She got in the van and finished putting on her lipstick, something she rarely did in the car, but Mondays gave her an extra oomph. Of course, all her best friends shook their heads, “Just wait. Give it another year and you’ll wish you were back home again.” But it had been two years since Earl had died and still she wasn’t tired of running Earl’s Half & Half, the variety store her husband of thirty years had built up at the crossroads of two trucking routes. The store had begun as a coffee bar, a place for truckers to buy their morning cup and a pastry. She baked lemon, banana, and pumpkin breads, cutting them into thick slices at one dollar apiece. It was all the same recipe with the addition of different fruit and flavorings. They flew out of the store. Earl’s customer’s kept asking for more—gum, chips, cigarettes, magazines, then canned goods, sandwiches for the road, fried chicken wings, pizza, and of course, sodas to wash it all down. The store expanded. Earl carefully nursed the bottom-line until his big day came: he was able to afford a liquor license. Earl’s Half & Half was located on the border of Louisiana and Arkansas. The liquor half was in the state of Louisiana, the grocery half, in Arkansas. The big joke was you could go from one state to another in less time than it took to sign your name.
Since Hentsbury was located in a dry county, everyone heading up to Arkansas stopped at the Half & Half to buy beer. It was also a destination for people to do the same thing on the trip out. A man delivered beer every morning and stacked cases that almost reached to the light fixtures. The place was a goldmine. By closing time, the cases had been reduced from six to one deep. The store had allowed them to put both daughter’s through college and now the girls were grown and out of the house. But five years ago, Earl had been diagnosed with a rare blood disease. It wasn’t leukemia. At least that would’ve been treatable. Rae-Ann stood by his side and watched him sicken, die, and then leave a shell of himself on a white hospital bed. When she held his hand for the last time; it felt hollow.
She threw herself into the store. For Rae-Ann, work was an adventure, even fun. She never knew what was going to happen. But it was more than that. Her customers were family. They had been coming to the store for years. She enjoyed updates about their kids, and grandkids, invitations to church dinners and fishing tournaments. Apart from the regulars, there were always other people passing through, people from Wildlife and Fisheries checking on stands of loblolly pine, hunters and fisherman, nephews and grandnieces coming back to visit their families. She collected their reports and distributed them like bags of corn chips with whatever else they bought. Spending her day behind the cash register gave her energy. In all truthfulness, it was weekends she didn’t like, hanging around the house and being reminded of Earl: the leather recliner in the living room where he watched TV, his copy of Hawaii by James Michener, a place he took her once for a vacation, and the framed photographs with his arm draped around her shoulder.
Her friends had insisted that she get away for a girlfriend weekend and kidnapped her (we won’t take no for an answer) to Hot Springs, Arkansas where they rented a cabin and decided what to do each day: manicures, pedicures, and long soaks in the mineral waters that made her skin tingly. When she passed by a mirror in a dressing room, she was embarrassed by what she saw: an attractive woman who could’ve passed for ten years younger than her actual fifty-three, a fringe of bangs and shoulder-length hair that she dyed a light cocoa, her body plump but not out-of-shape, and still able to fill out a pair of jeans with dignity. Rae-Ann wondered if she should feel guilty about looking good only six months after Earl had passed; he had been thin and grey in his coffin, a man who in his prime had weighed three hundred pounds.
They had met in high school. He was a member of the football team and always surrounded by a gaggle of girls who reached up his waist. He was always a big man. She had sat next to him in Biology in her junior year. On the first day of class, they walked into Mrs. Connors’ room, looked at each other, and sat down. It was a comfort, an immediate ahhh without anything being said except, “Hi. What’s your name?”
“Mine’s Earl.” And that was that. They went to church pancake breakfasts together, on special evenings went to the movies, and when Earl graduated and began running the front desk of his father’s storage facility, he asked her to get married. There was nothing to think about. She said yes. They bought a house on a main road leading into town. After the girls were born, she realized their house had a great location—many cars drove by their lawn every day to the mill.
She decided to open a day care to make extra money and also to be able to stay home with her girls. Her own mother didn’t live close by. Her parents had been divorced for years. She figured maybe some of the other moms in town were in the same situation. She put a large blue sign in her yard that said Day Care with a picture of Tinker Bell touching a sparkling wand to the word Care, and ran an advertisement for a few weekends in the Penny Saver. She ran her business out of the house for years, set up a screened area on the back porch where the babies could play in the summer, and when her girls got older, they helped to watch them in the afternoon so she could go to the Half & Half for a few hours and give Earl a hand.
But after twenty years of running the day care, she decided to start worrying about her own health—it seemed like she always had a cold or sore throat, catching whatever the toddlers had. Plus, snacks were getting more expensive and she didn’t think she could raise her rates once again to cover costs. Even so, all the moms cried. “We’ll never find another place like yours,” and for that, she felt grateful. She loved all her children, had watched them grow up, and loved to receive phone calls and their latest news.
She’d tell Earl over dinner, “I heard from Cynthia. Remember her?” But by the time Earl had become sick, she’d hadn’t worked for several years, had converted the patio into a greenhouse where she grew tuberous begonias with glossy green leaves and orange and pink blossoms. And even though most of her days were now spent at the Half & Half, she continued to look after them. They were her children as much as the babies had been.