Flowers at Work by Denise Duhamel

Dotty was the best at selling shoes
with her big red hair and freckled neck.
When she had a male customer, she bent just right
so that he could see down her blouse. She was fifty-ish
with a boyfriend who kept promising to marry her,
then they’d have a fight about one of her children—
the eldest who still lived with her and refused to get a job—
and the wedding would be called off.
There would be flowers the next day,
the kind that come in a long white box and Dotty
would slide a tissue from her rolled-up sleeve
and blow her nose, the tears hovering at her bottom lids
for a few seconds before spilling out and ruining her mascara.

The married women who worked in cosmetics
envied her, her scandalous divorce, and now her boyfriend
who sent her roses or daisies with baby’s breath,
who’d show up at closing to take her out
for all-you-can-eat roast chicken. Dotty knew
how to sell, to tell a life story that put you
in the best possible light. And she taught me her tricks:
when a customer was in a wicked mood
I’d suggest she take a walk around the store,
try on some perfume with the free testers.
I’d offer to go to the break room
and make her a cup of coffee or tea with sugar and cream.

Sometimes Dotty’s customers would start crying
right there in the back of the store
on the blue plush chairs with the silver legs
on which employees weren’t allowed to sit.
Dotty recognized sadness when she saw it,
and knew that a new pair of pumps could at least
make a situation a little more bearable. She urged
me to go to college, avoid getting married young
like she had to a husband who wound up
going to jail for sleeping with the babysitter.
Sure, sex was fun now, but later it might become
a chore if I married someone with a cruel streak,
who didn’t understand how tired I was
after having a baby, someone who still wanted sex
and would have it with whoever said yes first.

Sure, she said, life seemed good now, and she worked
on commission. But her knees were starting to creak
every time she kneeled—and was that what I wanted
for myself? Though she loved her boyfriend,
he drank too much and she pestered him to shave
his gray beard which was wiry and wild
like the one belonging to the fisherman
who was the logo for Gorton’s Fish Sticks.
Dolly reminded me she wouldn’t even have him
if it weren’t for the divorce. And some husbands
won’t even give you that if they want to keep
the house and there’s a girlfriend
on the side who will put up with a married man.

Now I’m fifty-ish and divorced, having taken
only some of Dolly’s advice. I like to think she taught me
to be nice, empathetic, and no nonsense but more
than once I squeezed myself into the wrong size
because that was all that was left in the stockroom,
because life was going so fast I thought I’d never catch up.

I liked it best in the shoe department when it was slow
but felt bad those days when Dotty wasn’t
making extra money. At Christmas
no one wanted their feet measured
and mostly bought Daniel Green slippers
as gifts. The commission was small
and was deducted from our next pay
if the Dormie or The Silver Glamour
was returned in January. We smiled anyway
as we wrapped the slippers in poinsettia paper
to be placed under the trees
of happy and unhappy families.



Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orhisis, 1997).  She and Maureen Seaton have co-authored four collections. Her collaboration with Juie Marie Wade, The Unrhymables, is forthcoming from Noctuary Press in 2019.