from Hand-Wrought Americana

by Kayla Rae Whitaker Issue: Fall/Winter 2019 Special Issue on Margins

Wendy and Fran
December 26, 1979

She reminded herself, over and over: she was the assistant manager, newly minted, newly made. It was her mantra, her holy incantation. Wendy Patterson, Assistant Manager. She was the Assistant Manager, and without her, Baker-Taylor’s #2 would fall utterly apart.       

Obstacle number one: the day began with her trying to scratch up an ad-hoc sitter for her four-year-old, Holly, who’d come down with chicken pox on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Worth from across the street had been scheduled to do it, but an asthma attack had sent her to the emergency room. Wendy was reduced to crossing the lawn and asking her friend and landlord, Larry, a 6’6 bartender who moonlit as Sharona Lake at Johnny Angel’s downtown, to please, please sit with Holly, please?
       
It was only when Walter, Larry’s partner, peered from around the doorjamb in his standard knitted vest to make a sympathetic hum that Larry relented: “But I’m coming over there, she ain’t steppin one poxy toe in here.”      

“I love you,” Wendy said.
       
“I know,” he replied, and strode across the yard, holding aloft an economy-sized bottle of calamine lotion.

On her way out the door, Wendy knocked over a stack of mail; overdue credit card
notice, car payment notice, that big, unspeakable hospital bill from over the summer. Restack, restack. Into the world, keys in hand. 
       
Obstacle number two: she ran into the store three minutes late to find their stalwart GM, Pat Walden, out sick, again. Pat Walden was a curmudgeon with unspeakable politics and a penchant for throwing a drunk on major holidays, but he’d been unusually truant as of late, and Wendy suspected that he’d promoted his most competent – her, without a doubt – to effectively cover his own ass. His message included the directive that the team navigate the biggest sales and return day of the year until his glorious resurgence, and by the way, the CEO, Mrs. Taylor, was coming in for a store visit at the day’s end, would Wendy mind showing her around? Don’t screw it up. Thanks.
       
Obstacle number three: a parade of customer service snarls, starting with the woman who attempted to return an Atari that had clearly been cracked by a human fist.        

“It was like that when we opened the box,” she told Wendy.
       
Wendy beamed at her. This was around hour four; her smile had been so deeply fixed for so long that her cheeks were beginning to ache. She turned her gaze to the console. She had slightly larger hands than a girl her size should have. Reached out, fit her closed first into the ribbed surface. Nearly perfect imprint. Wendy could see the woman swallow.      

Later, two teenaged girls in identical flairs, identical Nikes, identical, flat-ironed, center-parted hair were caught shoplifting Maybelline eyeshadow. She’d had to climb the steps to the lofted security nest to rouse their guard, Julius, deep into a collection of Lovecraft stories, and have him round the girls up from as Dewayne held them, the rueful crimp to his mouth betraying the apology he’d no doubt just given them: sorry I cain’t be cool. Teenaged girls were legion; you let one lift, they’d all lift. “Take care of this, please,” she told Julius, and Julius sighed, “Okay, ladies, let’s go,” as they began to cry.
       
Throughout the day, Wendy looked to the Mrs. Taylor visit with a stone in her throat. She reminded herself that it could have been worse. It could have been Mr. Taylor, making the store visit. Admittedly, it had given Wendy some pleasure to see how cheesed Pat had been when she’d been chosen by Mr. Taylor and that other good-ole-boy-board-hog (that’s what Pat called them, all in one breath) to star in the Baker-Taylor’s holiday commercial. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Willoughby had been there once before, meeting with Pat about stock, when they had, apparently, noticed her. They’d trooped back in one week later, flanked by a man holding an enormous camera, and a college kid struggling with some heavy lighting equipment. Mr. Taylor had come right up to Wendy’s island, and laid one palm atop the counter: “How are you?”
       
Fred Taylor was in that stage of late middle age in which the pomp in his hair pulled counter against his face sag, the whole presenting as one, glistening wall. Wendy chastised herself: it was an unkind thought. Mr. Taylor was nice enough. He didn’t seem particularly harmful; she didn’t look at him and sense, say, a messy tackle up against the side of her car in the parking lot, or a creeping in the darkness of the stock room, one arm looping, slow but with contained pressure, across her sternum. But his was a niceness that was accompanied by a consistent peering, which gave his whole presence a sharp, tugging aspect. There were few instances in life in which men like him did not want something from you. It didn’t have to be something big, or something easily given – concession, a smile. Silence. But it was always,
everlastingly, something.        

Wendy took special care to avoid being alone, with Mr. Taylor, for the rest of the day. When visiting the stock room, she took along Dewayne. Taylor only followed twice, jingling the change in his pockets, making a display of rifling through closedown checklists and referencing the inventory clipboards.
       
The one who really interested her was that Mr. Willoughby, who was the company’s lawyer-on-retainer, or something like that, and who had a gift for talking through, as opposed to with, people. It was fascinating. He introduced himself, shook hands with her, showed her his teeth. Asked, “How would you like to be in our holiday commercial, Miss Patterson?”       

She didn’t care for the idea. She had no particular desire to ever appear on television, a medium by which any number of people she would prefer not see her very well could. She’d glanced at Pat, who’d shrugged at them all, sporting a horrifying rictus grin: hidee, gennlemenglad to see ya, fellas, boze, pals, compadres.
       
“I don’t want to do this,” she whispered, as she walked back to the stockroom with a satchel of makeup and the directive to go make herself look pretty.      

“Too bad,” Pat said. “Do it or else.”
       
The whole circus had frozen the store for an entire afternoon. Three hours of having to grin like an idgit at the lady they’d recruited to be “the shopper,” who kept turning to make eye contact with the camera, even when explicitly told not to. “Now the concept,” Mr. Willoughby told her, “is that the camera is a customer, see? Waiting in line, there. And that’s why Wendy here gets to look at the camera. It’s like the person watching TV…is a customer.”
       
"But I look at customers,” the lady said.      

"You don’t look at this one.”
       
At this, the lady frowned at Wendy: this here shit pie was her fault.        

While Taylor paced, jingling change, Willoughby was still, legs spread, arms crossed over his chest, surveying progress. He occasionally cranked the onyx ring he wore on his pinky, the only tell that he was in his thoughts. He left immediately after filming, shaking Wendy’s hand, telling her, “Thank you very much for your time, you have been most helpful,” before walking out, climbing into a Cadillac, and driving off, leaving Wendy with the sense that she had, in fact, seen him somewhere before.

*

But so went December 26, until about 6:00 PM. Wendy was rotating snack stock, pushing the staler boxes of Jello 123 to the front of the shelf when Dewayne interrupted: “Wendy, we need your expertise.”

“On what.”       

Dewayne inhaled, held it: “You’re not going to like it.”
       
Wendy followed Dewayne down the center power walk, through the swinging double doors, then cut a hard left at the back and knew: it was the men’s employee restroom toilet, old Chokey, the bane of Pat’s existence. Wendy could hear a low, pipe-trembling gurgle, and then, a beat later, the smell hit her, so intense it seemed to reach out and push her back. She covered her mouth and nose with her shirt. Dewayne did the same.       

Wendy toed the door open, eyes tearing to a wall of pure stench. The bowl was three quarters filled, water and liquid giving way to a creekbed of dark, solid matter.
       
“Did you try-”        

Dewayne nodded.
       
“And that happened?”        

“Yeah.”
       
“I thought Pat called someone to fix this.”       

“I don’t know about that,” Dewayne said. “I hated to get you. I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have to-”
       
Wendy nodded, held up her hand. She reached for the plunger and, standing as far away as she could, placed it gently within. Began, gingerly-gingerly, to pump, looking away, attempting to feel for the blockage, imagining she could sense it way up in the smaller muscles of her biceps. She took the suction east to west, giving it a couple of good, last cranks, then disconnected the plunger with a thick slurch and placed it on the ground. She suddenly realized why Pat had never bothered to tile over the concrete floor back here. She gave a short, silent prayer. Flushed.
       
There was a momentary flash of intuition, as the animal facing the maw of flames twists instinctively to protect the face. Wendy leaned back, turned away. The geyser that shot from the bowl did not hit her directly, then, but drenched her side, her bare forearms, her cheek. It was the sound that surprised Wendy the most – no loud boom, this, but a baby-soft slurp.         

There was the loudest silence she’d ever heard before Dewayne took a deep, whistling breath, and whispered, “Should I call a plumber?” 
       
She knew that if she were to open her mouth, she would be ill. It was at that precise moment that they heard a pair of pumps tap into the stockroom. A woman’s voice: “Hello?”       

Wendy opened one eye.
       
The woman in the doorway stared, purse hanging from her hand. She seemed to do a quick survey–Wendy, the dripping far wall. Dewayne’s pale horror–and then, with compressed lips, give something like an internal nod.      

Wendy’s mouth wavered.
       
“No no no,” the woman said. Reached into her purse, produced a small, satin pouch. Opened it to reveal a neatly folded stack of pink tissues. The woman flicked one flat, held it out to Wendy. To Dewayne, “Honey, could you go out to the baby section and get us some wipes? Just grab a couple packs.”      

Dewayne blinked.     

"It’s okay,” the woman said. “Go on, now.”
       
Wendy wiped her mouth, fighting the urge to suddenly, jaggedly cry. “Mrs. Taylor?”        

The woman produced another tissue, held it out. “I am,” she sighed. “And I’ve come at just about the worst time, too.”
       
“I’m so sorry,” Wendy said.       

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry,” Mrs. Taylor said. “I’ve bust right on into an
emergency-”
       
“So sorry,” Wendy repeated.        

“How about we have a contest? See who’s sorrier.”
       
They gazed at each other for a moment before Mrs. Taylor gave her a lopsided smile and they both, uneasily, uncomfortably, cracked. Wendy reached up automatically to cover her mouth with her hand – her teeth, the bane of her mirror-gazing existence, both outsized and crooked – then slowly took it away, mouth pinched.

*

Mrs. Taylor – or Fran, as she hastened Wendy to call her–took over in a shift so quick and expert it was astounding, instructive, even. Wendy struggled, still, to boss. She worried over the pitch of her voice, the validity of her directives. She imagined, on more days than not, that she was someone’s stand-in, awaiting the day she would inevitably be replaced by the person to whom the job really belonged.

Fran Taylor, it seemed, had no such complex. “It’s nearly seven,” she said, pushing up her jacket sleeves. “Close enough. Dewayne, go tell Julius we need him for door duty. We’re closing up shop.” To Wendy: “What’s your sizing?”   

Fran strode through the double doors toward ladies apparel. Wendy watched through the porthole as she grabbed sweatpants, a sweatshirt, a bra, while the register girls lifted their brows at one another.
       
“I wish we had a shower or something,” Fran said, returning, “but all we got’s that industrial sink.” She paused to dig through that purse again–the nicest purse Wendy had seen in a while, a great, creamy, zippered thing that would sit on the high shelf at McAlpin’s, price obscured.      

She surfaced with a rind of keys. “You can take you a whore’s bath,” she said. “Pardon the expression.”
       
Wendy scrubbed her face with another baby wipe and watched Fran choose a key with a fingernail. She unlocked the utility room and flicked on the lights to reveal a washer-dryer combo and a large sink.       

“Did you know this was our second branch?” Fran said over her shoulder. “Fred and I got these for cheap from a motel out on New Circle that was shutting down. We lived in an apartment, back then. It was so small we couldn’t fit these in, so we left them here, and we’d bring our laundry to work with us.”
       
She hung her purse on a peg, then stretched to reach a pair of rubber gloves from a high shelf. She was tall, Wendy noticed – a long taper to her back, a strong, round curve of buttock.        

She’d expected someone older, someone softer, or slower–though the term Pat had used was goddamn battleaxe -but Fran Taylor was unnervingly quick, moving with a sort of unassailable, sunny efficiency. A blonde, two degrees from red, hemmed trim all around. She was pretty, Wendy thought. The kind of pretty that approached you sideways, that waited, worked. Sported bones.
       
Well, what did you expect? Wendy thought. If someone said boss, would they picture you?    

Fran turned to her, tugging the gloves over her hands. “Go ahead and strip down. We’ll get the washer going.”
       
There was a tap on the door. Wendy dodged into the closet as Fran leaned out. Dewayne. He and Fran spoke briefly until Wendy heard Fran say, “Thank you very much,” and the door closed.

“Plumbers’ll be here in an hour,” Fran said. “They didn’t believe us, at first. Said it sounded like a sewage blockage with compressed air.” She paused to reach for detergent. “And I bet they’ll charge us double for telling us so, after hours.”
       
Wendy swayed, unsure if this was a rebuke. But Fran continued, “That’d be a good trick to play on people you don’t like, wuddent it?”        

“I thought Pat called someone to fix this.”
       
“Us, too. True justice would have been him getting the shit shower instead of you. I’m just sorry you were in the line of fire.” She turned, gazed to the floor. “It’s all right. I ain’t lookin. Just wanna get the manure off you.”       

Wendy grimaced, shrugged out of her vest. Hesitantly unbuttoned her pants.
       
Fran took the vest, face turned. “So you were in our Christmas commercial.”      

“Yeah.” Wendy sniffed her forearm, blanched.
       
“You were wonderful.”        

“Oh. Thank you.”
       
“They shoulda paid you for it.” Fran took her shirt, faced stilled admirably to the smell.       

“That’s okay.”
       
“No,” Fran said, “it ain’t. But we’re fixin that. Getting something extra to you in your next paycheck. You ever done anything like that before?”        

Wendy examined her bra, spotted a smear on the upper strap. “Me? Nuh uh.”
       
She was down to her jeans and underpants, now. She was overflowing – she’d gotten a pay bump, with the AM position, but whatever extra income she had was eaten as fast as she could make it. The bra was pre-pregnancy, and too small. An inch or two of additional softness rounded her thighs, her lower stomach. A thin, lilac scar from her c-section smiled just above her waistband. She reflected that it was time to use that employee discount.

*

Fran finished sifting soap into the washer and peered around the doorway, waiting for the rest of Wendy Patterson’s clothes.
            
She’d lived a life that she’d always called sheltered, to the amazement of her children; the oldest, Josiah had once called her and Fred’s childhoods standard-issue deprivation, and though she hadn’t cared for the fashion in which Josiah had said this, she supposed it was true. Both born into the Depression, knowing nothing else until they’d left home. Her father had been, among other things, a substandard farmer. He couldn’t make the grass grow, she was known to say with inscrutable cheer. To know Fran as her children did was to know that this was the only thing she would say about her father; below was a blankness they did not touch. Fran’s mother, largely invisible; when visible, silent. The children did not ask about her, either - even the youngest, Birdie, who knew nothing.       

It was part of knowing anyone, Fran thought: definition, and shadow. Illumination, and camouflage. Someday, when they were old enough, they’d bear tenderness, too.
       
And while on surface, Fran abided by that old and treasured adage, never complain, never explain, she was, inwardly, endlessly caught short by the world. The volume of her private items of ignorance plagued her. She had not know what it felt like to put one’s feet into an ocean until the summer before last, when she and Fred had traveled to the Discount Retailers Association conference in Virginia Beach and she’d made him stop so she could, at long last, see and smell the Atlantic. She’d eaten her first banana at age thirty, and it was the most delicious thing she’d ever had: butterscotch custard velvet-zipped into its own, secret sleeve. She’d chewed, stared, stunned: there were breathtaking things in this world.
        
Other points of unknowing: she’d never fallen asleep in a house by herself. She’d gone directly from her father’s house to marriage, to Fred. Neither a kiss nor hand held by anyone else. Certain questions of self-satisfaction had been answered through sheer friction, the accident of Fred’s body on hers. She regarded this private habit plainly, without shame. She wasn’t sure the act had much stake in love. She likened love to a cinematic fancy, an elaborate commercial for something she saw no reason to buy. The same verdict served for the concept of happiness. One was rewarded – occasionally – if one did not tempt fortune – with contentment.
        
Fran often marveled at the landscape of marriage, comparable to a wide property at dusk; the light shines at the center, illuminating the known, then ebbing as one traveled to the outer borders until, finally, reaching the fence, the dark beyond. There were occasional surprises, the intruding sons and daughters. The losses. The owner’s assumption that one knows what is there without having to see it. While she was devoted, to her husband – cared for, and about, her husband - she hesitated to say she knew him, or he her.

Before she met Wendy, Fran might have told you that this blindness was, often enough, a
thing for which to be grateful.      

It was at this moment that Fran saw Wendy lift a foot – she would confess to Wendy, later, that it had been like watching a doe pick up its hoof – and, nose wrinkled, peel off one damp sock. Toe pinching in her pumps, eyes watering, Fran saw Wendy and was changed. The breath pressed out of her and was replaced with something warm and heavy that otherwise defied description: goodness, rimmed with the sting of the unreachable. The pleasure of a sensation that was, even now, defying containment, threatening to carry her off to wherever it led. Everything she saw registered with an upsurge of adrenaline, a wash of secret, internal energy. She foamed. Somehow, she knew more. 

In this way, Wendy Patterson – though she did not know it – was responsible for what made the Taylors. Taking the long view of the thing (as certain Taylors, namely Josiah, were wont to do), she made them. Ironic, Josiah would hum, considering what would come to pass. Josiah, who loved irony, the world’s cool cheat.
       
Falling in love was its own kind of violence; the violence lay in how it justified itself.       

Wendy glanced at her, face creased in worry. Fran felt herself flush and turn away. She fought to breathe. It took a moment to find her voice. “I’m gonna start the washer,” she called, trembling. “You got them clean things to put on?”



Kayla Rae Whitaker

Kayla Rae Whitaker's work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lenny, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, and others. The Animators was named a best debut novel of 2017 by Entertainment Weekly and a best book of 2017 by NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and BookPage. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and New York University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.