“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
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.
Founded August 1828
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?”
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?”
“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.”
“Johnnie somebody. He has a little shop up near Moweaqua, but not that far west. He said he knew you.”
“Johnnie . . . oh, Johnnie Barkes?”
“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.