It was the kind of town that you passed through while you were on your way to bigger things. But it was quaint and tourists seem to like its quiet and relaxing treats as they refueled for the moment. They would experience the main street that had its odd assortment of delights. There was a Vietnamese restaurant and down a few doors, an Italian family pizza restaurant with a nice little kitchen setting. A Mexican restaurant was in the next block. A few shopping places dotted the main street and with its wooden Indian atop the barber pole, Long Reach's Barber and Style enterprise served both men and woman. Zoe's Java Shop was the newest converted place. It was next to an old antique shop where Mrs. Claudia Foerster kept a lot of the old things from people who were leaving Benedictt. The recession had changed things and some people said she kept the town's soul. Many of the old people were dying off and the young people were moving out to seek their fate in the city.
The French Room had Mrs. Foerster's favorite collection of antiques, most of them large pieces of furniture that she had collected over the store's thirty-plus years of existence since her husband's death. She kept the room under lock and key as a testimony to Mr. Foerster's serious aversion to all things French and Continental. Rumor was that Mr. Foerster had been one of the German prisoners kept in the defunct Army camp a few towns away. But as with all rumors, it had died with his death.
It was the day for the tea meeting of the women’s group held at the Foerster Antique Favorites on Main Street. The ladies gathered about the settees, the armchairs, the mirrors, nightstands and an oak sideboard. There were a couple of vanities. a writing table and a Louis XV maple armoire. Mrs. Foerster was especially enamored of the Louis XVII chair that she herself set upon and its matching ottoman. These had been reupholstered in a mauve and red rose fabric. The ladies remarked well on Mrs. Foerster's taste as they usually did when they held their bimonthly meetings of the Benedictt Town Women’s Benevolence Society.
Brenda was in the back of the shop, behind the counter, pouring boiling water from the stove into the second tea kettle. She had just returned a day ago to peddle about, sweeping and dusting items in the main part of the store, located outside the French Room in a rather glorious junky setting.
She was surrounded by lots of porcelain artifacts and old clocks. There were a couple of pedal driven singer sewing machines that had probably survived the town's long-ago millenary industry. There were chair and table sets from kitchens of families who had to leave and plenty of dressers among choice antiques, captain chairs, a caged bird house and heirloom furniture. A number of old black dialing telephones set upon pieces of spotted varnished maple furniture and cedar chests. There were unique art deco mirrors and drop tables.
The antique shop had plenty of old clothes. Mrs. Foerster had let Brenda sort through the clothes and pick out a few things as a way of paying the girl. Before she had left town with her ma a few months ago, Brenda had been paid a minimal part-time salary. Back then, the ma’s arguments with Mr. Potato Head had started to escalate. When he lost his work, he finally lost the control he had on his strong drink. The arguments turned to the beatings and Mr. Potato Head became a vestibule of pure meanness. The time had been worse than the period with Brenda's stepdad. They had left town and stayed with ma's older sister a few towns away, crowded for nearly a year in a small room with the sister’s infant daughter.
Brenda poured the hot water into the kettle of the tea set. It was a strong white porcelain set, hand painted. Mrs. Foerster said it was a Queen Victoria set, another one of her proud items obtained since the death of her austere husband. It made no difference to Brenda as she carefully took the silver tray service into the room and placed it on the "Low Table" next to the first tray before the chattering women.
"Oh, Brenda is back. When did you come in, dear?" asked Ms Halliput. She was in her late fifties like most of the ladies. Mrs Foerster was the oldest in her late seventies and her granddaughter, the web genius from the city, was the youngest in her twenties.
"Look at her, she still has her coat on. It must be chilly in the shop," remarked Ms Tompkins, putting a few sugars in her cup. Brenda remembered Ms Halliput as being with the hospital, Ms Tompkins was new to her and it wasn't her business what she wore.
The seven or eight ladies were prime and polished in their formal business finery. They were all sitting before the low table. Carol, the granddaughter, sat away from them in a near corner, surfing away with her laptop on an ornate writing desk.
However much the ladies differed from each other, they were more the standard sort rather than the odd. They reflected the tone of the town's maturity. With smiles drawn easy from a week of and work and concerns, their relaxation was a careful one and Mrs. Foerster's elegant setting was their due for the business purpose they took up for the month.
"Are you cold my dear?" Ms Tompkins asked.
Brenda smiled at the woman and left the chattering to get back to her duties in the main shop. She hardly knew any of them and gave them no thought as she stood before the old wall mirror admiring the coat Ms Foerster had given her. The old lady had always been nice to her. Next to the mirror were the flapper dress and cloche hat hanging under glass. Ms Foerster was always trying to get Brenda to put on. She had explained it was a dress her own mother had worn.
In the mirror, the down coat she wore was light purple as if it had went through too many machine washings. Brenda rubbed her hands all down the squared-stitched sides and over the rip extending from the pocket on the right side. She had always wanted a down coat, and this one she very much appreciated. To her, it was as good as new because it was hers and it was warm.
Brenda was a plain looking girl. She had finally accepted herself as being unattractive and from what she had seen, it was no big deal that she was probably facing a loveless life. It was funny because in high school. she had lots of girlfriends. It was a simple deduction from the fact that the girls did not at all look like the remarkable TV images of beautiful American life reflected throughout the world. Her friends were all shapes and sizes and she knew she no figure for the flapper dress. Brenda scored her size round and straight and that was that.
Her eyebrows, though, were special and important. Her ma was always trying to clip them. Over black pupil eyes they were a full brown and distinct. They reminded her of some old labor union leader she had seen pictures of in school. Unlike him, Brenda had no ambition. All she wanted was a baby girl that she could love and grow up. But she was strong like that man and had refused to be poked by any boy. Her strong frame easily made waste of all advances. There had been the normal few fellas who needed to grow up, she felt. She had allowed a few near pokes here and there, but never the final, life jerking one.
Always active and doing something, Brenda picked up a broom and began sweeping about the shop, crowded with the edges of large and small bric-a-brac. At times, with all the old photos, the cupboards and china, you would think it was a favorite grandma's living room, a place busy of inanimate life. She was often charmed with the wish she could stay in it, something she had done surreptitiously years ago when she had run away.
In fact, she and her ma needed a place, a real placed. After they had returned to town to crashed with grandma, her ma had found out that they couldn't stay because for some strange reason, grandma - her ma - was facing eviction.
The plans of an energetic, but poorly backed realty agent had slipped. He had moved a bunch of elderly folks into so-called new dream townhouses that had been converted from well-used condominiums. Following the line of most of the real estate investors at that time, the agent's money had soon floated away into debt, crushing Grandma's dream. How she had managed to hide her nursing home destination and the funds for it was either an accident or just the dog-gone fate of a woman smarter than a weakly situated, young speculator.
The hanging bell on the front door jingled and Honest Jim came in dragging some heavy items. He also brought in drafts of the early winter wind, his breath stretching out visibly before him. In his fur-lined jacket, Honest still wore that strange tall, inverted u-shape hat made out of some kind of matted straw material. Without stopping he dragged-carried his items right around the counter to where Brenda was standing.
"Hey Honest, what you got there?"
"Hiya doing, Brenda. So you back in town, hey?"
"Yeah, for a while."
"I see you wearing my coat. It looks good on you. You like it?"
"It's really nice and warm."
"Good. Where's the old lady."
"They've got their meeting, you know." She gestured toward the closed down.
"Tell her, I'm here, will ya?"
She didn't know about disturbing the lady. But it was Honest Jim and Brenda had taken the time to enjoy the rather odd relationship between the two and to know, however infrequent, that it was real. Without knocking, she entered the room and whispered to Mrs. Foerster of the man's presence. The lady excused herself, got up, and Brenda followed her back to the counter.
Honest removed a heavy quilt blanket from a wooden figure. It was about four-feet tall, a handsomely carved statue of an Indian chief's torso with full feathered head-dress. It was worn but still apparent in the smooth, elaborate strokes that fashioned the strong facial features.
Ignoring the figure, Mrs. Foerster figured the quilt. It was handmade of strong stitched, colorful patches. She placed it over the wooden statue and pulled out a few bills from her dress pocket and placed them in the man's hand.
"Thank you, ma'am," the man said with a gesture of tipping the tall hat on his head.
"I'm expecting Ms Fisher to show up, Brenda," she said to the girl. "She's running late. Please show her in when she gets here." Ms Foerster returned to the proceedings of the Bennett Town Women's Benevolence Society.
"So you and your ma settling back in, hey?"
"No, not really. We staying with grandma. But she's got to leave."
"You mean at the Tarry Homes?" The girl nodded. Honest smiled. "You can bet somebody funny real fast now. But youc an believe they gonna catch that bugga for tricking all them people. What are yall going to do?"
"Well, grandma's going to the nursing home. Ma says she had planned it that way."
"Smart lady is Grandma Delia."
"We going on to, I guess, that area shelter over in Dalton Falls."
"Oh no, you don't wanna go there."
"There's nothing else we can do Honest."
"Leave it to those ladies." Honest's hat gestured toward the door. "You leave it to them. I'll be seeing you Brenda."
It happened so fast. But she was sure he was standing right before her. When she looked again, Honest was gone. She must have been thinking about what he said real deep because she had hear no bell.
But no matter, she turned to lift the quilt to see the statue again, there was something strange about it, when the door bell jingled this time and a presence emerged before her.
How could a fur jacket be blue? It appeared vintage fox with the paws around her neck, but it was a beautiful gray blue fur jacket. Under the wide brim tan hat appeared the stately Ms Fisher, husband of Frank Fisher, head of the FIsher Foods International Company that bordered not only Bennett but the entire Dalton County.
"Hello, Ms Fisher."
"Why Brenda. It's good to see you again here. Oh, you are such the young woman, aren't you? Are they meeting?"
Brenda led the woman into the meeting. She stayed a moment as greetings were exchanged and Ms Fisher, as she usually did, immediately went into her presentation. Brenda made way to get the kettle for refilling with boiling water on the stove.
"And here's the check, ladies, for $5,000." Brenda watched as the women gave the expectant gasp as Ms Fisher ceremoniously presented the check to Mrs. Foerster. There was applause. Brenda rushed to the stove and refilled the kettle. Returning to the room, she listened as Ms Fisher continued her prepared remarks.
"This should jumpstart the project, I'm sure." She and Mrs. Foerster were standing. The older woman gave the check to her daughter Phyllis who recorded it on the laptop.
"I'm sure Phyllis will get the news out over the wire," Ms Fisher gestured to the girl, "the new Internet. From what I've heard, it's very fast and especially with such a skilled worker, I should say you will have matching funds and more within, what, a few weeks?"
Ms Johnson, the be-speckled young town librarian, a part in her hair was both stylist and conservative, spoke up.
"With all the merchants contributing, and the churches, their membership..."
"All the merchants except for that crazy Indian Long Reach Barber Shop," volunteered a voice. Everyone figured it Ms Halliput but barely looked her way.
Mrs. Foerster interjected, "Let's get a picture, please, of Fisher International presenting the check to the society."
"I don't have time," said Ms Fisher, "We were on our way to the opening at the Mariposa Art Museum."
"Oh shoots," rebuked Mrs Foerster. "That phone Phyllis has makes her the instant jack of all trades. It'll only take a minute, child." Standing next to the open door, Brenda watched as Mrs. Foerster retrieved the check from Phyllis and under the girl's direction, they took several poses with her iPhone. She took shots of Mrs. Foerster with Ms Phyllis near the Louis XVII and then various group shots, all with the check and Ms Fisher’s adorable smile in prominence.
At the last shot, Ms Fisher suddenly exclaimed, "Why isn't that a Louis XVII?" She walked over to Mrs. Foerster's empty chair. "Why, it's simply gorgeous and it has the matching ottoman. When did you get it?"
"It's been here all the time, Harriet," chimed Mrs. Foerster.
"Oh! It has? Why yes, of course. I've just got one. They come in sets you know."
"It is a very nice looking chair," Offered Ms Tompkins, who Brenda now knew as the owner of the new Zoe's Java Shop.
"My fabric is different," said Ms Fisher, admiringly touching the chair in gloved hand, "But they could be made. My darling," She said to Mrs. Foerster, "I wonder how much you are offering this for."
"It's not for sale, Harriet. I'm holding it in memory of Charles."
"Yes, the late Mr. Foerster."
"Mr. Foerster? But didn't he..." Ms Fisher stopped her thought, gazing at the older woman.
"Claudia, we must talk, but I must get out of here."
Brenda was at the counter as she observed Ms Fisher leaving. Not long after, the women began leaving. Ms Tompkins wore a nice leather coat, gloves and matching hat. She stopped to ask Brenda what she thought of the new restaurant. She pulled an envelope from her purse and gave Brenda a few coupons to try some of the dinner specials. Though pushy, Brenda thought the woman nice and actually personal. She bid her farewell as she noted the nervous glint in the lady's bright blue eyes.
"Well, that was the evening," remarked Mrs. Foerster as Brenda helped her reset the French Room furniture.
"What is this project are you working on?" Brenda still had her coat on. The heat in the main shop was truly lacking to concentrate in the French Room.
"We don't talk about it took much, darling. Not yet. We'll wait until the news hits the wire, or what, the Internet as Harriet says. And yes, the contribution represents not only a foot but an opening of the door. It was just like a few years ago, when we started the project on the new hospital wing."
"She certainly liked that chair."
"Oh, pshaw," said the old lady. "Some people think that anything they see, they can buy. That one will be over my dead body. I think Harriet knows that. Things have changed since poor Charley was put away."
Brenda helped with closing the shop. She didn't want to look forward to the evening where she would have to spend time with her ma, mired in worry. Her ma wasn't like Mrs. Forster and these other ladies. She wasn't even like her own ma who had pulled her sheep fur from the agent's teeth.
She was grateful there were such women as Mrs. Forster and was glad she had come back to her even though the woman couldn't pay her. Brenda took the little garbage can through the cluttered storage room to the outside alleyway. The lock on the exit door was weak and anybody could get in if they wanted to. But that was okay. Everyone in town was familiar to everyone else and she knew the only one who came in was the skinny young man she had seen loitering around the park. He had begun sleeping on the foam mattress late at night in the storage room and Brenda hadn’t told Mrs. Foerster. She had once been in trouble, too, and had, in fact, slept on a similar mattress. Before long, it was just a matter of time, trouble always passes by and goes away.
With the empty can, she closed the door, listening for the click on the weak lock. The storage room door was a different affair. It had a strong bolt on it that separated it from main shop. She made sure it snapped behind her. The alley had reminded her of the cat.
“Where’s Jumbo, Mrs Foerster? Is he still around? I haven’t seen him.”
“Lord knows, Brenda. He’s gone making his rounds. I figure he should be back by morning time.”
As Mrs. Foerster prepared to cut the lights and leave the store, they took a final look at the items Honest Jim had brought in. Mrs. Foerster scanned the quilt while Brenda turned the tall and worn wooden Indian chief statue around. It was certainly heavy.
"Do you think it's valuable?" she asked the older woman.
A nice coiffure of gray hair sat under Mrs. Foerster’s white woolen hat. Her gray framed glasses quickly glanced over the piece.
"No, child. That's nothing." She laughed. "But this blanket is really a fine piece. It's worth what I paid him." She gave the weighty quilt to Brenda.
"Here, put it in the storage room. I'll go over it in the morning." She noted the back door was locked. "No, just place it against the door." ////////