A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous
Tammy had nightmares of the man she saw in her store window. His elongated face chased her through the streets of the San Fernando Valley, her terror mounting like a progression of staccato hits rising up the scales on an untuned piano. She always woke up screaming before the crescendo.
It all began after Rachel had a gun held to her head for a measly fifty dollars. How dumb could the thief be, holding up a pillow-and-accessory shop when Dazzles, Tammy’s store three doors away sold jewelry? It was costume, plastic, some silver, a few pieces of gold, but, a pillow store?
After the police left, Rachel came in screaming and crying, “Why me?” her eyes red and twitching, mouth pinched. Tammy knew what Rachel was thinking: you take in more money than I do, why didn’t he put a gun to your head?
She felt that the robbery at Rachel’s had been a prelude to something bigger, a feeling—dread. It all came back to the dream. She was at the Pacoima county-fair, at an old-time taffy-pulling contest where the taffy wasn’t taffy but the face of the man she saw outside staring in at the window display, his phantom shape morphing into multiple cells until a valley of identicals hunted her.
Tammy had a panic button under the cash register. The counter was next to the back door for a fast escape. A six-foot bank of back-to-back showcases stretched down the middle of the long, narrow store, and ten others lined the east and west walls. The glass doors reflected whoever looked into them and gave her time to assess people. Still, she thought of buying a gun.
Tammy stood at the counter with the computer on. She was browsing through listings of Bakelite necklaces on eBay when the door swung open, the buzzer alarmed. Since the robbery, Rachel entered her store like a bull in search of a red cape.
“They caught the asshole that held me up!”
“The douche spent my money. Cops said I won’t get it back.” Rachel stood just inside the door, her arms crossed, and her attractive face gaunt.
“At least he’s off the streets,” Tammy said.
“He’ll be out soon enough. And probably come back to rob you.”
Tammy sucked in her breath.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I hate coming to work. I’m so afraid.”
“I understand.” Tammy walked down the aisle. “At least you weren’t hurt.”
Outside, two women looked at the window display. One held a manila envelope, the other several letters. Three months earlier, new neighbors moved in with a shipping and PO Box store. Tammy’s walk-in business increased. The customers were a mix of drifters, aspiring actors and models, hopeful reality stars, and self-published writers. They talked about themselves and shared intimate details, as if she were someone without judgment, and perhaps that was the reason, for Tammy saw the best in people, and she had to admit; it made a slow day go by faster.
The two women left.
Tammy was about to speak when the man in her nightmares looked into the window.
“What’s the matter?” Rachel asked. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
He stood hunched over, dressed in a long black coat, looking at the second shelf in the window display.
He was a giant but not really. He just appeared that way. His face and extremities belonged to a man seven feet or taller. His features all merged into the center of his enormous face, leaving his jaw and forehead a wasteland of acne craters. And his eyes, they were two dots of sub-zero tourmalines.
Rachael turned around. “Ew, who’s that?”
“I think he has a PO Box next door. He scares me.”
“You’ve waited on him?”
“Probably just a looky-loo. It’s the normal-looking guys you have to watch out for. Like the asshole that robbed me.”
The man left.
Rachel opened the door and looked back at Tammy. “I keep thinking the next time someone will kill me. Or you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Was she really, Tammy wondered? Even so, Rachel left a chemtrail of gloom behind.
Tammy went back to the counter.
She entered her fourth decade of life without husband or child. She attracted men who used her, takers. It made her feel needed, in control, but they always left anyway. She wanted to change, but habits were stubborn, and men wanted younger women.
She dreamed of romances like those in a Nora Roberts novel. She wanted to love and be loved with a passion that could heat Pluto, someone to share in the distinctions of life, to be swept up a switchback of foreplay and countless orgasms.
She went on-line to meet guys, lowered her standards to the bell curve, where all she asked for was a man, under sixty, with a full set of teeth and a decent income. Not even the Internet helped.
She glanced at the large framed mirror—impossible not to look at—that hung on the back of the showcases at the end of the counter. There was no other place to hang it, and her customers needed to see their reflection when buying a necklace or earrings.
Tammy was without glamour, in a most glamorous town, lacked charisma in a city brimming with alluring women, but she did the best she could: added extensions to her lank dark hair, wore contacts that tinged her brown eyes green, ran five miles three times a week at Balboa Park. And she was short in a town where the average woman could play professional basketball. She might have a humdrum face, one that no boyfriend ever lied about by telling her she was beautiful, but she had compassion, could discover the kernel of beauty inside another no matter how hideous the person. So it distressed her, made her feel like she wasn’t trying hard enough to discover the inner goodness of the man in the topcoat who looked into her window and tracked her in her dreams. He couldn’t help what he looked like. She worried that she was turning into a shallow, selfie type of woman.
Tammy passed the day with customers and the occasional consignor who came in to pick up their check or add jewelry and knickknacks to a showcase.
It was a half-hour before closing. The January twilight cast a chill as darkness descended. The street lamps on Ventura Boulevard illuminated empty sidewalks. A light show of pink, blue and yellow neon flashed from the Thai restaurant across the boulevard and into Tammy’s store.
She stood at the counter, matching receipts with money she had taken in for the day.
The door opened. The buzzer warned. A gust of cold wind swept exhaust and the smell of frying fish into the narrow store.
The man appeared.
As much as Tammy wanted to see his inner perfection, she felt the sensation of having her skin peeled.
She grabbed the money and the receipts, went into the bathroom, shut the door, and hid her day’s worth in a bag behind the paper towels. She looked out the back window. Except for her Honda, the parking lot was empty. Her phone was under the first shelf of the counter. She told herself she was being ridiculous. It was always the ordinary-looking men who were rapists and murderers, not the ones with warped faces and mismatched body parts.
Tammy recited the affirmation that her Buddhist friend Qwan had given her: “I see beauty in all things and in everyone.”
She opened the door. The blood evaporated from her brain and left her woozy with fear. “Can, I help you?” she stammered.
He stood in front of the counter, his long arms stretched from one end almost to the other, braced, an anchor for his gigantic head. “I’m looking for a jade ring.” His voice garbled like nails thrashed about in a garbage disposal. His pinprick eyes seemed to enjoy Tammy’s terror.
She thought about lying, but what if he saw the ring? “I, um, yes. A man’s ring?”
“Yeah. A man’s ring.”
“There’s one in the second case in the front,” she said, hoping he’d walk away so she could open the back door. What for? To run out? And leave him alone in her store? Stop looking at his appearance, Tammy told herself.
“I want to try it on.”
Tammy nodded. She hurried from behind the counter, went around the hanging mirror and down the west aisle with her key poised to unlock the case.
He lumbered toward her as if he wore concrete platforms, his expression smug.
He stood close beside her. Affixed to his long coat was a metallic odor, iron, or was it blood?
Tammy reached in and gave him the ring.
Scars crisscrossed the top of his huge hands and knuckles. He jammed the ring onto his pinkie.
She glanced out the front window, hoping someone would come in.
“How much is it?”
His breath smelled like a jar of old pennies.
“Hmm.” He stared at her and massaged the tip of his middle finger back and forth over the jade then tapped the stone with his teeth.
“What’s the best price?” he asked.
“I can take ten percent off.”
“Hmm, $255.00, even.”
“Not with cash,” the man said. He stared at her. There didn’t seem to be any life coming from his eyes, not human, more reptilian. She expected a forked tongue to shoot out between his lips.
She’d pay the tax. She wanted him out of her store, out of her life, out of her dreams. “All right.”
He held out his skillet sized hand—fingers that looked like they enjoyed pulling the wings off of sparrows—the gemstone dwarfed on his pinky.
“I’ll think about it.” He yanked off the ring and handed it to her. “I’ll let you know, tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Someone else is interested in it. It might be gone by tomorrow.”
“I’ll take that chance,” he said and walked away. The hem of his long coat touched her leg.
She shivered, watched him go out the front door and realized she had sweated through her blouse. The waistband of her skirt was damp. He did nothing overt. He could have knocked her down and run off with the ring. He could have raped her in the bathroom. He could have knotted his wiener like fingers around her neck and snuffed her.
He didn’t want to pay tax. That was all he demanded.
Tammy prayed he wouldn’t return.