by Rayne Debski
Cameron rounds the corner just as a woman with severely cut black hair and long leather-covered legs, the kind that could easily straddle a Harley, steps out of an aging duplex. Even on this drizzly November morning, she wears rhinestone sunglasses, and her fringed jacket is partially unzipped. She stands on the front stoop, hugs herself against the cold and jiggles, her motor already started. A whistle slides over his tongue. Look at that. As he drives his cab closer, he hopes this is his fare. It is his third week as a New Jersey taxi driver, and he is bored with chauffeuring invalids and drunks. For a second, he imagines driving off with the woman in leather to do something wild and unpredictable, escaping his creditors and his ex-wife. He checks the route sheet; the house number matches the one with the lady in leather. He smoothes his thinning brown hair and reaches into the ashtray for a breath mint.
The woman waves. Cameron watches the swing of her hips as she picks up a bundle of blankets from a chair on the porch. His Dunkin’ Donuts cup balances in the beverage holder, the sharp aroma of morning coffee reminding him of other times. Today is the one year anniversary of his divorce. Memories from his marriage to Zoë sit like shrapnel under his skin. He does his best to ignore them. He shoves the gearshift knob into park.
To Cameron’s relief, the woman doesn’t wait for him to get out and open the door. He neglected to bring an umbrella, and if he gets wet, his wool sweater will ooze dampness for the rest of the morning. When she reaches for the door handle, the bundle in her arms shifts; two orange webbed feet dangle from it. He leans forward to convince himself he’s made a mistake. He hasn’t. She’s carrying a duck. A fully grown white duck, its head pushing through the blankets, its mottled bill pointed skyward. A duck!
Now he wishes this isn’t his fare. He isn’t sure what the company policy is on animals, but he knows he doesn’t want to clean up duck crap no matter how hot his passenger looks. He resists the urge to floor it and leave.
The woman drops into the back seat with her bundle. Immediately the cab smells of fruity perfume and ripe waterfowl. She slams the door, her bracelets jangling like wind chimes.
“Franklin Veterinary Hospital,” she says. Not just a duck, but a sick duck. He wants to tell her to call another cab company, but he can’t. When his boss Hector heard Cameron declined to take a fare to one of the crack house neighborhoods, Hector spit a wad of tobacco juice and warned that cabbies who refuse customers are walking the streets. “They ain’t working on them.” The child support schedule Cameron keeps tucked in the visor reminds him why he didn’t tell Hector to shove it. Months of unemployment humbled him. In the back seat, the woman makes a clucking noise. The duck responds with a honk and a flutter of wings. Reluctantly, he clicks on the meter.
“Is it housebroken?”
In his rearview mirror, he watches her hold the wriggling duck against her chest, the same way his daughter cuddles her baby doll. Even at six, Annie would know how to calm the duck. She could get anyone out of a funk. When the duck squirms, white feathers fly in the air. Cameron shakes his head; in ten minutes he’ll have the makings of a down pillow. Exhaust from the herd of cars pressing along the highway seeps into the air vents, and for once, Cameron doesn’t mind. Maybe the fumes will cause the duck to nod out for the ride.
The woman removes her sunglasses. She is younger than he first thought, late twenties maybe. Cascades of silver disks dangle from her ears to her chin. The duck makes a weak, honking noise.
“It’s not going to get sick in my cab, is it?”
“Her name’s Ursula.” She wipes her eyes, smearing black mascara onto her pale skin. “She’s dying.”
His hands stiffen on the wheel. “I’m sorry.”
“She’s been sick a long time. I’m having her put to sleep.” The duck moans.
He fidgets with the knobs on his dash. The only pets he had were goldfish when he was in seventh grade. For three months he took care of them, feeding them and refreshing their water, until the day he was at the sink, the faucet turned on full blast, not paying attention to the water temperature. When the scalded fish floated sideways to the top of the water, their single eyes staring at him, a sickly feeling shot through him. After he flushed their dulled bodies down the toilet, he threw up. Even now, remembering those eyes accusing him of heartlessness, he feels weak. The stale bagel he ate for breakfast sits like a stone in his stomach. The sooner he gets these two out of his cab, the better.
“What time is your appointment?”
“I have to have her there by nine. They only do this kind of thing in the morning.” The duck sneezes. “Do you know where the clinic is?”
Five miles down the road, next to Miss Janine’s Dance Studio. He takes Annie to ballet lessons on the two weekends a month he has custody. If traffic starts to move, they’ll be there in ten minutes. It’s almost eight-thirty, and cars are bumper to bumper. “We’ll get there as soon as we can,” he says. He tries to telegraph a reassuring smile through the mirror.
The woman sniffles into the duck’s down. Rain bounces off the faded hood. He hopes the weather doesn’t inspire her to more tears. What if she becomes a real gusher? He hates it when women cry. Their makeup runs in clown-like streaks, and their tears wash over him in waves of responsibility.
When he and Zoë were first married, she wept mercilessly to get what she wanted: tickets to a sappy Barry Manilow concert, a pricey couch from Ethan Allen, a week in Miami with her girlfriends. At first Cameron indulged her. Zoë’s sweetness more than compensated for her emotional cloudbursts. But after a few years, her crying jags became as appealing as a flooded basement, and he responded with angry words instead of acquiescence. With his daughter Annie, it’s a different story. Her tears, they bring him to his knees.
He steals another glimpse in the mirror. Propped up on the blue vinyl seat, the woman rubs her cheek against the duck’s head, humming tunelessly, her eyes closed. On the side of her neck, he can discern some sort of tattoo. He speculates on whether she’ll remember to tip him. With the rain he is counting on a busy day and enough tips to keep the blood-sucking creditors off his back. There’s money to be made, and he is going to make it. Set a goal and stick to it, Zoë preached. Would he ever be free of her? He grits his teeth, a habit acquired during the last years of his marriage.
The windshield wipers scrape back and forth. The woman lights a long, thin cigarette sending a snake-like trail of smoke upward when she exhales. Two fingers tipped with purple nail polish press the filter against her outlined lips. He knows he should tell her this is a smoke free cab, but under the circumstances he feels obliged to make an exception. If Hector doesn’t like it, too bad. He’ll get some air-freshener after he drops her off. He opens the window. Damp air swirls through the car startling the duck. She teeters on the woman’s leg, spreading her wings.
“Shut the window,” the woman screams. “Can’t you see she’s upset? She senses where we’re going.”
He quickly closes it. White feathers spin around his head.
“Does she like music? I can turn the radio on.” He wants to shoot himself when he says things like this.
“Jazz,” the woman says. “She likes jazz.”
He jabs the radio button, hoping the nightshift driver hasn’t fiddled with the presets. Miles Davis comes through the speakers blowing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The notes slowly unwind, a counterpoint to the steady beat of the wipers. The duck settles into the woman’s lap.
Cameron turns up the volume, and the music fills the cab so they can’t hear the grinding gears of a passing cement truck. Miles does a yearning interpretation of the song. His choruses are cool, flowing, and Cameron wonders if his passenger ever waited for someone to sweep her off her feet. Miles is playing about longing and desire, his trumpet riffs dancing in and out of the melody. He is putting his heart into his horn, and Cameron is listening to Miles, not worrying for once about how he’ll pay Annie’s private school tuition.
A heavy sigh accompanies the music. He isn’t sure if it’s from the woman or the duck. He looks again in the rearview mirror. Seemingly unaware of the gridlock, the woman strokes the duck’s back. Cameron taps the steering wheel and watches the way her jacket opens enough to show a pink tank top. From what he can see, she isn’t wearing a wedding ring. He thinks about what would happen if he asks her out; she’s not the type of girl he usually dates. He chides himself: he’s a dilettante in the dating scene. He’s had three dates with three different women since his divorce. Who knows what his type is. Maybe she’d like to go for a beer tonight, get her mind off being without her duck. They could swap depressing stories.
She catches his eye in the mirror. “Didn’t you used to work at Thirsty’s?” she says.
Smiling at her reflection, he nods. When he couldn’t find a teaching job that paid enough to support Zoë’s dreams, he worked construction during the week and tended bar on weekends. He liked the camaraderie the jobs provided, even if they were dead end.
“You wore a Yankees cap and tight tee shirts. Showed off your biceps. I thought you were cool.”
Instinctively he sucks in his stomach. He stares straight ahead hoping she can’t see him blush and tries to recall something about her. “You had your hair different.”
She smiles. “It was red.”
She tells him her name is MaryLee, and that she owns two apartment houses thanks to a small inheritance.
“Anyone care about this duck besides you?”
She ignores the question, which irritates him. Silence was another of Zoë’s ploys. The duck sings in a hoarse cackle.
“Ever think she might like to just fade into the reeds?” he says.
“Reeds? She doesn’t know reeds.”
“You never let her swim in the river? Hang with other ducks?”
“She’s a domesticated duck, not a wild animal.” She hugs Ursula closer. “She’s always lived inside. My boyfriend left her along with an old couch and six years of memories.” She kisses Ursula’s head, her breath unsettling more feathers. “I couldn’t toss her into the street.” The duck’s down is as fluttery as his daughter’s hair. He catches MaryLee’s eyes in the mirror. She sticks out her chin. “It’s not like I want to do this.”
“Have you tried the vets at the Ag School?”
She hugs the duck, hard enough this time to provoke a squawk from Ursula. “Are you an authority on pet care?”
He shakes his head, willing himself not to respond. He’s beginning to sweat. His sweater, so comforting at the start of the day, constricts around his shoulders. The air in the cab thickens; he wishes he could open the window, but he doesn’t want to upset the duck.
Traffic starts to move. Ahead of him, a van accelerates too fast. Brakes screech. The van crashes into a truck. Cameron swerves to the left. He slams on his brakes. The car behind him careens to the right barely missing MaryLee’s door.
He twists around. “You okay?” MaryLee slumps against the back seat, her mouth forming an O, the stunned duck pressed to her chest. For a surreal moment, instead of MaryLee, he sees his daughter waking from a nightmare. His throat catches.
“It’s alright. You’ll be alright.”
She is hiccupping and shaking. “I can’t do this.”
The dispatcher’s voice crackles. Two fares are waiting.
MaryLee’s cheeks are turning purple. Coltrane wails on the radio. Horns honk. The duck is breathing hard and suddenly the car fills with the odor of shit.
“Not this.” Tears run down MaryLee’s face. “Not now.”
Cameron stifles the urge to puke. Praying the mess is on the blankets, he pulls a package of tissues from the glove box. “Maybe you should put this off for awhile.” The duck waddles over to a clean spot on the seat.
MaryLee shakes her head so hard her earrings jangle. When she reaches for the tissues, he tries to grasp her fingers to give her a comforting squeeze, but she is too quick. He is left hanging over the front seat empty handed.
“You stupid fuck.”
Before he can respond, she is out of the cab running toward the side of the road. He opens the window and shouts her name. Drawing up the collar of her leather jacket, she threads her way through the stopped cars. From the visor, the child support schedule dangles in front of him. He can’t leave the taxi in the middle of traffic. He can’t abandon MaryLee, hunched on the side of the road in the rain, trying to clean the duck shit sliding down her leather pants. He presses his horn to get her attention. Someone from another car is talking to her. She ignores him too.
As soon as the vehicles begin to move, Cameron slices onto the shoulder next to MaryLee. He opens the passenger-side window and stretches across the seat.
“Look, whatever I did or said, I’m sorry.” He takes these words from his marriage; Zoë drummed them into his head for years. He opens all the windows hoping Ursula will once again protest. “You can’t just leave your duck. She needs you.” As wet air flows into the car, he realizes Ursula hasn’t made a sound for some time. He jerks around. The duck sits amid the pile of feathers, her soft black eyes gazing at him. She cocks her head to the side as if to ask, what now? A small quack, almost like an appeal, escapes from her bill.
Cameron shakes his head to rid himself of the responsibility that is pounding down on him. “Get in the cab,” he screams. A line of cars forms behind him. “I’m going to dump her at the butcher’s.” He jabs the windows closed. Before he can shift into drive, MaryLee is tugging at the door.
“Get us out of here.”
“Faster than a speeding bullet.” He swings the car onto a side street. MaryLee and her duck slide across the seat. The duck moans louder. Cameron keeps his foot pressed on the gas pedal.
“Take me to the park,” she says.
“The park?” He has fares waiting. “What about your appointment? It’s almost nine.”
Now she raises her voice. “She should have a chance to be outside. You said so.” Cameron’s shoulders stiffen. Feathers fly through the car. Ursula’s bill presses into his neck. MaryLee sits on the edge of the back seat. “She’s dying and you won’t help her.”
He grits his teeth. “Don’t blame this on me.”
“What kind of a guy are you? You give me this big know-it-all advice, then you leave me helpless?”
I could have driven off, he wants to say. Ursula’s squawks fill the car. He hunches over the steering wheel, hearing Zoë’s voice intrude into the cab. Who are you fooling? You never stick around to make things better. When something goes wrong, you slam the door and disappear. He squeezes the steering wheel. “Leave me alone,” he says.
“As soon as you take us to the park,” MaryLee shouts from the back seat.
At Landing Lane, he crosses the old suspension bridge, turns into Johnson’s Park, and stops next to the river. The place is deserted except for a group of swans clustered upstream. They are different sizes, and he wonders if they are a family. The rain has changed to a drizzle. When he gets out of the car, the dank, organic smell of the river surrounds him. He jerks open the back door. MaryLee is crying so hard the duck’s head is shiny from her tears. Ursula’s eyes are glassy beads of fear.
“Give her to me,” he says.
MaryLee shakes her head. Cameron doesn’t want to stand in the rain. He doesn’t want to get back in the car either. His eyes are heavy from the morning’s events. He is unsure of what he is doing here. If only he could go back to the start of the day, select a different route.
He is about to close the door when MaryLee swings her legs out of the car. Cameron follows as she carries Ursula down the stony path to the river’s edge where she places the duck gently on the bank and pats its rump. The duck looks at the water, then sits like a boat tied safely in its slip. A flash of white skitters in front of them; the swans stretch their wings, sending ripples across the water.
Rain slides down his nose and chin; dampness settles into his sweater. The aftertaste of his morning coffee sticks to his tongue, and he wishes for a can of Coke to remove the bitterness. Across the river, office buildings stand like sentries. In one of them, he knows, Zoë sits at her desk. He stares at what he imagines is her window, and wistfulness sneaks up on him. Despite how much he wants to get her off his mind, he sees the shine of her hair, the shape of her hands. Parts of her flash by him: an arched eyebrow, the swing of her skirt when she walked.
The dispatcher’s voice buzzes out the cab window; his fare has been waiting for thirty minutes. “Hector says get your ass over there now.”
He hears a splash and turns. Ursula has walked into the river and is flapping her wings. MaryLee follows, wading into the water until it’s above her ankles. She squats to Ursula’s level, and they slap the choppy surface, Ursula with her wings, MaryLee with her hands. Cameron starts to smile. A breeze blows unexpectedly warm and strong against his face. Taking a deep breath, he inhales its freshness. The portrait of Zoë he reconstructed blurs and drains away, and he is left with an unexpected feeling of tranquility.
He steps into the water.
Bio: Rayne Debski's stories have appeared in on-line and print journals and anthologies including flashquake, Rose & Thorn, and REAL. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and has been selected for dramatic readings by professional theatre groups in New York and Philadelphia. After years of hanging her hat in New Jersey and Florida, she now lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband and two dogs, who inspire her with their whimsy.
by Richard L Luftig
I work in a Goodwill Store. It’s the place where eight-tracks come to die along with plaid pants, hats with earmuffs, computers that use floppy disks and black and white TVs. If you have anything worn out, out of date, out of style or only marginally broken, we’ll take it.
And not just things. People, too. I don’t delude myself. Like me, folks who work in Goodwill are carrying a ton of wear, hurt, sadness, or problems. I don’t know if we work here because we’re broken or if we become broken through working here. Mostly, we’re worn out like that favorite cup you picked up as a souvenir from New York City that becomes cracked from being put in the microwave too many times. All I know is that working in a Goodwill is a good place to stay under the radar, as if severe scrutiny would show how little usefulness we really have.
Take me. I’m thirty-five years old and you could say overweight. But that would be kind. Truth is, I’m fat. Now, I can usually get away with making some joke, like saying I’m short for my weight, but it hurts to look in the mirror or think how unattractive I ‘d be to any man who I might be interested in. It’s even painful to have to hang up those petite size dresses that get donated to the store by the beautiful people who salvage their guilt about driving BMW’s by giving away last year's clothing to charity. There’s no way I’d ever be able to fit into their clothes. At least not in this life.
But people’s damage doesn’t have to be visible, out there for everyone to see. Take Tonya, my best friend. She works with me in the store. Tonya's good looking. I wouldn’t call her beautiful, but she’s what guys around here call “a looker.”
But even with her good looks, she’s carrying a set of baggage and those bags aren’t pretty. She’s been married three times, all to abusing husbands who beat on her like she was their personal piñata. It’s like she wears a sign that says “go ahead, treat me bad.” Now she’s an ex-alchy, trying to stay sober, with two kids taken away from her by the Court and living with an aunt on the East Coast. Her problem is the opposite of mine. I can’t get a man. She's a man-magnet. Only problem being, the kind she draws are the same losers she’s been dealing with all her life.
Now about the dress. It was August. I remember because it was so hot. Ninety-five with the same percent humidity. That’s not surprising for Missouri. But it gets to be a problem with the store not air-conditioned. All we get is a few donated fans that do little more than push around the heat and smell of mothballs. And we only get to keep those until someone worse off than us buys them for their overheated apartment.
Anyway, that’s when the wedding dress came in. We get lots of donated women’s stuff in the store but in my five years here, I’d never seen that.
“Jesus, look at this,” I said, holding it up to Tonya. “I can’t believe somebody is giving this away.”
The dress was a delicate, white thing, long and old fashioned, with lace at the neck and cuffs, something you might have seen in the early 1900's. It looked fragile, like it might fall apart in the first stiff breeze, and so beautiful that it seemed out of place in this gritty store. It could have easily belonged to someone’s great- grandmother.
Tonya looked up from the stack of men’s sport shirts she was pricing and placing on hangers.
“Dear Lord. Let me see that.”
I held it up. It shimmered in the artificial light. “I can’t believe it,” I said. “It looks like new.”
Tonya snorted. “Of course it looks new, you dope. How many times is a person going to wear a wedding dress?”
I couldn’t resist. “Well, in your case at least three. Maybe six if you keep going the way you’re headed.”
“Smart ass,” Tonya said, but she was laughing. “Here, let me see that.”
I handed the dress to her. “God, this girl must have been tiny.” She looked at a tag on the inside. “Size two. Nobody is a two anymore. Whoever got married in this must have been anorexic.”
“How much do you think it’ll go for in the store?” I lowered my voice. For some reason, I didn’t want any of the other workers to know about the gown.
Tonya considered the question for a few seconds. “Hard to say. It certainly is a unique item.”
“Well, with Lucille out for the day, you get to price items coming into the store.” Lucille was the store manager. Policy was that the person in charge got to price any unique or potentially valuable items. With Lucille gone, Tonya was next in line with seniority.
“So, how much?” I repeated.
“Geez, Rosalie,” Tonya said. “How should I know?"
She paused. “And why are you so interested.”
I shot her my best ,“don’t go there” look, hoping to fend her off.
Tonya sighed. “Okay, thirty dollars. That seems about right.”
“I’ll take it,” I said. I opened my purse and took out my wallet.
“What…. you? Why in God’s name are you buying a wedding dress?” She stared at me for a long moment. “Girl, you not telling me something?”
Truth was, I didn’t know why I was purchasing it. Usually, I’m not one for impulse buying.
I decided to keep it light. “You never can tell. Better safe than sorry as the saying goes.” I counted out thirty dollars in fives and ones and handed the bills to her.
Tonya took the money, reluctantly it seemed. “Honey, don’t take this the wrong way, but that dress ain’t exactly your size.”
I felt myself getting mad. I don’t like people scolding me about my weight, even if it is coming from my friend.
“I’m well aware of that fact,” I said. “But who knows, it could give me motivation to go on a diet.”
Tonya laughed. “Darlin’ there’s diets and then there’s starvation. You’d have to waste away to nothing to fit into that dress. Like my Daddy used to say, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. You’re always going to be what folks call big
She shot me a suspicious glance. “And besides, who are you fixing to marry? Have you been holding out on your old friend, Tonya?”
She paused. “Hey, I bet it’s Frank.”
“Frank who?” I asked, pretending to not recognize the name.
“You heard me,” Tonya repeated. “Frank, the delivery guy. Don’t suddenly pretend you’re not a little bit sweet on him. You can’t bullshit an old bullshitter like me. Don’t even try.”
Frank makes pickups and deliveries part time with his van for the store. He’s probably a good twenty years older than me, but it’s hard to tell. Like Tonya, he’s a recovering alcoholic and those folks seem to age faster than the rest of us. He’s not the best-looking guy on the block, a little shorter than me, mostly bald with what’s having gone gray. He usually could use a shave. But he’s kind, especially to me. When he comes in from a delivery on the road, he brings in a sandwich that we share in the break room. I bring in big pieces of my homemade chocolate cake—for me the main course of any good meal.
And actually, she’s right. I do like Frank, but a woman like me has learned through hard experience that it’s dangerous to dream.
I carefully folded the dress and placed it in a bag. Then I marked the bag with my name and stashed it behind the counter. We all trust each other here, and I knew it would be safe until I got off.
At six, I clocked out and carried my treasure out of the store and up the stairs to my apartment. I’m lucky enough to rent a place above the Goodwill, so I don’t have far to walk to work. But climbing three flights of stairs is tough. Guess the exercise is good for me though. If I don’t have a heart attack first.
Usually, I start dinner before doing anything else, something easy like boxed mac and cheese. But this night, I went into the bedroom, took the gown from the bag and laid it out carefully on the bed.
Dear, God, a half a day’s pay wasted. What was I thinking about?
October. The job was still lousy, but at least the weather was cooler. Nothing much had changed. Lucille, the manager, had to take time off for knee replacement so that put Tonya in charge. I can’t say she made a good boss or a bad one. Best I can say is that things didn’t change much for either of us. She was going out with some guy, I think she said he was a cop. She said he drank too much and that wasn’t good for someone like Tonya who was trying to stay on the wagon. But I held my tongue. I figured she knew the risks.
I think it was a Saturday that Frank came in. I noticed right away he was dressed different, a sport shirt instead of his usually dirty tee shirt that he wore when he was making deliveries. Also, his jeans, if not clean, at least were less greasy than usual. And his hair, what he had left of it, was combed. I could see he was carrying a bag from the short-order sandwich store from down the street. All this struck me as odd, but I was hungry and hoped he had brought roast beef. I was hankering for a roast beef with melted Jack cheese for most of the day.
“Lord, get a load of you,” I said, as he walked in the door toward the pile of women’s blouses that I was pricing and hanging up for sale. “You gussied up like nobody’s business. What’s the occasion?”
He flushed red. “No big deal. Off work today, and I was bored stiff. Thought I’d bring in some sandwiches for us to share.”
I eyed the bag.
“If that’s roast beef, you have yourself a deal.”
“Sorry, love. Turkey and Swiss. You interested anyway?”
“Hell yes,” I said. “Just let me finish up with these blouses and tell Tonya I’m taking my break. I’ll meet you in the break room in five minutes.”
There weren’t many items left to price, and I finished quickly. I started to walk toward the lunchroom and saw Frank talking to Tonya. He seemed serious. I caught his eye, waved and pointed to the back of the store. He nodded and waved back.
I walked into the room and bought two sodas from the machine; Dr. Pepper for him, Coke for me. If he was going to spring for lunch on his day off, I figured it was the least I could do.
I spread out some napkins on the table along with two paper cups. It was odd, I thought, that he was dressed up or at least more than usual. Even more odd was that he came in with a sandwich for us on his day off.
Then I started thinking. Maybe he had come in to see me. Tonya had been telling me that he had his eye on me, but I didn’t think it possible, I mean was the man blind? Still, I couldn’t seem to come up with any other explanation.
Girl, I told myself, don’t be suffering from terminal wishful thinking.
Frank came into the room and took a chair across from me at the table. He reached into the bag and took out two sandwiches. This was doubly weird. Usually we just split one. Two probably set him back ten dollars.
He unwrapped his sandwich and popped the soda can. “Dig in,” he said. “Tonya said that with Louise out and the store being shorthanded, she can only spare you for twenty minutes instead of the usual half-hour.”
I took a bite of my turkey sandwich. I had been thinking of roast beef all morning but the turkey tasted great, even though it had mayo, something I usually didn’t care for. Maybe eating with Frank made it taste better.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t bring any chocolate cake today. I didn’t know you would be here it being Saturday and all. Tell you what, I’ll give you a double piece next week when I see you.”
He took a sip from his cup. “No problem,” he said. “Your cake is so rich it’s going to drive me to early diabetes. Time I tried to wean myself off. Although it’s tougher to swear off than booze.”
I laughed and took another bite and waited for him to say something else. He was strangely silent for a long time. Finally, he rewrapped his sandwich and put it back in the bag.
“I’ll have the rest for supper,” he said. He took another sip of Dr. Pepper and cleared his throat. “Rosalie, I was wondering if I could ask you something. But I’m kind of embarrassed.”
I watched my fingers resting on my napkin and stalled for time. What was this all about? He’d been acting strange the whole time. In on a Saturday and dressed up,an extra sandwich and now this. For a fleeting second, I thought of Tonya and her sixth sense about men, but I firmly pushed the idea out of my mind.
“Go ahead,” I said, laughing, and trying to break the tension. “Worst that can happen is I’ll slap your face for having dirty thoughts.” Now he seemed really embarrassed. Nice going moron, I thought to myself.
“I was just… well, to be honest, I was hoping you could sound out Tonya to see how she feels about me.”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “Could you say that again?” I had heard him well enough, but I was hoping he’d change his mind and not repeat what he said.
“Look, I wouldn’t ask you. Damn, I feel like I’m back in fifth grade. But I can’t see a woman like Tonya going for an oaf like me. I’d ask her but I'm afraid I'd get all tongue- tied and make a fool of myself. At least if I knew that I had a shot, I might not be so self-conscious.”
He paused and looked down at his hands. I looked too and saw that as much as he had tried, he hadn’t got all the grease out from under the nails.
“I swear, I wouldn’t ask you otherwise. But you’ve always been a good friend to me. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind doing me this one favor.”
I wished I could get my hands on the person who had suddenly sucked all the oxygen out of the room. I felt like the fool I knew I was.
“Sure,” I said. “No problem. Just give me a few days. I need to catch her in the right mood.”
Frank gave my hand a quick squeeze. His calloused fingers felt rough. I didn’t want to give away how hurt I was. Still, I think I drew my hand away too quickly, because he gave me a quizzical look.
“I better get back, my break’s up,” I said. “Tonya will have a fit if I leave her too long watching the whole store.” I stuffed the remains of my sandwich in the bag and threw it in the trash. All I wanted was to get away.
Without waiting for Frank’s response, I got up and walked out of the room. I heard him say something, maybe a word of thanks, I couldn’t make it out against the pounding of my heart. I didn’t turn back to ask him to repeat what he said.
The next day, when Tonya came into the store, the wedding dress was already priced and hanging on the rack. I was busy working on a box full of shoes when she walked over. I was hoping she wouldn’t see the dress but nothing escapes that girl. Working at Goodwill for ten years will do that to you.
“Hey,” she said, “isn’t that the wedding dress that came in here a few months back—the one you bought even before I could put it out for sale?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Why’d you bring it back?”
“I don’t need it anymore.” I didn’t want to go into the whole story about diets, hopes and guys named Frank.
“Well, at least let the store buy it from you. As I remember it, you paid something like thirty dollars, right? It ought to be worth at least twenty to you.”
I shook my head. “No thanks. I got my use out of it. I lent it to my niece to get married in. Now that she’s done with it, I thought I’d just donate it to the cause.” I figured lying was better than going into the whole sad story.
Tonya reached out for the dress. For the first time I saw the ugly bruise on her forearm. “Jesus, where did that come from?’
Tonya shook her head. “I’d rather not talk about it.” Now it was her turn to be evasive.
“Was that from your boyfriend the cop?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Lord, Tonya, what in the world happened?”
“I found out he was sleeping with other women. You might say that a disagreement ensued between us.”
“And he hit you? Why didn’t you call the cops?”
Tonya shook her head. “Because he’s a cop. They protect their own.”
She laughed. “Besides they might have locked me up for throwing that dish at his head.”
She covered her arm up with the sleeve of her blouse. “I’d just as soon you not tell anybody. Okay?”
“Thanks. By the way, what happened between you and Frank yesterday? He comes in all dressed up on his day off, just to have lunch with you. Didn’t I tell you he was sweet on you?"
I thought about telling her but decided against it. Tonya didn’t need a guilt trip right now. Frank being attracted to her wasn’t her fault.
“It was nothing. He wanted things to go further with us than I did. I had to set him straight.”
Tonya’s mouth opened and closed with surprise. “But why?”
“Like I said, it doesn’t matter. Girls like us never do find the right guy. Maybe we’re just meant to be alone.”
Tonya nodded. “Tell me about it, sister. It’s enough to make me swear off men for life.” She laughed. “Well, almost.”
She got up and gave me a little hug. “Just remember, Darlin’, I love you.” She walked over to the register to wait on a customer.
When I was sure she wasn’t looking, I reached over and felt the lacy cuff of the wedding gown one last time.
“Goodbye, I wish you the best,” I said, turning back to the pile of old shoes and the rest of my life.
Bio: Richard Luftig is a professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines including Bloodroot, Front Porch Review, Cataraville, and 3 Hearts Magazine.