by Katherine Hubbard
If Susie were a queen, she’d choose robes thick and heavy as the fabric in her hand, but the color of the sea, not purple or red or anything actually queen-ish. Susie holds the fabric to her chin. It is velvet and not the color of the sea, but green, kind of like spinach. Even so, it’s a good color, and it makes her face glow like sun through a window. Miss Delaney at school said red-haired girls should always wear green.
Mother is at the counter. The fabric she holds is brown. Heavy too, Susie can tell just by looking at it, but not velvet. They can’t afford velvet. Mother is here to buy fabric for a bear costume, which she didn’t want to do, she said so this morning and that it was going to take a day’s wage and maybe more to get it. But the ready-made costume that the school said Susie could use was moldy and smelly; it made Susie sneeze and sneeze and sneeze. Susie is Baby Bear, the star. She gets to open her mouth and cry, on purpose! On stage! Very loud! That’s what Miss Delaney said when they practiced it: Louder, Susie! Be loud as you want! But do not sneeze. Sneezing wrecks it.
Mother’s mouth opens and shuts like a puppet’s; she is talking to the saleslady, and the saleslady is holding sheers long as knives. Susie doesn’t have to turn; she can see her mother, the saleslady, the scissors, the counter—all in reverse in the mirror. Her mother leans toward the saleslady, her cheeks more red than they were this morning. Susie shifts her eyes away.
The velvet was difficult to move from the rack but she’s done it. Using her feet, she rolls the bolt over one more time and is able to pull more of the cloth up around her. She twirls. The fabric slides down her arms, softer than still water. Susie looks back. Mother is leaning in toward the lady, jabbing a finger at the fabric between them. So Susie puts the velvet over her head. She clasps it under her chin with her finger. She sits down and now she is hidden by racks and bolts of fabric. If she shifts her eyes upward, she can still see Mother in the mirror. Mother’s face is gray and long, like a wolf’s face. Even from this distance, Susie can see her mother’s eyes are rimmed with red.
Of course Mother had been crying all morning. Susie had been bad, had gotten up out of bed too early, had spilled milk on the counter, and Mother couldn’t take it anymore, not after everything. Susie understood. It wasn’t nice that she hadn’t cleaned up; the rags were in the drawer. And she shouldn’t have turned on the radio or moved the dial so that it was going to be harder to find their programs. After Mother was finished being angry, Susie moved the footstool to the icebox to get Mother a bottle of cola. Her mother lifted her head from the kitchen table, said, “Thank you, baby,” and drank the whole thing without stopping. Wiped the corners of her mouth with the handkerchief she kept in her sleeve. Buttoned the sweater up over the stain on her blouse. Mother made Susie wear a dress and her Sunday shoes with white socks, her Sunday coat and hat. Then, Mother pinned on her own hat, buttoned up their coats and gloves, walked to the store. And now, Mother is going to buy this brown fabric to make the Baby Bear costume, and Susie must be patient and just stay out of the way until Mother gets what she needs.
* * *
The store is hot. There are high windows above the front door through which the sun shines very hard. Susie would like to remove her coat, gloves, and socks but she doesn’t dare. Mother’s voice is louder now. “You call this quality?” Susie hears her say. She cannot hear the saleslady’s response. Next to the bolt of green fabric is a bolt of blue, blue like the sea in Susie’s imagination. She decides to take this one down too. It is just as heavy. Heavier, actually, and bigger. Maybe people don’t like blue velvet as much as they like green. Susie would like a queen’s veil made out of the green, but she could have something, a skirt, in the blue. She didn’t like the idea that the blue velvet might be left out. It is not nice not to be liked.
“What are you doing!” A voice, not her mother’s, is behind her; Susie whirls around, but the lady of this voice is not looking at her. She is hurrying toward the other saleslady and Susie’s mother. Susie’s mother has the shears in her own hands now and is cutting the brown fabric straight up, violently, like she might cut the saleslady too. Susie had forgotten to keep an eye on Mother; she’d been so busy with the blue and the green. Now Susie stood up slowly, the green still around her shoulders and watched as another lady, a third lady, rushed toward her mother. One woman held Susie’s mother around the waist, while the new lady took the scissors out of her hand. A chair was provided and they made Susie’s mother sit in it. The woman with the scissors stood over Mother, her arms crossed. Outside, Susie heard the police siren go. It went on and on. Susie sat back down in the lovely sea of blue, the sea of green.
If it could ever be her choice, Susie would have all of her clothing, possibly her bed clothes and towels too, made from this green velvet. If she could sew, she’d make a dress for Mother so both of them could dress fancy.
The commotion in the store gets louder; there are more words from the saleslady. Mother talks back. “You have no right,” she says. “I have the right to buy fabric for my child! I have credit; I have been a customer for years!”
“Susie!” Mother yells.
Susie unrolls more velvet and makes a little bed out of the two colors, covering herself up so the only things visible are her eyes. The policeman walks through the store. His shoes are very shiny. Through the mirror, she watches Mother, the three ladies, and the policeman move and argue. Even though she is almost six, old enough to know better, Susie is still afraid that she becomes invisible when her eyes are closed. If she became invisible, Mother would never find her. So she does not close her eyes. But she does not leave the velvet sea.
BIO: Katherine Hubbard is a writer, teacher, and blogger and lives near Philadelphia with her husband and children. Her short stories have been published in the Gallatin Review, Melusine: 21st Century, Seventeen Magazine, and Dos Passos Review. She writes about food and family at http://kath-whatsfordinnertonight.blogspot.com and writing and teaching at http://thisthingneedsatitle.blogspot.com.