"Come on, come on . . . "
She glanced around as she tugged off her knit gloves to get a better purchase. Though the neon sign at the front of the shop was off, it still caught the eye of anyone on the two-lane highway, drawing attention to the squat standalone building and herself at its rear entrance. To her relief, the key slid forward and reluctantly turned. She bustled inside, shoulders hunched and face averted against the cold like one of her customers.
What followed was routine: flicking on the overhead lights, hanging her coat and gloves on the back of the door, filling the coffeepot with fresh water and Folgers Vanilla Biscotti. As the pot hissed and gurgled, she rifled through yesterday's receipts, stacked in snowflake mounds on her desk. Five pieces of lingerie, one "Vibrating Jelly Egg", and four magazines, two of them "Swank Confidential". She made a note to order more of "Swank". It could replace "Fiesta"; hardly anyone bought it—probably too British for their tastes.
Dumping the finished coffee into a styrofoam cup, Celia headed to the salesroom at the front of the shop. Delores had closed last night without cleaning up again. Merchandise lay jumbled all over the racks and counter. By the door, the bag of road salt gaped open, trickling crystallized pellets onto the floor. Shaking her head, Celia put the lace teddies back on their own racks. She refilled the condom and the lubricant packet jars. She went into the "media room" and placed the DVDs and the magazines back in order, tuning out the legs and breasts and buttocks with a detachment borne of years of practice. She popped a fresh tape in the video surveillance system and made sure the camera swept every inch of the video room.
Her hands moved fast and sure in their work: sweeping, dusting, adjusting, scattering fresh salt on the walk outside the front door. With only a minute left, Celia gave the salesroom an appraising glance, then flicked on the Christmas lights strung up along the four corners of the room, the overhead lights reducing their brightness to multi-colored pinpoints. Finally, she switched on the neon sign in the front window: a shapely pair of lines, mimicking the curves of a woman's body in shocking pink.
It was 10:00am, Christmas Eve. The Petite Bouchette was open for business.
Celia didn't expect many customers today. Most of her regulars had been put off by the hordes of female holiday shoppers looking for something to excite their husbands or boyfriends or both. They'll be back in January, visions of hot, sweaty summers and thong bikinis in their heads, fantasies wrapped in plain brown paper to shield against the winter cold. But for now, it was too close to Christmas to expect anyone to come in.
Well, except Sal. Sal always came, rain or shine, holiday or no holiday. Porn was his bacon and eggs in the morning.
Tired of hearing the faint whoosh of the furnace through the air ducts, Celia switched on the boombox beneath the counter. Instantly, the sanguine voice of Burl Ives flooded the shop: "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas . . . it's the best time of the year . . . "
Quickly, she spun the knob to the smooth jazz station she always had for background music. Bad enough Delores didn't straighten up last night, but playing Christmas music on top of it? None of her customers wanted to be reminded of little baby Jesus while ogling the latest tits on Pamela Anderson. Delores needed a good talking to.
Then she remembered—Dolores left for Detroit this morning, which meant that Celia had to run the shop on her own until New Year's.
Well, it wasn't like she had anything else to do. Get caught up on paperwork. Do some purging of inventory. Maybe return Zane's call: Merry Christmas, kiddo. Saw your number on my Caller ID the other day. Where's my car?
Zane should've had Delores for a mother. They would've made the perfect mother/daughter duo, both of them flighty, irresponsible, weepy . . .
A black Beamer pulled into the parking lot.
Celia straightened as the chimes over the door jingling, ushering in a man along with a whoosh of cold air. His brown eyes met hers briefly before he moved towards the media room, not bothering to stomp the slush off his shoes. Celia studied him on the security monitor set below the counter. Expensive-looking overcoat, clean-shaven squarish face, short blonde hair. Maybe late thirties or so. She thought she caught a glimpse of a silver band on his left hand as he reached for a plastic-wrapped copy of "Playboy".
Businessman, then. Some high-pressured job keeping him from the wife, who's probably going nuts at home, running around with their three-point-five kids, baking cookies and opening presents early to make up for Daddy not being home. Meanwhile, miles away, Daddy stands in a porn shop—no, no, she reminded herself—adult boutique. But here he was, all alone except for her, following his every move on the monitor, her very own peep show.
Such a shame. He looked quite handsome. He shouldn't be reduced to buying porn magazines on Christmas Eve. As he moved towards the video section, Celia closed her eyes and imagined herself beautiful. The wrinkles on her face and hands melted away. The flabby muscles on her arms and legs tightened, bringing back the hourglass figure she wore briefly in the 70s. Her breasts puckered to attention, plump and soft. The gray hairs on her head flaked off, revealing her chestnut mane once more.
Licking her lips, she strode into the media room, bumping her hips and smiling coyly at the man, his open mouth, his roaming eyes. Forget that magazine, hon. They ain't real. They're airheads, vacant nobodies. Fake flesh, airbrushed to perfection, along with God knows what else. She twined her arms around his waist, arms perfectly tanned and toned, without all that wattle that came after Zane was born. You want a real woman? Come back to my place after work. I'll whip up my famous pierogi mushrooms and sauerkraut, just for you. I'm real. I'll listen to you. I'll even make you forget that wife of yours. Just for a little while.
When the man approached the counter, the "Playboy" pulled protectively against his chest, she tried recapturing the soft glow of her youth in her smile. "That will be $5.99, sweetie."
His nose wrinkled as he freed one hand to dig into his coat pocket to pull out a leather wallet. He counted a five and a one onto the counter, ignoring her open palm, and walked out, not waiting for his change or receipt. "Have a Merry Christmas!" she called out anyway, watching the man's shoulders hunched into themselves as he got in his Beamer and peeled out the lot. Her age firmly reasserted itself as she reached for the bills.
Who was she fooling? Did she really think he would find her attractive? She should know better. What he looked for in a woman left Celia a long time ago.
You know what your problem is? Zane had screamed the day she took off with Celia's car and her cash. You think you know me. You assume all these things about me, making up stories in your head 'bout what I do and how I live. You don't know me! Stop living in a fantasy world, Mama!
Maybe she will open the shop tomorrow.
Celia changed the radio station to classical and pulled out a crossword puzzle.
At noon, she stepped out back for a quick smoke, the frigid air seeping through her sweater, raising goosebumps on her arms. She exhaled slowly, unable to distinguish the plume of tobacco from the moist steam of her mouth. Zane loved watching her smoke. Back then, Celia entertained her by making all sorts of chugging noises while snorting geysers of smoke through her nose. Zane always squealed with delight, trying to grab the smoke with her pudgy fingers.
Somebody told her that Zane smoked now. What brand of cigarettes did she use? Did she just stick to smoking or did it lead her down a trail of other, more dangerous addictions? She tried to picture Zane: a waifish version of her mama, glass of Coke and rum in one slender, tanned hand, a cigarette perched in the other. Or maybe zonked out on a couch somewhere, a fine coating of white powder dusting the nub of her pale nose, spindly legs and arms splayed everywhere, the overgrown version of her two-year-old self napping in her crib . . .
Why would Zane call after eight years of being silent? Did she call on purpose? Was it a mistake? Was she ready to come home, ready to put the past behind her? Did she just want more money?
Celia ground the cigarette out with her foot and went back into the warmth of the shop.
Few cars passed on the two-lane highway. When she first bought the place, it had been a plain, nondescript building surrounded by cornfields, not even a name to distinguish it other than "Adult Store". But in the twenty years she ran the shop, the suburbs crept closer and closer. A few months ago, houses began springing up across the highway, not the flat ranches that seemed the staple around here, but elaborate townhouse complexes, newly birthed from the jostled earth. Sometimes, when she had nothing else to do, she stared out the shaded glass door, watching the orange trucks creep and crawl about like mechanical dinosaurs.
At 3:30, right on schedule, tiny figures emerged from the new construction across the highway. Most got into their cars and drove off, but one ambled across the empty field, growing larger and more distinct, until she could see the blue knit cap, the bulky yellow and green overcoat pulled high to mask the face. It paused at the highway, checking carefully for cars before crossing towards her shop. Celia quickly put the crossword away and brushed the crumbs of a peanut butter sandwich from her face and sweater. If Delores was here, she would probably be winking and smiling.
Sal's booming voice entered the shop before he did. "Hey, Cel!"
"Hey, Sal. How's it going?"
"Ah, same-ole, same-ole, ya know?" He stomped his feet on the doormat, scattering slush from his large Timberland boots. "Cold enough?"
"This? Oh, this is nothing. Remember the winter of '83? Now that was cold!" She straightened the joke handcuffs and the stamina pills behind her. "So how's business over there?"
"Oh, the usual. Been too cold to break ground for the new units, so they got us doin' detailed work. They want it done by the end of the month, but that ain't gonna happen. Not with this cold snap." Sal leaned his arms on the counter, his face looming pink-cheeked under the knit cap. Celia allowed herself to breathe in the sweet smell of his aftershave—she could never identify what it was—then she forced herself to grab a rag and wipe down the counter, though there was hardly a speck on the glass.
"So, whatcha doin' for Christmas? Don't tell me you're openin' the store tomorrow?"
"Course not." She thought quickly. "Gonna be spending the day with Zane."
"Oh, she's back? I thought the two of you weren't on speaking terms."
"She called. Last week." It was the truth. If Celia hadn't gone searching for a vendor's number, she wouldn't have stumbled upon it.
"Well, good for her!" Sal grinned, baring his upper right eyetooth, crooked out like the tine of a plastic fork bent the wrong way. "It's about time you two got back together. You tell that girl to treat you to a proper dinner, hear? Tell her ole Sal says to treat you good, after all the pain she put you through!"
Celia laughed. Covered up her elbows. Looked away from him. Get it together, girl. He's just making small talk, that's all. As if to emphasize it, Sal rose to his full height and stamped off towards the media room. "Well, gonna see what you got this week."
She tried going back to the crossword puzzle, but her attention drifted to the security monitor. Not that she needed to watch him. He wasn't like those occasional weirdos who came in all jittery, avoiding her eyes, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of sweatpants. Celia never judged what people did with the merchandise once she sold it, but if they tried their nasty stuff right there in the shop, she had a hotline to the police, videotape for evidence, and a gun under the cash register—she didn't put up with that perverted nonsense.
But Sal, she trusted. Sal respected her. If anything, he treated her too nice sometimes.
Giving up on the puzzle, she watched him pace up and down the room, pausing to peruse a video here and there. She knew each one by heart, knew what his eyes glanced over, where they stopped and lingered. "We just got the new movie by Ashley Diver if you want to check that out." She called out.
"That's the parody of The Sixth Sense, right?"
"Yeah. Supposed to be real good."
"Mmmm. Maybe I'll get it, then. It's got an actual plot, right?" Even in another room, his voice rang out deep and clear, vibrating up her fingers resting on the counter, down her ribcage, into her pelvis, strumming delicious shivers down her skin . . .
She could do it. Sell this place. Move in with Sal. Play the role of happy homemaker. Have a hot meal ready for him when he gets in from work. He'll treat her good. Let her sit next to him and knit while he watched the football game. Rub her feet and bring her roses. Call her 'lovey' and 'sweetie pie'.
Then, bedtime, with all the lights off, he'll reach for her, seeing what? Her dimpled thighs, graying hair, flabby, liver-spotted arms? Or would he see tanned skin, firm breasts, pouty lips, eyes that are blue, green, hazel, periwinkle, blonde, brunette, 34-A, 36-C. A myriad of body parts jumbled together like a Mix and Match game to compose a fantasy version of herself, a
beautiful version of herself.
She didn't want to compete with that.
Sal emerged with several videos stacked like library books in a schoolboy's arms. She rang him up, the patron and customer line re-established, her words keeping him at arm's length. She didn't put her hand out when he pulled out his money so he placed it on the counter, along with a small box wrapped in red and gold paper.
"Merry Christmas!" He grinned at her, then knocked on the counter. "See you next week, eh?"
Then, before she could speak, he was out the door, the chimes tinkling merrily in his wake. He lumbered across the highway, growing smaller and smaller until he was a dot against the tan brick of the townhouses. Soon, a dark SUV pulled out of the complex onto the highway, giving a brief honk before speeding off east.
The box sat on the counter, proof that the line between patron and customer could be blurred just a tiny bit.
Celia wiped her hands on her jeans. Then she went to the media room to straighten the videos. She didn't really need to—Sal never moved things around or touched anything until he made his choice. When she was done, she put the gift box behind the cash register so she wouldn't be forced to stare at it all day. She'd probably toss it in the trash first chance she got without opening it.
Because it didn't matter how neat Sal was or how nice he was to her or how his actions indicated he'd like to know her better. She still knew what he watched at night.
The sky darkened, intensifying the lights within the shop. She heated up a Lean Cuisine lemon chicken pasta in the office microwave and ate it standing at the counter. Maybe tonight, if the grocery store was still open, she'd buy a turkey breast and stick it in the crockpot tomorrow morning. Add some carrots, celery, mushrooms. Maybe some of that Brownberry stuffing. Let the apartment become infused with the smell of turkey and sage. It would complement that singing Christmas tree she bought, the one that sang "Jingle Bells" every time she walked by it. After two weeks, she shut it off and left it on her coffee table, sullen and silent. Maybe she'll bring it to the shop, just for tomorrow. Could stick it on the wall next to the dildos.
She had started on a mystery novel when headlights flashed briefly in the parking lot. A minute later, a couple spilled into the shop, merriment swirling around them as a gentle breath of frosty air. A black couple, the woman's eyes bright, the man's arm holding her snug against his body. Celia immediately noticed the rings on their left hands. A married couple. Lovely.
They smiled at her, a giddy, slightly sheepish smile, then the woman headed to the toy section against the back wall. The man browsed through the lingerie rack, the hangers holding corsets and teddies rasping against the metal bar. He did glance towards the media room but made no move towards it, keeping his eyes focused in front of him or his wife.
Celia was impressed. Not many men stayed away purposely from the media room. There was one fellow who peeked in once; he got into a screaming match with his honey right there in the parking lot afterwards. Celia never understood why the women got so upset when their men drifted into the hardcore section of her shop. Men's eyes were like magnets: once they saw something they liked— zoop!—their eyes homed in and stayed there. Rarely had she seen a man with enough restraint to look away.
This had to be a decent man, then. Good looking, too, in a faint Denzel Washington way. Very, very nice.
"How 'bout this?" The woman's cheeks glowed burgundy as she picked up a gray box with a fully-clothed couple cuddling in front of a fireplace.
The man smiled. He had nice, even teeth, just a tinge of yellow, but still . . . "Is that what you really want?"
The woman giggled. She had a short, chubby look about her that made Celia think of Dr. Bailey on Grey's Anatomy. "It will be fun! Help us to get to know each other better."
"If you say so."
"Okay, in that case," the man held up a confection of red lace, tulle and ribbon. "What do you think?"
"You want me to wear that?"
"You said I could pick anything."
"But it's so small!" It took a moment for Celia to realize that the woman wasn't offended. She turned to Celia. "Can I try it on?"
Something about the woman's giddiness put her in a charitable mood. "There's an employee bathroom down the hall to your right. You can try it on there."
The man handed the lingerie to the woman. "Can I come along?"
"Crazy!" The woman bustled towards the back, laughing breathlessly. Celia observed the man following the bounce of her straightened hair, the slight wiggle of hips inside the coat. "Newlyweds?" she asked.
The man turned those dark chocolate eyes on her as he brought the box up to the counter. "Not quite. It will be five years in April."
The phrase slipped out before she could stop it. "You must not have any children, then."
"No, I'm afraid not." His smile turned a bit embarrassed. "It's been a hard year for us. We've been trying, but you know . . . "
"Oh, I'm sorry," Celia mentally kicked herself. She should've known better to pry. "I'm very sorry."
The man bent his head to read the back of the box. Celia floundered for something else to say. She wasn't used to men just standing there without looking around or going into the media room. Should she talk about the weather? Christmas? Apologize again? He really did have nice eyes. All warm and friendly like. A woman can melt into those eyes . . .
"That's a nice game," she finally said, pointing to the box. "It's like those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books for kids, but it tells you to do romantic things instead, like give each other foot massages. If you like, there's a more racier one called Pleasure Island I can show you . . . "
The man raised a hand. "No, that's okay, We'll stick with this. We're taking things slow. The doctors been telling us to relax and not get so stressed, but she was the one who wanted to come here, right out of the blue." He glanced over to where his wife disappeared. "It's good seeing her spontaneous again. She's been having a harder time about it than me. I just want this to be fun for her again, you know?"
No, no, I don't know what you mean. The first and only time I did it, I got knocked up with Zane right away. And I don't think I had fun doing it, either. Celia curved her lips up. "Sure do."
"You're not talking about me, are you?" His wife emerged from the back, the lingerie draped over her arm along with her coat.
"I didn't hear you complain. How it look?"
"I ain't saying. You'll have to wait to find out."
"Maybe I should get some boxers to match."
Celia rang up the merchandise, trying to ignore their banter. "That will be $55.74."
The man fished out a Visa and handed it to her. He had long, tapered fingers, like finely-wrapped cigars. Celia hoped he would smile at her again, but he was busy helping his wife on with her coat. Such a simple gesture, forming a protective bubble of intimacy around them that excluded the outside world, herself included. Celia turned back to the register, not wanting to watch them anymore.
But as she slid the Visa through the card reader, she could see into the couple's future: five, ten, fifteen years from now. Still flirting coyly at each other. Sitting in the car, driving in long comfortable silences. Arms flung casually around each other's waists, mittened hands clasped together. Maybe children, maybe not. Always being steadfast and true to each other. No brooding silences. No shrill voices at three in the morning. No black eyes or broken teeth. Just mutual love, the type found in romance novels Delores always liked to read. Love that Celia never experienced, not even once.
The green numbers on the card reader wavered and slid.
Celia thumped the machine. "It takes a while. Christmas Eve, you know."
"Oh, the malls are crazy," the woman said. "Even this time of night. I hope you got your shopping done."
"Well, you know, gotta keep the place open for last minute shoppers like you."
"I hope you won't stay open too long. It is Christmas Eve. Give yourself a break. Go home, relax."
She thought her smile would slip sideways off her face. "I just might do that." The card reader chose that moment to jolt to life. Celia ripped off the receipt and handed it to the man to sign. She then placed the items in a plastic bag, slipping in some packets of cherry-flavored lubricant for free. "You kids drive safely, hear?"
"Oh, I almost forgot!" The woman rummaged in her coat pocket and pulled out a small green giftbag with a red ribbon tied around the handles. "A little something to say 'thanks' . . . "
Celia blinked at it. "You don't need to do that—"
"Don't worry about it. Here. It's our gift to you." She held it out, expectantly. Slowly, Celia took it, seeing inside a handful of Hershey Kisses, festively wrapped in gold and silver paper.
"Merry Christmas," the woman said.
"Merry Christmas," the man echoed.
Celia didn't know what to say. She stood there, the bag sitting in the palm of her hand, watching them head out, letting another frosty gush of air into the shop, making the chimes jingle. She could see the man holding onto the woman's elbow, guiding her steadily to their car. Soon, they will drive away, and she would be just a blip on their lives, something to chuckle over the next day at breakfast.
And later that night . . . his wife would come out wearing the red lace teddy, and his eyes . . . those warm, brown, sexy eyes . . . will be all over his wife. The flab on her belly? Cellulite? He won't see it, would only see her. No thoughts of any other. No plastic model smile, no perfectly shaped leg lingering in the back of his mind. His attention solely focused on his wife . . . drinking her in . . . his beautiful wife in his eyes . . .
Celia suddenly got the urge to run out of the shop, scoop up slush and mud in her bare hands, and lob it after the retreating car. Thinking, It's not fair. Not fair. Men like that weren't supposed to exist. Just like the women in the videos and magazines she sold didn't exist. It was all fantasy, a sham, something to make you feel good for a little while. Caring, respectable men like that couldn't possibly exist. If they did, she'd be out of business.
The only men that existed were porn addicts, wife-beaters, alcoholics, loners. The slime who knocked her up when she was drunk, didn't even bother to owe up to what he did. Never in her life had she met a good, honest man who looked at her liked that, as if she was the only woman he desired in the world . . .
What about Sal?
Sal didn't count.
Why? Why not?
Because she knew what he wanted, each and every week he came in. He didn't want her . . . he wanted Ashley. Tammy. Eva. Sarah. Jordan. He couldn't just want her, plain, ordinary, old Celia.
So why does he always look at me like that? Why?
Behind the cash register, she could see the red and gold gift box, poking out slightly. What on earth made Sal want to give her a gift? What was in it? Too large to be a ring. Too light for it to be candy . . .
She looked at the Hershey gift bag still perched on her palm, as if any moment it will hatch into a bird and fly away. She then looked down at the receipt on the counter. "Donovan E. Bailey" written in a neat, almost perfect cursive. Men like him couldn't be perfect. Maybe he had an annoying habit. Sucked on his teeth in his sleep. Left the lid on the toilet up.
But what if they don't have to be perfect? What if all they are is just . . . loving?
Celia set the gift bag down, uncertain on what to do now. Two gifts in one day? She haven't received Christmas gifts for so long, she didn't what to do with herself. The last time she got a gift was when Zane was sixteen, got her that cheap green bracelet with all the clear plastic beads. Spent all her money on it, but her grin was so broad, Celia wore it day after day, even when it started breaking apart. Those tiny beads crunched under her feet for days. Zane was heartbroken, but Celia didn't care. "Don't worry, baby," she told Zane, stroking her hair. "It's still beautiful to me. It's the thought that counts . . . "
Celia opened the register, slipped the receipt beneath the cash drawer, then went in the back office and dug out her cell phone. Returning to the salesroom, she flipped the radio station back to the Christmas music.
"'Come, they told me, a rump-pum-pum-pum . . . '"
Celia pulled out the gift Sal got her and laid it next to the one from the couple, along with her cell phone. She flicked off the overhead lights, plunging the room into twilight. The Christmas lights cast pale blue and red shadows over the merchandise; the dildos, the massage oils, the fake come-on smiles on the plastic models, blurred—became soft, immaterial versions of themselves.
"'A newborn King is born, a rump-pum-pum-pum . . . '"
What was Zane doing now? Doing her best to chase down her own version of the perfect man, even though she was probably destined to end up like her mama? Or maybe sitting all alone in a hotel room, staring at the phone, waiting for her call?
Zane, baby, come on home. We'll put on some Christmas music and I'll whip you up a real Christmas dinner, then we'll go to the movies and Midnight Mass, just like we did when you were a little baby. I kept your bedroom just as it is . . . didn't move a thing . . . just in case you came back. I won't even yell at you for taking the car. Maybe I'll even invite Sal. You'll like Sal. He's got nice eyes. Blue, like a Caribbean ocean.
Maybe I'll even invite Sal. You'll like Sal. He's got nice eyes. Blue, like a Caribbean ocean.
Celia leaned against the counter and gazed up at the lights, letting the music drift through her. She pulled out a kiss, unwrapped it, popped it in her mouth. And as the heat of her mouth melted the chocolate into a sweet, velvety syrup, she reached for Sal's gift and tore the paper off.
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