As she shuffled down the sidewalk of Randall Street, her body lurched from side to side with a limp that she was unsuccessfully attempting to hide. Her massive body jolted in such a manner that I began to debate whether the weight caused the limp or the limp caused the weight. Her skirt, which clung to her body in a menagerie of mismatched colors and patterns, was the product of a long ago era, probably a Goodwill bargain. Had it been worn by a stick figure runway model, it would have been labeled “vintage,” but on this woman it just looked old and out of place.
Her blouse appeared to be white but in the heat of a Midwestern July afternoon, it took on a more yellowish tone. It was stretched over the bulk of her torso yet still maintained an intricate pattern of wrinkles and creases. Her buttons were mismatched resulting in a collar as unbalanced as her walk. Her hair swelled from her scalp in chunks of dirty blonde frizz and made me secretly recant my own complaints about the humidity. Her shoes were bland navy pumps you would find in any discount shoe store and her pale, chubby ankles looked like marshmallows swelling over their tops.
Reaching the bus stop, the woman took a seat and her body seemed to unfold around her like an oversized inner tube. She abandoned her purse beside her and took great pains to catch the breaths that were heaving her chest. She removed her darkly tinted, gas station sunglasses and wiped the wet perspiration that had gathered in the creases of her face. As she did this, she kept her eyes tightly clenched shut, protecting the secret of their color beneath the lids. After replacing the sunglasses, her hand dove into her purse and rummaged through its contents. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that she must be searching for some sort of afternoon snack. I anticipated the retrieval of a package of Ding Dongs, a stale donut, or perhaps a shiny can of Slim Fast. As she withdrew a crumpled piece of paper, I silently apologized for my misconception. She briefly fanned herself with the piece of paper and then she began smoothing out the wrinkles across the flat of her lap. As she began reading whatever was printed on the page, her brow furrowed in concentration.
Perhaps it was a letter of denial from a potential employer. The destruction of her hopes and dreams achieved with a letter containing stagnant phrases like “insufficient level of experience” and “have decided on a more suitable applicant.” Maybe she had gone to an office feeling as if she didn’t belong, but she had applied for the position regardless. She would have given her name to the smartly dressed receptionist wearing a size three business suit and forced a timid, almost apologetic, smile. She would have begun to wish she had dressed more appropriately, but her meager closet contained only three skirts and two blouses, none of which really matched her only pair of pumps. She would have held her head high as she walked as steadily as possible into the personnel director’s office, and she would have tried to ignore the widened eyes and forced smile that greeted her, no matter how badly it hurt.
She would have reminded herself that a firm handshake was a sign of confidence, but as the director’s delicate fingers disappeared within her own she suddenly would grow wary that her handshake might crush them. The director would have smiled broadly—all white teeth and fuchsia lipstick, and then asked her to please take a seat. Panic would have set in as she realized the only chair on her side of the desk was small and wooden with armrests far too narrow to cause any kind of “rest” to take place. She would squeeze herself into the seat and no sooner feel relief wash over her then begin to worry about getting back up. She would struggle to dismiss this worry, crossing her legs at the ankles and focusing on the questions and conversation at hand. The questions were aggressive and rapid, but her answers seemed to almost fall out of her mouth as if rehearsed. It would have seemed almost too easy and just as she would begin to wonder if it was really going as well as she thought—it would be over. The director would thank her for coming in and tell her she would hear something by the end of the week.
She would have left the office with a good feeling about it, but as she passed through the reception area, she also could swear she heard the receptionist snicker. Three days later, the letter would arrive in the mail, regretting to inform her…
But maybe not. I could be wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a letter from an employer at all.
Maybe it was a letter from her son’s school requesting a parent-teacher conference. She would have gone to his school in the hopes that, for the first time, it would be good news, words of encouragement from his new teacher or a report of behavioral improvement. She would have patiently waited outside the classroom as the students filed out, and the teacher’s kind greeting and sincere smile would cause her hopes to climb even higher. The teacher would, of course, be young and pretty with hair neatly pulled away from her face and small gold-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. Soon after settling in for the meeting, however, the smile would fade and the woman would find herself listening to the same recantation of unacceptable behavior. Her son’s temper was once again out of control. His rage had not only been flaring against other students but was now being directed toward the teachers. Of course, there had been no actual violence “thus far” but “parental intervention” was vital at this point. As the woman’s heart sank, she would have fought back the desire to scream at the top of her lungs that it wasn’t easy and that she was doing her best. Instead, she would nod and give an occasional comment of agreement as phrases like “teenage angst” and “misplaced anger” bounced off her for the hundredth time. She would have continued listening and fighting back tears and the teacher would continue her well-rehearsed speech about after school programs and counseling options. Then, they would discuss her son’s past two schools, from which he’d been expelled, because of course, they didn’t want to travel down “that road” again. The teacher would have reproduced her sincere smile and insisted that she wouldn’t give up; she was there to help. What the teacher didn’t realize was that those same words had been said before, but the outcome was always the same.
The woman would have left the classroom defeated as if from battle. She was convinced that all the problems her son possessed were because of her inadequacies, and she was now certain the teacher blamed her as well. She knew that as long as she was this failure, no program or counselor could fix the problem…
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she doesn’t even have any children.
It could have been a letter from her bank regarding her checking account. The one she had been so careful to maintain for the past three years had recently been almost completely emptied in one day. Now all the checks she had written were being returned because of “insufficient funds.” She would have walked into the bank, certain that some type of computer error would be easily clarified, and the problem would just disappear. Even as she waited in line, however, somewhere in the back of her mind, she already knew what had really happened.
As she waited, she thought of how hard she worked for every cent and how hard it was to support herself. But her new boyfriend was still struggling to find a job, and his interviews required new suits, and shoes, and a briefcase. And after rejection after rejection, he needed nights with his friends, unwinding at the local taverns. Sometimes she went along, but his friends made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t care to drink much. She had no regrets about giving him all that she could because she loved him and only wanted to help him get back on his feet. She was certain he would do the same for her if the tables were turned.
But as she stood waiting in line, her mind kept returning to the blank check she had given him before he went out of town on a tip about a new “business venture.” He had needed the money before he could leave but promised to repay her when he returned. “Just three or four days, I promise,” he’d assured her. So, she had filled her car’s gas tank for him before he left and she signed the check, noting the number in her register, and reminded him to write down the amount for her, and he’d nodded and smiled and said, “Of course.”
By the time her turn came in the line, she knew what the outcome would be. She would ask questions, but she already knew the answers. She would have felt the crimson of embarrassment creep up her neck, as she quickly thanked the bank employee and left without looking back.
She had been certain he loved her this time. But it had been nine days since he left and she still hadn’t heard from him…
But I could have it all wrong. Maybe she was happily married; maybe it wasn’t a letter from a bank at all.
As the bus pulls up to the curb, she shoves the paper back in her purse and uses the back of her hand to once again wipe the moisture from her face. I wonder if it is sweat after all. The red light is now green and I am driving home filled with the hope that she will have a better day tomorrow.
© Denise H. Long, 2013