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Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANOTHER SATISFIED CUSTOMER!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s no great loss!”

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

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

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

“Mommy?” said Ally, covering her face.

“Yes, dear?”

“Do you see two eyes?”

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

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

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

“I’m glad you thought of me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, he was.   What was wrong?”

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

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

She added, “Grrrr!”

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

“Which means the whole town knows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mommy!” said Ally.

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

“I want my chicken lunch!” declared Ally.

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

“Wait a minute,” said Becky to Kathy.

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Becky.  You always say that.”

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

“I do, Becky.  You want one now?”

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

“Okay,” he said, sadly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where was that?”

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

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

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

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

“Looks like your arm hurts you.”

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

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

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

“One of them things,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid so,” she said, smiling.

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

“Sure isn’t,” she said wistfully.

“Well, what’s your husband do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adams Street Antiques

Rebecca Harmon

301 W. Adams St., Mayersburg, IL

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayersburg, Illinois

Founded August 1828

Pop. 7300

Welcome!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are your shoes?”

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

“No damn good, as usual.”

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

“I didn’t know Eeyore swore.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you going to shave today?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Which reminds me: Kathy called earlier.”

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

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

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

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

“Dad!  Why did you tell her that?”

“She said to save one for her.”

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

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

“Well what?”

“Did you find any men?”

“Dad, if I do, you’ll know it.”

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

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

“Who?”

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

“Johnnie . . . oh, Johnnie Barkes?”

“That’s it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Becky?”  said Bill, looking up curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I SAW YOU YESTERDAY, MR. HAUSSER.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illinois 16 near Pana

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

Downtown Effingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A piece from August 2009…. Recently I purchased an Avanti-brand greeting card and sent it to a friend. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”

The other day I was driving a morning’s distance and listening to the XM classical station. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the station played the new recording, conducted by Marin Alsop, of Bernstein’s “Mass.”

I still have my LP set, conducted by Bernstein. I purchased it around 1975, when I was eighteen. I don’t remember how I discovered the piece; perhaps I’d first watched a production on our area PBS station. I loved the piece, which I played a lot during college. But the vinyl became worse for wear and I never replaced it. So I’d not heard the piece since perhaps the early 1980s.

I suppose listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the “Mass.” I’ve not heard the other two versions (besides Bernstein’s) but Alsop’s is very fresh, and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed the favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy “In Domine Patris”… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song (in my opinion), “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic (!) “Agnus Dei” … the “mad scene” “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.

The XM host called attention to the mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I don’t think “Mass” betrays its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz’s words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). In other words, Bernstein’s intermingling of musical high- and pop-styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today.

What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. “Mass” follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies, and ultimately threats of violence. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than upholding it. Amid a protest march (the cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”), the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the last act of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”), the street people return to quiet praise. They bring the Celebrant back into their group (whispering “pax tecum”), and with a benediction, the mass ends.

Before, I thought the Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. I think this happens to the Celebrant, but now I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is intended to be vicarious. He takes the people’s struggles and doubts into himself. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” but we have a “secret song,” the peace of fellowship and reconciliation.

I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many times: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi’s Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and Faure, John Rutter’s music, and numerous others. Hearing the words again, as I’d first learned them, was a jolt.

They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth. Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.

But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … well, duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still just want to smack someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you’d smack God if you could. 

Read Psalm 22, 42, 90, 143, and others, and you know that such difficult feelings are not alien to Holy Scripture, or to worship. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extravagant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel–within the context of worship.

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Yesterday, as I drove home from an errand, Finlandia came on the satellite radio station. I think I was in junior high when I first heard the hymn “This is My Song” (also the hymn “Be Still, My Soul”). I loved that hymn, and so I looked for an LP of Sibelius’ tone poem. But the piece had more turbulent, rat-a-tat-tat-tat music than I liked. I was expecting a peaceful meditation on that melody, similar to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia (or pieces which I’ve since discovered, like Vaughan Williams’  Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus”  and Finzi’s Eclogue). To this day, I wish Finlandia had been written as an adagio. I’m also amused at myself for thinking this warhorse should’ve been written in a way personally pleasing to me.

As I thought about ways to turn this silly little observation into a blog post, I happened to read the essay “Cultural Betrayal” in Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 283-287. I love Klosterman’s writing and used to follow his columns in the Akron Beacon-Journal. He discussed how prevalent and yet how foolish and even scary is the idea that you can feel “betrayed” by culture. His examples: one of his friends who felt betrayed by the marriage of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the last episode of Sex and the City. The friend was adamant. Klosterman also found scary the notion of values “winning,” like the words of another writer who was happy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio because the writer’s values were now “winning.” “[W]hat I have slowly come to realize,” writes Klosterman, “is that most people think this way all the time. They don’t merely want to hold their values; they want their values to win. And I suspect this is why people so often feel “betrayed” by art and consumerism, and by the way the world works” (p. 285; emphasis in text).

I found Klosterman’s idea of “cultural betrayal” intriguing–and it definitely explains a lot about human nature! It’s one reason why people debate so vigorously over issues like the suitability of the conclusions of  The Sopranos and Lost, or whether certain artists like Liz Phair and Amy Grant let their fans down when their styles change or when they don’t “top” a superior album.

We church people definitely fall into this kind of thinking. Sometimes we prefer a certain kind of style of music and, because we like it and find it spiritually helpful, we think everyone should. But lots of hurt feelings and divisions have happened in churches because of that. Similarly, some folks attend certain popular spiritual retreats, and when they return to church they perceive that other people aren’t as pumped up spiritually as they feel. So they start to dismiss other Christians as “not spiritual,” and sometimes they leave the church or demand that their values “win” in that congregation. I wanted to throw my hymnal at a fellow who had attended an Emmaus walk and declared Christians should only listen to contemporary Christian music.

It’s too bad we’re this way. When my former pastor took another church position, I bought him a farewell gift, a 10-CD set of 1970s popular hits.  I knew he loved the music of that decade.  I never enjoyed a lot of 70s music, which reminds me of lonely times. I love 80s music. But I’m happy that he’s happy listening to Average White Band, Donna Summer, Jim Croce, Abba, Pure Prairie League, and Firefall, while in my own car I’m cranking up Mr. Mister, Spandau Ballet, Kate Bush, the Bangles, Bananarama, and the Thompson Twins. It would be sad if either of our tastes “prevailed.”

And yet… I was so excited when Sophie B. Hawkins began to get significant airplay in the mid 1990s; finally the public appreciated music that I liked!…. Human nature strikes again.

“Cultural betrayal” explains a lot about how some people perceive certain social, political and economic questions, too. That’s a whole ‘nother topic to explore!

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My music listening has been nostalgic lately.  The very first LP I purchased (used, from a friend) was “In-a-Gadda-da-Vita” by Iron Butterfly. I still have the vinyl record in my drastically downsized collection, but I decided to purchase the CD when I saw it on sale at Collector’s Choice Music. The title song is still an enjoyable piece: good solos, the polyphonic organ, the “tribal” drums (with the bottom heads removed from the toms) and the way the riff holds the long piece together but not to the extent that it becomes tedious. Here is the whole shebang, lights and all:  http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xbtw9b_iron-butterfly-inagaddadavida-long_music   The song makes me wish that Iron Butterfly had written more such extended pieces, similar to Traffic.

During my teen years I liked another, less famous piece in the “psychedelic metal” genre, “From a Dry Camel” by Dust. I also purchased the LP (with its macabre photograph of bodies in catacombs) from a friend. The cryptic but suggestive lyrics are more interesting than the Iron Butterfly epic, but I enjoyed the plodding, camel-like first and third sections, while the middle section really rocks. Someone put the song on YouTube, with the grim album cover: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ru7whay-nhs

And one more album that I liked in the early 1970s, an even odder bit of psychedelic music, “666” by Aphrodite’s Child. The group’s leader, Vangelis Pappathanasiou, was later known for his “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. The songs “Babylon” and “The Four Horsemen” received airplay on KSHE-FM, my favorite St. Louis station which also played Dust and a good variety of other groups. This album is, on the whole, strange–but then, the book of Revelation is strange. The song entitled with the infinity symbol consists of a woman (the notable Greek actor Irene Pappas) repeating “I was, I am, I am to come” for nearly six minutes in stages of agony, hysteria, orgasm, and finally elation. A website, http://www.vangelislyrics.com/aphrodites-child-666-the-story.htm, provides background, and here’s another link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=selfqEH-JnY&feature=related

“To do ‘then’ now would be retro, but to do ‘then’ then was very nowtro, if you will,” says a character in A Mighty Wind, referring to the outfits that his group wore in the Sixties but which seemed unsuitable in the 00s. Other music that I’ve been playing recently is more “nowtro,” specifically Jeff Beck’s recent albums. But Beck was one of those artists of which I was aware at the beginning of my interest in music, the early 1970s, after groups like Cream and the Yardbirds were gone but I was peripherally aware of the music as I was listening to prog-rock, psychedelic metal, and early heavy metal. Beck’s recent material like “Live at Ronnie Scott’s” and “You Had It Coming” connects me back to my earliest musical discoveries without being so nostalgic.

Listening to psychedelic music made me think of the notion of “guilty pleasures.” A few weeks ago I read Chuck Klostermann’s essay, “Not Guilty,” about that cliché. He thinks the notion “somehow dictates that … people should feel bad for liking things they sincerely enjoy.” A book like The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures assumes, without saying so, that there is a “universal taste” that we somehow violate if we like things such as gumball machines, or cheesy movies like Road House, or people like Evel Knievel. Although he distinguishes these kinds of “guilty pleasures” with those that are ‘technically’ guilty—having sex with strangers is his example–that is something different than simply enjoying everyday things that somehow aren’t as lofty as reading James Joyce (“Not Guilty,” in Chuck Klostermann IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 277-281.

I think we fall back on the notion of “guilty pleasures” because people can be “funny” and react disapprovingly to things that really don‘t matter to them. We don’t want to feel defensive. One time I saw a friend in a local grocery store, and I commented that I usually go to a different store (about the same distance from my house). “Why would you go there?” the friend said, as astonished as if I’d told him I was wearing dresses from now on. He was just in the habit of reacting strongly to things he didn’t immediately understand. There are, of course, many people like that.

Playing “In-a-Gadda-da-Vita” may be a guilty pleasure in the technical sense, if for instance a fire truck is approaching and you’re blasting the music and following the drum solo on the steering wheel! Otherwise, what fun to revisit some ol’ favorite music until one gets into the mood to listen to other things again.

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Old—really old—movies are so fascinating.  I’m just beginning to discover some of them as I flip through the weekly lineup on Turner Classic Movies.  I was going to write about the compelling new restoration of Metropolis, which I saw on TCM and then purchased on DVD, but not surprisingly I found good reviews online, like http://deepintomovies.blogspot.com/2010/07/film-review-metropolis-1927.html and http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=7652, plus Roger Ebert’s review at his website.

Recently, TCM showed the 1920 silent film Within Our Gates. I saw the end of this film a few years ago, as I was flipping through channels and came to a disturbing image of a black man being hanged. Eventually the channel showed the movie again and I got to see the whole story, which concerns a black woman trying to raise money for a school; but a man who loves her accidentally learns her shocking past.  To say this movie pushed the envelope in 1920 is an understatement. Writer Patrick McGilligan, in his biography of director Oscar Micheaux, writes “Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s most explicit rebuttal to D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation….Even the new title was a reference to the epigraph that introduced Griffith’s 1919 film, A Romance of Happy Valley: ‘Harm not the stranger/Within your gates/Lest you yourself be hurt.’…” (p. 137).  Here is an article about the film and filmmaker: http://www.albany.edu/jmmh/vol3/micheaux/micheaux.html

Coincidentally, the same week as TCM showed Within Our Gates, my daughter had to write a report about an 1800s play, “The Octoroon,” about a light-skinned black woman and a white man in love.  It seemed like a good time to get out McGilligan’s biography which I’d purchased but hadn’t yet read.  Micheaux (1884-1951) was the first African American to produce a full-length film; in fact, he also directed and wrote films as well as a few novels. Among Micheaux’s several films this is the earliest that has survived. McGilligan writes, “Micheaux was a unique storyteller, using film methods that were as idiosyncratic and modern-minded as anything being tried in Hollywood at that time. One of his unusual techniques was repeating scenes from different subjective viewpoints to reveal the crucial missing pieces of a puzzle.” In the case of this film, for instance, the killing of the landowner is twice shown, once to tell the basic story and again to show the truth about the killing (p. 142).

TCM has also shown The Symbol of the Unconquered from 1920. This films concerns a black man who owns land on which oil is discovered, but racists–including a black man who passes for white–try to intimidate him out of his land. “Micheaux’s central motif” in this story, as in other films, “was ‘passing,’ and the sexual tension that transpires between a man and a woman of seemingly different races torn by their love for each other.” Unfortunately the film is now incomplete and is missing compelling scenes, like the defeat of the Klan!  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a complete or nearly-complete copy could be found, similar to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a few years ago!  (Several of Micheaux’s films are no longer extant.)  But even in both the complete and fragmentary scenes of Symbol, McGilligan notes that one can see Micheaux’s knowledge of German Expressionist style and avant-garde film techniques (pp. 155-156).

Micheaux grew up in Metropolis, not Fritz Lang’s visionary city but the historic Illinois town near which I once lived.  That Metropolis honors Superman but I don’t know if it honors Micheaux, who nevertheless moved away when he was 20.  Micheaux isn’t so well known today but awareness of his work is growing, and he has become recognized as a pioneering figure. His films give us a truthful look at race relations of the early 20th century. In fact, Micheaux realized he was not going to get rich making provocative films with racial themes, often banned in certain parts of the county like the South, and yet he continued to churn them out, using favorite actors, financing his own efforts, and living a life of drama, showmanship, and conflict as he addressed censors and racial barriers.

McGilligan’s biography traces Micheaux’s interesting career and provides information about Micheaux’s lost and extant films. The author writes on page 3, “Indeed, Micheaux was the Jackie Robinson of American film. No, a Muhammad Ali decades before his time, a bragging black man running around with a camera and making audacious, artistic films of his own maverick style, at a time when racial inferiority in the United States was custom and law.”

(After I posted this short piece, I was alerted to this website:  http://www.staceengland.com)

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