The Excursionist of JCPenney – Chris Panatier

The Excursionist of JCPenney – Chris Panatier

Lorraine sat in the passenger seat of the Buick with four flat tires, applying her usual shade of lipstick. The fact that the tires were flat was no bother; the car hadn’t moved since her mother died twenty years before. Even if Lorraine could afford to get it running again, it wouldn’t make any difference. She didn’t know how to drive.

Doing her face in the Buick had been the routine going back to when mom would give her a lift to her job and she saw no reason to stop just because mom was dead. So, every morning at seven forty-five, she emerged from the senior living studio condominium that had been Mom’s and was now hers, walked the fifteen steps to the petrified sedan, and eased herself into the passenger seat. Mom had been gone since Lorraine was forty-six, but their relationship remained complicated.

She imagined her mother sitting in the driver’s seat, asking if Lorraine had her nametag and lunch—inquiries that Lorraine silently resented, because of course she did, she wasn’t a child. Lorraine did miss the ride to work—the Florida summers were excruciating—but she didn’t miss the condescension.

With her lips done, she dropped the stick into her purse. Mornings were the worst, when her brain wasn’t yet occupied by work and was free to simmer about her life’s many grievances. “I was smart,” she declared, digging for the eyeliner. “As smart as Connie and way smarter than Mary.” She took hold of the gear shift and wiggled it in frustration. “They were just pretty faces.” If the family hadn’t treated her like a helpless imbecile her whole life, then she might have built some independence. Even now, Mary had control of Lorraine’s finances, which was a particularly sour twist of the knife.

She lined her left eye, then the right—the droopy one—as quickly as she could. Some mornings she just wanted to stab the pencil right through it. Better that people assumed she’d lost it to an accident, than make assumptions about her intelligence because of it. It barely worked anyway. The world was a jumble of color and shape through the bad eye, a kaleidoscope of fractured images that never quite made sense. The pieces always seemed to be drifting toward cohesion, but without ever actually arriving, the full picture just out of reach. Lorraine took it as a cruel taunt from the Universe. Sometimes, in angry bouts of spite, she would hold the eye open past the point when it seared, until her pain-addled mind composed mosaics of the broken pieces. Occasionally, the habit brought on strange glimpses of new places—faraway settings and locations that seemed real enough—but always distant and out of reach. Mostly, her eye just hurt.

Lorraine zipped her purse, checked her nametag, and stood from the car, grunting as she slammed the door. The sound might have been from the exertion or displeasure at her mother’s memory. She supposed it was a dose of each.

Work didn’t start for another hour and fifteen, but the walk took fifty minutes and she would need another ten or twenty to cool off once she arrived. She headed down the treeless road and around the pond rumored to have crocodiles or alligators—she could never remember the difference—and finally past the unoccupied guard station at the front of the community.

Turning down Greenwich Parkway, Lorraine mumbled her resentment. Her old familiar. She’d carried it with her since childhood, when people assumed she was inadequate because of the eye or her halting speech. She knew it wasn’t the right way to live, spending so much of her energy detesting those who judged her. If only they’d given her a chance, she might have made friends. Might have cut the tethers that had kept her trapped. Might have seen the world.

But resentment was a loop, wasn’t it? A vicious circle or whatever the term was. You decided to resent people even before they could judge you. And then they judged you anyway.

She pushed through the big glass doors to the store. This was the best part of her day, the move from sweltering heat to the frozen, artificial air. It was a transformation. Outside, she was an afterthought. But at JCPenney, she was important. Essential. She belonged. Part of a team that made the store go, all one hundred and forty-three thousand square feet of it. Lorraine knew every inch. So well, in fact, that her words didn’t pile up if she had to tell a customer in Fine Jewelry how to get to the Home section. A senior member of the store, she could jump into any department, take inventory, fold blouses, even stock shelves if they didn’t demand too high a reach. Her brain held a photo-perfect topographical map, with every product in its place. She could recite department, aisle, and shelf for over thirty-four thousand individual items, and had cold command of the on-line catalogue as well.

Roberta, the store supervisor, was sitting at one of the white tables in the break room, facing the tiny TV perched up in the corner. Roberta was the only employee with tenure over Lorraine, and had even hired her—which was a bit of a miracle, all things considered. Lorraine had managed to get in the door at a lot of places even though she only had high school, but the droopy eye and manner of talking had people cutting the interviews short.

It was Roberta who’d first offered her a job. She didn’t seem to notice or care about her speech or her eye. In fact, Roberta’s indifference to it made Lorraine want to tell her everything—like a strange reward for being decent. She wanted Roberta to know that her difficulties had no bearing on smarts, that she’d only made the mistake of getting near her father once while he was All The Way Drunk, and had walked away with a tongue that struggled with words and an eye that would never see the world the same way again. But beautiful Roberta didn’t care about the eye. And Lorraine loved her for it.

“Hi, Roberta,” said Lorraine, setting her bag onto the counter near the coffee machine. The pot hadn’t been started and so she began the process. A filter from the cabinet, water from the sink, four level scoops from the tin. She snapped in the basket and hit the brew button, then turned to Roberta. “Roberta?”

“Headquarters sent out a list of store closures.”

Lorraine didn’t even register the words. They sounded like corporate speak and corporate speak was something Lorraine had learned to tune out. She let the phrase dissipate in the air and filled a mug with tap water, then sat across from her boss. “Did you see the hand truck of toasters sitting in the aisle between Baby and Women’s?”

Roberta had her head down, face in hands. Lorraine twisted around and glanced at the television to see if there was bad news, but it was just a commercial for The Rug Guy. Turning back, she said, “Roy must have forgotten to bring them to the stockroom at the end of his shift last night. I can get them on the shelves before we open if there’s space. I think—”

“Lorraine,” said Roberta, looking up, eyes red and wet. “I had to fire Roy.”

Lorraine shifted her feet beneath her chair like trying to regain her footing in reality. “Fire Roy?” Roy was a silver-level team member and second only to Lorraine in Employee of the Month Awards received. “Why did you do that?”

“This was corporate’s call. You know I’d never fire Roy of my own accord. I’ve been told to thin the ranks, starting with highest paid team members.”

Lorraine allowed herself a moment to resent the fact that Roy had been paid more than her, but he could cover Customer Service and her words piled up in the face of adversity. She refocused on Roberta. “Why did headquarters tell you to do that?”

“We’re being shut down, Lorraine. The company is trying to keep from going under, so they’re closing the biggest stores.”

Lorraine watched Roberta’s bright orange lips move, but the words didn’t compute. None of them. She thought instead about how the neon hue made Roberta’s mouth seem electric and wished that she were daring enough to wear the same color. Mango, Darling.

“Lorraine?” said Roberta. “Did you hear me?

“We’re…closing?” Lorraine’s mind raced to plug the hole in her understanding. “Is it because of the Hitler tea kettle?”

Back in 2013, the company had sold a teapot that people said looked like Hitler. Her father had fought against Hitler and Lorraine didn’t think the teapot looked like the Führer at all. At the time she’d surmised that Sears or Dillard’s had pushed the narrative to try and steal market share and she still hadn’t seen any evidence to exonerate them. Whatever the motivation, the damage had been done, and in the years since, Lorraine traced any problems within the company back to the kettle.

“It’s not the tea kettle,” said Roberta. “They’re trying to avoid bankruptcy.”

“By closing us? Don’t you need money to avoid bankruptcy? How are they going to make money if they close us?”

“I don’t know all the details, just what they’ve told me. Apparently, they think this is the company’s best chance to survive.”

“And it’s…permanent?”

“For us it is.”

Suddenly, Lorraine was back home inside the musty condo with her mom’s threadbare flower-print furniture and Sudoku towers. She’d never find another Roberta; another someone who would see past her age and her eye and her speech. Without a job, she was just another old woman sitting in a chair in a room. Stumbling into the community pond with the crocodiles or whatchamacallits seemed a more desirable outcome.

Roberta reached across the table, snatching Lorraine’s hands away from her mug. “Once I let Tabitha and Jamarcus go, it’ll be just me, you, and three babies left to run the whole place, Lorraine.” Babies was Roberta’s term for anyone under thirty. “They’re giving us two weeks. Clearance begins on Thursday.”

The word was like hearing a terminal diagnosis. Clearance. And it was. For the store, for Lorraine. She stood, defiant. “Did they even come and see our store? How well it’s run? The ratio we keep between stock and display? How we use our shelf space? Nobody comes close—not even marketing, I’ve seen the catalogue pictures, Roberta.” She’d begun sweating again.

“Sweetheart. We’re done. Two weeks. Then the doors close.” Roberta had kind eyes and they were trying to make Lorraine feel better. “They say when one door closes, another opens.”

The clearance sale came even though Lorraine had asked God to stop it.

That morning, she stared into the Buick’s visor mirror, lipstick rising from her fist like a tiny popsicle on the verge of melting. The first day of the store’s dying. A countdown to the end of the world. Maybe, if she stayed put, she could stop time. A bead of sweat fell from the tip of her nose, marking a perfectly round spot of burgundy on her scarlet blouse.

Snapping out of the daydream, Lorraine capped the lipstick and pushed out from the car. Walking past the guard house, she closed her good eye and let the bad one burn. Through the crooked shards of pained vision, a picture coalesced: a land cut right from a fairytale, an afternoon sky over a waterfall with the sun putting rainbows in the spray. She shut her eyes and let the sting dissipate. If only to go there. If only to go anywhere.

Customers milled about outside the store, even though it was an hour before opening. The front doors, once gleaming expanses of spotless plate glass, were now plastered with crooked yellow posters declaring the store’s end like a retail obituary.





The words cut, and Lorraine frowned and gritted her teeth as she entered. Someone tried to follow her inside. “Not open!” she snapped. “Yet…sorry.”

Roberta raced back and forth beyond the second set of doors, putting signs into place atop racks of women’s Fall coats. “Oh, Lorraine, good,” she said, puffing her lips.

Lorraine had never seen Roberta so harried. It was almost more disconcerting than the ugly signs defacing the storefront. Any illusions Lorraine had of their branch being rescued were truly fantasy.

“They’ll be here for everything, but clothes will go first. I need you in the change room. It’ll be a zoo back there and I don’t trust the babies to maintain order.”

“What will the babies do?”

“I’ll put Stacy on Home—if she shows up—Kevin on Menswear, Sanja on Women’s. I’ll float. It’s gonna be a shitshow, Lorraine.”

Lorraine grimaced at the use of curse words, but quickly forgave because Roberta was understaffed and deserved better.

Not five minutes after the doors opened, customers flooded the changing room, arms stacked with clothes swept in chunks from the racks.

Lorraine deftly guided them into stalls, abandoning any thought of enforcing the five-item maximum. Unpurchased items quickly clogged the rooms, which she cleared as best she could before others rushed in with what they’d hoarded.

Returning to the counter with a load she’d recovered from stall eight, she began folding and hanging. The quicker the turnaround, the more likely they’d sell and… She knew she was clinging to the foolish hope that if they did well enough, corporate would rethink their decision to close them. As skilled as she was in folding and hanging, there was no keeping up as the clothes quickly swallowed the counter and piled into a mound that would take her hours to get through.

Roberta swept in sometime later, already talking. “Lorraine? Just take your lunch in here, if you don’t mind—” She paused, spotting Lorraine amid the mountains of clothes. “Oh my God.”

Lorraine shrugged, hanging a blouse onto an extra rack she’d brought in. Roberta leaned over the counter to see the full extent of the disaster. She sighed and set her head down on her hands. “Why bother, Lorraine?”

A wave of heat splashed across Lorraine’s face. Why bother? This was her life! Their life! The words tangled on her tongue before she could say it.

Roberta saw her anger. “Lorraine. My doll.” She stepped aside as a woman from Room Six returned a collection of winter clothing. “You have to let it go. You’ll die of exhaustion if you try to get all of this back out on display. Just clear the rooms out and…” she waved her hands helplessly.

“And give up?”

Roberta searched Lorraine’s face. “Hey,” she said, softening her voice. “If it helps you get through it, then…I don’t see any harm. Get it all back on the floor if you want to, it makes no difference to me. Just please, take a break. And hey: if you see anything you like, set it aside. I’m making sure we all get our due for going through this.”


“The clearance pricing plus our employee discounts will bring this stuff to near zero anyway.” She mimed some finger tapping. “The rest I can handle with my manager’s override. Consider it your severance.” She slid her arm behind the clothes that Lorraine had reassembled on the rack and lifted them from the rod. “I’ll bring these back out on the floor.”

Lorraine watched Roberta disappear into the hallway, then turned to the pile of coats returned by the woman. One of them was quite nice, a long, beige number with a narrow waist and a stylish hood. She eyed the rooms for any sign that she was needed and then took it up. Where was it, Lorraine wondered, that she was planning to go with such a heavy jacket? Somewhere faraway from Florida, that much was clear.

Defiantly, she thrust her arms into the sleeves, connected the zipper and yanked it to her neck, then flipped up the hood. She felt immediately idiotic, standing there in a coat she’d never buy, pretending to have a life she didn’t have. Pathetic. She shut her good eye and let the bad eye burn.

An image appeared through the broken window of her vision. Triangles of blue and blinding white. But then the cracks melted away and the picture became clear. No longer was she a distant observer. It felt like she had leapt right into—

A blast of bitter wind stung her cheeks. Snow. A cloudless expanse of sky above. Turning in place, she was faced with a mountain. It loomed over her so high that it seemed ready to topple and flatten her into the earth. Terrified, panicking, she flipped the hood down. Then she was back in the changing room.

She scrambled to unzip the coat and let it drop to the ground. She rubbed her face against the lingering chill. A man emerged from Room One with some track pants and paused. He pulled a headphone from an ear and loud music pounded out. “Ma’am? You alright?”

The words piled up. Lorraine smiled bashfully and nodded. When he was gone, she doubled over and gasped for breath, then stood, wide eyed, heart pounding. The top of her head felt like it was being pulled into orbit. She couldn’t place the emotions. It felt something like terror, but that was wrong. Her arms shook all the way to her shoulders. Her stomach fluttered. No, this wasn’t terror. This was exhilaration. Euphoria.

An excited squeak leapt from mouth before she could stifle it.

She picked up the coat and flipped it around, inspecting it for…she didn’t know what. She set it onto the counter and held her bad eye open again, until an image presented through the burning. It was like it had always been; swathes of color and shape obscured by fractured panes of stained glass. But when she donned the coat again, the mountain returned, bold and tangible as ever.

Quickly, she went to the pants that had just been returned, stepped them on, and hiked them up under her skirt.

A new place reflected clear in the lens of Lorraine’s no-good eye. A musical darkness fringed in beams of colorful light. A cheering crowd. A rock band. Was she just watching or was she there? She poked a nearby reveler in the shoulder. They turned and yelled over the noise asking, annoyed, what she wanted.

“I just wanted to see if I’m here!” she answered.

“Yeah?” they said. “I’m not sure if you are.”

Lorraine laughed. She wasn’t hallucinating. She’d been transported. To a place from the customer’s life? The present? The past? The music sounded like what had been pumping out of his headphones. Somehow, the clothes were a link to someplace real and the bad eye was parsing the destination.

Lorraine removed the pants and reentered the changing room. Before her, a teenager leapt backward with a gasp, and stumbled to the floor.

“Sweetheart!” said Lorraine, running over to check on the girl. “Are you okay?”

“The hell?” said the girl, jumping upright and scooting down the wall. “Are you messing with me or something?”

“Uh, no,” said Lorraine. “What are you talking about?”

The teen pointed at her with a vaping pen. “You just…just…like. You like, just appeared in front of me.”

Lorraine smiled warmly, then looked herself over. “I’m sure I didn’t. I’ve been here all morning. It’s the big clearance sale.”

The girl glared at her vape pen, then rushed out of the room. Lorraine considered the heap of clothes left on the floor and marveled at what secrets they might hold. Not having the time to try on every garment that came back, she added the teen’s jean jacket and leggings to the hoard behind the counter.

Just after five-thirty, Roberta trudged into the change room. “I don’t know how we’re going to do this for ten days straight.”

Lorraine, noting that she didn’t feel at all tired, continued briskly organizing returns. “It will be a challenge,” she said, with every intention of meeting it. “You look exhausted.” She ordered her words and added, “I’ll do the register drops tonight so you can get home to rest.”

Roberta looked at her like she’d just emerged from a cocoon. Lorraine felt like she had.

“I’m fine to stay,” Lorraine continued enthusiastically, snapping a pair of slacks straight and securing the waistband to the trouser clamps. “I must have caught a second wind.”

Roberta surveyed Lorraine’s face, then raised her eyebrows, relenting. “Yes. Fine. I will take you up on that. Did you eat anything at all today?”

Lorraine had eaten—a delicious basket of fried plantains from a street vendor somewhere along the coast of Africa and a bowl of hot pot chicken on a hillside in China. “I had a little something, yes.”

“Aren’t you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” said Roberta the following morning. “You didn’t—you didn’t stay here all night, did you?”

“Roberta,” said Lorraine. “I wouldn’t skip my nightly bath.” She hadn’t skipped her bath. She’d swum in the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Greece in a bathing suit tried on by a woman who had mentioned an upcoming trip to Crete.

The next nine days of clearance were much the same as the first, except that Lorraine now braved the waters of conversation with any person who would talk, eagerly peppering them with questions about their travels. This helped her decide which of their discarded try-ons to put in the Keep pile. If they’d been to a fascinating place, she held onto something they’d tried on. Amidst her elation, words came easier.

The locked-down doors and shuttered windows of Lorraine’s world had blown open. Each day was a slide show, with tours of foreign lands done seconds at a time. She popped in and out of existence on the coastline of California, the prow of a fishing boat somewhere cold, a trail deep inside a tropical jungle, a fancy restaurant in a big city, a café in Vietnam.

The stock dwindled as the sale dragged on, and so did the crowds. Fewer folks were finding much to their liking, and eventually Lorraine was left on her own. Conveniently secluded in the change room, she made notes on the tags and organized the items according to geography, then made her purchases at the end of shift, and lugged them home. At night, she slept more soundly than ever, dreaming about the places she’d visited—ten lifetimes’ worth in just a week—and upon waking, longed to return.

By the end, the store looked like it had caged a typhoon. No amount of running about by the few remaining employees had been enough to maintain order. Their time was at an end, with the corporate movers set to come in and clear out the rest.

Placing their keys in the cash register drawer, they headed toward the front, each of them carrying as much discount merchandise as they could. Kevin, whose arms overflowed with fancy sheets, karate-kicked a mannequin. Roberta laughed. Lorraine side stepped the rolling head without a thought, all pretense of decorum having melted away over the preceding days. That chapter of her life had ended. A new one was about to be written.

Lorraine hit the lights as the babies said casual goodbyes and rushed off to live their lives. She followed Roberta outside and waited as her ex-boss secured the deadbolts.

“They’re making me mail the keys to corporate,” she said, battling a lock. “Ridiculous.”

Lorraine pointed to the pressure cooker sitting at Roberta’s feet, the last of several small appliances the supervisor acquired during clearance. “I think you’re even.”

Roberta chuckled as she secured the final door and pocketed the key. “Yeah, you have a point. So…what are you going to do?”

Lorraine shook out her hands and picked up the swollen bags she’d carried out. “Oh, I’m going to do some traveling.”

“Traveling!” Roberta laughed, shaking her head. “You don’t even drive, doll. The only traveling you do is from this door to your mother’s condo and back. What are you talking about, traveling?”

“One door closes and another opens. You said that.”

“Honey, that’s just what people tell other people when they get laid off.”

“No,” said Lorraine, “you were right.”

“Whatever you say, doll.” She gave Lorraine a hug. “Need a ride home with all that?”

“No thanks. I could use the fresh air,” said Lorraine, backing down the walk. “I’ll bring you back a souvenir!”

“I look forward to it.”

The next morning, Lorraine sat in the Buick, a tightly packed duffle of clothes resting in her lap. The store was still laid out in her brain, but she’d pushed the products from the shelves and filled them instead with articles of clothing, each one signifying a new destination.

Her outfit was a purple warmup suit left in Room Two by a woman about her size, who had gone on and on about plans for a trip she took every year to a majestic spot in the mountains of Venezuela. Hearing the woman talk about it, Lorraine felt like she already knew the place, and took that as a nudge from the Universe.

She looked into the mirror and smiled despite the heat; despite the eye that didn’t line up and the tongue that sabotaged her speech. She felt the weight of it all slip from her shoulders; her own limitations, her resentments. With her world grown large, all of that felt so small now.

From her pocket, she retrieved a brand-new tube of lipstick, color: Mango, Darling. She twisted it up, slathered her lips orange, then smacked them. She stowed the lipstick, took hold of the jacket’s bright yellow zipper, and drew it to the top of the collar.

Her destination appeared in pieces through the prism of her eye, then suddenly she was there. A land cut right from a fairy tale. A waterfall with the sun making rainbows of the spray.

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