A Spool Of Thread
By Laura Madeline Wiseman
Her list was neatly folded inside her purse. She opened it to double check the several items and make sure she didn't want to add something else. No, she thought, this is everything, and began creasing the paper into a fan. It was Tuesday, her shopping day, and she rode the bus to the shopping center. Stella delivered mail on a quiet suburban route, a nice route that wound through curving streets, up and down hills. The second and fourth Tuesday of the month she had off, and those were her shopping days.
Off the bus, Stella headed into a fabric store to find a spool of thread to finish some drapes she was making for the front room. As she pursued the display case, she thought, I might even get a couple of new colors. After all she was considering redecorating the bedroom.
“Do you need some help?” a saleswoman asked.
“Oh yes.” She reached into the maw of her floral print handbag for a sample of the fabric. “I have a scrap right here. It's just the color of the thread I purchased from this store a while ago.” Stella pulled it out to present to the woman, but when she looked up the woman had gone. Stella took a minute to look for her. Shop women were often hard to find and this one was no different.
As Stella picked up spools to determine the match, the woman reappeared.
“There you are,” Stella said, “I’m trying to match this.” She reached over as if to hand the saleswoman the tiny pink scrap, but the woman simply stared.
The saleswoman was small, in a compact and delicate way that middle-aged women often weren’t. She wore pressed khaki pants and a silk blouse which buttoned all the way to her neck. Her nametag didn’t have her name on it. Stella assumed that she must be new to the store, and thus a little intimidated by customers. Stella didn't feel she was the threatening type, although she did have several pounds on the woman and her arms were unusually strong from all her years at the post office. Occasionally Stella felt embarrassed about her arms. They looked like a man's, muscular, defined, and made for work. Over the years, to her dismay, Stella had become increasingly unfeminine in appearance. Even with the walking and lifting she had thickened. Her legs and butt were now stout. Her ample bust was hardly noticeable above her belly, which she jokingly called her pouch.
Stella fit her middle-aged years, whereas the nameless saleswoman did not.
“Hi,” Stella said again and smiled in a friendly manner, moving the fabric that hung in between them to the spool rack for color comparison. “You used to carry a color I adore called Burnt Rose by this German company. I can't seem to find it. I was hoping for some assistance.”
The saleswoman stood there, arms dangling at her side, her gaze directed to somewhere above and to the right of Stella. She seemed bored and maybe a little sad, as if on this Tuesday she'd rather be doing anything other than handling customers.
“Excuse me,” Stella said and frowned, wondering if perhaps the woman was deaf. The saleswoman continued to concentrate on something beyond Stella. Stella spun around to follow the stare and saw nothing out of the ordinary. There was a beveled mirror to watch for shoplifters, top shelves overstocked with merchandise, fluorescent lamps humming slightly, and an egg-shell colored ceiling tile with a few unpleasant water marks. When Stella turned back, the woman was gone. Fine, Stella thought, what a freak. She decided to find the thread herself.
It seemed that the German company had discontinued her color, but, luckily, she found a match produced by an expensive American maker. She unwound a small portion of the thread to stretch it and see if it would break. Most American thread was poorly made and often broke during the stitching or, worse, soon after the item was completed. American thread required frequent mending, although this string appeared to be fine. Stella took two spools of it and several German ones up to the cashier.
The register was empty, as was often the case in craft stores where the two or three employees were responsible for stock, cutting cloth, helping customers, and check out. Stella waited patiently, taking great breaths of the potpourri-scented store air. Finally, the nameless saleswoman appeared behind the cash register and began running the spools over the scanner.
“Did you find everything you needed?” she asked while fixated on her task.
“Yes, thank you,” said Stella, surprised. She had begun to wonder if the woman could speak or hear and whether she had imagined their first encounter. Maybe the woman had never spoken; maybe it had been Stella. After all, Stella knew that she sometimes didn't realize when she was speaking out loud or silently to herself. Many hours alone on her route, she tended to feel overwhelmed when people talked to her during work, to ask for stamps, which she didn't sell, or for their mail, which she couldn’t deliver by matching a face to an address. And after such rare but poignant encounters, she would go over and over the scenes in her head to make sure she hadn’t been talking to herself and that she had said the right thing, as she didn't want to be fired. Those meetings baffled her and disturbed the quiet meditation of her work.
“Check or charge?” the woman said.
“Cash,” Stella said, reaching into the floral bag to find her wallet.
“Check or charge,” the woman repeated as Stella pulled out a twenty. The woman stared at the bill fluttering lightly in the circulation of the fans.
“I'm sorry,” Stella said, “what did you say?”
“Check or charge?”
“Oh, cash please.”
“We don't take cash.”
“Yes, you do. I was in here just two weeks ago and paid by cash. I probably have the receipt right here in my wallet if you’d like me to find it.” Stella laughed a little nervously, but also to show the saleswoman she meant no harm, especially if she were new. Stella didn't envision herself one of those rude customers demanding this or that in a loud voice. Those types always made her cringe with humiliation and often made her wonder if people had manners anymore. The way some people acted in public, it was as if they thought they were better than everyone else, when certainly they were not.
“We don't take cash.”
“Yes, you do.”
Stella paused, feeling an overwhelming sense of urgency to prove she was right on this one point, and took out her receipts to find the one from two weeks ago. She rifled through them; it was a large stack.
I’m behind , Stella thought. I have neglected my budget. The wad of yellow and white sales receipts was a symbol of this. Stella tried hard to live within her means, to stick to the small amount of money she allowed herself to spend on her Tuesdays for the things she did not need but wanted.
“Where is it? I know it's here,” she said to herself, as tiny slips of paper floated away from her hands. It wasn't there.
“Check or charge?” the woman repeated loudly.
Stella looked up at her, arms rigid with the task, and noticed a line of customers had formed behind her. Three women stood impatiently with their items and gawked with apparent disgust at the scene she was making.
“Charge then,” Stella said, pulling out a silver charge card that she had been working for the last two years to pay off. Setting her bag on the counter, Stella furiously stuffed handfuls of tiny papers into the top, not caring that they wouldn't be in her wallet as she liked them. She made a mental promise to work on her budget when she got home. How could she have let it get like this? Those women probably think I'm stupid, she thought, getting down on her knees to chase the receipts on the floor.
Stella stood and sighed deeply. “Slippery little things,” she said and turned to smile unthreateningly at the woman just behind her, but the woman only stared. Stella smiled larger, but the woman glared on. Stella turned away, back to the thin cashier who was waiting for her to sign the receipt.
“Do you have a pen?” Stella asked.
The woman said nothing. Stella waited for a moment. Perhaps the woman had not heard her.
“Well, I might. Let me look,” Stella said. Again, she dug through her bag, careful not to allow anything to spill over the top. However, her pen was not in the small pocket where it usually rested and she was forced to feel blindly in the corners of the bag. Her pen was not there, or, if it was, she would have to dump out the entire contents to find it. This was not something she was willing to do, not with a line behind her.
“I seem to have misplaced mine. Do you have a pen?”
The saleswoman stared at her, unmoving and expressionless.
“Do you have a pen?” Stella said for the third time and, then, finally saw the store pen. It was taped to the register so customers couldn’t walk off with it. Bright orange tape spiraled to its top and attached a white large plastic spoon to its end. “Oh, I didn't see it,” she said, the woman still unresponsive.
Stella picked up the enormous spoon pen and signed her name while the wide end waved pathetically with her movements. Stella felt a great dislike toward this pen, especially when the saleswoman was painfully thin. Stella wondered how a spoon had gotten into a fabric store. It would have been more fitting had the pen been taped to a ruler or a knitting needle. Stella thought perhaps the spoon was a joke, a way for the saleswoman to laugh at the middle-aged women who frequented such stores, such as Stella herself, women who wore big, loose shirts that covered their bottoms, and long formless dresses that hung like tents. Then, the saleswoman could stand there, thin and smug, in her neat pleated blouse and tiny pants.
Stella handed the pen and receipt back to the woman, but the saleswoman only took the receipt, leaving Stella to hold that spoon pen in her hand. It looked small there in her huge hands and reminded her how manly they were, even with her perfectly-applied nail polish. Stella dropped the spoon on the counter; it rocked back and forth on its concave end menacingly.
The saleswoman held out her purchases and Stella took them. She walked carefully out of the store, trying not to draw any more attention to herself than she already had. As she exited she was sure the women were talking about her, laughing at the mess she had been there at the counter. The weight of their jokes seemed to follow her to the next store, where, before she opened the door, she decided she didn't have the heart to shop anymore. She went back to the bus stop. Sitting on the hot metal, she drank from a bottle of water and replayed the events in her head, trying to figure where she'd gone wrong.
The bus arrived. She boarded to find her favorite spot, not quite in the back, but in the middle. She took up one seat and her purse another. Opening her wallet as the bus pulled away, she eyed the new charge receipt and meticulously began putting all the slips of paper behind it. She didn't want to lose any.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona. Her works have appeared in 13 th Moon, The Comstock Review, Fiction International, Verbsap, Poetry Motel, Driftwood, apostrophe, Moondance, Dispatch, Familiar, Spire Magazine, Colere, Clare, Flyway Literature Review, Verse News, Meowpower, and other publications. She is the Literary Editor for IntheFray and a regular contributor to Empowerment4Women.
Photo "Red Thread" courtesy of Sarah, Brisbane, Australia.
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