Holy Jesus, it's hot--high 90s and humid for the second day in a row; it feels like New York. Granted, I imagine that actual New York is worse, but you have to understand that this is extremely unusual for the Pacific Northwest and we have no clue how to cope. Big companies might have air conditioning, but virtually no homeowners or small businesses do, since this shit happens only two or three times a year. So we're stumbling around limply, all Boneless Chicken Ranch, making unfortunate displays of near-nakedness. A small, sad percent hurry out to the lakes and rivers to drown. Everyone and everything stinks a little. I've been moving myself and the fan from room to room as the sun blasts different quadrants of my house; I sprawl in front of the hot breeze as if dropped from a great height.
This morning I walked (ve. ry. slow. ly.) up to the Greenwood business district for coffee. I find the snippets of life from wide-open doors and windows oddly touching and funny, somehow: the Dopplering drift of the ball game from one home, the 70s Gold hits that perpetually blare from the Tiki Torch Party House. Someone shouts "I can't, I'm all soapy! I'm all SOAPY!" from the shower. The proprietor of the Turkish rug shop is planted on the sidewalk outside, gabbing into a cell phone and incongruously drinking hot coffee; at the faux German bier hall, the door is locked but the high casement windows all yawn open in defeat: if you want to scale the building, topple in, and steal beer, go ahead, they give up.
I went to Starbucks for the air-conditioning. Yeah, yeah, giant ruthless billion-dollar corporation, yadda yadda--my dollars BUY that air-conditioning. It was delicious, and I lingered as long as I dared. Outside again, the heat clapped down like a heavy arm around your shoulders: the boisterous, blowhard colleague, the close talker you just cannot shake off.
In high school, both Holly and I worked in a weird little gift shop on Capitol Hill, selling greeting cards and exotic chunky jewelry, crystal vases and wedding-present-type items. The owner was an older woman with a pronounced Norma Desmond streak; she'd swan around the place in palazzo pants and the occasional turban, and was given to breathy, dramatic declarations: "WATCH these babies fly out of here!" she'd proclaim over a new shipment of lurid handbags, or "I don't want any STOOL-SITTERS." This last meant that you could not simply perch behind the cash register, but had to appear busy, usually by dusting. "Norma" kept vast bales of rags in the stockroom and an endless supply of Windex. Holly and I spent countless Sunday afternoons poking around the dozens of shelves and rearranging the film of dust that lay over every piece of china and stemware.
Norma had several wretched prejudices. She or her husband would count in the cash drawer in the mornings--frequently wrong. The register was ancient, the kind where you had to punch keys for each decimal place: TEN dollars and FOUR dollars and SIXTY cents and FIVE cents, putting your whole weight behind it so that the correct little tabs would pop up in the glass window on top. The till rarely balanced at the end of the day, and Norma would give us the fish eye. More than once, Holly and I crawled on the floor searching for every last dropped coin, or even scrounged change out of our own purses to remain above suspicion. Far, far worse were the occasions when a customer of color would come in while I was working, because if Norma was present she'd sidle up to me and hiss "Watch the BLACK." Oh my God. I was seventeen, mortified but not bold enough to defy her, and so I'd miserably trail around the store behind the rare African-American shopper. I am still sorry about this, still ashamed.
But Norma had her moments of strange tenderness and generosity, too. When Holly and I finished our last summer at the shop and were leaving for our respective colleges, Norma presented us each with a big honkin' footlocker. (Because she'd known my family since I was in kindergarten, I was also shocked to receive two pieces of Oleg Cassini luggage.) At one point or another, three generations of my family worked in Norma's store: my mother had, when she was newly divorced and back in college; my grandmother, when she was freshly widowed and half-mad with grief and needed a distraction. I don't think Norma needed her, frankly--but she saw Grammy's anguish and found space in the budget for her wages, kept her busy dusting dusting dusting and allowed her to empty her mind, an extraordinary kindness.
This is how I prefer to remember her, and what I'm thinking of now when it's blistering hot. The store was in a small brick building that held heat like a pizza oven, and on certain summer days it was easily 20 degrees hotter inside than out. One day like today, Holly and I were drooping like our own dustrags while Norma sat in her windowless office in back, even hotter, a wet towel wrapped around her head to cut the misery. It wasn't enough, and finally she emerged, gruffly booming "It is entirely TOO HOT! We deserve A TREAT!" She stomped regally out the door. Holly and I shrugged at each other.
Ten minutes later, Norma stalked back. Carefully aligned between her fingers were three already-dripping vanilla ice cream cones from the place down the block. "Here," she said grandly, and the three of us loitered at the counter, chasing the rivulets of vanilla, trying to outrun the inevitable mess. No more dusting that day...just a momentary cooling off, a quick sweetness that, it turns out, has lingered.