“Well, if it ain’t Mary Ann McKenzie.” Her perfume stung my nostrils and burned my eyes.
I coughed and cleared my throat. “Morning Bonnie and it’s just Mary.”
“Whatever. You look like a Mary Ann ‘cause you always wear them long skirts with the checkered blouses.” She tossed a torn vinyl purse and a wrinkled paper lunch sack in her locker and slammed the door. Threading the lock through the handle with her left hand, she clicked it and then jiggled it several times. Bonnie spun around and wagged her crooked finger so close to my face I backed into the large gray trash can behind me. “See you upstairs Mary Ann. I’d get a move on if I was you; that boss lady’s looking for someone to fire right after the holidays and it sure ain’t gonna be me.”
Averting her eyes, especially the twitchy one, I headed towards the stairs. Knowing her perfume would linger in the elevator, the stairs gave me a chance to blow my nose in privacy. I’m a honker. Been that way as long as I remember. Mom said I was calling for the Canadian geese. I managed a few good, strong bursts which echoed nicely off the walls in the concrete stairwell then shoved my wadded-up Kleenex in my pocket before I reached the second floor.
As much as I don’t care for Bonnie and all her weird quirks, I really, really hate my job. I’m a seasonal cashier in the lingerie department at J.C. Penney. I help people find bras, underwear, and pajamas, along with other undergarmety items and then pick up after them. Teen girls plowing through piles of toe-socks. Men finding gifts for lovers or wives, or both. Women squeezing their fat asses into thongs three sizes too small while their unattended children run along the displays like low-flying airplanes knocking every damn bit of underwear on the floor for me to pick up and re-arrange on little glass tables, over and over again during my shift.
But even worse are the touchy people. Old ladies holding my hand or patting my shoulder. Men brushing their fingers across mine when they give me their credit card. I bristle each and every time. Never could stand to be touched by anyone, especially strangers. My stomach knots up just thinking about it, but since I needed extra holiday money I took the job.
I don’t see Bonnie, but I know she’s come this way because her perfume tugs at my senses. Sweet-smelling flowery stuff. I sneeze and wipe my nose again. Marty, our shift supervisor motions me toward the register. “You’re here until lunch; I’ve got Bonnie maintaining the stock until this afternoon.” Ah yes, ‘maintaining the stock’ means clean-up on tables four, five, and six – must have been a lot of airplane-children this morning.
Three weeks before Christmas. The store is quiet. I wipe my nose again. On first break I rush to the restroom and ‘call the geese’ in semi-privacy. I wash my hands twice because an elderly woman kept touching my hand while looking for support stockings.
Back at the register, I notice an older gentleman near the counter waiting for assistance. Salt and pepper hair, dressed in a cyan blue sweater and black pants, he gripped a leash and leather harness secured to a yellow lab – his service dog.
“May I help you?”
“Oh yes, thank you.” He smiled and looked past me. “My name is Ed. I’m looking for a Christmas gift for my wife. Can you help me pick something out?”
I stuttered. “Of course. What are you, um, looking for…” I stopped. Stupid me, he’s blind, how can I ask what he’s ‘looking’ for?
“She loves purple. I want to buy her a purple nightgown. If you lead the way, my dog Roxie will follow you.”
Other cashiers stared at me, waving me away. One sneered, “Glad he didn’t ask me.” I glared back at her and walked toward a display of nightgowns hanging in the middle of an aisle. His dog brought him close but as I pointed I realized he couldn’t see my hand.
I took a deep breath. My body tightened. “Ed, give me your hand. I’ll help you feel the different patterns and styles.” My own hand was clammy but his was soft and warm. With my guidance he examined the different nightgowns.
He cocked his head to the side, “Which ones are purple?”
“This one is light purple with little white flowers.” Holding another up to him I said, “This one is more rayon… and striped.” I directed his hand and gave him descriptions for a while, maybe twenty or thirty minutes, I really don’t remember. He nodded or shook his head with each one I offered.
Noticing a box of See’s candies under his other arm, I enquired about his shopping trip. “I’ve been blind for twenty years, but never let that stop me from doing anything. Took a bus here today. Just me and Roxie.” Ed leaned over and patted his dog. He turned toward me and thought for a moment. “First place she took me was to the chocolate shop,” he chuckled. “Figured I might as well get some candy while I was there.”
“Aren’t you afraid of getting lost?” I asked. “I mean, here… in the mall?”
“I’m not afraid of much anymore...” He scratched his head and paused. “You miss out on life when you give in to fear.” He offered his hand again, “Let me feel the cotton ones again. I think she’ll like those best.”
I held up three or four more nightgowns one at a time and described each in detail as I placed his hand across the material. Ed chose the light cotton fabric with the tiny dark purple lavender buds scattered across the front. The other cashiers watched us, but kept their distance. I didn’t know if they felt sorry for me or envied me, but either way I really didn’t care.
I carried his selection to the register and walked behind the counter. Roxie followed, leading Ed. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and laid it on the counter.
“I’ve got a Visa in here.” He rummaged through different cards then handed it to me. “What are the damages?”
I scanned the nightgown and pressed a few buttons on the register. “The total is “$31.95 including tax.” After I swiped his card, I handed it back to him wondering how he was able to trust so easily. Did people ever take advantage of him and his disability?
“Hon, you’ll need to take my hand and show me where to sign,” extending his hand again. I took it, but this time I didn’t flinch. Holding the receipt while putting a pen between his fingers I guided his hand towards the signature line. “Thanks, you’ve been more than kind to me.” He squeezed my hand as I gave him the bag with his wife’s Christmas present. “Could you direct me towards housewares, please?” He grinned, “I think she wants a blender too.”
“Might be easier if I go first and let Roxie follow.” I walked through the aisles, Roxie directly behind me gently tugging Ed. I introduced him to Barbara in housewares. Touching his arm, I wished Ed and his wife a Merry Christmas. As I left I overheard him explaining the blender on his list to Barbara.
Christmas came and went. I happened to see Bonnie Wentworth when I picked up my final paycheck.
“Got me a full time position,” she said drawing out the ‘o’s and adding a few more syllables to the last word. “What about you? Haven’t seen you around for a while.”
“Naw. Didn’t see myself here full-time.” I turned to leave and waved goodbye. What I didn’t tell her was I’d been volunteering at the Oak Street Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Still didn’t like people touching me, but I’d found a new courage inside myself thanks to Christmas shopping with Ed. The search for the perfect purple nightgown impacted my life in more ways than he would even know.
Copyright © 2014 Joan Raymond
Joan Raymond, completed her Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Creative Writing and English, August 2014 and has been accepted into the Master’s program starting in September. She lives in Bakersfield with her family and assorted four-legged companions. Joan serves as president of Writers of Kern and leads of one of the club’s many critique groups. A member of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Joan is a freelance editor and writer with work published in The Bakersfield Californian, Taft Independent, The Southern California Writers Showcase, The Penman Review, and Res Ipsa Loquitur. She is a contributing editor for The Oddville Press. Her blog, Joan Raymond Writing, focuses on writing, rejections, and random thoughts.