Michael joked that his sister rode the streetcar every day to make up for never having outdistanced him on a sled. Though he was as immune as the rest of her family to the forces that drew her to Washington Street, he formulated a theory to explain the aberration.
"I don't know how it came to be," he informed her once it became clear she would not be abandoning her streetcar commute, "but it looks like you turned out the migrating bird in a family of pigeons." Lydia treasured his gift, picturing herself as she rode the streetcar as one of the long-necked geese whose silhouettes she observed angling south in late autumn.
On the other side of the bridge, in the stockroom, Lydia learned the difference between a heavy tub silk and a crepe de chine shirt and the relative merits of a Norfolk versus a sacque suit. She learned that the best suit jackets were nipped in at the waist and slope-shouldered. When a counter girl was fired for tardiness, Lydia was ready. She claimed the sales floor for herself.
For four years she worked behind a lustrous wood counter on the ground level, amid the polished marble floors and hanging crystal lamps of the showroom. Gilchrist's Tiffany rotunda gazed down from three levels above like an emerald eye. Inside her starched, white shirtwaist, her hair piled into a careful bun, she felt as if her best self lurked just beneath her skin, a shimmery fish that might breach the surface at any moment. Standing before a selection of men's shirts in a dazzling array of colored fabric, she could eye a man's collar size, budget, and tastes in a glance and knew, just by looking, the thread count of a cotton shirt or the origins of a piece of silk.
Even after four years, she thrilled at sealing a customer's payment into a pneumatic capsule and sending it to the cashier for change. Miles and miles of pneumatic tubing crisscrossed Gilchrist's walls and ceilings. Capsules left Men's Furnishings on a current of compressed air to travel over Silks and Velvets, over Embroideries and Trimmings, past Veilings, and past Black and Colored Dress Goods. Lydia pictured her customers' sales slips speeding past countergirls whispering among themselves in Millinery, past the solitary salesgirl at Umbrellas who every day prayed for rain.
Lydia once visited the Cashier's Office just to see the veritable pipe organ of commerce where each capsule arrived with a thunk, its contents scrutinized by a woman whose hands must have smelled always of money. Lydia wondered if the woman scrubbed the scent from her skin at night, or if her dreams glimmered with visions of wealth. Whenever Lydia retrieved the returning capsules containing a customer's correct change, she felt the cold, dry breath of the pneumatic tube on the back of her hand. On slow days she listened to the exhalations of the tubes behind her counter. After four years, she still marveled at the notion that money pumped through the store no less fervently than blood through her own veins.
The morning of Lydia's first lunch with a customer, she had been standing with her back to the sales floor straightening her stock when her attention was redirected by a neighboring countergirl, who whispered Lydia's name once the gentleman had been standing a few moments unattended. The fellow was impressively dressed for someone so clearly uncomfortable in his own skin. His clothing seemed to subsume rather than enhance his form, as if his legs were no match for worsted wool, his chest unequal to the task of imported linen. Though he was a striking man, Lydia was reminded of a child, dressed with care by his mother.
Excerpted from Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg Copyright © 2005 by Myla Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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