Freda liked working at Whitaker’s. She liked her striped apron and little white cap. She liked listening to the women talking as they shopped. She liked the thousands of small ways that it had brought she and Simon together over the past two years. Working by his side was like getting a taste of what it would be like to be his wife someday. They worked well together, finishing each other’s sentences and knowing which way the other was going to move. It was good to see that they could work as well as play together. Of course, Simon wasn’t in the store that often anymore, his duties for City Council taking a lot of his time and energy.
When they were in the store together, Simon never failed to treat her respectfully, as he might any other employee. The occasional rumor still floated by within Freda’s earshot, but she didn’t let it worry her, trusting to her future with Simon. When they were alone together, he had began to call her “Miss Wurth,” mocking the formal tone they used with each other at the store, until her touches had him calling out her first name again. “Oh, yes, Freda.” Simon had still not yet broached the topic of their marriage again, but Freda believed in him, and trusted that he would choose the right moment. In the meantime, she could be a wife to him in spirit, if not in fact. She tried to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach that sometimes came upon her when she thought about her position. She had to trust to the goodness of the man to whom she had given her heart. Some days that worried her more than other days.
When Simon had first proposed that Freda take the job as shop clerk, two years before, Freda had expected that he would have to fight for her. On the contrary, Mr. Whitaker hadn’t objected at all. In fact, he had welcomed her warmly, seeming glad to have the opportunity to know her better and to train her in the store management. He had paid her a good wage, too, one that Freda suspected was a little higher than another woman would have earned for the same work. It was enough to let Freda take care of the farm taxes and refill the emergency fund in the coffee can in her kitchen.
In her two years at the grocery, Freda had worked most of the jobs in the store. She had weighed the vegetables and bagged them up for delivery. She had helped fussy ladies choose material for their dresses and cut the requested amounts from the huge heavy bolts. She helped Mr. Whitaker count up the money at day’s end and do the inventory. He said that she had a better head for figures than his son did. Freda had beamed all day from the compliment. Most days it was wonderful.
This, however, wasn’t one of those days. Freda had been alone in the shop most of the day. Mr. Whitaker had stayed home nursing his sore back and Mrs. Whitaker had excused herself late in the morning to see to her husband. The store had been very busy, and Freda felt like she had been running all day. It was going to be very good indeed to get home and put her feet up.
Her tiredness made it hard to muster a smile when Mary Perkins, the mayor’s daughter, came in at nearly the end of the work day. Mary had been rude to Freda over and over again during her tenure at the store. While other women who shopped in the store called Freda by name if they knew her or “Miss” if they didn’t, Mary always called her “shop girl.” There was something in Mary’s tone that made the two innocuous words sound more like “insect” or “mongrel.”
She didn’t speak to Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker with that tone. In fact, she seemed to become simperingly sweet if one of them were nearby. She was also polite and even somewhat friendly if young Mr. Gibson, the other shop clerk, waited on her. Freda had no idea why, but Miss Perkins seemed to have singled her out as the target for all her sharp-tongued ill-nature.
It was even worse when Mary simpered at her Simon. If Simon were in the store, she’d always manage to make sure it was he who helped her with her purchases. She’d touch him more than was necessary and flutter her eyelashes at him. Sometimes, Simon seemed to flirt back. Freda reminded herself that Simon was a politician now and that his personal charm was essential to his success, but she wished he would be a little less charming when it came to Miss Perkins. She didn’t complain directly, but she was sure Simon knew how she felt about it.
Given this history, Freda tried to keep herself busy in another part of the shop whenever Mary was in the store and let someone else wait on Mary and her friends. Today, though, she was alone in the shop. Freda would have to deal with the mayor’s daughter herself. Taking a deep breath, Freda drew herself up straight and waited for the strident call of “Shop girl!”
Freda knew that Mary had been to a finishing school in Boston. She overhear her lamenting to the other town girls about the lack of refinement and breeding in Cold Spring. Obviously, she didn’t think much of the small Kentucky town her father had brought her to. The fabrics Whitaker’s stocked were never elegant enough for her. The home goods were not appropriate for the home of a lady of sophistication. Even the produce, apparently, was of larger size and higher quality in Boston.
Though she dearly wanted to, Freda never spoke up to defend her store, her employer or her town. She knew that Mr. Whitaker would want her to provide quiet service, not give her cause for complaint. So, she bit her tongue yet again today, listening to Mary chatter to her friends as they made fun of the new table linens the store had just gotten in the week before. Freda thought them lovely and often fingered them when she was alone in the shop, imagining buying them to use on her own table when she hosted a fine dinner party for her husband and his friends. It hurt to hear them disparaged, almost as if they were already hers.
Fighting down her anger, Freda stepped to the back of the shop and brought out more bags of beans. It wasn’t really necessary. There were still five on the shelf. But, it gave her something to do and took her out of earshot for at least a few minutes.
She was surprised when she turned around after placing the beans and found Mary standing directly behind her. “Can I help you, Miss?” Freda asked, her voice even and her face carefully blank.
“No. It simply can’t be true,” Mary said.
Freda blinked. What couldn’t be true? She held her tongue, giving Mary the opportunity to speak her mind, but not asking. Curiosity killed the cat, she thought. There was definitely something cat-like about Mary Perkins, and Freda felt instinctively that, were she to respond, she’d see the claws up close.
Mary seemed disappointed by her response, or lack thereof, and flounced away, speaking loudly as she left to make sure that Freda heard her hurtful words. “They say that frumpy spinster once had the heart of Mr. Whitaker’s handsome son. I simply refuse to believe it!”
Freda leaned heavily against the counter. It was a relief the woman had left, and at least now she knew why Miss Perkins hated her so much. She was interested in Simon. She could hardly wait to tell him what had happened. He would laugh with her over the idea of a silly and shallow little thing like Miss Perkins setting her cap for her Simon. She was everything he’d always said he’d hated. She lowered her hand to her stomach, trying to quiet the strange feeling that had erupted there. Had. She was quite sure that the girl said had. Not has.
My other #SaturdayScenes contributions:
Week One: Elopement Day from WIP, Cold Spring
Week Two: Linda Makes a First Impression from WIP, Her Father's Daughter, sequel to Going Through the Change
Week Three: Claiming Alex, from unpublished novel His Other Mother
Week Four: Things Get Hairy for Linda, from unpublished novel Going Through the Change
Week Five: a poem: A Clear Day in Kodiak, Alaska
Week Six: a snippet from an idea barely begun, Lacrosse Zombies