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.
“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.”
“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.