a literary review
Elsa waited at the door with a rolling cart of stock that smelled of Spanish moss and dried eucalyptus, reading a self-help book for small business owners. A Mexican girl in a security uniform, her sleek curls pulled close at the nape of her neck, paced slowly in front of the steel doors, looking bored. The book suggested Elsa think of a word that defined the mission of her business, a single word for what she was trying to bring to the world, one word that she could repeat to herself for inspiration.
She thought, “Failure.” She had lost six-thousand dollars on a rained-out craft show the week before, and their home equity line of credit was maxed. She was operating at a loss. And on blind faith; faith that the doors would open, faith that the people would come, faith that she would be able to retire someday. Faith that she would keep her home. Faith that she would die before she ran out of money.
“Why can’t they let us in a few minutes early? What could it possibly hurt?” she wondered aloud.
“God forbid!” the woman behind her said. Her name was Cynthia. She sold tacky glitter snowman sweatshirts. “For six-thousand dollars, God forbid they let us set up fifteen minutes early!” A murmur ran through the crowd. The Mexican girl pretended she hadn’t heard them, but Elsa could tell she had.
In the lengthening line of vendors, Elsa saw her husband, Ernie. He gestured with the Styrofoam coffee cup in his left hand, balancing a box of donuts in the other. He handed her the coffee, three creams and two sugars, and she washed down her blood pressure pills.
At seven-thirty, a black security guard came out and gave the uniformed girl a nod. She opened the doors and Elsa helped Ernie push the cart over the threshold. The night before, Ernie had been allowed in to assemble the canopy. Now, beneath it, the display racks and shelves stood like the mangled skeleton of some huge animal. While Ernie went out to bring in a load of merchandise, Elsa worked methodically, stopping for sips of milky coffee and bites of fried dough. She pinned and tacked fabric and ribbon and faux-pine garlands to every surface and support, and hung her crackle-painted sign: “Elsa’s Little Extras (Made Just For Ewe!)” with its dignified sheep between the lines.
All around was the soft clanking industry of cottage crafters starting one of the big shows in northern Maryland. The pretty Mexican security guard passed by. She smiled at Elsa, and Elsa smiled back, thinking even though they were different, the girl was probably a Catholic, too—and so pretty if Elsa looked past the long fingernails and the kiss curls.
By eight-fifteen the stall had a thatch of dried flowers, lace and calico. Elsa arranged the angels she made from antique spools, wooden ones once used on industrial looms. She hung punched tin lanterns beneath the eaves. The spool angels were original, as were their dresses. The lanterns had been candleholders until Ernie wired them, and they cast a pretty mottled light around the booth.
While Ernie put together the credit card machine, Elsa hob-knobbed. She was excited to see the candy man, Saul, set up across the aisle; he had both tea tree gum and anise bears, candies she missed from when she was a girl. Whenever they ran into each other at these shows, he bought one of her spool angels. Though she’d never cared for licorice, she loved the lighter taste of anise bears.
Saul came over and asked if she had any spool angels in blue for Chanukah. She pointed to one in a blue brocade vest with a Star of David in place of a halo. “I have more in the car. Ernie can go get them.” Saul was a plain man, older and bald, but she liked his beaky nose and broad grin.
“Can you get me six, Elsie? My wife and daughter want them for presents.”
She’d had the idea for the Jewish angels at a show in New Jersey, where the familiar Santas and snowmen on jewelry and sweaters gave way to six-pointed stars and menorahs. The Jewish merchandise sold like hotcakes because no one else had anything like it. That was her something extra; that was why she had been a success. When everybody else started to show up with knockoffs of her best sellers, she’d have boxes of something new to roll out ready in the trailer.
If only it hadn’t rained the weekend before.
Ernie had his laptop hooked to the credit card machine. He handed Elsa the keys to the little safe behind her register table.
She settled in for the rush.
By ten after nine, the tide of customers lapped against the pilings of Elsa’s booth. She noted that they were overwhelmingly older women and their adult daughters. Predictably, the credit card machine was slow, and Ernie was busy taking manual imprints that they would enter into the computer later. The cash mounted up—twenties were piling up in the safe, which always made her nervous. She took checks, which was a risk: they cost her nothing to deposit, but inevitably someone would pass her a bad check and never make good on it. Then there were the credit card transactions where the bank raked off three or four percent.
Elsa went to the front of her shop, took a twenty out of her cash apron, and stood behind some customers at Saul’s Ol’ Tyme Candyman booth, her hopes set on dark chocolate fudge and anise bears. The woman ahead of her wore heavy make-up over a powder-white complexion, and was maybe forty—younger than Elsa by over a decade. Saul got to the woman, smiled his broad smile across his lean face, and said, “What can I get you dear?”
“Nigger babies!” she said. Her voice was nasal, and she pronounced her words as if her mouth were already full. “Two pounds! I haven’t seen nigger babies since I was a little girl!”
Elsa jerked her head around, terrified some brown person would hear the word and go berserk.
“Oh my god—nigger babies!” The woman got her bag of candy. The purple-black gumdrop bears glittered with clear crystal sugar, and the woman looked obscene as she slurped down two at a time.
Saul rolled his eyes at Elsa and said, “What can I get you, Elsie?” She didn’t let anyone call her Elsie, but she forced a smile because she liked him. He was dignified, Mr. Bingley in a yarmulke. “Hi Saul,” she said as loudly as she could. “I would like a pound of anise bears, please.” She turned a glare on the woman, who was wandering away, shoving candies into her mouth.
Saul shook his head and bagged the candy. “Sad thing, they really did used to call them that, some places,” he said. “It’s like this guy in Western Pennsylvania one time, he asks me if he can ‘Jew me down’ on twenty pounds of candy for the Little League, and he’s totally serious—has no idea, none whatsoever.” Elsa imagined slapping the blonde woman’s dirty mouth.
“Elsie, you hear the one about the professional crafter who won big in the lottery? She vowed to keep setting up at shows until the money ran out.”
She chuckled in spite of herself. “Business okay for you?”
“Yeah, you know, not what it was four or five years ago, same as everybody.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I sold a ton of American flag merchandise after 9/11, and fireman stuff went like hotcakes, but now I can’t give my stuff away at some of the shows.”
He bagged her candy, handed it across and said, “Well, ya know, what comes around.”
She smiled and noted that Saul put his candy in paper bags. It made the bulk candy into a piece of yesteryear. Nostalgia, Elsa repeated silently. Nostalgia, Nostalgia, Nostalgia. That would be her word. Nostalgia would describe her enterprise, what she hoped to bring into the world.
Back in her stall, she looked at one of the purplish gumdrops covered in crystals of sugar, thinking it didn’t look like anything, really. Not really a bear, and certainly not—she found herself about to think “nigger,” and she shut her eyes and tried to clear her head.
The afternoon brought a steady downpour of customers, and Elsa struggled to restock the displays and check people out. She got upset with Ernie for abandoning her, and the anise bears were making her sick. She needed to go to the bathroom, and felt an unpleasant thrum in her temples. Then, she saw a woman stuffing small items into a canvas shopping bag. The woman had an orange, fake tan, her nails were manicured, and she wore high heeled boots. First Christmas ornaments, then little sleighs with runners cut to look like reindeer, and then she was working on a Santa gourd, struggling to put it in the bag.
Elsa shouted “May I help you?” The woman got the gourd inside the bag and scanned the displays as if for her next purchase. She reached for a tiny handmade birdhouse with a realistic-looking bird (they were Malayan, made with real feathers), and began to slip it into her bag. Elsa grabbed the handles and pulled the bag off of the woman’s arm. “Thief!” Elsa shouted. “Thief! Security!”
The woman pulled harder. “Fuck off! Give it!” Elsa held on until the bag handles came loose, spilling merchandise into the aisle. The shoplifter turned and ran through the crowd, as bystanders picked up the trampled decorations.
An old woman put her hands on Elsa’s shoulder and gently said, “There, now, it isn’t so bad,” and Elsa realized the woman thought she was sobbing, so she did. The painted gourd was badly scratched and several less expensive items were beyond repair.
Ten minutes later, an enormous black man dressed like a park ranger was talking to Saul, who pointed him to Elsa. He ducked his head under the canopy and introduced himself in a drawl. “Hello ma’am, I’m Sergeant Watkins, head of the security detail. I’d like to ask you some questions, if that’s alright. Did y’all have a shoplifter?”
The crowds thinned out after four-thirty, as the Senior Center charters loaded onto their busses and headed to the nearest Morrison’s Cafeteria or Old Country Buffet. A middle-aged black woman was looking at the angels perched on the shelf, and a woman Elsa presumed was her mother wandered up to join her. Elsa thought how there were a lot more black people at the shows in Maryland. She was used to seeing Mexicans and Asians and Indians at shows in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but never so many black people.
The older of the two women pointed at the pale wooden ball that served as the head of one of the spool angels, and said, “Don’t you have any that are flesh colored?” She laughed a dry little cackle, and the tips of Elsa’s ears burned red. The paint was, in fact, labeled “Flesh Tone.” Unbidden, she imagined a tube of paint labeled “Nigger,” and hated the woman from Saul’s stand.
The younger woman said, “Don’t mind her,” and smiled warmly at Elsa. “I would like a few of these with—uh—brown faces. Do you do them that way?”
“I do,” Elsa lied. “But not here—I mean, I don’t have any left. Are you looking for any particular colors?” Elsa felt her ears get hot. “The dresses, I mean.”
“Burgundy would be nice,” the daughter said. “I like that dark green velvety-looking one, and I like the blue.”
“They’ll take whatever colors we get for them,” the older woman said brightly, and she cackled again.
Elsa smiled for real at the sound. The woman’s laughter swept her up. She didn’t want to hurry them—she didn’t want them to leave—but she had to pee.
Elsa left Ernie in charge of the booth and went walking, first to the bathroom, then to the van. She drove to an A.C. Moore they had passed on the drive in, and bought brown, white, and yellow paint in little plastic bottles, and little brushes. Black—no, African-American—angels! Her mind raced. Asian angels? Why not—a few anyway. She’d paint little lines instead of dots for eyes, and give them black straight horsehair wigs—she wondered if ying-yang halos would be too much, and decided to try a few and see how they came out. She wondered how to paint Mexican faces, wondered what elements she could introduce to appeal to them. She looked at some packages of little sombreros and decided they were tacky; if she were going to do it, she’d do it with more class.
In the trailer that night, parked in the fairgrounds lot with the vans and trailers of the other merchants, Elsa mixed various shades of tan and brown and Ernie painted six dozen wooden balls. She rejected the first black one he painted because the eyes looked garish and spooky and the pert red mouth obscene. She dug through the bag of yarn she used to make the hair, and experimented with a black wool with a shiny finish until she was satisfied that it looked as good as the blond and red-haired angels they would join on her displays. When they were ready, she replaced the heads of white angels with the brown ones. The wings and clothing were the hard parts; the heads and faces were pretty much interchangeable.
The next day, Elsa woke with the alarm at seven-thirty to the fragrance of Spanish moss and eucalyptus. She was fresh and wearing clean clothes in less than half an hour.
Elsa worked hard all morning, thinking about the brazen thief and all they had cost each other. As the charter busses rolled in they disgorged old women and their middle-aged daughters, fat husbands in plaid shirts, brown women in diaphanous shawls and dresses the colors of autumn leaves. Other merchants stopped by during the lulls, and people she’d seen at a dozen shows but never spoken with introduced themselves and offered their condolences, digging for information about the shoplifters; people seemed to think she had fought off a gang or something. They asked the same questions Elsa might have asked herself—Are you afraid? What all did they get? Did you see them? Were they, you know…?People looked disappointed when she told them it had been one white woman.
She spiced the story up by describing the woman’s expensive clothing. “Some people are so entitled!” the Candle Lady clucked. “It’s one thing to steal out of need,” said the man who sold wood carvings of Bellschnickel and the Krampus and all sorts of Santa Klauses from around the world.
The darker-complected angels sold like hotcakes, and Elsa’s worry and sense of loss lessened as the morning wore on. She bought the fudge she’d forgotten the day before, and Saul told her some grown women had been stuffing their faces with candy in line at the register, and had thrown their merchandise on the ground and stormed off when he’d made an issue of it. The husband of another vendor brought her a coffee from the concession stand. A woman who had lost her safe stood a fierce guard over Elsa’s stall while she went to the bathroom.
Later, the women from the day before returned to collect their angels. They saw the ones on the shelf and cooed their approval. The older one said, “You do have a talent, dear,” and Elsa beamed despite her rough morning. She excused herself, and retrieved the tote full of brown angels from behind the stall.
“I’m just crazy about them,” the younger woman said, turning a yellow-frocked angel in her hand.
“You know what I’d like?” the older woman asked. “I’d like a whole crèche of these. I don’t suppose you do anything like that.” Elsa was excited. She had over a dozen totes full of the spools at home, and she knew where she could get little wooden mangers. Nativity scenes would cost nothing to make, and she could sell them for over two hundred dollars each. Best of all, people who didn’t want to buy the whole crèche would buy angels as a sort of consolation.
She said, “I bet I could—I’ll give you my card, and if you want, I can call you when I have a picture to send you. It would be—I mean, it would be seven or eight people figures, some angels, and I could do some realistic stuffed animal type figures….”
The older woman said, “I’ll just make her pay for it.” She jerked her thumb at her daughter and cackled again.
The younger woman took a card from her wallet and handed it to Elsa. “Adelle Leonard,” she read aloud.
“I’m Elsa,” she said, holding out her hand, first to Adelle’s mother, then to Adelle. As they shook hands, Elsa noticed that Adelle had acne scars just like her, and she’d smoothed foundation over her face to hide them.
Behind Adelle and her mother, a pinch-faced old white woman and her daughter were looking at Elsa’s wares. Elsa noted how like each other the two couples were, and she missed her own mother, thinking of the church bazaars they’d visited together when she was alive. It dawned on Elsa that the younger white woman was the fat-mouthed one who had ordered nigger babies from Saul’s stand just as the pinch-faced woman’s gaze lighted on the shelf of angels and she said, “Pick-a-ninnies! Wasn’t I just telling you I was disappointed nobody had any pick-a-ninnies anymore?” She turned to Elsa, shouting past the two black women. “I got to have some of those pick-a-ninny angels!”
Elsa felt a hot pain in her throat and a burning in her eyes. The old black woman did not cackle. Elsa felt her gaze pulled to the fierce eyes of the younger black woman, but they could not look at one another. Elsa ignored the pinch-faced woman, smiled as warmly as she could, and said, “I’ll be in touch, Adelle. Is there anything else I can do for you?” Her mouth was dry, metallic.
“Hey, how many of the pick-a-ninnies you got?” the fat-mouthed woman said, still trying to push past the black women without seeming to see them. “My ma’s got pick-a-ninnies all over her house,” she chirped. “I had a gollywog doll when I was a girl I just loved to pieces.”
Elsa snarled, “They’re not pick-a-ninnies! They’re angels!” She looked at the two fuming black women, wondering if they would snap and start a fight, wanting them to. She would be on their side.
“Look, honey,” the pinch-faced woman said. “She has beaner angels—and chinks!”
“The chinks are cute, but I just love the pick-a-ninnies. You could get the chink one for Marcy as a joke. I wonder if she can make me a gollywog doll like I used to have.” The fat-mouthed woman turned towards Elsa, cradling the angels, her face lit with the pleasure of memory.
Elsa felt like a moth caught in a huge fist. Her breath was short and her eyes felt like they were bugging out of their sockets. She slapped at the fat-mouthed woman, sending the angel dolls flying. And then she felt like she was drowning, saw her vision turn red and then darken.
She woke at the center of a small crowd with Sergeant Watkins’ powerful hand touching her neck. There was something across her mouth and a hissing sound, and she realized she must be wearing an oxygen mask. Sergeant Watkins said, “You just take it easy, ma’am, I’m a trained first responder. You just lay back and they be here before you know it. You got the blood pressure?” Beyond the brim of the Sergeant’s hat, Saul smiled at her encouragingly.
“Thought so. I got the blood pressure too. We goin’ to send you to the hospital to be checked out. They gone to look for your husband right away. Candyman Saul is gonna watch your stuff—that okay?” She nodded a little. “You just relax, we gonna take good care of you.” She concentrated on breathing, worrying about what the hospital was going to cost, worrying about the sales she was losing as she lay there, worrying about the home equity line of credit, and trying to ignore the formless terror she still felt holding Sergeant Watkins’ hand.
~ ~ ~
A native of rural Pennsylvania, Michael Gerhard Martin holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and teaches writing for Babson College and The Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. He won the 2013 James Knudsen Prize from UNO and Bayou Magazine for his story about bullying and gun violence, “Shit Weasel Is Late For Class.” His fiction has been shortlisted for the Hudson Prize, The Nelligan Prize, and the Iowa & Simmons Prizes, and his work has appeared in Bayou Magazine, The Ocean State Review, Junctures, and on Salon.com. His first book, Easiest If I Had A Gun, was released November 3 from Braddock Avenue Books www.BraddockAvenueBooks.com.