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 pennies.
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.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Lowenthal. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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