by Chrissy Kolaya

Out on Michigan Avenue, it’s sunny and cold. A steady stream of pedestrians pass the windows, snow coming down in the way it might in a movie—picturesque but without inconvenience. Each time the door opens, you hear the Salvation Army bell ringer on the corner across from the Old Watertower.

Inside, the store smells of perfume on the first floor, cologne on the second. A soundtrack of 1960s soul classics sets the tone. It must be someone’s job to curate this, everything carefully chosen for effect. Some nights you leave and when you return, the window dressers have transformed the face of the flagship store. Stealth artists, working under cover of darkness.

You’re supposed to be wearing all of the store’s product, or at least to appear that way. You scour the racks at discount stores for something that will pass muster. Solid colors. Basic. Muted.

Jessica, glamorous, is one of the flagship store’s personal shoppers. From your spot behind the check-out counter, you assess the perfect shade of her full, wavy blonde highlights. Nothing like the brassy fried way your hair looks when you dye it at home. Economizing. You took this job to make money, not to spend it.

Jessica’s accessories are tortoiseshell and gold, her lipstick—subtle, her clothes—perfect. She looks not like the kind of person who’d work at this store, but instead like the kind of person who’d shop there, and this confuses you. You are trying to make sense of the world.

At the flagship store, there is a small army of employees, a hierarchy: at the bottom are the stockroom workers, scruffy-looking guys and a few women “without the right look,” who work back of the house, who you can call on the walkie-talkie system to dig out another size, but you have to meet them at the back door to get it. Management doesn’t want them on the floor while there are customers in the store.

Above the stockers are the cashiers—perhaps they’re a bit heavy? their clothes not quite right, but at least they’re making an effort. Best to keep them behind the counter—there to ring up and bag the purchases while the salesperson hovers beside the shopper, making small talk, upselling one more item, sharing their business card in hopes of building a clientele and being promoted to personal shopper, the flagship employees of the flagship store.

Jessica is cutthroat, territorial and competitive, but in a way that somehow seems elegant, and this is confusing. You are trying to understand the rules of this world. Her hand on a salesperson’s shoulder, a smile free of actual happiness, and a cheerlessly cheery “I’ll take it from here.”And then what can the salesperson do but retreat in defeat, eyeing Jessica from across the store, leaning on the checkout counter and talking shit about her to the lowly cashiers.

Steven, one of the salespeople, hangs out with you at the cashier’s station when traffic is slow. He had been a model and still worked now and then, cast as a salt-and-pepper type. He tells you stories of shoots where he’d played the handsome father of a family of four, and then how, after the shoot, he’d go clubbing in Boys Town with the model cast as his son. The artifice of it all, he says, his voice world-weary, jaded. He flips through the catalogues kept stacked near the checkout, pointing at the models as he goes. “Gay. Gay. Gay but doesn’t know it yet.”

The personal shoppers earn commission on everything they sell, and Jessica hovers near the entrance, sizing up customers as they come through the door. The ratty tourists she doesn’t give the time of day to, but when she spots the tall, well-dressed father coming through the door, two slim teenage daughters in long camelhair coats trailing behind him, Jessica swoops in.

“A whole new wardrobe for boarding school,” she tells you breathlessly, trotting back and forth between the checkout counter and the changing rooms, piling herringbone-print blazers, oxford shirts, wool pants, and silk camisoles—the entirety of the new season’s line it looks like—beside your register. A sweater you thought you might save for and splurge on.

You watch these girls, who look bored, nodding or shaking their heads at each thing Jessica holds up for consideration. Their father sits on one of the couches arranged just outside the changing room. One of the salespeople has brought him a Perrier, which he has not yet taken a sip of.

You wonder if they’re traveling and if so, from where? And if so, to where? You wonder what these girls’ lives at boarding school must be like. You imagine them as the kind of people who know how to ski, to ride horses. You wonder what their relationship with their father is like. Why they have to go to boarding school. Whether they like it. Where their mother is. You are trying to make sense of the world.

Outside, darkness falls and the flagship store glows golden over Michigan Avenue, sidewalks lined with delicate white Christmas lights. You’ve seen it like this, nights riding the bus home, catching a glimpse of it as you pass. In your neighborhood, the Christmas decorations are fat, multicolored bulbs, inflatable Santas.

The cold pricks at your cheeks as you walk. You pass the bell ringer and drop in any loose change in the pocket of the pea coat you bought at the Army-Navy surplus store uptown, but which can pass, you hope, for something from the fall collection. But perhaps not, you worry. Perhaps there is some detail to luxury your eyes have not been trained to recognize. Perhaps you are an obvious fraud.

You wrap their purchases in tissue paper, fill the new holiday-themed shopping bags, armloads of them. When the father brandishes his credit card, they don’t even say thank you.

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