by Jenna Wolfstone
This was Helen’s least favorite part of closing up for the night, and to her way of thinking, undignified for a woman her age. There was always the fear of her back hitching and trapping Helen in a crouch, or throwing the bolt with such force that she’d topple backward for all the world’s amusement. It made no sense placing the lock at the bottom of the door.
Helen managed to push herself to a stand with one hand on the door pane and the other on her leg; a grunt betrayed her knees’ objection. Most shops in town sat canalfront and benefitted from the boardwalk foot traffic, but the pharmacy was set back a row. Of course most folks don’t head to a pharmacy without reason; the dimestore counter she ran for Mr. Dell rarely served anyone but those waiting on their pills or creams and whatnot. If only the canal ran closer to the pharmacy, or if only the pharmacy had opened alongside the other storefronts, then maybe there would be more money and Mr. Dell could increase her pay. Naturally she had applied at those trendier shops, but even as she handed over her application, Helen knew it had been a good twenty years since she had the type of qualifications they sought. It made her feel a little better to imagine the girls in the canalfront shops as they’d eventually be: old cows with jiggling arms.
The woman in front of her now looked like she could have worked canalfront, maybe not now, but not too long ago. Helen disliked her already. She didn’t recognize the brand but Helen knew that the purse the woman carried was the kind they connected with a wire and lock in the furnishings department at Lombardi’s. It nettled Helen; a woman like this would have a nice house. Her husband would see to it that she stayed home with the children, and not get spider veins from standing all day, or crow’s feet from watching little hands that lingered too long over the candy barrels. She pulled her own purse closer, and if Helen’s arm moved to cover the off-brand logo, it was not on purpose. “You could try the canalfront shops. Or return tomorrow.”
Sunglasses to boot, noted Helen, and at this time of the day.
The woman had not considered the time, or that the shops might be closed; leastways, not the pharmacy. She raised her face to the dark, wondering if it would rain. The sunglass frames were too big for her face, and she fiddled with them just as other women might toy with their hair. Too tired to think and yet not ready to give up, the woman opened her mouth, trusting that compelling words would follow, but instead her jaw just hung open and ugly. She forced the words.
“I saw you,” the woman offered by way of explanation. “I just thought you could help.”
“No ma’am I certainly cannot help you tonight, you will have to return tomorrow like everyone else.” Her heart fluttered in the thrill of saying no, then shuddered with a tinge of fear because Helen knew that this was the kind of woman who called store managers to report objectionable staff.
The woman’s cheeks pinkened. Her husband told her she was stupid with people, always thinking of herself before others. “Of course. Yes. Thank you, I will do that.”
The genuine unease of the woman surprised Helen, placing her in the uncomfortable position of considering that she may have judged too quickly, but then the moment passed and Helen offered the woman a tight smile. “Now, you have a good night, there.” She was a charitable woman, that’s what Mr. Dell had said to her.
The night had an October chill even though the calendar said September. Helen had allowed herself one extravagance: a winter coat that the consignment store clerk promised would set Helen apart from others. In this moment, Helen felt as though a patchwork quilt hung from her shoulders. Tugging her coat closed, Helen offered the woman a final smile then turned toward home. People said her walk-up had old world charm but Helen found it small and overpriced.
The woman knew her husband could return home at any time. He would be angry to find her gone. With a light touch, she gauged the swelling around her blackening eye. One town over, she was sure to find an open drugstore or grocery, any place that carried a tinted foundation.