by Theresa Hottel
At first I think two children, but they are secretive and vulnerable adults.
They come in around 4:00pm, when the summer heat outside just starts to simmer and turn gold. He’s older than her, but they have that sly look of sweethearts, with his one hand tucked around her waist and her leaning like a blade of wheat into this touch. While their eyes adjust to the dim interior I stare boldly, which is my right as an old lady who runs this type of store.
He’s ex-military, you can always tell with the haircut and the way their arms swing when they walk. She has on a little yellow dress with a white sash, the kind your two year old wears to Sunday school with stockings and Mary Jane’s, but her long tan legs are bare, stippled with a few ugly mosquito bites, and she wears those strappy sandals so in style nowadays. The skirt barely clears her behind, but I wasn’t placed on this earth to judge.
“Good afternoon,” I say with a big grin. They squint towards the sound of my voice, as I move out from behind the register into the sunlight. “Hot out there, ain’t it?”
“Yes ma’am,” he says. The girl just smiles. Perhaps she’s shy.
“Well have a look around,” I say. I fan myself with yesterday’s copy of Jailbirds as they split up. The boy stays up front, he’s looking at the vintage Hot Wheels, but the girl heads back deeper into the store. She looks at everything real intently, giving equal time to each antique as if there’s a test she’s got to study for later. She doesn’t touch anything but she holds a large paper coffee cup between her two hands like a prayer.
“Look here,” the boy says, calling the girl. She makes her slow way back to him, walking careful like a princess in training with an imaginary book across her head, and I can see the lid of her coffee is messed up. Either that or she doesn’t know how lids work, because she’s dribbled coffee all down the front of her yellow dress. She’s holding her arm in front of the stains, casual, as if she hopes no one will notice.
She joins the boy at the front, folding into his outstretched arm. They’ve found the Guest Book, which I’ve displayed with bundles of dried lavender on a vintage music stand.
He’s whispering into her ear, eyes happy, with one hand on her bare shoulder. She’s listening, but her gaze is fixed on the book as she flips back through page after page of entries, looking at names and places, as I myself have done, and probably wondering about other lives, as I do dream all the time. I feel a sudden warmth for her. There was a time when I didn’t know how coffee lids and boys worked either. I might even have been shy.
“Go ahead and sign it now,” I say.
He whispers to her again and she swats him on the chest. They’re laughing, because that’s what lovers do. She signs the book and drifts away, to look at the turquoise earrings. He stands by the book alone, a little awkward. I go and join him.
“Georgia!” I say, looking at their entry. Eric and Samantha, Georgia, with a small ink blob on the capital G. “Whereabouts in Georgia?”
His eyes move sharply down my face. The corner of his mouth jerks.
“Kinda near Atlanta.”
“North, south, east, west?”
“You don’t say! My husband grew up near there in Villa Rica. You know it?”
He blinks rapidly and then he smiles. A friendly, Villa Rica smile. The girl has vanished behind the wedding dress rack.
“What are ya’ll doing way out here?” I ask. I look down again at the Guest Book and run my finger over their entry, thinking that I’m going to tell my husband about this. He says I sometimes make too much of things, but it is exciting, the furthest entry in six years has been from Fort Smith, Arkansas, and that’s only about three hours away. I myself have never been east of Louisiana.
“We’re on a road trip,” the boy says. He leans back against my glass display case, easy and smiling and excited, like me. “We thought we’d hop on I-40 and just travel west, stop at little places like this, off the highway,” he nods around my store, “and just see what there is to see.” He grins in the direction of the vanished girl. “We just up and decided, last night, spontaneous.”
“How romantic,” I say, and I mean it.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says.
The girl has come to stand beside him. She’s ready to leave.
“I wish I could just up and go whenever I felt like,” I say. “But you need the time and money.”
He laughs. The girl spills her coffee again, a little, right in front of us. I go behind my desk and bring her back a napkin.
“What’d you say ya’ll do, again?” I ask. They trade glances.
“Film,” he says. “We’re both in film production.”
“You don’t say! In Georgia?”
“Yes ma’am. Gives us a flexible schedule.”
“What kind of work?” I ask.
“Special effects, mostly.”
“Special effects!” I say. “Like Star Wars?”
I look at the girl. She smiles and nods.
I smile back. I pick up the pen and make a little note beside their names. Film (Special Effects). “There’s a good film industry in Georgia,” I say. “My husband was a big-time story developer. Well, medium-time I guess, but know that film Goodfellas?”
The boy is nodding vigorously.
“Well he worked on that a little,” I say. “He was friends with the screenwriter and Martin Scorsese. And you know Francis Ford Coppola, what was that film he did about the war? Not The Godfather, the other one.”
The girl walks away. She heads back toward the dresses, where the racks lean up far enough to hide a person. As she goes, I notice the sole of her shoe is broken. The part under her heel flaps as she walks.
“I can’t remember either,” the boy says. “But I know the one you’re talking about.”
“Well anyway, my husband met him and his daughter, Sofia. They had dinner in New York City.”
“He had dinner with them?”
“Oh yeah. He worked with that company in Atlanta, with the big building downtown.”
The boy nods, vaguely.
“So what movies have you done?”
“What?” He’s looking around for the girl.
“Special effects,” I say.
“Ah, huh. Well, a lot of different kinds.”
“What’s something I might have seen?”
He clears his throat. He looks past me. I turn, and the girl is standing behind me. She’s staring at him, eyebrows raised a little. She tries to hide it before I can see.
“Well, we’re freelance,” he says. “Lots of small productions.”
“Oh,” I say. “I’m sure you’ll work your way up.”
He laughs and pulls at some rough skin on his lip. He holds his hand out to the girl. “Come here, you.”
She comes to join him. The coffee is still a mess, and as she sidles past him the pooled liquid in the lid slips down the cup. To spare her, I pretend not to notice.
“You ready to go?” he asks.
She nods and smiles at me. Her arms still crossed, strategically.
“Nice meeting you, ma’am,” he says.
“Pleasure,” I say. “Safe travels.”
They walk toward the exit, her dragging her loose heel, his hand at the small of her back, sheltering. I get a peep of her purple panties, as he hefts open the door and the wind shifts her skirt, and I’m hit with a wave of motherly sorrow.
The girl steps through the door, her sandals on hot pavement, and stops. She looks out into the dead afternoon, squinting toward the distant highway.
And then she hands the boy her coffee cup and doubles around, back into my antique store. She smiles at me but says nothing, and with me standing right there she picks up the pen and scratches at their Guest Book entry. She draws a single line through Georgia and replaces it, in the same labored script, with Harrah, OK. The boy stands foolishly at the front of the store, still holding the door open, letting the hot air drift in. Harrah is a small town 15 miles from here, west on I-40.
The girl walks back out the door. The boy nods at me one last time.
“Thank you ma’am.”
I stand by the Guest Book podium and continue to stare, as is my right as an old lady in an antique store, and I watch him help her into a dusty four door Civic, his hand still protective, hovering at her back. Neither of them looks back at me. I watch them drive away.
That night I made my husband chicken casserole. We sat on the couch together and ate it, the TV on but muted as we talked. He scratched his beard and stretched back as I told him about the couple. His skin was red and cracked from long hours in the sun.
He asked me which direction they ended up taking on the highway, if they went east toward Georgia or back west, toward their home. I really couldn’tmember.
We laughed together at my clumsiness. That I had missed the prime event. But I don’t mind not-knowing, just like I don’t mind little lies. It makes the world seem mysterious. Like something’s hiding in its folds.
Theresa Hottel writes and teaches in New York, where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. Raised in Oklahoma, she is currently working on a novel about ghosts and the Dust Bowl. Her fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly.