by Steven Cuffari
Helena stood in the aisle along the fragrance counters at Gacy’s department store. She held a bottle of perfume out in front of her. She was a beautiful girl with brown hair and pale skin in her late twenties.
“It’s beautiful for autumn,” she said offering a whiff to a man passing by. He looked at her confused and waved no to her. She sighed and frowned then smiled at the next passerby who ignored her. She looked over at Sandy, her co-worker, to see what she was doing.
Sandy, also brown-haired and light-skinned, but in her early twenties was saying goodbye to a customer, handing him a bag and a receipt. She quickly picked up her perfume sampler, the same one as Helena’s, and ran up to a man and grabbed his attention.
Helena watched as Sandy skillfully convinced another customer to buy the perfume. Helena sighed and went back to work.
Later, when there was a lull in customers, she went over to Sandy. “You’re so good,” she said.
Sandy pivoted her head and pursed her lips. “Don’t worry, you’ll get better.” She smiled.
“I’ve been here for six months. They’re going to fire me if I don’t sell more.” She frowned.
Sandy laughed. “They’re not going to fire you. I won’t let them.”
Helena smiled. “You’re just saying that.”
“Nope, I’m serious. I wasn’t that good six months ago when you started.”
“But you were only here for two weeks. It’s not the same.”
“You’re right. It’s not the same. Everyone’s different. Some people take two weeks to get good, others take six months.”
“Charlene got fired after two months. What about her?”
“See? Like I said, everyone’s different. And Charlene was different, trust me. It’s even different for me. Who knows, I might get fired tomorrow. You never know.”
“You don’t really believe that,” said Helena.
“Nope. I can’t afford to.” Sandy winked at her and gave her a sneaky smile.
Just then Sandy spotted Mr. Berkkman coming. She pointed at him with her face and walked away. She darted over to a man and began a sale.
At first the man said no, but with a few more words from Sandy, he nodded and she brought him over to the counter.
Helena continued to watch Sandy for a moment and then went back to work. Mr. Berkkman came over to her as she weakly tried to grab customers from the aisle.
“Helena?” asked Mr. Berkkman. His voice was cold and trebly. It sounded almost like a machine. She often wondered if Mr. Berkkman actually was a cyborg.
“Yes, Mr. Berkkman?” she asked.
He stood next to her along the aisle and watched the traffic. He pointed back at Sandy. “Be more like Sandy,” he said and nodded.
Helena looked over at Sandy wrapping up a box for her customer and then looked back at Mr. Berkkman. Helena stood up a little straighter and gave an enthusiastic smile. “Yes, sir,” she said.
Mr. Berkkman smiled, nodded again and walked away.
When Helena saw that he was completely out of earshot, she burst into laughter.
Sandy heard Helena’s laugh as did several customers, and she couldn’t help but smile when Helena looked over, still laughing. Sandy gave her the thumbs up and pointed at the customers who were stopping to watch her laugh.
Helena offered perfume to them, and they scattered away. She was disappointed as usual that no one would talk to her, but she still felt giddy.
Even though she continued to smile all day, she didn’t sell a single perfume.
In the staff room, Helena put a towel around her waist and took off her work pants, exchanging them for more fashionable black jeans. She pulled off her work shirt and buttoned a red blouse over her t-shirt.
Sandy sat on a chair in front of her in her underwear. She put on blue jeans and a gold sweater. By the time Sandy finished putting on make-up, Helena was still brushing her hair.
Sandy stood next to her and watched.
“You know, you should put on some eye shadow and blush. But you don’t need lipstick. Your lips are so red,” said Sandy.
“My parents were the same. I guess it runs in the family,” said Helena.
“Do you want some color then?” Sandy pulled out a blush compact.
Helena put her hand out over the blush. “No, no. I don’t really like make-up, it brings too much attention.”
Sandy pulled out a red lipstick and put it on. “That’s the point.” She winked at Helena and smacked her lips.
“Don’t get embarrassed,” Sandy said. She looked at her wristwatch. “Listen, what do you say we go out dancing tonight? Just the two of us.”
“I don’t know.”
She acted like she was begging. “There’s so much I can show you.” Sandy smiled and took Helena’s hands. “You know you want to.”
Helena groaned. “Ok, but just to one club. For one hour.”
Sandy groaned back at her. “Two hours.”
Helena couldn’t help but laugh at Sandy. “Fine.”
“Yes!” She looked at her watch again. “I’ll text you later.” Then she was gone.
At the club later on, Helena and Sandy had no problem getting in. They were both wearing little black dresses and accessories all over their hands, feet and necks. Sandy darted into the club and dragged Helena along.
“This is so amazing!” she exclaimed as they entered the first floor of the club.
“It’s so loud,” shouted Helena.
“I know, isn’t it great?”
Helena winced as a steady stream of clubbers flowed past them.
“Yeah it’s great,” she replied. Finally, they let the crowd pull them toward the first dance floor where they were playing Creedence Clearwater to a techno beat.
Sandy cheered and threw her hands up as Helena followed close behind trying in vain not to step on people or drop her phone. Sandy grabbed her by the hands and spun her around despite the impossible lack of space around them. Somehow, people managed not to crash catastrophically into one another. It was a perfectly systematic chaos.
The Creedence Clearwater went on for twenty minutes. When it finished, Sandy grabbed Helena and dragged her to the bar.
“That was amazing!” Sandy exclaimed and hugged Helena. “I love that song!”
“That was like five songs,” said Helena.
Sandy laughed. “Whatever, now I’m thirsty. What are you drinking? My treat.”
“I’ll take a Crew Republic IPA,” replied Helena.
“So you drink! I thought you were going to order a Drew Berrymore or something.”
“I drink. Wow, do I seem that bad?”
“I was just joking.”
“I’m not that goody-goody. Trust me.”
“Well, I can’t wait to hear more then.” Sandy winked and smiled at her. “I’ll be right back with those drinks.”
Helena stayed out of the flow of clubbers and watched the endless swarm of thronging partiers. A tall, bearded man wearing aviator sunglasses and ripped jeans passed by and looked back at her. He stopped for a moment and lowered his sunglasses to get a better look at her. He smiled. Helena noticed his beautiful brown eyes and looked away. She didn’t want him to think she was interested in him, so she began to look through her cell phone. He was wearing ripped clothing, and his shirt looked dirty. He was a hippy. After a few moments, she looked back up from her phone, and he was gone. Relieved, she stood on her tiptoes and scanned the bar. She saw Sandy and waved.
Sandy was holding two beers in her hands and was listening to a man in a suit speaking into her ear. She was nodding and smiling and spoke back to him.
Helena was about to go over, when Sandy finally noticed her waving. Helena mouthed Hello! at her and threw her hands in the air meaning I’m waiting for you here. She waved for Sandy to come over. Sandy said something to the man in the suit and rushed over.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Here, take these for a second. I’ll be right back.” She thrust the beers into Helena’s hands and they almost spilled on her feet.
“I’m sorry!” shouted Sandy as she rushed back over to the bar. She smiled and gave the thumbs up to Helena. In the next moment, Sandy disappeared into the crowd as did the man in the suit.
Fuck, thought Helena. She sipped her beer and looked around the club again.
A girl came out of the bathroom barely able to walk a straight line and wiping bits of vomit off of her mouth. She went up to the bar and tried to get the bartender’s attention.
A muscular guy with a small belly danced maniacally for his friends and ripped off his shirt, throwing it into the garbage. They grabbed and pushed each other and disappeared into the crowd.
Helena sighed and looked at her wristwatch. She took another sip of beer, this time bigger. She kept an eye out for Sandy, but by the time she finished her own beer, Sandy hadn’t come back. She took out her phone and texted her. She waited a few minutes for a response, but she got nothing.
Fuck, she thought again.
Then she saw the dirty hippy guy coming right at her.
Double fuck, she thought.
Helena tried to ignore him even though it was obvious that she saw him coming over to her. Then he was standing right in front of her, and she couldn’t ignore him anymore.
“Hey, my name’s Tim. What’s yours?”
Helena tried not to groan. She forced out a smile and looked into his eyes. He was good-looking, but she was not interested. “Can you hold this for me for a second? I have to go get some air.” She shoved the beer in his hand and it spilled onto his Converse sneakers.
“Shit!” he shouted.
“I’m sorry!” she shouted and rushed out. “Fuck,” she whispered to herself. She ran through the cordoned-off lobby of the club and pulled her cell phone out of its pouch. She dialed Sandy.
No answer. She paced back and forth and kept on calling. Soon, she went across the street away from the noise emanating from inside the club.
Finally, she got an answer.
“Sandy?” she asked. Without realizing it, she stopped right next to a dark alley.
“…please leave a message,” said Sandy’s voicemail.
“Fuck,” she whispered. She dialed Sandy again, but before she could put the phone up to her face, someone smacked it out of her hand and pushed her into the alley. Before she was able to see who it was, she was falling. She reached her hand out toward the wall to catch herself, but it was too late.
She bloodied her hand on the wall and landed on her ass in the darkness with a thump. “What the–” she said. When she looked up, she recognized her attacker as the dirty hippy. “You asshole,” she growled.
“You fucking bitch, who do you think you are?”
Helena tried to get up, but he pushed her down a second time and joined her in the dark alley. She tried one more time to get up, but this time, the dirty hippy watched her before attacking again.
The brief moment was enough for her to grab a piece of broken red brick and smash him across his face with it.
The dirty hippy’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he crumpled to the floor. His entire body weight landed on his leg, pinning it behind him. It looked broken.
Helena got to her feet and looked down at her assailant. She was surprised at what she had done and how good it felt. The dirty hippy was completely unconscious for a few moments, and then he began to groan and twitch.
Helena dropped the brick by her side and bent down to pick him up. She dragged him deeper into the alley and dropped him next to a sewer cap. She thought for a moment what to do next, and then she crouched down and slid the heavy iron lid open. She lifted the dirty hippy’s body over the manhole and dropped it down. She watched as the body sailed through the fetid air that came out from below. The darkness was impenetrable, but she heard his body break with a soft, satisfying thump at the bottom.
Helena took a deep breath and dusted herself off. After sliding the sewer cap back into place, she found her phone, picked it up and called Sandy.
“Helena? What happened? Where are you? I was only gone for a second,” said Sandy.
“I’m going home, Sandy. I’m sorry. Are you coming with me?” Helena said.
“No. No, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll make it up to you…”
“Okay, don’t worry about it,” Helena said. “See you at work tomorrow.” Sandy’s voice trailed off as Helena pressed the power button on her cell phone and put it back in its pouch. She sighed and crossed the street, back toward the club which she had to pass again to get home. A group of three passed her going in the opposite direction. One of them looked familiar. She turned around, watched them pass and saw that it was the girl that she had seen wobbling out of the bathroom earlier. She was flanked by two football-player-looking men that were holding her up, helping her walk. She was still very drunk. Helena followed them.
She wasn’t close enough to hear what they were saying, but the two men were laughing and seemed to be speaking to the woman as if she were conscious, which she wasn’t. Helena kept to the shadows behind them as they headed toward a parking lot. The lot was half-full, and Helena was able to get closer to them by crouching and hiding behind cars on the way. Soon, they stopped at their car. One of them held the woman up against the door while the other got in on the driver’s side. Helena could now hear every word they said.
“Come on, put her in the backseat,” said the guy in the car.
“What was her name again?” said the other guy.
“I don’t know? Crystal? Who cares? Get in.”
“No wait, give me a second,” the second guy said. He lifted her skirt and ripped her panties off with one yank.
Helena’s heart sank. She stood up and rushed over to the guy. “Hey,” was all she said.
“Who the fuck are you?” he said. He let go of the girl, and she slid to the ground.
Helena walked up to him, balled up her fist and planted it right where the guy’s jaw joined his neck. He was surprised at her strength, but only fell to one knee. Helena didn’t waste time and hammered his face to the ground with one more swift punch. She was already on her way over to the other guy as he was getting out of the car. He didn’t have a chance to say much as she grabbed the door and slammed it against his chest. The top of the door hit his throat, and he wheezed all the way to the ground where he lay twitching.
Helena went over to the girl to check on her. She looked bad. Her eyes were rolled back in her head and some white, foamy fluid was drooling from her mouth. Helena called an ambulance. As she waited for it, she found a large sewer drain and dropped the bodies down in it. Each time, she waited for the satisfying thump at the bottom. When she was finished, she waited with the girl until the ambulance arrived.
The next day at work, Helena was back in her aisle at the department store holding a bottle of perfume out in front of her. A man stopped in front of her and began to speak, but she didn’t notice him. She was replaying last night’s events over and over in her mind. She smiled when she remembered what the paramedic said to her. She’s gonna be alright. Thanks to you.
“Nevermind,” said the man in front of her, annoyed.
“Excuse me. What? Would you like to buy some perfume?” she asked, but he was gone. Helena looked over at Sandy who had already sold ten perfumes, and it wasn’t even lunch. She groaned.
Someone cleared their throat behind her. She knew it was Mr. Berkkman, and she slowly turned around to face him.
“Yes, Mr. Berkkman?”
“You can put that down.” He took the perfume from her and set it down on some display shelving. “Please come with me.”
She followed him to his office, and they sat down at his desk.
“I have to let you go, Helena.”
Helena sighed, but didn’t frown. “I understand,” she said with a smile.
He began to explain to her what would happen next, but she zoned out and thought again about last night.
“And that will come in the mail,” said Mr. Berkkman. “Do you have any questions?”
Helena snapped out of her trance. “Oh. No, Sir. Thank you. Can I go now?”
Mr. Berkkman nodded. “Take care, Helena.”
“I will, Mr. Berkkman,” she replied and left his office.
Helena got her things from the staff room and went to Sandy to tell her the news and say goodbye.
“No! I’m sorry, Helena. I wish I could have helped you more,” said Sandy.
“It’s okay, really. You have been so great. You did help me. Actually, more than you can ever know,” Helena said.
“Well, good luck finding a new job. You’ll find something good, I know it. Maybe this type of work just isn’t for you,” Sandy said.
“Well,” said Helena. “Maybe you’re right. I just have to find something I’m good at.” She winked and smiled at Sandy, and then she was gone.