The Topic At Hand: Lost and Found

The sight of a woman undressing no longer interests Jim.  After eight years of watching the security monitors at a certain Midtown women’s clothing store, Jim has seen every state of undress, every awkward position: crouching, leaning, squeezing, sliding in and out of skirts, pants, shirts, dresses, bras.  Everything, except what he expected when he took the job.  Never has a leggy blonde, or exotic, swollen-lipped brunette, slipped off her shirt to reveal a transparent camisole, cupped her breasts one in each hand and felt their full weight without a bra to collect them in a proper place. Not once has a woman looked up to the camera, noticed the security eye gazing down at her, opened her eyes wide in shock then contracted them in a dirty stare, smiled a wicked proposition and mouthed very slowly, Hi Jim.  How’s it going?

The women never notice the camera: a small white bulge in the white plaster ceiling.   Jim is sure that if anyone knew the rooms are under surveillance, or that he is sitting in an unpainted utility-closet-turned-loss-prevention headquarters watching four monitors with half-naked women climbing in and out of linen and silk, no one would shop there again.  There is a sign somewhere telling shoppers that the changing rooms “may be monitored for security purposes” but it’s very small, and displayed near the cash-wrap counter – too late to serve as courtesy or warning.  If anyone reads it ,the “damage” would already have been done.  But there is no damage, really.  Jim isn’t interested in gawking at those women anymore.

Or maybe the sign is gone.  Jim doesn’t know.  He hasn’t been on the sales floor for, what?  A year and a half?  Anyway, whatever erotic pleasure there may have been in fantasizing about women in their underwear trying to wrap a poly-blend skirt around their tight and shiny parts has been snuffed out by witnessing what actually goes on in there.  Some women stare forever at their faces – popping pimples or trying to pluck chin hairs with their fingernails.  Some women try the same skirt on in two sizes, back and forth, for a half an hour.  Both skirts look the same to Jim.  He wonders why women seem to love shopping when it’s really compulsive oscillation from this one thing to this other almost-exactly-the-same thing with no satisfaction?  When Jim gets dressed, it’s not like he’s satisfied.  That’s not even the point anymore.   Sitting in the vinyl and duct-taped chair, bobbing back and forth like he’s rocking a baby, Jim tries to name ten reasons for getting dressed, in thirty seconds.  He stares at the wall clock:  Staying warm.  Covering up in public.  Showing where you work.  Feeling a part of your generation.  Having pockets to put stuff in. Jim gets distracted: a woman on monitor three, the screen called “Camille” by the guards, is trying on slacks even though she’s not wearing underwear.  She probably won’t buy them and the slacks will go back on the rack for the next shopper to soak up whatever she left behind.   Another reason to get dressed comes to Jim’s mind:  To draw a clear line between being at home and being out where people can see you. That was the sixth thing.  He couldn’t think of ten.  And that last one is a cheat, since he thought of it after thirty seconds was up.  But it’s a good one, so he puts it on the list.


I was right, Jim thinks, as the no-underwear-wearing slacks-trying-on woman returns the pants to the fitting room attendant.  Jim wishes he could get people arrested for that.  But he’s only allowed to alert the floor guards if someone does something illegal.  Well, there ought to be a law against that nasty practice, Jim thinks.  He catches his breath.  He has never said those words before – there ought to be a law. Those are old-man words.  Still, not wearing any underwear and trying on new clothes is pretty gross.  You don’t have to be a fogey to think that, right?

Jim takes a sip of coffee out of his JIM mug, a gift from the other guards for his five-year anniversary on the job.  That was nice of them, even though it’s a pretty lame mug.  It’s just white with black letters.  At least he doesn’t have to drink from those little Styrofoam cups anymore.  They’re bad for the environment.  Plus, seeing his name on something makes Jim feel like he belongs.  It was nice of them to notice that it even was his anniversary.  Those guys don’t really share much about their lives.  In fact, when Jim suggested they name monitor three “Camille,” he didn’t even tell them that it was his wife’s name.  Now he can’t change it, even though he wants to sometimes, since suggesting a name change will bring up all kind of questions about his wife and what happened and stuff.

Jim sees a  woman changing the part in her hair from left to right then back, then again.  She’s been doing it for probably ten minutes.  She keeps on making the saleswoman get her new sizes or colors of items she brought in with her, but she’s not trying them on.  It looks like she’s about to leave now.  It also looks like she’s crying.

Right after he started this job, Jim figured out the difference between how women undress in front of men and how they undress when they’re alone.  Jim noticed when his wife stopped looking like she wanted him to see her slip off her shoes, skirt, stockings, and started just taking off her clothes, her back to him, to get ready for bed.  No more seduction.   Just before she left him, she looked just like those women who take off their pants, retrieve their underwear from wherever it crawled to, and slap their thighs to see how long they shake.  He wonders if his wife ever stood in front of a mirror switching her hair’s part from left to right and back again.  He wonders if something like that would make her cry.

It’s six o’ clock, finally, and Jim has caught a total of two shoplifters.  The first one was a high school girl, maybe fifteen years old, who slipped a couple of scarves into her jacket sleeve while pretending to try on a pants suit.  Jim saw the whole transaction on monitor two, Bertha, and radioed to the security detail on the sales floor.  “Code three, teenage girl, brown hair, red jacket.”  The guard spotted her trying to slip out, while swinging her jacket up and over the theft detectors.  Jim watched the whole thing on the sales-floor screen.   The guard grabbed the jacket, recovered the merchandise, and after a stern talking to, let the girl go.

The other thief was an old woman, at least sixty, who tried on a cashmere sweater, and then pulled her cotton button-up shirt over it, put on her coat and headed towards the exit.  “Code three, old bitty, brown jacket, orthopedic shoes.”  The guard didn’t let her go.  He called the cops on her.  That’s right, Jim thought.  An old woman has plenty of time to learn right from wrong, unlike a young girl who’s still figuring that stuff out.  The old lady was held in the manager’s office until the cops came. It’s a shame, though, Jim thought.  She’s gonna be fingerprinted and mug-shot, all for a sweater.  Maybe she’s sick or something, or senile. That made Jim feel better.  That she wasn’t being immoral on purpose, but just ailing from something mental.  He shook his head in grief as he removed the videotape, labeled it with the date, the infraction, and the time count on the tape when the crime was recorded.  The tape was filed with the others.  Evidence for the prosecution.

Quitting time.  Jim grabs his coat from his hook and he sees a young woman on monitor one (Annette).  She enters the fitting room with a couple pairs of pants. Jim doesn’t know why he watches her, why he doesn’t just leave.  Sure, his replacement hasn’t arrived, but Roy is always late, and Jim gave up waiting for him months ago. Something about the girl’s manner makes Jim stare at her.  Once the fitting room door is closed, she retrieves handfuls of lace panties, maybe twenty pairs, from the pants’ legs.  That’s clever, Jim thinks.  He’s never seen that one before.  She lifts her skirt and starts to pull off the tags and slip on the panties, one over the other, until she’s wearing a couple dozen pairs under her skirt.  She hides the tags in the pants pockets, returns them to the saleswoman and walks briskly towards the door.  There’s enough time for Jim to radio, “Code three, young woman, about twenty-five, strawberry-blonde hair past her shoulders, petite, pleated skirt,” but Jim stands silently in the former utility room, jacket in hand, and lets the loss go unprevented.

It’s the end of his shift. Who wants to take the time to label the tape, and maybe have to wait for the police to arrive?  He can’t be expected to catch every shoplifter.  His eyes can’t be on four monitors at once.  Still, Jim knows this will set a bad precedent.  After eight years of catching and reporting these petty crimes like a reflex, and almost fifty years of always at least trying to do the right thing, something broke in Jim when he saw her pulling on those panties one after another twenty times.  He follows her image on the monitors from the fitting room to the sales floor to the exits.  The girl slips through the theft detectors and out of the store, on to the crowded street.

Jim doesn’t leave work with the intention of following the girl home.  But, when he boards the D train and notices her—her skirt puffing out a bit more than her slender frame would naturally allow, he can’t believe his luck – or the coincidence of their meeting, whether it’s lucky or not.  She’s sitting not quite across from Jim.  He hides his face behind his Post, then realizes that she can’t recognize him.  She doesn’t even know anyone was watching her pull those panties on, and if she does, she doesn’t know who.  So Jim moves to the seat directly across from her.  He looks straight at her, and she taps her foot with impatience as the doors keep threatening to close, then spring open, having hit some obstacle.

It would be enough for Jim to just look at her on the train, knowing what he knows.  He could go home feeling like he made some kind of magic connection.  Because what are the chances of seeing her in the store and then wind up sitting across from her on the D train?  When’s the last time he saw someone on the train among the anonymous faces and blank stares and felt any sense of recognition?  Just looking at her, knowing about her panties, feeling that “I know that face from somewhere” feeling is pretty satisfying.

But when the train crosses the East River to Brooklyn, Jim starts to fantasize that she’ll get off at his stop.  He can maybe walk a few blocks with her, without her noticing, before he has to turn towards his building and they’ll separate.  When she doesn’t stand up to get off at Jim’s stop, he figures he should stay on the train with her, just to see how far away she lives.  Just to see how far this coincidence thing will go.

keep your pants on

Funny how when you know so little about a person, and that one thing is so private, everything else seems to relate to it.  When she pumps her leg over her other knee, for example, Jim is sure it’s out of discomfort.  When she stands to read an ad, or that poetry up on the subway walls, he assumes it’s a covert move to adjust her cramped privates.  Soon, it’s easy to think that you actually know a lot about a person, even when the key information is missing: her name, her job, where she lives.

Jim starts guessing to himself what her name could be and where in Brooklyn she lives.  He narrows down the name to either Ashley or Therese.  He is sure she lives in Prospect Heights.  He’s never been there, but she looks like the kind of person people say live there.  Jim smiles with the pride of being right when she gets off the train at the Seventh Avenue station.  She bounds up the steps two at a time only to wait in line to exit at the turnstile.  Jim intentionally stays a couple people behind her, just in case she might notice him.  Funny, to wish for something and its opposite at the same time.

Up Flatbush Avenue they walk, he a few paces behind.  She goes into a bodega, comes out with a small brown bag he can’t see inside of.  Jim wonders if she swiped anything from the store.  Probably not.  She was only in there for a minute.  No time to plan, to scope out the place.  She turns north onto a side street.  Off the busy street, on this tree-lined block, it’s just the two of them.  Jim concentrates on the turns they are making as they walk further and further away from the subway station.  He has to be sure he can find his own way back.

The girl starts to walk faster.  I must be making her nervous, Jim thinks.  He slows his pace without losing sight of her as she jogs up the block.  She turns up a front walk leading to a boxy cement building with a heavy glass door.  She frantically pats her jacket, breast pocket, hips, then presses a button – Jim is too far behind her to see which apartment – and speaks into the metal plate with holes punched through it.  “Jim, buzz me in.  I don’t have my key.”  She bounces on the balls of her feet with a nervous energy.  Jim isn’t sure if it’s his following her from the subway or the twenty pairs of panties that makes her dance like that.  The buzzer moans and the door unlocks allowing her entry; she pushes on the glass and the door gives way.  Therese (Jim’s money is on Therese) does the same to the vestibule door and doesn’t look back as she scrambles to the open apartment door, on the first floor, just to the left of the staircase.  She doesn’t even notice that Jim, who has pretended to walk past the building, eyes on the end of the block like a far off horizon, has run up to the building as the door was closing and is propping it open with his foot as she runs inside.  He hears her door bolt shut, then he enters the foyer, and scans the mailboxes.  1SE – B. Schriver, 1SW – K. Miller, 1NE – T. Lorenzo and J. O’Shay. Jim wouldn’t be able to explain, if anyone ever asks, or even to himself, why he swipes the name plate from the mailbox, and heads back to the train.

Code three,  Jim thinks.  Middle aged man, heavy set, blue uniform.  Black cap, below it – thinning hair.  Below that – wrinkled forehead, weedy eyebrows and moustache.  Slack jaw.  A man who misses his wife.  No, a man who just wants a woman’s touch again.  No, a man who actually misses his wife, whom he knows backwards and front, hair to toes and her chewy center.  A woman who knows him back, and, knowing everything, chose not to stay. Jim slows his stride to the measured words pacing through his head.  Jim isn’t rushing away from the scene of the crime anymore.  Staring straight ahead at the unfamiliar view, Jim searches the buildings and bridges in the distance for something he recognizes.


Surveillance image by ade.

“Keep your pants on” image by jo-h.

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2 responses to “Loss Prevention”

  1. Saul says:

    I keep being struck by the way the contrast between the first sentence and the end sequence drive home the idea that narrator Jim isn't missing nakedness or seduction but the intimacy of knowing and being known to one's “chewy center” — a phrase which compactly says everything. Because he winds up very interested, creepily interested, in a woman undressing after all — or overdressing, I guess.

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The Author

Amy Meckler

Amy Meckler received her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College, where she garnered the Academy of American Poets Award, among other honors. Her poems have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. Her first collection, What All the Sleeping Is For, won the 2002 Defined Providence Press Poetry Book Award and was published that year. She works in New York City as a Sign Language interpreter. Amy also blogs at You Have Spinach In Your Teeth. She is also the Poetry Editor for Revolving Floor. See all of Amy's Revolving Floor contributions.

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