Renata Appleton just could not remember this man who had approached her from behind in the seafood department of Fairline Foods.
“Renata!” he’d said, causing her to turn around. “I thought that was you.”
At this early hour on a Monday morning, the store was fairly empty, and Renata found herself wishing there were a few more people around. She had planned to just whiz into the store for the sea scallops she needed for the dinner she was preparing for her second date with Dale Marks, but now she had to deal with this character who claimed to know her. Well, wait, she thought, something about him seemed familiar. She looked him over carefully. If he was about her age of sixty-five, as she guessed, life had been tough for him. His face was gaunt and his hair long, lank and gray. A smell of cigarette smoke hung about him like the ragged flannel shirt and jeans he wore. He definitely did not look like anyone she would know, yet somehow, he was familiar to her. She couldn’t quite say why. Maybe it was the deep voice or the cigarette smell.
“Hello,” said Renata, hoping the answer to this mystery would reveal itself. She ran her left hand over her auburn hair.
“How are you and your mom and your kids?” asked the man.
Scam alert thought Renata. She’d been scammed once, by someone she thought she was in an online relationship with. She’d lost $7,200. It damn sure wasn’t going to happen to her again. Renata’s mom, her daughter, and two grandchildren had all been on TV advertisements with her when she worked at the furniture store. Maybe this guy remembered her from those ads. He doesn’t even know that my mom died three years ago she thought. He can’t know me. She thought about how she’d communicated with her mom’s spirit through her Ouija board the previous evening; the heart-shaped planchette had hissed as it glided back and forth under her fingers on its felt feet, indicating the answers to the questions she’d posed.
“We’re all doing well,” she lied, adjusting her purse on her shoulder.
“I really liked your daughter,” he said and coughed into his elbow.
There! The way he coughed into his elbow was definitely familiar. This is so weird. What’s wrong with my brain? Why don’t I recognize him?
Renata clasped her hands together tightly and began to wring them as she considered her situation. She felt it was too late to ask him his name at this point, and besides, it would hurt his feelings and embarrass her if indeed it was someone she knew.
A similar recent experience flashed though her mind. A little boy had approached her and asked if she knew his dad, who was looking over at her from a few feet away. He had looked familiar, but again, she couldn’t quite place him. She had told the little boy she didn’t know his dad and they had let her go without further questions. Was this to be her future? she wondered, constantly fighting to recognize familiar faces?
“Retirement seems to be agreeing with you,” said the man.
Renata felt her brows furrow in confusion. How does he know I’m retired? Who the heck is this guy? She consciously relaxed her face and tried to smile.
“Thanks. So how are you doing?” Renata asked, hoping this might lead to a clue.
The man just shrugged his shoulders and raised his lip in a way that said, “Not too well.” Then he looked her in the eye and said, “Can you spare some cash?”
Fairline Foods was not the kind of store where you would expect beggars of any kind. It just wouldn’t be tolerated. So, Renata was caught by surprise with the man’s request. She rarely carried cash and knew she had only two dollars in her wallet. She planned to pay for her scallops with a credit card. Renata opened her wallet and got out the cash.
“This is all I have,” she said, handing the man the two dollars.
“Thanks,” he said. “This will help a lot.” She knew he was being sarcastic by his sneer, and it made her wince.
Renata moved to walk away before anything really ugly could happen. “It was nice to see you,” she said, anxious to get away.
The man put his hand on her arm as if to stop her from leaving. The cigarette smell wafted up to Renata’s face as he did so. “If you truly mean that, you’ll stop by the ATM in the front of the store and really help me out with twenty dollars,” he said.
Suddenly, the fluorescent lights in the store seemed very intense and the temperature seemed to drop. Renata felt overwhelmed by her situation. She tried to quickly sort out the possible scenarios of what was happening to her.
It could be that this was someone she knew, but just couldn’t recognize, and he had fallen on bad times. If that were the case, Renata would want to help him out. But how would she know?
Or, he could be scamming her to get twenty dollars (on top of the two she already gave him).
Or, worst of all, this could be a scam where he would somehow get access to even more than the twenty dollars he was asking for. Renata knew this was unlikely, but since it had happened to her once, she was wary and afraid.
If only she could have a session with her Ouija board and find out who this guy was and if he was scamming her or not! But she didn’t have that luxury; all she had was her gut. She knew her memory wasn’t what it used to be, but she had tried and tried to remember him and could not place him.
Renata smoothed her blouse and adjusted her purse on her shoulder again, strengthening herself to take a stand. “I might have fallen for a scam before, but I won’t again. And I won’t be stopping by the ATM for you today.” Not waiting for his reaction and not remembering to buy the scallops she had come in for, Renata rushed out of the store.
She felt some small relief as she sank into the leather seat of her Audi. The pleasant scent of the clean linen air freshener calmed her a bit and she started the engine and headed for home. Still, the weird feeling she’d had in the store persisted, that she’d somehow known that guy before.
She took a right on Baxter Avenue and as it wound around a curve she came to a house with a yard that badly needed mowing. She wondered if Sam still lived there with his elderly parents. And then she almost crashed her car as the realization hit her. That was Sam in the Fairline Foods! Renata pulled over into a parking lot of a fast food restaurant to think for a minute.
Sam had worked at the furniture store years ago. She was in sales and he did deliveries. The two things she remembered best about him were that on Mother’s Day he had brought roses to her and the other women who worked in the store, and one year, after the Christmas party, Renata had slept with him. Oh boy!
As she thought more though, she remembered that he had been a good friend when her father had died. Sam and Renata had always been buddies at work, joking around and singing to the radio during the slow times, but she found he could also be a caring friend when needed. Still, she’d felt the post-Christmas party romp had been a mistake and had gently told him it wouldn’t happen again. They’d remained friends, but soon, Sam had found a new job and they’d lost contact.
Renata banged her hands on the steering wheel in frustration with herself. She felt awful that she hadn’t recognized him, but, she rationalized, he looked so different! His hair is no longer black and he’s lost so much weight. But why didn’t I just ask him his name? I wish I had helped him when I had the chance. What’s wrong with me? I donate to charity all the time – what would have been so bad about helping someone in the grocery store with twenty dollars even if I didn’t know him? I need to relax about this scam business a bit.
Renata thought of herself and Sam, standing in the store making small talk. Her memory, she thought, was kind of like his muscles, once strong in his younger days, now, still there, but thinner and weaker. Why didn’t he call me Red Bird? she asked herself as she swung her car around to return to the Fairline Foods.
Back in the store, an old soft rock song was playing as Renata scanned each of the immaculate, orderly aisles in search of Sam. When it was clear that he had left the store, she returned to the seafood department for her scallops. She sniffed and detected a hint of a fishy odor, unusual for Fairline Foods. It put her off a bit, not enough to cancel her order, more a thought to register for the future.
She paid for the scallops, then approached the ATM at the front of the store. Renata chewed on the inside of her lip, hesitating for a moment over the amount to withdraw. How generous should I be? she wondered. Twenty dollars? Fifty dollars? One hundred dollars? More? It was Sam after all. Finally, she decided on fifty dollars, took the cash, and drove to Sam’s house.
She saw it as soon as she pulled into the driveway: a NO TRESPASSING sign pounded into the yard with the long grass and weeds. She felt her heart race – she shouldn’t be here! Well, I’ve come this far; I’m not leaving now she thought.
Renata walked quickly to the door, noticing the broken cement on the stairs and the crumbling shingles on the ancient roof. It was hard to tell what condition the brick house was in, but she assumed it was also behind on maintenance and repairs.
Renata rang the doorbell, hoping the right words would come to her when Sam opened the door. She heard footsteps, then the unmistakable sound of a shotgun cocking. She gasped and backed up a couple of steps, nearly falling down the stairs. “Sam!” she called out. “It’s me, Renata Appleton.”
“This property is posted,” said Sam through the door. “You should leave.”
“Sam, please open the door. For old times’ sake?”
Sam opened the door and stood with the shotgun next to him, its butt on the floor and his right hand near the end of the barrel. “You treated me like crap in the store and now you don’t respect my privacy. What do you want from me?”
Renata adjusted her purse on her shoulder and drew in her breath, hoping her words wouldn’t insult him further. “I want to apologize for what happened earlier this morning between us. The truth is I didn’t recognize you even though we have such a happy history. I’m so sorry. I thought you were just someone out to scam me until I drove by your house and realized it was you. I went back to look for you.” She reached in her purse for the cash. “Here,” she said, holding the money out towards Sam. He accepted the money and pocketed it.
“Well,” said Renata, smiling, “I have some seafood in my car, so I can’t stay, but here’s my number.” She handed him a small piece of paper. “Let me know if you need something I can help with.”
Sam coughed into his elbow. As he raised his arm, the stale cigarette smell wafted out to Renata. “It’s funny,” he said. “At the store, I knew you and you didn’t know me. Now, you remember me, but I don’t think you’re the woman I remember.”
Leslie Peterson writes short fiction, nonfiction, and haikus from her home in the sunny South. Her work has been published in Children’s Playmate Magazine and The Cotton Alley Writers’ Review.