The Little Store
Edward H. Garcia
Edward H. Garcia
Edward H. Garcia is retired from teaching composition, literature, and creative writing in the Dallas County Community College District. He has published many reviews and articles in The Dallas Morning News and other publications, including The Texas Observer, The Texas Humanist, Pawn Review, Texas Books in Review, ¡Tex!, County Line Magazine, and Southwest Historical Quarterly. He is represented in Texas in Poetry 2, Texas Short Stories 2, Literary Dallas, and in two anthologies of writing by DCCCD faculty and staff, Out of Dallas and Voices from Within. Some of his poems have been translated into Albanian and published in an anthology of American poetry: Poezia: bashkekohore amerikane. He lives on the upper east side of Texas with his wife Rica.
The store grew, in a sense, out of Edward's habit of mind, inherited one way or another from his father, of expecting the worst. More than that, there was that impulse to warn that he had been so unsuccessful with. In all the years of teaching at St. I______, he wasn't sure that a boy had ever listened to him, taken his warnings seriously. He would quote Housman—quaint they must have thought—"Luck's a chance but trouble's sure," but they only took notes because it was the kind of school where you took notes and grades were important and quaint teachers were to be humored. But they never took note.
It was too late now. He had been given the infamous Orrefors bowl and the clock, presumably to fill his empty life with little tick, tick, ticks. The clock and bowl, boxed, were in his study closet. Edward had to admit that his life could use some filling up. So the circumstance of his retirement—he couldn't shake the feeling that they were glad to see him go—also contributed to the idea of the little store. It came to him in a flash just what the message would be. He didn't think the money would be a problem. He could find a suitable place for the store in one of the small towns nearby. The more run down the better. It was the rest that worried him. He wasn't sure he could strike just the right note to suit his purpose. But that, he told himself, was the challenge. He remembered a woman who had talked to him about getting out of his "comfort zone." He could not quite forgive her for saying, however sincerely, "comfort zone" and "outside the box" and "affective domain." But he had been a little in love with her, not leave-your-wife in love, but for-the-duration-of-the-retreat in love. It had gone no further than sitting side by side at night by the pool, shoulders just touching. It wouldn't have hurt to try to go further, but he didn't. Adultery was outside his comfort zone that particular weekend.
Edward interrupted contemplation of his plans for the little store to wonder about her. He had her first name down to either "Eileen" or "Elaine." He was pretty sure it was Elaine. He remembered vividly, on the other hand, the curve of her neck, the auburn of her hair, the way her breasts pushed and sagged against her sweater. That was years before cleavage, he thought ruefully. She would be his age, which was ok then but perhaps not now. Now that he was free. What a ridiculous formulation. Now that he was whatever he was, would it be worth the trouble to look up Elaine (or Eileen—maybe it was Eileen) or email her? He did email. If he could remember her last name, assuming she hadn't changed it, and if she had the faintest idea who he was, she would still be as old as he was, so what would be the point of that? He remembered Dickens and his great love, meeting after all those years, Dickens appalled by the frivolous frump she had become. He could have told Dickens, "Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure." Except that it hadn't been written yet.
The search for the little store was one of Edward's solitary pleasures. He explored the three- and four-digit roads around his East Texas home. The higher the number, he observed, the smaller the road. He was looking for a combination of characteristics which he didn't articulate even to himself. He would know it when he saw it. There would be time then to analyze and to verify his intuition, but he knew it wouldn't be necessary. When he saw it, he would know.
Edward imagined a young couple in their early thirties. He would be called Joe, Joey to his mother and his wife. Joey would work with his hands, skilled and honest, hardworking, but shy. Amanda, Mandy, said he never knew his own worth. He let other people push him around, his father, his boss. But she was the same. She could be strong for him, but not for herself. They had married soon after high school and had two children. Two boys: Reese, 7, and Jake, 5. After the boys there had been a miscarriage, a girl, and the doctor had said it would be better not to try again. The birth control pills were expensive, but Joey knew you could afford what you had to afford. Now a boat and a new truck, those he couldn't afford, but he didn't mind all that much. Mandy worked as an aide at the school her boys attended. She helped with bulletin boards and crafts for the children. One of her prized possessions was a "wedding box" Joey had made and surprised her with on their anniversary. He was handy with wood, and he had taken some extra wood from the job, maple left over from some new cabinets—the boss said it was ok—and made a shadow box with a Plexiglas front. In it he sealed the invitation, the program open to show the order of service, the garter Mandy wore, the flower he wore in his lapel, a matchbook from the hotel where they stayed on their honeymoon, and a post card they had sent her folks from Padre Island. Joey had arranged them on a felt background to tell the story of their wedding, and he had sealed it because, as he told her, "This is permanent." It had pleased him that she cried and cried when she unwrapped it and wanted him to hold her.
As Edward drove around the back roads of East Texas, he began to see the necessity of having a witness. He could imagine the effect of his little store, but how much sweeter would it be to take someone actually to see it. He began to think more and more of Elaine. He would start slowly; there was much to be done before he would need her. Still, it might take a while to find her. He wasn't sure of her first name and couldn't remember at all her last name. Something vaguely English or Irish? It would be in the file from the retreat if he could find it. He still had a room full of boxes from the move to the country. He would open the door and stare at them from time to time, and he had looked through boxes for papers around tax time, but had given up and taken the standard deduction. There were ten or twelve boxes he'd packed from his school office. The file would be there. How long could it take?
Joey and Mandy dreamed of a little independence. Whenever they bought a lottery ticket—which was not very often, unlike some of the men Joey worked with—they would let themselves dream a little about what they could buy for the children, a new truck, a new bedroom suite and curtains. Mandy would pledge to give 10 % to their church; Joey would kid with her: "Is that before taxes or after?" But he really thought it would be a fine idea to be able to put a big check in the collection plate, a cashier's check, and they'd wonder where it came from and he wouldn't tell. Mandy would always say, when they didn't win, "Well, the Lord must have had other plans for that money." Still, she wished they could have a little bit nicer house and she could stay home with the kids, and maybe they could go on a family vacation to Six Flags or Sea World.
It was in a very small town by the name of Earl White that Edward found his store. It was hardly more than a shed with a slanted roof, but it had a door with a place for a sign and a room full of shelves, dusty and empty now. It needed painting, but it had the look of having been neatly and colorfully painted not so long before. Edward couldn't tell what the last business there had been, but an old man who sat outside the feed store down the block said it had been a hair cut place most recently and before that a movie store. "What'd they call that hair place?" the old man had called back through the feed store's screen door. A woman's voice called back, "Don't you remember? 'The Mane Event.' You made fun of it enough." The old man had smiled and shaken his head. "What kind of a damn-fooled name is that for a beauty shop?"
Given the state of Earl White real estate, Edward was able to buy the store outright. He figured once he was done with it, he could rent it out. Maybe he would never be done with it. He spent a weekend cleaning it up, carrying out the used cans of hair spray and the packages of dye and permanents. He remembered the smell of home permanents from his childhood. He recalled a scene with the blurry vagueness of a dream. He was with his mother, visiting friends in what seemed to him a mansion not far from his house. He must have been four or five, not yet in school, tagging along with his mother, listening to the gossip. There are two or three girls, teenagers, in shorts and bras, not bothering to cover themselves around him, their hair pinned up, reeking of that home permanent smell. He was a little boy who was still taken into the women's bathroom with his mother. Still, he had a sense of seeing something forbidden, and the girls giggled in complicity.
He didn't paint or dust, but he cleared out the shelves to prepare for Joey and Mandy's business, whatever it turned out to be.
For Joey and Mandy, the inspiration came from an unlikely source—late night television, after the talk shows. Joey was up after Mandy had gone to bed, nursing a beer to help him get to sleep, running through the channels, over and over, when he stopped on an infomercial for a company that helped people get into business selling things at flea markets and on the Internet. Joey usually shied away from stuff about the Internet, but this time the man talking was a famous actor that Joey remembered from television when he was a kid, and it sounded like anyone could do it. Joey had seen programs about making money in real estate and one with a man who said he had become rich by placing "tiny little ads" in newspapers, but he didn't believe them. It was probably a lot more complicated that they made it look. But the program with the famous actor was about selling things that people might really buy—figurines and paintings and boxes. It seemed to him that it was just the kind of stuff that Mandy and her mom would moon over at the flea markets. The man said that you could buy the stuff for maybe five dollars and sell it for fifteen or more, and you could do it with catalogues or at flea markets or even open a store. Joey wasn't stupid. He knew they were in business to make money for themselves, not for you, but the way they explained it, there wasn't a lot to lose. You could start with $25 and then, like the guy they interviewed, you could maybe quit your job and buy a boat and move out of the trailer. He wrote down the 1-800 number and decided he would talk it over with Mandy.
It was in the third box from the last of papers that Edward went through that he found the file he had kept from the retreat. He had been feeling a little lonely, not as self-sufficient as he had imagined. Almost nothing in the file looked familiar—there were pages of free writing in his handwriting or a younger version of his handwriting. He could barely make them out. He had apparently felt strongly about whatever the retreat was about or was pretending to feel strongly, but after twenty years, it was terribly vague. He felt a little embarrassed about his own past sincerity. Who was that guy?
He found the list of participants; there was no Elaine or Eileen. There was a Helena. Helena Hirsch. Apparently, she had introduced herself as "divorced" because he had made a note of it. He remembered she had long brown hair, down to the shoulders, and his notes confirmed that. He had drawn a long, open backward "S" next to her name. He remembered then that she had pronounced her name for the group, "He-lee-na, not like the capitol of Montana." When it came his turn, he, going for charming, had said, "My name is Pierre, like the capitol of South Dakota." She had called him Pierre once or twice, their little joke.
Mandy was excited but skeptical when Joey presented her with the idea of starting their own store and maybe even having a web site on the Internet. Joey thought it would be a good idea for Mandy to make the call. "You're better with people," he told her. She was a little afraid, too, but agreed. She said she would call in the morning, after the kids had gone to school. She didn't sleep very well that night. She didn't exactly dream about the call, more like grinding on it, half asleep and half awake. What would they do with the money they might make? What if they lost money? What if they tried to talk her into something, to sending them money? She wasn't going to let that happen. She was just finding out, she would make that clear to them, like it or lump it. In the morning she realized she must have slept some because she didn't feel so bad, not like she hadn't slept at all, which had been her sense of it.
Mandy got a tablet from the school supply drawer and a ballpoint pen and put them on the table next to the phone. She looked at the torn off sheet from the TV Guide where Joey had written the number. Here goes nothing she thought as she picked up the telephone.
Edward sat with his finger poised above the mouse and read over for the fifth time, at least, his email to Helena. He had spent the better part of the morning considering what he would say. He felt ridiculous. Why had this suddenly become so important to him? His first "draft" had begun, "You probably don't remember me." Then, "I was looking through some old papers, and I ran across your name . . ." Then, "I know this is out of the blue, but . . ." Then, "I had a dream last night . . ." No, that wouldn't do. "Are you the Helena . . ."
I was thinking about something being out of my "comfort zone," and my mind turned to that workshop where they talked so much about comfort zones and to you, much the most pleasant part of the workshop, as I remember it. It got me to thinking about what you might be doing. My life has changed quite a bit recently—I'm retired from my school and widowed and have moved into the country. That's probably enough points for a heart attack at least, but I'm actually doing well. By now, you might be wondering who in the hell I am. My name is Edward Fennell, Pierre to my closest friends. I won't go on and on, just in case this doesn't get to you or it's already scared you or you're married or something. You'll write back, I hope.
He clicked "send" and put it out of his mind the best he could.
Before Joey and Mandy had even gotten the material in the mail from the company, they began getting phone calls, offering them a special deal if they signed now, and they couldn't afford not to. Joey didn't much like talking on the phone, and he for sure didn't like some salesman trying to bully him into signing up for anything. He tried to be polite and tell the man he would think about it when the material came in the mail, but the man kept at him in a not very friendly way. Finally, Joey told him, "Well, mister, that's not the way we talk to people around here. I'm going to hang up." And he did. Mandy seemed disappointed, but he told her they could still do it, just on their own timetable. He felt sort of proud of himself for having stood up, and he was pretty sure Mandy was, too.
When the material finally came in the mail, Mandy read it over carefully, marking different parts of the brochure with a highlighter, and put it aside to talk to Joey after supper and the kids were down. It had been Joey's idea, but he found himself drifting away from it. He knew he was being "like your father," his mother would have said. Passive, wanting to leave the things that were ok alone, not go for something you probably wouldn't get anyway. But now Mandy was charged up about their being their own bosses. She hadn't even seen the infomercial, but she had been hooked by the idea. And in the brochure all different kinds of people were shown; they'd all changed their lives working part-time but making a full-time income. They wouldn't start with the Internet. After they'd made enough money to get a computer—the kids knew all about them from school—after they got a little ahead, they'd get a computer and start making even more. She'd talked to her mother about it, and her brother had piped in that the big money was in the Internet, not in flea markets.
The brochure said it would be fun for the whole family, but she wasn't so sure about the kind of people who sell at flea markets. A lot of them are nice, she thought and her mom had agreed, but some of them might not be the kind of people you'd want your kids around. It was Joey who came up with the solution. They could start in a little store with a few items and their catalogues. There was one for rent in town—it couldn't be much—and they could fix it up, and then on the weekend they could open up and sell the products like the picnic basket that sold for 50 bucks but which you paid 17 bucks for or the statue of dolphins that you bought for 10 bucks and sold for 30. They'd just have to sell three or four items a weekend to make the rent. "Then it'll be all profit, and we can start living like other people. Mom and I can make crafts and sell them, and you could take orders for wedding boxes!" Mandy's eyes were shining with excitement. It sounded good to Joey, too, not having to be on the job at seven in the morning or the boss would get on your ass. He was a good worker and people liked hiring him, but still it would be sweet to be the boss.
Joey knew he would go along with it for Mandy, seeing how excited she was, but he asked her to take a couple of days and look at the store and put pencil to paper and make sure they could afford it. "We can. We can," she said hugging him. She knew she'd talked him into it, and he'd say yes in a couple of days or sooner.
Helena Hirsch did write back and very soon. Except that she had a new married name, Rodriguez, which she kept because, she told him, it would be too much trouble to change it and besides Rodriguez was marginally nicer than Hirsch and she liked his kids. "Which is to say," the email went on, "I am currently single and not at all scared of you unless you are not the guy I'm thinking of but some other really creepy guy and even that would be a story to tell." They emailed back and forth in the next few days and agreed to meet the next time he was in town, which happened to be two days later. After the last email confirming the meeting, Edward wondered what he had just done. It could be the most painful noon of his life; it might scar him for what was left of his life. Still, he liked her voice, her writing voice. She seemed sexy to him and smart. That should be enough, but what did she look like? He was getting way ahead of himself, he knew, but he found himself paying a bit more attention to getting dressed than he had done since his wife died, trying not to get his hopes up too much.
They were to meet in a chain bookstore coffee shop. Edward figured, at worst, he'd get to spend some time browsing. He didn't much buy books any more, having passed the time some years before when he had figured it would be impossible to read the books he already owned, but he enjoyed the heft and smell of books, and the place gave a bookish, professorial air to the meeting. It was what he was going for with the jeans, buttoned-down collar shirt, and leather bomber jacket he had picked out. He was early. He could have driven around the parking lot, but that would be silly. He could have sat in his parked car, but that would look pathetic if she happened to see him, not that she would recognize him. Instead he walked casually (he hoped) into the store, glancing only for a second at his casual appearance reflected in the mirror. He thought he looked old but ok.
As he had known he would, Joey told Mandy they could do it. She squealed and grabbed him around the neck, and then asked him, "Are you sure? Because I don't want to push you into it." He didn't like it when she did that, pushing him and then wanting him to take responsibility, but probably it wasn't that big a deal. He would be glad to take the blame, if it came to that. Things didn't bother him the way they bothered her, and besides, it was what a man did. He took care of his family. He shouldered the blame when necessary.
Joey left most of the planning to Mandy. They had decided they would rent a little store. Mandy would clean it up and paint; Joey would make the sign and put it up. They would order maybe twenty of the products from the company and then fill in with things they made themselves. Mandy and her mom had lots of ideas for crafts. "We can sew up some little tortilla holders in bright colors and sell them to the Mexican people. There's more and more of them around," her mom had said. Mandy didn't say anything, but she thought they probably didn't like to be called "Mexicans." She thought they liked "Latin people" better. Mandy agreed that would be a good idea. She also moved the shadow box Joey had made her to the store and made a sign saying that he would make one of them for YOU. She asked Joey what he thought the "price point" should be. He had no idea what she was talking about and told her so. "It's what you charge for something. I saw it on the Trump show."
The most fun and the scariest part was picking out stuff from the company's catalogue. Most of it she would have been glad to have in her house, like the cross and angel statue and the glass butterfly. Some were gorgeous but not to her taste. Joey liked the big dragon statue but had to admit he wouldn't actually buy it if he saw it in a store. Still, it looked like it was worth every bit of the $100 they said it would sell for.
After they sent in the papers for the membership, they began thinking about what a good name would be for the store. Maybe their business coach could help them with that, but they wanted it to be all their own. They didn't even ask Mandy's mom to help. Joey liked the idea of having "Mandy" in the name; Mandy wanted "Joey and Mandy" in it. Joey thought it wasn't a very manly thing to have your name on a store that sold figurines and tortilla cozies. He thought of his buddies at work and insisted it should just have "Mandy" in it.
"Mandy's Country Boutique" was the name they decided on. Mandy thought it sounded down-home and sophisticated at the same time; Joey was just glad it wasn't called "Joey's Country Boutique." She set about working on the sign; he made a wooden frame with two eye hooks on the top for mounting.
Edward hesitated at the entrance of the bookstore coffee shop and looked around. She didn't seem to be there. He could go ahead and order his green tea and sit, facing the door or playing it cool, facing away from the door. Or he could just take a seat and order with her when she came in. Would he look forlorn sitting alone without a drink in front of him? He should bring in something to read. But what? "Fuck this," he said under his breath and turned to find himself facing a woman in jeans, a v-necked top, and a linen jacket in a neutral color. She was trim and the look was casual but perhaps studied. For a second he thought she, too, might have spent some time dressing.
"Edward?" Her voice was low, and she looked and sounded amused. "Fuck what?"
"You seemed to say something about fucking something. I was just wondering." She smiled.
"I guess fuck being Prufrock." He looked at her and she looked back. "Do you want to order something?" He gestured toward the counter.
After they had gotten their drinks—a latte for her, green tea for him—they sat down at a corner table and, after a moment, she asked. "So what were you feeling all "Prufrock" about?"
He hesitated. "Pretty much everything about this meeting. What to wear, what to order, how to be." She reddened.
"That's pretty much jumping into the middle of the pool with your clothes on."
"I considered not saying that, but then I thought . . ."
"Yeah, pretty much."
He had expected, after all, for her to be a disappointment. Perhaps he had counted on it. She would be fat or fatuous, religious, prudish, a Republican, a smoker. He would say to himself, "See, it isn't going to work. It's never going to work from now on." And he found himself liking her immensely, in a so-far-so-good way. She felt familiar to him, not the Helena of old whom he really barely remembered, but someone new he wasn't bored to talk to. He was bored talking to himself, but this woman, his age or nearly so, grey in her hair, lines around her eyes, the flesh of her neck wrinkled, interested him. And that surprised him.
By the end of two hours, he had told her more of his story than he had intended. He had made the usual revelations he was used to making—a calculated intimacy—his distant father, impossible to please, his dreary first marriage, his struggles with self-esteem and body image. He could recite them without much hesitation to anyone, to just about any group. But he found himself in unfamiliar territory—his second wife's illness, how when people told him how terrible it must be for him, the Alzheimer's, he had wanted to tell them, but didn't, that it was more odd than terrible. Interesting, in a way. He admitted to Helena that he might have been protecting himself, being clinical, but he didn't think so. He had quit dreaming for a time. Perhaps that meant something. He wasn't very introspective, he admitted to her, or very interesting. She didn't try to talk him out of any of it; she just listened and in turn told him about her marriages, what she had been doing in the years since their meeting. He couldn't tell if she too had revealed more than usual, more than she had intended.
She looked finally at her watch and said she really had to be someplace soon, "Late already." When would he be back in town? "The next time I have a good reason to be," he answered. She smiled at that. "You have my email address," she said. "I'd like it if you wanted to see me next time."
"I already know I will," he said, and then they hugged goodbye. He was aware of her breasts and of the narrowness of her shoulders. She pulled away, looked at him, and smiled, and then she was heading out of the door without looking back. Edward was standing there looking at her as she left, not sure what he wanted to do next.
Mandy wasn't entirely satisfied with the sign Joey painted. She didn't tell him so, but it didn't look very professional to her. It had all the information and it was spelled right, but it was very plain and the edges of the letters looked a little fuzzy. She knew Joey did the best he could, but he wasn't a sign painter. She could live with it, though, until things got going. When their "cash flow" improved, it would be time to invest in a new sign. She had a moment's catch in her heart when it ran across her mind that she was a lot more comfortable with business than Joey was, that she might outgrow him, eventually. She had a better head for things like "price point" and "cash flow" than he did. Maybe this was what she was naturally meant to do, like the lady with the pink Cadillacs. There she went again—scaring herself with dreams about stuff that would probably never happen.
She put down the first month's rent on the little store and made the order to the company. She got together all the crafts she and her mom had done over the last six months and Joey's anniversary shadow box with a little handwritten sign saying that Mandy's Country Boutique would custom make one for "your special memoirs." She liked the idea of "custom made" merchandise. Someday that might be more profitable than the figurines and things she had bought to resell. Joey put up the big sign over their door and made extra shelves for the merchandise. She got little, round colored stickers for prices. She would have them all memorized, but she thought it would look more professional if everything had a price tag attached. And if it were Joey or her mother—or someday, knock on wood, the kids—they might not know the prices as well as she did.
The whole week before the official grand opening Mandy hardly slept at all. There wasn't that much to do, but her nights were full of extravagant fantasies of success and of failure. She would be featured in one of the company's television commercials—she and Joey—filmed in their mountain retreat in Colorado as they went out to the mailbox to find all the checks they'd received. "As much as $30,000 a month," she would tell the host, a pretty woman in a tight dress, and the woman would ask, "Thirty thousand dollars a month, not a year?" and she would nod and smile and say, "A month." And then she would have a dead feeling in her stomach. Why had they thought their lives could be different? Why had they risked what little they had on a pipe dream? Then she would be back to being interviewed by Oprah.
Mandy made signs on the computer at the school: "Mandy's Country Boutique" on the top line and "Grand Opening" in larger letters on the second line. She printed a bunch of copies and glued them to cardboard from the boxes the merchandise came in, and Joey attached them to wooden stakes and helped her put them up and down the road on a Saturday morning in early spring in Earl White, Texas.
Edward waited a couple of days before he emailed. Could she come out to the country to see his place? He'd give her "the Tour." He'd send her a map or he could meet her in some public place. She had said she liked "diner food," so he might ask her to meet him for lunch at the Wood Shed in Earl White. Then they could walk around the little town and drop by Mandy's. He had not thought he would get a chance to see the reactions to the little store, but here an opportunity had fallen into his lap. Suddenly, it all seemed silly. What if she didn't even notice? He'd gotten some strange looks when he was putting up the sign and then the notice, but nobody bothered anybody much in Earl White. They probably thought he was just another one of those eccentric city fellas.
Helena's email bounced right back: yes, she would like to meet him at the Wood Shed—she'd heard of it and was eager to try the chicken fried chicken. Yes, she would come see his place. Noon on Saturday would be fine. So maybe, he thought, she liked me and I didn't look so old and didn't natter on the way I was afraid I had. Maybe she'd like to have sex. Women who'd been married a couple of times probably wanted to have sex or, anyway, weren't against it. How would that be? It had been a couple of years now since he had any with his wife. He'd even considered getting professional help, but where would you find a prostitute out here in the sticks or in town, for that matter? He'd feel pretty silly calling up an escort service which turned out to be an escort service. And he never was very good in bed if he thought the woman wasn't enjoying it. He'd seen enough porn to know how they might fake it, and he didn't think he could keep a straight face if a thirty year old with fake boobs started going on about how hot she was for him. Then there was disease and the police. He was always the guy who got caught the first time he tried something. He didn't think there was anything morally wrong with paying for sex if no one was being exploited, but it would be embarrassing if he was arrested and got his name in the paper. If they busted you for solicitation, did that make you a sexual offender who had to register? No, going to a prostitute would have been impossible, so there he was. She probably didn't want to anyway. Still, would she expect him to have a condom available? She wouldn't bring one. Oh, my God, what if she did? What if she knew about all that stuff and was free and easy and he couldn't get his stuff to work?
He finally decided he didn't have to do anything if he didn't want to. He could pretend to be dense, not pick up on the cues. And there probably wouldn't be any cues.
Edward Fennell sat in a booth next to the window in the Wood Shed waiting, nursing a cup of coffee, glancing occasionally at the mirrored pie case, thinking that if Helena didn't show, one or two slices of pie would be his consolation prize. Coconut Cream and Pecan. It was a ninety mile drive from the city to the diner—another twenty minutes to his place. He could imagine her "thinking better of it," pulling off of I-20, making up an excuse, giving him a call. He looked from time to time at his cell phone on the table, half expecting it to ring, wanting to get it right way, not wanting to be one of those guys that made a big show of getting a phone call in public. Probably nobody did that any more, and no one would think twice if he let it ring. He glanced at it again.
Suddenly she was at the door, pulling off her sunglasses, looking around, adjusting to the relative darkness of the diner. She still looked good. Better than two kinds of pie, he thought. She smiled when she saw him, saying something to the woman at the cash register as she walked toward him. She wore loose-fitting khaki trousers and hiking boots. Her idea of what to wear to a tryst in the country? She had on a dark green tee shirt tucked into the khakis and filmy light-green shirt open in front and tied at the waist. He stood up and she offered him a hug and a cheek. He was again aware of her breasts against his chest and held the hug a split-second longer than absolutely necessary.
When she had sat down across from him and ordered a cup of decaf from the waitress who had followed her to the table, she smiled and asked, "Did you have to wait long?"
"You were early." She glanced at her watch. "I wasn't sure you'd come, so I promised myself pie if you didn't."
"So as not to waste the day completely?" She looked at him with what looked to him like a pleased smile. "What kind of pie do they have?"
He gestured toward the case and said, "I was planning on coconut cream and pecan myself."
"That sounds good to me. Want to split one of each for dessert?"
Edward enjoyed looking at Helena as they talked and at the pie. She was talking more this time. Maybe she was nervous or just more at ease. He didn't know yet what she would be like, whether she was shy in crowds, good with children, the kinds of movies she would like, what it would be like to sleep next to her, whether she would like to touch or not touch. That would take months, years maybe, but he saw the possibility that they could have those years ahead of them. He had read that chess masters could look at a board and see promising lines, not certainties but probabilities. It was like that. He noticed the spots on the backs of her hands, the lines around her neck, the sagging of her breasts against the tee shirt, and he was satisfied.
Outside she announced, "I need to walk. That's at least two months worth of pie. I can't believe you talked me into it." He didn't feel the need to contradict her. He was suddenly uneasy. If they turned left, they would walk by the little store. If they went right, he could leave the store for another day. She turned left and he followed. They walked slowly, in silence, but close enough almost to touch shoulders. Every few steps they would touch, and she didn't pull away. They walked in front of the feed store, then a store that sold birdhouses and then a small jeweler. Helena paid scant attention to the stores and didn't speak, but had a faint, contented smile as he narrated the history of the small town, trying to be at least amusing. There was one more store and then the little store. It wouldn't mean anything if she didn't notice, he told himself. It was already enough.
She slowed and then stopped in front of the store window. Inside the shelves were dusty and empty. The sign about the memento boxes was still on the wall, next to an empty space with a nail where the sample box would have hung. There was another sign that said, "Closing Sale: All merchandise 50% off." The 50% had been struck through with a red marker and 75% written over it. There was a worn stuffed animal with the eyes missing in one corner. On a small, dusty table there was a Big Chief tablet with a few pages left and a cigar box which might have been used as a cash box. Helena stared through the window, saying nothing. Then she pulled back and looked up at the sign: "Mandy's Country Boutique." She looked again in the window; Edward was staring at her. He saw a tear form in her eye and roll down her face. She let it.
"It's so sad," she said looking at him and then looking back in the window.
"How do you mean?"
"I don't know. It just must have meant so much to her."
"The Country Boutique?" he said with a smile.
"Don't be mean. I couldn't stand it if you were mean."
"No. Sorry. I get it. I agree." He touched her arm.
"I know. It's just that she might have cared a lot and then been let down. You know that poem by Keats? About melancholy? I don't remember all the words, but he says that melancholy dwells with beauty, and I remember this part, 'Beauty that must die.' This reminds me of that somehow. It's so damn sad." She turned toward him as she spoke, and she looked into his eyes. He took a step toward her and, for the first time, kissed her lightly on the lips. She held his kiss. Edward Fennell thought he might be in love.
And there would be hell to pay when he told her about the little store.