Thrift Store Clothes by Jenny McBride

When Hannah O’Connor’s mother died at the marvelous age of ninety-something, Hannah was left behind to clean out the house they had been sharing.  Hannah’s grandmother had left the house to them when she set out to explore the universe almost thirty years earlier.  Hannah had tried to get her mother to do some of the cleaning out during her retirement years, and though Laura did actually clear away much of the clutter in the basement, she never did cull the prodigious quantity of clothes.  And it was the clothes that bothered Hannah the most.

“No!  Not the books!” Hannah cried when Laura set up removal headquarters in the living room and passed old friends off bookshelves and into the doom of a paper bag.

“But I’ll never read them again,” her mother justified plainly.  “And some I bought, and now, well, they just don’t interest me anymore.”

So Hannah went through all the bags and retrieved what seemed important.  She even saved a few kitchen items from the Salvation Army collection bin.  All the while she kept reminding her mother, “We have enough clothes here for a dozen of us.”

But Laura couldn’t part with them, not even the suits and pants she’d bought for her son, who died before she was sixty.  Problem was, she shopped at resale shops where it’s possible to buy a cubic ton of clothes for twenty-five dollars, so even if she did put together a bag of skirts and sweaters she could bear to part with, while dropping them at the thrift store she would poke around the racks and – oh my, the things she found.

Colors and fabrics and tags her artist’s eye couldn’t leave behind.  No matter what the size of the garment, she could picture it on someone; if not herself, then perhaps Hannah, or her other daughter, the other daughter’s husband, or one of the grandchildren.  Home it went.  Once she had worn a garment it either nestled into a fond niche in her heart, or, failing to do so, was returned to the resale shop where…  And if years after bringing it home she still hadn’t worn it, she had to hold onto it because it had yet to be given a fair trial.  She loved these beautiful things, even stored, as they were, in garment bags that hung from pipes that ran the length of the basement ceiling.

After dredging through all the legal emotional fallout from her mother’s death, Hannah began cleaning out the house, giving away what she could to appropriate friends or relatives.  But she didn’t begin quickly enough with the clothes.  One person alone in the house didn’t have the presence to hold them at bay.  Had she started hauling them out right away things might have been different, but as it was, in her consternation at their tremendous bulk, Hannah avoided the clothes for several months.  When she finally turned her attention to them they had already established a foothold.  This made itself known to her one morning when she went to the basement to hang up her laundry.  The first item she blindly pulled from the washing machine was a trim black cotton sweater.

“That’s not me at all,” she mumbled, puzzling over the v-neck.

“No, it’s not, and I’ll thank you to stay out of it.”

The voice was snippy and haughty.  Hannah found herself confronted by a three-piece suit.

“Excuse me?” she cried,  automatically indignant without hesitation for dumbfoundedness.

“Well, I suppose I will, but don’t be interfering with the laundry.  After those are hung up, I have another gentle cycle load to run,” the suit announced.  “I do with you had some better detergent though.  This powder is coarse and inactive.”

“That soap is the most environmentally friendly one on the market,” Hannah defended proudly.  Then she gasped as her emotions caught cleared and she caught up with the moment.  “Wait a minute, you’re doing laundry here?”

“You know a more convenient place? I suppose you think it would be easier to send all these clothes out.”

“And you have the nerve to complain about my laundry detergent!”  The tension was escalating on both sides.  “And what did you do with my clothes?”

“Put them back in the laundry basket, where I figured you’d be able to find them.”

“Put them back in the laundry basket – wet?”

“Well, it wouldn’t do much good to hang them up for twenty minutes, and there aren’t enough hangers to hang up both of my loads plus yours.”

“But I need to dry my clothes!”

“You can hang them in your beloved garden.”

Hannah drew a deep, fiery breath.  Unwilling to fight, she took another stab at comprehension.

“Why are you washing all these clothes?” she asked incredulously.

“Why?”  Her adversary was aghast.  “Why?  Because you don’t!  After years of hanging around a basement a sweater gets damn stale, cleaning bag or no.”

“I’m sure you are all pretty stale, but rather than wash everything I think I’ll just give most of it away,” Hannah explained.

“What?”  The pitch accelerated again, righteous ire inflamed.  “You’re going to stuff me in a bag and leave me on a doorstep?”

Hannah was shaken, doubted herself.  “Well…I don’t…I didn’t necessarily mean you.”

“How dare you!”

“Oh all right then, but I’m not buying any other kind of laundry soap.”   Hannah turned and made her way back upstairs.  She thought this uprising would be confined to the basement.  She thought she could live with it, slipping a load of laundry into the washing machine once in a while until the whole thing blew over.  But the clothes really did have a foothold.  The next day Hannah discovered the suit in the kitchen, sleeve gripping the heirloom Russian tea cup.  The green party dress with it was spooning the last of the pesto into its hollow neckline.  There wasn’t much Hannah could do; she was outnumbered.

In her bedroom, drawer space became more crowded as her closet gradually filled up with imperialistic garments from all corners of the house.

“What about my clothes?” she complained to the suit one day.  “Aren’t you interested in their well-being?  Why do you crumple and stuff them so?”

“Hmph,” the suit snorted.  “They’re so…woolly, more like sheep than clothes.”

Even the bathroom wasn’t safe.  The medicine cabinet was full to bursting with button polish, zipper grease, and underarm protectors.

One evening Hannah arrived home from work to find eight articles of clothing lounging on the living room furniture basking in the glow of the television.  A model wearing a bolt of rainbow houndstooth drapery fabric knotted at the knee and tassled at the shoulder was sashaying down a fashion show runway.

“Good god,” was all Hannah could say to that ridiculous sight, and she reached to change the channel.  But no other channel would tune in.  “What the hell?”

“It’s a video,” the suit explained in its usual disdainful tone, giving rise to rumpled laughter from the other clothes gathered around the screen.

“You’re renting movies now?”  Hannah was more sickened than angry.

“No.  We recorded the Great Poupon International Designer’s Market Masterpiece Showcase of Modern Apparel.”

“Taping fashion shows on my VCR?  You didn’t tape over one of my movies, did you?”

“’The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,’  I know you watched it last week, so I figured that was a good one to replace.”

“You replaced Allen Ginsberg with a fashion show?”

“Yes.  Granted, he’s much better dressed than you, but you’ve seen that movie once and you’ve almost seen it too many times.  We’ll enjoy this one again and again.”

Hannah didn’t sleep well that night.  She lay awake worrying that maybe this uprising wouldn’t blow over, that the clothes had unequivocally established themselves in her home.  She went through the workday stiff and yawning.  When she came home she found a package by the front door.

“Mason Shoes,” she read aloud, and trembled.

Storming into the living room where the clothes were watching the General Electric Geneva Fashion Display for the fifteenth time, Hannah threw the box on the floor and demanded, “Who’s the Mason Shoe dealer?”

“Who do you think?” the suit retorted, shameless as ever.

“Should have known!”  Hannah was furious.  There was no way to look this intruder in the eye.  “Where are you getting the money for this?”

“Out of my pockets.”

“Your pockets?”  Hannah was quiet for a moment.  “But where?  What?  I don’t know where you got it, but it’s not your money.”

“Look here, you’re getting to be a little hard to live with,” the suit boomed authoritatively.

“Go live in your garden!” a new voice cried.  Hannah wheeled around to identify the source of these words and recognized the black sweater she had pulled from the washing machine the day she first encountered the suit.

“Yes, go!  Out of the house!” the suit shouted.  “Out of our way!”

“Out of the house!” echoed the robe, the raincoat, and the silk jacket.

“Go live in your jungly garden,” heckled the green party dress.

Now Hannah was vastly outnumbered by hostile beings in her own home.  A gentle soul, she refused to go any deeper into the confrontation.  Thinking clearly and efficiently, she immediately set up house in her tent.  Her garden was as sheltering as it was beloved, replete with birds, flowers, vegetables, berries and the basic exhilarating radiance of living things.  She settled into a peaceful life out there, even felt less stress during her hours on the job.  Her bed was a sleeping bag, her stove a campfire, and she washed her socks and underwear in a bucket every night.

Jenny McBride’s poetry and fiction have appeared in various publications. Originally from the Chicago area, she now makes her home in the rainforest of southeast Alaska, where the thrift stores are leaner and the wilderness looms large just outside of town.

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