by Emma Straub
Anna was hired for the way she looked; the way she looked in clothes. The store was small enough that it only needed one person working at a time, and so that person—the right person—was of the utmost importance. Anna was already almost thirty, with clean, short hair the color of melting chocolate. Her eyes and wrists were small, as were most other things about her. She fit into a sample size dress that Clotilde pulled off the rack, and didn’t smile when Clotilde asked to walk the length of the store as if it were a runway. Anna understood that it was not a joke. The dress was made of cotton and had been hand-dyed in Milan. It cost approximately three times what Anna would be paid in a week, making it one of the more affordable items in the store.
There was no name on the door, or anywhere else that a passer-by might see it. Clotilde wanted to discourage walk-in traffic. After all, this was still Atlantic Avenue, and sometimes when the door was open for too long on a hot day, some of the more fragile garments began to take on the smell of incense from the makeshift storefront set up on the sidewalk, where two African men in dashikis sold small bottles of oil and sticks of jasmine and mrryh. The front door was half clouded, the glass opaque and white from about eye level to just above the average person’s ankle. When they rang the buzzer, Anna looked at their shoes first, then at the top of their head, before deciding whether or not to let them in. Sometimes it was hours between customers, and she spent the afternoon inside the shop alone, folding and refolding, sweeping the floor, and removing any traces of lint from the clothes with her fingernails.
When Clotilde was away, which was most of the time, Anna pretended the store was her own. She would shift the clothes from rack to rack, giving them new experiences. After all, they had been places. When they arrived in Brooklyn, they had already lived in other cities, other countries, spoken other languages. They were more well-traveled than Anna herself, who had not been on an airplane since she was in high school. She had hardly left the neighborhood for five years, when she started at the store. Once she had taken the subway to the Upper East Side to see a doctor; now, when she needed something, she could do it over the telephone. Whenever possible, she liked to communicate with machines. She liked it when a manufactured voice asked her questions, and she could hit buttons in response. She could have been mute, she thought, quite happily. How freeing it would be, not to have to engage with people on the streets, in taxicabs, at the grocery store. In New York, you could have almost anything delivered. Clotilde—both the store and the person—were ideal in this regard. The store never opened its doors when it didn’t want to, and only needed to sell a few items per month in order to cover the rent. When the stock was low and the store nearly empty, Anna thought it was even more wonderful. The spaces in between the hangers got larger and larger, making each item more special. Once, a few years ago, there was only one dress left in the store, and every woman who came in wanted to buy it. All of the room around the dress acted like a spotlight, or a heat lamp, and the thing grew and grew until it was their wedding dress, their husband, their Rosebud.
Sometimes Anna would spend entire days writing her name on small pieces of paper. She loved the symmetry of it, that her name was the same no matter which direction you were coming from, as self-contained as an egg. One day she decided she wouldn’t let anyone in the store ever again, no matter how many times they rang the bell. The store looked better when it was empty, and Anna could sit so still, so quiet, that she didn’t disturb the air. Even if you had walked in, you wouldn’t have seen her. You wouldn’t have seen anything but what she wanted you to see. You would have wanted everything.