Beginning of Short Story “Lorraine” — Part of The Great Recession Story Trilogy*

July 20, 2015

*see “Michael and Walt” and “The Wicks”

Lorraine needed a pack of cigarettes. She was down to her last half a pack and didn’t have the money to buy any more. Her check was not due in until Wednesday and today was only Monday. She could maybe borrow half a pack from Cokie. Lorraine still had some food in the house, a few groceries in the fridge and cabinet, and anyway it was too hot to eat much more than a salad. Lorraine had discovered like a soldier in battle that she could go without food easier than she could go without cigarettes. As long as she had some Ritz crackers to nibble on, and maybe a can or two of tuna fish and some Lipton tea she’d be alright. She should give up smoking anyway.

The problem started when Lorraine had to purchase cable, which hurt her budget. Basic cable had been more than Lorraine could afford, but when all analog service ended, she’d been forced to buy a cheap cable service package. She could not afford to buy cigarettes but she had cable. Lorraine watched a lot of QVC and believed she was engaging in a personal dialogue with the ladies who were selling clocks and tiaras. They were her friends. Lorraine didn’t have any place else to go except for driving to the beach and staring at the ocean, and that activity was more enjoyable in the off season than during the crazy summer. She could watch QVC instead of enjoying the beach from her car, or sitting at a picnic table in a small park on the bay, along with families and other seniors near the playground.

Lorraine decided she would visit Cokie and ask for some cigarettes.

“Five OK?” Cokie asked her.

“Yes,” Lorraine said, thinking she would need to spread the five cigarettes out, maybe one every three hours not counting sleep of course.

Cokie was wearing fuzzy slippers and a terry cloth bathrobe, a cigarette burning in her tanned fingers which looked like two cinnamon sticks. Cokie supposedly drank in the evenings and sometimes wandered out of doors, staggering along the street in her robe and slippers. But Lorraine had never seen Cokie drunk or outdoors at night.

“Are you broke?”

“Sort of . . . just waiting for the check to come.”

“I know what you mean. Harry, God bless his soul, left me a small pension, but I’m often strapped early in the month.”

“Walter didn’t have a pension,” Lorraine said. “And I don’t have a pension, and I’ve only worked two years in my entire life, and that isn’t long enough for any decent government social security payment. I live off Walter’s social security and a little savings.”

“I know what you mean,” said Cokie, nodding, flicking an ash with a tap of her index finger. “Why don’t you work now?”

Lorraine had been expecting more sympathy, more commiseration, not this. Cokie’s question caught her off guard.

“You’re kidding,” she said, with a small sardonic laugh. “No one wants to hire an old lady with no experience.”

Cokie shrugged. “Walmart’s is always looking for greeters. Minimum wage but it would keep you in cigarettes and maybe a pizza every now and then. And the stores will need help for Christmas.”

“Now? It’s early September!”

“I know, can you believe it? But they’ll be taking applications within a month. Mark my words.”

Later, as she was sitting home and watching QVC, Lorraine realized that Cokie had struck a nerve. The thought of working terrified her. She felt that trying to find any type of job at the lowest pay imaginable—but possibly enough pay to at least buy her cigarettes and maybe an ice cream at the ice stand when the mood struck—was beyond her ability and experience. Lorraine had never volunteered, especially not as a retiree, when there was perfect opportunity to meet other people, to socialize, to “network” as they called it these days. What had she done? What was she doing now? Why was she afraid to make any kind of change? Or was it simply inertia? Lorraine admitted to herself that she was maybe a little agoraphobic, but not seriously. She enjoyed going out and shopping (when she had the money to shop) and talking to people while shopping. Was she so averse to risk or change that she would rather suffer stoically than attempt to improve the essentials of her circumscribed life? Improve things just a little?

Lorraine thought it would be fine to have a job like one of the ladies on QVC, something elegant and tasteful as opposed to a demeaning low-paying retail job, like working as a greeter at Walmart. After the check came and she was able to buy cigarettes, she took a drive over to Walmart’s to buy them instead of the drugstore. She was trying to kill two birds with one stone. She’d heard that cigarettes were cheaper at Walmart’s anyway and she wanted to get a feeling for the store and possibly ask a manager or assistant manager if they’d begun to hire greeters for the upcoming holiday season.

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