Her name was Maria and she was beautiful. A woman knows. That primal sense of competition kicks in and you recognize that even if you had just stepped out of the beauty salon with flawless hair and makeup, wearing a designer dress, men would turn their heads and look, not at you, but at Maria.
I was working at The Gap and Maria had come in looking for a job. The store manager hired her right away; I’d bet she didn’t even have to fill out an application, let alone piss in a cup. She was that kind of beautiful.
She wasn’t model gorgeous. For one, she was just 5’2” without heels, and she rarely wore heels. She wasn’t model thin either, resembling a peasant woman—curved, solid, and strong—from Italy or Mexico. When she introduced herself she rolled the r like wind before a storm, but her last name didn’t offer a clue as to which heritage her ancestors claimed. As if she spent her days searing in the hot sun in a field of tomatoes or grapes, her skin was a deep, rubbed maple.
I too am short, brown, and kind of heavyset, but I would never be described as beautiful in spite of my cute dimples. Maybe it was my hair—short-cropped and curly—that made the difference. Maria’s hair was long, thick, dark, and wavy, with small tendrils curling at the ends like tassels on velvet curtains in a dark, old-fashioned theater.
The rest of the crew and I bet that Maria would be one of those who only pretended to work a shift. That type would avoid approaching customers, take an hour to organize a single shelf of jeans, and spend most of the time off the floor in the breakroom.
She wasn’t like that, and I lost ten dollars I didn’t have on that bet. Maria did pull her weight, and she was friendly. She came in to cover for someone else on her day off. Twice. One day, I walked into the breakroom to see everyone laughing about the affectionate nicknames she’d assigned people. For example, she called our newest sales associate “Lift” because he had once helped her lift a box of shirts which needed shelving. The regular stock boy was called “Dump” because he’d bring stock out and dump it for someone else to empty and arrange. I didn’t get a nickname.
Maria was in graduate school studying art history so that she could catalog pottery and preserve old paintings. No wonder—Maria reminded me of one of those carvings found in old Spanish mission churches in the pueblos of New Mexico. She radiated joy, peace, and resolve, as if she were a lunette of her holy namesake come to life.
It was clear she wouldn’t be staying at The Gap long. There are two kinds of people who work retail: those for whom it was a temporary stop on the way to something else, or those who had few other options. As expected, Maria was in the first category; she was hired at one of the smaller museums after she earned her degree. I’d thought I was in the ‘temporary stop’ group, but after three years, I’m still here.
My ambition was never to be a Gap store manager. I went to college, graduated too, with a degree in government and politics, and interned with the Department of Education for two summers. My career plan was to get a permanent slot with the agency following a month off to travel across the country or across Europe—I’d left that part flexible—then I’d start my stable and reliable government job.
I did take a road trip to California with one of my sorority sisters. She’d gotten money for a graduate fellowship at USC in animation, and carried a sketch pad with her at all times. We drove along the top route, I-90, crossing the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Along the way, as was my habit, I picked up trinkets and souvenirs. From Wall Drugs in South Dakota I slipped a refrigerator magnet into my pocket. It’s rare that I see my name, Delaney, Del for short, on a key chain, so when I saw one in a shop outside of Salt Lake, I took it. At a gas station in the Nevada desert, the clerk was focused on the soccer match on Univision. It was easy to step out with a new pair of sunglasses on my nose, a bag of chips, and a soda in my hobo-style purse.
In the car, I pulled out the bottle, opened the bag, and offered my friend, Victoria, some. She said she hadn’t seen me at the counter, and asked if I’d paid for my snack even though she already knew the answer. I shrugged, buckled up, and pulled off.
We were listening to eighties rock on Pandora, and while Annie Lennox sang, I watched while Vic sketched a pair of masks, one with a grotesque grin, and the other with a tear, her way of wrestling with her revised image of me. In school, I was the last person to break a rule. I was the one who was trustworthy and dependable, and had hand sanitizer, breath mints, and Kleenex available at all times.
“Did you forget?” she asked.
I shook my head.
We reached Pasadena and I haven’t heard from her since. She even dropped me from her Facebook and Instagram accounts. I console myself that I still have my collection of curios to remember the trip.
I flew back to DC and started working at the Department of Education, on a six-month contract. I’m sure I would have had my contract extended except for the blue bird paperweight that once sat on Mira’s desk and now rested on the found-on-the-curb-in-McLean coffee table in my studio apartment.
On my last day as a clerk for the Special Education division, the tension in the office was as thick as a three-day heat wave. This was surprising because with Congress on recess, there really wasn’t anything going on. People stared glassy-eyed at their computer screens, and sleepwalked through the day, languid like Beltway traffic on a holiday weekend. I’d shut down my computer and cleared my desk, when the boss, Mr. O’Connor, buzzed my desk phone and asked to see me in a voice that signaled defeat.
“Del,” he sighed. “Things have gone missing around the office. If it were only one or two people who’d mislaid money, I would dismiss it. Doris said forty dollars was taken out of her purse a few days ago, even though she’d locked her drawer.”
Doris spent a lot of time in the bathroom and those desk drawer locks were a joke.
I should have apologized and explained, but the words struggled in vain against the hairball of fear and shame in my throat, feelings I hadn’t experienced since the first time I’d taken something that didn’t belong to me. I remember holding onto the front of the shopping cart while my mother unloaded groceries onto the conveyor belt. The candy bar floated into my shorts’ pocket, and fell out when we reached the parking lot. My mother marched me back inside to return it and apologize to the store manager.
I couldn’t look Mr. O’Connor in the eyes, so I focused instead on the upper right hand corner of the ceiling, between the cracks of plaster layered with decades of lowest-bid contract repair. Amidst the dirt and dust and mold, a spider was weaving her web. The skim-milk colored strands glistened in the shadows of the web like dew in dawn’s mist.
Mr. O’Connor, who’d been with the department for over 25 years, droned on about how disappointed he was. He suggested that maybe I could talk to a professional about my “issues.” He knew I wasn’t eligible for EAP—employee assistance program—benefits, but did I know I could still call the hotline? He encouraged me to do something before my petty thefts ruined my life.
Then he walked me back to my desk and watched while I gathered my few personal items. Time slowed as I lifted each one—a tube of lotion, floss, a travel sized bottle of mouthwash, and a nail kit—and heard the soft plop as each landed in the bottom of a small, faded Macy’s shopping bag.
With no job, I considered going back home to Philly. I missed my nephew, Benjamin. My sister was an interior designer and she had decorated his room with a Winnie the Pooh theme. The last time I had visited, as I rocked Benjamin to sleep, I counted all the Poohs. There were twenty. Framed illustrations of Christopher Robin, Roo, Piglet, and Tigger lined the walls. Stuffed Poohs of all sizes, a Pooh bank, plastic bath toys of all the animals in the Hundred Acre Woods, and tiny brown velour Pooh slippers added to the total. I didn’t think Dawn would miss one, but she’d found the crystal figurine—complete with a sapphire blue honey pot—tipped out of my bag when she came into the guest room with fresh towels. Dawn texts me every once in a while, to check if I’m ok, but I don’t think I’m welcome to visit anymore.
I didn’t want to leave DC anyway; I had settled in. I knew my way around DuPont Circle, and looked forward to the Cherry Blossom festival each spring. I couldn’t imagine skipping my lunchtime walks along the Potomac. My life wasn’t ruined. I had never had any trouble getting hired. I presented well in interviews. I was friendly and eager to please. I was confident that something in another agency would open up.
After my meager savings ran out, I joined the team of helpful, friendly associates at The Gap. I didn’t make much, so to supplement my nine dollar per hour income, I got a second job as show labor at the convention center checking peoples’ bags. Nearly everyone keeps track of the money in their wallets, but they forget the money they stuff inside pockets of purses and briefcases. Those small collections added up quickly over the course of an eight to ten hour shift. Like the Christmas season in retail, my tax-free takings made all the difference.
I wore a uniform of khaki pants and a screaming yellow polo shirt, yet in it, I was invisible. No one looked closely at me. Menial labor only serves as a backdrop, furniture staged to sell a house. I didn’t need the all-black attire synonymous with thieves on television dramas. My uniform was also my costume. When I was in costume, my real self disguised, I believed I was someone else. It’s exciting, being behind a mask.
At the end of a very profitable shift, I walked to the Metro for the long trip to the end of the Orange line, and passed a CVS.
Most stores in DC have a security guard at the entrance and mirrors and video cameras throughout, but there are still weak spots. After years of working retail, and numerous times picking up toothpaste, hair oil, and other sundries, I knew where these uncovered sections were. I’d slipped a tube of lipstick in my bag when I saw Maria.
“Hi Del! How have you been?”
I was surprised she knew my name. “Great.” I moved to walk past her. “Nice to see you.”
She stepped to block me and smiled.
I knew she’d seen me take the lipstick. I waited to see if she, like Vic, was going to ask.
She looked me in the eye. “I think I’m catching something. Or, it could be my allergies. Either way, I need some relief.”
I stared back. “I think the Claritin is in Aisle 7.”
“Thanks. Good seeing you.” She turned to walk away and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Then, as if she’d forgotten something, she came back. “We should get together sometime,” she said taking out her phone.
From then on, she texted me every once in a while. We’d go to lunch, talk about movies we wished we could afford to see on the big screen, or hang out on the Mall blending in with the tourists. When I was with her, people noticed me, for a moment. Then their eyes would turn away and I was dismissed. But, in that brief amount of time, I no longer felt lost. Maria was my lighthouse.
Late in the evening, midweek in August, Maria called and asked if she could come by. She had never been to my place, nor I to hers. I gave her the address and when the bell rang, I buzzed her up. At the sight of her, my first thought was to call 911 for help. She was disheveled; her bright yellow skirt twisted so that the zipper was in the front. Her white shirt was splattered with red dots as if someone had flicked blood onto it. There was a streak of blood on her forearm. More frightening was her face. It was stretched out as if she had witnessed something terrible and was caught mid-scream.
I led her to the couch where she sat down, trembling. From the back of the sagging sofa I pulled the afghan and draped it over her shoulders.
“Yes,” she whispered.
I didn’t know which one she was saying yes to, so I put the kettle on and brought her a glass of tap water. She gulped as I asked, “What happened?”
“I ruined it.”
I’d learned in some management training course that when people are freaked out, the best response is patience; it takes time for them to come out of it. The kettle whistled. I brought her a cup of tea laced with Johnnie Walker I’d had in the apartment since my last boyfriend from two years ago. I sat and silently counted. When I reached 63 she told me.
The spots on her shirt and slash on her arm didn’t come from blood; they were paint.
When she described the painting, a small rendition of the Madonna by some obscure artist, I could picture it in my head. The image was faint and blurred, not at all like the clear memories from my art appreciation elective of the Mona Lisa or a Jackson Pollack.
I didn’t understand why she was so upset. The way I saw it, she’d made a mistake on her job. She could get fired and that was bad, but she would find another job, and, I told her, she could always go back to The Gap. I said this hoping she would laugh.
“You don’t get it, Del,” she said as if I were a small child and not nearing thirty, like she was. “The art world is very small,” she demonstrated by making a tiny gap between her thumb and index finger. “If anyone finds out about this, I’ll never work again.”
“Maybe you could do something else.” I’d thought I would be setting up meetings between a Congressman and his constituents, or part of his advance team for speeches. I’d read somewhere that people had seven or eight careers in their lifetimes.
She shook her head, set the cup on the coffee table, and took a deep breath. “I need a favor.” She grabbed my arm. “I need your help,” she said.
Although I had heard of it before, it had never actually happened: a chill traveled up across my chest, down my other arm to my fingers which felt like frost was teething on them. Maria’s hand brushed mine and my body tensed. Her touch was like clothes from a dryer, warm with static. That was why I had always been interested in Maria; she exuded excitement like heat on a blacktopped road in July.
I rose, took the cup back to the sink, and grabbed my phone to check the calendar. I knew I was off from both jobs but the tasks gave me time to think. If the piece was in a museum, even in the basement, it had to be valuable. I had never taken anything that prized before.
“It won’t be hard, Del,” Maria said to my back. “All you have to do is carry out a package.”
I turned. Maria had picked up the blue bird and stroked its glass tail feathers. “One I didn’t have when I came in the door. Why can’t you do it?”
She shrugged and placed the bird back on the table. “The security guard won’t notice you.”
She was right. Next to her, I may as well be invisible.
“Trust me.” She stood, moved towards me, and held out her hand.
“Ok,” I said and shook it. This time there was no static, though a soft warmth lingered.
The next day, I met her at the museum’s employee entrance. Because Maria had her badge and key card, we weren’t searched, at least not for a 400-year old painting. Just as she described, the outsourced security guard had been hired to look for someone bringing a bomb, or a gun inside. He gave Maria’s badge a cursory glance and wrote out a visitor’s pass for me.
We took the elevator down to storage. Maria gave me the backstage tour; I pretended to be impressed, asked a few questions, took a few notes in the resume portfolio I carried. She had instructed me that when she gave a signal, all I had to do was go to the restroom and get the painting out of the trash can. I liked that part because from the moment we had entered the building, I had had the urge to pee.
The painting was small, wrapped in tissue paper. I slid it into the portfolio. We rode the elevator back to the main floor and left the building, Maria waving to the guard. Once outside, we walked up 10th Street towards the Convention Center.
We didn’t say anything about what had just happened. Then, at that same CVS where I’d run into her months ago, Maria stopped and took the portfolio from under my arm. Then she kissed me. On the mouth. No tongue, but she lingered, and I felt her breath on my lips as she pulled away. It reminded me of when my grandmother would blow on my scraped knee after wiping it with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball.
We stood there for a moment. Then Maria thanked me, and walked away. Wobbly and disoriented, like I had stepped off of a carnival ride, I took a deep breath. Then, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and continued to the Metro.
I don’t know why Maria wanted me to carry out the painting. Every once in a while, I look over my shoulder for a movie star bad guy to arrest or shoot me. Other times, I convince myself that what Maria had told me sitting on my couch, drinking oolong with a shot of scotch, had been the truth.
After I refused a few shifts, the Convention Center temp agency stopped calling. I gave the requisite two weeks’ notice and quit The Gap. I joined the staff of a well-established congressman, setting up meetings with his constituents, responding to emails, getting coffee, running errands.
I’d been a phantom floating through my life. Now, I was exposed and energized. I had been playing peek-a-boo with myself. Now, I had tired of the game.
Months later, Maria called and suggested we get together for brunch. It was a beautiful day with the kind of blue skies and mild temperatures that are appreciated because spring is near. She’d named a restaurant on the street level of a converted brownstone around Foggy Bottom. Inside an entire wall was mirrored. I sat facing it, smiling, my dimples deep, and waited.