A Single Step

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Asian

“Patrick, could you please go downstairs and bring up a case of peaches from the storeroom,” the short haired Asian woman behind the counter asked. “I need two cans for Mrs. Velazquez.”

“Sure thing, Mrs. C,” the blonde haired teenager said as he stopped stacking the shelf he was working on and headed for the basement stairs.

Less than two minutes later, Patrick Kerrigan returned from the basement with a small cardboard box in his arms. A quick slice with the box cutter he always carried in his pocket took off the top of the box and he placed two small cans on the countertop.

“Thank you, Patrick,” Lynn Chen said as, after adding the cost of the canned fruit to the bill, she added the last items to the large paper bag along with the rest of her customer’s order.

“I’ll put these on the shelves after I finish with the soups,” Patrick said as he returned to the task that had been interrupted.

As she handed the Hispanic woman her change, Lynn thought again how lucky she had been the day five months ago when Patrick had walked in off the street after seeing the help wanted sign in the window. She never had to ask him to do anything twice and most times, he anticipated what needed to be done before she did and just went ahead and did it.

-=-=-=-

Two years earlier, Lynn had inherited the small grocery store from a great- uncle who had passed away with no closer relatives. Despite Mr. Chen’s loudly expressed desire to turn a quick profit from the unexpected inheritance by selling both the business and the two-story building that had come with it, Lynn had refused to do so. In her eyes, the marginally profitable business was her chance to finally have something that was totally hers. Her husband of nearly twenty years wasn’t happy with her decision, but that had hardly been the only thing he’d been unhappy with of late, at least as far as his wife was concerned.

Philip Chen and Mei-lin, as she had been known back then, had been married in 1958, just a month after she’d passed her eighteenth birthday. Less than a decade before, her family had fled mainland China following the collapse of the Nationalist government with little more than the clothes on their back. Despite his being fifteen years her senior, Mei-lin’s parents saw Philip as a quite suitable husband, especially since his family was already established in the United States, with all the opportunities that might entail. At the time, her own opinion in the matter hadn’t been deemed important enough to be solicited.

Still, she had been raised to respect the wishes of her parents and so she married the man they had chosen. Ten months later, much to the delight of her new family, she presented her husband with twin sons, healthy boys to carry on the family name.

Most of the eighteen years since then had been spent raising those sons, during which time Lynn had also managed to educate herself in the customs and language of her new country. As her sons progressed through the various grades, she was able to get a good practical education that filled in the gaps in her own formal schooling.

None of which seemed to ever matter to her husband, who devoted most of his time to the restaurant he had started with his family’s help. An endeavor that proved so successful over the years that he was twice able to expand it. What attention he did give his still young wife was always centered on his desire to have more children, but after years of trying, it eventually became obvious that the difficult delivery of her twin sons had left Lynn unable to carry another child to term.

By the time her sons had grown to maturity, relations between the couple had devolved into a marriage in name only. Lynn eventually suspected that her husband now sought sexual gratification with some of the young girls that worked in his restaurants. Recent immigrants, his sponsorship had been one of the factors that allowed them to enter the country.

Therefore, when the grocery store had fallen into her lap, Lynn had leapt at the opportunity, despite her lack of business experience. Luck was with her, however, in the form of the two older men who actually ran the business for her great-uncle. They agreed to stay on for a few months while she learned the business.

Working seven days, and in many cases nights as well, Lynn learned just about everything she needed to know about running the store. In fact, she went so far as to practically move into the small three room apartment above, spending more time there most weeks than at home. Her confidence in her abilities grew monthly so when her instructors eventually decided that it was time for them to go, she met their announcement with far less trepidation than she might have originally imagined. What she hadn’t realized at the time was that outside forces would soon erode the confidence she felt.

Realizing that she couldn’t continue to pay the salaries that the two men had been earning, Lynn instead looked to hire a teenager that Casibom would be willing to work for less. Posting a notice at the local community center, she was certain that she’d have no problem finding suitable help. In fact, only a day later she had two young men apply for the position. So eager had both of them been, she had been hard pressed to pick between the two. In the end, she had just gone with the one who had applied first.

Then, to her surprise, the boy she hired quit after only a few days on the job with absolutely no explanation. She was even more confused when, after calling back the second young man to tell him the job was his if he still wanted it, a similar tale ensued. Over the following weeks, it quickly became a pattern as every applicant, no matter how eager they had been in the beginning, quit during their first weeks. One even walked out as soon as he discovered that he would be working for a woman. That seemed quite strange behavior for anyone in 1978.

Her suspicions had been aroused, however, when one of the applicants had slipped and referred to her by her Chinese birth name, which she hadn’t gone by in a number of years. That she had taken on an American name when the boys had started school had been one of the first points of contention between her and her husband. That he had long ago done so for business reasons didn’t seem to matter. In fact, since he was one of the few people who still called her Mei-lin, it made her wonder if he had anything to do with the rash of reluctant workers.

Sure enough, it turned out that Philip was indeed behind it, steering away most anyone who might be interested in the position as well as chasing away anyone who actually showed up to apply. After two weeks of working totally on her own, Lynn’s confidence had begun to give way to despair.

Then, just as she was beginning to think that she would have to give in to his desire to sell her inheritance after all, in walked Patrick Kerrigan off the street to enquire about the help wanted sign she had forgotten about putting in the window weeks before. The teen had recently moved in with his grandmother following the death of his mother. His father, Lynn would later learn, had walked out on his wife and two sons soon after Patrick was born.

Before that day, Lynn had never considered that she might look beyond the local Chinese community for help and now she felt quite short sighted for thinking that way. Still, she also felt she was obligated to warn the tall, at least to someone who was only five foot one, young man that going to work for her might cause him trouble. The athletically built teenager had been unfazed by the warning and said he really could use the job. Reluctantly hiring him, Lynn also told him that if events changed his mind, she would understand. Events that took only a few days to unfold.

Lynn had been watching through the store window that morning as two local teens approached Patrick when he crossed the street on his way to the store. She recognized one of them as the boy who had known her birth name; Philip Wu had been his name. Fearing that violence was their intent, the older woman started to head outside to try to prevent it. She’d only gone two steps when she saw the boy she’d recognized grab Patrick’s arm when he tried to just walk past him and his friend.

To both her and the Chinese boys’ surprise, her new employee executed a self-defense move that left Philip flat on his back on the concrete sidewalk. Patrick quickly turned to face the second boy, but he had quickly decided that he didn’t want any part of what was happening and ran off. Once his partner was back on his feet, he seemed to decide that as well, taking off in the same direction as the first.

When Patrick walked into the store a few moments later, he didn’t even mention the altercation until Lynn brought it up, saying that she had been watching at the window. The teenager shrugged his shoulders and said it hadn’t been a big thing. When Lynn said otherwise, adding that he could’ve been hurt, Patrick replied that his older brother had been with the Rangers in Vietnam and had shown him a few moves.

That incident proved to be the last of her husband’s harassments since he was unwilling to go beyond simple intimidation. Especially after he learned that Lynn had been so upset by what had happened that she’d gone and consulted a divorce lawyer to see what exactly her rights were if she chose to go in that direction. That had led a worried Philip to promise not to further interfere in any of her business affairs. Eventually they worked out an understanding between themselves, which included her moving into the second floor apartment full time.

Over the weeks and eventually months that followed, Patrick proved himself invaluable to Lynn in running the store. Even working just part time, he did almost all of the work of the men he’d replaced. He even came up with an idea or two that actually increased business. It wasn’t long Casibom Giriş before the relationship between the two of them changed from simply employer and employee to, if not friends, then at least co-workers.

In light of that change, Lynn had several times asked Patrick to call her by her first name instead of the more formal Mrs. Chen that he always used. After all, they were barely a generation apart. The problem with that was that his mother had raised him to always call his elders by their last name and try as he could, it just didn’t feel right to do so. Eventually, however, he managed to come up with a compromise, one inspired by characters on his favorite sitcom, and started calling her Mrs. C instead.

Also during those months, Lynn discovered that Patrick was having great difficulty with math in school. So much so that he was in serious danger of not graduating at the end of the semester. Acting more like a concerned parent than simply a co-worker, the Asian woman took on herself the role of tutor. Capitalizing on the experience she’d gained with her sons, both of whom were now away at college, Lynn put aside part of every day to go over with Patrick whatever had been covered that day in class. In the end, the tutoring made the difference and he graduated with a grade that while not outstanding was at least passing.

Previously, the young man had no real plans beyond graduation other than finding a permanent job. Now, with her help, he had applied to the City University for the fall semester, a change that pleased both Lynn and his grandmother. Until classes started at the end of the summer, he also began to work at the store full time.

-=-=-=-

No more than ten minutes after Mrs. Velazquez had left, what had been a clear mid-summer sky began to darken. Along with the unexpected clouds, the late afternoon breeze began to increase in intensity. The weather report on the radio news had forecast possible early evening thunderstorms but it looked like they’d missed the target by a few hours.

On seeing the change in weather, both Patrick and Lynn quickly ran out of the now empty store to gather up the collection of potted plants and other small items that were displayed on wooden racks outside. Experience had taught them that storms like the one now building tended to play havoc with such things if left exposed. Last year, a particularly intense wind had lifted a plant and slammed it against the store window, cracking the glass. Since then, Lynn had learned not to take chances.

Quickly they gathered all the paraphernalia into a couple of milk crates that they used to transport and store them in at the end of the day, carrying the boxes inside. Lynn was about to step back out on to the street to roll back the overhead awning when a brilliant flash of lightning filled the sky, followed seconds later by a booming crack of thunder that heralded a tremendous downpour.

“Standing outside with a six foot metal rod probably isn’t the best of ideas right now,” Patrick said as he placed his hand on her shoulder, thinking that she might still actually go out there.

“I guess you’re right,” Lynn agreed as she watched another bolt of lightning arc across the sky, hoping that the now angry wind didn’t damage the awning.

Together they stood there for a minute, watching people run for cover from the heavy rain. Once the street was deserted in every direction, with none of the pedestrians inclined to grace their establishment, they turned their attention to housekeeping tasks that there was never enough time to fully take care of.

As intense as many of these summer storms tended to be, they were also usually short lived, playing out their violent fury in a very short span. In the end, this one proved to be no exception as barely twenty-five minutes after it had started, the rain began to dwindle down to a trickle.

As soon as the first patches of blue began to reappear in the sky, Lynn was out the door to check on any damage. She didn’t get more than a foot outside when she came to an abrupt stop.

“Oh, oh, that can’t be good,” she thought as she looked up at a large water filled depression in the center of the canopy.

The force of the downpour had been such that instead of simply running off the edge of the awning, it had pushed the material inward, forming a bowl shaped indentation. As more water filled the bowl, the increased weight caused the material to sag even more until it hung almost a half foot lower than it was supposed to.

Lynn turned her head toward the open door, intending to call for Patrick to bring out a long broom that they could use to lift the bubble and let the water run off the side. Her mouth had just started to form her first word when it was cut off by the sound of tearing cloth as the overstretched material finally gave way. Down came the equivalent of a two-gallon bucket, soaking the woman from head to toe.

Hearing the disturbance, Patrick dropped what Casibom Yeni Giriş he had been doing and rushed outside. Presented with the image of a very drenched Lynn, water pooling around her on the sidewalk, the young man couldn’t help bursting into laugher.

At first, Lynn didn’t see the humor in the situation and greeted his laughter with a scowl. Then she realized what she must look like and also laughed at herself. In fact, she laughed so hard that she didn’t realize at first that Patrick had abruptly stopped and was now just staring at her instead. A glance down at her chest told her the reason why.

The heavy soaking had not only turned the loose fitting blouse she wore into one that hugged the contours of her body, but had also rendered it practically translucent. Clearly visible were the outlines of her breasts, the small, pert nipples of which poked out against the wet material. With tiny breasts that had held firm over the years, Lynn often went without a bra, especially during the warmer months, when doing so felt a lot more comfortable. She’d never had a problem with in until now.

Her face flushed with embarrassment, Lynn rushed past Patrick and into the store. By the time he followed her, she had already closed the door to her small office where he knew she always kept a change of clothing. When she emerged fifteen minutes later, toweled dry and wearing a fresh outfit, Lynn proceeded to go about her business as if nothing had happened.

-=-=-=-

A few hours later, after the store had closed for the day, Lynn sat alone in her small apartment. Most days, alone was exactly how she spent her evenings. Occasionally, she would make a trip to the community center if there were some event of interest going on, but those brief outings were becoming less frequent of late if for no other reason that they served to drive home the fact that she was still married in name only. Try as she sometimes wanted, she just couldn’t bring herself to take that final, irrevocable step to sunder the vows she had taken.

That she and Philip now led separate lives was hardly a secret to those who knew the both of them. The way most of the married women at the center looked at her whenever she engaged one of their husbands in conversation attested to that. That those conversations usually centered on business advice didn’t seem to matter. The same women who used to be her friends now looked upon her as a woman who no longer had a husband, and worse, was younger and still attractive, something that not many of them could say about themselves.

That Philip, in the absence of his estranged wife had for all purposes moved a girl young enough to be his daughter into his home didn’t seem to be as much of an issue. True, he hadn’t been that public about it, but still some people knew. And of those people, his closest friends kept their silence, even as they shared knowing smiles filled with envy.

“As if I would be interested in any of their husbands,” Lynn thought as she sat in her favorite chair, a glass of wine in her hand and an unwatched game show on the television. “Most of them would just be as bad as Philip, some even worse.”

Still, it had been a long time since she’d enjoyed marital relations and truth be told, she did miss it. Even what had passed as sex between Philip and her was usually better than the solace of her own hand.

Taking another sip of wine, Lynn reflected that it had been the incident with the soaked blouse this afternoon that had caused her to dwell on her lack of a sex life. Try as she might, she couldn’t erase from her mind the look on Patrick’s face when he looked at her practically exposed breasts. For the first time, she felt he was looking at her as a woman and not simply someone he worked with.

All through the rest of the day, Lynn could feel his eyes following her around the store. It didn’t matter that she had self-consciously put a bra on when she changed clothes, she knew he was looking. Or at least she thought he was watching, it could just have been her imagination she reminded herself. But if she was only imagining it, was it because she was hoping he was looking?

Getting up from the chair, she walked over to the hanging mirror on the wall and looked into her reflection. On her last birthday she had turned thirty-nine, but thanks to good genes and a sensible lifestyle she didn’t look like a woman nearing forty. Nor did she look like the young girl that had stood in front of the minister two decades ago either, but she would settle for looking somewhere in- between.

Her short hair, cut about an inch above her neck, was still deep black, without a trace of grey. Both her mother and grandmother, she recalled, had been like that so no surprise there. Her breasts, while small, were well rounded and as her ability to go braless attested, quite self supporting. Weight wise she had never been more than a hundred and ten pounds in her life. Most men, she knew, would still consider her an attractive woman.

What she lacked, she knew, was experience. If she ever did have the determination to go through with the divorce, what then? Did she even know how to get another man? Or would she spend the rest of her life alone as she was now?

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