Whatever (Flash Fiction/Character study/something)

“Jessica!”

“What? I mean, sorry, yes, Mr. Jacobs?” I ask. I try to hide my phone underneath a mess of clothes on the counter. If he sees me texting again, I’m going to get fired, I just know it.

“There’s a woman right over there who’s looking at the very pricey dress-rack,” he says, smiling like he always does when he’s super-angry. He’s so creepy! “Don’t you think you should be over there? Helping her?

I sigh with relief. That’s all he wants. “I asked if she needed help, Mr. Jacobs!” I say earnestly, putting on what Jill, my co-worker, calls my suck-up face. “She told me she didn’t need any, thanks very much. Who am I to push her, right?” I think it’s an okay answer, but apparently Mr. Jacobs doesn’t.

“Well, if you haven’t noticed, young lady,” I hate this guy, I really do, “she also has a very big purse. Watch that she doesn’t steal anything!” He gives me that smile of his, with his eyebrows all sort of scrunched up and ugly – he plucks, you can so tell that he’s got a unibrow – and then he just stomps back to the back office where he spend most of his day arguing with his wife on the phone. Idiot.

I look over at the woman. She’s still looking at the dresses, putting her rich-lady hands all over them. I swore when I started working here that I’d never try on clothes again. I mean, have you seen how many people cough or rub their noses and then start feeling up the clothes? Gross!

Oh! Text. It’s Beverly again. We were texting before the idiot boss got on my case. She just sent a “?” because I haven’t answered yet. I text back: “Sry boss was here. So wut did u do last nite?”

She’s been trying to get me to ask that question all morning. She can be such a tease and a show-off. I don’t even know why I’m friends with her, but whatever, she works in the designer clothing store that’s also in the mall, on the floor above, and she’s bored too, so we text. I look over at the woman. She’s moved over the scarf section now. Wow, Mr. Jacobs was right, for a change! This one’s a stealer, I’d bet my nails on it.

I walk over and pretend to straighten the handbags that are near the scarves. The woman gives me this look – I hate rich people! She looks at me like I’m trash, just because I actually have to work, you know? Yuck. So what if my dad cut me off and my mom remarried to a loser who lost all his money gambling? That doesn’t make me any worse than this old biddy. Anyway, she’s rich but she’s going to steal something anyway. I know her type – they get a thrill out of it. I say she should just buy a baggie off my friend Tod and live it up at home with a bottle of mega-bucks wine and leave the stores alone.

I’m tailing her now, walking around and arranging everything she’s touched – I’ve got a bottle of hand-sanitizer behind the counter – and I think she’s getting annoyed, because she keeps sighing real deep and stuff. Ha- there! I just saw her let one of the weird necklaces we sell here fall into her bag!

“Mr. Jacobs!” I yell. “Come out here please!”

The woman’s really surprised by my yell, and she turns around to look at me, pretending to be calm. Mr. Jacobs runs out of his office, and asks me what’s up. “This lady,” I say. “She just put a necklace in her handbag. I saw her do it.”

“Alright, let me take it from here,” Mr. Jacobs says. He waves me away. What, now he’s not happy that I caught a thief in the act? Whatever, I’m quitting after my next paycheck anyway. I’m sick of working in this place.

Oh! Text. It’s Beverly. She says: “haha its a secret.” She’s such a – a – I don’t even know what to call her. I text back “whatever.” I don’t need her. I don’t need anyone. Everyone thinks I’m some kind of idiot, I swear.

Whatever. Seriously, to, like, everyone in the world – whatever.

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Ethan

It seemed that no matter how his hair fell, he looked fabulous. If it was in his eyes, it looked boyish. If it was curled up a bit, it looked sexy. If it was cut short, it showed off his perfect forehead. That was the kind of man-boy he was. He could wear whatever he wanted, and did. Anything from black boots, black jeans and a biker jacket to a waistcoat, pinstriped pants and loafers. In his pocket, you could easily find either a pack of cigarettes or a watch on a chain. If all that weren’t enough, he also projected his comfort and self-esteem and acceptance of who he was. His presence was enough to make anyone weak-kneed, men and women alike. He wasn’t even twenty yet.

He stood smoking outside of his apartment building. As I walked by, he looked up at me, and I saw that his eyes were wet, on the verge of spilling tears. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out “Ethan? You alright?”

He mutely offered me a cigarette, lit it for me, and leaned back against the brick wall, one leg going up to prop himself. He was wearing his black boots, I noticed. I stood beside him, puffing away, feeling more intimate with him than I ever had before, despite being his neighbour for over six months, and despite us having many mutual friends. It seemed that I saw him all the time – around the building, at clubs and pubs. He was a fixture of the Soho night-life, and I often found myself dancing just a few people away from him. It wasn’t that he was a snob, exactly. He wasn’t posh, his father didn’t go to Eton and he hadn’t even finished university. He was just a regular bloke like me. Of course, I couldn’t pull off half the image he had, but then, that’s me.

“Boyfriend,” he sighed. He took a last drag and then threw the butt down. He stomped on it with a force that made me shiver a little. He looked at me, and I think I must have looked a little guilty, since his eyes flashed from heartbroken to angry to resigned in quick succession. “You knew?” He’d already ducked his head, pulling out another cigarette from his pack.

I couldn’t deny it, but I didn’t want to let him in on the fact that, well, we all knew. We all thought he knew it, too. We’d seen them together almost every night of the past few months, but we all knew. The boyfriend lived in Manchester, only came to London every month or two. He’d been over just three weeks ago. So, obviously, we all thought that Ethan knew.

“Sorry, mate.”

He shook his head. His hair flopped, looking perfect no matter what he did. That hair, that hair that my eyes always fixated on, it was still as glossy, as perfect, as natural as it always was. But the rest of him… Well. For the first time since I’d met him, I wasn’t intimidated.

“When’s your birthday?” I asked. I knew it didn’t matter one whit, but I asked anyway.

“February. February 9th, ’88. Why?”

“No reason. You’re two days younger than me. I always thought you were older than me. Never mind. Come upstairs, come on, I’ll make you some tea and we can watch whatever football game is one tonight, right?”

He chucked his smoke way across the street so it hit the building across and a little spray of sparks shone red-hot before falling to the ground. Brushing a hand through his hair, he followed me into the building.

3. Heather

Heather stood in front of the glass door, arms wrapped around herself. She closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against the glass, which was cold despite the heat inside the shop. She shivered, the chill in her cheek spreading within moments to the rest of her body through her bloodstream. She jerked away from the door, and turned back to the warmth inside.

Miranda was still sitting at the table at the very end of what looked less like a shop and more like a deep and narrow closet. The entire shop was just a bit wider than the door leading into it, and both walls were lined with racks. The racks were filled completely with clothing inside plastic bags, to keep them all separated, clean and neat. Miranda, who was ancient, dumpy, tiny, and brought to mind things like tin cans full of a animal crackers and yellowing newspapers, had owned the shop for the past fifty years and didn’t seem to be thinking of leaving it any time soon. The biggest and only change she’d made to it in years was hiring Heather, because one of her eyes had gone blind and the doctors had forbidden her to keep sewing and straining her eyes. She didn’t listen to them, of course, but instead merely hired some help so that she’d only have to sew about half as much as she’d had to before.

Heather sat across from Miranda at the rickety old table at the end of the shop and rested her elbows carefully on it, making sure not to move the dress that was half stuck in the sewing machine in front of her. She felt stiff. That damn tear in the evening dress had been plaguing her for the past hour, as she tried to sew the old and thin fabric back together perfectly. Miranda prided herself on the miracles she performed, mending any type of clothing and never saying no to a job, and she made sure that Heather was capable of doing the same when she’d hired her to help out.

Miranda worked odd hours. Her shop was open from late afternoon until late at night, so Heather got to sleep in every morning. But some nights, like tonight, she really craved a good, strong cup of coffee. Miranda forbade her from bringing coffee into the shop, though, claiming that the smell made her gag. Heather considered trying to bring a travel-mug of coffee and tell her employer it was tea and see if she’d actually notice the smell. Maybe tomorrow.

Miranda lifted her head from her work and gave Heather a piercing glance. Heather smiled reassuringly and bent back over the dress. It was going to be a long evening yet for her.

Moving Out

A week and a half ago [and it’s incredible to realize that yes, it was only a week and a half ago] my brother, my mother and I sat in my brother’s apartment in Chicago and sighed. It was a situation which merited sighing. We were surrounded by boxes, heavy boxes marked “BOOKS AND CLOTHING” or “KITCHEN STUFF – LOUD, UNBREAKABLE” or “BREAKABLE.” Besides the visible boxes there were also bookcases, mattresses and chairs to be moved plus a  dirty old futon couch that was destined for the big garbage bins outside.

Slowly, piece by piece, box by box, we lugged everything down the wide wooden outside stairway. The mattresses and big furniture were a challenge – we had to carry them together and balance the big things along the turns in the stairway. We were tempted to simply throw down some items, but resisted – a near thing, once we realized how awkward the bed frame and the futon would be.

It took us about five hours, but at around three in the afternoon all the furniture and boxes were secured in the U-Haul we’d rented. Bad tempered, bruised and hungry, we began our road trip across five states to move my brother from Illinois to Virginia.

Boots [Part III]

Part I

Part II

“Awesome?” Sandy asked. The boots did look good. They clung, made her knees look good, gave a few inches to her height – they looked incredible on her legs. But with the light blue dress… She thought to herself a bit. Came to a decision. She gave the red-haired woman a half smile.

“Almost awesome,” she said. “I’ll take them, though.”

The red-haired woman rung the boots up, but was puzzled. As the sweet girl left with her new boots in a big bag, she looked determined; her face was set, her mouth a hard line. The red-haired woman had expected the girl to be ecstatic with her new gear, to leave the store with a smile and a bounce in her step. She’d looked instead like someone who had made an important decision, and maybe not a welcome one. Well, she thought to herself, what do I know? Maybe that’s just how the girl shows she’s pleased. She turned to the TV screen, peered surreptitiously at the doorway to make sure no one was there, clicked a button on the remote and sat back happily.

Between shifts at the restaurant and the tutoring she did at the elementary-school, Sandy spent her little spare time that week working on her closet at home. She piled lots of things into a big box. She shoved the box into a corner and left it there. At the end of the week, Sandy looked at what was left in her closet, and frowned, worried. She’d have to go back to the store, she decided. She put her hair up, shoved a couple of black chopsticks through it, smeared some of her cheap new make-up on, donned her boots, and left her apartment.

When Sandy walked into the shop this time, the red-haired woman was just switching on the tape of the horror film on the TV. She looked up from the remote, smiled a distant smile, and said “May I help you?”

“Don’t you recognize me?” Sandy was surprised. She had gotten the feeling that this woman was one of those who didn’t forget anything. Then she saw the red-haired woman’s jaw drop as she looked her over. My, my, the red-haired woman thought. Lookie here.

Sandy was attired head to toe in black. A knee-length black skirt, a black top that clung to her and showed off her white arms, a black band around her throat, and of course the boots. Her eyes were surrounded by thick black make-up, and her lips were tinted to a dark color as well. “Aw, Honey…” the red-haired woman breathed.

“I’m here for some clothes,” Sandy declared. “I don’t own enough black stuff to get me through a whole week, unless I do laundry at least twice.”

“But- I mean- Well, why?” The red-haired woman felt flustered. She had not seen this coming. “What’s wrong with what you used to wear? You know, those cute dresses you had on those times I saw you.” Frankly, the red-haired woman was disappointed. She’d thought she’d found someone who really got it. But no. Maybe not.

Sandy’s lip quivered just a bit as she answered. “Because,” she sighed. “I can’t pull off those boots without the whole- well, the whole look, you know.” Then she mumbled “Like you…”

The red-haired woman stared at Sandy. Then at the TV. Then at Sandy again. “You’re telling me you thought you needed the black clothes so you could wear the boots?”

“Yes.”

“Well, do you like black clothing?”

“Um,” Sandy looked shifty. “No. Not really. My mom always said it made me look pale as death. Which is kind of good for the look, I suppose…” Looking up, Sandy saw the red-haired woman giving her the warmest smile she’d ever received. There was compassion in that smile, appreciation and amusement as well, but most of all, kindness.

“Honey, let me show you something.” The red-haired woman flicked the remote at the TV. The image changed. From a screaming woman, it changed to Tara Banks and a line of girls in front of her, waiting to be judged. “That’s my favorite show.”

Sandy gaped. “America’s Best Top Model?!” She squeaked. “But… aren’t people like you too- too, I don’t know, too cool for that show?”

“That’s why I can’t have it on here. I beg my boyfriend to come and take over the evening shift here so that I can watch it at home, but two days a week he’s working another job and he can’t. So I make sure no one’s in the shop, and switch off the video. Until someone comes in, that is, and then I’ve got to turn the video back on real quick before anyone sees.”

“But then,” Sandy began. “Is it all a show? Are you just faking the whole thing? I mean, why do that?”

“Well, the fact that I wear black and I like big skull rings and spiky boots – all that’s just fashion. I like wearing this stuff. It makes me feel good and it makes me feel cool. I admit that. But sadly, I own this place and I don’t have enough business that I can afford to drop the image of the perfect gothic woman. Some of the clients really do care about all that nonsense – keeping the image, philosophizing about what it means, et cetera. So I hide my love of Tara Banks and too-skinny girls playing at being models and drama-queens.” The red-haired woman was speaking fast now, her words tumbling over each other in her enthusiasm. “But you, Honey, you came in here and had your own look! You just wanted to add to it! I’ve never seen a cooler outfit than that sweet little dress and the kick-ass boots. That’s what made it special, unique! I thought you didn’t care about the whole image bee-ess, and I was thrilled.”

Sandy had listened to the red-haired woman’s speech with amazement on her face at first, then acceptance, and then at the end, amazement again. When the woman finished, she felt silly. “What’s your name?” came out of her mouth without her expecting it.

“Sue,” said Sue. “Yours?”

“Sandy,” replied Sandy.

From that day onward, it was quite common to find a red-haired woman with black clothing visiting a small diner where a girl with a name tag reading “SANDY” greeted her with a squeal and a hug and good service. It was also quite common for a brown-haired girl wearing various pastel colored dresses and very dramatic boots to visit a small shop called “ROCKIN’-ROLL GEAR,” claiming every time that her cable at home didn’t work and begging the woman at the counter to turn on America’s Best Top Model for her. Every time someone asked, the woman at the counter would blame her friend for the show and would roll her eyes. They’d giggle about it afterwards.

Boots [Part II]

Part I

Sandy wasn’t sure what to say, so instead of responding, she looked around the shop. It was like she expected it would be. The shop was only sparsely lit, the clothing racks were mostly full of black garments, with the occasional shocking pink or electric blue peeking through. A television that was hung on the wall was showing an old horror film with the sound muted. Sandy gulped, eyes fixed on the fake blood spraying from a man’s stomach.

She tore her gaze away from the gruesome image, worked up her courage, and spoke.

“Um, can I see what boots you sell, please?”

“Sure thing,” the red-haired woman chirped. “Size seven-and-a-half?”

“Yeah, how could you tell?” Sandy was so surprised at the lucky guess that she looked up into the red-haired woman’s face and met her eyes.

“I know about boots. ‘Cause of that, I know about feet. Anyway, I’m the same size, so I know what seven-and-a-half looks like,” she winked at Sandy, and disappeared into a back room.

A half hour later, Sandy had tried on three pairs of boots and hadn’t liked the look of any – either they had too many laces and complicated bits of string, or the buckles were too big or they didn’t cling right to her calves.

“Maybe I should just forget it,” she moaned.

“Oh, Honey, don’t think like that – we’ll find the perfect ones for you.” The red haired woman was packing the discarded boots back into their large boxes, folding the tops meticulously over the gigantic heels. Sandy cast a sideways look at the curtain that hid the store-front window from the interior of the shop. As the woman finished replacing the last pair of boots, she said shyly “What about the ones in the window? You know,” she paused, received an encouraging smile from the red-haired woman, continued. “The ones I was looking at last week.”

The red-haired woman smacked her forehead, an act which Sandy thought should have left marks there because of the amount of heavy and spiky silver rings were on the woman’s hand. “I should have brought those out first thing!” The woman exclaimed. She smiled apologetically and bustled out of sight into the back room again, yelling over her shoulder. “They’re an older model, you see, which is why I didn’t think of them straight off!”

Within a trice, she had Sandy’s feet in her lap, the boots from the window on and clasped. Sandy found herself lifted to her feet and steered towards a full length mirror at the back of the shop. She looked at herself- light blue dress, brown hair cut in a simple, good-girl style, arms and legs tanned from the sun, and there, at the bottom of the image in the mirror, the boots. They clung to her legs, the buckles glinting faintly in the feeble light, deadly and beautiful and cool.

“They look… I look…” Sandy was lost for words. The red-haired woman laughed a throaty, deep voiced laugh.

“The word you’re looking for is awesome,” she said.

Boots [Part I]

Boots, black and full of silver buckles, beckoned to Sandy from a store window containing a couple of corsets, a long velvet skirt, a collar with spikes on it and a jacket with so many artful rips in it that it didn’t look like it should be on sale. Unlike the other items in the window that rather alarmed Sandy, the boots seemed beautiful, like roses – tender and elegant but full of dangerous thorns.

Sandy realized she’d been staring at the store window for some time only when a red-haired woman appeared in the open doorway. She cocked one perfect eyebrow at the sight before her – Sandy, light brown hair tumbling in the wind, wearing a flowered white sundress and staring open-mouthed at the boots in the window.

“Need some help, Honey?” the red-haired woman asked. Sandy jerked out of her reverie. The wind died down just at that moment, and her bangs settled back on her forehead. She ducked her head, hiding behind her hair, shook her head “no” and walked away briskly. The red-haired woman ambled back into the shop, and knew that she’d be seeing that shy, flowery girl again soon.

All week long, Sandy thought about the boots. She tried not to, but couldn’t help it. She also thought about the red-haired woman a lot – there was something in that woman’s gaze, in her voice as she said “honey” so casually, that exuded a confidence that made Sandy profoundly envious.

It kept coming back to the boots, though. The red-haired woman had been wearing boots very like those in the window, Sandy remembered it well – the way the boots reached up all the way to her knees, with black and white striped pantyhose peeking above them. The boots, with their multiple-inch heels and the silver buckles along the sides, had made the red-haired woman’s legs look endless, beautiful and deadly. Sandy felt that if only she could have boots like that, everything would feel better.

By the end of two weeks, Sandy made up her mind. She collected her paycheck from the diner’s manager, changed out of her yellow waitress uniform and into one of her favorite pale blue dresses, walked to the bank to cash the check and then strode, with more confidence than she felt, right into the shop where she’d seen the boots.

The red-haired woman looked up from behind the counter, smiled, and said “Well, hello there, Honey. I had a feeling I’d be seeing you again.”