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The light turned green and she hit the accelerator fast. His lunch bag tumbled again. She wanted to tell him about that woman’s pink coat.
Instead all she said was: It’s a peanut butter sandwich. But I’ll get more of that ham you like from the Red Owl today. It’s on sale.
She did go to the Red Owl. And she did go to the deli counter to buy the ham, but there was a long line and she had to wait. She looked around and thought she saw a pink fur coat disappear down an aisle. She told the lady waiting in line behind her to jump ahead, that she had forgotten something. But when she reached the aisle, it was empty, so she took off at a run, her heels clacking on the Red Owl tile, towards the front of the store.
A crowd had gathered, staring out the big glass store windows. Bag boys. Checkers. Shoppers. The man who stocked the fruits and vegetables. Willa pushed her way to the front. Out the window she saw the woman in the pink coat yelling.
Who’s that woman yelling at? a checker said.
Some man, the baker said.
I think it’s the one getting into that blue sedan.
The crowd pushed closer to the store windows.
What’s she doing now? someone said. The blue sedan sped away.
Let me through, Willa said, and pushed her way through to the doors.
Once outside the store, she walked towards the woman in the pink coat slowly. She wasn’t sure why. The woman in the pink coat didn’t seem to hear her coming, didn’t seem to hear the shoes slapping the concrete, and as Willa walked towards her, the woman bent down and started unbuckling her shoes.
I hate these shoes, the woman said.
Who was that in the blue sedan? Willa said.
Willa was sure that the crowd from inside of the store had followed her outside, but she didn’t want to turn around to look.
What’s it to you? the woman said as she stood up, a shoe in each hand.
We met once, at the park. I was there with my children and you sat down with your dog.
She didn’t know what else to say. She should just walk to her car, drive home. Forget the whole thing before something terrible happened. But instead of taking out her keys, or going back in for the ham, forgetting the whole thing, minding her own business, Willa found herself telling the woman that she was sorry about the dog. Such a small dog and oh, the matching pink coat.
The woman in the pink coat turned and said that fine, if Willa cared so damn much, she could give her a ride. She needed a ride somewhere, anywhere.
Oh, Willa said, well, yes, I suppose.
She pointed at her car, and the woman shrugged, and together they started walking towards it. For a moment, Willa remembered the ham, and on sale even, but then someone from the crowd yelled, and she decided it was just too late for that now.
When they got into the car Willa asked the woman if she wanted to be dropped at Pistol Pete’s. But the woman, who was now taking off her torn stockings, said no, not Pistol Pete’s, not ever again. And so Willa took her home, despite a nagging worry about what her neighbors might think.
Because, Willa said, I don’t know where else to take you.
My name’s Laura, the woman said.
Willa wasn’t sure what to do about Laura, so she told her she still had a few hours before she had to pick up her children from school and the baby from the sitter’s.
I’ll make us some coffee, Willa said as she motioned for Laura to sit down at the kitchen table. Can I take your coat?
Laura set her shoes down on the table, took her pink fur coat off, and handed it to Willa. The coat was soft and heavy. Maybe dyed fox fur. Willa carried it to the hall coat closet and looked at the label. Jean Eclipse, Hollywood. The label was embroidered in gold thread. She hung up Laura’s coat and her own navy wool one. She’d never had a fur coat. The neighbor did, but not her.
She went back to the kitchen and started measuring the coffee. Laura had shut the drapes and turned on the kitchen light, and she was sitting, playing with one of the baby’s spoons that must have accidently been left lying about after that morning’s breakfast. Her shoes were still on the table, and next to them her torn stockings and pocketbook, but Willa decided not to say anything just now.
I hope you like your coffee without sugar because I’m out. I was going to buy more today, but I suppose it’ll wait until tomorrow.
I don’t mean to intrude like this, Laura said.
I was also going to buy some ham, it was on sale, you know. I suppose I’ll just tell my husband I had a headache, a splitting headache, and couldn’t finish the shopping.
I’ve been all over, but I’ve always had Eddy.
Made him peanut butter and jam today, just like I gave the children. I suppose he’ll have to put up with one more day of peanut butter and jam.
It wasn’t an accident. That man in the blue sedan. His wife.
I don’t mean to intrude, Willa said as she put the coffee cups on the table.
She wanted to get me back. And she did, Laura said.
I’m out of sugar but I have milk, Willa said.
I had a husband once, Laura said.
Does he know? Willa said as she pushed the milk bottle towards Laura.
No, Laura said, he died a long time ago.
Over coffee they decided what to do. The whole time Willa thought how strange it all was, but she didn’t say this. Instead, she told Laura if she wanted to leave town that she should. The town certainly wouldn’t stop her. That she’d give her the grocery money she hadn’t spent and she’d drop her at the train station between picking up her children and getting her husband from work. Laura agreed and told her she’d take a train back home, to California, she had a sister there, or she used to anyways. She’d repay her once she was there, borrow it from her sister, or find a job. Send her the money in the mail. Willa said, sure, why sure, and decided it wasn’t polite to ask her exactly what kind of job she meant, and suddenly she had an idea.
How about this instead? Willa said. I’ll trade you my grocery money, plus a new pair of my stockings for your pink coat.
Laura smiled and said fine, that it was too warm to wear in California anyway, and Willa wondered what had happened to Eddy’s pink coat after he died, and she thought about the label: Jean Eclipse, Hollywood.
I’m sorry, Laura said, but could I ask one more favor? Could I freshen up before it’s time to go?
She left Laura at the table and went to her bedroom. She had two new pairs of stockings, still in their wrapping, and she took them to the bathroom and left them on the counter with a set of clean towels and a new bar of soap. She went back to the kitchen and told Laura to take a bath if she wanted, that she had to say she looked a mess, that there was still two hours before she had to get her children. Was she really sure she didn’t want to stop and get her things from Pistol Pete’s?
Willa waited until she heard the water running, then went to the hall closet and tried on the pink coat. She felt sad, she wasn’t sure why, but she knew she could never wear the coat anywhere. It fit her perfectly, and boy, was it soft. She left it on and went to the kitchen and put the grocery money in an envelope for Laura. Laura’s shoes and pocketbook were still on the table.
Maybe it was because she had on Laura’s coat, or maybe because she realized that she hadn’t heard any jets today, or maybe because the drapes were closed and she could hear the water still running, that she decided to go through Laura’s pocketbook.
It was a small pocketbook, not as well made or expensive as the coat, this much Willa could tell. Inside she found a key, one she assumed opened a room at Pistol Pete’s, a dollar bill, a tube of pink lipstick, a brass dog tag that read Eddy, a coupon for the Red Owl, a postcard folded in half, and a small picture of a man, its corners worn and creased.
She unfolded the postcard. The front said Greetings from Chicago and had a purple sketch of a sky scraper and a lake. She turned it over and read the very small, neat handwriting:
Hello, my Sylvie-poo, how are you? Everybody doing pretty here. Weather just grand. Went to the movies last night to see the new Gable. It was so-so but we had fun anyways. Carl went fishing this morning and caught three. One weighed 2, one 6½, and the other 7½. These are the first he caught this spring. Say, Carl wanted to know if Ma’s birthday was in May. Well, he’s a bright one, it’s February 9. He forgets things but I suppose I love him anyways.
With lots of love, and best wishes for all.
It was dated, Willa noticed, April 3, 1940. The address was for someone in California. Maybe the sister, Willa thought, but the postcard had never been sent, and it had no stamp, no postmark. She looked at the tiny picture of the man. He was wearing an army uniform, and he wasn’t bad looking, although she thought he looked very young, maybe just 18. The back of the picture had his name, Carl, and a set of dates, 1922-1943.