The truth is I’m still haunted by them, even though it’s been months since they left the Royal Bargains Dollar Store.
Royal Bargains! How the mighty have fallen. For years, it was the Imperial Bank of Canada, Toronto’s most trusted. You can still see a Scales of Justice carved in the marble lintel. Next door used to be one of the most chichi restaurants in town, and now it’s a store full of second-hand computers.
I seldom shop at dollar stores, but one afternoon last summer I dashed in after work to pick up some pens. A man was behind the counter along with two sober little girls in matching pink dresses and pink backpacks. A woman in a sari was stacking a display of fireworks and giant balloons. The place was unbelievably crowded, jam-packed floor to ceiling with cleaning supplies, toys, dishes, candles, stationary, gift wrap, tools, and knock-off brand foods and cosmetics from China. It smelled like contact cement overlaid with fried spices. That’s when I realized the people who ran it must be living there too, somewhere behind the store.
Some young teenagers were already there that day, buying candy and ice cream bars after school, all shouting and pushing the way kids do when they’re showing off. Of course soon one of them had knocked over a display of fridge magnets. They started blaming each other, but not one of them went to pick things up. The woman took a step forward, her eyes flicking between the floor, the boys, and her husband as the man’s face grew darker under his turban. He turned to me. “Very bad children!” he said. I started to say that they weren’t mine, but of course, in a sense, they were. He turned back to the boys and shouted, “Little bastards, you are right now getting out of my store!” The kids turned and ran, hooting and yelling in fake high voices like Apu on The Simpsons: “Ooh, we are ver-r-r-ry bad, ver-r-r-ry bad children!” The woman swooped down to collect the magnets, and I left without meeting their eyes.
After that, I was much more aware of the store. Every morning, as I dashed by en route to the subway, I’d see that they’d already set out their red plastic buckets of artificial flowers. Three-for-$1 fluorescent daffodils, gaudy pink roses, and garish bird of paradise, none of which anyone would buy in June in Ontario when our gardens were lush with peonies, daisies, and lupins. Even early roses. I really wanted to tell them that people were more likely looking for sun hats and sandbox toys, but I didn’t want to interfere.
Then one morning, the woman was outside carefully turning each flower so it faced out. She looked up, so I said, “Good morning,” and she smiled a little, and then continued with her flowers. After this, I made myself say, “Good morning,” every time I saw her, and then, after maybe a week, one day she looked up and said, “Wait, please!” She turned and gathered up a large bouquet of yellow plastic daffodils and handed them to me. “Please,” she said, “for you.” I thanked her several times, and then pointed to my watch saying I had to run, which was true as I had a big editorial meeting to get to. I felt ridiculous rushing down the street with these flowers clutched to my breast, so as soon as I got inside the station, I left them on an empty bench.
The next time as I waved my hello, she gave me the most beautiful smile and said, “You are rushing to your job, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “I work for The Star, the newspaper. For my sins.” She looked puzzled. “I mean I’m getting too old for this. Now it’s just stress and more stress. You know, pressure.”
“Oh yes, I am understanding stress,” she said. Behind her, the two little girls had opened the door and stood staring at me.
“I’m Barbara,” I said.
“Shameena,” she replied with a bow and then pointed to the children. “And my girls. So sorry,” she said pointing to the store, “but I am working myself alone, so I must—” Poor thing, I thought, her husband still lying abed while she took care of the children and the store.
I decided I would drop into the shop some evening and perhaps invite her for tea, maybe at our house. Perhaps she’d like that. My husband said I should just leave them alone, that they didn’t need do-gooders, but even so, I decided I would.
However, the next Monday, the store was closed morning and night. No flowers out front, no lights, and a padlocked security grille. I checked every day that week, and finally, on the Saturday, the grille was partly pulled back, and a couple of lights were on inside. I pushed open the door and called out, “Excuse me? Is anyone here?”
“What is it you are wanting?” It was the husband.
“Um, candles,” I said. “I need some candles for outside, for the deck.”
“Ah, large candles, isn’t it?” he said. He pointed to the far aisle.
I brought two white ones to the counter wondering, not for the first time, what pitiful wages people must be paid to manufacture and then bring to my hands two giant candles for $1. “I noticed you’ve been closed,” I said. “Were you away?”
“My wife, she is going back to India. She along with our girls.”
“Oh, that’s nice!” I said. “A little holiday.”
“No, it is not holiday. She is going back home, and not coming back here to this place. I too am going in three weeks time when I finish in this lovely store.” He lifted his arms and smiled as if he was surrounded by beauty and splendour, but his eyes gave him away.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m so sorry.” Tears started behind my eyes and I quickly turned away. He wouldn’t understand my tears any better than I did. I paid for my candles and was about to leave when he spoke again.
“You know, Mrs., I will tell you something. We were working very hard to come to Canada, and what is happening? We are living in two small rooms and selling foolish plastic items. So we are finished! No more Royal Bargains Dollar Store, and no more taxi driving for me six p.m. to eight a.m. I will work again as electrical engineer in Delhi, and my wife will work again also. She is radiology technician. Very good jobs, but we thought, oh no, it must be Canada for our girls.”
His laugh was bitter. “You Canadians should be proud of yourselves. You are having engineers, lawyers, even surgeons driving taxis and delivering your pizza pies. You are having the most educated taxi drivers and dollar store managers in the world.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t—I’m sorry nobody—I’m, I’m just sorry.” There was not a single useful thing I could say.
I never saw them again, although I often see them all in my dreams. Just last night I dreamed he was striding down the sidewalk across from my house, his eyes on the horizon. Behind him were the girls wearing matching cropped tops and very tight jeans, followed by his wife in flowing purple and gold silk. She was carrying a huge bouquet of orange popsicles, the sticks all tied together with a gold bow. I waved and called to them as it seemed immensely important to tell her the popsicles would melt. However, try as I might, I couldn’t make a sound, and they just kept on walking until they reached the corner and were gone.
I noticed that the store is open again and another Indian man is running it now. Next Monday I’m going to drop in and say hello.
Banner Image: By TenPoundHammer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons