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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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’.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.