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She was dressed in a mass of dirty rags and her disheveled face was almost completely hidden by a layer of thick matted brown hair. I was working at PJ’s convenience store, a greasy shack on the edge of Middlebury. It was a sticky summer day and as usual, the air conditioning wasn’t working. Beads of sweat lined the back of my neck and I leaned against the counter letting the small fan I had brought from home blow against my face. It was a late Sunday evening and I was working alongside Larry. Larry was the owner of PJ’s, an older man with a sour face, but kind eyes that most looked past. When I looked outside the grimy window, I could see him inspecting one of the gas pumps.
I was daydreaming when the clash of bells sounded as the door opened. When this woman walked in, I watched her curiously. First of all, it was Sunday and rarely did anyone stop by PJ’s on Sunday. Middlebury was a small town, full of veterans who played bridge at the Legion after church and religious old ladies who believed that Sunday was a day of complete rest. Knowing practically everyone in Middlebury, this woman was an outsider. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty five but dragged her worn shoes heavily with each step.
She approached the counter and I regained my posture professionally. A loaf of bread sat silently on the hard surface. I watched her pull a hard leather wallet out of her pocket and when she opened it, it nearly fell apart. It was empty, besides a food stamp which she placed on the counter. For the first time, her eyes met mine. Her eyes were what still stick with me to this day. Her eyes were full of pain, telling a story in which she didn’t have to express in words. They were a clear stunning blue, looking out of place with her overall gray and dirty appearance. They expressed shame, and it hung on me heavily.
“Uh...I’m not sure we accept these...” I stammered, unable to lower my eyes. She sighed heavily, gently taking the food stamp off the counter and tucking it back into her pocket. She hung her head, her eyes lowering. I could see pale freckles sprinkling across her nose. She nodded and picked up the loaf before turning around to set it back.
“Wait!” I called. This woman, something about this woman. I couldn’t place it but I knew I couldn’t turn her away. She jumped slightly, as if startled and turned back towards me. Her ice blue eyes wide and emotional.
“It’s okay. You can take it.” I said and she cocked her head as if confused.
“The bread. It’s okay. It’s yours.” She looked at me for a moment, wondering if I was joking or being serious. I nodded and gave her a slight smile which she returned. She walked back to the counter and took my hands in hers. Dirt lined her finger nails but her hand was surprisingly dainty. She raised it to her mouth and kissed the top of my hand. Almost as silently as she came, she left.
When Larry returned, it suddenly hit me.
“Who was that woman? Ain’t ever seen her around.” Larry remarked. He looked at me.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, kid. You alright?” a gruff hand was placed on my shoulder.
My insides froze and my mind seemed locked. I swallowed and glanced at him, unaware of the tears that were suddenly streaming down my cheeks.
“That was my mother.”