Life is so unfair. I scuffed my thinning shoes against the pavement as I walked. Once, long ago, Momma would have agreed with me, but she took the coward’s way out. She left and with her all hope of anyone caring anything about me.
Father’s words still rang through me, “You’re worthless, Caddie. You are too dumb to bother with and too ugly for pity.” He figured girls had no purpose but to keep house and have babies.
So, I worked hard when I could get away. For Old Lady Brighton, I ran errands while she sat on her porch waving her fan and drinking so she didn’t have to run into who she called riff raff. And yet the “riff raff” did her bidding.
All I had ever wanted could be summed up in five words: To be needed and wanted. It wasn’t such a big request. Didn’t everyone hope for the same thing?
As I came around the corner toward the market, I lowered my chin so I wouldn’t have to see stares from moms pushing their children away from me. I hurried to get into the store before I’d cleared the whole roadway by my presence, but I knew what would happen … it happened every time. I’d step inside, and people would step around and away so they didn’t have to get close to the girl in rags. I’d show them. Someday, I’d own the market. Then again, why would I want to stay in this hopeless town?
The doors slid open and as they did, the fragrance of fresh bread, donuts, and coffee drifted outside. I pressed my fist against my growling stomach, then stepped close to the outer wall of the store. The woman dressed in the perfect workout clothes, hair pulled up in the perfect ponytail, and lipstick two layers too thick didn’t seem to notice me. Not unusual.
Around the corner to the vegetables I slinked, but as I did, I knocked against a display of coffee cans. The top one teetered wavering back and forth. I drew in my breath willing it to stay in place. Of course, it didn’t. As it fell, the rest of the mountain came down as well.
Covering my head with my arms, I dropped to the linoleum floor and scooted back. Once the thunderous sound quit, I reached out and grabbed as many escaping cans as possible. Maybe I could get them restacked before anyone noticed. Failure.
Voices of laughter swirled around, but with my head down, I kept working.
“What’s going on? OK, it’s over. Please go back to your shopping.” The store owner’s words quieted the mocking mirth.
As fast as possible, I continued with my task. Through my hair dangling across my face, I watched Mr. Chang work alongside me. Father would’ve whipped off his belt by now, but Mr. Chang was one of those everyday Christians, not the just-on-Sunday kind. He’d always been nice to me especially after Momma died.
After stacking the last tin and straightening the display, I raised my eyes. Mr. Chang stood quietly watching. His eyes seemed, I don’t know … what was that look? Admiration? Then he couldn’t be looking at me.
“Are you all right, Caroline?” His words came out as what kindness must feel like.
I could only nod. Few people ever called me by my real name.
“Are you sure? Did any of the cans hit you?”
Only then did I notice the redness on my arm. I covered it with my left hand and shrugged.
“Do you always work that hard?”
I clutched the bottom of my threadbare jacket. “I’m sorry I knocked down your stack. I made the mess, so I figured I should clean it up.”
“Many people your age wouldn’t have bothered. You’re almost out of school, aren’t you?” Mr. Chang’s words were so unusual. Gentle. Soft. Strange.
“I’m in my last year.” I stood a bit taller, though I still didn’t make eye contact with him. Why chance seeing his face twist when he looked at me?
“Would you like a job in the afternoons and on Saturdays?”
My head shot up almost on its own. I opened my eyes as wide as possible, but then I looked around to make sure he was actually talking to me. “Me? Work here?” This couldn’t actually be happening, and he didn’t react when I looked right at his eyes.
“I’m impressed with your speed, your respect, and your hard work. I happen to need a new worker. The last couple I’ve hired didn’t seem to care about keeping my store neat.”
Need? Did he say need?
He rubbed his hand over his round chin. “Tell you what, you can start tomorrow. I’ll have you start with stocking shelves, sweeping, mopping, that kind of thing. If you do well on those things, maybe you can work your way up to a clerk. Would you like that?”
I’d never had a job except to keep the house clean. I had no clue if I’d like it. But it would give me a chance to get away from home. A tear threatened, but I set my jaw to keep it from escaping. “I don’t have clothes to wear.” I looked down at my faded shirt, holey pants, and scuffed shoes. Hope teetered like those coffee cans had moments ago.
We walked through the black heavy doors and entered a room larger than my bedroom. A kitchen table sat against the wall. On the counter sat a full coffee pot and mugs. He opened a cabinet. “Pick out your size. Take two shirts, at least one pair of pants, and a cap.”
My heart was about to pound out of my chest. I stepped forward and touched the fabric. It wasn’t frayed at all. A couple of moments went by until I stood in front of Mr. Chang again holding my future. But another reality hit. I glanced at my feet.
He seemed to understand. “What size do you wear? Six?” He opened a drawer and pulled out a pair of white and burgundy tennis shoes, then held them out to me. “See if those fit?”
I shook my head. “I can’t take those from you? They look new.”
A still hush ticked by until Mr. Chang spoke again. “They were my daughter’s.”
“Won’t she need them?” I held my breath struggling to keep hope from growing.
“No, she is with Jesus now.”
Not wanting to ask what he meant, I reached out and took the grand treasure.
“Be here at 7:30 tomorrow morning, and I’ll get you set up for your first day.” He called as he walked out of the room.
Carefully, I sat in a chair and put the clothes I’d been given on the table. I flicked off what was left of my shoes, tossed them in the trash, untied the new ones, and slid them on my feet. If everything went well, one day, I would ask him why his daughter was with Jesus. And, maybe hope and I could become friends after all.
Photo: Unsplash, Paul Gaudriault