie tricking herself into getting some exercise.
Families hurry around her, mothers checking their children’s arms for the requisite number of packages. A threesome of teenage girls scurry by, their hands held up over the mouths, eyes alight. The girl is about to abandon her post to take a closer look at a store window—she’s drawn by its display of slender dummies, draped with summer whites and seersucker. But then she hears it: