The Cosmetics Counter at Saks by Phyllis Green

On the same day that Edie learned she had failed her Masters project, that Professor Morton had considered her paper a “hack job” and she would not be graduating, she went home to find an almost empty apartment and a note from her boyfriend Todd that read “Our relationship has become claustrophobic for me. I admit there was love if that’s any consolation to you but I’m moving to L.A. Don’t call or text. Let’s plan to meet five years from today in Chicago at the cosmetics counter at Saks. We’ll go to dinner at that little Italian trattoria nearby and tell each other about our lives. It’s a date then for April 22, 2018. 5:30 p.m. Be there! Todd.”

She did say, “You bastard!” but she didn’t cry. She stared. And stared. She drank pots and pots of Earl Grey tea. She even slept. After several weeks she informed her parents that she and Todd were breaking up and she, Edie, was not attending graduation but going to New York City instead. They could accept that. They couldn’t accept that she had failed her Master’s or that she was planning on living in the Wisconsin woods so she didn’t tell them. They never bothered checking their credit card bills or they might have guessed when her purchases were guns and ammunition, bows and arrows, hiking shoes and field clothes, a tent, books on survival and how to eat and what to eat in the woods.

Edie, an East High school cheerleader described in the yearbook as short but peppy and nicknamed “Freckles”, had led a semi-debutante life at the country club in the Maple Bluff section of Madison. Her parents owned the biggest house on Lake Mendota. Her idea of camping out was a Girl Scout trip to the Madison zoo and eating hot dogs at a picnic bench overlooking little Lake Wingra.

Adapting to the wooded life was shocking to her system. She didn’t like peeing in the woods or the other thing. She was afraid of the dark. She had been used to bathing every morning with luscious soaps that smelled of lavender or gardenia. She had forgotten to buy soap or Pantene so when she bathed in the Wisconsin River, she had to do with splashing around like an animal. Oh, she didn’t like animals either.

There was quite an adjustment period with lots of foibles and sheer terror too. But she made it through and she now lived, after a few weeks, in an almost civilized manor. Of course she was most often dirty or sweaty and her hair which had grown an inch still wasn’t long enough for a pig tail so it hung about her face in a bothersome way. But she had met Jill and her parents who lived a few miles from her tent. Jill’s parents, Bill and Martha, let her charge her cell phone at their house so once a week she could find a receptive area and call her parents and tell them how lovely New York was in June despite the heat.

Her progress so far: Rabbit and squirrel skins hung on the branches of nearby trees. Edie planned to make a winter fur coat. She only killed the animals that she needed for food. Not far away was her garden. She had planted zucchini, corn, tomatoes, beans, and carrots.

Tall, lanky Jill, who walked by her campsite one day, was an avid hiker and bird watcher who gave Edie some sprouting potatoes, which she also planted. Jill who had auburn hair that hung to her waist told Edie the potatoes would grow well in the sandy soil. Jill explained that the cactus low to the soil was called prickly pear. “Rose-like flowers will bloom from it around the fourth of July,” Jill said. “They will be transparent yellow like tissue paper flowers at a church bazaar. Before you know it the blossoms will have turned into edible pears. They are delicious! Just be careful of the spines!”

Jill also pointed out birds to Edie like snipe, gold finches, and red-bellied woodpeckers, and showed her the wildflowers like bouncing Bet, fake Solomon’s seal, and bird’s-foot violet.

Edie dug up wild mushrooms for her salads of dandelion leaf and other greens found along the river. She fashioned a net from her old panty hose and caught fish and frogs for her suppers. She often watched a family of deer swim across the river.

Several fields away, she found a small rise, which she began to dig out for her winter mound house. Each day too she kept time set aside for running. Usually she wore white shorts, her gray tee shirt, athletic shoes, and on her head, where her brown hair had grown a bit, she wore the red Wisconsin baseball cap.

But sometimes life in the woods was difficult. On five consecutive nights Edie woke suddenly at 2:30 or 3 a.m. She walked out of the tent and into a tree or bush (once into the river) before she realized she wasn’t at the apartment with Todd. Five times loneliness soared through her body like blue dye in batik. She stumbled back to the tent, and lay down on her right side. She pulled up her legs, held her stomach as if it were a fragile vase, and cried herself to sleep.

One night when there was only a cup of moonlight, Edie followed the deer as they fed. On her way home she came across a man about forty-five, dressed in lederhosen, who had hair like a black crow would have, if crows had hair. His son was with him, a Down’s syndrome boy of about ten years of age. The man was a music professor from the Madison campus and he was writing a symphony about the sounds of the river.

“You see,” he said, “my son and I are recording all the wonderful sounds.” He pointed to the tape-recorder. “Everything! The water slapping at the beach, a bee buzzing by, the varying bird calls, animal noises, the wind, all of it. I’m calling it The Wisconsin River Symphony.”

“But you’ve seen the deer,” Edie said. “They are so quiet. How will they be in your symphony?”

“Ah that would be a piccolo solo. D’lo. D’lo. Then faster. D’lo, d’lo. That’s coming across four deer at the water’s edge. Then the deer swimming across the river is oo oo ah ahhh ooo luu,” he sang. “And there will be narration and a chorus. It will be a most fantastic symphony. And my son and I will share in the reputation from it for we are both so involved in the research. Listen to the sounds he can imitate. Do the woodcock, Peter. Allegro brioso!”

Peter screeched and performed a dance.

“Now the spring peepers.”

Peter made a sound like knuckles being run over a wooden washboard.

“He’s quite remarkable,” the professor said.

One morning when the breeze smelled like lemon and jasmine, Edie crafted a barge– river birch tied with rope–and rode downstream to Spring Green and that evening in a field alive with mosquitoes, she witnessed a performance of “The Life and Death of King John” by the Spring Green Players. Leaving her barge in Spring Green, she ran back to camp after the show.

She gathered dead oak branches, made a fire on the beach, and listened to the sounds of the river. She imagined the sounds into her own Edie Symphony. She felt as if a five candle candelabra was glowing in her deep insides. Now I know what I was missing in my other life, she thought–this warmth of well-being, health, contentment. I am happy, she thought.

Edie was still a few days away from realizing that Todd not only left her but he left her pregnant. She had 3.2 days before this knowledge would sink in and 1,735 days before she would present the child to Todd at Saks cosmetics counter in Chicago.


Phyllis Green’s stories have appeared in Epiphany, Bluestem, Prick of the Spindle, The Chaffin Journal, Rougarou, Orion Headless, apt, ShatterColors, Paper Darts, The Cossack Review, Empirical Magazine and other literary journals. She will have upcoming stories in Poydras Review and Apeiron Review. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and Micro Award nominee.