Jessie parked her car in the usual space and walked down the alley to the flower shop back door, just to see if the man in the alley was still there. He had taken up residence in the alley just before Christmas and was making himself at home. The other shopkeepers didn’t seem to mind and the owner of the Thai restaurant across the street was feeding him dinner almost every night. He hadn’t done any harm and bothered no one, so no one felt the need to hustle him on his way to another part of town. Patrons of Coffee Culture would stop by and have a chat with him and offer coffee and muffins.
The shops weren’t open past nine, so no one really knew if he slept there, even though he did have a rolled up sleeping bag tied to his duffle bag, and the winter was quite mild this year with little to no snow. One of the shopkeepers had heard that he was eating at the Knights Table, Peel’s community soup kitchen, and sleeping at the Salvation Army’s men’s shelter on Wilkinson Road.
Jessie didn’t like it. Every time she saw him she felt anxious. There was something about him that she didn’t like, but she couldn’t put a finger on it. He just seemed suspicious, like an undercover cop. He didn’t look like your average homeless person, not that she was stereotyping.
As she turned around to unlock the door, she could feel his eyes upon her and the hair at the back of her neck stood on end. She stepped into the shop and quickly locked the door behind her, shaking off a cold shiver that went up her spine. She went to her office, slung her bag on a chair, and hung her jacket. She still had half an hour before opening the shop so she took the opportunity make a pot of coffee using the fresh roasted beans that Eli had bought for her and to catch up on some paperwork.
Denise and Rose had the week off. Jessie and Eli had gone on a trip to the Caribbean over Christmas and they took care of business while she was away; now it was their turn to take some time off. This time of year was always slow anyway.
Jessie spent much of the morning doing paperwork and getting ready for income tax season. It was a very good year for the shop and she was pleased. She thought about her friend and mentor, Oscar Herrman, and hoped that he’d be proud of her for making such a success of his business. She stood up and bopped her coffee cup against a picture of him she had hung on the wall of her office. It was an old black and white photo and it showed Oscar in the alley with a few other shopkeepers. She stared at the picture and imagined what it would be like to live in that time. Oscar was a sharp-dressed man and a handsome one at that. As she stared at the picture an odd feeling came upon her and that anxious feeling came over her again. The coffee cup slipped from her hand and fell to the floor. Standing behind Oscar, in what looked to be the same style of clothes, was the man from the alley.
“No, way, that can’t be,” she said to herself, staring at the image. She took the picture down and rummaged the drawers for a magnifying glass.
The man in the picture did resemble the man from the alley, down to the army style boots and beret. It was truly uncanny, but logic told Jessie that it just couldn’t be. Just then, the front door chimes signaled a customer. She quickly hung the picture on the nail and went to the front.
When she came back the picture had fallen to the floor and a chunk of plaster had popped out of the wall. “Goddamn it!” she said.
She picked up the picture, happy that it wasn’t broken, and inspected the wall. She did have some supplies in the storage room and went to fetch some plaster and a trowel. Jessie was a Jill-of-all-trades and never procrastinated, if she could help it. She found the plaster and patched up the wall in no time at all. She cleaned up the spilled coffee, but there was no fixing the cup, it was a broken beyond repair.
When she was done with the paperwork she went to the storage room once again to fetch some decorations for Valentine’s Day. As she hunted for paper hearts and garland, she recalled last year’s party at her place and thought about how different her life was then.
The girls each had a satisfying and healthy relationship with very mature and good-natured men. The more she thought about it the more she realized that that Eli, Alex, and Randall had become quite good friends, as if they’d known each other all their lives. It was a little unnerving at times, but Jessie concluded that that’s just how some men got along.
She found all the decorations and put them aside, it was still too early to put them up and it was something that the girls did together. Just then, the front door chimed again.
After a late lunch of peanut butter and jam on rye, Jessie once again started thinking about the picture on the wall and headed back to the office. She stared at the man, until her eyes watered. It sure did look like the man in the alley; it was beginning to creep her out. The plaster looked like it had dried so she put the picture back on the nail then left the office.
She spent the rest of the afternoon, cleaning, serving customers, and taking customer phone-in orders. Pretty soon it was closing time and she was glad. Working alone wasn’t any fun, but she did get a lot of things done. She locked the front door and took a look around to make sure everything was in place for the next morning. She took the cash from the register and put it in the deposit bag for the next day, put on her coat and grabbed her bag, and then she was on her way. She slammed the back door shut and locked it up, unaware that the bang had knocked the picture off the wall again, and along with it a bigger chunk of plaster. She looked around and saw no sign of the alley man; she was glad. She rushed to her car and sped home. Back at the alley, behind the dumpster, the alley man grew restless.