The Memory

“It’s a shame he left, Darling. It really is.”

Seraphina tore away a layer of paper mache from the elephant sculpture. She sat under a hanging spotlight. The sculpture lay on a white Roman pedestal, her work surface. The studio smelled of a blend of stale starch, shellac, and rosemary.

Claire looked out the window. “When did he close shop?”

Seraphina took a knife and sawed around the elephant’s feet. “Two weeks ago. Not that it was a surprise. Everyone’s leaving... eventually. He had a client the day before, so I thought he might stay around a little while longer. With his prices, a single client could’ve paid his rent for another month.”

Claire squinted, accentuating the wrinkles around her eyes, at the empty faux European-style storefront. A few late-blooming impatiens bravely brightened the flowerbed in front of dove-blue chipping paint. The door was blank. The window sill was crushed under the effects of rot. Inside was vacant, except an empty gold-leaf frame propped against the wall.

Seraphina neatly re-arranged her turquoise shawl over her shoulder. A lock of grey hair tumbled into her eye. She pushed it away. “It’s funny. And despicable. So many years, so many scams. He was a pro in so many ways. Held onto paintings for too long. I knew what he was up to. I could see him from here. It’s the alignment of the windows. Very talented, but despicable. But that didn’t matter. He was a fixture. Always here. Now there are so few of us left. Just Sally’s handbags and that Italian restaurant, really.”

“And the hair salon.” Claire stiffened.

The hair salon’s door opened, and an elderly man shuffled into sight. His gait was feeble, yet persistent. But he was alone. Nearby, a settled flock of ravens, disturbed, lifted into flight. They flurried down the tunnel of storefronts and dispersed. The man disappeared.

“They opened six months ago.” Seraphina scooched her chair around the pedestal. “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were the last? I was disappointed when Cathy and her husband left. Remember the shoe store? Arrived when I did.”

Claire recalled it. The exterior wall was canary yellow, and the window was embossed with images of shoes: heels, boots, and flats. “They left a giant wreath in the display window.”

“We all leave something behind, Darling. That’s our way of reminding the world what it’s missing.”

Claire turned away from the window. “What about you?”
 Seraphina chuckled. “I’m still here. For this moment. See this elephant? I’ve named her Ariadne Oliver. I received the commission two days ago. My customer wants to replace the finial on the foyer staircase with something shocking. Said she wanted something to watch the front door. She could just get a dog for that. But, this person is elephant crazy. Like a crazy cat lady, but not cats. Elephants.”

“Are you accepting more commissions?”

She shook her head. “Not now. Too much is going on. Maybe later.” She smiled at her friend. “Thank you for stopping in. It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

“Well I was on the road - had to go to the UPS drop box. It’s across the street from here, and I couldn’t imagine driving by without making that left turn. Such a scary turn. But I had to drop in and see you.” Claire clasped both of Seraphina’s frail hands. “It’s remarkable what you’ve achieved here. So inspirational.”

Seraphina smiled. She was taller than her height, and her eyes held the glint of her former flamboyance. Yes, she was proud of her work.

Claire waved and left the room. The bell jingled as the door shut.

Seraphina watched the closed door. She trembled, and her shawl slipped. Her eyes softened. She picked up a tool and put it down again. Puttering around the workshop, she pulled a letter from a stack. Did Claire know? She opened the letter and glanced at its words. She dropped the letter without reading it and returned to her sculpture.

Everything gets torn down eventually, she thought. Forcing us to leave. For what? A retirement home, Darling. Meanwhile, everyone complains about the lack of young people in the area...

She laughed at the irony.

* * *

Claire hobbled past the hallowed shells. "Should I have mentioned the newspaper article? Why I came? The real reason?" She saw an empty newspaper box and wondered if it had held that newspaper, that headline. A retirement home? Really?

Light pop music rustled the stillness. She rounded a corner. A flag flapped in the breeze, greeting her with the name of the restaurant. She glanced at the white scattered Bistro tables, chairs angled for arriving guests. No one was in sight.

"A Mad Hatter’s tea party. Just for me and the birds."

Claire shivered and hurried to the parking lot. Her car, completely isolated, was in the middle of the great asphalt sea. It was her life-line. She darted to it.

The shopping plaza grew quiet as she drove away. A cloud blew across the sky. When her car was out of sight, the buildings, the pavement, fell under shadow.

It darkened — nobody had ever been there.