Tammy had nightmares of the man she saw in her store window. His elongated face chased her through the streets of the San Fernando Valley, her terror mounting like a progression of staccato hits rising up the scales on an untuned piano. She always woke up screaming before the crescendo.
It all began after Rachel had a gun held to her head for a measly fifty dollars. How dumb could the thief be, holding up a pillow-and-accessory shop when Dazzles, Tammy’s store three doors away sold jewelry? It was costume, plastic, some silver, a few pieces of gold, but, a pillow store?
After the police left, Rachel came in screaming and crying, “Why me?” her eyes red and twitching, mouth pinched. Tammy knew what Rachel was thinking: you take in more money than I do, why didn’t he put a gun to your head?
She felt that the robbery at Rachel’s had been a prelude to something bigger, a feeling—dread. It all came back to the dream. She was at the Pacoima county-fair, at an old-time taffy-pulling contest where the taffy wasn’t taffy but the face of the man she saw outside staring in at the window display, his phantom shape morphing into multiple cells until a valley of identicals hunted her.
Tammy had a panic button under the cash register. The counter was next to the back door for a fast escape. A six-foot bank of back-to-back showcases stretched down the middle of the long, narrow store, and ten others lined the east and west walls. The glass doors reflected whoever looked into them and gave her time to assess people. Still, she thought of buying a gun.
Tammy stood at the counter with the computer on. She was browsing through listings of Bakelite necklaces on eBay when the door swung open, the buzzer alarmed. Since the robbery, Rachel entered her store like a bull in search of a red cape.
“They caught the asshole that held me up!”
“The douche spent my money. Cops said I won’t get it back.” Rachel stood just inside the door, her arms crossed, and her attractive face gaunt.
“At least he’s off the streets,” Tammy said.
“He’ll be out soon enough. And probably come back to rob you.”
Tammy sucked in her breath.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I hate coming to work. I’m so afraid.”
“I understand.” Tammy walked down the aisle. “At least you weren’t hurt.”
“Emotionally, I was.”
Outside, two women looked at the window display. One held a manila envelope, the other several letters. Three months earlier, new neighbors moved in with a shipping and PO Box store. Tammy’s walk-in business increased. The customers were a mix of drifters, aspiring actors and models, hopeful reality stars, and self-published writers. They talked about themselves and shared intimate details, as if she were someone without judgment, and perhaps that was the reason, for Tammy saw the best in people, and she had to admit; it made a slow day go by faster.
The two women left.
Tammy was about to speak when the man in her nightmares looked into the window.
“What’s the matter?” Rachel asked. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
He stood hunched over, dressed in a long black coat, looking at the second shelf in the window display.
He was a giant but not really. He just appeared that way. His face and extremities belonged to a man seven feet or taller. His features all merged into the center of his enormous face, leaving his jaw and forehead a wasteland of acne craters. And his eyes, they were two dots of sub-zero tourmalines.
Rachael turned around. “Ew, who’s that?”
“I think he has a PO Box next door. He scares me.”
“You’ve waited on him?”
“Probably just a looky-loo. It’s the normal-looking guys you have to watch out for. Like the asshole that robbed me.”
The man left.
Rachel opened the door and looked back at Tammy. “I keep thinking the next time someone will kill me. Or you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Was she really, Tammy wondered? Even so, Rachel left a chemtrail of gloom behind.
Tammy went back to the counter.
She entered her fourth decade of life without husband or child. She attracted men who used her, takers. It made her feel needed, in control, but they always left anyway. She wanted to change, but habits were stubborn, and men wanted younger women.
She dreamed of romances like those in a Nora Roberts novel. She wanted to love and be loved with a passion that could heat Pluto, someone to share in the distinctions of life, to be swept up a switchback of foreplay and countless orgasms.
She went on-line to meet guys, lowered her standards to the bell curve, where all she asked for was a man, under sixty, with a full set of teeth and a decent income. Not even the Internet helped.
She glanced at the large framed mirror—impossible not to look at—that hung on the back of the showcases at the end of the counter. There was no other place to hang it, and her customers needed to see their reflection when buying a necklace or earrings.
Tammy was without glamour, in a most glamorous town, lacked charisma in a city brimming with alluring women, but she did the best she could: added extensions to her lank dark hair, wore contacts that tinged her brown eyes green, ran five miles three times a week at Balboa Park. And she was short in a town where the average woman could play professional basketball. She might have a humdrum face, one that no boyfriend ever lied about by telling her she was beautiful, but she had compassion, could discover the kernel of beauty inside another no matter how hideous the person. So it distressed her, made her feel like she wasn’t trying hard enough to discover the inner goodness of the man in the topcoat who looked into her window and tracked her in her dreams. He couldn’t help what he looked like. She worried that she was turning into a shallow, selfie type of woman.
Tammy passed the day with customers and the occasional consignor who came in to pick up their check or add jewelry and knickknacks to a showcase.
It was a half-hour before closing. The January twilight cast a chill as darkness descended. The street lamps on Ventura Boulevard illuminated empty sidewalks. A light show of pink, blue and yellow neon flashed from the Thai restaurant across the boulevard and into Tammy’s store.
She stood at the counter, matching receipts with money she had taken in for the day.
The door opened. The buzzer warned. A gust of cold wind swept exhaust and the smell of frying fish into the narrow store.
The man appeared.
As much as Tammy wanted to see his inner perfection, she felt the sensation of having her skin peeled.
She grabbed the money and the receipts, went into the bathroom, shut the door, and hid her day’s worth in a bag behind the paper towels. She looked out the back window. Except for her Honda, the parking lot was empty. Her phone was under the first shelf of the counter. She told herself she was being ridiculous. It was always the ordinary-looking men who were rapists and murderers, not the ones with warped faces and mismatched body parts.
Tammy recited the affirmation that her Buddhist friend Qwan had given her: “I see beauty in all things and in everyone.”
She opened the door. The blood evaporated from her brain and left her woozy with fear. “Can, I help you?” she stammered.
He stood in front of the counter, his long arms stretched from one end almost to the other, braced, an anchor for his gigantic head. “I’m looking for a jade ring.” His voice garbled like nails thrashed about in a garbage disposal. His pinprick eyes seemed to enjoy Tammy’s terror.
She thought about lying, but what if he saw the ring? “I, um, yes. A man’s ring?”
“Yeah. A man’s ring.”
“There’s one in the second case in the front,” she said, hoping he’d walk away so she could open the back door. What for? To run out? And leave him alone in her store? Stop looking at his appearance, Tammy told herself.
“I want to try it on.”
Tammy nodded. She hurried from behind the counter, went around the hanging mirror and down the west aisle with her key poised to unlock the case.
He lumbered toward her as if he wore concrete platforms, his expression smug.
He stood close beside her. Affixed to his long coat was a metallic odor, iron, or was it blood?
Tammy reached in and gave him the ring.
Scars crisscrossed the top of his huge hands and knuckles. He jammed the ring onto his pinkie.
She glanced out the front window, hoping someone would come in.
“How much is it?”
His breath smelled like a jar of old pennies.
“Hmm.” He stared at her and massaged the tip of his middle finger back and forth over the jade then tapped the stone with his teeth.
“What’s the best price?” he asked.
“I can take ten percent off.”
“Hmm, $255.00, even.”
“Not with cash,” the man said. He stared at her. There didn’t seem to be any life coming from his eyes, not human, more reptilian. She expected a forked tongue to shoot out between his lips.
She’d pay the tax. She wanted him out of her store, out of her life, out of her dreams. “All right.”
He held out his skillet sized hand—fingers that looked like they enjoyed pulling the wings off of sparrows—the gemstone dwarfed on his pinky.
“I’ll think about it.” He yanked off the ring and handed it to her. “I’ll let you know, tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Someone else is interested in it. It might be gone by tomorrow.”
“I’ll take that chance,” he said and walked away. The hem of his long coat touched her leg.
She shivered, watched him go out the front door and realized she had sweated through her blouse. The waistband of her skirt was damp. He did nothing overt. He could have knocked her down and run off with the ring. He could have raped her in the bathroom. He could have knotted his wiener like fingers around her neck and snuffed her.
He didn’t want to pay tax. That was all he demanded.
Tammy prayed he wouldn’t return.
The next day was cold, but she kept the back door open. She turned the thermometer up to seventy-five, thankful for the people in the alley: car’s parking, people shouting into their phones, UPS and Federal Express trucks screeching.
When she went home the night before, she had a glass of wine, then another. She had called Qwan, who suggested she meditate. She instructed Tammy to go beyond the physical to the spiritual world to seek answers. Tammy cried out, “I’ve tried that, and I’m still scared to death of him!” Qwan replied, “Focus not on his body but on his soul.” “I don’t think he has one,” Tammy whispered. She said good-bye to Qwan and found divinity in another glass of wine.
At four in the morning, she shot up in bed, the monster in her dream the color of jade. The arms of his coat turned into green batwings. He chased her through the store until she dived into the mirror and vanished.
With three more hours before rising, she heaped the covers on top of her, shuddered, and squeezed her eyes shut. Tears streamed sideways across her cheek.
That morning she put on four-inch heels, and for the first time teased her hair—like her mother used to do—to make herself appear bigger. She carried the only weapon she could find at home, a souvenir from Disneyland: a tiny Swiss Army knife with scissors attached. She never harmed anyone, even spiders she’d toss outside. For Tammy, all God’s creatures were worthy of respect. But nothing could quell her fear of the man.
Tammy polished the counter. She ran the vacuum, swept the sidewalk in front of her store. Her feet hurt from the high heels. When she’d bend over her teased hair would smash into showcases, and shelves.
So great was her anticipation of being murdered, that, she began to think of flower arrangements and who would give the eulogy at her funeral. Her mother would be in shock, her father forlorn. Rachel would be thinking, glad it wasn’t me.
Tammy waited and waited. She peeked through the bathroom window whenever she heard a car, truck or motorcycle. She went out the front door and looked in at the PO Boxes. She glanced east then west. Cars backed up on Ventura. A skateboarder headed toward the Galleria, but no man.
That night, after she got home, she finished a bottle of wine, slipped into bed and closed her eyes like the lid on a coffin.
The next day Tammy dressed in her favorite sweater, lavender background with tiny pink hearts, and a navy blue skirt that showed off her athletic legs. Her hair obeyed the brush, and she wore just the right amount of make-up to enhance her features.
She felt invigorated from a good night’s sleep and that the man had decided against the ring, and therefore, wouldn’t return. How foolish, she thought, to work herself into a panic. Tammy hated being a victim.
She was sprucing up a case when the door opened the buzzer alerted.
A young Asian woman walked in, small and delicate, with long black hair parted down the middle. She went to the right aisle.
Tammy saw her looking into the second showcase. “Can I help you?” she asked, walking toward her.
The woman pressed her forehead against the glass. “My boyfriend wants me to see that jade ring.”
“He was here the other day.”
The man had a girlfriend!
“He can’t afford it, but he’s up for a part in the new James Bond film.”
“He’s an actor?”
The woman looked at Tammy. “Yeah. He’s up for the role of the new henchman.”
“Yeah, the other actor died. They need to cast someone scary looking.”
Tammy felt a hiccup launching in her stomach. “So, he’s like getting into the role?” The hiccup expanded into a chuckle.
Tammy felt giddy. She laughed. “I have a feeling, he’ll get the part.”
“I hope. What’s so funny?”
“Me. I’m laughing at myself. Can I take the ring out for you?” Tammy asked, feeling like the sun, the moon and the stars aligned instantly for her. She felt ashamed for judging him, stupid for being afraid, ridiculous for having nightmares about him.
The woman sighed and stared into the showcase. “No, I’d have to work overtime for a month if I were to buy it for him.”
“Why buy it for him if he gets the role?”
“Even if he gets it, he can’t afford it.” She looked at Tammy. “He has a hard time finding work.”
“Because of his,” Tammy searched for a kind word, “distinctive looks?”
“That, too. People are picky about who they hire. So now he’s trying to be an actor.”
What did she mean by, that too, Tammy wondered?
“He thinks because I’m Chinese, I know good jade. I’m about as Chinese as Taylor Swift. It’s a nice ring. But he’s dreaming.” She turned and walked out the door.
Tammy went back to the counter and sat on the stool. She pondered the meaning behind everything the woman told her. He was trying to be an actor, had a hard time finding work and not just because of his looks. What other reasons? Had he a prison record? Murdered someone? Would let his girlfriend work extra hours to buy him a ring—selfish, but so were a lot of men. She seemed intelligent. But Tammy knew love wasn’t just blind. It could be deaf, too.
She was reaching for her phone to call Qwan when the ringtone let out, “All You Need is Love”.
“Dazzles, Tammy speaking.”
“I was in the other day.”
Tammy’s neck and arm hairs became stiff as antennas. “I remember.”
“Don’t sell the ring. I’ll be in tomorrow.”
“Congratulations,” she said trying to keep the tremor out of her voice.
“The role, of the henchman, in the new James Bond movie. Congratulations.” She heard his snicker and then the dial tone. Tammy glanced about as if something could save her. God help me!