I didn't really know Bonnie. She was the lady behind the checkcashing/stamp-selling counter at my favorite grocery store. Bonnie's counter sat across from the coffee window so she saw everyone who ordered coffee. Bonnie had these insane hot pink dragon lady finger nails, and a short dyed blond mop that looked like a wig. A couple of years ago she got a perm that looked slightly poodlish, but I complimented her anyway. Her face suggested a couple of trips around the block, and she favored peach cake make-up and had tired blue eyes. Bonnie cackled at everyone's jokes, knew everyone's name. Sometimes her work friend Marilyn joined her behind the counter and they'd call out to regulars they liked like carnival hawkers. "How's your little boy?" they'd call out. "Big!" I'd say, and they'd reminisce outloud to anyone within earshot about how large I was when with child. Bonnie's counter was her stage, her co-workers her family, the customers her audience.
In the dead of winter, I'd see Bonnie standing outside in subzero temperatures smoking a Virginia Slim in a thin red quilted coat. Bonnie had that subtle hardcore vibe that, for better or worse, I can relate to. She wore big costume jewelled pins, turtles with fake emerald spots on their back and the like. I wondered if she lived alone and watched tv when not working, which I had no business wondering. Everyone has a few Bonnies in their life. People they see more often than their closest friends because they work at the businesses you haunt almost daily. Bonnie weighed and stamped countless manuscripts and grant applications for me. "I think this one's lucky!" she'd say encouragingly adding an extra "priority" stamp on the front to make me feel important.
She was one of the first people I told about selling my first book, and she reacted the way I wanted everyone to; "Oh, I'm so proud of you!" she said with glee while calling over her co-workers to share our good news. Every subsequent visit solicited, "How's the book?" I explained it wouldn't be out for a year or two upon selling which never deterred Bonnie from asking "How's the book?" several times a week.
Last fall I asked how she was doing, and she said, "Not so good." She went on to tell me that "they'd" found cancer in her jaw and she would have to undergo chemo and radiation and hope that it hadn't spread. "I'm scared," she said. So honest, so not a thing we say to the people we should be saying such things to. "You're gonna be fine," I told her because I didn't know what else to say. After radiation she had a nice glossy ash blond wig, but Bonnie didn't look well. "How's the book?" she asked. Then she was gone for a while, and was back right before Christmas and she had a ropelike scar running from her jawline to below her collar. She was diminished to less than half her solid size, her eyes were lost, she shouldn't have been working. I walked up to her and hugged her hard and said "Merry Christmas" and didn't ask her how she was doing, but wanted to make sure she had lots of friends and family around her. "Oh ya..." she trailed off. I embraced her hard, and cried in my car.
Then I didn't see her. Finally in February I asked Marilyn how Bonnie was doing. "Oh honey, no one told you? She passed on three weeks ago. I can't believe I'm never going to see her again." Marilyn put on her game face because at their very fancy grocery store, you do not burden the customers, but Marilyn was struggling. They weren't supposed to talk about the time Sal, the most popular cashier in the joint, mysteriously quit or when Marcella had a stroke. I always tried to break them down and get the story; occasionally one of the ladies would quickly get me up to date under her breath. Bonnie always told me the scoop. Upon hearing about Bonnie's demise, I quickly went about my shopping and by the time I got to the coffee section late in the order of things, I started crying. I cried through paper goods, toiletries, candy, and frozen foods. When checking out, I told my cashier, "I'm sad about Bonnie." "Oh, I know. The poor dear," she said because that's about all they're supposed to say in order to keep up the appropriate customer/employee boundaries. Bonnie didn't have those boundaries, and I'm grateful. I need those daily check ins and small talk and sharing of trivial information and life changing with relative strangers. My book comes out next week and I wish I could tell Bonnie it was finally out.