Saturday, May 27, 2017


Settling on a pair of gold lamé slide sandals, Karen ambled through the aisles of the Pay-Less toward the cashier to make her purchase. Dull back pain near her shoulder was a reminder of the additional part-time job she had taken on; a paper route in which she delivered the local paper at 4:00 a.m. each morning.

“God, I’m getting too old for this,” she thought.

At 46 years old, overweight, and with chronic sinus congestion, Karen Hornbeck had worked full-time since she was 18 years old. Never having attended college, she married soon after high school, had two children, divorced, and now struggled to make ends meet. The paper route would help her catch up on the credit card debt she had accumulated over the past eight months.

Suddenly remembering the reason for her trip to Pay-Less, she turned and headed toward the men’s department. Her son, Lee, was home for the summer after having completed his first year away at college and had obtained a part-time job at a nearby manufacturing warehouse. Steel-toed boots were required.

“I baby him too much,” she muttered.

But leaving the house before he awoke in order to obtain the work boots he needed was typical of Karen. Lee was her oldest child and had done well by obtaining a small scholarship at a state college. Although it was a ten-hour drive away, Karen had often made the round trip during weekends in order to bring various items she thought he needed. In reality, she was simply a very lonely woman – a reality Karen could not admit to herself.

Having found the size 10 boots, she made the purchase and drove toward his new workplace.

B L I manufactured traffic channeling devices – something motorists see every day but never think about. Now that Lee was working there, Karen began to notice the wooden, triangular orange-and-white objects here and there along the streets of her town. If workers were patching up a street, the B L I barricades would be there, ensuring that traffic would be directed around the work site. Lee’s summer job entailed loading the barricades onto delivery trucks each morning then unloading and storing them as they were returned.  Karen felt a small surge of pride as she noticed one perched over a pothole, its little yellow light blinking away.

Karen pulled into the gravel parking lot of the B L I site and found her way to the entrance of the commercial building. A receptionist, somewhat younger than Karen, gave a friendly greeting and Karen explained that she needed to get the work boots to her son. The receptionist paged Lee’s supervisor and the two women waited for him to return the call.

While they waited, Karen struck up a conversation with the friendly receptionist, Dariece.

“What does B L I stand for, by the way?” Karen queried.

“Barricade Lites, Incorporated,” was Dariece’s response. “But for the longest time, I didn’t even know!”

Mutual laughter ensued.

Friendliness toward others had long been Karen’s antidote to loneliness. However, conversations with anyone were frequently turned toward herself. If someone mentioned their pet, Karen’s response would revolve around an instance about her own. If the other party had been involved in a car accident, Karen relayed a tale of a worse accident that she had been in or knew of.

Finally, Lee appeared and the work boots were handed over. Karen displayed her newly purchased gold slide sandals from the shopping bag, over which Dariece feigned admiration. As Karen was leaving, she and Dariece exchanged pleasantries which Karen interpreted as a friendship being initiated.

“Let’s go out to lunch sometime!” Karen bantered. Dariece replied in the affirmative, mainly out of politeness.

Over the next two months, Karen would often stop by B L I with something her son might need – a lunch, an article of clothing, a forgotten asthma inhaler – And these visits turned into chats with Dariece as Lee would be paged. Smiles or laughter on Dariece’s part were always interpreted as camaraderie on Karen’s.

Soon, it was time for Lee’s return to college and his summer job came to a close. With Lee back at college, Karen was lonelier than ever. She continued with her early-morning paper route, slowly paying down her credit card. A weekend visit to Lee was made within a month after the semester began.

One day in October, Karen was driving along near the B L I location where Lee used to work.

“I should stop in and see Dariece,” she thought.

As usual, Karen had an exaggerated sense of the friendship, thinking her visits were needed. Such was her interpretation of every friendship; a falsity which was the cause of her loneliness.

“Hey, Dariece!” she called upon entering.

There was no reply.

As Karen rounded her way into the receptionist’s area, the first thing she noticed was lone table where Dariece once sat. A phone, a company directory on a placard, and printed instructions to dial the extension of the person the visitor wished to see were the only objects displayed.

Karen tried three different extensions, only to receive voice mails. 

Saddened and a bit bewildered, Karen slowly walked back to her car -- The crunching of gravel under her gold slide sandals was the only sound in the empty parking lot of B L I.