The shop owner was bent over a stack of paperwork, muttering and tapping an adding machine with pale pink fingernails. She looked up. “Can I help you?”
“I’d like to buy a soul,” Davis said, laying hands flat on the counter.
The owner folded her arms and leaned into them. “This is an antique store,” she said, her bleached blond beehive teetering as she peered over cat-eye glasses.
“Yes, I know. That’s all right.”
“All our souls are pre-owned. Mostly vintage. Frankly, some aren’t old but merely dusty.” She stood and walked around the counter to the glass case. “Some people think they can get a brand new soul … for cheap.” She lifted a chain around her neck from which dangled 30 keys. She bent to unlock the case. Her stockings had a run in back.
“This one, someone brought in on consignment,” she said. “I recognized it as once belonging to a certain Alana Breams of Garris and Breams, Attorneys, in Old Town. It was Garris, Binyon and Doyle, oh, say, a hundred years ago. I was a young bride having a consultation with Ms. Breams after an argument with my husband, and she told me I should chuck it all in. I’ve regretted that divorce all my life. Attorney Breams was very convincing.” She held up the soul — you could tell it had been shiny once. It was not really a color, but something between mauve and gray, rumpled and dusty, with satin edging that had lost its plush.
Davis blinked. He had been wearing shadow colors for a long time now. Without his little girl, his Erica, he was someone who no longer mattered. Elvin, his oldest, never answered his letters. Davis’s cubicle at work huddled in a far corner, farthest from the light, and rarely did anyone stop by his desk.
He stroked his chin where a gray-brown beard hid his pallid face.
She set down the garment. “I still have my soul. It’s not for sale but,” she laughed sarcastically, “it’s not what it used to be. Nevermind about that. Here’s one,” she said, brightening, “in excellent” — with a huff of exertion, she reached into the back of the case — “condition.” She pulled, gave it a shake. It was banana yellow with orange polka dots and glitter. “Some pizzazz, eh? Belonged to a dancer. Gave up dancing to become an accountant.”
Davis shook his head. It was a nice soul, but not to his taste.
The owner swiveled and snatched a neat linen number on a hanger. It had a starched lapel. “This, the soul of an accountant who threw it all away to become a dancer.”
Davis’s mouth dropped open in puzzlement.
“When she stopped doing the numbers,” she sighed, “the nonprofit ran aground.”
He shook his head, not getting it. “How does that work?”
The shop owner shrugged. “It’s not what you do. It’s whether you’re doing the thing you’re meant for. Otherwise, you can’t hold onto your soul.”
Davis turned to inspect a garment laid out on a scratched maple desk. He lifted it into the weak afternoon light. “What about this one?” Threadbare patches sagged at the sleeves and neck. It wouldn’t be hard to feel like himself in it.
“Sad shape. Almost didn’t take it, but you can see by the seams, hand-stitched. Somebody trashed it and I doubt the smell will ever come out.”
Davis bent over the item and wrinkled his nose. “What exactly is that smell?” He straightened.
“Apathy. Sticks in the fabric. Impossible to clean.”
Davis took a step back. He wouldn’t say so, but there was something familiar about the swampish odor. He gave his head a clearing shake. This was supposed to be his new beginning. He would keep searching for the right look, fit, and feel. It had been a long time since he had been in a tidy, well-tailored soul; he remembered the excellent fit of fatherhood. He looked up. A few garments hung on racks, decorated the second-floor balcony as drapery, and stuck out in random stacks like vinyl records. “Any upstairs?”
Davis wanted to say more about what he wanted. But he couldn’t trust the words to come out right. He had never sold his soul — he would know if he had. But he couldn’t find it anywhere. It had slipped out in the night sometime after Erica died. He put his hands in his pockets as the bell jingled, and a teenage couple strode in hand in hand.
The girl tried a hat on over bouncy curls and the hatband feather bobbed onto her nose. Davis watched a moment, not really seeing, then strode upstairs.
The girl smiled coyly at the boy; he burst out laughing and she did too.
“Let me know if I can help you with anything,” the owner called to the teenagers. She went back to sorting papers. The girl spun on her heels; they batted some scarves between them, then left.
The shop owner returned to her adding machine, fingers flying, letting out a long breath and blowing out her cheeks.
An older lady came in, with vampire eyebrows, a black leather jacket and red spike heels. “I think you might have something that belongs to me,” she said, marching up to the counter, pursing thin shiny lips and interlacing knobby fingers.
“Do you have a consignment receipt?”
“You’ll have to describe it then,” said the owner. “I see thousands of these things.”
“All right. It was …” the lady’s shiny lips pursed in a sideways frown, “rather … actually, I can’t remember.”
“Been a while,” said the owner with a sigh.
“Excuse me?” said the lady. “What kind of remark is that? Insinuating I’m a has-been?”
The owner held up a hand. “Anyone can see you’re a femme fatale, barely into your prime.”
The corners of the lady’s mouth turned up, but the smile didn’t reach her wrinkled cheeks. “I don’t remember what my soul looked like; I was busy performing when it got away from me.”
“Can’t say whether it’s here,” said the owner.
“It’s the soul of a fashion model,” said the lady.
The shop owner took off her glasses, tapped them against her palm, waiting.
“Seven husbands, who didn’t put my soul on the pedestal it deserved. So naturally, things went south.”
The shop owner shook her head. “Sorry, doesn’t help. Feel free to look around. Yellow tags fifty percent off today.”
A little boy came in wearing a bulky wool jacket, hands stuffed in pockets. “Are you by yourself?” the owner asked him.
“Um,” he said quietly. “My mom is outside, but she’s on her phone. I’m supposed to keep busy.”
The owner pushed her cat-eye glasses higher on her nose and craned to look through the display window to the curbside parking. A woman with hard lines in her face and frizzed hair had her car door open and her legs swung out over the sidewalk in stiletto boots. She leaned back, cigarette in one hand, cell in the other.
“I’m telling you,” said the woman into her phone, “if you don’t get the hell out of her apartment, I’m never talking to you again. Think you can just go on being a two-timing son of a bitch as long as you want? I’m never—”
The owner made little backward hops inside, opened her eyes wide at the boy, and gave her head a little shake. “Sounds like your mom needs a new one of these,” she said to the boy, and then to herself, “I don’t understand how anyone can be a parent without one.” She reached into a box, pulling out an airy concoction in spring green. “Take this to her.”
He reached out his hands; his fingernails were black and ragged. She piled the shimmery thing into his arms until soft threads touched his chin.
She bent, placing hands on her knees to meet his gaze. “You may not think much of your own,” she said. “But it’s a good one. Make sure it doesn’t slip off.” She looked at him thoughtfully, pursed her lips. “This might help.” She reached under the counter and brought out a small package wrapped in cellophane.
“Oh yeah, Velcro,” he said. “Like on my shoes.” He looked up at her, arms filled. She tucked the package into his sweatshirt pocket.
“Thanks.” He walked out.
A twenty-something walked in with long, black hair parted straight in the middle. Hands in pockets, they looked around uncomfortably and cleared their throat.
“My girlfriend sent me here,” they answered. “She told me I need a soul.”
“One goes about in perfect bliss until love makes a demand.”
“I should get something distinguished,” they said. “Something arresting, that people will notice.”
The shop owner raised her eyebrows but didn’t comment. She whisked her hands together, bracelets jingling. “There are those folks determined to get a new soul, never realizing that what they end up with comes to resemble them perfectly.” She fingered the keys around her neck. “Kind of like the way people’s dogs resemble them as the years go by.”
“Do you think …?” The person bit their full bottom lip just above a silver stud, and frowned.
“Hm?” She leaned against the counter, hand on her hip.
“That I might not need a soul, after all?”
“I wouldn’t be in business if I went around telling people they didn’t need to buy anything.” She looked the individual over, thoughtful. “Who exactly are you shopping for, anyway?”
They looked at the floor.
She folded her arms, which clinked against her keychain. “I see. And this girlfriend. You love her?”
“More than anything,” they said. “Can’t live without her.”
“Well, there you go,” she said, shaking her head and smiling. “You already have a soul, or you couldn’t love anybody.”
“I hope you’re right.” They felt frumpy and confused. They’d gone from never listening to Janie, to swallowing everything she said, and they didn’t know what to think about the shortish black-haired human with the long hair they saw every morning in the mirror. How could you know what looked good on you? They turned their head for a different glimpse in the gilt-framed mirror. The shop owner was watching.
“Let me give you some advice. Get it cleaned. Professionally. And then wear it, all the time. Wear it when you go grocery shopping, or mow the lawn, or watch TV.”
They felt themself squirming under her gaze. “Is that really necessary?” They hated wearing it in public. They wore it less and less in private, just to feel in control.
“And why wouldn’t it be?”
“I wasn’t brought up that way. In restaurants, for instance, I was always taught to be firm and make my needs known.”
“Don’t tell me,” she said, narrowing her eyes at them. She lifted a finger, tapped it in the air. Rested it on a coral-colored lip. “Are you one of those people who is rude to the waiter?”
They took a deep breath. “Well, not rude, exactly, I just—”
“You interrupt his spiel about the specials, you snap at him when he doesn’t notice you raising your hand for his attention, you tip only ten percent, on a good day.”
They looked up guiltily. “Yes?”
“Listen,” she said. “Wear your soul where it shows. I’m telling you she’ll notice.”
They gave a huge exhale. “Wow. I feel a whole lot better—” they pulled out a handful of dollar bills and pushed them toward the cash register. “Thanks.”
“Ah ah ah,” said the shop owner, scolding. “Not that I can’t use it, but …”
“You’re right,” they said. “If I were wearing my soul on the outside, I would never think money could repay kindness.”
“Now you’ve got it,” she said. “Besides —”
But she never finished her thought. There was a squeal from the teenage girl, who, together with her boyfriend, had returned to the shop with a plastic coffee cup in one hand. “I can’t believe it!” she said, setting down her drink and twirling around in a velvet cape. “It’s only four ninety-nine. Check out the fur collar!”
“Kickass!” said her boyfriend. “It’s you! I’d give my last dollar to see that smile, girl!”
She was jumping up and down like a child, her chocolate curls bouncing all over her coat, and the shop music over the speaker was Disney’s “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The shop owner smiled wistfully. She jabbed an elbow in their direction.
“When someone is fully in their soul, this is how it looks. That’s what it’s all about, my friend.”
“Never thought about it,” they said, and pushed back a strand of bangs. “Cool.” They opened a trunk, whistling mindlessly the Disney song.
Meanwhile, Davis had come back downstairs and was standing at a dresser. He stooped to read the finely printed label on one of the pieces folded neatly into a drawer. Free, read a hand-lettered sign with curvy es. He straightened and caught the owner’s eye. “I thought souls always had a price.”
The owner tilted her head, blinked eyelashes thick with black mascara behind her glasses. “There is a price to be paid, but not always when and how you’d expect.
“When you’ve been in the business long as I have …” she trailed off, hand on hip as she looked through the front window. Someone in a Honda Fit was trying to parallel park excruciatingly close to a Mercedes SUV, backing into the space millimeter by millimeter. “Almost,” she said encouragingly to the window. Then the driver behind streaky windows, a middle-aged woman with soft curls around her face, just gave up. She turned the Honda’s nose into the street. “Hey!” the owner shouted at the closed window. “Keep going! You can make the Fit fit!” She shook her head.
“A pre-owned soul is repulsive to many folks,” she went on as if she hadn’t stopped, “but the reality is, we all belong to someone else.”
He tilted his forehead toward her. Could it be that he had belonged to Erica? Maybe this was why, when she was alive, everyday things had called to him, walks in the park and magnets on the fridge and shapes birds made when they fluttered around the backyard feeder. Now he never felt sure of anything, couldn’t decide whether to have cereal or eggs for breakfast, couldn’t pick out new Levi’s at the department store.
“Tricky,” she continued. “Has to do with …” She went back to the counter, hovering. Her key necklace clanged. She straightened an acetate trough of business cards, brought a hand to her chin, looked out the window.
An afternoon mist was moving in with the chill of early fall. Davis swallowed. How Erica had loved back-to-school time. She would pick out her backpack and a new keychain clip—a dolphin, a piano, a tennis racket. Those last months, when she didn’t care about things anymore, he filled her room with small animals and trinkets. Once, with Erica, his days brimmed with stories. Her mother had fled with his son to the opposite coast after the divorce. He’d had his little girl, and she was everything he needed. But now he knew what loneliness was. His days were empty shelves.
“There,” she pointed across the street.
A smiling woman was pushing a gray, withered woman in a wheelchair along the sidewalk. She was talking and every now and then reached out and patted the woman’s hand as it perched on the arm rest. “That young lady has loaned out her soul to Mrs. Gammon,” she said. “She doesn’t expect it back. She’s perfectly happy to let Mrs. Gammon have it.”
“Doesn’t the woman feel … lost?”
“Oh, it’ll come back to her. Souls were made for that sort of thing. In this situation, it’ll get excellent mileage.”
Davis felt his shoulders glide down from his ears. Maybe there was hope. Maybe it was time he tried the phone with Elvin this time, not the mail. “How long does it take?”
“It can take a long, long, time,” she sighed. “But that’s okay.” Her keys clanged again, and he noticed the dangly, clinking bracelets as she reached over to an earring caddy and straightened a crooked gold-tone wire that hung half-on, half-off.
Davis lifted his chin, fully smiling now. “It is okay, isn’t it?” He gave a small, short chuckle. He bent over the counter to inspect another caddy. “I’ll take the dolphin.”
He left with his purchase, taking off his brown sweater, draping it over his arm. Taller in his dolphin-blue T-shirt, he stepped into a bolt of sunshine.
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