I expect the unexpected in my line of work for we film mystery thrillers with much action based on true life events. It’s early fall and this mysterious real-life event happened to me some months ago during the summer. I wasn’t looking for another peacoat. I wouldn’t need it. I already have one. A black one. But a deep blue like this one would be a good addition to the wardrobe.
It was only the second day of this outdoor market and no one, it seemed, had given buying the peacoat a second thought. Why would they? Who needs a warm coat with the temperature already in the seventies at sunrise. I was about to walk away and a saleslady appeared from the mist.
It was daylight, but still early morning. The air was still and I was focused on the aroma of omelets, hash-browns, and waffles with maple syrup wafting from the cafe at the corner. On this occasion and the foreseeable future, it would be the veggie, egg white omelet and green smoothie, large. Some merchants were still rolling out displays, folding and stacking shirts and sweatpants; displaying sneakers and sandals, and hanging men’s and women’s suits.
“I would buy it myself...the peacoat, but it’s a couple of sizes too big,” the saleslady, Sonja said. “When it first arrived,” Sonja continued. That’s what her name tag read. “I thought, that won’t last ten seconds. I’m about to set it aside and my sister--who my aunt will think bought it for her boyfriend--will be here in ten minutes and pick it up for me if this last number she called me from is hers. Auntie doesn’t like to check the books and receipts and see that I keep buying stuff. She says it’s bad business. And I won’t make any money. I couldn’t pass up these black and white oxfords. I could run a few miles in these.”
“But yet the peacoat is still here,” I replied.
“Arms are too long. It falls fall too far below my waist,” she stated. “I look like a nine-year-old wearing her father’s coat.”
I said, “alterations shop is four to five doors down on the left.”
“I know,” Sonja had said smiling cocking her head sideways. “But this is for somebody special. A jacket too nice, too sharp to be butchered.” Half of me believed she was making the sale. The other half of me believed she truly felt as much the way she ran her hand over the collar, the buttons. The way her gaze had fallen on the coat after hanging it face forward for us to see it better.
I didn’t need to be sold. The coat is sharp, we agreed. Black buttons, deep blue wool. I just wasn’t sure I needed it. “I’m not a spontaneous shopper. I noticed I collect a lot of clutter,” I told her. She hadn’t heard a word I said. She was in a trance, eyes still fixed on the coat.
Sonja said, her thumb and forefinger moving along the waist of the peacoat. “I don’t know... they’ve probably been cutting and sewing all their lives. Who am I to question their skills? Maybe I will have it altered,” she stated.
She had lifted the hanger and coat off the rack. “Hold on,” I said. Was this a part of her sales routine? Would the peacoat be here when I cruised through tomorrow? Would it be back on the rack, or was she really going to purchase and alter it? And would auntie subsequently fire her and ban her and her sister from the store? The alterations shop would do a great job fitting the coat to her specifications and I believed she knew as much.
She would look good in it. As she did in the blue suit with the yellow mock blouse and yellow handkerchief hanging from her breast jacket pocket. The oxfords were black on the heel and toe and white in the center. “Sonja,” I had to call for the second time as she was moving around the edge of the rack toward the store. She spun on her heel and peered at me from around the edge. Her brown hair with light brown streaks covered one side of her face. “I’ll take the coat,” I said. “You sold me.”
“You sure,” she said with a smile. She was glad to make a sale, yet moments ago she could see herself in the peacoat stylish and warm in the fall. She pulled out her phone and said,” You can slide your card right across the top here the receipt will show up on your phone in ten seconds and the transaction will show up in your bank account as Realm. That’s the name of our store. Well, again auntie’s store. I just work here.” I slid my card through and instantly the transaction showed on my phone...for my receipt and in my bank account. “Ten seconds, huh. More like less than one.”
“Well we know people don’t have time to throw away where I come from,” she said. By this time she had reached to the bottom of the rack, pulled a clear bag and slipped the peacoat in it and finished tying off the bottom.
“And where is that?” I reply.
“Here, in Third City,” she said handing me the bag.
I nod, “I can’t disagree,”
“You better get to that breakfast,” Sonja said looking toward the end of the street.
“And what makes you think I’m going to breakfast?” I ask.
“I’ve been in there with you on occasion,” she replies.
“You have?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied with a smile.
“You stalking me?” I asked.
She smiled, gazed at me. “Look around. You see all these shops, apartment buildings, Freedom Park train station is the busiest on the eastbound line. You think you’re the only one who could use a green smoothie or two.”
“Maybe you’d like to join me?” I asked
“I’d like to,” she replied. “But the next flood of passengers to come out of the train station will be the first wave of customers to set the tone for the rest of the day and possibly the week. We could always set aside another day.”
“That we could,” I said.
“Friday,” she said.
“Friday,” it is.
“See you around, Sonja.
After I picked up my omelet and two smoothies. I went straight to the studio. I had time before we finished storyboarding and started filming. I decided I would try the coat on. It was a good fit. Sonja said it was secondhand, but it looked brand new. Buttons are sewn on tight, not a thread out of place, not a rip or a hole where a moth made its brunch.
After I tried it on I heard something clink against the pen in my breast pocket. A thin piece of round metal the size of the palm of my hand. On the metal was Sonja’s picture. Inscribed on the other side of the metal was a name, her name, Sonja Morrison. The shop was only about seven minutes away. I had about twenty minutes before we started work. I decided not to wait until Friday to return the picture coin. When I arrived at the shop, there was a lady steaming suits removing the wrinkles.
“Hello,” I said. “I need to return something to Sonja.”
“Sonja?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.
“Yes,” she replied. She sold me a blue peacoat this morning. Here’s the receipt.”
“I see the receipt came from this store,” the saleslady said frowning. “But I’ve been the only one here today. Who sold you this?”
“The receipt says: your sales clerk today was Sonja,” I said.
The saleslady looked at the receipt again. “And what did you have to return to her?”
“This coin,” I pulled the coin from my pocket. I showed her the engraved name and then flipped it over to the picture.
The sales lady stopped steaming the suits and took the coin. She read the engraving. Then flipped it over to the picture. “Well, is she in the store?” I asked. “Did she go to the cafe?” The saleslady said nothing. She kept staring at the picture on the coin. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but I had to get back to work. The saleslady reminded me of my grandmother. So I asked again, “do you know where Sonja went?”
“Yes,” the saleslady said gazing knowingly into somewhere I wasn’t privy. “Sonja is my sister. She died forty years ago. She was twenty-one. I was twenty-three. We both worked in the store. There were a few other shops on this street like the dry cleaners, that hardware store, and the diner has been in that family decades before we opened up.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I guess you’ll hear the story soon enough,” she said. “Sonja and I both were scheduled to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We both arrived at eight. I asked Sonja to cover for me while my boyfriend and I and some more friends go to a beach barbecue thrown by the college. I was soon to be a graduate student. I told her I would be back early afternoon to help with the closing rush. I lost track of time. I didn’t make it back when I said I would.
“But you eventually made it back?” I asked.
“Yes. But it was too late,” she replied. “Some threats had been made against the shops in this area. All my aunt said was ‘I build it and they want me to pay protection money. Protection from who?’ We wouldn’t get the full story until after the fire. Since my aunt and the rest of the shop owners wouldn’t pay protection money to the “just crooks” she called them they razed the whole area.
"It was supposed to be a warning," she added. "But it spread so fast the fire department could only contain it to this area. They could not stop it. And Sonja...Sonja had locked up and had fallen asleep in the back office of the shop waiting for me to pick her up. The peacoat? It was our father’s. It was never to be sold. I guess she wanted you to have it. My father and I? Our relationship was never the same after Sonja died.