Copyright 2011 Jennifer Skully
Good Lord, he’d fired her. Just like that. Her boss, Richard Headley, had scapegoated her. After five years with the company, Dick Head—as Jami referred to him in the privacy of her own mind—ripped the rug right out from under her.
Jami Baylor had never been fired, not even from the paper route she’d had as a kid.
The Bay Area had a late September rain yesterday, and a damp, musty smell permeated Used But Not Abused as Jami pushed through the thrift shop’s front door. She didn’t know if it emanated from the used clothing that had been shoved to the back of someone’s closet for too long or the ancient orange shag carpet covering the store’s concrete floor. Even the books smelled musty, as if they’d lain for years lost and forlorn in somebody’s attic.
Why did that feel like a metaphor for her life right now?
The stale scent didn’t bother anyone else. The shop was sardines-in-a-can packed. Fifty-percent-off Tuesday brought out shoppers in droves. Jami could barely find a spot to eyeball the latest treasures beneath the scratched glass showcase.
Behind the counter, Olga waddled towards her. “Baby Doll, what are you doing here in the middle of a workday?”
A large woman, Olga had to suck in her stomach to get behind the counter. Her face had turned to leather from years of smoking, and when she laughed too hard, she often lapsed into a coughing fit. Yet for the five or so years Jami had frequented the second-hand shop, Olga always had a kind word and a sweet smile.
Jami gave her one in return. “I needed a Used/Abused fix.”
The woman leaned in to inspect Jami. “You okay? Your nose looks like Rudolph. Got a cold coming on?”
No. She’d been crying. In the car, once she’d left the office, it hit her hard. She’d been fired. She’d worked in Silicon Valley for thirteen years, since graduating university, the last five at Southside Manufacturing. After four years as Cost Accounting Manager, she’d made the leap to Director of Materials, a job she’d toughed out for over a year. The first female director at Southside Manufacturing.
Yet when it came time for someone to take the blame, it was her signature on that purchase order sticking the company with thousands of specially machined parts they couldn’t use when their customer canceled a million-dollar contract. Cardinal rule in Purchasing, give yourself an out. Dick Head had her sign the PO without a cancellation clause. Against her better judgment.
That fact seemed to have slipped his mind when he fired her.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” she said, to avoid explaining. Especially since she might start blubbering again. Really, she wasn’t cut out to be an executive. “I just felt like a day off.”
“Well, good for you, Baby Doll. And let me tell you, we got some fine pieces in this weekend that your nieces will love.”
A woman elbowed Jami out of the way. “I want to see that,” she pointed for Olga, adding another finger smirch to the glass counter.
Jami gave the other lady room. Slightly chipped crockery and fine china with the gold edging worn off filled a display cabinet, and the necklaces and earrings in the glass sideboard were more of the dimestore variety than anything one would find at a jewelry store, but Jami loved buying the trinkets for her nieces. Kids were so easy. At last count, she had five nieces but no nephews, and that lack of a male heir was the bane of her mother’s existence.
By the time Jami came along, her mother already had three girls, each a year apart. She’d wanted a boy so badly she’d actually given Jami the boy’s name she’d had picked out before having the ultrasound. When the tiny fetus turned out to have the wrong apparatus, Mom thought she’d be cute by simply dropping the es off James and adding an i. Jami often wished her mother wasn’t so cutesy. She’d grown up feeling a bit...unnecessary in the scheme of things.
Not finding a thing that would make any of her nieces absolutely hyperventilate, Jami moved on. Halloween was, comparatively speaking, just around the corner, and Used But Not Abused was like any other shop, stocking Halloween gear a month before the main event. Scratched trick-or-treat pumpkins were stacked one atop the other and next to that, an assortment of battered skeletons to hang on the front door and Frankenstein monsters to guard the stoop.
At the back of the store, where the air got a little less circulation, the mustiness was enough to wrinkle her nose. But at least the crowd had thinned out. Most patrons favored the clothing aisles. Jami wasn’t interested in clothing. She’d discovered a treasure trove on a shelf in the back corner years ago. Even if she made it to the shop only five minutes before closing, when she had a particularly hard day, or was stressed at work, or she’d had a fight with Leo, she came here.
Not that she and Leo argued a lot. Their relationship was pretty darn amicable. And comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. What if Leo never thought it was the right time for a family? Jami was thirty-five. It was time. She wanted a child so badly it sometimes felt like shrink-wrap squeezing her insides. They’d been living together for seven years. When would he make up his mind? There was always that next big promotion around the corner or one more financial goal he needed to achieve. Not to mention that their lovemaking had become increasingly perfunctory, and, to be honest, not so much about her pleasure.
Jami shivered. How was she supposed to break the job news to Leo? They lived in his condo, but she shared expenses. She had savings to live on for...well, over a year at least, but it would still be a blow to them both.
Okay, she wouldn’t think about all that now.
Jami hunkered down in front of the stapled paper bags on the bottom shelf. Grab bags. They took her back to her childhood when her favorite uncle visited, with grab bags for her and each of her sisters. Filled with junk that her sisters threw out along with the paper sack, in Jami’s mind, there was always a treasure in there, big or little. Growing up, she’d been the youngest and never learned how to scream the loudest or the longest, and her mother was often too busy dealing with someone else’s drama to notice Jami’s relatively minor problems. The fact that her uncle always knew the perfect treasure to put in that sack, one especially for her, made up for the lack of attention.
Continuing grab-bagging into adulthood was, at the very least, a little OCD, but Jami didn’t care if she had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She loved the grab bags.
Closing her eyes, she put out a hand for a stapled bag. Best not to think or look too hard. That was the key to grabbing. If you didn’t over-think, the universe stepped in and gave you exactly what you needed.
Then someone snatched the magic bag right out of her fingers. Jami snapped her eyes open and rose to her full five foot seven plus three-inch heels. “Hey, that’s mine.”
“I saw it first.” Easily a head shorter than Jami, the elderly woman clutched the bag to her chest, her bosom heaving.
“I had it first.” Jami narrowed her eyes and secured her stance on her high heels, like a gunfighter ready to quick-draw. She’d touched it first, so she had dibs. She might not have stood up to Dick Head when he’d ordered her to sign that PO, but she’d go to the mat for that bag.
A tear trickled down onto a cheek that resembled an apple wizened in the sun. “But I need it. You don’t need it.”
Jami took in the woman’s blouse, which was literally falling apart at the seams. The torn hem of her skirt dragged on the orange shag carpet. Jami glanced at the bag. Its label read women’s clothing.
Jeez. Did it matter who’d touched it first? The grab-bag thing was about feeling better, and really, if she yanked it out of this poor lady’s hand, she’d feel lower than dirt. “You’re right. I don’t really need it.” She reached in her purse for a dollar bill and handed it to the woman. “But since I touched it first, I still have to be the one to pay for it.”
The woman beamed. She was missing a tooth. Then she snatched the dollar from Jami, pushed between two men arguing about a broken cuckoo clock that cucked but didn’t koo, and slapped the bill on the counter before Jami could change her mind. If the old lady had scammed her, she’d done it well, and Jami didn’t mind.
Instead, she bent down, reached into the maze of bags on the shelf without looking, pulled one from the last row, then made her way to the front.
The two men were still arguing about the cuckoo.
When she reached the counter, Olga patted her hand. “What’d ya get this time, Baby Doll?”
Smiling, Jami plunked down her dollar. “I have no idea. It’s a surprise.”
Olga looked at the sack’s writing through the bottom of her glasses. “It says—”
Jami stuck her fingers in her ears. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know before I open it.”
There was a whole ritual to follow; okay, she did have OCD. She couldn’t read the writing on the outside of the bag, just stick her hand in, eyes closed. It could be clothing, jewelry or books, CDs or video tapes. She’d been known to pick men’s clothing or shoes, but there was always something worth calling treasure, even if all an item did was garner a memory of her father’s Florsheim shoes and the quarters he used to pay her as a child to keep the leather polished. Pops had passed from lung cancer ten years ago. He hadn’t smoked a day in his life.
Olga shook the bag. “It sounds like—” she singsonged in that raspy voice.
“Stop it,” Jami squealed, playing along. “I don’t want to know.”
Olga loved to tease, and they went through the same rigmarole every time. Maybe that was part of the pleasure of grab-bagging. Olga, her teasing, her smiles. Even before Jami left the shop, she always felt sunnier. A little more hopeful.
“Well, I want to hear what you find inside. If it’s really good, I think we’re going to have to consider raising prices.”
“It’s because they’re only a dollar that you even sell them and you know it.” Jami herself was probably the only one who got a big kick out of what was in the bags anyway. “Raising the price doesn’t do you a darn bit of good if volume goes down.”
“Being a high finance mucky-muck, you oughta know.”
Right. She’d been more like Dick Head’s bum girl even if she did have a title. C’est la vie. The bright side was not having to see Dick Head day in and day out. Maybe getting fired was a blessing in disguise.
Olga slammed the cash drawer. “Now get outta here, and see if you got anything fun.”
Jami waved. The bag rattled in her hand as she headed out to her SUV. It didn’t sound like jewelry. CDs, maybe videos; she rarely got DVDs, since everybody was chucking their old tapes.
The sun shone through the windshield of her white 4Runner, and once inside she was toasty despite the taste of fall chill.
“What have we got?” she whispered. Tearing out the staples, she closed her eyes and stuck her hand in.
Could be video games. She didn’t know if they came in jewel cases. She opened her eyes to find Lawrence Welk staring at her, offering his all-time favorite polkas. Oh my God, her aunt would love it! She sifted through the bag, counting nine more CDs. Maybe it was Lawrence Welk’s complete collection. One Christmas present was in the bag, no pun intended. The next one she pulled out, however, was Slim Whitman. Jami laughed out loud. Grandma in the movie Mars Attacks had played a Slim Whitman record on her phonograph and made all the Martian heads explode, thus saving the world. Jami had thought they made up Slim just for the movie, but he was an honest-to-God crooner.
Les Paul and Mary Ford were next. A married couple from the fifties timeframe, and the CD featured their Rheingold beer commercials. Hmm, okay. She found four more Lawrence Welk, big band, ballads, and standards, then the soundtrack for The Blair Witch Project—did it even have a soundtrack?—and two CDs from a guy she’d never heard of. Colton Amory. The first was called Dream Sweet and the second Dreaming of You.
She flipped over one to read the song titles on the back, and her heart simply jumped into her throat. Even in a studio portrait, Colton Amory had the most penetrating pair of blue eyes she’d ever seen, as if he were looking right into her soul. Jami held her breath for several seconds. His hair was dark brown, and though his mustache had one or two streaks of gray in it, she could swear he wasn’t more than mid-thirties. He had a cock-eyed smile that made her want to smile right back at him as if he could see her, and laugh lines around his gorgeous blue eyes.
The dollar she’d paid was worth it for Colton Amory’s photo alone. She turned over the other CD, Dream Sweet, and this time his smile was only a hint. As if he had a sexy secret. His mustache was minus the gray streaks. But damn, he was hot in both photos.
The copyright dates on the inside covers showed Dream Sweet was the earliest, nine years ago, and the second album, Dreaming of You, a couple of years later.
By now, Colton Amory probably had a paunch and a big bald spot, but she could still fantasize about what he’d looked like seven years ago. Since he’d found his way into a Used But Not Abused grab bag, however, his music was probably crap.
She started the engine, yanked his more recent CD out of its jewel case and shoved it into her player, then pulled into traffic to the opening strains of Colton Amory’s guitar. It had an odd sound. No, not odd. Not out-of-tune either. It was unique, in a different key that pulled a person’s soul right into the music. Some songs didn’t penetrate the consciousness. Usually, she’d be thinking about the million things she had to get done in the first five minutes at work and never even heard the songs on the radio. Colton Amory’s music didn’t allow her to think of anything else. It sucked her in and wouldn’t let her go.
Then he started to sing, his voice like the smooth taste of a glass of Kahlua-n-cream going down. Sweet and velvety like cream, yet rich and smoky like Kahlua. In “Baby, I’ll Find You”, he sang about dreams and soul mates and finding the perfect woman. More than a partner, the person who fulfilled you, completed you, the one who gave you synergy. Separate, you were just going through the motions, but together you were so much more than simply the sum of your separate parts. His words spoke to her inner heart; his voice mesmerized her. She ran through the tail-end of a yellow light, cutting it way too close to red.
Oh. My. God. Colton Amory was a grab-bag treasure among treasures. His lyrics made her want to reach for her dreams.
At the next light, she closed her eyes and shivered with an ache so bad, it made her insides quake. God, she wanted. Everything. A baby growing inside her, then finally, finally, that cherished little human being in her arms. Leo’s ring on her finger. His breath in her ear saying how much he loved her, wanted her, needed her. A four-bedroom house she and Leo owned together, something in the suburbs with a white picket fence and rows of hydrangea bushes. She wanted the blue ones. She wanted all the passion in that song, to rediscover it with Leo. Now. Not tomorrow or next month or next year.
The emotion Colton Amory seared into his music was more than mere words. It was a message. In that grab bag, the universe had given her exactly what she needed. Maybe the universe had been sending her a message when Dick Head fired her, too. It was time to take a stand, go for the gusto, take charge of her life, and ask for what she wanted. She’d waited seven years for Leo to make up his mind. She wasn’t getting any younger. She’d spent far too much time waiting for things to happen. It was time to let go of her fears and force them to happen.
Finding Colton Amory’s music was serendipity. Or fate. Maybe even destiny. Jami knew what she had to do.
Tonight, she’d make up Leo’s mind for him.
“I hate to say it, sweetie, but no man buys the cow when he can get the milk for free.”
Jami’s shoulders tensed, then her neck, until finally a mammoth tension headache sprouted like an alien probe inside her head. With her outdated clichés, her mother was an anachronism. You’d think Mom had been raised on fifties TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it Beaver. She’d actually caught her mother watching old reruns on TV Land.
But Mom was right, things with Leo hadn’t gone the way Jami planned.