by Alexina Dalgetty
Sharon Tavares glimpsed her reflection in the liquor store window. Not bad for fifty something. Her stretchy jeans and red leatherette jacket blossomed with stylish zing and the knock-off Sketchers, fifteen bucks on sale at Walmart, were comfortable. She smiled at her fortunately proportioned face—well-boned nose, exceptional puppy-dog brown eyes, and a mouth that piqued fantasy in at least one man a day—and figured today was going to be okay.
The air smelled raw with an undertone of yesterday’s boiled vegetables, and spring was fading into summer without glory; but walking to Fred’s Cheque Cashing, Sharon refused to surrender hope. A standout, technicolour, blood-fizzing life was hiding somewhere close, ready to spring out and shake her world from the tip of her Nice ’n Easy straw-blonde mullet to her firetruck-red toenails. By the time Sharon arrived at Fred’s, good feelings were fading.
“Hey, Fred!” Sharon called into the back room.
Fred, hunched over his desk, grunted. Sharon had worked for Fred long enough to know this grunt was positive, so she pushed her luck.
“How are repairs on the cage coming along?”
Fred grunted again. Sharon hung her coat on the hook in the bathroom and stowed her bag in the plastic drawers beside the sink, making sure to take the ten-dollar bill out of her wallet and tuck it in her jeans. She didn’t put it past Fred to rifle through her purse and steal her ten dollars. He was a tight-fisted low life lacking a moral compass, but he paid her wages on time and that counted.
Sharon pulled her socks off and admired her toenails, then neatly set the socks in the drawer and slipped her shoes back on. The jeans looked better without socks.
Sharon slipped into her cage with its phoney security bars. They were painted grey to look like steel but made of plywood and flimsy to the touch. She waited for the first customer of the day with only the meagre waiting room of Fred’s for company. It was a small square space, and a few months back Fred and Sharon had closed early to paint the walls. Fred bought the paint cheap at auction. It said cream on the can—it wasn’t. Sharon had spent all weekend removing ground-deep-into-the-skin paint from her hands. Now she stared at an uneven expanse of blotchy bruise-like patches and noticed every flaw and undulation.
Sharon knew each dip and rise, each billow and crack, like old friends who didn’t speak but sat there, ugly and comfortable.
Three red seats, fused together with a rusting chrome bar, stood against the purple wall. Red Naugahyde, the genuine article according to Fred. One cushion was taped together with silver duct tape, and sprigs of chair stuffing escaped the edges of the tape. A good companion.
Sharon perched on her ridiculous stool and waited. She watched the heads of strangers, small dark blobs, walk by the window; they were hard to identify because the windows were painted over with industrial paint and the lettering of the shop’s name.
Fred believed the paint lowered his insurance premiums. Sharon thought he was full of bullshit and simply wanted to deny her the luxury of a window with a view.
Fred had a habit of creeping up behind her and calling out her name. Trying to make her jump. Trying to catch her daydreaming.
“You want to talk about strengthening the cage, Fred?”
“Gotta go out, pick something up. You’re in charge.”
Fred left, and Sharon peered at the red Naugahyde seat. Her skin prickled with an alone-in-the-business uneasiness. In Sharon’s world no one should be left alone to work in a cheque-cashing dive. Fred wasn’t a strong or brave or honourable man, but at least he was company. Knowing he was in head office eased her worry. Sharon wasn’t a defenceless person; she was tough and honest, not afraid to call out a lie and slice through customer bullshit. But work was a game of cheque-cashing Russian roulette.
The door opened. Sharon held her breath.
“Connie! How’s it going?”
“Doing lovely. Found a new apartment. Lovely little place. I need a money order.”
“You know we charge five bucks.”
“I know. But you know me, cash only.”
“Been saving this in a sock under your bed?” asked Sharon.
“I saved it with full security, Sharon Tavares!”
Sharon didn’t approve of untethered money. In her mind it should all be safe in bank accounts, well saved, and gaining interest. Sharon even had an RRSP. It was only for a couple of thousand, but it was better than nothing. A rainy day fund. Come rainy retirement the likes of Connie Brinkworthy might be soaked to the skin, but Sharon would be licking the icing off a Tim Hortons’ donut once a week. And treating Connie. Small pleasures. She’d been treating Connie since the first day of grade one when Connie had shown up with a butter sandwich and little else in her lunchbox. Sharon’s lunch wasn’t luxury, but there were two chocolate chip cookies; and she was pleased to pass one along to the happy little girl beside her.
“The building manager’s lovely. Cute! And real interesting. You know, the strong and silent type. A real James Dean.”
Sharon searched her memory for James Dean and compared the value of savings against a strong and silent building manager.
“I’ll need to see ID.”
“No worries, I know Fred’s a stickler for the rules.”
Sharon busied herself, photocopying Connie’s ID and filling out the paperwork. It was one of the things about the job she liked—helping people. She counted out the bills and change Connie had given her and handed over the money order.
“I’m going to have a little get together once I’ve moved in.
“I’ll bring the vodka” said Sharon.
“I’ll have orange juice,” said Connie. “And bring Sid . . . if you want to.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to?”
“No reason. Oh, you know, you and your men.”
“Sid’s not so bad.”
“A dark light on a bright journey?”
“How long have you been thinking that one up? At least I have a man.”
Sharon watched Connie leave, her high-heeled red boots missing the heel tips and tears in the faux leather. One day Connie would get stuck. Connie should have a bank account. Sharon’s wages went into an employee special account at Fred’s, for free.All the cheques and money orders she wanted. But her RRSP was with a real bank.
She looked at the red Naugahyde and imagined Sid lazing in his recliner. He’d shown up right after Frank left when she’d been feeling pretty low.
Sharon never expected Frank to stay forever. He was handsome and energetic and brought home a regular paycheque from bartending at a hole in the wall on 118th Avenue. She’d given him five years, and then she figured they’d part and she’d spend some well-earned time alone. He left after three years. Got up one day, packed his bag, and took the bus to Calgary, a new bar and better tips. Beside him on that bus was a woman ten years younger than Sharon with legs that could still rock a mini skirt. This was not how Sharon’s relationships ended. She spent several days snivelling in Fred’s office, unable to serve the customers—down but not out. Fred had taken her place in the cage like a martyr. Sharon grasped his desperation. If she pulled through, he wouldn’t have to advertise for and train a new teller. A teller who would no doubt leave within three months.
Sid stepped into her life not so long after she climbed back in the cage. He offered flattery and companionship when Sharon needed it most. He said he’d always loved her from a distance. He said he’d admired her at the mall and in the casino bar, said he’d been a couple of years ahead of her at school. He said he only banked with Fred to see her face. Not long after introductions, Sid and his recliner moved into Sharon’s apartment. Sid had outlasted Frank by seven weeks and three days, but he hadn’t weathered their time together well. He was smellier and lazier and more flatulent than ever, and his skin had turned a strange and mottled pink. Sharon thought wistfully of Frank. Rumour had it he’d moved on to a new bar, a new woman, and a city further east.
Sharon closed her eyes and let her past drain out and the present wash in. Customers came and went with Monday morning irregularity. During a lull Fred reappeared with a bright pink, pig-shaped money bank.
“What have you got there, Fred?”
“I’ve decided that we should have a coffee fund.”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“I bring my own tea.”
“This is an executive decision Sharon. You need to listen.”
“This bank will be the coffee fund. We each put five dollars a week in it to buy coffee and snacks.”
“You know, cookies and crackers. Cheeses.” Fred said cheeses like they were grand.
“I don’t want cookies, crackers, and cheeses. I bring a sandwich from home.”
“I thought it was time for a change.”
Sharon gave Fred the evil eye and thought about it. The couple of tea bags she brought to work every day didn’t cost more than a buck a week. Fred was making a cash grab.
“So we both put five dollars in?” she asked.
“And then one of us goes and buys the snacks.”
“I don’t mind being responsible for that,” said Fred.
“Tell you what, I’ll check in with the girls at the bank to see how they do it. We want to be professional about this, don’t we?”
She knew he knew that the girls at the bank probably had a fair and just snack system. Fred was agitated, and Sharon smiled. Most of all he didn’t want the girls offering her a job. Only Sharon knew there were no girls at the bank—none she was on chatting terms with, and certainly no job offers.
She’d left school too soon after studying too little. She meant to go back, but the good-time search for the right man coupled with the grind of life always got in the way.
“I’ll give it another think,” Fred said and headed to his office.
“You do that.” Sharon gritted her teeth, longing to work some place that wasn’t a low-down, bogus, counterfeit bank. Still, not everyone was working; Connie wasn’t and Sid wasn’t. In their minds she was a winner.
Sharon dwelled and simmered on the coffee fund; and when it was lunchtime, she put on her coat.
“Where you going?” asked Fred.
“Errands,” said Sharon.
“You’ve only got fifty minutes.”
Sharon understood Fred didn’t appreciate working the wicket alone for fifty minutes. He wanted Sharon eating her lunch in the back, available to help with certain tasks. He had difficulty printing money orders on the computer and sometimes miscounted, most often in his favour. Sometimes people got hostile.
Sharon headed to the mall and ate her sandwich in the food court. She tried to focus on the plants and not the coffee fund. She splurged on a tea. Black tea with magnolia blossoms. Fancy teas in public places had a way of lifting her spirits.
Back at work Sharon’s afternoon moved slowly. She’d once suggested Fred subscribe to a magazine—Chatelaine or Flare or even Maclean’s—for the waiting area. Fred had smiled and agreed. No magazine materialized. Sharon understood. He didn’t want her reading magazines on his dime. She looked at the clock and sighed. She admired her toes and pondered the take-home wage of a pedicurist.
The door opened, and a man stepped inside. Day old stubble, eyes hampered by sadness and sharp movement, with the shadow of invisible danger lurking. Like a detective from a Netflix mystery set in Germany or Sweden—dubbed not subtitled.
“Afternoon,” said Sharon, cheery with optimism.
He slowly edged a cheque through the opening in the cage. It was folded and folded again, wrinkled and dog-eared. Who treated a cheque so cruelly? Sharon treasured every jag of money, whether bill or cheque or money order. Money was her job, and she was a professional.
She slowly flattened the cheque.
“Cash it,” said the man.
“Have you got an account with us?”
“I’ve got a card somewhere.”
The man searched his pockets and then his wallet. Sharon inspected the cheque, up-close and critical. The man found his wallet and removed the card. His eyes charred her skin. She looked up, and he looked away.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t cash this.”
“I’ve got the card.”
Sharon stood up and filled the flimsy cage. “There’s a problem.”
“Cash it. Cash the cheque!” said the man.
“I can’t. The signature’s been changed.”
“Look.” Sharon pointed it out, her heart full of disappointment.
“Fucking liar.” The man rattled the weak bars that separated Sharon from customers. Inside the cage and under her skin, she quaked; outside she was all business.
“There are two different dollar amounts, and the signature’s been changed. See, the amount’s been crossed out—twice.”’
“No, it hasn’t!”
“Look at it!” said Sharon.
Where the fuck was Fred? Hiding in his office, no doubt. Sharon cursed him long and hard as the man huffed and puffed.
“What are you saying?” asked Seedy Detective Guy.
“I’m saying I’m not cashing it.” Sharon puffed up and stared at him straight in the angry, pissed-off, damned-if-I-care eye. Sharon had this. No way she was paying for a forged signature. Not on her watch and not from her pay cheque.
He wavered and half turned. “You’ll be hearing from me.”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
“Keep it up. I’ll phone the cops.
“Screw you too. You got a little button there? Push it.”
Sharon smiled sweet and pretended to push a button. Fred was too cheap for real security.
“Leave.” Sharon said in her most professional voice.
He looked at his feet. Sharon sensed his body alert and ready to pounce. Her eyes searched for the mace. Illegal but useful.
Had Fred moved it? Used it? She held her breath.
Seedy’s arm moved towards her. She noted the muscle beneath the shabby sleeve. A hand grabbed the bars of her cage, a bony hand with broken nails and wire-haired knuckles. The cage weakened with every rattle. It had come loose before. Sharon breathed deep and caught the man’s eyes in mid shift, moving from one side of the room to the other. She looked at him straight, long enough to register. A shared moment. The briefest connection. Quick as a flash, and with a rattle from the grill, he headed through the exit and slammed the door.
Sharon took a deep breath and grabbed a dollar-store tissue from the box. The hard paper scraped against her dry hands. She should stop getting her nails done; it only brought attention to her hands. And it would save money. His eyes and stubble bumped against her brain as she patted her pits. She crossed her fingers that there’d be no more customers today; but when she turned, the next was flittering in the doorway. Sharon wriggled in her damp shirt and breathed easy.
“I’d like to cash this, please.” A shadow of a woman, younger than Sharon. Defeat oozed from the woman. Sharon had never seen her before, but knew the woman well.
“Do you have an account with us?”
“Should I? Oh dear.”
“How much is it for?”
The woman pushed a cheque under the grill. Sharon peered at the cheque, at the woman, and sighed. She braced, stormy-eyed and ready for dispute. On the customer side of the grill, the woman trembled and tapped her fingers on the counter. An aggravating way to shore up her meagre reserves.
“I’m sorry, dear, I can’t cash this. The name’s been crossed out and another written in.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at it.”
“It’s a spelling error. He wrote my name wrong and crossed it out. That’s all. It’s the same name underneath.”
“It’s a completely different name. And if he made a mistake, he should have initialed it. That’s how cheques work.”
“My fucking boss. How am I gonna feed my kids?”
“Maybe talk to your boss?”
“Fuck you. Fuck you! Hear me?”
“I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave and not talk to me like that.”
Sharon held out the cheque. It wasn’t a lot of money. The woman shook the grill. Sharon’s blood surged. The woman’s hand on the bars was coarser than her own. The nails bitten. Sharon wanted to grab the hand and pull the woman through the cage and into her life, share her strength but not her thin resources.
“I’ll ask you again,” said Sharon. “Please leave.”
“And I’ll ask you again. How am I going to feed my kids?”
“Are you saying this is my fault? My fault you’re trying to cash a cheque in someone else’s name. My fault your kids are hungry.”
“Just cash the cheque,” said the broken record of a woman. Sharon smelled defeat, and it made her angrier than the stink of fight.
“Do you think I like refusing to cash cheques?”
The woman took her hand off the bars.
“Do you know how many people want me to cash phoney cheques?”
“It’s not phoney.”
The woman’s voice reeked of surrender. Sharon ached as defeat skewered into her own bones. She tasted the woman’s miserable and angry day. She wanted to cash the cheque; she wanted to hand over money; she wanted to snap the wicket shut and walk out of Fred’s. Nothing would change unless she forced it. People would try and cash phoney cheques tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, and she would have to look them in the eye and take their shit.
“Fred!” screamed Sharon.
There was no answer. She figured he was cowering in the office.
The woman melted away from the wicket and through the door to the street. Not even a slam.
Sharon abandoned her cage and turned the “OPEN” sign around, then locked the door.
“A little early, don’t you think?” asked Fred. Suddenly right there, behind her, and a little too close.
“I need a bathroom break, and it’s almost closing.”
“Four more minutes by my watch.”
“I can’t wait.”
“You could just call me.”
“I did. Thought you’d gone out.”
“What makes you think I’d gone out?”
“Those angry customers. Isn’t it your responsibility to come out and support me? You being manager and all.”
“Owner. And I would have been here in a flash . . . if I’d heard.”
“You must be going deaf, Fred. But you’re here now, and I need the washroom. Shall I leave it open?”
“Nah. Probably not worth it. You go ahead and close early.”
Sharon stepped into the early evening light and tipped her face to the sun. Energy trickled into her body. She had bus tickets in her purse, but tonight she’d walk. A walk would save her a couple of bucks and do her good. Personal time. Nobody bugging her.
She walked slowly, savouring the thirty minutes home. It wasn’t the prettiest walk and would never make the guide books, but she enjoyed watching mothers with strollers heading into Babies R Us and the gaggle of teenagers outside Dollarama, posing for each other, each angling for time in the short-lived spotlight. She stopped and smiled, looked close, and saw her and Connie Brinkworthy—seventeen again—hair bigger than rose bushes and almost as sharp with hairspray. Bright red lips and Madonna scrunchies. Baggy jumpsuits cinched in at the waist with do-up-at-the-back belts.
She glimpsed her today self in the window of a dusty vacuum cleaner repair shop and forced a bounce into her step. Life was good; life was what you made it. She missed a crosswalk light, all the better to enjoy a little more sun and fresh air.
Sharon stood in front of the low-rise building that harboured the apartment she shared with Fat Bastard Sid. Faded glory on a cement foundation, but today the dipping sunlight tickled the stucco and brown paint into warmth and appeal.
She opened and closed the building door, checking it clicked shut behind her. If left ajar people sidled through to bed down in the hallways, party in the basement, and test doorhandles, searching for small riches to steal.
At the door to her apartment, she breathed deep. She could hear Sid’s snores through the door. Generous rumbles. She laid her palm flat against the door. The vibration sank into her body but failed to make her toes curl. Nothing. There had been a time, even last week there had been a tremor. She closed her eyes and imagined supper on the table, nothing fancy, just a warm-up from the freezer section of the grocery store.
She shut the door slowly. Sid started and bumped open an eye. She walked soft to the kitchen area. He might nod off again. She paused as he closed the eye and a smile spread across his face. Dreaming about the woman in the liquor store again? Bessie Swann was Sharon’s friend and Sid’s fantasy. A week ago when he and Sharon had been on the outs, he said he’d dreamed about gambling like a lamb, naked and with Bessie, in a field near the casino. Clown, thought Sharon at the time, he meant gambolling. Right after Sid’s confessed dream, he and Sharon stopped arguing altogether. He thought she’d forgiven him.
In the kitchen Sharon debated whether to wash the sink full of dishes wallowing in grey water before making supper. Sid choked and snored and followed up with a bunch of chalky sounds.
“You’re late,” said Sid.
And so is my dinner, thought Sharon. “Dishes in the sink still, Sid.”
“You know there are.”
“Oops? I come home after taking shit all day to dishes in the sink.”
“I think they’re yours from breakfast.”
“You didn’t eat today?”
Sharon watched Sid puff and chortle and wheeze and reach for the handle to the recliner, and miss and reach again, and fail to bring the chair upright. He tried again and somehow managed to hurtle himself onto the carpet. He lay there, grunting and awkward.
“I can see that. Look at this chair. Cheezies wrappers and cookie crumbs. You’re inviting vermin.”
“I’ve fallen, Sharon. And I can’t get up.”
Sharon didn’t smile. Her body writhed with frustration. She should help Sid, settle him in his chair. His flabby skin in her hands flashed onto the insides of her eyelids, a massage gone wrong, a pummelling. Think nice, she told herself. Long ago hurts exploded in her brain. She wanted to bruise his unbearably pink skin. Play nice. Her foot ached, eager to slip off its shoe to nudge him, to bump, to prod, to push, to kick. She flexed her hands. Deflect, think of his good points. He wasn’t the worst, or the saddest, or the flabbiest in the long line of Sids.
Though maybe the pinkest and certainly the least coordinated. She stretched her fingers. She wanted to breathe deep. She wanted to step back. But she clutched her anger close, allowed it to seep into her bone, breed and range through her flesh, burn and chafe. It bubbled up through her marrow. It threatened her spirit. Her failing spirit, limp and losing righteousness by the second, poised between surrender and battle.
Sharon opened her eyes and reflected the sadness that was Sid.
“I’ll help you up, but I’m not doing dishes.”
“You want me to wash dishes?”
Sid looked like he would rather stay on the floor. If she left him there, maybe he’d fade away. Starve to death. Maybe he’d die, in the middle of the living room. Cruel thoughts. Pull yourself together, Sharon.
“I do. I want you to do the dishes.”
She held out an arm. Sid wasn’t an enormous man, but he had too much flesh for his frame. Sharon could handle him, pull him up, and steer him to the kitchen. He looked at her hand like he knew dishes, and maybe something for supper, was at the end of it.
Sharon watched Sid think over staying on the floor. She was in no hurry.
Sid freed a hand from beneath his tummy and held it up. It hung in the air like a weed. Sharon knew from experience this was intentional—too weak, and he’d get a free pass to the recliner and supper on his knees.
Sharon hauled Sid into a sitting position. From sitting she helped him stand. His eyes darted to the chair.
“No!” said Sharon.
Sid almost stood to attention, a flopping and faltering stance. He giggled when Sharon gently jabbed his feet with her own. She evil-eyed him into humble acquiescence and edged his feet into position. Soon he faced the archway to the kitchen and, more strategic, the sink. He stood free and steady.
Without a word or a plan, Sharon grabbed her purse and jacket and headed to the door. She relished the look on Sid’s face—shock laced with worry and fear. There he stood, facing the kitchen, confronted by the sink.
Outside, the evening air was fresh and cold on Sharon’s face. And it felt good. She headed down the road, needing to walk, with no destination or commitment in mind. She’d see where her legs led. Hopefully they wouldn’t fail her.
The world was a dusty place of opportunity that evening. Cars honked and music fluttered from radios, babies cried and women in shiny shoes dipped in and out of stores. All things seemed possible. Sharon asked herself to define all things and couldn’t.
With a hiccup of uncertainty, her legs stopped at Tim Hortons. In line Sharon closed her eyes and thought of a Boston cream donut, the chocolate fondant on top and the creamy custard inside. Her tastebuds flared in anticipation. She could sense the donut on her tongue, followed by heartburn. A wave of wisdom washed over her. She opened her eyes to a sign advertising all-day, egg-white omelette’s with spinach. Sharon liked eggs and spinach, and she liked ketchup. Tim Hortons had ketchup.
Sharon sat at a table by the window and enjoyed every bite of her egg-white omelette with spinach. Better than a donut. She thought only of the food, each bite sunny in its own omellety way. Once it was gone, she concentrated on her camomile tea and the outside world.
Sharon reached into her bag for her phone. If Connie could afford her own apartment, then so could Sharon. Sid was on the lease; she’d take her name off and leave him the damage deposit if necessary. Should keep him going for a while. Living in the same building as Connie would be a comfort. Sooner or later a place would be vacant. She was patient. She had a job. Sharon sipped her camomile tea and texted Connie.