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Second-Hand Rows

Lynda Coleman
When I left the twenty-nine-day residential treatment program two years ago, I was asked to abandon thirteen years of accessible stress management, a particular combination of dime draws, FACs (Friday-afternoon clubs), Reba McIntire, pool tables with chewed-up felt and obscene table roll. But it's times like this I wish I was back on a barstool, because at least I know those rules.
This story first appeared in Whole Earth Review, #78, Winter 1993.
Copyright is held by the author.

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Lynda L. Coleman's business card describes her as "Professional Waitress,
Student and League Bowler." She lives on Friendship, a street in Iowa City.


-Lynda Coleman

WHEN I LEFT the twenty-nine-day residential treatment program two years
ago, I was asked to abandon thirteen years of accessible stress
management, a particular combination of dime draws, FACs (Friday-
afternoon clubs), Reba McIntire, pool tables with chewed-up felt and
obscene table roll. But it's times like this I wish I was back on a
barstool, because at least I know those rules.

There's a second-hand store in my neighborhood at the eastern edge of
Iowa City. Like the addict that I am, I end up there a couple of times a
month, hunting for something new when I'm depressed or frustrated or
overwhelmed or bored. I can rationalize the need for anything I buy
compulsively, because I believe I understand the second-hand market
better than the dealers themselves. I don't buy anything I can't turn
around. I never buy anything that doesn't have a "mall" label, like GAP
or Benetton or Limited Express. I'm wary of labels like DKNY and Dior;
even though this stuff is really great-looking and the quality is
incredible, you can't resell them around here because people don't
recognize them.

Right now, I have more clothes than I need. I have three garbage bags in
my closet, full of stuff that needs to be washed and sorted and boxed
for resale, but I can't find the time. I tried making a pact with
myself: for everything new I brought home, I would get rid of two things
that I already had. But it didn't work. I buy cheap hangers when you can
get ten for a dollar, because sometimes I think if I could just get
everything on a hanger where I could see it, I might discover new
combinations of things that would keep me from splurging. But every time
I have all of it out of the bags and into the drawers and on the
hangers, I run out of hangers.

I had one of those days yesterday. I'm trying to roll with the stress of
waiting tables thirty-five hours a week, and three classes at the U.,
now that I'm back in school. Normally, I kind of slide with it, but
yesterday I wasn't. So I went shopping. I went to this neighborhood
store. I'm always hoping there's a new pair of shoes in or a jacket or
something that will make me feel smart for discovering it. Like the
lottery, I know this type of payoff is rare Ñ just frequent enough to
motivate me to check in on a timely basis. I know the clerks by name;
they answer me with mine. I say hello to a couple of them before I race
to the opposite end of the building, where I can work my way back to the
counter. (I think I do it this way so I can visually swipe at everything
for a Big Picture before I start brushing through each rack, one piece
at a time. A fresh glimpse of calfskin or a conspicuously softer yellow
could satiate me and save me at least the forty-five minutes I know it's
going to take to do it the long way.)

I've been in the store now for almost half an hour.

Some afternoons, this store is crammed with women; clothes get trampled
around the maze of cluttered racks. I hate these days, when every other
piece of clothing you touch slips to the floor because it's left
stretched and dangling by one shoulder, and there's no chance in hell of
getting into a dressing room. Even if you find one open, it's full of
shit and there's no room for you, let alone a free hook for your
clothes. The dressing rooms have no doors, just two panels of pink
cotton linen shirred onto fat dowels. They gape at the middle and people
bump into them when it's busy.

It's a slow day. If I have to try anything on, I won't worry about
keeping myself crammed to one side out of sight, out of line with the

There are three or four other women in the store. I don't pay any
attention; I'm stacking my arms with potential bargains. When it's busy,
I dare not set anything down. No matter how bad my arm hurts, there's
nothing worse than losing a boucle cardigan you saw in Spiegel but are
about to pay one quarter of their price for because you left it out
alone and someone grabbed it. Today, I push the clothes on one of the
sparser racks aside to rest the things I've picked up so far. I don't
fear leaving them for a while, until I'm sure I've seen everything.

Today, there is another shopper in the store who manages to distract me.
Not much: an audible huff through her nose; it's the kind of whiny,
attention-seeking sound people make when they want to be sure other
people get the message that they're pissed off. With whatever. I turn
around and see that she's alone. It's not a mom fed up and dragging her
kids, or a vendor, fed up with the clerks and the shop because her
clothes won't sell.

This thought Ñ fleeting, elusive, when I realize there's no one near her
for at least five racks: Is she nuts? There's nothing to be pissed off
at when the store is this dead.

Forty minutes have passed. I'm disappointed; I figure it's time to try
the possibilities. There's always the chance things will look better on.
I walk back to the rack where I've left my clothes and start to reach
for them and all of a sudden she is there, she is right in my face, on
top of her heels, eyes bugging. She spits, "YOU. YOU may push your way
through here, when I have FINISHED looking THROUGH this rack."

She's very good at this. Suddenly, there's no one else in the room. If
she's crazy, it's moot.

I have these phantom reflexes. Like the stories you hear about people
losing an arm or a leg in a combine and for months and even years after
they get the urge to scratch and they reach down and there's nothing
there, and in that moment you feel very disoriented and strange because
you realize that this entire part of your body is gone, but you forgot

I'm up to my neck in suspended adrenaline. There's only a few seconds
left. I've already stretched the silence between us too far.

Ten years ago, I once stayed drunk for two weeks because I had this grim
Ace bandage on my wrist. I went to the local free medical clinic because
my arm was so swollen I couldn't get my watch on. I told the nurse I
fell off of a stepladder. I think she knew I was lying, by the way her
brow jumped when I said it, and after they wrapped my wrist and sent me
home I could see her, sitting around the clinic break room smoking a
cigarette, kind of hunched down with her feet up on a chair, bitching to
a few other nurses, like "Jesus Christ, do they really think we buy that
shit?" I didn't care about deceiving her; no way in hell would I tell
her the truth. I just felt ashamed for choosing such a cheap lie.

I was home from college for the weekend. A friend of mine invited me to
a party on his farm. When I got there, I tried to pace myself, but I
ended up slamming shots of somebody's bourbon long before midnight. By
the time I finally sat down on a chair to talk to Rod, I was slurring.
The next I remember, someone had pulled me by my hair, back off of the
chair and onto the floor, screaming, "fucking . . . little . . . kill
you . . . you bitch" then I'm up on my feet. Rod's asking me if I'm OK.
He's telling me someone's "going to take her home . . . she's really
drunk . . . just thought you were after her boyfriend . . . it took
three guys to pull her off of you." When I realized what had happened, I
started to shake and cry. Rod sat me back down and gave me another shot.

I wasn't flirting with her boyfriend. I didn't even know who the fuck he
was. Who the fuck was she, anyway, fucking blindsiding me, what kind of
spinelessness does that take, and suddenly I'm pissed, I'm screaming at
Rod to show me where she is. I'm back on my feet, I stagger into a run.
She's sitting on a picnic table, smoking a cigarette, twenty feet away
from me. Swaying, spitting, holding my arms out to her, I scream "C'mon
. . . and this time with FEELING." At once, she puts out her cigarette,
shakes her head and grins a little, like "Oh-for-christ's-sake-if-
that's-what-you-want," and sprints at me. I stand there, bracing for the
contact. Happily. This time, no one would pull her off of me, those are
the rules. I invite and she accepts and we won't be stopped, no matter
how gory it gets.

She bulldozed me. I sprained my wrist when I hit the ground.

If you're sitting on a barstool and a fight breaks out, you don't have
to see much to know if it's two men or two women fighting. When two men
fight, people move out. People move toward the doors and the walls,
knocking bottles off of the tables and turning chairs over in their
haste to get anywhere. There's so much noise at first it sounds like
there's stuff going on all around you, and then it gets too quiet.
Everyone protects the radius within about four or five feet of
themselves, so they don't get wedged in the corner of a booth, or jammed
on the floor with table legs poking out over their heads. When two men
fight, they ricochet off of the bar and the jukebox, like this gyrating
mass of compressed energy. Like a pinball. Now they're threatening the
cigarette machine, now they're way over by the bathrooms. The bartender
is the same guy that doesn't move much when you've had a buck under your
glass for almost five minutes; suddenly he's over the top of the bar
like fucking Baryshnikov. As soon as you've figured out who's fighting,
and where they are, it's over. What you get to see is one of them just
standing there. His face is blazing, two other guys block his line of
sight to the guy he was fighting, and that guy is slumped with his arms
held behind his back and he kicks out a little, swears a few times, but
he's running out of vinegar. The cops always come in after the fact, and
you never really learn what started it. Usually one of them gets kicked
out, but rarely both; unless it's two brothers and they get told to take
it outside because it's the same fucking thing every Friday night.

When two women fight, it's called a "catfight," whether they're ripping
each other's hair out, or trading insults for weeks on the bathroom
wall. People move in, towards the fight. There's a mini-rush at the bar
with people moving in for a refill, before things get going. They settle
in, and lean into one another with a couple of longnecks. No matter
where you go, it's the same casual, spectator commentary that keeps the
bar humming:

You don't have to know what they're fighting about, because it's
always over the same thing Ñ some guy. Women don't really know how to
fight and that's why they don't fight fair Ñ they use their nails and
bite and pull hair and shit. It's harder to pull them apart than men,
because you're never sure where to grab them, you know? Yeah, I got
between two women Ñ just once. I learned my lesson. I got bit on the
jaw and one of them dug her nails into my leg so hard that the skin
broke. They really don't want anyone to stop them, anyway. If you try,
they just turn on you. That's why you can't break them up. Women hold
grudges far longer than men. Like they'll never buy each other a beer
afterwards. Yeah, if you've never watched it before Ñ it's really
pretty funny.

For two weeks, I woke up every morning, cottonmouthed, dizzy. Every time
I saw the bandage, I felt worse. If people were going to get drunk and
attack me, it was time to fight back, but why didn't it make me feel
like I thought it would? Ñ tough, independent. Resilient. Instead, I
felt humiliated, and guilty. Not so much for trying to raise myself. For
being angry.

I can't play by these rules anymore, and she's waiting. I've had plenty
of time to pull myself together, but it's too late.

"I'm taking my clothes," I say slowly, automatically, sadly, and with
fear. Before my words are out, it's over. She says something, just a
breathless "OK, I'm finished" and she's gone. I realize I frightened
her. As I turn for the door (leaving the clothes I only minutes ago
needed so desperately to someone else who's had a bad day) I wonder if
she would ever know how much she frightened me, how I somehow manage to
stay a day late and a hanger short of guest spots on "Oprah." Topic:
Recovering alcoholic female mud wrestlers who shop.

I have to watch out for shit like this every day. It's been like this
for two years. I have to pray that we both stay sober.

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