Having finished the rest of my shopping, I turned left by the bluejeans, walking slower now toward the back of the store and the shoes. Using the overhead mirrors, I watched where I had been. Sure enough, she made the turn too, her long crinkly-grey hair pinned up in a French roll. She pretended to examine a pair of Levi’s while every now and then lifting her head, watching me. This woman seemed to be turning up in every aisle I was in, no matter how far I had come across-store. She was very tiny, very wrinkled, very pale. Dressed in a very Victorian shade of grey-violet velvet, she looked the part of an old English widow.
I had no idea who she was, and only noticed her about five minutes ago when I first bumped into her back near groceries, standing back up from re-tying my blasted shoelace. The shoelaces were the primary reason I was here shopping. They’d rarely come untied in the year since I bought them, but were now doing it several times a day. I’d considered chucking them and treating myself to a new pair of sneakers, but the shoes themselves had just reached the perfect stage of broken-in. Anyway, it wasn’t the fault of the shoes so much as the apparently too worn-down laces.
The old woman was closing the distance to me. I wondered whether I should call her bluff and speak to her, maybe scare her off a bit, let her know that I knew she’s following me.
Idea: I stopped and glanced around for whoever had brought her, in case she was going to start trouble. She surely could not have made the trip here by herself. This little suburban mall was ten miles from anything, and if her hobbling meant anything, there must be some family-helper nearby. No result — there seemed to be no interested candidate for her people-keeper, and rather than risk a scene, I sighed, decided to ignore her and went back to my shopping until… Oh, good grief. Shoelace AGAIN. This was getting ridiculous. Bend down, tie, double tie, stand up.
She was directly in front of me. She smelled of garlic and lavender, both of which seemed to emanate from the deep folds of ancient ridged skin.
Her look was apologetic, forehead wrinkled in that distinctive way that hints at pleading. Her eyes were the exact shade of Pennsylvania coal. They were wet, but not crying-wet. She reached for my hand and I let her take it. She held it between her too-cool, creviced, and ridged hands. “You can’t see it, can you?”
Her voice was stronger, smoother than it should have been for all her years. A smoker’s gravel-gargled voice would have sounded right. I wasn’t sure if it was more prudent to play along and humor her by saying “yes” or own up to the fact that I had no idea what she meant.
“Uh… I don’t think so. What do you mean?”
“It’s there, on your shoe.” She gestured down. “Any pain in that foot yet?” I shook my head no, pretending to have no idea, but I was hearing my heart pound in my ears.
“I’ve seen it hanging off the side of that shoe since you walked in. Dare say it’s been there a little while now. May I?” Her face beamed. Her delight was obvious.
“What, you want my shoe?” I asked, but she had already begun to bend down, catching a nearby counter for balance. I caught her arm to help and she looked up and smiled at me. “Yes, dear. Thank you. That’s right.”
She was now squatting in front of me — a bit breathless from the downclimb — and people were turning curious glances at us. I made my best helpless “I don’t know” face by way of apology. On the floor, she opened her purse and pulled out what I can only assume were some sort of pliers —wire cutters? — and set to work on the side of my shoe.
Correction: She never actually touched my shoe. She was clipping away at the air next to it and humming something close to a hymn. I was just beginning to get my head around this when the fullest pain I had ever known shot through me from foot to leg to hip to trunk to neck to head. “God —she’s cutting me!” I thought. I gasped in air, preparing to use it to scream as loud as I was capable of when the pain stopped immediately. Not only stopped — it was gone, had never been. Nor could I feel residual pain — nothing that indicated I had just been chunked open and bled by some velvet-and-grey granny on the floor. My shoe was whole, as was the foot inside.
She was still there on the floor, smiling up at me so sweetly, face shining all pride like a schoolchild’s first “A.” “And here it is!” She showed me a nothing in a little jar that might have been used for canning jellies, doily-decorated around the top. She held the jar up to me and, dumbly, I took it. I saw nothing. Gave it a shake. More nothing.
“Ahhhhh,” I said, not knowing what was expected of me, but hoping it was enough to make her go. This woman was clearly insane. What did she do down there, poke me with a nail file? A miniature taser?
She made a move to get up and I grabbed at her elbow, helping her to her feet. She held her hands out and let me place the jar in them. She giggled a little, eyes huge as she enjoyed her prize. She cradled the jar in the crook of her arm, close to her body, and worked her other hand into her handbag. She pulled out a hundred-dollar bill that was roughly as wrinkled as she was and nudged it toward my hand. “I know it should be more, dear, but it’s all I have.”
I shook my head and pulled back, saying probably too loud, “I don’t want your money — why are you giving me this?” I looked around in case the missing family-member materialized and thought I was trying to dupe the woman out of her savings.
“Shhhh, dear. This is between us. You’re not to tell a soul. And honestly, Elsa, who would believe you anyway?” With that last, for just a moment, the kindly-widow look disappeared from her face in favor of a sneer, and it occurred to me that, in fact, she was nowhere near as helpless as she appeared.
I snatched the money and turned, abandoning my groceries, keeping my head down and walking as quickly as I could toward the front of the store. I turned back then — how could I not? It was just in time to see her opening the jar and tipping it into her mouth, pounding the bottom as though she wanted to get it all.
I went out the door and haven’t been back since. I have no interest in running into her again. And anyway, I haven’t needed to return. Those shoelaces never came untied again.