Shopgirl

by Steve Martin

Paperback, 130 pages, Hyperion Books, List Price: $11.95 | purchase

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Shopgirl
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Steve Martin

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Book Summary

Working as a salesgirl at the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus, Mirabelle, a beautiful aspiring artist, embarks on a love affair with Ray Porter, a wealthy, lonely businessman she meets at the store, and together they struggle to understand the meaning of love, in a bittersweet tale of romance. A first novel. Reprint. 200,000 first printing.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Shopgirl

Shopgirl

A Novella


Theia

Copyright © 2001 Steve Martin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0786885688


Chapter One


WHEN YOU WORK IN THE glove department at Neiman's,you are selling things that nobody buys anymore. Thesegloves aren't like the hard-working ones sold by L.L. Bean;these are so fine that a lady wearing them can still pick up astraight pin. The glove department is adjacent to the couturedepartment and is really there for show. So a lot ofMirabelle's day is spent leaning against the glass case withone leg cocked behind her and her arms splayed outward,resting on her palms against the countertop. On an especiallyslow day she might lean over the case on her elbows—althoughthis position is definitely not preferred by themanagement—and stare through the glass at the leather andsilk gloves that lie on display like pristine, just-caught fish.The overhead lights reflect in the glass countertop and minglewith the gray and black of the gloves, resulting in a mother-of-pearlswirl that sometimes sends Mirabelle into a shallowhypnotic dream.

    Everyone is silent at Neiman's, as though it were areligious site, and Mirabelle always tries to quiet the tap-tap-tappingof her heels when she walks across the percussivemarble floors. If you saw her, you would assume By her gaitthat she is in danger of slipping at any moment. However,this is the way Mirabelle walks all the time, even on the surefriction of a concrete sidewalk. She has simply never quitelearned to walk or hold herself comfortably, which makesher come off as an attractive wallflower. For Mirabelle, thehigh point of working at a department store is that she getsto dress up to go to work, as the Neiman's dress codeencourages her to be a model of precision and style. Herproblem, of course, is paying for the clothes that she favors,but one way or another, helped out by a generous employeediscount and a knack for mixing and matching a recycleddress with a 50 percent off Armani sweater, she manages todress well without straining her budget.

    Every day at lunchtime she walks around the cornerinto Beverly Hills to the Time Clock Café, which offers hera regular lunch at a nominal price. One sandwich, whichalways amounts to three dollars and seventy-five cents, aside salad, and a drink, and she can keep her tab just underher preferred six-dollar maximum, which can surge to nearlyeight dollars if she opts for dessert. Sometimes, a manwhose name she overheard once—Tom, she thinks itis—will eye her legs, which show off nicely as she sits at awrought-iron table so shallow it forces her to angle them outinto the aisle. Mirabelle, who never takes credit for herattractiveness, believes it is not she he is responding to butrather something independent of her, like the lovely line herfine blue skirt makes as it cuts diagonally across the white ofher thigh.

    The rest of the day at Neiman's sees her leaning orbending or rearranging, with the occasional odd customerpulling her out of the afternoon's slow motion until 6 P.M.finally ticks over. She then closes the register and walks overto the elevator, her upper body rigid. She descends to thefirst floor and passes the glistening perfume counters, wherethe salesgirls stay a full half hour after closing to accommodatelate buyers, and where by now, the various scents thathave been sprayed throughout the day onto waiting customershave collected into strata in the department store air.So Mirabelle, at five-six, always smells Chanel number 5,while someone at five-two is always treated to the heavierChanel number 19. This daily walk always reminds her thatshe works in the Siberia of Neiman's, the isolated, landlockedglove department, and she wonders when she will bemoved around in the hierarchy to at least perfume, becausethere, in the energetic, populated worlds of cosmetics andaromatics, she can get that which she wants more than anything:someone to talk to.

    Depending on the time of year, Mirabelle's drivehome offers either the sunny evening light of summer or theearly darkness and halogen headlights of winter in Pacificstandard time. She traverses Beverly Boulevard, thechameleon street with elegant furniture stores and restaurantson one end and Vietnamese shops selling mysteriouspackaged roots on the other. In fifteen miles, like aMonopoly game in reverse, this street dwindles in propertyvalue and ends at her second-story apartment in Silverlake,an artists' community that is always bordering on being dangerousbut never quite succeeding. Some evenings, if thetiming is right, she can climb the outdoor stairs to her walkupand catch L.A.'s most beautiful sight: a Pacific sunsetcumulating over the spread of lights that flows from herfront-door stoop to the sea. She then enters her apartment,which for no good reason doesn't have a window to the view,and the disappearing sun finally blackens everything outside,transforming her windows into mirrors.

    Mirabelle has two cats. One is normal, the other is areclusive kitten who lives under a sofa and rarely comes out.Very rarely. Once a year. This gives Mirabelle the feeling thatthere is a mysterious stranger living in her apartment whomshe never sees but who leaves evidence of his existence bysubtly moving small, round objects from room to room. Thisdescription could easily apply to Mirabelle's few friends,who also leave evidence of their existence, in missed phonemessages and rare get-togethers, and are also seldom seen.This is because they view her as an oddnik, and their failureto include her leaves her alone on many nights. She knowsthat she needs new friends but introductions are hard tocome by when your natural state is shyness.

    Mirabelle replaces the absent friends with books andtelevision mysteries of the PBS kind. The books are mostlynineteenth-century novels in which women are poisoned orare doing the poisoning. She does not read these books as aromantic lonely hearts turning pages in the isolation of herroom, not at all. She is instead an educated spirit with asense of irony. She loves the gloom of these period novels,especially as kitsch, but beneath it all she finds that a part ofher identifies with all that darkness.

    There is something else, too: Mirabelle can draw. Heroutput is small in quantity and size. Only a few four-by-five-inchdrawings are finished in a year, and they are infusedwith the eerie spirit of the mysteries she reads. She denselycoats the paper with a black waxy crayon, covering everythingexcept the image she wants to reveal, which appears to befloating up through the blackness. Her latest is a rendering ofa crouching child charred stiff in the lava of Pompeii. Herdrawing hand is sure, trained in the years she spent acquiringa master of fine arts degree at a California college whileincurring thirty-nine thousand dollars of debt from studentloans. This degree makes her a walking anomaly among theperfume girls and shoe clerks at Neiman's, whose highestaccomplishments are that they were cute in high school.Rarely, but often enough to have a small collection of her ownwork, Mirabelle gets out the charcoals and pulls the kitchenlamp down low, near the hard surface of her breakfast table,and makes a drawing. It is then properly fixed and photographedand stowed away in a professional portfolio. Thesenights of drawing leave her exhausted, for they require thefull concentration of her energy, and on those evenings shestumbles to bed and falls into a dead sleep.

    On a normal night, her routine is very simple, involvingthe application of lotion to her body while chattering tothe visible kitten, with occasional high-voiced interjectionsto the assumed cat under the sofa. If there were a silentobserver, Mirabelle would be seen as a carefree, happy girlwho is preparing for a night on the town. But in reality, theseactivities are the physical manifestations of her stillness.

    Tonight, as the evening closes, Mirabelle slips intobed, says an audible good night to both cats, and shuts hereyes. Her hand clicks off the lamp next to her, and her headfills with ghosts. Now her mind can wander in any landscapeit desires, and she makes a nightly ritual of these wakingdreams. She sees herself standing on the edge of a tropicallagoon. A man comes up from behind her, wraps his armsaround her, buries his face in her neck, and whispers, "don'tmove." The image generates a damp first molecule of wetnessbetween her legs, and she presses her bladed handbetween them, and falls asleep.

    In the morning, the dry food that had heen laid out ina bowl the night before is now gone, more evidence of thephantom cat. Mirabelle, sleepy eyed and still groggy, preparesher breakfast and takes her Serzone. The Serzone is agift from God that frees her from the immobilizing depressionthat would otherwise surround her and seep into herbody like a poisonous fog. The drug distances the depressionfrom her, although it is never out of sight. It is also the thirdmood elevator that she has tried in as many years. The firsttwo worked, and worked well for a while, then abruptlydropped her. There is always a struggle as the new drug,which for a while has to be blended with the old one, takesroot in her brain and begins to work its mysterious chemistry.

    The depression she battles is not the newly acquiredsymptom of a young woman now living in Los Angeles onher own. It was first set in the bow in Vermont, where shegrew up, and fired as a companion arrow that has traveledwith her ever since. With the drug, she is generally able tocorner it and keep it separate from her daily life. There areblack stretches, however, when she is unable to move fromher bed. She takes full advantage of the sick days that arebuilt into her work allowances at Neiman's.

    In spite of her depression, Mirabelle likes to think ofherself as humorous. She can, when the occasion calls.become a wisecracker and buoyant party girl. This mood,Mirabelle thinks, sometimes makes her the center of attentionat parties and gatherings. The truth is that theseepisodes of gaiety merely raise her to normal, but forMirabelle the feeling is so exceptional that she believes herselfto be standing out. The power at these parties remainswith the neurotically spirited women, who attract menwhose need it is to tame them. Mirabelle attracts men of adifferent kind. They are shyer and more reticent. They lookat her a long time before approaching, and when they dofind something about her that they want, it is somethingsimple within her.


jeremy


AT TWENTY-SIX, JEREMY IS two years younger than Mirabelle.He grew up in the slacker-based L.A. high school milieu,where aspiration languishes and the lucky ones get kick-startedin their first year of college by an enthused andcharismatic professor. He had no college dreams and henceno proximity to the challenge of new faces and ideas—hecurrently stencils logos on amplifiers for a living—andJeremy's life after high school slid sideways on an imperceptiblycanted icy slope, angling away from center. It is appropriatethat he and Mirabelle met at a Laundromat, the leastnoir dating arena on earth. Their first encounter began with"hey," and ended with a loose "see ya," as Mirabelle stoodamidst her damp underwear and jogging shorts.

    Jeremy took Mirabelle on approximately two and ahalf dates. The half date was actually a full evening, but wasso vaporous that Mirabelle had trouble counting it as a fullunit. On the first, which consisted mainly of shufflingaround a shopping mall while Jeremy tried to graze her asswith the back of his hand, he split the dinner bill with herand then, when she suggested they actually go inside themovie theatre whose new neon front so transfixed Jeremy,made her pay for her own ticket. Mirabelle could not affordto go out again under the same circumstances, and there wasno simple way to explain this to him. The conversation atdinner hadn't been successful either; it bore the marks of anold married couple who had very little left to say to eachother. After walking her to her door, he gave her his phonenumber, in a peculiar reversal of dating procedure. Shemight have considered kissing him, even after the horriblefirst date, but he just didn't seem to know what to do.However, Jeremy does have one outstanding quality. He likesher. And this quality in a person makes them infinitely interestingto the person who is being liked. At the end of theirfirst date, as she stepped inside her apartment and her handwas delivering the door to its jamb, there was a slight pause,and they exchanged a quick look of inexplicable intent. Onceinside, instead of forever losing his number in her coat pocket,she absentmindedly stuck it under her phone.

    Six days after their first date, which had cutMirabelle's net worth by 20 percent, she runs into Jeremyagain at the Laundromat. He waves at her, gives her thethumbs-up sign, then watches her as she loads clothes intothe machines. He seems unable to move, but speaks justloudly enough for his voice to carry over twelve clankingwashing machines, "Did you watch the game last night?"Mirabelle is shocked when she later learns that Jeremy considersthis their second date. This fact comes out when atone abortive get-together, Jeremy invokes the "third date"rule, believing he should be received at second base.Mirabelle is not fooled by any such third date rule, and sheexplains to Jeremy that she cannot conceive of any way theirLaundromat encounter, or any encounter involving thethumbs-up sign, can be considered a date.

    This third date is also problematic because after warningJeremy that she is not going to pay half of its cost, she istaken to a bowling alley and forced to pay for her own rentalshoes. Jeremy explains that bowling shoes are an article ofclothing, and he certainly can't be expected to pay for whatshe wears on a date. If only Jeremy's logical mind could beapplied to astrophysics and not rental shoes, he would nowbe a honcho at NASA. He does cough up for dinner and severalgames, even though he uses discount coupons clippedfrom the newspaper to help pay for it all. Finally, Mirabellesuggests that if they have future dates, he should take herphone number, call her, and they could do free things.Mirabelle knows, and she lets this be unspoken, that all freethings require conversation. Sitting in a darkened movie theatrerequires absolutely no conversation at all, whereas a freedate, like a walk down Hollywood Boulevard in the busyevening, requires comments, chatter, observations, and withluck, wit. She worries that since they have only exchangedperhaps two dozen words between them, these free dates willbe horrible. She is still willing to go out with him, however,until something less horrible comes along.

    Jeremy's attraction to Mirabelle arises from her passingsimilarity to someone he had fallen in love with in hispreadolescent life. This person is Popeye's girlfriend, OliveOyl, whom he used to swoon over in a few antique comicbooks lent to him by his uncle. And yes, Mirabelle does bearsome similarity, but only after the suggestion is made. Youwould not walk into a room, see her for the first time, andthink Olive Oyl. However, once the idea is proposed, one'sresponse might be a long, slow, "ahhhh ... yes." She has along thin body, two small dark eyes, and a small red mouth.She also dresses like Olive Oyl, in fitted clothes—never afluffy, girly dress—and she holds herself like Ms. Oyl, too, ina kind of jangle. Olive Oyl has no breasts, but Mirabelledoes, though the way she carries herself, with her shouldersfolded, in clothing that never accentuates her curves, makesher appear flat. All this in no way discounts her attractiveness.Mirabelle is attractive; it's just that she is never thefirst or second girl chosen. But to Jeremy, Mirabelle's moststriking resemblance to Olive Oyl is her translucent skin. Itrecalls for him the pale skin of the cartoon figure, which wasactually the creamy paper showing from underneath.

    Jeremy's thought process is so thin that he has thehappy consequence of always ending up doing exactly whathe wants to do at all times. He never complicates a desire byoverthinking it, unlike Mirabelle, who spins a cocoonaround an idea until it is immobile. His view of the world isone that keeps his blood pressure low, sweeping the cholesterolfrom his relaxed, freeway-sized arteries. Everyoneknows he is going to live till age ninety, although the questionthat goes begging is, "for what?"

    Jeremy and Mirabelle are separated by a hundredmillion miles of vacuum space. He falls asleep at night inblissful ignorance. She, subtly doped on her prescription,time-travels through the terrain of her unconscious until sheis overcome by sleep. He knows only what is right in front ofhim; she is aware of every incoming sensation that glancesobliquely against her soft, fragile core. At this stage of theirlives, in true and total fact, the only thing they have in commonis a Laundromat.

Continues...