By Teague Bohlen
Colleen didn’t remember the dress, except that it was green. She didn’t even remember buying it, not really, except that she’d been pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take as long as she had been afraid it would. What she recalled was the conversation. And that she got some secret joy when Linn & Scruggs Department Store finally shut its doors.
This happened when Colleen was 13, and okay, she had to admit, a little heavy. She was old enough to care, old enough to assume the judgment that swirled around her when she was in public, but not so old that she knew what do to about it, or, if she were being completely honest with herself, if she had what it took to do whatever that something was. What she did know, even back then, was this: there was no way she was going to Linn & Scruggs Chubby Shop.
It wasn’t just the name, though really: come on. It was that Linda Cherry’s mom worked in the Girls section, and you had to walk through it to get back to the glassed-off area called the Chubby Shop. Why it was walled off, Colleen didn’t know either—maybe moms like Linda Cherry’s thought that flab was contagious. And glass? It was like a zoo for the husky, and Colleen was the hippo. Linda Cherry’s mom was bad enough, with her pencil-thin skirts and the department store retail position that all the girls thought was super-glamorous. Linda Cherry got the family discount of twenty percent off her hair services, and used every penny of it. They were like a family of stewardesses. And if Linda Cherry’s mom saw Colleen there, then Linda Cherry would know too, and school would become—well, like yet another zoo for the husky.
But her mother was determined to buy her at least one dress there. “Listen, Colleen, you should have at least one nice dress from Linn & Scruggs. You know, for when we need to go out, or you have a school dance.” She was tapping her foot on the tile of the foyer.
“No one dresses like that for school dances anymore, Mom.”
“That’s not the point, Colleen,” her father said. He’d been called up from the basement where he’d been trying to sharpen the lawn mower blades. Colleen’s father wasn’t good at things like this. It was just a lot of random swearing followed by her Dad coming into the room sweating and muttering about how there are no craftsmen left in the world.
“No,” Colleen measured, “the point is that Mom wants to take me to a store where I’ll be embarrassed just so she can say we went shopping in town.”
“You’re going,” her father said, “and that’s final.”
“I’m not going to a place they call the Chubby Shop!”
“Then stop eating so much,” her father said.
“All right,” her mother clucked, and shook her head.
“Whose side are you on, Maryann? You’re the one that wanted me to talk with the girl about going shopping this afternoon.”
“I didn’t mean for you to humiliate her, Harvey.”
“Who’s humiliating?” Harvey looked around for an audience that wasn’t there. “I don’t see anybody humiliating here.” And then to his daughter: “Things aren’t fair, Colleen. If it takes Linn and flaming Scruggs to teach you that sometimes life is full of small moments that temporarily kill your soul, then I say let’s Chubby-Shop it up!” With this, Harvey moved as though he were in a sudden earthquake, though Colleen knew it was somehow supposed to denote fat.
“It’s demeaning,” Colleen said. “The name is terrible. It makes me feel awful. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“Do you think I like buying things from the Toiletries section?” her father asked, the look on his face seeming to communicate that he thought this to be a very good point.
Both Colleen and her mother paused for a moment, waiting for Harvey to finish his argument, but he seemed done. “Anyway, if you go with me,” Colleen’s mom said in a sing-song voice “we can go to the Tea Room upstairs. They have fancy cookies they call biscuits.”
“Jeez, Maryann, you can’t take the girl to a Chubby Shop and then buy her biscuits.”
Maryann gaped her mouth in offense, and then looked over at her daughter to express that outrage and silently ask for her to speak up. Colleen knew all this, but shook her head anyway. “I actually agree with that,” she said, because even at 13 she did, and because there was no way she was spending any more time at the department store than she had to.
“Colleen,” Harvey said, “you’re a pretty girl, and pretty girls buy dresses. Go with your mother. And Maryann,” he said, kissing his wife on her furrowed forehead “don’t buy her tea, don’t buy her biscuits, don’t even go past the second floor. Just take her to buy one dress.” Back to Colleen: “One. Dress.” As he was going back downstairs to not-fix the lawnmower, he added, half to himself, “Not everything has to be so complicated.”
Colleen remembered that they bought the dress. She remembered Linda Cherry’s mom not being there. She remembers that they didn’t get tea, but they did get green stamps, and they stopped at the Dog n Suds on the way home for a root beer. Her mom asked Colleen if she wanted a corn dog, and Colleen remembers wanting one, but refusing. She remembers the ride home, her mom reaching out and stroking her hair. “Good, right?” she said, and Colleen nodded, even though she didn’t really know what her mother was asking. Colleen looked out at the slate sky from the car window, corn dogs, biscuits, root beer, dresses. She still does. She stares at the clouds that flatten the rounded depths, watches gravity push everything down like a thick wool coat, anchoring everything to the ground and forcing weight upon them. She wonders if there will ever be a time when she’s light enough, finally, to just float away without anyone noticing.
TEAGUE VON BOHLEN runs the Creative Writing program at the University of Colorado Denver, where he also serves as Fiction Editor for the literary magazine Copper Nickel and the Faculty Adviser for the student newspaper The Sentry. He’s a regular contributor to the Denver alt-weekly Westword, and his short fiction has been nationally published, most recently in Saranac Review, His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for fiction, and is also the co-author of The Snarktastic Guide to College Success. His next book, Flatland, is a collection of flash fiction and photography set in the Midwest, and is forthcoming in 2018.