Saturday, May 12, 2012

"The Storekeeper" by Tom Sheehan

Before I knew what was going on, at twelve years of age, I saw what was going on… with Putney Grimes, who owned the Pioneer Grocery and General Store near my house, and one of his customers, Maxine Greenery. Truth of the matter was I didn’t know what I was actually seeing, or couldn’t understand it until much later, but parts of this life were moving around me, memories as well as history being made, records being kept, innocence being expelled one way or another, true innocence. World War II, of course, was trampling on a whole tide of innocence. Glad tidings said General MacArthur was back in the Philippines, but on the other side of that, Glenn Miller was reportedly lost in the North Sea. My mother looked dreamy-eyed at that news, the way she could share some things without talking about them. In my own little way, then with just those dozen years in hand, I knew I was part of it all, part and parcel. Pieces of it enveloped me, or lifted me, or brought me down; experience building its everlasting testimony.

As for Putney and Maxine, a warmth was in our midst, in spite of the shape of the world, even if I could not give it a name. I couldn’t name it and I couldn’t touch it, but it was there. It all centered in the store, small heart of the universe we knew. Much later, I could call myself, in retrospect, the love child because I saw the love blooming right there in front of me between them, day by day, even though it took more than a few years time, and I, of course, in my own routines and growth, felt the changes.

The way it was for a while was that Maxine Greenery could be a widow for all we knew, and with two sprouting boys. The hard words came one evening just as supper hit the table while twilight was still holding sway, the shadows soft, day dwindling down onto its knees, full night advancing: her husband, Harry, had been declared missing, lost at sea from a destroyer in the Mediterranean, half a world away, a lifetime away. Shadows joined with shadows, loss atop loss. George Drew, the Fire Chief, brought the word, the self-appointed dispenser of the awful tasks, him in his snappy uniform, black gloves, white hat, pants pressed so that the creases were like sheet metal lines, and all blue, the tall, long length of him all blue. When he tucked his white hat under his blue arm, every person on the street knew it was not an inspection of the premises being approached, the slow walk into a front yard, the unhurried climb to the porch, the soft tap on the door. And nothing followed that first horror announcement of the loss of Harry. No hail or hallelujah. No words or whispers. No rumors. Night and loss settled on us, heavy as one could imagine.

Harry was one of the good guys around our corner before he left, and Maxine was seen as a regular customer of Putney’s, had been since Harry put her in that converted barn he had worked on for Ladd Griffin just around the turn from Putney’s store, when he went off in the Navy. He was a magician with hammer and saw, good old Harry, and had the acute eye for resurrection, bringing old lines of structures into better new lines, new plumbs, walls standing the way they were meant to stand, with the good shoulders. In due time, the way promise evolves, as all the neighbors had said almost aloud and almost at once when he went away, and in total agreement with nary a doubt in the mix, that Harry would build his own house when he came back, when his turn came up, but those chances were now gone and slim at best, it appeared.

But the main guy here from my angle, Putney Grimes, owned and was the sole employee of the Pioneer Store in my end of town, near the first Iron Works in America that lay untouched for more than 300 years. When my pals and I had a few spare coins, Putney’s store was where we ended up, a post-Depression magnet for kids used to grasping. Many of my friends had found labor to our liking, our stretch to manhood, the war moving at far edges, almost visible, the way we saw the Newsreels at the State Theater on Saturday matinees. And we had small jobs then, paying small change, and an occasional petty romance of the dreaming kind and plenty to do with scrap metal drives, paper collections, keeping our lips zipped, pretenses of one sort or another. Earlier, in a stretch toward manhood, I had carried baskets of manure and sterilized loam into the old mushroom house on Lily Pond that used to be an ice house before Freddie Rippon converted it to a mushroom house where, if the crop was fairly large and there was no disease, he could make some good money. As kids we were testament to that providence, trucks going off loaded to the market in Boston, our pockets full of slim coins, mothers at the kitchen table waiting for a donation.

As it was, most of my pals had a handle on such tasks in Saugus, closing in on the mid-century mark, money times better than they had been for a handful of years, and some of the old guys that made it back from Europe and the Pacific were comfortably on leave or medically discharged, enriching all of us with new gestures, new stories, seemed like a whole new language. They brought their pieces of the world back with them, dumping much of it in our laps, the laps of those who had stayed at home, the kid brothers and kid neighbors and those who couldn’t make the fit. My brother came back from the wild Pacific, right off an aircraft carrier twice hit by Kamikazes and once by a torpedo, never telling us until he got home, and my cousin, Warren, came back from Europe after Patton shook his hand in front of a gathering of troops out there on the edge of the Old World. Pretty special for a Saugus kid.

On the other hand, a few of their comrades managed to slip off the trains in Saugus Center, right out of North Station and the Army Base or the Charlestown Navy Yard, and closing on midnight, like they were total strangers, and I guess some of them were, they had changed so much, had seen so much; all their stories, though, came as gifts, long into nights, at the edge of things too, a new expression, a new outlook, a new hope even as we knew many of the black parts were being glossed over. Some did not make the return trip and there ran a time and a cause that I knew all their names and all their faces, what they had left in the till for me, a kid from this end of town.

Putney’s Pioneer Store was where much of the talk and information passed from hither and yon to all the houses in our end of Saugus. He carried a whole arsenal of goods besides the usual grocery items; most of the time catering to the ladies with cloth goods, small hats, big bowls, you name it and he’d get it. He specialized in information too. You could tell that Put was eager for all kinds of intelligence, as though he had been selected to be a communication center, keeping people informed, ranking news, passing tidbits that ordinarily didn’t plan much hurt for anybody. Some things, I knew, he kept to himself, let others pass the word, like he was a sieve screening out the bad parts.

Mostly, I think it was the melancholy of the war that triggered Putney, changed his expression, changed his manners, pretty near changed his language… the odd pieces that somehow daily came down the street and through his door like the wind had kicked it open or something more elusive, the words of another telegram hitting straight at a heart or two, or a distant shot or shell seeming to come home to the storekeeper in a sweep of the morning air, as if it were aimed at him from the very beginning. All this culminated for him in Maxine and her own position in all of it. And thus it did for him, for the on-looker, for him who cared even though it was at a most polite distance. They regarded each other in these times, each at some point of loss, at loneliness or linen.

In days of slow recovery, when the war was finally being won, Putney and Maxine were drawn by need. The future loomed lonely for both of them. When Maxine was in the store, she was always visible to Putney, who would put himself to that advantage no matter where he was in the store or who he was waiting on. He did it casually, not obvious to most other customers, and a perfect chameleon to my eyes. Often, he let me sit beside the side door and read comic books for free, as long as I did not crease them too much. It was a measure of his charity, of the blooms that rigged his heart on many days as he looked on the scene about him, on the level of neatness. From my spot at the door, I had a view down the front counter and down the back aisle. The first time Maxine stretched to put something back on a higher shelf, a packet or container she had dislodged from place, I caught a half smile on Putney’s face, though at the moment he was waiting on the neighborhood witch, Ethel Nourseling, my old teacher with the strap or the harsh ruler for a wayward tongue. Maxine always wore dresses that seemed to have been slipped onto her slim frame, silky and soft and smooth the way they flowed with her, curves, grace, and all the goodly package; that package contained blond hair soft as a summer cone, wide eyes that surprise found a good home in, lips a favored pink blossom had touched just about every time out, and a warmth, a warmth that was never spectacular, not for those of us who looked closely, but always countable, easily marked and noted, like a small party had started someplace and she was invited.

Putney, a bachelor all the way to forty, was not a handsome dog, as one wag said, but he was neat. You might know it… grocers tend to be neat, sort of going along with the territory… everything in its place to catch they eye, the silent art of advertisement, the handless reach. Things that look good might taste good, or feel good. To boot, certain facets of Put’s behavior ought to be mentioned for the best picture of him. For absolute sure, he knew the store the way a woman knows her kitchen, shelf and larder, cabinet and cupboard, the bins and barrels at the end of the main aisle like greengrocer totems… what’s stacked where, or put behind, what’s left in easy reach and another tucked away under the counter for special days, or consigned for the next special sale or holiday. His clock, or his calendar, was pretty near perfect for his customers, for our neighborhood. Now and then we’d see it working, the close lookers among us, like him spotting old Della Crandall coming down the street and him dipping below the counter to lay out what had been hidden for more than a week, a new bolt of cloth or an infernally new utensil the adventurous lady would grab in a minute. They’d been ordered for her and salted away for the most appropriate visit, as if old Put had a hand directly on her pulse, on her current interests.

In addition, he always wore an apron that was adorned with the day’s work, wore it like a good soldier wears his chevron, one might say. He was proud of his work, his store, and he was potentially - if not actually - prosperous. As a stock boy, he had worked there for the previous owner, went away for ten years, came back and bought the place, as though he had planned it all right from the very start. His hello each morning was broad, meaningful, countable, him having risen early to greet the day, to be there before the baker and the milkman and the newsboy. Early energy became him, the quick movements, the lack of indecision, jump starts on a new day. One man operations have to be fed that way.

His razor thin mustache was little more than a hairline’s width, and moved each time he spoke, smiled or expressed want or dislike. I never really knew what color his eyes were; I guess I never really looked, though they did come off as some kind of greenish bit, sort of changeable under other expressions or enlightenment. Narrow in the waist from a lifetime of shelf stocking and lifting, and as sane and steady diet one could imagine, he moved about athletically, as if he were in a game. Neat and athletic our grocer. On top of the small ladder he could stock the top shelves with good speed, never losing balance, reaching just far enough when he had to. The neatness advanced in order to the store’s ambience, the certainty of odors that abounded on certain days, on every day of some sort or other. There came coffee grinding and candy smothering my mouth and nose the minute I entered the door. It had been that way for a couple of years, the grateful larder of the corner store, pungent and ripe and so full of goodness I could feel the blossoms of it coming into the branches of me. There was the fresh vitality of new bread, fresh baked and threatening the back of my throat, saying I could grab some and run, or scrounge for a half loaf, and worry about the butter later on. And jumped up the freshness of lettuce and husky tomatoes and apple stuff so rich it could make your knees bend. Lastly, just as threatening, came the special meat days, when pork came on the run or cow’s liver or lamb kidneys advancing a whole new odor the kitchen got ripe with. Some days it could have been the edge of the slaughterhouse dumped on us, or the block outside Kmita’s chicken house where the ax swung in morning sunlight and I could see a hen’s last roost as darkness came close to it. I finally figured a whole lot of it out, all on my own… I had always been hungry, the Depression Kid always with an angle toward food.

Once, just as the door opened and a whistle of wind came about, or an airy breath because it was spring, Putney came to attention. I caught the scent too, the fragrance, not of the day or the May smells that came along in with it, like new leaves and new blooms and the old earth winding itself up again, but another and newer one, especially for me… and old Put, hardly paying attention the minute before, spun on his heels and Maxine was there, slim as ever, in her light blue dress sitting on her like a blossom, inhabiting the doorway. There was first the alert of fragrance, then the heart of fragrance, and a rocking in our souls, in deeply where it must count, where redolence, known, gathers all kinds of reactions. It was a sharing, that frequency coming on air, a quite special broadcast of a special bouquet. It fully carried Maxine on those private sheets of air.

And old Putney was at heads up. And Maxine glowed her usual warmth, as if she belonged in that place more than any place else, in the midst of all the sensual goodness. To my eye he and Maxine each had a fair amount of grace. I think, even from my angle, I put them together before they were together, though I’d never be sure of the timing.

Some of it meant, at least for me, that it was okay for them to look upon each other, that it was okay to look good, look neat, look to one’s best advantage, if merely for the looking. It was permission from two lonely people not saying a word about such acceptance. Every time a teacher said, “Neatness counts,” I was alert to Putney and Maxine, if but the extension of their images working the back of my head like a piece of a black and white film. Now and then, of course, in my mind’s eye, going through my own exploding new dimensions, I was alert to her preparations, as to how she primped and primed herself, where she sent the kids while she did so, at least not alerting them that their mother was being a bit selfish, reaching out in a most harmless way but behind a closed door, locked away with herself and whoever might be tempting her company.

Putney was harmless from any standpoint, but he had keen eyes. I was always sure that she knew about his eyes. And I knew how her dress slipped easily onto her frame, thought of how she might have shrugged but a single shoulder to let it fall gracefully in place, and fully assumed that Putney had the same picture, the soft sounds of elegance and mystery coming together in the same motion, the same slow blur of beauty that might be slipping into place from a simple shrug.

When Doug Matlick’s body was shipped home from a Marine plane crash in North Carolina and lowered into the Veteran’s Section of our cemetery, I was there with my father who had been in the Marines. It was his own salute to Doug. Doug was Harry’s best friend. Putney saluted too, the only time I ever saw him in a suit, plain and gray and new looking, and never once looking at Maxine the way he did in the store, for Maxine was there, being an old friend of Doug’s. Before I knew it, we were there again, for another of Harry’s friends who had come home for good, almost able to touch his old pal and teammate Doug, for they were now part of a new huddle in a corner of the cemetery, close as they ever were. Teammates again.

I knew every face at both services and the burials and could mark each of them in their places around town, and felt all the sadness you could expect a body to hold. I didn’t cry, though, did not a shed tear, but when I looked at Putney I saw he was shaken past his roots. It was as if everything all the others had felt closed in around him, and around Maxine who only once turned and looked at him with the most serious look I had seen in a long time. It was as if she had spoken, but with silence.

I watched them for two years as the slim war victories became big victories, and more of them rousing across the face of the globe. The two of them seemed to grow toward each other without really knowing how close they were.

Wiley Okens said at The Vets one night that “them two ought to find how to scratch each other’s backs ‘stead of sparrin’ around like pretending.” Many folks in town knew that Maxine was finding a bit of release in Putney from what was hounding her, the squeezed pillow, the silent nights. Putney allowed her more than a sense of hope, but all of it at a distance no matter how close they got on days she came to the store to pick up a few things for the house. Even when there were days it came off as mere exercise to walk to the store and go away empty-handed, she did not leave with an empty heart. Yet, at forty years of age, distilled in his manners and outlook, pretty near cemented in place if not character, Putney had that one old-time speed. Of course, Maxine’s two boys would now and then enter into the slow-moving stand-off of sorts, tipping the scales in pro and con arguments the way kids do more than people realize. Malcolm Burdus the undertaker offered, “One mouth advanced to four mouths is some kind of algebra no matter what math says.”

Putney’s down to earth and thoughtful approach was appreciated by those who voiced opinions on romance, illicit or otherwise. “He don’t rush that girl out of her boots none at all,” Malcolm told Wiley one night and later on said, “If he don’t hurry up, I’m going to beat him to it.” All of them somehow knowing that Putney had ceased a regular Saturday night removal from town that was seen as a concession to Maxine and the space that had grown in his heart.

“Hey,” Wiley replied, “he’s got all the time in the world, Malcolm, and you got all the room in the earth. But I’m suspecting that ole Put has just that one speed and we ain’t seen it yet.” So the talk moved on about them, and the store leaped upon good days for Putney when Maxine came in through that front door like spring was sliding around behind her playing games.

All the time, no matter how we read it, the unknown sat on the face of each of them, the uncertainty, the Fates that move all around us like the tides on a beach, touching, drawing back, nipping and tapping, neap and run, like the manner of unvoiced threats and promises.

As it turned out, things happened at night to old Putney. It was always at night or the approach of night as it gathered down the street or from across town and he could feel a descent coming down around him.

One evening, almost to closing time on one of his late night closings, a shower ahead of him, a visit to the library ahead of him, two young fellows robbed bachelor Putney of what was in the till. The eleven dollars, all in singles, were hardly worth their efforts, as he had hidden under darkness the balance of the day’s take inside a pair of rubber boots hanging on the wall behind the counter, safe enough for the bank in the morning. But one of the young fellows snatched a candy bar as he and his companion were leaving with their eleven dollar gain. It was a Sky Bar. All Putney could think of was somehow getting a box of candy to Maxine, then he realized he hadn’t been shot for eleven dollars. He told that to the police chief, in so many words. It was a new expression for his face.

Then, on another night in our local history, without notice or fanfare, from what unknown terrors he had been caught up in, and much older, Harry came home, came into the store late, as if riding the darkness itself, the ghost of all ghosts, despite the edge of his voice yet still haggard and not at all like his old self. He hailed Putney from the door. “Hey, Put,” he said, “howdy partner, I’m going up to surprise Maxine. Got a nice box of candy for me? Good as you got. I ain’t got much else to carry.”

Putney would never forget those words of Harry’s.

If it was a bad turn and a bad year for Putney, it was a bad year for Harry too. And also for Maxine, one could imagine. Harry, after the quick celebration and a hundred stories taking all kinds of shapes, the dark and the doomed, filled with odd characters and fairy people, ogres and demons of all measures and reaches, drank from one end of the day to the other. For a whole year he didn’t pick up a hammer or a saw. Maxine once in a while would come into the store with a puffy lip, or a tear in her eye. Put had to look away, mind his own business, fall out of love if he could, for beyond all things that mattered it was a hopeless situation. She was hurting and Put stopped looking at her the way he had for those few years of his dependence on her.

The story that made the rounds was indeed bizarre, if anything more bizarre than war can be, and rescue at the ends of desperation. Harry, it was learned, was pulled from the Mediterranean by a French fisherman and hidden in the fisherman’s house. For a long while he was tucked away in a secret space in the attic of the fisherman’s house, where, through one small opening above an eave he could watch the small village square as it revolved under the war and under the Nazi occupation. One hellacious day he saw the Germans execute three American fliers right in the square and saw their bodies dropped into a hole, doused with gasoline, and torched. When the fire died out, the remains were covered over at the end of the day, interred right in the square of the little village. Three days later, when house searches were renewed by the Germans, the fisherman moved Harry to another house and a secret room whose access was halfway down the depth of an old well in the cellar. That “hole in the wall” led to a spacious room dug into the hillside many years earlier for a different cause. The new “landlord” had a daughter, Yvette, just 17, who shined on Harry and visited him at least once a week and often stayed most of the night. When she became pregnant, it was apparent the family wanted to keep Harry under cover for as long as they could. Yvette gave birth to a son, and Harry was kept in the room some months after the war was over before he climbed out one night and made his escape.

He fled his European life.

But, as one must realize, the memories of Yvette, and the memory of another son, never quite left Harry. Maxine never admitted to knowing, but she must have known some of the mystery. Harry’s long incarceration, the visitations of his young lover, the subsequent son, all hounded him no end. All of it had followed him home to Maxine and the two boys and the subsequent nightly visits, away from home, to bar after frivolous bar, to friend after frivolous friend. The pattern was constant and unbreakable and the deadly inroads were open.

We did not hear the stories come up as spoken history here in town; they drifted in on their own feet, on an everywhichway wind from odd sources coming across the town lines by postmen, taxi drivers, delivery men, the coal man, Merv Takens, who thought Harry should be hospitalized because he had flown on that same flight of alcohol. Problems knocking at Harry’s heels were openly discussed in the barber shop, the post office, and in our own bars, though never in the ear of Harry on his way back to the house after a night on the next town, or the one beyond that. After a while, we could picture him being followed, ghostlike, by his French lover and mother of his son, and the son himself. That had to be a bear to carry on one’s back already borne to drop weights easier than promises.

One night, the moon behind a sudden cloud, mist rising as if from the earth itself the way fog walks on water and roadways and intemperate reaches, history making new demands, life itself asking for settlements, Harry was killed as he walked across the turnpike from one bar to the next, going from John’s Bar to Ma Taylor’s Kitchen across Route One. One of his own drinking buddies ran him down, never seeing him on the dark road, never seeing the dark specters stepping right out behind his drinking pal, never seeing those who were keeping him company.

Putney, to his everlasting credit, started all over. And I watched him again, from a new perspective and a new awareness, only this time, he must have measured time and what had been eaten up of that which was granted to him in the first place. For he picked up some speed in his delivery, like he was coming right out of the bullpen at Fenway Park.

One night a few months later, he carried with him his best box of candy and Maxine opened the door for him and the storekeeper shifted directly into second gear. Nothing was ever the same again.

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