This story came about when I was watching a shopping station and was tempted to buy a car polisher, and I didn't have a car. Also, among the expat community, some wives have a hard time to adjust. It just seemed a perfect combination for a story. The Shopper was published in a Texan literary magazine in the 1996 and an anthology from Belgium in 1999.
The car fills the TV screen. Half is shined. The other half is wax covered. A polisher sits on the hood. "This polisher is not sold in stores. To order look for the flag of your country," the announcer says. The camera zooms into the shiny surface.
Susan's hand inches toward her telephone. 037 51 75 50. She doesn't need to see the white cross on the red flag. She knows the number by heart, although Switzerland isn't her country. Maine US of A is.
Just as she touches the five she remembers -- she doesn't have a car. Still, Geoff, her husband, had said that morning he might lease one.
He'd sat on their balcony drinking Earl Grey tea from a bowl. He'd stared at the mountains with that vacant look he gets whenever he sees a Jura or an Alp. He'd begun drinking tea from bowls after they'd visited Colette and Jean-Claude's farm. Susan had been shocked, but Colette had explained it was a French habit.
Susan uses her mug that says, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." She tried switching but each time the bowl grazed her lips she imagined what her mother would say if she were to drink from a bowl.
While Geoff talked about the car, Susan sat wordlessly, her back to the mountains. He said, "If we'd a car you might get out more." She heard the unspoken, "You can't stay home for the next twenty-three months we're in Geneva." He put the bowl next to the roses he'd bought and kissed her goodbye. As he picked up his briefcase he said, "Try and go look at the cars."
She picks up a brochure for a Subaru, 4x4, five forward gears. It is in French. She decides to wait for him to go with her.
She dials 037 51, then stops. If Geoff leases a car the polisher will be handy. Of course, neither of them waxed their last car, a 1989 Colt, nor had they polished their 1985 Escort or their 1977 Pinto.
When those cars had been splashed with mud or coated with dust, they'd driven through a car wash, the kind where heavy cloth strips descend and go whap, whap, whap all around the auto. She would wait on the side with Bark, watching the car go through.
She misses Bark, although her mother writes weekly to report how happy the dog is running around the farm. Susan isn't sure what bothers her more -- that Bark doesn't miss them or that he's at the farm and she isn't.
The car has disappeared from the screen. Putting down the phone, she imagines giving Geoff the polisher the moment he brings a new car home -- if he brings one home. If he doesn't they can take the polisher back to Maine. She wonders how to convince her husband what a good buy it really is.
She pictures him with his lips pursed the way he does each time he discovers she has one again given into television shopping. He'd mocked her after she made her first purchase, a youth kit. That was two weeks after they'd bought the television at Migros.
"We need a TV table. Let's go to IKEA," she said.
"Can't you go during the week. I'd rather go hiking," he said.
She started listing excuses: no one would speak English, she'd get lost, he wouldn't like what she chose.
He threw up his hands. Still, the day had been successful. They'd eaten salmon topped with a fresh dill sprig at IKEA's restaurant. He said for a shopping day, it wasn't all that bad.
When Geoff left for work the Monday after the big shopping trip, Susan had crawled back into bed. As she channel surfed, she took real pleasure in the noise in the apartment. At home her sister, mother, friends and neighbours constantly dropped by. In Geneva she knew no one, although neighbours murmured, "Bonjour" or "Bonsoir" as she scuttled past them.
Suddenly she sat up in bed. She found not one but two English-only channels, each with a shopping program. Then she found a third, Eurosport, which also had a half hour of selling before the step-exercising segment.
After that as soon as her husband left, she'd get a cup of tea and watch television until dinner. One day when Mont Blanc blocked the English-only channels she changed to TF1. Normally French television made her more homesick -- especially if she watched Murder She Wrote, which was on almost every day. It didn't seem right for Angela Lansbury to babble in French.
A French woman who looked about thirty jabbered away. She was striking in the way of French women. Susan tried to decide what made her look so smart. It was more than the print scarf picking up the colours of her skirt and blouse.
She watched spellbound as the woman loaded gel into a blue plastic phallus then put it in the freezer. Susan wondered if it were an adult Popsicle. A clock moved a half hour, but the real time elapsed was five seconds. The woman took out what must have been a duplicate and rubbed it on her face going into ecstasy.
The host held up a series of cards each with a number. Forty was the first. She shook her head to each until the host held up one saying fifty-one. If gel could take twenty years off the French women's age, Susan knew she must have some to protect her from Geneva pollution so unlike fresh Maine air.
Two weeks later she has her gel and phallic container. She followed the directions exactly looking up each word in the French-English dictionary and writing it in her pink and purple plaid notebook. She felt silly rubbing a blue plastic penis over her face.
The next morning Geoff put on the light to see if by chance he'd missed finding clean underwear. He hadn't. Susan had missed her allotted laundry hour. He forgot about his underwear when he looked at her. "Oh my God. You've got measles."
Jumping out of bed, she ran to the mirror. She had to squat down because it rested on the rug. Geoff said since they'd only be there two years why take the chance that the landlord would keep the deposit because of holes in the walls. So as she hunkered down to look in the mirror, a red and swollen face looked back. "I used a new face cream," she said. The youth kit became a joke.
Geoff hadn't found it as amusing two weeks later when she'd ordered a drill to hang the mirror or when the paint stripper arrived a week after.
"Maybe we'll want to strip some furniture," she said.
He shook his head, the same way he did when the Boston Patriots dropped a really easy catch.
He was so angry when she paid 650 Swiss francs for an oven that looked like a lettuce dryer and cooked by air that he didn't speak to her for two days. But when he found the CDs and DVDs from the Prince's Trust Concerts, he just said, "Why?" making it a four-syllable word.
"You love Eric Clapton. He's in at least three songs and backs up Rod Stewart."
"We don't have a DVD player," he said.
"We can take it home."
"It won't work. The US had a different system."
They bought a DVD player. Eventually, after listening to a Tina Turner-Paul McCarthy duet he said, "OK, I love the CDs, but I still worry about you. At home you always did so much but here..." The phone interrupted.
When Susan bought a tool to add rhinestones to her clothing, she'd kept it a secret. When the VISA bill arrived, she had to show him how she planned to redesign her T-shirts and jeans. He sighed as she brought out all the things that came with set: rhinestone, fake pearls, a hand-held tool and twenty reusable patterns.
"Susan, you don't even like rhinestones." He'd handed her back the rose pattern she'd given him. As she slipped it in the envelope she dropped the rhinestones. She crawled around the floor picking them up one-by-one. "Maybe I can get a small business going."
"How? You don't go out. You won't even try to learn French?"
"There's the International Club."
"You went once and haven't gone back."
Susan sat Indian-style on the floor, her hand full of rhinestones. She couldn't tell him how uncomfortable the wives made her feel. They were use to living away from home. They spoke French. Susan's ear couldn't distinguish the sounds much less wrap her tongue around them.
Susan decides to buy the polisher, but as she pushes 037, a key clicks in the lock. Since it's two in the afternoon she's surprised to see Geoff. She hangs up before he reaches the bedroom.
"Get packed. We're catching the 16:50 to Paris."
Susan puts on her navy T-shirt dress and ties a scarf in the same way the woman, who wasn't allergic to gel in plastic penises. She puts underwear and her lilac nightie in the overnight bag. Geoff packs his saddlebag that wraps around his briefcase.
"We'll have the weekend to explore. My meeting isn't till Monday." He hugs her.
In the train they go to the dining car, which only sells sandwiches. She doesn't understand how a country with such a wonderful reputation for good food can make such unimaginative sandwiches. She daydreams of chicken tarragon on pita bread. She eats her dried out cheese and her more dried out baguette as the countryside flashes by.
In Paris they stay at the Edouard VII near the Opera. A brass lion in the lobby reminds her of the lions at the Copley Plaza Boston where they'd spent their wedding night.
The room has a king-sized bed. Geoff throws her down and tickles her a prelude to love making. She doesn't come, but she hasn't since they moved. Nevertheless, she feels happy.
Saturday they visit the Louvre. Looking up through the new glass Pyramid they see the old building in the background and fountains in the foreground. Geoff drapes his arm around her shoulder. "Lord, I love living in Europe. I wish we could stay forever." He doesn't feel her shudder.
They ride the escalator to the look down at the top of the pyramid. "I don't like this view," Geoff says. "It clashes with the old buildings."
"Like a pimple on Cindy Crawford's face," she says.
They stop at a brassiere. They sit facing the windows so they can watch people walk by. She orders hot chocolate. He has a Stella & Artois beer.
Outside a crowd gathers to watch a man pretending to be a statue. He wears a white toga, white makeup and white hair powder. Taking ten francs from her wallet, she goes out to put it in his hat. His white bare feet look cold. She wishes she had some white socks to give him.
In the Metro they sit opposite a man talking to himself. About every three words he pulls a face always the same face. Then he folds the corner of his blue overcoat over and over. Frightened, Susan nestles into Geoff.
When he leaves for his meeting, he suggests she visit Notre Dame. She agrees, but instead goes to Bretano's. The English bookstore is two doors from the hotel. She buys a book about the cathedral. When Geoff come back she shows him the book and says, "See what I bought?" without telling where.
Ten years in the future the couple will be back in Maine. They will have three kids. Susan will be busy.
When they entertain, Geoff will sit back in his chair, take a puff on his pipe and say, "Those years in Europe were the best in our lives."
Susan will say nothing. She'll look out the window past the fenced in areas for the horses to the barn where they have the truck, station wagon and company Buick.
A box containing an unused polisher is hidden in the loft. All three of their vehicles will be dirty.