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Molly Schned


Photo of reading at celebrationAn Encounter

Helen spends a few moments with a delicate glass perfume bottle decorated only with a coil of sheer green painted up and around its base. A slender glass stick, like an elongated teardrop, fits inside the slim opening at the top, designed to extract a drop of the now absent liquid from the bottle and apply it to the wrist or neck of the perfume’s wearer. She turns the tiny bottle around between square, rugged fingers with dried cuticles and plain, but maintained nails. The petite bottle looks especially wispy in her strong hands.

Money is passed across the table. The bottle is packed into a small, previously used brown paper bag with “Caress,” the name of a distant boutique-clothing store, written on it, and is carried off into the weary, wandering crowd.

As she ambles away with her new purchase, she catches the crooked reflection of herself in a mirror dotted with the odd brown age spots that antique mirrors inexplicably acquire. She stops to hastily readjust the lump of pitch-black hair clipped loosely, yet firmly, to the back of her head. Holding up an increasingly aggravated mass of people behind her, she pauses a few beats longer to sweep her fingertips back and forth over the fringe of shiny, perfectly straight bangs that cover the edge of her forehead, press together and rub back and forth her thin lips, as though she were smudging into them non-existent lipstick, tilt down her pale, lightly freckled face, and consider herself intensely from under bushy, furrowed brows, first one side of her face and then the other before tossing her head to one side and moving steadily on into the press of the languid crowd.

A round man in a sweat stained tank-top coughs at her, “Aaargh! Rocks! Gemstones! Precious ‘n semiprecious! Here darlin’, you wanna try onna ring ‘er a bracelet? ‘Er mebbie you wanna one ‘a these rock paper weights?” He stumbles at her with large, hairy hands clutching an awkward assortment of homemade stone jewelry and, what are apparently, rock paperweights. His breath, like dirty diapers and an ashtray, hit her in the face with considerable force.

“Mm,” she snorts, one hand shooting up into his strange face. Her head turns abruptly away with eyes closed, brows raised, and lips curled into a disgusted scowl. She shakes her head curtly. He stumbles back a pace, yet charges at the person directly behind her without missing a beat.

“Aaargh! Rocks! Gemstones!” People stop to peer as she continues on, grateful for the brief moment of space between herself and the crowd behind her as they back up behind the peerers.

She navigates her way through the stacks of weathered crates with faded labels for “hand-picked apples,” “triple-distilled whiskey,” and various brands of cleaning solutions that are fashioned into makeshift walkways. The path turns and shifts under low-slung camping tarps and patterned tapestries stretched between stakes shoved into the soft dirt and mulch mixture into which the feet of the drowsy crowd also sink as it makes its way along the crude corridor. Sprinkles of stained sunlight shine weakly through the shoddy covering, catching the dust and flies in a hazy, washed out radiance that is at once ethereal and suffocating.

Every few steps, a rickety card table emerges from behind the narrow piles of boxes, stacked with its dealers’ wares: handbags with unraveled beading, gaudy costume jewelry with missing ornaments and chains, wrinkled black-and-white photographs of stoic children and grim couples on farms, cracked dishes, frayed and yellowing books, thinning pillows with poorly crocheted covers, musty, taxidermied turtles, birds, and rodents, worn fabrics, stained silk flowers, smudged toy figurines of kings and dragons, dolls wearing clothes homemade out of old aprons and dish towels, plastic stone statuettes, outdated maps. Nearly everything old or uncared for within a twenty-mile radius of the market is there, being hocked by balding men with cigarettes that dangle from their mouths and faces that dangle from their heads or women with odd pockets of flesh that protrude from ill-fitting spaghetti-strap tank-tops and garishly colored hair with exposed roots.

An especially small table materializes from behind a bend in the crate fence. It’s piled high with mounds of costume jewelry. Some of it looks ancient; the gold worn to nearly rust and the stones clouded and caked with hardened dust. Other pieces are in good shape; shiny ornate gold designs like elaborate rod iron grating, set with bright green, blue, and red stones. Rows of brooches and earrings in the shape of birds, fruits, top hats, high-heeled shoes, and clocks lay at the base of racks dangling with necklaces of varying lengths. Despite most of the jewelry’s gaudy style, it seems entirely possible that something of real value is buried amidst the garish junk.

Helen reaches for a long necklace, its chain cracked and tarnished, a hunk of gold in the shape of a pineapple drooping from it. She handles it gently. She raises the pineapple so it’s eye level and watches it swing from the chain. She lowers it and catches the pineapple in the palm of her other hand and studies it distractedly.

“Mom?” Her voice was stark and empty. She tried again, forcing her voice to be firmer. “Mom.”

Mother’s head rose heavily. Her thickly sprayed red hair, which had been, only hours before, arranged in a complex structure of shiny curls and spikes, is now smashed down on one side and standing straight up and out of her head on the other. The red looks much less glossy now.

“Go. Go to bed,” she slurred thickly, eyes watering under slit lids.

“But, Mom…”

“Now!” She flung her arm towards Helen’s face. She’d moved as though she expected her limb to move much faster than it did. Helen avoided it easily, but the glob of gold on her mother’s ring finger glinted as it passed her eye. A tip of the sharp gold pineapple with tiny gemstones perched in the grooves grazed the very edge of her nose.

Now, thirty years later, in an odd and stifling flea market miles from that kitchen and her mother long dead, she reaches up and rubs the tip of her nose. She drops the necklace back on the table with an unapologetic thud that makes the table attendant’s head swivel.

“Ey! Whatcher problem?” she wheezes deeply. Helen glides away without looking back.

A woman in a long white gauzy dress looks up as the necklace clunks to the table. She follows Helen with a long sideways gaze. Their eyes meet briefly, and Helen keeps on moving.  The woman in white, though, keeps her eyes on Helen, puts down the pearl brooch she was inspecting, and follows her casually, but intently.

Helen is at a table sparsely covered with a few old silk scarves. She doesn’t reach for any. Rather, she stands back a space and leans into the table, looking over the brightly colored fabrics, legs crossed and both hands clasping the “Caress” bag with the perfume bottle in it in front of her. The woman in white drifts up next to her and reaches for a black scarf with colorful, cartoonish sunglasses and margaritas printed over it like polka dots.

“Get in!” he yelled at her from the deep end of the pool, having just soaked a few sunbathers with an ostentatious cannonball jump off the diving board. Sharp sunlight glinted off his wet, sun-browned skin as he motioned for her to join him. Helen waved and smiled, but shook her head. Once his head was under the water again, she rolled her eyes to herself and went back to her thick book.

“Come on!” this he whined, hovering over her, dripping water on her face, her book, and into the margarita melting next to her.

“Do you mind?” she asked absently, sweeping her hand through the water splattering over her, but carefully keeping her attention on her book.

“Come on!” he insisted, grabbing her wrists, trying to yank her up.

“Stop. Seriously.” She twisted free her arms and retrieved her fallen book, wiping from it sand that had made its way up to the pool from the beach and water splatters.  

“You stop. Seriously.” And then he flung the remains of the margarita at her. His navy blue eyes snapped open wide, as though even he could not believe what he’d done. He burst into a maniacal laugh as he attempted to mask his guilt with a playful scamper back into the pool, leaving her—eyes and mouth agape in a silent curse, arms open wide, book limp against her torso, cherry red slush dripping off her sunglasses and down her swimsuit—to consider with disbelief what had just been done to her. When his head resurfaced, he shook out his long blonde hair, nonchalantly propped his arms on the edge of the pool, shrugged his shoulders, and with a snarky grin simply said, “Now you really should get in.”

She turns away from the table, annoyed with this memory. Just another recollection of a life lived frustratingly among the thrusts and throws of other people’s whims and neuroses.

To be continued…