claudia b. manley
When Karin opens her eyes, she focuses them on the ceiling. It is a landscape she is comfortable with – blank, white, few blemishes. Just one more minute, she thinks. Let everything be this way for one more minute. But the alarm continues, and, as she turns to swat it off, she can’t help but see her apartment. It defeats her. The small studio teems with paper, boxes, and clothing. Cheap underwear dots the floor in little wads and nylons are strung between them. The only orderly thing is her closet.
Organized on a metal bar suspended by two chains from the ceiling, clothing is grouped by color and then by item. Shoes are stacked next to the wardrobe, all in their original boxes with Polaroids attached so that she can easily identify them.
She walks over to it and runs her hand along the clothes hung there. Noticing a maroon skirt stuck between two pairs of black pants, she quickly moves it to its proper place. She tries to remember when she would’ve made that mistake. Stepping back a few paces, she assesses the wardrobe again. It gives her a moment of comfort.
In the hallway, Karin runs into her neighbor, Emily. Pale, dark, thin Emily, a woman with a surprisingly pleasant temperament. She wears her requisite tight black jeans, high top sneakers, and T-shirt customized with scraps of fabric sewn on it. Her leather jacket is slung over her arm. Karin feels overdressed in wide-legged brown trousers, camel slingbacks, and a fitted bone suede jacket. Its high collar makes her stand up taller.
Emily doesn’t seem to mind. “Hey there!”
Karin smiles. They’ve both paused on the landing, and this makes her happy.
“It seems like I never see you anymore,” Emily says. “How about coming over for a couple of beers this weekend? Something cheap and easy.” Emily tilts her head as she says this.
Karin thinks she hears her phone ring but resists the urge to run back upstairs. She has Emily here before her.
One of the reasons Karin likes Emily is that she knows that Emily, too, has difficulty paying her rent. She’s heard their landlord speak to Emily about this from the landing. He never steps inside a tenant’s apartment unless he’s made an appointment to fix something, there’s an emergency, or he’s specifically invited in. Emily likes to make him stand in the doorway; she once explained to Karin that it gave her a sense of power. “I don’t care who hears him,” she’d said. “Half the people in this building are behind in their rent.” For Karin, this also gave her a feeling of community.
Emily is waiting for Karin’s reply.
“Yes, sure. That’d be great,” Karin finally answers.
“How about Saturday? Is Saturday good for you?” Emily has experienced Karin’s lack of follow-through before. Of the five or so attempts Emily has made in the past year, only one of them ended up in an actual shared drink.
“Fine. I get out of work at 7 and am usually home by 8. Should I bring something?”
“Don’t bother. We can order Chinese. How’s that? I always have plenty of beer.”
“Great.” Karin knows that she can take an advance from her pay and at that moment decides she will buy Emily dinner on Saturday.
“Cool. It’ll be fun,” Emily says, and they continue together down the stairs.
The same anemic musician, playing ‘50s rockabilly, whines in the long tunnel between trains as Karin goes to work each day. He alternately wears jeans and bowling shirts or dingy white pleather pants with sleeveless black T-shirts.
To move through his voice echoing off the tiles, Karin thinks, I am a Parisian shop girl, well-dressed, intelligent, and of a sunny disposition despite my meager existence.
She wants to pay him to stop. Instead of averting her eyes this morning, as she usually does, she looks directly at him. I hate you.
Mrs. Brown stands before Karin, craning her neck to look over her shoulder and assess the view from behind. “What do you think?” she asks Karin. She is trying on a taupe muslin skirt with an asymmetrical hem and razor-sharp pleats.
“It’s lovely,” Karin replies and walks slowly, as though deep in reflection. Please, please, buy this please. I know you want it, just fucking buy it. I need this. She stops on the other side of her, “It really fits you quite well.”
Mrs. Brown hesitates, smoothing the pleats over her hips. Karin imagines cuts on her palms and winces slightly at imaginary blood stains. The ringing phone pulls her back. “Excuse me just a minute, Mrs. Brown.”
On the phone she takes a customer’s name to be added to the waitlist for a hot new handbag. Karin jots the woman’s name right after her own pseudonym on the list.
Returning to Mrs. Brown, who is still in front of the mirror, she makes her move. “Quite honestly, I’ve been thinking about buying it myself.”
Mrs. Brown looks at her in the mirror.
Karin is, as always, dressed beautifully, but not competitively. With a neat and trim figure she can carry off the fitted rust- and olive-blocked sweater and the brown suede skirt. She balances delicately, effortlessly, atop three-inch heels that cost more than her rent. She understands how important shoes are. She also knows that Mrs. Brown would like to be young like her but has settled for wealth, convinced of its staying power. The skirt is both trendy and expensive.
“You’re right,” Mrs. Brown says, digging her credit card out of her purse. “I’ll take it.” A few minutes later she calls from behind the dressing room curtain, “Darling, have it sent to my house, all right? I have too many packages to carry already.”
“Of course,” Karin replies.
On her way home Karin stops at the newsstand. She managed to get a $75 advance from her manager, although she was told that it could not become a habit or common knowledge. Karin fabricated a sick pet to garner sympathy.
“Vets are so expensive,” her manager had confirmed.
Karin flips through French Vogue. She sees a dress she already owns and looks at the model’s face. She appears triumphant.
Karin pays for the magazine and continues on. She knows that people glance at her, take a moment to appreciate her outfit, sometimes comment outright to her. She squeezes the magazine between her arm and body, satisfied.
As she rounds the corner she comes to a florist and pauses. Striking arrangements of parrot tulips catch her eye. Beautiful purple hues play off each other in one while all white bouquets provide a mock-snow backdrop. Chinese food is fine, but what are the chances that Emily buys herself nice flowers?
Even though the bouquet cost over twice what she would’ve paid for dinner, Karin is pleased. She can’t wait to see Emily’s reaction.
Her coworker, Barbara, has repeatedly asked her to come out for drinks after work. She always says that she can’t believe that Karin hasn’t been to Velvet or Blackout or Hermitage or Cellar or whatever yet. “It’s where everyone goes. I’d think a girl like you, Karin, would be on top of all the new nightspots.”
Usually Karin has some kind of believable, or at least imaginative, excuse. Tonight she is too tired to think of one. Oh, well. Maybe it’ll be fun. I had fun with Emily; why not with Barbara?
Sitting in the red leather booth with five of Barbara’s friends, Karin wonders what it would be like to have them as her own. I can pull the most ordinary ingredients together – onion, carrot, bread, and cheese – and present a wonderfully satisfying meal for my friends. She sips her one drink of the night very slowly. There is only $12 left from the advance.
A glossy brunette to her right (Sally? Sarah?) is speaking. “So, Carrie and I went to the ballet the other night, and guess who I saw? Brent!”
A tremor of incredulous “nooooo” rounds the table, skipping over Karin.
“Can you believe,” the brunette continues (Susan?) “he had the nerve to show up on my subscription night? Of course he knew I’d be there; after all, he’d bought the tickets…”
Karin excuses herself and goes to the bathroom. In the stall, the thick scent of another woman lingers over the just-flushed toilet. She closes her eyes and holds her breath. It is embarrassingly intimate, but she sits down anyway. She waits for the moment to pass. It’s always difficult to decide whether to cry or to rage. She waits. Nothing comes.
Sitting on the edge of her single bed, groggy from a dull but heavy sleep, she rubs her eyes, grinding left-over makeup into them. She goes into the bathroom where she attempts to ignore the filth around the sink, but winces anyway at the familiar stab of personal failure. She lets the phone ring. She doesn’t need a wake-up call from Visa.
In the kitchen she uses her forearm to clear dishes and take-out containers from the counter. They tumble into the sink. There are no coffee filters anywhere. Again, that failure. Picking up a dirty cup, she throws it with a sudden strength against the opposite wall. It shatters and shards splinter across the floor. For an instant she is satisfied, and then heads downstairs to buy a cup of coffee before the feeling dissipates.
It is Karin’s turn to stand before the dressing room mirror, changing angles to see how the skirt looks on her. Alex, her salesman, fawns over her. The lovely mademoiselle models an outfit for the handsome young gentleman.
“I don’t know,” she says, turning once again to the left. “I’m not sure the cut is quite right.” She says this despite the fact that she’s been anxiously awaiting the arrival of this skirt for months. She has already mentally tallied which of her credit cards could sustain the burden.
“How do you mean? I think the lines are really flattering on you.” He stands next to her. They would make a handsome couple. “There are not many women who could wear this. You can.” He smiles.
We are nothing alike.
“Hmm. Let me think about it.” She just needs a little more of his sweat to make the purchase satisfying. He works on commission, too. The season has been slow. A sale like this could help him meet his quota for the day, if not the week.
“Of course,” he assents.
The bar around the corner from her apartment has been reincarnated as a lesbian hot spot. She envies the girls hanging around outside it, and when the bouncer smiles at her, she pivots toward the entrance.
Thankfully it’s dark inside because she’s immediately self-conscious. She looks down at the acid green spectator pumps she’s wearing. My shoes are all wrong. No one seems to notice. She settles onto a bar stool and orders an acceptable vodka on the rocks. As she turns to grab her drink, she knocks into a young woman. The vodka spills onto the floor. “Oh, sorry,” Karin says.
“My fault,” the woman smiles at her. “Need another?”
“Another drink. Can I get you another drink?” She beckons the bartender.
“Thank you, but that’s really not necessary.” Karin begins to pick up her bag. She looks at it anxiously to see if any alcohol got on it. It was only paid off last week.
“Relax, just one drink. Besides, you just got here.”
Karin shifts back onto the stool. It would be rude to just walk out. She smiles politely when the bartender places the drink before her. She tries not to finish it in one swallow. She noticed me.
“Ellen,” the woman extends her hand. “What’s your name?”
Karin is startled by the conversation. Ellen waits for an answer. “Beth. My name is Beth.”
“Beth,” Ellen repeats, convincing Karin of the name. “And how come I’ve never seen you here before, Beth?”
Ellen continues, “Because I think I’d remember you.”
Karin feels a little warm. “Well, I don’t go out much, I guess.” She senses how weak the words are even as they struggle to pass through her mouth.
Ellen nods and smiles. “Work keep you busy?”
“Mind if I ask what you do?” Ellen takes a slow sip of her own drink.
“Sure. I work in sales,” she answers, hoping it sounds promising enough without being an outright lie. Suddenly she wishes she’d given her real name.
“You like your work?”
“Enough.” Karin shifts slightly toward Ellen. Her shoulders fall away from her neck and she lets herself look Ellen in the face. “What about you? What do you do?”
As Ellen begins to answer, she’s interrupted by a voice and hand from behind her. She turns toward it, “Hey! I haven’t seen you in ages!” Ellen hugs the interruption. “How the hell are you? Oh, Macy, this is Beth.” Ellen introduces the two of them.
“Excuse me for a minute; I need to go to the ladies’ room.” Karin slips off her bar stool.
When she returns, she stops at the top of the stairs to see Ellen and Macy laughing and smiling where she left them. They seem to be having fun. She wonders if they were lovers once. Ellen sees her and waves her back over.
“I really should get going,” Karin says as she gathers her coat.
“No, really? It’s still early.” Ellen looks at her watch. “One more drink?”
“I can’t. Sorry.” Again Karin shrugs.
“Well, could I call you?”
Caught off-guard, Karin writes her real number on the napkin Ellen pushes in front of her.
“Great,” Ellen says. “I’ll give you a call in a few days. Get home safely.”
She doesn’t bother to turn on the light when she enters her apartment and makes her way along the path she swept with her feet this morning. There’s no moon tonight, but she doesn’t care. She pulls her dress over her head and, like a blind woman, feels her way over to the wardrobe to gingerly place it on a padded hanger.
On her bed, she takes off her underwear and flicks them with her foot onto the floor. She knocks over a glass as she reaches for her T-shirt. “Shit,” she says aloud as the sound of liquid hitting the floor confirms her fears. Lying on her back, she stares at the ceiling. If Ellen calls, I’ll tell her that most people call me Karin; that Beth is actually my middle name.
It takes her a long time to fall asleep.
Karin has just shipped Mrs. Brown a lovely cashmere sweater with “edgy” (as she described it to her) cutouts. A young man walks into the shop. Karin notices him immediately and tries to assess the possible purchase he might make. He seems nervous so she writes him off as having low potential.
He stops in the middle of the store and pulls out a gun. For a moment, Karin is pleased that she could tell he wasn’t going to buy anything.
The man with the gun is telling everyone to stay calm, and Karin stands still with her hands on the counter.
“You!” He is pointing at Karin.
“Yes?” She doesn’t move.
“Gimme the fucking cash before I blow a hole in your fucking head!”
Karin doesn’t reply but opens the register. She proceeds to pull money out of the drawer as though she were giving change to a customer. There’s not much cash as most of their transactions are credit, but she doubts he wants to hear this. The phone rings and instinctively she reaches to answer it. She barely manages the first syllable of greeting when he shoots her.
It’s really quite stunning – the force of the bullet in her shoulder and the searing, unnatural sensation. It’s almost not painful. Lying on the floor, she hears the screams around her. The man with the gun has lost control. He is not a professional. He should just leave now. Her shoulder is warm and wet when she touches it, and she figures her blouse is ruined. She could stand up but doesn’t really feel like it. She will rest now, content to quietly bleed on the floor. The man with the gun has apparently run out, and Barbara is at her side. Karin smiles. Maybe Ellen will see me on TV and call.
Karin imagines Ellen visiting at the hospital, sitting by her bedside. Karin could have Barbara bring her a dressing gown (the boutique across the street specializes in intimates) so she wouldn’t have to be seen in one of those awful hospital ones. Ellen would bring her flowers, she’s sure of it. She resists the urge to close her eyes, not wanting to miss anything.
After receiving my MFA from Columbia University, I moved to Hamilton, Ontario where I write, teach, and make art. My stories have appeared in numerous journals including Calyx, Night Train, and Joyland. A recipient of both an Ontario Arts Council Writers’ Reserve grant and two Emerging Artist grants, I currently teach writing at Western University in London, Ontario and am a member of the art collective Shake –n- Make (shake-n-make.mcmaster.ca/).
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