Errand girl | Short Story | Writing

She peered at the smile beaming back at her from the mirror. Her long hair was neatly brushed. Her face was clean. She was wearing the clothes her mother had laid out for her. She bent down to inhale the new leather smell of her brand new purse. She emptied it of the paper stuffing that kept its shape intact. The fine leather was soft and supple. Inside was a tiny wallet. It was square and flat, its top twisted, then folded, to trap the coins. She opened it. It was empty.

She picked up the shopping list and stuffed it into her new purse. She was stopped on the way to the door for final instructions. Once out, she sauntered down the street, skipping over tiles in a pattern, keeping her purse to her body with one hand while swinging the shopping nets with the other. Her carefree demeanor disappeared as she made it to the last street crossing. She repeated her mother’s instructions to herself.

As she made her way through the first stalls of the Marché Pietri, the florists called out to her, offering the day’s deal. One of them, a teen, held out a carnation for her. As she accepted it, he grabbed her hand, pulling it down as he bent toward it to kiss it, the way all commoners greet royals and members of the aristocracy. He kissed the hand back first, but then, just as he was turning it over to kiss the palm, she withdrew her hand.  Damn! She wasn’t quick enough this time, she thought to herself. She thanked the young man for his gift and quickly retreated. She didn’t like him. She’d had an unpleasant experience when she last visited his stall. The young man had stood very close behind her in the cramped stall, moving with her as she went from display to display, his flesh touching hers in an unwanted way. 

Various merchants called out to her, beckoning her to consider their offerings as she made her way to the other side of the open market. Some offered fruit, others pickled goods. As she walked by her favorite olive stall, she realized she had no money. Sad, she marched on.  Finally, she approached the groceries on the end of the market. An entire row of them lined the far end of the semi-open market that was Place Pietri. The shops were all small and dark, indistinguishable from each other in the way they were arranged or the goods they carried. Every millimeter of the shops was piled high with stacks of canned and dry goods, leaving very little aisle space for shoppers to navigate. Immediately to the right was the counter, and next to it was a single large refrigerated case containing cheeses and olives and pickles. Only one of the grocers carried deli meat. That choice cost him. No Muslim shopped there; only the Pieds Noirs and the few foreign dignitaries who lived in the area. Even then, they only frequented his store when the charcuterie up the street was closed.

As soon as he saw her inside the store, the shopkeeper leaped to attention from behind the counter. His face broke into a wide grin, revealing the gold fillings inside. His thinning hair was died jet black and slicked back with pomade. His white smock was spotless though stretched by the vast expanse of his midsection. He showed surprising nimbleness for a man his size. Before she knew it, he had seized her hand and begun kissing it, as he was still bowing to meet it. His grip was firmer than the teen’s just a few moments earlier. This time, there was no escaping the deferential ritual.  The warm, wet lips touched down on the back of the hand, leaving a slimy feeling. With a flick of the wrist, the hand is turned and the warm, wet, slimy feeling makes a return appearance. “How may I serve you?”

Unnerved by the wet feeling on her hand, she fumbled for the list inside her purse. He snatches it with a flourish with one hand, while snapping his fingers with the other. A young man appears and the portly shopkeeper begins barking out the items on the list from behind his counter as his hand touches the keys on his calculator. Midway through, he quips “your mother must be entertaining guests!” Whether or not she caught the sly undertones of the remark, the little girl remained silent, her eyes averted. Suddenly, she looks up at him and asks, “do you have American milk chocolate and this brand of French Madeleines?” Shopkeeper’s golden grin returns, he lifts up his finger as if to say “wait,” and glides to the end of the store. After a minute or two, he bellows “how many of each?” “Two, please!”

All of her purchases were up on the counter by the time the shopkeeper returned from the back. Some items were stuffed into the fishnet bags she had brought with her, the rest of items on her list were packed in three boxes. “That’ll be this many Dirhams, Miss.” The little girl cocked her head to one side, eyes wide, “but Mommy said I would need to sign my name in your register. I don’t carry money.” The shopkeeper looked at the goods boxed in front of him and muttered to himself “that’s a lot all at once.” “Dear Mademoiselle, I can put your purchase on account this time. But, please, tell your dear mother to contact me for a formal arrangement.”

Shopkeeper proceeded to record the purchases in his ledger. She watched him painstakingly write down each item and its cost. Meanwhile, there was a line forming behind her. She could feel the stares. She could see the two ladies from the third floor reflecting back on the refrigerated case. They were whispering to each other, occasionally wagging fingers and nodding heads.

Relief came just as the heat of shame was rising and her eyes were welling up. “Sign here, little Miss!” She climbed atop the wooden boxes on the side of the counter. She grabbed the pen she was offered and wrote out her name. “I have a lot of customers waiting now. I will send Hamid to your home with your purchases in a little while.” She nodded her head, wondering how he knew where she lived. Did everyone know who I am, she pondered?

As she climbed down from the stool, one of the fishnet bags caught her eye. It was filled with the two items she had asked about. “May I carry this bag home,” she asked? Shopkeeper flashed another of his golden grins at her. “Why, of course!” He practically flew from behind the counter again, grabbing the bag on his way to her side of the counter. Like last time, upon landing inches away from her, his body began its descent into bowing position. This time, she was ready. Just as he was about to grab her hand. She withdrew it. “Labas, Mr. Shopkeeper. There is no need for the additional respect.” She then grabbed her bag from him and, with a twirl, she turned to leave the store. She raised her head, high, looking straight ahead, past the gossips and the stock clerks and clutching her goodies, she began her walk home.

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