The following Saturday morning was warm and sunny. Wearing her denim skirt and a blouse printed with multicolored rabbits, Becky stood among the very sizable crowd that had gathered beneath a grove of tall, old oaks on the front yard of an ancient farm near Mayersburg. Becky had known the elderly couple who lived this farm. On this Saturday, Becky’s friend “Fox Trot” Schultze was the auctioneer at the estate auction. Earlier he had waved at her when he somehow spotted her within the heavy crowd. Becky never knew why people called him by that nickname, but perhaps he earned the name from his animated movements upon the auctioneer’s platform. She tried to remember his real name, but for the moment her principal concern was a gorgeous washstand up for bid. “Fifty fifty fifty dollar bill, ” he sang out as he danced on the platform.
“FIFTY-FIVE!” he said as Becky raised her hand.
It was a good auction. She had already purchased a Seth Thomas clock, some cobalt-green tumblers and a Shirley Temple pitcher set. She found batch of funeral home fans for a customer from Chester but she’d lost a Kist beverage sign and a jelly cupboard to some person in the crowd who had been eagerly bidding against her. “NINETY, DO I HEAR NINETY NINETY NINETY, NINE-FIVE–” called Fox Trot as he sang out and danced. But the price on the washstand crept too high, so Becky gave up and, when the bidding ceased, she marched through the crowd, saying “Excuse me, excuse me” when she bumped into people. Finally she spotted the culprit.
“Fred Lander, you bum! This is my turf!” she said, aggressively approaching a diminutive yet stocky man in his mid-fifties. Lander, a noted antique dealer in Norris, Illinois, always seemed to Becky a good-hearted but slightly paranoid and nervous man. She was never quite sure what he was thinking and that irritated her. He had bright little blue eyes that seemed ready to pop from his head and splat against the nearest wall. Strings of black hair lay slicked across his suntanned scalp.
“Sorry, Becky,” he said, smiling faintly as if mildly intimidated. “‘All’s fair,’ as they say.”
“‘In love and war,’ right!” she said, conscious of the many people–men in overalls, men and women in casual summer clothing–who stood all around the two of them, listening for Fox Trot’s next announcement.
“Well, antiques are always a little bit of both, aren’t they?” Fred noted, turning a sheepish little smile on and then off.
“You knew I’d be here, didn’t you?”
“If you’re here, I’m here, Becky!” he said, turning his smile on and then off. He trimmed his right thumbnail with his teeth. His arms and hands were brown from the sun. “You know your stuff, like me! You know what’s good and where to find it.”
“Well, flattery will get you nowhere. I want the cigar jars when their bin comes up, so don’t press your luck.” She finally managed a grin.
“Anything for you, Becky!” he said. His own smile came and went.
“Yeah, right! ‘Be afraid, be very afraid,'” she said brightly and then marched off through the crowds.
Later in the day, she drove back to Mayersburg with her truck overflowing with furniture and boxes of antiques. She hadn’t done badly at the sale but regretted losing some choice items to Lander. All in all it had been a good day, she thought to herself. She even composed a poem in her head about the old couple.
She checked her shop; one of her parents’ former sales clerks, a sweet little blue-haired woman named Matilda Brunk who loved antiques, filled in for Becky on Saturdays whenever a good auction occurred. Sales had been brisk all day, she reported. Becky decided to send Matilda home and she stayed late at the shop, making phone calls and some e-mail messages to customers who had requested particular antiques. She also jotted down the poem she’d composed and tucked it away.
The next morning, Becky stood in the church choir with other blue-robed choir members as they sung the last verse of the first hymn. Her sandals lay discarded beside her. It was the choir’s last performance before adjourning for the summer. Becky stood beside Kathy, a much better alto. She grimaced when she heard a very warbly Mrs. Collard, locally “renowned” for her Oberammergau slides, singing boldly down the row.
She looked around the old Lutheran church. The lovely sanctuary sloped gently toward the choir loft, the altar and pulpit, and the tall pipes of the fine organ. The late-spring sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows that variously depicted the cross, lilies, short scriptural passages, Martin Luther, and the risen Christ. The eyes of Christ seemed to shine forth God’s love for sinful humans and an ever so slight hint of bemusement at small town people’s piety. She looked out at the congregation: people she’d known all her life, people so familiar to her that they seemed like kin. She loved her father’s saying, which was not entirely fair: “Mayersburg people will give you the shirt off their backs–if you walk around shirtless for a few days and then ask them nice.”
Becky was not always happy in her faith. She believed that God’s ways in the world are subtler and more profound than some small town folk gave credit to the Lord. People’s religion sometimes took on a presumptuous quality, she thought: if the Holy Spirit dwells within you (which he does), then your little everyday mental processes are in the Mind of God, too. So if you think that your neighbor keeps his lawn untidy or that Pastor’s sermons are insufficiently biblical, your opinion becomes very “spiritual”–however petty. She disliked that, disliked judgments based upon appearances and reputations and preformed opinions, disliked it when folk were deemed spiritual just because they kept a neat house or prayed well in public. Yet she herself prayed aloud well and had a good name in town, even as she worshipped the Name Above All Names who, around this town, helped you have a good name. She hoped she wasn’t riding the same spiritual wagon. She worried that people considered her a know-it-all. People thought she was a character, but that was all right.
Pastor Metter clicked his cordless mike to “on” and gave announcements of upcoming parish events. “We are still running just a tad short on our giving compared to our budget,” he noted with a big grin. As he spoke, Becky noted in the bulletin that the budget had fallen behind $7000 due to unexpected bills. The church always ran behind on giving but this was an unusually large shortfall. She made a mental note to contribute an additional amount above her pledge.
“And now, Becky Harmon has an announcement,” said Pastor.
Still shoeless, Becky climbed into the pulpit and leaned toward the microphone. “So you heard what the man said: cough up the big bucks, folks! I’m here to remind everyone of the big clean-up day downtown, not this coming Saturday but two Saturdays from now. Meet me inside my store at 9 o’clock and everyone can have some coffee and doughnuts before starting out. I’d love a good turnout so I don’t have to call people to harass them.” A chuckle passed through the congregation. “I don’t know if that was a knowing laugh or a nervous laugh!” she said. More chuckling. “Anyway, I plan to do my annual stunt off the top of the store, so don’t miss that! See you there.”
Pastor Metter’s sermon text was a favorite of Becky’s: Ephesians 3:20, that God has the power to accomplish more than one can ask or imagine. She deeply hoped that was true. Becky liked Pastor’s messages. He worked very hard to apply biblical teachings to the complexities of modern life. After church she shook hands with him. “I stopped by and saw your dad this week,” he said with a broad smile. “Come by the shop this week and tell me about it!” said Becky.
Becky went home, changed into her old jeans, and spent a quiet Sunday afternoon. She finished reading a thick history book from the library. She and Kathy talked on the phone for a while. Kathy was still worried about her husband and brother. Becky missed the old Kathy, who had not taken things with such worried seriousness. As children she and Kathy had established lemonade stands on Lincoln Street each year, they had sold Girl Scout cookies together, they had played in the garden hose, they had both been high school cheerleaders. Irrepressibly mischievous, they had dumped ice cubes down each other’s shirts a number of times both private and public. Once Chuck and Becky took down Anna’s clothesline and tricked Kathy into pretending she was a May Pole, then left her tied up in the living room. But Kathy later put glue on her swingset so that Becky became stuck and Anna had to cut her short pants to get her loose. Another time Becky filled Kathy’s first old car with enough popcorn to fill the front seat to the steering wheel. A time or two Kathy set Becky up with the most horrendous blind dates in whom Kathy had had full and sincere confidence. Becky still didn’t trust Kathy’s advice on her love life!
Later in the day, Margaret called from New York and they chatted for a half-hour. Recently divorced, Margaret seemed cheerful and confident but Becky could not read all the feelings in her voice and the few silences between her rapidly spoken words.
She had no sales to attend the next day, her usual day off. She burrowed within the pillows and covers a while, pretending to be asleep when Sotheby came in. At eight she finally arose and padded to the window. The day looked a little cloudy, but her backyard thermometer read seventy-two degrees. After her walk and shower she put on an old pair of jeans and a cotton blouse with a silk patchwork vest, and then debated between her sandals and sneakers, choosing the sandals. She needed to pay bills downtown and to take clothes to the cleaners. After ten she drove downtown, parked in front of City Hall on Third Street.
She strolled on her way down to Adams Street and turned right. The two-story buildings of the small business district stood tall above her head. She missed certain tall trees that had stood behind the shops. She and Tom had carved their names on an oak but a few years ago the tree and some others had become diseased and were removed. The carving had been her idea. Thank you, Lord, she thought, for saving me embarrassment! She was surprised they hadn’t been arrested for vandalism at the time. Fortunately it was broad daylight, she laughed to herself.
She arrived at the Rexall pharmacy on the corner of Adams and Fourth. She went in, took the top basket, and stood for a few minutes at the drug counter with a prescription. “We’ll call you when it’s ready, Becky, just five or ten minutes,” said Lafe Mayer the young pharmacist. He and Becky had been in college together and had gone out a few times. He was sweet, but not quite her type. Lafe, too, was growing his festival beard. Becky searched the aisles for several items. She needed makeup and this drugstore was the only place in town that carried Elizabeth Arden.
“Hi, Becky,” she heard behind her. “What’s new?”
“Oh! Well, Bonnie, for pete’s sake. I’m stunned to see you buying makeup.” They hugged.
“No, you’re just a nut, but you might be stunned, too.” They chatted for quite a while. She and Bonnie had been friends since grade school, at around the same time, Becky thought, that Bonnie started wearing make-up. The two of them used to walk around town talking about boys and to boys. Bonnie had been a high school cheerleader. She was a tall and self-conscious woman, inordinately proud of her tanned legs. Bonnie was one of those friends who seemed to hold you at arm’s length if you contacted her, but eagerly sought you out when she desired. Becky just took her as she was.
“How’s your dad doing?” Bonnie asked.
“About the same. It’s hard for him.”
“How are you doing? I know it’s hard for you too. You always talk about your dad.”
“Oh, I’m doing fine. Terrific–really! I’m just shopping today. Catching up on stuff.”
“I hear you have to make old Bill Hausser move.”
“WHAT? Where did you get that?”
“That’s what I heard somewhere. That he set a bunch of newspapers on fire or something.”
She sighed audibly. “This town drives me nuts sometimes,” said Becky. She told her the story.
“I don’t think Bill has any living children either, does he?”
“He has a son. Seemed alive enough last time he stopped by. Bill says his daughter comes around, but I haven’t met her.”
“I guess I’ve got it wrong. Sure is pretty outside today.”
“I can’t believe it’s near eighty this early in June. I think I’ll lay out later.”
“Sounds good to me. What are you doing?” Bonnie asked, looking down. Becky had removed her left shoe and was scratching her sole on the bottom metal shelf.
“Scratching my foot. There’s a spot on my arch that always itches. Mom always had that too; she said it’s an Anglo-Saxon trait.” Lafe called her name but Becky and Bonnie stood and talked for another twenty minutes.
Becky went on her way. She crossed Fourth Street, peaking at the small tavern that stood a few doors down from the Rexall. Many years before a previous tavern with a cupola had stood at that location. The place had looked enough like a church to be nicknamed the German Lutheran Saloon. She strolled passed the old Foram Hotel, where a gift shop, ice cream shop, and travel company occupied the first floor, and then she passed Patty’s Fashions, the Chez Mayer clothing store, the Mayersburg Crafts Shoppe, an art and frame shop, and other stores. She arrived at the cable TV office, near the corner of Fifth and Adams, to pay another bill. The clerk in the office always made eyes at Becky; she ignored it. He’d had a crush on her for a long time. He probably still did, judging by the tender way he looked at her. They’d gone out once or twice, but Becky privately remembered him as “the date from Hell.” A nice enough guy, but he’d worried about every dollar spent and always worried about the time. She couldn’t deal with that.
The business district petered out beyond Fifth Street. She crossed the street just for the sake of variety. She noticed the Baptist Church on Fifth Street had some big goings-on this morning. The pastor was an immaculately clothed and noticeably handsome, athletic-looking man who’d been pastor there going on fifteen years. Privately she thought he was cute but that he overdressed: sportswear for the Christian walk, she thought. One seldom saw Lutheran pastors dressed to the nines, she thought, nor especially athletic. They liked their potluck dinners, just like the Methodists and Presbyterians! Unlike the Methodists, they loved their beer, too. Becky had gone out a few times with an associate pastor of the local Presbyterian Church. After he moved, the associate pastor had called her several times and then she stopped calling him back. Becky figured, God hadn’t made her for long-distance relationships.
She turned east on the south side of Adams and passed by familiar stores and offices. She also passed Seth and Sid Gammond, elderly brothers dressed in their overalls and dirty tee shirts and sitting idly upon a bench in front of the old Thirty-Eight Hotel. Above them hung the neon sign that Becky always loved: the vertical letters “Thirty-Eight” provided the middle “t” for the horizontal word “Hotel.” The Gammond brothers had never married, always farmed their small acreage (on which they lived in separate but adjacent old shacks) and raised a modest herd of cattle. They were bearded, but they always sported whiskers. Nothing to do, Becky thought, nowhere to go, nothing accomplished of note, a little vague, and perfectly content. “Hi, fellows!” she said brightly, “good to see ya.” They waved silently.
“Isn’t that Lew and Anna Harmon’s girl?” said Sid to Seth.
“Kinda takes after her mama.”
“Quite a bit.”
Sid paused. “Good thing. Lew’d make an ugly woman.”
Becky finally strolled by her store. She passed her own window and peaked in: all well. She tapped the soil of the geraniums that she hung outside, beside the door, in small pewter buckets. Dry, she thought. She made a mental note to come downtown later and water them. No rain was forecast for a few days.
She crossed the street and returned to her truck parked at City Hall. She drove west to the dry cleaners on a side street of the town’s outskirts. “Hi, Becky!’ said Shirley, a thin, friendly woman with a broad smile.
“What’s new, Shirl?”
They chatted a while about Pioneer Days. Becky said that, since her mother passed away, she’d completely lost track of plans but assumed it would be a good festival and a good parade. She gave Shirl her flowered jumper and promised to pick it up by week’s end.
Becky went home and spent the rest of Monday quietly, working at her home computer catching up on her store’s accounts. She didn’t forget to drive downtown once more to water her flowers, and also to return her library book, which she’d earlier forgotten to return.
She happily arrived at her shop early Tuesday morning. She felt a little sick at her stomach but a swig of antacid cured the feeling.
The whole week was busy. By Thursday she had sold a four star quilt, a jelly cupboard, a walnut sideboard, two arrowback chairs, some depression glass, a mahogany loveseat, a wicker doll buggy, and several other items. She also sold the bread sign that she’d purchased from Johnnie Barkes. That went fast, she thought. She’d hoped to keep it a while.
Pastor Metter dropped by near 10 a.m. on the Tuesday morning of that week. As he entered the store and his eyes adjusted to the change of light, he immediately noticed a middle-aged couple kissing in front of the counter as Becky, yelling through a bullhorn and gesturing broadly with her arm, led a chorus of customers loudly counting out, “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! FIVE! SIX! SEVEN! EIGHT! NINE! TEN! ELEVEN! TWELVE! THIRTEEN! FOURTEEN! FIFTEEN! SIXTEEN!–”
“–ONE! TWO! THREE–” Becky started again, which made the kissing couple burst out in giggles and the chorus of customers, loving the hilarity, laughed and applauded.
Becky turned and said, “Hi, pastor!” as the people in her store calmed themselves and resumed their shopping and browsing. “Doing anything for the Lord today?” she teased brightly.
“Always!” he said. “Twenty-four hours a day!” He was a short, chubby man in his early fifties with an insufficiently combed mass of salt-and-pepper hair and an ample beard that nearly concealed a clerical collar. He sat down hard into one of the easy chairs.
“Or at least one hour every week.” she said, grinning.
“No, always. Too many people like you needing serious guidance,” he teased back. “What in the world was that all about?” he asked, gesturing to the couple in the back of the shop.
“Today’s their seventeenth wedding anniversary,” she explained. “When customers have an anniversary, I ask them to kiss each other for as many seconds as they have years of marriage. But I like to crack them up by starting the count all over again.”
“Welcome to Harmon’s,” he noted.
“You betcha! What’s new with you? I liked your sermon Sunday.”
“Thanks. I wrote it myself! Becky, I saw your dad this past week, like you asked me to.”
“How’d he seem to you?” she said seriously.
“Actually not too bad for a fellow who’s lost his buddy of forty-some years.”
“He doesn’t seem so down to you?”
“Oh, sure, he does. He’s just dealing with it like men of his generation do. He’s not going to make a big scene about it. He’s just going to get through with the same grit that ‘won the war’, you know.”
“I guess. He just seems so sad to me.”
“Well, he is. He probably always will be, to some extent.”
“He says his heart beats fast sometimes, and he doesn’t sleep at night. He naps a lot in the daytime.”
“Not uncommon reactions to grief. Watch out if he starts getting foolish notions in his head, too. Some people react to grief in odd ways. Wanting to move away, cutting down all the trees in his yard. That sort of thing. Grief makes you feel so out of control, your mind latches onto things you could do to regain some control. Usually such ideas aren’t very good, though, because grief makes you not think straight.”
“I’ll remember that. Dad’s so stable and straightforward, though, I can’t imagine him going bonkers.”
“People do react differently to grief. Sometimes it’s expressed in foolish actions. Sometimes grief bursts out like a terrible, destructive flood. Sometimes it’s years before the tears come, if they ever do come: when his own mother Monica died, St. Augustine stood by dry-eyed. Sometimes it takes years to get the tears to stop! The Lord has made us all with different emotional qualities, just like he’s given us different faces, builds, complexions. He works with us within the special perimeters of our lives and experiences. How are you handling your mom’s death, by the way? Your dad’s very worried about you, too, you know.”
“Me? Fine. Just dealing with it, too. I try to be happy like Mama was.”
“She sure was!” he said, whistling. Pastor and Anna had been great friends. “She was something else, wasn’t she?”
“She sure was!” said Becky. “Excuse me,” she said, reaching for a Kleenex and blowing her nose.
“Does it make you sad?”
“It’s the dust in here,” said Becky, ironically. “Allergies, you know.”
Pastor smiled knowingly. “What?” she said, seeing his expression.
“Oh, nothing,” he said, smiling, “I take antihistamines, too, ever since my own mama died …Let me ask you something, do you think maybe you’re worried about losing your dad, too?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. He’s my closest living relative, of course, except for Mama’s two sisters but they live away. I just worry about Dad in general. I’m glad you thought he’s handling it okay.”
“I think so,” said Pastor. “He kids me ruthlessly, like he always does. Seems like the old Lew, in many ways.”
“I’m not sure . . . but thanks. You say he’s worried about me?–if it’s not confidential.”
“No, it’s not, and yes, he is–not worried sick or anything like that. I think he hesitates to talk about your mom for fear you’ll feel bad. He worries that you’re lonely these days and have a lot going in your life.”
“No more than usual. Maybe I’ll talk to him about it.”
“I think so. Just keeping talking to each other, like you do–talk about your mom, too. Let your memories flow. Get mad, swear and stomp if you have to, get mad at Anna, get mad at God. These are human emotions, part of the healing process. ‘God knows our frame,’ as the Bible says; he knows we’re dust. I know a lot of very angry Christians who feel like they can’t express those negative emotions to God. As if such folk were fooling Him! But their anger comes out in other, hurtful ways. Try expressing these things a little more, and I think you BOTH will start healing some.”
“I guess,” she said, thinking about Lew.
“How’s old Bill Hausser upstairs? I ought to stop in and see him, too. Even if he is Baptist. No one’s perfect, after all.”
She chuckled. “He’s increasingly forgetful. I had to put out a stove fire upstairs because he forgot and burned his supper. I suppose you’ve heard that I’m trying to kick him out.”
“I heard something about that.”
“Figures. I wish I knew how rumors get started. What I’m hoping to do is contact his family and help them make some different arrangements for him, so he can be safe and I don’t have to worry about the shop burning down.”
“I can’t help you much. The Haussers have always tended to be private people. Good luck. Even if no one else says it, I know you’ll do all you can for him.”
“Thank you for your announcement, by the way,” said Pastor, rising to leave. “You know, Becky: You’re a highly thought-of person in this town.”
“I guess I am,” she said.
“You are! I don’t think I’ve ever known someone who people feel more generally positively toward.” He mentioned the name of a parishioner who had spoken well of Becky. She gave him her authoritative look. “Don’t repeat this, but the feeling isn’t mutual,” she said.
“Oh, I know why. She came in your shop one day, a long time ago, when you were helping some black customers. She made a racial slur and you told her to leave till she could fix her mouth and attitude.”
Becky turned bright red. “How did you know? I didn’t say it loud enough for anyone to hear, and I’ve never repeated that story. Did she tell you?”
“Actually she did–not in confidence–she’s not very self-aware, you know.”
“But you stood up for something you believed, and you tried to deal with it privately. People in this town respect that, Becky. That’s why your folks were loved here.”
“I guess. Or else the people want to burn a cross on my yard but just haven’t gotten around to it. People are so busy these days, you know,” she said ironically.
Pastor chuckled bleakly. “Anyway, Becky, I just wanted to give you some assurance. If you ever get lonely, just look around you. Your mama and dad raised you well,” he said with that little knowing smile as he left the shop. She watched him go. What a dear man, she thought.
A couple hours after Pastor left, Kathy came in, without Ally, but with a bottle of soda. Becky had a Mozart symphony playing softly on her stereo. The two women hugged and greeted one another loudly, then Kathy flopped into one of the red easy chairs and exclaimed, “Girl, it’s sure getting hot already!” She tipped the bottle back and took a long drink, and then she greeted Sotheby, who came around the counter.
“Where’s the little whirlwind?”
“At my mother’s,” she said as she set the bottle down and stifled a belch. “Excuse me, whew! Anyway, I needed some time away. When that child gets to crying, I swear she can unhinge her jaw so she can open her mouth wider.” She sighed and slumped in the chair. “I don’t know how I can keep my sanity and youthful good looks much longer.”
They chatted a while. Becky tried to help Kathy put her family matters into perspective. Eventually Kathy said she felt better. Robbie came in and asked Becky if she wanted lunch. “Not today,” she said, “but thanks for asking.”
As Becky talked to Robbie, a young man came in the shop and stood by the door. Kathy noticed him. Nicely dressed in a preppy sport coat, loosened tie, shirt and slacks with dress shoes, the man’s thin, clean-shaven and tanned face and his kind, hazel eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses formed a friendly, curious expression. He had sandy brown hair, a straight nose, thin lips, and a small cleft in his chin. Nice strong jaw line, Kathy thought, and good strong cheekbones. Stop it, girl, you’re married! she chuckled to herself. She guessed him to be about her and Becky’s age: late twenties or early thirties. He smiled sweetly at her, which pleased her, as he stood by listening to the Mozart symphony.
Becky said, “You’re looking real good, Robbie!”
“Thanks. You’re nice, Becky. I gotta get Mr. Muller his lunch today.”
Let the bastard get his own lunch and then choke on it, Becky thought but didn’t say. “You can’t leave without giving me a hug, okay?”
They hugged for a few moments as Becky’s eyes bugged from Rob’s embrace. She patted his back affectionately. “We love you, Robbo,” she said hoarsely.
“Love you, too,” he said.
As Robbie left, the young man approached the counter. He was very touched by the display. “Can I help you?” Becky said pleasantly.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said politely. “My name is Gabe Hausser from Norris. I’m the grandson of Bill Hausser upstairs.”
“Oh,” said Becky. She thought of her letter, and what her father had said.
“I came to visit Granddad. I haven’t seen him for several years. Are you the owner of this place? I was trying to locate the person who rents to him.”
“That’s me,” said Becky as her dark eyes hardened considerably. He looked around the shop, as he had done while waiting for her. “This is a very pretty shop! I’m confused that one sign says Clothiers and another says Antiques. Is it both?”
“This used to be a clothing shop, and now it’s my antique store.”
Gabe turned back to her and was startled when their eyes met. “I’m sorry! What’d I say? I was just curious. Has Granddad lived above your shop for a long time?”
“So, um, do you know anything about Mr. Hausser’s arrangements?”
“No, I don’t know very much about them.”
“Well, my parents used to run this store as a clothing shop, and several years ago they started renting Mr. Hausser the apartment upstairs, after he decided to move into town. I’ve visited him upstairs, every single day since taking over the shop, which has been about four years now.”
“Well, thank you. You must be Anna? He says Anna takes wonderful care of him.”
“Anna is my dead mother,” Becky found herself saying.
“Oh! I’m very sorry. I didn’t know, of course.” Good lord, lady, lighten up, he thought.
“Mama visited him every day, too,” continued Becky, regretting her big mouth as she noticed his kind eyes become stern. “Mr. Hausser calls me Anna because he gets confused. He also calls me Esther sometimes. Esther was my great-grandmother.”
“Oh! Goodness. Granddad seemed so lucid to me just now!”
“He’s becoming less so, believe me. You caught him at a good moment.”
“His rooms smell so strongly of smoke. I was concerned about that.”
“That’s from last week when I came to the shop after hours and discovered that he’d forgotten he was cooking food on the stove.” Becky related the whole story to him. “I wrote all this to Bill’s son Stuart last week.”
“I didn’t know that,” Gabe said. “Stuart’s my dad. I said I’m from Norris. Actually I just moved there a few weeks ago. I came down to visit Granddad now that I live so close–just forty miles away!”
“That’s nice. I’ve met your father a few times, with regard to Bill’s affairs.”
“Yes, Dad’s the only child.”
“He–Wait a minute. Bill speaks of his daughter Denise; he says Denise comes and brings him magazines and such. He’s so proud of his daughter, he says, and how much she loves him.”
“No, Dad’s the only child, but–oh, goodness.”
“I remembered something. Dad did have a sister Denise, but I’m told that she died many years ago, when she was a small child.”
Becky sighed and closed her eyes. “I was afraid of something like that.”
“Poor Granddad,” Gabe said.
They both looked away, saying nothing for a few moments. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just fond of your grandfather, you know.”
“Dad and his father don’t see eye to eye–that’s a long story–but I’ll talk to Dad and have him consider other arrangements for his dad–and to reimburse you for damage to your store. I’ll help with the cost, too.”
Becky relaxed. The man seemed sincere, rather earnest yet eager to please. “There was no damage worth paying for–this time, at least.”
Customers were gathering near the counter. Gabe noticed them. “Listen, I’ve taken up your time. Thank you for all you’ve done for Granddad. What’s your name?”
Good grief, thought Kathy, no one calls you “Rebecca.”
“Gabriel Hausser–but it’s ‘Gabe.’ Pleased to meet you,” he said, extending his hand. They shook hands very firmly.
“I’m sorry. This is my friend Kathy Bissich.”
“Hi, Ms. Bissich. Gabe Hausser. Nice to meet you,” he said, offering his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Gabe,” she said, standing, studying him as they shook hands. “Call me Kathy.”
“Okay, Kathy,” he said. He turned to the counter. “Well, Ms. Harmon, I’ll contact you after I speak to my father.”
“Thank you,” said Becky as he went to the door.
She watched at him leaving, and something within her compelled her to say, “Um, SIR! Wait a minute.” Startled, Gabe stopped in the doorway.
Thinking, and feeling confused, she looked sheepishly at him. “I, um, I apologize for being abrupt with you,” she said. “I have a reputation for that, sometimes. I guess I’ve had a burr in my claw about Mr. Hausser and the fact that . . . he’s all by himself here. My family is very close.”
“Well,” he said, smiling a little, “I apologize to you, too. I guess I step in and take charge of situations when I shouldn’t.”
He looked sadly at her for a moment, as if some piece of new knowledge had left him concerned and similarly confused. “I’ll be in touch very soon,” he said as he left the store.
“Oh! I’m sorry. May I help you?” said Becky as she turned to an elderly woman who had been inching toward the counter.”Yes, dear, sorry to interrupt. I’d like to look at something in your china cabinet, but it’s locked.”
“I’m happy to help you!” she said and went with the lady. They walked together toward the rear of the store and arrived at one of Becky’s large cabinets. “This cup looks like demitasse,” said the woman as Becky unlocked the doors.
“It is!” said Becky.
“Well, I’d like to purchase it, if you please.”
“Absolutely,” said Becky, “come right back to the counter with me and I’ll get you a receipt.”
She made the transaction and chatted with the lady about china and glassware. When she had left, Kathy said, “Hey, ‘Rebecca’. Interesting fellow, there. Gabe Hausser, I mean.”
“Yeah, he was nice enough,” said Becky, not making eye contact with her as she moved papers around the counter. She looked around for her dog, then spotted him at the door. He was facing outside, hopping on his front legs and whining longingly.
“Looks like Sotheby misses him already. Dogs are pretty smart.”
“Mm hmm,” said Becky.
“He was kind of attractive, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you,” said Becky, looking out the window. She saw no sign of him. “I do know what you’re getting at.”
“He didn’t have a wedding ring.”
“I didn’t look at his hands.”
“You were kind of hard on him.”
“Oh, not that much. You haven’t seen me really angry at someone.”
“Yes, I have, like that other time you–”
“And that time you–”
“I said, never mind!”
“Of course, the all-time classic time was–”
“KATHY, SHUT UP! Hey, I’ve had my back up over Bill’s arrangements. Come on! I said I was sorry. I told you I’m not an infallible judge of people. He said he comes on strong sometimes, too.”
“If I were you, I’d get to know him. He’s cute and seemed really nice. I’ll bet he’s smart, too.”
“I just met the man. Don’t you have somewhere you need to be?”
“Nope,” said Kathy brightly. “Nowhere at all! So I can give my full attention to your lack of a social life.”
“I have a social life, thank you very much.”
“Speaking of,” said Kathy mischievously, putting Ally down, “when was the last time you went on a date? Within the last year? Two? Three? Ten?”
Becky looked at her, amused, and said, “When was the last time you and your husband had sex?”
“Good point. Never mind!”
Becky drummed her fingers on the counter, thought for a moment, and said, “Kathy, you know good-and-well how I feel about these kinds of things. That guy would have to be very special to spark my interest. I’ve got certain things I’m looking for in a guy–”
As Becky continued, Kathy joined her words in perfect unison: “I want someone who’s a Christian ‘on the way,’ who loves books and music, who’s fun and intelligent, who has inner strength but not arrogance, who’s supportive of me and my business, who loves me for who I am and appreciates my roots in this town, who gives me time, and if he’s cute, that’s okay, too!”
“Don’t forget, ‘a good companion,'” she added.
“Becky, I know! But sometimes I like to stand up for you, just like you stand up for me.”
Kathy continued, and Becky recited her words in unison: “You know how much I look up to you. You’re smart, successful. This whole town loves you. Every unmarried male in town has eyes for you, and some of the married ones.”
“Quit doing that, Becky!” she said.
“One thing you can say about us,” Becky noted, “at least we’re predictable.”
“Listen, Becky! You’re the best friend I have in the world. The best friend I’ll ever have in my life. I know you hurt inside, and you put this shell on–”
“That’s not a shell. That’s the result of being raised by people who speak their minds.”
“Whatever you call it! You say you’re not lonely but I know you are. Sometimes at least. That’s no sin! I just don’t want you to say you’re not interested. Some Prince Charming may wander in her someday and you’ll never know the difference.”
“Listen, you,” said Becky, beginning to unsure of herself. “I’m fine. You know my philosophy about all this: If some handsome prince comes in here, I’ll assume that God’s arranged things quite well. Mama always taught me that: ‘God’s already in the future,’ she always said. And if not, I’ll just stay a happy single-type and help my bossy friends keep their husbands off the golf course.”
“Well, I’m going to have to lecture again about this.”
“Why don’t you just say ‘Lecture,’ and I’ll already know what you’re going to say. You’ll save time that way,” she laughed. “Come on, give me a hug.”
They hugged, and Becky messed Kathy’s hair. “Thanks for caring, though,” said Becky. “You know I look up to you, too, and take your side.”
Becky looked sadly into the distance beyond Kathy’s shoulder, unsure if the loneliness she felt was the power of suggestion or the real thing. By evening she felt so sad that she called Kathy just to talk about it. Kathy felt terrible; she hadn’t meant to make Becky depressed. Kathy told her she just meant to be encouraging. Becky said she knew that but she just wanted to talk about it. They chatted for a while as Becky heard Ally talking non-stop in the background and Kathy would say, “Don’t play with the phone cord, sweetheart,” and “Wait till Mommy is finished, please!” At around ten o’clock Kathy, dressed in her robe and night gown and hot-pink bunny slippers, drove over and demanded they both get chocolate milk shakes at Dairy Queen. Ally slept soundly in the back seat. Becky threw on her own robe over her long tee shirt and appreciated the chance to discuss with Kathy her heartache for her brother as they drove around the dark streets of the small town, finally ending up at Kathy’s house. All of them finally retired by 2.
Near closing time on Wednesday, the shop had no customers. Becky arranged her displays and listened to Copland’s Appalachian Spring on her stereo. Becky struggled with late-afternoon blues when she heard Sotheby bark with anticipation and then immediately the door’s electronic bell rang. She looked and saw Gabe Hausser come into the shop. Becky was startled to see him again so soon. He was wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt that read “St. Martin’s Sluggers.”
Gabe waved to her. Driving back to Norris the day before, he had decided he wanted to make a better impression with her. He carried a thermos and two coffee cups. “Ms. Harmon,” he called. “I noticed yesterday that you drink coffee so I brought some hazelnut.”
“Oh, well,” said Becky, unsure of what to say. “You didn’t have to do that.” She didn’t tell him that he could call her Becky. So he’s a churchgoer, she thought, and he likes coffee. Good and good, she said to herself, surveying her “standards” for a boyfriend. Good, too! she thought when, without seeming to notice, she saw that he was fairly good-looking and nicely built. But she wondered if he intended to convey that impression. She noticed he had strong hands and that he wore no wedding ring, as Kathy had said. Very good! But how completely absurd to think like that, she thought.
“I was a little upset when I saw Granddad the other day,” he said, “and I was afraid I put my foot in my mouth.” He tried not to show how eagerly he’d wanted to chat with her again. Why hadn’t Dad told me about her? he wondered.
“You didn’t, really. I’ve got the big mouth! I value directness in people, anyway. So please don’t worry about it.” She smiled. “Have a seat.” She offered him a seat in one of the red easy chairs. She turned the music down then emerged from behind the counter and sat down in the other chair. She felt curious but not terrifically outgoing with him. She had an overwhelmingly positive intuition concerning him but she didn’t know why, since her whole knowledge of him, after all, consisted of five minutes’ uncomfortable acquaintance during the previous afternoon, and assorted paternal complains about his relatives. She crossed her legs and arms.
Gabe bent down to pat Sotheby, who had stood by nuzzling his hand. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said.
Becky smiled; she heard the kindness in his voice. “His name is Sotheby, like the dealer-auction house in New York and London. I think he likes you!”
“I love dogs. He’s a cutie!” he said. “I could hear him bark outside.”
“Yeah. Corgis have loud barks. Their heritage as sheep herders.”
“That’s interesting! Anyway, I so deeply appreciate what you and your family have done for Granddad that I wanted to show you some appreciation. It’s not nearly enough of a gesture.”
“That’s no problem. You didn’t have to do anything, really. I like Mr. Hausser and so did my mother.” She left out her father.
“Well, I feel a strong obligation. Like I said yesterday, I tend to take charge of situations when I see a need, more than I should.”
He poured coffee. “That’s actually a very good trait,” she said.
“I called my father, who’s been out of town for a few days, but he gave me the green light to try to help with Granddad’s situation,” he said, offering her a cup. She uncrossed her arms and took it. “I’m going to try to explore some local options, so he won’t be dangerous to himself and your store.”
“Thanks,” said Becky. “I appreciate your conscientiousness. So you’re new to the area?” She blew on the coffee and looked at him.
“Yes, I’m an assistant professor up at Norris State College. I just moved here from Pennsylvania three weeks ago. I had a one-year appointment at Eastern Pennsylvania State. I wanted to visit my grandfather, as I said the other day. I hadn’t seen him since I was a little boy, and then only briefly. I barely remember the visit, though. We visited Granddad for a while, then drove on. I don’t remember how he and Dad got along. Poorly, I suppose.”
“That’s a shame, he’s a good old fellow,” she said.
“I suppose I saw your mom and dad’s clothing store on the way through, and you’d have been a small child, too.”
“Funny how things happen in life. Do you know Harkness at NSC?”
“Yes! In fact, I replaced him. He retired this year. You know him?”
“Oh, I attended NSC for a couple years before transferring to University of Illinois. I took business courses with Dr. Josie Bass, and also some courses from Harkness and other history professors.”
“Goodness, it is a small world. I think Dr. Bass is still there.” He smiled and added, “Did you like Harkness?”
“No, not really,” she said without missing a beat.
Gabe laughed out loud. “I just wondered,” Gabe said. “He’s–”
“Yes, but I was going to say reserved! A stereotypical old-time professor: very stern. He delayed for so long telling the department he was retiring that they made an eleventh-hour search. I was selected but had to rush to get here!”
“It figured that Harkness would make the whole department dance around his needs. So you must be a history teacher.”
“Yes, both American and world. I’ve landed with both feet. I had two summer school courses beginning the end of May, before I had much chance to unpack my boxes. I have two more classes beginning at the end of June, and then I’m off for most of August. That’s all fine. NSC’s a wonderful place, although isolated, and the job market is so tight I feel very blessed to have the position. It was by far the best opportunity–a good salary and tenure-track–and the fact that my grandfather lives fairly close became a nice extra. To tell you the truth, I was feeling so cooped up at school yesterday that I left after my second class to drive down to Mayersburg. I wasn’t sure where Granddad lived and couldn’t find his name in the phonebook at one of the local service stations. But I met two fellows named, let’s see, Floyd Willis and Herb Kelso.”
“Oh, goodness, yes! Floyd’s run that station almost since it was a blacksmith shop.”
He chuckled. “That’s a good one.”
“I’m not kidding. The place was once a blacksmith shop and livery. They just switched over to taking care of cars instead of horses. That was Floyd’s dad, though.”
“Floyd’s not the local barber, huh?” he gently teased.
She looked strangely at him. “And Herb’s the local sheriff,” she continued without acknowledging his joke. “He’s a good fellow too. I’ve known them both since I was a little girl.”
“That’s nice,” Gabe said, thinking. He tried to keep eye contact with her and not glance at her skin, her bare arms in front of her, and her bare ankles below her pants suit. At the same time she tried not to stare at his shoulders and chest. He continued, “They both said, ‘Oh, sure, Bill Hausser, he lives upstairs over Harmon’s.’ Of course, I had to ask them where the place was. They knew, but I didn’t.”
Becky grinned, and Gabe felt relieved to see her smile. “Lots of locals still call it that. Probably always will. It’s kind of a local landmark. That’s why I’m glad to be here, keeping up the family business.”
“When did your parents give up the store?”
“They retired a few years ago and I acquired the building from them. In fact, that apartment upstairs was their first home. Dad got back from the army and married Mama, and they lived upstairs while Dad worked with Grandpop down here.”
“I’m sorry your mother’s gone.” Becky remembered her brusque announcement. She thought, he’s certainly tried harder to make a good impression to her than I have.
“Is your father still living?” Gabe asked.
“Yes. He lives here in Mayersburg.”
“Are all your family members here?”
“Just Dad and me. I’m an only child.”
“I saw the name on top of the building, too.”
“My dad’s grandfather. He founded the store.”
“Is that the one married to ‘Esther’? said Gabe.
“You have a wonderful memory!” she said. “No, actually ‘Esther’ was my mom’s grandma. Bill seems to recognize several generations of me.”
“How wonderful to have roots like that!”
“I take it you don’t?” she said, sipping. It was good coffee.
“No, my father was in the Navy then worked for a firm which moved him a lot. We lived all over the country, all over the world in fact.” He shifted himself in the chair. “I’m one of those people who you ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’ll say, ‘Everywhere, and nowhere in particular.’ My childhood was interesting because I got to see many different places. As I’m sure you know, my dad and mom now live in Pittsburgh but Dad grew up here in Mayersburg. Mom grew up outside of Baltimore. Once in a while Dad comes to visit his father. Mayersburg looks like such a pretty town; I wish I knew more about it.”
Becky remembered Kathy’s chide. I guess a friendly gesture couldn’t hurt, she thought. No long-term obligation, after all. “Next time you’re down here,” she said, “let me give you the 50-cent tour of the town.”
“Oh, I’d like that!” he said. “I’m teaching during the day but I’m free evenings, and also Sunday of course, which I see is your day of worship, too, or your general day off.”
“Both, actually,” she said, and Gabe smiled. He’s observant, she thought, if a bit ingenuous. Or was that her reaction to him? Why not? she thought. Might as well try it and see. “Actually this coming Sunday afternoon’s good. I have church till noon, then lunch with Dad, but all afternoon I’m free.”
“Great! Next Sunday: say, three o’clock, if that’s okay.”
“That’s fine,” she said, still thinking. “Let me be direct again, I guess. I take it your family doesn’t get along well?”
“We get along well. But you mean Dad and Granddad. They had a falling-out at some point, years and years ago. Privately, Dad always refers to his father as ‘that old fool’–and often worse than that. One time I asked my mom–” he imitated a child’s high voice, “–‘Mommy, when we are going to visit SOB again?'”
Becky laughed out loud. She felt a little better about Gabe. Maybe he’s not so ingenuous after all, she thought.
“Excuse me for swearing,” he continued. “That’s what I’d always heard Dad call Granddad, I still got a whipping!” he laughed ruefully.
“I asked Dad about his sister,” he said. “Denise died of typhoid fever back in the 1940s. Dad makes sure his father has room and board and such, but the rest of the relationship is difficult.”
“That’s sad,” said Becky. “It isn’t any of my business–”
“Well, it is if Granddad’s too senile to care for himself and lives above your store. When I spoke to Dad, I told him you’d tried to contact him. He asked me if I’d help make some arrangements for Granddad somewhere else here in town.” He sighed. “Dad cares, but sometimes he withholds. His spat with Granddad is a case in point. So I drove down to visit him. I obtained the numbers of the two nursing homes in Mayersburg. The person at the Leander Home said they’ll have an opening, soon. So they’ll be calling Dad and me.”
“Well . . . thanks for your follow-up.”
“Listen,” he said, suddenly feeling very shy, “I’ve taken too much of your time, so close to quitting time.” He stood and she stood.
“That’s all right. Thanks for the coffee.” She handed him the cup.
“I’m going to visit Granddad then I’ve got to get back for a church softball game tonight–hence my outfit. I feel very self-conscious looking sloppy like this, but I knew I’d have no time to change. Well, thanks again, Ms. Harmon. Bye, Sotheby,” he said sweetly to the little dog.
“See you! Oh—here, I’ll make sure you can get in next door.”
“The door wasn’t locked yesterday.”
“It’s supposed to be. Bill has a key, but sometimes he forgets.”
They went out the door, self-conscious as they walked beside one another. She unlocked the downstairs door. He went upstairs to visit Bill. Becky returned to the shop. Sotheby whined happily when she came in and he stood by the door, waiting for Gabe. As the late afternoon sun brightened the street outside, she felt deeply unsure of herself, and unsure about this man who strolled into her shop from the clear blue. But why did she think there was anything about which to be unsure?
She said out loud, “We’ll see what happens. And Lord,” she said, sighing, “I guess you already know. Sorry if I’m not getting my hopes up too much.” She closed up the store and went home with Sotheby.
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