One way to avoid the peculiar salesgirl is to never shop at the North Vernon Skin-Mart in the first place. Avoid the store proper. Avoid the entire dingy, crumbling outlet mall if you can. Avoid the walls festooned with unimaginative graffiti scrawled by white trash pseudo-gangstas. Avoid the fractured pavement of the parking lot, overgrown with weeds sprouting in-between the cracks and littered with beer cans and condoms. Avoid, even, the Rustbelt town (just a few miles up I-65) itself. You won’t miss much. It’s less a town, really, than the fossil of one. Avoid it, and you’ll be safe.
When I offer this advice to my old friends from high school, they accuse me of “overkill.” In context, it sounds like this: “You snob,” they say, rolling their lined, mascaraed, shadowed eyes, “that would be overkill.” Sometimes, they remark that I have changed too much since I went away to college in Chicago. They’re still “down home” but I’m not, they claim. They cite, as evidence, the big words I use now, my “dykey” short hair, and my newfound toyboyness. They point out the way I shrug the summer 4-H Fair off with indifference, while they see it as an opportunity to flirt with potential beaus.
Sometimes, they scoff at me for other reasons altogether. They accuse me of objecting to Skin-Mart out of some general resistance to fashion and joke that I should join one of the stodgier religious sects – the ones that prohibit women from wearing pants, the ones in which the ladies volunteer for coerced modesty.
“Longskirts,” such ladies are called – for obvious reasons. “The trailer park Amish,” they’re called – for pejorative ones. You can see them in the grocery store, their long hair drawn up in buns, their denim skirts revealing nary a hint of calf, or even ankle. Their dollar-store blouses cover sagging breasts that have suckled too many too long. For you see no less than five children follow behind the average Longskirt. The youngest of the brood might only be a toddler, but the mother’s hair is invariably streaked with grey. Her face, prematurely wrinkled. Her expression, stuck (fossil-like) in the raised-eyebrow grimace of despair.
They drive ancient minivans adorned with bumper stickers announcing that:
IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS VEHICLE WILL BE UNOCCUPIED
These are the sort of ranks my friends say I should join, just because I object to Skin-Mart in general and harbour a deep distrust about that one, peculiar salesgirl in particular. Their mistake is a natural one. Truth is, the church folks object to Skin-Mart the strongest. They say that Skin-Mart is “of the world” and therefore unwelcome. One would think that their message would find traction, given the region’s reputation as a haven for Christian fundamentalism.
But even here, where the Midwest and South meet in a confluence of piety, the numbers of the churchgoing faithful are dwindling. The influence of organized religion wanes when it comes to loggerheads with the promise of new jobs for unskilled labour. It may be true that neither man nor woman can live by bread alone, but neither can they live with bread absent. I suspect all the locals now employed at Skin-Mart had reservations, at first. But what can they do? McDonald’s left town years ago.
I try to assure my friends that I object to Skin-Mart on humanitarian grounds not puritanical ones. “Have you,” I ask, “ever read the tags to see just where the skins come from?”
At this, the other girls just sneer. “Julie and her ‘skin tags’,” they say, giggling. Once, for no less than two weeks, that was my nickname. “Hey Skin Tag,” they’d say over the phone, “want to join us at the Pop-a-Top? It’s ladies night. You are still interested in men, ain’tcha?” We’re all underage, but the only number that matters to the bouncer at Pop-a-Top is your bra size.
I don’t think that the “Skin Tag” joke is funny. I think it’s just their way of sublimating their awareness that the skins for sale at Skin-Mart come at the expense of donors who may have been pressured into the arrangement. A cursory glance reveals that the skins come to Southern Indiana by way of some infamous locales. “Made in Chechnya,” one says. “Made in Reno,” says another. But my old friends don’t know (or care) what goes on in Russian rebellions or Nevadan brothels. They only know that when they wear a skin more fashionable than their own, they feel pretty. Men ask them out. They feel treasured.
The most popular skins are those that come already tanned, tattooed, and pierced. Don’t get me wrong, they’re exquisite products. Lovely. Soft. Smooth. For all my objections, I’m as guilty of window-shopping at Skin-Mart as the next girl.
“Skin is in,” my friends remind me, parroting a recently aired advertisement. Tempting me into going along with the fashion. It’s a hard slogan to argue with, seeing as I’m the only one in our crowd who hasn’t given in to getting an F&G (flaying and grafting) even once. Many of the girls I graduated Henryville High with have patronized Skin-Mart more than three times in the past year.
There’s a rumour that shopping at Skin-Mart is addictive (after all, some girls have reported “getting off” on the pain of having the old epidermis removed and replaced). But I think the frequent purchases have more to do with the way the skin gets, well, damaged sometimes. The domestic violence shelter says wife-beating prosecutions have much declined since Skin-Mart came to town. The evidence of injury disappears too readily, they claim. I suspect they’re onto something, because it’s not unusual to see a gentleman escort a lady with a black eye or bruised throat into the store, presumably to rid himself and polite society of the evidence of his misdeed.
Distributors furnish Skin-Mart with a wide variety of products from throughout the world. Black skins (“Made in Nigeria”). Brown skins (“Made in Mexico”). Yellow skins (“Made in China”). Perhaps they mistake the outlet mall for a true, vibrant centre of commerce that attracts traffic off the interstate, and therefore a more worldly clientele. As it is, foreign skins remain on the racks collecting dust. No one, in this part of the world, wants them. In fact, my friend Mindy swears she saw some of the blacks from down in Jeffersonville drive up one day to get F&Ged into white skins. She tells me this as if it was a point in Skin-Mart’s favour. “It’s a miracle,” Mindy said. “It’s not their fault they’re black. Everyone should have the right to be white, and now they do!”
I remain unconvinced that Mindy really saw what she said she saw (and if she did, I’m even less convinced that it was for the best). That’s the thing about Skin-Mart, all of us see different things there. Take the peculiar salesgirl, for example. Some of my friends say they’ve never even heard of her, while others say they’re all too familiar with her.
I can tell which of my friends has really seen her (instead of just humouring me and claiming they’ve seen her) by their inability to look me in the eye when they talk about her. Sometimes, there’s a quiver in their voice, too. They tell me that if I would only take the proper precautions, knowing just what sort of skin I want before going into the store, I would never have to worry about the peculiar salesgirl. The trick, they say, is to get in, make your selection, and then go get F&Ged. Don’t dawdle.
If you linger too long, the staff at Skin-Mart will think that you want to buy something special order. Something for those with peculiar tastes. That’s when they dispatch the peculiar salesgirl.
You may, at this point, rightly ask what is so damned peculiar about her. The answer is…everything. She is, for one thing, too tall. Well over six feet. Her height is not graceful nor statuesque. It gives her, rather, the appearance of a scarecrow. There is something too soft, almost molten about her skin – as if, perhaps, she started out as a customer of the store (many times over) and ended up as staff. She is clumsy. Awkward. Hunched over at an angle much more fitting a ninety-two-year-old than someone of her apparent youth (and yet, still, she towers over me). It’s almost as though walking on all fours is her natural posture, and she only maintains a bipedal stance with some effort.
But the most peculiar thing about this particular salesgirl is that she isn’t from around here. No one knows her, personally. No one knows her kin, either. There’s some suspicion (among those who acknowledge her existence) that she moved here from Skin-Mart’s home offices; or, at least, from a larger store.
When the peculiar salesgirl finds you, she takes an interest – a clumsy, too-eager interest. “You, Miss, look like a discerning customer,” she says to me each time she sees me, “I reckon I’ve done seen you here at least a half-dozen times before, but I haven’t yet seen you make a purchase.”
“Oh,” I say (shuddering), “I’m sorry, I can leave if you’d like.”
“Oh, no, no,” she says. “You’re all right, babygirl.” There’s something about her demeanour that distresses me; the way, perhaps, that she tries to take on the local accent and vernacular. “It just strikes me that you haven’t yet found the right product. You might-could be better served by perusing our back room. It’s for those with more sophisticated tastes.”
This is the point in the conversation in which I demur. “No,” I say, “that’s quite all right. For now, I just want to browse.”
She doesn’t take rejection easily. I see an emotion (Sadness? Frustration?) creep onto her otherwise-emotionless face. I begin to wonder if she might not work on commission. But that is her problem, I tell myself, not mine. Most of the times I’ve had an encounter with the peculiar salesgirl, it ends right there. She leaves, disappointed and I get the Hell out of there. But not today.
Today I start to leave and she scurries – almost jogging – to the back room. She comes back with three skins wrapped over her forearm. She is tall enough that they don’t drag on the floor.
There’s something wrong with them. They look jaundiced. They’re dotted by scars, sores, or growths of undetermined origin. There’s a liquid seeping from the skins, dampening the peculiar salesgirl’s pantsuit. It reminds me of the way my grandmother’s bedsore wept when she was dying of lung cancer. One of the skins looks charred. Another looks as though it boasts an unnatural plethora of appendages.
I have no poker face. I cringe.
“You don’t understand,” she says. “Skin is in.” She points to a duo of far-less-peculiar salesgirls – locals who I remember from Henryville High – hanging a banner printed with that very slogan. It’s a slick piece of promotion that bears the pedigree of corporate PR (and, thus, seems odd when juxtaposed against the general atmosphere of rural decay in which the store is suffused). They look like soldiers raising a flag over conquered territory.
In that moment, I reflect on some of the arguments used to counter the criticism Skin-Mart gets when it moves into small towns and displaces mom-and-pop businesses. “What alternative is there?” the store’s boosters sometimes ask. “Who else is going to come into towns like this one and hire unskilled labour?” I look at the two girls hanging the banner. They’re missing at least three teeth, between them, but smile anyway. They have wages, two fifteen-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch. Their kids’ fathers came into town on a tractor trailer and left the same way. No forwarding addresses. No child support or promise of it coming.
Skin-Mart puts food on the table.
Skin-Mart is closed on major holidays. Skin-Mart obeys laws pertaining to the minimum wage. One imagines that the employee lounge at Skin-Mart is adorned with all the announcements the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires Skin-Mart to post there.
Skin-Mart provides opportunities for moving up in the world. If the girls work hard enough, one of them might (in time) find herself promoted to assistant manager. I contrast this with my suspicions of what their lives would be like without their jobs. Would they have to resort to working at the adult bookstore in Clarksville (doing, well, what you know girls have to do there to make ends meet)?
Despite my wish to support the local economy, I can’t quite find it in myself to buy what the peculiar salesgirl is selling. I look at her selections from the back room and shake my head. “No thanks,” I say.
Her eyes widen. Her garishly painted lips snarl. I see (for the first time, in any detail) her jagged, too-small, coffee-stained teeth. Her face is flushing and she’s clenching her fists. She huffs and the congestion in her throat gurgles. It takes her much coughing to clear it, and when she does she lets out a single high-pitched, raspy word that sounds a little too much like a dog’s growl. “Dyyyke….”
An accusation that cuts to the quick. Not the first time I’ve heard it, but somehow this time it hurts more than ever. It’s one thing for my old high school friends to toss around such an epithet when remarking on my change in hairstyle or disinterest in fashion. It’s quite another to hear it snarled by a relative stranger like the peculiar salesgirl. For some reason, the accusation takes on additional weight coming from a representative of Skin-Mart. From a representative of a Corporation. For some reason, she strikes me as an authority figure who knows what she’s talking about.
She takes a deep, wheezing breath, then growls once more. “Mannish dyyykkkkeeeee!”
I scramble to rebut her claim. My heart beats like the hooves of a Kentucky Derby racehorse and I begin to sweat. The racks of skins seem to hover over me like high stalks of corn in late-August. I must convince her she’s wrong. I must prove I’m not what she says I am – that I’m every bit as feminine as any other nineteen-year-old.
I find all of my anti-Skin-Mart principles cast aside in self-defence. “Don’t misunderstand me,” I say. “I’m a girly-girl, just like all my friends. I just let myself get a little hippie-chick in my first year of college,” I stammer. “I-it was just a phase. But don’t worry, today’s the day that I will get F&Ged. It’s just, I think I’ll start with something less…well…less severe. Do you have any skins that are pre-tanned, with tattoos and piercings?”
Just as swiftly as anger overtook her, it leaves. Her demeanour isn’t what I’d call cordial, but it at least retreats from the prior hostility. She looks at me with a condescension she’s probably cast toward hundreds of other girls my age. “Our most popular item. I don’t handle those jobs. But if you wait until Bobbie Sue is finished hanging that banner, I’m sure she’ll be able to assist you.” Then off to the back room she goes.
The flaying hurts. The grafting hurts. The only thing I can compare it to is the time I lost most of my right thumbnail. Imagine that, but about ten times more painful, all over your body.
But when I see the excitement on my friends’ faces afterward and then hear the approving honk of men in passing cars in the parking lot, I feel (for once) included. More so than I did even up at college in Chicago. In the days after that first F&Ging my friends and I share all kinds of fun. Nights out at Pop-a-Top. Trips to the hair and nail salon.
I consider transferring to Henry County Community College. I could study there with my friends. The only thing that stops me is a large envelope I receive in the mail one hot, hung-over morning in late-July, postmarked Chicago.
It’s from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. A letter tells me that Chicago looks forward to seeing me (and all the other college students) again for the fall semester, and encourages me to patronize local businesses. Enclosed with the letter, I find coupons and sales circulars of various degrees of glossiness. One (the glossiest of them all) announces the arrival of a new Skin-Mart opening in late August in a strip mall adjacent to campus. Perhaps there’s a new pool of cheap labour available to staff the store, now that the college let go some of its cafeteria and janitorial staff. Or maybe that pool of cheap labour comes from recent graduates who haven’t been able to find a job in their field quite yet.
Or maybe the city just isn’t as different from the country as it’s made out to be.
“Skin is In!” the announcement declares.
I know that the Chicago Skin-Mart will have my patronage. I know, too (somehow) that I will never see the peculiar salesgirl again. Her work with me is done.
© 2013 by Nicole Cushing. All rights reserved. “The Peculiar Salesgirl” first appeared in Polluto Magazine #10 and is reproduced with permission.
Nicole Cushing is an author of dark fiction. Her debut novel Mr. Suicide will be released by Word Horde in July 2015. She is the author of the novellas Children of No One (nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award) and I Am the New God. She lives in Indiana.
Carrion House (artwork) currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.