Take the Pepper; Come Back for the Salt

 

 Evelyn sat behind the counter and watched as people passed by, never turning to look her way or stopping to explore the wonderful, quirky, lovely things she had in her little store. She had taken a great leap to open the little gift shop, a leap of faith–faith in the Almighty, in her own ability, and in her nephew Barney’s assurances.

“Aunt Evy,” he’d said, “you have taste and a discerning eye.  People will pay for that.”

This store, with its little stash of glowing inventory, had taken all of her savings.  She had left her job in the doctor’s office, and they quickly replaced her.  If this didn’t work, she would truly be in trouble.

“Wait,” Barney assured her. “Ride it out.  It takes a little time.”

But Evelyn didn’t think she had much time before the bottom crashed away, and she couldn’t sustain things any longer.  She needed a miracle–just a little miracle would be nice.  She needed shoppers–four or five a day would be fine, especially if they each spent thirty dollars.  She sighed and went back to get her dusting cloth.  At least she would, for sure, have the most immaculate shop in town.

************
Jorie was wiry and dark and unremarkable, not pretty, not ugly, not smart, not dumb.  I am completely UN-special, she thought. I’m so un-special that I’m invisible sometimes.

It was a complicated time at her house.  Her oldest sister, Mills, was pregnant–19 and pregnant, and hadn’t there been some screaming about that? Mills was the pretty one, all golden hair and blue eyes, and she was smart too.  She was in college studying to be a teacher, except that now she’d take some time off to have her baby.

She had married Danny and they were living at Jorie’s house, but just until the first of the year, and there was tight-lipped, silent disapproval seeping from her mother’s pores.

Mills acted unconcerned.  “Don’t you worry, Mother!” she’d snapped.  “I’ll finish my degree.  The college has a daycare.  I’m not going to be derailed.”

She said it like an accusation, like a taunt, to her mother, who had only had one semester of college before it became apparent Mills was on her way.  But, Jorie thought, her parents loved each other; they would have gotten married anyway.

And it was her mother’s choice, wasn’t it, to keep on having kids? Four years after Mills, there was Freddy, who was a sophomore now and had just discovered what he called the Wonderful World of Alcohol.  He stayed out late; he came home drunk; there was more screaming.

Jorie–Marjorie, really, but no one called her that, just like no one called Mills ‘Mildred’–came along four years after Freddy, and there was a bigger gap–almost six years–between her and Patrick, the baby. Patrick and Freddy had blue eyes and blond hair, too–Freddy’s kind of a dull and dirty blonde that he shaved close to his head.  Patrick had a nimbus of curls.

Between Mill’s pregnancy and Freddy’s partying and Patrick’s excessive cuteness, Jorie felt like there was only a narrow space for her.  She would be, she advised herself, smart to squeeze into the space available, shut up, and crouch beneath the radar.

Which she did, pretty well, but it got lonely sometimes.  Sometimes she wished her mother would just talk to her–just for 15 minutes a day or so.

She’d asked yesterday if she could help with the holiday baking, and her mother about snapped her head off.  “Just let me DO this, Marjorie!” she’d said.  “If you want to be helpful, go clean your room.”

That wasn’t right of Mom to say, because Jorie always kept her room neat, and she vacuumed it weekly.  She enjoyed dusting and rearranging her pictures and statues.  She made her bed, every day. She cleaned and straightened Patrick’s room, too.  She picked up the magazines in the living room, and she loaded the dishwasher.  She was learning to do her laundry and loved the feel and the smell of an iron in her hand, crisply pressing cotton cloth.

She DID help.  Mills and Freddy mocked her, mercilessly; Patrick accepted that Jorie was there to pick up after him.  Her mother kicked her out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t fair.

Her dad got home late, usually, at 6:30 or 7:00, always one to pick up overtime at the plant; by then Jorie would be in a chair with a book, and Dad would come in and just for a minute rest his hand on her head and smile down as she smiled up.  They were the dark ones in this fair-haired family. But Dad was handsome–distinguished, even, with his snapping eyes and high cheekbones and glossy mop of hair.

Jorie was just…unremarkable.

*********

After school on Wednesday, Mom was taking Mills to her OB/Gyn appointment, so Jorie had to walk over to pick up Patrick at his kindergarten class, which was in a separate school about a half mile from hers.  And he would be whiny and not want to walk home, so Jorie, who had three dollars saved, would take him through the little downtown, and they would stop at the coffee shop and share a coke.  That way, he’d shut up and not drag behind, bitterly resenting the lack of ride.

Patrick was out playing with two friends when Jorie got there; he left them reluctantly and opened his rosebud mouth to protest the walk home.  Jorie cut him off with a promise of the coffee shop.  Patrick clamped his little mouth shut, considered, and accepted the placation with a shrug.  He dragged his book bag behind him, and Jorie remonstrated; they wandered, bickering, into the little downtown area, until Jorie lifted her head, looked in a window and saw wonders.

It was a new little store; she’d never seen it before.  In the window was a display of music boxes and kaleidoscopes. Oh, Jorie loved kaleidoscopes.  Inside, she could see beautiful frothy clothes on a rack and little statues and doodads arranged enticingly on counters.

“Patrick,” she said.  “Patrick! Let’s go in here.”

************
Evelyn was dusting when the bell jangled, and hope surged and then faded.  It was children; she’d have to watch them.  She hurried behind the counter and kept a sharp eye.  They were whispering by the salt and pepper shaker display.

There was a great deal of low discussion, and then the little boy came over, a pepper shaker cupped in his chubby little hands. He looked up at her, enormous blue eyes shining, and he raised the little shaker toward her. It was a clever little owl.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “could I buy the pepper today and come back for the salt next week? ‘Cause I only have three dollars?”

His hair was a molten golden aura encircling his head.  He looks, thought Evy, like an angel, and her heart leapt. It seemed to her, suddenly, like a sign or a test, and of course she would let the little one take the pepper and come back for the salt.  She solemnly took his money, and handed him a clipboard. He printed his name carefully on the sheet of paper attached and handed it, equally solemnly, back to her.

“I won’t let anyone else buy the salt owl,” she promised.

“My mother loves owls,” he said, almost reverently, and he left, herded by another, bigger child. Blinded by all that blue and gold, Evy didn’t take much notice of the bigger one.

**************

That week, Jorie turned into an odd job whirligig.  She shined Dad’s shoes; she walked to the store for Mills.  She vacuumed Danny’s car and she folded laundry.  She earned a quarter here and fifty cents there.

She told Mills about the little store and Mills went down and did some Christmas shopping.  Mills saw a necklace she liked and she hinted broadly to Danny, who went down with his mother and bought the necklace.  His mom got a few little things, too.  Jorie told the kids at school about the store and some of them went in to get gifts for their moms, or to buy one of the homemade suckers in a pail by the counter.

By Thursday, she had the money they needed. Patrick had a play date, so Jorie went into the store alone.

***************

Evy looked up at the thin, dark child standing in front of the counter.  “You want what?” she asked.

“The owl,” said Jorie, “the salt owl.  For my mother. She loves owls.”

“Sorry,” said Evy, sharply. “Not for sale.”

Barney looked up at her hard tone, folded up his paper and stood.  He smiled over the counter at Jorie, who had frozen in shock.

“But I was HERE,” said Jorie. “I was here with my brother, Patrick.  He wrote down his name and you gave him the pepper and said we could come back for the salt.” Jorie’s eyes glazed over, and Evy realized: this was the darker, bigger child.

“Oh, darling,” she said.  “I am sorry.  I didn’t see you that day.”

“I’m know,” Jorie whispered, apologetic. “I’m not especially stand out-ish.”

“Oh, darling,” whispered Evy again, and she shook her head clear of its cobwebs. “I’m going to get you a special box and a gift card. You wait right here.”

She went into the cluttered little back room and sorted through boxes, and she could hear  Barney’s rumble and the child answering him, stumbling a little at first and then being drawn into the conversation.  Their voices rose and fell. Evy found the box and a little Christmas gift tag with a beribboned owl smiling up from it, and she took them out to Jorie.

She took the shaker down from its shelf and nestled it in tissue.

“See how I did that?” she asked, and Jorie nodded.  “Well,” said Evy, “here’s another piece of tissue for the pepper.  And if you need help, you just bring it back.”

Jorie’s face was shining now, and Evy saw how her dark eyes snapped, and, with that blush creeping up under her skin, how pretty she would be.  “Oh,” she said impulsively to the girl, “oh, with that complexion and those eyes,–you’re going to be so lovely.”

Jorie’s eyes opened in shock and she hugged the bag Evy gave her tight to her chest.  At the door she remembered her manners and turned to thank them and say goodbye.

“Come in any time you’re bored,” said Barney, “and you can help me grade papers.” Barney taught second grade and was always co-opting help with the endless math sheets.

When Jorie left, he turned to Evy. “She’s been sending you business,” he said.
**************
Jorie didn’t expect much that year, but it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.  Her Dad and Danny decided they would do all the cooking and cleanup and they spent the whole day, Christmas Eve, simmering up spaghetti sauce and making meatballs.  Mom disappeared upstairs to do her wrapping, and Mills, after she threw up twice in the morning, ran around humming and grinning.  Freddy didn’t go out with his friends at all, and he went to midnight Mass with Dad and Jorie.  Mom stayed home with Patrick, who couldn’t sit still that long or that late.

The next morning there was a ton of presents.  Danny and Mills got her a necklace with a real diamond, and Dad got her books.  Her mother got her a cookbook and her own cooking things–wooden spoons and pans and a little electric beater, and she said they would make cream puffs the day after Christmas.

Freddy got tons of clothes and Patrick tore and jumped and threw wrapping and got his new toys out right away, right in the middle of the wrapping paper mess.

There was a very dewy moment when Mills pulled the paper off a big package and discovered Grandma’s christening gown.  All four of them had been baptized in it; years before, Mom had been baptized in it.  Now Mills and Danny’s baby could be too. Mills gulped out a thank you and hugged Mom for a long time, and even Dad had snail tracks on his cheeks.

*********
When Mom opened the pretty  box, she stared down at the little owls, and her hands stopped, fingers splayed, frozen, for a minute, in the air.
 
 
“They’re beautiful,” she said, a little gruff. Patrick jumped up and down on a pile of gift wrap, grinning. “Let’s,” Mom said to Jorie, “go fill them up.”
 
 
“Don’t we have to wash them?” asked Jorie, shocked.
 
 
“I can’t wait that long to use them,” Mom said. In the kitchen, she added, “I know who did all the work to get these, Missy.”
 

 *********

She saw me, Jorie thought.

**********
On the 27th, Evy made a little clearance display of Christmas doo-dads; they were gone within the day.

“I’ll actually have to come in early to dust,” she said to Barney, who’d arrived to take her out to dinner. “I didn’t have time today.”  She thought about Jorie and Patrick, and how the day they’d come in had been the last frozen day; after that, the ice thawed and things started flowing.

She put her hand on Barney’s camel-hair-coated arm and she laughed. “I thought the angel was Patrick, with those curls and those eyes, but it was Jorie all along.  I’ll look closer next time.”

“Not,” she added after a pause, “that Patrick isn’t a sweet little guy.”

It had been a nice Christmas, Evy thought, and she had a small but steady stream of customers coming back.  And she was having dinner with her favorite nephew, at the Chinese place they both loved.  She gotten what she’d asked for: just a little miracle.

********

Just a little miracle, and it had been quite enough.
*********
My blogging friend Jodi posted a wonderful, real-life photo of a little Christmas angel just recently—our thoughts were on that same kind of Christmas innocence! 
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Summer Possibles

The door to summer opens, and letters, messages, arrive… Ah, delight: there is company coming.

They survey the guest area–a pull out couch in the living room. The room has three entries; the back two can be shuttered with louvered doors, but the large front arch, the entry by the foyer, is too big for a traditional door.  When people stay overnight, they hang a curtain there from a spring tension rod.  The dog walks underneath it and jumps onto the pulled out bed. People cut through, saying, “Oh, SORRY!” when chastised.

Sometimes the guests sleep there; sometimes they put the guests in the master and sleep there themselves.  The common space shrinks to the family room.  It’s awkward, at best.

She wonders…  They go upstairs and stand in the doorway of her little box room, which is filled with craft items and boxes, photos and gifties, frames and wrapping paper and spools of silky ribbon.  A tiny room.  A room with no door.

Could we, she speculates, hang one of those barn door hardware contraptions? He backs in to the room, looks at the doorway, pulls out a measuring tape.

He searches the internet for the hardware.

“Yarrrgh!” he says, “expensive!”  But then he locates a set for less than a third of what the big box stores charge.  He places the order.

They pack all the crafty stuff into plastic bins and move them to the basement.  The dusty curtains go down the laundry chute.  She pulls out the vacuum and sucks up dust and tiny shreds of paper.  They dismantle a heavy old wooden table and lug it, in pieces, down to join the bins.

She finds a black iron day bed for seventy dollars; he puts it together. It fits snugly into the alcove formed by the dormer window. They search the ads for deals and find a mattress on sale at a discount store.  When they arrive to pick it up, they discover everything’s on sale, and there’s an extra discount with their member card.  They buy a bucket chair, a tiny dresser, a bedside table.

He and the boy go out to the garage and clean.  In the process, they uncover an old wooden door.  They set up a workshop,—sawhorses, electric sander. He sands the door smooth, paints it a soft, shining white.  The hardware arrives and he drags it and the door upstairs, mounts the black brackets, hangs the door.  The door looks perfect.

The new guest room is a tiny, pretty, welcoming gem.

Well, it’s summer, they think.  It feels like anything is possible.

She begins walking again, at night, feeling the stretch in her legs; her IPod cranks out Leonard Cohen and she catches herself marching and singing along. She smiles at passersby–the whippet-thin running woman whose ponytail pounds from shoulder to shoulder, the acrobatic biking boys who stand to charge up a long curved hilly drive. Their payoff is the thrilling return trip, navigating the downhill curves, wind riffling their short, hot-weather hair.  They zoom out onto the sidewalk, grinning, wheel around, pedal up the energy to try it again.

She thinks at first she’s crazy to try, too tired, old, and crazy to pedal up her own energy;  but soon she is walking three miles a night.

On Tuesdays, she brings big bags of fresh, local veggies home from work; they spread them out and scrutinize. Can we eat all this? they wonder. Then they begin to see recipes everywhere they turn.  They chop and blanch and freeze; they  stir together Italian wedding soup with homemade chicken broth, fresh chopped kale, tiny orzo noodles. Instead of of meatballs, they brown Italian sausage, brought back special from western New York. It is tangy and pungent; they crumble it up into the soup, eat big bowls with crusty bread from an Italian baker, and freeze containers to take for lunch.

They grill veggies and saute them; they bake chicken with summer squash and carrots.  They make dips and pesto. New recipes: why not?  They discover new favorites.

They plant basil seeds in egg cartons on the sun porch; the seeds sprout and thrive and then two desperately hot days cook their sad little stems.  She goes out and buys established plants–basil and rosemary.  They put them in the kitchen sink garden outside the kitchen door. Why not, he says, dump that good dirt from the egg cartons into the sink?

Great idea, she agrees, and sprinkles the rich black soil around the herbs.

Within days, he notices little seedlings  sprouting.  Something tells them to let those little plants be, and the seedlings get bigger and stronger.  She spicks a leaf off, rubs it between finger and thumb, sniffs.  Basil!  All the seeds they’d thought were dead come happily back to life in the rich moist dirt, the friendly sun, protected in the ell of the house from wind and storm.

Their spaghetti sauce tastes like the sun, with fresh basil and rosemary, tomatoes picked that morning at the farm down the way. It’s summer, and the time and the possibilities–even healthy plants growing from zapped seeds–seem endless.

Wendy comes to take the guest room for its maiden flight; she deems it a cozy place to sleep and read.  They take her, all three of them, on a lazy ride down the river on the paddlewheeler Lorena.  Fanned on the upper deck by river breezes, they hungrily dig into a light and lovely lettuce salad, and they fork up prime rib that cuts like butter as they chug smoothly north for an hour. They lazily eat chocolate peanut butter pie and drink hot black coffee as the Lorena turns to head home.  Children run along the riverbanks, yelling and following them. Big tough tattooed men lean out of party barges to pump their arms in the ageless signal children send to semi drivers: HONK!  PLease HONK!

The captain, a quiet, white-haired gentleman in a nautical cap, grins and obliges, pulling the long loud honking foghorn over and over.  Women, waving the hands that don’t hold clinking drinks, lounge in canvas chairs carried to the water’s edge. A storm threatens, but, of course, does not materialize. It is summer, and threats subside.

Some days she walks early and late. She loves to walk by a neighbor’s gaudy flowering shrub. Its blossoms are bigger than dessert plates, pleated and pretty with clear true colors, full and grinning in the early morning sun.

At night, the flowers curl in on themselves, as if exhausted by their boisterous, flamboyant display.  They look, he says, like hand-rolled cigars.

They walk through the Gardens around the corner; they marvel at the lily pads with their waxy blooms, exuberant in the pond where the waterfall plashes.

Some Sunday nights, a loosely woven orchestra plays in the bandshell; the group struggles gamely with complicated compositions but comes out strong with John Phillip Sousa. They clap and stamp along with the crowd, a range-y crowd with children zipping in dizzyingly circles, elders whose worn and spotted hands beat time on the metal arms of their folding lawn chairs, a cluster of black clad young people, whose cool is betrayed by feet that can’t help tapping. They people-watch and imagine unconventional matches–the crisp-cut young man, the languid and pretty young Goth.  Why not?  They’d be good for each other, maybe, they agree, and it’s summer, after all–a time for taking chances. It’s a time when it’s possible the chances will bear fruit.

But there is the chance too of the evening phone call: Are you sitting down? says the well-loved voice on the other end,–or, Call me as soon as you get this, urges the message.  These events, too, sneak into summer possibles–the ones that throw them heavily onto the bench, trying hard not to believe the messenger.

But he wasn’t SICK, he says.  He was planning a visit in two weeks.

No, she argues, he was too young.

They sit outside as the sky darkens; the birds get raucous, then grow quiet. All kinds of things, they accept sadly, are possible.

They remember by planting trees that stretch skyward and strengthen; flowers burgeon and tales of life and seasons play out in front of them.  It is a time, for them, of growth and joy, but they know,–they have the sorrowful evidence–that the pedal always turns.

They get ready for a visit from their beautiful young granddaughter, standing on the brink of so many possibilities. Her gentle hands will welcome sassy Max, the neighborhood cat, settle the antsy dog into summer slumbers.  They will go to the Zoo; they will tour the Wilds.  They’ll have wonderful meals and long walks and conversations of re-discovery.

Summer rolls up its hill, hovers for a moment at the peak, and begins to descend.  There is more glamor and flash ahead, but mothers are beginning to dream of children back in school.  The ads come out–tablets for a quarter, folders for a dime.  The first leaves on the spring-flowering tree by the kitchen window turn vividly red and flutter.

On Saturday nights, they fall asleep to the strident voice and the insistent bass of the band that plays at the bar down by the river;  the chorus of young voices rise and eddy.  It is summer yet, summer with its promise and its insistent push–you dare not rest; you must keep moving. The journey is often joyful and sometimes culls forth a wrenching loss.

They will sit outside and light a fire, sipping drinks and talking softly; they will welcome visitors to that pretty little room. They have, now, years enough on the planet to know not to fight time and flail against fate; summer will wane, and autumn will blazen. They will cosset their joys and remember their losses, and even in the midst of hard-earned wisdom, feel that little leap, that firm little flicker.

It is summer; they know what they know. Yet somehow, anyway, in the cool quiet of the night, in the friendly flicker of the fire, they still believe it’s true: anything could be possible.