The cash register was exactly like the one Ellen had used at the candy shop. It could have been the same one. Seeing it used for decoration, as some trendy antique, was a bit unnerving. She hit the $20 button with a furtive prod, and had a little jolt as the cash drawer burst open with a ding, revealing the dusty husk of a long-dead spider.
The ding set her memory going, and soon she was back behind the counter of the candy shop, ringing up marzipan fruits for old Mrs. Toller (who always forgot her wallet). Or Turkish delight for 91-year-old Mr. MacGinnis, who pointed a palsied finger to the boxes on the shelf instead of ordering verbally. He had brought a photograph of himself at 21, once, and all the shop ladies had exclaimed over the handsome boy, now lost in a rheumy, quivering old man.
There had been the mad rush of Christmastime, when she would wake, heart racing, from nightmares about products out of stock and lineups out of town. The worst had unquestionably been Valentine’s Day. The unspeakable trauma of being single, unattractive, and seventeen in a shop smothered in hearts, helping all the best-looking boys choose gifts for their girlfriends.
And Netty Meyer, a confident, gregarious woman with a slight New York twang, had unintentionally salted these wounds: “You’re rather pretty, you know, in a funny sort of way,” she had said conversationally from behind her dark glasses, snapping the jaws of her change-purse shut. A funny sort of way.
And after all that there had been the Almond Bark Fellow, whom she hadn’t thought about in years. She had given him a spare penny when he was short, once, and he had given her a shy smile and started showing up every Saturday to buy more. None of the ladies knew his name. He never said much, until the week he worked up the courage to ask Ellen out for dinner.
He had picked her up in an impeccably clean old boat of a car, and they had made tentative conversation over the marble tables of the local diner. Later they parked at the beach, and she allowed him to kiss her while she wondered vaguely if this was how romance worked. His real name had been John, but she never thought of him as that.
“Can I help you find anything?” someone asked a bit patronizingly, and Ellen was drawn abruptly from her reverie. She was on the point of explaining, but something in the shop assistant’s cool gaze deterred her. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, but her improbably even skin and perfectly manicured nails made her seem faintly threatening.
“No, thank you,” Ellen said crisply, and left the shop. Retail service had certainly changed a lot since her days behind the counter.
Jane watched Ellen leave, and waited until the door had fully closed before turning to her coworker to roll her eyes. “Has she ever bought anything, ever?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” Charlie laughed. “Just comes in once a week to poke around and get offended. Oh, old Mrs. Wednesday.” His tone grew sly. “Hey, what do you think? Is Green Tea Guy coming in today?” Jane blushed faintly and turned to the sink to start rinsing cups.
“No idea,” she said nonchalantly.