Millicent raised her umbrella and stepped out into the pouring rain. “No need to go to the bridge today”, she thought, “I can just stand here and drown”. At that moment, nature taking her at her word blew her umbrella inside out.
Millicent had often thought of killing herself, but she knew that for too many people the news would occasion only a deep sigh of relief. This included her dog Willie who was the only male able to live with her for more than six months. This was due to either dumb loyalty or the fact that he was missing that part of his anatomy from which male courage is said to originate.
As she stood there struggling with her umbrella, she cursed the derelict who was selfishly lying in the only doorway recessed enough to offer shelter from the rain.
With one last burst of spluttering rage, she hurled the umbrella into the street striking a passing cab. The driver braked sharply, put the cab into fast reverse, and splattered her gray plaid suit with grimy water.
She gritted her teeth, clenched her fists at her sides and moved down the sidewalk like a crazed rhinoceros. A cat underneath a parked car made a motion to dart across the sidewalk but, when confronted with the sight of her thundering size nines, quickly retreated beneath the car.
She reached the bus shelter just as the number 12 pulled up. This wasn’t the right bus, but it no longer mattered. She pulled a wad of blue tissues from her purse and wiped her glasses and mopped her dripping hair. Now she was cold, very cold. She was thankful for the rain in one respect—there were no blathering old ladies on the bus.
She didn’t so much dislike old women, as she feared them.
She was a magnet for short, lumpy old women, of the kind who always seem to be carrying two shopping bags. They’d appear out of nowhere—in the grocery store, at bus stops, walking through the park, or crossing the street, — and would engage her in one-sided conversations about their arthritis, their cats, blah, blah, blah and how young people had no consideration for the old; then they would pat her hand and tell her what a nice girl she was. Millicent had a presentment that she had been singled out as a likely initiate by some secret society of old crones and, that some day, she too would carry heavy bags while tottering around the city on swollen feet talking to strangers.
She had no idea where the bus was headed. All she could see through the windows were rain-blurred splotches of neon. As she glanced around, she noticed a swarthy looking type across the aisle from her and thought he looked like a poor man’s Omar Sharif. His brown sport coat was ten years out of date and there were tufts of thread on the sleeve where the buttons had once been.
“Maybe he is Omar Sharif. Can’t be, he’s too young.” she argued with herself. “Well, Hollywood types have facelifts all the time. True, but if he were Omar Sharif he wouldn’t be riding this bus and wearing that jacket”.
He glanced over at her, and she noticed a very prominent scar cutting through his dark mustache and upper lip. That explained everything. He had spent all his money on a facelift and then the doctor went and bungled the job. “No, no, no. If that were true, he would have sued the doctor, and he’d be a millionaire today”. She decided to stop thinking about Omar Sharif and begin thinking about her own problems. Least of which was riding a bus in the wrong direction and freezing to death.
She had drawn her last unemployment check three weeks ago and was getting desperate. She always found job interviews humiliating, but the one this morning had been especially so.
The ad in the paper read:
Adm. Assist. College Grad. Top management consulting firm. Proficient MSoffice
Beverly, the Human Resource’s Position Compatibility Specialist, tapped her lacquered nails on the desk and remarked that it was a very impressive resume. Millicent smiled. She had gotten tired of explaining to the drones who inhabit personnel offices that, No, she had never been fired, or resigned because she was going to be fired: she had left to pursue more challenging opportunities. To overcome this lack of perception, Millicent had gone to the library and with the help of How to Write A Winning Resume, had done just that.
Education: Vassar, magnum cum laud
Major: English (How hard can it be to read books?)
Peace Corps, 3 years in the Central African Republic
Previous Work Experience:
(She selected four of the twenty-two jobs she had held since dropping out of Northern State fifteen years ago; stretched her dates of employment and gave herself the promotions and salary increases she so richly deserved)
Beverly leaned across the desk, smiled warmly at Millicent and asked how she had found the climate in Poughkeepsie. Millicent knew she was being tested, but she had seen Out of Africa twice and was ready for this one:
The heat and humidity had been dreadful but she had been rewarded many times over by the gratitude of the natives.
Beverly began to laugh; she tried holding her hand over her mouth but her laughter exploded like bullets from a machine gun. The ack-ack-ack of her laughter knocked Millicent out of her chair, flattened her against the wall, and sent her staggering into the hallway. Millicent tried to maintain her composure, but the laughter pursued her down the hallway, and she broke for the door. It was in the elevator going down that a combination of bile and adrenaline began pulsing through her veins.
Now as she sat huddled in her dripping clothes, her anger collapsed into a deep, dark hole of despair. She had $31.66 in her purse, a solitary bus token, and a credit card that had reached its max two months ago. The dark sheets of rain pelting the bus were a perfect complement to her mood.
“Lady, thees bus goes to Istanbul?”
She jerked her head up quickly, but in wasn’t Omar Sharif speaking, it was the bus driver announcing that they had reached the last stop—the Springhill Mall.
The Springhill Mall was the largest in the area — it had three hundred and forty-six shops on three levels including four department stores, ninety-three apparel shops for women, and thirty-six choices of fast food in the third level food court.
The floor plan resembled that of a Gothic cathedral — a short transept bisecting a long central nave topped off by a high domed ceiling. The central court rose four stories to an enormous gold tinted skylight. On sunnier days, wide shafts of light reached down to the fountain below where smartly dressed mannequins posed on stone water-lily pads, and mermaids burbled frothy water. The reflecting pool was sprinkled with pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, tossed there by mall-goers whose dearest wishes were not found in the stores. Palm trees, in large circular planters, rose majestically to the skylight. A few common sparrows had strayed in and taken up residence in the trees, sharing the boughs with brightly colored escapees from the pet shop.
Shivering in her damp suit, Millicent squinted at the information board, trying to locate the nearest restroom. She knew she was ‘here’, but had trouble determining if she was supposed to go forward or backwards to find ‘there’ which in her case was on the second level next to store #223.
The entry to the restroom led through a ladies’ lounge decorated in soft shades of green and beige. The floral design in the flocked wallpaper was mimicked in the loveseat and four over-stuffed chairs. Millicent took no notice. Her only thought was to get dry and get out of there as soon as possible.
She took one look at herself in the row of mirrors above the white marble sinks and cringed. Her damp hair hung in a long stringy mass, and her hurried morning’s attempt at makeup had been reduced to dark smudges beneath her eyes. She was grateful that the restroom was empty. She scrubbed her face with the creamy liquid from the soap dispenser and then, since there were no paper towels, she trailed an end of toilet paper to the sink to dry her face. Her clothes were another matter — the six hand dryers would have to do.
Millicent stretched her pantyhose over the nozzle of dryer number one. In a few minutes, they were fluttering outward on the warm breeze; she turned the nozzles on dryers number two and three upwards and jammed a shoe on top of each. She draped her suit jacket over dryer number four. Her head was bent down under dryer number five when she heard a raspy voice “tsk-tsk” that it was bad form, very bad form, to do one’s laundry in a public restroom. Millicent rose to find herself confronting the skinniest old woman she had ever seen.
The old woman was wearing a severe navy blue dress which hung so limply from her bony shoulders that Millicent glanced down to see if there were legs protruding from beneath the garment. There were — two very thin ones encased in heavy support stockings and wearing black high top shoes. A skeletal left hand clasped the neck of a stiletto-tipped umbrella, and an emaciated right hand grasped the handles of a large plastic shopping bag.
In a voice, which defied Millicent to disobey it, the old woman demanded that Millicent remove her clothing from the dryers. With one deft motion of the black umbrella, she snatched Millicent’s jacket off the dryer and held it out to her at arm’s length. Millicent was reduced by this gesture to a quaking seven-year old facing the accusatory finger of Sister Carolyn. Shaking her head in utter disdain, the old woman marched past Millicent and entered one of the stalls.
With a nervous rhythm, Millicent moved up and down the line of dryers bap-bapping them back on when they cycled off. She wanted to get out of there before that crazy old bag of bones emerged from the stall.
From behind the stall door, the aria from Carmen was being hummed by someone whose musical bent was decidedly bent. As the last rousing note soared upward, the door to the stall burst open, and the old woman strode forth looking greatly relieved and in somewhat better humor.
She eyed Millicent condescendingly and advised that wearing wet clothing was a sure way to catch one’s death of cold. On a better day, this comment would have been deflected with the terse suggestion that the old woman go pleasure herself, but the morning’s encounter had rendered Millicent mute and defenseless.
Had she been taught no manners? All the children that she, Miss Nubbins, had cared for knew how to speak when spoken to and all of them had grown up to be credits to their parents and to their country.
Millicent had a sudden urge to knock herself unconscious against the edge of the marble sink, but before she could do so, she was whacked on the side of the arm with a plastic bag and ordered to “PUT THIS ON. My niece is always giving me things that I can not possibly wear.”
Fearing to provoke this dire wraith any further, Millicent complied. She reached into the bag and withdrew a pale pink cashmere sweater with the tags still attached. She winced at the price and marveled that the old woman’s niece could have bought a sweater that size for a woman who looked to weigh no more than ninety pounds. The sweater was a perfect fit except for the large plastic security tag attached to the waistband. Miss Nubbins dove into her bag again and pulled out a Swiss army knife, opened it and deftly popped off the tag. She declared it a pity how careless shop clerks were these days. She continued rustling through her bag; “Here,” she commanded, “Try these on”. Millicent was handed a pair of tan, 100% wool slacks, size 16. These were a present from her nephew, who also didn’t have any sense when it came to buying presents. The slacks, it seemed, had also come from a shop with a careless clerk. Millicent looked at Miss Nubbins and wondered if kleptomania might not run in her family.
Miss Nubbins was in the process of stuffing Millicent’s damp clothing into the trash container, when Millicent recovered her nerve and yanked them away from her. Millicent’s attachment to her clothing was seen as a sign of low aspirations, but Miss Nubbins conceded that there might be some occasion when Millicent might wish to wear such garments; but she, herself, could think of none. No matter, Millicent would need a shopping bag. Diving back into her own bag, she produced a small squarish one bearing the name of the shop from which the sweater had been procured. It looked almost as elegant as the sweater — it was black with gold lettering and had black braided handles.
Millicent looked at herself in the floor length mirror and had the disorienting experience of seeing her head atop the body of a middle class suburbanite. She winced.
Miss Nubbins would have none of that—Something hot to drink was just the ticket to take that sour look off her face. What Millicent needed was to be rid of Miss Nubbins, but considering the state of her finances, she could not refuse. Except for a twenty-dollar bill tucked away in her sock drawer, the $31.66 in her purse represented her total assets.
With a few well placed prods from the black umbrella, Millicent was marched along to the coffee bar on the first level, all the while being instructed in proper posture and demeanor.
Miss Nubbins rapped her umbrella sharply on the counter top to get the attention of the white-jacketed attendant. He turned towards them revealing an amazing smile marred only slightly by a wide scar cutting through his thick dark mustache and upper lip. A harem of Arabian night fantasies went dancing through Millicent’s heart. It was ‘Omar’ from the bus. He smiled and Millicent stared. He smiled and Millicent smiled. He smiled and Millicent blushed.
Miss Nubbins rapped on the counter again more sharply, and this time he greeted Miss Nubbins by name and asked if she would be having Earl Gray as usual. And what would her charming friend be having? Her friend would like a hot chocolate with double whipped cream and a chocolate chip cookie, if you please. He said it would be a pleasure to serve the ladies. He blended the chocolate carefully, whooshed on a tower of whipped cream and was sliding the mugs across the counter when Miss Nubbins cleared her throat and began drumming her fingers lightly on the counter. He gave a quick glance over his shoulder. Noticing the man who had entered from the rear, he said in very loud voice, “that weel be five-feefty-seven, pleeze”. Miss Nubbins smiled regally and told Millicent to be a dear girl and pay the gentleman.
Recoiling instinctively at the word ‘pay’, Millicent clutched her purse to her chest. Her first thought was to run but she was caught between the glare of ‘Omar’s’ smile and Miss Nubbins’ razor sharp elbow. Embarrassed and confused, she fumbled through her purse and pulled out five crumpled singles, 3 dimes, 4 nickels and 7 pennies. ‘Omar’ deposited the money in the cash register, and when the other man left; he gave Miss Nubbins a wink and slid another saucer sized chocolate chip cookie across the counter.
In a voice, verging on desperation, Millicent tried to explain to Miss Nubbins that she was broke — nada, zip, nothing — but she was tut-tutted into silence and assured that it was only money and that ladies never spoke of such matters.
Millicent carried the small tray to a round wrought iron table. She would have preferred to eat alone, but Miss Nubbins pulled a chair up alongside her and leaning over confided in a hoarse whisper that ‘he’ was a real gentleman; ‘he’ came from a country where people respected their elders. “I always told my children that a gentleman or a lady is made, not born”. Millicent asked how many children that might be and was told thirty-six, but one couldn’t really count the FitzHughs because she hadn’t been able to attend to them long enough to produce the proper results. With her in charge, children learned how to behave — no belly aching over chores; lessons always done on time; no pouting, no slouching — not with Miss Nubbins in charge!
Millicent observed that perhaps Miss Nubbins was not from these parts? Tapping her umbrella on the floor, Miss Nubbins replied cryptically that she had traveled widely.
The Sidal Vasoon salon was located across from the coffee bar. A young woman with mahogany hair, dressed all in black, ran out of the salon and scanned the mall up and down; she looked at Millicent, scanned again, looked at Millicent, continued scanning and finally ran over and asked Millicent how would she like to be their model for the afternoon training session. The model who was scheduled hadn’t shown up and Sidal himself was here for the session. Millicent had her hair cut every six months when she remembered and had always been intimidated by hair dressers, but the word ‘model’ had a mesmerizing affect on her: Model — was this the career opportunity she had been waiting for? Encouraged by a sharp jab from under the table, she leapt to her feet. The ‘mahogany hair’ took this as assent and grabbing Millicent’s hand pulled her into the salon.
When the lavender and black salon smock was whisked off one and a half hours later, Millicent was whirled around to the unanimous approval of the salon assistants and shampoo girls. Everyone exclaimed how dreadful she had looked before and how marvelous she looked after. Her formerly mouse brown hair, now shone with deep copper highlights; it swung in a soft, fluid waves with each toss of her head. Millicent glowed. She was fantasizing her picture on the cover of “Hair Trends” magazine, when she was handed a bill for $25.00 and told what a bargain it was — Sidal’s usual fee was $100.00. It had not occurred to Millicent that she would be expected to pay — after all, she was a model. Wasn’t she? Her math wasn’t very good but $31.66 minus $5.57 for tea and chocolate minus $25.00 for the haircut left very little indeed.
Millicent walked out of the salon in a daze — she felt beautiful. Beautiful and broke. She began to picture herself starving to death and people standing around saying how nice she looked; wasn’t her hair pretty and my, what a lovely sweater — pink was just her color. She sat down on one of the long white benches and counted out her change — $1.09. She plunged the money deep into her right hand pocket. And fingering her remaining bus token as if it were gold, she zipped it into the safety of her purse.
She glanced over at the coffee bar hoping to catch a glimpse of ‘Omar’ but instead she saw Miss Nubbins striding towards her.
Miss Nubbins was just going to have her afternoon tea, and Millicent might wish to join her? Millicent reminded Miss Nubbins that she could not afford any more of her hospitality, but Miss Nubbins replied reproachfully that a lady always returns hospitality – Millicent, of course, would be her guest. Millicent was skeptical but lured by the promise of food, she followed Miss Nubbins to the central court where they took seats on the wide marble edge of the reflecting pool. From her shopping bag, Miss Nubbins produced two small white cardboard boxes, each contained a bologna sandwich on white bread, a small container of orange juice, an apple, two oatmeal cookies wrapped in cellophane and a printed card with the reassuring message “Jesus Loves You”.
Millicent grabbed for the box, but Miss Nubbins tapped her on the knuckles and said that one couldn’t have tea without tea, now could one? Would Millicent be so good to fetch a cup for both of them?
Millicent wondered what it would take to convince Miss Nubbins that she had no money, when Miss Nubbins pushed up her sleeve and reaching down into the reflecting pool carefully withdrew one coin at a time until she had accumulated a small pile of nickels, dimes, and quarters. She spread a white lace hankie on her lap, placed the coins on the hankie and patted them dry before handing them over to Millicent. Millicent was given precise directions for finding the Red Squire restaurant on the second level — it was the only place that gave one a proper slice of lemon. Millicent was to put the tea bags in exactly at the time of purchase, and then proceed back to the fountain at a ladylike pace — in that way the tea would be perfectly brewed when she arrived. Did she understand? Millicent nodded, feeling like a rather dim child. “Alright then. Spit-spot, no dawdling!”
Millicent rode the escalator up to the second level and walked down the left hand side exactly as she had been instructed — past the health food store, past the ecologically correct cosmetic shop, past the women’s shoe store, past the athletic shoe store, past the women’s athletic shoe store. She kept glancing sideways into the shop windows to catch a reflection of herself and marveled each time that the attractive woman looking back was none other than herself. Millicent was walking and looking when she collided with a large sign sitting outside of “The Creative Child Toy Emporium”. She was about to enter and tell them what she thought of their sign, when she looked at it again:
Managers, Sales Assistants.
She hesitated, and peeked in. What did she know about toys? Well, she did remember skates and bicycles and how her stepsisters always cheated at Chutes & Ladders. She decided that the worst that could happen was that she would slip on an educational toy and have to be put out of her misery. With that thought to bolster her confidence, she entered the store.
Had she any retail experience?
Yes (actually quite a bit)
Did she relate well to children?
Yes, she had a four-year old at home named Willie.
Could she start tomorrow?
The job was only part-time now but would be full-time after Thanksgiving. Was that agreeable?
Millicent exited the store in a state of euphoria. Then she remembered that she had been sent for tea. The Red Squire Restaurant was right next to the toyshop. She purchased the tea as instructed and rushed back at a most unladylike pace.
She found Miss Nubbins seated by one of the large planters, tossing cookie crumbs to a sparrow that had alighted on the edge of the reflecting pool. Millicent anticipated a lecture on tardiness, but was met, almost kindly, with the remark that she was a bit late. “Had she encountered any difficulties?”
Millicent ate the oatmeal cookies first, because she liked oatmeal cookies better than bologna. Then she ate the apple because she liked apples better than bologna. Then she started on her sandwich. She remembered that, although bologna was not her favorite, it was her dog Willie’s. So she wrapped half the sandwich in a napkin and slipped it into her purse. She heard a soft wheezy snore and looking over saw that Miss Nubbins had nodded off to sleep. Gently, Millicent eased the empty paper cup from her hand and brushed the cookie crumbs off the front of her dress. She wrapped the partially eaten apple in a napkin and slipped it into Miss Nubbins’ shopping bag.
Remembering that she had twenty-eight cents left over from purchasing the tea, Millicent slipped the coins into Miss Nubbins’ pocket. Then, for no reason that she could account for, she took the remaining dollar from her right hand pocket and tucked it into Miss Nubbins’ pocket. She thought it odd how benign Miss Nubbins looked when asleep. Then Millicent reached deeper into her pocket and withdrew her last nine cents — four pennies and a nickel, and closing her eyes, flung them high into the air — plip-plop, plip-plop, plip-plop, plip-plop, plip-plop. The coins sailed through the air and landed one by one in the clear water of the reflecting pool. It was time to go home.
The clocks had been turned back the week before, so by the time Millicent reached home a large silvery moon had risen in the sky. She raced up the stairs to tell Willie the good news — she was no longer unemployed! Willie didn’t understand the words, but he knew that she was happy. She even smelled different – she smelled nice. Millicent patted Willie on the head and left him to gobble his bologna sandwich, while she changed her clothes.
Carefully she took off the pink sweater and was surprised to find that it wasn’t cashmere but only lamb’s wool; she slipped off the slacks and noticed that they were not 100% wool but a polyester blend. She shook her head in wonder that she could have been so mistaken, but it had been a curious day. She grabbed an old denim jacket and whistled for Willie. He came running and leaped into her arms. She kissed him between his small pointy ears, and as they stood gazing out at the night sky, Millicent thought she saw a smoke colored wisp float across the rim of the moon – it looked like an unfurled umbrella with a pair of high top shoes sticking out beneath.
@pdholm written c. 1994]