6 February 2012

The Finest Milled Cotton

Four days after Alissa dropped out of college, she snagged a job at the preppy clothing retailer that made sumptuous cashmere in a rainbow of farmer’s market hues. Persimmon. Morel. Sage. A friend’s brother had worked there the previous summer and he put her in touch with the manager, Mark, a hair-geller in herringbone who sat her down in the chairs normally reserved for customers trying on loafers to ask her a few questions about herself.

“That’s a good school,” he said, looking at the resume she’d printed on a piece of her mother’s linen paper. Light from the mall-front window filtered through the sheet, illuminating a watermark that vaguely resembled an anchor, tilted rakishly on its end. Or maybe it was a crab. Either way, it was the sort of thing this company might embroider on a pair of green chino pants, so she figured she was set.

“I’m taking some time off,” she told him, hoping he wouldn’t need a reason. 

He leaned forward in the chair and looked her over, resting his eyes an extra moment on her thigh. “When can you start?”


Like most people with an ounce of talent, Mark had recognized hers right away. Alissa was beautiful. Actually, she was more than beautiful. She was tall and balletic, the perfect package, with ribbony legs making bow loops of her hips, her waist the exquisite double knot. Her eyes and mouth were large and glossy, and she didn’t even have to wash her face much; it was naturally, almost ghostly, clean.

Her mother Caryn was beautiful, too. “You’ve just gotta fake it, baby,” she’d told Alissa when she was little and didn’t want to go to school. “If you can make your teachers like you, pretty soon they’ll let you do whatever you want.” What Caryn had wanted was a man with money. Alissa was born when her parents were still in college, and her dad Mitch, a professional football player, had a whole new family by the time Alissa was in kindergarten. Fortunately, his new wife was all about positive thinking. She wore a diamond cross around her neck, and anytime she went to a beach, which was often, she liked to march giant hearts into the sand. Alissa still got presents from her dad all the time, and Caryn still got to run her little yoga studio and wear (non-denominational) diamond jewelry of her own. So faking it, in Alissa’s mind, wasn’t such a bad way to live.

She faked it straight to college. The one she chose had strong programs in business and a romantic bell tower on a fleecy green. She’d always enjoyed gazing at natural fields of color. Who was she? Who would she become? The historic green, which had seen it all before, suggested that this college might have the answers. Plus the school was close to home and several guidebooks had singled it out as having particularly good-looking students.

“How ‘bout that?” Mitch said when she visited him that summer in Florida, where he’d recently retired to invest in beachfront condos. Father and daughter looked out at the ocean feeling cheerful. At thirty-nine, he didn’t tackle other men anymore but was still as strong as a tree. “Sounds like the perfect school for you.”

Only it wasn’t. Nonsense assailed her from the start. Having to write a business plan for a cookie company that would somehow empower the poor. Having her crotch prodded by shaggy prep school boys in moldering fraternity house rooms. Maybe it was just the girls who were supposed to be good-looking. “I can’t believe you’re real,” her paramours always said, breathing festivals of bacteria in her face. As though it even mattered what was real. She once found a girl crying in the laundry room because she’d messed up a stock market simulation. The girl kept wiping her nose on a pair of cotton panties she’d just taken out of the dryer. Alissa was disgusted. Wasn’t she planning on wearing those later?

“Everyone tries so hard,” she told her mother on the phone. “It’s kind of screwed up.”

Caryn didn’t tell her to fake it anymore. “Not everyone’s as strong as you, sweetheart,” she said instead.

After a cleansing summer on the beach, Alissa was ready to give sophomore year a chance—but the boys only got more barbaric, the girls needier and more competitive. Freshman elections were the final straw. Obnoxious signs polluted the green with bubble letters and glitter, ruining the one lovely view on campus. “You Need A Nina!” “Badr Does It Better.” They depressed her because they were as desperate as the signs from the year before. In fact, the year before, she was pretty sure that Heather Did It Better. Heather, who’d won, and aside from tritely blowing half the lacrosse team, hadn’t done a thing.


So it was a comfort to return to her childhood mall, which went out of its way to celebrate nature, but never tried to be something it was not. The drive encircling it was packed with stately, peeling-bark trees, the corridors inside with oversized potted ferns, and each wing was lined with all the familiar storefronts selling just what they purported to sell. Her first day on the job she was assigned to the women’s section, where she was expected to hang things that had come unhung, fold things that had come unfolded, and use her cylindrical skeleton key to let customers into dressing rooms when they asked. She quickly found that she loved folding the most. Each garment had a code: a series of faint creases she could follow to reshape it for display. The careless customers, those who left the trousers and cardigans they didn’t want turned inside out on the dressing room floor, were in some ways her favorite, because they provided her the opportunity to restore order to a rumpled pile of cotton flannel, stretch merino, and heavy worsted serge. She would extend the hidden shelf on the cash wrap and set to work with a fresh stack of tissue paper, humming along with the airy store mix, and if, when she was done, the floor was quiet, she’d flip through the catalogs in the wooden tray, their fibrous fields and textured beaches quelling any feelings of uselessness that lingered from her time at school.

Her co-workers were exceptionally friendly. Nearly every shift brought new ones, both full-time personal shoppers and local college kids working for the discount, all of them eager to introduce themselves and welcome her aboard. Alissa smiled and said hello. She was beautiful, so they wanted to meet her, but sooner or later she knew they’d grow distant. People usually did. She’d seen it in their eyes a million times: something draining, like water from a bath grown cold.

“People are gonna hate you, baby,” Mitch had told her as a child. “They’re gonna hate you because they’re jealous.” He was fond of pep talks. They’d kept him from losing it when things got tough—nagging injuries, blood-thirsty reporters, being benched for no good reason—though lately, she’d begun to suspect he couldn’t talk any other way. “You can’t let the haters distract you,” he’d told her when she first complained about college. “You just gotta keep on being you.” Often, in the last few months, she’d wanted to ask him who that was.


“I’m worried about you,” her mother told her over dinner after she’d been working at the mall a few weeks.

When she’d moved back home, Caryn had made bellinis and presented her with a spa treatment, as though she’d just graduated. Alissa wasn’t sure if her mom was clueless or somehow trying to be supportive, and as she watched the peach puree curl pet-like at the bottom of her flute, she wasn’t even sure which one she preferred.

Now it seemed Caryn was catching on. She pressed her fingers to her temples, giving herself a momentary face lift. “Your Aunt Ellen is right when she says it’s important to have a plan. People who don’t have plans in this country just end up waiting around.”

Alissa took a long, bored drink of water. Ellen was her mother’s older sister, the humorless one who wore shoulder pads and sent so many email forwards about computer viruses, she seemed infected herself.

“Look, I have a job. I make $12 an hour and I love it.” She smirked. She couldn’t help it. It was exhilarating to be so unambitious, to declare without shame that she loved folding clothes in a big, clean store that sold items not everyone could afford.

“I just think your father was hoping you’d finish your degree. Like he’s doing.”

“Dad knows my reasons. He’s cool.” Which wasn’t strictly true. She’d written him about her plan to take time off, somewhat disingenuously leaving open the possibility that she had a valuable alternative in mind, but he’d never responded. A week later he passed through town and it was clear he hadn’t read the email. She knew he was busy with his business and classes and marriage and kids, but still.

“Shoot,” he said, when she told him again, smacking his forehead harder than necessary. “You wrote me that? I don’t know where my head is these days. Well, you know what I think, sweetheart. Never let anyone tell you you can’t do something.”


But the folding, oh the folding—the turning in of sleeves, the flipping up of shirttails, the straightening of collars and cuffs. What did she care so long as she could fold? There were no simulations here, just real pieces of fabric made right, several of which she bought so that she could wear them to work herself.

“Oh, you got the Bonnie,” someone said one afternoon. She looked up from her pile of liquidy tees to see a ponytailed blonde standing before her, twirling a skeleton key.

Alissa examined the sleeve of her olive-colored cardigan and shrugged. “It just seemed practical with the discount.”

The ponytail nodded emphatically. “It’s awesome. It’s the best cardi. I have like five, all different colors. Some with sequins, some without. I’m Tory.”

“Alissa.”

“Alissa, nice. Good for you for not shortening it. Sometimes I want to shake my parents for nicknaming me before I was old enough to decide. I mean, seriously, Victoria is so much better than Tory.”

“You can always change it.”

Tory shook her head. “I tried once; didn’t work. I never knew when people were talking to me. They’d literally be shouting my name in my face before I got it. Even my parents don’t call me Victoria. Actually, not even when they’re mad.”

Alissa smiled, not knowing what to say next. She knew the mindlessness that so irritated her in other people was partially her fault. There was something limp and available about her that invited nonsense. Before people lost interest in her, they talked her ear off about awesome cardigans and disappointing nicknames. Some of them—and this Tory person was clearly one—even insisted on being her friend.

“So,” Tory said, “I’ve seen you on a couple shifts now. You in school?”

Alissa nodded and told her where. “But I’m taking a little time off.”

“How come?”   

“Uh, the classes were a joke and the people were creeps?”

She was still staring, so Alissa elaborated. “It just wasn’t for me. Not my thing.”

Tory, she could see now, was beautiful too, but clearly untroubled by it. Even at that moment, she was wearing her college ring, like someone recruited to talk Alissa into line. It was engraved with her class year—she was a senior—and dozens of other indecipherable abbreviations. In the center bezel, a red gem flashed like a radio tower light as she folded her arms across her chest. “You sound just like a guy,” she finally said. “Don’t you know girls don’t drop out of college? Not unless they’re bulimic or something. You’re not bulimic, are you?”


It was Tory who told her pretty much everything about the store. How two employees had been fired for having sex in the shoe room, the only stock room you could lock from the inside, and they were so stupid they hadn’t even thought to do that. How the company was unveiling a line of buttery leather handbags to compete with the high-end designer brands. How they were operating under a Loss Prevention Plan because they ranked among the top stores in the country for missing merchandise, especially men’s accessories and shirts. Alissa knew some of the idiots who’d taken those shirts—just layered them on, clipped the censors, and walked right out of the store. They were friends of her friend’s brother, the one who’d gotten her the job.

And it was Tory, too, who told her about the big visit, ambushing her one morning the moment she stepped through the employee entrance.

“Are you working Tuesday?” she whispered, as Alissa punched in. “If not, you have to switch.”

“OK, well I am. Why?”

Tory dragged her by the wrist into the empty manager’s office. “Mickey Bailey’s coming.”

“Who’s that?”

“Jesus, Alissa, who’s that? You really don’t give a shit, do you?” Tory tapped her finger on the desk, as though pointing to treasure on a map. “Mickey Bailey is the CEO. He’s coming to check on our progress, maybe give us an ass-whipping.”

Alissa shuddered. Just when she thought things were going well. “God, why would I want to be here for that?”    

“Because he’s supposed to be inspiring. He was just on the cover of BusinessWeek or Time or one of those. Do I have to spell it out for you? He’s famous and influential.” As nitwitty as Tory could be, her information was usually correct and her instincts rarely off. She wasn’t the best dresser, sticking to a reliable cycle of black slacks and Bonnies, but she’d seen even before Alissa that the new peacock pencil skirt would sell out in a matter of days. 

“Well, maybe I’ll read the article,” Alissa said. “After all, I have time.”


There were pictures to accompany the BusinessWeek profile, which celebrated Mickey Bailey’s intuition and communication style. He’d turned some little apparel store into a household name, then did it again for somebody else. Until she read the profile, Alissa had no idea how much money her company made in a year, let alone how many other little companies it had in its back pocket. On each page, Mickey Bailey’s lithe, bald form leaned against white columns and country mailboxes, looking smug in jeans and a sweater vest and eerily reminiscent of his catalog models, even the black and Asian ones, as though he were their great white father as well as their ass-whipping boss. Alissa thought he looked rather kind, at least not the way she expected a CEO to look. He was fifty-three, born in New Hampshire to an auto mechanic and a nurse. He’d dropped out of college, too.

Driving to work the next morning, she looked out at the cloud cover pinned like lambswool above the trees and thought about Mickey Bailey. She wondered what he’d think of her store. He, who now spent half his life on private jets, but probably used to save up his allowance to buy the one pair of shoes that every kid had to have. Would he notice that the bath store across the way gave off a fruit-cakey aroma that often clashed with the subtle hint of furniture polish and grass that her managers strove to maintain in their space? Would he care that their biggest competitor was located in a different wing? 

On Monday night, she stood in front of her closet, mentally assembling an appropriate outfit for meeting the CEO. She assumed it ought to feature company merchandise, but not too heavily, lest she appear incapable of thinking for herself. She was wiggling into her skinniest non-company jeans when her mother knocked on her open door.

“Going somewhere?” Caryn asked. Her eyes were heavily charcoaled and she was dressed in her yoga uniform of spandex under a fluttering woven wrap. It was the way she always looked, tiny biceps slightly bulging under tight sleeves, hair shining in triumphant disarray, a faint promise of fun in her eye.

“Just figuring things out for the morning,” Alissa said. “It’s stupid.”

“That’s my girl. You never know what tomorrow will bring.”

Some children might’ve been traumatized by their parents’ beauty, but Alissa took it as an article of faith. Her father could lift enormous pieces of furniture and had frequently leveled punt returners on TV. When he sat down to meals with Alissa, his knees bent with the heft of a marble statue’s. Her mother was like a flowering plant, filling rooms with the scent of vacation. It didn’t even matter that they weren’t a couple. If anything they were more powerful apart, ruling their separate but vast domains, each of them a promise that everything would work out OK.


Tuesday morning came and Alissa showed up at the store ten minutes early, dressed in the skinny jeans, a jangly necklace, and a navy blazer over a white t-shirt that highlighted the twin peaks of her clavicles. To her relief, Mickey Bailey had not yet arrived. She deposited her handbag in the locker room and ran the lint roller down each arm before making her way to the floor.

The store opened to a surprisingly busy weekday morning. Alissa was constantly in the dressing room, holding hangers and knocking on doors—gently, since women tended to startle easily when they weren’t wearing tops. She retrieved other sizes, then praised the housewives who’d requested them for looking so cute in jacquard. The armloads she brought out to fold contained nearly every piece in the store, giving her the sensation that anything was possible. She worked through lunch, barely pausing to chat with Tory when she arrived for the closing shift. There was pizza in the back, and she eventually ate a slice, then washed her hands in a full head of lather so that no trace of grease would threaten the clothes.

As her shift neared its end, at five o’clock, Mickey Bailey still hadn’t arrived.

“Do you need me to stay?” she asked Mark, who never failed to give her extra hours when she asked. Over his shoulder, Tory twirled her key and winked.

The morning tide of housewives had given way to the usual evening trickle of after-school teenagers, who touched everything but bought nothing, and after-work professionals, who needed full-priced merchandise to wear that very night. Closing was now minutes away and the registers were silent, the clerks murmuring languidly to one another as they rested their elbows on the cash wrap. Alissa was crossing the floor with a pair of mary janes for a customer to try with the Cluny lace cocktail dress when she saw a man holding a feather-crystal brooch over the jewelry bin, as though trying to estimate its weight in his hand. Dressed in jeans and a navy v-neck sweater that fit him neatly, he had the unhurried manner of someone who’d shown up early for an appointment. His shorn, balding head glistened under the display lights, and he would’ve been completely unremarkable had he not been Mickey Bailey.

Alissa delivered the mary janes to her customer and returned to the floor, where it appeared that no one had even noticed their venerated chief. She wondered if he’d somehow been there all along, patiently examining each garment and accessory in the store while a woman friend tested the customer service in the midst of an unexpectedly busy day. It was possible he’d sent the morning housewives there himself; possible, too, that one of them was his wife, or even somehow Mickey himself. She didn’t think he had whole days to waste checking up on single stores, and yet what else did a CEO do? The magazine profile made it seem as though he spent a lot of time following his intuition, which after all was just what she had done, and it had led her here.

She approached the jewelry bin and began resorting the goods on the side opposite him, not daring to make eye contact. She had realigned all the sunglasses and nearly disentangled a wad of hair elastics before she worked up the courage to speak.

“Are you finding everything all right?” she finally asked, with a slight inflection, so that he would understand that even though she was asking what she asked every customer, she knew exactly who he was.

His pale blue eyes met hers as he seemed to consider her question on several levels. Something in his cheek twitched, betraying a possible lunacy, and she wondered for a moment if he was not Mickey Bailey after all. Then he smiled. “I think I’m fine for now,” he said, fully articulating each word. “But thank you.”

Bewildered, she continued with her lines. “Well, let me know if you need anything. We’ll be closing in fifteen minutes.” He nodded and returned his attention to the brooch, like a counterfeiter trying to commit it to memory.

Alissa wandered back to the dressing room only to find that her customer had left without purchasing anything. The cocktail dress was suspended lightly on its hanger, the mary janes tucked together on the floor. She returned the items to their places and set about reordering a rack of cropped corduroys. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this: this placid ordinariness, this feeling of not even having been tested. At the very least, when a powerful man paid a visit, it shouldn’t feel like just another day.

The store music had stopped, and the last customer was escorted out, heels clicking, the double wooden doors double-locked in her wake, and just when Alissa thought that this was all that the day was going to be, Mark’s voice came over the staticky loudspeaker. “Attention, everyone,” he said, echoing across the ghost town of halted commerce. “I’d like to ask all staff to join me at the women’s cash wrap for a special meeting.”

Mickey Bailey stood before the counter like a professor, having solved whatever he’d been puzzling over in the brooch, which was no longer in his hand. He looked remarkably sure of something. Mark and the woman who’d asked for the mary janes stood beside him, and a few regular customers had materialized as well. Alissa gathered round with the rest of the staff, joining Tory by a display table covered with the casually draped mohair sleeves and rhinestone buttons of the must-have cardigan for fall. Who must have it? Alissa wondered, fingering a hem. She preferred the summer’s more basic iteration.

Mark introduced Mickey, and if anyone hadn’t known who he was or how long he’d been observing them, they didn’t let on, smiling as though meetings like this were some kind of regular reward.

“What do you think went well today?” Mickey asked neutrally. “Don’t be shy.”

“We had a lot of foot traffic,” one of the college boys finally said. “More than usual for a weekday.”

“Is that right?” Mickey mused.

Hearing this, the college boy seemed to lose an inch of confidence—not much, but a perceptible amount. “I mean,” he said, sliding his hands into his pockets, “I think so.”

Mickey nodded. “All right. What else?”

People volunteered anecdotes. Someone had sold a customer the jacket she came in for, and the matching skirt as well. Someone else had tracked down a size from another store and was having it shipped directly to the customer’s home. They’d sold a few gift cards. A favorite regular had come in for a belt.

“And what do you think didn’t go so well?”

Everyone looked at their feet. Alissa tried to think of a weakness that was actually a strength, and failing that, tried to look like she was thinking at all.

“I have to tell you,” Mickey said, “this is one our most under-performing stores, so I imagine a lot of things didn’t go so well today. You know about the missing merchandise, of course. That’s getting better. But you’re still not keeping pace with other stores of this size. Why do you think that is?”

The ass-kicking was coming after all. Alissa tried to catch Tory’s eye, but she was staring intently at a display niche bearing a purple leather handbag.

“Could be a question of store placement,” the college boy said. Evan—that was his name. He was clearly used to speaking first.

“Could be,” Mickey replied. “We’re looking into it. But I have to tell you, my gut says that’s not it.”

Alissa was becoming aware of an ache cresting from her knees to her lower back. She had never worked twelve hours straight before, and all that standing was finally beginning to test her stamina. She shifted her weight to one side, then the other, finally coming to rest against the table of mohair cardigans, cushioning her elbows on the many-layered pile.

“What do you think?” Mickey said. Mark whispered in his ear, and Mickey added, “Alissa,” and still it took her a moment to recognize that he was speaking to her.

“Well,” she said, taking her time. “I think there are several issues.”

“That’s right,” Mickey said. “And I think you know what they are. When we spoke earlier, you were a perfect model of customer service. Great tone. And your personal style is completely of the moment. Everyone look at Alissa.” A dozen groomed heads turned her way, their gazes even and appraising. “This is exactly how we want our sales associates to dress. So, then, from your perspective, what needs to change around here?”

No one had ever asked Alissa such an important question before. Even the questions her college professors had posed from their faraway lecterns were clearly directed at someone else—someone who’d already obsessed over them or was looking online at that moment and would therefore have some kind of answer. Her professors knew better than to expect anything of her. But Mickey Bailey apparently did not. Here he was, an incredibly rich man, a famous CEO who’d built his success on intuition, asking her what ought to be changed in his store. His face waited expectantly across the room, cool and bright as a refrigerator.

“For one thing,” she said. “Most of us are part-time, and none of us work on commission. So I don’t know how invested we are in actually making sales. And there are also issues with inventory and store layout.” She grazed her hand over the pile of mohair sweaters. “These have been here over a month. No one buys them. Definitely not anyone cool.”

Mickey’s expression brightened further. “Why not?” he asked.

“Because they’re too similar to a lot of other styles, but not nearly as versatile. Like, the Bonnie?” she pointed at Tory, who had on a pink one. “It’s sexy and you could wear it every day.” She bit her lip, hoping she hadn’t gone too far in calling the garment sexy.

“You know what?” he said. “You’re absolutely right. I hated that sweater from the first moment I saw it.” Someone gasped. “I hate a few pieces every season. It’s the nature of the business—some styles work, some don’t. But this store should’ve recognized the mistake when they didn’t sell and moved them out of the prime position. See how many are left?” His previously calm voice rose, and continued to rise, almost precipitously. “You think the customer can’t smell failure? Believe me, she can. She can smell it the moment she walks in the store. It’s like that one stinking stall in the food court. The frying oil, or whatever it is. It sticks to everything! It makes it all taste wrong!”

Mickey could’ve been a mega-church preacher the way he ranted and flapped his arms. It was an ass-kicking all right, but she was somehow exempt. As he thundered about the cash wrap, he repeatedly singled her out for her perception and wit. Alissa felt as though she’d been wrapped in a soft cashmere cloak of immunity. Other staffers were called upon to rethink their methods. The customers in the room were called upon to make suggestions. And through it all Mickey kept looking her way. Alissa could barely listen, feeling as good as the fall catalog cover girl looked, standing atop a seaside boulder in a brilliant red toggle coat while blue ocean and green sea grass vied for her attention below.

Less than two months on the job and already she was headed for better things. He shook her hand before he left and asked her to send him her resume. A few of his trusted stylists would be back to speak with her directly. She walked out to her car in the deserted garage feeling like an astronaut touching down on a new planet of her own.

“Hey!” Tory’s voice called out from behind her. Alissa stopped and waited, one foot on either side of a white parking space line.

“Way to go,” Tory said, as she drew nearer. “Way to throw the rest of us under the bus.” Her forehead shone and she was panting a little, as though she’d been running to catch up.

Alissa laughed and tossed her hand like it was no big deal, but Tory didn’t seem in the mood to laugh. She zipped her coat as though striking a match.

“He was going to say all that anyway,” Alissa said. “Hey, I used you as an example!”

“Everyone loves the Bonnie!” Tory said, not quite mad, not quite sarcastic. She looked tired. “Whatever. It’s just a part-time job. I’m on again Friday. You?”

“I’m always on,” Alissa said, before she realized how it sounded.

Tory grinned. “Honestly, you’re nuts. You should just go back to college already. How hard can it be for Mickey’s special protégé?”

Alissa thought about the girl with the panties in the dorm laundry room and the fraternity boys, some of whom, it was true, had forced things a little, pressing harder on her dry, unreceptive body while she let her mind turn off. But that wasn’t the reason she left, not really. She always had a more general reason for doing whatever she did. A nagging feeling, maybe. A sense. She saw herself as a freshman, standing alone on the green that had been washed of color by weeks of winter and the lightless late afternoon, while everyone else—students, professors, whoever—hurried about in pairs and trios and packs, caressing their books, caressing their cell phones, absorbed in a game that had somehow started, and now continued, and probably would for years, without her. She saw that she’d been special for a while, once, and then all of a sudden she wasn’t.

Except that now, again, she was.


When Alissa got home, Caryn was in the great room, triangulated in downward dog. Alissa flopped down on the couch and watched her mother realign herself under the skylights, which hung, black and rectangular, like the eyes of a carnival mask.

“Long day!” Caryn exclaimed, once she was fully upright. “I was beginning to worry.”

A college basketball game swung back and forth on the muted flatscreen and in flickering reflection on the windows all around, making the room seem full of people rooting for Alissa to win.

“The CEO came,” she blurted. “He wants to see my resume.”

“The CEO?” Caryn was instantly ecstatic. She pulled Alissa to her feet and hugged her in the middle of the sticky purple mat. Her beautiful mother, smelling of eucalyptus and talc. She hadn’t always given the best advice, but there was no one in the world who cared about her more, no one in the world more elegant.

Before Alissa went to bed that night, she emailed her resume to Mickey Bailey.

Dear Mr. Bailey,
It was my great honor to meet and learn from you today at Colonial Plaza. It was definitely the highlight of my year. You asked for my resume so I’m attaching it to this email. I look forward to speaking with you about my professional career and your theories of fashion success.
Sincerely,
Alissa P. Barrows
P.S. I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but I left college just like you because I didn’t think the classroom could nurture my talents. Fashion is not about lectures and assigned reading. It’s about knowing what makes people look good and what makes them feel good about how they look. You have to touch fabric every day to know those kinds of things. I know I have so much to offer if you’ll only give me the chance.

For a moment after she hit send, she regretted the line about touching fabric. It was possible he didn’t think about things metaphorically as she did, or that he’d misconstrue it as a come-on. But he didn’t strike her as that kind of creep, and it really was how she felt.

She checked her email first thing the next morning. There was an alert from the college registrar and a sale announcement from a rival retailer, plus a joke forward from a high school friend with the subject line “21 Clues You’re Tanked.” Nothing yet from Mickey Bailey. She went to work and unpacked a shipment of three dozen v-neck sweaters. For lunch she got a cup of vegetarian minestrone, which she ate on a fern-flanked bench by herself.

There were no emails from Mickey that night, or the next day, or anytime that week. The next week, she and Caryn celebrated Thanksgiving with extended family at Ellen’s house one county over, where none of the yards had trees. Caryn wouldn’t shut up about Mickey Bailey. “The CEO,” she kept telling Ellen as though he were a new brand of organic yogurt she wanted everyone to buy. Alissa wore her blue Bonnie sweater over the new donegal minidress, and tried not to feel humiliated.

The days dragged on through Christmas, and then the new year. Alissa bought a hooded parka with her discount and every morning watched her breath disappear while she waited for the car to warm up. She went to work. She sold alpaca sweaters and gabardine trousers and calf-skin boots with buckles. She even sold a few of the mohair sweaters, now that they were on sale.

She recognized, as she recreased the latest oxford shirts along their natural folding lines one afternoon, and swung her skeleton key on the curly cord she wore around her wrist, that nothing had happened—despite the promise in Mickey’s handshake that he would take care of her, despite the energy he had directed her way. It was as though all of November had been erased, and the current hour was all there was. Even her mother had already forgotten. She felt like a team that had lost so many times, no one remembers the last time it won. Her father was on a team like that once—bad management, bad game plans—and after he’d gotten over the initial shame of being juked by really pretty average guys one Sunday after another, he’d said it wasn’t so bad. “I’m still a lucky man,” he’d told her. “Football has given us so much.”

Designers from headquarters eventually paid a visit, and one morning when she came in all the displays had been rearranged. The jewelry case where Mickey had examined the brooch was gone, but in its place was a rack of petal-colored blouses that heralded the new season. In the center, a nylon tree plumed like an umbrella over a gathering of slick waterproof galoshes. Alissa stood beneath it in the quiet minutes before opening and felt almost exalted to see the branches disappear in the blazing lights above.

The cash wrap, of course, still stood, and during the slower periods of the day, Alissa still liked to stand beside it, flipping the pages of the latest catalog, traveling with the models from a covered bridge in Vermont to a lavender field in Provence, from a Moroccan bazaar to a zesty peel of Pacific beach. They were landscapes like the finest milled cotton. She’d wear them onward, onward into spring.

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