The bell jingle-jangled merrily as I pushed open the wooden door of “Manna Hills Mercantile.” It was as if I’d stepped back a century to the time of my grandmother’s childhood. The long, narrow building had a well-worn and rather creaky wooden floor, with old-time glass display cases lining one side of the wide center aisle. Wooden shelves stocked with canned and boxed goods ran the length of the room on both walls. Opposite the glass cases were bins overflowing with produce, and along the back wall stood a more modern-looking refrigerated section and a large freezer chest. Bare light bulbs in a double row hung from the high ceiling at even intervals on either side of the aisle-way.
I was gazing about in delight, when from behind a glass case arose a grinning, gnome-like older man in a white apron. “Be with you in a minute, Miss, soon as I finish rearranging these things. Shopping baskets are there by the door.” He bent down, disappearing once more.
Looking where he’d pointed, I saw several sturdy woven hand baskets stacked in a neat pile on the floor. Again I had an odd impression of having stumbled through a portal into a past dimension, and I briefly considered hurrying back outside to the “real” world. I brushed that thought aside, however, and grabbed a basket, deciding to look around a bit.
“Hmmm, the prices aren’t old-fashioned,” I mused. “$5.98 per pound for grapes certainly isn’t what great-grandma paid.”
I walked nearer, and my nose wrinkled upon inspection of the split, smelly, moldy fruit. “These don’t look good at all!”
“That’s a fact, Miss; they sure don’t,” interjected a genial voice. “These never look good, and they taste even worse, setting people’s teeth on edge.”
Startled, I whirled around to see the little storekeeper who’d come up behind me unnoticed.
“Then why do you sell them?” I blurted.
“Well, now, these are called grapes of wrath, and some people like to use them because their grandparents and parents did. They make a bitter wine from them that sours the stomach and stunts the soul.”
I made a mental note that this guy was strange.
“I can see you don’t like them; however, I think you might be interested in these fruits of the Spirit over here. They contain natural sugar which sweetens and refreshes not only the mouth and stomach but also the heart.”
He held up a shiny red fruit somewhat resembling an apple. “You don’t find this variety in most stores nowadays. It’s an heirloom called ‘Charity.’ Here, smell and feel it yourself.”
As I grasped it, a pleasant, warm, somewhat-tingly sensation spread up through my fingers to my chest. “What’s going on here?”
Next, he motioned toward some other unfamiliar fruits: “These are ‘Joy,’ ‘Peace,’ and ‘Faith.’”
“Uh, thanks for your help,” I mumbled, plunking a few of the fruits in my basket and moving on down the aisle. ”This is getting weirder by the second.”
I passed by the “junk food” section, grinning at some of the labels I glimpsed—“Couch-potato Chips,” “Prune-face Danish,” “Pickle-puss Relish,” “Sour-grapes Candies.” ”Maybe I’m having a kooky dream!”
Near the aisle’s end, I noticed several bins holding bulk nuts, grains, and cereals. One was labeled “Wild Oats,” and as I peered into it, the storekeeper’s voice made me jump again.
“These wild oats never cook up the way you think they will,” he warned amiably. They’re poor quality and not processed carefully and may contain bits of rock and other foreign matter. People want them because they’re cheap.”
“Ugh,” I replied, moving toward the refrigerated section. There I found crystal-clear bottled “Water of Life” and two brands of milk, “Milk of Human Kindness” and “Pure Spiritual Milk.” I grabbed a case of water, and began making my way back to the front of the store. As I went, I picked up some 100% Pure “Oil of Gladness” and an aromatic loaf of “Bread of Life” baked by the “Heavenly Manna Company.”
As I placed my items on the counter and opened my purse, the storekeeper handed me a scrap of paper. “Wait, Miss! Here’s a coupon!”
My eyes widened as I read, “All your items are available without money and without price.”
“You’re not serious?!”
“Oh, yes! You’re a mighty discerning woman, as everything you chose is ‘no charge.’”
Dumbfounded, I smiled my thanks and left. As I drove away, I glanced back, but the store was somehow no longer visible.
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