The Thrift Shop

by Robert Boucheron

     Wednesday morning, as she walked Jasper around the block, Louisa’s feet still hurt. I am limping, she thought. If I traipse the streets this way, I will end up with blisters. The first order of business is to see about some sensible shoes.
     Louisa folded herself into her trusty Corolla and headed to the Thrift Shop. Run as a nonprofit, with the proceeds earmarked for charity, the shop occupied a dingy storefront in the Strip. Appearances could be deceiving, however. Those in the know checked regularly. They emerged now and then with incredible finds—designer labels, crystal, fine china—all for pennies on the dollar.
     Vernita Swank, the manager, met her at the door. With short, gray hair and a trim figure, she wore a matching skirt and jacket, gray with white piping, like a uniform. A military wife, she had absorbed the habit of command and the vocabulary. She called her dedicated squad of lady volunteers her “troops.” The sales floor was “the front line,” the donated merchandise was “supply,” and so on.
     “What brings you here so early in the day?” Vernita said.
     “Walking shoes.” Louisa resisted an impulse to salute.
     “We just got a fresh supply of shoes and boots, including some pumps to die for. Follow me.”
     “Nothing fancy,” Louisa said, threading her way through racks of clothes and trying not to look. Shopping was not on the agenda.
     “You are on a mission,” Vernita said.
     “When I said walking, I meant hiking . . . or marching. I need a shoe with support.”
     “Are you hiking the Appalachian Trail?”
     “I might as well be. I’m interviewing people for the newspaper.”
     “You are pounding the pavement. Style is not the primary objective.”
     “No, but I would like to avoid something truly hideous.”
     “What have we here?” Vernita held up a pair of clunkers with cleated soles and laces up to there.
     “Those look like army boots.”
     “They might be. We get a lot of military surplus. It’s popular with the young. No, I don’t see you as punk. What else can we dig up?” Vernita pawed through a pile of shoes of every kind and color, from strappy gold sandals to black high-heeled boots. “What size are you hoping for?”
     Louisa did not find this question odd. The issue of women’s shoe size is complex and capable of shades of interpretation. For one thing, the number stamped on a shoe is merely a suggestion. Manufacturers differ, and there is no consistent standard. Then again, the actual dimensions vary. Women’s shoes expand and contract with environmental conditions like the delicate organisms they are.
     “Just because your foot measures ten inches from heel to toe,” Vernita said, “that does not automatically condemn you to a life of clodhoppers. Take it from me. Leather stretches, we all know that.”
     Louisa spotted a brown shoe with a discreet rubber sole, lightly worn, buried in the pile. She grabbed it. It was the left shoe.
     “This looks like it will fit. Surely the right shoe must be here.” She knelt to scrabble in the pile while holding on to the brown object.
     “There it is,” Vernita said, pointing.
     Louisa seized the right shoe as though it might dart away.
     “Good catch. Try them on.”
     Louisa slipped off her dress shoes, the ones that gave her so much trouble the day before. The brown pair had thin laces, quickly done. She stood and paced. Low heel, a firm arch, and easy on the toes.
     “They’re a little loose,” she said.
     “You could wear socks. Anklets or something cut below the ankle.”
     “That’s an idea,” Louisa said. “The cushion sole is nice.”
     “Like walking on a cloud. Those shoes would blend with any ensemble. If you’re going for camouflage, no one would look twice.”
     “I’ll take them.”
     “May I interest you in a matching bag, perhaps something in burlap?”
     Both women laughed.
     “Not today,” Louisa said. “You know, I think I’ll wear them out of the shop.” She picked up her other shoes to tuck into her handbag.
     “We might have some socks to give you. Let me check.”
      Vernita returned with a pair of dainty, embroidered socks, something a younger woman would wear, someone who dared. Louisa made the change.
     “How is that?” Vernita said.
     “More comfortable,” Louisa said, rocking a little in her new footwear.
     “Quite a new look for you. But you carry it off.”
     “I knew this was the right place.” At the checkout, Louisa dug into her purse. “My article is on Ralph Willis, the musician who was killed. Did you ever meet him?”
     “Oh, yes. He came into the shop many times.”
     “He did?”
     “Not for what you think. He wasn’t a cross-dresser. Though we do get the occasional drag queen in here, shopping for plus sizes. They buy their own wardrobe, and they do amazing things on a tiny budget. Miss Lilac Arugg explained it to me. She performs at the Catharsis Café. Have you ever been to a drag show?”
     “No.” Louisa smiled politely.
     “Willis came for knick-knacks and furnishings, things for the home. Once, he found some authentic Victorian stoneware, and from then on he was a regular. He even helped me value some figurines. I’m always on the lookout for an expert opinion.”
     “So you chatted. Did you get to know him?”
     “Not terribly well. Our conversation was limited to objects. He had a sharp eye, and he drove a hard bargain. I don’t like to haggle, which might be seen as a drawback in the retail business, but Willis always tried. It got tiresome, to tell you the truth. I began to wonder if he did it on purpose to annoy me. I manage fifteen hundred square feet and a dozen volunteers in shifts, and I don’t have all day to dicker over prices.”
     “All the items are tagged.”
     “Which is good enough for most people, but not for him.”
     “Did he rub anyone else the wrong way?”
     “Enough to rub him out?”
     “That sounds extreme, but yes. He was shot.”
     “On one occasion, he got into an argument with Ernie Watkins. Ernie has a collection of antique toasters. He shops here for old kitchen equipment.”
     “What did they argue about?”
     “As I remember, it was some iron gadget like a fork. They both wanted it, though they couldn’t agree on what it was. Willis thought it was a tool for shaping fabric, and Watkins thought it was for searing food.”
     “Who got it?”
     “Watkins. He works at Shakewell Hardware. You might find him there.”
     “Thank you so much, Vernita.” Without meaning to, Louisa straightened up and snapped her heels together. The rubber made a dull thump.

ROBERT BOUCHERON is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website His academic degrees are Harvard B. A. in English, and Yale M. Arch. His stories, essays and book reviews appear in Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Cossack Review, Digital Americana, Harvard Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Outside In Literary & Travel, Poydras Review and other magazines.


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