Jane Rose Porter

Contest Winner - 1st Place

Jane Rose Porter is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. She was a 2013 Emerging Writer Fellow at the Center For Fiction and has been awarded residencies by the Jentel Artist Residency Program and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Her stories, essays, and articles have appeared in publications including Real Simple Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Fast Company, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Fourteen Hills, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Men’s Health. Jane has an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College and a BA in English from Brown University. She is currently at work on her first novel. You can read more of her writing at janeroseporter.com.

 

It's Clean

The knot of gold slipped from Lucy’s fingers to the parquet floor when the phone rang. “Shit!” she called into the empty room and pressed the phone to her cheek, crawling along the floor of her studio apartment. She ran her fingers between the uneven grooves of the old floorboards in search of the gold chain and its elephant charm.

“What is it?” she said, groping along the slats of wood. Her father was calling. He always wanted to talk at the most inopportune moments, but she felt an obligation to answer when his name appeared on her phone. The last time she'd ignored his calls, her grandmother had suffered a heart attack and nearly died.

“Why such a rush? You’ve got someone over there waiting for you?” he said.

“Mind your business,” she said.

“You know where I was today?" he went on. "You’re not going to believe where I was today.” Every phone call with him, like a bad standup routine.

“Hurry up, Dad. I’m late.” She pressed her free cheek to the floor and peered under the sofa, thick with dust and hair.

“You know who called me?” he tried instead, as if this might go over better with the crowd. “The police! They told me, 'Come to the station.' She put twenty packets of yeast and a pound of flour in her purse and walked out without paying. They took her away in a cop car.”

“Jesus,” Lucy said, sitting upright on the floor.

Lucy’s grandmother was eighty-one. That year, she’d started talking to the pictures on the walls. She slept most of the day, her face hollow with age, the loose flesh reminding Lucy of an old paper bag left out in the rain.

But that was not the image of her Lucy had in mind as she leaned against the frame of the couch. She saw a younger version of her grandmother now—plump and rosy-cheeked, lips painted metallic pink, dressed up for a weekend outing to the department store. The contrast between such elegance and this startled her in a way her father could not comprehend. He’d never shared those afternoons with them, browsing the aisles of clothes in their hunt for exquisite things.

He was yelling for her grandmother to turn the TV down.

“Are you talking to me or what?” Lucy said. Clothing was heaped on her bed and all around her on the floor—discarded outfits she’d considered for her date. Trying on clothes alone was never satisfying. It was nothing like the excitement of going with her grandmother into that big, bright department store. She thought of it now—how long ago it had been, how much had changed, how time took the people you loved away from you piecemeal, leaving just enough to make you to wish them back the way they once had been, back when you'd barely bothered seeing them.

It was the very first time she remembered now—when her grandmother took her into the women’s department—a proud day for Lucy, who had been twelve years old. That was nearly twenty years ago. Shopping in the ladies section was a symbolic step into womanhood, just as the tiny triangles she’d dutifully strapped to her nearly concave chest had been a nod to the fact that she was, if not yet, then, very soon, to be a woman.

On that first day in the ladies department, Lucy had managed to find a few items that fit her—camisoles and spandex and a silvery silk skirt in the evening wear department, size 00. In the fitting room, her grandmother perched on the corner stool, Lucy stepped into that skirt—a shiny fabric, slippery and light, tiny silver beads stitched into its hem. The skirt fit perfectly and when she spun, its shimmer filled the trifold mirror.

“Beautiful,” her grandmother had said. “Like it was sewn for you. How much?”

Lucy lifted the tag—two-hundred-fifty-dollars—and her face dropped.

“Ridiculous,” her grandmother said, disgusted. “Take it off.”

She pulled the skirt from Lucy’s hands, flipped the fabric inside out, studying it a moment, silent.

“It’s clean,” she finally said. But Lucy did not yet understand.

Her father grumbled into the phone. “I don’t know what to do with her,” he said.

It had become their secret all those years ago, Lucy’s closet filling with slinky rich treasures. Not even her father knew, too clueless about a thing like clothes to tell the difference between what was expensive and what was not. It was better this way, kept only between the two of them, as though what they did existed only in the fitting rooms they occupied, the walls hung in clean clothes. The closest thing to witnesses: their reflections in the glass.

“Clean?” Lucy said that afternoon in the fitting room.

“No security,” her grandmother said in Russian and shook the flimsy skirt in her hands.

“You tell this to no one,” she said. “Understand?”

Lucy knew only that she wanted this beautiful skirt in her closet, swishing against her hips, transforming her into a grown woman. Her grandmother forced a loud cough as she yanked the tag from the silver waistband of the skirt, clearing her throat dramatically. The plastic strip made a snapping sound so loud that Lucy worried the sales woman outside had heard, even above the cough. Her grandmother stuffed the tag into the pocket of a blazer hanging there, folded the skirt up small as a hanky, wrapped it in a napkin, and nestled it deep in her bag beneath her bulging beige wallet.

“All set,” she said and gave Lucy a knowing look.

As they left the store, she walked ahead of her grandmother, her mind so dizzy with fear that she wasn’t sure she would make it to her father’s car at the curb.

“Buy anything good?” he asked when they got in and because she was unable to speak, her grandmother had answered for her—“I got some ideas for her birthday gift,” she said and winked at Lucy in the mirror.

Who could suspect a little old lady and her granddaughter of such a thing?

They went every weekend, sometimes both days. Lucy browsed only in the women’s department from then on, navigating the large sizes, searching the fancy, boxy, shoulder-padded clothes for things that might fit her. She tried on only clean clothes—items without the plastic security tags on them that had been returned or simply forgotten in the tagging process—things that could be bundled neatly and shoved to the bottom of a handbag. Lucy scanned the racks for those tags, dodging the sales ladies who mulled about and asked if she wanted to start a fitting room. “No thank you,” she would say, sweating, and smile. “I need to find my grandma first.”

There was no thrill in it for her, not in the act at least, the way she’d heard there was for some who stole. Only the shame. It was a terrifying, seductive, ugly thing. Later, the closest she would come to feeling it again was sex with men she did not know. But that revulsion lasted only a moment. She would be overcome with a desire for those elegant expensive things. After she’d try on an item that she liked, her grandmother on the stool beside her, they would say nothing, a silence thick between them. Always, after that first time with the silver skirt, Lucy knew to turn her back to her grandmother, the way one might during the gruesome moments in a film, unable to look without wincing, but staying until the end, nonetheless. She would wait for the cough, that snap, her grandmother clearing her throat, pleasantly chattering behind her back in Russian about what they would have for dinner, as the roaring tore through Lucy’s head like traffic on a turnpike. “All set,” her grandmother would say, and by then the item would have disappeared deep into her handbag.

Only weeks later, sometimes months, would she receive whatever treasures they’d acquired, wrapped in tissue paper. She would gasp and smile and try on her new gift, acting as though she was surprised. Every time, the two of them pretended like this, each one for the other’s sake.

Her grandmother stole only for her, always those fancy grown-up clothes, filling Lucy’s closet with so many thousands of dollars of stuff that Lucy could not begin to calculate how much. Yet they were never caught.

Over the years, she would manage to entirely forget those fitting room episodes until she’d come across something—a store alarm, a surveillance camera, a security tag left on a pair of jeans she’d bought, and now, her father calling with this news.

“What am I going to do with her?” he said.

“Why do you let her go shopping alone?”

“Why don’t you come home and try to take her shopping?" he said. "When was the last time you did that with her, eh?”

It had not been since high school. Only after Lucy left home for college did she get a sense of the larger world and her tastes changed. She lost her desire for those shiny expensive clothes and stopped going shopping with her grandmother.

On holidays or visits home, Lucy and her grandmother would play dominos instead, watch Wheel of Fortune, boil compote. Occasionally Lucy would come home for a visit to find a delicate pair of cashmere gloves or a silk scarf waiting on her bed and the gnawing in her chest would return.

“On sale,” her grandmother would lie and smile. Her gifts never had tags on them, not a single one.

Lucy did not respond to her father, could think only of those days years ago, those secret moments in the fitting room full of clean clothes, that dirty thing between her and her grandmother—their closest intimacy. When she thought of it now, there was a pain as though her ribs had been stretched apart—a bottle forgotten, frozen, burst inside of her. What they’d been careful to keep secret all those years was made ugly now by her grandmother’s shoplifting, as though it had meant nothing then.

“I don’t think there’s any way to change her,” she said.

“Just a minute Mama,” her father called away from the receiver again. Then lowering his voice—“I got the pamphlets for that place,” he said to her.

Lucy knew that the temptation was there—the desire, if only for a little while, for her father to do the same: to turn away. Still, sending your elders off was not a thing a Russian family did. You cared for them with the same painstaking martyrdom they’d raised you with—feeding, wiping, washing at any expense—living for them to live another day. It was the least you could do.

Lucy stretched her legs out against the floor and something small and sharp bit into the back of her thigh. It was the gold Ganesh charm, an elephant with its legs tucked beneath it and its arms outstretched, badly tangled in its chain. Her grandmother had given her the charm when she turned twenty-one. “So that you never forget,” her grandmother had said, though she didn’t know who Ganesh was, and at the time, neither did Lucy. “Like an elephant,” her grandmother used to say. “I never forget.”

But she had forgotten all the tact of stealth these days. Lucy’s grandmother was most elephant-like now not in her memory, but in her right ankle, its thick seam where the vein was lifted years ago, swollen with fluid, her left leg more like a pigeon’s—the clotted veins depleting her foot of blood. So many ways the body chose to break—one single body—rotting, sagging, peeling, drowning, splintering like wood. On her last visit home, Lucy had found her grandmother’s lipstick in the butter compartment beside the enema jar in the refrigerator. “What’s this doing here?” she had asked and her grandmother snatched the lipstick from her. “Your father. He’s always stealing my stuff and hiding it,” she’d said, but it didn’t matter. Her mouth was pale and dry now anyhow, hardly any lips left to paint.

When Lucy’s grandmother gave her that necklace, she felt the same swelling cracking shame. It came in the snapping jewelry box she reused each time she gave Lucy a gift. “How did you get this?” Lucy said to her. College had filled her full of virtuous ideals. She knew the answer and it disgusted her.

“What do you mean, how did I get it? At the store,” her grandmother said. Then more softly—“I only want the best for you. You’re the only one who matters in the world to me.” More than the law, more than civil obedience, more than dignity. It was maddening to Lucy, how blind that woman’s love could be. And yet Lucy had worn that necklace often, wore it still now. It was the last thing her grandmother had stolen for her.

“I don’t know,” her father said, sighing again. “In the brochure it says they play Bingo and go for walks. They say it’s less lonely over there.”

It was only recently, in the past few months that her grandmother had started lifting trifles—hairnets and spools of thread, boxes of raisins and denture cream. She dropped them in her purse as though they belonged to her. Could she even remember what it had meant to be a clever thief?

“I don’t know Dad,” Lucy said. “Maybe you should consider some sort of home.” That’s why he was calling, of course, for permission. “There’s that place with the Russian nurses you heard was good.”

“Everyone at work tells me all the time to look into it,” he said again. “But I’m going to wait a little longer.”

“Yes, wait a little more,” she said. “It might not be—”

They both were shamed to silence then, shamed for that secret wish for a clean break, one that meant they would not have to choose to turn away or not.

“Maybe you can talk to her,” he said. “About the stealing. I never had to notice until now, Lucy. All those years, I dropped you off; I picked you up. I never said a thing.”

The frozen bottle in her chest was crackling again. She could almost hear it crack-crack-crack. The clock on her mantle read 9:08. She imagined the man whose features she couldn’t remember, sitting at a bar, jangling the ice in his drink, waiting for her, a faceless figure on a stool, twirling a little red straw in a glass.

“I have to get going,” she said and tossed the necklace on the coffee table. She snatched her keys and slammed the door behind her. The stairwell seemed shabbier—the mosaic tile floor caked in dirt, the window ledges thick with soot and flaking paint.

“You know better than anyone,” her father said, just as she prepared to hang up. He was whispering into the receiver, as though he knew she’d left the privacy of her apartment. “You know how she gets.”

But he was wrong. She’d never thought of it as stealing once they stepped out onto the street. As soon as they left those little windowless rooms and walked through the double glass doors, it was as though the theft had never happened.

She took the steps down two at a time and thought now of the one thing she had stolen on her own, the year before. It was hidden in her dresser drawer at the house. That afternoon, she’d gone to the store in the hospital lobby to find something to put beside her grandmother’s bed, but once she stood between the shelves of shiny shellacked items, the need to choose exhausted her. She lifted a mesh sack of glass marbles, each one a different color and shape—a blue diamond, a yellow star, a red heart. They glistened and she had the urge to hold them unobstructed in her hands. Lucy had widened the netting with her fingers and coaxed the red marble out as quietly as she could. She hid it in her fist, slipped it into her pocket, its weight against her thigh as she walked calmly past the cashier, through the glass door to the elevator, up to the cardiology unit where her grandmother was snoring, a tube snaking into her nose. It was only in her grandmother’s room that her nervousness caught hold of her. The glass heart gave a tiny thud as she draped her jacket across the seat next to the bed and she worried it might fall out, that her grandmother would see it and know what she had done. In her room at her father’s house that evening, Lucy wrapped the marble in a Kleenex and hid it in the box her necklace had come in. She snapped it shut.

The door to her apartment building banged behind her, rattling its frame. Lucy wanted to pry that box open, to hold the marble in her hand and let it catch and bend the light through its prism of glass.

“I’ll try,” she said to her father. “I’ll try to talk to her.”

She reached her hand into the street to hail a cab.

“Okay,” he said. She heard herself passed off between their hands—her father and grandmother’s voices muffled under the sound of city traffic around her.

A black livery car pulled to the curb and Lucy got into the back.

Allo?” she heard her grandmother's voice on the other end of the line. “Allo? Allo?” the voice called out, but Lucy was silent. She snapped her phone shut.

'It's Clean' is part of a collection of linked stories that follows three generations of a Russian immigrant family.