I heard my daughter was working at Laundry & Tan Connection and hoped it wasn’t true, but when I went inside, the bells on top of the door jingling to announce my arrival, she was standing behind the counter.
“Jenny?” I said. She looked almost the same as when she was a child: hair still long and wavy, only now her face was thinner, her skin a deep bronze.
She looked up from a magazine. “What are you doing here?”
Coming here seemed like a good idea, since I was driving through town. That wasn’t exactly true, but it was only two and a half hours in the wrong direction. If I had turned around, I could pretend she wasn’t stuck here. I could pretend that in August she packed her bags and moved to Durham or Keene or Portsmouth with the others.
“You got laundry you need to do? Or you want to tan?” she asked.
She wouldn’t look at me and I couldn’t blame her. I wasn’t expecting her to throw her arms around me. The place was empty and quiet except for the whirling sound of a few washing machines. The owners of those soon-to-be clean clothes must have been next-door buying chips and soda, browsing the aisles of empty VHS boxes, the tapes stored behind the counter. Nothing much ever changed in this town.
“I’d like a tanning booth,” I said.
“Come on, you don’t really.”
“I’ve always wanted to try it.”
“Fine. What level do you want?” she asked.
“What are they?”
“You should start with level one unless you already have a base tan,” she said, finally looking at me. “Which you obviously do not. You want some lotion?” She motioned to the display of rectangular packets hanging from the ceiling with names like Chaos, Smokin’ and Hot Stuff.
“What do you suggest?”
The last time I saw Jenny and Shawn they were in middle school. We drove around town in my new car because there wasn’t much else to do. I thought the leather seats and electric windows would impress them. I wanted to take them to lunch but Jenny refused so we drove for a little while and then I brought them home to the trailer we had lived in together all those years ago.
“A lady came in yesterday, insisting on Chaos but she’d never tanned before. She came out with her eyes bloodshot and watering and said she felt high.”
“So you recommend Chaos?” I hoped to make a joke.
“If you want to feel high.”
The day I left, the kids sat quietly on the sofa and watched me pack my things. Their father and I had picked up that plaid sofa on the side of the road. Someone decided it wasn’t good enough anymore and pinned a sign on it: FREE.
“We’ve got a promotion,” she said. “Thirty-five percent off a bottle of lotion with a one-month unlimited package. But I don’t suppose you’ll be here long enough.”
“I deserve that.”
“You’re probably better off paying by the minute. You can stay in the level one booth for up to fifteen minutes. It’s three dollars and fifty cents for a full session.”
Saturday mornings, when we used to be a family, Jenny and Shawn would sit on that old sofa and watch cartoons while I made chocolate chip pancakes in the kitchen and smoked Newport cigarettes.
“Jenny,” I said.
“You want the lotion or not?”
“No. Can we go somewhere and talk?”
“I’m working. If you came here to see what a failure I am, now you know and you can leave. You know the way out of town.”
She closed the magazine and placed it next to a stack of Avon catalogues. I picked one up and turned it over, hoping not to see her name and phone number on the back but there they were. I sold Mary Kay when the kids were little. For six months I was a Beauty Consultant, which sounded important. We all thought I’d get one of those pink Cadillacs. I didn’t even make enough money to cover the cost of the starter kit.
In the end, Jenny used the makeup on her dolls, smearing Mystic Plum on tiny plastic lips. She’d set up a beauty salon in the living room with those dolls lined up on the sofa, waiting their turn. Shawn took the role of receptionist, bringing empty teacups to each customer.
“You’ll need to put these over your eyes,” she said, handing me a pair of funny looking goggles.
“I don’t really want to tan.”
“I know,” she said.
I remembered what she was wearing the day I left: a corduroy jumper with a white turtleneck. I had brushed her hair that morning and snapped her favorite barrettes in place. I held onto that image but it wasn’t enough. I wished I could tell her something beautifully sad about leaving: that I waded in an ocean of grief or that the loss rested in my heart like a heavy stone. I was happier after leaving and I couldn’t tell her that.
“So that’s it then?” I asked.
“I guess so. I need the goggles back.”
The bells chimed and a young man came through the door. He nodded at me and smiled at Jenny, handing her a can of soda. He asked if she’d be at the football game on Saturday and I saw a trace of pink on her tanned cheeks.
I came here to tell her it wasn’t too late, that she could leave this town too, but seeing her behind the counter, I understood she never would.
Jenny returned to reading her magazine. The young man unloaded his wet jeans and t-shirts into a metal laundry cart. My fifteen-minute session was up. There was nothing left for me to do but go. I stood outside, the little plastic goggles still in my hand, hoping she’d rush through the door to get them.
Shasta Grant is the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and will be the Spring 2017 Writer-in-Residence at the Kerouac House. Her stories and essays have appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, wigleaf, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. She is the author of Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home, a chapbook forthcoming from Split Lip Press.