This story first appeared in The Potomac, 2007.
Before Doris went to the nervous hospital, she said the Blue Woman was speaking to her. My ever-imaginative sister claimed the woman told her to visit Mason Howse.
“He lives on Mary Street, remember? The big foursquare with black shutters.”
I gave her a look. The war had been over for six years and the Mary Street house already converted to apartments. Poor Mason wouldn’t know a visitor from a hall tree, the way he’s wasting away in that VA hospital. We’d long prayed for Jesus to take him out of his misery, lying like a breathing piece of meat.
When we were in school, I used to tease her about “playing Howse.” She’d say I had a nasty mind, that nothing untoward was going on.
They dated through her senior year, and by the time she graduated, Mason was in Korea. When he came back, they’d tie the knot. Instead, he came home on a stretcher.
Amidst her pining over what might have been she threw herself into a sales job at Johns’ Department Store. Inside of a year, she was their best foundation lady, able to assess every figure that entered Ladies Intimates. She’d eyed one plump girl engaged to be married, selected the perfect Ultra Lift Corselette and rang her up in thirty minutes. The poor girl was still homely and full-hipped, but thanks to Doris’s magic she had renewed self-confidence, hope.
During prom season, Doris worked extra long hours helping every girl look her shapeliest, even fat ones with flat chests and elephant thighs. It was nothing short of miraculous what miracles she could perform with rubberized staves and two-way stretch. They would walk in as flabby dough girls and sashay out as runway models. Mr. Johns should have offered her more than a measly nickel raise the way she was creating such happy customers, but flattery wasn’t his nature.
I should have smelled trouble when Doris bragged about wearing top-of-the-line slips, girdles and silk hose. I’d see it out on the line and wonder how she could afford all that with her store discount alone. I asked her about that, but she only laughed. “If I’m the Foundations lady, I have to look the part.”
When Mama died after Christmas that year, I thought my sister would go off the deep end writhing her way through a second heartbreak. Bit by bit, she slipped into herself and acted more peculiar, talking about how the Blue Woman was saying this or that. Being unmarried, she stayed lived at Mama’s.
Even though Mason had been at death’s door for years, she kept praying for him and asked us to do the same. It’s a wonder she didn’t hop a plane to Lourdes.
Last June, roses started disappearing from neighbors’ gardens. First it was Louise Bivens’ prized American Beauties, then her neighbor’s Tropicanas. Within two weeks, Doris was picking blooms from the city park, though it’s a misdemeanor.
And then Mr. Johns, that stingy old geezer, noticed things missing from the store, ladies’ underwear, a yellow vase and scented candles from Gifts, scarves and gloves from Ladies’ Accessories, a display tablecloth from Housewares. When the blue mannequin from Lingerie came up missing, he put out feelers.
The next thing we knew, he sent the manager of men’s furnishings out to the house. Doris assumed it was a social call, and was silly enough to give that pasty weasel the grand tour and when she called me up the next day bragging about her new suitor, I knew her troubles weren’t over. Of course he’d had seen the missing items and told Mr. Johns about Doris’s fondness for borrowing. Inside of a week, he let her go. She worried herself for days, saying the Blue Woman would punish her.
When I walked up to the front porch early one morning, I could see the curtains open and there she sat, rocking on her heels like a bird barometers ducking its bill in colored water. Candles were lit and roses were in place. She said she was meditating at a shrine for Mason Howse, and then babbled something about how the Blue Woman told her to hurt Mr. Johns.
She showed up at the store one day with some hedge clippers, cutting the legs off a rack of men’s pants, snipping ties and hacking the arm off a male mannequin before the police arrived.
After Doris was escorted away, I went over to her place to clean. It was nothing like Mama had left—everything from an artist’s easel to dead flower arrangements, heart-shaped candy boxes, stacks of letters she’d written to herself and cheap romance paperbacks—towered above over Mama’s old things. It was as if Doris had re-created her own love life, poor thing.
I made six dozen trips to the burning barrel.
The other day I visited Doris at the hospital. She’s quit her rocking motions, but she asked if I’ve seen the Blue Woman. I tell her I had to humor her along. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her mannequin’s returned to Lingerie. Otherwise I would have left the shrine untouched because you can’t rush magic. It might do Mason some good.