Plastic bags tore. Coins flipped into the air. Papers, postcards, ribbons, dresses took sail.
Fiction by Deborah S. Prespare, Winter 2017
The August sun was relentless. The air was still and had a taste of car exhaust and burnt hair. The old woman, in her layers, didn’t notice the heat rippling off the black asphalt. The old woman, her head down, her back humped, her thick-knit shawl flapping against her creaky hips, didn’t pay the heat any mind as she plodded along.
A car drove by. The teenage boys in it laughed. “Hey, pretty lady,” they shouted.
She blushed, her bright blue eye shadow sparkling with her shy blink. It wasn’t the first time she’d been called that. He used to call her his pretty lady all the time.
She smoothed her silver-sequined black skirt and patted her white, matted hair. With her gnarled and shaking hands, she pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders. Then, gripping the handle of her flimsy pushcart, a moving boneyard of her life, she walked, glancing down now and then at what remained—dresses, costume jewelry from her dancehall days, letters, postcards from him.
At an intersection in the center of a quiet town, the old woman watched a truck rumble by, black exhaust puffing from its rear. A man walking his dog was in her path. He left the crosswalk and stepped out into the street, pulling his reluctant dog behind him. Having grown accustomed to people parting the way for her, she didn’t pay him or the yipping dog any mind. She crossed the intersection, pushing her cart before her.
A block later, a raindrop struck her hand. More drops fell. She looked up at the blackening sky. Blinking when she caught a drop in her eye, she saw a Laundromat, its door held open by a cinderblock. She pushed her cart inside.
She was alone. Washing machines lined one wall, their lids all open, waiting to be used. A coin caught in the tumble of wet clothes clanked in the one dryer that was running. She pushed her cart to a pair of plastic, blue-gray chairs near the washers. One hand on her back, the other on the cart’s frame, she eased herself onto one of the seats. Settled, her gaze drifted to the corner by the window where balls of dust and lint had gathered on the chipped, white-tiled floor. Caught in the swept-aside debris was a desiccated cricket on its back. The rain, like a lightly played snare drum—trrp, trrp, trrp—lulled her. Wondering when that cricket had last chirped, her eyes closed.
The old woman woke when a young woman, her hair dripping, came in barking at the baby on her hip. Tracking wet footprints to the running dryer, the young woman set the baby on a nearby folding table, opened the dryer door, and pulled out clothes—jeans, T-shirts, panties, a baby’s bib. Every time the baby squirmed, she would set the baby straight on the table again and scold it. “You’re going to bust your head!”
A shiny penny fell from the dryer and rolled across the floor. The baby watched the old woman, her humped back cracking, get up from her seat and bend down and scoop up the polished penny. The baby, her bottom lip trembling, watched the old woman straighten up and shuffle back to her seat. When the old woman smiled at the baby, the baby leaned back its head and wailed.
“Hush now,” the young woman said, shoving clothes into a mesh bag. “Don’t you pay her any mind.” She hoisted the baby to her hip. The baby, her eyes wide, her nose running, crammed her fist into her mouth and buried her face in her mother’s chest.
Humming a tune she remembered from way back, the old woman watched the two of them leave. She dropped the penny into a plastic bag strapped to her cart, sat back, and waited for the rain to subside.
The old woman opened her eyes.
A tall, bone-thin man, his glasses thick, his flannel shirt faded like his ashen skin, stood by the door, a ring of keys in his hand. “You gotta go. If you ain’t doing laundry, you can’t just sit there.”
The rain had stopped. She had meant to be on her way anyway, so she stood, her knees and hips popping. She steadied herself against her cart, and then, slowly, she pushed past him, into the cool night and out of town, humming big band numbers her small feet had memorized years before. She didn’t notice the reflective eyes blinking now and then from the trees and thick bushes around her.
Later, when she saw through a pause in the trees a meadow touched by the moon, she stopped. Each blade of tall grass sparkled with the moon’s light. Like something out of a dream. She noticed how even the sequins on her dress had been transformed by the moon. So many shiny stars. Laughing, the tune she was humming slipping into another loved melody, she got moving again, admiring the swish of stars against her legs.
Her knee wobbled. She gripped the cart, but it couldn’t support her. She fell, tumbling, pulling the cart with her. Plastic bags tore. Coins flipped into the air. Papers, postcards, ribbons, dresses took sail. The cart and the old woman rolled down the bank, into the peaceful meadow and the thick hum of night bugs.
When she caught her breath she sat up, wincing at the sting in her muscles and joints. She saw that she was bleeding and she grimaced. Her shins were as torn up as her stockings. Papers—some with her handwriting, some with his—sheet music, twinkling necklaces and bracelets, yellowed postcards, a dried corsage, lay scattered across the grass near her. She tried to stand. Her ankle buckled. Her cart, near empty, was a few feet from her, its wire frame bent, but somehow standing upright.
Still strapped down with twine to the contorted cart, she could see, its brown felt covering intact, the object she most prized. She crawled to her cart and untied the twine. She removed the felt, and in the moon’s light, she saw that the glass hadn’t shattered, that the only scratches on the picture’s frame were ones already accumulated along the way.
He was just as he had always been. She touched his chin. The stubble in the evening, if he hadn’t shaved again, was sharp but giving. She could almost feel it under her fingertips. She traced the outline of his neck, then paused on his shoulder where she used to rest her cheek when they danced. The fabric of his army coat was always coarse at first blush, but once she was nestled in, how soft it became. The scent of his aftershave—a hint of menthol and coconut—she could almost taste it as she remembered how tightly he used to hold her when they danced.
“My pretty lady.” How she wished she could hear him say those words to her again.
Above her the stars twinkled. Across her lap, the sequins on her skirt sparkled. And all around her, coming closer, were blinking eyes that reflected the night.
Deborah S. Prespare lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Amarillo Bay, Blue Lake Review, Cadillac Cicatrix, Common Ground Review, Diner, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Fiddleback, The MacGuffin, Marathon Literary Review, North Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, Red Rock Review, Rougarou, Sanskrit Literary-Arts Magazine, and Qwerty.