A short story
(copyright is held by the author)
As Noah Coyne stands inside his store, his reflection in the storefront window flashed yellow when the crosswalk light on the corner blinked. Outlining his proud chin and the life lines etched across his brow, the amber beam exposes a handsome man of seventy-one. The semblance poised upon the glass has dark holes for eyes for the faint light could not capture the vibrancy of the owner’s gaze. Orbs of the darkest blue, like fresh steel, stare out at the empty street in front of his store. The pavement, wet and slick from a drizzling rain, shines yellow and black, yellow and black, until the warning light suddenly stops. He looks up, wondering if the person he sees crossing the street might be coming his way, one more customer before he closes. He checks the watch that covers his hairy wrist, and seeing that its 9:30, heads to the entrance to bring in the specials sign he places outside each morning.
A wide cement threshold, pockmarked and etched by the passing of many years and many feet, divides the front of Coyne’s Confectionery and the city sidewalk. The sandwich board that holds his daily message, slouching from a weak hinge, is to the right of the double glass doors. While folding the display in half, Noah breathes in the cool, clean night air before tucking the sign under his arm, he is warmed by the same memory the board provokes each time he touches it. His father built the sign fifty-seven years ago. The first day Noah worked in his father’s store, his first chore was to put the sign out front. He even remembers the first message printed in blue chalk in his Dad’s neat hand, Welcome my son Noah to the family business. Bananas 6 cents/lb.
The person he saw crossing the street approaches him from behind and speaks in the weariest of tones.
“Are you closing?”
Noah turned abruptly, startled from his reverie. Before him stood a very young person, swathed with a backpack and a black nylon travel bag slung over one shoulder. On the other shoulder was a bundle wrapped in what looked like a beige tasselled shawl. Everything was wet. Stray strands of dark hair fell from her ponytail to cling to her slender jaw. A smudge of something dark touched one pale cheek. When Noah looked into her big, dark eyes, he was saddened by the confusion he saw there. They softened slightly when she added a weak smile to her slim ordinary face. Reaching out to hold open the door, he waved her in.
“No, my dear, we’re open until ten. Please, come in.”
She straightened her shoulders, the bags obviously heavy, before preceding him into the store. When she passed in front of him, he noticed an opening in the shawl. Peeking over her shoulder, he looked into the cavity and was surprised to see a baby’s pink face. He stared at the infant until the mother moved to their left. Returning to the cash area on the right, he was perplexed by how small the child seemed, it couldn’t be very old he told himself.
He sat on the stool behind the counter, listening to the shuffle of her feet as she moved about the rows of merchandise. Looking up at one of the mirrors fixed to the back corner near the ceiling, he saw her turn into the centre aisle. She was sideways to the mirror when she stopped halfway up, in the section where he kept clearance items. She dawdled for several minutes, then he saw her tuck something into the shawl in front of the baby. It hurt him deeply when he thought he had seen innocence in her troubled eyes. He rose from his perch to confront her when the cradled infant’s face flashed in his mind’s eye. Sitting back down, he pondered his options.
Balancing two cans of soup in her free hand, she approached and awkwardly placed her items on the counter before him. As she did so, he reached under the counter to tear off several sheets of paper towel.
“Here, you’re a little damp and you have something on your cheek.”
“Oh, thank you.”
Eagerly she accepted his offer, smiling widely. As he rang up the sale, she brushed the moisture from her neck near the baby, her forehead and hair. She dabbed at the smudge on the side of her face, smearing it instead, making it worse. Noah grinned at her efforts and said, “That’ll be $1.06 please. You missed a little, closer to your nose.”
Placing the wet tissue on the counter edge she reached into a side pocket of her thin jacket, removing a cluster of coins, mostly pennies. Sliding one loose at a time with her thumb, she counted out nickels, dimes and one cent pieces. At the end of her coins she stared at them for a few seconds before meeting his fixed look. They both knew she didn’t have enough. Noah tried to fathom the poor girl’s plight, so young, bags in tow and an infant on her shoulder.
“You know what; I think I made a mistake, just a second.”
He cancelled the transaction and keyed in new amounts until the register read eighty-two cents. Seeing the new amount, she gave him a tight-lipped smile, knowing what he had done. Her eyes grew glossy at this act of kindness before she hung her head. Guilt and sorrow leaked from beneath her tender lashes, dropping heavily to the floor. She stuttered, trying to stifle a sob.
“I... I... I’m sorry, but I was going to steal from you.”
She reached under the edge of the shawl, seemingly from beneath the child, removing a multi-gadget tool and placing it on the counter with a thin, shaking hand. She teetered as she began crying. Rushing around to steady her, he grabbed the paper towel, handed it to her and offered to hold the baby. She placed her bundle in his arms to lean against the counter, her young body tired, stooped like a thirsty plant. Balancing the baby, he stepped toward the narrow window ledge where he kept items for impulse buyers. Moving the display of lighters aside, he motioned for her to sit. Moving to the front of the store, he reached into his front pocket for a group of keys.
“I’m just going to lock up; you take it easy for a minute. This baby is a very deep sleeper by the way.”
Calmer now and with some pride she said, “She’s a good girl and I just fed her. All she does is eat and sleep, thank goodness.”
He returned to stand in front of the girl, the baby secure in his arms.
“When you’ve composed yourself, I’ll help you get home. You can have the camping utensil, I can’t sell the darn things anyway. But don’t let me catch you stealing again. You don’t want your life going in that direction.”
She nodded at his words, her head still on her chest, strands of long hair carelessly hanging down. A forlorn figure in his eyes. A silence ensued as she gathered herself. The monotonous droning of the coolers in the back seemed louder, more disturbing until she spoke in a lost, hopeless whisper.
“I don’t have a home.”
“But you have a baby. Where’s her father?”
She brushed her nose with the back of her hand, finally looking up at Noah. Her tell-all eyes were defiant now.
“The low-life kicked me out three days ago, says he’s too young to be a father. He found another girlfriend.”
“Your parents, then?”
She grimaced as if suffering from indigestion.
“They told me I would have to give up the baby, and I couldn’t. It would’ve broken my heart. When I told them I was keeping her, they said I would have to leave, so I did. I won’t go back where I’m not wanted.”
The statement released a fresh series of sobs. Noah studied the floor as he slowly swayed from side to side lulling the infant. A pleasurable sensation overcame him at how good it felt to hold a baby; it had been a long time since he had held his grandchildren the same way, as he had held his own daughter once. He moved his nose closer to the open fold, inhaling lightly; the scent of fresh talc made him think of silk. An aroma of clean newborn skin wafted out, causing him to smile. A knock on the glass door dispelled his musings.
Looking up he saw two neighbourhood boys, hats on sideways, tee-shirts with marijuana themes, wallet chains at their hips, crotch of their pants protecting their knees. They looked as if they had gotten dressed in the dark. Noah pointed at the bundle he held then motioned them away with a grin.
“Not tonight, Johnny. Go get your smokes at Macready’s.”
Both lads smiled at Noah, giving him thumbs up before taking off, pushing and joshing with each other. The interruption ended Clair’s crying, disturbed the little girl. The baby turned her head and squirmed about in Noah’s grasp for a few seconds.
“I can take her back now if you want.”
“No, it’s okay. I like this. You rest for a minute. What’s your name?”
“And this little package?”
“Anna. Are you Mr. Coyne?”
“Actually, I’m Noah”
“Like in Noah’s Ark?”
“Something like that I guess. Now tell me, Clair, what do you do all day with Anna. How do you keep her so clean?”
Clair’s shoulders slumped; she sat forward with her elbows on her knees, her head down.
“At the mall. One of the security staff is my cousin. He’s cool. There are a couple of spots where I can rest for an hour or so. They have cleaning stations for babies, which really helps. But he told me today I can’t hang out there anymore. I’m not sure what I’ll do tomorrow.”
Noah wanted to encourage her for the baby’s sake.
“Think positive Clair, tomorrow is another opportunity for us all. Tell me where you’ve been staying.”
She sat up a little, offering a feeble smile, a curling of her lips that expressed guilt, her chin too heavy to lift.
“In your back lot. The door to your shed was unlocked. Well, actually, it was locked, but someone had left the key in the slot. I needed some place dry and warm. I’m sorry... but I locked it for you. I have the key.”
Noah reddened as she passed him a yellowish key linked to a small brass fob that said “I Love Grampy.” He remembered taking the garbage out two nights ago; he must’ve left the key in the lock. He was relieved it was someone seeking refuge rather than a thief who found it.
“Thank you. Now seriously, Clair, what are you planning to do? There must be somewhere you can go. Family, friends, relatives?”
Her head was now in her hands, elbows still on her knees. A few more hairs came loose from the elastic that held it, falling over her small hands. The question was causing her difficulty as she shook her cradled head back and forth. She didn’t want to say it out loud, trying to shore up the tears she felt coming. Noah understood her tacit reply but remained silent, offering her respite. He backed up toward the counter, leaning against it to give himself support. Clair remained seated to his left. Noah watched her for a moment, saw her eyes were open as she stared at the floor. He imagined her deep in thought. Finding his own spot to stare at, his vision blurred as he concentrated on a solution.
Five minutes went by, a few cars passed, Clair had barely moved. Noah focused on the young girl’s head, hoping she would not betray his trust.
“I’ll tell you what. I have an empty one-bedroom apartment upstairs that you can use for a few days. We’ll find you some help tomorrow; there are several places I can think of for us to call. What do you say?”
Reacting to the benevolent gesture, she sat up straight, knocking over the lighter display with her backpack. Swinging around to grab at the spilling tray, her stuffed bag banged into the plastic container holding about ten CDs, scattering some on the floor. She was attempting to reach for the ones still sliding off the ledge when Noah reached out with his free hand to lift her under the shoulder, helping her up. Noah was grinning at the girl’s awkwardness when the baby started to cry, woken by the racket of clattering jewel boxes.
“Come away from there before you knock my whole store down, and take your little girl. I’ll close up the store and then we’ll get you settled in.”
Anna was protesting with weak sniffles, in a voice only three weeks old, as Noah handed her gently to her mother. Their eyes met when he stepped away. He was happy he was able to help, it showed in his face. She was still trying to take in her good fortune when a thought occurred. Scrunching her brow, gripping her infant closer, she asked with trepidation, “Why are you doing this? You’re not one of those dirty old men are you?”
He was facing her about six feet away at the end of the cash counter when her directness hit him full force. His back straightened, brows arched in surprise, mouth open in amazement at such an accusation. About to defend his honour,the absurdity of her comment hit him and he started laughing. Big hearty chuckles filled the store as he held his stomach he was braying so hard. Clair watched him for a few seconds until she couldn’t help but join in. Her laughter was delicate and almost childlike, pleasing to hear. It changed her ordinary face, the glee dispelling briefly the worries of the night, instilling a happy confidence. Their chuckles soon calmed down, and while wiping his eyes he said, “I can assure you, young lady, I am the most respectful man you will ever meet, but I’m glad to know you are not naïve.”
Clair was still smiling as he became quite serious.
“I’ve decided to trust you. I believe what you say to be true and I will tell you, quite emphatically, that I am ticked off at your parents. I would never, never abandon my daughter and it saddens me to see you in this predicament. My wife Martha passed away almost two years ago, our home was too big, too full of reminders of a good life together so I sold it. I renovated the upstairs here, I live in the biggest apartment and the other has been vacant since I finished it. I just never found anyone I’d want for a neighbour yet. If you want my help, you’ll have to trust me too. Deal?”
The smile reached her eyes now. He could see how truly young she was, how the string of hope he offered her fortified her. She reached out to shake his hand with her slender fingers.
“Deal then, but only for a couple of days.”
Clair moved out of the one bedroom apartment when Anna was six. At that point, she switched apartments with Noah. She and Anna moved out altogether when Anna was thirteen and Clair married Neville Coyne, Noah`s grandson.