Thursday, August 17, 2006

The saddest story I know

From Paper and Dust, a short story by Lance Mannion:

On Saturdays Gogarty's wife helped out in the store. Customers liked Margaret. Not that they did a booming walk-in trade, but those customers who did wander in to buy a pen or a pad of paper would hang around after making their purchases to talk. Men especially. Leaning on the glass countertop, fogging it, smudging it with their fingerprints, they would stand there forever, flirting with Margaret.

They sold from the highest and lowest shelves on Saturdays. The silver and gold-plated pen and pencil sets in the bottom of the glass cabinet were as popular on any Saturday as they were at Christmas and graduation time. The red ink stamp pads on the top of the tall shelves behind the counter became essential in a way they never were during the week when they accumulated the dust that Margaret blew off their lids when she climbed the step ladder to reach them.

"Anything else for you this morning?"

"How much for the White-out, Margaret?"

Margaret would squat down behind the counter, giving the customer a clean view through the glass down her freckled cleavage.

"I could use some butterfly clips, Maggie, the number two size."

And up she'd go on the ladder again. To reach the highest shelves she had to stand on tip-toe, coming out of her shoes, her legs on display.

Gogarty didn't like this only because it reminded him that the bloom was not yet off his wife. She had begun to use a rinse on her hair and the stylish oversized frames of her glasses hid the lines around her eyes, but she still had her figure and those fine slender legs. Gogarty told her that he didn't like to have strangers keeping her from her work.

"What's there to do, Vin?" she'd ask, not sniping, not intending to remind him of the store's meager business, but actually asking him to assign her a task. She'd always been the busy one. As soon as Vince, Jr. was old enough for school, she'd gone to work in the Cambridge City Hall as a secretary to her sister's husband's brother, the city planner. She had asked to come to work in the store and was hurt that Gogarty hadn't wanted her to. "Don't I have enough people sitting around on their thumbs all day?" he'd said, but in those days he hadn't been able to hire help fast enough to keep up with all the orders and an extra pair of hands should have been welcome.

So she'd started coming in on Saturdays to do the typing and handle the correspondence. She typed up the invoices, sent off the orders to distributors and suppliers, and when she finished that she gave herself little chores to do, even when Gogarty said she was in the way, so that on Monday mornings Gogarty would find some trivial attempt by Margaret to brighten up the place---geometric stacks of pencil leads on the counter; rainbow fans of pocket folders in the window; flowers on his desk. Gogarty felt as though Margaret was going behind his back, doing these things. Of course, anything she did these days had to be behind his back, since that was the part of him he most often showed her. He avoided her, routinely spending all day in the stockroom where she was too dainty to follow. Still, he told her to ask before she put up her cheery little signs advertising The PERFECT Graduation Gift!!! and The Finest in Leather-bound Date Books.

"She just wants to feel needed, Dad," his son would say when he complained.

"Chowdah-head," Gogarty would mutter, taking care not to be overheard, although not really caring if he was.

Gogarty's Stationery and Office Supply. On Causeway Street, under the elevated tracks of the Green Line. Dust on the window. Dust on the shelves. Dust on the stock in back. Old orange pasteboard account books stacked up to the ceiling, the record of thirty years of business, twenty-seven at the same location. Stanbart Stationers. Bart and Vin's Office Supply. Tighe and Gogarty Co. Gogarty, solus. Fat times and lean times and leaner recently. All of it gathering dust.

From his desk Gogarty could survey the whole store, a long high-ceilinged shoebox of a place, and the view was like peering down a long trough of shadow and dust. The office was separated from the shop floor by a wooden rail and a flight of three stairs. Over the narrow aisles long fluorescent lamps of insufficient wattage quivered and shivered suspended from shaky pipes that carried and magnified the vibrations of trains clattering down the tracks. When a trolley rolled by, the lamps cried dust.

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