by Fran Turner
Marcella remembers the shotgun pointed at her face. Like the robber’s third eye, hard and filled with a dull smolder. First, the terror paralyzed her, cold air trapped in her lungs.
“Don’t be nervous, missy,” he spat the words through the gap of his missing tooth. “Just give me all you’ve got there and things will be just okeydokey.” Her hands shook as she stuffed the bills into the grimy canvas bag he tossed at her. “All you’ve got.” For emphasis, he tapped the barrel against the counter. Marcella saw a thin gold wedding band hanging from his finger, sliding up to his knotted knuckle as he moved the gun.
“Yes, sir,” she said, her words wobbly. The cash tray emptied, she slid the bag across the counter, the smooth surface steadying her hands. Normally she asked her customer, is there anything else I can help you with today? Now she swallowed her usual courtesy and customer service training.
The silence in the bank was crushing; horror-filled eyes were riveted on her and the robber. As he backed away, Marcella could see his yellow t-shirt and threadbare jeans, neatly pressed as though for a special day, hanging against his spare frame. Mrs. Chisholm, one of the bank’s elderly customers pressed her substantial body against the wall to give him wide berth. “Nobody move!” he snapped, waving the shotgun at the gasping woman. “Now you all have a good day.”
The glass door with its brassy trim slid shut and he turned to run. Within seconds police sirens were howling outside the bank. Inside, Marcella dropped into a chair someone had placed behind her. She felt a hand patting her shoulder and wished it would stop. The manager’s quavering voice addressed the customers urging them to remain calm until the police instructed them otherwise.
Marcella remembers her tedious interview with the police, recounting the details and reliving the jangling fear she wanted to forget. She remembers wanting to escape it all, wanting to go home to the apartment, thinking Tony might be home early after his job interview. He would comfort her, surely. She needed comfort after what she’d been through.
Her hand still trembled as she unlocked the door of the apartment. Wine-induced semi-oblivion would help, Marcella thought, with the warmth of Tony holding her close. She might feel safe again.
The trail of clothing from the foyer to the bedroom hadn’t been there when she left for work. The striped navy tie and the pale blue shirt that she had helped Tony choose for the job interview that morning, he’d been wearing those. She didn’t remember dropping a black leather skirt, or a striped sweater. She didn’t own a red bra or the black lace panties tangled in the leg of Tony’s gray pants.
Marcella heard moaning from the bedroom, the bed squeaking. She smelled a cloying fragrance that an occasional customer wore and that always gave her a touch of a headache. From the bedroom threshold, she saw the mounds of pale white buttocks bouncing above Tony’s prone body. His fingers clutched the thick curtain of auburn hair falling over his face as he groaned, “Yes, baby, yes, oh God, you’re good, baby!” Marcella couldn’t remember Tony ever telling her she was good. The pain of this realization brought her to tears. Angry tears. She exploded. Her arm swept the dresser clear. Jars of face cream, deodorant, and nail polish, hairbrushes, and the hair dryer flew at the bodies on the bed. For the second time that day she saw faces white with horror; now she was the source of that horror. Fury surged through her.
“Celebrating the new job?” Marcella seethed. Sheets were being tugged at frantically to cover exposed skin. “Don’t bother to pull that sheet over your withering boner, Tony. I’ve seen it all before.” Now the two bodies froze under the covers. She grabbed the bedside lamp, a wedding gift from Tony’s favourite aunt and her husband, tearing it from the plug, the cord dangling from her cocked arm. “Get the fuck out of here, you two,” she screamed. “Don’t linger. Or I just might do something desperate.”
Never until that afternoon had Tony ever felt a threat to his physical safety and he had never imagined the source of that threat would be his soon to be ex-wife. Her calm and equanimity had once been a refuge. He decided it was wise not to attempt an explanation, and he edged out of bed towards his strewn clothes, thankful that Roxy was already scrambling into hers.
Marcella spent the next hour gulping cheap cabernet from the fridge, pulling her clothing out of drawers and off hangers then compacting it all into her two oversized suitcases. Next was the dreaded call to her mother. “Mom, I need my old room back.” She wouldn’t let herself surrender to tears. “I can’t talk, Mom. I’ve had a really bad day. Really bad. Pick me up? Now?” Her hand placed the phone carefully upright in its base. She decided the mature way of dealing with the tragic day was not to cry. It was better not to think which robbery had inflicted the deeper wound—the robbery of trust in her husband or being held at the mercy of a shotgun.
“Marcella, you need to see a counselor. Or something,” her best friend Natalie wanted to shake her into. “You are suffering! Two calamitous events you’ve gone through. I can’t help but think you’re hurting bad behind that brave blank mask.”
Marcella did trust Natalie. And after many months she reached a saturation point with her reclusiveness and inertia. She needed to move, she decided and started up a frenetic schedule of fitness classes. For a while, the physical pain of boot camps, stretching and strengthening almost brought her joy. But her enthusiasm gradually fizzled.
“Natalie, I need to do something useful,” said Marcella. “What’s a fit body if you aren’t giving something back to the world?”
Natalie who for years had been taking her guitar to an old age home and singing folk songs for the residents every week suggested volunteering.
“Maybe walking dogs for a shelter? There’s one in your neighbourhood.”
“I want to get away from the neighbourhood,” said Marcella. She had run into Tony twice since filing for divorce; her mother and Tony’s family lived in a few blocks apart.
It took Marcella a week of poring over websites to find a charity she considered being part of. “Nat, I’ve found it. This is a really neat thing! The Bridal Gown Vision raises money by selling wedding gowns that women donate to brides-to-be at a reasonable price. The best thing is that the money goes to a children’s cancer charity! They need volunteers with retail experience and fashion sense.”
“OK, a neat idea but insane for you, Marcella. Besides your having no fashion sense, you’re still hurting. It sounds really nuts.”
“I’m signing up for their orientation. No big deal,” said Marcella leaning up to the computer screen studying the application form. “I’m gonna give them my wedding gown, too. Clear it out of Mom’s closet.”
She kept her flashbacks secret. It was ridiculous bothering anyone with what happened inside her: hallucinations of naked, writhing bodies amongst roiling bedsheets of sheets, of stony black eyes staring at her from the barrel of a shotgun, a thin finger drawing the trigger back.
Don’t be nervous, don’t be nervous, Marcella finds herself repeating as she walks from the subway to her volunteer orientation at Bridal Gown Vision. You can do it, you can do it, she repeats to herself, clenching and unclenching her cold, clammy hands. Despite the crispness of the autumn Sunday and the dome of pristine sky embracing the city, she feels locked inside herself.
Kitty corner to the dilapidated Victorian home of the Bridal Gown Vision Marcella does not see the historic jailhouse and the crowd of humanity in front of it, waiting for their chance to visit husbands, boyfriends, sons and fellow gang members. She does not know that, until his trial, this jailhouse will be the final home of Josh Howe, the robber with whom she has an acquaintance. Among a press of young women with baby carriages and toddlers waiting for the few minutes of conversation with their men behind the thick smeared glass, stands Josh’s son, a hardworking and skilled mechanic, resigned to his father’s propensity for serving time for ill-conceived robberies. He will visit his terminally ill father in the jail’s infirmary.
Marcella does see the BVG, a dilapidated Victorian house in a residential neighbourhood with a rack of white gowns, each encased in protective plastic, in the bay window. She knocks on the screen door.
“You must be the new volunteer! Marcella? I’m Simone and I’ll be orienting you.” She offers her manicured hand and a warm smile. Suddenly, Marcella feels out of place, awkward and gigantic beside Simone’s petite frame. She immediately clasps her hands in front of her, in hopes of making her big hands and chewed fingernails less conspicuous. She should have made the effort to shave her legs and wear a skirt like Simone, instead of her roomy slacks. It must be immediately obvious Marcella has no fashion sense.
“We’re expecting two brides-to-be this afternoon. For your orientation, Marcella, you can watch me with the first one, and then with the second one, we can work with together. Does that sound all right?”
Marcella nods nervously. “Yes, that sounds good.” How could I be so stupid to apply for this, she scolds herself. I don’t know anything about bridal gowns. She is on the verge of tears and hopes her nose isn’t lighting up red like it always does when she is about to cry. “That sounds really helpful, Simone, thanks. Where’s the washroom?”
Jennifer’s Mercedes C300 slides into a partial parking spot on the side street running alongside the BGV. She is unfazed that the nose of her car obstructs a driveway. She is here to help Mimi do the ecological, generous thing of choosing a used bridal gown to save the world from an overload of fabric and to support kids with cancer. Jennifer settles back into her seat and pulls her new iPhone out from the bottom of her Italian leather bag. Mimi unclips her seat belt and looks around at the other vehicles parked on the street. She is nervous that Jennifer’s car obstructs a driveway, but Jennifer operates with her own set of rules. A black Hummer gleams ominously behind Jennifer’s car.
“How can people afford a Hummer?” Mimi wonders out loud.
“Drugs,” Jennifer answers, her thumbs clicking away at some important message. It’s visiting time at the jail. We’re lucky to find this spot.”
“We passed it back there. And, another interesting piece of local history—before it became the used bridal gown place you insist on visiting, the house had been a hangout for a motorcycle gang. Until the police raided it. Between it and the jail, not so good for real estate on this end of the street.” Jennifer holds up her finger. “Wait. I have to return a call. It shouldn’t take a minute.” She nestles the phone under her precise blunt haircut and checks her lipstick in the rearview mirror. Mimi will apologize for being late. She closes her eyes imagining the perfect wedding dress for her. Ivory, maybe. Elegant and simple, with long sleeves tapering to a point on the back of her hand.
In the side mirror, Jennifer sees a man, a hulk actually, with a wide scowling face walking toward the Mercedes. His black clothes are festooned with golden chains and heavy rings on massive hands. Her throat tightens when she sees him freeze and reach behind him. His hand emerges with something dull bronze and dangerous. Then he dashes with surprising panther-like grace and crouches beside the front fender of the Hummer, the gun held alongside his face. The first shot fired at him cracks the back window of the Hummer.
Jennifer drops her phone. “Hold on! We’re getting the hell out of here!” Her tires tear up the street.
Marcella observes Simone showing the prospective bride several dresses, encouraging her to try them on and providing thoughtful feedback. Marcella knows she lacks Simone’s deep knowledge of the inventory and her keen eye for styles that minimize body problems, such as this bride-to-be’s short-waist.
“The next appointment is for Mimi Vanek,” Simone says. “She’s bringing a friend and they’re twenty minutes late.” Her nose puckers in disapproval. “We’ll give them ten more minutes.”
A pop like a firecracker then shattering glass. Marcella gasps and slams herself down on her hands and knees. “That’s a gunshot! Simone! Call 911. Stay low!” Her heart is banging against her ribs and she tries to calm the panic. What if it’s just my nerves, she thinks. What if I’m overreacting?
Then another shot. Unmistakable.
Plastic bags rustle and hangers scrape against the metal rack as Simone edges toward the wrap-around windows at the front with her cell phone in hand. “Simone! Get away from the window. Get down!
“I want to report gunshots outside this house. We’re at Victor and Broadview, across from the jail.” Simone’s voice is matter of fact, unhurried until a third shot rings out, glass breaks and with a fourth metal pings.
“Get away from the window, Simone!” Marcella tugs her down to the floor below the window ledge and, as she does, a bullet shatters the upper pane of purple and white stained glass hexagons and smacks into the ceiling. Simone screams as glass shards and plaster particles shower down.
“Simone? Are you all right?” Simone is intact. Sirens wail and wheels squeal. The lights on the tops of the cruisers flash blood red onto the shrouded wedding gowns. Orders blast through a megaphone, “Drop your guns now and raise your hands! Hands above your head!” Simone trembles, Marcella holds her tight.
The BGV’s back door slams and feet scuttle across the kitchen floor. The women gasp. Marcella squeezes Simone’s fuchsia tipped fingers in her cold palms. “Quiet,” she mouths. She hopes that, behind the rack of billowing gowns, all safe in their plastic protection—the two of them are afforded some measure of cover. Marcella subdues her ragged breath. The door to the showroom creaks open and brushes against the cheap plush carpet.
“What the fuck! What the fuck is this?” Separated from his gang, in a strange universe of white gowns, he swats at the plastic. Marcella feels the dresses vibrating with violation, grateful for the wall of fabric that hides her and Simone. But she does not know the extent of this man’s fear nor his capacity for violence. She imagines a gun in his hand. He stands panting in the ghostly quiet of the room while outside the emergency task force does their work. Marcella cannot see the black cap emblazoned with a gold insignia obscuring his desperate eyes. Nor can she see the firearm clutched in his right hand.
“Who’s there?” he pokes at the gowns as he slowly circles the centre of the room. Marcella feels him shuffle closer.
She motions to Simone her intention to lift the foot of the rack beside her and points to the one next to Simone. Marcella counts down with three fingers. Three-two-one! The metal rack and all the dresses avalanche over the intruder pressing him into the carpet. Marcella sees his hand clawing towards the gun he’s dropped and, on her feet, she scrambles around the rack, the yards of fabric and the billowing plastic to kick it away. He tries to push up onto his hands under the shifting load of wedding gowns and the metal rack across his back. His one foot is now planted on the floor but Marcella kicks again, hard, against the side of his knee. He crumples and yells. “Jeez-us! My knee! You broke my fuckin’ knee.” Simone wraps one of the fallen dresses over the assailant’s head. Marcella drops her weight onto his back and the air whooshes out of his lungs.
Armoured police in helmets and shiny boots clatter into the BGV. They brake at the sight of Marcella and Simone sitting on a squirming mound of wedding gowns and plastic wrap. The officer in charge retrieves the handgun from under the rack that Marcella now knows is for the size eight gowns. Two officers grab the intruder’s arms and drag him to his feet from underneath the fabric. He groans, buckles on his injured knee. “You two women did this to me?” he looks from Simone to Marcella and then takes in the disarray of the bridal gown showroom. “This place is some weird shit.”
“He was carrying that gun?” Marcella’s insides are twisting and untwisting.
“Indeed,” says the officer in charge. “You two are quick thinking and resourceful women. This could’ve been very ugly.”
“It was Marcella. She was the calm one. She was the resourceful one,” says Simone. “And it’s her first day volunteering!” Simone is flushed and fanning herself with her hand.
“Who’d think that on a Sunday afternoon there’d be a gang standoff outside the doors of this place? Are you all right, there, Marcella, is it? You’re looking pale.” The officer scans the showroom for chairs. “Let’s go into the kitchen back there. You can take a seat, catch your breath. Collect yourselves after what you’ve been through. We need to ask the two of you some questions before we go, but it shouldn’t take long.”
The following Sunday afternoon the bullet is still lodged in the ceiling, and, although the window has been repaired, the stained glass is forever gone.
“Magnificent Marcella! Hello!” says Simone grinning. “Ready for another exciting shift at BGV? I couldn’t stop talking about how we brought that bad guy down. How’re you doing?”
Marcella carries her wedding gown in its thick plastic protector over her arm. “Good. Better than I’ve felt in a long time. And I’m ready to pass this on. To someone I hope has more luck with it than I did. It’ll go with the size twelves.” She unzips the bag and satiny fabric spills out.
“I donated mine too when I started,” says Simone. There is a moment of silence and she holds up her left hand, wedding ring free. They make eye contact and laughter erupts. Now they are hugging, wiping tears away, and their laughter is unstoppable. Until Marcella starts to sob.
“Sorry, Simone. I’ve been crying all week. It’s a relief not to hold myself in anymore. I was held up at gunpoint at my job about a year ago. I came home that very same day to find my husband in bed with another woman. But getting through last Sunday flipped everything on its head. Maybe it almost healed me. Not that I’d recommend it as therapy. I’ve been bawling all week.” Marcella feels oddly liberated that all this is pouring out of her.
The harsh black coffee that Simone has brewed dries up Marcella’s tears. She confides that she’s seeing a therapist finally and is ready to move away from her mother’s on her own. They talk about the director of BGV rushing to be with them after the previous week’s incident. “After I was robbed, I didn’t want anybody to mention it,” says Marcella.
“That’s not a problem for me,” giggles Simone. “I’ve been talking non-stop about it.” She glances up at the clock. “How about you take the lead for helping the next client with her gown. I’ll pitch in if you need me? And guess who it is. Mimi from last week. Says she’s trying again today. When she called this time, she apologized for not showing up in the middle of the gunfire.”
About the Author:
Fran Turner grew up on a farm sure she belonged somewhere else; that turned out to be Toronto. She’s a graduate of Humber College’s correspondence program in creative writing (Toronto) and studies with Barbara Turner-Vesselago. In 2016 one of her short stories was awarded second place in the Scugog Council for the Arts Literary Contest, another is published in Dodging the Rain.