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Archive for August, 2011

Wearing a cotton shirt, a sport coat, jeans and sneakers, Gabe drove down to Mayersburg the following Sunday afternoon. He planned to visit Bill after his appointment with Rebecca Harmon.

He thought about her and resolved to be careful. His subconscious mind, concocting that dream he’d had in his office two days before, had trained upon her in such an overwhelming way. Gabe knew himself; he would never intentionally speak or act inappropriately to a woman. However, words possess a Freudian slipperiness, he thought. Eventually he would be ready for a relationship with someone. But not yet. Gayle lingered so durably in his mind and resisted all efforts to forget her. I can’t even put away her picture! he reminded himself. For now, he turned up the car stereo. He lazily flipped through the channels, looking for a particular song. Giving up, he inserted his favorite Al Stewart disc into the stereo.

He arrived in Mayersburg just before three. Mayersburg’s streets were very quiet; not much activity, he thought, just like Norris. Sunday afternoons seem a time when small town people flee from public view. He glimpsed Becky standing beside her old truck outside her shop. She waved to him as he parked his car.

“Hi, there!” she said as they met in front of her shop. She wore a tee shirt and vest with jeans and her brown sandals. “Why don’t you let me drive?” she said to him.

“Thank you so much for taking the time to do this,” Gabe said politely, carrying with him a thermos of coffee. He felt very self-conscious but tried not to show it. “Where’s Sotheby?”

“He’s home snoozing,” she said. They got inside and Gabe said, “I love this truck,” as he poured them coffee.

“Thanks. It was my grandpop’s.”

“That’s neat! I’m an old car buff. It’s in such terrific shape.”

“Lots of love on my part, and mechanical skill on the part of others! It has a new engine and interior.” She kicked her sandals off and depressed the pedals with her toes. She started the truck and put the gear into first. Shyly, he began to chat with her. “So ‘Harmon 1898,'” as he looked up at the facade. “Your great-grandfather, you said?”

She had planned to tell him about Mayersburg first, but whatever. She put the truck into neutral. “Yes. Jacob Harmon was his name,” she said. “Your grandfather says he knew him. Jacob died in 1929. You’re a historian, so I’ll tell you about him. Jacob’s father Peter Harmon was in an Illinois division of the Civil War and came back to Mayersburg when discharged in 1865. Got through the war without a scratch, as the story goes, but he lived only a few years after that–he contracted diphtheria–and he died when Jacob was a year old.”

“How sad.”

“Yeah. Jacob grew up fending for himself, I’ve been told, and started a blacksmith shop in downtown Mayersburg when he was only fourteen,” she said, sipping the coffee. “Eventually he got into hardware and opened a shop. He had enough money by the time he was about, oh, our age to build this building.”

“Gosh, I barely know anything about my own grandparents–too peripatetic a childhood, I guess–and you even know about your great-grandparents. So this was a hardware store, originally.”

Something about his manner put her at ease. She felt more comfortable with him than she had before. He seemed sincerely interested in what she had to say, not merely, it seemed to her, from a general interest in history or from an obvious need to impress her. “Yes, he also carried saddles and harnesses. My grandparents got this place going as a clothes shop in the 1930s. Their names were Arthur and Louise Harmon; this was Arthur’s truck, in fact. My folks took over the store in the 1950s.”

“So it’s really a family business.”

“Yeah. Mama and Dad retired just before K-Mart moved to town. They didn’t want to compete with corporations, Dad said. By then I’d moved back to town and really wanted to start a shop here. So that’s what I eventually did.”

“Interesting. So what got you started in antiques?”

“Well, my parents didn’t have children for many years. They finally had only me, fourteen years after they married. They wanted to get their business going first.”

“A real modern couple,” he said, sipping the coffee.

Becky chuckled. “In that way, I guess. But my parents were hilarious people!” She took another sip.

“Oh?” he said, interested. “Tell me about them.”

“Well, my mother was a character,” she said. “A real card, as they say. A person who chose to be happy and was happy. ‘That your joy may be full’ was her favorite Bible verse. She also loved to cite passages that referred to mirth and joy, and she liked to find humor in the Bible.”

“‘Humor’?”

“Yeah, like in Acts, when Peter’s friends are praying ‘fervently’ for him while he’s in prison. But when God releases him and he tries to see his friends, they said, ‘That can’t be Peter, he’s dead!’ Mama enjoyed making people, well, not uncomfortable, but surprised. She’d say God placed her here to put a little happy disorder into people’s lives.”

“Really?” Gabe smiled. He enjoyed her talk. She seemed so natural.

“Well, for instance, she once put a mannequin dressed up as a vampire in one of the dressing rooms of the store–this was around Halloween time–but she didn’t tell anyone till they found it.” Becky laughed at the memory. “She lost some customers that way, for a while anyway. But they came back. Another year she installed carnival mirrors in the dressing rooms. Mirrors that broadened your image in the hip region. With some of the local ladies, that went over worse than the vampire.” She told him about playing hopscotch in front of the store and about Anna’s publicity photographs.

“Sounds like a fun person.”

“Yeah. Back in the fifties, my folks advertised roller skates for carhops. There was a root beer restaurant in Mayersburg at that time, and other teenage hangouts. Mama advertised bras-for-burning once.”

Gabe laughed.

“That was during the late-1960s, of course. During the civil rights movement Mama and Dad put black mannequins in the display windows. Not many blacks lived in Mayersburg at that time, but my folks decided that the locals needed their consciousness raised. I’m surprised someone didn’t break out the window. Mama would’ve forgiven them, though. She ‘let go’ of things very easily. She was both emotionally and spiritually very strong. I owe my parents a lot.”

“That’s wonderful!” he said, thinking of his own parents. “Sounds like your parents had strong values. Did they have to deal with much racial prejudice in the town?”

“Not so much. But any is too much, of course. Hanover County is only about 5 to 10% African-American, but that’s a substantial increase from the period before about 1970. My parents had to stand up to a certain amount of prejudice. So do I, but not nearly so much…

“Every once in a while,” she continued, “Mama loved to dress the window mannequins in something so outrageously out of style. Once, during the early eighties, she had a male dummy dressed in a Nehru jacket with bell-bottoms. One of her last tricks was to take one of Dad’s old outfits–a seventies-style jacket with enormous lapels and this awful, wide, loud tie–and put it in the window. Dad hated that but didn’t cross her. Mama’s display window was a running gag in town. She seldom used it to display the latest fashions. Some locals remember when Dad and Mama set up a TV set in their window back in 1951–one of the first TVs in town. Dad and Mama also did Nichols and May routines at church and parties. There was one routine about ‘the $65 funeral’ which they always loved to do!”

“You’re speaking of your mom so warmly–almost in the present-tense. I take it she’s not been gone long.”

“Um . . .” Her throat tightened and tears rolled involuntarily down her cheeks. She looked out at the empty downtown street and held the coffee cup for security.

“I’m sorry, Rebecca,” said Gabe, blushing. “I said the wrong thing. Don’t talk about it if you don’t want. I’m sorry.”

She said nothing and Gabe said nothing. He looked down at his hands.

“I’m sorry,” said Becky, retrieving a tissue and blowing her nose. She cleared her throat. “I’m completely mortified,” she said awkwardly.

“Don’t be, it’s all right. I’m sorry I said that.” He felt very foolish.

“No, no, it’s not you . . . You’re going to think I’m some crybaby female. I’m not . . . I guess I’ve been holding all this in, and today was the day it decided to come out . . .” She blew her nose again. “Excuse me. Anyway . . . Mama had a heart attack last March 23rd, right in her and Dad’s house. Just couldn’t breathe–no warning pains or anything. Heart disease, which is what her mother had. Mama only lived a few hours in the hospital.”

“It must be difficult. I’m sure sorry.”

“Yeah. In the emergency room she told the doctor, as long as he was operating on her she also wanted a face-lift. A stupid joke, but she let out a big laugh, which she was known for. ‘Yuck, yuck against the dying of the light,’ to paraphrase Dylan Thomas. Then she slipped into a coma within a few minutes … Anyway–” said Becky, recovering. “My dad’s just like her, only his humor is very dry. He loves to tease people. He’s not taken Mama’s death very well–at least it seems to me that he isn’t, although Pastor says he’s managing okay. Dad stays around the house mostly, watching television, chewing his cigars.”

“He sounds like a good fellow.”

“We’re very close. We speak our minds to each other.”

“I’m shocked!” he teased good-naturedly.

She looked at him with reddened eyes and saw he was kidding her. She grinned. “I’ve always been close to both my folks. They had a wonderful marriage.” She paused. “So, Mayersburg. What do you want to know about it?” She put the truck into first.

“Tell me how you got started in the antique business.”

She put the truck into neutral. “Well, I was a business major in college but I took an elective course, one of those courses you take just to get the credit hours. It was the only course like that, which still had room in it. It was on ‘material culture,’ you know, how products, household items, architecture, and such reflects the history of a particular culture. Harkness taught it, actually. I was really hooked. My folks liked to go to antique stores when I was little. I never liked going to such stores–they bored me–but another part of me must have enjoyed them because I realized that’s the business I wanted to go into. Growing up here was probably an influence, too. You see all the old signs and storefronts. Mayersburg’s kind of a quaint, antique-y kind of place.”

“Sounds like things worked out really well for you!”

“Yes, they have,” she said, thinking. “I started collecting antiques after college. About that time Mama and Dad were considering retirement. I knew that antique stores have become an economic staple of small towns, ever since shopping malls and corporations began to siphon off trade from independent business people. I always dreamed of running Harmon’s, too. So one thing led to another and here I am.

“I didn’t see your shop very well, but it looks like you’ve got a lot of merchandise.”

“Well, let me show it to you!” she said. She turned the motor off and slipped her sandals back on. They both finished their coffee, then walked to the front door. He gazed, fascinated, at her window display of automotive products. The American flag outside the shop gently brushed the top of his head. “My window’s more thematic than joking these days. I’ve got this display of car and gas antiques right now. I’ve had displays of household items like salt and peppershakers, dolls, glassware, farm equipment, whatever turns me on at the moment. I do have a battery of cardboard cutout figures–the President, Captain Kirk, Marilyn Monroe, funny faces based on 19th-century wood engravings–that sort of thing. I use those for humor, and funny signs. I used to have a sign which read, ‘Will Appraise Carnival Glass For Food.’ People found that tasteless. I can’t imagine why.”

“Can’t imagine!” He noticed a fish symbol beside the door.

“At least it was better than my sign ‘Veterinary Medicine & Taxidermy’.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, ‘either way you get your dog back.'”

Laughing, he looked at the National Register plaque on the side of the building. “That’s impressive!”

“Several downtown buildings received that designation. Harmon’s has been in business for nearly 100 years in the same family, and architecturally it’s a good old Victorian-era commercial building. I’m really proud to work here.” She unlocked the door, turned off the alarm, and locked the door behind them. “Someone might think I’m open. Now, don’t get any ideas!” She poked him in the ribs with her fingertips.

He laughed. “Hey, I’m a gentleman!” He cleared his throat nervously but she didn’t notice.

“Yeah, right,” she teased. “I should’ve asked for references.”

“They’re all bad. I’m a real fiend.”

“Ha! I can tell,” she said, smiling.

“I saw your Christian ‘ichthus’ in the window,” he said.

“Yes, but I sometimes wonder if I should have that. My folks once got a ‘Christian business’ to do some work for them at their house, and the people barely got the job done. My folks had to call them three times. Not all ‘Christian businesses’ are that way, of course, not even most. But I get pissed off at that sort of thing. Following Jesus doesn’t give you the excuse to neglect the simple courtesies of running a business and treating people with love and respect. Why patronize a business just because of their religion if their service doesn’t reflect their faith?”

“I hadn’t thought of all that, although I guess I do agree with you.”

“Sorry about the unsolicited editorial!” she said. “That’s something I feel strongly about, although I guess I should lighten up… Anyway, this is my shop!” They walked back into the store and Gabe viewed more conscientiously the shelves and displays, the tables and cabinets, clocks, figurines, advertisements, jewelry cases, and many other items. She walked ahead of him and said over her shoulder, “It’s an interesting business. You can’t predict monthly sales, of course, so it’s not a business to enter if you feel more secure having a predictable income. But I try to be entrepreneurial and service-oriented, so I’ve made a good reputation in the region and have built a pretty sizable clientele of ‘auntie-que’ collectors. I don’t deal in coins or many record albums or autographs–specialized sorts of things. Just a fairly typical selection. I keep old books downstairs.”

“Do you have any history books?”

“Quite a few! You’re welcomed to look.”

“Oh, I don’t want you to have to wait for me. I’d be looking all afternoon!” He loves books, she thought. “Looks like these used to be dressing rooms,” he said, pointing to a bank of displays of toys. He picked up a Ferdinand the Bull toy, remembering the story from his childhood.

“You’re observant. I took the doors off, built shelves inside and put toys and games in there. When I was a little girl I used to play in the dressing rooms, looking at my multiple reflections.”

“My sisters have small children. I know what you mean. Antiques are something I don’t know much about. I like antique stores, though. Norris seems to have several nice ones. A fellow who attends our church runs a shop.”

“I probably know him. Dealers tend to be in friendly competition with one another.”

“Fred Lander is his name. Nice-seeming fellow–”

“Oh, NO!” she exclaimed. “I hate to get in an auction with him! I think he likes me but he knows he gets on my nerves when he drives the prices up!”

“Professors are a little the same way,” he said. “They get together and try to outdo one another: how many students they have who can’t write a straight sentence, how impressive their CV is, and all that. I don’t care for that kind of talk myself. I like to help students if I can, and not brag to someone about how hard-nosed I am.”

Becky listened to him with interest. She thought he seemed like a good person.

“Why is there a skeleton atop that old bicycle?”

“A subtle joke, a sick subtle joke. Those early bicycles were so dangerous, some people tipped over head first and got killed. I’ll only sell the bike if people promise me they won’t ride it! Or they can buy the skeleton, too. It’s from an old medical school.”

“Look at this,” he said, looking at a framed picture of Jesus.

“Sallman’s ‘Head of Christ.’ It’s not so old, and of course many churches have one. Some people like religious pictures, though. I picked it up somewhere, in a box of other things.”

“Funny, but I never did like that picture, ” he said.

“You don’t like Jesus?” she teased.

“Oh, I like Jesus fine! Terrific fellow!” he teased back. “I just think of Jesus as a little less, well, European let’s say. He was a Middle Eastern Jew, of course. I like to think of him as a rugged-looking carpenter with a big, loving smile but with a hint of sadness in his eyes–someone who’s joyful but knows heartache–and maybe some crow’s feet around his eyes from the sun.”

“I like that, she said. “I do love to think how Jesus identifies with human struggles.”

“Well, I have long days to think about such things,” he said. She didn’t follow up on the “long days” comment. He wasn’t sure if he meant he was busy, or lonely, or both. “Pretty old clock there,” he said.

“A Federal banjo clock.”

“And this?” he asked, picking up another object.

“A hog ringer.” He sure seems interested, she thought. “Okay, we’ll get back to the truck and I’ll take you around.”

“What in the world is this?” he said, picking up an object from a table. He looked curiously at the tag.

“That’s a hair waver. When women wanted to put a wave in their hair, before electric curling irons, they used wavers. You put the metal end in the stove, then put it in your hair.”

“Good grief. That’s interesting. You must need some real talents to be in this business!”

“Well, you’ve got to have knowledge of the market: what’s valuable and what’s not, what will sell and what won’t. Some antiques will sell almost immediately; some are more difficult to move, and that doesn’t depend upon what I myself may like. You’ve also got to have something akin to taste, which in this case is knowing what some hypothetical customer might think is beautiful. Also you have to have some idea of how valuable items are if they’re in excellent condition or if they’re damaged in some way. For instance, a cup and saucer set shouldn’t be chipped or cracked in any way, but a genuine Route 66 sign–I know a fellow who’s after one–could be in terrible shape but still be worth a few hundred dollars. You need a good head for numbers and your current cash-flow, because you can’t carry around a laptop to check your accounts when you’re out buying, you know.”

“Looks like you’re fully set-up, though,” he said, glancing behind her counter as they returned to the front of the store. He noticed her many copies of antique price guides. “That’s a terrific old phone,” he said, thinking of Claudia and his dream.

“Yeah, that’s kind of a joke. It’s a rotary dial but I had it rewired so it would work with the modem. I think of my work as a service to people. I have electronic mail, so I can take people’s antique wants over the computer. I like to see people happy, so I fixed this old phone, and I’ve got this Lionel train to go around the balcony.” She flipped the switch behind the counter; the model train’s sound filled the empty store.

“People think that’s fun. I wish you could see how happy some people are when they find something in the store! Maybe they’ve been looking for a particular antique for a long time, or maybe they see something that reminds them of their childhood. Some people are collectors; some want to redecorate their homes. Lots of times I’m able to find things for people when they request certain antiques; I’ve got networks and contacts. I just live for that look in people’s eyes! I feel like I’m a kind of a conduit for bringing them joy, and also an awareness of their cultural heritage.”

“That’s a wonderful sentiment,” Gabe said, smiling. He liked her so much! The two of them both tried to make history real and meaningful to people. He tried to tell history’s stories. She found its artifacts.

“I’ve also got this CD player–” she turned it on, and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro filled the shop. He grimaced that she left her compact discs in the machine. “People like it, and I LOVE working to music.”

“Same here! I love Mozart.”

So he loves classical music, too, she thought. Very good! “I like Mendelssohn and Prokofiev, too,” he said, “and Wagner.”

“Me too. I love Parsifal–how the wandering hero heals the king’s wound and redeems the realm. Except Kundry is a total loser.” Gabe laughed. “I mean, really! Most of Wagner’s heroines just up and die when they lose their men! Senta, too. Give me a break! Get a backbone, girls!”

She chuckled at herself. “I also love Vaughan Williams, and Copland. I play a lot of those two composers. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a favorite, and Appalachian Spring.”

“I love those, too!” He glanced curiously around the story, absorbing its details. “Who are these people?” he asked, looking at the framed photos behind the counter.

“Everyone who’s operated a business in this location: my parents and me, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents.”

“How wonderful. But it looks like you and your dad are angry in this picture here,” he said, pointing at the family shot. “You’re both glaring”

“I’d just punched him in the nose.”

That made Gabe laugh aloud. “What? He made me mad, that’s all!

“I know it’s a silly picture,” she added. “One thing about it: it was taken the last time our family was together at my great-grandma Harmon’s farm. In fact, Grandpop–Arthur Harmon–took that picture. So it has more sentimental value than photographic quality.”

“Your mother was very pretty,” he said. Then he glanced at the framed magazine cover and blinked his eyes. In the picture Becky wore a sultry and backless, long black dress as she leaned against an antique mantel, her bare arms crossed casually upon the mantel’s shelf. Below the hem, one of her feet stretched idly behind her, showing the curve of her heel and arch and the soft line of her calf. Her sparkling, dark eyes looked out provocatively, yet amused, at the camera. Gabe couldn’t believe how gorgeous she was. “Is that you? That’s a very famous magazine!” he said.

“Oh, don’t look at that!” she said, embarrassed. “That’s not a real issue. Once, when we were both blue about something, my friend Kathy and I once went in and got ‘glamour shots’ of ourselves taken at my cousins’ photography shop here in town. Then she did a paste-up of the magazine as if I really had appeared on the cover. I don’t have a glamorous bone in my body.

“Then that booger charged me for it! But that’s the way she and I act. We dearly love aggravate each other, ever since we were little girls living next door. We pick on her little brother, too. Chuck, Kathy and I are very, very close friends though. They’re like my brother and sister–the ones God gave me instead of ‘real’ siblings. We all have a lot of fun trying to prevent each other from growing up too fast. You know what Mary-Martin-as-Peter-Pan used to say about growing up! Kathy and I also confide in each other about our lives. We tell each other the truth; whenever we’re sad we tell each other we’re pretty and worthwhile. She’s been a wonderful gift to me, many, many times.”

Gabe wondered what the two of them might have said about him. But, he thought, how self-involved to think he’d ever come up in their conversation.

“She’s a very talented artist,” Becky continued. “She likes to do abstracts and also country scenes, local buildings, a little portraiture. She’s real eclectic. She just doesn’t have time to pursue her art.”

“I hope she can find the time,” Gabe said. He deeply missed his own friendships, now separated by geography.

“Here, speaking of pictures, let me show you some better ones than that picture of me!” said Becky. She pulled out one of several scrapbooks filled with snapshots of people. “I like to take pictures of people when they buy something.”

“That’s neat!”

“Not everyone wants me to do it, but it’s fun. Here, you can have this.” She reached over hen counter and handed him a ballpoint pen. “It’s got ‘Harmon’s Clothiers’ on it. I’ve still got hundreds of them, but I’ve been hoarding them nevertheless.”

“Thanks! I appreciate it.”

Becky turned the alarm back on and went to unlock the door. “Now, come on, let’s go,” she said, smiling, shooing him along. “You’re asking me so many questions, for pete’s sake!” His eagerness put her at ease yet also made her impatient. She opened the door and held it for him.

“Here–let me get the door for you. I’m sorry, I’m just enjoying this,” he continued, “I’m not usually so inquisitive.” She locked the door from the outside. Gabe said, “Like I said the other day, people say I take charge too much. You have so much merchandise. A lot of rabbits, too!”

They walked to her truck and got back in. “I just like rabbits–toy ones, at least. Always have. It’s kind of my signature in the business. As far as my merchandise is concerned: I got good small business loans from the local banks, on the strength of my name. Everyone in town knows me and my parents–and a few old-timers, like your grandfather, knew my great-grandparents! We have a good name in town. The Harmons have been in town for a long time. We’re not perfect by any means, but we treat people with honesty and respect. ‘That goes a hell of a long way,’ as my father says. So it was no problem getting financed. My father came along the first time I approached a banker but he soon said, ‘Becky doesn’t need my help!’ I knew what to ask for and the banker knew who I was. I didn’t break even until my third year but business, along with my profits, have been growing very well. Now I’m into my fourth year, which looks like the best yet.”

I can’t believe I’m telling him all this, she thought. But she continued.

“When I was a kid I was active in the high school’s various activities, and I got my picture in the newspaper a time or two for school-related events. After college I came back and worked at a local S & L until I got my own business going. My friend Kathy says I’m one of the most popular people in town she knows. I guess I just take her word for it, you know. Local people have watched me grow up. Anyone who ever bought clothes from the Harmons, which is nearly everyone, remembers me as a snotty little independent girl playing in the racks of trousers and dresses, and later as the 1980 homecoming queen. Now I’m just driving around in my grandpop’s truck, running the family business, with the American flag outside. Ha!” she said, laughing at herself. “How wholesome can a person get?

“I know I dearly love people and try to treat them right,” she continued, “and I never take for granted whether they like me or not. I want them to, of course–really, really badly, if the truth were known. Maybe we all do. That’s one reason I do my level best to locate antiques for them. I like to have special occasions, like my annual snowball fight, and I’ve had ‘Shop in Your PJs’ days, and that kind of goofiness.”

She worried that she’d chatted too much about her store and herself. But he said, “Sounds like you’ve got a wonderful business. I’m very impressed!”

Well, he’s supportive of my store, she thought. So far so good! “There are several good antique stores in the area,” she said. “The Broders have a big store west of town: their antiques fill a couple of barns. There are also some smaller shops: Pieces of Lode, and Park Place, Ep Gehrke’s store, and Madeline Webster’s shop. I’m the next-to-the-largest store in Mayersburg. The smallest one is Madeline’s.”

She slipped out of her sandals and started the motor. “I don’t like wearing shoes much, either,” he said.

“Oh! Sorry,” she said, realizing. “Just a habit. I hate wearing shoes! I got that from my mom, I guess. She liked going around barefooted. I always kick my shoes off in the truck and forget half the time to put them back on.”

“I was just teasing you,” he said. “My sister Lynn Erin likes to go barefooted. I go around in just my socks at home. My department would frown on it at work,” he chuckled.

“Such is life,” said Becky, smiling. “Anyway, Mayersburg. This is the business district, of course. People here take care of the downtown and they do get behind it. They put up all these fabric awnings a few years ago; took off some of the uglier slipcovers and sidings during the so-called urban renewal projects of the Sixties. You don’t see a lot of empty shops like some other small towns. The elms all died off a few years ago but some folk pitched in and planted new trees to replace them. It’s a pretty town. Lots of old-style homes, porches with swings, and all that small town-ish stuff. For several years it’s received the ‘Tree City USA’ award from the National Department of Natural Resources. There are so many trees here, and so many nice parks.”

“Well, like I said, it’s sort of my family’s hometown. It has a nice name. It sounds like a small town.”

“You’ll appreciate the story. Artur Mayer was an early settler of southern Illinois. He came over with a group from the Kingdom of Hanover in the fall of 1820.”

“Emigration from post-Napoleonic Germany was common.”

“Yes, it was. The group settled near Vandalia, Illinois, the former state capital, which is a pretty little town south of here. But the group’s leader, a fellow named Ferdinand Ernst, didn’t live very long and the immigrants scattered. Mayer and his wife Maria and their several children traveled around then finally settled at the present site of this town. That was in August of 1828–which is why our Pioneer Days festival happens during the hottest month. The Mayers built a cabin on the horse-and-wagon road at the foot of the hill and eventually built up a little community. They named the main street after John Quincy Adams, whom Mayer preferred over Andrew Jackson. Abraham Lincoln’s hometown is nearby; he stopped here at least once and possibly more times. The town was called Mayersburg–“Mayer’s town” in German–but the town has always been as typically ‘Scotch-Irish’ as it is German-Lutheran in its heritage. The original Mayers had twenty-four children.”

“Oh, my!”

“Yeah, it wouldn’t be for me! My friend Kathy has one little girl who sends her off the deep end. I couldn’t take it.”

“Me, neither, I’ve been single too long, I guess.” So he’s single, she thought, though by now she’d assumed he was.

“My great-great-great-great-grandparents on Dad’s side were also colonists with Ernst, and they came to Mayersburg in the 1830s. Karl Balthasar Hermann and his wife Sophie Schneider. Hermann changed his name to Philip Harmon to sound more American, which is kind of funny. Another one of my ancestors married one of the Mayer sons. I took the liberty of searching the old county history and found that the Haussers came to Mayersburg in the 1870s. I’ll show the book to you sometime. I’ve got it at home.” She realized she had just invited him to her house. He didn’t seem to pick up on the point; that impressed her.

Gosh, he thought, she invited me over sometime. How wonderful.

She put the truck into first gear and they drove around a while. Becky pointed out the major stores of the downtown; the hospital where she was born and where her mother died. Her church–they discovered they were both Lutheran–her old stomping-grounds, the local Carnegie Library and other places on the National Register, her high school. She waved as several people as they drove along. On the lawn of her high school, several teenaged girls practiced cheers on the school lawn.

“Look at those little darlings–I was one of them once.”

“You were a cheerleader, too?”

“Of course! I had the big mouth for it. ‘RAH RAH REE, KICK ‘EM IN THE KNEE, RAH RAH RASS, KICK ‘EM IN THE OTHER KNEE!'” she chanted. Her voice deafened him inside the small truck cab. He put his hands over his ears. “The problem was, the team was called the Mayersburg Militiamen. ‘GIVE ME AN M!'” she yelled, “‘GIVE ME AN A! GIVE ME A Y! GIVE ME AN E!’–and by the time we were done with the school cheer, the game was over!”

“I played football in high school,” he ventured. “Hurt my right knee up during my senior year, but it was fun till then. My knee finally healed.”

“I probably made eyes at you–oh, never mind, you didn’t grow up in Norris. Mayersburg played Norris sometimes, but they weren’t archrivals. Our archrival was Nokomis. They usually beat us.

“I’m impressed!” she continued. “Aren’t history professors the ones who got the crap beat out of them in junior high because of their horn-rimmed glasses and acne? –I’m kidding you.”

“I assumed you were!” he laughed. “I was different, I guess. I was always pretty good at high school sports.”

They drove around town some more. Becky passed houses of various types: split level, ranch, Queen Anne, Italianate, Victorian, and several brick homes of German architecture. She showed him the town’s several historic houses, a few of them open for summertime tours, and the two Romanesque Revival homes that overlooked the river. Gabe thought Mayersburg had very pretty neighborhoods. She showed him the house where she’d grown up, and the small home that had been Arthur and Louise Harmon’s.

“What kinds of antiques do people collect?” he asked as they drove.

“You name it. Salt and pepper shakers–one lady cleaned me out of several dozen of them. Cereal boxes, funeral home fans, Route 66 advertisements, black collectibles, hatpin holders, pinball machines, fruit crate labels, world’s fair souvenirs, restaurant menus, horse racing artifacts, soft drink signs, National Geographics, dolls. I collect Mayersburg memorabilia–me and another fellow here in town. My friend Kathy likes country music records, programs, and such. One of the big antique interests around here is items from the first generation of Maria and Artur and their children. ‘Objets d’ “Art,” ‘ I call them. There’s where I live, by the way,” she said as they drove past. “It’s a Lustron home.”

You live in a Lustron home!” exclaimed Gabe as he turned around to look out the back of the truck.

“You know your American history! It’s an all-steel house built around 1950. Good ol’ Harry Truman’s postwar housing projects. It’s a terrific little place: so much storage space, built right in! It’s the only one in Mayersburg. There’s also one ‘mail-order architecture’ house from the 1890s that’s pretty neat. When my house is fifty years old, I want to submit an application to have it listed on the National Register. By the way, what do you like to collect?”

“Well, besides books, nothing much, I guess. When I was a kid we moved around so much; I never kept anything for long.”

“Collecting is fun,” she said. “For some people it’s almost a religious thing. By that I mean: when people collect antiques, it fills something inside them that they’ve lost along the way. A time in their life, for instance, or a person. Oftentimes it builds up their sense of self-worth in a positive manner, touching something deep within, and giving them a lasting sense of peace.”

They chatted some more about their families as Becky guided the truck around Mayersburg. She learned about his three sisters and his good-hearted parents who had settled into a lazy retirement. His father was retired from the military and also from his second career. His mother was retired from everything, Gabe added, including cooking. “More power to her,” Becky said. “You said you’re not from anywhere in particular?”

“That’s true. I was born in Connecticut but we lived in D.C., Norfolk, San Diego, and even Italy. Since leaving home I’ve gone to school in Florida and North Carolina and then I had the one-year job in Pennsylvania, which I liked.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you say you’re single?”

“Yes, happily so! I came close to marriage but it wasn’t meant to be.”

“Well, c’mon, what’s the story?” she teased. “I haven’t gotten any gossip yet today.”

“Not much gossip to it. Just a dumb story. I was engaged while I was in North Carolina. My fiancée was career-minded–which was great! I’m not one of these men who thinks their spouses should stay at home, clean house, and raise the kids while I’m out working!”

Good good good good good good good, she thought.

“My sister Janice is married to a real ass who feels threatened if she wants to have a life outside the house—even just to get out with her friends once in a while. Baloney!”

Preach it, brother.

“But anyway—that’s another story. Gayle–that was my fiancée’s name–and I couldn’t figure out how to pursue our professional goals and be married,” he continued. “So we went our separate ways. All very amiable, but with some hard words beforehand.”

“That must have been hard,” she said, glancing into the rear view mirror.

“Oh, a little, I guess. I’m moving on, though.”

“C’mon–you men lie like rugs about matters of the heart!” she teased again. “What’s the scoop?”

He saw her grinning at him. “Well, it was hard, to tell you the truth. Then Gayle married an old sweetheart a year later. That made it harder for me to heal from the break-up. Kind of a rejection, you know. Why was my career a problem for her and his wasn’t?”

He kicked himself for expressing the matter so self-pitifully. But Becky said, “Did she marry Tom Hunter?”

“No, that wasn’t his name.”

“I’m being sarcastic. Sorry. That was my boyfriend’s name.” Gabe looked at her. “We met here in Mayersburg a few months after I returned here from college. He’d moved to town while I was away in school. He moved a few miles away to a nearby town for his business, so we dated long-distance for a long time. I don’t know where he is now. We broke up for the same reason, I guess. I wanted to stay in Mayersburg and he wanted to make a go in business in a larger town. We kept trying to break up–sort of like the Pope and the Eastern Patriarch that kept trying to excommunicate each other, till it finally took in 1054.”

“Ha! I like the analogy!”

“So finally it took, with regrets.” Mostly mine, she thought. “Then not long after, he married some little small-town kissy-face. Same deal: why her but not me? I was teasing you earlier about it: I take it you haven’t gotten over your relationship very well, either.”

“It’s a struggle, for sure!” he admitted, feeling a little freer with Becky. He ventured to say, “It’s not a constant source of pain, by any means,but–”

“But at least an itch!” she teased.

“Exactly!” he chuckled.

“Same here. I know how you feel! But I’ve settled into a nice, single life. Lately I’ve felt a little worse. Mama’s death has stirred me up emotionally, in a general way.”

“I’d imagine so. It must be tough to lose a parent.”

“Especially one who’s your best friend. But Dad’s my good buddy, too.”

They pulled back in front of the store and sat for a moment, lost in their respective thoughts. This is going so well, they both thought. “Well, you want some more coffee?” she asked. “The cafe downtown is closed today. The sidewalks are rolled up for the Sabbath. There’s always Summer’s Restaurant, or McDonald’s.”

“No, thanks, but I’m wondering. I don’t suppose you know where my grandmother is buried?”

“Old Bill’s wife? No, not off-hand. I could try to find out, I guess. Mayersburg has a pretty cemetery.”

“I’ve been thinking about my grandparents lately, although I never knew my grandmother at all.”

“I don’t know when she died. Old Bill’s been a widower as long as I can remember. I’ll take you over to the cemetery, if you want.”

“Let’s drive through, if you don’t mind–just in case I spot the grave. I’d also like to see where your mother is buried.”

This man is so nice, she thought. “She’s not buried in Mayersburg. Our family graveyard is north of town a few miles. Both sides of the family are buried there. You still want to go?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind. I’m enjoying learning about your family. This sounds foolish, but sometimes I like to stop by a cemetery and just think for a while. They’re peaceful places, to me. New England and Pennsylvania had such pretty old graveyards. The Carolinas, too.”

“No problem,” she said, pulling the truck out. “I love old cemeteries, too. Sometimes when I’m down I’ll drive up and talk to Mama and feel like she’s listening to me, in a way.”

“Well, she probably is, in some fashion we don’t understand. I always feel like, when we die, we’ve left time behind. So if we’re gone ten thousand years or an hour, it’ll be all the same.”

“That’s true. I believe that, too.”

They drove through the beautiful Mayersburg cemetery, with its gentle slopes and trees in full summer growth, but they spotted no Hausser tombstones. Gabe decided he’d check with the groundskeeper during a future visit. She pointed to the small, gray tombstone of Artur and Maria Mayer, which Gabe thought was surprisingly inauspicious.

While driving north on 611, they chatted about his work at NSC. “Do you have many friends at Norris?” she said, fishing.

“Well, I’ve only been there a short time–just students and colleagues, basically, and some people at church. I joined a good Bible study on Genesis.”

“Sounds like you’ve plunged right in!”

“But I’m not very close to anyone, yet.” She wondered if the ‘yet’ meant anything. “I miss my friends around the country, of course. I have a kind of mentor whom I’m especially close to. He got me interested in history, partly because of the subject and partly because he took so much time to work with students. He’s also a good friend. Dr. Camille’s his name. He helped me think about a lot of philosophical and theological matters in life. I’ve always patterned myself after him, which gets me in trouble sometimes with my colleagues who just want to lecture on the content areas and flunk those who don’t follow.”

“Oh, well. I think your way’s a lot better.”

On the way, she pointed out her great-grandmother’s farm and told Gabe the homestead lay a few miles to the north. “Philip and Sophie Harmon homesteaded 40 acres beside the small Asshawequa River which flows past Mayersburg and empties into the Kaskaskia River. The Asshawequa is my own little Moldau, I guess. The two of them are buried on that property, beneath gravestones that are nearly gone now. My great-grandmother Rebecca Harmon sold the property after her husband died, to the chagrin of nearly everyone in the family.”

“I imagine so.”

“No one was sure why she did that. It was a source of quiet resentment for years. She always said she just wanted to live closer to town, but there seemed to be more to it than that. No one ever knew for sure, though. I have first dibs on buying the property, if the owner ever wants to sell…

“There’s my favorite spot to sit and look at the town,” she said, pointing to the wide place on the shoulder atop Pitcher’s Hill.

He turned around and looked back through the rear window of the truck. “That is a pretty view of the town,” he noted.

Becky said, “I just like to sit there and think sometimes–pray, vegetate, pick my nose, or whatever.” Gabe chuckled. “I like to sit there when I’m blue, or happy. Seeing Mayersburg from the top of the hill gives me a nice sense of peace. I love that spot.”

He thought about that. She intrigued him so much. “And that’s a neat old railroad bridge,” he commented as they passed by.

“I used to sit barefoot on that bridge with my guitar and sing folk songs.”

“Really?”

“No, not really!” she said. “I’m just kidding.”

“Sounds like something you might do!”

“If I could sing or play guitar!”

She asked again about his mentor and he told her that he’d try to make history lectures as interesting as possible, by playing period music, working with students in small groups, and other teaching devices. Becky was intrigued at the man’s ingenuity. She had him somehow pictured as a kindly little bald-headed historian, sweetly devoted to church and history texts alike. She felt glad Gabe had someone like that in his life.
In a short time they arrived at the cemetery. The tree-lined graveyard sat beside the county road and was enclosed by a wire fence with a gate. Newer stones joined with gray obelisks and simple slabs across the graveyard’s gentle five acres. A painted metal arch with the words “Ephraim Cemetery” stood above the gate, and Gabe read the name aloud.

“There used to be a little rural village named Ephraim in this area, but that was a hundred years ago. The cemetery was the churchyard of an old Evangelical Association church that closed many years ago and disappeared. Some locals still call this general area Ephraim, as if the town still existed.”

Gabe hopped out of the truck and strode through the fence. Is this guy for real, Becky thought? She stepped from the truck and waded barefoot through the cool grass. “You know this is how Night of the Living Dead started out?”

“Ha! You’d better keep your pickup running and unlocked!” He stopped at a black granite stone, decorated with flowers. “Is this your parents’ stone?” he asked. “I don’t know their names.”

“Yeah, that’s it. ‘Anna and Lewis.’ At some point Mama and Dad bought four plots–one for me and one for my future husband, if anyone’s stupid enough to have me. Here are my grandparents over here: Arthur and Louise,” she said while pointing to the red monument, “and over here,” she walked to another stone, “are my other grandparents, Harriot and Susan Scott. They died when I was little. I don’t remember them very well.”

Gabe approached a gray granite stone nearby. “These must be your great-grandparents: Jacob and Rebecca. Quite a discrepancy between their death years: ‘1867-1929’, and ‘1868-1970’.”

“Yeah, Great-Grandma Rebecca lived a long, long time. ‘Granny Becky’ we called her. I’m named for her–I remember her. Scary looking old lady! Big dark eyes on an old face. You know that part in the TV show How the Grinch Stole Christmas where the Grinch starts smiling and his smile just keeps going and going. That’s kind of what Granny Becky looked like.”

“Yike!”

“Apparently they got married when Jake Harmon kidnapped her and rode to Missouri. At the time–this would’ve been the 1880s–there was some scandal about it. But they were really happy together. Here’s my dad’s brother Ike. My mom has two sisters but they don’t live in Illinois. All these people are my relatives, in some way or another.” Is he really this interested?

“Thank you for showing me! Who’s Edward Harmon? ‘In loving remembrance of Sergeant Edward Harmon, born September 29, 1942, died March 31, 1972.'” He knelt to see the military tombstone.

“That’s sad. Cousin Ed’s the son of Uncle Ike. He went to Vietnam and died in the North Vietnamese offensive that spring. His wife Sally was very pregnant when he left on his last tour.” She knelt at the stone and touched the name. “Ed’s buried in Arlington. What was left of him, that is. The family put up this little cenotaph. Dad and Mama and I went to see his name on the Wall in Washington D.C., and we visited the grave. One of the dearest people I’ve ever known. He was really affirming to me when I was a little girl. He wrote me letters that I’ve kept all these years. I have them at the shop and I still read them sometimes. Funny how you hold on to such things.”

They chatted some more about her family then walked back to the truck. Gabe decided that, as silly as she could act, he could be silly, too. He stretched out his arms at her like a zombie and startled her from behind. She thought that was hilarious. He has a good sense of humor, she thought, if he’d show it more often! “I’ll get you back for that!” she said, laughing.

They drove back to Mayersburg, chatting comfortably about this and that. As they came to the business district, an awkward silent grew between them. Gabe wanted to ask her if he could get together with her again. He was afraid to say it and afraid not to. He hadn’t enjoyed a woman’s company so much for a long time.

Becky was still thinking of what Kathy had said: that she shielded herself from men. She had enjoyed visiting with Gabe, much more so than she’d expected. She hadn’t opened up to a man for a long time, as she had opened up to him; in fact, she worried she’d talked too much. Old fears filled her mind and his as they pulled up before her store.

“Listen, Gabe–” She rubbed her forehead self-consciously. “I’ve really enjoyed this afternoon,” she said.

He looked at her and smiled. “I’ve really enjoyed this visit too,” he said. “Next time I’m in town visiting Granddad, I’d love to say hello again.”

“No–” she said.

He looked down at his hands, horrified.

“No, I’m sorry, no: don’t wait for that–” she said.

He looked at her.

“I mean–don’t wait for that. Don’t wait till you’re down here to visit Bill–if you want to, you know, please: give me a call some evening, just to chat, even if it’s about nothing in particular.”

“I’d love to,” he said, still looking at his hands and feeling anxious, yet also relieved. He ventured again, “Maybe we could get together for coffee, or something, just to chat, you know, or catch a movie.”

“That would be fun,” she said, smiling.

“Yeah.” Silence lingered between them.

“Well, Rebecca,” said Gabe politely as he moved toward the door of the truck, “thanks again for your good talk.”

“Make it ‘Becky,’ for pete’s sake!” she said brightly. “Rebecca’s what I have on the truck, but hardly anyone calls me that.”

“Okay, Becky. Thanks. Take it easy!” he said as he got out.

“Bye!” she called. He went to his car and drove away. Becky, still sitting in the truck, watched him leave. Then she put her forehead on the steering wheel and prayed, O Lord, have I put my heart on the line? Kathy was right; she did build a little shell around her heart, but shells serve excellent functions, too. She had a non-threatening, low-obligation idea for the next step, if he followed through on her invitation to call.

Gabe watched the plain, rural scenery of Route 611 as he made his half-hour trip back to Norris. Becky lingered in his thoughts, as she had since he met her. He felt fearful and cautious, yet warm and very happy. What a dear person she is, he thought. What a paradoxical person: self-assured one moment, self-depreciating the next: funny, intelligent, spiritual, earthy, blunt, kind and giving, a person with a range of interests. Fearing rejection, he surveyed their conversation, trying to determine if she’d said anything of which he could be wary. He rationally looked forward to seeing her again.

Much later in the day, he realized he’d forgotten to visit his grandfather. Several days later, he also realized he’d completely stopped looking at Gayle’s picture.

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As Gabe drove back to Norris that same Wednesday, thoughts of two people filled his mind. One was his grandfather. “How are you doing, young feller?” Bill had said to him earlier that day.

“FINE, GRANDDAD.” Gabe learned during his first visit on Tuesday that he had to shout to make him hear. “REMEMBER ME FROM YESTERDAY? I’M GABE, STUART’S BOY.”

“What?”

Gabe sighed as he took a kitchen chair and sat beside Bill’s own chair. “I’M GABE, STUART’S BOY.” He looked around at what seemed to him the bleak and austere surroundings of the apartment and he heard street sounds from the open window. He couldn’t imagine how lonely Bill must be.

“I don’t know any Stuart,” he said. “Stuart, you say? Is that Esther’s husband? Denise just came do to see me yesterday.”

“Stuart’s your son, Granddad.”

“What?”

He sighed and put his hands on the kitchen table. “I’M YOUR GRANDSON GABE. I’M A TEACHER NOW. I LIVE IN NORRIS AND I WANTED TO SEE HOW YOU’RE DOING!”

“Well, pleased to meet you, sir! A preacher, you say? I’m Baptist myself, but I believe we’re all going to the same Heaven up above, just by different roads! You want money? I don’t get out to church but I give what I can!”

“NO, GRANDDAD. I’M JUST HERE TO VISIT YOU AGAIN.”

“I’ll tell you,” Bill said, looking repeatedly into his empty wallet, “the Good Lord has taken care of me. You don’t forget that. No, sir, you don’t forget that. I was in the trench with my buddy Frank one time. We were under fire–this was the Marne, you understand. Something blew up nearby us and I ducked. I said to him, ‘Frank,’ I said, ‘we’re going to get through this together, I promise. I promised your mama and I’m promising you, buddy!’ I patted him, just to reassure him, and my hand felt wet. Then I turned around and you know something? Frank was gone. Projectile of some sort, right in the chest. He wasn’t with me anymore, he was gone.”

He walked over to the window and gazed down upon Adams Street. “Well, that could’ve been me, son. That could’ve been me. I don’t remember so good anymore. No, sir, I don’t. I wish I did. The little girl downstairs comes and sees me every single day, rain or snow or sun! Sometimes I forget what she’s told me, you know. She fixed me supper just yesterday. Those Harmons, they’re good people. They try to make things right. But the Good Lord’s watched out for me time and time again. You hear me, boy? Time and time again! I don’t know why me, but he has. Me! That you don’t forget. That’s to keep. Right here,” he said, patting his heart with his bony, vein-ruined hand.

Gabe was not used to elderly people. He didn’t know how best to converse with him, and a mild anger clouded his thinking. What should he say? Hi, I’m Gabe. I’m thirty-one years old. I’ve done these several things with my life since I last saw you when I was a little boy in the late 1960s during a visit to Mayersburg. I remember very little about the visit except for playing on your living room floor with my sisters and having a vague sense that Mayersburg was a pleasant little town. I grew up and eventually understood that you and my father, Stuart, did not get along well, although my dad has made a series of attempts to stay in touch with you. I suspect that you took my dad for granted and at some point he could tolerate no more. You two exchanged harsh words which, once spoken, neither of you could call them back or forgive them said. I respected my father’s feelings. But now I regret that I’m sitting here, talking to you, my only living grandparent, as if to a total stranger, in a cheerless room over an old store. Is there a way I can help redeem this situation, perhaps by visiting you on occasion? I don’t know, because even before I came here I was terrifically sad because I don’t want to live in the rural Midwest and I don’t know anyone well enough to express how desolate I feel. And I feel sorry for myself because, though your words of faith are agreeable, you don’t even know who I am.

Instead of saying these things, he conversed with Bill as he would with a student who almost but did not quite have the right idea: by listening carefully, by elaborating words already said, by trying to find common ground for understanding. It’s a start, thought Gabe, as he wrapped up the visit and promised Bill that he’d see him again very soon.

Listening to the radio as he drove back to Norris that Wednesday, Gabe also considered another person: Rebecca Harmon. He felt so isolated in Illinois, he felt pleased at the prospect of, perhaps, finding a friend his own age. As the only brother of three sisters, Gabe enjoyed friendships with women as well as with men. He had no idea if they could become friends but he was happy to have made a second, more favorable impression to her. She was a little on the blunt side but she seemed to have those qualities of character and thoughtfulness that Gabe valued in people. He thought how startlingly pretty she was–her fair skin and those dark eyes and wavy auburn hair–but that was not the reason he liked her. In the absence of reconciliation between the older Haussers, Gabe felt grateful that she and her family had watched out for his grandfather these past several years. She has a sweet little dog, too! He hoped that during their time together on Sunday he and she might find some common ground for a friendship, but he felt sufficiently unsure of himself to wonder.

Yet feelings of self-directed uncertainty came all too easily for Gabe, and they were difficult to dismiss. Although he had many friendships with women, his luck with relationships was consistently mediocre and he sensed that his natural shyness invaded relationships the more deeply involved he became with women. He was not in the least misogynist but at this point in his life he was unwilling to enter any situation beyond a simple platonic friendship with a woman unless she–some hypothetical “she”–turned out to be very, very special.

As he drove, he surveyed his first few weeks in Illinois. In mid-May he had breathlessly arrived in Norris with his belongings packed into a U-Haul truck with his little car towed behind. He had beforehand located a nice apartment in a pleasant part of the small community; his apartment was one of four in a newer brick building that overlooked one of Norris’ several pretty, green parks. The place was not fancy but would suffice, he thought, until he could become better established in Illinois. Within a short time his apartment was, if not as neat as he referred, at least functional. He transported several boxes of books and files to his campus office and began planning how to decorate both the apartment and the office in a homey, satisfying manner. He’d visited a church, St. Martin’s Lutheran Church just two blocks down the street from his apartment. For the time being, he felt a cautious sanguinity about this new chapter of his life.

With the beginning of summer school in late May, he had settled into a preliminary routine. He rose very early to take his daily jog and exercise regimen, to study, and to organize the day’s lectures. He usually arrived at his office by 7:30 a.m. He taught two classes each day for summer school: The Birth of the Modern Age at 8:15 a.m., and Colonial America at 10:15 a.m. His classes had begun well. His shyness disappeared when he taught. Inevitably, a few students would complain about the workload and pace of a course and Gabe’s insistence that they complete their work on time.

By lunchtime each day, he felt very tired but he usually had afternoon tasks. He regretted taking on a full teaching load so soon after arriving. But he couldn’t imagine how unsettled and anxious he would have felt with no classes to teach all summer, and he deeply wanted to make a strong first impression in the history department. During the many times in his life he had moved Gabe discovered that busyness, combined with openness to unique aspects of his new locale, assuaged the ache of homesickness. This last move, though, was the most difficult yet. He desperately missed his old friends in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

During one evening a week before, he felt especially lonesome and homesick. He had finished washing his supper dishes and decided to take a drive, just to clear his head before he settled into the evening’s work of studying and arranging his apartment. He drove around Norris for a half-hour, exploring the town. Then he picked up a country road signed Illinois Route 312. After a short time he passed the southbound turn-off to another rural road, Illinois Route 611, but he had no idea where that highway led so he kept driving eastbound, past farm houses, barns, silos, and roadside trees. Feeling no better, he made a U-turn in the lot of an International Harvester dealership and returned to town.

He sighed, and an audible prayer forced itself through the thicket of his loneliness. “Lord, you know … I’m … just feeling really terrible, really self-involved, I guess. You know that I sincerely sought your guidance when I was job-hunting last year, but . . . I’m having struggles. Norris doesn’t yet feel good to me. Everyone has treated me very well so far, but I have this feeling that moving here was a huge mistake. But I know that you’re always with me,” he said, trying to reassure himself and place things in perspective. “If Norris turns out to be the wrong place, I’ll know that you’ll have prepared me for something else. I know you’re faithful, even though I fall so far short.”

He returned to his apartment and checked his answering machine, which contained one hang-up. His sadness returned more deeply. If he’d stayed at home, he would’ve had a phone call, at least!

He walked to the kitchen and, with a heavy desolation in his heart, made some coffee for the evening. A picture of Gayle, his former fiancée, lay semi-hidden in one of his kitchen drawers. He rummaged for it and looked at it a moment, her brown hair, and her blue eyes. He and Gayle had gone their separate ways less than two years before. He still missed her terribly, particularly during these recent, solitary days.

He worked with his books for an hour, sipping coffee, and then for variety he unpacked a few boxes. His arms were filled with a large stack of books when the telephone rang. He didn’t mind dropping them from mid-air so he could hurry to pick up. “Hello?”

“Hi, Gabe. Just checking on you! I tried earlier but you were out.”

“Hi, Dad! Doing fine.”

“Mom and I are out of town for a few days but I wanted to check on you and give you our phone number.” Gabe wrote the number on a pad next to his telephone. He wished his parents would come to visit him instead of traveling elsewhere. “So what’s happening in the big city?” Stuart joked.

Gabe chucked. “I think I’ve left the big city already, Dad. Norris seems terribly small.”

“How big is Norris these days?”

“The sign says 9300.”

“It’s grown since I was a kid.”

“Oh, it’s a pretty town. Everybody’s been really nice to me, so far.”

“Well, we’ll be out to see you before the summer’s done. You unpacked?”

“Not yet,” said Gabe, picking up the books from the floor. “I moved books and supplies to my office this past week. I’ve had one full week of classes, now . . .

“I’m feeling really isolated, Dad,” he added. “I guess that will pass in time. I was meaning to ask you–”

“–About your granddad?” said Stuart bleakly.

“Yes,” said Gabe, sighing, “you read my mind.”

“I just assumed the subject would come up eventually,”

Considering his words about this awkward subject, Gabe said, “I don’t want to do anything to hurt your feelings, but I thought I might drop in on him, to test the waters so to speak.”

“Well, do what you want to, Gabe. Just don’t put your feelings on the line, okay? Don’t think that you could rely upon my dad for much emotional solace. I’d hate to see you hurt by the situation between him and me. His landlady is a person about your age who–”

The doorbell rang. Good grief, thought Gabe. “Excuse me, Dad,” he said as he jumped from the sofa and went to the door. The minister of the St. Martin’s Lutheran Church stood outside in the hallway, so Gabe invited him in, showed him to the living room, then excused himself and finished the conversation with his father. Hanging up, he offered some coffee and the two men sat chatting for a comfortable and comforting duration. Pastor Sandifer was an older man who had served the church several years.

“How do you like Norris?” he asked as they talked.

“Tell you the truth, Pastor, I’m going a little crazy. It’s not that I dislike Norris exactly, because I always feel this way after moving to a new place.” Gabe explained his work, the subjects he taught at NSC, his love of teaching. “I always feel that my teaching is my way of serving the Lord,” he continued, “but sometimes I feel unsure of myself, especially in a brand-new setting.”

Rev. Sandifer smiled sympathetically. “Don’t we all, in one time or another! I don’t know if you knew this, but moving to a new location ranks very high on the list of stressful events in one’s life, near the death of a loved one, divorce, and the like.”

“I didn’t realize that!” he said, although he assumed that was true.

“I think your sentiment is wonderful, though. It’s wonderful to see a young man like yourself expressing your faith in that way! If it’s any assurance for your loneliness, I’d guess the Lord will be showing you some wonderful things. It’s just too bad we can’t see the future, isn’t it?”

“That’s the truth! Thanks. In that vein, Pastor, I wanted to ask you about activities at the church. I love to become involved in church programs.”

Rev. Sandifer told Gabe about the softball league, the weekly bible study groups, a singles’ group, and other programs. Gabe immediately expressed interest in softball league and one of the study groups. Visibly gratified at his volunteer spirit, Pastor provided him a copy of the parish newsletter and a packet of information for first-time visitors. He promised to introduce Gabe to the parishioners.

He ended the visit with a prayer for Gabe, that God would guide and comfort him in the new location and that God’s blessings would come upon him in a discernible way. Gabe felt two hundred percent better, especially soon after his earlier, desperate prayer.

He showed the pastor to the door. “Oh! I wanted to ask you, Rev. Sandifer. I have a relative in Mayersburg, Illinois. I’d like to see him, but I’m not even sure where Mayersburg is. I need to buy an Illinois map.”

“No, you don’t, at least for that trip. I’ll show you. It’s an easy drive, and very pretty.” Gabe followed the pastor to his car, a disaster area of Styrofoam coffee cups, papers, bulletins, and paraphernalia. Rev. Sandifer awkwardly fished a map from his glove compartment, fumbled with the map upon the hood of the car, patted it flat, and pointed with his finger. “There it is. Mayersburg is only a half-hour from here: not quite forty miles. You get on MacArthur Street here in town, then drive just a little ways east out of Norris. You’ll see that MacArthur turns into Route 312, and then after a mile or two, you’ll turn south on Route 611, which will take you straight into Mayersburg.”

“I know how to get to 312,” Gabe said, feeling the evening sun hot on his cheeks as he stood there in the apartment building’s small parking lot. “I was just on it, taking a little country drive. I think I saw the sign for 611, maybe.”

“Mayersburg is a pretty little town. I don’t get down there too much, but I’ve always been fond of the place. Good salt of the earth people. In mid-August, they have a combination pioneer festival and county fair that draws crowds from all over. Since you like history, you’d enjoy it.”

The two men shook hands and Pastor drove away to make other pastoral calls. Gabe went inside, returned to his apartment, took the doorknob, and found it locked. He patted his trouser pockets, and with a sick feeling remembered he’d left his keys on the kitchen counter. He could visualize their location. “Oh, brother,” he sighed. “What a jerk.”

He walked downstairs to find the landlord and then waited until she returned, which turned out to be an hour. But while he was waiting, something clicked in his head and he found the grace to laugh at his own self-pity. He resolved that, even if his grandfather indeed turned out to be poor company, he would find ways to escape the tyranny of his solitary mind.

*****

Returning from Mayersburg that Wednesday afternoon, Gabe grabbed a quick bite at Burger King and arrived at the softball field a little after six. The Sluggers lost their softball game against St. Al’s Angels, the team of the St. Albert the Great Catholic Church. The Sluggers had played well, though; Gabe played shortstop. He liked his teammates, and they liked him.

After the game Gabe drove over to the college. No one was around, except students already in evening classes. Thankful his classes all occurred during the daytime, he let himself into the department office and found some students’ late papers in his box; Claudia, the department secretary, had also left a few students’ phone messages. Brushing the infield dust from his old clothes he unlocked his own office and sat there alone, among his many books, and returned calls to students, then he graded assignments and prepared his lecture notes for the next day’s classes. Finally he made some good progress shelving his books and decorating his office. After dark, he returned to his apartment and all those remaining unpacked boxes. So much for “hump day,” he thought

Gabe’s week had already been busy. He barely had time to think about much besides his work. The previous Monday had been a full day, with his usual classes and a two-hour faculty meeting that ran from tedious to divisive. Tuesday had been a marginally lighter day. Though he had work to do, on spontaneous impulse he’d driven down to try to visit his grandfather during the middle portion of the day, and there he met Rebecca Harmon for the first time. Afterward he stayed late at his office to work on a fellowship proposal that he wanted to submit by the end of June. Some of his students stopped to chat. His students seemed to enjoy talking with him, which Gabe took as a good sign of the rightness of his move to Norris. Wednesday and Thursday were filled with appointments and more meetings with students; the extra trip to Mayersburg and the softball game allowed him a few hours’ pause from his usual, hectic mental pace.

On Thursday evening he joined his Bible study group at church, a lively discussion on the book of Genesis which met in one of the Sunday school classrooms of St. Martin’s. The walls of the room were painted a cool blue and upon one side hung the well-known painting by Sallman, “Head of Christ.” The group was studying the biblical stories of Joseph. Prompted by Mrs. Kentie, an intelligent, outgoing and spry 80-year-old who was a charter member of St. Martin’s, the group discussed dreams. Mrs. Kentie said that God frequently suggested things to her in dreams. One person said she took the Bible literally and knew that God only speaks today in and through the Bible. Gabe gently asked whether, if one takes the Bible literally, then one has to believe God still speaks in dreams, given the experience of Jacob, Peter, and others. Not a biblical literalist, Gabe told the class he believed God may speak through dreams today but that the modern interpretation of dreams, that they are the products of our unconscious minds, seems more tenable. The study group began happily to debate the issue and didn’t break up until 10:30.

Gabe returned home tired yet filled with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. He usually unwound in the recliner with his Bible and the evening news. Thursday night, though, the news was already over when he arrived. He was disappointed; he wasn’t yet used to Central Time. He turned the television off, and his apartment was very quiet as he read his Bible. He read the words “A time to speak, a time to keep silence,” but the words did not themselves speak to him. He heard the sounds of his own footsteps as he went to the kitchen, took out the picture of Gayle, and looked at it for a while. Adjourning to his bedroom, he recited prayer requests in his mind but, halfway through a prayer for his family, he dozed off.

At about 1 a.m. early Friday morning he got a phone call; a wrong number, but the call shook him awake so badly he had difficulty falling asleep. Just my luck, he thought. The last time he looked at the bedroom clock, it read 2:48. Finally he drifted off but his alarm jarred him awake at 5:45. He needed to make a faculty breakfast with the social sciences dean by 7. He left the breakfast early and went straight to his 8:15 class.

“Doctor Gabe, you look like the living dead!” said Claudia when he returned to the office between his two classes. “I’ve got some cream for those circles under your eyes!” Claudia Metzger was a plainspoken woman in her early sixties who’d been department secretary for several years. In the two weeks they had known each other, she had taken a motherly liking to Gabe. He called him by his first name and his title with a hint of the Baltimore accent that Gabe so often heard in his own mother’s talk.

“Claudia, you always brighten my day with a kind word!” He glanced in his mailbox: memos, exams, and messages. “It’s been a big week.”

“Well, I’ve got my eye on you,” she said, not unkindly and pointing a slightly curved, arthritic finger at him. “I’ve seen you young fellows work themselves into a frenzy making a good first impression. You’re a fine young man and I don’t want you getting in too deep!”

“Keep telling me how young I am,” he said, smiling, as he reviewed her freshly produced copies of his next exam.

“Listen, honey, I’ve got five kids older than you! I’ve got gall stones older than you!” she said. “Don’t tell ME about youth! You’re doing fine here; I haven’t heard a bad word about you. So let me tell you again: relax a little!”

“Thanks for your concern, Claudia,” he said, glancing appreciatively at her.

“No ‘thanks,’ just do what I tell you!” and she laughed with pleasure at her own presumptuousness. “Are you ‘playing’ like I told you to do?”

He thought back on the week. “Oh, I did! I played softball the other night, and I went down to Mayersburg a few days ago to visit my grandfather.”

“That’s good, honey! How is he?”

“Not very good. He seems in good health but his mind is slipping. He’s not going to be able to live alone too much longer, I’m afraid. He lives in an apartment over a store, all by himself. I’m trying to arrange for him to move to a nursing home. I’ve been thinking about him.”

“It’s bad when they get that way,” said Claudia. “That’s how my mother is. She’s in a nursing home back in Bal’mer. Let me know if I can do anything.”

“Thanks. I’ve been speaking to my father about it. I guess we’ll just see what happens in the weeks ahead.” He looked at his messages. “Have many students been around yet?”

“Some, not too many. Pesky, aren’t they?”

He laughed. “Oh, a little, not too bad. Just needing a lot of ‘pushing’ to stay on track.”

“That’s how they tend to be here. They’re right out of high school, still figuring out what they’re doing and who they’ are. Many haven’t traveled very far from central Illinois. They’re pretty respectful and goodhearted these days. Back in the early Seventies, when the Sixties finally reached this part of Illinois, the students weren’t always so quiet, and we had one student several years ago who kept things really lively. But these days there aren’t so many ‘radical’ types around. I should tell you that some of your students are bragging about you.”

“What do they say?”

“They say you’re real fair and take time to explain everything clearly. They like how much you write on their assignments. They say you’re really caring. A couple of them told me they think you’re cute!”

Gabe chuckled. “I didn’t notice any students with seeing-eye dogs.”

After his second class, he returned to his office and chatted with two students who lingered at his door. Once he solved their problems, he closed the door, slipped off his penny-loafers and his jacket, loosened his tie, and crossed his stocking feet beneath the desk chair. A quiet moment at last. Then his phone rang. Darn it, he sighed deeply, feeling overwhelmed. It was Claudia. She always buzzed him to help him screen calls, but the call needed his attention. One of those kinds of days, Lord, he prayed to himself, a student who needed guidance and patience. He said a little mental prayer for each of him. He finally ate lunch in the office at 2. After the meal he felt tired but knew he had at least one more appointment–a student falling behind in the Colonial America class due to a series of life-crises–before he could head home and unwind. He rubbed his sleepy eyes.

At that moment, the phone rang. He reluctantly reached to answer it. “Doctor Gabe, it’s a call from Mayersburg.”

“Thanks, Claudia!” he said as he pressed the button for the first line. “Yes!” he said into the phone. “Wonderful! Thank you.”

He hung up then buzzed the department office. “Claudia! I have to drive down to Mayersburg and move my granddad to the nursing home,” he said excitedly. “All the arrangements have been finalized!”

He left the college and drove off. In the very next moment he was standing at the counter of Adams Street Antiques. “Ms. Harmon!” he said excitedly. “It’s settled. I’ll be moving Granddad this week.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she said, and she came out from behind the counter and took his face in her hands and with her wet lips kissed him full upon the mouth. They shared aggressive, delighted kisses on their lips, eyelids, cheeks, ears, and hair. Her pale skin felt smooth and cool to him and she smelled glorious. Then she caressed him as their tongues met in a wet and gentle duel; he rubbed her thighs and felt himself hard against the sweet curve of her pelvic bones. He pulled off her blouse as she opened his shirt and rubbed her hands across his chest. People inside the shop came and went, but thoughtfully let them be.

“Oh, Gabe, I love you so much, please, please,” she whispered.

“I love you, Rebecca, oh, I love you. I want you–Make love to me….”

They both heard a buzzer. “Shoot! Excuse me, Gabe” she said brightly. It buzzed again. “Hello! Yes, he’s here. Gabe? It’s Claudia–”

“What?” he said, confused, “What? What?”

He lunged, startled, at the phone upon his desk. “Doctor Gabe,” said Claudia, “it’s your three-o’clock appointment. He says can’t make it and has a pitiful story to tell you,” she teased.

His heart throbbed with the shock of sudden wakefulness. “Oh, um, pipe him through. Hello? David? Yes! …Yes! I understand. Just have the paper done by Monday, OK? If you take more time, you’ll get too far behind. Yes . . . Yes. Thank you! No, no, that’s all right. Glad to know what’s going on. Yes . . . Goodbye, David!”

He hung up and placed his face into his damp palms. Sighing, he sat back and shook his head with astonishment. He had never fallen asleep in his office before. Sometimes at night he had comical dreams about teaching. He’d dream that he came to class in his pajamas, or that no one liked his lecture and threw things at him. He knew that many teachers have dreams of that sort. Once in a great while he had erotic dreams about casual acquaintances; that, too, was surely not uncommon and carried no meaning beyond the perversity of one’s sleeping mind.

But . . . Rebecca Harmon. He had barely thought of her since he saw her again on Wednesday, two days ago. But, no. He realized that, almost continually since he met her, she had been in the very back of his mind. She had been a warm, mental presence that helped him through the busy week. He had barely noticed her but she had always been there, comforting his subconscious thoughts, giving him perspective and confidence, and accompanying him on his way.

“‘Doctor Gabe,'” he said aloud, feeling a familiar weightiness in his heart, the soft pressure of a heart in love, “I think you have a problem.”

He sighed again, and discretely adjusted himself in his trousers. He glanced out the office window at a young man and woman holding hands as they strolled to class beneath a tall, shady tree. He did not want to hurt like this again, not at all.

Then he laughed aloud when he thought of something. He wondered what kind of divine direction Mrs. Kentie might have found in that dream!

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The following Saturday morning was warm and sunny. Wearing her denim skirt and a blouse printed with multicolored rabbits, Becky stood among the very sizable crowd that had gathered beneath a grove of tall, old oaks on the front yard of an ancient farm near Mayersburg. Becky had known the elderly couple who lived this farm. On this Saturday, Becky’s friend “Fox Trot” Schultze was the auctioneer at the estate auction. Earlier he had waved at her when he somehow spotted her within the heavy crowd. Becky never knew why people called him by that nickname, but perhaps he earned the name from his animated movements upon the auctioneer’s platform. She tried to remember his real name, but for the moment her principal concern was a gorgeous washstand up for bid. “Fifty fifty fifty dollar bill, ” he sang out as he danced on the platform.

“FIFTY-FIVE!” he said as Becky raised her hand.

It was a good auction. She had already purchased a Seth Thomas clock, some cobalt-green tumblers and a Shirley Temple pitcher set. She found batch of funeral home fans for a customer from Chester but she’d lost a Kist beverage sign and a jelly cupboard to some person in the crowd who had been eagerly bidding against her. “NINETY, DO I HEAR NINETY NINETY NINETY, NINE-FIVE–” called Fox Trot as he sang out and danced. But the price on the washstand crept too high, so Becky gave up and, when the bidding ceased, she marched through the crowd, saying “Excuse me, excuse me” when she bumped into people. Finally she spotted the culprit.

“Fred Lander, you bum! This is my turf!” she said, aggressively approaching a diminutive yet stocky man in his mid-fifties. Lander, a noted antique dealer in Norris, Illinois, always seemed to Becky a good-hearted but slightly paranoid and nervous man. She was never quite sure what he was thinking and that irritated her. He had bright little blue eyes that seemed ready to pop from his head and splat against the nearest wall. Strings of black hair lay slicked across his suntanned scalp.

“Sorry, Becky,” he said, smiling faintly as if mildly intimidated. “‘All’s fair,’ as they say.”

“‘In love and war,’ right!” she said, conscious of the many people–men in overalls, men and women in casual summer clothing–who stood all around the two of them, listening for Fox Trot’s next announcement.

“Well, antiques are always a little bit of both, aren’t they?” Fred noted, turning a sheepish little smile on and then off.

“You knew I’d be here, didn’t you?”

“If you’re here, I’m here, Becky!” he said, turning his smile on and then off. He trimmed his right thumbnail with his teeth. His arms and hands were brown from the sun. “You know your stuff, like me! You know what’s good and where to find it.”

“Well, flattery will get you nowhere. I want the cigar jars when their bin comes up, so don’t press your luck.” She finally managed a grin.

“Anything for you, Becky!” he said. His own smile came and went.

“Yeah, right! ‘Be afraid, be very afraid,'” she said brightly and then marched off through the crowds.

Later in the day, she drove back to Mayersburg with her truck overflowing with furniture and boxes of antiques. She hadn’t done badly at the sale but regretted losing some choice items to Lander. All in all it had been a good day, she thought to herself. She even composed a poem in her head about the old couple.

She checked her shop; one of her parents’ former sales clerks, a sweet little blue-haired woman named Matilda Brunk who loved antiques, filled in for Becky on Saturdays whenever a good auction occurred. Sales had been brisk all day, she reported. Becky decided to send Matilda home and she stayed late at the shop, making phone calls and some e-mail messages to customers who had requested particular antiques. She also jotted down the poem she’d composed and tucked it away.

****

The next morning, Becky stood in the church choir with other blue-robed choir members as they sung the last verse of the first hymn. Her sandals lay discarded beside her. It was the choir’s last performance before adjourning for the summer. Becky stood beside Kathy, a much better alto. She grimaced when she heard a very warbly Mrs. Collard, locally “renowned” for her Oberammergau slides, singing boldly down the row.

She looked around the old Lutheran church. The lovely sanctuary sloped gently toward the choir loft, the altar and pulpit, and the tall pipes of the fine organ. The late-spring sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows that variously depicted the cross, lilies, short scriptural passages, Martin Luther, and the risen Christ. The eyes of Christ seemed to shine forth God’s love for sinful humans and an ever so slight hint of bemusement at small town people’s piety. She looked out at the congregation: people she’d known all her life, people so familiar to her that they seemed like kin. She loved her father’s saying, which was not entirely fair: “Mayersburg people will give you the shirt off their backs–if you walk around shirtless for a few days and then ask them nice.”

Becky was not always happy in her faith. She believed that God’s ways in the world are subtler and more profound than some small town folk gave credit to the Lord. People’s religion sometimes took on a presumptuous quality, she thought: if the Holy Spirit dwells within you (which he does), then your little everyday mental processes are in the Mind of God, too. So if you think that your neighbor keeps his lawn untidy or that Pastor’s sermons are insufficiently biblical, your opinion becomes very “spiritual”–however petty. She disliked that, disliked judgments based upon appearances and reputations and preformed opinions, disliked it when folk were deemed spiritual just because they kept a neat house or prayed well in public. Yet she herself prayed aloud well and had a good name in town, even as she worshipped the Name Above All Names who, around this town, helped you have a good name. She hoped she wasn’t riding the same spiritual wagon. She worried that people considered her a know-it-all. People thought she was a character, but that was all right.

Pastor Metter clicked his cordless mike to “on” and gave announcements of upcoming parish events. “We are still running just a tad short on our giving compared to our budget,” he noted with a big grin. As he spoke, Becky noted in the bulletin that the budget had fallen behind $7000 due to unexpected bills. The church always ran behind on giving but this was an unusually large shortfall. She made a mental note to contribute an additional amount above her pledge.

“And now, Becky Harmon has an announcement,” said Pastor.

Still shoeless, Becky climbed into the pulpit and leaned toward the microphone. “So you heard what the man said: cough up the big bucks, folks! I’m here to remind everyone of the big clean-up day downtown, not this coming Saturday but two Saturdays from now. Meet me inside my store at 9 o’clock and everyone can have some coffee and doughnuts before starting out. I’d love a good turnout so I don’t have to call people to harass them.” A chuckle passed through the congregation. “I don’t know if that was a knowing laugh or a nervous laugh!” she said. More chuckling. “Anyway, I plan to do my annual stunt off the top of the store, so don’t miss that! See you there.”

Pastor Metter’s sermon text was a favorite of Becky’s: Ephesians 3:20, that God has the power to accomplish more than one can ask or imagine. She deeply hoped that was true. Becky liked Pastor’s messages. He worked very hard to apply biblical teachings to the complexities of modern life. After church she shook hands with him. “I stopped by and saw your dad this week,” he said with a broad smile. “Come by the shop this week and tell me about it!” said Becky.

Becky went home, changed into her old jeans, and spent a quiet Sunday afternoon. She finished reading a thick history book from the library. She and Kathy talked on the phone for a while. Kathy was still worried about her husband and brother. Becky missed the old Kathy, who had not taken things with such worried seriousness. As children she and Kathy had established lemonade stands on Lincoln Street each year, they had sold Girl Scout cookies together, they had played in the garden hose, they had both been high school cheerleaders. Irrepressibly mischievous, they had dumped ice cubes down each other’s shirts a number of times both private and public. Once Chuck and Becky took down Anna’s clothesline and tricked Kathy into pretending she was a May Pole, then left her tied up in the living room. But Kathy later put glue on her swingset so that Becky became stuck and Anna had to cut her short pants to get her loose. Another time Becky filled Kathy’s first old car with enough popcorn to fill the front seat to the steering wheel. A time or two Kathy set Becky up with the most horrendous blind dates in whom Kathy had had full and sincere confidence. Becky still didn’t trust Kathy’s advice on her love life!

Later in the day, Margaret called from New York and they chatted for a half-hour. Recently divorced, Margaret seemed cheerful and confident but Becky could not read all the feelings in her voice and the few silences between her rapidly spoken words.

She had no sales to attend the next day, her usual day off. She burrowed within the pillows and covers a while, pretending to be asleep when Sotheby came in. At eight she finally arose and padded to the window. The day looked a little cloudy, but her backyard thermometer read seventy-two degrees. After her walk and shower she put on an old pair of jeans and a cotton blouse with a silk patchwork vest, and then debated between her sandals and sneakers, choosing the sandals. She needed to pay bills downtown and to take clothes to the cleaners. After ten she drove downtown, parked in front of City Hall on Third Street.

She strolled on her way down to Adams Street and turned right. The two-story buildings of the small business district stood tall above her head. She missed certain tall trees that had stood behind the shops. She and Tom had carved their names on an oak but a few years ago the tree and some others had become diseased and were removed. The carving had been her idea. Thank you, Lord, she thought, for saving me embarrassment! She was surprised they hadn’t been arrested for vandalism at the time. Fortunately it was broad daylight, she laughed to herself.
She arrived at the Rexall pharmacy on the corner of Adams and Fourth. She went in, took the top basket, and stood for a few minutes at the drug counter with a prescription. “We’ll call you when it’s ready, Becky, just five or ten minutes,” said Lafe Mayer the young pharmacist. He and Becky had been in college together and had gone out a few times. He was sweet, but not quite her type. Lafe, too, was growing his festival beard. Becky searched the aisles for several items. She needed makeup and this drugstore was the only place in town that carried Elizabeth Arden.

“Hi, Becky,” she heard behind her. “What’s new?”

“Oh! Well, Bonnie, for pete’s sake. I’m stunned to see you buying makeup.” They hugged.

“No, you’re just a nut, but you might be stunned, too.” They chatted for quite a while. She and Bonnie had been friends since grade school, at around the same time, Becky thought, that Bonnie started wearing make-up. The two of them used to walk around town talking about boys and to boys. Bonnie had been a high school cheerleader. She was a tall and self-conscious woman, inordinately proud of her tanned legs. Bonnie was one of those friends who seemed to hold you at arm’s length if you contacted her, but eagerly sought you out when she desired. Becky just took her as she was.

“How’s your dad doing?” Bonnie asked.

“About the same. It’s hard for him.”

“How are you doing? I know it’s hard for you too. You always talk about your dad.”

“Oh, I’m doing fine. Terrific–really! I’m just shopping today. Catching up on stuff.”

“I hear you have to make old Bill Hausser move.”

“WHAT? Where did you get that?”

“That’s what I heard somewhere. That he set a bunch of newspapers on fire or something.”

She sighed audibly. “This town drives me nuts sometimes,” said Becky. She told her the story.

“I don’t think Bill has any living children either, does he?”

“He has a son. Seemed alive enough last time he stopped by. Bill says his daughter comes around, but I haven’t met her.”

“I guess I’ve got it wrong. Sure is pretty outside today.”

“I can’t believe it’s near eighty this early in June. I think I’ll lay out later.”

“Sounds good to me. What are you doing?” Bonnie asked, looking down. Becky had removed her left shoe and was scratching her sole on the bottom metal shelf.

“Scratching my foot. There’s a spot on my arch that always itches. Mom always had that too; she said it’s an Anglo-Saxon trait.” Lafe called her name but Becky and Bonnie stood and talked for another twenty minutes.

Becky went on her way. She crossed Fourth Street, peaking at the small tavern that stood a few doors down from the Rexall. Many years before a previous tavern with a cupola had stood at that location. The place had looked enough like a church to be nicknamed the German Lutheran Saloon. She strolled passed the old Foram Hotel, where a gift shop, ice cream shop, and travel company occupied the first floor, and then she passed Patty’s Fashions, the Chez Mayer clothing store, the Mayersburg Crafts Shoppe, an art and frame shop, and other stores. She arrived at the cable TV office, near the corner of Fifth and Adams, to pay another bill. The clerk in the office always made eyes at Becky; she ignored it. He’d had a crush on her for a long time. He probably still did, judging by the tender way he looked at her. They’d gone out once or twice, but Becky privately remembered him as “the date from Hell.” A nice enough guy, but he’d worried about every dollar spent and always worried about the time. She couldn’t deal with that.

The business district petered out beyond Fifth Street. She crossed the street just for the sake of variety. She noticed the Baptist Church on Fifth Street had some big goings-on this morning. The pastor was an immaculately clothed and noticeably handsome, athletic-looking man who’d been pastor there going on fifteen years. Privately she thought he was cute but that he overdressed: sportswear for the Christian walk, she thought. One seldom saw Lutheran pastors dressed to the nines, she thought, nor especially athletic. They liked their potluck dinners, just like the Methodists and Presbyterians! Unlike the Methodists, they loved their beer, too. Becky had gone out a few times with an associate pastor of the local Presbyterian Church. After he moved, the associate pastor had called her several times and then she stopped calling him back. Becky figured, God hadn’t made her for long-distance relationships.

She turned east on the south side of Adams and passed by familiar stores and offices. She also passed Seth and Sid Gammond, elderly brothers dressed in their overalls and dirty tee shirts and sitting idly upon a bench in front of the old Thirty-Eight Hotel. Above them hung the neon sign that Becky always loved: the vertical letters “Thirty-Eight” provided the middle “t” for the horizontal word “Hotel.” The Gammond brothers had never married, always farmed their small acreage (on which they lived in separate but adjacent old shacks) and raised a modest herd of cattle. They were bearded, but they always sported whiskers. Nothing to do, Becky thought, nowhere to go, nothing accomplished of note, a little vague, and perfectly content. “Hi, fellows!” she said brightly, “good to see ya.” They waved silently.

“Isn’t that Lew and Anna Harmon’s girl?” said Sid to Seth.

“Yep.”

“Kinda takes after her mama.”

“Quite a bit.”

Sid paused. “Good thing. Lew’d make an ugly woman.”

“Sure would.”

Becky finally strolled by her store. She passed her own window and peaked in: all well. She tapped the soil of the geraniums that she hung outside, beside the door, in small pewter buckets. Dry, she thought. She made a mental note to come downtown later and water them. No rain was forecast for a few days.

She crossed the street and returned to her truck parked at City Hall. She drove west to the dry cleaners on a side street of the town’s outskirts. “Hi, Becky!’ said Shirley, a thin, friendly woman with a broad smile.

“What’s new, Shirl?”

They chatted a while about Pioneer Days. Becky said that, since her mother passed away, she’d completely lost track of plans but assumed it would be a good festival and a good parade. She gave Shirl her flowered jumper and promised to pick it up by week’s end.
Becky went home and spent the rest of Monday quietly, working at her home computer catching up on her store’s accounts. She didn’t forget to drive downtown once more to water her flowers, and also to return her library book, which she’d earlier forgotten to return.

*****

She happily arrived at her shop early Tuesday morning. She felt a little sick at her stomach but a swig of antacid cured the feeling.
The whole week was busy. By Thursday she had sold a four star quilt, a jelly cupboard, a walnut sideboard, two arrowback chairs, some depression glass, a mahogany loveseat, a wicker doll buggy, and several other items. She also sold the bread sign that she’d purchased from Johnnie Barkes. That went fast, she thought. She’d hoped to keep it a while.

Pastor Metter dropped by near 10 a.m. on the Tuesday morning of that week. As he entered the store and his eyes adjusted to the change of light, he immediately noticed a middle-aged couple kissing in front of the counter as Becky, yelling through a bullhorn and gesturing broadly with her arm, led a chorus of customers loudly counting out, “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! FIVE! SIX! SEVEN! EIGHT! NINE! TEN! ELEVEN! TWELVE! THIRTEEN! FOURTEEN! FIFTEEN! SIXTEEN!–”

“–ONE! TWO! THREE–” Becky started again, which made the kissing couple burst out in giggles and the chorus of customers, loving the hilarity, laughed and applauded.

Becky turned and said, “Hi, pastor!” as the people in her store calmed themselves and resumed their shopping and browsing. “Doing anything for the Lord today?” she teased brightly.

“Always!” he said. “Twenty-four hours a day!” He was a short, chubby man in his early fifties with an insufficiently combed mass of salt-and-pepper hair and an ample beard that nearly concealed a clerical collar. He sat down hard into one of the easy chairs.

“Or at least one hour every week.” she said, grinning.

“No, always. Too many people like you needing serious guidance,” he teased back. “What in the world was that all about?” he asked, gesturing to the couple in the back of the shop.

“Today’s their seventeenth wedding anniversary,” she explained. “When customers have an anniversary, I ask them to kiss each other for as many seconds as they have years of marriage. But I like to crack them up by starting the count all over again.”

“Welcome to Harmon’s,” he noted.

“You betcha! What’s new with you? I liked your sermon Sunday.”

“Thanks. I wrote it myself! Becky, I saw your dad this past week, like you asked me to.”

“How’d he seem to you?” she said seriously.

“Actually not too bad for a fellow who’s lost his buddy of forty-some years.”

“He doesn’t seem so down to you?”

“Oh, sure, he does. He’s just dealing with it like men of his generation do. He’s not going to make a big scene about it. He’s just going to get through with the same grit that ‘won the war’, you know.”

“I guess. He just seems so sad to me.”

“Well, he is. He probably always will be, to some extent.”

“He says his heart beats fast sometimes, and he doesn’t sleep at night. He naps a lot in the daytime.”

“Not uncommon reactions to grief. Watch out if he starts getting foolish notions in his head, too. Some people react to grief in odd ways. Wanting to move away, cutting down all the trees in his yard. That sort of thing. Grief makes you feel so out of control, your mind latches onto things you could do to regain some control. Usually such ideas aren’t very good, though, because grief makes you not think straight.”

“I’ll remember that. Dad’s so stable and straightforward, though, I can’t imagine him going bonkers.”

“People do react differently to grief. Sometimes it’s expressed in foolish actions. Sometimes grief bursts out like a terrible, destructive flood. Sometimes it’s years before the tears come, if they ever do come: when his own mother Monica died, St. Augustine stood by dry-eyed. Sometimes it takes years to get the tears to stop! The Lord has made us all with different emotional qualities, just like he’s given us different faces, builds, complexions. He works with us within the special perimeters of our lives and experiences. How are you handling your mom’s death, by the way? Your dad’s very worried about you, too, you know.”

“Me? Fine. Just dealing with it, too. I try to be happy like Mama was.”

“She sure was!” he said, whistling. Pastor and Anna had been great friends. “She was something else, wasn’t she?”

“She sure was!” said Becky. “Excuse me,” she said, reaching for a Kleenex and blowing her nose.

“Does it make you sad?”

“It’s the dust in here,” said Becky, ironically. “Allergies, you know.”

Pastor smiled knowingly. “What?” she said, seeing his expression.

“Oh, nothing,” he said, smiling, “I take antihistamines, too, ever since my own mama died …Let me ask you something, do you think maybe you’re worried about losing your dad, too?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. He’s my closest living relative, of course, except for Mama’s two sisters but they live away. I just worry about Dad in general. I’m glad you thought he’s handling it okay.”

“I think so,” said Pastor. “He kids me ruthlessly, like he always does. Seems like the old Lew, in many ways.”

“I’m not sure . . . but thanks. You say he’s worried about me?–if it’s not confidential.”

“No, it’s not, and yes, he is–not worried sick or anything like that. I think he hesitates to talk about your mom for fear you’ll feel bad. He worries that you’re lonely these days and have a lot going in your life.”

“No more than usual. Maybe I’ll talk to him about it.”

“I think so. Just keeping talking to each other, like you do–talk about your mom, too. Let your memories flow. Get mad, swear and stomp if you have to, get mad at Anna, get mad at God. These are human emotions, part of the healing process. ‘God knows our frame,’ as the Bible says; he knows we’re dust. I know a lot of very angry Christians who feel like they can’t express those negative emotions to God. As if such folk were fooling Him! But their anger comes out in other, hurtful ways. Try expressing these things a little more, and I think you BOTH will start healing some.”

“I guess,” she said, thinking about Lew.

“How’s old Bill Hausser upstairs? I ought to stop in and see him, too. Even if he is Baptist. No one’s perfect, after all.”

She chuckled. “He’s increasingly forgetful. I had to put out a stove fire upstairs because he forgot and burned his supper. I suppose you’ve heard that I’m trying to kick him out.”

“I heard something about that.”

“Figures. I wish I knew how rumors get started. What I’m hoping to do is contact his family and help them make some different arrangements for him, so he can be safe and I don’t have to worry about the shop burning down.”

“I can’t help you much. The Haussers have always tended to be private people. Good luck. Even if no one else says it, I know you’ll do all you can for him.”

“Thanks.”

“Thank you for your announcement, by the way,” said Pastor, rising to leave. “You know, Becky: You’re a highly thought-of person in this town.”

“I guess I am,” she said.

“You are! I don’t think I’ve ever known someone who people feel more generally positively toward.” He mentioned the name of a parishioner who had spoken well of Becky. She gave him her authoritative look. “Don’t repeat this, but the feeling isn’t mutual,” she said.

“Oh, I know why. She came in your shop one day, a long time ago, when you were helping some black customers. She made a racial slur and you told her to leave till she could fix her mouth and attitude.”

Becky turned bright red. “How did you know? I didn’t say it loud enough for anyone to hear, and I’ve never repeated that story. Did she tell you?”

“Actually she did–not in confidence–she’s not very self-aware, you know.”

“Really?”

“But you stood up for something you believed, and you tried to deal with it privately. People in this town respect that, Becky. That’s why your folks were loved here.”

“I guess. Or else the people want to burn a cross on my yard but just haven’t gotten around to it. People are so busy these days, you know,” she said ironically.

Pastor chuckled bleakly. “Anyway, Becky, I just wanted to give you some assurance. If you ever get lonely, just look around you. Your mama and dad raised you well,” he said with that little knowing smile as he left the shop. She watched him go. What a dear man, she thought.

A couple hours after Pastor left, Kathy came in, without Ally, but with a bottle of soda. Becky had a Mozart symphony playing softly on her stereo. The two women hugged and greeted one another loudly, then Kathy flopped into one of the red easy chairs and exclaimed, “Girl, it’s sure getting hot already!” She tipped the bottle back and took a long drink, and then she greeted Sotheby, who came around the counter.

“Where’s the little whirlwind?”

“At my mother’s,” she said as she set the bottle down and stifled a belch. “Excuse me, whew! Anyway, I needed some time away. When that child gets to crying, I swear she can unhinge her jaw so she can open her mouth wider.” She sighed and slumped in the chair. “I don’t know how I can keep my sanity and youthful good looks much longer.”

They chatted a while. Becky tried to help Kathy put her family matters into perspective. Eventually Kathy said she felt better. Robbie came in and asked Becky if she wanted lunch. “Not today,” she said, “but thanks for asking.”

As Becky talked to Robbie, a young man came in the shop and stood by the door. Kathy noticed him. Nicely dressed in a preppy sport coat, loosened tie, shirt and slacks with dress shoes, the man’s thin, clean-shaven and tanned face and his kind, hazel eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses formed a friendly, curious expression. He had sandy brown hair, a straight nose, thin lips, and a small cleft in his chin. Nice strong jaw line, Kathy thought, and good strong cheekbones. Stop it, girl, you’re married! she chuckled to herself. She guessed him to be about her and Becky’s age: late twenties or early thirties. He smiled sweetly at her, which pleased her, as he stood by listening to the Mozart symphony.

Becky said, “You’re looking real good, Robbie!”

“Thanks. You’re nice, Becky. I gotta get Mr. Muller his lunch today.”

Let the bastard get his own lunch and then choke on it, Becky thought but didn’t say. “You can’t leave without giving me a hug, okay?”

They hugged for a few moments as Becky’s eyes bugged from Rob’s embrace. She patted his back affectionately. “We love you, Robbo,” she said hoarsely.

“Love you, too,” he said.

As Robbie left, the young man approached the counter. He was very touched by the display. “Can I help you?” Becky said pleasantly.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said politely. “My name is Gabe Hausser from Norris. I’m the grandson of Bill Hausser upstairs.”

“Oh,” said Becky. She thought of her letter, and what her father had said.

“I came to visit Granddad. I haven’t seen him for several years. Are you the owner of this place? I was trying to locate the person who rents to him.”

“That’s me,” said Becky as her dark eyes hardened considerably. He looked around the shop, as he had done while waiting for her. “This is a very pretty shop! I’m confused that one sign says Clothiers and another says Antiques. Is it both?”

“This used to be a clothing shop, and now it’s my antique store.”

Gabe turned back to her and was startled when their eyes met. “I’m sorry! What’d I say? I was just curious. Has Granddad lived above your shop for a long time?”

“So, um, do you know anything about Mr. Hausser’s arrangements?”

“No, I don’t know very much about them.”

“Well, my parents used to run this store as a clothing shop, and several years ago they started renting Mr. Hausser the apartment upstairs, after he decided to move into town. I’ve visited him upstairs, every single day since taking over the shop, which has been about four years now.”

“Well, thank you. You must be Anna? He says Anna takes wonderful care of him.”

“Anna is my dead mother,” Becky found herself saying.

“Oh! I’m very sorry. I didn’t know, of course.” Good lord, lady, lighten up, he thought.

“Mama visited him every day, too,” continued Becky, regretting her big mouth as she noticed his kind eyes become stern. “Mr. Hausser calls me Anna because he gets confused. He also calls me Esther sometimes. Esther was my great-grandmother.”

“Oh! Goodness. Granddad seemed so lucid to me just now!”

“He’s becoming less so, believe me. You caught him at a good moment.”

“His rooms smell so strongly of smoke. I was concerned about that.”

“That’s from last week when I came to the shop after hours and discovered that he’d forgotten he was cooking food on the stove.” Becky related the whole story to him. “I wrote all this to Bill’s son Stuart last week.”

“I didn’t know that,” Gabe said. “Stuart’s my dad. I said I’m from Norris. Actually I just moved there a few weeks ago. I came down to visit Granddad now that I live so close–just forty miles away!”

“That’s nice. I’ve met your father a few times, with regard to Bill’s affairs.”

“Yes, Dad’s the only child.”

“He–Wait a minute. Bill speaks of his daughter Denise; he says Denise comes and brings him magazines and such. He’s so proud of his daughter, he says, and how much she loves him.”

“No, Dad’s the only child, but–oh, goodness.”

“What?”

“I remembered something. Dad did have a sister Denise, but I’m told that she died many years ago, when she was a small child.”

Becky sighed and closed her eyes. “I was afraid of something like that.”

“Poor Granddad,” Gabe said.

They both looked away, saying nothing for a few moments. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just fond of your grandfather, you know.”

“Dad and his father don’t see eye to eye–that’s a long story–but I’ll talk to Dad and have him consider other arrangements for his dad–and to reimburse you for damage to your store. I’ll help with the cost, too.”

Becky relaxed. The man seemed sincere, rather earnest yet eager to please. “There was no damage worth paying for–this time, at least.”
Customers were gathering near the counter. Gabe noticed them. “Listen, I’ve taken up your time. Thank you for all you’ve done for Granddad. What’s your name?”

“Rebecca Harmon.”

Good grief, thought Kathy, no one calls you “Rebecca.”

“Gabriel Hausser–but it’s ‘Gabe.’ Pleased to meet you,” he said, extending his hand. They shook hands very firmly.

“I’m sorry. This is my friend Kathy Bissich.”

“Hi, Ms. Bissich. Gabe Hausser. Nice to meet you,” he said, offering his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Gabe,” she said, standing, studying him as they shook hands. “Call me Kathy.”

“Okay, Kathy,” he said. He turned to the counter. “Well, Ms. Harmon, I’ll contact you after I speak to my father.”

“Thank you,” said Becky as he went to the door.

She watched at him leaving, and something within her compelled her to say, “Um, SIR! Wait a minute.” Startled, Gabe stopped in the doorway.
Thinking, and feeling confused, she looked sheepishly at him. “I, um, I apologize for being abrupt with you,” she said. “I have a reputation for that, sometimes. I guess I’ve had a burr in my claw about Mr. Hausser and the fact that . . . he’s all by himself here. My family is very close.”

“Well,” he said, smiling a little, “I apologize to you, too. I guess I step in and take charge of situations when I shouldn’t.”

He looked sadly at her for a moment, as if some piece of new knowledge had left him concerned and similarly confused. “I’ll be in touch very soon,” he said as he left the store.

“Oh! I’m sorry. May I help you?” said Becky as she turned to an elderly woman who had been inching toward the counter.”Yes, dear, sorry to interrupt. I’d like to look at something in your china cabinet, but it’s locked.”

“I’m happy to help you!” she said and went with the lady. They walked together toward the rear of the store and arrived at one of Becky’s large cabinets. “This cup looks like demitasse,” said the woman as Becky unlocked the doors.

“It is!” said Becky.

“Well, I’d like to purchase it, if you please.”

“Absolutely,” said Becky, “come right back to the counter with me and I’ll get you a receipt.”

She made the transaction and chatted with the lady about china and glassware. When she had left, Kathy said, “Hey, ‘Rebecca’. Interesting fellow, there. Gabe Hausser, I mean.”

“Yeah, he was nice enough,” said Becky, not making eye contact with her as she moved papers around the counter. She looked around for her dog, then spotted him at the door. He was facing outside, hopping on his front legs and whining longingly.

“Looks like Sotheby misses him already. Dogs are pretty smart.”

“Mm hmm,” said Becky.

“He was kind of attractive, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask you,” said Becky, looking out the window. She saw no sign of him. “I do know what you’re getting at.”

“He didn’t have a wedding ring.”

“I didn’t look at his hands.”

“And sweet!”

“I suppose.”

“You were kind of hard on him.”

“Oh, not that much. You haven’t seen me really angry at someone.”

“Yes, I have, like that other time you–”

“Never mind!”

“And that time you–”

“I said, never mind!”

“Of course, the all-time classic time was–”

“KATHY, SHUT UP! Hey, I’ve had my back up over Bill’s arrangements. Come on! I said I was sorry. I told you I’m not an infallible judge of people. He said he comes on strong sometimes, too.”

“If I were you, I’d get to know him. He’s cute and seemed really nice. I’ll bet he’s smart, too.”

“I just met the man. Don’t you have somewhere you need to be?”

“Nope,” said Kathy brightly. “Nowhere at all! So I can give my full attention to your lack of a social life.”

“I have a social life, thank you very much.”

“Speaking of,” said Kathy mischievously, putting Ally down, “when was the last time you went on a date? Within the last year? Two? Three? Ten?”
Becky looked at her, amused, and said, “When was the last time you and your husband had sex?”

“Good point. Never mind!”

Becky drummed her fingers on the counter, thought for a moment, and said, “Kathy, you know good-and-well how I feel about these kinds of things. That guy would have to be very special to spark my interest. I’ve got certain things I’m looking for in a guy–”

As Becky continued, Kathy joined her words in perfect unison: “I want someone who’s a Christian ‘on the way,’ who loves books and music, who’s fun and intelligent, who has inner strength but not arrogance, who’s supportive of me and my business, who loves me for who I am and appreciates my roots in this town, who gives me time, and if he’s cute, that’s okay, too!”

“Don’t forget, ‘a good companion,'” she added.

“Becky, I know! But sometimes I like to stand up for you, just like you stand up for me.”

Kathy continued, and Becky recited her words in unison: “You know how much I look up to you. You’re smart, successful. This whole town loves you. Every unmarried male in town has eyes for you, and some of the married ones.”

“Quit doing that, Becky!” she said.

“One thing you can say about us,” Becky noted, “at least we’re predictable.”

“Listen, Becky! You’re the best friend I have in the world. The best friend I’ll ever have in my life. I know you hurt inside, and you put this shell on–”

“That’s not a shell. That’s the result of being raised by people who speak their minds.”

“Whatever you call it! You say you’re not lonely but I know you are. Sometimes at least. That’s no sin! I just don’t want you to say you’re not interested. Some Prince Charming may wander in her someday and you’ll never know the difference.”

“Listen, you,” said Becky, beginning to unsure of herself. “I’m fine. You know my philosophy about all this: If some handsome prince comes in here, I’ll assume that God’s arranged things quite well. Mama always taught me that: ‘God’s already in the future,’ she always said. And if not, I’ll just stay a happy single-type and help my bossy friends keep their husbands off the golf course.”

“Well, I’m going to have to lecture again about this.”

“Why don’t you just say ‘Lecture,’ and I’ll already know what you’re going to say. You’ll save time that way,” she laughed. “Come on, give me a hug.”

They hugged, and Becky messed Kathy’s hair. “Thanks for caring, though,” said Becky. “You know I look up to you, too, and take your side.”
Becky looked sadly into the distance beyond Kathy’s shoulder, unsure if the loneliness she felt was the power of suggestion or the real thing. By evening she felt so sad that she called Kathy just to talk about it. Kathy felt terrible; she hadn’t meant to make Becky depressed. Kathy told her she just meant to be encouraging. Becky said she knew that but she just wanted to talk about it. They chatted for a while as Becky heard Ally talking non-stop in the background and Kathy would say, “Don’t play with the phone cord, sweetheart,” and “Wait till Mommy is finished, please!” At around ten o’clock Kathy, dressed in her robe and night gown and hot-pink bunny slippers, drove over and demanded they both get chocolate milk shakes at Dairy Queen. Ally slept soundly in the back seat. Becky threw on her own robe over her long tee shirt and appreciated the chance to discuss with Kathy her heartache for her brother as they drove around the dark streets of the small town, finally ending up at Kathy’s house. All of them finally retired by 2.

*****

Near closing time on Wednesday, the shop had no customers. Becky arranged her displays and listened to Copland’s Appalachian Spring on her stereo. Becky struggled with late-afternoon blues when she heard Sotheby bark with anticipation and then immediately the door’s electronic bell rang. She looked and saw Gabe Hausser come into the shop. Becky was startled to see him again so soon. He was wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt that read “St. Martin’s Sluggers.”

Gabe waved to her. Driving back to Norris the day before, he had decided he wanted to make a better impression with her. He carried a thermos and two coffee cups. “Ms. Harmon,” he called. “I noticed yesterday that you drink coffee so I brought some hazelnut.”

“Oh, well,” said Becky, unsure of what to say. “You didn’t have to do that.” She didn’t tell him that he could call her Becky. So he’s a churchgoer, she thought, and he likes coffee. Good and good, she said to herself, surveying her “standards” for a boyfriend. Good, too! she thought when, without seeming to notice, she saw that he was fairly good-looking and nicely built. But she wondered if he intended to convey that impression. She noticed he had strong hands and that he wore no wedding ring, as Kathy had said. Very good! But how completely absurd to think like that, she thought.

“I was a little upset when I saw Granddad the other day,” he said, “and I was afraid I put my foot in my mouth.” He tried not to show how eagerly he’d wanted to chat with her again. Why hadn’t Dad told me about her? he wondered.

“You didn’t, really. I’ve got the big mouth! I value directness in people, anyway. So please don’t worry about it.” She smiled. “Have a seat.” She offered him a seat in one of the red easy chairs. She turned the music down then emerged from behind the counter and sat down in the other chair. She felt curious but not terrifically outgoing with him. She had an overwhelmingly positive intuition concerning him but she didn’t know why, since her whole knowledge of him, after all, consisted of five minutes’ uncomfortable acquaintance during the previous afternoon, and assorted paternal complains about his relatives. She crossed her legs and arms.

Gabe bent down to pat Sotheby, who had stood by nuzzling his hand. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said.

Becky smiled; she heard the kindness in his voice. “His name is Sotheby, like the dealer-auction house in New York and London. I think he likes you!”

“I love dogs. He’s a cutie!” he said. “I could hear him bark outside.”

“Yeah. Corgis have loud barks. Their heritage as sheep herders.”

“That’s interesting! Anyway, I so deeply appreciate what you and your family have done for Granddad that I wanted to show you some appreciation. It’s not nearly enough of a gesture.”

“That’s no problem. You didn’t have to do anything, really. I like Mr. Hausser and so did my mother.” She left out her father.

“Well, I feel a strong obligation. Like I said yesterday, I tend to take charge of situations when I see a need, more than I should.”

He poured coffee. “That’s actually a very good trait,” she said.

“I called my father, who’s been out of town for a few days, but he gave me the green light to try to help with Granddad’s situation,” he said, offering her a cup. She uncrossed her arms and took it. “I’m going to try to explore some local options, so he won’t be dangerous to himself and your store.”

“Thanks,” said Becky. “I appreciate your conscientiousness. So you’re new to the area?” She blew on the coffee and looked at him.

“Yes, I’m an assistant professor up at Norris State College. I just moved here from Pennsylvania three weeks ago. I had a one-year appointment at Eastern Pennsylvania State. I wanted to visit my grandfather, as I said the other day. I hadn’t seen him since I was a little boy, and then only briefly. I barely remember the visit, though. We visited Granddad for a while, then drove on. I don’t remember how he and Dad got along. Poorly, I suppose.”

“That’s a shame, he’s a good old fellow,” she said.

“I suppose I saw your mom and dad’s clothing store on the way through, and you’d have been a small child, too.”

“Funny how things happen in life. Do you know Harkness at NSC?”

“Yes! In fact, I replaced him. He retired this year. You know him?”

“Oh, I attended NSC for a couple years before transferring to University of Illinois. I took business courses with Dr. Josie Bass, and also some courses from Harkness and other history professors.”

“Goodness, it is a small world. I think Dr. Bass is still there.” He smiled and added, “Did you like Harkness?”

“No, not really,” she said without missing a beat.

Gabe laughed out loud. “I just wondered,” Gabe said. “He’s–”

“—an asshole.”

“Yes, but I was going to say reserved! A stereotypical old-time professor: very stern. He delayed for so long telling the department he was retiring that they made an eleventh-hour search. I was selected but had to rush to get here!”

“It figured that Harkness would make the whole department dance around his needs. So you must be a history teacher.”

“Yes, both American and world. I’ve landed with both feet. I had two summer school courses beginning the end of May, before I had much chance to unpack my boxes. I have two more classes beginning at the end of June, and then I’m off for most of August. That’s all fine. NSC’s a wonderful place, although isolated, and the job market is so tight I feel very blessed to have the position. It was by far the best opportunity–a good salary and tenure-track–and the fact that my grandfather lives fairly close became a nice extra. To tell you the truth, I was feeling so cooped up at school yesterday that I left after my second class to drive down to Mayersburg. I wasn’t sure where Granddad lived and couldn’t find his name in the phonebook at one of the local service stations. But I met two fellows named, let’s see, Floyd Willis and Herb Kelso.”

“Oh, goodness, yes! Floyd’s run that station almost since it was a blacksmith shop.”

He chuckled. “That’s a good one.”

“I’m not kidding. The place was once a blacksmith shop and livery. They just switched over to taking care of cars instead of horses. That was Floyd’s dad, though.”

“Floyd’s not the local barber, huh?” he gently teased.

She looked strangely at him. “And Herb’s the local sheriff,” she continued without acknowledging his joke. “He’s a good fellow too. I’ve known them both since I was a little girl.”

“That’s nice,” Gabe said, thinking. He tried to keep eye contact with her and not glance at her skin, her bare arms in front of her, and her bare ankles below her pants suit. At the same time she tried not to stare at his shoulders and chest. He continued, “They both said, ‘Oh, sure, Bill Hausser, he lives upstairs over Harmon’s.’ Of course, I had to ask them where the place was. They knew, but I didn’t.”

Becky grinned, and Gabe felt relieved to see her smile. “Lots of locals still call it that. Probably always will. It’s kind of a local landmark. That’s why I’m glad to be here, keeping up the family business.”

“When did your parents give up the store?”

“They retired a few years ago and I acquired the building from them. In fact, that apartment upstairs was their first home. Dad got back from the army and married Mama, and they lived upstairs while Dad worked with Grandpop down here.”

“I’m sorry your mother’s gone.” Becky remembered her brusque announcement. She thought, he’s certainly tried harder to make a good impression to her than I have.

“Is your father still living?” Gabe asked.

“Yes. He lives here in Mayersburg.”

“Are all your family members here?”

“Just Dad and me. I’m an only child.”

“I saw the name on top of the building, too.”

“My dad’s grandfather. He founded the store.”

“Is that the one married to ‘Esther’? said Gabe.

“You have a wonderful memory!” she said. “No, actually ‘Esther’ was my mom’s grandma. Bill seems to recognize several generations of me.”

“How wonderful to have roots like that!”

“I take it you don’t?” she said, sipping. It was good coffee.

“No, my father was in the Navy then worked for a firm which moved him a lot. We lived all over the country, all over the world in fact.” He shifted himself in the chair. “I’m one of those people who you ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’ll say, ‘Everywhere, and nowhere in particular.’ My childhood was interesting because I got to see many different places. As I’m sure you know, my dad and mom now live in Pittsburgh but Dad grew up here in Mayersburg. Mom grew up outside of Baltimore. Once in a while Dad comes to visit his father. Mayersburg looks like such a pretty town; I wish I knew more about it.”

Becky remembered Kathy’s chide. I guess a friendly gesture couldn’t hurt, she thought. No long-term obligation, after all. “Next time you’re down here,” she said, “let me give you the 50-cent tour of the town.”

“Oh, I’d like that!” he said. “I’m teaching during the day but I’m free evenings, and also Sunday of course, which I see is your day of worship, too, or your general day off.”

“Both, actually,” she said, and Gabe smiled. He’s observant, she thought, if a bit ingenuous. Or was that her reaction to him? Why not? she thought. Might as well try it and see. “Actually this coming Sunday afternoon’s good. I have church till noon, then lunch with Dad, but all afternoon I’m free.”

“Great! Next Sunday: say, three o’clock, if that’s okay.”

“That’s fine,” she said, still thinking. “Let me be direct again, I guess. I take it your family doesn’t get along well?”

“We get along well. But you mean Dad and Granddad. They had a falling-out at some point, years and years ago. Privately, Dad always refers to his father as ‘that old fool’–and often worse than that. One time I asked my mom–” he imitated a child’s high voice, “–‘Mommy, when we are going to visit SOB again?'”

Becky laughed out loud. She felt a little better about Gabe. Maybe he’s not so ingenuous after all, she thought.

“Excuse me for swearing,” he continued. “That’s what I’d always heard Dad call Granddad, I still got a whipping!” he laughed ruefully.

“I asked Dad about his sister,” he said. “Denise died of typhoid fever back in the 1940s. Dad makes sure his father has room and board and such, but the rest of the relationship is difficult.”

“That’s sad,” said Becky. “It isn’t any of my business–”

“Well, it is if Granddad’s too senile to care for himself and lives above your store. When I spoke to Dad, I told him you’d tried to contact him. He asked me if I’d help make some arrangements for Granddad somewhere else here in town.” He sighed. “Dad cares, but sometimes he withholds. His spat with Granddad is a case in point. So I drove down to visit him. I obtained the numbers of the two nursing homes in Mayersburg. The person at the Leander Home said they’ll have an opening, soon. So they’ll be calling Dad and me.”

“Well . . . thanks for your follow-up.”

“No problem.”

“Listen,” he said, suddenly feeling very shy, “I’ve taken too much of your time, so close to quitting time.” He stood and she stood.

“That’s all right. Thanks for the coffee.” She handed him the cup.

“I’m going to visit Granddad then I’ve got to get back for a church softball game tonight–hence my outfit. I feel very self-conscious looking sloppy like this, but I knew I’d have no time to change. Well, thanks again, Ms. Harmon. Bye, Sotheby,” he said sweetly to the little dog.

“See you! Oh—here, I’ll make sure you can get in next door.”

“The door wasn’t locked yesterday.”

“It’s supposed to be. Bill has a key, but sometimes he forgets.”

They went out the door, self-conscious as they walked beside one another. She unlocked the downstairs door. He went upstairs to visit Bill. Becky returned to the shop. Sotheby whined happily when she came in and he stood by the door, waiting for Gabe. As the late afternoon sun brightened the street outside, she felt deeply unsure of herself, and unsure about this man who strolled into her shop from the clear blue. But why did she think there was anything about which to be unsure?

She said out loud, “We’ll see what happens. And Lord,” she said, sighing, “I guess you already know. Sorry if I’m not getting my hopes up too much.” She closed up the store and went home with Sotheby.

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The next morning, Becky assertively swatted the snooze button on her alarm clock, nearly knocking the clock to the floor.  Besides her antique poster bed, her bedroom was attractively furnished with antique lamps, an old washstand, and a newer, walnut dresser and chest of drawers.  Antique bed warmers hung from the bedroom wall along with several old family photographs and “Harmon’s” advertisements.

Opening her sleepy eyes, Becky observed the soft gaze of her Pembroke Welsh corgi, Sotheby.  All golden brown and white, the little dog knew Becky didn’t like to be bothered while she lounged in bed.  He’d stand by, elegant ears at attention.   His legs were so short he never seemed to be tired from just standing by in patient loyalty. Becky didn’t let him on the bed, for she slept beneath a delightfully heavy, cream-colored star quilt which her great-grandmother Harmon had made using remnants passed to her by her own grandmother Mill. Buried comfortably beneath a mound of sheets, toy rabbits, and the quilt, Becky reluctantly climbed out.  She changed from her pajamas and put on old clothes.  Soon she had Sotheby’s leash in place.  The two of them loved their morning walks together.  Passing the discarded sneakers at her front door she judged the morning air quite mild enough for bare feet. She hauled her loaded garbage can to the curb then she trotted down the street with the little dog.

As she walked, she thought about the strange conversations she’d had the night before.  First she’d checked her phone machine, which contained two hang-ups–probably Kathy–and two requests from local people for particular antiques for which they were searching.  Then she called Stuart Hausser’s home in Pittsburgh to discuss the situation with Bill. She did not talk with him very often, but she did have his phone number.   No one was home and no phone machine came on.  She called Kathy next, but Kathy didn’t want to talk or get together even though she’d been eager to contact Becky earlier. Becky knew something was serious; she and Kathy were close enough friends that they could read each other’s silences.

After she’d talked to Kathy, Becky called her dad about the incident with old Bill. “You’d better do something about that,” Lew said angrily. “Your mother liked taking care of people and I loved her for it, but those Haussers are damned, dilatory people. They don’t take care of their business and expect that someone else to live with the problem.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Well, I’m talking about years ago.  Before you were born.  Don’t let him take advantage of you!”

The conversation left Becky unsettled. She disliked his habit of judging whole families according to the actions of a few, but that’s a small town for you, she thought.  She thought that people liked Bill very much. She thought his father had been a hero in the 1920s train wreck.

She and Sotheby returned home from the walk.  Becky’s house was three blocks north of downtown and two blocks east, in an older but still pleasant section of town.  Her unusual, metal house was an antique of sorts; her friend Tim Bissich, who was a realtor and Kathy’s husband, had gotten her a terrific price.  Padding up the drive she glanced at the flatbed wagon in her yard beside the garage.  She’d been procrastinating; she needed to start work on a parade float, if she wanted to build a float at all. Inside the house, she showered and prepared herself for the day.  She chose her V-neck jumper with a colorful pattern of morning glories and peonies. She applied her make-up, found a dainty pair of rose bud earrings and some other jewelry, slipped on her rose flats, and sprayed perfume behind her ears. She looked into her full-length mirror and double-checked her slip length.  She hoped she looked pretty.  Then she stuck her tongue out at her reflection.  She let Sotheby into the garage then she locked up the house and the two of them hopped into her pickup.  Within a short time she made the trek downtown and parked the truck beside her shop.

Across the street, the time-and-temperature sign at the bank–a one-story brick building with lions’ heads at the cornice–read 7:40 a.m. and 67 degrees.  Herb Kelso honked his horn as he drove by in a black and white.  She waved to him. Her shop’s recessed entryway formed a diagonal at the building’s corner.  She glanced up at the upper story windows and assumed old Bill was fine.   She couldn’t deal with him this early in the morning.  Glancing down below the door at the pink and blue mosaic tiles that spelled the word “Harmon’s,” she unlocked the door.  Then she returned to her truck and moved the items inside.  When finished she displayed her American flag and then locked the door, not from fear but for privacy until she opened.  Sotheby rested comfortably, trustfully, behind the counter. A few minutes later, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro overture capered about the shop, and a pot of coffee brewed peacefully beside the stereo.  Becky liked to sip coffee throughout the day.   She switched on the computer and felt a sense of strong nausea in her stomach, one that she’d only recently noticed, and only when she came to the shop.  She opened a drawer and found a bottle of antacid, unscrewed the cap, and took a swig directly from the bottle.  That’s better, she thought, smacking her lips.   Above the sweet smell of coffee she caught a whiff of textiles, that wonderful aroma which still lingered so pleasingly in the shop after its sixty years as a clothing store. She sighed happily, and then set to work.

The town of Mayersburg lay comfortably across a short but very wide hill. Becky always loved the gentle topography of her hometown. The business district along Adams Street, which was also U.S. 38, made a wide, convex curve around the foot of the hill, like a smile.  The tops of stately oaks and maples stood tall beyond the cornices of the downtown businesses, so much so that the sight of green leaves and the ornate decorations of Victorian architecture always seemed to Becky two aspects of the same, comforting reality.  Between Fifth Street and First Streets sat commercial buildings old and new. The Romanesque-style Hanover County courthouse sat on a grassy lot on Third Street, across from the new city hall and just a block north of Harmon’s. On the side streets stood other places: the Art Moderne-style dime store, the library, the photo studio which Becky’s cousins operated, and local congregations including Becky’s own Christ the King Lutheran church, a Richardsonian building built in the late 1890s.  Locals cared for the town; most of the old commercial buildings sported fresh coats of paint–some quite colorful and multicolored–and merchants could obtain city money to preserve vintage signs that, if not restored, would lend an air of junkiness to the town. Mayersburg gave an appearance of unforced quaintness. Its neighborhoods stretched to the north into the surrounding farmland.  The local park department tended no fewer than ten parks. Motels, filling stations, Summer’s Restaurant, and other roadside businesses stood at the western edge of town along the U.S. 38 commercial strip. Other businesses, along with massive white grain elevators and one of central Illinois’ few remaining drive-in theaters, were located at the town’s eastern edge.  Still other businesses, along with the small Mayersburg Railroad Park, lined Third Street south of town. Lately the town had been brightly decorated with banners, hung from utility poles and streetlights, for the upcoming Pioneer Days.   Becky knew that as Pioneer Days drew closer the whole town would be decorated with red-white-and-blue banners, festive flags, and brightly-colored streamers.

Becky thought Mayersburg looked like a thousand other communities of its kind, but better: it was her home. As a child Becky had spent many hours at the shop, playing in the pant legs and dresses, doing homework behind the counter.  Her mother taught Becky how to draw hopscotch squares upon the sidewalk outside the store.  Her father would draw chalk on the sidewalk and teach Becky to play marbles–careful not to trip downtown pedestrians as the two of them played on their hands and knees.  The store provided her with her first high school job, operating the cash register during late afternoons and Saturdays.  Townspeople knew the Harmons and loved them.

Becky loved to remember Mayersburg people, during their weekly downtown shopping trips, browsing through the many clothes ranks in that big room.  The women, some of them cooped-up housewives and weary farm ladies needing some beauty in their lives, would come in with recent issues of McCall’s or Look and call out, “Anna!  Anna!  Do you have this dress?  Do you carry this brand of slacks?”  Now, Becky displayed a variety of antiques throughout the lower floor.  Visitors to the store found the place crowded with marvelous things: quilts, two mantels, furniture, wall clocks, dolls, household items from the past century, railroad lanterns of all kinds, an 1800s school desk with the original inkwell, a spinning wheel with its original mustard paint, carnival glass, sets of flow blue, china pieces; coffee grinders, lamps, war memorabilia, toys, a Victrola complete with a toy Nipper, advertisement characters, postcards, art deco and nouveau jewelry, and many other items.  Becky had an eye for how to display her items; there was nothing junky or thrown-together about her shop; nothing was merely propped-up.  Advertisements hung like paintings; old dolls were lovingly displayed; shelves and displays were arranged neatly and with touches of whimsy, like her medical school skeleton perched proudly atop an antique bicycle. A variety of rabbit toys, old and new, appeared throughout the store.  Her parents had displayed children’s clothes downstairs, where Becky now kept several shelves of antique books along with comfortable chairs if people wished to sit and read. Upstairs she sold quilts and vintage clothing, where men’s suits and shirts had once filled ranks and shelves.  She had installed a train set along the railing of the upstairs balcony. The set was for sale but Becky had marked a sufficiently high price so she could keep it a while.  In the store window that had been Anna’s source for running gags, Becky displayed thematic arrangements of antiques. This summer her window display showed automotive products like signs, glass pump crowns, oil cans, road maps, toy gasoline trucks, boxes of spark plugs, vintage maps and the like, along with a few rabbits inside the toys. A male mannequin sported a 1930s service station uniform: Jodhpur trousers, jacket, and military style cap.

As her mother had done for so many years, Becky held court at the store’s counter, which stood beside the front door.  She kept the family’s manual cash register but entered her transactions on the PC behind the counter, wired to a modem and a 1930s candlestick telephone. A Reddy Kilowatt™ figurine stood cheerily atop her PC.  She served butter mints for customers in an antique chamber pot. Becky had set two comfortable, bright red easy chairs beside the door, where bored spouses, tired children, and familiar locals came to flop.   She encouraged people to take advantage of her red chairs. Behind the counter and on the wall were three framed family pictures of the store’s previous owners: the stony-faced, neatly bearded Jacob Harmon and his somber, brown-eyed wife Rebecca; Arthur and Louise Harmon, her grandparents, dressed to the nines; and an enlarged, outdoor snapshot of Lew, Anna, and an 8-year-old Becky.  Lew and Becky both looked fierce. Becky also displayed a framed cover of Arts and Antiques magazine with a very glamorous Becky Harmon on the cover.  She always thought she should take that down but Kathy had created the cover and thought it was funny.

Becky hung Johnnie Barkes’ Fountain Service sign beside the counter, replacing a Sinclair sign that she’d sold a few weeks before. She wished she’d asked Johnnie where the sign had come from. But she doubted that he knew. He seemed befuddled. She also hung the portrait of the glaring, grim man and drew a sign to accompany the picture:

ANOTHER SATISFIED CUSTOMER!

Shortly before 9 Becky hauled out display items: an old church bell and a round, red and white petroleum sign.  Customers started coming in shortly after 9. So Becky checked her e-mail. She answered three notes from collectors. Then she got off line and brought up a list of addresses.   She wrote the first draft of a letter to Stuart Hausser, explaining to him Bill’s situation.

Once finished, she read the letter on the screen as she reached for the bottle of antacid. She had the bottle to her lips when out of the corner of her eye she saw a red-haired, middle-aged man at the counter.

“Oh, I’m sorry! Can I help you?” Becky said, taking a swig.

“No problem. Looks like you’re deep in thought, there,” he said.

“Just a little matter to take care of. You know how that goes!”  She screwed the cap back on the bottle.

“Oh, sure.  I’d like to buy this cane chair.”

“Absolutely!  I accept any kind of money, except for bad checks.” She grinned at him then looked at the chair as she recorded the information on the receipt. “That’s a very fine one.”

“My great-granddad had one like it, but it’s long gone. Someone broke in and got it. Ain’t it the way with some people? So I’ve been looking for one like it for ages,” the gentleman said proudly. Refusing help, he happily carried it out to his car. He did consent to having his picture taken with Becky’s camera.

“How much is that Fountain Service sign?” said a man several minutes later. To Becky he looked vaguely like Burt Lancaster.

She quoted her price, and he said, “Let me look around and think about it” as he walked into the shop.

Customers came in a slow but steady stream. Eventually the man who resembled Burt Lancaster walked out without further discussion. Meanwhile Becky left the counter several times to help people who called to her. “I found this ruby cup,” Becky told a woman.  The lady had salt-and-pepper hair and a deep tan and wore a white tennis suit with gold sandals. Becky unlocked the display case and gently removed the cup.  The cup had “St. Louis World’s Fair 1904” etched into the dark red side.  “Last Friday a fellow was in here who’s into 1893 Chicago Fair things. I love this cup. You don’t see them too often.”

“Oh, honey, I have five of those,” the woman said brightly. “But my husband isn’t here today to tell me I spend too much money!”

She looked at the nearby grandfather clock; it was nearly eleven.  Charlie Fadiman, who collected Route 66 antiques, came in.   He was an older man with neatly combed silver hair and a Route 66 tee shirt. He collected anything that had to do with Route 66: postcards, ads, travel guides, motel keys.

“You know what I’m looking for,” he said.

“Yeah, I sure do, Charlie,” she said, “but I haven’t seen anything lately.”

“I’d love to find a highway sign,” he sighed.  Becky had heard him say this before. “I wish I’d gotten one before the state took them down. You don’t appreciate something until it’s gone. But they’re beautiful in my mind.  Sixty-six!  I grew up seeing them all along the road.”

“I know what you mean,” Becky said.  “Even these old U.S. 38 signs make me nostalgic.  I’ve never seen a 66 sign for sale.”  That was true.  She knew that Fred Lander had one that he found in New Mexico, but he wasn’t selling. She had already sent Charlie to Lander, her friendly archrival in Norris, Illinois. “I know they go for a lot of money,” Becky said.  “If I find one you’re the first person I’d call, but I’ll just warn you to save your quarters.”

“Maybe before I die!” he declared, chuckling.

Leaving, he went to the door and nearly ran into Becky’s best friend Kathy Bissich who had her four-year-old daughter Ally in tow. Kathy, Becky, and Kathy’s brother Chuck Fahren had been friends since childhood; the Fahrens had lived next door to the Harmons. Kathy had sandy blond hair trimmed in a long, pleasing style. She wore comfortable, straight-legged jeans and flip-flops and a “Something In Red” tee shirt, and she had a glass bottle of cola which she set on the counter.  Her short height, slightly slanted, blue eyes, narrow nose, and wide grin gave her a pretty and mischievous appearance appropriate to her personality; normally she had a bright, enthused way of speaking.  The two of them made an insufferable pair!  Lately, weariness and anxiety filled Kathy’s expression and added brusqueness to her voice as she attended to her small child.  She seemed continually panicked and breathless. But Becky knew she had a natural, wonderful sense of humor, a delight in practical jokes, and a delightful slowness on the uptake that made her an enjoyable target of jokes.   She was also a very talented artist who had worked in graphics at the Examiner, but she’d put her job and her art aside to concentrate on her family, a sacrifice which, Becky thought, contributed greatly to her anxiety.  Young Ally was a round-faced and stubbornly independent little girl with bright blue eyes and an inexhaustible capacity to chatter. Because she refused to comb it, Ally’s hair was trimmed short out of her mother’s desperation that her hair should look reasonably good in public. She usually carried around a pink afghan, which predictably looked like one dragged across all manners of floors and through all weathers.  Kathy’s husband Tim, a more quiet and reticent fellow who adored Kathy and doted on her, worked at the Mayersburg Real Estate office downtown.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Charlie said.

“Excuse me!  Sorry,” she said, smiling broadly.  “Hi, darlin’!”

“Hi, yourself, darlin’!” said Becky loudly as the two women hugged as if they hadn’t seen each other for several years instead of two days.  Some customers glanced up to see what the noise was all about.   Sotheby strolled around the counter and nuzzled Kathy’s pant leg, and she bent down to scratch his ears.

“Come on, honey, say hi to Becky,” Kathy said.

“Hi, Becky,” Ally said, giving Becky a hug around the knees. The little girl wore a little pink sundress along with black socks and black church shoes.

“I see you’re still dressing yourself, sweetheart,” Becky chuckled.

“Yeah,” sighed Kathy. “That’s what I call her ‘Nazis at the Beach’ outfit.”

“What are you up to, girl?” said Becky to Kathy. “Dad said you called him yesterday, looking for me.”

“Oh, I just wanted to chat,” said Kathy. “No emergency, except the imminent loss of my mind.” She retrieved her bottle of cola, fished in her purse for an opener, and popped off the cap, then she sat in one of the red chairs.

“That’s no great loss!”

“Mommy, are we going to get a chicken lunch with fwies?”

“Not yet, sweetie, I stopped by to say hi to Becky.”

Becky said to Kathy. “I was out buying.   It was a beautiful day.  Picked up quite a bit of stuff. I got this one a present,” she whispered.    Several people came into the shop, and Becky greeted them warmly, including one family–a nicely dressed man and a comely woman with blazing bright red hair and two teenaged boys–who looked around the shop.

“Mommy?” said Ally, covering her face.

“Yes, dear?”

“Do you see two eyes?”

“No, dear, and why don’t you go read some of Becky’s books?” said Kathy.  Becky kept several children’s books behind the counter for Ally.

“Here, Ally,” said Becky, “I got a new one for you about pigs.”

Ally finally went behind the counter to inspect the books and to pat a tolerant Sotheby. “Anyway,” said Kathy, “This one was finally asleep so I was desperate to chat with someone with more than a preschool vocabulary.”

“I’m glad you thought of me.”

“Well, you’re a little on the juvenile side, but you’ll do.  Unfortunately, that’s Ma Kettle passing judgment on Ms. Pot’s colors.”

“That’s what you need to do–speaking of colors–get back to your painting.”

“It’s the truth,” Kathy declared. “But I can barely concentrate on thinking one decent sentence to a conclusion, let alone get motivated to do any painting.  I can’t even develop any ideas.  If I can just hold out through summer, I can start her in kindergarten and retrieve a few moments a day to myself for my artwork.”

“That’s just three months away, Kathy.   How’s Tim-o?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about yesterday,” she said.  “It’s our anniversary next week and he’s going to be out of town on business.”

“Did he take his clubs?” Becky asked.  She glanced around the shop.

“That’s what I said: a business meeting!   He says he gets the best work done on the back nine.  I’m going to kill him!  I’m absolutely going to go pre-menstrual.”

“Tim doesn’t need to be out pretending he’s Greg Norman when you’re needing him around here,” noted Becky.

“I wonder if there’s a 12-step program for golfers?” Kathy looked at her strangely, paused, and said, “I also wanted to talk to you about Chuck.”

“How’s your brother, Gracie?” said Becky in a raspy voice.

She sighed, her face a study in heartache.  “His wife’s going to leave.”

Becky flinched as though she’d been struck. “Damn, Kathy….Poor Chuck… I’m sick about that!” she said quietly, dabbing her eyes.

“Me, too,” said Kathy, wiping her own eyes with a tissue.

“And he was so happy!  I just saw Melinda walking down the street, late last week.  She was eating an ice cream cone and she seemed carefree as she could be.”

“She may be, and that makes it worse. I can’t stand to think about it.  I thought he’d gotten it together.  He was hurt so bad the first time.”

“Yeah, he was.   What was wrong?”

“She just changed her mind about being married, that’s all!  But that’s enough!  She thought Chuck was wonderful but she just decided she liked being free and easy! And you know what the little capital-B thought?  She thought Chuck wouldn’t mind.”

“What did she mean, ‘he wouldn’t mind’?  For … I mean, the man was crazy about her! This wasn’t some appointment that she could cancel because of some unforeseen conflict!”

She added, “Grrrr!”

“Amen! Don’t tell anyone, Becky. It’s not supposed to be common knowledge yet.”

“Which means the whole town knows.”

“Exactly, but at least I’ll have tried to keep it quiet! By the way, how’s my ol’ buddy Lew?”

“Same.” She sighed. “He still mopes around so badly.  I don’t know.”

“Can my boys use your restroom?” asked the red-haired woman who had entered with her family.

“No, sorry.  They’re not for the public,” said Becky. “You might try city hall or the courthouse.  They’re both just a block north of here.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, walking to the back of the shop.

Kathy said,  “Anyway, your dad said you were out looking for men and would find me one, too.”

“Yeah, he told me,” said Becky. She glanced back at the boys, who were looking at her.

“I love your dad so much!” Kathy said, brightening, “I told him something mean: I said, ‘Lew, you’re a mess!’ and he just laughed and–”

“Mommy!” said Ally.

“Yes, dear,” said Kathy, sighing again. The quiet moment had passed.   Kathy had wanted to ask Becky about how she herself was coping with Anna’s death, but she made a mental note to ask later.   She sensed Becky was feeling very lonely but she had inquired of Becky’s feelings so many times, without getting her to open up, that she figured Becky just needed more time.  Becky had her deep silences when she sorted through her feelings.  She wished she knew how to help Becky; Anna’s death had surely hit her very hard.  Her death had thrown Kathy for a loop, too.

“I want my chicken lunch!” declared Ally.

“Okay, dear, say goodbye to Becky,” she said, resigned to the inevitable.

“Wait a minute,” said Becky to Kathy.

“Say, how does this camera work?” said the woman, approaching the desk. She held an old camera with the viewfinder on the top. Kathy fussed with Ally.

“Here,” said Becky, “press that button.”

“But it doesn’t work.  Look at it please.”

“No, I know it works.  See, right there.”

“Where?”

“Right there,” said Becky, looking straight at the woman.  She said in an even, hushed voice, too low for anyone else to hear, “And please tell your boys to take those baseball cards back where they found them.”  The two boys stood nearly at the door.   Kathy looked up.

“Oh, er, um.  Boys!  Shame on you!   What have I told you . . .”

The four made a hasty retreat as Becky watched them go.  “That was weird! ” said Kathy.  “Does that happen often?”

“Hardly ever. I just learned that some people shoplift by trying to divert your attention.  I once lost some nice jewelry that way, so I learned to keep an eye out.  I’m not a perfect judge of people by any means, but you do learn to notice little tricks.”

“I’m hungry!”  said Ally in a fever-pitch.

“Say  ‘bye to Becky, Ally,” said Kathy.

“Call me tonight if you want,” said Becky, “or I’ll call you.”

Kathy retrieved her bottle, shooed Ally out the door, and Becky returned to her computer.  But she couldn’t stop thinking of her friend Chuck and his newest round of troubles. Just then, Robbie Akers, a small, muscular man in his late forties, ambled timidly into the shop.  His face, sprouting a festival beard in its earliest stages, was innocent and trusting.   “Hi, Becky.  Want any lunch today?”

“Hi, Robbie!  said Becky brightly.  “No, nothing today, thanks.   Are you getting lunches for people today?” Becky knew the answer; Robbie always got lunches for downtown people. He could be trusted with money but sometimes got orders mixed up. Becky never ate lunch, in deference to her family chromosomes, dormant but patient, that authorized large hips. But Robbie asked her each day, and she wouldn’t hurt his feelings.

“You know I ran errands sometimes for your mom and daddy.”

“I remember that, Robbie.   My mommy and daddy loved you.”

“They always were nice to me, Becky.  Just like you’re always nice to me.   Not everyone is, but you are.”   He scratched his face.

“Don’t worry about the people who’re not nice, Robbie. What they say doesn’t matter.  You’re a good person, Robbie–don’t forget that.”

“Thanks, Becky.  You always say that.”

“I always say it because it’s true!  Remember how you always gave me piggy-back rides when I was a little girl?”

“I do, Becky.  You want one now?”

“No, Robbie,” she said, laughing. She knew he would, and could!  “But thanks!”

“Okay,” he said, sadly.

“Let me give you a hug, though, okay?”

“Sure, Becky. I love your hugs.” She come out from behind the counter and wrapped her arms around him.  He gave her a hug that made her gasp.

“Easy, there, Robbie,” said Becky, struggling to regain her breath.  “We love you very much.  Take care!  Be good.”

He ambled out as Becky returned to her chair. She looked at her desk, trying to remember something.  Wes the mailman, dressed in his summer uniform and khaki shorts, came in.  His Pioneer Days beard was a few days old.  He looked at Becky, as did many men in Mayersburg, with a good deal of affection in his eyes. “No mail today?” he asked, checking her out box on the counter.

“Oh, shoot, Wes,” she said, remembering the letter to Stuart Hausser. “I had a letter started but I got busy and haven’t finished it.   Thanks for asking!”

He left, and Becky tapped her computer to make the screen saver go off.   She read over the letter to Stuart and decided her first draft was, if not great literature, sufficient for her purposes.  She printed it and put it in an envelope.

She had a busy afternoon in the shop. Almost quitting time, she thought as she looked at the grandfather clock.

Late afternoons made her feel lonely. With no customers in the shop, she opened an issue of the Examiner.  The mayor of Mayersburg reported on the progress of festival plans. Becky leafed through the paper, a twelve-page issue as usual, then she set it aside.  She sorted her other mail and looked through an academic history journal and a trade magazine.  Feeling restless, she got up, turned the stereo back on and strolled slowly through the shop.  Her stomach felt a little upset again; she rubbed her abdomen as she glanced at a cigarette ad that hung upon the store’s west wall. “Johnny Roventini,” she idly said, “‘Call for Phil-lip Mor-ris!'” She patted a Red Goose Shoes figurine on the head and ran her hand over a long box that, she knew, contained a brocade dress and bouquet–someone’s memories.

She sat down upon a bird cage rocker as her brown eyes watched the cars and pedestrians pass the store’s display windows. Sotheby came along and climbed into her arms. She rocked and scratched his ears.  She thought of the busy sidewalk sale days of her childhood and remembered her parents’ stories of Saturday nights in Mayersburg in the 1940s, when cars were bumper to bumper with Hanover County farm families and townspeople. She rocked silently, thinking of her mom and dad, Robbie, Kathy and her family, Chuck, Tom, the man who was so happy to find the cane chair. She listened to the music: Handel’s Messiah, which she loved. “For he shall feed his flock, like a shepherd,” she sang hesitantly along. She looked upward to the ornate pressed-metal ceiling of the store.

She stopped singing and sighed again, feeling that, as much as she loved Mayersburg and as much as local people loved her, she didn’t have a particular kind of friend with whom to chat about certain things special to her.  Tom had been a friend of that kind, to an extent.  Chuck and Kathy each would always be that kind of friend.  Becky felt the need for a new friend, one who could complement but not replace her “ol’ buddies.” Someone with whom she could share her ideas, mysteries, and laughter. She had no prospects, though.  No prospects at all.

Still feeling terrifically lonely, she put down her dog and strolled over to a gold-inlayed mirror and looked at herself. She looked at her own brown eyes and missed her mother.  “Mama’s eyes always sparkled,” she said, “like two dark gems in the light. Lord, how I wish my eyes sparkled like hers!”

She returned to the counter, not wanting to call Chuck but knowing the call would not be easier later. Sotheby clicked along behind her upon the old floor.  Becky said a little prayer and dialed Chuck’s number from memory.  He answered.

“Hey, Chuckles, this is Becky,” she said, trying to sound bright and cheery.  “Just calling because I talked to your rotten sister today.”

“Hey, gorgeous!” he said with his deep, gentle voice. “You talk to my rotten sister pert near every day. I don’t know how you stand it,” he teased.

“Listen, it’s taken years of practice!  But she’s usually got better things to tell me.”

He was silent.

“Chuck, I know you’re not doing okay,” she said,  “but I just wanted to tell you I love you like crazy, and if there’s anything I can do–”

“Becky, I appreciate it.  I guess there’s nothing you can do.”

“I can come over and beat you up like I always used to do,” she joked as great tears rolled down her face. “Maybe your heart won’t hurt if I bruised you up really well, you know?”

“You always were good at that, Becky, back when we were little bitty kids!”  His voice dropped as he added,  “I don’t think anything could hurt any worse than this.  Melinda just changed her mind, you know. What else can you say?”

“Well, you want to say, 6 o’clock, your place, fisticuffs at ten paces?” she teased, trying not to sob but she wasn’t successful.

Chuck heard her cry. “Aw, I wouldn’t try to fight no helpless little ol’ ignorant female like you, Becky!” he said, confident that she knew how much he admired and loved her.

She squawked in mock outrage as she wiped her tears from her cheeks.  At least she could make him laugh a little. “Hey, listen, Fahren.  Come down to the shop and I’ll mop the floor with you.  It’s about time you showed me some respect.”

“Oh, no!” he said, “I’ve genuflected and I can’t get up!”

She laughed.  “Hey, all seriousness aside, Chuck.  You call me if you need a friend, okay? We can get together and yuck it up, if necessary.  Any time of the day or night.”

“I know that’s true, Becky.  I can always count on you!”

They chatted a while longer and she hung up. Her heart broke for her friend and she sat looking at the telephone for several moments.  She looked out at the street beyond the window and wished she could do something more for him than simply tease him with the kinds of joking remarks in which they both specialized. Still feeling dejected, she decided to check on her father on the off chance that he might be happier today.  He was; thank goodness!  she thought. He said he’d had a pretty good day; he’d finally gotten out and mowed the lawn and talked to his “neighbor lady” for a few minutes.

At five o’clock she turned on the burglar alarms, tried to call Stuart Hausser again (with no success), and locked the shop.  With Sotheby along, she went up to check on Bill and had to pound loudly upon the closed door so he could hear.   He seemed a little more lucid than the day before, but for Bill “lucidity” was increasingly a relative term. As Becky returned to the street she could hear the afternoon train whistle, calling loudly through the summer air.   She looked up at the deep blue sky and saw the trail of a jet flying between the cumulus clouds.  She felt her joy and gratitude return.  Returning to her truck with her dog, she kicked off her flats and drove away from the store.

But before driving home she detoured by the Mayersburg post office on Second Street and tiptoed to the mailbox with her letter to Stuart.

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“You’ve got that sideswiped stagecoach,” said the old man as he scribbled numbers on a sheet of paper, “you’ve got these figurines from Occupied Japan, the top hat, the hog ringer and buggy wrench, and this-here batch of sexy stereoscope cards.”  He sat at his roll-top desk where receipts, papers, books, and small antiques lay in disarray.  He moved his stout body toward a Styrofoam cup, into which he audibly spit a helping of tobacco.

“Don’t forget the box of baseball cards from the ’86 season. How’s it look?” said Becky with mischief in her eyes as she set the top hat upon her shoulder-length and wavy, auburn hair. A slim young woman of moderate height, she wore a pink and yellow floral skirt, a cotton tee with writing on the front, and a lightweight crocheted vest. A gold cross hung around her neck upon a gold chain. She was very pretty with a singular blend of features: her light reddish eyebrows and her fair complexion that contrasted with her large brown eyes. Her small nose, her round face, her smiling lips and pretty teeth formed an expression that was amused, hopeful, open, and friendly.

The old man looked past her expressive eyes to the top of her head. “Too small.  It don’t go with your outfit, neither.”

She set it atop his round head. “It’s you!” she said. “Take your wife dancing with that.”

“Nah, I only wear caps,” he said. “And I only take her hunting.”

He set the hat down on the desk with his good arm. “Lucky lady,” she teased.  “How much do you want for this?”

She held a metal Bunny Bread advertisement that had seen better days. She’d found this little shop upon an old farm shaded by four tall oak trees amid a wide, fallow field. Inside, she had barely maneuvered the shop’s meager pathway among the glass display cases. Quaint religious pictures of a doe-eyed Jesus hung from the musty, cream-colored walls along with ornately framed and heavily tinted portraits of stern, bearded men and frowning women.

“Oh, twenty for that bread sign. Won’t try to gyp you.”

“I like it,” she said, remembering. “I may keep it for myself. It reminds me of the country store I knew when I was little. When we visited Grandma and Grandpop and my great-grandma, we’d go to the little store up the road and get bread.”

“Where was that?”

“South of here, a few miles north of Mayersburg on Route 611. Grumpy Mayer’s market.”

“I remember that place. You know you can’t keep everything you love.”

“True,” she agreed. “And, not just in this business, right?”

“That’s the truth,” he said, whistling.

“Looks like your arm hurts you.”

“Oh, it got hit in the war,” he said, adjusting his left arm on the desk with his right hand. “That was a long time ago. The ol’ rheumatiz makes it worse. Waved at a buddy in the hole with me, just to be foolish. ‘Howdy-do!’ And a Jap sniper with more sense than me caught my arm at the elbow.  Couldn’t get to the medics in time to do much for it.  I just learned to live with one good arm and one that wasn’t so hot.

“Sometimes you do foolish things when you’re young, and you feel bad the rest of your life,” he added sadly.

“Sometimes that’s true,” said Becky, wondering about her own life but for no particular reason.  With genuine solicitation shining in her eyes she added, “Sorry about all that.”

“One of them things,” he said.

“My dad fought in the Pacific. He killed a sniper with his own gun, then he brought the gun home. You know you may have been lucky.  My dad says that, when he was over there, he wished he’d just get killed and finish it. ‘You just got to where you didn’t care,’ he says.”

“He was there, yes he was. I felt that way, too.”

“He says he never saw anything like his buddies stacked up like bloody cord wood after they’d been killed.”

“Yeah, he was there, yes ma’am!” He liked Becky’s knowledgeable, conversant way.

“You must have gotten shipped out eventually,” said Becky.

“Oh, sure. They patched me as best they could, after infection had set in.  Got the Purple Heart but had to write for it before they’d send it.  Made me have to ask.”

“I’ll bet you went home and married your sweetie.”

“Been together forty-four years! Oh, I was glad I went overseas,” he said, drawing himself a little taller on his chair. “I signed up and I’d go again. In those days, we felt like we was fighting for something, you know.  I’d just keep my whole self down a little further next time.”

She thought for a moment about her beloved cousin Ed, a Vietnam casualty. She shook her head then brightened. “Did you ever fish with hand grenades?”

“Oh, shoot, yes!  Always got a mess of them that way. Toss that sucker in the water. Boooom!  Fish came right out on land. Say, young lady, what’d you say your name was?”

“I didn’t.  Rebecca Harmon.  Becky.  How about you?”

“Johnnie,” he said. “Johnnie Barkes. You know, Harmon’s a good old Mayersburg name. You kin to old Lew Harmon who runs the clothes store down there?”

“Sure, everyday I tell him to get his big rear end out of the house and see people.  He’s my dad.”

“Well, shi—I mean, shoot!  Lew and me, we was on the islands together and I used to go down to Mayersburg and see him once in a while. Had a little daughter and a pretty wife, too.  The wife was a real character, real nice. The little girl always ran around the store gettin’ into things. Real pretty little girl. Real independent, lordy!  Haven’t been down there for a long, long time. You get busy, you know, and pretty soon your life’s over.”

“I’m that same little girl.  Mama and Dad only had me.  They got out of the business a few years ago.  He didn’t want to keep up with the chain stores, so they turned the store over to me. I’m running my shop there.  Unfortunately Mama passed away recently and Dad’s moping around, trying to deal with being by himself.”

“Well… I’m sorry to hear about that,” he said, remembering Anna Harmon. “Me and the missus will have to drive down and see him one of these days…”

He reared back and added, “Are you sure you’re that same little-bitsy girl?”

“I’m afraid so,” she said, smiling.

He shook his head and sighed. “Where does time go?  It sure ain’t to keep, is it?”

“Sure isn’t,” she said wistfully.

“Well, what’s your husband do?”

“Oh, I’m not married, thank goodness!” she laughed. “I’m still independent!  I like it that way.”

“Aw, a pretty lady like you would make someone a good wife.”

“Not likely. The poor man, whoever he might be, has to pass my standards, one of which is to put up with me.  But thanks.”

“Say, I’m not trying to get rid of you,” he said, “but if you like that sort of thing–old ads, I mean–I’ve got quite a few in the barn out back.”

“I didn’t notice the other barn!” she said.

Becky left her selections at the roll-top and strolled around the building to the adjacent barn.  Along the short path, Queen Anne’s lace and pokeberry bushes grew among the carriage wheels and the poles of a rusting, cast-iron fence. She took a tissue from her purse and blew her small nose softly.  Dusty places gave her sniffles, she told herself. Or was it because her emotions were so close to the surface these days?

Inside the barn, the air felt cooler on her skin than the sunlight outside. Long worktables held an assortment of antique items of all kinds.  The creaks of the walls echoed eerily through the building.  As she browsed she thought of her great-grandmother’s home and all its well-used household things. Such keepsakes brought her tremendous happiness; they carried wonderful love and memories.  She felt privileged to provide that comfort to the many people who came into her store, and that love associated with history and personal recollections.

As she considered pleasant thoughts and feelings, she sensed that someone was looking at her.

She turned around quickly and caught her breath. But she recognized the face: Beethoven, his tight-lipped defiance. She laughed at herself.  She’d never seen such a bust. It was huge.  She wondered if the old man could sell it. “Cheer up, Ludwig. What happened to ‘Ode to Joy?'”

She looked some more: drapery, furs, vintage women’s clothing.  She rummaged for a while and then got an idea. Then she located the advertisements: 7-Up, Grapette, Nu-Grape. She loved old ads and examined the tag on one.  It was a beautiful, violet and yellow sign about four feet across, with the brand name of a regionally bottled soft drink and the large painted words “Soda Fountain Service.” She frowned at the price because she wanted it badly. She equivocated, mentally calculating her finances.  Her cash flow was good; summer’s traffic could make a difference.  But she made up her mind; until someone bought the sign it would look good beside her shop’s counter.  She found a dollhouse to give to her goddaughter Ally.

She assembled her selections and walked to the shop.  The warm air felt good again. She found Johnnie, who hadn’t budged from his disheveled roll-top. “I’m also going to take the doll house, the big sign, and three of those ads,” she said brightly. “Oh! And one of these old portraits on the wall.”  She selected a somber portrait of a glaring, grim man dressed in nineteenth-century finery.

“Okay, let’s see,” said Johnnie as he looked through his account book.  They discussed prices for a while. She was pleased when she obtained a lower price on the big sign.  He totaled the prices carefully on an old pad. Finally he added “what the Governor wants.”

“Now. Are you sure you don’t want me and my boys to fix up that stagecoach for you?  It ain’t in very good shape.”

“No, that’s alright.  I appreciate you holding it for me till I decide what I can do with it.”

She sweetly said goodbye.  “Need help with the signs?” he asked.  “I can use my good arm.”

“No, I can manage.  See you, Mr. Barkes!  Take care!”  She turned to go and gave him a sunny glance over her shoulder. “Call my dad sometime!”

She left the building. Johnnie scratched his head, impressed with the young woman’s pleasant personality and business acumen. He rummaged through his paper stacks, trying to remember where the Fountain Service sign came from. “Aw, I’ll find the receipt when she’s already home,” he said to himself as he leaned on the chair comfortably and took a fresh pinch of tobacco for himself.

Outside, Becky returned to her truck, a 1953 model that had belonged to her grandfather Harmon. She had painted the previously black truck a brilliant red.  On the side:

Adams Street Antiques

Rebecca Harmon

301 W. Adams St., Mayersburg, IL

Below the address appeared her business phone number and–also in fraktur script as a whimsical touch–her fax number and Internet address. She retrieved the Fountain Service sign, dragged it through the grass, and placed it in the truck bed.  Her thin arms were strong.  She placed the other items in the cab on the passenger side.

She glanced at the stagecoach, a Concord style replica that sat, forlorn and damaged by a minivan, beside Johnnie’s shed amid unmowed grass and weeds.  She had no idea what she would do with the coach, but she liked the idea of owning one. “I’ll keep it for my wedding,” she said ironically.  She climbed into the cab, kicked off her sandals, inserted a favorite classical CD into the player, and put the truck into first gear. She wondered how long it would take the old man to discover she’d spruced up Beethoven with a lady’s hat and scarf.

*****

Becky pulled from the driveway and turned east on State Route 57.  Her truck rolled steadily across the undulating landscape and bumped along the narrow road’s tar-patched seams.  She looked out at the wide fields that began nearly at the road’s edge. Above, cumulus clouds formed a billowy, rural landscape of their own. She sighed contentedly. In spite of her mother’s recent death, Becky felt an intuition that a very happy summer lay in store for her.

After several miles the old highway intersected with Illinois Route 611. She turned south onto 611 and gazed longingly at the tedious, familiar countryside. The old railroad paralleled the highway to the west, where tall telephone poles marched along a singular pathway of their own.  She loved how the poles faithfully followed the landscape, leading her home.  She passed the sign beside a wide field of corn that designated the border of her native Hanover County.

A few more miles down the road, she passed the turnoff to County Road 1100.  “Grumpy” Mayer’s store sat abandoned and boarded up. The old store signaled the region of her most favorite childhood “stomping grounds.” Thickly covered by trees and long since passed from the family, her ancestral farm lay just a few hundred yards down the way.  Then a short distance beyond, Route 611 descended into a small valley called Ephraim where County Road 950 crossed the highway. To the west she glimpsed the lovely, hilly region where her mother, her four grandparents, and other relatives were buried in the family cemetery.   She loved that region. She reached to the stereo and replaced the symphony with a disc of choral music that included a favorite setting of Psalm 121.

She passed a vintage arch-truss railroad bridge at the place where 611 climbed a small slope locally called Pitcher’s Hill.  Becky decided to sit for a moment at a favorite spot on the wide, gravel shoulder atop the hill.   She turned her blinker on and pulled over, then parked the truck.   The spot gave her a panoramic view of Mayersburg, the town where she had been born and raised and where she’d returned after college. The village rested tranquilly below the ridge on another small hill, as if lowered from Above into place upon its own mound.  The taller buildings, church steeples, the water tower, and the grain elevators east of town stood above the mix of homes, businesses, and thick clusters of bright green trees. A pickup truck passed by.  The driver waved and Becky waved back; she recognized the man as one of her many local friends. “Dumb little town, I love you so much,” she said affectionately aloud.

She gazed down at the small subdivision at the bottom of the hill and the busy activity there.  Mayersburg is growing, she thought.  That very land had been a farm which her grand-grandmother and namesake, Rebecca Harmon, had purchased in the late 1920s. The farm was sold not long after “Granny Becky” died. Becky enjoyed her childhood memories of the farm, the scene of many family get-togethers. But you can’t keep the things you love, she thought.  Sometimes Becky liked to reminisce with her father about those days, but Lew didn’t often speak of family history. He’d rather have fun and tease people, he’d say, than dwell on the past.  He still said that, but she wished he’d open up about her mother’s death.

Really, she thought, everyone in town said the Harmons were the happiest people they knew. Mischievous, take-me-as-I-am people. Anna and Lew had made Harmon’s Clothiers an irrepressibly merry place, and Becky upheld the family tradition. Her favorite Mark Twain comment aside–that the cruelest thing you can tell someone is “Be yourself”–Anna’s playfulness seemed to originate from an unusually grand, inner fountain of gladness.  For comfort and pleasure she loved to go around shoeless, referring her bare or stocking feet as her “birthday shoes.”  Lew always said, “Annie, why don’t you just go naked and be done with it.” Anna would respond, “Number one, you’d take more pleasure from that than anyone else, Lewis, and number two, who ever heard of a nudist running a clothing store?  It just seems poor advertising to me. Like we don’t have confidence in our products, you know?” By force of personality Anna had landed church board positions, though baking and cooking for church socials comprised the lion’s share of women’s religious work in those days.

Becky knew that Anna had been helping with “Pioneer Days,” the local Heimatfest that drew large crowds each August. She knew that people would miss her humorous touch with community events.

Becky thought of her father, who had a very dry sense of humor.  Like Anna, Lew was community-minded in his own independent and wryly gleeful way, lobbying the town council for downtown renewal, for employment of veterans, and other such matters.  Like Anna, he enjoyed keeping people off-balance and respected people if they took him in a similar spirit.  The only thing he loved better than to tease people, to “josh ’em around” as he’d say, was to be teased in return and retribution. He loved good jokes and loved being the recipient of a good joke.

To her chagrin, Becky missed Tom, too. He had been the boyfriend she’d hoped would become a husband. The two of them had tried so hard to find a future in their relationship. Nearly two years had been passed since they went separate ways, and Becky often felt she was over him.  But her mother’s death had stirred old, buried feelings of regret that invaded her usual joy. “It wasn’t meant to be, was it?” she repeated, shaking off the memory.

She turned up the music as she flipped on the blinker, drove onto the highway, and proceeded down the road. She passed the familiar green highway sign.

Mayersburg, Illinois

Founded August 1828

Pop. 7300

Welcome!

The older alignment of 611, which was also Third Street, passed through the center of town north and south, but the newer alignment of route 611 ran Mayersburg to the west, incorporating Fifth Street. Becky took the bypass that went close to her dad’s house.

She pulled into his driveway and stepped from the truck.  She had grown up in this small ranch-style home which faced Lincoln Street and she looked around at the untrimmed grass and hedge. She walked to the backyard. She looked wistfully at the tall spruce tree, the woodpile, and the fallow garden. The yard had seemed so boundless and free in the days when she and her dearest friends Chuck and Kathy Fahren and other neighborhood kids ran and played for hours on and around the swingset that once stood beside her mother’s tool shed.

She returned to the front of the house and walked to the door. “Hi, Dad,” she said brightly, walking in. Lew never locked his doors, except at night. He always said an army guy could defend his own house. But this overweight, white-haired guy had seen five decades pass since the war.

“Hi, honeydoll,” he said, sighing.  Glum and unshaven, Lew trained his blue eyes upon a rerun of The Wild Wild West and he was chewing with exceptional interest upon an unlit cigar. His outfit looked improvised; he wore his dress shoes, along with old work clothes, as he sat on his favorite recliner and rested his hands upon his ample belly. “What were you doing in the yard?” he asked.

How did he know? she thought. He can’t see outdoors while watching television. Typical father! “Just thinking,” she said.  She looked around the familiar furnishings.  Her school pictures hung upon the walls, as did family portraits and the joking publicity photos of Anna.  Next to the family pictures hung the picture of John Wayne that Lew had purchased on one year’s vacation.  On another wall was Lew’s small gun rack, containing his hunting rifles, his army M-1, and a bayoneted Arisaka. The house smelled stale to her, as if the doors and windows were never opened.

“How are you feeling today?” she asked as she sat upon the old sofa and crossed her legs.

“Where are your shoes?”

Becky looked at her feet.  “Oh, they’re in the truck, I forgot I took them off.  How are you feeling today?” she repeated firmly.

“No damn good, as usual.”

“I’m going to start calling you ‘Eeyore,'” she said.

“I didn’t know Eeyore swore.”

“Like a blue streak when Pooh and Tigger aren’t around,” she chuckled. “Your lawn is looking ‘no good’ either, Dad.”

“You want to mow it?” he said, not unkindly.

“I can, but I think you’d feel better getting outside and working.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he sighed.  “I’ll see.”

“Are you going to shave today?”

“No.”

She sighed.  “It’s for the festival,” he said.

“Oh, good!” she said. This was a glimmer of initiative. Many men grew their beards for Pioneer Days.

They chatted a while about this and that. “What’s your tee shirt say?” he asked.

“‘Co-ed Naked Antiquing.'” He smiled a little.  “Kathy gave it to me.”

“Which reminds me: Kathy called earlier.”

“Kathy?  Why’d she call here?  Is she all right?”

“Oh, yeah, just looking for you.  Couldn’t raise you anywhere.”

“I’ve been out buying.  She knows I’m closed on Mondays. Good grief.”  But that was all right; Becky and Kathy always tried to be available to one another for “emergency” conversations.

“I told him you were out looking for men.”

“Dad!  Why did you tell her that?”

“She said to save one for her.”

“She’s got one, if she’d appreciate him.  Did Kathy really call?”

“I told you.   She said she ‘d see you tomorrow at the shop.  Well?”

“Well what?”

“Did you find any men?”

“Dad, if I do, you’ll know it.”

“Oh, I know.  I hope he’ll be better than those others you used to drag in. I always had to sit around cleaning my guns whenever you brought some of those fellows home.”

Becky had heard all this many times before. “I did find a man but he’s already married.  Kinda cute, though. He’s an old buddy of yours.”

“Who?”

“Johnnie somebody. He has a little shop up near Moweaqua, but not that far west.  He said he knew you.”

“Johnnie . . . oh, Johnnie Barkes?”

“That’s it!”

“Oh, sure!” Lew finally brightened a little. “Haven’t seen him in years.  We were on the islands together.”

“Those were his words exactly.  Said he’d like to see you sometime.  You ought to call him.” She rose to go.

“Oh, I might, I guess. Probably won’t.  He and his wife used to come down to the store. Good people for the most part. Probably wouldn’t have much to talk about now.” He sighed. Something soaked in. He looked at her mischievously. “‘Kinda cute,’ right. The guy’s big as a blesséd house.  Uses his good arm to eat donuts.”

“He told me, ‘That Lew Harmon never amounted to anything but he has a wonderful, gorgeous daughter.’  Love ya!” Becky kissed him on his white hair and went to the door.

“Well, Johnnie always was kind of a liar,” Lew said.

Becky looked back.  He watched the show but made a little naughty smile and he waved to her and said, “Love ya, too.” She left the house and went outside.  Climbing into the truck, she drove away and cut across the northern neighborhoods of Mayersburg then turned south on Third Street.  She planned to unload the antiques at her shop, then record them in the morning.  How she loved these familiar, tree-lined streets, these shady neighborhoods!  Third Street descended the hill and smoothed out a block north of Adams Street, which ran through town west and east.  Townspeople had erected banners that crossed the street high above. “Mayersburg Pioneer Days, August 6-11!”

Becky’s shop stood on the south side of Adams at the corner with Third Street.  She sat at the stoplight and, out of a long, happy habit, looked up at the front of the building.  Below the facade and the second story windows were the large neon sign, “Harmon’s Clothiers.  Men’s and Women’s Apparel.” Her grandparents had installed the sign in the 1930s.  She would never remove the sign, though it confused some customers.  She had installed her own colorful sign, “Adams Street Antiques,” across the front of the building, complementing the original paint of the cast-iron facade. A variety of painted rabbits rested upon the letters.  Atop the facade were the words “Harmon 1898” in elegant and raised script within a blue oval. Upon the east side of the building’s second story, her grandparents had painted “Harmon’s Clothiers, Men’s Shirts, Ladies Apparel, Phone 04” in black and white text upon the brick.  Each year Becky retouched the sign with fresh paint.

As she crossed Adams Street at the green light, she glimpsed a trace of smoke coming from one of the second story windows.  She hurled her truck to the side of the store and left the motor running as she dashed out.  Nearly tripping over the concrete flower trough that stood at the corner, she ran to the narrow door marked “301 ½.” The ancient door resisted her panicked efforts to unlock it but she finally opened it and raced up the stairs two at a time. She immediately grabbed a fire extinguisher that she kept in the upstairs hallway, near the apartment where her elderly tenant lived.

“MR. HAUSSER!” she screamed, trying the door. It was cold and unlocked. Her heart pounded as she entered and saw a cloud of thickening smoke drifting across the ceiling. “MR. HAUSSER!  YOU’VE GOT SOMETHING THAT’S ON FIRE!” she screamed again above the ear-piercing sound of the triggered fire alarm. Flames from a pan of burning food leapt to the thin drapes of the open window and began to engulf one side. Panting, Becky turned the extinguisher up and down the drapes and into the frying pan. Then she grabbed a dishrag and with it took the pan’s handle as she turned off the stove with her other hand.   She dumped the charred pan into the nearby sink and ran cold water; the pan and its contents, formerly pork chops, hissed and steamed.

“Well, hey there, Anna. Good to see ya!” said Bill Hausser, lisping slightly because of his false teeth.  He was a rail-thin, ninety-year-old man whose feathery, sparse puffs of white hair grew long over his spotted scalp.  His face, arms and hands were wrinkled and blemished.  When standing he carried himself with a fading dignity, strolling along with his balance assured by a knotty cane of comparable age.  Becky remembered when Bill had stood at a moderate height, but he had since grown short, as if his posture but not his height was sufficiently strong to resist the gravitational pull downward. He leafed contentedly through the Mayersburg Examiner as he sat upon a frayed and flattened armchair.

“IT’S BECKY, MR. HAUSSER,” she yelled from the kitchen area.   She tried to calm herself, but at that moment she heard the sound of a fire truck in the distance.   Darn it, she thought.

“Becky?”  said Bill, looking up curiously.

“BECKY HARMON, WHO RUNS THE SHOP DOWNSTAIRS.” she yelled, “AND I’LL BE RIGHT BACK.”  She hurried down the stairs and flagged the fire truck as it hurled along Adams Street.  The truck slowed when the driver saw her, and she called to the men and women in the truck. She told them what had happened and that she had the situation under control.

“Everything okay, Becky?” called Herb Kelso, the Hanover County sheriff, as he drove by in his squad car.

“Just fine, more or less,” she said. “Thanks, Herb! I appreciate you checking.”

Returning to the apartment she walked over to the elderly man so he could hear her.  “IT’S BECKY AGAIN, MR, HAUSSER.”

“Becky!” he said happily as he looked up from his paper.  “I thought you passed away years ago!   My daddy thought a lot of you, you know.”

Becky sighed; he must be referring to her great-grandmother. “BECKY HARMON. YOUNG, LIVING BECKY HARMON. I CHECK ON YOU EVERY DAY.”

“Oh, well sure.”  He scratched his head roughly with thin hands. “So glad to see you today.  Thanks for visiting me. Haven’t seen you for a while.”

“I SAW YOU YESTERDAY, MR. HAUSSER.”

“You did?  I guess you did.  My re-collection’s not what it used to be, you know. I’ve got to go to the doctor soon for my legs.”

“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR LEGS, MR. HAUSSER?”

“They’re old!  That’s enough. They’re just old!  Do you know of anything made in 1902 that still works good?”

He howled with laughter at his own joke and Becky managed a laugh.  It was true; some of her antiques from the early 1900s were in terrible shape!  Then she said,  “MR. HAUSSER, YOU’VE GOT TO STAY WITH YOUR FOOD WHEN YOU COOK.  YOU BURNED YOUR SUPPER.”

“Oh, hell. Shoot.  I thought I smelled something but I was thinking about something else.  I can’t smell, or hear, or walk, or nothin’ anymore.  I’m sorry, Becky.” He reached haltingly for his cane, struggled to his feet, and hobbled laboriously to the stove.  His shame seemed to awaken his sensibility.  His hazel though nearly transparent irises were crestfallen. “Look at the doggoned mess I made.”

She took his arm. “I WANT YOU TO COME HELP ME.”

“I was a cook in the war, you know!” he said as his minded gently faded into the past. “I’ve always loved to cook. General Pershing told me, ‘Hausser, you’re the best cook in this man’s army.’  That was right before he sent me in to flush out a mess of Germans while we waited at Hattonchâtel.  ‘If you want something done right,’ he said, ‘you have to send in Hausser.'”

Bill continued the story, which Becky had heard before.  Bill loved to tell his war stories, some very gruesome.  She wondered how many were true.  She doubted that General Pershing would have relied so closely upon the sixteen-year-old PFC Bill Hausser of Mayersburg, Illinois!  She found his pots and pans.  She checked his refrigerator and discovered it nearly empty, but he had some bacon. She took canned vegetables from his cabinets and prepared them for him, along with several slices of bacon.  She threw the burned pan into an overflowing garbage can. She washed her hands and handed him a spatula.

“I’m glad you come around and check on me. Denise is coming over tomorrow to see her old daddy.  Denise was just here last week and brought me some new magazines.  Stuart’s coming down for Christmas.”

“I HAVEN’T MET YOUR DAUGHTER, MR. HAUSSER,” she said as she stood near the stove, feeling more resentful as time went by.   She knew that Bill had a son who lived out of state.  She had met Stuart Hausser; he was a friendly but reserved man in his late fifties or early sixties.  He took care of Bill’s rent arrangements and his financial matters but he rarely visited Mayersburg.  Becky never questioned him about that; she felt that, as long as Stuart took care of the rent payments, the rest was none of her business.  Bill had just recently begun to refer to a daughter.

“Well, they’re a fine couple of kids.  I’ll tell Denise to stop in and see you and Lew.  If I see Stuart I’ll tell him, too. He writes me every once in a while.  Calls.  I write him letters, too.”

After she and Bill finished preparing the food, she set him authoritatively at the table with some bread for the bacon and the vegetables.  “MR. HAUSSER, THERE’S YOUR MEAL.”  She tried not to display her resentment because she didn’t mind helping him when the situation called for it. But she felt so distressed. “MR. HAUSSER, PROMISE ME YOU’LL WATCH YOUR FOOD BETTER. I LOVE YOU AND I DON’T WANT YOU HURT, OKAY?”

“I love you too, and I will,” he said cheerily. “I appreciate you checking up on me, Becky.  You’re just like your mother, God rest her soul.  She was one of the dearest people I’ve ever met, and you’re just like her.  I like ol’ Lew, too.  What a cut-up!  I knew Jake and his missus, too.  I was just a little boy, then.  You’re wonderful people.”

“Jake” was her great-grandfather who had founded the store: the “Harmon 1898” on the facade.  Becky thought that was true: he probably did know Jacob Harmon, who had died in the late 1920s.  Becky sighed as she sat down at his table, grimacing as Bill feasted eagerly upon the meal.  He ate as though he was famished; she wondered if he’d eaten at all that day.  She saw no other dishes or utensils sitting on his counter or in the sink.  Juice from the vegetables ran down his unshaven chin and onto his already stained shirt.  She realized he’d worn that shirt yesterday and possibly the day before that, too.

She averted her gaze and studied the apartment: its tall old plastered walls, cracked in places, devoid of any photographs or adornment.  Several years ago Bill, a widower who resided on the outskirts of town, decided to sell the family property and move into town, and he began renting the apartment during the last few years that Lew and Anna still ran the store. Becky knew that Bill was by no means a poor man but he had disposed of many household items that could have made this place more congenial.  As she thought about all that, Becky crossed her ankles beneath the chair and realized she was still barefoot. She moved her toes and judged that Bill had not cleaned the floor for a very long time. Yuck! But she was not going to mop his floor for him!

Becky felt lonely for Bill. Church friends helped him with grocery buying; the county nurse came to visit him each month; Meals on Wheels also delivered to him.  Becky assumed that Bill’s son also took care of those arrangements. But in recent months Bill lived disconcertingly in both the past and the present and his competence in navigating the former far exceeded that his mastery of the latter.

“MR. HAUSSER, I’VE GOT TO GO NOW.  YOU TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  WE LOVE YOU VERY MUCH.”   She gave him a hug around the shoulders and kissed him atop his bald head as he stuffed the last bite of his bacon sandwich into his mouth.

“Yeah, thanks again, Esther,” he said with a full mouth. “Next time you stop by, I’ll put on some pork chops for you.”

“‘Esther,'” she thought ironically. Esther was her great-grandmother on the Scott side, another “old time” Mayersburgher whom Bill surely had known personally.  Becky closed the apartment door and stood dejectedly as she looked around the walls of the building.  She felt terrible fear, but she didn’t know what to do except leave the matter in divine hands, though her faith was no easy panacea to her anxious fears.

She trotted quickly down the old stairway, locked the door, and returned to her truck.   Outside, she realized she’d left the motor running. But the truck was undisturbed, as were the expensive antiques in the truck bed.  She felt better again.  She made a mental note to call her friend Margaret, who lived in New York City, and tease her about the superior quality of life in small midwestern towns.

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Back in the 1990s, I undertook an enjoyable experiment in fiction. My project was a novel, called Adams Street Antiques.

Among my happiest growing-up memories are those of my parents’ antique store shopping. Bob Wehrle’s shop, Wehrle’s Antiques on U.S. 51, was a favorite; we considered Bob a family friend. Another favorite was “Duck” Curry’s shop on Illinois 185, not far from my grandmother’s farm. Still another favorite place was Kelly’s Antiques, on route 140 east of Greenville, Illinois. Alva Nance was the older man who ran the place, basically a farm but with three large buildings of antiques; Kelly himself (I’ve forgotten his last name) lived in the nearby house. The place has long since closed but I’ve good memories of many family purchases at that place.  We still own a variety of antiques from all these places. Antique-shopping was a sufficiently wonderful aspect of my life to make me want to craft a story around it.

I wrote the story with a strong woman as the main character—Becky Harmon—who operated an antiques store in a small Illinois downtown. I modeled Becky after no one in particular, so that no one would think I was memorializing an old girlfriend or something like that. The opening scene of my story is, essentially, Kelly’s Antiques, with details changed (including its location, near Moweaqua, IL), and a different kind of person in charge. There, I introduced Becky and her family, taking care to return to that scene much later as a plot device.

So many small-town clothing stores around the country have closed and become “antique malls,” including those in my own hometown (although the store is based on my memories of The Model in my hometown, which does not now house an antique store).  I concocted details of Becky’s antique store from no particular place, although some of my studies of small town business architecture came in handy, and I made Becky’s shop more quirky and upscale than a typical antique mall, some of which are a little junky. I gave the store an inventory reflecting my own likes. I studied a guide to becoming an antiques dealer so I’d know some of the tricks of the trade.

Where should Becky live? To use a cliché, her town was a main character in the story. I created a community about the size of my own hometown.  In 1960, when I was three, my folks drove 30 miles north to Pana, IL and then ten or fifteen miles east to Shelbyville, IL to buy a new gold Cadillac. We seldom if ever returned to Shelbyville, so that trip remained in my childish mind as something special. I decided to put a fictional town and county between Pana and Shelbyville. I renamed the actual highway, Illinois state route 16, as U.S. 38, a route that only existed in Nebraska and Colorado in 1926-1931 but which, if it had crossed Illinois, would’ve been in that location. I used my knowledge of Illinois history to depict the little town, which I first called Meyer until I realized there was already a Meyer, Illinois, then Meyersburg, and then Mayersburg. For instance, I found a day in Lincoln’s life when he was in that area, so I could give him a fictional opportunity for a political speech.  I connected the town’s pioneer history to an actual colony of German immigrants which settled my hometown in 1820.  I also created an entry for Mayersburg for the 1939 The WPA Guide to Illinois.

Illinois 16 near Pana

From there, the story developed pretty easily, with suitable plot twists, as a three-act, boy-meets-girl, summer-love tale of two people wondering if the other is “the one.” The song “Waiting for a Star to Fall” by the duo Boy Meets Girl was a hit at about the same time. So was “If You Asked Me To” by Celine Dion. My wife Beth and I became friends and dated in a very different way than the two major characters. But, of course, I recalled the eager feelings of anticipation and mutual discovery of friendship growing into love.

Downtown Effingham

Fiction is not necessarily disguised autobiography, and many details in the story were simply retooled personal experiences, like that childhood trip to Shelbyville.  I frequently drove I-64 through southern Indiana and liked the sight of Haubstadt, IN and its steeples in the distance, so I used that detail. I also drove the pleasant Illinois route 161 at different times in my life, so I named Becky’s other highway Route 611. I delivered Meals on Wheels in my hometown to an elderly gentleman who lived above The Model, and that became the basis of an aspect of my story. My parents liked to visit nearby Effingham, IL, where the street through the business district makes a slight angle, and for Becky’s town I made the main drag gently curved.  Two memories from 1962 (when I was five) supplied the idea of a local “railroad park”: an Illinois Central engine on display in a small park in Centralia, Illinois, and a significant train wreck near my hometown’s business district. An Alanis Morissette video depicting a parade made me recall the holiday and homecoming parades of my childhood and teenage years.

Other aspects of the story were fun to create. I used personality traits rather than actual persons in developing characters. I worked hard to present a believable, consistent story: I drew a map (for my own reference) of businesses and streets in the fictional town, and I sketched a genealogy of different characters, to keep details straight. Since the story happened over the course of one summer, I used a calendar of the novel’s never-stated year, 1992 (which accommodated a living but elderly World War I vet) so I could determine when events took place and the days between events. I also connected fictional historical milestones and locations to actual Illinois history. Years ago, when I read Atlas Shrugged, I liked how a major character was introduced 2/3 of the way into the story, and I developed such a character, a New York native who came to visit and appreciate the town’s slow pace and maddening intersubjectivity.  A friend helped me make more believable the dynamics of women’s friendships, and another friend helped me with the way New Yorkers think. Other friends commented on things and one eventually wrote a positive review on amazon.com.

I’m no John Updike, or Ayn Rand for that matter! My novel was long at nearly 400 pages, especially since its momentum happened mostly through conversations, locations, and character development. My characters chatted more than those in a typical Tarantino film, but without the violence–without much violence at all, in fact. Looking through it, I recognize awkward and first-effort things.

I learned quickly that the novel’s genre–a Christian romantic comedy about community and divine providence–did not exist, at least at the time I passed the proposal and/or manuscript around to agents and publishers. One agent was stupidly confused that a person of my credentials would write such a story and assumed I was trying to escape the frustrations of adjunct college teaching.  But another agent kindly told me the market did not support such a genre but I might study books on the market if I wished to continue. What should I do? I appreciated the importance of market trends, and yet the story I created fit no niche.

The older I become, the more I appreciate the Taoist idea of wu wei, non-effort; the secret of life and success is to follow life’s “flow” and natural rhythms. In a similar, Christian way, I think that the Spirit guides our work and opens doors, without us always understanding the reasons. My story had flowed well as a writing project but not at all as a prospect for publication, and circumstances in my life– especially my father’s death and thus my need to become my mom’s caregiver–discouraged ideas for starting a small company of my own.  Meanwhile, other writing opportunities were coming my way and were keeping me busy. So I followed opportunities and validation, assuming that those were the doors God was opening. But I did have a few copies of my novel printed, and I distributed and sold several in that form because I thought the story might as well be “out there” floating around, rather than sitting in my file cabinet.

Still, I look through the book today and enjoy visiting my made-up town and its people. I tried to create believable characters for whom faith was important, but there was (hopefully) nothing cardboard or contrived about their faith. I was at a stage of my life when I was discouraged with people who seemed strident and self-assured in their religion. For the time being, I solved my discouragement by thinking hypothetically about the struggles of real, flawed faith, but through fictional people unsure of divine direction, managing problems and sorrows, and hoping to do the right thing even as they have doubts and erotic day dreams.

Another, major impetus to the story was Wendell Berry’s writings on the importance of community and of preserving one’s beloved place. Berry is one of those authors whom I love and yet realize that I don’t take up his challenges in my own life. But his concerns of “the beloved place” were also my interests, and I became excited in the way he articulates the necessities of mutuality, community, ecology, and preservation of heritage.  I’m still interested in how religious faith can be expressed in a concern for the common good and community.  I’m also interested in how particular places take root in our souls, so to speak, and become as indispensable to us as family and friends.  Two of the story’s main characters struggle with a growing sense of belonging to this “dumb little town,” as Becky herself calls it, in spite of their full knowledge of its limitations, mirroring the growing love they each feel for another person.  I think the writing process of Adams Street Antiques flowed so well was because of my interest in showing some aspects of community and human interdependence. It was a very pure and happy motive.

Of course I appreciated–and still do–the mysterious ways how God works in our lives: how God does more in our lives than we can imagine, regardless of how strong or weak our faith actually is, and no matter how angry at God and disheartened we may become. Thus, at the very end of my story (no spoiler alert intended), a major character thanks God for God’s surprising grace, without realizing other amazing things that God had also accomplished.  In addition to Ephesians 3:20-21, two epigraphs were key to the story:

I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps. 121).

Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear (Isaiah 65).

Here are the first five chapters: Act 1. Copies of the whole story are readily available at amazon.com or abebooks.com.  (Adams Street Antiques is copyright 1998 by Paul E. Stroble. ISBN-10: 0967408601. ISBN-13: 978-0967408606.)

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