So these might be the last pages. I was rushing to get as much transcribed before I left for vacation tomorrow and suddenly the pages became more of a mash of crumbled paper, smears and illegible scratchings then anything else. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I’m ready to give up on teasing out the whole of this story but I only thought it fair, (for those of you still reading along), to let you know that the end might be near…
“Thank you.” The words were so lazy escaping me mouth I wasn’t even sure she heard. I contemplated saying them again but exhaustion leached from me the energy to do anything besides find my bed and close my eyes.
I stopped in front of the third door on the right, a shiny brass 6 positioned solidly in the middle. The key slide easily into the lock clicking softly and with a gentle push the thick wood door opened smoothly. The room was a comfortable mix of modern and classic details, almond walls, traditional deep wood furniture, a giant mahogany sleigh bed molded with clean lines, fresh blue hydrangea leaned elegantly inside a milk jar pitcher by the bed. The TV was large and flat framed on the wall like artwork. The bathroom small but crisp; shiny white and ivory tiles, pedestal sink, claw foot tub with a tilted back and thick white towel draped over the edge.
I stepped into the bathroom dropping my nearly empty bag by the door. Splashing cool water on my face I stared at my reflection in the streamlined mirror. I looked worn. My eyes dry and hooded, my skin dull and ashy but for once it felt like something a good night’s sleep might be able to shake off. I smiled watching it travel past my awakened cheekbones and tease the corners of my eyes.
It was almost believable.
I striped out of my clothes leaving a trail from the bathroom to the edge of the massive bed before climbing under the soft covers. Laying down in darkness I smiled one more time wondering if it was believable, hoping by morning it would be.
I slept late. A mid-day day sun fought its way past the dark curtains casting slim rays against the hardwood floor. I picked at my matted hair, rolled over and managed to talk myself beyond the comfort of the firm mattress. The bathroom floor was cold beneath my feet. I looked for my socks, grabbing my jeans and giving them a shake when the note from Susan fluttered out the front pocket landing face up on the shiny floor. Bending I held the piece of paper between my fingers before laying it on the sink and jumping into a quick shower. Drying off I dressed quickly in my standard uniform of jeans and tank top before tucking the slip of paper in my back pocket, grabbing my wallet and car keys and heading towards the main desk.
A man was there. He was casual in a navy blue t-shirt, light khaki pants and running shoes so pristine it was obvious they’d never been used for running. His olive skin was evenly muscled; the top of his slightly large head capped with hair the color of freshly ground coffee beans. An inky black tattoo of a ginkgo leaf was visible on his collar bone inching halfway up his neck. In just standing there he was old school smooth, Fred Estaire, Maxwell and Marvin Gaye wrapped in a Barry White bow. I imagined him the quarterback on football teams, homecoming king, lucky bastard lottery winner.
Hearing me approach he looked up, a soft smile impossibly bettering his face. “You must be Velma. Sleep well?”
“I did thanks. It’s David right?” I reached into my wallet pulling out almost all the cash I had left frowning to myself at the thinness of the stack. “Is this enough? I’m sorry I should have asked before I stayed for the night.”
He looked at me and taking the money in his hands pulled two twenties from the top before handing back the rest. “Seems like that should cover it.” He walked behind the desk pushing buttons on the computer and then stepped back slightly as the money drawer opened stopping just short of his waistline.
“Are you sure forty dollars is enough uh, uh,” I started, ‘ I could, I mean if there’s any work around here, ya know to uh, to help cover wha…” but he only held up his hand and shook his head. Then placing the money on the desk he straightened each twenty against its edge, three concentrated swipes until the wrinkles bred from crumpling them in my pockets and wallet were almost gone. Satisfied with the progress on the first bill he laid it into the money drawer, beginning to talk as he started on the second.
“Knowing my Liz she did a fair job trying to nose her way around your when-where-and-why last night. If she didn’t she sure soon will be so I’ll save all the question and answer stuff for her. Far as I’m concerned if Sue sent you our way she had good reason to. Everybody here knows everybody else, the blessing and the curse of a small town. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, any questions just ask. Liz and I can point you in the right direction.” He dropped the second straightened twenty into the drawer and pushed it closed with a manicured hand.
“You guys sure are nice to strangers around here.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Yes we are nice but we’re not naive. And our Sue isn’t quick to wake us from our sleep in order to let just anybody in. Her instincts are solid. If she says you’re okay, most likely you are. On the off chance you end up being a problem well, we’ll deal with it then. Like I said blessing and curse of a small town. Everyone knows everything. Good or bad we tend to tackle what needs to be handled with a group effort.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to make you think, to insinuate that you don’t know what you’re doing or that you shouldn’t trust me, I’m just – I’m not used to –“
“Don’t work yourself up everything’s fine.” He walked back around the counter standing in front of me, his face easily carrying his sunshine of a smile. “So you planning on breakfast? You already know about the diner but there’s also a coffee shop bout three blocks east. I’d have the sweet potato muffin and their house blend, best coffee you’ll ever have.”
“As good as that sounds I was actually thinking of stopping by the cabinet shop. Uh Sue, I mean Susan said they might be hiring so…”
One side of his mouth tilted mischievously. “So you do plan on staying a while. The cabinet shop is easy to find, only red building on Main Street. You’re good getting back there right?” I nodded before he finished. “I won’t keep you then. Shop should be open. Good luck with your search.”
He turned moving fluidly down the opposite hallway. I thought to call after him. Thank him. But the simple words stayed tangled on my tongue. I was becoming increasingly aware of how I was completely socially awkward. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d dealt with someone who wasn’t an assignment or at Essex. This inability at small talk was making me look like a stumbling idiot. I would work on it. Find a way to get it together in the ten minutes it would take to get to the cabinet shop. Hopefully I’d be able to get a handle on my first impression by then.
Driving towards Main Street it settled on me exactly how new this experience would be. I’d never had a job. Not a legitimate one. Hustling in foster care didn’t really count. When I’d gotten out I’d had money my mom had left me though I’d done a miraculous job burning through it before I was cloaked. Thanks to Sara there was still some left but it certainly wasn’t enough to live without having to worry about paying bills or buying gas and food.
At Essex I’d forgotten the importance of money, financial things were simply handled. Living there, accepting that as my life I never thought to consider the possibility of that security being lost. I was making myself nervous. I was 18 years old and I’d never been employed. I just ran away from a life no one would ever believe. Now I was driving down main street in Fairhope hoping that I’d be hired at a cabinet shop? A cabinet shop! I still had no idea what I would say when walking up to the brick colored building I put my hand on the glass door knob and walked inside.
The shop suited me right away. It was straight forward and unassuming. Rows of unfinished pine bookcases in ascending heights lined the walls. A simple birch desk, also unfinished sat far against the left wall. The remaining interior floor space was spotted with smaller furniture. Bedside tables, TV stands, bars, a twin platform bed, small round tables and narrow lean console tables.
A large board was mounted on the wall neatly divided into 3 inch squares each displaying wood staining options. An old fashioned boom–box, black with a tape deck rested on top of the desk that was otherwise clear. R&B filtered softly through the speakers. The man behind the counter acknowledged me with a nod as I entered, only moving to stand once I stepped in front of the desk. His voice was Russian accented and loud. “Hello can I help you find something today? Our 6ft bookcases are 20% off.”
He was large as if commanding his own centrifugal force. I imagined in hugging him my arms would find themselves lacking just past his second belt loop. His beard was thick and barely beginning to pepper with grey. It was a roving mass of hair, purposefully meandering into curly untamed sideburns in complete contrast to the straight sleekness of his shoulder length hair. His eyes were small and dark centered perfectly on his round face so in spite of obvious years he seemed boyish, innocent. I stared hesitating longer than I meant to. He cleared his throat politely prompting me to find my voice.
“Um no thank you on the bookcase. I was hoping to speak with uh Niko or,” I glanced quickly at the paper wadded in my hand, “Stephanie?”
His smile broadened. “I am Niko”
“I’m sorry, I should have guessed.” I crammed the paper into my pocket rubbing clammy hands against the front of my jeans. “My name is Velma.”
“Velma!” He smiled with teeth tiny, delicate and perfectly white. Flattened lined up tic tacs. He took my hand in both of his shaking it decidedly three times. “Pleasure to meet you. What can I do for you?”
I took a deep breath determined not to insult, offend or instantly seem unsure. “I was hoping to discuss the possibility of employment. Last night I met Susan from the diner, she mentioned you might be hiring?”
He laughed a high melodious sound that was surprising and contagious before speaking. “Ah don’t you love the way women talk! So quickly you share information, it is so efficient! I’m sure my Stephanie let Sue know we’d be looking for help but I haven’t even posted the ad!”
I paused quickly reviewing the words in my head before saying them out loud. “If you’re not quite ready to speak with me I can come back at a later time.”
“Nonsense, you’re here now, we’ll discuss now. Just one second, one second.” He walked to the right of the desk past an open doorway returning with a chair. Pulling it to the desk he motioned for me to take a seat. He sat across from me, legs crossed at the ankles, hands resting on the apex of his stomach. “So,” he said, “it’s a simple job. Very small store. You’ll basically man it yourself. Sell what you can. Keep the furniture clean. Sand out nicks or stains on the floor models and – you can draw, yes?”
I nodded yes though absolutely sure the opposite was true.
“Good. So every now and then you’ll have to draw custom pieces. Take measurements. Set up deliveries. We have many regulars, our neighborhood friends who always want many of the same things and then there are the tourists. They require much patience, they ask questions and touch things and then ask the same questions again, but they do have plenty of money and so we answer their questions and then sand out their fingerprints from our samples once they leave. Okay sounding to you?”
“Yeah,” I cleared my throat measuring my words, “I mean yes. It sounds perfect actually. I would love to be considered.”
He smiled again tic tac teeth flashing as he sat upright resting his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. “Why don’t we set up a time tomorrow. You can come and work a shift with Stephanie, see what you think. Then we go from there?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “That sounds great. What time should I be here?”
“10:00 a.m. and be prompt. Stephanie won’t even let you try if you are late.”
“I will. I promise.”
We stood simultaneously walking towards the front door. Niko ran a hand over a nearby bookcase inspecting the surface with his fingers.
“Pleasure to meet you Velma,” I swallowed a smile. He drew my name out when he said it coaxing the letters into three rounded syllables, “you should explore our small town today if you plan on staying for a while. Get the staring over with. People here are fond of anything new and you certainly fit the bill.”
“I will thank you, and thank you for the opportunity Niko.”
He opened the door laughing as I stepped out into the sunshine. “Don’t thank me ValyUsha,” the Russian word flowed pleasantly over his tongue, “ you have yet to go through a shift with my Stephanie.” He was still chuckling as he closed the door behind me leaving me standing on the sidewalk.
I raised a hand shielding my eyes from the sun and looked from one end of the street to the other. Now what? I could do anything and the freedom had me frozen in place. After the longest minute clicked by, I found myself walking in search of the café. I’d have a sweet potato muffin like David suggested and maybe later an ice cream cone, mint chocolate chip like the ones Josh and I used to share.
Strawberry this time because it was my favorite even though Josh hated it, but he wouldn’t be here to make me change my mind. I’d go see a movie, take a nap in the middle of the day for no reason.
The street was full, kids on skateboards, families pushing strollers, couples holding hands and sneaking kisses. I soaked it in, each little bit of normalcy building it up as a reason to believe I could be normal too.
The café like everything else was easy to find and, as I was coming to anticipate in this town, the exact opposite of what I’d expected. It was all shiny black and white. A mix of checkerboard floor and mismatched tables and chairs all painted the same glossy white. Multiple milky ceiling fans turned lazily against the midday heat rustling newspapers and book pages. Almost every table was full, the line at the counter more than ten people deep. I took my place at the end hungrily eying the rows of visible pastries and closed my eyes against the warm smell of freshly brewed coffee.
Opening my eyes I took notice of the whitewashed walls. Each one was decorated with names and quotes written with black Sharpie markers hanging from strings secured with pushpins at varying heights. Without thinking I grabbed a marker finding an open expanse of white wall and wrote in rounded capital letters; Poetry is the sacred incarnation of spirits. Running my fingers over the words I remembered the first time I’d ever seen them. Then shaking that memory free I capped the marker leaving it to hang from its string and stepped up moving forward in line.
Soon I was sliding my way between the haphazard arrangement of tables to set my sweet potato muffin and black ceramic mug of coffee on a small table next to the window. Taking my first bite I felt eyes watching me. Stares tickling down my back. Window shopper double takes as they passed on the street. I pretended not to notice. Sipping my coffee and chewing another bite of huge muffin I was content to rest chin in hand doing some people watching of my own. I was so preoccupied looking out the window that I didn’t notice Susan until she stopped at my table, pulled out a chair and simultaneously sat down reaching for a small piece of my muffin popping it in her mouth.
“You look well rested.”
“Do you always steal food from other people’s plates?”
She shrugged reaching for another piece. “Not always.”
I acquiesced pushing the plate so it rested between us. She spoke between bites. “Niko said you stopped by about the job.”
“So that means you plan on staying around for awhile?”
I smiled before responding swallowing a sip of coffee. “I thought you were done with your meddling last night.”
“Was that meddling?” she responded innocently, “I wasn’t aware.”
“I think there is very little of which you are unaware.”
She grinned guiding the last of my muffin to her mouth. “So,” her voice muffled as she chewed, “the rest of my day is free. You should let me be your tour guide. Our little 15 mile stretch can be awfully intimidating.”
“Fifteen miles! Jeez this is a small town!”
“You have no idea.”
“And you want to be my tour guide?”
“Well you could choose from the folks who keep staring while we sit here but I don’t think they’d be as nice as me.”
“And you would know. They’re your people.”
“Not all of them are my people but you’re right, I would know.”
I ran a hand through my hair staring at my empty plate. “Might as well do a bit of walking. Looks like my breakfast is done.”
“A walk sounds like a great idea.” She stood carrying the dirty plates back to the counter. I weaved through the increasingly crowded café waiting for her outside under the black and white awning. I was getting used to the stares of people walking by, their curiosity, my impulse to princess wave as if I were riding a parade float. Susan walked outside to stand beside me pulling sunglasses down from the top of her head pushing them up the center of her nose. “Where to?”
I pulled the sunglasses off her face repositioning them on my own. Her smirk was visible from the corner of my eye. “You tell me,” I said, “it’s your town.”
She rolled her eyes pulling me by the arm onto the sidewalk.
We walked for the better part of the day, taking our time against the steady summer heat to stop in air conditioned doorways or pause to appreciate a thick full breeze. She introduced me to shop owners and those bold enough to speak on the street. We stopped for an ice cream cone and I was just finishing my strawberry swirl when I realized she was veering towards the stationary store I’d admired the night before. Popping the last of the cone in my mouth I stepped past the threshold to the sound of three chiming bells. It was a jewel box inside, everything presented as if precious and rare. Jeweled card stands, clear acrylic display cases, hanging chandeliers delineating the narrow showroom ending at a small sitting area. Upholstered Louis IV arm chairs, cherry oak display table and organized stacks of leather bound sample books.
The young woman behind the desk recognized Susan immediately and called out as we walked through the door. “Susan,” the woman moved from behind the counter cornering Susan with a bear hug, “we have your samples. They came in today! They are super fantastic so perfectly weddingy!”
Sue delicately but firmly extracted herself from the hug pushing away to create some distance. “Sounds great Kamille can I see them?”
Kamille nudged Sue’s shoulder, an overworked gesture of solidarity. “Of course you can silly, they’re your samples! Go quick to the display table I’ll bring them over.”
I followed as Susan walked to the table trying unsuccessfully to hide the surprise in my voice. “You’re getting married?
She sat motioning me to sit next to her. “Don’t sound so surprised. Many people find me extremely marriable.”
“Don’t pick at my words either.”
“Ok marriable but um…how old are you cause my guess is around 18…”
“I’m not getting married.”
“I’m almost 19, will be 20 by the time we get married. It works. I’ve never been good with the patience and he finds me marriable enough to do the whole happily ever after thing right now.”
I laughed. “I think you can retire the word marriable now.”
She poked my rib. “You only wish you were marriable.”
I smirked surprised at the small dig of sadness unfolding in my chest. Blinking quickly I watched Kamille walk towards us, a shiny pink binder nestled in her manicured hands, her Brady Bunch ponytail swinging behind her. Sue watched her too rolling her eyes involuntarily. I elbowed her pushing my voice up two octaves. “Oh yes! I so want to be marriable! It sounds super super fantastic!”
“Shut up,” she said unsuccessfully muffling a laugh, “she’ll hear you.”
“Oh so now you’re scared of Kamille?