by Beth Goobie
Riley locked her bike to a NO PARKING sign and surveyed the storefront forty feet in from the sidewalk, behind a small parking lot. Four months ago, she had started volunteering at The Good Intentions Emporium, a local thrift store, in the hopes of earning a job reference. At twenty-seven, she was The Emporium’s youngest volunteer, and she had quickly learned that her good intentions were not to manifest in helpful suggestions, no matter how humbly helpful she perceived them to be.
Keep your pride in your back pocket, Riley reminded herself as she headed towards the front door. Pulling it open, she was hit by the odour of vinegar that permeated the place—all incoming clothing was steamed with a water-and-vinegar solution in the back room, before being placed on the display racks. With a wave to Joyce, the elderly volunteer finishing off her morning shift at the till, Riley headed past Boutique and Women’s, along the south aisle to the back room. The store was busy; hangers clanked as customers slid them along metal racks; voices murmured in Linens and Books.
“Look at this!” cried a woman in Housewares, holding up a ceramic chipmunk. “Something for my Christmas village!”
Riley did a discreet eye roll; Christmas villages did not call out to her in April. But such was the culture of the thrift store, kaleidoscoping purpose and frivolity in random conjunctions that included everyone from the refugee to the Internet reseller. And The Good Intentions Emporium was the cheapest thrift store in town, a second-hand retail outlet that left Value Village in the dust; even the Mennonite store on 20th Street was more expensive. This was due mainly to its volunteer staff—the pear-shaped, balding manager, Fred Mikovan, and the cleaning staff were the only employees.
The vinegary atmosphere intensified as Riley passed through the curtained entrance into the back room. Heads turned to greet her—Fred, seated at his manager’s desk, as well as several grey-haired volunteers grouped around a large worktable and shooting tags into garments and tea towels with handheld pricing guns.
“Afternoon, Riley,” Fred smiled. “Thanks for being on time as usual.”
The store’s rear doorbell sounded. “I’ll get it,” Riley offered. Crossing to the back door, she pulled it open to reveal a pair of beaming faces; Joe and Cathy Picard stood side by side, thinning silver hair lifting in the breeze, toolbox and Timbits snack-pack in hand. “Halloooo!” Cathy sang out as they entered. “We had such a time getting here. Construction on Circle Drive, you know. Traffic is backed up for blocks.”
Riley liked to think of the Picards as Those Descended from Above. Although the store was staffed almost exclusively by volunteers, there was a definite hierarchy to the non-paid personnel. Top of the heap were Cathy and Joe, who had been volunteering at the store since Joe had worked off a traffic ticket on the Fine Options program six years earlier. The couple was obviously close; before retiring, they had worked together as custodians at one of the local high schools. Now in their early seventies, they sat as President and Vice President of The Executive—a small volunteer group that met twice monthly and generated quaintly worded memos regarding the running of the shop. Both Picards wore their executive responsibility like a crown and mantle; their entry into the store was trumpeted with loud voices, broad smiles, and the unspoken invitation to join in on the enjoyment of their magnificence.
And Riley did join in. She enjoyed pretty much everything about Cathy and Joe—their nonstop jovial conversation, their enthusiastic self-absorption, their assumption that nothing in the store went on before they entered it (at least nothing of significance). Joe focussed on small repairs that needed to be made around the building, as well as to donated items, and Cathy filled in as needed, presiding wherever she paraded. Wxsith a proprietary glance around the back room, she deposited the Timbits on the counter next to the coffee maker as Joe headed out into the store to fix some loose panelling in a changeroom.
“Everything going okay?” she asked Fred, hanging up her coat.
Riley tuned out of their conversation, hanging up her own coat, then sidling over to the worktable to survey the loot being processed. The Emporium operated on donations—everything from wedding dresses to paint sets to gardening tools. Riley fingered a mushroom-shaped set of salt-and-pepper shakers, then two nightlights lying on a decorative plate. “No way,” she muttered, examining the nightlights more closely. Three-inches tall, they were beige plastic likenesses of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, each with its right hand raised in blessing. A tiny lightbulb had been screwed into the socket behind each figure.
Riley fizzed giggles and diligently choked them back. Several other volunteers had just come in, and details about church potlucks and a Red Hat luncheon were being cheerfully exchanged. If her four months of experience here had taught Riley anything, it was that at The Good Intentions Emporium, one volunteer and one volunteer only would appreciate the humour in these plastic beige monstrosities, but he was not to be found among the chattering, congenial, rotund bodies currently exchanging tips about the best aquafit classes. Nightlights in hand, Riley headed out into the store.
Things had quieted down—an elderly man could be seen poking through Books, a Hutterite couple was checking out an iron, and a young mother pushed a stroller along the north aisle. As Riley approached the till, she caught sight of Joe, one hand pressed to his lower back as he lectured the cashier who had taken over for Joyce. “Just keep an eye out,” he admonished, turning away from the counter. “Not a big problem, really, but we’d like more consistency with the customers.”
With a nod, he brushed past Riley and headed up the south aisle towards the changerooms. In his wake, the stone-faced cashier lifted his right hand and waggled the middle finger. “The Sacred Finger speaks.” In his mid thirties, Pete was the grandson of the store’s founding mother, and he had been volunteering at The Emporium since adolescence. Thinning auburn hair drifted down his back and a beard rounded his jaw line, but on most days the most compelling aspect of his appearance was his wildly weird collection of T-shirts. Pete insisted on showing up for his shifts wearing tees guaranteed to blast the Picards’ eyebrows skyward. Rainbow-hued hemp leaves, Che Guevara, Mr. Poopy Butthole and, Riley’s favourite, TOO MANY RIGHT-WING CHRISTIANS. TOO FEW LIONS.
“What was that all about?” she asked, walking up to the counter.
Pete leaned across the counter and pointed to the sign taped to the front, requiring all bags and knapsacks be left behind the till. “The usual,” he complained. “One week it’s ‘You’re paranoid! Stop bugging the customers and just let them shop!’ And the next, it’s ‘They’re robbing the store blind! Get those bags in behind the counter and keep them there until the customer leaves!’” He rolled his eyes. “You know Joe—always working on his Mount Rushmore profile.”
Riley’s grin widened. Of her two volunteer shifts, Friday was by far her favourite, due mostly to Pete’s quirky subversion. Slouched into a perennial question mark, his slender body was languid, his voice high-pitched. Pete made Cathy nervous and he knew it; Riley suspected that he enjoyed it.
“The man’s in pain,” he added. “Pulled his back clipping his toenails. Old age can be hazardous. My uncle dislocated his shoulder picking up a phonebook. But you know, if you slow down and take a day off now and then like normal people, that stuff doesn’t happen. Only you can’t say that to the precious Picards without them blowing their obsessive-compulsive little stacks.”
Riley placed both nightlights on the counter. “Okay,” she said. “So take a break from the bum facts of life and tell me what you think of these.”
Pete whistled and picked up the Virgin Mary. “These are beauts,” he cooed. “The ultimate in blasphemy. Do they work?”
“Haven’t checked yet,” said Riley.
“Oh man,” Pete purred. Turning to an outlet in the wall to the left of the till, he plugged in the Virgin. The hooded figure glowed benignly. “You know,” said Pete, observing it, “she reminds me of my granny that same divine beneficence. Gran died a coupla years back. When she ran this store, it was a fun place to be. She started it as a service to the community. Now it’s all about making money.” He waved a hand at the Boutique section opposite. “There didn’t used to be an area for designer clothing. That was a play zone for kids. There was a one-for-one barrel there too, you could bring something in and trade it for anything already there. It didn’t earn the store anything, but it was fun and brought people in—the kind of people who needed it, not people with money lookin’ for a steal.”
“It all goes to charity,” said Riley. “Don’t you buy things here?”
“The odd thing,” Pete hedged. “If I need it. The question is: Do I need this place?”
The front door opened, interrupting his ruminations, and a portly elderly woman entered, leaning heavily on a walker. Just inside the door, she stopped to pick up a shopping basket and abruptly clutched at her chest. “Oh, don’t worry!” she gasped, her face contorting. “I’ll be all right. It’ll pass. It comes and goes, I always manage. Just give me a moment.”
Alarm electrified Riley. “I’ll get you a chair!” she exclaimed. “There’s one beside the changerooms.”
“Oh no!” cried the woman, bending forward so her forehead rested on the countertop.
Gasp followed gasp, building to crescendo. “It’s nothing. It comes and goes. I’ll be fine in a bit.”
Leaning onto his forearms, Pete observed the woman with a tiny grin. “Now, Mrs. Gwitch,” he said. “What is it this week? Allergies? Your heart acting up again?”
Mrs. Gwitch’s free hand scrabbled in a pocket and pulled out a tissue. “My doctor says he doesn’t know what it is,” she croaked, dabbing at her forehead. “It’s just one of those things I have to endure.”
Pete’s grin grew. “There, there,” he soothed, patting Mrs. Gwitch’s shoulder. “How’s your cat been doing? Whiskers is his name, right?”
Mrs. Gwitch’s wheezing vanished and she straightened into an ear-to-ear smile. “Whiskers!” she warbled. “Oh, he’s a darling. He makes me laugh with the things he does. But he needs his teeth brushed, and the vet said it’d cost four hundred dollars. Four hundred dollars! But I’d do anything for Whiskers.”
Pete quirked an eyebrow at Riley, and she put away her panic as a renewed Mrs. Gwitch moved off to do her shopping. Moving in behind the counter, Riley assisted with bagging purchases as Pete totalled prices for the Hutterite couple. To his left, a radiant Virgin Mary blessed the proceedings. When the pair had exited the store, Riley asked, “What’s with the jacket?”
Pete looked down, patting his chest. “It is a nice jacket, isn’t it?” he said.
“Sure,” said Riley, “but you’re indoors and zipped to the chin.”
“Ah,” said Pete, glancing towards the back of the store. “Well, y’see, I’m awaiting the moment of inspiration.” With a second glance towards the back, he unzipped his jacket partway and pulled it open. QUEER AS FUCK in bold white caps strutted across his black tee.
Riley’s jaw went into an unmitigated sag. The gender of some of her friends was so fluid they drank it for breakfast, and she had taken some experimental sips herself. But that was in the real world—the part of her life that, by an unspoken understanding, she left behind when she entered The Emporium. No one had to warn her never to mention it to the Norman Rockwell fans in the back room.
Resolute, almost grim, Pete’s dark eyes held hers. “I go both ways,” he said quietly.
“They’re goi—” Riley’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “They’re going to eat you alive,” she whimpered.
Pete shrugged. “Queers used to be welcome in this store,” he said. “My granny was queer. Under the skin, we’re all a little queer, don’t ya think?”
“Queer as fuck?”
“We all want to fuck too,” Pete opined.
“You are about to be fucked,” Riley snapped. Stepping forward, she grabbed the front of his shirt. “Will you please,” she hissed, “zip up your jacket?”
Pete blinked. “It’s too hot,” he demurred.
“But you must know it’s totally inappropriate for retail!”
“Not for the store I volunteer in,” he replied.
Riley threw up her hands. Pete was looking for a fight; there was nothing she could do to ameliorate the situation, except hope to god no one noticed the retail apocalypse on his chest. Making tracks up the south aisle, she passed the change-rooms, which emitted a steady hammering, and entered the back room and a worktable conversation in progress.
“I found a dress here last week to wear to my granddaughter’s wedding or ten dollars!”
Cathy was exulting. “We do have such low prices, don’t we? Can’t be beat.”
“The lowest prices in town,” agreed another pricer, her voice sonorous.
“Problem is,” said Fred, keeping his gaze on his computer screen, “I feel guilty if I don’t buy something when I come in. And I’m in every day.”
“I hear you,” Cathy sympathized, her gaze on the invisible audience that followed her everywhere. “My closets are stuffed. Things are so squished, my clothes get wrinkled just hanging there.”
Same old, same old, thought Riley. Boredom sank in its vampire teeth, but she picked up the steaming wand and got to work, inhaling one-hundred proof vinegar as she tried to come up with the magical verbal formula that would instantly convert the back room to gay-friendly status.
Riley turned to see Pete standing just inside the entrance to the back room. A large cardboard box was clasped to his chest, with tinsel spilling over one side. Around his neck hung a wreath; a twig of plastic mistletoe crowned his head. “Someone just left a box of Christmas ornaments by the till,” he grinned. “Can you believe it—kisseltoe in April! Five seconds before this mistletoe slides off my bald spot. Any takers?”
Bending down, he set the box on the floor and dropped in the twig of mistletoe. Then he straightened, shoulders back, hands on his hips, QUEER AS FUCK proclaiming from his chest.
Gasps exploded. Fred’s chair squeaked as he heaved his pear-shaped body to its feet.
Cathy’s face took on a cataclysmic scarlet. “What am I seeing?” she roared.
“I dunno,” Pete said blandly. “You tell me.”
“On your shirt!” shouted Cathy. “What is that on your shirt?”
Pete gazed contentedly at his chest. “It’s a clean shirt,” he commented. “Freshly washed. One hundred percent cotton, locally purchased. Just a normal, regular T-shirt.”
“There is nothing normal about it!” Cathy boomed. “You will remove it this minute!”
A careful smile crept onto Pete’s lips. “Nope.”
Cathy sucked in. “Then you are through!” she declared. “We’ve seen enough of your inappropriate behaviour! You are no longer welcome in this store! Leave now!”
Pete’s gaze didn’t waver; motionless, he observed Cathy without speaking.
Frozen in place at the steaming rack, the wand upright in her hand, Riley felt her panic build until it thundered under her skin. “Please!” she burst out. “Can we just talk–”
Fred cleared his throat. “Cathy’s right, Pete” he said. “This is going too far and you know it.”
Pete flushed; his smile tightened. “I did know,” he said, glancing at Riley. “This is a triumph. I earned this moment. Freedom calls. This place shrinks minds—don’t stick around too long.” Pivoting on his heel, he strode through the store entranceway, taking his slender song of a body with him.
“Oh,” Riley whispered.
“Well!” trumpeted Cathy, staring at the empty doorway. “He’ll look a sight, wearing that wreath in April.”
As if in response, two hands appeared in the entranceway, deposited the wreath on the floor and dropped the till key inside it. Then, for a second time, Pete was gone.
“Well, Cathy, I hope you’re satisfied,” Fred harrumphed. “You just got rid of the most creative thinker in this place.” He raised a hand, cutting off Cathy’s protest. “You drove him to it—you know you did—and now you got what you wanted. Maybe the both of you got what you wanted. Seating himself at his desk, he gave the room his back.
Cathy’s chin jutted and she crossed her arms. “I am going to take over the till,” she announced. “Riley, continue steaming—the rack is full. Excuse me.”
She started for the store entrance while Riley watched, trapped inside her complete lack of options. Getting a good job reference meant keeping her mouth shut, but The Good Intentions Emporium would be an endurance marathon without Pete.
“Cathy,” she said helplessly, without the slightest idea as to what she was going to say next, but before Cathy could even turn around a crash rocked the building. There was the sound of shattering glass, and an engine revved. With a yelp, Cathy took off through the doorway. On her heels, Riley came through the curtained entranceway to find the south aisle occupied by stunned, staring customers. To the right of the store’s front door, the floor-to-ceiling window had been rammed by what appeared to be the hood of an older-model car. Boutique now glittered with glass shards. Through the cracks that webbed what remained of the window, Riley could see Joe assisting a gasping Mrs. Gwitch from the driver’s seat.
“Oh oh oh!” she wailed. “I must have had it in drive instead of reverse. I do that sometimes. Oh my heart, my poor heart! But I’ll get over it. It’ll be over soon. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
Riley tapped Cathy on the shoulder. “Intentions in reverse,” she said. Then she picked her way through the broken glass and quit the store.