( A short story)
It’s five minutes past ten, I’m exhausted, and I’ve managed to survive another late night shift without completely falling apart.
The person staring back at me in the mirror of the women’s bathroom looks nothing like me. My hair is a mess of frizzy curls, my eyes smudged with too much black eyeshadow and dark mascara, and my lips look like a bright red crayon mark on a snow white piece of paper.
I look like a mess.
I sigh, wet a paper towel, and scrub the makeup from my face, because I’d rather not walk home looking like I want someone to pick me up.
It takes a few minutes for me to get it all off, and I still have dark smudges under my eyes, but I’m too tired to care right now. So I snatch my denim purse off the sink, sling it over my shoulder, flick the light off and push open the squeaky wooden door.
Smoke assaults my nose immediately. It’s my third week working at the bar, and I still haven’t gotten used to the smell. It reeks of cigarettes and sweat and faintly of cinnamon.
“Headed home?” Mack asks from behind the counter as he swings a rag over his shoulder.
“Yeah, it’s five past ten.”
Mack glances at the clock on the wall and raises a brow, “Already? I must be stuck in July.” He sighs, “Well anyway, get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow. And happy birthday.”
I smile, “Thanks” then I head for the back door, my legs feeling like stone.
Yeah, happy birthday Marty. Just how you wanted to celebrate turning 23.
The door opens up into the alley between Neon nights and Bertie’s Cafe, and the scent of deep fried food assails my nose. My stomach growls, and I wince. I’ve only had a couple bites of a chocolate bar today, because I haven’t had the time to go shopping, or the money really. I should probably stop at Dollar General and grab some Ramen, but I really don’t feel like it, and it’s out of the way of home.
Home. When‘s the last time you were really home Marty?
My sudden sentimentality annoys me, and I blame it on my lack of sleep. The past three weeks have been a crazy mix of moving apartments, starting a new job, and yet another breakup, and with all that’s been going on I haven’t really had time to catch my breath and take a break.
I shove my hands into the pockets of my jacket and pull the hood up over my hair. And then I start for home.
You just need time Marty, I tell myself, You’ll get back on your feet and everything will work out. Give it a month, maybe two. Things can’t be this rough forever.
My thoughts play in my head like a familiar record, and a wave of heaviness pushes against my chest.
When did the days start blurring like this? When did I stop laughing?
I don’t want to think about it right now, so I bury my thoughts and keep my focus on getting home. There’s a pile of laundry waiting for me to fold, and I’ll have to call Mrs. Guimer and let her know I can’t watch her dog this weekend. I just have way too much to do.
And then there’s the bills…
I suck in a breath and quicken my step.
Focus Marty, stay on track. Laundry and Mrs. Guimer, you’ll figure out the rest tomorrow.
A dark barks, followed by a shout, and I’m reminded to pay attention. I’ve entered the slummier part of town and there’s some suspicious people that hang out around here. I really need to get a working Bicycle, or a car, or better yet finally move somewhere decent, but all three are out of the question right now. My bike is more of a hazard than a help right now, and a new one would cost more than I have at the moment, let alone a car. Let’s not even get started on a decent house.
“Carrie, I’m not going to say it again, stop whining, ok? I don’t have time for your temper tantrums right now.”
I watch a frustrated Woman and a little girl exit the doors of a soup kitchen.The little girl rubs a hand against her eyes, her mom’s fingers wrapped around her wrist, and in the other hand she carries a black trash bag with a hole in the bottom, where I can see part of a plastic toy poking out.
The walk in front of me, the mother walking with quick agitated steps, while the little girl sobs behind her.
I can’t help but feel sorry for the two, and I’m reminded that there are others going through much worse than I am.
“You promised!” The little girl sobs, and her mother sighs, “Carrie,” she warns, and the little girl begins to cry harder.
Suddenly there’s a clink, and I see that the plastic toy poking out of the whole in the bottom of the bag has ripped free.
The little girl and her Mom keep walking oblivious, and I bend down and pick it up.
It’s a plastic princess crown, the cheap kind you get at the dollar store. I remember having one like it when I was around her age.
Back in simpler times Marty, when everything was one big fairytale and when you believed in happily ever after.
I stand frozen for a moment, my mind traveling back in time, to days spent wearing plastic princess crowns, and playing dress up, and knowing I was my daddy’s little princess.
Daddy. How long has it been since you called him? Over a year now…
I still remember our last conversation last thanksgiving. He asked if I was going to come and see them. I told him no. Why did I say no?
Because you knew that if you came back home you would want to stay, and that meant giving up your dream of being a writer.
As if I had gotten anywhere anyway. A lot of good my dreams did me.
I stare at the crown, surprised to feel tears pricking at my eyes. I haven’t really cried for months. Maybe I just haven’t had time to cry, or maybe I’ve been pushing away the sadness for so long I’ve forgotten how.
I hear another sob from the little girl, and my mind snaps back to reality. They’re now way ahead of me.
“Wait!” I shout, and I start running towards them.
The Mom drops her little girl’s hand and spins around, eyeing me wearily.
“You dropped this,” I say as I approach them with the crown in my outstretched hand.
The little girl steps forward, and I smile down at her.
“A princess can’t forget her crown,” I say, placing it on top of her head. She sniffs and then smiles a little.
Her Mother thanks me and then snatches up her daughter’s hand again and continues walking. I watch them walk into the distance for a moment, my heart filled with a sudden longing.
A princess can’t forget her crown…
I know what I need to do.
I walk to the gas station up ahead, stop at the old payphone, and fish through my pockets for some coins. I find two quarters and a dime and several pennies.
I suck in a shaky breath and push the quarters into the slot. They clink to the bottom, there’s a dial tone, and then I punch in the familiar number.
He might not even pick up. It’s late, what if he’s in bed already.
And then I hear it, the soft, gentle, and yet unmistakably firm voice on the other line.
“Hello Daddy,” I reply in a tear choked voice.
There’s a pause, and then tenderly he says, “Hello princess”.