BY JACKIE BAYLESS
Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN GREAT Aunt Sally was 65 she got a job. She went to work for Mr. Bortnicker at his pharmacy, Bortnicker’s. She worked in a pink nylon jacket with her name, Sally, printed in flowing script on the left breast. She only worked three days a week, but it was a wonderful escape from her cranky husband Bob, who had retired with no hobbies, few interests, and no friends. She would put on her pink jacket and enter the pharmacy, which smelled minty and fresh, with something like relief. She’d always stopped at the door to wink at the mannequin in the window. The mannequin was dressed as a nurse standing by medical supply products, ranging from compression stockings to a walker to latex gloves. The mannequin’s arm was usually extended towards the medical products much like beautiful models in gowns offered cars and exotic vacations to game show winners.
“Hello Mr. Bortnicker,” she’d greet him. He was about her age with a full head of thick white hair and a sense of energy that her husband sadly lacked. He really listened when she talked. There was no Mrs. Bortnicker.
“Good afternoon Sally,” he’d say. She usually worked in the afternoons which suited her even better as she had an excuse not to share dinner with her frowning, unhappy husband.
Why did she stay? Because that’s what you did in those days. She had little formal education and she’d stayed home to care for her children, three of them, who had all moved quite far away from her home in Plainfield, New Jersey.
Friday was a slow day marked only by several customers picking up their prescriptions and a middle-aged woman trying ten of the shades of lipstick in the Revlon lipstick tester.
“What do you think of this one?” she’d asked Sally after testing each of the colours ranging from an orangey red to bright pink. Sally had no idea how the various shades would look on the woman’s lips compared to how they looked on her freckled arm, the sleeve of her blue sweater pushed up to her elbow.
“I think the Ballerina Pink was lovely,” she told the woman, who looked at her blankly and left without buying a thing.
Sally walked the two blocks to Woolworths at two o’clock to have a BLT at the counter. It was a beautiful Indian summer day, warm breezes pushing the clouds across the deep blue sky. When she returned, Mr. Bortnicker asked her to work the prescription counter while he met with a man in a suit carrying a briefcase who was waiting for him in his back office. He closed the door, only reappearing once after an hour to bid her good bye and asking her to lock the door behind her.
Sally didn’t work again until Monday afternoon. The first thing she noticed was the mannequin was missing from the front window. The products were stacked toward the back of the window. Stepping back, Sally was astonished to find a large banner hanging across the denuded window. “Everything must go! Store fixtures at rock bottom prices. Under New Management.”
Stunned, Sally stepped into the store where Mr. Bortnicker was excitedly guiding his teenage nephew, Matt, in the process of inventorying the stock.
“Sally, so glad you’re here,” he exclaimed, grinning broadly. “I’ve sold the business and I’m moving to North Carolina.”
Sally tried to smile back but she was so hurt and so shocked by the news that her lip quivered.
Mr. Bortnicker, good listener that he was, immediately noticed and wrapped her in a hug.
“Sally, I’m so sorry. I know this is a surprise to you, but I’ve been planning in the back of my mind to do this for a while. And I just got a great offer from the Neighborhood Pharmacy chain. This will give you a break, too. I’m sure you have better things to do than hang out here three days a week.” He gave her another quick squeeze and asked her to help Matt.
Matt was seventeen and not overly bright. And he was very slow, often losing count of the items he was inventorying. Sally suggested he help his uncle remove the merchandise in the display window while she continued the inventory.
At seven, Sally left, walking to the parking lot at the back of the store. It was dark and one of the street lights was burned out so she almost tripped over the woman lying next to the dumpster. She bit back a scream. Of course, it wasn’t a real woman but the mannequin, wig askew and one arm at a very unnatural angle. Her nurse’s dress was rucked up, too, leaving her bare plastic rump exposed.
What made Sally load the mannequin in her trunk? She was known for her imaginative gifts. Halloween was approaching. Later she said she thought it would be a perfect gift for my ten-year old sister. A giant Barbie doll she could dress up or the ultimate clothes tree. In any case, she closed the trunk on the mannequin after adjusting her nurse’s dress and wig.
In the middle of the night, Sally and Bob were awakened by the screeching of the car alarm going off in the garage. She nudged the snoring Bob. Twice.
“Someone must have broken into the garage. Did you leave the side door unlocked again?”
Bob uttered an unintelligible word under his breath and put on his bathrobe to go check. He didn’t bother turning on the overhead light because there was a dim night light over the workbench. There was no one in the garage. Sighing, he pressed the keys to turn off the blaring alarm. As he turned, he noticed what looked like hair appeared to be curling under the lid of the trunk.
“For God’s sake — what the hell?” he muttered, pushing the button to open the trunk, which appeared to be stuck. Leaning over the lid, he pulled at the rim which opened a crack. Suddenly, the trunk lid flew fully open as he stood up abruptly, in shock and horror, at what appeared to be a dead woman in his wife’s car.
Bob’s head hit the lid forcefully—his wife drove a heavy Chevy Impala—and he fell, hitting the concrete floor with a sickening thud.
After the funeral, Great Aunt Sally drove to Maryland to visit my family with my sister’s surprise mannequin, no longer in the trunk, but sitting proudly in the passenger seat.
“I got some funny looks at the toll plaza and the gas station on the turnpike,” she told us, as she sipped tea with my mother. My sister and I were mesmerized by her stories.
For many years after that, our mannequin was the star of our Halloween decorations. My sister dressed her in black and placed her in a dark corner of the foyer. As kids approached our house, my sister would flick on the flashlight under our mannequin’s chin and emit a horrible screech.
Great Aunt Sally sure gave the best gifts.
Jackie Bayless is a writer living in Laguna Niguel, CA. She has written newspaper and magazine articles for publications ranging from the Washington Post to Mission Critical Communications. Her short story, “The Red Suit,” was published in The Wall, a literary publication of Saddleback College, and her story “Mirage,” on Strands Litsphere. She has had two stories in Down in the Dirt online magazine.