The old-fashioned bell over the street door jingled, proclaiming the arrival of a customer, and the Printer felt an anticipatory quickening of his pulse. His wife, seated at the desk next to the curtained doorway, drew the curtain back and looked into the little shop in front.
"It's those two," his wife said, soaking the word "those" with contempt but confirming his precognition. "I'll take care of it." It: not them. She passed through the curtain into the shop.
The Printer wiped his hands clean with benzine and followed, his appearance in the shop earning a disapproving frown from his wife.
As soon as he appeared, the customers, those two, the lively little Redhead and the cool and winsome Brunette, turned their attention, their questions, their business to him. His wife ceased to exist. No wonder she couldn't stand them.
He could stand them. He very much liked them. They were good customers. He would have liked them if they had not been customers.
The Brunette owned a little boutique specializing in unusual Native American and Meso-American crafts and jewelry. Whenever she made a special purchase or had a sale she came in to have announcements printed to send to her customers. She knew exactly what she wanted and brought the necessary artwork, correctly prepared for reproduction, but she was also flexible enough to ask for his suggestions, many of which she accepted. Once or twice she'd requested a re-do, but he never charged her extra, for he agreed with her and admired her perfectionism. In the end, the mailers always came out looking like her: precise, cleanly designed, uncluttered, to the point.
The Redhead, her occasional part-time helper, was more talkative and less attentive than the Brunette, quicker to form and state opinions, quicker to lose interest, less focused, more curious about everything else in the shop.
The two women were friends and probably had been friends for a long time: they had that way about them, a way of exchanging communicative glances and knowing what each other thought and liked. Each, independent of the other, was sexy -- the Brunette cool, the Redhead hot, the Brunette perfectly, simply wardrobed, the Rehead funky in colorful peasant costumes or vintage clothing, the Brunette a little elusive, a package to be unwrapped and discovered, the Redhead a coquette, leaving nothing undisclosed -- but their free and easy rapport made them collectively sexier than the sum of their independently sexy parts.
"... soft alpaca from Peru," the Brunette was saying, explaining the problem of this mailer: the color photograph of the shawl blanket failed to capture the principal virtue of the knit, its softness. "Feel it," the Redhead said, extending a folded blanket she'd brought along and touching it to the side of the Printer's face.
"Soft," said the Printer, embarrassed, casting a quick glance at his excluded wife standing alongside. Catching the exchanged glances, the Redhead extended the blanket to the Printer's wife, as if to offer her a feel, too. His wife unceremoniously declined, excused herself, and withdrew behind the curtain to the back room.
The Printer offered a solution: to print the word "soft' four times taller than the other words, but in a pale grey hue that suggested softness.
The Brunette complimented him on the solution, filled out the necessary order form, and checked the copy while the Redhead draped the shawl around her shoulders and examined her reflection in the glass window. She reached under the shawl and slid the shoulder straps of her peasant blouse down so she could see how the shawl looked and felt over her shoulders and breasts.
"It is soft," said the Redhead. "Did you feel how soft?" she asked the Brunette. "Feel." She took the Brunette's hand and rubbed the back of it against the knitted fabric over her breast. "Just came in," the Redhead explained to the Printer, and smiled her bright, red-mouthed, white-teeth smile. "Softer than cashmere."
The Redhead always flirted. The Brunette never did, though she often unknowingly set up the Redhead's double-entendres. "This is very nicely done," the Brunette might say about a printing job. "I'd like to be very nicely done," the Redhead might reply with a needy frown, then smile.
The Printer told the women the job would be ready next week on Wednesday, after four o'clock. When they departed the Printer returned to the print shop in back. His wife slammed her ledger book closed, the slamming a statement.
"They're good customers," said the Printer.
His wife smiled with disdain. She was a good wife and businesswoman and the Printer loved her, but she couldn't handle the overt sexuality that the lively Redhead and winsome Brunette flaunted. They made her feel even more old fashioned than she was.
"Married women," he added. "Mothers with children."
His wife smiled more broadly, skeptical, a so-what smile. As far as she was concerned marriage and motherhood didn't stop certain women from being tramps.
The clock on the wall chimed four times. The Printer's wife slammed the ledger onto the shelf. Four was her quitting time. He stayed until six - later when there was a lot of work. "Don't be late," his wife said as she left. "You don't have to give them priority."
"I won't," he said, and then went to work on the women's job. He worked on it into the evening, anxious to make it perfect.
They came in at four-twenty on Wednesday. While the cool and winsome Brunette checked the proof, examining it carefully for typos, the lively little Redhead asked if she might use the toilet. The Printer directed her to it, in the back.
The Brunette finished her examination, complimented the Printer on the quality of the job, and asked when the mailers would be ready. Since there were no changes, he need only push a button and start the press, he explained; he would send them over in the morning. Then they made small talk until they heard, from behind the curtain, a small, distressed "Oh, no."
The Printer and the Brunette looked at each other quizzically, then moved through the curtain to the print shop. They heard water running in the washroom. As they walked toward it, the Redhead stepped out.
She was naked above her waist.
"Nosy me," she said. "I was looking at what you were printing and leaned over and got ink on my blouse." She looked at her breasts, one of which was smeared with black printers' ink. "And here," she added, lifting the offended breast. Except for the smear, she had astonishingly white-skinned breasts, small but well-shaped with slightly oversized, rosyred nipples. "I tried to wash it, but it won't come off."
The Printer couldn't take his eyes from the prizes the Redhead unselfconsciously displayed.
"I guess water's no good for it," she said.
"No," the Printer said when he found his voice.
"How do I get it off?" the Redhead asked, holding up the ink-smeared breast and touching the gummy ink with her fingertips.
"Benzine," he said. "I'll get you some."
"Leave it to you," said the Brunette, walking past her friend and into the washroom. "You might as well throw this blouse away," she added from inside.
"Boy, am I dumb," said the Redhead.
The Printer returned to her, a can of benzine in one hand, a clean rag in the other. He doused the rag with liquid, extended it to the Redhead, who didn't take It. She stood in place, smiling pleasantly, extending her chest as if she expected the Printer to clean her breast for her.
Nothing would have pleased him more, but he was not at all confident that he was reading her right, and terrified that if he touched her she would cry out and have him arrested.
"Here, let me," said the reappearing Brunette, coming to his rescue. The Brunette took the saturated rag and as the Redhead held up her breast, the Brunette wiped off the ink with swirling, scrubbing motions that made gray spirals around the pretty white orb.
The Printer couldn't move. He stood paralyzed, close, watching, fascinated with the breast and the cleansing process unfolding before his eyes. Not only was he paralyzed; he was almost numb. Something was happening and he wasn't even aware of it until it was well under way. The Redhead's other hand -- the hand not holding a breast -- had turned outward; its fingers had crept under the crotch of his trousers and cupped his balls through the fabric. Not until the hand started sliding up the front of the pants, inscribing the shape of his erect cock, then gently squeezing it, was he sure it was there. He looked into the Redhead's eyes. She smiled broadly at him and raised her eyebrows, her expression knowing and impressed, as if saying, How nice, hard as a rock.
Then her expression changed, turned petulant: "It's starting to itch," she said.
"Yes," the Printer managed to say. "You need to wash it... with soap and water..."
"Show me?" the Redhead said.
The Brunette stepped back out of the way, and the Redhead, her hand still touching the Printer between his legs, backed into the washroom. Her hand was like a magnet, his cloth-covered cock like iron, and he followed.
Head spinning, cock straining, guided by his libido and certainly not by lucid thought, the Printer stood beside the Redhead in the washroom and turned on the tap. He put his hand under the running water, waiting for it to warm. The Brunette stood in the open door, watching, her expression as cool and intelligent as if she were examining his work -- which of course she was.
There were no washcloths in the bathroom, just rough brown paper towels.
"It burns," said the Redhead.
.... There is more of this story ...