"From the racks to the stacks to the best on wax......"
Monday, October 11, 2010
"E" and Me
When I opened the door I felt I’d pass out cold.Standing next to the sink in the large, dingy ladies’ room at Shelby’s Food Spot was a memory.Not the type of memory revived by the turn of a familiar phrase or an image in an old photograph. This memory was so solid, that it had to be born solely from the quality of light that beamed in through the small, rectangular bathroom window.The type of memory that rustles the hair on the back of your neck and makes your flesh prick with familiar satisfaction.
The light was shining just as it had on the afternoon I met Ophelia Raymond.When I opened the door, I thought I could see her, as plain as day and odd as ever, chirping to her self in the looking glass.If she wasn’t out on the floor working off what little buns she had, she was there in front of the mirror, having one great revelation or another, talking about changing her hair or maybe just running on about her perfect man, whom she had nicknamed “E”.
Ben Shelby, the owner of the Food Spot, described Ophelia as a bit queer, but a damn good worker and he wished he had five more just like her.The customers had varying opinions.Some said she was as sweet as a ten-pound sack of sugar, one of the more common Southern expressions of fondness in those parts.Others seemed a little scared of her.Ophelia had a look about her, and when she talked to you, that look penetrated straight to your core.A look like she knew what you were thinking and that she didn’t necessarily care for your opinion.
The day I met Ophelia, I wasn’t sure if I needed to be scared or to laugh out loud.On my first day at work, when I opened the door to the ladies’ room, Ophelia was there in front of her mirror as topless as a mermaid on the bow of a pirate ship.She was twisting and plucking at her nipples and then turning sideways to look in the mirror, thrusting her chest out, her hands on her hips.I turned to leave when she began talking to me.
“Do you figure your man would find it sexy if you wasn’t wearin’ no bra, only a real thin shirt, you know, like silk or something? And your nipples was just a pokin’ like big fat grapes ready to be plucked from the bush, or tree, or whatever grapes grow on?”
I just stood there and looked at her for a second, feeling a bit awkward, and then just replied that I didn’t know.
“You’d think that was the way that Eve corrupted Adam, forget that dumb ol’ apple.Old Ms. Moneybags, Cleo Royce, comes in here once a week, stepping down from her thirty-foot pedestal to mingle with the common folk.She walks in, those cones of hers just a poppin’ and a strainin’ against that crepe paper blouse.You would think that a siren had gone off announcing free beer and peanuts the way the men folk come runnin’ when she walks through that door.”
She gave her chest one last thrust.
“I ain’t never had no man act that way about me when I come into a room,” she continued.“I don’t think they would pay me any attention even if I was to strip completely naked and hang a sign around my neck that said, “FREE GOODIES: HELP YOURSELF.”
“You never know until you try it,” I quipped, grinning slyly.She looked at me like she was actually thinking about doing it.
“Wouldn’t that be a hoot,” she giggled, a small snorting noise making us both laugh hard and loud. “Mr. Shelby would just have a fit.”
The image before me as she was getting dressed was both comical and a little sad.Ophelia was thin and pale, looking more like a strand of dry marsh grass that ran the risk of snapping in the afternoon breeze.The mental picture of her twisting the nipples on her almost non-existent breasts, in conjunction with her short, unkempt hairdo, made me think of a teenage boy wondering why his private parts weren’t as big as the rest of the boys in the school locker room.In this case though, any humor was stifled by an underlying sense of sorrow and a bit of curiosity.
She asked me my name and said that we would be working together seeing as how we were the only two full-time employees at Shelby’s.At the time, I didn’t know if working closely with her was a good thing, but I decided that since I really didn’t have a choice, I would put my best foot forward.
After working with Ophelia for the better part of two weeks, I noticed that every day when she would punch out, bidding Mr. Shelby and myself a pleasant evening, she would be greeted by a young man at the side entrance of the store. He would wait by the mailbox, come rain or shine.
On Friday of the second week, Ophelia and I were eating our lunch on the back stoop of the store.I noticed that Ophelia’s lunch never deviated from a menu that consisted of a bologna sandwich on rye bread, a piece of string cheese and a quart size Tupperware container of butterscotch pudding.Our lunch conversation turned from weather, to the price of milk. And finally I delicately forced the conversation around to her mysterious man friend, whom she never seemed to find important enough to bring into the store and render the proper introductions.As I took another bite of my egg-salad sandwich, I slid my glasses down to the tip of my nose and glared at Ophelia, a smirk playing at the corners of my mouth.
“What?” she asked, realizing that I was about to put her on the spot about something.
“So who is this mystery man who walks you home every night from work?”
“His name is Troy Greene, a good friend and confidante,” she said in an as a matter of fact tone.
The look that I offered her next was one that every woman who is of age can immediately grasp the meaning of without so much as a word or hand gesture.The look encompasses many questions at once, all of which ultimately end up answering the questions, are you serious about this guy, and if so, are you sleeping with him?
Immediately upon my offering this look, Ophelia gasped and nearly choked on a piece of her string cheese.
“I’ll have you know that Troy and I are just good friends; I have known him since we were twelve.”
The next look that I offered was another in the Complete Woman’s Repertoire of Nods, Glares, and Glances.This look said simply, I don’t believe you.
Ophelia fidgeted in her seat and stared into the sky.
“I have a man and I can assure you that it is not Troy Greene.”
“How come you never told me about him?”
“I did.You just don’t remember.Or, like so many other people around here, you choose not to listen to me.”
“The very first day that I met you.I told you that his name was ‘E’.”
She had me there. I did remember her telling me that she had a boyfriend.
“That’s right, I’m sorry, I forgot.”
“That’s quite all right, but please, no more talk about Troy.”
“Fair enough, if you tell me a little about ‘E’.”
At the mere mention of his name, a smile came to Ophelia’s face.She stared right past me and into her private life.Her defensive posture melted into a fond sigh of recollection.
“E is a truly wonderful man,” she said in a movie-like Southern drawl, a real Savannah gem of an accent.
“Well, he’s a musician, and he’s tall, dark hair, and very handsome.He is always home when I get off work and is the only person who truly seems like he wants to spend time with me.”She unsnapped the lid to her pudding and started unconsciously spooning it into her mouth.
“Where exactly did you meet Mr. Perfect.This guy sounds like a dream.”
“If you only knew.I met him at the Ryland Street Flea Market last summer.When I’m home, he pampers me, sings to me,he loves my cooking and…” Her voice trailed off, her mind obviously floating at home with her magical “E”, the man who knew no fault.
“How come you never bring him here to work, or why doesn’t he ever pick you up?”This question snapped her out of her little trance and seemed to startle her a little.
“Oh no, he’d never come here.I mean, he’s a homebody; he doesn’t like to leave the house.”She seemed a little distracted.“But, he’s always waiting for me when I get home…always.”
“Well, maybe I can come over and meet him sometime.”
She gave me a strange look like she was sizing me for a dress.
“Maybe…maybe not.We’ll just have to see.”
My friendship with Ophelia, to that point, was one that normal workmates share, the kind that starts at eight and ends at quitting time.At least that was the case until the Delbert Finney incident just before Halloween that year.
Calling Delbert Finney a bad apple was like calling the President of the United States a well-known political figure.Everyone in town had a story or six about a run-in that they had with Delbert at the feed store or the local watering hole.At age 53, he had been in jail 27 different times for offenses ranging from domestic violence to disturbing the peace.His longest stint came for child abuse when he took it upon himself to circumcise his own son when his wife had turned down the procedure at the hospital.She came home one day to find the boy strapped to a two-by-ten with rubber snubbers and Delbert sharpening his pocket knife on the bench grinder. To this day, he still boasts that if hard time wasn’t involved, he would have kept trying until he got away with it. It would be a damn sight better than the brain damage it’d cause him as a teenager with that peanut dick between his legs, he would rationalize between beers at the bar.
Mr. Shelby said that he didn’t mind Delbert’s kind.He said that with all of the bad habits that people like Delbert had, they spent a lot of time and money at his store supporting those habits.Ophelia thought that Delbert was just a drunken old farm boy, just like three-quarters of the men in town.She made a comment once that Delbert was a man who couldn’t be trusted.When I asked her why, she said that he had and odd odor to him. Not just the smell of booze and stale cigarette smoke, but another odor that made her think that maybe he had dropped a pork chop in his drawers once upon a time, and never bothered to fish it out or change his underwear.She said a man that didn’t care that he smelled like that obviously didn’t care about anything.
Delbert had come into the store smelling strongly of the same cheap beer that he had come to buy.John Harding, the usual afternoon bag boy, was out to a wrestling meet on the afternoon that he came in, so Ophelia was bagging.
Mr. Shelby rang Delbert’s beer through and handed it to Ophelia who promptly dropped the six-pack of glass bottles on the floor.
Ophelia immediately dropped to her knees, almost in tears.Mr. Shelby ran to the back to fetch some more beer and a mop.Some of the beer had splashed in Delbert’s direction and doused his pant cuffs and his work boots.
From my position in the produce section and from what I could overhear, the incident progressed something like this:
“Jesus Christ you dumb bitch, look at my goddamn pants!”
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Finney,” Ophelia said scrambling to wipe off his boots.
“Just get the hell away from me and get me another six-pack.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Shelby will be right back with more beer.”
By this time I had moved up to the register to see if I could help.As Ophelia turned to look at me, Delbert spoke again.
“What can I expect from the bitch daughter of a child molester?”
Ophelia’s face turned stone gray and she stopped abruptly.
“You heard me,” he continued, “any kid been fucked by her father as many times as you have, obviously don’t know any better.Believe me, most of the town knows what happened.Hell, I was there when they picked your old man up the third time, the thing is, he told us it was your idea.”
Ophelia’s hand, full of pieces of broken glass, lashed out toward Delbert’s face.Unable to match her swiftness in his drunken state, he was unable to react in time.A deep gash immediately began oozing blood from high on his cheek.He put a hand to his face and when he saw that she had drawn blood, his skin turned flush, his blood pressure rising.
“You fucking whore,” he roared.He reached into his pocket and pulled out a large lock-back pocket knife.
“You just breathed your last, sweetheart.”He slowly advanced toward Ophelia.She didn’t budge, her hatred for Delbert Finney so consuming that the danger was only a slight distraction, barely comprehensible on a conscious level.
I eased in behind the cash register, very afraid for Ophelia.
“If you had any dinner plans tonight darlin’, I suggest you have your friend here call and cancel.”
He reached out and grabbed Ophelia by her hair.She swung again with her fist full of glass, blood leaking from between her fingers from gripping the shards.Delbert saw this one coming and easily batted her hand to the side.He grabbed and pulled her hair and forced her to her knees.He moved for her throat with the knife.
I shot him twice.Up until that moment, I had wondered for years if I would ever be able to kill again.But, once again, I had no choice.That’s neither hope nor glory, because this story is about Ophelia Raymond, and I don’t want to get side-tracked with my own skeletons and my own closets.
Ophelia stared at Delbert Finney’s lifeless body, trying to stifle her sobs.She looked up at me, her eyes afraid, but mostly hurt.I must have been some sight, standing there in my apron, that monster of a pistol shaking in my hands.Mr. Shelby had said that he kept the pistol behind the counter just in casehell blew in one Monday morning and he had to shoot the devil.
I first interpreted the look on Ophelia’s face as nothing more than fear and confusion, but as I had a chance to look back on it, I think the look was also a thank you of sorts.At that point, I realized that all of Ophelia’s life, nobody had done anything for Ophelia, except Ophelia, and now me.
The following day at lunch, the break room was very still.Mr. Shelby told Ophelia to take the day off, but she insisted on coming to work. Ophelia sat and ate her string cheese and had already cracked the lid to the butterscotch pudding.The police had been and gone.They weren’t surprised about what had happened.They were more surprised that someone hadn’t knocked off Delbert Finney years ago.Mr. Shelby’s account of the incident held water with the police, and why not, Mr. Shelby was one of the most respected men about town, although he would deny it if you asked him.
“Thank you,” Ophelia whispered, breaking the silence, but not looking up from her food.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“I would like you to come over to dinner, at my place.”
“I’d like that very much,” I said, now looking straight into her boyish face.“Now maybe I can meet this fabulous “E” of yours.”
“Well,” she hesitated, looking up at the ceiling, “maybe.”
“I’m sure we’ll get along great.After all we already have you in common, so I’m sure that we will have plenty to discuss.”
She forced a smile.
“Alright then, Friday at seven-thirty.”
Ophelia bounced back from the Delbert Finney incident fairly quickly.The Friday of the dinner at Ophelia’s house, we had both been in a good mood all day.This was to be the first night that I had eaten somewhere other than my own, two-room apartment in quite sometime, and the first time in two years that I would not be eating alone.The day progressed as usual; Ophelia worked and sang her own revised versions of show tunes and the customer load was light.
When quitting time rolled around, Ophelia said her good-byes, punched out, and met Troy at the front door.They came back into the store because Ophelia had forgotten the candles she had bought at lunch.
“ Can’t have a candle light dinner without the candles,” she mused in Troy’s general direction.I was changing out of my apron in the ladies’ room that was situated next to the break room.As I changed, the thin walls and the way voices carried hollowly throughout the old plaster building allowed me to overhear the pair having a strange conversation, at least strange to me.
“Troy, what are you doing? Stand up and let’s go.I have to cook dinner.”
“Ophelia, we have known each other for quite some time and even though you tell me that we are not dating, that we are just friends, I think we both know better.”
“Troy, please do not do this to me, not tonight.”
“Ophelia,” Troy interrupted, “Will you marry me?”
I almost swallowed my gum.I heard the sharp snap of Ophelia’s hand as she slapped Troy’s face.
“What did you do that for?”
“Troy Greene, you make me so miserable.You know that I am already engaged.You know that I’m happy.Why do you have to keep up with this?”
“Ophelia, we have been over this a million times.I am reality.I will treat you with all of the love and respect that you deserve, if you would just give me a chance.”
“No, and I don’t want to talk about it any more.”
“Fine,” Troy said, obviously upset with Ophelia, “but I’m warning you, Missy Overbye has invited me out on a date and you never know what might happen.Keep kicking me, Ophelia, and I just might stay away for good.”
I heard the door to the break room slam, and I heard Ophelia say “RATS,” the harshest curse that I had heard from her very limited curse vocabulary.
When I was sure that they had both left, I exited the ladies room.Here I was with no man, and here a strange duck like Ophelia had two men fighting over her like she was a pair of tickets to a Yankees’ game.As I headed home, I wondered where the justice was.
That evening was brisk, the air cold and dry, the heels of my brown pumps cracked loudly on the uneven sidewalk along West Fifth Street.Ophelia lived on the third floor of a run-down apartment building on the north side of town.The brick construction was devoid of any style or charm.As a matter of fact, I was sure that I had seen her building in a few prison movies I’d seen in the past.Much of the glass in the windows was either broken or covered by sheets of aluminum foil.The whole scene as I approached was dreadfully dreary with the exception of one small window located on the third floor. The sill of this particular window had been painted a brilliant blue and was burgeoning with flowers and knick-knacks.From the instant I saw it, I knew that the window belonged to Ophelia Raymond.
She must have seen me walking up the path, for no sooner did I deliver one light knock on the door, did it fling open to reveal Ophelia with a look on her face that I had a hard time reading.The look was not your normal it’s so nice to see you, may I take your coat, but more like, so happy to see you, Grandpa’s dead.The surly look quickly turned to a forced smile.
“Welcome to our home,” she said, taking my coat and hat and ushering me into the living room.
She sat down next to me on a ratty beige sofa that had been spared from the local landfill by draping it with a pink and white afghan and littering it with throw pillows.It was actually quite comfortable.To my surprise, Ophelia took both of my hands in hers, gave a here it goes type sigh, and looked intensely into my eyes.I saw that whether I liked it or not, I was going to be briefed on the reason for the strange greeting at the door.
“OK, I know that you may find some of the things that you see tonight a little strange, and I just want to let you know that I am perfectly happy and wouldn’t change a thing.”She drew in a deep breath.“There, now, with that out of the way, I want to introduce you to E.”
This little pre-introduction chat knocked me off balance.I had the feeling that I was in store for a stranger evening than I was prepared for, if that was possible after working all day with Ophelia.What I didn’t know was just how strange the evening would actually be.She seemed to be justifying her relationship with E before I even had a chance to meet him.My mind put its mental finger on the caution and panic buttons in my head.The phrase Justification is Mutilation jumped into the front of my thoughts.The saying was one that I had encountered a couple of years ago in a women’s help group.You cannot justify domestic violence, was the next line in the lecture.My mind wouldn’t let go of the fact that maybe E was an abuser; maybe that’s why nobody had ever met him.
Please God, let him be horribly disfigured, or confined to a wheel chair or something.Don’t let Ophelia go through the same things that I did; she doesn’t deserve it. This was the thought racing through my mind.One part of me knew that this was nonsense, here I am sizing-up her entire relationship after one little conversation.Then it hit me, there had been other conversations at the store where she acted the same way, and I just hadn’t recognized it at the time.
As she led me around the corner of the wall that separated the living room from the dining room, I was not sure that I wanted to find out if my feelings were true.The first thing that caught my eye as we entered the dining room was how elaborately and tastefully the table had been set.Two large sterling silver candelabras gave the room a soft glow. The china was exquisite, of a quality not normally found in any apartment located on the north side of town.The hand-woven lace tablecloth was so intricate and detailed that you could get lost trying to figure out what the pattern actually was.
Ophelia walked to the far end of the table where a red piece of silk covered a bulky object sitting in a child’s restaurant booster seat.Ophelia asked me to be seated and looked at me nervously.As she pulled the cloth from the object in the booster seat my mind could not quite register what was happening.Under the cloth was a plaster bust of Elvis Presley.The bust had obviously been hand painted, but not very well.The lips were painted a bright shade of red and stood out grotesquely against the yellowish skin.The hair, instead of being black was dark brown, and his eyes were solid black holes giving them the appearance of a bird’s eyes.The bust looked more like “The Clown” than “The King.”I looked up at Ophelia, her hands were trembling violently, and her gaze swept the floor.
“This is E.”Her face flushed, her eyes stayed on the floor as she awaited my reaction.
I experienced a great release of emotion as I realized that she was not a battered partner.I stood dumbfounded, unable to think of anything to say.A million questions filled my head.I wanted to know if this was a joke, but the look of anguish that my long silence plastered on Ophelia’s face was enough to tell me that it was no joke.
Instead of addressing Ophelia, I nodded to the bust and very casually said, “It is very nice to finally meet you.”
A look of ultimate relief came over Ophelia’s face, and a smile enveloped her entire head.“I knew that you were different,” she muttered quietly.“I knew you would understand.”
As she brought the food to the table, she seemed lighter, bubbly.As she prepared the table, she held conversation with me, with E and sometimes with no one but herself.We ate dinner, which consisted of a rather bland pot roast, potatoes, boiled okra, and of course, butterscotch pudding for dessert.Throughout the course of dinner she would occasionally face the bust asking it questions or telling it little tidbits of information about what she referred to as the larks that we have at work.As far as I could tell, the responses that she received from the bust were always exactly what she wanted to hear.
Although in most cases, the things that I had experienced that night would have sent me screaming from the apartment or at least made me very uncomfortable, I felt completely at ease, happy for Ophelia.Ophelia didn’t say anything about my not holding conversation directly with the bust; instead she would parlay our conversation into something that she could include E in on and then relay his response to me.To this day, when I think of Ophelia and her bust, I think of how reality isn’t something that a person, a religion, or even a society can push on to another individual. If one of my current friends were to tell me that their mother was a witch from the planet Sarnac, and ate little children for dinner, I would simply respond by asking how the weather was on Sarnac.After all, my first husband and Ophelia Raymond had both given me new senses of the same reality.One included a limp and a police record, and the other taught me that happiness can be found at a shitty little flea market on Ryland Street.
After dinner, Ophelia moved the bust to the windowsill that I had seen as I walked up the street.The windowsill was broad and flat.Ophelia explained that the sill was where she sat every evening after dinner, to get some air and to think things out.She sat on the sill next to E, and I pulled a chair up next to the window and sat with them.The cool evening air felt good on my skin as it almost always does after eating a good meal.We could see our breath, but a shawl wasn’t necessary, the cold seemed friendly and refreshing.
Not much was said, but between the two of us, quite a bit was thought.Just as I started to nod, a knock came at the door.The knock startled me, but it didn’t seem to bother Ophelia enough to pull her out of her trance.
“Could you get that?” she asked, her gaze out the window never wavering.
I opened the door and saw Troy Greene standing there.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t recall that Ophelia was entertaining this evening.”
“No, please come in.”We exchanged names and I lead him into the dining room.
“Ophelia, it’s Troy.”
The mention of his name immediately snapped her out of her trance.She jumped up off the sill and ran full speed toward Troy.
“Oh no you don’t,” she screamed pushing him in the chest with both hands as hard as she could.He stumbled backward not quite falling down.
“Take it easy, I’ve just come to apologize.I didn’t mean what I said earlier.”
“Just get out.E would never treat me the way you did.Never!”
“Ophelia, E isa plaster bust, he isn’t real.He is a figure of your imagination, how on earth do you expect me to compete?” he asked, obviously agitated at the mention of E.
“That’s just it.You won’t even respect my relationship with E, in my own home.How could I expect you to respect me?Please just get out of here; you are ruining my dinner.”
I didn’t know if I should stay or go.My better judgment said go, but my mind said this was some weird shit; maybe I should stick around and see how it turned out.I justified staying by telling myself that maybe Ophelia would need to talk after this, knowing full well that unless significantly prodded, Ophelia did not like to talk about any part of her life even if you had taken a role in that particular part.
“Ophelia,” Troy said, frustration and embarrassment forcing his face to turn blotchy.
“Go!” she screamed at the top of her lungs and returned in a huff to the windowsill.
Every time I ever looked at Troy, I had always seen a well-mannered, well-meaning, “nice guy”, the kind of guy who never did well with women because of his physical appearance and lack of aggressive direction toward the opposite sex.He was the kind of guy who, if someone had taken the chance to get to know him, would have been uncompromisingly faithful and the best companion a significant other could hope for.To sum it up, he would have been the perfect mate for Ophelia Raymond, and the sad part of it was, thatOphelia knew it too.But at the moment what I saw was the pinnacle of Troy’s frustration, quickly turning to all out rage, all over a plaster bust of Elvis Presley.Troy rushed to the windowsill shouting obscenities, his eyes red with anger.He picked up the plaster bust and threw it out of the window.What happened next stopped my heart not for a couple of seconds, but for two solid years.When Troy pushed that bust out the window, Ophelia had tried to catch it, falling out the window herself.
When I rushed to the window and looked down, I knew right away that she was dead.Her neck was all weird and twisted, her face looking off in a direction not possible for a living person.
Troy rushed downstairs screaming her name and the name of the Lord Almighty at the top of his lungs.I didn’t know what to do.I felt like running, but where? I knew she was dead.I felt like crying or screaming, but all I could manage was to ramble uncontrollably.I sat back down on the windowsill and looked out, my body shivering not only from the accident, but also from the cool night air that suddenly didn’t feel quite as friendly.As I looked down, I could see the bust.It was lying in a mud puddle, a streetlight shining down upon it, magnifying its bird eyes and jaundiced skin.The ironic part was that it had survived the fall in perfect condition, the plaster bust unable to mourn the death of the one who had loved it so much.
I married Troy Greene two summers following Ophelia’s death.Countless hours of keening over the loss of our friend over coffee led to an almost natural lasting friendship.We had shared feelings of shame and guilt for what had happened.It was some time before our relationship was strong enough to put our guilty consciences to the side and come to the conclusion that maybe our relationship would have been something that Ophelia would have wanted almost as much as she wanted that plaster bust of Elvis to be her real life E.
Troy and I kept the plaster bust and had it set on the dresser in our bedroom, but decided that it would be better in the living room, feeling like maybe Ophelia could see right through the bird eyes of that bust, and probably wouldn’t approve of our “shenanigans”, as she had referred to such acts of that nature.Mr. Shelby let me run the Food Spot when he got ready to retire, and I kept running it as long as I could, but the big chain stores had moved into town and were driving us out of business, offering everything from a pharmacy to a whorehouse.
As I stood in the doorway of the ladies’ room on that last day of business, the quality of light shining in through those little rectangular windows grabbed my heart and gave it one last squeeze.And as I closed the door, I toasted silently to what my life had become: To “E” and Me, both of us are better off for being touched by a woman who was a little bit queer, but we wish we had five more just like her.