The first thing Clara stole was one of those glittery cell phone covers that looks more like the cover for a light switch. That was Clara’s first impression of the flat, pink object with rhinestones shaped into a falling star. She was in Target, and the clerk she had asked to help her find shoestrings told her to go to the seventh aisle where there were definitely no shoestrings but row upon row of phone covers, useless plastic rectangles that were supposed to “reveal your personal expressiveness.”
Glancing over the top of her spectacles, Clara passed the pink plastic and rhinestone thing back and forth between her hands and then dropped it into her front coat pocket. Later, she would have said she’d done it absentmindedly, but in truth she was still thinking about it as she strolled toward the door. Passing the store clerk who had directed her to the cell phone covers in the first place, Clara was afraid the clerk would remember her, but she looked right past Clara. She doesn’t even see me. I am every old woman in this store. Barely slowing down, Clara grabbed a pair of sunglasses at the accessories counter and slipped them into her pocket with the phone cover.
At home Clara placed the cover and glasses side by side on her kitchen table. The garish cover matched nothing she owned or would ever own, so she decided it would be an upcoming birthday present for the seven year old girl next door. The sunglasses she slid upon her nose and admired her reflection in the kitchen window above the sink. The dark purple frames were broad with pointed sides and ebony lenses. They consumed most of her face and she smiled, observing herself from one side then the other.
Her town had a Sears, one of the last, and passing through the sliding glass doors gave her the same hollow, lost feeling that rolled through her whenever she visited her aunt at the White Valley Rehab Center. The overhead fluorescent lights hummed the same sickly song as the nursing home. Metal racks extending from nicked, white walls held skimpy rows of clothes on hangers. Four, yellow, toddler onesies greeted her from the left side of the entrance. On the right were five boxes of ladies’ black pumps spread out across a table, the lids cradling the boxes underneath. Clara stopped and touched a vinyl heel. Each pair was a size ten.
An open field of tan carpet extended before her. She never remembered the place being so big when she shopped here as a teenager in the early 80’s. Ahead was what was left of the cosmetics counter from her childhood. She’d once lingered with friends around its circumference with her crimped hair, Duran Duran t-shirt, and pink leggings as they all sprayed Babe from a tester. The girls had giggled over their shoulders at the boys from school who tried to catch their eye while trying to look cool as they made their way to the exercise equipment section. The barbells, arm stretchers, and ab crunchers were now long gone.
Handbags in spring pastels were clustered on a rack next to a display of socks. Clara chose a pair of pink girl’s socks adorned with glittery red lips to match the phone cover at home. She sifted through the bags and settled on one in soft yellow vinyl with fringe around the top. Carrying the bag and socks to the baby section next to the door, she found no attendant at the register. She placed the items on the counter and waited. A young man in a blue Sears shirt stepped off the escalator but did not make eye contact. Heading toward the tool department, he disappeared around a corner. Clara sighed and tapped her index finger on the red lips of the socks. She touched all eight lips on one sock side, counting, waiting. Finally, she flipped open the purse and dropped the socks inside. At the exit door, she paused and put on her sunglasses. It was very bright outside.
The new mall was on the east side of town. Clara rarely shopped there because it was a half hour’s drive through dense traffic, but today Clara eased her Honda to a stop at the traffic light at the mall entrance and patiently waited to make her right turn into the parking lot. This time it would be cosmetics.
Sephora was made for flawless young faces. Smooth, dewy skin and plump lips surrounded Clara in photographs, signs, and on sales girls. Sales girls, Clara laughed. They were truly girls, probably still in high school. At a black display of lipsticks angled upward like fans in a football stadium, a voice startled her. “Can I help you find something?”
The nametag on the girl’s shirt read Lauren, and her eyes were lined in kohl black with lashes that look like rings of dead spider legs. Clara winced. The girl’s eyes traveled over her quickly, bored, and Clara thought for a moment she might tell her she was in the wrong place.
“I’m looking for mascara,” Clara blurted. “Something in the black family.”
“The black family,” repeated Lauren, flatly. “Yeah, okay.”
A long angled display of plastic pots, tubes, and bottles was artfully lighted to make every surface glisten. Clara read the lipstick names: Soiled, No End, Gaga Dada, Degradation, and Sod Trotter. Lauren gestured at a line of what looked like black ink pens. “All of these are black.”
“There are so many,” Clara said. “What do you recommend?”
“I like Urban Decay.”
“Urban Decay,” Clara repeated slowly, her eyes still on the young woman.
“We have Troublemaker and Perversion.” Lauren reached for a tester. “You wanna try?”
Clare took the wand from the young woman’s hand and studied the bristles. “Do you think I’m a troublemaker or a pervert?”
Lauren’s mouth dropped open, and she reached for another tester. “This one’s also black.”
“Well, that does seem to be the primary criterion,” said Clara. “I’ll take Troublemaker.”
“Don’t you want to try it on?” asked Lauren.
“That won’t be necessary. But I would like to look around a bit more.” Clara kept her face cheerful, like a grandmother offering cookies.
“Okay, take your time. I’ll put this on the counter.” Lauren’s back was turned before she finished her sentence. After Clara’s yellow vinyl handbag was filled with Sod Trotter, Degradation, and Gaga Dada lipsticks, an eye liner, two powder compacts, and bottle of something called Advanced Genifique Youth Activating Serum, Clara paid for her mascara at the counter and went home.
For Meagan’s eighth birthday party, Clara planned to wear a thick swath of eye liner and Sod Trotter, a deep purple tone. Clara wondered what possible connection anyone could make between a purple lipstick color and that of sod, or trotting for that matter. She held the smooth plastic tube between her fingers and rolled the glittering color over her lips so she could gage her new look in the mirror. Clara’s hair hung brown and dull like a wren’s nest. I need a wig, thought Clara. A silver white wig in a bob cut. How does a person go about stealing a wig?
Lee’s Wig Shop had been on a downtown corner as long as Clara could remember, and in all that time she could not recall ever seeing any customers inside. In old photos of the downtown that hung in the city library, Lee’s Wig Shop had held its place, the same sign, the same dingy windows, and the same Styrofoam heads adorned with wigs that changed with the decades. The smell of cigarette smoke hit Clara as soon as she entered, and bells clanged against the glass door as she let it close behind her. No one was behind the counter. She strolled down one wall, glancing at the wigs: blonde, brunette, black, short, long, curly, and then there were what looked like party wigs in rainbow stripes and neon. She imagined the place must do the bulk of its business just before Halloween.
“You need something?” a short Asian man holding the stub of a cigarette between his fingers appeared through a back door. Three lines on his brow, so exaggerated they looked as if they had been drawn on with a marker, furrowed deeply, giving him a look of intense annoyance.
“I’m, well, I’d like to buy a wig,” said Clara.
The man looked her up and down and gestured at her with his cigarette. “You have cancer?”
Clara made a huffing sound of protest. “No, I don’t have cancer.”
The man turned his head to the side and kept looking at her. “Women get cancer. They come here to buy wigs.”
“Well, I’m not one of them. I just wanted a. . .a new look.”
“New look, huh?” The man grinned, but it wasn’t a nice grin. “You sure you’re not sick?” His teeth were yellow and brown and the lines that formed on either side of his mouth were like tiny boomerangs. He waited for an answer, but Clara just stood there tightly clutching her pocketbook. Finally, he gave a little hmmph and gestured in a circle around the shop with his finger. “New look, all over,” he said. “Take your pick.” He made no effort to come out from behind the counter. He just leaned against the glass top and resumed his smoking.
Clara took a deep breath, turned her back, and began perusing the brunette wigs. Lee’s was the only wig shop in town. In fact, it was the only one she could recall seeing anywhere around. If she was to get a wig, this was her only brick and mortar choice. She took a step back and took in the floor to ceiling shelves of heads all staring off into nothing. Selecting a platinum blonde wig that hung in little flip curls around the face, she glanced back at the man she presumed was Mr. Lee, and he made a motion for her to try it on. She pulled the pin from the top that secured the wig to the Styrofoam and slid it over her hair. She looked at herself in the big round mirror and the sight took her breath away. Her face was gray, and her sweaty, flaccid jowls hung limply. “Oh God,” she whispered. The wig shined platinum underneath the fluorescent light and tufts of her own hair peeked out around her face and neck. She pulled the wig from her head, abandoning her idea for white, and began looking for something more subtle. She tried on two others, Gigi and Minx, both just past shoulder length in varying shades of dark golden blonde.
She was about to remove the second one when the bell over the door jangled and three young men came bursting in. All Asian, they were thin and dressed in torn jeans and t-shirts, and each one held a cigarette. The air was beginning to look like a roadside bar. She gave a quick look at Mr. Lee who surely would be taken aback by this gang of toughs coming into his place. Maybe they were there to rob it or rough up the little smoking man, but he just motioned for them to come behind the counter where they disappeared through the door where Mr. Lee had appeared. The young men had not even given Clara a glance as they passed.
“You should see a doctor,” said Mr. Lee. He made an up and down motion with his smoking hand, and then followed the boys through the door and closed it. Clara was left alone, utterly perplexed, with the Minx wig still on her head. She stared at the closed door, and for a minute she was as still as the heads lining the shelves. And then she walked out the door.
It didn’t get dark until about eight o’clock, and the sun was barely dipping behind the downtown buildings when Clara made her way down LeMar Street. Up ahead she spotted the Black Sheep Bar, its yellow neon sign flickering in the letter “S”. Clara carefully pushed her purple sunglasses up the bridge of her nose, hiked her handbag higher on her shoulder, and headed for the door. Inside the dim room it was dark and mercifully cool. At that early hour maybe three or four drinkers were scattered about the place. Clara slid onto a barstool and called out, “Kamikaze,” even before the bartender could ask. She took a quick glance around, letting her eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. When her drink arrived she took a long draw, savoring the lime. Closing her eyes, she let her head droop and her wig hair fell in wisps around her face, brushing her sweating flesh in places her real hair never reached. She let it hang, a refuge of blonde around her cheeks. The sweetness of the drink cooled her throat and in that moment she just wanted to fall asleep in the dim, quiet, dark peacefulness, but soon the peace was broken by the sound of Adele on the sound system. “Damn,” she muttered.
The bartender turned his head. “Need something?”
Clara raised her head but kept her eyes shut. “You noticed?”
“Give the lady whatever she wants,” a voice said from her right.
Clara’s eyes flew open. She could feel the air move from a body taking the bar stool next to her. His evergreen aftershave scent rolled past her, too strong.
He motioned for the bartender to bring her another. “Too bright in here for you?” the man asked.
Clara realized she was still wearing her sunglasses and gave a little, “Oh.” When she pulled them off the light was several levels brighter. “I forgot I had them on.” The man leaned forward, trying to get a look at her.
Clara reached for the fresh drink the bartender put in front of her and took several large gulps. The buzz made her smile and for a few seconds she squeezed her eyes shut. Then she turned her face toward the man.
His eyes grew larger and he leaned back on his stool. “Oh, I. . . Uh, I thought.”
Clara reached for her purse and took out a tube of mascara. She held it between two fingers like a cigarette. “Troublemaker,” she said to the perplexed man, and then she dropped it back in her bag and took out a lipstick. She tried to open it, then realized it was sealed in plastic. She fumbled for several seconds peeling the tube free, but the plastic stuck to her fingers and she violently flicked it away. She jerked the cover off with a flourish, and the man awkwardly watched her roll a thick swath of Degradation over her lips. She pushed the dark gold too high over the right side of her upper lip, leaving her mouth a crooked bow of glittering color.
The man’s eyes went from Clara’s mouth to her wig. “Do you have cancer?”
“Yes. Yes, I have cancer,” said Clara, matter of factly. “You know how it is. A woman passes fifty and everything falls apart.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“I also steal things. All kinds of things. Things I don’t even need. It’s been a great distraction when I’m not at my chemo sessions. And do you know what? No one notices. I could drive a riding lawnmower off the John Deere lot and no one would pay me any attention whatsoever.”
“Ah,” said the man, laughing nervously. “You probably shouldn’t try that.”
“Have you ever stolen anything? There’s something diabolically liberating about stealing stuff. I stole this wig, you know.” She ran her fingers over the glistening blonde locks. “I thinks it’s kind of Melania Trump, don’t you?”
The man glanced over his shoulder and licked his lips nervously. He reached for his wallet, took out a twenty, and slid it across the bar to the bartender who had been listening at a distance.
“Leaving so soon?” she asked.
“I have to get going.” The man shoved his wallet into his back pocket, but then he hesitated, grabbed it once more and took out another twenty. He smacked the bill on the bar in front of Clara. “Here, next one’s on me, too. Just because.” He left his unfinished drink on the bar and disappeared out the door.
For several seconds both Clara and the bartender stared back at the closed red door and said nothing. She turned back to her drink and downed the last few sips.
“You really have cancer?” asked the bartender.
Clara pushed her sunglasses back on and flipped her blonde tresses over her shoulders. “Would you see me any differently if I did?” She folded the twenty, dropped it in her purse, and made her way out into the slowly dying light of the day.
5 thoughts on “Troublemaker by Cathy Adams”
This is as an extraordinary piece of writing as I’ve seen anywhere. I fell in love with Clara. I hope she boosts a Mercedes. The flow is effortless; the observations are priceless, and never once do you raise your voice. I must admit to envy–I wish I had written this.
Please send more.
I really did enjoy this. The control is excellent.
I think depending on the mood of the reader would depend on what opinion we form about Clara. There are a few ways to look at this and what was really clever was the man’s initial reaction to her in the bar – That could have went a few ways but again, you took control of the story but still left the reader to ponder.
This is a very confident piece of work.
I have mixed feelings about Clara. I think that’s a sign of good writing. She’s well-drawn to be not all good or bad. I always wonder why when I hear about people who don’t need to do so shoplifting. In most cases, like Clara’s they do need to I guess, just not because of material or physical need. Jean Valjean being a well-know exception.
Wow, the story absorbed me into its emptiness, which is kind of ironic but that main character showed me the folly and short-sightedness of self-indulgence. I very much liked Mr. Lee.
When I wrote this I was thinking of the banal shift this woman feels after the world stopped “seeing” her. It’s a quiet revelation that I think some women experience. I appreciate what Leila said about not raising my voice and Harrison Kim’s comment about emptiness. Clara is a woman who has never been forced to think much about her place, but now she finds it has slipped away from her. She faces the emptiness with dark humor and a kind of perplexity at who she has become.
I am humbled by all of your comments. Thank you.
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