By Sandy Schumann
The door buzzer grated loudly. It competed with a loud rockabilly tune for the attention of the distracted clerk in the tiny, brightly-lit store. The lone clerk of Rob’s CD Trades this evening was perched at the back on a high stool behind a glass case filled with the high-end merchandise, locked away from shoplifters and greasy fingered customers. A newspaper was spread out across the counter, carefully unfolded and pinned under her elbows. An over-sized black sweatshirt enveloped her, its skateboard logo faded, and unintelligible to all but the aficionados who sailed by the store on a regular basis. Her hair was buzzed down along the sides to show pale skin through spiky brown hair. To the unfamiliar eye, it would seem a young boy was left to guard the racks, rather than a 22-year-old woman.
An older woman stood at the entrance of the store, glancing nervously at the clerk – she seemed apologetic about her noisy entrance. Clara took in the pursed lips, the slightly frumpy coat, and sighed. This woman was definitely out of place and was probably looking for CDs for her grandkid. She would have to point out the language warning label-there was trouble last fall with an irate, and apparently illiterate, parent.
Clara looked down at the Cars For Sale ads. A couple cars had caught her eye, and she circled them neatly with a black felt, heavy enough to be noticed, but not ruin the paper for the owner, Rob. On his days off, he had his staff keep the paper intact, right down to the cheesy flyers, so he could read it on his next shift. She was only slightly surprised he didn’t have them keep the thin blue plastic wrap it came in. The staff joked about it-they suspected everything from intelligence agencies to secret messages from aliens.
She had met Rob in university and they became casual coffee acquaintances, usually one of them tagged along with her crowd or his. She had been doggedly working through a degree in Chemistry, while he mastered in Business. One pale winter morning she had woken up, knowing she was not going to complete her degree, or even finish out the semester. She had been unable to explain her sudden decision to her parents, and had offered only weak apologies. At the time, it was the right thing to do, but looking back now… Clara couldn’t explain her decision. Every time she went over to her parents she always found herself saying her goodbyes at the door mixed in with several versions of ‘I’m sorry’. And they always said they understood, nodding sagely, then murmured quietly about picking up the last couple of credits when she felt she could handle school again. Clara’s future was still unspoiled in their minds-it was a source of repressed irritation to her when she knew she could barely cope with the present. A few hours at Rob’s store added to the meager cashier wages she made at the pharmacy across the street. Used CDs for chris’sake! It seemed funny when Rob had announced his business plan in the coffee shop, much to the delight of his friends who thought he was joking, but now it was keeping her in her own space. Well, there were three other girls in the house, but one day she hoped to rent a place of her own.
Blue Taurus. Nice. Private sale though. The felt pen carefully circled another ad, while its fumes tickled her nose. Claire stood in the aisle, patting down her hair in a vague manner. It wasn’t windy outside but the motion gave her time to collect herself. She was never sure what to expect from this… place. It was too bright, too rude for her, scaring her off with its loud, noisy climate. Lord knows why Rob set himself up here. Now if Randal was still here, she knew that Rob would be working for a better company, not scraping by in this place. The clerks were rude too – she’d been in here almost four minutes without a glance from him. Or her. She had only been in Rob’s store a couple of times, and the tattooed and pierced staff made her intensely aware that she was painfully distanced from her son and this foreign land of pale scruffy youths with their harsh language and attitudes. She glanced over at the A rack beside her, and turned away, embarrassed by band names.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" The clerk asked her, remaining perched on the stool. The voice nudged a decision into positive female identification.
"Well…" Claire hesitated. There was so much space between them. It was uncomfortable having a 15-foot conversation. She moved forward, almost up to G. "I would like to speak with Rob. If he’s in." She hoped Rob was in, and feeling silly having to come in here. She had been window-shopping and splurged on a beautiful scarf brooch, just right for her silk pink. It had been Randal’s favourite-she had been wearing it a lot since he died. The purchase took all of her cash; she barely had a dollar left and her car was in the parkade, waiting faithfully for her to return and pay its bail. The ATM and VISA cards in her wallet were rarely used. The banking machine across the street was ignored. The machine flustered her-she had already had a machine eat her card twice due to code mistakes. The visits to the bank had been mortifying, and the condescending teller who had given her new cards had tried to coach her through a mock transaction. It was humiliating to be defeated by technology. There were too many decisions, and all had to be made too quickly for Claire. The sighs and clucks of those impatiently waiting behind her added to her anxiety, and she usually ended up canceling her transaction and scurrying away. She hoped to borrow a few dollars from her son this evening, avoiding the dreaded machine altogether.
"I’m sorry. He’s gone for the evening. Is there something I could help you with?…" Clara’s curiosity was piqued.
"I’m his mother – I mean, I – it was something personal, that’s all."
"I’ll let him know you were here, if he happens to phone."
"Thank you… um?" Claire took a few more steps forward. She was now standing in the O section.
Claire beamed at her. A sudden kinship at the coincidence thawed her nervousness. "That’s a pretty name."
"It’s a dumb name. My friends call me C.J. but Rob wants a name, not initials on our tags… Mine’s around here somewhere." Clara paused to search through a pile of magazines by the cash register. "I was named after my great-aunt who giggled like a school girl into her seventies-thought she was charming, I guess. She didn’t have a clue how to run her own life. Every time I hear the name, I think of a silly old woman."
"Ah, can’t find it. Must be in the back." Clara picked up the felt pen and a scratch pad. "Do you have a number you want to leave? Cell phone?"
Claire thought of the unwrapped box back at the house. She had left the phone in the plastic wrap-it had been last year’s birthday present. She had sat there feeling her children had betrayed her with this gift of intimidation. Failure overwhelmed her, and she saw herself as Rob did-as this young woman did.
"I’m sorry," said Claire automatically, her shoulders sagging with the weight of years left to live. "I’m very sorry." She turned and left the store, the buzzer jeering as she left.