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"Hello!" I said, eyeing him from the tile landing that linked our two flights of stairs. "Been to the Chinese place?"

He raised his head to reply. "Yep." He flashed a grin as mischievous as the fabled Cheshire Cat’s. Then, wobbling backward, grabbed the handrail to better-navigate the stairs.

My brain took action—was this too much alcohol or too little blood sugar? I couldn’t tell. The two were so much alike—slurred speech, loss of balance, silly demeanor. I’d heard of police mistaking hypoglycemic diabetics for drunks and throwing them into a cell to sober up, only to find them dead a few hours later. It always topped my list of worries whenever Mike failed to show up as expected.

Without further comment, I climbed to the upper level, walked directly into the kitchen. I poured a small glass of juice and stirred in some sugar. I would offer it to him when he made it up the stairs. If his sugar was low, it would help. If he was only drunk, well, maybe it would absorb some of the liquor. If it was both? Time would tell.

"Want some juice?" I held the glass out to him.

"Nah."

I would have to cajole. "How about a cup of coffee?" He seldom refused coffee, and the probability of his eating something with it was good.

"Okay." He grabbed hold of the kitchen counter to steady himself.

I filled the coffee maker and plugged it in.

Slurred in speech and content, Mike began retelling jokes he’d picked up from his mates at the Chinese Restaurant. This was not his typical low blood sugar behavior of barely thinking, barely communicating. He must be drunk.

I cringed at his language while grabbing a block of cheese from the fridge—a food I’d never known him to refuse. I whacked off a few slices.

He laughed and laughed, enjoying his disgusting drivel.

Suddenly, while gesturing during a joke, he rocked backward and couldn’t save his balance. Hands held up, he let his body fall. "Wheeeeeee!," he squealed, dropping full-length to the floor, half in and half out of the kitchen, the back of his head nearly slamming into the corner of the stair wall.

"What are you trying to do? Kill yourself?" I hurried to help him up.

"Yep." He stood, grinning, his balance unsure.

I swallowed my frustration, sensing this would be a battle I didn’t want. "Why don’t you turn on the eleven o’clock news, and I’ll bring your coffee?"

"Okay." He went to the living room, turned on the television, and plopped down into his chair.

While he took off his work boots, I brought coffee and cheese. When he began eating, I left him there to eat, drink, and fall asleep.

Long hours of daily hard work at the shop and waiting for and worrying about Mike most every night filled the summer but drained my strength—physical and mental. Mike’s drinking continued, with aberrant behavior and middle-of-the-night insulin reactions.

June pushed into July. I spent the low-traffic days creating a promotional newsletter—clothing and fabric care tips, coupons, and upcoming trends I had read about in the regional apparel trade paper.

In addition to the troubling situation at home, I’d grown weary of women who came into the store to insult my intelligence by purposefully damaging my goods and then asking for a discount. They would leave streaks of makeup on the clothing they tried and rejected, they’d leave body-odor on expensive silk blouses, and they’d burst apart seams of dresses by forcing themselves into a too-small size.

It wasn’t long before I realized that most women were coming into the store not to buy clothing, but to sign up for my newsletter, or ask who did the interior decorating.

Working alone in the evenings brought weekly obscene phone calls, plus others that caused me to chase back and forth between clothes racks and phone, checking sizes and prices on "a formal dress needed for a fraternity prank." I finally figured that it must’ve been some screwball at a common area pay phone, watching as I tried to accommodate his untoward requests. I learned from other female shop owners that they also got those phone calls when working alone at night.

Daylight hours brought other concerns, like the two teeny-boppers who frequented my store to visit and giggle and take time I could have spent on business-building efforts. When I displayed a board of three-dollar earrings that summer, the girls’ attention turned to those. They bought.

Next I showed them a new selection of blouses and sweaters, asking which their mothers might like. They settled on my eclectic sweater collection, so when the holiday apparel market came in August, I ordered heavy on gorgeous sweaters in silk, cotton, and acrylic fibers. Also, I began to remind the girls to let their fathers know about the wonderful sweaters that would be available for gift-giving.

At that same apparel market, I signed up for a course in personal color-consulting offered by the owner of a beginning cosmetic company. I turned one of the dressing-rooms into a color-analysis booth by changing the light bulbs to full-spectrum. I took the course and was presented with a Certified Color Consultant certificate. By agreement, I also carried a line of her cosmetics in the store. I posted a "Color Consulting Done Here" sign in the display window, and my evenings quickly filled with appointments.

I had Linda’s daughter stay longer on color-analysis nights, which allowed me to complete a consultation without interruption.

Those appointments, along with a few sales of large size polyester mother-of-the-bride dresses I had purchased on-site at the trade center, increased the cash-flow enough to cover utilities and merchant association dues. The shop rent, bank loan payment and minimum wages for part-time help came from Mike’s pay checks. It worried me.

Sales picked up in late October and early November, as eager holiday shoppers discovered our store—perhaps because of a small sandwich board sign I made and placed by the escalators on the upper level. Or maybe because I started mailing that monthly newsletter in July.

I anticipated a profitable year-end, until the mall management decided to (1) keep removing my upper level signs and, (2) allow a popular retailer to open a large space just down the hall from me on a thirty-day lease in mid-November. That retailer filled the space with inexpensive pants and sweaters—lots of sweaters. Traffic to my store virtually ceased. I could not complete, price-wise.

Many of the merchants were vocally upset about the management allowing a "thirty-day-wonder" into the mall when the rest of us paid monthly merchant dues and served the customers all year long. Our complaints landed on deaf ears. The off-price store closed and moved out just before Christmas.

The feeling of failure visited me once again. Was there anything left that could crush my best efforts?

Yes. Somewhere in that time-frame I received a letter to "cease and desist" using the name Dress Me Beautiful, citing copyright infringement to a popular, similarly named personal color consulting business.

I called the attorney in Seattle who had prepared our wills, and explained the letter.

"Did you start in business to specifically do color consulting?"

"No. Women’s quality apparel. The color-consulting came later, through a vendor at a Trade Center show."

"Does the color consulting you do create more than twenty-percent of your yearly business income?"

"No."

"Then, I believe you could fight this in court and win, but—the big question is—can you afford it?"

"Probably not. I’m struggling now."

"Okay, Helen. Answer the letter, and indicate you will comply within the next sixty days by changing the name of your store."

"Okay. I will, with regret. Thank you so much."

"You’re welcome. And remember, evidently someone saw your store and deemed it a threat to their business—that’s a compliment! Good luck to you."

Oh Dear God, help me see my way through this mess. Please.


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