Short story from Carol Smallwood


A Visit from the Avon Lady

Excerpt from Lily’s Odyssey (print novel 2010) published with permission by All Things That Matter Press. Its first chapter was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in Best New Writing.


In the spring I located an Avon Lady to help make me feel more at home.

Do you know you have a wasp’s nest out there?” the Avon Lady asked scurrying inside. When I’d called, she mentioned her grandson and how many years she’d been an Avon representative, so I figured she’d be about my age and looked forward to seeing her.

Oh, is that right? My goodness!” But I didn’t mind it by the doorbell because it kept solicitors away.

The Avon Lady, in a pink dress, had a cap of close fitting dark hair that looked just like the wig called “Caesar’s Wife” in a catalog I’d received. I remembered it in particular because a girl with the largest hoop earrings I’d ever seen (and in the smallest bikini) had modeled it. Caesar’s Wife wore perfectly applied matching dusty rose lipstick and nail polish. In Nicolet City, the most visible member of the country club was a handshaking insurance agent with his well-dressed wife at his side in high heels with matching lipstick and nail polish.

She said, “I know it’s late for a calendar, but aren’t they delightful? This year they did them in such delightful pastels and I like them so much better than brash colors. I always wished I’d had a girl to dress in pink.” When she pointed to the pink skeins of yarn piled in a basket with some kittens for the month of February, I noticed she had whiskers like the woman in Nicolet City who’d quivered for bits of gossip—the Avon Lady’s round bright eyes were like hers too.

I thanked her for the calendar and took the stapled bag holding my order she presented like crown jewels. Smiling, I said, “Please have a seat.” When I returned to the living room with my credit card I told her, “I try and put as much on the card as I can because the Doris Day Animal League gets a percentage of it,” hoping she’d might be interested in getting one.

Oh, yes. I use mine to get frequent flyer miles to visit my other son. I see him so often you know.”

When she was filling out credit card information, I asked, “Is it hot in town too?”

The way she said, “Well, I think you have more of a breeze here,” I knew she’d gotten a good whiff of the neighbor’s cow manure. Caesar’s Wife sat very straight, her small feet precisely together. Her high black pointed shoes were like the kind that were buttoned with a buttonhook in earlier times; she sat with her back not touching the couch like a proper lady doing a needlepoint sampler. When handing my Visa receipt she said, “It’s been warm going to my grandson’s baseball games. He’s nine years old and looks just like my son at that age.” She glanced around before putting her copy of the order in her purse and said, “I’m sorry your order’s a bit late, but my husband and I are going on vacation and I’ve had so much to do you know.”

I could tell she was trying to figure out where I fit in the scheme of things, just like I pegged her kitchen as one with a teddy bear cookie jar on a spotless white counter always cleaned with antibacterial wipes—the kind advertised as killing 99.9% of bacteria. She probably had pastel Pennsylvania Dutch paper toweling, doormats with pastel teddy bears for her grandchildren, and proper eyelet (white) tieback curtains. Yes, Caesar’s wife “must be above suspicion.”

“I’m so glad to have found an Avon lady again. I’ve used Avon for over thirty years where I lived before.”

“Where was that?”

“In Nicolet City.”

When she tilted to one side and asked, “Why did you ever come here?” I tried to tell if her hair was really a wig, but just the curls on her forehead moved–curls like the picture in Jenny’s book on nursery rhymes about the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

Oh, I wanted to take classes. I guess I wasn’t finished with school.” Yes, I believed in reason and enjoyed the smell of it in rectangular classrooms with rows of desks facing a larger desk. A projection screen with a string, that, when partially down, reminded me of Kitty forgetting to pull her tongue back in. You could tell a lot about a teacher by how they dealt with the string dangling in the middle of the blackboard. Classrooms had blackboards with smudged words much more intriguing because of their vagueness–whole banks of fluffy erasures with tails of “Y’s” and “J’s” still showing. I remember reading that if someone from the 1800’s walked into a classroom they’d feel right at home because classrooms had changed so little.

I recalled another kind of school–a homemaker’s school in Nicolet City where you could select: how to grow mung beans, how to make curtains from percale sheets, how to make your own baby food out of green beans. Mark had been in school and Jenny stayed with other kids in a room with some 4-H girls. After a cafeteria lunch, I saw a film on how Lee’s carpets were made and a demonstration on cleaning Sears’s ovens. I returned loaded with Wisconsin Consolidated Gas recipes on cards; each card had a blue tear-shaped flame of gas in the upper left corner.

Why, you sound like my sister who doesn’t know what she wants. She’s an ex-ray technician and wants to change jobs at forty-five.” Caesar’s Wife shook her head, “Still doesn’t know her place. Single, too,” her eyes trailing to my left hand. And as if she still couldn’t pigeonhole me, asked, “You work?”

“I retired after twenty years from Parisburg Public Schools.”

“Oh.” She looked a bit surprised but lost no time in replying, “You probably never had much time to bake cookies did you? My sons loved oatmeal cookies like my grandson does, you know. I make them with coconut, raisins, and walnuts,” and proceeded to give me the recipe.  

When I’d ordered men’s talc and aftershave on the phone a few weeks ago, she’d said, “It sounds like you know what someone likes,” but I hadn’t replied. When I examined the Friktion and Uomo talcs now, I almost said they were for myself to see her expression. Truth was, they were. I liked the solidity, the calming masculinity. Especially the citrus tones because they reminded me of the men I liked remembering.

I’d have to see if Honeysuckle was in the new catalog. I wanted to order it even after telling myself I was wallowing where I shouldn’t. Ah, there was nothing like the pale cloying sweetness of Honeysuckle! When I needed to remember what being in love was like, Honeysuckle brought a hint of the perpetual spring back. I recognized the look in the Avon model dipping her hand in a stream floating with daisies: she was smiling—no, glowing with anticipation in her eyes and sunlight on her hair: “Every moment’s to be lived. Your rush to greet the dawn…and love.” And to live the moment you just had to rub your wrist on the sample. You didn’t even have to unfold samples anymore. The next page showed a model wearing a night gown (I think) with rose petals falling on her matching those on the gown if the Avon Lady’s nail and lipstick shade—Love’s Promise.

It was funny though, what I bought looked smaller than it did in the catalog; the shower gels that hooked on the shower weren’t really much bigger than tubes of toothpaste. And Avon was selling so many other things now like cell phones. But it was reassuring once again to have an Avon catalog even it they were so much thicker now. Size 6 models still had tangles of curly hair, perfect teeth, matching lipstick and nails, and trailed pale pink scarves on pale pink beaches. Toddler models with chubby legs held peaches in pink baskets. I saw a woman walking into a fluffy lake with upraised arms with her hair blowing one way and her gown the other, featuring the new fragrance, Perception.

Still, I’d look at the next catalog that the Avon Lady said she’d hang it on my door knob if I wasn’t home and give the bag an extra twist so the wind wouldn’t carry it off. Avon made me feel a part of things: it was as American as McDonald’s, the Fourth of July, or the Reader’s Digest.

When debating what to do with the calendar, I wondered if the photographer had used a pink screen over the lens or if the muted look was part of the developing. The look was warm, romantic, real and yet just out of reach–and I understood why the Avon Lady had said: “Women like the pastel look. It’s such a delight. So feminine and flattering, you know.”



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