After she left the place, she realized they never spoke. There had been another free table when she arrived or Carlotta would have put her purse on the other chair and that would have been that. She knew how this place worked when business got heavy. She had a lot on her mind since arriving for work at the alterations shop. She didn’t need company, she needed a corner of solitude so she could think. Figure out what made sense in the scheme of things.
It had been four years working for Daniel and he was the same as when she started: blustery, sarcastic when he had the opportunity, and very efficient. And nice-looking, she had to admit, with longish hair that waved just enough over the tops of his ears that she had to catch herself from smoothing it down and back. That would have been the end of her. She was older than he, but he was the boss, no doubt about it. Still, they did well together, Carlotta working the register and phone, Daniel expertly handling alteration consults and the sewing machines. Business had increased the past year and he’d put a “Help Wanted” sign in the narrow window. It was a month before he liked an application and then he interviewed her twice, just as he had Carlotta.
Lanie was good. She could finish a pair of hems in less than half a minute, the jeans under sixty seconds. They required changing to a heavier needle and having patient, strong fingers. She knew all the fabrics backwards and forwards. If there was a rush order, rushing was like taking a stroll for her–she never sweated it, never complained. At least not to them. She was friendly enough to start but Carlotta noticed she kept her distance once she was in for the long haul. Lanie had the demeanor of a contented cat who had a bold work ethic, even when the shop was fraught with piled up orders and the phone ringing off the hook like a demon. Carlotta looked over her shoulder at the woman once and thought, Yeah, she’s like a panther, sleek and fast and quiet. It gave her pause. But five days a week the three of them worked in sync more often than not and the money came in.
It would have gone on like that if Carlotta hadn’t ever seen her at the back door, swapping cash for something in a packet every couple weeks, then more often. She knew it wasn’t buttons; Carlotta was not well-read or worldly like some people but she wasn’t naïve. But she had never seen this before, not right under her nose, so she waited. During the next two weeks Lanie met the same short, skinny guy with a dark baseball cap on backwards. Carlotta couldn’t see his face when she peered out back.
Lanie hissed at her when they passed on the way to the restroom this morning.
“What’re you always lookin’ at, Lotta? He’s my brother Tommy, I’m helping him out if you want to know, it is what it is.” She said this with the ease of one slightly annoyed neighbor to another, as if they were in conflict over a fence but could come to a reasonable understanding.
Carlotta shrugged and half-smiled, then helped out a customer. Soon after, she left for lunch, and the question on her mind was whether she should tell Daniel about her suspicions.
So when she got to the restaurant, she had a busy mind and she wanted to just eat and ponder. When the girl with the shiny long hair and pricey sunglasses looked around for an open spot, Carlotta tried to send her a thought to move away. Nonetheless, she zeroed in on Carlotta’s table as though it was critical to survival during an emergency landing, not lunch, so there had to be a place for her. Carlotta sighed and nodded at the empty chair. She was brought up to be a nice person, that was the problem. But they both had to eat.
The waitress came and went, the mediocre food put on the table and Carlotta sneaked looks at the girl on her phone. She was working that thing like crazy, like she was born ambidextrous, which Carlotta was not. She wondered if those hands made pretty things or wrote important documents or scrubbed toilets. No, not toilets, she could see that. They were manicured with a soft blush of color on each fingertip. That and her toenails probably cost half a paycheck. Once, the girl looked up from her small, undressed salad and stared through Carlotta, somewhere far beyond this buzzing, garlicky and syrupy spot that served breakfast all day long. Her eyes were a blue like melting icebergs; she blinked twice. Carlotta finished her pasta and picked up an old newspaper and thought about Lanie again.
The phone rang out like a rock song and the girl answered.
“What did they say?” Her voice was a restrained tremor. “He’s going into surgery? Now? Why? Oh!” Her hand flew to her mouth and she turned away from her dining partner. “I knew it wasn’t just the flu all this time…So, does he have, I mean…? Please. No.”
She tried to not listen, but caught fragments about lungs and breathing issues and how she had told him last month, no back in May, that he had to see a doctor. But he had said, no, it was that bug that wouldn’t shake loose. It made Carlotta wish she could turn this off, her interest in other people. Even strangers felt important.
The girl was quiet a long time after she hung up. Carlotta rustled the pages as she sipped her soda and looked at her watch. Five minutes left, then back to the shop. She read the comics and chuckled aloud. That was a mistake. The girl rocked forward. Tears started to run down her ivory-fine cheeks and she turned to face the wall, the salad pushed aside. Carlotta folded the paper and sat there, stumped. Was she supposed to say something? Should she ask her how she could help? She wanted to do the right and good thing, something that told the girl she saw her sitting there and was sorry. Was it her father entering a hospital? Lover that lived on the east coast but who she saw not long ago? People had those relationships, how, she didn’t know. Or maybe it was her best friend. She had all these questions and none were appropriate to ask. Curiosity could be so inconvenient, embarrassing, really.
Carlotta stood, checking her watch. She had to go talk to Lanie this afternoon. It would be uncomfortable, even hard, but not that hard. She grabbed her purse and saw her table partner smash the thin, white napkin to her face, staunching the tears. Carlotta hesitated, then lay her wide palm on the girl’s boney, terribly young shoulder, just for an instant, long enough. The girl turned around but the older woman was exiting, her stride long and full of resolve.
“Thanks…” the girl whispered behind a cascade of hair. She sat straighter, smoothed her forehead and resettled her sunglasses, then picked up her phone once more.
(Note: First posted in unrevised form on Patricia Ann McNair’s blog which includes journal prompts. This photo was captioned “They never spoke” and this was my response. Thanks again, Patricia Ann.)