by Paula Johnson
Bethany stood at the baggage carousel at New Orleans International Airport willing her suitcase to appear. The last of the passengers were gone, leaving her to stare at the silent metal chute. Here it comes, she thought. Now! It's coming…now!
She slung her laptop bag over her shoulder, and set off to file a lost luggage claim. Thirty minutes later, she was in cab headed for St. Charles Avenue.
Bethany was glad she decided against staying at the conference hotel. Her husband would be joining her tomorrow after finishing some business in Memphis. A 26-story hotel filled with several hundred fellow psychologists was not her idea of romantic.
The smaller hotel she had selected had a lovely lobby. When the desk clerk heard about her lost luggage, he upgraded her room.
"Can't let your first visit to the Big Easy start on a sour note," he said with a smile.
"I'm feeling better already," Bethany said. "But I need a dress for a cocktail party. Can you point me to a department store?"
"The French Quarter is closer," he said, handing her a map. "You can pick up the streetcar out front. We'll put your computer case in your room."
Bethany didn't have the shopping gene. She ordered work clothes from Lands End and trusted a personal shopper at Nordstrom for everything else. Still, she was excited about her small adventure in this famous city.
Her work as a school psychologist was rewarding and frustrating. She recently discovered a student's mother was often beaten by his father. The boy, Ryan, was terrified and had had a difficult time opening up. She was required to report it. The police went to the home, but the mother denied any abuse.
Snap out of it, she thought. You can't fix everything.
She skimmed the tourist map and learned that the French Quarter was created in 1718. Old Pasadena isn't all that old, she thought, thinking of the historic district near her home.
She walked quickly along the streets of the French Quarter, hoping to find a store with a little black dress exactly like the one in her missing suitcase. Instead, a window display of colorful sweaters and shawls caught her eye.
Inside, there were racks of dresses and antique tables piled with knitted items, silk scarves, jewelry, books, and candles. There was even a small cosmetics counter along the back wall. What could have been a jumble looked like the boudoir of someone with unlimited money and lots of imagination.
Just then a woman walked past Bethany. She looked like the best-dressed guest at a funeral, except for her radiant smile. She stopped at the cosmetics counter and handed the clerk a white envelope that appeared to be stuffed with money.
Consumed with curiosity, Bethany browsed her way to the two women and overheard them talking about…skin care. When the customer departed, the clerk turned to Bethany.
"What troubles you?" she asked Bethany in a soothing drawl. "Your man?"
"Uh, no, my husband is great." Bethany was caught off guard. "I'm sorry, I have a lot on my mind."
"Shows on your face. If the man ain't your husband, who is he?"
"A woman I know. Her husband is…violent." Bethany didn't know why she was confiding in a stranger. This never happens at the Clinique counter.
"Best way to take care of man troubles is to take care of the skin," the older woman said, pulling a small bottle from the case. Another customer called out a greeting and the clerk excused herself.
Bethany held the bottle, thinking it was heavy for its size. "Laveau" was printed in elaborate script on the front. The name was familiar. Maybe she'd read about it in a magazine at the dentist's office? Or was that Louboutin?
The back of the bottle was nearly blank. No ingredients. No SPF. Just six words: Heals the skin. Prevents future damage. She removed the cap and took a whiff. The fragrance was divine.
The clerk returned with another white envelope. Bethany turned around in time to see a heavyset woman climb into a Lincoln Town Car. She was dressed in black.
"I'm wondering about your prices," said Bethany, gesturing to the envelope as it disappeared behind the counter.
"The lotion is fifteen dollars," the clerk said. "But some customers are so happy with their results, they give me a…bonus."
"But those women didn't buy more lotion," said Bethany.
"One bottle is enough," said the clerk. "When the bottle's empty, man troubles are gone."
Another woman approached the counter. She, too, was dressed in black, but it was a simple dress and not new. A solemn toddler was at her side, his right arm in a cast. The young mother said nothing, but handed the clerk a slim stack of one- and five-dollar bills secured with a paper clip. The clerk removed a single dollar and returned the stack to the young woman. Her eyes filled with tears. She nodded and left with her son.
Bethany was struck by an odd combination of exhilaration and nausea. She knew it was just a bottle of perfumed lotion. What else would it be?
"I'll take it," she said. The stress of the day had left her exhausted. She decided to skip the cocktail party and turn in early. The short ride on the streetcar cleared her head.
Bethany found two surprises in her hotel room: her wayward suitcase and her devoted husband. The last of his meetings was canceled, so Jeff caught an earlier flight. She was looking over the room service menu when her husband made a gagging sound.
"This smells disgusting! What the hell is it?" he said, screwing the cap back on the bottle.
"It's a gift," said Bethany, "for a woman who needs to save her skin."
© Copyright 2010 Paula Johnson. All rights reserved.
Paula Johnson is a copywriter and graphic designer on purpose and a stand-up comedian by accident. She co-produces The Joke Gym open mic comedy show and is the editor of The Rose City Sisters Flash Fiction Anthology. Her story "Better Late Than Never" appeared on this blog in 2009.