Meet My Mother, a Salesman’s Worst Nightmare

To master the art of returning a five-year-old shirt to a store that no longer sells it, take a page from this writer's mother: have no shame.

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Steve Wacksman for Reader’s Digest

10:15 a.m., Saturday
I open the front door, and my mother hands me four cases of yogurt. All strawberry. She doesn’t notice flavors. Coffee, vanilla, blueberry—they don’t mean a thing. I ask her how much I owe her, and she tells me that with the coupons and how she used them on double-down day, she actually made money off the purchase. I tell her I don’t see how such a thing is possible, and she explains that the yogurts were a buck apiece and her coupons were for 75 cents. Doubled, that’s $1.50.

“I make 50 cents off each one I buy,” she says.

She’s excited because she has a project for the two of us: a defective shirt that needs exchanging. She got it from a clothing store near my house that’s been around for decades. When I was a kid, my mother would take me there to buy shoes, making me take my pants off first for some reason, right in the aisle, before trying them on.

“What’s wrong with the shirt?” I ask.

“It’s missing a sleeve,” she says. “How can I let your father leave the house like that? No way.”

It should be said that my father has left the house in worse: green corduroy vests, T-shirts advertising aquarium supplies, ties intended for novelty use only. If it were handed to him as he was getting out of a shower, I’m sure my father would figure out a way to wear a bridge chair.

I asked how a missing sleeve might have escaped her notice during the purchase. She doesn’t remember. She bought it a long time ago.

“How long ago?” I ask.

She doesn’t really get the question. Life for my mother isn’t exactly a chronological unraveling. She was visiting me. I’m around the corner from the store. It’s just a clever thing to return it now—killing two birds with one stone. She looks at the bag and thinks for a moment.

“Five years,” she says.

This kind of operation is what my mother lives for. It will be a challenge, a battle of wills—a game of chess, but with yelling. I remember as a kid watching her open three bottles of tahini, one after the other. She wasn’t satisfied with the hermetic popping sound the caps made—it was too muted. She liked a pop that was more emphatic, a pop that cried, “I have not been sprinkled with hemlock.” She returned all of them to a grocery store she’d chosen, not because she’d bought the tahini there but because of its proximity to our house. The store didn’t sell tahini. I’m not sure they even knew what it was.

To be honest, it isn’t that my mother exerts Clarence Darrow–like powers of persuasion; it’s that she has no shame. None at all. As an adult, I seem to have taken on the extra shame she has no use for. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. If a waitress gets my order wrong, I keep my mouth shut. If a bus driver goes past my stop, I just get off at the next one. Scenes aren’t my thing. But even now, no matter where I go with my mother, there are always the inevitable spectacles. Just the thought of her getting all froth-mouthed about the one-armed shirt—it was enough to make me queasy.

10:40 a.m.
At the store, my mother heads to the cash register and pulls the article of clothing out of the crumpled bag.

“It’s missing a sleeve,” she says to the saleswoman.

“It doesn’t have sleeves,” the saleswoman says. “It’s a poncho.”

“A pon-cho?” my mother repeats, as though it’s a foreign word—which, in her defense, I guess it sort of is.

You’d think that would be the end of it, that my mother would accept the fact that we live in a universe where such a thing as a poncho exists, and we would leave. But this is not to happen. “I don’t care what it is,” she says evenly. “It’s factory-defective. My husband can’t wear it.”

I thought of my father, a man very big on tucking in clothes, packing the bottom of the poncho into his pants, belting up, and heading out for an evening on the town looking like Fatty Arbuckle.

The saleswoman refuses to give a refund, so my mother asks her to get the manager, and the woman disappears behind a row of suit jackets.

10:50 a.m.
As we wait, I remain by my mother’s side, standing there in this way I developed as a kid. It’s a posture that’s meant to convey filial loyalty peppered with a touch of what Vietnam vets call the thousand-yard stare.

I imagine the saleswoman conferring in the back room with the manager, a bedraggled, shiny-jowled man, as he stares at my mother through a security cam, watching with a look of recognition that quickly turns to panic.

10:55 a.m.
The saleswoman returns, immediately offering store credit.

That’s a mistake. Weakness.

“So you can unload socks on us?” my mother asks. “We need more socks like we need rickets.”

Desperate to defuse the situation, I grab a baseball cap off a nearby shelf and hand it to my mother. Reluctantly, she gets it for me with her credit.

“Lucky for you my boy needs a hat,” she says. “Walk around in it. Make sure it isn’t too tight around the temples.”

As we leave the store together, my new cap on my head, I feel about ten years old.

“I’ll hold on to the receipt,” my mother says. “Just in case.”

Jonathan Goldstein is an author and a radio host. His work has appeared in the New York Times and GQ.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Jonathan Goldstein
Jonathan Goldstein is an author and a radio host. His work has appeared in the New York Times and GQ.