THRIFT SHOP SWAN
by Terry Sanville
Eugene folded his umbrella, stomped on the welcome mat, then entered the Goodwill Store.
The floor manager, Mingo, motioned him over. “If I were you, I wouldn’t go back there.”
“Why? What’s going on?
“The Zombie Lady’s freakin’ out.”
Eugene looked to the rear of the shop. A crowd of women of all shades and ages surrounded several racks of clothing. Pants, blouses, jeans, dinner jackets, and even bras flew through the air. Animal grunts broke the silence.
“Cops?” Eugene asked.
“Yeah, I called ’em. Didn’t want to, ’cause that lady’s got enough troubles. She’s quiet most of the time. I’ve never seen her this bad.”
“Maybe she’s off her meds.”
Mingo grinned. “How the hell should I know? I don’t check prescriptions.”
A police cruiser pulled off the boulevard into the parking lot, its roof lights flashing but no siren. Two officers in rain slickers eased through the front door and Mingo pointed. They moved forward and ordered the women to clear out. In a few minutes they led Zombie Lady outside, guided her into the squad car’s rear seat, then drove away.
Eugene saw her every week or so, along narrow streets that ran through the old neighborhoods south of the Downtown. The first time she had almost run him over, moving like a sleepwalker on crank. Her dark eyes stared at something over the horizon, her face as white as a geisha’s. She seldom looked at him, which felt strange since most street people treated Eugene as one of their own, and surely not as a retired school administrator. He liked his long-haired and bearded disguise.
She wore a full white evening gown, its ragged hem filthy from dragging the ground. Built like a young boy, she kept her red hair wrapped in a tight bun, carried a little girl’s purse and a lace-fringed parasol.
“She crazy, you know,” Chuntao, the pretty Chinese woman at Rainbow Donuts told him. “She stand in rain. I give her donut, free…but she no come inside.”
“What’s her name?” Eugene asked.
“Natalia, I think. She speak with accent…so not sure.”
“She’s a strange one.”
“She look like girl, but she old. I tell by her eyes.”
“Where does she live?”
“I think at Shelter, or under bridge.”
After the thrift store incident, on his daily walks around town Eugene made up a short speech to tell the Zombie Lady, once he got up the nerve. After being retired for ten years and widowed for seven, talking with women had become harder, except maybe with Chuntao. But he searched for Natalia anyway, at Goodwill, UVS Thrift, The Hope Chest, and Fred & Betty’s Secondhand. She looked intelligent, even in her spaced-out condition. But her eyes never seemed to quite focus.
“Why you care about crazy lady?” Chuntao asked. She poured him a third cup of coffee and leaned against the counter in the empty donut shop. “You think you save her? Be big hero? Forget it. She lost.”
Eugene smiled and stared unseeing at the front page of the Wall Street Journal. “She’s no more lost than I am. I wanted to be my wife’s hero. But she died anyway. Once was enough.”
“Not your fault…and…I don’t believe you.” Chuntao shook her head and returned to wiping the counter and refilling the sugars.
On a cloudy Monday, Natalia charged toward him on Pacific Street. He stood his ground. She continued on a collision course. Just before she smashed into him, she slowed, the impact gentle, with more bone than flesh. Eugene figured she weighed less than a hundred pounds. Her high-pitched scream made him jump.
“You’re real,” she said, looking into his eyes for the first time.
“Yes, of course. Why would you think differently?”
“I sometimes see…see people…like the ones following me. The voices tell me I should keep moving, run.”
Eugene stared past her along the street, the sidewalk empty for blocks. “Yes, that would be frightening. But I must have scared them off. Look.”
She turned slowly and followed his gaze. “They are gone. A big man like you would be fearsome while I am nothing. Sometimes, I’m not sure I’m even here. Am I here?”
Eugene abandoned his plan for making a speech. He grinned, reached forward and took her hand. “Yes, you are here.” He felt her stiffen. Her breaths came faster. But she wouldn’t release his hand.
“You must stop them from forcing me to practice. They will destroy me.”
“Practice? Practice what?”
“I can’t quite remember. But I know they do not want me to tell anyone. They say I will suffer if I do. There is always one of them…watching.”
“Hey listen, Chuntao at Rainbow is a friend of mine. Let’s go there and get some donuts.”
“I won’t go inside.”
“Rats and bugs crawling everywhere.”
“They aren’t there when I go inside. Come on, have coffee with me.”
Eugene pulled her gently along the street. They threaded their way through the neighborhood of dilapidated warehouses, muffler shops, and trailer parks until reaching the donut shop, at the junction of two broad boulevards.
Chuntao’s eyes widened when they pushed through the door. “I see you find Natalia.”
“We’re here for some of your fine donuts, and maybe a little coffee.”
Natalia clutched his arm in a vise-like grip and edged inside. They sat at a corner table next to the plate-glass window with traffic noiselessly blasting by outside. Chuntao brought two mugs and a coffee pot.
“May I have tea, please?” Natalia asked. “Some Lapsang Souchong would be wonderful.”
Chuntao rolled her eyes but brought a teabag and hot water with honey to sweeten.
Eugene and Natalia sat looking at each other, not speaking, not forcing conversation. She smelled of sweat and unwashed clothes that had been rained on and had never fully dried. Chuntao served fresh donuts. Natalia nibbled on a plain cake, finishing only half of it.
“I’m sorry. I don’t eat much, can’t afford to gain weight.”
She sipped her tea and continued to stare until standing abruptly.
“I must go, it’s time for practice, time for practice.”
“Practice what?” Eugene asked.
“I can’t tell you. They will know.”
She hurried from the shop. He watched her open-mouthed as she disappeared into the distance, her white gown bouncing as she walked.
“You do good,” Chuntao said. “I never get her inside. I think she like you.”
“How can you tell? She didn’t say much of anything.”
“You kind man. She will talk. You still have chance.”
“Chance? What are you talking about?”
“You know, you know.” Chuntao let out a high giggle and returned to her spot behind the counter.
After that day, whenever they met on the street, Natalia offered Eugene her hand or clutched his arm and they’d walk to Rainbow Donuts, sit without speaking in the late afternoon sun until she bolted for the outdoors. One evening, he checked under the Marsh Street Bridge and found her on a mound of dirty bedding, the river roaring not more than ten feet from where she slept. Eugene backed away, thought about how he might help. On a particularly stormy night he paid for a room at the Motel 6. He left her there watching a badly adjusted TV and fingering the dry clothes he had bought for her at Fred & Betty’s Secondhand.
Two weeks went by without an encounter. Eugene checked all the thrift shops but couldn’t find her, phoned the hospitals without success. He couldn’t stop worrying about her safety: being raped by some homeless troll; caught by a flash flood and swept away; or attacked for no other reason than she was small, seemed frail, and an easy target.
The spring rains had slacked off when he caught up to Natalia. Mingo stopped him as he entered the Goodwill Store.
“Hey look, you know the Zombie Lady better than anybody that comes in here. Maybe you can get her to stop.”
“What’s she doing now?”
“She’s tossin’ the shoe section. Got the kids and their mothers in an uproar. If you can get her outta here, I won’t call the cops.”
Eugene crept toward the rear of the shop. Shoes flew through the air. A black stiletto-healed number slammed into a mirror, shattering it. Little kids and women screamed. Natalia moved along the shelves full of shoes, yanking pairs from their perch, grunting, then slinging them over her shoulder. She had cleared most of the women’s selection and was working on the top shelf filled with the weird stuff that didn’t belong in any particular category. She grabbed a pair of pink slippers with squared-off toes and stopped, then kicked off her flats, exposing raw feet, calloused, blistered, bones and toes badly deformed, with dried blood under the nails. She pulled on the slippers and wrapped and tied their ribbons tightly around her ankles. Standing, Natalia reached up and drew her filthy gown over her head. The crowd gasped. A pink leotard covered her upper body, breasts flattened by its elastic pressure. White tights encased her slender legs.
Mingo joined Eugene. “After she broke that mirror, I called the cops. They’ll be here any minute. If you can get her outta here, I’m cool with it.”
Eugene smiled. “No, let her dance. I’ll talk to the Police and pay for that mirror.”
Natalia had pushed herself up onto her toes, arms extended in a perfect “V” above her tilted head. She raised one leg and joined it to the other at the knee, balanced with no shaking, then moved rapidly across the floor, spinning, arms extended. Little kids from the toy section sat on the floor and formed a gallery of gawkers. They stared wide-eyed, smiling, while their mothers called to them to be still and watch.
Natalia danced with eyes half closed, moving from one position to the next, gracefully, fluidly, face fixed in a state of bliss. She moved along the shoe section aisle, threatening to crash into display racks, but always in control, her jumps perfectly executed, never a stumble or waver on the landings.
The thrift shop’s front doors opened and two beefy patrolmen entered. Mingo hurried to intercept them as Natalia continued to dance before her spellbound audience. In a flurry of leaps and turns, she slowed to a kneeling position, then slid to the floor, eyes closed, hands clasped as if praying, her slender body still, at peace. The women clapped and the children joined in. Natalia rose to her full height and, with great dignity, made a deep curtsy. The little girls surrounded her, giggling, trying to copy her dance moves.
A cop stepped forward. “Excuse me, miss, you’ll have to come with us.”
Natalia backed against a display rack. “Father, I said I would practice more. I will…you’ll see.”
“It’s okay, officer,” Mingo said. “I’m not going to press charges for the broken mirror. You can let her go.”
“I’m afraid not. We’ve received other complaints. This woman needs help.”
The officers retrieved Natalia’s gown, purse and shoes, escorted her outside to their patrol car. Eugene followed them.
“What are you going to do with her?” he asked.
“Are you a relative?” the cop said.
“No, just…just a friend…a good friend.”
“They’ll probably put her on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. You can call County Mental Health if you have questions. She’ll be taken care of.”
Natalia stared at him from the back of the car, her eyes clear, focused. A quiet smile of what might have been satisfaction creased her face. As Eugene walked home, he thought about how they might live together, how she could put on special performances, at schools, community arts events, show off her talents to those who would appreciate their beauty and grace. He tried building a story of hope for both of them.
Two days later, Eugene phoned Mental Health. Natalia had already been released to the streets. He searched all the places that she might hole up. As the weeks passed he slowly surrendered any chance of finding her.
“She out there somewhere,” Chuntao told him. “I know you want to save her. But you lucky you not find her.”
“Why the hell is that?” Eugene shot back, scowling.
“I say before, she crazy. She make you crazy, crazy sad. I want you stay normal. You my friend first.”
“I haven’t felt normal for a long time. Maybe I should start. And…and thank you.”
Chuntao smiled coyly and refilled his coffee cup. He returned to reading the Wall Street Journal and she to wiping down the counter and refilling the sugars.
Months passed. One hot summer day, Eugene sat reading the L.A. Times. He let out a yell. Chuntao almost dropped a tray of donuts and hurried to his side.
“What wrong? You sick? You hurt? I call 911.”
“No, I’m fine, I’m fine. But look.” He pointed to a short column tucked away in the newspaper’s back pages. A grainy image of Natalia stared back at them.
“What it say, what it say?” Chuntao demanded.
“Natalia was killed in a homeless camp far from here.”
“I’m sorry, so sorry. But why she in paper? Like me, she nobody important.”
“You’re wrong…on both counts. It says here that she was considered a Prima Ballerina by dance critics about ten years ago, worked out of New York City and London until she disappeared from the stage.”
“What happen to her?”
Chuntao shrugged. “What’s that?”
“It’s not important.”
She frowned and reached for her counter rag.
“Wait a minute…wait.” Eugene gulped his coffee and stared at his age-spotted hands. “It’s very important. It’s a sickness that strikes some sensitive young people. It smashes their brains with a sledgehammer and breaks them. They stumble through life looking for their own scattered pieces.”
Chuntao stared at him, wide-eyed. “How…how you know?”
“I had to tell parents that pushing their kids to be the best doesn’t always work.” He banged his coffee mug down. “Fathers and mothers can carry the dark seeds of schizophrenia in their genes, and we don’t know why.”
“So?” Chuntao shrugged again. “Like I say, Natalia real crazy.”
“Maybe it is crazy…to try and build beauty out of what rags you’ve got left.” Eugene shook his head. “I’m glad I got to see her dance, even for just that one time. The thrift shop will never feel the same.”
About the Author:
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 270 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes for his stories “The Sweeper” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.