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Yellow and red leaves spun around my face as I tramped up the cracked sidewalk to the Bottom Dollar Emporium. It was October in Cayboo Creek, South Carolina, and the fall air felt crisp as a pickle fresh out of the brine. The store's candy-striped awning flapped in the breeze as I rummaged in my smock pocket for my key. On my day off, I noticed, Mavis had decorated the display window with cutouts of jack-o'-lanterns and black cats. A grinning cardboard skeleton with accordion-pleated legs swung from the front entrance.
As I pushed open the door, a horrible moan sounded from somewhere above my head. I screamed, but not loudly enough to drown out a terrified shriek from the shadowy depths of the store.
I was about to turn tail and run when the store flooded with light and I saw Mavis, her face pale as paste, standing by the entrance of the stockroom holding a box of Frootee Ice Freezer Pops.
"Lord, Elizabeth, I like to have jumped out of my skin," Mavis said. "I told Attalee not to hook up that silly, moaning contraption, but she must have went ahead and done it. I came in through the service entrance this morning so it didn't get me."
I glanced up and saw a suspect speaker rigged to the door. I gave it a good yank.
"If I hear that sound every time someone walks in this door, I won't have a nerve left in my body," I said.
I crossed the creaking floor to the break area, where Mavis had settled herself in one of the plastic, stackable chairs. Mavis Loomis had worked as a clerk at the Bottom Dollar Emporium for going on fifteen years. Three years ago she'd purchased the business when its owner, Dora Phelps, had died from a stroke.
The Bottom Dollar Emporium used to be a Kress Dime Store back in the '40s, when retail stores still had a certain amount of glamour. The ceiling was pressed tin and supported by a series of carved wooden columns. The original sconce light fixtures still hung on the walls, and there was even a brass spittoon by the door. But the merchandise at the Bottom Dollar was anything but glamorous. We stocked everyday items from coconut mallow cookies to Clabber Girl Baking Powder to canisters of Comet. Most of our items cost no more than a dollar.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat next to Mavis, who was patting her short salt-and-pepper hair with the palms of her hands.
"I like what you did with the Halloween decorations out front," I said, stirring some Sweet'N Low into my coffee.
"I'll probably catch it from the ladies' league at the Baptist church," Mavis said. "Last year they gave me the dickens for that witch I had hanging in the window."
I nodded. "The Baptists are big on brimstone. Reverend Hozey wants his flock believing they're one sin away from frying in hell like Jimmy Dean sausages."
Mavis laughed. "Don't I know it," she said. "That's why I work in the church nursery during services."
A sputtering engine interrupted our chat. I glanced out the front window and watched Attalee squeal her 1963 Buick Skylark into a parking spot. Her front fender was attached to the body of the car with duct tape.
"Looks like Attalee had herself another mishap," I said.
Mavis blew on her coffee. "You know how crazy she drives. She sideswiped a telephone pole yesterday. I keep telling her she's too old to pretend she's Dale Earnhardt."
Attalee swung open the front door, winded as usual from rushing to get to work on time. She grabbed one of the columns to steady herself as she wheezed like a dog with a stick stuck in its throat.
"Something's afoot," Attalee said, recovering her breath. She narrowed her eyes mysteriously.
"And what might that be, Attalee?" Mavis said with a yawn. "Bunions?"
Attalee ignored Mavis and strode toward us, stopping short in front of the candy display. She drew back and pointed a finger at a bag of Halloween candy. "Land Almighty! What on earth are these bloodshot thingamagigs?"
Mavis craned her neck to see what Attalee was staring at. "Eyes of Terror gumballs," she said.
Attalee shuddered. "Well, they give me the heebie-jeebies, gaping up at me that way. Reminds me of Burl when he was on a bender."
Burl was Attalee's late husband a man who was fond of Old Grandad. He was reportedly pickled when he walked into the path of a Colonial Bread truck five years before.
Attalee parked herself in the chair next to mine. Although she was knee-deep into her eighties, Attalee looked like a wizened six-year-old, favoring floral dresses with wide lacy collars and twirling her gray hair into sausage curls that dangled girlishly down her back.
"As I was saying, something's brewing. I saw a couple of men on Mule Pen Road surveying the vacant lot across from the old Piggly Wiggly," Attalee continued.
"I wouldn't be surprised." Mavis dunked a powdered doughnut into her coffee. "That road is really building up. A Winn-Dixie's supposed to open up in the old Piggly Wiggly building soon. We got a Goody's last year. Who knows what's coming up next?"
"Myself, I hope it's a miniature golf course," Attalee said. "We're short on recreation in this town. If you don't like bingo, bass fishing, or bowling, you're flat out of luck."
"I wouldn't pin my hopes on a golf course," I said. "It's probably going to be something dull as dirt like a carpet shop or a Tire Town."
"Tires aren't such a terrible thing," Mavis mused.
Attalee snapped open her compact and touched up her eyebrows with a stubby black pencil. "Too bad they don't have dance halls anymore. That would liven up this place. The three of us could go there on Saturday nights. Two widows and a spinster, painting the town."
"Elizabeth's much too young to be called a spinster," Mavis said. "She's not but twenty-five years old. That's a baby still."
"Twenty-six," Attalee said. "Her birthday's three days from now. Ain't that right, Elizabeth? Shoot, in my day, you were a spinster if you were over eighteen and still didn't have a ring on your finger."
"Attalee," Mavis warned. She made a cutting motion across her throat.
"It's alright, Mavis," I said. "The word 'ring' isn't going to send me crying to the ladies' room."
I rubbed the finger where my engagement ring used to be. Sometimes I swore I could still feel it there, although I hadn't put it on in sixty-two days.
Not three weeks after Clip Jenkins had given me the ring on bended knee, he'd scrawled a "Dear Jane" letter on the back of a Hardee's bag and stuck it under the windshield wiper of my Geo Metro. After that, I'd wrapped the ring in a handkerchief and tucked it away in my underwear drawer.
"A comment like that might have started me bawling a few weeks back." I lifted my chin bravely. "But I do believe I'm finally getting over Clip."
Attalee nodded. "Men are like buses. You miss one, you hop on the next one that comes along. 'Course at my age, the bus service has slowed down to a crawl."
"Amen," Mavis said. She propped her tennis shoes up on an empty storage carton.
"The hurt hasn't gone away completely," I said. "It's still there, like a pebble in my shoe. Sometimes, when I'm alone, it'll gnaw at me."
Just this morning, I'd been looking for a ponytail holder in my junk drawer and I'd come across an old greeting card from Clip. When I saw his handwriting, I crumpled like a crushed Dixie cup.
"Well, y'all had been sweethearts since high school," Mavis said. "It's going to take some time to heal up completely."
I nodded and went to freshen my coffee. That's when I spotted Birdie Murdock crossing Main Street on a beeline toward the Bottom Dollar Emporium. Birdie was the publisher of the Cayboo Creek Crier. A visit from Birdie meant one of two things: She'd either run out of Silver Luster No. 5 or she had some news to report.
I scurried to flip the welcome sign from "closed" to "open," saying over my shoulder, "Birdie's coming this way."
Attalee groaned as she got up from her chair. Her back was curled like a cashew and she jerked to straighten it. "Am I on cashier duty today?"
"That all depends," said Mavis. She stood, adjusting her name tag and smoothing the dark green smock she wore over her clothes. "Did you bring your teeth?"
Attalee's bad eye flickered behind the lens of her glasses as she dipped a hand into her brassiere to adjust the long slope of her bosom.
"Lord, Mavis, today's Friday," she said. "Ain't you ever heard of casual Friday?"
Before Mavis had a chance to respond, the bell over the front door jingled and Birdie strode in.
Birdie was dressed in a pressed navy-blue suit that matched her saucer-shaped hat. She had a polka-dot hankie tucked into her breast pocket and carried a reporter's notebook under her arm.
"Hey, Birdie," Mavis called out. "Hope you're not here to sweet-talk me into taking out another ad. I'm flat tapped-out since I bought that brand-new cash register."
Mavis was so proud of that cash register. It was a Samso Model CT-A320 with a digital readout and a built-in calculator that replaced the one that had been used since the '70s. To celebrate its arrival, Mavis had staged a ribbon-cutting ceremony and served sparkling grape juice and party cookies that came in individual, fluted paper wrappings.
Birdie's pumps and purse matched the navy of her suit and her silver hair floated around her face in well-trained swoops. Her appearance was marred only by the scrawl of eyeliner just a shade too high up on her lids.
"Mavis, I came as soon as the news arrived over my fax machine," Birdie said. She pulled the polka-dotted hankie out of her pocket and dabbed her face with it. "I had to read it twice before it actually sunk in."
She thrust a piece of paper under Mavis's nose. Mavis took it and perched her reading glasses on her face. As she read, her eyebrows worried into a V. Me and Attalee peeked over her shoulder.
The press release headlined, "Super Saver Dollar Store to Locate on Mule Pen Road in Cayboo Creek, South Carolina."
"Four checkout lines with over three thousand items in inventory," Mavis said. She backed her face away from the paper as if it were crackling with heat.
"Super Saver expects to bring twelve jobs to Cayboo Creek," I read.
"The fastest-growing retailer in the Southeast with average monthly earnings of approximately $444.6 million." Attalee clawed at her chest. "Lord in heaven, the Bottom Dollar Emporium has less chance than a kerosene cat in hell."
I shot Attalee a stern look and then turned to Birdie. "You got any idea when's this supposed to happen, ma'am?" I asked.
"Not a clue. In the next few months, I'd imagine," Birdie said.
The paper shook in Mavis's hands and her voice sounded high-pitched, like she'd just inhaled a lungful of helium. "I only have fifteen hundred items and one checkout line," she said. "Cayboo Creek ain't big enough to support two dollar stores."
"Wait a minute, now." I laid a steadying hand on her shoulder. "Cayboo Creek may be small, but our customers are a loyal bunch. I don't think they'll abandon us for this new store just because they can choose from three different kinds of dishwashing soap instead of two."
"That's not so," Mavis said. Her voice squeaked with panic. "Remember when Goody's opened up? It ran the Vickery Family Clothiers right into the ground. And I was a party to that. Once Goody's opened, I never again stepped foot into Vickery's."
I wrinkled my nose. "Yes, but that's because Vickery's was so stuffy."
When I was a little girl, I remembered Mello Vickery sticking her nose in the dressing room when I was trying on one of their overpriced party dresses. She'd said, "Don't fidget so much, Elizabeth Polk, or you'll get that party dress all sweaty and I'll have to put it on the markdown table."
"They was even highfalutin about their under drawers," Attalee said with a nod. "Calling them foundations instead of bras and panties."
Birdie sighed. "I'm sorry to be the one to deliver this news, Mavis. But I felt you needed to know immediately so that you could develop a plan of action."
She peered at her watch. "I need to be scooting, gals. The elementary school is having their fall festival and I've got to be there to cover it. The city councilmen are taking turns in the dunking booth. Good-bye, all."
Birdie's heels clicked out the door and the three of us sat slumped in our chairs, the weight of her news pinning us down.
"'Plan of action,' she says," Mavis sputtered. "What plan of action? I'd be hard pressed to add one more register in here, much less three more. And forget about all that extra inventory; we're bursting at the seams as it is."
The three of us fell into a foul silence, interrupted only by the drip from the coffee maker and hum of the oscillating fan. Mavis's normally smooth complexion looked as rumpled as a sheet in a flophouse.
"I've got it!" Attalee bolted from her chair. "We undercut the Super Saver Dollar Store by a nickel. Instead of being the Bottom Dollar Emporium, we change our name to the 95-Cent Emporium. Those Super Saver folks will skedaddle out of town."
"Sorry, Attalee," said Mavis. "There's no way I can undercut the Super Saver. They got so many stores that they have tons of bargaining power with their suppliers. I've got enough trouble keeping most items priced at a dollar."
"There must be something we can do," I said. "It isn't right for a rich corporation to swoop into town and swallow up the business that you've broken your back to get."
Mavis cast her glance to the floor. "That's the way it goes all over this country. Only in the Bible, it seems, is David able to beat Goliath."
"That sounds like a fancy excuse to give up," I said.
Mavis trained her tired, gray eyes on me. "I ain't giving up, Elizabeth. I'm just facing facts. A minute ago, you were talking about the loyal folks in Cayboo Creek. I suspect some of them will stick with us. 'Specially our little group who comes in every day to shoot the breeze. But the odds and ends they purchase won't even be able to pay the electricity bill. Truth is, most people in town will take their trade to a newer, bigger store."
"We're just going to have to figure out some way to keep 'em here," I said. "We have to fight this. I know how important this business is to you, Mavis."
Not six months ago, Mavis had bought a tidy cottage on Persimmon Road after having lived for years in a double-wide in an aging trailer court by the creek. I knew that she counted on the profits from the Bottom Dollar to make her mortgage payments.
"To think how many years I scrimped and saved to buy this business," Mavis said. "And now it's going to be gone. Just like that." She snapped her fingers.
I jumped to my feet. "Not if I have anything to say about it," I said. "I'm the manager here after all. I have a selfish interest in keeping this place afloat."
Last year Mavis had named me manager and Attalee assistant manager of the Bottom Dollar Emporium. There wasn't anybody below us to manage, seeing as how we were the only employees, but we appreciated the gesture. Our pictures had appeared in the "Up and Coming" section of the Cayboo Creek Crier and Mavis had presented us with new name tags.
"That's sweet, darling," Mavis said, trying to conjure up a smile on her pallid face. "But I don't know what you can possibly do."
Copyright © 2004 by Karin Gillespie