Perpetual Motion

Her job is dressing windows in a store that sells soap. The display has a statue of a Closewool Sheep because the soap is made of sheep’s milk from Devon England. The sheep looks like a real sheep and she’s relieved when she touches the fiberglass fur. The owner explains that she must never finish dressing the window because he wants people to watch her and be drawn into the store. She is right for the job, he says, looking at her sweater. Not too much and not too little. He’s a short man who eats Chinese take-out, noodles dripping from chopsticks like a mustache. He brings her to the window and shows her a large wooden spice cabinet with a plethora of little drawers. He explains she must put things in and out of the drawers all day. He says she must like perpetual motion.
She has taken the job to wrangle her way out of career counseling that her divorcing husband wants her to have in case it discovers she has a hidden talent for getting rich and he won’t have to contribute to child support. In real life she is a potter and makes most of her money around the holidays.
Don’t you want to learn more about yourself? her lawyer asked.
She said she already knew more about herself than she ever wanted to know. She would rather take things in and out of drawers. Pincushions, scraps of velvet, pop-up boxes that say I love you, whatever the owner gives her. A homeless man on the mall’s fake cobblestones watches her all day and bows when she leaves at night. The soap is scattered on straw—small white pillows that look like packages that contain themselves, bursting with the fragrance of lilacs. Sometimes she brings a few for her teenage daughters who, since the break-up, rummage for what might make them happy—neon hair dyes, food fads, errant boyfriends. The soap makes them happy.
She likes the perpetual motion of taking out and putting back. It makes her feel like she’s part of the sea, the way waves have a relentless rhythm. She learns the secrets of each wooden drawer, places that stick, angles that make them easier to open or close. She rifles through the night table on what used to be her husband’s side of the bed and adds to the drawer foreign coins, rusted keys old receipts, rubber bands. Over time, the drawers contain parts of his life— intimate parts that don’t reveal that much. You know he’s been to Mexico, bought a toothbrush at Target. You know he clips his nails and had a martini at the Olive Garden These reminders are a pleasant part of her day and neutralize the unhappy times when the two of them meet with lawyers.
One day there are pickets outside the window. It turns out the soap doesn’t come from England but from a factory in India that hires children. She can’t continue perpetual motion but must sit by the sheep and raise her fist in solidarity. There is a familiar face in the crowd, the face of her husband twenty years ago. It isn’t her husband, just someone who looks the way he once looked and smiles at her the way he once did. There’s a breeze playing with his hair and this makes him seem like he’s part of the weather. He is holding a sign that says Let’s Never Forget the Children.
When the crowd empties, she gathers everything in a paper bag, scoops up soap, and goes to the back of the store where the owner is drinking scotch. He says the protesters get their news from a rival spice company and he’s going to start a price war. She tells him she’s quitting and leaves by a back alley where the ground is covered with fresh snow and the sky has stars like ice-flowers. It’s so quiet she can hear her husband’s keys rattling inside the paper bag, a gentle rattling she once heard outside their door on nights when he couldn’t wait to come home. She imagines that he’ll be home when she gets there—the current version of himself, not the face in the crowd. But it’s just her daughters, who open the windows to get rid of the smell of pot and banish their current boyfriends to the basement. They open the bag and scoop up soap after soap. It’s fragrant with Indian lilacs. She doesn’t tell them it was made by children.

Thaisa Frank grew up in the Midwest and the Bronx, the granddaughter of a Presbyterian theologian and a Rumanian Chassid, who consulted each other about Aramaic texts. Her father was a professor of medieval English and her mother a director of small theater groups. Books include: Enchantment, Heidegger’s Glasses, Sleeping in Velvet, A Brief History of Camouflage, and The Train to the End of the World.