February has never been my favorite month. Valentine’s Day, stuck in the middle, has always seemed like a gaudy mess of red hearts and roses. But today, at the mall, the ads for Valentine’s Day felt even more like a personal assault. In my life there is no love, only loss.
Two months ago the bank laid off 9,000 employees. I was one of them. Coming on the heels of Mom’s death at Thanksgiving, this double bereavement took my breath away. For weeks I was hobbled by shock and immobility. Morning came, and I watched the light shift from one side of the window to the other. When I finally pulled myself out of bed, I spent the rest of the day in my old chenille robe, nursing a mug of tepid coffee. I missed my work, my modest office with its slash of sky barely visible from the window. I missed the camaraderie of the lending department. I missed being part of a team. But, oh, most of all, most of all, I missed my Mom.
By February I was able to overcome my inertia and get out of bed early, as I always had. I took to walking the streets, wandering aimlessly. Today, a spring-like day with clear skies, I dressed in my work clothes and left the apartment to wait at the 156 bus stop on Sheridan Road, along with others headed toward their jobs. Standing in a group gave me context, even if I no longer had a place to go.
When I got off the bus, a wind picked up, and I quickened my stride. Before I knew it, I arrived at Delaware Street and took refuge in an upscale mall I’d rarely had time to frequent in the past. The main floor of Bloomingdale’s was almost empty of shoppers. The scarves, hats, and gloves looked picked over, and handbags and small leather goods were all on sale, carelessly piled on the display tables. I tried my best to ignore the splashes of red, the heart-shaped banners, and the giant Valentine signs that were everywhere around the store.
A few sales associates were clustered around a cosmetic counter, giving each other make-overs and laughing uproariously. Three times I passed in front of the women and stopped to look at the merchandise. Three times I was ignored. "I’d like to see some of that long-wearing mascara," I finally said to the spiked blonde facing her brunette buddy, a make-up brush poised in her hand. She didn’t answer.
I tapped her on the arm. "I said I’d like some help with the mascara."
"Be with you in a few," she said over her shoulder.
I waited a little longer, listening to the women chat about their diets and their latest dates. "You have just lost a sale," I said. "Where’s your manager?"
"She’s not in yet. Hey," and now she turned to look at me, "don’t get upset. I said I’d be right with you."
"It’s too late."
I stormed down the aisle, my fury far out of proportion to the slight, especially in view of the fact that I hadn’t really intended to make a purchase in the first place. Somewhere in the handbag aisle, my fury slowed to sadness. Why couldn’t I orient myself? It was as if everyone around me held a map of the world while I had misplaced mine. The loss and the dying had unbalanced me. Mom had been the center of my emotional universe. She had seen to my education. She was the one who had encouraged me, made me strive and flourish in a man’s world, yet here I was, alone and adrift.
I wondered fleetingly if, at forty-one, I could still qualify as an orphan.
When I reached the escalators, I ran out of steam and stared blankly ahead. My grief counselor kept reassuring me I was doing well, but nothing prepared me for these moments when I’d have my hand inside my bag, reaching for my cell phone to dial Mom’s number. And then the familiar veil of despair would fall over my eyes as I remembered that she wouldn’t be there.
Lately I’d taken to engaging in a self-soothing exercise: carrying on an internal conversation with my mother. "Now, Cassandra," Mom said, inside my head. "Quit shopping and get serious. You have to stop this pointless wandering and see about a job."
"I’m not ready yet, Mom."
"Ready has nothing to do with it. You were never a person who could be idle. It will only drag you down. Strike now. Use your contacts. Network."
"Mom, no one would want me now. I don’t have myself together. Banks don’t hire lending officers without any self-confidence."
"Put yourself out there, and your confidence will return."
We’d had this particular conversation until it had almost become rote, and I felt a fluttering of resentment at Mom’s forceful, commonsense tone. What I wanted was to tell her about the rude make-up artist and to wander around the store, the phone in my hand like a reporter broadcasting the news, sharing everything I saw. Because she’d been sick for so long, I had taken to doing the living for both of us. I wanted to pick up treats for her the way I always did, a bird broach, a plaid muffler, furry slippers, things she had little use for but that cheered her nonetheless.
I took a deep breath, collected myself as best I could, and walked over to the displays of costume jewelry, Mom’s particular passion. As I sorted through a tray of earrings, I noticed an elderly woman at the far end of the counter. She picked up a shiny object, held it in her open palm as if to weigh it, and slipped it into her pocket. She glanced up and down the aisle, which was as empty as before, then she cupped a bangle from the metal rack in front of her and tucked it between the buttons of her coat. I studied the woman out of the corner of my eye, riveted by her actions.
The woman wore a battered mink coat and matching brown hat, and she had a small leather clutch nestled under her arm. Her shoes appeared to be designer shoes. With two-inch heels, they were surprisingly precarious for a woman her age, more so since her legs were twig-thin. Her hair was dyed an improbable shade of pomegranate red, her make-up too harsh for her lined skin, yet she held herself erect and moved with a natural elegance.
Another moment passed during which the woman picked up and fondled a strand of fake pearls. Her arthritic fingers were thin and misshapen the way Mom’s had been, yet as I watched from under hooded eyes, the woman performed another sleight of hand: the pearls disappeared with stunning dexterity up the sleeve of her coat.
I set my purse down on the counter with a loud thump and cleared my throat. The woman looked over at me and smiled, her face an intricate filigree of wrinkles. "Pretty quiet here today," she said.
"Sure is," I answered.
"Smart people go where it’s warm," she laughed. "Or they’re sick of shopping, what with Christmas and all."
I moved closer to her. Her coat gave off a faint odor of moth balls. "I saw you take the stuff," I whispered into her ear.
"Oh?" She smiled widely, revealing dentures that could have used an adjustment. "I’m pretty good, huh?"
"You can’t do this," I continued in an urgent undertone. "It’s not right, and you know it. Besides, you’ll get in trouble."
"Been doing it all my life, and I’ve never been in any trouble I couldn’t get out of."
Without realizing it, I’d taken hold of the sleeve of her coat to pull her away from the counter. "But it’s wrong." I repeated. "It’s stealing."
"Honey, you think I don’t know that? But I’m so good at it. And it’s so much fun. Now be a good girl and let go of my arm."
I continued to nudge the old lady toward a deserted spot under the escalator. Passing a mirror, I caught a glimpse of an exceedingly pale, worried-looking woman in a navy coat, hanging onto a tiny old lady. A second passed before I realized that the navy woman was me. Caught off guard by a sudden wave of dizziness, I let go of my companion’s arm. She stepped backwards and eyed me carefully. It might have been my imagination, but I thought her expression held curiosity as well as pity.
"What’s your name, child?" Her voice felt like a caress.
"Cassandra," I said, waiting for the dizziness to subside. "What’s yours?"
The woman pulled herself up to her full height, which couldn’t have been more than five feet in her designer shoes. "I am Mrs. Granger."
"Well, Mrs. Granger, why don’t you go put the stuff back now?"
"I have a better idea. How about we go to that nice lunch place on the sixth floor, and you can buy me a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. I’m feeling a little tired, and honey, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re looking a little peaked yourself. Blood sugar’s probably low."
"Leave her be," I heard Mom say. "She’s just a crazy old woman."
Sad to say, Mrs. Granger’s offer was by far the best one I’d had in months, and I banished my mother’s voice. I’d spent so much time alone that the thought of a little company made me feel almost giddy. I recognized the absurdity of the situation. For the first time since Mom had passed, I laughed, although the sound came out like a cross between a snort and a giggle.
Mrs. Granger got on the escalator, and I dutifully followed behind her as we began to glide up the six flights to the coffee shop. On the third floor, Juniors and Outer Wear, I panicked. What was I doing with this stranger? What did I care if she stole? She had nothing to do with me. Yet here I was, following in her footsteps on the escalator and straightening my shoulders, trying to imitate her excellent posture.
The Cafè, as it is called, was as empty as the rest of the store. Mrs. Granger chose her spot and headed toward a table in the rear left corner. A young waitress with a pony tail and a candy-striped uniform came over with menus, water, and a basket of rolls. "Got any of that split pea soup today, honey?" Mrs. Granger asked.
"Sure do," said the waitress. "Our special is pea soup and half a ham-and-cheese croissant sandwich."
"I’ll have that then. How’s your little boy doing?"
"He’s just fine. Thanks for asking."
The two women looked at me expectantly. "I’ll have the same," I said, suddenly ravenous and oddly irritated by both the waitress and her little boy.
I sighed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d sat down for a meal. My fridge at home was empty. I’d hardly been eating since Mom’s first hospitalization, when I took most of my meals in her room or bought an apple, a hard-boiled egg, or a scone to eat in the street as I shuttled from hospital to work and back again.
"Now Cassie. I can call you Cassie, right, dear? A messy divorce, or you lost your boyfriend, or maybe even your job. Or someone close to you died. Tell me everything, because believe me, honey, you are one sorry-looking kitten." The sound of someone speaking my name was soothing, and Mrs. Granger’s taking the time to actually look at me across the table brought all my pain to the surface.
And so I began, in no particular order, with Mom and the cancer treatments, so merciless I was sure they’d kill her even before the cancer could, the sickening drugs, her constant pain, my helplessness, my lay-off, my loneliness. And no, no boyfriend, no lover, always too busy, always too much work at the bank, but suddenly there was no job to hold me together and give me purpose, no family, no one to take care of, to talk to, only the walking and the wandering, the stores, the empty apartment.
Mrs. Granger had uncorked all my bottled-up hurt and longing for the life I’d lost. Tears poured out of me in streams and ran down my cheeks onto the collar of my blouse. The waitress brought our soups and sandwiches, and Mrs. Granger ate heartily while I rambled, but whenever my narrative faltered, she stopped to nod or to spur me on. She cleaned her plate down to the pickle slice, the sprig of parsley and the last potato chip, and then wiped her mouth with a delicate swish of her napkin. My food sat untouched on the table before me.
"Want to know something, Cassie?"
I blew my nose into my paper napkin and concentrated on regaining my composure. "Sure, Mrs. Granger. What?"
"Today is my birthday."
Mrs. Granger grinned her toothy grin and patted her hair. "I know I don’t look it, but I’m eighty-five today."
"You’re incredible," I said. "The way you get around. The way you, you know, the way you... steal. Mom was only sixty-nine."
We sipped our coffee in silence. I bit into my sandwich and chewed it slowly. The croissant was fresh and buttery. It tasted good with the ham and cheese. My breath evened out, and I felt oddly lighter than I had since Mom was first diagnosed. I tried to imagine that the person across from me was a friend. I tried to believe I wasn’t alone after all. I felt comfortable, almost happy to be seated there at that café with an eccentric stranger, a thief, across the table from me. "Mrs. Granger, I’d like to buy you a birthday present," I said.
"No, honey. That’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t hear of it."
"Really. I want to buy you something nice."
"I’m eighty-five, I told you. I don’t need anything. Nothing at all. Besides, why pay good money for a thing I can get for nothing?"
"No, no. Here’s the thing: Return the stuff you took off the display, and I’ll buy you whatever you want to replace it."
Mrs. Granger stared at me as if I’d just suggested that we remove all our clothes or stab the waitress with our butter knives. Then she reached across the table and took my hand in both of hers. Her knobby hands felt surprisingly soft against my skin, or was it just that no one had touched me in so long? "Cassie, honey. Getting me a birthday gift won’t bring your mama back. You know that, don’t you?"
"Yes, yes, I know that," I said, fresh tears crowding my eyes. "I just want to buy you something. Please. It would help me. I don’t know why, but it would help me a lot."
Mrs. Granger looked at me as if I were a kid who was getting on her nerves and she was trying not to lose patience. "You’re an odd one. But alright."
"And you’ll put back the stuff you took?"
"Okay. Fine. If it means that much to you. But what I do is really not your business. The thieving keeps me young. I love the challenge, the rush of it." She fussed with her scarf and pulled her coat up around her shoulders. "Well, what are you waiting for? Eat up, child, and pay the nice waitress. Let’s get on with it."
Mrs. Granger opened her clutch and extracted a plastic zip lock bag into which she put all but two of the sugar packets in the holder on the table. I started to protest, but she shushed me and moved on to the rolls and the plastic-wrapped packs of Saltines in the bread basket. She did all this very quickly, zipping the bag shut and stuffing the whole thing into her purse just as the waitress came over with the check.
By the time we got back downstairs, the main floor of Bloomingdale’s was bustling with activity. I found myself viewing the scene with an entirely new eye. "Casing the joint" was the phrase that kept coming to mind. A shiver of anticipation passed through me. At the foot of the escalator, Mrs. Granger took me by the arm and drew me close as if to hug me.
"Go look at the hats over there, Cassie, or buy some hose or socks. But don’t hover around me. I know what I’m doing and I work alone. I won’t have you watching me, you understand?"
"Okay," I answered, trying not to sound as tentative as I felt. "But how will I know when you’re done?"
"I’ll find you."
Mom’s voice sounded in my ear. "That woman is not coming back, Cassandra. Don’t be a fool. Go home and turn on your computer. Work on your resume."
"Which is the last thing I want to do right now, Mom.
As I walked away, I saw Mrs. Granger stop in front of a mirror to check her hair, adjust her coat and hat, and examine her face carefully. Finally, like a soldier preparing for battle, she squared her shoulders and shoved her clutch more firmly under her arm. Then she disappeared down the right hand aisle, while I veered off to the left.
Ten minutes passed during which I fingered all the nylons on display and picked through the knee-high samples. A young mother, pushing her screaming toddler down the aisle, ran over my foot with her over-sized stroller. "I’m so sorry," she said. "Way past nap time. Did we hurt you?"
"No, I’m fine," I answered, surprised that I really didn’t mind. I watched the frantic mother try to quiet her child and moved on to purchase three pair of socks with cartoon characters, socks I most likely would never wear.
I kept scanning the main floor of the store but saw no flash of pomegranate hair or worn brown mink. Antsy, I moved on to the millinery section and passed the time trying on colorful hats with floppy brims. I looked idiotic in all of them. Twenty minutes, and still no Mrs. Granger.
When my watch registered the thirty-minute mark, I walked toward the costume jewelry. Mrs. Granger stood at the same counter where I had first noticed her, now deep in conversation with the saleswoman. I felt a prick of jealousy at the sight of her so engaged by another person. As if by radar, Mrs. Granger looked up and in my direction. I stopped walking and waited for her to react. She gave me what I took to be a little smile, but other than a vague lifting of the corners of her mouth, her expression revealed nothing.
A moment later Mrs. Granger left the counter, walking slowly now in her designer shoes, her stance and posture indicating a fatigue I hadn’t seen earlier. I wanted to hurry and catch up with her, but I slowed my stride, intimidated by her desire to be left alone. I watched her retreating back, slightly bowed under the tired mink coat. When she passed by the display that featured a special promotion of make-up by Christian Dior, she allowed her arthritic hand to linger over the samples. I saw her palm a tube of lipstick and slip it casually into her coat pocket. Her tiny shape grew smaller and smaller until she dissolved into the now-steady flow of shoppers.
I didn’t have the energy or the desire to stop her, and fatigue closed in on me like a fast-moving fog. Standing there, I finally understood that my mother was really gone. There was no way I could resurrect her, much less replace her.
Little by little, my paralyzed limbs began to unlock. I moved forward, away from the din of canned music and the buzz of shoppers, and headed out of the store.