by Erin Holden
The building used to be a post office years ago, a fact that older patrons always liked to point out to Layla. She would smile and nod, “Is that right?” she’d say. “I always wondered what this place could have been originally.”
This was a place where people bought and sold things, but they had to be special, and within the proper time period, of course. As anyone in the business of selling old things knows, value is cyclical. Turkey Melmac platters may be sought after by certain collectors one year, but the next year people are completely disinterested in them. Consumers are fickle; they buy and lose interest, then throw things away. Or they try to wring out whatever value they can from their purchases, selling them in a second hand store.
This was a store where things had to be done just so, and where everything important should be put in its respective place. There were so many things that, if this wasn’t done, all would be lost – boxes full of broken abalone shells (for crafting), dolls with their heads hanging on by a few threads (for eventual mending), and other sundry items, the purpose of which may or may not ever be determined. If these things weren’t kept in their proper places, they would easily take over the building. If left to their own devices, they would apply a focused, incremental amount of pressure to destroy the building, like a neglected weed growing against a window pane, inevitably causing it to crack.
Layla had been having trouble sleeping for weeks now. This problem began with her seashell lamp, a tacky menagerie of coral, shell, and plastic palm trees, all nestled atop a heavy pink marble foundation. When she inherited this dust-covered beauty, it was clear to her that the wiring was already suspect. It had been duct taped and pulled in directions that no respectable t.v. lamp should ever have to endure.
To any sane person, this broken up, dirty homage to an Oceanside scene would be an absolute affront to even the cheesiest of aesthetics. During the day, Layla felt much the same about it as anyone else might, but at night… at night she turned the thing on and it showered a soft pink light on the walls of her bedroom, turning broken bits of faux coral into dreamscapes in which Layla could find escape, slipping into sleep, her toes digging into sheets that became sand and cool surf in the night.
Without it, she had developed a bad case of insomnia – a real problem. So, she decided, she would take it to her lamp guy, a man who also happened to be married to her boss. He would always wear the same Hawaiian shirt every day he came into work, dismissing the top button in favor of exhibiting the tuft of grey chest hair that poked out absurdly like Spanish moss. His name was Richard and he wrote erotica. His passions included girls with big, round asses wearing too-short-denim shorts. And also lamps. If anyone could restore the lamp to its former glory, it would be him.
She left her house at a quarter to ten, the heavy marble-based shell lamp cradled in her arms. It was the first day of spring, so she wore her own shortest of denim shorts, forgetting about Richard’s propensities. Layla had bought these shorts on the 75% off rack, the pockets exposed below the hem. When she had spotted them, she remembered how the girls from the boutique across the street used to parade around in shorts just like these the previous summer. They hung on their hips, short and loose, exposing their baby giraffe legs and model-shine shins. Layla’s legs were long, thighs thick, and hips wide. No matter what size she tried, she couldn’t make them look effortless.
It only took five minutes to walk down the street to the second-hand store. Layla was the first employee to arrive. She sat her lamp on a discarded table outside the gate and began fumbling in her purse for her keys. As she found them, an old suburban full to bursting with God-knows-what wheeled into the parking lot. Donna stepped out wearing faded levis and slip-on shoes.
“Layla, help me out with this, please,” she said, handing her a box of carefully wrapped Depression glass. “Wow,” she said eyeing the t.v. shell lamp, “are you selling that?”
“No, I thought I’d bring it in to be rewired,” she answered. “It stopped working about a week ago.”
“Hm. Too bad. It would be a perfect white elephant gift for someone. I’m sure it would sell,” Donna said, still looking hopefully at the lamp.
“Yeah, no I’m not selling it,” Layla said.
“I think Richard’s actually in there already, if you want to write up a work order for it first thing.”
“Will do,” Layla said, bringing in the hodge podge of glassware.
Richard was sitting in his workshop/office, typing away at his keyboard. There were pictures of various women that formed a border around the screen. One woman with a blonde beehive hair-do wore nothing but a white, men’s button-down shirt. It was open, exposing her breasts which were starkly white within the confines of her extreme tan lines. There were similarly tasteful pin-up types, pictures of the girls across the street at various events, and a picture of Donna with a flower in her hair. Richard was so absorbed in what he was typing that he didn’t see Layla standing in his doorway.
“Oh, hey there, baby doll,” he finally said, looking up.
“Morning Richard. I have a little project for you,” Layla said, sitting the lamp down on the work table.
“Ah. I haven’t seen one like that in years,” he said smiling. “Last time I saw one of those, it was 1972 at my ex-girlfriend’s house. She collected seashells, as I recall, and let me tell you, she was wild. Just a real crazy piece of work…”
Richard’s voice faded as Layla’s thoughts drifted elsewhere. She had heard this story before, so she knew the appropriate responses by listening to the rhythm of his voice, but not the words. She smiled and nodded, wondering how Donna felt about the crazy piece of work that Richard had effectively preserved in the year 1972, looking as sexy as ever while both Donna and Richard continued to age. Doesn’t seem fair, Layla thought.
As Richard finished his story, Donna entered the workroom, her face looked tired and frustrated.
“Layla, I’m gonna need you to go to the backroom and find some new clothes for Edna. She’s still wearing her New Year’s outfit; I want her to look springy.”
“I’m on it,” she replied, heading toward the back of the store.
Edna was the mannequin that graced the streetside entrance of the store. Her hair was a faded brown that must have been more vibrant decades before, and her makeup consisted of blue eye shadow and deep red lipstick.
Layla entered the backroom which housed Edna’s wardrobe, among other things. She picked out a pair of size 9 wedge sandals and a floral jumpsuit. Dressing Edna was always tricky – her back was screwed to a post, which was connected to a dolly, and a wire was kept around her waist to keep her stationary. She used to have hands, but after many years of being pulled on and manipulated for the purposes of display, the broken hands had to be replaced with gloves filled with yellowed tissue paper.
Edna lived in the bedroom area of the store, closest to the street entrance. Every evening Layla would wheel her back inside, still chained to her dolly, leaving her to contemplate the unoccupied rattan bed.
“Lookin’ good, Edna,” Layla said. She surveyed the bedroom area for any misplaced items that might serve as a tripping hazard for perusing customers. While there wasn’t anything that would block a customer’s path, one of the walls was getting increasingly obscured by clothing racks. Just empty, discarded clothing racks.
If she doesn’t get rid of those soon, I’m going to have to say something, she thought. She always thought that Donna was very organized, in her own way, and that there was some structure to the place. Though the back of the store was starting to show some signs of neglect, the rest was very well contained. There was an area for children’s toys, barware, kitchenware, living room furniture/décor, a book room and a jewelry counter. It’s a lot of stuff, but Donna knows how to keep it together. This is what she would tell herself when she felt the things closing in on her.
As she made her way back to the cash wrap, Layla saw Donna struggling through the door with two large boxes stacked one on top of the other.
“I’m going to need you to process this stuff sometime this week, as soon as you get a chance,” Donna told her.
“Where are we going to put it? There’s no room back there.”
“Oh there’s room,” Donna told her. “Just stack it in the backroom for now… you ‘ll get to it when you get to it. No big deal.” She went back outside to bring in the rest of the stuff. Layla followed.
She put some of the items in the back, but there wasn’t much room. She was told that this used to be an office, that there was a desk, a filing cabinet, and a love seat in there, but no one knew for sure. Aside from a path in and out of this room, there was no exposure to floor space. Layla stacked the items carefully in the corner. Most of this room, besides the potential office furniture, was made up of unbroken down boxes, not broken down because Donna wanted to be able to grab them quickly if necessary. “You never know when they’ll be needed,” she explained often to those who would question her motives on this point.
Until Layla began working for Donna, she never realized how many things she needed. One day Donna brought in a photo album that she wanted to sell, but it was still full of pictures that a recently deceased woman had left behind.
“Layla, since you mentioned making greeting cards out of vintage photographs like the ones I made, why don’t you go through this album? Any of them you feel like you can use, just take them and throw the rest away, okay?”
She had been surprised that Donna was willing to throw any of it away, but this was a different time, what Richard would call an “upswing.” She never physically threw anything away herself, but was willing to consider the idea that someone else might throw it away. As long as the possibility existed that Layla would take home all of the pictures, she wouldn’t have to face the reality of their eventual destruction.
“Sure, I’ll go through them,” Layla said.
The pictures were from the 1960s and 70s, mostly of the old lady herself, Mrs. Daley, and her travels. There were pictures of her at Stonehenge holding the hand of a little child in a pea coat and pointing at the camera, pictures of her reaching out toward the Pope in his glass encasement as he traveled through a crowd in the Vatican, and others that showed the domestic bliss that appeared to be Daley life. Why would her family not want these?
She found some pictures that she could possibly use to make cheesy vintage greeting cards with, but as she continued to thumb through them, she found herself pulling more and more from their yellow, cellophaned crypts, sitting them aside on the front desk until she found herself surrounded by the Daley’s faces. Why doesn’t anyone want to remember you?
The faces reminded her grandmother’s bedroom and the old photographs that she and her mother had gotten caught up looking through when they were supposed to be cleaning it out. The bedroom was the area where her grandmother had pushed all the things she didn’t know what to do with, and it was time to decide what should be kept, thrown away, or divvied up between children and grandchildren. She realized after it was over that they didn’t want to ever finish cleaning up that room, because it was the last room, and when it was bereft of all of her things it would be over. Layla’s mother would linger over a few grey hairs that she found from time to time in the carpet, and she imagined that, if her mother were alone, she might have taken an old medicine bottle from the bathroom and put the hair in there rather than throwing it away, because it was a physical part of her. But Layla was there with her, so she set the hair back down on the carpet and stared at it, as if she wanted to remember the location and decide what to do with it later.
The shell lamp was tucked away in a corner and covered by boxes of Christmas presents never given. The weight of the boxes had crushed parts of the coral, but there was something about it that made Layla picture her grandmother entertaining guests during a time when the t.v. lamp would be on display, perhaps during a Tupperware party, and there would be guests with big hair styles that required more bobby pins than Layla had ever seen at one time, and she didn’t know why she wanted to imagine her in such a scene as this. But she did, even though it was a time before she knew her. She wanted to pair the old faded pictures of her grandmother with something tangible, so she took the ugly thing home with her, and there it stayed until it needed to be rewired.
When it came time to throw away the remaining pictures from the album Donna had handed her, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t throw the Daley’s smiling faces in the dumpster outside, letting them get rained on and covered in filth. It didn’t seem right to throw them away after someone took such trouble to preserve those moments. She took them home with her and put them in a drawer so she could forget about them.
Donna’s upswings never lasted for very long, maybe a few months if Layla and Richard were lucky. It was around the time when Layla’s lamp broke, when Donna was cleaning out the recently deceased hoarder’s house on the corner of 5th street and Louisville that it became apparent to everyone that the store was out of control. Donna kept bringing things in, but she would never bring anything back out. Customers who had been shopping there for years stopped coming in after she refused to sell certain items on the sales floor. She had even resorted to marking items that she wanted to hold onto for far more than they were worth, just to ensure that no one would buy them.
It had gotten to the point where Layla dreaded unlocking the door of the place each morning, dreaded what she would find. Every day she spent there, she saw less people and more things cluttering the walls, hanging from the rafters and covering the concrete floors. The whole place was closing in on her every day. Sometimes she felt like she couldn’t breathe and when Donna was there it was worse.
She was changing. She stopped trying to dress up, even when she and Richard left the place. Her hair hung limp around her face, she had stopped wearing makeup. Layla had even begun to suspect that she had been sleeping there. That was another thing that scared her; she never knew where Donna was in the morning. The whole back half of the store was blocked now with stale inventory but there was still furniture, though it was obscured from the casual observer. Layla called out to her every morning, “Donna?” Hesitant. Fearful.
She answered less and less. Layla would only know she was there after listening intently to the noises surrounding her, often not knowing if the disrupted silence was Donna moving things around, or her imagination getting the better of her. Sometimes it would take up to an hour for her to know for sure, when Donna decided she wanted to speak to her.
It went on for weeks, but one morning Layla unlocked the door, pushed and found that it wouldn’t open. She pushed again, harder, but it barely moved. It would only open a crack.
“Donna? Richard? Are you guys in there?” she called out into the darkness. She pushed the door with all her might, expecting to hear a crash as whatever it was hit the floor, but as she entered she realized that there was barely any floor left. Just mounds and mounds of things. The place had been consumed.
“Layla, please sweep the kitchenware department. It hasn’t been swept in weeks!” Donna’s voice came from somewhere in the darkness. Close. Very close.
“Where are you?” Layla heard movement. Untraceable to any one place, but it was close. So close. Donna emerged, facing Layla in the front of the store, her eyes had become frantic, and she was haggard. Grey all over; she was a shell as this place once was.
“I can’t get to anything; there’s nothing left,” said Layla quietly. Donna had moved very close to her face.
“What do you mean? Everything is here. Everything.” She turned stumbling through overturned boxes and towering furniture stacks back to where she came from. Wherever it was that she had been living, back there.
It was true that there was nothing left to be seen. No more departments. Layla couldn’t see the bedroom area at the streetside entrance anymore. She had a moment where she felt she should brave being consumed so that she could let Edna out of this place. Silly, she thought. She knew that Edna probably felt more at home here than she ever did streetside, at the mercy of those who would defile her with graffiti and steal her shoes. No, she thought. Just a mannequin. Just a thing.
“Hurry up!” she heard Donna’s voice first, then saw her eyes burning bright within her drawn face through a gap in the mounds of clutter. “The store will be opening in ten minutes and this place is a mess!”
“It won’t be opening Donna.” She whispered this, not understanding why. “Please stop. Please come outside with me.”
“No, no. No time. I’ve got to get this place in order.”
“Where is Richard?” Layla asked.
“Richard. Richard!” she called into the expanse of boxes, trinkets, and wares – the remnants of what was. The pieces of Donna scattered about, searching for a space of their own.
“Richard! Are you here?” She heard movement, maneuvering from a different direction at a distance incalculable. He emerged from a spontaneous path, looking at her in such a normal way, a way that scared her. This cancerous invasion of their lives. He knows it’s there, but he stays. Sitting at his workroom, tinkering, dreaming of Miss 1972 when Donna begins to break, writing about women who don’t exist, but wanting to grasp something real, to hold Donna and not pieces of her, dreaming of not having to pick up all these pieces and make them take her form again. Impossible. She’s never the same.
Layla turned to leave. “No, wait here,” he told her. He was lost to her again within the debris for a moment, but came back with her lamp.
“I fixed it for you,” he said solemnly. There was a look of paternal tenderness on his face that she was surprised to see.
“Are you staying? It’s not safe there anymore. It’s not safe for either of you.”
“She’s my wife, Layla,” he said. “We’ve been here before.” Layla followed his gaze toward Donna who sat on a mound of boxes, holding a music box. She was quiet, staring at the ballerina inside as the tinny sounds of an ambiguous song filled the air. She looked up to see Richard and Layla looking at her, her stare blank.
Richard turned back to Layla and handed her the lamp. “Goodbye,” she said as the door began to close and he faded into the things that had taken ownership of this place.
Erin Holden is currently studying creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and will be earning her Masters in English in May 2013. She hails from Pineville, Louisiana, a small Central Louisiana town that has served as inspiration for much of her fiction. She is particularly interested in both 20th Century Southern literature and folklore studies and is working on a documentary on Louisiana Redbones this summer.
Heather / July 15, 2013
What a sweet and yet heartbreaking story! I loved it.