The Changing Room
It was a cold, dreary day when we picked up Mrs. Nowak. She was dressed in the only dress I had seen her wearing, a threadbare, pale green and tan plaid shirtwaist dress with long sleeves which hung loosely on her frame. I hadn’t seen her in any other dress since she arrived in Colorado during the summer. My mother greeted her in Polish. She greeted me in broken English. She wanted up to make us breakfast, but my mother insisted we should get going since we had a drive ahead of us. “We’ll eat when we get there.”
She relented and took out her coat. It, too, was threadbare, once red, now faded unevenly, with a black collar. It, like her dress, was probably worn when she got it second hand.
Her daughter was off at school and her husband at work or maybe sleeping since he worked two jobs. She usually worked nearly every day as well. But today was her day off. My mother wanted to take Mrs. Nowak to buy her some clothes, she knew Mrs. Nowak was proud and wouldn’t easily accept charity.
As we drove, my mother and Mrs. Nowak chatted. I wished I could understand, but could only catch a word here and there since I hardly knew any Polish. I mostly just watched the snow. Sometimes a big, fluffy flake would stick to the window in a way that I could see its’ structure, before merging with the others. I loved the trip to the big department stores in Denver. They had so much more than the stores in Boulder, which was still a small town then. Fancy clothes and toys, and this time of year, fantastical Christmas displays, often with moving parts, not just mannequins dressed in the clothes of the season. I was hoping for a new party dress in velvet, maybe dark blue this year. Even then I loved dark colors and jewel tones.
Finally we got to the department store parking lot and picked a spot as close as possible due to the weather. I wanted to go in the front door to see the displays, rather than the side door by the parking. The women relented. The display seemed so magical, with giant nutcracker’s opening and closing their mouths, and mannequins of children sitting under a giant Christmas tree opening packages, some as big as the children.
But we had not come to see the displays today. Instead we headed inside to the restaurant. Mrs. Nowak ate slowly, taking time with each bite. “I can’t eat fast anymore. I have trouble swallowing, still. It’s from the lye.”
“Take your time.” My mother slowed down her eating and looked at me, expecting me to do the same. “We came for the day.”
After we ate, my mother paid for the food and then we headed for the women’s department. Mrs. Nowak looked admiringly at the dresses, fingering them and walking past. My mother noticed a few that she looked at the longest and picked them out. Mrs. Nowak turned to her and said that she couldn’t afford any of them, but my mother persisted, “What harm can it be to try them on?”
“I guess it couldn’t do any harm.” Mrs. Nowak finally agreed. We went to the changing room, choosing the largest since there were three of us. There, Mrs. Nowak took off her coat, hanging it carefully on a hook. She then took off her dress carefully, leaving only her slip. Then I noticed it. She tried to hide it from me, but could not. There was a number tattooed on her left arm.