Vicki said that she didn’t like to meet men on street corners. That was okay with Vic. She then specified a place that she had only heard about, the lobby of the Parker House Hotel. Vic got there first, and found himself in an entirely unfamiliar environment.
Apart from being known for Parker House rolls, rather insipid little things, it was a bastion of old New England. There were portraits on the walls depicting, not only Parkers, but Cabots, Lodges, Lowells, Saltonstalls, and Boylstons. There was even one of Paul Revere, despite his suspiciously French-sounding name. However, the lobby was ill-lit, and various antique oddments could, in the gloom, have been mistaken for purchases from the Salvation Army. No one who didn’t know the history could have known that its patrons represented great social, economic, and even political, power. Vic had to laugh at the fussiness and fustiness of the whole affair.
When Vicki came in, he did recognize her, but just barely. Her camel’s hair coat was open enough to show a subdued gray tweedy dress with a fairly full skirt, and, over her arm, she had a business-looking handbag. As usual, she looked older than she was. The glasses were gone, but she had a severe, even dangerous, look. She didn’t see Vic at first, but when he went to her, she said quietly, “We’re Jewish spies in an alien world.”
Waving at the surroundings in agreement, he suggested, “Then let’s sit down and make ourselves at home.”
Once seated in a leather chair with her skirt spread carefully over her knees, Vicki said, “No one seems to be about to ask us to leave.”
“I don’t think the level of anti-Semitism here is that high.”
“It’s always so hard to know. The other day I was in a little café in the Square, and the well-dressed woman at the next table was telling her friend about a woman she’d seen. The woman, she said, had huge sharp features, and looked like a prehistoric predator.”
“A vivid image.”
“At first, I thought she was talking about me and my Semitic features. But, then, I saw that she wasn’t a mean person who wanted to insult me. It turned out that she took the woman she’d seen to be an East Prussian aristocrat, part of the culture which produces officers with monocles and saber scars on their faces.”
“It’s always nice to come across bigotry directed at someone else.”
“Anyhow, back to us, I suppose you know that, in every city, there’s a big Jewish department store and a big anglo one. Gimbel’s and Macy’s in New York. Filene’s and Jordan Marsh here.”
“I was aware that I’m working for the anglophiles.”
“People who look the way I do now are sent out by the Jewish stores to spy on the competition. Not only the prices, but the way they display their goods, the way the salespeople dress, what they’re supposed to say to the customers, and so on.”
“Will you be recognized as a spy when we go to Jordan Marsh?”
“Will they even wait on you?”
“Yes. They’ll have spies of their own in Filene’s, and spies are shown a certain respect. Quite apart from commercial motives, neither bunch wants the other to have contempt for them.”
“A matter of professional pride?”
As they left the Parker House, Vic noticed that one of the doormen was unmistakably leering at Vicki. He remarked on it, and she replied, “They might hire almost any sort of person as a doorman, but he probably knows that he mustn’t ogle the regular customers. He may also have a thing for Jewish girls.”
“You actually do look quite sexy in that outfit.”
“Too bad for you. I don’t do sex. Bad family and bad history.”
“Really? I have a bad family, and not a great history.”
“But it hasn’t affected your sexuality?”
“No. But, I’ve always had other things that took priority.”
“So have I.”
“Were the guys you went out with displeased about not doing sex?”
“Not a great deal. The rule around here seems to be no serious sex before the fourth date, and I don’t think I ever went out on a fourth date. But they probably did get the idea from earlier on. A lot of girls are kind of romantic and kittenish, and that seems to hold promise.”
“I don’t think most people would describe you as being kittenish.”
“I hope not. But I’m not entirely asexual. I flirt with my eyes.”
“Which would be hard to do with those big black glasses. What’s intended as a flirt might come across as a threat.”
“Which is why I often wear them. But, as you see, not now.”
“I appreciate that. And you have been a bit different today.”
“Here we are, Vic.”
Vic was also aware that, while Jordan Marsh wasn’t Jewish, it wasn’t elite in the manner of the Parker House. All kinds of people went there to shop, and, while it was moderately weighted in the direction of the affluent, there were some bargains.
They wound up in one of the women’s departments that Vic often went through diagonally on a bike with Lizzie racing behind him. He didn’t have time to tell Vicki that he had once crashed into the rack of dresses that she was examining.
Since it was one of the more expensive parts of the store, there was a saleslady on hand to sell, and a chair. Vic occupied the chair, was given Vicki’s coat to hold. He then watched to see how aggressive the saleslady might be.
She was younger and blonder than most. She was also quite pretty in a quiet mannerly way. Vic knew that she would be on commission, but it seemed that she might be successful enough to make her sales without undue aggression. In fact, it looked as if Vicki liked her.
Vicki had previously announced that she would be getting only one dress, the discount allowing her to move up a notch or two from her usual haberdashery. After a good deal of discussion, the saleslady led her off to a fitting room with three dresses.
Before the family banishment from New York, Vic, as a young teen-ager, had occasionally gone shopping with his aunt, a vibrant and rather flamboyant woman only ten years his senior. Yvonne, though with more money than the other members of his family, liked the bargain basements of medium-sized Jewish stores.
He remembered the first time the best. The store was crowded, and, since there was a wait for the fitting rooms, many women changed between the racks of clothing. After all, the crowd was almost entirely female with only a scattering of male relatives. Right in front of Vic, a somewhat overweight woman who looked a little like his mother began to unfasten herself. It was a little scary since, quite apart from the resemblance, she was a long way from being beautiful. But he couldn’t quite not look.
The woman, with a quick dismissive look at Vic, probably thinking that he was too young to count, whipped the dress over her head with her slip coming up to reveal a shiny white girdle. She actually didn’t look bad. Her skin, at her thighs and shoulders, was pink and unblemished. Moreover, her flesh looked, not sloppy fat, but firm. Above all, the fact that she stood there with no evident embarrassment as she picked a dress off a hangar made an impression on the young Vic. He was pretty sure that it was against the rules, but he quite liked it. Yvonne, catching him staring, had laughed as she asked him to hold down her slip as she removed her dress. That was something else altogether.
There wasn’t going to be anything like that this time. The fitting rooms were well sheltered, and there certainly weren’t going to be any women undressing in public. On the other hand, there was the idea that Vicki, being led off under the control of the other young woman, was about to be disrobed. It wasn’t like being led off to be executed, but there was a passivity about it that was exciting. Even though the young saleslady didn’t look in the least lesbian, it seemed to Vic that there must be some sexuality in contacts between attractive young women. They were so sensitive to one another with feelings whipping back and forth that little touches might mean a lot. Men didn’t help each other take down their pants, but he was pretty sure that something analogous would shortly be occurring in the fitting room.
When Vicki came swirling out in a full-skirted red dress, she was obviously quite pleased. Vic was also pleased and congratulatory. So was the saleslady. The latter said to Vic, “If she gets this one, you won’t have to sit there forever and be bored.”
That turned out to be the case. Vicki changed back into her original dress, and the new one was boxed up attractively with a ribbon. The saleslady was then surprised to find that Vic was a fellow employee, and made some derisive comments about the store. When she handed him the receipt she allowed,
“Here’s hoping that we escape Jordan Marsh sometime soon.”
Out on the street, Vicki asked, “Were you bored?”
“Not at all. I had the feeling that all kinds of things were going on.”
“Not as much as often. That was a nice salesgirl with good taste. She knew what would suit me and brought it out. She didn’t try to move me up to something more expensive, and she didn’t engage in any false flattery. Would that it were always that simple.”
“Don’t women often play with images when they try on clothing?”
“Some do. There are probably women who imagine themselves as Princess So-and-so in one dress and as Marilyn Monroe in another. But I don’t have fantasies like that.”
“Those are ridiculous. But Vicki the Mathematician isn’t necessarily what you need to be at all times and in all circumstances.”
Tapping the large box, she replied,
“I don’t need this dress to be a mathematician. What do you think I should be in it?”
“I have an idea for both of us, although it’ll take some work on my part.”
“But not on mine?”
“You’re already closer to it, particularly with the clothes you have on now. Not to mention the new dress. I’m gradually discovering, mostly through reading, that there was an unusual civilization, now lost, in the areas of Eastern Europe that our families came from. It seems never to have been brought to America.”
“There’s no one in my extended family who could be thought very civilized in even the ordinary way, much less in any unusual way.”
“Nor in mine. Of course, the group I’ve been reading about was strictly an elite, and its members didn’t join any Ellis Island immigrant stream. It seemed to combine intelligence, elegance, and worldly knowledge to a very high degree.”
“A lot of elites are insular, have very little general knowledge, and aren’t particularly intelligent. They buy expensive clothes if that counts for elegance.”
“No. It can’t be entirely separated from the other qualities.”
Their conversation was briefly interrupted by a blast of cold wind coming from a side street. Vicki, momentarily unbalanced on her high-heeled pumps, grabbed Vic’s arm. When stabilized, she said,
“I sat next to two perfectly turned out young women in a café a while back. The image lasted until they began an idiotic conversation about clothes in squeaky harsh voices. The image vaporized real fast.”
“I think a really elegant woman would discuss clothing only with sales ladies.”
“Anyhow, Vic, we really are smart. We could make that hurdle. But we’re too young to have much worldly wisdom. And I wonder if it’s possible to be elegant in America. What if you drift into a room in a beautiful ball gown and somebody lets loose a loud fart?”
“That would be a problem. Sooner or later, someone would be bound to act in such a way as to dispel any illusion.”
“Is elegance an illusion?”
“I suppose it means pretending not to be animals when we know we really are.”
“Having said that, do you still want me to be elegant in the new dress?”
“We’ll just have to be careful in the company we choose to keep.”
“It happens that I do know someone who comes close to the kind of thing you have in mind. He’s an older man, a well-known mathematician, with broad interests and very varied experiences. He’s also a refugee Russian Jew.”
“Is he elegant?”
“I’m never conscious of his clothing, though I think it runs to tweed suits. His speech is precise and fluid, and I guess he’s elegant in that sense. He’s also good-natured and cheerful, but I don’t think he sets out to be charming.”
“Would he have sat in cafes in pre-war Europe, sipping coffee out of glass cups in the company of handsome and amusing ladies.”
Vicki, laughing, replied,
“So that’s your image! Well, I think Yuri might have done just that. You’ll be meeting him soon.”
“Really, how so?”
“Ken Martz told me to invite you to the geometry seminar Tuesday evenings. Yuri is one of the participants.”
“I hardly know anything about modern geometry.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’ll see.”
That night, back at the store, Vic was struck by the contrast between the fairly intense commercial activity of the morning, and the solitude of the evening. After his workout with Lizzie, it occurred to him, not for the first time, that he could steal almost anything he wanted. He often, as now, brought his backpack with him, and he could walk off with almost anything that would fit into it. There was shoplifting in the store every day, and no one would think it odd that anything was missing.
On the other hand, there was the downside. There was nothing in the store that he needed, and very little that he actually wanted. If, against all odds, he was caught, he would eventually be traced back to Claremont, or even Brownsville. Or, even if he wasn’t, he couldn’t afford to be put into a juvenile detention center anywhere. Not only that, he had always had something like a superstition against doing something that looked too easy. There would be a catch somewhere.
In the morning, it delighted Vic that the Mr. Casey accosted him, saying that too many items had been missing from the store, and wanted to check his backpack. Here was an opportunity to at least have some fun. Vic agreed affably and smiled as his items of clothing and books were unloaded.
Casey tried to carry it off with a gruff warning against theft. Viv replied,
“Since you don’t trust me, I won’t be back. You’re lucky that you only owe me one night’s salary.”
“Even if you don’t pay me for last night out of your pocket, I still won’t come back for my check.”
“You can’t do that!”
Vic responded casually,
“What makes you think that I can’t quit?”
“You’re too damned sensitive! Night watchmen steal all the time. They expect to be checked.”
“That may be. I don’t.”
“You’ve got to come back tonight anyhow. I can’t get anyone else that soon.”
“Take the shift yourself. You’re here late at night and early in the morning. You might as well stay over. Besides, Lizzie’s a sweet dog. Just be nice to her.”
“Shit! Look, I didn’t mean to insult you, Vic. Just think it over.”
As Vic exited, Casey said,
“How can I reach you?”
Vic was careful not to look back as he walked casually away. Not even when he heard steps behind him. Casey came up, and said, in a tired voice,
“What will it take to get you back.”
“I’ll stay as long as you double my salary.”
“Blackmail consists in threatening to release damaging information unless payment is received.”
“Oh, all right, dammit. But it won’t be for long!”
“The shorter the better.”
As he finally left Casey, Vic thought that his tenure would probably be as long as he wanted to make it. The store was saving money by hiring someone like himself instead of a regular bonded guard service. He was probably cheap at double the money.