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Fiction

The Gift Horse

 

     Rivulets of rain trickled down her bright yellow poncho and into her socks, but Wanda didn’t mind.  On the contrary, she was never happier than during a good downpour.  The fact that the unpredicted squall ended six months of drought, made the morning ride to work even more delectable; and as she walked her bike to the front door, the squishing noises that accompanied every step was music to her ears. 

     “I love being me today,” she said aloud and turned the key. The cave-like storefront smelled musty, but this too delighted the deprived rain-worshipper who greedily filled her lungs with the damp stale air, as if she were standing in the middle of an old growth cedar grove.

     “We’re going to rake it in today, Charlotte,” Wanda addressed the tiger-striped feline whose supple arms draped luxuriously over the edge of her cushy bed near the cash register.  Charlotte rolled over onto her back and did her morning exercise, which consisted of a lingering full-body stretch and two gaping yawns, followed by a vibrato meow.  Wanda lifted the fifteen-pound fur ball from her throne and wrapped her like a stole around her shoulders, where, except for the occasional trip to the food bowl, the feline preferred to hang during off hours. 

     Charlotte, named for Jane Eyre’s creator, was famous in her own right.  Customers came from way across town just to gaze at those alluring amber eyes and delight in the permanent Cheshire-like smirk.  Not once, but several times Charlotte had been featured in the city newspaper’s business section.  Believe it or not, the pampered feline had a mind for merchandising, and she was no slouch when it came to customer service.  Whenever Wanda happened to mention that a particular trinket was Charlotte’s favorite (she had many), the cat would make eyes at and purr in the direction of the bemused customer. Charlotte’s favorites almost always sold. 

     There was no denying that the grand old feline was the perfect shop cat.  Beyond that, she was Wanda’s all around good luck charm and sales muse, if there is such a thing.  And although she missed sleeping with the cat’s furry warmth stretched out against her back at night, the seasoned peddler honored her familiar’s recent preference for staying night and day at the shop.  Wanda figured that as her familiar entered her crone years, she simply needed more alone time, especially after a long day of pretending customers were always right.  

     “I better get these wet shoes and socks off,” Wanda grunted as she sat down on the display window ledge.  Charlotte purred loudly in her ear in apparent approval.  After rubbing her wet toes with a towel that she kept for dusting, Wanda placed the soggy items on the radiator. Barefoot, she reveled in the cool walk across the linoleum back to the broom closet where the cat food was stored.  She poured some dry food into Charlotte’s pewter bowl and as the hungry feline crunched down breakfast, Wanda began the morning routine.  Time flew. With a favorite CD in the player, money counted and re-counted in the till, overhead lights switched on, and dear Charlotte back on her throne, the shop was open for business.  

     In minutes, the little bell over the door announced the first customer of the day.  While intently studying a fresh invoice, Wanda offered the usual pleasantries and proceeded to unpack a shipment of porcelain horse figurines.  She held one up to the light and said to Charlotte, loud enough for the customer to hear, “They’re perfect.  Look at those delicate legs and ears.  Very, very nice, for the price, yessiree-bob.” 

     She conspicuously placed a strawberry roan on the glass counter and dreamily studied its shiny reflection, half-expecting the lifeless replica to start prancing its way around the perimeter of the display case.  

     “What is the price?” the customer’s resonant voice dispelled that notion. A pair of green eyes whose intensity rivaled Charlotte’s caught the seasoned sales clerk off guard. 

     “I don’t really know, I mean, I was thinking maybe twenty dollars…very fine porcelain…from England.”  Wanda watched the elegant hand gently pick up the roan and turn it round and round in the muted light seeping in through the rain-spattered front window.  Figuring her for a tourist looking for the perfect souvenir, she watched the woman’s expression change from delight to sorrow.  “Would you prefer a different one?” Wanda asked the obvious.

     “No, no, this one is perfect,” the woman politely answered in a tremulous voice.  She reverently set the figurine back on the counter.  “Reminds me of…” she muttered something else and wandered towards the card rack.  Wanda’s eyes remained glued to her customer.  Charlotte stopped purring and beat her luxurious tail against the cash register.  For luck, Wanda stroked the feline and stepped out from behind the counter.

     “A…if you don’t mind me asking, ma’am, are you just visiting our fair city?” she uttered with an uncharacteristic hesitancy.  Wanda’s easy banter was the gift shop’s other main attraction; regulars enjoyed generous doses of her earthy commentary and outrageous puns.

     “No, I just moved here.” The customer absently turned the card rack.      

     “In that case, welcome.”  The woman nodded and continued turning the rack.  “So…let me know if I can help you find anything,” Wanda said, at a loss for anything remotely clever or charming to say.  She retreated back behind the counter where the opened box of porcelain treasures offered a welcome diversion from the uneasy feelings swirling in her chest. 

     Until this particular morning the gift shop in old town had been a sanctuary from bad moods, a kind of good ship lollypop over which Wanda was the undisputed captain.  But, for some inexplicable reason, she resented the stand-offish stranger for daring to step aboard.  For the first time since the grand opening a lifetime ago, both Wanda and her feline partner were impatient for the first customer of the day to leave. 

     Suddenly, the little bell over the door announced a heavy set woman who bounded in with two hot coffees and a bag of scones.     

     “Hey Mo!  What’s shakin’?” Wanda said and felt the morning’s tension begin to melt away.

     “These,” Mo, who owned the small bakery across the street, replied.  She shook the large purple-stained bag. “Fresh from the morning’s batch.”  Wanda faked a swoon and plunged her hand inside. 

     “Mmmm–blueberry.  My favorite, and they’re nice and hot.  Thanks, my dear.”  She invited the baker behind the counter to a cubby hole out of view of the customer, who had made herself at home in the stuffed chair next to the book shelf.  “Looks like she’ll spend the morning.  Wanna bet she doesn’t buy a damn thing,” Wanda whispered between tentative sips of scalding black coffee and sugary morsels.  Mo peered over the cash register to get a look at the one customer in a million who’d managed to tarnish her friend’s sales guru cheerfulness. Wanda tugged at Mo’s sleeve and whispered, “Don’t let her see you staring, for god sake!”

     Mo ducked and half-joked, “Maybe she’s casing the joint.”

     Wanda scowled.  Charlotte continued to fiercely wag her tail, nearly dipping it in Wanda’s steaming black brew. “Maybe. Even Charlotte’s on guard.” Wanda shivered.

     “Hey, what’s with the bare feet?” Mo asked with a look of amused surprise.

     “I got caught in that glorious downpour. They don’t smell, do they?”

     “Not that I’ve noticed,” Mo replied with an exaggerated sniff.  “Uh-oh, here she comes!”she whispered too loudly.

     “Quiet!” Wanda growled under her breath. She managed a casual smile as the woman approached with a book.

     “I’ll take this,” she said, un-wadding a crumpled twenty and laying it on the counter.

     “Oh good choice, that’s a very popular book—can’t hardly keep it in stock these days because..” Wanda stopped short when she noticed a disapproving frown. Clenching her teeth behind a thin-lipped smile, the queen of customer service smoothed out the crumpled twenty, placed it securely in the till and bagged the sale “Thank you, ma’am—come again.” After the first customer of the day had left, she blurted out, “On second thought, good riddance!”

     Mo gasped. “Boy, she really got your goat, didn’t she?”  

     “She plain doesn’t respect shopkeepers.”

     “Maybe it was your stinky feet,” Mo laughed.

     “She was pleasant enough at first, but turned sour, just for no reason. I don’t trust people like that. You know what I mean?  I hope it doesn’t put a crimp in sales today.” Wanda picked up Charlotte and held her close.

     “Well, at least she bought something.  What was the book?”

     “Wild Mustangs of the Old West.  Can you believe it?  I mean she looked like she just stepped out of one of those old mail order catalogs–that peacock feather hat, long skirt draggin’ on the floor, and who wears capes these days?”

     “A real fine lady, that’s for sure.”  Mo stood to leave.

     “Lady?! Her eyes were small and beady, like a snake’s.  What color were they, did you notice?”

     “Green–like a cat’s,” Mo tugged at Charlotte’s magnificent tail.  The feline hissed.  She barely tolerated Mo’s less than delicate ways. The jolly baker had a St. Bernard that came to visit now and then, which vexed Charlotte to no end.  The shop mascot especially disdained the incessant slobbering and clumsy tail that knocked precious inventory around.  But Mo herself at least brought treats, and Charlotte never refused pastry.

     After Mo left, Wanda couldn’t get the day’s first customer out of her mind.  She busied herself with the unending little tasks around the shop, waited on a rush of lunchtime customers shopping for birthday and anniversary gifts, placed phone orders, and created a lovely display of the porcelain horses.  She even sold two, including the roan.  But her mind remained troubled. 

     With Charlotte draped around her shoulders, she stepped outside for some fresh air. The steady rain had dwindled to drizzle. Charlotte hissed and growled at a passing street mutt as he marked the nearby hydrant.  Usually the feline’s antics tickled her faithful caretaker.  And Charlotte seemed to be making a special effort. But nothing dispelled Wanda’s sour mood.  When a passerby laughed and pointed at her bare feet, the old cat cringed at the harsh retort of “Get Lost!”-an unthinkable transgression for any retail establishment.  Flipping her off, the man disappeared inside the corner bank.   

     Wanda, no less shocked than Charlotte by her shocking outburst, ducked back inside and sat down in the reading chair.  Her knees shook uncontrollably, scary thoughts raced through her mind.   The old cat climbed down into her lap, purred as loud as she could and kneaded Wanda’s trembling arm, but was brushed away. At this insult Charlotte hissed and jumped to the top of the bookcase; her saucer-sized amber eyes dilated black.

     The cheerful ambience of the shop’s colorful inventory faded behind a lingering gloom that hung like a scrim across the storefront window. Wanda who’d sat mute and motionless for a good hour startled badly when the bell over the door echoed in her ears. A child she didn’t recognize made a tentative entrance.

     “Yes, little girl. What do you want?” the wary proprietor coldly demanded. 

     The girl, about eight years of age, stammered, “I…I…do you have licorice jelly beans?” she replied, barely above a whisper.  When Wanda emerged from her darkened corner the child ran for the door. The sight of a customer actually fleeing her shop shocked the proprietor back to her senses.

     “Oh, no, please little girl, come back!  I won’t bite, I promise.  Yes, I have jelly beans.”  Wanda scooted across the creaky floor and took a large dusty jar from its shelf over the far end of the counter and unscrewed the lid.  The girl took a couple of cautious steps closer. “Go ahead, reach in and grab one.  They’re kinda old so you better have a taste before you spend your money.” 

     When the child slipped a licorice bean into her mouth, her eyes brightened and she quickly placed a dime on the counter. 

     “Let me scoop up a nice big sack full,” Wanda said.  She poured ten times a dime’s worth into a shiny gold gift bag with braided handles.  The child’s eyes by now were as big as saucers. She was so excited she bounded out of the shop without a thank you or goodbye.  It was Wanda, however, who wished she’d had the chance to thank her young customer, for the strange sense of doom had lifted. 

     There are times when it pays to just give inventory away, she thought while slipping on her stiff dry socks and running shoes.  Before she could tie her laces, the brass bell over the front door announced more business.  She cheerfully popped up from the window ledge like a jack-in-the-box and declared, “Nothing like a rainy day for gift giving.” Her heart skipped a beat when she recognized the customer, who, in the face of the slack-jawed proprietor politely nodded.

     “May I have another look at that roan you showed me this morning?”  

     “Oh, I…a…let’s see, where did he go?  Oh dear, you know what, I’d love to sell him to you, but he’s gone…sold right after you left.  I’m so sorry.”  Wanda took a couple of deep breaths, fully expecting her customer to angrily walk out at the disappointing news. Her knees began to shake.

     “Oh, that’s too bad. He did so remind me of…”  Her green eyes misted. Wanda’s knees stopped shaking.

     “Let me show you the rest of the herd.  There’s some real beauties waiting for good homes,” Wanda softly cajoled and stepped over to the display window.  There, in a thin layer of aquarium sand mixed with bits of straw, stood the remaining figurines, some grazing, others prancing or standing at attention, their transparent little ears pointed alertly upward.  The woman stared at the pastoral scene for a good minute, her lips moving as if in prayer.  Wanda slipped back behind the counter and patiently watched. Finally, the woman turned and approached with tears pooling in her eyes.

     “I can’t take just one…I want them all.”  She frantically rummaged in her purse for cash.  “But I only have a few dollars,” she whined, holding a fistful of crumpled one-dollar bills in her long thin fingers. Wanda noticed the ragged fingernails.  This prompted a closer look at the woman who just hours before possessed the elegance of a Victorian fashion model.  Her dashing cape was threadbare and faded.  Her feathered hat, on closer inspection, was stained and had long since lost its sheen from constant exposure to the elements.  Even an ornately engraved silver hat pin was badly tarnished, if not rusty. 

     “I’m sorry, ma’am.  The whole herd would cost well over three hundred dollars,” Wanda said as delicately as possible.  She nursed a growing compassion for the apparent worshipper of the wild horse.  The woman poured the contents of her purse all over the counter, as if a few long-forgotten hundred-dollar bills from better times might fall from the litter of gum wrappers, ragged bus transfers and lint. 

     “How about a check, ma’am?  I’ll take a check, if you have I.D.” Wanda offered, knowing full well that no such account could possibly exist.  The woman shook her head, then, in the face of defeat, managed to pull herself together.  Without a word, she shuffled towards the door.  Wanda felt torn.  She was about to offer the woman pick of the herd for free, when the little girl came bounding back into the shop.

     “Mama!  Mama!  Look what I got for a dime!”  She held up the gift bag of jelly beans and stuck out her black tongue.

     The woman turned and smiled warmly at the stunned shopkeeper. “Thank you.”  She took her daughter’s hand and left.  Wanda, alone with an aching heart, grabbed the nearest porcelain horse and ran outside, but the woman and girl had vanished.

    There were no more customers that day. Wanda placed the little horse, a metallic gold palomino, on the lay-away shelf–just in case. Charlotte, who’d finally come down from the bookcase, rubbed hard against her partner’s legs, meowing impatiently for her afternoon snack.  Wanda scooped her up and lovingly stroked the long silky fur.

     “Missy, we’re closing early today–let’s go home.”  With the cranky shop cat confined to the backpack, Wanda locked up, hopped on her bike, and peddled homeward under a scorching sun.

The End.

**************************************

Author’s Bio:
For the past four years Judith Nelson has been devoting her time and energy to the cause of equine welfare.  She has applied her writing skills to advocate for horses, especially America’s wild mustangs.  Recently, the urge to write fiction has returned and she wanted to tell a story that somehow expressed her life-long connection to horses. So she turned to some fable-like stories she wrote several years ago and updated one that seemed to resonate.  Judith is retired and lives in Oregon.

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