The door of the second hand shop has worn a grey crescent through the linoleum to the concrete beneath. It closes with a soft sigh.
“Well.” Grandma greets me as always, her blue eyes crinkling in a smile. “How was school?”
“I’m helping in the library.”
“Well.” She tilts her head sideways. Well. Grandma says it when something is good or bad or sorrowful, like when someone has died.
I don’t tell her I was picked last for volleyball. I don’t think Grandma played volleyball in gym class in the olden days. I envision rows of girls wearing long skirts and long sleeved sweaters, hair held in gigantic bows, doing exercises in unison on a manicured lawn.
I pick up a statue of the Eiffel Tower. Grandma doesn’t offer it to me and I’m relieved. It’s heavy and dismal and leaves a metallic odour on my fingers. Grandma doesn’t tell me the Eiffel Tower is in Paris, but I know. I’ve read most of the golden-spined magazines queued along on the bottom shelf of the bookcase. Together, we’ve looked at pictures on placemats and distorted images of the Grand Canyon, Big Ben, and Niagara Falls on mugs. We’ve admired fringed velvet cushions stitched with San Francisco sites. We fly away.
I sit and read on a stool near Grandma's feet. She’s wearing ugly black shoes because there’s a steel rod in her back. She’ll not ever wear sandals or high heels again and I think it’s an enormous and sad mystery. I wonder how they got the metal thing in her back and if it hurts and why it happened. Was it from carrying her children around or did she fall or do too much work? I can’t ask because I’m too young to know.
Grandma pulls the lever on the cash register. It is a huge, old machine, brassy and imposing.
“Go to Mort’s and have some french fries.”
The fries are stacked in a pink cardboard dish and I bathe them in ketchup and vinegar. They are crisp and hot, but creamy on the inside. I feel good and bad while I eat them. Slowly, I walk back, detouring around the telephone pole growing through the middle of the sidewalk.
Someone is in the shop buying tires and nails. He’s laughing about television and margarine.
“Which one is this?” He inclines his head toward me.
“The smart one.”
“Probably too smart for her britches.”
I’ve heard it before. Grandma asks me to get a cup of coffee from the back room. There’s a table and some chairs, a percolator, a hot plate. And a narrow cot.
I pour the coffee. Grandma likes it black, but she has a box of sugar cubes. They taste different from sugar in a bowl. Hard, like ice on the tongue, melting around the edges before dissolving into crumbly sweetness. I wonder if Grandma knows how many cubes are in the box and if she’ll notice any gone. Mothers always notice missing cookies or jam. Grandmothers should be twice as knowing. Two generations of knowing.
I carry the mug with both hands and they burn, but I don’t spill. The mug says Cache Creek. I’ve been there often and so has Grandma. Sometimes, we get ice cream, but we’d never buy a mug. It’s just a regular place.
“You have sugar on your lips.” Grandma brushes a finger over my mouth. I smell dust, tobacco, and soap.
She hands me a book from under the counter. “Thought you’d like this.”
There’s a princess and a castle on the worn cover. Maybe there’s an enchanting prince in the story, but it’ll be fine without one.
Rain pelts against the windows. Grandma gazes through the wavy rivulets streaming down the glass, like the princess contemplating the castle with a distant look. It’s time for me to go home, where there’s common sugar and plain cups.
“I made cookies for supper. By myself.”
Walking home in the rain, I wonder if Grandma’s metal rod wearies her as she sorts shovels and bottle warmers, mirrors and chainsaws, or if she aches for her home and ordinary dishes. A pale earthworm is writhing an escape from a shallow puddle in my path, and suddenly I understand that not all princes travel to foreign soil to wage war and maybe Grandma’s second hand shop offers her a better bargain than it did the laughing man with the tires.
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