For another second Allison is safe. She’s outside the Wingerts’ house, and the front door is still shut. But Janie Wingert is coming down the hallway, her tasteful heels clicking on the terra-cotta tiles, and Allison has dressed up as a traveling saleswoman, though she doesn’t know why. She has no products. Why didn’t this occur to her before now? It seemed like a great idea when she was in her bedroom, not raking her shag rug, the thing she was supposed to do when she got home from band practice. It seemed like a great idea to root the frosted-blond wig out of her mother’s stocking drawer, where her mother hid it after the Lions Club Mardi Gras party. It seemed like a great idea to jam it on her head and walk across the street.
Janie Wingert opens the door, holding her orange cat, Mr. Teddy. Janie is in sales, real sales, important sales that include clients, accounts, quotas, and jumping on planes, and this occurs to Allison, the unreal salesperson, too late. Janie looks at Allison in her band blazer and the black funeral skirt that she filched from her mother’s “occasional wear” drawer.
What was Allison thinking? Perhaps she was trying to “get out of herself,” something her mother made her write on a piece of paper last Sunday—“I, Allison, will try to get out of myself”—and sign and affix to the refrigerator.
“Hi, Janie,” Allison says. “I’m a saleswoman.” And she can see the look in Janie’s eyes, the kind she would, for example, give a Hare Krishna, the sort of individual that Allison recently heard Janie describe to her mother as a “tangled soul.” Though Allison suspects Janie would just as soon kick a Hare Krishna as look at one.
Janie is deft at appearing out of herself. She pries Mr. Teddy from her shoulder, Mr. Teddy of the six toes on each foot and the continually shell-shocked look, and holds him in her arms, as if he were a homecoming queen bouquet.
“What are you selling, Allison?” Janie says as she stares at Allison’s white vinyl and yellow-flowered overnight bag, which Allison grabbed at the last minute as a sales prop.
“What you need to buy, Janie.” Allison is completely aware of her crummy sales technique. Mr. Teddy, who is generally inactive, suddenly bats one paw in her direction.
Janie squints at Allison and begins to back away from the door. Then she stops and says, “Rick, honey, come here. Allison from across the street is trying to be funny or something.”
And then it hits Allison. Rick. Rick. Janie’s husband who has a blond beard and works at an insurance company, but seems very outdoorsy nonetheless, the type that she could easily see as a carpenter, for one day Allison hopes to move to California and marry a carpenter. It’s Rick. The reason she is pretending to be a traveling saleswoman. Again, this occurs to her too late.
“Hey, Allison, what’s shakin’?” Rick always knows just what to say. Once, when Allison was riding her bike home from school, Rick asked her if she was all right and she said she was, and Rick said she seemed totally depressed. That was one of the happiest days of her life, so far.
“What’s the good word?” Rick takes a bite from a roll in his hand. It seems more exotic than the rolls at Allison’s house. It has seeds. She looks at the bread between his index finger and thumb, how he’s squeezing it just a little bit, ever so gently in between each bite.
Suddenly her head is itchy. Sweat runs down the back of her neck.
“What’s in that suitcase of yours?” Rick says. And Allison remembers that she hid her sketch in there, the one she’s been working on for two months, entitled “A Woman’s Mind.” Allison is a terrible artist, but she has taken great nightly comfort in working on this picture of a woman’s brain that extends upward like a multilayered parking lot, on each level squeezing in all kinds of subversive thoughts and romantic hopes, each of them encoded in strange symbols that would mean nothing to anyone but her. Still, she hid it. Rick must not see this.
“Products,” she whispers.
“Allison,” Rick says. “Allison, you’re a real laugh riot.”
At home, Allison’s mother and Aunt Tuley are waiting in the kitchen for her. Tonight is the last night of the Family Fun Expo at the mall, and her mother really, really wants the three of them to go to a costume photo booth called “Old-Fashioned Days” and get their picture taken as pilgrim ladies, because they live only two towns away from Plymouth, Massachusetts, because this photo could have Christmas card potential.
“Where have you been, Allison?” says her mother.
“Trying out for the seventh-grade play,” Allison says, using the fabulous excuse she cooked up while crossing the street from Janie and Rick’s driveway to her own, and already she sees that her mother is fixated on the fact that she’s wearing her wig and funeral skirt. But for a moment Allison has special powers. She has been referred to as a laugh riot by a twenty-four-year-old man.
“Well, that’s a step in the right direction,” says Aunt Tuley. Aunt Tuley is her mother’s younger sister. “Much younger,” Tuley will always add. Tuley is only eight years older than Allison. She was voted Most Pert in her high school yearbook. “What play?” she says.“A new play.”
“About?” says Allison’s mother.
“About salespeople,” Allison says. There’s a horrible feeling inside the wig, as if there are warm scrambled eggs on top of her head. She’d mushed down her long brown hair with Vaseline, such was her eagerness to get that blond shag wig on her skull.
“I could see you onstage,” says Aunt Tuley, lying.
That’s not a thing that would come to anyone’s mind, Allison thinks. She’s too still, for one thing. Actresses move around a lot. She has dead arms.
“Though you are a little static.” Aunt Tuley is an English major at Salem State College, and she constantly throws around her “Power People” vocabulary words.
Allison bursts into tears. Aunt Tuley and her mother are both so used to this that neither one reacts, and her mother, not even looking at her, pours her a bowl of Apple Jacks to eat in the car on the way to the mall. Allison watches Tuley and her mother walk out the door, and she stands there, crying in her hot wig with her dead arms. And it’s completely out of the question that her mother’s going to wait in the car while she changes out of her traveling saleswoman getup. Allison yanks the wig off her head and savagely whips it across the kitchen table. Then she picks up the bowl of Apple Jacks and dumps it in the trash, a pathetically tiny “fuck you,” and every bit of her newfound, Rick-induced composure has vanished, as if she never had it at all.