Nights when we worked late, Winnie would sidle up behind my chair, slip a mini candy bar alongside my keyboard from a Halloween-sized bag she kept in a desk drawer.
“Need your energy sweetie,” she would say, giving the crinkly wrapper a pat as if it were a fussy child.
I’d swivel to thank her, catch the flash of her off-kilter, coquette’s smile. Lipstick would have seeped into the grooves that circled her mouth, foundation stained her collar. She would lift the hair from my neck, separate it into three portions, her lacquered nails grazing my skin, half tickle, half scratch. Those bony fingers, tobacco-stained tips and swollen knuckles. Breath thick with cigarettes and coffee. Mothballs. Alcohol sweat.
It would be dark out my window, the glass shiny and cold, the State Capitol’s north entrance four stories down. Out on L Street, headlights approached, bound for the freeway, for home, tail lights flashing red as they left without us. When the Assembly was in session, we stayed, one ear tuned to the squawk box. Bells dinged to announce the opening and closing of the vote. Someone else tucked my children in for the night.
Winnie would tug my hair. Fingers quaky. Left over center. Right over center. Braiding down to the wispy end. She gave the finished braid a yank, smoothed it flat over the lumps of my bent spine.
She would scratch a crusty patch on her wool skirt, wet the tip of her finger with spit, rub at it.
“Dry cleaner is too expensive,” she would say, husky voiced, as if there were something stuck at the choke point that needed to go up or down but never did.
Winnie was Minnie Mouse, all head, bouffant hair, and oversized high heels. Brittle and petite. I believed she would shatter if she fell in the concrete stairwell where she smoked and whispered with her lady friend from down the hall, another old timer.
Winnie would dig in her skirt pocket, slip me another candy bar.
“I need a potty break,” she would say, with a sticky wink. “Watch my phone, would you, Hon?”
She would tuck her shiny black handbag under her arm. Clutch it tight. Clack down the hall. The heavy stairwell door would open and shut with a sobering whoosh of outside air.
My cue to tear the wrapper from one of the candies. Mash it with teeth and tongue. A hit of chocolate, peanuts and caramel. Ram the second one in before the syrup of the first was gone. Mouth flooded. Taste buds saturated. Mind erased of all else. Until I swallowed and the static, the anxious hum, were back. I’d picture the sack of candy in Winnie’s bottom right drawer. Wonder how many pieces were left, if there was time to snitch and consume another before she returned, if she’d notice, if she’d care.
I would have thought I was sneaky. But I imagine she knew.
Dorothy Rice’s first book, The Reluctant Artist, was published by Shanti Arts in October 2015. She has new work in Brain Teen 2016, Literary Mama and Split Lip Magazine. Following a career cleaning up toxic waste sites, Rice earned an MFA in creative writing at 60 (UC Riverside, Palm Desert).
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