Here is a short story I wrote that has just been published by Kallisto Gaia Press in the Ocotillo Review…
The day before Valentine’s Day, Lah kicked off her shoes in the tiny back office of the fabric store where she worked. She leaned back in the computer chair, eating jellybeans for comfort. Lah’s boyfriend Milo had recently broken up with her and she was feeling so alone. True, they’d only been dating for three months, but she’d given him her heart.
It was good to be by herself today without Mrs. Johnson, the owner, breathing down her neck. The store was small and it had been in the Haight for ages, with narrow aisles between the rows of colorful material. It never got too busy. Lah blinked, staring wide-eyed at the computer screen, one photograph of Johnny Mathis fading into the next while he sang It’s Not for Me to Say. Off-key, she sang along with him.
Lah had discovered Johnny Mathis through her aunt who played his records on an ancient hi-fi set with removable speakers. Over the past few weeks, she’d fallen in love with his songs. She didn’t care if he was a 1950s pop idol. Lah liked old people, old clothes, old things, and she often felt as if she’d been born into the wrong decade. On the Johnny Mathis website, it stated that his was the voice of romance. That was true, she thought. His voice was like nothing she’d ever heard before. It was like the sun shining on her. It was like everything good she could think of.
The bell tinkled as someone stepped into the shop. Lah kissed her fingertips and pressed them against the screen, swinging her long legs onto the floor.
“Can I help you?” she asked, striding toward an older woman standing near the button cabinet. The woman’s gray ringlets formed a halo around her head and the dark circles beneath her eyes gave her a creative look, as if she stayed up nights working on a tragic novel where the heroine died a violent death at the end.
“I’m looking for some new buttons to jazz up an old dress of mine,” the woman said, and pulled a red shirtwaist out of a shopping bag. As the woman draped it over her body, Lah fell in love with its stand-up collar and elbow-length sleeves. It was a red vintage dress right out of the 1950s. Covered buttons started at the collar and continued all the way down the full skirt.
Lah privately was delighted in this woman’s sense of style. She had gotten so tired of waiting on people with crummy taste. “That’s one terrific dress. I think I’ve got something you might like,” she said, using her best salesperson manners. Behind the woman, through the storefront window, Lah could see the gray foggy day, the hustle and bustle of the street, shoppers with shopping bags hooked over their arms, bags filled with Godiva chocolates and other Valentine’s Day presents, she was sure. The scene made her sad.
Lah rummaged around in the little unit drawers of the button cabinet until she found what she was looking for. “How about this?” she asked the woman, holding up a red glass button with a gold filigree design.
Taking the button, the woman inspected it and lay it against the dress. “I’m flying to New Jersey in a month to see an old friend,” she said. “I plan on wearing this to an oldies but goodies concert we’re going to in New York City.”
“Oh, you’re like me! You’re into singers from the past,” Lah said. “I love Johnny Mathis.” She looked down at her floral print dress that matched the pink barrettes holding back her dark curly hair.
“There will never be another Johnny,” the woman said, smiling, and Lah nodded in agreement. Johnny Mathis had opened Lah’s heart. When she listened to Wonderful, Wonderful, the song softened her into a tiny candlelit glow where before there had only been darkness.
“Actually, now that I think of it, it may have been this very dress that I wore to see him years ago when he performed in San Jose,” the woman said.
“You wore this dress to see Johnny Mathis?” Lah reached over and touched it, reverently stroking the fabric.
“Yes, things were way less casual then. You actually got dressed up to hear your favorite teen idol. Not like today,” the woman said.
Lah regained her composure, admonishing herself for getting too personal about the dress. “Oh, well, this must have been a perfect dress for such an occasion.” She stood up straight and cleared her throat. “Um, where did you sit, if I may ask?” What she really wanted to know was whether the woman had gone with her boyfriend, and had they been in love? Had he pressured her to have sex with him?
“We had great seats. I sat fairly close to the stage. He’s from here, you know.”
Lah swallowed. “He’s from San Francisco?”
“That’s what I’ve heard, although I’ve as yet to run into him.” The woman laughed. It was a bright little note that floated through the air. Again, Lah looked out the window at the gray day. What would she say if she ran into Johnny Mathis on the street? Would she even be able to get her mouth to work?
“Did you like the way he sang?” Lah asked, trying to be casual, as if a line existed that people drew around themselves and Lah needed to be careful not to step over hers.
“Yeah, I did. I guess we all did.”
“Let me give you some other choices to consider,” Lah said, hoping to detain the woman so she could squeeze more information out of her. “You know, buttons can definitely make or break an outfit.” Opening more drawers, she picked out red buttons studded with diamonds, red buttons trimmed with black, red buttons with wavy edges, four-holed buttons, two-holed buttons, ladybug buttons, buttons shaped like hearts.
Lah lined them up on the counter for the woman to see. “Did you have a favorite song of Johnny’s?”
The woman toyed with a few of the buttons, alternately holding them up to the dress. “I’d have to say I like his older songs, like Chances Are and Misty.” She picked up the heart-shaped button and eyed it closely.
“Oh, I love Misty!” Lah gushed. “I’ve memorized the lyrics to it. It’s so romantic, not being able to tell your hat from your and glove. I mean, could you ever imagine having that effect upon someone where they got that confused? They wouldn’t know what hit them.” She doubted she’d ever have that kind of power over anyone, but she longed for it.
The woman laughed, but this time Lah felt foolish, as if she was laughing at her. “Listen, honey, when you get older you won’t want all that drama,” she said. “Believe me, it gets to be too much.” She placed the heart-shaped button back on the counter. “You know, I think I like the first ones you showed me the best. Do you have enough of them? I would need twelve, but let’s make it fourteen to be on the safe side.”
Lah checked to see how many buttons of this sort she had. “I’m just wondering, did Johnny’s songs have a certain impact on you?” she turned and asked the woman. “When I hear Wonderful, Wonderful, he makes me feel important. He lets me know that in my own way I’m special and lovable.”
“Well, he did have that effect on lots of us,” she said, “but that was ages ago. I’m afraid I need to get going.” Lah realized she’d gone too far, and tried to sound professional again. She focused, counting out six of the filigreed buttons. “I can order more and have them for you within a week or so.”
“That would be fine,” the woman said.
They walked to the cash register. “I’m sorry if I got too personal,” Lah apologized. “It’s just that I’m… a virgin, and my boyfriend wanted to have sex. He made me feel awful when he left me, like that’s all I was good for.” She paused, struggling to find the right words. “When I listen to Johnny, I start to feel that maybe somebody else could love me. You know, and not just want sex.” She started crying.
The woman put her hand on Lah’s shoulder. “Sorry, dear, but I have other errands to run,” she said, and turned to go. “Now , you take care.”
Lah sucked back her tears. “Oh, well, I’ll need to get your phone number so I can call you when the rest of the buttons come in.”
“Tell you what,” the woman said. “I’ll check back with you for the buttons. I don’t live too far away.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll be happy with your choice of buttons,” Lah said. She forced herself to smile. “You know, since my boyfriend left me, I’ve been kind of depressed. But like I say, Johnny Mathis is helping me to believe that someone else could love me. Love isn’t supposed to mean you have to do things when you’re not ready. That’s not love. That’s not what love means at all, but I really miss my old boyfriend,” she said, sniffling. “I really do miss him.”
“Listen, my mother used to say to me: “This too shall pass. You’ll see.” Lah imagined getting fired for crying on the job. “Please don’t tell Mrs. Johnson that I got emotional,” she begged the woman. “She might let me go.” Tears stung her eyes but she blinked them away. “My life sucks.”
The woman turned towards Lah. Lah was unable to tell what she was thinking, but when the woman gave her a pitying look, Lah changed her mind about the woman being a writer. She wasn’t that special and didn’t deserve to listen to Johnny Mathis because she had no soul. Lah decided right then and there that if the woman told on her to her boss, she’d deny the whole thing.
Once the woman left, Lah moved to the window and stared into the street. She ran her hands over the fabric of her dress, thinking how glad she’d be when Valentine’s Day was over.