1. Gannon

    Gannon Contributor Contributor

    Jan 15, 2007
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    Manchester, England

    Winner Tessie Short Story Contest 104: Crossroads

    Discussion in 'Monthly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Gannon, Nov 7, 2011.

    Tessie - Crossroads

    When I see that particular face, it could just as easily blend with the countless others I meet each day. Customers are customers; you are obligated to treat them well, and they are not necessarily obliged to thank you for it. Over time, however, you start to become familiar with a precious few, and those few, if you are lucky, leave a permanent impression.

    A grocery store is a dull and insignificant place to meet a familiar neighbor let alone a stranger, especially in the sleepy, Irish town I call home. But then there are those types that you cannot brush aside like the casual customer or simply ignore in the crowding of the evening time rush. And those faces, those memorable personalities, I've come to know with a kind regard.

    Milly is probably in her mid-fifties. She has this fashion statement for pink flamingo lipstick, but her short, mouse brown hair is mostly left untouched when she walks through the soft swish of the parting doors into the air-conditioned store. She liked me the moment she first saw me and always has the kindest things to comment me on. I was delighted to see her again just the other day after not having shared a single conversation in months.

    “Hi, Milly, how are you?” I said with my usual smile.

    “Oh, girls! Hey, it's great to see ya.” She looked at me and my sister as we stood there, grocery baskets in our folded arms. “Your hair is gorgeous. I bet you send up a wish for the children when you do locks of love.”

    My sis answered that we had never given to Locks of Love before. That we've gotten our hair trimmed from time to time, but never of a length quite long enough to form a wig.

    “You see, we're really attached to it.” I replied, half-laughing. “No pun intended.”

    Milly paused for a second, taking in the answers that had been simultaneously said, because my identical twin and I have that habit. Then a broad smile slowly uncurled across her face. I noticed her lipstick was unusually vivid that morning.

    “I see what you're saying. That's very clever.” She laughed, “Oh, you two are cute.” She winked and then we parted, saying good-bye.

    Loretta, on the other hand, is in her late sixties, elegantly tall, and crowned with curly, pure-white hair. She has an ever present twinkle in her eyes, which can sometimes be mistaken for the wearied wrinkles of age. But in her thin face, I always find the kindest docility. Even if she hasn't had a particularly nice day, you would never have known it. Only by her shortness of conversation do you become aware of something amiss.

    One of the very first occasions I talked with her, I was working on the express lane, not a very enjoyable position, but since I was a fairly new employee, I felt obligated to chat with customers.

    Loretta put her groceries on the belt and I rang them through with an unhappy quickness.

    “And how are you today?” I greeted dryly, not really pointing the question to anyone.

    “I'm doing alright.” she answered. “I just was visiting some friends in the hospital, and tomorrow will be my turn for chemotherapy.” She made a short laugh, adding, “You know, every person I know has cancer? Every single one.” Her face made a sort of futile grin as if it was a fortune to be sharing the same plight as her friends. She then named a laundry list of close friends and the specific disease plaguing each.

    I paused to stare at her. I had never heard such indifference. I didn't know whether she had said that aloud to, in a way, reserve herself to a contentment with her disease or just to brag, to share a conversation with another person.

    But my shocked silence was only a few moments, because I knew exactly how to recover myself. “I'm so sorry to hear that.” I said gently. “But you know, it's not always terminal. My mother is a survivor. She was diagnosed when she was twenty and that was thirty-three years ago.” I offered a reassuring, if not timid, grin. It was all I felt comfortable to do.

    “Oh, no, they all have it bad. The doctors have said so.” she replied matter of factly.

    I quickly placed the full grocery bags into her cart and handed her the change. With a professional “Have a nice day, ma'am” I watched her walk out the exit and breathed a sigh of relief. I hoped that I wouldn't have to meet her again. But I did. And as usual, I treated her with the reserved greeting I gave to every customer. Internally, though, I hoped I wouldn't have to talk too much.

    “How are you?” I greeted, not making eye contact.

    “I'm well. A little tired, but I wanted to get the yogurt that was on sale. I like that brand.” She pointed, and I saw the little cups of Greek yogurt among the other items in her carriage.

    “I like those, too. Pineapple is my favorite flavor.”

    I saw her dark, cheerful eyes glance away, past the register lanes to the windows and the vast parking lot beyond. I looked too. The heat was shimmering above the labyrinth of cars, vans, and humvees. The scorching, orange sun had already cleared any possibility of cloud cover earlier that day.

    “It's so hot out. Unbearable,”she said with emphasis.

    “I know. They're saying this heat wave is going to be a record.”

    “I like coming down here because it's always cool. I also just like to walk around and look at things.”

    I grinned. “It is cool. I'm just glad I don't have to bring in carriages today.”

    She chuckled. “Good for you. Let the boys do that.”

    Our conversation ended, and I felt happy that I had gotten to know a little more about her. It was some weeks later that I talked to her again, and I was surprised at how different she behaved.

    I was on Service Desk duty. I had been promoted and was liking the fact that I was meeting an entirely new group of customers. Then, as I stood there, patiently waiting for the next customer, didn't she look my way and begin to walk over. She called out my name and asked how I was doing.

    Bev, the seventy-two year old bookkeeper, stepped behind me, lowly muttering. “I can't stand this lady. She's a pain in the ass.”

    “I'm doing good, how about you?” I answered, ignoring Bev's remark. Bev's been with the store for nearly twenty-five years. Of course she has a short fuse. Only years of experience could make her the rough and tough character that she is, and when it comes to dealing with certain customers, you never know what' will come out of her mouth next.

    “I'm alright.” Loretta replied. She then produced a folded paper from her pocketbook. “I need to make some copies, hon.” She approached the copier, but paused and glanced back at me. She seemed to be choosing the right words to say. “But I don't know --”

    I instantly took the hint. “Do you need help?” Bev gave me a look, then rolled her eyes.

    “Well, I just need one copy, hon.”

    “Wait a sec', I'll be right out.”

    She smiled. “You're so sweet, thank you.”

    I hurried out of the Service Desk area as Bev busied herself with other customers. Taking the original from Loretta, I opened the copier and placed the sheet on the glass. “How many do you want?” I asked, hovering a finger over the array of buttons, ready to make as many as she desired.

    She seemed to need to think about it. She tapped her chin absently. “Well, I want one set, but the other is for my landlord.” To my disbelief, she took out a few more sheets from her pocketbook and handed them to me. “You know, he's been putting me off and putting me off.” she began with a stern, yet joking manner. “I told him I needed him to do this and do that in my apartment, and, finally, yesterday he told me to write down a list. So I thought really hard and wrote everything that needs to be done.”

    I couldn't help but laugh as I surveyed the handwritten, seven-page list. “Really? Good then! He should have known you were serious about needing some help. Serves him right.”

    She chuckled and smiled as I made the copies. Then she paid for them and thanked me again. After that, I saw her in the store many times, and I actually looked forward to talking to her. She was one of the very few highlights of my boring day.

    So, it was no wonder that when I saw her two weeks ago that she called me directly to her as if to carry on a past conversation about some tasty product or some new, interesting aspect of her life.

    “Hi, Loretta, how are you?”

    “Oh, hon,” she said warmly. “You're such a sweet girl.” She then surprised me by opening her arms and embracing me. I was a little rigid at first. Startled, really. I didn't think I had deserved such attention. When she let go, she said how much she really liked coming down to the store. “It gives me something to do.” she smiled again.

    Besides Loretta, Rose is another constant patron of the Service Desk. Bev doesn't like her, which, from the kind of complaints Rose talks about – petty things, such as the fresh Raspberries not being from California -- I can understand the sentiment. Of Asian descent, a disgruntled coworker once told me she had called our home a “back-water town” as she went on to complain her children had brought her here and abandoned her. This statement alone gave me an inkling of her nature, and her fashionable apparel is another. Even though she waits every month for her social security checks, you would never know by the way she regales herself. Every time I'm on the Desk, she makes a personal visit to tell me how much her newest brand-name pocketbook cost her.

    “Forty dollars!” she exclaimed, holding the tan, alligator-skin purse to my view. There is no trace of her background in her accent, so I think she is a natural citizen. “And this coat was sixty. It was originally so-and-so much but there was a sale, so I told myself I just had to have it.” She made a slow turn. “Isn't it gorgeous?”

    I looked at the red, leopard-cuffed jacket. Well, it wasn't to my liking, but I lied to her. “It is. That is such a deal.” I chuckled.

    She smiled mystically, her dark-brown eyes magnified by her large-framed glasses, which were reminiscent of an outdated style. I think she's about her early fifties. Although somewhat forgetful to pay for her lottery tickets when we're too busy chatting, she has a sharp wit and an even sharper vanity.

    “Do you like the color of my hair?” she asked me one morning. “I had it dyed, but I think it looks too red. I hate it.”

    I leaned over for a closer look. “No, it doesn't look that red. I like it actually. It looks like you.”

    “Well, the girl at the salon was new, so I think she wasn't as experienced. Next time I'll just get it a little darker.”

    Still, another time, I was a startled by her inclining her head towards me sharply. “I think I'm going a little bald.” she announced.

    I refused to admit such a thing. “No, you're not.” I replied, trying to laugh as if she had told a joke.

    “But look.” She pointed urgently. “Doesn't it look patchy in the back?”

    If someone had looked at her hair, they wouldn't have thought that, but upon being told it was, one could see a small space in the natural flow of her very short hair.

    “No. Not at all.” I said.

    “Really?” She then shrugged and said, “Well, good then. That's one less thing to worry about. I suppose worrying has led to some of it being gone.” She rolled her eyes and cracked a grin.

    And another time, I learned about how lonely she was. I had checked her tickets for her in the machine, but no winners had been yielded.

    “I really should stop spending so much.” she said with an air that told me the exact opposite. “It's getting difficult to win.”

    “Well, you never know.” I kindly insisted.

    “Have there been any large winners lately?”

    “Not that I know of.”

    A coworker named Chris came up to the Desk to join the conversation. She overheard Rose say, “You know, I need to find someone with a lot of money. Then I could buy all the tickets I wanted. I just love to scratch.”

    “So you don't have a husband, dear?” Chris is fifty-five and one of the sweetest persons at the store. Every sentence addressed to a customer ends in “dear” or “my friend.”

    “No, my husband's been dead twelve years.” Rose answered. “I need someone who's. . . How do they say it? . . . Who's one foot in the grave and one foot out.” She laughed deviously.

    Chris chuckled. “There you go! Sounds like a plan to me.”

    I laughed haplessly at both of them.

    And, finally, there's good old George. In his seventies with broad, thick shoulders and a hefty body height, he comes into the store daily. Everyone knows him by name. He was the townie fire chief for eighteen years, and he showed me his badge once with the utmost pride. Sometimes we see his blue Blazer come rambling into the parking lot, and sometimes he is wearing a WWII vet cap, while others, in regular garb and suspenders.

    Some years ago, when I was not an employee, he cornered my mother and I in the parking lot as we were going to do some shopping. He went on for twenty minutes as my mother and I quietly listened. Of course he asked how we were doing and my mother in turned asked him.

    A sadness then came over his big, gray eyes like a thunderstorm rolling over a bright afternoon. “I'm doing alright. You know my wife, God rest her soul, has been gone eight years.”

    “I know,” my my mother said softly. “But you'll see her again, you will.”

    “I miss her a lot, though.” he sighed.

    To change the subject my mother purposely pointed to his cap. “You were in WWII? My father was in WWII. He was a military man all his life.”

    This caused George to go into a ramble of past battles, close buddies, and the like. He talked with such ease and politeness, we hardly had the heart to tell him we really had to be going. Shopping needed to be done.

    When the conversation was through, he smiled and kindly said good-bye.

    Once working inside the store, however, I learned more about him. Coming upon the twelve year mark of his wife's death, I learned from him myself that he couldn't afford a caretaker anymore, although he lived alone.

    One day I relieved Bev for her lunch break, and not much later George came through the doors. He saw me at the Desk and walked over, saying, “Now, I haven't gotten some tickets in a long time. But I really want to win.”

    He handed me a couple bills, and I got him some tickets. He scratched excitedly, but then made a disappointed noise. “Oh, dear. No winners.” He threw them into the garbage and looked at me again. “I really shouldn't be doing this, but. . .” He handed me two dollars and pointed to a certain ticket. I got it for him and silently prayed that he would win something. I hated to disappoint.

    “Is this a winner?” he asked, smiling.

    “Yes. I promise.”

    He scratched it, and then said, “Oh-ho, look, I won! I won ten dollars!”

    I bent over to look and exclaimed, “Yes, you did! Congratulations.”

    He smiled and smiled. “Wow, I haven't won that much in a long time. Oh, I want to make a copy of it.”

    I chuckled to myself and, inwardly, was glad Bev wasn't there to talk him out of it. I gave him the ten dollars cash and then made the copy. George looked at the black and white copy with the happiest expression for minutes. He slowly walked away, and I said a quick good-bye, since I was then busy with customers.

    From across the way, though, I heard him telling everyone in the store he had won ten dollars. His joy could hardly be contained.

    And now as I come closer to the one year mark since taking the job, I think about these people. It's taken me a full year to get to know them, and still another will pass before I know them more. Yet I realize that even though my job is boring, and one I won't keep for very long, it a sort of theoretical crossroad. We're all going in the same direction in life, but our paths have met, and I treasure the thought that I just might have made a small difference in theirs.
  2. Tessie

    Tessie Contributor Contributor

    Aug 8, 2010
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    That was a great contest and I really enjoyed it. Thank you to the voters!

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