I neither mourned nor celebrated my father’s death. It meant nothing more to me than an early-season loss by the Cubs. We had been antagonists from the beginning. The old man never wanted children and my existence was a daily aggravation, a knuckle in his lower back. I could never be smart enough, ambitious enough, obedient enough to please him. And I stopped trying. The day after his funeral, I was back at Malings, selling shoes. As always, Elodie was behind the counter.
“Sorry for your loss, Arnie,” she said. The store was empty this time of the morning, so it was a good time for us to schmooze.
“Thanks, Elodie. It happens.” I walked over to her counter and put my elbows on the glass top. “Think we’ll have a busy day?”
She liked to stand close to me and this time, as she leaned over her side of the counter, she got close enough that I thought she was going to kiss me. “Not if it rains,” she said.
I had met her twenty years before when, at sixteen, I started working at the shoe store. I’d walk over after high school and work until nine. On Saturday, I’d work all day. It was a commission job, so the harder I worked, the more money I made. I took each customer who bought a pair of shoes to the counter and turned her over to Elodie who would ring up the sale and try to sell her stockings, purses, shoe polish, and perfume. When I graduated from high school, I became a full-time employee.
Now, on the day after my father’s funeral, at thirty-six, I was still there, selling women’s shoes at the same store. Four years earlier I had been promoted to assistant manager, which meant I received a small salary in addition to a commission on shoes I sold. I meted out calls—as customers were called—to the other salesmen and then took my turn. I kept an eye on things and—in the absence of the manager—approved each sale. Elodie, pushing sixty and still behind the counter, was the same age as my mother, and like my mother, a widow.
“Come on over to my place after work,” she said. “I’ll make us something to eat.” Her long brown hair was streaked with gray and she was almost too skinny to look healthy. But she was tall and, I always thought for a mature woman, attractive. She had asked me to her house once before, on my thirtieth birthday, but I had begged off.
This time I said, “Sounds good, but I don’t have a car.”
“I’ll drive, she said.”
Her apartment, on the ground floor of a yellow brick four-plus-one, was a couple of miles southeast of the shoe store, near Montrose and Clark. She took two beers out of the refrigerator and handed one to me. “You like chicken and pasta?”
I nodded. Dinner was at the kitchen table. She asked about my father, what sort of man he had been. I explained my feelings. “You’re angry and with good reason,” she said. “It’s a shame you two didn’t have the time to reconcile.”
I told her I didn’t think we’d reconcile if he had lived to be a hundred.
After dinner, Elodie took me to the couch in the living room. “You dating anyone?” she asked, undoing the blue and orange ribbon that tied back her hair and slowly shaking her head.
“No one in particular. You?”
“Frankie died eight years ago and I haven’t been with a man since.”
“That’s a long time,” I said.
We began seeing one another regularly. Elodie was passionate and her appetite for sex matched or exceeded my own. Often, when we were the last two in the store after closing, we would make love in the stock room. I knew this relationship with Elodie was odd, maybe even sick. Still, she was my secret pleasure.
I continued to live with my mother in the Northwest Side apartment I was introduced to at birth. Unlike my friends, I had chosen not to go to college. My father had chided me as being afraid of failure, a coward. But that served only to stiffen my resolve. My friends, now doctors and lawyers, accountants, insurance salesmen and entrepreneurs, married with children, would invite me to their suburban homes for dinners or cocktail parties, often inviting a young, single woman as well. I would ask these women out. One date, maybe two, and that was it. I urged my friends to keep trying, but as the years went by the invitations faded. We led different lives and it seemed the only thing I had in common with my high school buddies was nostalgia.
I told no one about my arrangement with Elodie. I was too embarrassed to talk about it. She understood. “You’re not going to introduce me to your friends,” she told me early on, “and I’m not going to introduce you to mine. Eventually, you’ll find someone your own age and leave. Just remember, I’ll be here for you whenever you want me.”
What can I tell you? She made me happy and I like to think I made her happy as well. Over the years, Elodie kept her promise of sex and companionship. I found her dedication touching. But I was like a drug addict: feeling guilty and weak when I turned to her. Nonetheless, I was unable to stop. I promised myself I’d seek out more age-appropriate friends and I tried, but more often than not I’d end up back at Elodie’s apartment. And she was always more than eager to see me, to lay with me. If it was after a date, she’d ask me what the young woman was like. “Will you see her again?” “Did she have a good figure?” “Have you slept with her?” “Do you like her?” The questions themselves seemed to arouse Elodie.
Only once did she address the issue of our relationship. “People get caught up in labels,” she said. “Somebody’s gay and all of a sudden, that’s their defining quality. Why? Where on the list of your attributes would ‘straight’ be? Same with age, Arnie. It’s not the first thing on my list and—here she shook a loving finger at me—I don’t want it to be the first thing in my obituary.”
My mother was inquisitive—for different reasons than Elodie—about my social life. She would note my late arrivals and ask who I was seeing. I was ready for this. “She’s a South Side girl,” I would tell her. “A secretary in a downtown law firm.” I even gave her a name: Susan Berkson.
“So how old is this Susan,” my mother asked.
“And never married?”
“No, Mom. She’s never been married and she doesn’t have any children. Enough.”
Whenever she sensed my anger, my mother would back off, change the subject. “So how are things going at the store?”
Elodie, too, limited the scope of her questions. But one night, celebrating her 65th birthday and as we were winding down after love making, she expressed concern for my future. “You’re a bright guy,” she said. “Is it really okay with you to stay at Malings? To be a shoe salesman all your life?”
“You stayed,” I said.
“That’s different. I was married. Frankie made a decent living; I was just working to add to the pot. You’re still young, Arnie. Consider going back to school; you’re never too old for that. Test it out, why don’t you, at the junior college. If you like it, if you think it’s worthwhile to continue, go for it.” She climbed on top of me. “What have you got to lose, Loverboy? And remember, I’m not going to be here forever.” She bit my ear.
Elodie made it sound so reasonable, so doable. And as it happened, I had been thinking about my life at the shoe store. There were no signs I would be made manager any time soon. It was a job I could do in my sleep, but the opportunity for an opening just didn’t seem to be there. So the idea of taking a couple of night courses at the junior college didn’t seem out of the question.
Just after midnight, following our usual pattern, Elodie drove me home. She gave me a long, wet kiss and said, “Think about what I said, darling. I’m worried about you.”
My mother was asleep in front of the television when I let myself in. I touched her arm. “Mom?”
She opened her eyes and took my hand. “Did you have a good time, dear?”
“Yeah, it was nice,” I told her Susan and I had been to a friend’s birthday party. My mother rose slowly from the green leather chair, kissed me goodnight, and went to her bedroom.
That night, lying in my bed, I thought more about what Elodie had said. I was convinced it came from a place of love. And anyway, how hard could a course or two be?
The year my mother died, was the year I got my Bachelor’s degree in finance, with a minor in philosophy. It was also the year that old man Maling summoned me to his downtown office and offered me the job of managing a new store in Glenview. It was at this new store that I met Gwen. She was fifteen years younger, but I was convinced she was the one. “I don’t think about age,” I told her one night. “It’s not high on the list of what describes Arnold Gopin.” We were married within the year and moved into my parent’s old apartment, my apartment. Gwen urged me to move out to the suburbs, closer to the store, but I wasn’t ready for that.
Elodie retired from Malings soon after I moved to the Glenview store. We saw each other sporadically. One Sunday morning, while Gwen was at church, I visited her. We made love on the kitchen table and then again in her bed. I told her how contented I was with Gwen and that we were going to try to have a family.
“Is she a good lover?”
“Good enough,” I said.
“I don’t think I want to talk about this right now.” Gwen approached sex as one of her duties as a wife. I was used to Elodie’s sexual abandon.
She nodded. “I’m happy for you,” she said.
When Elodie turned eighty, she fell and broke her right hip. I was shocked when I saw her in the hospital. She looked older, thinner, and more fragile than ever. The residue of the anesthesia and her pain medicine made her groggy and she was falling in and out of sleep.
“Elodie,” I whispered, leaning close to her. She didn’t respond. I pulled a chair next to the hospital bed. “I’ll sit for a while,” I said. Did she smile? I wasn’t sure. I took her hand and sat quietly.
“She’ll need help when she gets home,” the doctor said.
I had yet to think through how I was going to tell Gwen, how I was going to explain who Elodie was, or what she had meant to me over the years. But she had never abandoned me and I didn’t see how I could do anything less for her. “My wife and I will take care of her,” I said.
Robert Sachs' fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Free State Review, the Great Ape Journal, and the Delmarva Review among others. He holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. His story Yo-Yo Man was a Fiction Finalist in the 2019 Tiferet Writing Contest.