Every morning after she had switched on the lights and turned up the thermostat of the Half & Half, she thanked Earl for taking care of her. He had been a good man; all the store regulars had mailed her condolence cards with bouquets on the front of silver and violet flowers that she arranged along the fireplace mantle and touched each one as she walked in circles from the living room to the kitchen in a mute daze in those first few months following his death. Some of her friends brought by baskets of fruit, a hand-crocheted blanket, a book of daily prayers. But her favorite gift was a kitten from her best friend Marie “so you won’t be alone.”
She named the kitten Whiskers which she knew wasn’t original, but she wasn’t feeling creative—the obvious would have to do. Whiskers was an orange and white tabby who liked to hide behind the kitchen curtains and attack her feet every time she walked by. “You little scamp,” she’d pick him up by the fur on his neck and scratch the white fur of his belly. “What am I going to do with you?” She always did the same thing—gave him a hug and placed him back on the ground until the kitten’s attention was distracted by a crumb rolling on the kitchen floor, or by some fly that had gotten past the screen door.
Whenever the phone rang, she jumped. “Hello, darling,” she’d tell her youngest who had called from Virginia where she was now living with her husband. “How’s everything?” Everything was fine, and her daughter gave her an up-to-date report about their latest purchase, a TV screen that took up almost an entire wall of their living room, but reminded her mother how their living room was really very small. “Congratulations,” said Rae-Ann. “I see lots of football games in your future.”
“Oh Mom. You’re such a card.”
The older girl was in Atlanta trying her hand at opening a free trade import-export business. Every few months Rae-Ann received a package from her in the mail, the latest being a bowl from a women-owned factory in Palestine decorated in symmetrical blue and green diamonds. If her daughter were anything like her daddy, she’d be a raving success. “Be patient. It takes time,” Rae-Ann would tell her. “Always listen to your customers.” She was sure the girls would do fine, which is what she always had told Earl. But after their father died, they wanted her to move so she would be closer. Her youngest said she had an extra room. “It’s not a problem. Just think about it, Mom. Please. You can move in.” As tempting as her offer was, Rae-Ann knew better than to weigh down her daughter and son-in-law at the start of their married lives together with her own baggage. No, she’d stay in Hentsbury. There was the Half & Half to keep going. Of course, a group of investors wanted to buy her out, but what else would she do? Besides, her customers needed her. Like this morning when she left the house extra early because there was a big shipment of beer coming in at 5:30am.
She felt her way through the darkness, colder in the winter months especially after an ice storm, slipped on her work shoes before switching on the light. Her other shoes from home hurt her feet, especially after standing on cement for ten hours. But she wasn’t alone by herself. A few people relieved her around lunch and after the first mill shift in the evening, the same people who had worked for Earl–Patsy who was getting close to retirement age and wanted to spend more time at home with her husband who had been diagnosed with diabetes. She talked to Rae-Ann about recipes for people with diabetes, had even convinced her to develop a section in the grocery filled with sugarless candies, cookies, and coffee cakes, which had become very popular. Confidentially, Patsy had told Rae-Anne that the doctor had a long talk with her husband, a consultation at the hospital, saying he had to stop drinking a pint of gin every day and if he didn’t, he’d probably end up with a liver problem in addition to everything else that was wrong.
People trusted Rae-Ann. She was good about keeping their secrets. She knew about the pastor’s wife, Eudora Franklin, who had cornered Rae-Ann at the back of the store one summer afternoon while Patsy was working the cash register. For some reason, Eudora blurted out how she had become pregnant at thirty-five years old with their fifth child, and never told her husband about the abortion. He was pastor of Living River, the largest Baptist church in town and also a staunch pro-lifer, but it’s not like she wasn’t one herself; she pressed Rae-Ann’s hand. “You have to understand, it’s not like I wanted to do that,” and bit her lower lip looking down at the display of Slim-Jims and raising her eyes back to Rae-Ann again. Eudora explained how she had been pregnant almost every two years since she had been twenty-four and was getting plum wore out—plus having kids was expensive and even though she believed that our Lord, Jesus Christ, would’ve helped her to find her way, the way he always did; she already had asked him for guidance on four separate occasions and was feeling greedy about being at the head of the line again while others were waiting patiently behind her. It wouldn’t be a Christian thing to hog all the attention just because she was the pastor’s wife. “Do you understand?” She asked, holding onto a cold bottle of ginger ale from the freezer to help settle her stomach, a woman as thin as a stalk of corn with the same color hair.
Rae-Ann thought that if Eudora actually had become pregnant with another baby, she might have disappeared altogether, or become a walking bubble of a belly. “Pastor Franklin can’t know nothing about this,” she said, realizing that she had spilled her guts to the owner of Earl’s Half & Half, a woman who had taken care of most of the church’s infants while they were growing up. “Nothing,” she whispered, clutching the frosted bottle to her side and giving Rae-Ann a hug. “If the church board found out, he might never be able to preach again.” With that, she spun around with her head held high, and walked to the cash register where Patsy rung her up for one dollar and fifty-seven cents.
–to be continued