Her first job after her husband left was to dress a window in a store that sold goat-milk soap, made in England. The window had three cardboard goats and a cardboard shepherdess in a pinafore, even though goat shepherds are no longer in England. The white pillow-shaped soaps were scattered in the straw, each soap looking like a small package that contained itself. The owner explained he didn’t exactly want her to dress the window. He wanted her to keep putting things in and out of an antique spice cabinet with thirty-five drawers. People would watch her in perpetual motion and be drawn to the store. He gave her shells, scraps of velvet, a pincushion, dark green thread, buttons, and a box with pop-up letters that spelled I love you.
Just put them in and take them out, he said.
She’d taken the job to get out of vocational tests her husband suggested she take during bitter arguments about child support. Don’t you want to learn more about yourself? her lawyer asked, when she said she didn’t want to take the tests. She said she knew more about herself than she wanted to.
Over time she learned the secrets of each drawer. The sound each one made when it opened, the angles that made each drawer easy to open or close. The cabinet smelled of old wood and had a few carved initials, commemorating love.
At home she rifled in her husband’s old nightstand. To the spice cabinet, she transferred foreign coins, a nail clipper, stamps, a pearl-handled knife, rubber bands, a corkscrew that would take a muscleman to use, a key chain full of old keys.
The owner praised her inventiveness.
Sometimes he brought Chinese food and they ate lunch in the back of the store. Noodles drooped from either side of his chopsticks like muttonchops.
He talked about tariffs and free trade. He said, What do you think, idea-wise?
One late afternoon there was a protest outside the store. The signs said the soap didn’t come from England but from a factory in South Asia where eight-year-olds got sick from synthetic perfume. She left the window and went to the back of the store where the owner was drinking scotch.
The protesters get their news from a rival soap company, he said. I’m going to start a price war.
She wanted to join the crowd but didn’t want to be seen in the window getting her husband’s things. The wooden spice drawers had drenched them in mystery, like spoons or bowls in a museum.
When the crowd emptied, she gathered everything in a paper bag, told the owner she quit and left by a back alley. The ground was covered with fresh snow and the sky had stars like ice-flowers. It was so quiet she could hear her husband’s keys rattling inside the paper bag. A gentle rattling, a sound she’d heard outside their door on nights like this, nights when it was cold, and he couldn’t wait to come home.
Wonderful. A whole moody film in there.