Light radiated through the clouds after a midday autumn shower. Glimmering Shimmers danced in puddles that sprang up all throughout a parking lot that had more craters than the moon. This glorious patch of asphalt was the crowning jewel of a dusty old strip mall. In the back corner of this middle finger salute to small American businesses existed a simple thrift store. The building had tall accordion-style windows that looked like nothing else in the mall. The store stood between a black haircare shop and a Chinese restaurant hidden behind a decorative circular door. Now this restaurant and the hair shop happened to be owned by the same person, but the thrift store technically belonged to no one. It was donated to charity and later came into the possession of a non-profit organization that didn’t think too highly of planned parenthood. So, it was no surprise that a thrift store of this caliber prided itself on offering lightly (to put it kindly) used bits and bobs for the entire family.
The door to this underwhelming establishment swung open as a yellow bucket wheeled its way outside. Guided by a frumpy girl in a red smock, the bucket stopped a few lengths from the door. Vapors rolled off the hot suds as the girl dunked the mop twice then slung it at the window with a thud. A flustered woman appeared in the window wagging her finger aggressively. Before she could mouth a word of disapproval, steamy suds rubbed her contemptible face away. Streams of dirty water ran down the windowpane as the woman aggressively pecked at the glass with her pinky. Black bubbles collected in filthy pockets in the pavement as the girl slung the wet mop at another window summoning the woman to appear in that one as well.
Several feet away, an old woman staggered up the curb, tightly grasping a wavering cane while balancing the weekend’s circular on her head. Even though it was Saturday, she never left the house without a statement piece that exuded a touch of elegance. On this day, she wore a bejeweled pendant in the shape of a dove on the outside of a floor-length sable coat. She shifted her fur to give the mop-wielding girl a wide-birth but somehow managed to get splashed with dirty water before approaching the door.
Just above the entrance, a rusty bell chimed as the woman stormed inside and threw her wet newspaper at the floor in disgust. She stuck her arms out then shook droplets everywhere with little regard for the cleanliness of the floor. “Good morning Ms. Bethune,” said the pinky tapper from behind the cash register. Ms. Bethune frowned at the woman while wrenching a shopping cart free. Her cane hung from the cart as she pushed it towards the woman. “That baboon splashed me with water and there was nothing holy about it,” huffed the old woman as she approached the register. “I –I am so sorry Ms.... Ms. Bethune, I’m trying—“
“I am a devout Christian woman. A servant of the Lord –and that means I’m in church at least three times a week. Now, I came here today, filled with the spirit and that girl just tried to take the holy ghost right out of me. Now, I don’t know what type of establishment this has become, but that mess outside, that ain’t gonna fly! You can’t be runnin’ church folks off with that nonsense... Aside from the bums, we make up your entire customer base. Without us, YOU might as well start dusting off that resume!” The woman clapped her three-inch heel on the floor with a pursed-lip as she held out her hand. The pinky-pusher was head down and rifling through a drawer behind the register. As soon as her head lifted, she handed Ms. Bethune a small piece of paper to which Ms. Bethune’s pursed lips stretched beyond the corners of her face. “I am awfully sorry –here’s a little something to show how sorry we are Ms. Bethune.” The old woman leaned in and snapped up the certificate. “I should beware of false prophets who come bearing gifts, but I’ll take THIS against my better judgment and pray for you heathens.” Ms. Bethune stuffed the ticket in her sable and pushed her cart a little ways down the aisle before coming to a stop. She lowered her head and brushed the hair off her ear and grinned to the delight of the heels quickly scuffing across the floor. “Them white girls be moving with the utmost drama. Girl, we all know you just an act.” The old woman swayed down the aisle and parked herself in front of a shoe shelf. “Ooh, those is sharp!”
A mother and daughter walked into the store just as the old woman was bending down to snap up a pair of patch leather heels. Alize Jones was that quintessential single-black mom who worked at a grocer not far from the thrift store. Zehra was her exceptionally bright and quizzical daughter who prided herself on being a borderline-nerd. Zehra wore her hair parted into two symmetrical poofs bound with giant gum-ball hair ties. It was such kiddie look, but her mom still swooned over the way they complimented her brain –“they look smart,” she’d say. “Good morning again,” the clerk called out at the entrance, where she was currently changing out the sign that greeted customers. “Go over an see what she putting up, Zay.” The little girl smiled and quietly snuck up behind the woman. “It’s 60% off green dots today, mom!” The woman jumped and only got a glimpse of one of Zehra’s puffs before she joined her mom again. Alize leaned off the cart and set herself right in Zehra’s ear. “Stay where I can see you because if you don’t, I will see you when we get home.” The girl nodded until she could find her voice. “Okay mom, I’ll be in toys.” Zehra skipped past Ms. Bethune and the old woman threw her head back in disgust.
As soon as Zehra rounded the corner, she stopped dead in her tracks. Long luxurious black locks fell like waterfalls over this doll’s tiny shoulders; except she wasn’t a toy at all. There was a mystery girl in the toy section. She looks about the same age as me, Zehra thought as she tiptoed closer. The girl just stood there frozen in time, even as Zehra drew close enough to touch her, she stopped. You shouldn’t surprise her. You would hate it if someone did that to you. Zehra cleared her throat to make her presence known. “A new shipment arrives every week, isn’t that just crazy?”
The girl didn’t move in the slightest –it was like she wasn’t even startled by the intrusion. Zehra took a knee and picked up a long-legged plastic doll dressed in a skimpy Christmas costume. “I thought I smelled something,” huffed the other girl, finally acknowledging Zehra’s presence. “I dumped my old toys here last week and they’re already so dirty, ugh... just disgusting! Mom said that this charity work is our highest calling, but I think it’s just a tax write-off. She goes on and on about how every little bit helps, but that seems so shallow, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe, I don’t think I care,” Zehra replied.
“Exactly –that is exactly what I said. She should be more concerned with the human component to all this... Personally, my hope is that YOU like them.” Her dull drone ended with a condescending inflection that wasn’t necessary for such a backhanded compliment. She finally turned her head only to look at the doll in Zehra’s hand. “I really should apologize for not thanking you for bringing it closer to my eyes. On closer inspection, I can say that it didn’t look this bad when the servants collected it from my donation box that sits betwixt our trash receptacles. Perhaps one of them took it out of the box to play with it or something... good help is impossible these days. But alas, you are touching it... so that must mean it’s good enough for YOU... you don’t know how much that pleases me.”
Zehra’s face went numb as she suddenly felt lightheaded from all the blood rushing to her head. She put the doll down and stood up for a better look at this girl. “A wise decision,” the girl chortled, “even in that state, it still might be a little out of your price range. Anyways have fun! I don’t think I can hold my breath any longer and I just wasted what little I had left, speaking to you. Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to connect a face with the struggle. Have a wonderful day Zebra.” Zehra clenched her fist as the girl strode away. It’s Zehra you twat! Zehra looked at the shelf of toys with a lot less enthusiasm. This once exciting pile of untapped potential was starting to look like a dumpster fire. And no matter how hard she tried, Zehra couldn’t help but feel a little heat from its flames. She sniffed the air and caught notes of vinegar and stale cigarette smoke, neither of which boded well for her shrinking confidence.
She tried her very best to ignore that awful exchange, but it was beginning to dawn on her that maybe, just possibly, there was the slightest chance in heaven that she wasn’t just poor, but she was poor –poor. She mulled over her life thus far, and not everything she owned was new, but of course, it was new at some point, so why did it matter now? It doesn’t matter, Zehra told herself, but of course, it mattered! She hated, that on some level, the girl was right. The words, they have so much power over her or maybe it’s that the truth hurts. Either way, she wouldn’t be able to let this go, not for a while at least. Her arms felt like heavy weights dragging through the shelf of toys. What am I trying to prove, these things ARE filthy! Zehra kept rifling through the pile of toys until she found something halfway decent. By that time, her mother was summoning her to the register.
“Come on Zehra; quick with it -we do not have all day long to spend in this wonderful store!” Alize turned to the store clerk shaking her head. “Time just gets away from you in here – like this place is under some kind of spell. You sure this is a Christian establishment?”
“Indeed, we are. But you do know the saying, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“Uh-huh... that’s it. Come on Zay, hurry it up!”
The woman behind the register chuckled as Alize glared down the aisle. “Hurry Up!” She mouthed to her daughter as the girl shuffled up to the counter with a frown plastered on her face. “Oh, what’s the matter sweetie,” said the woman pressed against the register. “Nothing, she just mad she saw her classmate, isn’t that right Zehra?”
Zehra’s elbows hit the glass countertop with a thud as she poked out her lip. Of course, this startled the woman beyond the counter, but she did her best to ignore it.
“Oh, you must be talking about Matilda Monclear. God has blessed that little girl and she gives back so much to her community. Just last week she—”
“Gave her toys to the humane society.”
“You mean this charity, the army of—”
“Did I stutter,” Zehra said calmly to which Alize grabbed her daughter’s arm tightly. “You not about to act up in this store, because if you do, you will be leaving in a body bag.” Zehra huffed. Why is it that the most venomous spit comes with a smile? Zehra rested her elbow on the counter and balanced her chin on the palm of her hand. She refused to look at her mother, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t feel her eyes penetrating her skull and resting on her mind. “Girl, if you think I’m paying for that mess on your head, you got another thing coming.”
“I think it’s very handsome,” announced the woman behind the register.
“Handsome?” Alize did a quick body check on the clerk and she recanted her statement almost immediately.
“It’s beautiful –she’s beautiful-er... your daughter is more pretty.”
“Than a raggedy hat...? I would hope so!”
“You know what, you are so right and I won’t even charge you.” The woman looks down at Zehra. “Now how does that sound, sweetie? You have a very cool mom, isn’t that just awesome?”
Zehra ignored the woman and strode over to a mirror nearby. She nearly shattered the glass when she screamed. Alize came up swiftly behind her and grabbed Zehra’s hand and led her out the door. Once outside, Zehra wrenched her hand away.
“You are HURTING ME!”
Zehra shouted loud enough that several people stopped to stare. Alize could feel their eyes sussing out the situation.
“Look around Zehra, do you think we have time for you to be acting out?” Zehra breathed in deeply and let out a huge sigh as she looked at all the fake concern that surrounded them. “You’re right, I don’t want you to hit me in public. Let’s just wait till we get home!” A woman in eye-shot of Alize clutched her pearls.
“You are really putting in overtime on my nerves, today.”
“Then you should stop with the empty threats.”
“I assure you, there’s nothing empty about them. You better go, because, in about a second, I won’t care WHO sees me!”
“Fine!” Zehra slid a pair of mixed-matched shades over her eyes. The crescent moon rested on her cheek while the tip-top of a five-pointed star dug into her brow. She turned away from her mother and stormed out of the parking lot.