A Fancy Department Store in Cleveland, 1970 ~ essay by Cinthia Ritchie

We knew we didn’t belong, my sisters and me. We knew by the way the saleslady tightened her mouth, the edges of her lipstick pulling so hard the corners cracked.

“Girls,” she clapped, and we huddled together by the winter sweaters, our worn sneakers sinking the carpet.

“I haven’t all day,” she snapped, and we followed her black-clad back, all four of us in our country shorts and homemade blouses, our mosquito-bitten legs struggling to keep up.

“Here we go.” She threw out her arms, smiled a frozen smile as she gestured around the girl’s department. We didn’t move as she brought over skirts and dresses and held them away from us, exclaiming in an uninterested voice how this color would fade my little sister’s freckles, that one mute the tint of my sun-frizzed hair. My older sister, who would grow up to be a beauty before falling suddenly, startling from grace, was completely ignored as was my second oldest sister, who stood chubby and sullen by a rack of red jumper sets. Somewhere behind us hovered our aunt who, having no children of her own, had yet to realize her error in bringing us here.

We didn’t resist as we were herded into a large dressing room with ribboned hats across the wall. We kicked off our clothes and pulled on skirts and the kind of frilly, lacy dresses we secretly coveted yet outwardly scorned. We knew exactly what would happen if we showed up at school wearing such clothes, how everyone would gang up on us at recess and throw pebbles and dirt until we punched out our fists and smacked back with a welcomed, frenzied joy.

We tried, we really did. Yet the stifling air, the rich wallpaper, the singsong music was too much. I don’t remember who first crumbled a dress and threw it on the floor. But we all understood the gesture. We jumped up and pulled the rest of the dresses from their hangers, throwing them madly, exuberantly, around the room. Then we got down on our hands and knees, our faded underpants rolled up at the waist because the elastic was loose and we had to make do until the next sale, and “walked” our empty shoes across those pastel necklines and ruffled skirts. We were pounding my sister’s sneakers into a particularly offensive pink dress when the saleslady walked in. We saw her shoes first, those polished pumps with the cruel toes, and we watched, fascinated, as they stamped once, twice before a voice finally surfaced.

“Out!” she screamed. “You dirty, filthy things. Out!”

I don’t know where my aunt had been during all this, I only know she reappeared looking apologetic and exhausted soon after the door opened and we stumbled, half-dressed, out of the fitting room. My youngest sister, unable to find her socks and panicked at the idea of leaving them behind, cried as we were led, by that nostril-flaring saleslady, back through the handbags and nightgowns, the boots and scarves and coats, until finally being released by the elevators.

We stood and stared at our miserable reflections in the mirrored doors, our faces heated, our shorts wrinkled, our blouses grubby and badly buttoned. We didn’t say a word. When the elevator opened, we didn’t get on. We stood there, kicking the toes of our sneakers against the carpet.

“Bitch,” my oldest sister whispered loudly, and we looked at each other, shocked and horrified. And then we laughed. We laughed so hard we had to lean into each other. We sat down on the floor, all of those well-groomed people stepping around us as they got on and off the elevators, and we laughed until we had to hold our bellies, until we choked and gagged and tears flew down our faces.

When our aunt set down her shopping bags and squatted on the floor beside us, we laughed even harder.

We almost screamed.

Cinthia Ritchie is an Alaska writer, ultra-runner and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Find her work at New York Times Magazine, Evening Street Review, Sport Literate, Rattle, Best American Sports Writing, Mary, Into the Void, Clementine Unbound, Deaf Poets Society, The Hunger, Forgotten Women anthology, Nasty Women anthology, Gyroscope Review, Bosque Literary Journal and others. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, was published by Hachette Book Group.

Show Cinthia some love via PayPal at cinthiaritchie(at)aol(dot)com.

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