Immigrant Bengalis

I Shop Therefore I Am
Indrani Mondal

We have been here since the wee hours of dawn.   All of us glued to the office computers watching the sales numbers.  Now and then we jumpup and cheer as a big sales goal is reached and crossed.  But occasionally the numbers drop sharply and we clutch the edges of our work tables, holding our breaths.  We are keeping track of the hourly sales in each department of our retail store.  The financial bigwigs tell us that the economy is improving, so we’re checking first hand if we really can beat our last year’s pre-holiday sales gain.  The figures flash on the screens like simultaneous color strobes.  They remind me of light play when jackpots are hit at the casino slot machines.  Yes!  The figures start to soar steadily and we exhale collectively.  Chairs scrape as we leave our desks and many of us head for the Starbucks coffee machine and Panera Bread bagels and cream cheese in the company provided breakfast bar.  We are all thrilled at this season’s spike in consumer confidence after a nail-biting tough season.  My research on consumerism in retail business will surely have interesting data.  Some of the senior sales gurus leave the office to stretch their legs in the Mall or go to the upper floor pent house for a hot shower and power nap. .  But all this number cranking and erratic monetary rise and fall has left me less drained, more distracted and restless. I walk over to our central security hub, quickly scanning more than a hundred live security cameras focused on our two retail floors.  I decide I want to find someone in particular.  So it would be easier to just walk out to the sales floor and look around. 

It is Black Friday and our store is overflowing with people.  It seems like shoppers from from all over the world  are milling around and spilling over.  Faces of all different shades, sizes, ages, genders and personas are filling their shopping bags with bargains and good deals.  I scan and scan the lines at the checkout as well as the browsers on the floor.  No, Joyce Schultz is nowhere to be seen.  I glance at the huge smiley-face clock on the Mall door.  It is well past noon.  I have on a ridiculous lighted up Santa Hat, our official uniform for this Big Pre-Christmas sales day.   So even if I don’t spot her, Joyce should be able to locate me. 

For the last couple of years I’ve been researching the role of women in sales as part of my thesis on consumerism in retail business.  I chose to work in this very popular, large Mall anchor Departmental store shortly after I met Joyce here about a year or so ago.  Last few months she has never missed a day to visit the Mall, walk into our store, find me in the Women’s Department and say ‘Hi” to me.  On holidays she likes to come before nine am, to avoid the crowds.  I know from the sales team that on my off days or vacations she repeatedly inquires about my whereabouts from them and doesn’t believe them when they say I’m not working.  In fact she often rudely reprimands them for not calling me from my back office. Lately Joyce has managed to become quite a bother to all who work here. 

Not for me though.  I first met Joyce quite by chance when she came to buy a dress that this store had advertised in their weekly sales flier.  I was on my daily rounds on the sales floor to gather consumer data and remember being rather irritated when I heard her giving a hard time to the sales lady because she could not find the advertised dress in the store.  I had brought her into my office and over coffee had explained to her that when the merchandise she wanted wasn’t available in the store, we could order it from our internet shop.  She was quite mad about that for the process would take at least a week or so.  Afterwards I had helped her find an alternate dress along with matching shoes, purse and jewelry.  Just to make conversation and find out her requirements, I had asked her if there was any special occasion she was shopping for.  Since she seemed very short tempered, I was almost sure she would react sharply to my rather personal query.  But to my utter surprise, she had gushed, “Oh! So sweet for you to ask, honey! Daylight savings time has just started; not only is it the beginning of spring, it is going to be a fresh start for me too with a brand new man in my life.”  “Really!” I exclaimed, quite thrown off by her sudden shift in mood and this unexpected deluge of her personal information.  “I was thinking you just had a party to attend maybe…” I murmured.  Joyce’s sea blue eyes had lit up.  She leaned forward on the sales counter we were standing by and whispered conspiratorially as if she was on to a secret and was sharing it only with me.  “You are right of course, dear.  But not just one. A whole season of them...” she had laughed heartily adding with a meaningful sweep of her perfectly manicured hands, “But then I’m just sixty eight…”

I had stared for a while at this lovely woman in front of me who had surely been a raging beauty in her heyday.  With my heritage values of detachment from life’s desires after middle age, it had indeed seemed very strange that she was, even at this age, in such an angst about what she wore and how she looked.  I quickly realized though that on the flip side it took so little to make her happy; just some material things that made her look good!  But could that really be enough?  She went over my name several times and finally decided to call me Purni, short for Purnima.  “I’m Joyce Schultz and here are my contact phone numbers,” she added before leaving. “Promise to call me Purni, when you get new stuff in?”  I had smiled my acquiescence.   There was a genuine warmth in her manner that cut through my initial discomfort.  The sales staff and the security personal who had been watching on the internal surveillance cameras, cautioned me afterwards that Joyce had spent way too much time with me and her intentions might not have been the best.  They instructed me to keep my eyes and ears open and to watch out for her in future, in case she came back again.  I could tell right away, shop-lifting through distraction was on their minds. 

Very soon Joyce actually started calling the store and specifically asking for me to help her with her various purchases.  Although I was a retail research student I soon became her personal shopper and whenever our new merchandise came in she was right on the top of my list of clients to call.  Before long Joyce started confiding in me and shared many stories of her life.  She said she had this sad trait of not being able to hold on to anything.  Her first two husbands had died prematurely and her third husband had left her suddenly for a much younger woman.  After about two or three weeks of our meeting Joyce showed me her first husband’s picture that she carried in her purse.  When she said she carried it with her all the time there was such wistfulness in her blue eyes that I realized the truth of the saying,  ’Our first love always means the most to us all our lives’.  Just then she had broken into my reverie with a poke and a wink.   “Anyway dear, he’s the one who left me the most money, sweeter than honey!” She had thrown back her head of highlighted blonde hair and laughed heartily.  Sobering up she had continued that the only thing ever she got steady fun out of was shopping.  She said the kick she got out of buying new things, as soon as they were displayed or advertised, could be compared to the excitement  of watching a much awaited new thriller on opening night.  Out of curiosity I decided to check her purchase records and I found she came in monthly for $2000 to $4000 shopping sprees of soft line merchandise for personal grooming alone.  I asked her rather pointedly one time, “Joyce, what you do with all your previous buys, I mean your stuff isn’t all that old to just throw away?  Garage sales, maybe?”  Joyce had answered instantly in her no nonsense matter-of-fact tone, “Purni dear, what a question! Of course for every three bags of new stuff I donate four bags of old clothes, shoes, purses, jewelry to my local church.  Makes me feel like not such a bad girl, after all.”

 I had found out quite by chance that Joyce was an excellent cook.  Almost a year after she had become the store’s regular client and my very informative research subject, she walked into my office one evening as I was working late and ceremoniously set a huge paper bag next to my computer.  “Are you planning to return all that, Joyce, after using them?’  I had asked amused.

Without answering me Joyce said imperiously, “Much as clothes look great on a non-size like yourself, Purni, if you want to continue this back breaking research on some weird retail eco or something, I think it’s high time you ate some real home cooked, Italian food!”  I had never expected to see this maternal side of Joyce so I started up baffled.  “Here’s some lasagna I baked and some biscotti I made from scratch for you; oh!  I also have some cabbage rolls.”  I burst out protesting, “But Joyce”, I began, “You are our client …I can’t take  ...all this...”   She cut me short, “Of course you can, honey and you will.  All the stuff you helped me get last few times, they were so awesome!  Ray, my fourth, remember I told you about him earlier, he had some kind of Indian heritage, you know.  He just adored the colors and styles you picked out for me.  Our Hawaii vacation was a blast, so was the Alaska Cruise.  In fact, though he’s much younger than I, I may decide to settle for him after all”, she threw back her head and laughed her infectious laugh.  “And it’s all because of you Purni! I feel so young, so alive when you help me shop.” She looked at me.  Was this just a thank you gift or did I really see affection in her eyes?    Joyce was saying,” Come on, it’s just a little something, dear, for all you do.”  I shook my head again.  But cutting off my vehement denial, she added “Never mind, just eat this! I can never explain to you or for that matter even to myself why shopping here is totally a must for me.”

It was late fall then and after that Joyce had not come shopping for several months.  I had called her many times, kept leaving messages but got no instant call backs, or late replies or mall shopping sprees like before.  I thought maybe she had gone somewhere with Ray and left it at that.   Then a few months after Christmas, as I was on my way to my office to look at some paperwork on a cold, snowy day, I heard someone call me from behind in a strange shrill voice.

I turned around trying to see who it was. In the middle of the aisle, quite a few feet away stood a thin, drawn, loose limbed woman with close cropped grey hair and bright colored clothes hanging from her.  As I hesitated the woman cried out aloud, “Oh! Purni!” and started walking shakily up to me.  She then hugged me convulsively and whimpered, “Please help me buy some nice new slacks.  See, I’ve lost so much weight, nothing fits me anymore”.  I quickly extricated myself from that rather desperate embrace and my heart skipped a beat at the vaguely familiar tone.  I eyed the tottering old lady suspiciously and then turned to the tall, blond, young man beside her.

The man burst out suddenly, looking at my office name tag, quite aghast.  “What!  Are you really Purni?  Did Joyce call you by your actual name?  But how did she remember?  She can’t remember her own daughters or me, her constant caregiver?”  

Now it was my turn to be flabbergasted.   “Joyce?  Caregiver?” I cried, taking a step back.  “Why?  What’s going on?  This can’t be Joyce Schultz!”  I ended in sheer disbelief as I turned my gaze on the lifeless, misty eyes of the woman in front of me.  

The tall, blond, man smiled rather apologetically.  “Sorry, let me introduce myself first.  Hi, I’m Steve, Joyce’s caregiver.  I’m not sure if you have heard, right around Christmas, Joyce had a cerebral stoke and though with therapy she has regained her motor functions she still has language and memory setbacks.  Dementia is setting in rapidly so her Wellness Center has appointed me to be with her at all times.”

As Steve was talking and I was trying to assimilate, Joyce came up closer and clutched my arm.  “I hate all these people” she said looking wildly all around, “But I’ll come here early every day, ok Purni?  Just to shop.  You’ll help me, won’t you?  Then I’ll feel real good!“  She smiled up at me wanly and I had to turn away.   There had been a time not so long ago when I had smiled up at Joyce Schultz.

I looked at the new Joyce, unseeing.  Where was the Joyce I had known?  That elegant, vivacious woman, with a hearty laugh, taller than I, bursting with energy and zest for living?  I had learnt from her that it’s quite possible to love myself just the way I am with all my human limitations.  I tried hard to find my voice.

“Of course, Joyce” I answered brightly at last and tried to hold back my emotion as I hugged her ghost. 

Since late summer this year Joyce has visited the store every single day.  The time varies.  If she has early therapy then in the mornings, if she has a late morning session then in the afternoons.  After Steve she has had three or four other caregivers.  They all complain that her memory problems make her moody and very difficult to handle.  I can tell her dementia is getting worse.  She still buys clothes and jewelry that I help her pick out but even when she likes something a lot, tries it on and takes it home one day, she returns it the very next day and buys something else.  Her caregivers say the minute she takes her stuff home she can’t remember liking the items enough to buy them.  Or worse if she likes something and buys it today, she’ll show me the very same thing tomorrow and tell me she wants to buy it.  It’s really hard to explain to her that she already owns that merchandise.  She simply doesn’t remember.

I completed my research dissertation just before Joyce returned to the store this summer.  After seeing her I don’t know why I decided to stay as the sales manager of the women’s department for this store a little longer.  Is it because of people like Joyce for whom shopping is a life saver or a coping mechanism?  Those who show others that it’s possible to be happy even if it’s through something as insignificant as shopping and hence so short lived?

As all these thoughts race through my head, I find myself enveloped in a bony hug from behind.  “There you are, Purni.  I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to find you today in all these people, it took us such a long time to get a parking spot and then in my hurry ….” Joyce’s voice falters.  Disengaging myself gently I turn round.  Looking at Joyce, I gasp involuntarily.  There are large bandages on her forehead and across the bridge of her nose.  I quickly turn to her latest caregiver a neat, middle aged woman and ask quietly, ”What happened?”

“I always tell her to wait till I open her door” she says defensively, “But she’s always in such a rush to come shopping with you… In her soon as she got out of the car she tripped and landed on her nose on the hard pavement.  So I took her to the Emergency Center across the road and they patched her up.  They told her to rest but I couldn’t take her home.  She wanted to come here and shop with you.”  I can sense the frustration in the caregiver’s voice.

“I had to come here and shop with you” says Joyce unaware that we are talking about her.  “You make me feel so good when I buy something you show me that I really like …even when my head is aching hard like right now.  I feel so ok…like I’m not dead…or anything…”       “Hush Joyce” I scold softly, looking at the large, dull eyes staring vacantly under the thick, white, stark bandage.  Her caregiver comes up to me and says matter-of-factly, “She has become so stubborn and moody now-a-days, it’s really hard to make her listen.  So her doctor told her daughters that instead of having one live-in caregiver she should move into assisted living near the city as soon as possible. But they can’t make her agree ‘cause she wants to come here and shop at your store.  She just won’t go to any other Mall.  Puts on quite a tantrum. “

“No!” says Joyce hoarsely, with fear in her eyes, “I won’t leave …Purni, tell them to stop … they’ll kill me …oh!  Please won’t you help me…”  Her voice fragments and I can hear her exhausted breathing.  

All at once I remember when they took my ailing Mother to the nursing home in a different country far away I was not there to hold her hand when the end came.  I take Joyce’s cold, shaking fingers in mine and giving them a reassuring squeeze, tell her gently, “Come, let’s get what you want quickly and then you go home and rest.  Ok?”

“Ok!” echoes Joyce calmly, looking into my eyes with infinite trust. And then adds eagerly, “Can I come tomorrow and say “Hi” to you and buy something else I like?”


Joyce stopped coming to the store after this.  Her daughter called me and ordered some clothes and shoes that Joyce would take with her as she moved from her suburban home to an assisted living community near the city.  I asked her daughter if there was any transport service where Joyce was moving to, that could bring her here to our Mall sometimes.  Her daughter wasn’t sure about that but was sure that with Joyce’s deteriorating memory, she would completely forget about her shopping sprees with us in her new environment.  She emphasized that Joyce had been given a very nice room with a lakeside view on the second floor.  “Maybe she’s right”, I thought rather apprehensively and wished their family luck with their new arrangement. 

Three weeks later, one late afternoon, I saw Joyce’s daughter walk into our store.  On seeing me she came up and held out an envelope.   “How’s Joyce?  Is she here with you?” I asked expectantly, looking around for the familiar face and ignoring the envelope.  Her daughter answered, “Yesterday at her new place, when the nurse came to my Mom’s room for her routine checkup, she had asked the nurse several times why they were not driving her out to this Mall so she could shop at this store.   The nurse had explained that since Joyce had just moved in she shouldn’t worry about clothes yet. First she had to settle in and feel better.”  Joyce’s daughter paused briefly and then went on.  “But late last night, when everyone was asleep, my Mom somehow managed to leave her room and instead of using the elevator which would have alerted security, crept down the stairs.  She tripped on the first landing, rolled down the last flight of stairs and hit her head on the hard wood floor.”  The daughter swallowed before going on.  “The staff found my Mom at the foot of the stairs this morning, her purse in one hand and your store card in the other.  They think she was probably trying to come shopping here.  But instead she bled to death from an open head wound.”  Joyce’s daughter stopped, braced her shoulders and put the envelope into my inert hands.  “I have come to invite you to her funeral tomorrow.  Please try to make it.  We know now how much it’ll mean to her.”

(Posted October 1, 2015)

Comment from SJ received on Nov 10, 2015: "Enjoyed reading Ad Faucibus, Ergo Sum by Indrani Mondal. Very touching narrative and certainly insightful."