I stood outside my grandmother’s feed store, fumbling with the heavy key in the old door lock. My fingers were too numb and thick to work correctly.
I was tired way down into my bones in my mind was foggy with exhaustion; sleep was a luxury that evaded me. All night I lay in bed worrying about the house and the store and how I was ever going to manage all of this on my own. If I was lucky enough to fall asleep, it was only a matter of minutes before I would wake up thinking that I heard Grandma calling for her medicine.
How long would it last, I wondered as the key turned in the door opened.
Knowing my luck it will never stop...
The store was dark and quiet, like it developed an echo overnight. Every part of my being hated being there and I wanted nothing more than to turn around and lock the doors forever, but this feed store was all that I knew.
I forced myself to step inside and go about the usual routine even though I was just going through the motions.
I emptied the used grounds from the coffee pot on the counter into the trash and put a fresh pot on to breathe. Methodically, I set out the canisters of sugar and creamer. I set a stack of Styrofoam cups upside down next to the pot. I could almost hear my Grandma coaxing me along.
“Get a move on little one, set them cups out and then sweep the floor,” she used to command as if I hadn't done the same thing six days a week for as long as I could remember. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my hand written sign.
CLOSED DUE TO DEATH.
I walked over to the door and tore that sign down, peeling away the tape that remained. I knew it was silly, but I hated that sign and what it meant. I wadded it up and tossed it into the nearly empty trashcan, tying up the bag for good measure.
Our one and only employee, Alec O’Connor, shuffled in as I began sweeping the floor. I didn’t have to turn around; I recognized his limping gait immediately.
“Good morning,” he whispered awkwardly as he went over to the other broom in the corner.
“Good morning,” I said without looking up from the broom or the floor.
“It was a nice service yesterday,” he said as he began to sweep along beside me. “Your grandmother would’ve liked it.”
I didn’t say anything. I tried to just focus on the dusty old floor and the musty grassy smell of the store in general. Anything, so that I didn’t have to think about what he was saying.
Alec limped closer, "I just wanted you to know that everyone, including my own family, thought a lot of your grandma and I didn't get to tell you at the funeral, but I just wanted to say how very sorry I am."
I nodded, not sure what he expected me to say and hating his sympathy. The more he talked the more real it all seemed to become.
“I know what it's like when someone you depend on dies,” he said with that same annoying expression of compassion. “So, if you ever need to talk to anyone, I'm here.”
I was ashamed of myself then, so much so that I had to look away. So much it happened in my own life that I didn't even stop to think about the people around me.
Alec O’Connor had been the most popular boy in our graduating class and well on his way with a scholarship to IU. With his light brown hair and bright blue eyes, more than one girl lost her heart to him whether he knew it or not. Everyone expected him to go far until the car accident that summer killed his father and Alec’s dreams of college.
I looked up at this hometown hero with his bum leg, who was reduced to working in the feed store, and realized that I wasn’t the only one beaten up by life.
“Thank you,” I said. “But I'm fine. Why don't you go out to the barn and bring in some more rapid feed?”
“Sure,” he said with another understanding smile. He set the broom back in the corner and hobbled out through the backroom.
I clutched my own broom and squeezed my eyes shut, commanding myself not to cry.
Don't cry... Not here... Not now... You can cry tonight when you're alone...
I didn't really have time to cry. The belll over the door rattled as the first customer of the day entered. I took a deep breath and forced some version of a smile on my face.
“Good morning,” I said as I turned to greet my patron.
I could’ve saved my energy and my enthusiasm since it was just Mrs. Allen, the middle-aged lady that owned the scrapbook store next door. She walked directly over to the fresh coffee.
“It's good to see you back my dear,” she said as if I’d been on a vacation instead of in mourning.
For some reason, I found her attitude even more annoying than the sympathy of everyone else. If it wasn’t for Alec coming out of the back and drawing her attention, I might’ve physically thrown her out. Since Grandma was gone, I didn’t see the point in pretending to like her more.
Alec, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the way she fawned over him while he went over the different bird seeds for her backyard feeders.
One by one more customers came in with their orders for livestock feed. A few mentioned the service or gave me their awkward condolences, but they mostly talked about the circus.
“Did you see the likes of that parade?” One farmer asked another while they waited for their orders to be filled, obviously not in too much of a hurry by the way he leaned against the counter.
The other laughed a good ol’ boy type of chuckle, “I did. What did you think about that little firecracker?”
“As an old man, I wouldn’t even know what to do with that.”
I pretended not to hear them. If I was lucky, they would forget that I was right there. If not, it would just be embarrassing for all of us.
Thankfully, they didn't notice me and the men went on with their conversation.
“They may all be useless tinkers,” one of them surmised. “But they sure have some beautiful women.”
Alec stepped up to the counter with Mrs. Allen’s seed under one arm, she followed behind him like a middle-aged love-struck puppy.
“Tinkers?” He asked as he began writing out her receipt.
The farmer nodded, “You know Gypsies and travellers.”
“Well I know one thing,” Mrs. Allen said as she handed me her money. “You best lock things that tight as a drum.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Well because everyone knows that they steal everything that isn’t chained down,” she said in a huff of arrogant righteousness. “You just mark my words and do as I say.”
Alec gave me a conspiratorial wink before he gave her one of his all American smiles, “Now you don't really believe that, do you?”
“I most certainly do,” she said as she followed him out the door. “You know they’re all thieves and beggars.”
As soon as the door closed behind her, the other customers began laughing and the entire mood of the shop shifted. Obviously I was not the only one that pretended to like her.
By afternoon, fewer and fewer people were offering condolences and it was easier to slip into my old routine. The conversation instead turned again to the circus setting up camp across the street at the fairgrounds.
It would seem that one of them, I picture the man that led the parade, was spotted downtown at the courthouse trying to get a permit of some sort.
When the door opened again and another customer walked in, the feed store fell silent. I stood on my tiptoes to see who was causing such a reaction.
In walked a group of skimpily clad girls speaking words I didn't understand. I came around from behind the counter, feeling like I had to get to them first for some reason.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
A thin, black haired girl with brilliant green eyes stepped forward. She looked around the room slowly before settling those eyes on me.
“Sorry to be bothering you Miss,” she said with the beautiful lilt in her voice. “May I please place one of these in your window?”
I looked down at the sheet of paper that she handed me. It was a vaudeville type poster advertising their "Carnival of Wonders" that would be performing in just over a week.
“Are you sure about the dates?” I asked, not wanting to admit that all of us knew that they had just applied for their permits.
The other girls in the group snickered and talked again with words I didn’t understand, but the black haired girl just looked at me and smiled as if she didn't hear them.
“I am very sure of the date,” she explained in that beautiful accent. “I am never wrong about these things.”
I didn't ask any more questions. I was too self-conscious with the flashy girls and my regular customers all watching me.
“Sure, that would be fine,” I said.
She took the poster back from me and gave me one more infectious smile before turning so that she could take the poster to my door.
Everyone in the store turned to watch her and the other girls. I was embarrassed for them in the way that the men stared at their tanned legs and bare midriffs. Those girls could've been twelve or twenty, but it just didn’t seem right to stare at them like that.
I was thankful when the black haired girl was finished with the poster.
“Thank you,” she said as she spun around. “I hope all of you will come to the show.”
She met my eyes one last time before she opened the door and let her group back outside.
The feed store burst back in the conversation as soon as the door closed behind them. I stepped over to the door and watched them move down the sidewalk in a loud, colorful, boisterous group, and I envied their freedom.
The afternoon was taken on that hazy almost evening glow when I stepped out of the store under the weight of a fifty pound bag of chicken feed. I really hated my life at that moment and regretted sending Alec home at four. I should’ve known old Mrs. Kennedy would be calling with her usual order and requested delivery.
If she wasn’t one of my grandmother’s oldest friends, and half senile on top of that, I would've told her to come get it herself, instead, there I was, dirty and exhausted, driving to the other end of the county to deliver chicken feed.
Damn that old woman and her stupid chickens...
I dropped the feed into the bed of the truck and when I looked up; my eyes immediately fell on the fairgrounds across the street. The gypsies had brought in trailers and campers of every sort, children were playing everywhere and laundry hung on makeshift clothesline. It was like overnight this odd little neighborhood popped up out of the dirt.
Across the dusty clearing came the man that walked with the horses in the parade. He was carrying a heavy rope of some sort and he was shirtless. The sun glistened on his broad chest and shone through his damp, dark hair.
He walked over to a group of men and dropped the rope from his shoulder as if it weighed nothing. Moments later he was hammering a stake into the ground. Even from where I stood, I could see each and every ripple of each and every muscle.
I couldn’t help but, I licked my lips, imagining the salty sweet taste of his skin.
Now that’s the sort of man you don't see every day...
A tingling on the right side of my face told me that I was being watched. I glanced to my right, and sure enough, the tall man that led the parade was staring me.
Even all the way across the street, he met my eyes. I shrank back, embarrassed as if he could read the lusty thoughts on my mind.
It was neither looked away first. I lowered my eyes and went around to the other side of the truck and got it. I drove off without even looking back in the mirror once.