Chapter 1 Recap: Day #1 of senior year did not go as planned… and Charlie had some pretty conservative (low) expectations. The school computer system ate her schedule, Jackie and Liz are still doubting her independent study, and she somehow got caught in the middle of a drag-down, locker-clanging, hair-pulling fistfight. It can only get better from here, right?
Fact: people with wide feet are in denial.
I'd brought this woman a pair of size eight regulars, knowing they wouldn't fit. But you have to let people figure it out on their own. Otherwise, you can really ruin someone's day. After a year of working at Colson's Leather and Shoe Store after school and on weekends, I had developed a sixth sense. Unfortunately, it was about feet.
“This particular brand can run a bit slender, to be honest,” I offered as she bent down again to poke at the tip of her toe.
“Oh, really? Well, that explains it,” she said as she stood up. “I usually wear sneakers all day, so it's been ages since I bought a new pair of real shoes.”
“A lot of people just go with the wides,” I said. “I'll run to the back and get you a pair to try.”
The back room was a maze of floor-to-ceiling shelving stocked with stacked cardboard shoe boxes. It typically smelled like a library on a rainy day, but that morning the pungency of burning leather overpowered everything. Gary crouched at a workbench and peered down through his safety goggles.
“How's it going?” I asked.
“I think I'm getting the hang of it. Check this out,” he said, holding up a belt.
He'd done a decent job burning a looping flower pattern into the thin strip of leather. But, even I knew that no one under the age of sixty would consider wearing a belt like that.
“It's nice,” I said. “Good job.”
“Thanks,” he answered and pulled the protective goggles down over his eyes. “Once I get five good ones I'll put them out on the floor and see how they do.”
The belts were Gary's most recent answer to the new big box store going up a mile down the street. His plan was to add more “artisan” products, something chains couldn’t offer. It wouldn't have been a bad strategy if Gary had been any kind of artisan. Instead, displays of badly beaded jewelry and splotchy silk-screened tote bags collected dust in the store. The belts were next in line for the clearance rack.
Once my customer left, the store went pretty dead. I dusted hanging jackets and straightened the display shoes. When a full two hours passed with no customers, I reached under the counter and pulled my phone from my jacket pocket. Gary made a big deal about his no-phone policy, but I had exhausted all busy-work options and the adult contemporary station we had playing on the sales floor was driving me crazy.
Making sure that Gary's leather burner was still buzzing away, I turned on my phone.
Two texts from Jackie about seeing a movie and one missed call from a number I didn't recognize. I ducked down, pretending to search for something on the bottom shelf behind the counter, and dialed my voicemail.
“Hi, Charlie, it's your mom. Hope your first week of school’s been OK. I'm not sure if you've tried calling over the last few weeks, but I lost my cell phone. This is my new number, so you probably didn't recognize it. Um, please call me back when you have a minute...Talk soon.”
I closed my eyes and breathed in, puffing out my belly the way Jackie showed me when she was on her last meditation streak.
It wasn't surprising that Marlena had lost her phone. It also wasn't surprising that she hadn't been all that concerned that I didn't have a way to reach her for three weeks. I deleted the message.
“Charlie!” Gary's voice startled me. I hadn't noticed that the buzzing had stopped. I slid my phone into my back pocket and walked toward the backroom.
“Gary?” I called out, not finding him at his workbench.
“Back here!” he yelled from the direction of one of the supply closets. “I'm going to need your help,” he said as I rounded the corner. Suddenly my feet flew out from under me, and I fell backward. Instinctively, I grabbed one of the wall-mounted shelves, catching myself.
“Don't slip!” Gary yelled. “I spilled some beads. They're slippery.”
Still clutching the shelf for balance, I looked down to find the backroom and supply closet floor covered in a rainbow of tiny plastic beads.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I had this idea for using the leftover jewelry beads on the new belts,” Gary explained. He pushed a strand of curly gray hair behind his ear. “Someone put away the case without making sure the lid was on tight.” (We both knew who that “someone” was.) “When I pulled them off the shelf they dumped everywhere.” He threw his hands up in frustration.
“I have to close out so I can get to the bank,” he said. “Can you work on this while I do that? It's pretty slow out there anyway.”
It was just like Gary to make a huge mess and ask someone else to clean it up.
“And if you can make sure they're sorted by color...” he added.
“Okay,” I said. I stretched my arms out for balance as if walking on ice, and made my way toward the closet.
“I'll be out front if you need me,” Gary said, sounding relieved. “Put on some music. Make some coffee.”
Gary provided exactly two perks for his staff. One was access to a bottomless pot of halfway decent coffee. The other was a premium Spotify account.
Taking a seat on the floor against the closet door frame, I scooped up a handful of beads and began organizing them by color. The beginning of a Haim song chimed in the tiny speakers. Sitting at the bottom of the closet, I thought again about Marlena and the message she'd left on my phone.
She hadn't sounded like her typical, flighty self. People listen to her talk for two minutes and assume she's stupid. She isn't. It used to drive me crazy as a kid. People thought she was an idiot, but she did really well in school, well enough to get a scholarship to RISD, which has something like a 25% acceptance rate.
She had wanted to be an artist but had stopped painting sometime after she had me. She'd had a bunch of different office jobs and ended up running this garden center with her boyfriend in Pennsylvania. I'd never been there, but they have a website I've looked at a couple of times. There's an “About Us” section that tells the whole story about how owning their own plant nursery was always their dream. The last sentence is something like “They live with their two dogs, Barkley and Honey.”
I technically had the choice to move out there with them. Honestly, it felt like the kind of invite you get from someone when you happen to be within earshot of the people they really want to come to the party. Like she was just being polite. Or maybe she wanted to be able to tell people that she'd given me the option and I'd chosen to live with Gram instead.
Bill, her boyfriend, dealt with me by not dealing with me. Like a dripping faucet or a drawer that sticks. He looked past me, over me, and around me. Never at me.
“Jesus Christ, who ate all of my sour cream and onion chips again? Oh, never mind, I know,” he’d say. “Who left the bathroom light on? Three guesses, first two don’t count.”
Marlena pretended not to notice, or maybe she actually didn't.
He took over our lives, and it happened so fast. The house, our meals, what we watched on TV. The worse thing about it is that my mother just let him. She gave up everything that was ours to make sure he was happy. We were vegetarians, but she started cooking steak because he couldn’t survive on “bird food.” They watched crappy TV every night, even though she'd never let me see anything that wasn’t on PBS. And the worst thing about it was that she pretended that she liked it – everything from the steak sauce to the reality shows. She faked it to the point where she actually believed her lies.
When she gave me the choice of living with Gram or moving in with them, I said, “Bill doesn't like me.” She answered, “Well, maybe if you tried being nice and talking to him...”
I told everyone at school, including my teachers, that I was staying behind because my mother didn't want to switch my school. Jackie and Liz knew the truth. I’d started crying during a sleepover at Jackie’s house and told them everything.
“You’re like an orphan,” Jackie had said and then hugged me while I cried. Liz held my hand.
That night we wrote “The Constitution” on notebook paper in purple ink, then we copied it in teal and pink so that we could each have a copy. Each was signed by the three of us. The document consisted of one sentence only:
We, Jackie Donnelly, Liz Farmer and Charlie Wolfe, promise to be best friends forever.
I still had my copy – the one in teal – folded up and hidden inside an old jewelry box on my dresser.
The day Marlena moved she made a big scene and cried hysterically, which scared me. Gram just kind of stood back. Her chin, normally held so high, dipped down toward her chest. One hand rested on the slight paunch of her stomach while the other fidgeted with the short fringe of hair at the back of her neck.
We stood in the driveway next to the packed truck. All I wanted was for her to grab hold of me by the shoulders and walk me back into the house so I wouldn’t have to watch my mother cry. Even more than that, I wanted to be a kid that someone wanted enough to grab and take with them.
Marlena sobbed with one arm wrapped around her waist and the other hand shielding her eyes from the sun. Gram raked her fingers through her hair. And I stood there watching the only adults in my life trying not to crumble.
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