By Rosemary Cacolice Brown.
After another disappointing day of job search, Genesa Tibbs stood third in the checkout line at Big Jack’s grocery store, just outside the business district in Marshall, Michigan, a bustling small town peppered with Victorian homes, ranches and bungalows. Her cart contained eggs, bread, apples, coffee and milk. Absent were any impulse items five weeks and counting, ever since Reston Auto Industries outsourced their production division overseas. The move left her “up the creek without a paddle,” as the saying goes, compelling her to apply for assistance. In short, food stamps. She hoped to get the milk home quickly before it spoiled in the July heat. Today she was walking to save gas money, even though the grocery store was just one block from her apartment.
Big Jack, a whale of a man with a cantankerous streak to match, stood at the register as Genesa took note of the man now paying out. Though they’d never met, she recognized him as a former Reston employee who met the same sorry fate. Turning, she wondered who else in line shared their bleak story. Perhaps three out of six, she surmised, excluding the well-dressed stranger who just walked in dabbing his forehead with a sky blue handkerchief that matched his loosened tie.
Next up was the young boy named Billy from the neighborhood, clad in well-worn jeans and faded blue shirt with frayed cuffs. Everybody who knew Billy loved him, age twelve and, sadly, cognitively impaired. With an eager, innocent smile, he placed two chocolate bars on the counter, along with one dollar bill.
“Is this enough to pay, Mr. Jack?” he said cheerfully. “They’re for my mama’s birthday today!”
Big Jack shifted, always uncomfortable with the boy. “At a dollar apiece, that’s two dollars plus tax.”
Billy pondered a moment. “Can I buy just one then?”
Big Jack bristled. “Got the tax?”
“No, just a dollar,” Billy relented, his young voice now weakening in defeat.
Out of patience, Big Jack then finished him off. “Well, then you’re tough out of luck, kid! Now move aside! You’re holdin’ up the line!”
As Billy slumped away, Genesa’s anger rose to trigger point. In that moment, not only did she detest the big lummox behind the counter, the lad’s dilemma touched her deeply. She had to do something! With that conviction she gently tapped his shoulder as he passed her.
“Don’t leave yet,” she whispered in his ear. “Just meet me at the door and you’ll have those chocolate bars, I promise!’
Moving forward, Genesa pulled the eggs, bread, apples, coffee and milk from her cart to place on Big Jack’s worn Formica counter, along with her newly acquired food stamps. With the purchase complete, she then retrieved two dollars plus tax from her purse, all of it loose change from the coffee can she kept on the top shelf of her bedroom closet for some minor purchase like an ice cream cone or hair clips. Dolling it out slowly to make the point, she spoke firmly.
“Now give me those two chocolate bars for the boy you saw fit to treat so shamefully.”
Big Jack caught her meaning, but feigned indifference with a smug, face-saving reply. “Look, nothin’s free here, lady, and I have a business to run.”
“Understood,” Genesa replied stiffly, “and loyal customers keep a business running. Thing is, we tend to shop elsewhere when we’re treated badly. So have a little respect for those who keep you in the black—including children like the one you just demolished.” Then, after pulling his eyes to the checkout line, she took one final shot. “I don’t know how you’re going to repair your atrocious display, Jack, but you damn well better try.”
Bingo! Big Jack was sunk like a brick in a rain barrel, having met his match in this snip of a gal half his size and weight—not to mention the sudden applause erupting from the checkout line that sealed the deal. His awkward apology came by way of an extra chocolate bar “free of charge for the boy,” as he put it. Genesa then paid out, rolled her cart to Billy, and with a wink and a smile offered the chocolate bars.
“One’s for you, and happy birthday to your mom,” she said softly.
It was then that the finely dressed stranger with the sky blue handkerchief approached her just before she exited. “Miss, that was incredible! I stopped in by chance for some bottled water to quench my thirst in this blasted heat, and you made my day!” He then offered his business card.
Genesa accepted it, a bit dazed as she read it. “Spane Academy of Fashion Design,” it said.
The stranger went on. “I’m Daniel Spane, and in two weeks I’ll be opening up right here in Marshall. I’ve been searching to employ someone brassy and sharp like you to organize my front office. So if you’re interested, give me a call.”
Genesa had to ask. “But why Marshall? It’s not exactly…well, a Mecca for this kind of thing.”
Spane chuckled. “Oh, I like your directness! The short answer is because I grew up here, and I’m coming home. On your point I’ve done the research. Along with brick and mortar students, we’ll be doing online teaching as well. The market is huge.”
“Well, I do appreciate the offer,” Genesa replied, a bit embarrassed. Saying no more she turned to leave. There was no time left to doddle, knowing she had to walk that block quickly to get the milk home. After that she’d definitely be making the call, even though she really didn’t know the difference between fine clothes and off-the-rack wear.
Out in the hot, moist air she watched as Billy skipped off, never to know the part he played in the promising possibility. “God bless you, sweet boy,” she murmured softly, smiling openly for the first time in quite a while.
ROSEMARY CACOLICE BROWN is always at the keyboard in her southeastern Michigan home. Early on her work was print-published in small-press magazines. On the Internet, her many stories have been published at Long Story Short, Apollo’s Lyre, Green Silk Journal, Houston Literary Review and Fiction on the Web.