There was this shop in the neighborhood where I’d sometimes go. It was a good spot to find inexpensive gifts: small vases, lacquered boxes, a decorative dish where you could leave your spare change—noncommittal things just north of impersonal. I’d have gone there more, but for the saleslady.
She was sour. I mean, really puckered—the sort of acerbic person whose life needs an injection of sunshine from a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or an Anne of Green Gables or a Pollyanna. The requisite plucky orphan never seems to have come into her life. The first time I visited her shop, there were some other customers there. “Can I buy these individually?” one asked her.
“No, just as a set,” she said curtly. After the shoppers left, she turned to me. “Can you believe what assholes people are?” she demanded balefully. “This is what I deal with all day.”
The next time I came in, another customer made the mistake of answering his phone. “I can’t talk right now,” he said, but the damage was done, because the saleslady met my eyes and mouthed, “Unbelievable.”
For a while I assumed she must be the owner, but then, on my third visit, after I asked what she’d recommend for a friend’s housewarming, she said, “Nothing. Personally, I hate everything here. The owner has shit taste.” Later still—and perhaps I should mention that all this happened over the course of about a year—I would learn from her that said owner was “a total bitch.” This saleswoman seemed to be the only employee, although it took me a while to figure that out.
Despite all these confidences, I didn’t fancy we had any special relationship; her asides were too easily given and totally unearned on my part. I knew I was just as likely the focus of her ire the moment I left the shop; I was sure of it the day I bought a ten dollar hourglass for a birthday gift over her vocal objections. “I’d hate to get that,” she said flatly, and the thing was, she wasn’t wrong, it was a horrible present, but I really wanted to leave. And when she saw me pass by, she’d wave, grimly.
I avoided that side of the street, in fact. I went in very infrequently; she was depressing, and I disliked her and thought she was terribly unprofessional, and I was also sure that I would soon do something to make her hate me. But one day, I passed the store and saw a TO LET sign in the window. When I went in, she was saying to two women, “they don’t tell me anything. People keep asking me what’s going on, and it’s very annoying.” She glared at them. But after they’d left—empty-handed—she told me, ”I can’t believe I might have to find a new job. At my age. I mean, it’s ridiculous.”
Later, I would think: someone’s life is in crisis, and all you can think about is that now you’ll be able to walk on this side of the street without thinking about her. And you’ll never think of her again. But the strange thing is, I think about her daily, whenever I see that hourglass on the shelf, because it was too depressing to give anyone, and there but for the grace of God, et cetera.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.