A Moment in the Sun
Deborah S. Prespare
Deborah S. Prespare
Deborah S. Prespare lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell College and received an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Cadillac Cicatrix, Diner, The MacGuffin, Marathon Literary Review, North Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, Prospectus: A Literary Offering, and Red Rock Review.
It was a chilly night, especially for Florida. In the Crown Convenience Store, an oasis of fluorescence in the back-road darkness of Fort Myers, Brenna, her almost-white blond hair falling loose from her ponytail and casting a fine veil over her saddle-brown eyes, sat behind the counter, bent forward on a stool, focusing not on her words but on just getting the assignment done, her history book open, her research notes from the classes Mr. Morton held in the library scattered in front of her.
Above her the store lights hummed. Occasionally a car would crunch by on the crumbling, barely lit road. Those sounds and the whirring of the coolers and her pen scratching against paper were her usual nighttime soundtrack. She worked at the Crown five—sometimes six—nights a week. They needed money. And it worked out because it was a pretty easy job, a quiet one, a lot more quiet than home, so she could use the time to get all her homework done.
She always did what was asked of her—her homework, her chores. She never wondered about the "why" behind the assignments, though. Each task she did for completeness, not for understanding. Her mother had taught her that the doing and the not-doing was what mattered—do the dishes, do the laundry, don't hum, don't ask questions.
She hurried through three paragraphs on her essay about James Polk, appreciating how quiet the night was. Some nights, if her two usuals—Mrs. Gates for her cigarettes and Old Joe for his cup of coffee—didn't make an appearance, she was never disturbed. She thought it was going to be one of those nights. With the temperature barely clinging to fifty, her elderly regulars had decided to forgo their nighttime stroll, she was sure. Almost two hours into her shift and not a single customer.
But then the electronic chime above the door chirped. Brushing her loose hair behind her ears, Brenna stood and put her pen down. A couple, dressed in nice clothes—dress shoes, dress slacks—a charcoal pea coat on him and a coral, belted parka on her—stepped inside and went directly to the coolers in the back. Out-of-towners. No one wore heavy coats around here. Once in a while people like that would drop in. A lost couple. Maybe visiting aging relatives or a dying parent. There was a lot of aging and dying happening in Florida.
Through the convex security mirror mounted on the ceiling, Brenna watched them. The man, following the woman's direction, picked out two bottles of water. He said something. Tossing her head back, her thick, brown hair bouncing against her shoulders, the woman laughed. He kissed her cheek and they approached the counter.
Trying not to be obvious, Brenna studied the woman as she rang them up. The woman smelled nice, clean, like soap—nothing flowery or too perfumy. She wore only a simple gold band on her ring finger, no other jewelry and, similar to her lack of accessories, she wore little makeup. Unlike most women Brenna had grown up around, it was as if this woman knew exactly who she was and felt no need for embellishments. And, unlike most couples Brenna had seen, the man in this relationship seemed to be the one in need. Brenna never understood it, how women, at least around here, wanted nothing more than men to depend on, to get lost in; and when the men left, moved on, the women fell apart, like her mom. The woman standing in front of her now, Brenna was sure, was never going to fall apart because of someone else.
"Doing homework?" the woman asked, her lips, painted a subtle red, a perfect frame for her perfect teeth.
"That's good." Glancing around the store, the woman leaned in closer to Brenna. "Don't ever let anyone convince you otherwise, sweetie—hard work, that's all it takes to get you anywhere."
Smiling, the man paid and reached for the woman's hand. Brenna watched the two of them leave. Clearly not from these parts, the man held the store door open for the woman, then the car door too.
Interrupting her thoughts about the woman, about what she'd said, who she was, what she did—she was probably a doctor, a woman with an important job, Brenna was sure—two guys in ratty jeans, faded hoodies, tattoos on their necks and hands, threw open the door. Brenna didn't pass judgment—this was how most young men around here dressed, behaved. The two went to the ATM and cursed at the machine, at each other. They picked out a six-pack of beer, showed her their IDs when she asked, paid her, made a crack about her books, and then left, the tires of their pickup squealing out of the parking lot.
Then she was alone again and, a few minutes later, it started to rain. Heavily. Watching the rain streak against the windows, Brenna recalled a story she'd read once. She couldn't remember the title or who wrote it, but it was about a little girl living on a rainy planet who wanted to see the sun so badly, and on the one day when the sun was going to make an appearance, the girl's classmates locked her in the closet.
Thinking about that story, Brenna's throat ached. She couldn't remember if these descriptions were part of the story or not, but she imagined how it must have felt in that closet—stuffy, dark, the smell of mildew. She imagined the little girl crouching down, tilting her head, her cheek against the cool tile, so she could see under the door and maybe catch a few drops of sun through that small crack.
Brenna sat up, her breath escaping her. Me and that girl—we're the same.
Trapped and trying to see the light outside. Seeing that woman, her confidence, Brenna understood now that there were people who got to see the sun and, understanding that, Brenna, for the first time, realized that she was trapped in her own kind of closet.
But that woman said hard work could get me anywhere.
It wasn't the first time Brenna had been told this. Teachers were saying things like that all the time. But this was the first time someone who wasn't trapped herself had said it, and the words had sounded completely different to Brenna's ears.
She read the first paragraph of her essay. Nothing extraordinary. She crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash. She'd never get past the things in her life that were like those bully classmates—her mom, them being poor—she'd never taste what it was to be more, to see more than the little bit of light shining underneath the door if she didn't work harder. The thought bolted through her, made her skin tingle.
That woman did it, stepped right out into the sunny world, and there was no reason she couldn't too. She thought about James Polk, an often overlooked President, in her opinion. If it wasn't for Polk, Texas onward to the Pacific might not be a part of America today. She thought about the impact he'd made, about the shape of her first sentence, and then, with deliberate precision, she began to write again.
The rain had stopped, the chill had thickened, but Brenna, happy, didn't notice her breath in the air. Her essay, tucked away safely in her backpack, was complete, and she thought it was possibly the best thing she'd ever written. Humming, she walked down the gravel road that looped through the trailer park and jogged up the cinder-block steps to their trailer.
When she opened the door, her mom was in her usual state: sprawled on the couch in front of a blaring TV, half-dressed, snoring. A box of wine lay on its side on the cluttered coffee table. On the floor red wine, pooling around the lip of a fallen plastic cup, stained the linoleum.
Brenna quietly set her backpack down. After she cleaned up the spill, she turned off the TV and pulled the afghan up and over her mom's shoulders. It wasn't until she was about to turn off the lamp that her mom stirred.
"Leave it on," her mom grumbled.
Brenna hesitated. She looked down at her mom, whose wine-branded lips had pulled open with a snore. Worried about their electric bill, she chanced it and turned off the light and stood, holding her breath, in the dark.
Her mom kept snoring.
Brenna got ready for bed then. Trying not to think about how she only had five hours for sleep, she burrowed under her covers, and the next thing she knew, her alarm was ringing.
Two weeks later, Mr. Morton asked her to stay when the rest of her classmates, at the sound of the bell, had sprung from their seats. Gripping her backpack straps, balancing on the outsides of her feet, Brenna stood in front of Mr. Morton's desk.
"Your homework assignments—I've noticed a change, Brenna. A good one. And your essay on Polk—it's exceptional."
Brenna's cheeks burned. "Thanks."
"But I can't give you an A on it." He took off his glasses and polished them with his tie.
Brenna's throat started to burn now too.
"The essay was supposed to be typed."
He slid his glasses back on. "So, why didn't you type it?"
"I don't have a computer."
"That's not an excuse. You could have used the computer lab."
"I have to be at work after school."
Mr. Morton sat back, his wood chair creaking. "I need the essay typed. So I can give it the A it deserves, and so I can submit it in the state essay contest on the Presidents."
Brenna looked up.
"It's that good, Brenna." He scratched at the bald strip on the top of his head. "There are a few spots where I think you can be clearer with your arguments," he said, pulling her paper from a stack on his desk. "I marked where I think you can dig a little deeper."
Thank you, Mr. Morton."
"But it has to be typed." He drummed his fingers against the desk. "If I can get them to open up the computer lab thirty minutes before school starts each day, will you come in and type your paper—all your papers—then? Would that work with your schedule?"
Brenna, not caring about losing another thirty minutes of sleep, nodded.
Mr. Morton got the school to open the lab early. He even served as the lab monitor. Brenna wasn't the only student who made use of the computers then. She came in every day, typed up all her homework, and there was always at least one other student, a person like her who understood the secret of hard work, using the computers too. Brenna polished up the weak spots Mr. Morton had noted in her essay and got her A. Although she didn't win the contest, she placed third, earning a certificate of recognition.
Her mom never asked about the certificate hanging in her room. And, having developed the habit of only speaking to her mom when necessary—to tell her about the bills, what groceries she was planning to get—Brenna didn't bother telling her about coming in third.
Besides, the praise she'd been getting from Mr. Morton and her other teachers was praise enough. And now that Mr. Morton was giving her access to computers, she felt like her writing and studies could be taken even more seriously. She spent the next few weeks typing away, liking the feel of the keys giving under her fingers, the sounds they made—tap, click, tap, click—almost like how a soft rain on their trailer roof sounded.
Rain, that little girl. She'd looked up the story on the Internet. It was by Ray Bradbury, and Margot was the little girl's name. Margot had missed her day in the sun, but Brenna wasn't going to miss hers. She worked even harder now, asked her teachers for book recommendations; and she read them all, not just to get them done, but to understand them.
She had time to kill, after all, at the Crown, and what better way to kill time than self-improvement.
Old Joe, his vitiligo patches creamy white on his arthritic hands, stirred sugar into his coffee. "I had the weirdest dream last night, Brenna."
Brenna listened even though she was itching to get her algebra homework done.
"I had my blanket and things set up on the beach, and I went for a dip. You know, to cool off." His hand shaking, he took a sip. "That's good coffee."
"Thanks, Mr. Franklin."
"Now you know better. Mr. Franklin was my pops. I'm just ol' Joe."
"And Brenna, I tell you—when I went back to my blanket, there was this big guy—and I mean big—big tall, super muscles—you know what I mean?"
"This guy was kneeling there, next to my blanket, and you know what he was doing?"
She shook her head.
"This man, he had two handfuls of sand, and he was pouring this sand right into my shoes. Now, I went up to him. If anything, old age makes you confident. You don't have much time left to be all scared and polite. You know?"
She nodded again.
"So I marched right up to him, and I asked him—why are you putting sand in my shoes, son? You know what he said to me?"
"He said—politely, now—that he didn't know what else he could do. Now isn't that the darnedest thing? A man thinking the only thing he can do is put sand in someone else's shoes?"
"That is a strange dream."
"It's like a puzzle. It's got my mind working. It's good to do puzzles. Especially at my age. Got to stay sharp. Like you, with all your studying. I bet you're getting straight A's."
Brenna, blushing, smiled. "Almost." She hesitated. "Guess what, Joe."
"I placed third in a state essay contest. About Presidents." She didn't know why she blurted that, but it felt good finally telling someone.
"Is that right?"
"Your momma must—" He hesitated and cleared his throat. "She must be proud."
She bit the inside of her cheek. "She is."
"That's real good, Brenna," he said, pressing a lid down on his cup. "I better let you get back to your studying then. You've got great things in store for you. I can feel it in my bones. And believe me, old bones feel everything. Every step, every ache."
Chuckling, he gripped his coffee and hobbled out the door and through the parking lot, his gray windbreaker billowing behind him. When he was out of sight, Brenna returned to her algebra homework. She got through her math and, saving the best for last, she started her history assignment.
It was near eleven when three guys showed up. She set down the book on John Adams she was reading. College guys, she guessed, here for spring break and, by the sour smell of alcohol that had followed them into the store, having a good time, it seemed. One of them grabbed a case of beer. The other two picked out snacks—potato chips and jerky. She wondered what school they went to, what they were majoring in.
"John Adams, huh?" the guy with the beer said when he set the case down on the counter.
She nodded, avoiding his bloodshot eyes. "I need to see ID."
"Yeah. Okay." He pulled an ID out of his back pocket and flashed it at her.
She didn't get a chance to see the date, but she didn't want to ask him for his ID again.
"Hey," he said to the other guys when they came to the counter. "She's reading about John Adams."
"A smart girl, huh?" The one with the black T-shirt leaned over the counter, spied her algebra textbook, her notebooks, and pens. "Like studying?"
"We like studying too," he said. "Don't we, boys?"
The three of them laughed.
Brenna hesitated. In her two years working at the Crown, this was the first time she'd ever felt unsure. Reminding herself that people weren't as bad as the news and the shows on TV would have you believe, she stood taller, pushed back her shoulders, lifted her chin, and looked at the guys straight on, like how she imagined that woman would have.
"That'll be nineteen dollars and thirty-one cents," she said.
The guy with the bloodshot eyes tapped the third one, the one with a rugby shirt. "You got this?"
"Yeah." He pushed up his shirt sleeves and pulled out his wallet and handed her a twenty. "You're one of those girls, aren't you?" he asked, cocking his head to the side. "The kind that doesn't look like much, but fix up the hair a little, put on some makeup, maybe different clothes, and you'd be sort of hot."
The other two chuckled.
Brenna's hand froze in the change drawer. She lost count and started again with the pennies.
"Don't worry about the change," he said, putting his wallet away.
Brenna shook her head and slid the coins across the counter.
"Don't mind him," the guy with the black T-shirt said. He straightened the collar on his friend's rugby shirt. "He's totally in the closet. He likes to dress pretty and watch those makeover shows. Don't you, Hayes?"
"If anyone's gay, it's you. Always touching me and shit."
Laughing, they punched each other's arms, grabbed their beer and snacks, and left the store. Brenna looked at the change they'd left behind. Sweeping the coins up, she thought about dropping them back into the till, but the store owner—Mr. Lee—he didn't like to be off, not one cent, even in the positive direction, because that meant a customer had been shortchanged.
So she put the coins in her pocket. When she picked up her book to resume reading, she caught her reflection in the strip of metal trim hugging the lottery scratch-off dispenser. She looked at her heart-shaped face, wondering if that guy could have been right. Could a new hairstyle, nicer clothes, make her look different, maybe like how that woman had looked when she breezed through the store a few weeks back—completely at ease with herself?
Brenna undid her ponytail. She shook her hair free and looked at her reflection again. No improvement. Just a mess of hair crowning a pale face. Sighing, she pulled her hair back, tighter this time, picked up her book again, and read a page before realizing she hadn't been reading at all, that instead she'd been wondering if maybe eye shadow—just a subtle touch, like that woman's faint makeup—could make a difference.
She could experiment a little. Trying never hurt. A guy, a random stranger, saw something in her. Maybe she had to try something different with her looks to complement her new attitude toward things. With tomorrow being Saturday, she could see what money she'd saved, figure out what she could spare, and catch the bus to the mall before work. Excited about shopping, about the potential for further transformation, she smiled and made herself refocus and was able to finish two more chapters before the late-night shift guy showed up.
Stepping outside, first a cold mist coated her, then, after maybe ten steps, the mist turned to rain, fat drops of it that refracted the lights of the trailer park in the distance, giving them vaporous halos. She trudged through the cold wet, her backpack heavy on her shoulders, and thought about shopping. She thought about Abigail Adams too, about how John Adams was lucky to have her, that maybe without her, he'd have been nothing nearly as remarkable as history made him out to be. In fact, thinking about Abigail Adams, Brenna concluded that it was a good time for a woman to be alive now. Mrs. Adams today, she could be President herself. She didn't need a man at all. And if she wanted new clothes, she didn't have to worry about making them herself or commissioning a tailor. With no wait, she could get whatever she needed all in one place, right at the mall.
Yup, it was a great time to be a woman.
She laughed, but then, at the corner, the rain began to hurt, sting her face, and she realized that it had turned to hail, small, hard pellets, the sound of them hitting the trailers like pennies tossed on cymbals. The wind picked up. She didn't have much farther to go. She began to jog. A tree branch snapped, fell just feet from her. The small pellets were bigger now. A piece of hail, like a fist, hit her shoulder. She cried out.
Wincing, she pulled her backpack off. As she tried to lift the heavy bag over her head for protection, a baseball-sized chunk of ice struck her forehead. She swayed, stumbled toward the cinder-block steps leading to their front door.
When she lost her balance and fell, she heard it more than felt it, the crack of her head against a step. She could make out the light bleeding under the door, through the windows, and she willed herself to sit up, but she couldn't. She closed her eyes and tried to lift herself up again.
But her cheek fell back to the cold, wet step.
"Mom," she whimpered, not able to remember when she'd last said "mom" out loud. Lying now in the cold rain and hail and wind, willing her mom to the door but convinced that, no matter how loudly she yelled, her mom wouldn't come, a memory flashed through Brenna, a good memory, one she'd forgotten completely.
She was four. Her mom had walked her to the store. It wasn't called the Crown then, but it was the same building, same counter, same coolers. Her mom bought her an ice cream sandwich and she'd scarfed it down and asked for another. Laughing, her mom got her another sandwich, and together they walked home slowly, so Brenna could take her eager bites.
Remembering that afternoon, the feel of her mom's hand squeezing hers, Brenna wondered if her mom would have been proud if she'd told her about her essay. For someone outside looking in, their life—a drunk and a kid in that trailer—would have seemed terrible. Brenna knew, though, that their lives could have been much, much worse if her mom was truly a bad person.
Maybe all this time her mom had been infected not just by alcoholism, but with what Brenna had before, what she was still recovering from—the disease of insignificance, a disease, because she had felt so small, Brenna hadn't even realized she was suffering from. She'd gotten lucky, seeing that woman, getting a taste of potential, a jolt out of ordinariness. What if all her mom needed was a jolt too?
Her throat tightening, tears streaming, she tried moving again.
"Mom," she cried out louder and watched for the shadow of her mom's footsteps under the door.