Sarah wiped her forehead. Almost done, she thought. Just these three more outfits to be marked and logged into the store's computer and she would be finished. And that wasn't good. She was glad to be at the end of these last three weeks, working from whenever she started until whenever she quit, but at the same time she was worried. What was she going to do for work once this temporary job was done? Just a few more months and she would have saved enough money to hopefully carry them through. But now she didn't know.
Until about a month ago Sarah had been working in a nice woman's clothing store in her home town. She functioned as a saleswoman, cashier and generally did all the work the other employees couldn't be bothered with. All the others, including the manager, were in their early 20's, single and lived for the weekends. Sarah was almost 30 and married, well, she still thought of herself as married, with two children. Her objective was to finish her college courses and earn her certification as an elementary school teacher. The others' objectives seemed to be partying and avoiding work. She even looked different. The others all seemed to be tall blondes with long legs and big chests. Sarah was medium height with dark hair and eyes and a respectable, if not impressive body. She smiled sadly to herself. Before his accident, her husband Rick had always told her she was perfect just as she was and that had been all that was important.
Four weeks ago she had been working as usual in the middle afternoon. Sally, the manager, along with Debra and Ruth had been on the sales floor while Sarah unpacked the latest shipment and checked it. As she came out of the back room to update the computer at the main checkout she noticed an older woman customer in the store. Customers had become fewer over the last six months. Sarah sighed to herself. No wonder, since as always, the three were ignoring the lady to continue their conversation about last Saturday's beach party.
Sarah laid the manifest down by the register and walked over with a smile. "Hi, can I help with anything?" She asked.
"Yes, thank you," The older woman, who seemed to be in her mid-fifties, replied. Sarah noticed her startling blue eyes. The woman went on to ask several questions about different outfits and the prices of them. She wanted to try on one outfit. Sarah looked her over and made a judgment about what size to get, based on the woman's build. She was about 5' 4"and maybe just a tiny bit overweight, not much, five pounds perhaps. Sarah selected the correct size and suggested several accessories to go with it. The woman tried on the outfit, asking Sarah for help in adjusting it properly. Sarah helped without thinking too much of it, except to notice the woman had very nice legs and hoped her own would look so trim at that age.
After some discussion the lady decided to buy the dress along with a scarf and a brooch Sarah had matched with it. Sarah rang up the sale and thanked the older woman for shopping there.
"You're quite welcome, my dear. Thank you for all your assistance. You've been very helpful."
The woman's sincere compliments made Sarah blush, "Thank you," she repeated. "Have a lovely day." The woman smiled at her as Sarah picked up the manifest and returned to entering the shipment data. Looking up she saw the woman had paused at the door. She was looking at the three girls, who had not slowed their chat a single bit the entire time she had been in the store. Shaking her head, the woman left.
Two hours later, Sarah clocked out, grabbed her purse and headed for the door. Fortunately, for once Sally didn't come up with a dozen reasons why she had to "do something important" and Sarah should close for her. Sarah got into her 8 year old car and drove home.
She loved coming home. Turning down the rutted dirt road to the country home they had bought five years ago when she and Rick had determined to do more than spend their lives than just work at dead end jobs for other people. And they had been achieving their dream. Sarah slowed, blinked tears from her eyes and then set her jaw and finished the drive.
When she came through the door off the kitchen. Caroline, her eight year old daughter was taking supper out of the microwave.
"Hi sweetie. Where's your brother?"
"She's out back with grandmomma getting in the laundry."
Just as Sarah started for the back door it burst open and her mother staggered in the door. The older woman was proceeded by a bundle of energy that flung its arms around Sarah.
"Momma, I was helping grandmomma!"
"So I see," Sarah ruffled her six year old son's hair and hugged him back. She relieved her mother of the clothes basket and braced it on her hip. "Go wash up and help your sister set the table and we'll eat."
After supper the children cleaned up while Sarah and her mother folded the laundry and put it away. They put the children to bed and relaxed on the sofa. Sarah sighed to herself as her mother opened up her favorite conversation subject.
"Sarah, you know that you don't have to rush home every night as soon as you get off work. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of the children. You need to take a little time for yourself occasionally.
"Mother, I appreciate what you are saying and its not that I don't think about it every now and then. But I just don't feel like it."
The conversation went on in its well worn grooves. As always, her mother got the last word.
"What you need, young woman," her mother shook her finger at Sarah in mock frustration, "Is to get out and live a little." Her visage softened. "Yes, dear, I know you still miss Rick. I know that a year and a half is not too long to mourn. I still miss you father and he's been gone for ten years. But, I won't say 'Move on'. Only you know when you will be able to do that, but I will say it wouldn't hurt you to take an occasional night for yourself."
A week later, Sarah was holding down the fort at lunch time. The others had gone out to eat. Sarah had stayed behind to run the store and was seated at the central desk, eating her brown bag lunch. She saw the older woman from a couple of weeks ago enter the store. She laid aside her salad and stood up with a smile. that smile became a little uncertain when she say the woman was accompanied by Mr. Kleigeman, the store owner.
"Good afternoon Mr. Kleigman."
"Hello Sarah," smiled the elderly man. "Where is everyone?"
"Off eating lunch."
"Well, I guess we'll have to wait then. By the way, this is Ms. Wosley. Dee, this is Mrs. Thompson."
"We've met," replied the other woman. She took Sarah's hand and shook it. "Why does it not surprise me that you are flying solo here? But then even when the others are here you pretty much are anyway."
Eventually the others returned. The younger women all exchanged guilty looks. Sarah thought they darned well should, the trio had been gone over an hour and a half, an hour since Mr. Kleigman and Ms. Wosley arrived.
"Sally, please lock the door and turn the sign to 'Closed'." instructed Mr. Kleigman. "Then all of you come into the back."
When they were all in the storage area, Mr. Kleigman shifted from one foot to the other and opened his mouth twice and then closed it. Sarah had never seen him look so uncomfortable.
"Ladies," he began finally. "I have sold the store. To Ms. Wosley. I'm sorry, but there really was no other choice in the matter. Ms. Wosley is the new owner." He paused and fumbled for words. Sarah's heart went out to him. He looked so old, so tired. She wanted to go and hug him. But he avoided eye contact with everyone and walked from the room.
There was a bit of silence, finally broken by Ms. Wosley. "Girls, I know you feel badly about this. And I'm afraid I have more news and its not good either. I have been going over the books. Mr. Kleigman was on the verge of losing this store. Money was going out of here faster than it was coming in. I tried to make as fair an offer as I could, but there is no choice. I really only paid for the stock on hand and the fixtures. I'm afraid I'm going to have to close the store. I can use the merchandise in my other stores, but this one is just dead weight."
There were gasps and mutters from the younger women. Sarah hung her head. The news was unwelcome, but hardly a surprise. She knew how bad business was. But what was she going to do? Her mind raced as she tried to compute her bills and savings and then factor in the cost of her last two terms in college. It wasn't going to work.
Ms. Wosley broke the silence again. "Now then, instead of two weeks notice, I have severance pay for each of you that will amount to a month's pay. I see that some of you are owing money to the store for clothing you purchased on account. I will be happy to work with you to ease those payments if need be. Now then," she went on briskly, "Sally?" One by one she handed each of the girls an envelope.
Finally Sarah was the only one left. Surprisingly, Ms. Wosley walked to the small table and sat down. "Mrs. Thompson," she gestured to Sarah, "would you please have a seat? I would like to talk to you a minute." When Sarah had seated herself the older woman continued. "Mrs. Thompson," she paused in thought for a moment. "That's very formal for a discussion about a job around a back room table. Would it be rude of me to ask you for your first name?"
"Its Sarah." The excitement that the mention of a job brought must have been reflected in Sarah's face for Ms. Wosley seemed to start one thought and then changed it.
"This job means a lot to you doesn't it? I knew you were a hard worker when I visited the store the other day. It looked like you were trying to carry the whole store by yourself. Actually, you were carrying it. May I ask why?"
Sarah hesitated for a moment, then plunged ahead. "Ms. Wosley," she began.
"Dee, please call me Dee, Sarah."
Sarah smiled. "Alright Dee. I suppose its a long story but quickly told. My husband Rick and I had known each other all our lives. We married right out of high school and started our family two years later. Two children, a girl 8 and a boy 6. He worked as a mechanic and I had a job as a secretary."
"But we always had a dream. We wanted to have our own house on a farm that was ours. Not rented, like my parents. OURS. We had found a run down house on a small, similarly run down farm and stretched every dollar we had saved from his job and my pay and bought it. We worked hard to restore the house bit by bit. With no equipment, Rick had worked the farm by performing chores and repairs for the nearby farmers. In return, he could use their machinery and slowly got the farm back to some semblance of what it had once been.
"What went wrong?"
"A stupid accident. One of those one in a million things and I lost him," Sarah replied and fell silent. The memory of that accident still haunted her.
"That's alright, Sarah," said Dee. The older woman leaned over and patted Sarah's hand. "I don't need, or want, to cause you any heartache." She became brisk. "Now, I have a proposition for you. I've seen you work. You work hard and steadily and you don't need supervision. You know how to use the store computer. I need someone to make a complete inventory of all the stock on hand. I know that you've tried to keep it up, but I doubt those others did. Items were swapped, or returned or sold and not scanned properly. I've looked over some printouts and its a mess.
"Here's a key and the new code to the alarm. You can work when you want and whatever hours you want. I'll pay you a dollar an hour more than Mr. Kleigeman did and I have no objections to overtime. I know you'll give me honest work for honest pay."
Sarah clutched the key and stared at Dee. "Thank you. This means a lot to me and I promise I'll work hard for you."
"I know you will. That's why I picked you."
Sarah plunged into the job the very next day. She worked hard. It turned out that Dee was more correct than Sarah had thought. Things were a mess. Items with no tags, item with wrong tags items balled up and thrown in boxes. She started with the sales floor and worked her way into the back room.
During that time Dee called her every couple of days, usually at the store but twice at her home. A check arrived every Monday for the previous week's work. It was much larger than Sarah had ever made before. She was carefully honest in her time keeping and gave a hundred percent effort for her new boss.
Once a week Dee stopped by in person. Twice she took Sarah out for lunch. Both times were very enjoyable, Dee was a wonderful conversationalist and insisted on paying for the meals both times. "Just another job benefit," she laughed. "Besides, its tax-deductible."
The last time Dee came by it was late afternoon. When she invited Sarah to an early supper, the younger woman explained that she though another few hours would see her finish the job and she asked it she could stick with it. Dee nodded and complimented her at her "stick-to-it-ness".
"I really thought this would take you another couple of weeks at the very least," the older woman commented. "Have at it then." She started to leave and then turned around.
"Sarah, if you finish at a reasonable hour, would you bring everything by my hotel? I'll have dinner in the restaurant and than probably a drink or two in the bar. Join me there. If you don't find me there then I'm in Room 172, at the back corner."
As it turned out, it was just short of 9 PM when Sarah had everything wrapped up. She gathered all the printouts, locked the door, set the alarm and left. She arrived at the hotel in a few minutes. The dining room was closed so she peeked in the bar. Sure enough, Dee was there. Sarah smiled and went in to her boss.
"Well, there you are Sarah," Dee greeted her with a smile. The older woman was comfortably perched on a high backed stool at the bar, her legs crossed and a drink in her hand. She patted the empty stool next to her. "Here, sit down and have a drink. Please," she added when she saw the hesitation on Sarah's face.
Sarah slipped into the offered seat. She laughed, a bit uneasily. "I really shouldn't," she began.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Dee. "I didn't think. You need to get home of course."
Moved by a sudden impulse, Sarah spoke up quickly. "No, its not that. My mother is there and already plans on spending the night. In fact," Sarah laughed again, this time more comfortably. "She'd probably say a drink is just what I need. Its that I feel woefully underdressed for here." Sarah indicated her outfit, shorts and one of Rick's old shirts with the tails tied under her breasts. She was wearing old comfortable moccasins on her feet.
"Nonsense," declared Dee. "Its a weeknight and the place is about empty anyway. "Scotch and water okay?"
"Light on the water," Sarah answered. Dee laughed and passed the order to the bartender. When Sarah fumbled in her pocketbook Dee held up a hand. "No, my treat. Consider it as another job benefit."
After two drinks Sarah felt much more comfortable. The bar WAS pretty empty and the lights were low. The juke box was playing continuously and Sarah had been flattered when a guy asked her to dance. She had refused, as she was thoroughly enjoying her talk with Dee, but it had been nice to be asked. The two women talked, first about the store and what Sarah had accomplished there, then about pretty much everything and anything, Sarah told all about her struggle to keep her family's head afloat financially and what a God-send this extra money was going to be. Dee was very sympathetic, taking and squeezing Sarah's hand. Sarah grew so chummy that she let slip to Dee about her frustration in having to take sexual matters into her own hands. She blushed deeply when she realized what she had said.
During the conversation Sarah had felt Dee's knee brush hers several times. She had thought not much of it, although the touch on her own bare legs by the pantyhose Dee wore felt, well, very nice, Sarah admitted to herself. Almost sexy in fact. Sarah stopped for a moment. Where had THAT thought come from? She had never thought about another woman being sexy. She knew Dee had mentioned she had never been married, but that didn't mean anything. Did it?
They kept talking. They were facing each other and Sarah had braced her foot against the rungs of Dee's stool. Slowly, so gradually that she never could have said that there was a single moment that it happened, Dee's legs had closed against hers. The two women had slid forward on their stools and Sarah finally realized that Dee's knees had worked their way a good third of the way up Sarah's thighs. It felt warm. comforting in a way. Sarah hadn't been touched in so long that every little gesture of Dee's felt nice in fact. Dee had leaned forward to make a point and her hand had come to rest on Sarah's other thigh, just below the hem of her shorts.
Surely these touches were accidental. Surely they didn't mean anything. Sarah shifted a bit. Was it her imagination of were Dee's fingers moving on her thigh? It felt like little strokes but it was so fleeting, so gentle she couldn't be sure. She squirmed again, shifting her weight.
At that moment Dee pushed herself up and told Sarah she needed to run to the Lady's Room. "I'll be right back. Would you watch our glasses and make sure no one steals my seat?"
Sarah nodded but her thoughts were elsewhere. Specifically, they were on how Dee had braced herself on Sarah's leg when she stood up and how those fingers had shifted just for an instant to the inside of her thigh and slipped under the hem of her shorts. The touch had caught Sarah off guard, and had been so fast she had not had time to say anything about it before Dee was gone. She sat there and thought, sipping her third drink.
Was Dee well, seducing her? The idea seemed absurd. Sarah didn't have any false impressions about herself. She was plain, an average run-of-the mill woman. She fumbled out her compact and checked herself. She did look a little less washed-out than usual she noted to her surprise. Was the possibility of being flirted with by another woman making her flushed even just a bit?
Sarah had no real experience with other women. Right after high school she had married Rick and they had dated since the 9th grade. She just really had nothing to judge these feelings on. Nothing, except that she had felt strange, uncomfortable perhaps but also just a little bit excited when Dee's hand had slid up her leg, accident though it might have been.
She replaced the compact in her pocketbook. She took another sip of her drink and sensed someone was beside her, even as Dee said "I'm back. Pass me my drink would you please Sarah?"