Storyglossia Issue 41, November 2010.

Super Girly Girl Looking For Femme

by Richard Jespers




Penny Parker always sent body pictures first, one of her face-down, spread eagle on her bed, one of her on the toilet (why not), and one where most people had never seen her. A few women would get all huffy and Sunday School on her, telling her that her body was a temple of God, but if Penny received a good response, a sane or encouraging one, then she'd send a pic where she was fully dressed in a frock (with her face blurred, she felt less vulnerable). Sometimes, she didn't care for the returnee's pics and wrote, No offense, but I just lost interest. It's nothing personal, just my choice. Other times she was forced to inform a persistee that she was dumping her e-mails unread, and then the girl usually quit, though nothing was for certain. Her mother used to introduce her and her sister to people by saying, These are my daughters, Penny and Palmer Parker, and on one occasion they had smiled and recited in unison, Penny and Palmer Parker picked a six-pack of Praetor's Perfect Ale. Their mother, a teetotaler, had slithered away in abject embarrassment, while she and Palmer giggled for hours afterward. You know better than that, Penny, her mother later scolded. You're such a jokester, teaching your little sister utter nonsense. You're going to wind up dead some day. Mark my word.

Penny daily drove to Crossroads Mall, where she ran a small boutique. She would park her Miata in the same spot, on the edge of the lot, next to the dumpsters. She'd only been accosted once and that was by a Jehovah's Witness, early one afternoon when she'd left a friend in charge of her shop, so that she could get a tooth filled.

Look, she'd said, if I stand here and listen to you, I'm going to be late. You want to go to the dentist with me?

And the witness—in a plain black dress with a beige sweater—had climbed in on the passenger side, scooting items to the back seat: Penny's purse (which Penny grabbed), some red rain boots, a small printer, Burger King wrappers, and some from Whataburger, MacDonald's, and Wendy's. The woman had bombarded Penny with information (a friend later told her it was propaganda) about not getting blood transfusions, not starting up the draft again.

Why? Penny had asked the witness, something she always said to people when they seemed hell-bent on influencing her thinking. What's wrong with saving a life with your blood, what's wrong with having a well-regulated militia?

And she was sure the woman adequately justified her beliefs, but Penny listened, instead, to the radio, which was playing a marathon of Elvis songs. Are you lonesome to-night . . . do you miss me tonight . . . are you sorry we drifted apart? Penny ended up being late for her appointment, because the woman's presence confused her and she missed the downtown exit off I-40. While she waited the witness sat next to her in one of the chrome-and-seafoam chairs and bugged her about one thing and another, until Penny finally said to the woman, Would you please leave me alone. And the receptionist, who hopped over her little door, joined in, and the dentist, too, he politely handing the witness cab fare, which she hesitated to accept, saying, I'm not sure where I'm headed.

Well, that's how Penny felt that morning scurrying across the parking lot, which, at nine-fifty-five in the morning was cold and bleak. Little Tic-Tacs of sleet bit into her face, and a teenage boy skateboarded in an area that would fill with cars in an hour's time. She enjoyed watching him in his Polar Fleece coat and sock cap, as he sailed down the incline, one-footing his board back to where he had begun. Something about his movements struck her as being absolutely lovely. You could hop on one of those things and travel the world if you wished.

The security guard, Barney, nodded and opened the door at the mall's rear entrance. Cool enough for you, Miss? There were clumps of frumpy women in track suits gathered for big sales the department stores were having. Penny wended her way under suspended boughs of aluminum garlands to Section B and found her boutique as she had left it. She unlocked and raised the grate and unrolled her awning. The shop always held a redolence of whatever had been cooked last: popcorn from the AMC-plex, caramel corn out near the fountain, the cookie place next door. She misted some apple potpourri fragrance throughout the store. The scent was rather strong, but it helped erode the heavy odor of grease.

Penny stood and admired her figure in the long mirror installed next to the register. She was neither too tall nor too short, neither too thin nor too stout, but just right, her breasts in perfect proportion to her hips, her height. Often customers wanted to speak to her, while they stared at themselves in their new frocks. It was a perfect arrangement. She now winked at herself, as she customarily did, signifying the beginning of another great day and began her CD player: 200 discs that shuffled randomly from one track to another. Her selections were New Agey: Aeoliah, Halpern, and Karunesh, the purists she called them, with their dreamy synthesizers. But she also took a shine to George Winston, Enya, Ackerman, Yanni, and a host of others she knew mostly by sound: Enigma, Kitaro, Oscar Lopez. A synthetically smooth sound that kept her on track all day. She used them as a wall against the Muzak out in the mall: a shuffle of sixties, seventies, and eighties tunes. And if their volume got louder, she likewise turned up hers, to block out—always to block out—that which displeased her.

Penny had named her establishment Lime Green. Everything she sold was made expressly from plants grown without pesticides: regional cotton, imported hemp or bamboo. Most of her garments were neutral, but if she bought something that had been colored, she made sure it was done with a low-impact dye or something renewable. She also had a few things on a novelty rack that were made of recycled plastic, she herself wearing a soft turquoise sweater that had once encased liters of Coke. Penny kept a banner in her window, a swath of white starched muslin with the words Green is the New Now Black printed in a bold Arial font of psychedelic green.

She logged onto her register and her desktop. When her screen saver began to swirl with an array of tropical fish blithely floating by (she'd programmed Golden Damselfish, seahorses, blue and yellow Angelfish), she was ready to wait on customers. She brewed a cup of sweetened chamomile tea in back and returned with its warmth to the register.

Oh, I didn't see you there, Penny said, looking up. How may I help you?

The sign said something about new black things.

Oh, no, honey, Penny said, giggling. Well, over here, I do have a few items, but mostly my things are . . . lighter than that.

Yes, I see, the woman said, lifting the hems of several dresses that would look great only on petite women.

Love this, the woman said, holding up to her figure alternating panels of coral and natural, an A-line that would turn the woman into a giant flower.

Lovely, Penny said.

On sale?

Not at this time, Penny said. She flipped through other items in the woman's size, pulling them out and laying them on top of the crowded rack, but when she turned to speak, the woman had vanished. Penny checked the floor; sometimes hungry women fainted. She checked the dressing room and returned to the rack. The coral-and-natural dress was gone, too. She called mall security and described the woman and the garment.

She might be wearing it under her clothes by now, Penny said. Well, at least try, Barney, I'd really appreciate it. Makes the third time this month. She hung up and looked once again in the mirror. What was it about her that made her such a patsy? She was tough enough on the outside, hardly ever cracking a smile, standing with her arms folded if someone tried to strike up a personal conversation.

She was tempted to mark up her inventory, and yet, if she did that she was certain to lose even more foot traffic. Six months ago people had bought like there was no end to green—it had been during the early part of Obama's campaign—but now they were saying Green, Schmeen, I'm going to Wal-mart.

Her computer beeped and spoke: You have mail. She hadn't checked since Friday, so after returning all the dresses to the rack and straightening things so they didn't look as if a pig had snouted her way through them all, she sat down. She turned to the screen and clicked on her server.

The total was eighty-five. Eighty-five fucking e-mails, she muttered, beginning to delete, delete, delete. Then she stopped





Penny checked her other messages, keeping her eye on the front, expecting any moment for that pig of a woman to return her coral-and-natural dress, saying something like OMG, I didn't realize it was tucked under my arm till I . . . I only tried it on, oh, you do have a dressing room, over there.

She dumped all the responses, except the one from 'April.' Most people didn't use their real names online, which Penny found ridiculous—how could you expect things to be genuine if you didn't use your own name?—but she might try dear April later.

She felt a growing anxiety, as she counted the money in her register, realizing that her total was abysmally the same. She walked across the hard short nap of the carpet and checked her front window, her brown hair swinging back and forth against her face (coifed like Victoria Beckham's). Items in the window display seemed to have shifted during the night, so Penny stepped into the area, straightening the fabric lining the floor of the display. She finger pressed mannequins' garments, pulling wisps of hair out of their eyes and dusting particles of lint from their lashes. The gestures seemed terribly intimate, and then she realized, she'd always been doing that with Ginger, pulling wisps of honey blond hair out of her eyes, dusting dandruff from her honeyed brow. Yes, she had the creepy feeling that she had been there before, not in her display window, but in a place where she'd wiped not lint but sleep from her beloved's eyes. Ginger was the reason that she now toiled with such diligence. If Penny remained involved with her store for twelve hours a day, she would never be mindful of Ginger Ormond, now principal violinist with the Brooklyn Symphony, no longer her lover. On bended knee Ginger had begged Penny to make the move with her; she would help Penny start up a Lime Green in Williamsburg—where it would be appreciated far more. Because they'd shared six blissful months, Penny had said Yes, of course, as Ginger moved in advance of her. Each day that she spoke on her cell she shared with Ginger her progress: packing boxes, sale of her car, dismantling of her store—thoughtful lies all. On the morning of the day she was to have met Ginger at JFK, Penny drove to her store as usual and ignored all rings of her cell, all of Ginger's e-mails. Slowly, they had subsided, even the calls from her mother, wanting to know, through her harried messages, who this Ginger was and what she wanted with my Penny. As Penny made one last crimp of fabric with her fingers, she wasn't entirely satisfied but left the window by climbing over the back and hopping to the floor. It was as if she'd jumped out of someone's brain, yes, as if she were one of her mother's vapid thoughts of what life ought to be.

As she turned, a silver-haired gentleman appeared with a JC Penney's sack hanging from his arm. I'm looking for something my wife might like, he said vaguely.

A dress? Penny said, noting he was rather short.

Oh, yes, that would be nice, he said.

This huz, of course, wouldn't know his wife's proportions, and then he'd have to go through a comparative description, where he would say his wife was larger or smaller than Penny.

Would you happen to know her size? she asked, staring past him into the mall.

Oh, I love these, he said. And he began to paw his way through a rack of jumpers, similar to the one the woman had stolen. It made Penny angry all over again, and she began to remove similar frocks, some with alternating panels of natural-and-lime green, natural-and-pale blue.

This one's lovely, the gentleman said, grabbing one with pale blue panels, holding it up to his torso. I adore the color. He was certainly different from most men, who refused to touch what they had purchased for their wives, as if they might have been smote with a particle or two of estrogen—an element they rather appreciated under different circumstances. How about some jewelry to go with it? he said.

I have imitation puka shell necklaces over here by the register, she said, grabbing the dress. She folded it carefully and set it on a counter behind her. This one has a touch of cornflower blue in the alternating shells. Just a little whimsy.

Yes, he said, fingering them. I have such a difficult time finding what I need.

For your wife? Penny said, a quick shake of her head betraying her thoughts.

Well, yes, of course, he said, opening his wallet, which was the size of a checkbook, only much thicker. He handed her a card.

I don't accept Amex, she said, tapping her toe impatiently.

Oh, dear, he said, taking it back. How about this?

Yes, fine. She ran his Visa through—it had been issued by Chase and Southwest Air—and the little box beeped its approval. It spat out the paperwork, which the man signed, taking the customer copy and handing her the merchant's

She then pulled out one of her recycled brown sacks.

Oh, I'll carry everything as is.

She handed him his receipt and smiled. Hope your wife enjoys the dress. Send her in some time, I'd love to meet her.

He walked toward the door holding the garment over his arm, as if he'd purchased Lady Gaga's dressing gown.

Doofus, she mumbled to herself. She could just picture him sneaking into the women's room and slipping into the dress, pulling a wig out of his pants pocket, perhaps a scarf to go over it, leaving his slacks and shirt behind, and walking out of the mall, having shed one skin for another. And no one would give him a second glance, in his blue-and-natural dress, carrying a simple purse—striding with a quick step across the parking lot, where he would begin to race toward his car as if being chased by the devil himself. From there, she imagined him driving to a spot like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where once, while visiting her cousin, Haig, she'd heard a minister speak. He'd been a very good looking man, a silver fox, who'd placed his hand on her shoulder as later she passed through the rear door. Haig had moved with his family to Columbia, and she'd never heard from him since her visit. It seemed as if he, like sweet Ginger Ormond, had disappeared from the face of the earth.



At nine o'clock, Penny locked up and hurried toward Hoagy's, a generic restaurant located at the exact center of the mall, where one could order almost anything. After a disappointing morning, a sumptuous afternoon had more than made up for it. A bus-load of Chinese women, whose spouses were taking a university tour of state cotton industries, crowded into her boutique, making her very nervous at first—she couldn't watch them all at once—but filling her heart with gratitude when they bought enough to equal two months' income. As they left, she'd handed each one of them an imitation puka shell necklace, a contrivance she'd bought by the hundreds at market in Dallas. The women had smiled and thanked her, each one, as they left for the next store. Before entering Hoagy's, Penny stopped at the Wells Fargo ATM. She deposited her day's take, a considerable coil of currency and checks wrapped with two large rubber bands, utilizing a special drawer designed to accept the bundle. It made her nervous, making her deposit in full view of the public, and yet, because of the act's open nature, she realized she was less likely to be robbed of her bounty.

Penny then made her way past Princess Shoes and Dick's Sporting Goods to Hoagy's. There she ordered a salad with strips of chicken tossed across the top. They'd been cooked in Cajun seasonings, whatever those were, and the entire salad was drenched with a honey-Dijon mustard dressing that was a tad too sweet. When she had eaten as much as she could stand, she pushed her plate aside and pulled out her laptop. Logging on, she noticed her eyes flitting for a second, across the room, where a woman wearing a coral-and-natural dress occupied a booth alone. The culprit stood, gathering her shopping bags, and Penny grabbed her phone. Almost simultaneously the door opened with a cacophony of voices.

A large number of those same Chinese women and their husbands entered; each couple seemed to be paired with a local duo. Penny kept her eye on her thief, punching in 9-1-1. Just as someone took her call (she asked the dispatcher to wait), the entire cotton contingency swarmed the room, having eschewed the assistance of the hostess, who by then was running around with a frenzied expression she wore like a badge of honor. As Penny re-focused, she realized the woman in her coral-and-natural dress had disappeared. Her eyes searched the room now roiling with grayish smoke coming from the kitchen. She even stood on her bench, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. Just then her waitress rushed up and tossed her ticket on the table.

Did you see where that woman went? Penny asked, explaining where the thief had been sitting.

I don't know who you're talking about.

You don't understand . . . and then Penny realized the act of legerdemain that had taken place before her very eyes. Yes, it was true. The same Asian women who had saved her from financial ruin had also swallowed the thief who'd stolen her dress. She sighed and returned to <crablegZdotcom>. Each message she read and re-read before moving onto the next. She was mesmerized by the collective mediocrity, the sheer lack of imagination. When she'd finished, she dumped them all—all except for April's—and asked her waitress for a cup of decaf.

I wonder if I'll ever be able to sleep again, she said, beginning to type a message.

You and me, both, kid. You and me both.

Copyright©2010 Richard Jespers

Richard Jespers holds a graduate degree in English from Texas Tech University. Stories most recently receiving honors can be found in Boulevard, Blackbird ("Basketball Is Not a Drug" was anthologized in Dzanc Book's Best of the Web 2008), and The Ledge in 2009. In the same year, he was awarded a two-month residency at Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he worked on a novel. Amarillo Bay, Eclectica Magazine, Gihon River Review, and Mochila Review have also published his stories in 2010. Originally from Wichita, Kansas, he now lives in Lubbock, Texas.