This story is by Jennifer Kelly and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“That will be $12.85 please.”
Candy twisted her diamond earring as she watched the customer search for money. The woman frowned as she thrust her hand into her battered purse. A minute later, she began patting down the pockets of her threadbare coat.
She saw it all the time at Candy’s Bargain Basement. Her customers struggled to make ends meet. Most worked a couple of jobs, but they never made enough. They lived on thrift store finds and discount store sales.
As she watched the woman search for change, she thought back to her father’s reaction when she announced her plans to open the store. Home over college break, Candy gushed about what she learned from her social work internship. The impoverished, blue collar community she served didn’t want handouts. They wanted affordable products.
“Sounds like a waste of time and money. Why would you use an Ivy League education on something like that?” They were both still grieving her mother’s death, and her father’s cynicism showed through. “You and I both know the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. Just make sure you take advantage of the tax benefits on something like this.”
Money clattered on the counter, jolting Candy back to the present. She finished ringing up the sale and chatted about the upcoming holidays.
“We offer layaway if you’re interested,” said Candy, pointing at the flyer taped by the door. “No minimum purchase. And we hold items until December 24.”
“Thank you. It’s good to know,” said the customer as she left.
After five years in the business, Candy knew she made the right decision. She made a difference in people’s lives everyday. She knew it wouldn’t bring her mom back, but at least she felt like she was moving in the right direction. Her father had mellowed too, but he remained convinced Candy’s business was a mistake.
“Dad, I make a difference. If I didn’t run a store like this, people would go without things they need. I’m providing a service, just like you.”
“Real estate makes money,” said her father. “Discount stores don’t.”
“I make money. I don’t make as much as you, but it’s enough for me,” said Candy. “Besides, it’s not always about money. Not everyone needs a beach front property. Some people just want the basics.”
“I understand that, but you’re a great businesswoman, Candace. You have the potential to do something big,” said her dad. “Stop hiding. No one blames you for what happened. Stop punishing yourself.”
Candy checked the Rolex hidden under her bulky, thrift store sweatshirt. She didn’t have time to dwell on the past. She had work to do. The latest shipment needed unpacked, and shelves needed stocked. Her part-time stocker would be here in a few hours, but even with the two of them, it was going be a long day.
Despite the manual labor, her father’s latest suggestion plagued her thoughts. He cornered her about it at their weekly country club dinner. She couldn’t argue with his approach. He played the “mom” card.
“If you have to be so focused on charity, at least consider being on the board of the annual Debutante Ball. Your mother chaired it every year until…”
“Dad, you know how I feel about the ball. It’s just a way for a bunch of society girls to find husbands. I don’t understand how the ball even qualifies as charity. It’s a bunch of girls dressing up in expensive evening gowns and people paying $500 plate to watch them be presented to society.”
“The money supports the less fortunate. The homeless shelter is funded for an entire year,” her father said. He continued before she could interrupt. “Candace, your presence on the board would be a tribute to your mother. You could take up where she left off. This is your chance to make a difference in our community. The business connections would be good for the store, if nothing else. Hell, makes some changes to the ball if you want. Just don’t rule it out.”
Despite her best intentions, Candy told her dad she would consider the idea. She knew her father meant well. He believed the Debutante Ball was a charitable event, even if she didn’t. She assumed the therapist told her father it would be good for her, too.
She caught sight of the Tumi duffle bag she tossed under the counter when she arrived at work this morning. The costume of her old world – red-soled Louboutins, Chanel skirt and 18K gold Tiffany pendant necklace – rested inside. She packed the bag on a whim, just in case she decided to attend tonight’s board meeting. The bag irritated her, though. It was another symbol from her old life: her life before one simple mistake changed things forever.
The phone interrupted her thoughts. Pulling it from her pants’ pocket, she glanced at the caller ID and sighed. He wasn’t giving up easily, she thought, as she answered the call.
“So what did you decide?” Her father continued their dinner conversation. “I talked to Doris. She is holding a spot for you tonight.”
“Dad, tonight’s bad for me. I’m on the schedule. We have inventory to do.”
“Have someone else do it. Delegation is the sign of a good businesswoman. Candace, you can’t hide forever. Your mom wouldn’t have wanted it. You can’t be happy, hiding in that store.”
“Dad, we’ve talked about this. I’m not hiding. My work is here. I like it. I help people. I can’t keep straddling two worlds. I don’t belong in society anymore. I fit in better here.”
“You only think you fit in better. But you know what the therapist said. You have to forgive yourself. The only way to do that is to embrace what your mother left you.”
“A place on a charity board? With all of her friends?” She felt the familiar ache in her chest when she remembered her role in her mother’s death. “I can’t go into that room. All those women will know it was my fault.”
She heard the sound of ice clinking on crystal. Cocktail hour was starting early today, thought Candy. He still needed liquid courage to talk about the facts.
“It was not your fault. It could have happened to anyone,” said her father. “No one blames you. Your mom wouldn’t want you to keep living like this.”
“Like what? A productive member of society?”
“Candace, you’ve removed yourself from society. You’ve alienated yourself from your family and friends. The only people you see are your employees and customers.” Her father cleared his throat. “At some point, someone is going to put it together that the owner of Candy’s Bargain Basement is the same Candace Jones who was involved in the accidental death of her mother. You didn’t do it on purpose. Everyone knows that. But you can’t keep hiding. You have to snap out of this.”
It was the first time her father spoke the words out loud, and Candy didn’t know how to react. She stood speechless, staring at boxes of stock she still needed to unpack. She heard her father’s breathing over the phone. The image of her mother’s smiling face popped into Candy’s head. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath.
“I can’t do it, Dad. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
Without waiting for an answer, she ended the call. Tears streamed down her face as she slid to the floor. Waves of pain and fear rolled over her like they did in the early days after her mother died. She thought she was past the pain, but she realized she never would be. It didn’t matter what sacrifices she made or how many people she helped, she would always feel guilty.
After a few minutes, she wiped her tears from her eyes and struggled to her feet. She removed the diamond studs from her ears and Rolex from her wrist and tucked the jewelry into the duffel bag. She knew her dad would never understand, but she couldn’t do it anymore. She would no longer be part of two worlds. She made a life for herself at Candy’s Bargain Basement.
She messed up before, but she wouldn’t do it again.