No, no, he said. His gaze skittered oddly across her features, as
though following the flight of a bug he hoped to swat.
You can help me, miss. Im sure you can.
Im sorry, she repeated, nervous not only that her incompetence
would be spotted (what did she know of boning or figured broché?) but that
the clerks would be mad at her for meddling.
But you see, said the man, leaning over the counter so that
Frieda smelled his oversweet breath, Im aiming to surprise a lady friend.
Naturally, I wasnt able to ask her size. But you look just about her
dimensions. The salesclerk, if I may say, is a bit too saggy in the bosom.
He stretched saggy to sound exactly like its meaning, and Frieda
couldnt stifle a rising laugh.
Would you mind terribly telling me your size? he said. I lack
any experience in these matters.
His voice was cultured, Frieda thought, the kind of voice that could
get away with talking French words like amour and sonata (or was that
Spanish?). He had a moth-eaten attractiveness, his features clearly hand-me-
downs from a previous, more vital self. His eyes were the color of tarnished
Eaton, he said. George Eaton. Would you help me?
The first and last rule in the Jordan Marsh manual: The customer
must always be served. Frieda told the man her measurements.
Soon enough she found herself wrapping a large package of their
priciest hand-embroidered undergarments: fine albatross, in slow-burn
shades of rose. Grace Fitzroy, whod booked the sale, took the finished
bundle and gave it, Frieda saw, to Eaton.
But instead of heading left, toward the bank of elevators, he turned
right and sauntered straight to Frieda. Atop the package sat his careful
note: For you, with the hope that I might see how they become you. Meet
me out front. Six oclock.
As soon as he was gone, Lou came rushing. You batty, Frieda?
Whyd you talk to him?
Hes a customer. He asked for my advice.
Not him, though. Hes notorious! Why didnt you mind my signal?
When Frieda professed ignorance, Lou had to explain that two
taps of the timepiece meant Watch out. The store teemed with disreputable
men. Next time, she admonished, tell him off.
Frieda couldnt fathom why the gifts should be returned hadnt
Eaton paid for them in cash? but Lou and Grace said she had to do it.
(Grace crossed herself: There but for God.) Obediently Frieda gave them up,
but kept as her secret where she planned to go at closing time. She exited
as usual by the employees alley door, then crept round, keeping in the
shadows. George Eaton was waiting by the main glass-door entrance,
whistling a nonchalant song. Whistling and waiting, just for her.
Frieda stood trembling ten minutes, fifteen studying this
man who wanted her. Eaton placidly tipped his hat to passersby, now and
again checked his pocket watch. She couldnt quite judge if he was dashing
or disturbing or if maybe there wasnt all that big a difference. How would it
feel to ask so boldly for what you wanted?
She took two jittery steps in his direction, then scuttled back to
shadowed safety. Her tongue turned edgy, sharp within her mouth. And her
heart, by the time Eaton shrugged and loped away, thumped so hard she
feared it might bruise.
Which is how she feels now, minus the doubt: Felix is no lewd
lurker preying on the guileless; hes a mensch, a U.S. Army private, ready to
brave the trenches Over There. (His uniform! Its manful, raspy feel.) Sure,
maybe shes loony theyve kept company but the once, which ended with
Frieda running off but something tells her he might be a keeper. She
knows it by the fierce, delicious tension in her joints. Her whole self is a
knuckle that needs cracking.
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