Migrant Mother (Florence Owens Thompson and her children),
photograph by Dorothea Lange (Nipomo CA 1936), courtesy Library of Congress.

A Woman in a Newsagent Shop

Since I thought of writing Book of Women, I have made a point of paying more attention to women around me, even casual passers-by. A few weeks ago, I found myself near a large newsagent, one of those sprawling establishments full of junk and knickknacks, and through the window I caught a glance of a woman standing behind the counter. Her slim figure and long black hair reminded me of a similar-looking woman in a similar-looking shop, from a few years earlier, just weeks after wife number three had left, at the time when I was beginning to feel her departure as a loss. In the immediate aftermath of her walking out on me, after several years of acrimony, I was relieved. But the relief quickly turned to sadness and despair since I could neither stand seeing anyone else nor write, and nothing seemed to help. I remember I used to walk around aimlessly, often stopping for a drink in a pub or a cafe that I had never entered before and didn’t even know where they were. Often I ended up calling a cab and asking the driver to deposit me at home, deposit being the right word because I felt like an object that needed to be delivered. It was in those days of loneliness that depression took hold of me without my being aware of it. But looking back I realized I was facing a sorrow akin to bereavement. It was not only the fact that wife number three had walked out on me, citing the same reasons for her not being able to stand me anymore as had wives number one and two. I was in a kind of mourning, not necessarily for her disappearing from my life, more a mourning for my whole life, for my personal failure and for everything I wanted to be as a writer and as a man, as a partner to a woman. Perhaps I wasn’t aware of it all at the time, but I know that I was driven mad with sadness, or perhaps that’s what I allowed myself to show, because that is what everyone expected me to feel. On one of my aimless walks I entered a newsagent shop, perhaps because it had started raining and I was seeking shelter, and I saw a woman behind the counter, a woman who looked other-worldly. At the same time, there was something sublime about her and I was reminded of her when I saw the similar-looking woman behind the counter in a newsagent shop I passed the other day. The resemblance between them was so uncanny that I couldn’t tell that it wasn’t the same woman and all those feelings of loneliness and sadness that I had felt years ago flooded back, and I wondered whether life had given me a second chance, a second chance to save this woman from that grotty shop and her miserable life. So I had to go in, something pressed me to go in, something beyond curiosity, and I was overwhelmed by that feeling of sadness I had suffered after wife number three had walked out on me. While I moved along the aisles stuffed with knick-knacks and other junk, I noticed that I was being followed by one of the owners, most likely a man from the woman’s family who, I realized, must have thought I was a thief. In a panic I picked up the first thing that was in front of me, a packet of throat lozenges, and took it to the counter, and the woman at the till scanned the packet, said the price without looking at me, and waited. I am not sure what was happening to me at that point as I stared at her, oblivious of what I was supposed to do next.  I remember that she was tall and slim, with olive colored skin and long black hair tied back, and I was struck by her eyes, those lugubrious eyes, beautiful and profound, eyes that looked beyond me into the distance. I saw an image of a flower, beautiful flower that was wilting, as if it had lost the will to live, all that was left was a trace of its bloom in the eyes, still fresh, still hoping, and I was convinced that the woman in front of me was the same one I had seen years earlier, and I saw her longing for something beyond what she had in that grim shop, this good woman, for she was a good woman, I could tell that, a woman who wanted something else, a woman who had nothing in common with that depressing place with its trivia, plastic knick-knacks and horrible sweets, and all I could think was that I needed to take her out and take her out immediately and offer her something better because there she was dying from a lack of air, a lack of love, a lack of vitality, this good woman who was destined for a better life, far beyond that grimy counter. I was so possessed by the desire to take her out of the shop, so possessed that my body began to act without me controlling it or knowing what I was doing. All I could think was that she needed rescuing, and there was no question of talking to her because, and I was certain of that, she would have hesitated, she would have been unable to recognize her destiny, and the only way out for her from that desperate situation was for me to save her. At the same time, I was gripped by a sense of responsibility and a compulsion to act. I felt was my duty, as I was someone who loved women, to help her, regardless of what she might think, because the poor woman was so far along in her slide into the horrible situation in which she found herself and was so oppressed by circumstances that she wasn’t aware of the problem. There was no time to help her realize what had happened to her life. I had to act quickly before her family came out and stopped us leaving, and I knew that neither the woman nor I could afford their intervention as there could be no discussion about her wishes and rights. I remember putting out my arm as if to grab her and wrench her from behind the counter, to lift her over the barrier as if she were a rag doll. There was a moment when we looked at each other, and at that point something changed in her eyes, and she spoke to me without saying a word, and that silent communication urged me to pull myself together. The good woman was telling me to be reasonable and that there was nothing to do but to leave her alone. As I stared at her and her eyes remained steady, unblinking, I opened my mouth to say something, and then I realized that my arm was stretched towards her as if I was about to grab her but the woman’s eyes, still steady, still unblinking, reaffirmed the strength of her plea, the strength of her resignation to her life, and it dawned on me that there was nothing for me to do. I could see that she was aware of the desperation of her situation and perhaps even grateful that I had recognized it but that any action to help her would be in vain since she was beyond saving and she was resigned to her fate. I wondered what had happened in those few seconds after she had scanned the packet of lozenges, I wondered what had made her change her mind, because I was sure that when she first picked up the packet and was scanning it, she was sending signals to me that she was trapped and that I could be the person—if not a knight in shining armor, the person to save her and take her to a different life, a life that was more worthy of her. I was so sure of her thoughts, and when I approached the counter, there was something in the way she held her body, as if she didn’t want to be there, something in the way she moved her hand as she scanned my purchase, as if she wanted me to act to save her, and I was sure at that moment that she would have welcomed me lifting her out of her miserable existence. So I could not understand what had made her readiness to walk out of her life in that grotty shop vanish so quickly, for I was sure I could not have misread the situation since she had communicated her feelings silently but unmistakably. I knew about loneliness and the misery of feeling lost and I recognized it in others, and for a moment I wanted to remonstrate with her and restore her moral strength to follow her desire. But as I opened my mouth to speak, no word came out, just a sound reminiscent of an animal’s cry of sadness, one of those desperately sad whines that dogs tend to make when someone they loved has died or abandoned them, one of those desperate cries of utter helplessness, often accompanied by a face contorted with suffering, which I have seen in patients whose throats were scorched from radiotherapy and who had no voice to express the pain when a careless nurse roughly pulled out a cannula or whipped a piece of sticky tape off their fragile skin.  And I was struck by the strength of the woman’s plea, and it hit me that she was clear about her decision to remain there and nothing else could be done and so I nodded, nodded in a way that was almost a bow, because I was full of admiration for her, this good woman, and I wanted to bow to her and her dignity. Then I paid for the lozenges, or rather, left a banknote, the first one I pulled out of my pocket. Gripped by guilt, I rushed out before any change could be produced, forgetting to pick up my umbrella resting against the counter, and once I found myself far away from the shop and had stopped running, a surge of shame at my behavior, at my preposterous conviction that I could save any woman, flooded through my body. I felt as if everyone was staring at me and sneering and, unable to comprehend what had just happened, I ran all the way home, bumping into people. When I closed my front door and sat down, all I could think was that I was not a violent man, and yet I had harbored what could be seen by others as violent thoughts towards a woman, for I had wanted to take her away and take her by force. For days I felt ashamed, and I had no choice but to hide from the world and could hardly sleep as I struggled to understand what had gone through my mind at that counter. I invented various pathetic justifications for my potentially violent behavior toward the woman, even the excuse that it was an experience inflicted upon me so that I could write a story about a woman such as the one behind the counter. I was aware that, had I spoken to anyone, not that I had anyone in whom I could confide such thoughts, they would have attributed my mood to my sadness after what had happened in my life and the way I fail to relate to women and, if they were kind, they might have seen it as my way of doing something good for a woman, a way of redeeming myself, perhaps my second chance to be good to a woman, even though it would have been more than my third or fourth chance after three divorces and other failed relationships. That kind of thinking, though designed to console me, I would have found ridiculous, not least since in life there are no second chances. Then yesterday, as the memory of what had happened to me in that shop, to which I would never return, not even to collect the umbrella I had forgotten, was beginning to fade, or at least preoccupy me in a less anxious way than before, I was listening to the radio in the kitchen while peeling potatoes, and I heard an interview with a writer who had written a book about the Depression in America in the ‘30s. As he talked about photographs from the period, I realized that the woman in the shop had a face similar to that of the Migrant Mother, as photographed by Dorothea Lange, an image I had known most of my life. Its beauty so intrigued me that years ago I hung a printout of it above my desk. I have wondered whether the Migrant Mother was presented as too beautiful to convey the horror of her poverty, or perhaps it was the way the black-and-white print turned the image into a work of high art, and I wondered whether people looking at the photograph at the time it was taken would dismiss the subject’s hardship, reasoning that if she could look so beautiful, despite the hunger, there was nothing to worry about. I was also aware that that others might not find her as beautiful as I did since I have always felt an attraction for thin women, women who look helpless, women who look as if they need someone to put their arm around them, women who speak softly and who are, in my eyes, good women. I’ve always found something profound, something deeply spiritual in their thin frames, and I imagined that they were quiet and reflective, with a highly developed inner life. Besides, I am attracted to faces, male and female, with thin, chiseled features as they look more interesting to me; I see them as people who are above daily trivia, whose minds are occupied by elevated thoughts, and I know I have been wrong about that countless times, but when emotions are at play, past experience is not considered. Finally, when I thought of my attraction to the Migrant Mother, I realized that I had to factor in the changing idea of female beauty, and I thought how no Hollywood actress at the time was as thin as the Migrant Mother but, in my own time, she could easily have been taken for a top model, complete with her facial expression of despair and loss, what some call poverty chic, and it seemed to me at that moment, as I was peeling potatoes and the writer on the radio continued referring to various photographs from the Depression, that I could understand my feelings towards the woman as I faced her by the counter in her grimy shop. I felt that I had known and liked the woman for a long time before that moment, since I had seen her in my mind as the Migrant Mother, the beautiful woman, who was desperate and who needed help. But perhaps this is all self-delusion because I needed an excuse to free myself from the shame of wanting to kidnap the woman in the newsagent shop and I could see that the link my mind, my guilty mind, established between the woman in the newsagent shop and the Migrant Mother was feeble, but then who am I to know how the unconscious mind works. As time passed, the explanation was not enough to rid me of the shame brought about by my hidden desire, by my state of feeling possessed and ready to commit violence, kidnap the woman and yes, that’s the right word, for that’s what I wanted to do, take her away by force without asking her what she wanted and how arrogant that was of me, a middle-class, educated, white male, to think that I knew what a poor, Asian woman in a newsagent shop needed. But at least I had managed to control my dark side, and the more I thought about the episode, the more I realized that, had the woman in the shop been overweight or had an appearance that I associate with frivolity, had her voice been shrill or too loud, it would not have crossed my mind that she deserved rescuing, let alone rescuing by me, So thinking of women and what they look like, I can see that there is a lesson there for me, and perhaps for other men too. Perhaps it is something I should write about.

Understanding Moonseed
by Mary Pacifico Curtis
  In Understanding Moonseed, we meet the big city girl with a precocious interest in politics, have brushes with pivotal historic moments in the 60’s and 70’s, and continue her journey with her as she falls in love with a man who becomes famous in the music industry, moves with him to Silicon Valley, where she founds what would become one of the region’s largest independent PR/branding firms. She settles into roles as wife, mother and executive, working 60-hours a week, until cancer takes the man who had become husband, father, and soulmate. The family’s grief and devastation give way to trying to understand how life will continue without this column of the family. The arc of the story bends back to love. Curtis’ sixth sense for what makes words ring– hollow, hallowed, or haunted–inside the walls of her personal architecture informs the themes of Understanding Moonseed. In this essay collection, “a love supreme” guides Curtis from Chicago’s Gold Coast to Silicon Valley branding executive, through reinvention as a memoirist and poet, to her second marriage with Michael, a union that interweaves the felt presences of their deceased spouses who haunt and steward them from grief’s unknowing to new births and epiphanies. In Understanding Moonseed, Curtis invites us with signature courage to grow rather than to retreat after loss in response to love’s call. — Lise Goett, author of Leprosarium (Tupelo Press)
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Vesna Main’s publications include a short story collection, Temptation (Salt), a novel-in-dialogue, Good Day? (Salt) – Goldsmith prize shortlist – autofiction, Only A Lodger...  And Hardly That (Seagull Books), and a novella, Bruno and Adèle (Platypus Press). She lives in London and in France.

One Comment

  1. I found Vesna Man’s short story WOMAN IN A NEWSAGENT to be as luxuriantly involving as a warm bath, with its charming Anita Brookneresque cadences and warm feelings for the woman in the title. I wanted to know much more about the Indian woman with her hair in a ponytail. The “migrant Mother ” of Vesna Man’s subconscious. Beautiful.

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